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As modernist studies continues to seek new approaches, it also continues to revise known categories: they are not outmoded labels to be discarded perhaps, so much as potential descriptions to be probed and recontextualized. In Glamour in Six Dimensions, Judith Brown exemplifies this scholarly tack by looking again at the formalism so important to accounts of twentieth-century aesthetics. Her analysis uses the paradoxes of form, freshly situated, to clarify contradictory affinities in modernist culture.
Brown does so through her chosen central term, “glamour.” In her book, this word does not chart an artistic history or recognize modernists’ self-description; rather, and more usefully, “glamour” theorizes a set of interests that unites commerce and art of the period. Glamour is both an ideal and a commodity, in Brown’s presentation; it “names [the] interrelation” of “literary form” and “modern mass culture” (8). Glamour indicates an attraction to what is “cold, indifferent, [End Page 663] and deathly,” a drive toward “abstraction,” and a preference for “blankness, the polished surface, the stance of impenetrability” (5): these are evident in the affective results of Hollywood stills, fashion magazines, and industrial plastics as much as in the poetic practices of Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Wallace Stevens. Glamour therefore refuses to separate cultural contexts from artistic methods, refuting old assumptions about modernism’s remove from markets; with these aims, Brown’s study furthers an important trend of scholarship that includes work by Aaron Jaffe, Douglas Mao, Michael North, and Lawrence Rainey, among others. Glamour marks a valuable extension of this strain, however, in its particular argument about form: “glamour emerges with the modernist attention to aesthetic form,” Brown explains, “and subsequently becomes visible, even most familiar, in the worlds of entertainment and mass culture.” “[R]eading glamour” thus “extends the power of the literary—especially in its attention to form—to translate the world around us” (8). This overview might benefit from a clearer characterization of “form” across the different genres that this book cites, though the omission is less troublesome in specific analyses. As they unfold, Brown’s various descriptions of glamour refute any limits to the possible manifestations of a modernist aesthetics—and resist any generalizations about something like a “culture industry” undermining that aesthetics. Glamour does not want its central concept to be “relegated solely to the service of capitalism and its system of commodity production,” as Brown explains. If it were, critics would “lose glamour’s aesthetic power, as well as its range of pleasures” (12).
The power and pleasures are dangerous, often cruel. From ads for cigarettes to sentences by Stein, glamour flirts with “the suspicion of the nothing behind it all”—while turning that absence into “something that is seductive, powerful, and often simply gorgeous” (5). Brown’s study thus supports a detached, nihilistic, and antihumanist version of modernist art. To Brown, in fact, glamour offers a type of twentieth-century sublime: sustaining the attractions of negativity while replacing attention to nature with a focus on technology, preference for the infinite with an attraction to the regulated, and endorsement of transcendent reason with an “obliteration of the subject” (33). Yet if glamorous sublimity “courts danger,” in Brown’s words, it also “finds in it powerful creative potential” (13), and Brown shows that a seemingly indifferent or reactionary effect contains unexpected political possibilities as she articulates the breadth of its instantiation. One chapter, for example, relates T. S. Eliot’s theories of individual talent, Woolf’s ideas of character, and Hollywood’s starmaking apparatus; Brown demonstrates that Greta Garbo’s glamour depended on an impersonal personality akin to high-art aims (101). [End Page 664] The actor’s image, Brown argues, as it uses and indicts processes of technology, diagnoses a modern alienation that is sociologically, aesthetically, and commercially produced. Her discussion casts new light on modernist subjectivity as it articulates a specific relation between mass and high culture that is reductive to neither. Another chapter examines the appeal of “primitive glamour”—which could seem no more than exploitative caricature—to Nella Larsen...