- Consuming Traditions: Modernity, Modernism, and the Commodified Authentic
Elizabeth Outka’s Consuming Traditions is the first book in the Modernist Literature and Culture series from Oxford University Press. In a brief foreword, the series editors, Kevin J. H. Dettmar and Mark Wollaeger, suggest that they selected this project to launch the series because it both represents and revises the new modernist studies. The cast of characters, for one thing, has grown. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf make appearances toward the end of the study, but less unambiguously modernist figures, such as Henry James, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells, play considerable parts. More important, Outka’s approach, with its close attention to Edwardian popular culture, circumscribes the primacy of the literary text by putting it in dialogue with a wide range of cultural objects. In so doing, the book gleefully traverses the “Great Divide” theoretically separating high modernism from its deformed sibling, mass culture. Discussions of newspaper advertisements and department store window displays jostle up against close readings of elite literary texts.
In our current scholarly climate, all this has a familiar ring to it. It has been nearly two decades since scholars began exploring connections between modernism and popular culture. But Outka’s subtle argument goes beyond this model by suggesting that early-modernist writers, rather than simply rejecting or embracing commodity culture, were equally attracted to commercial and noncommercial aesthetic forms. Commercial objects promised newness and modernity, while objects outside circuits of commercial exchange frequently served as symbols of authenticity or tradition. This tension became one of the animating features of modernist writing, which struggled to slough off tradition and convention yet retained a healthy skepticism of commodity culture. “As the twentieth century began,” Outka explains, “writers and consumers were not simply deciding between, on the one hand, . . . the urge to make it new and to discard tradition, and, on the other hand, the longing for tradition, for permanence, and for aesthetic purity” (12). Instead, she argues, “they searched for ways to bridge the gap between an outmoded but alluring past and tantalizing modern possibilities” (13).
Outka’s shorthand term for this aesthetic space is the “commodified authentic.” In the early part of the century, a new type of commodity began to infiltrate the marketplace: objects transparently new, yet nostalgically evoking a traditional, noncommercial world (think instant coffee with old-timey packaging or the brand new house with Restoration Hardware fittings). We are awash in faux-authentic [End Page 442] commodities these days, but efforts to blend traditional, supposedly noncommercial values and modern, mass-market accessibility were distinctively novel to consumers in the early part of the twentieth century. Outka argues that these hybrid objects, fusing nostalgia and an embrace of modernity, have been consistently misread by scholars, who typically interpret them as an ongoing sham—mass-produced commodities masquerading as authentic originals. Instead, we ought to recognize that the newness and availability of these objects was an integral part of the appeal. The paradoxical blend of easy accessibility and time-honored tradition was part of the attraction, not evidence that consumers were too naïve to understand the contradiction. Outka intelligently describes this change in the marketplace as the beginning of lifestyle marketing campaigns.
The book is divided into two main sections. In the first, Outka puts the work of two fairly idealistic writers, Shaw and E. M. Forster, in the context of turn-of-the-century experiments in architecture and town planning. Chapter 2 combines discussions of Bourneville, Port Sunlight, and Letchworth Garden City—all model towns that harkened back to the mythical English village—with concise readings of John Bull’s Other Island (1904) and Major Barbara (1905). Chapter 3 offers a similar mix of materials by pairing Forster with Edwin Lutyens, the preeminent architect of country homes for England’s upper-middle class. Outka shows a deft touch in these sections. Just when the history of British architecture and town planning threaten to overrun her discussions, she effortlessly turns her attention to more narrowly literary concerns by producing incisive close readings...