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Virtual Modernism: Writing and Technology in the Progressive Era

by Katherine Biers
Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, 2013
288 pp., illus. 3 b & w. Trade, $75.00; paper, $25.00

ISBN: 978-0-8166-6754-3; ISBN: 978-0-8166-6755-0.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

At the crossroads of media studies and American studies, but also of philosophy and cultural history, this book offers a highly innovative and dramatically inspiring close-reading of the way in which five major American modernists, namely Stephen Crane, Henry James, James Weldon Johnson, Djuna Barnes, and Gertrude Stein, developed new ways of writing in response to mass culture and the new (media) technologies that reshaped American culture in the pre World-War I years. Biers' book, however, is less a study of these authors' resistance to mass culture or their creative reappropriation of it than an in-depth reflection on the way in which they reinvented literature to explore the fundamental philosophical and cultural issue of these years: the notion of virtual experience, a notion strongly related to the success of vitalist and pragmatic philosophy in the early 20th Century.

For Biers, the term 'virtual' escapes the two traditional meanings of the word, namely 'fake' or 'potential'. In her book, the notion of the 'virtual' is linked with a special form of experience, which tries to exceed the limits of both idealism (which reduces actual experience in favor of non-empirical speculation) and empiricism (which reduces everything to a very narrow type of experience), for in this period the limits of both systems were becoming more and more apparent. Virtual experience is then a form of experience that hovers between the poles of subjectivity and objectivity, while trying to offer also an alternative to the latest forms of subjectivity induced by mass-media spectacles and communication techniques that accompanied as well as accelerated the spread of an industrialized society in the US. This virtual experience, Biers argues, is not typical of philosophical culture or sharply separated from popular and mass culture. It is also something that is at the very heart of the literary work of American modernists, whose writing should be analyzed as a ingenuous example of a dialogue between traditional culture (the term of 'word' culture would be better here than that of 'high' culture) and mass culture (which is also a better term than 'low' culture).

As the author stresses herself, this critical rereading of 'typical' American high-modernist literary production as illustration of what Biers calls the 'virtual turn' in literature, has clear presentist concerns. Biers' aim is to demonstrate first that the notion of the virtual cannot be claimed by digital culture only. Second, she also underlines the importance of philosophical thinking and philosophical problems in literary and cultural history. Finally, she frames her readings as arguments to support the cause of pragmatism and its importance for a better understanding of the major stakes of American premodern, modern, as well as postmodern cultures.

In philosophical terms, the great interest of Biers' book lies in the rereading of the two great stereotypes that govern our current interpretation of the notion of experience in the late 19th Century. Indeed, for some scholars (the main example being here Stanley Cavell) the modern notion of a decentered and evanescent self had already been so deeply explored in the previous decades by authors such as Emerson, Thoreau, or Melville, that the idea of a new 'virtualized' experience emerging at the end of the Century does not make any sense today. For scholars such as Cavell, if the late 19th Century experience became virtual, it was because it had been virtualized already in the previous years. For other critics (chiefly those working in the tradition of Friedrich Kittler), the gap between the 19th and the 20th Century was almost absolute, since it was only with the appearance of new forms of technology that the self proved to be suddenly expulsed from the modern communication network. What Virtual Modernism clearly shows, is that none of these two dominant views of modernity can do justice to the specific features of the progressive era.

In literary terms, the most challenging claim of Virtual Modernism remains the fact that literature is not a watered-down or instrumentalized type of applied vitalist philosophy (William James, Henri Bergson), but the privileged locus of a valuable alternative to modes of thinking and behaving created by the spread of mass communication techniques, whose specific feature is to offer only a more one-dimensional, less virtual and for that reason less liberating form of experience. Literary writing, in other words, is seen by Biers as a cultural laboratory that goes beyond philosophy while addressing critically societal changes, not only in terms of content matter (and one knows how important these issues were in the progressive or reform era of the period 1900-1910, which rediscovered the notions of commitment and documentary writing), but also and most crucially in terms of style.

The five chapters of the book all fully match the expectations raised by the ambitious introduction, and each of them offers a refreshing view on the interaction between an author's style and an existing cultural and historical context. In the reading of Stephen Crane, the author who became famous with a first war book (The Red Badge of Courage) before having assisted one single battle scene himself, Biers' discussion deals mainly with the problem of the tension between embodied experience and reflection and the necessity to keep a distance between reflection and all forms of direct or vicarious experience. The close-reading of Crane's use of color notations in his fiction as well as in his reportages gives Biers the opportunity to disclose and display the boundary zones between the observer and the observed, a boundary that was lost in most media spectacles of the time (war reenactments in amusement parks, for instance) as well as in sensation-driven news coverage of actualities. Yet for Biers, Crane is also an example of the mundane continuation of the typically American Protestant hermeneutics, the ability to interpret the signs in order to discover in them the hidden presence of a higher, or at least different, order (this point will come back, with different conclusions, in the chapter on Barnes).

