We live at a time of renewed historical consciousness-in part due to the events in the former "East," in part due to two decades of millennial pronouncements by many in the humanities and social sciences. Many declare that something called "Western modernity" has reached its culmination, and is either irrevocably disintegrating or is in urgent need of reconstruction. This way of talking, however, tends to conflate several centuries of intellectual history, failing to specify which "modernity" is at issue. In this essay, I will suggest that we can gain useful insight on current legal and cultural debates by situating ourselves in relation to that period of early twentieth-century intellectual history known as "Modernism," that phase of the history of "modernity" which has most shaped our own intellectual condition.

Specifically, I will discuss the relationship between certain broad characteristics of Modernist cultural renewal and the changes wrought in international law by various legal writers between the World Wars. This juxtaposition of forms of law with other forms of culture should not be viewed as a claim of a direct correlation or "influence," but, rather, as indicating an overlapping series of responses to a common cultural situation. The juxtaposition suggests that transformations in legal thought can be productively viewed as participating in, and, indeed, partly creating, deep shifts in Western cultural history. The most important of such shifts in the first decades of our century, I would argue, was the advent of the central Modernist problematic: the paradoxical relationship between "primitivism" and experimentalism, a problematic that gave rise to a range of responses both among and within various cultural domains.