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Reviewed by:
  • Literary Modernism and the Transformation of Work
  • Joan L. Wilcox
James F. Knapp. Literary Modernism and the Transformation of Work. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988. 159 pp. $29.95.

James F. Knapp joins the ranks of Cecila Tichi, Lisa M. Steinman, and others in examining and rereading literary modernism in relation to the science and technology of the times. His is a thorough, and overall excellent, exploration of modernism's engagement with and reaction to the theories and discourse of scientific management that were reshaping the workplace in the early twentieth century. Taking a poststructuralist and New Historical view of such key modernist texts as the Cantos, Women in Love, Patterson, and Ulysses, Knapp explores their aesthetic and discursive styles as attacks against and sometimes unintentional appropriations of the assumptions underlying the scientific management theories of Frederick Taylor and others.

Knapp lists the major scientific management assumptions that transformed the workplace as "the scientific inevitably of specific social and technological changes; a conception of history as essentially closed to human intervention; an appropriation of knowledge to 'useful' ends [what he calls "instrumental reason"]; and the rejection of older views of the individual as natural and whole . . . in favor of a conception of the socially constituted subject shaped to the ends of profit by a new science of 'human engineering.' " These assumptions transformed society largely by their being embedded in rhetorical patterns that, as social discourse, justified the workplace experiments, the appropriation of knowledge from worker to management, and the reconstitution of the individual. Taylorism's "fragmentation of the human subject" parallels modernism's "radical dislocations of literary form." Therefore, history becomes a crucial pivot around which to explore both scientific management and literary texts as social discourse; literary texts become both artistic and social productions, and modernism, contrary to the opinions of many critical theorists, becomes grounded in history. Knapp thus contends that "when modernist literature is seen . . . as part of an interdependent whole rather than as a kind of soul trapped in the gross body of modern industrial society, then its existence as both homology and contradiction of that industrial society assumes new meaning."

Knapp sees Pound and Lawrence as less successful at dealing with these potential contradictions than Williams and Joyce. Pound and Lawrence, like snakes swallowing their tails, speak against the degradation of the individual in industrial society, against the usurpation of individual knowledge by a corporate other, but, ultimately, and often tacitly, they embrace the very scientific management assumptions they argue against. For instance, Lawrence's mythic vision that "regards salvation as rooted in an organicism which is absolute and eternal . . . assures his readers that their salvation lies outside history." However, Lawrence's texts, especially Women in Love, are decentered by the constant evocation that language is "historically constituted and partial," and, thus, the "myth-like salvation" cannot "gain unquestioned hegemony over the alternate codes" presented in these texts. Because of these fundamental contradictions, Lawrence ultimately embraces many of the very scientific management assumptions, especially that of instrumental reason, he seeks to decry.

Pound and Lawrence seek answers that are ultimately ahistorical and that therefore cannot adequately support their social critiques. Williams and Joyce, [End Page 855] however, are more successfully able to recover a historical consciousness wherein social discourse may liberate understanding rather than appropriate it. Bloom, for instance, can "understand the language of instrumental reason"; he is "a social man precisely because he has learned to be an isolated individual"; Joyce's text is an example of "modernism's complex engagement with history." It is this historical engagement that Knapp so thoroughly explores, and his revisionist readings of these modernist texts deserve close attention.

Joan L. Wilcox
Melrose, MA


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