Modernism/modernity 10.2 (2003) 396-398
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The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception, and Aesthetics. Sara Danius. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002. Pp xi + 247. $45.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).
The central aim of this accomplished and lucid study is to dispel the notion that perception in modernist texts can be seen as a flight from the world of modernity and technology into subjectivity and particularity. Arguing that "the anti-technological bias of high-modernist art is in some sense a suppression, denial or even a renunciation of the historical, social and institutional conditions that brought it into being" (40), Danius suggests that we must seek a more dialectical relation between late nineteenth-century technologies of perception and modernist looking; and between modernist form and its historical context. This contention is sustained in illuminating analyses of technologically-inflected episodes in three "world novels": Thomas Mann's [End Page 396] The Magic Mountain, Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, and James Joyce's Ulysses. Danius argues that these texts see a progressive internalization of technological modes, described as a movement from prosthesis (the thematization of the external device) to aisthesis (that which pertains to perception); from Mann's depiction of technology to Proust's exploration of its effects on the self and literary form to Joyce's integration of technology into the quotidian world of the senses. What is also involved, she notes, is a shift from idealist to materialist and embodied aesthetics.
Danius's assertion that the senses become technologically mediated in modernity is supported by discussions of visual theory as it is implicit in various optical devices, in Sander's photo-archive, Marey's work, and the conceptualization of cinema in Vertov and others; these are usually quite local, and the reader will have to cross-reference studies by Crary, Gunning and others for a fuller account of the psychophysics of perception. Instead, after a useful discussion of the history of thinking on technology and modernity and a critique of Kantian notions of aesthetic autonomy, Danius focuses most of her argument through a series of deft readings and contextualizations of her three novels. In the X-ray and phonograph episodes in The Magic Mountain, Mann's attempt to integrate these devices into bildung is seen as negated by their association with death and finitude. She considers telephony, trains, motoring, photography and cinema in Proust; the latter in relation to the visual aesthetics he derived from Ruskin rather than any explicit reference. The "rhetoric of movement" associated with the motor car and the visual disruptions produced by photography are linked to a new kind of spectator, and a hunger for the present moment and modernity at odds with the novel's emphasis on memory. In Ulysses, there is an acute discussion of the disconnection and re-connection of the senses, and the notion of blindness central to both Stephen and Bloom's analyses of perception. Danius points out that Joyce's radicalism lies in registering all sensation as atomized quanta, de-naturalized and beyond the possibility of integration; he is thus seen as refusing to comment on modernity as rupture, simply articulating its sensory modes.
The latter claim is an interesting one: aisthesis, one might think, could produce alienation and self-estrangement. This seems to be suggested when Danius traces a progressive "marginalization of the epistemic mandates of the human senses in an age when technological devices increasingly claim sovereignty over and against the sensorium" (23). But she also insists, on the contrary, that aisthesis operates to open up new possibilities for Joyce and other novelists. As in Walter Benjamin's work, technology thus offers a kind of unstable formalism, at once alienated and experimental. The different verbs Danius uses to represent the movement between machine and text are revealing: Joyce's work "appropriates" or "emulates" or "grafts upon itself" technological modes; it develops "stylistic counterparts"; his work is "interpenetrated by" [sic] technological categories (193). The metaphors here—suggesting at once power relations, organicity, mimesis—together with the rather odd grammar of the last term register multiple possibilities...