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Evelyn Cobley. Modernism and the Culture of Efficiency: Ideology and Fiction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2009. ix + 344 pp.

In Modernism and the Culture of Efficiency, Evelyn Cobley sets out to examine "our cultural commitment to efficiency" (5), a commitment that encompasses the cultural attitudes, economic practices, social engineering projects, and individual, internalized beliefs in ascendancy since the invention of the steam engine in 1794. Cobley reviews the philosophical roots of the culture of efficiency in Rousseau and Hobbes, surveys its early-twentieth-century prominence in industry and bureaucracy, and analyzes its impact on canonical British fiction. She argues that the logic of efficiency reverberates widely and deeply in Western society, implicated in shifts from free to regulated markets and from democratic to totalitarian political systems, as well as in evidence that "free" individuals may in fact be "socially constrained" (5). Her study thus aims to trace the evolution of efficiency from an "instrumental function . . . to an ideological investment" (20).

To explicate the industrial history of the ideology of efficiency, Cobley draws largely on previously published studies. Focusing on Henry Ford's and Winslow Taylor's distinct contributions to what would become a broad cultural valuing of efficiency, these chapters offer a clear and compelling summary of their legacies. While Ford's assembly line epitomized a commitment to technical efficiency, Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) advanced a concept of social efficiency: wasteful class conflict could be eliminated in workplaces if both management and labor could be made [End Page 170] to see the mutual advantages of cooperation. Taylor thus proposed an efficiency expert: "a narrow specialist in the study of speed and motion" (49).

The significance of Ford's efficient assembly line, suggests Cobley, is not merely its subordination of human beings to machines, but Ford's adoption of incentives and intimidation—in effect, the surveillance epitomized by Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. In a fascinating narrative Cobley (again drawing on the research of others) continues the history of Henry Ford's Motor Company to illustrate how a commitment to efficiency leads to the degradation of Ford's initially paternalistic incentives into the abuses and brutality of Harry Bennett at the head of the Ford Service Department.

How do relatively benign forms of social control give way to outright brutality? To answer this question, Cobley turns to game theory. In particular, the Prisoner's Dilemma explains how multiple individual agents acting rationally and in their own self-interests collectively produce an outcome they did not foresee or desire. This unflagging examination of the effects of efficiency on the human heart and mind is one of the strengths of Modernism and the Culture of Efficiency. Cobley identifies Nazi Germany as the extreme case of a commitment to efficiency. While efficiency can never explain Nazi concentration camps, Cobley does make a convincing case for its influence on the attitudes of the Nazi commandants: since the assembly line, efficiency has been associated with a dehumanization of fellow human beings that has licensed cruelty.

It was in the first three decades of twentieth-century Britain that efficiency was felt most traumatically, argues Cobley. Tracing its resonance in modern British fiction, Cobley devotes entire chapters each to Brave New World, Howards End, The Good Soldier, Heart of Darkness, and Women in Love. Her efforts yield mixed results. In some cases, the language of efficiency varnishes familiar analyses of the novels with a strange gloss. In Women in Love, for example, Birkin's search for a star equilibrium with Ursula is identified as an example of his desire for Pareto efficiency. While a new lexicon may indeed prompt readers to look again at the cultural context for modernist literature, readers of Modernism and the Culture of Efficiency must sometimes wade through lengthy readings with only the occasional new insight.

Although it does not make an argument about literary modernism per se, at its best Modernism and the Culture of Efficiency newly illuminates some modern and modernist novels, making sense, for example, of the sadness of Dowell's story in The Good Soldier, in which individual human efforts become perverted as they are absorbed into larger systems and pass out...


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pp. 170-173
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