Biers' reading of James tackles the modern afterlife of 19th Century pictorialism, defined as the tendency to infuse scenes and objects of daily life with intemporal meaning and hence to bridge the gap between the real and the ideal (the key word here was 'realization'). In the case of 'classic' pictorialism, this tendency took the form of a generalized intermediality, no longer the belief in the possible translation of all signs into each other, as in the ut pictura poesis aesthetics, but the practical endeavor to transpose one sign system into all other ones. Comparing the 'commercial' use of this intermedial pictorialism in Georges Du Maurier's Trilby (the biggest best-seller of these years, written by one of the best friends of James, whose complex attitude toward the very idea of illustrated fiction was notoriously ambivalent) and the progressive complication of James' syntax in these years, Biers suggests that James' writing, which to a certain extent dissolves as much as invents its own subject, has to be seen as the literary (and superior) answer to the problem of the 'realization of the ideal' and the play with virtual experience.

The analysis of James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man gives a further opportunity to stress the relationships between style and virtuality. Framed within the context of the 'high versus low' debate on 'national' music in the early 20th Century, Johnson's defense of the 'commercial', 'denatured', 'mechanical' (and mechanically produced!), 'disembodied' rag-time music as real American music is linked with his work on orality in literature, which Biers reinterprets in terms of virtualization. Johnson's writing, she claims, is less an effort to introduce the spoken word in a written culture than an attempt to reinvent the lost exchanges between sound, music, and language (as in many other examples of African-American literature and culture).

The chapter on Barnes does not single out Nightwood, the legendary avant-garde novel of the author, but the less-known journalistic writing she did for various newspapers and magazines before her exile to Paris. In line with the general claims of Virtual Modernism, Biers relates the stylistic analysis of Barnes' tropes and devices as a stunt journalist (among other types of other, more directly committed social reportages) with an intriguing approach of the importance of the virtual. In this case, the virtual is framed in terms of the allegory, which Biers reads in light of Walter Benjamin's book on the subject as a specific stylistic and ideological response to a cultural crisis produced by the collapse or previous ways of world-making. In the case of the baroque theater studied by Benjamin, the crisis generated by rise of Protestantism, which had destroyed the traditional ways of reading the world. In the case of modern culture experienced by Barnes, the crisis that followed the decay of Protestant predetermination as well as that of the either Catholic or progressive belief in 'good works'. According to Benjamin, the allegory is not only a system in which the relationship between sign and referent becomes tragically arbitrary (signs have lost their meaning, they can refer to anything), but also a system in which one is forced to occupy, no less tragically, conflicting positions (since even if we don't know any longer what signs mean, we know 'that' they signify something, hence the permanent hesitation between on the one hand the impossibility to make meaningful interpretations and on the other hand the necessity to do so). Barnes' journalistic work obeys this allegorical spirit: it criticizes both the closure of determinism and the naivety of good works, while keeping open virtual positions for commitment and personal interpretation.

The reading of Gertrude Stein follows similar paths. Biers does not foreground the major avant-garde creations of the author, infamously but widely known as the acme of unreadability in modern literature. She focuses instead on the journalistic writings and interviews that went along with an extremely mediated lecture tour in the late 30s. Already a celebrity, despite of (or thanks to) the obscurity of her prose, Stein became a real media celebrity, whose portrait appeared for instance on the cover of Time magazine. Biers does not only underline the difference between Stein's public figure (a nice old lady, who manages to communicate very efficiently with all kind of audiences) and her utterly hermetic prose (at least according to general standards), she also tries to think both aspects as parts of the same communicative strategy and to show that Stein's public appearance and declarations should be interpreted in a larger but unified framework. What matters here is the discussion on the role of modern mass communication technology and celeb culture, which certain analysts criticized as a means of manipulation and brainwashing (Walter Lippmann), while others attempted to foreground also its possible democratic virtualities (John Dewey). Although repeated statements during the lecture tour reflecting a rugged individualism and strong anti-State and anti-New Deal sentiments, Stein's position toward the mass media is extraordinarily complex. Refusing the ontological prominence of 'clarity' in mass media communication, to which she prefers the pragmatic notion of 'force', and thus not making any concessions on the density of her prose in her newspaper articles and during her public readings, she developed a style of experimental communication that managed to create a sense of belonging. During her appearances, the public, even if most of the times it did not understand at all what Stein was reading or writing, could really feel involved, both as an individual and as a community. In this regard, she managed to convert her own idiosyncratic style as a promise of a virtual community unhindered by the limits of corporate or state mass communication and freed from the dichotomy of star and public.

With Virtual Modernism, Katherine Biers has written a landmark study, that gives an inspirational twist to modernism studies.


Last Updated 1 February 2014

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