Panel 104: Technology and Modernity
Saturday, October 8, 2011, 15:30 – 17:00, CONFERENCE CENTER B
Panel organized by Irene Gammel and John Wrighton
nvestigating what historian of technology Tomas Misa has called the “co-construction of technology and modernity,” this panel investigates the material use of emergent technologies in individual modernist and avant-garde aesthetic practices. Central to these investigations is how such cultural work has been formative in our notions of the fashioning of the modern(ist) self and community. Affirming the obsolescence of the “prosthesis model” of “technological instrumentalism,” Sara Danius’ The Senses of Modernism (2002) has demonstrated how technology is internalised within our perceptual apparatus. By further complicating and nuancing opposing models of technological determinism and constructivism, the papers in this panel examine the co-construction of technology and modernity in spaces not typically looked at in this context, such as, the domestic, the circus, and quotidian language.
By using Bill Brown’s notion of “effecting thingness,” Robert Hemmings’ paper explores bicycles, wheels and technological innovations in H.D. Wells and Marcel Duchamp. Thus he reads the symbolic function of the bicycle as an object embodying a material force that shapes and constructs the subjects who use them. Nearly one hundred years after its unveiling, viewers may regard the wheel of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913) as a relatively benign, almost quaint object to deploy in his first “assisted readymade,” but this remarkable artwork compresses the cultural meanings of the object at work in H.D. Wells’ early novels, Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll (1896) and The History of Mr. Polly (1910). The bicycle is used in Wells’s novel as an object that creates, or enhances, and destroys, or threatens to destroy, categories of subjectivity along class and gender lines. Thus Duchamp’s bicycle wheel invokes in plainer terms what is already latent in Wells: the innovation of proto-cyborgian modern subjectivity.
Also in the early twentieth century, in another kind of spectacle, the trope of the circus body offered nascent media forms a somatic vocabulary for staging utopian critiques of modern identity under industrialisation. Using Foucaultian theories of biopower, Vanessa Chang’s paper reads the circus body as a site of micropolitical struggle but also as a panacea for the disciplined modern subject, whose mechanized body was inscribed by the inexorable metronome of Taylorism. Through a transmedia comparison of circus bodies and those populating animated film at the beginning of the century, Chang constructs a shared history of a spectacular alternative body, one which defies and transgresses its normal limits.
Finally, the radicalization of technology in the poetic practice of Gertrude Stein is examined by Robert Morden, both in terms of Stein’s materials (quotidian language) and technique (mechanical repetition). Stein’s aesthetic does not capitulate to or embrace capitalist industry; instead, Morden argues, we should read the significance of Stein’s Tender Buttons (1913) in terms of Theodor Adorno’s notion that modernist art employs technological means to contest and resist technological modernity. Repetition (the agent of abstraction) in Stein’s work functions to dissociate the word from its syntactic and representational ends in order to foreground the sensuous dimension immanent to the word itself (word as image and sound).
ROBERT HEMMINGS is author of Modern Nostalgia: Siegfried Sassoon, Trauma and the Second World War (Edinburgh University Press, 2008) and of scholarly articles. Assistant Professor in Culture and the Arts and English Studies at Nipissing University Muskoka Campus, he is currently working on objects of mobility in modern British culture.
VANESSA CHANG is a doctoral candidate in the Modern Thought and Literature program at Stanford University. She is the author of scholarly articles, which appeared in Popular Music(Cambridge UP), and The Chicago School of Media Theory. Her research seeks to engage questions of embodiment and technology.
ROBERT MORDEN is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at York University in Toronto. His doctoral thesis explores the materialist logic of late modernist Anglo-American fiction using the aesthetic theories of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin.
IRENE GAMMEL is Professor of English and holds the Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture and at Ryerson University, Toronto. She is also the director of the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre, which is dedicated to the study and preservation of early twentieth-century modern texts and artifacts. Gammel is well-known for her scholarship on gender and modernism. She is the author and editor of ten books, including the internationally-acclaimedBaroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity: A Cultural Biography (2002). Most recently, she coedited (with Suzanne Zelazo) Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven for MIT Press. The book will be launched in New York City on November 4.
JOHN WRIGHTON is International Research Fellow at the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre, Ryerson University, Toronto, 2011-13, and is Lecturer in English Literature, Faculty of Arts, University of Brighton, UK. He is author of Ethics and Politics in Modern American Poetry(Routledge, 2009). His research focuses on twentieth century modernist and avant-garde experimentation and ethical theory.