Multimedia Modernism: Literature and the Anglo-American Avant-Garde (review)
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Multimedia Modernism: Literature and the Anglo-American Avant-Garde. Julian Murphet. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. ix + 220. $93.00 (cloth).

Julian Murphet's Multimedia Modernism argues that modernism is a product of the changing "media ecology" of the early twentieth century. Deftly borrowing key insights from media studies (attached to such names as Friedrich Kittler, Jay Bolter, and Richard Grusin), Murphet weds a Marxian account of literary history (indebted to Fredric Jameson and the systems theory [End Page 199] of Niklas Luhmann) to close attention to the technologies of cultural reproduction. The result is a compelling account of modernism as the "becoming media" of the arts in the early twentieth century.

Multimedia Modernism continues a thread of recent work in modernist studies that highlights the importance of technological change to the modernist imagination.1 What Murphet's work contributes is a focus on the changing landscape of mechanical reproduction (halftone printing, photography, film), rather than on technology broadly (including the telegraph, etc) or specifically (such as film or photography). Murphet's book is also unique in the polemical strength of the claim it makes for the importance of media change. "We have in any event," he writes, "had more than enough of the metaphors of influence, importation, translation and indeed all argument by homology and simple adjacency" (14). What Murphet proposes instead verges, as he readily admits, on technological determinism: "a new myth of cultural modernism—that relations among the media governed the material complexities of modernist forms" (2). Murphet asks us "to see the medium itself seizing hold of the individual in order to tell the cryptic and allegorical tale of its relations, some friendly, some less amicable, with other media" (3).

Murphet's first chapter offers a "media theory of modern poetics" (1), drawing on Jameson's description of modernism as a product of uneven development to describe the media landscape of the early twentieth century as a field of competing forms, a quasi-Darwinian struggle between the older system of beaux arts and the technological media enabled by the "second industrial revolution" (9). These new media sought to legitimate themselves by drawing on the prestige of older forms (as early film, for instance, remediated novels), while older forms vied for relevance. Literature's response to this trauma was "an ongoing chiasmic process of 'borrowing' the vestments of materiality from other media" (36). Modernism is this process; "this is what the writers and artists we call 'modern' were collectively engaged in: a concerted becoming-media of the arts" (5).

In the subsequent four chapters, Murphet tackles specific instances of such chiasmic interactions between modernist texts and the broader media systems of which they are a part. The first and most compelling chapter brilliantly suggests that halftone printing, which enabled Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Work to bring text together seamlessly with reproductions of photographs and paintings, precipitated chiasmic effects in photography, painting, and literature. While the photo-secessionists initially sought to legitimize themselves by aping painterly conventions, cubist collage staked its own value on the introjection of real items onto the canvas (upping the indexical ante of photography). But it is Gertrude Stein's prose portraits of Matisse and Picasso, Murphet contends, that most successfully register the effects of halftone by transposing the portrait genre outside the realm of the visual entirely. Here and throughout, Murphet follows Kittler in suggesting that "the very immateriality and invisibility of the literary medium" made it peculiarly able to register and absorb the effects of technological change (35).

It is not a technology but the fate of a single image across media that unites the following chapter. The image of a woman, waiting on the shore for the return of her spouse, moves from Tennyson's "Enoch Arden" to diverging early twentieth-century responses: the rejection of Victorian "verbal patisserie" by Pound (qtd. in 94) and D. W. Griffith's numerous engagements with this image (including a film adaptation of "Enoch Arden"). While for Pound "Enoch Arden" epitomizes sentimental Victorian slush, Griffith discovers in it an opportunity for formal innovation. Griffith "perceived latent within the melodramatic stereotype the very means to motivate the device of film...