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Technology's Pulse: Essays on Rhythm in German Modernism. Michael Cowan. London: Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, 2011. Pp. 252. $40.00 (paper).

During their visit to Berlin from the U.S. in 1925, Sam Wooding and his orchestra recorded a version of the fox-trot "Alabamy Bound" that mimics both the whistle and the relentless drive of a steam train; their version encourages listeners literally to dance to the rhythms of the industrial era, yet the title of the song invokes a longing for a form of rootedness. Held together, for the three minutes that the song lasts, are the thrill of technological change and a deep desire for belonging. In Michael Cowan's fascinating account of German culture of the 1910s and 1920s, rhythm holds together in unstable union precisely these conflicting impulses, and it is the great merit of the book that it repeatedly demonstrates the surprising variety of ways in which this tension can be negotiated. For Ludwig Klages or for the proponents of rhythmic exercise at the Jaques-Dalcroze Institute in Hellerau, organic, wave-like rhythms were thought to be able to rescue the citizens of early twentieth-century Germany from the alienated and mechanized pounding of industrial society. For avant-garde filmmakers like Hans Richter or for the supporters of jazz who were filled with enthusiasm by Sam Wooding's concerts, mechanized rhythms could take those same citizens beyond themselves to find in the beat of the modern world exactly the sort of revivified, bodily engagement that for anti-modernists could be found only in a flight into the organic pulsing of wave and heart.

Cowan's book skillfully avoids a number of traps that await the unwary student of this period of German history. He is sensitive to the way the term rhythm was "up for grabs" (42) in the period, causing him explicitly to challenge the reductive argument that invocations of rhythm in the period prepare the way for National Socialist versions of a racialized body culture. At the same time, his accounts of the rhythmic interrelations between experimental film and advertising, or between jazz and the sociology of labor, render neat dichotomies between high art and mass culture obsolete: intense engagements with the issues raised by rhythm can be found across the cultural spectrum. Indeed, some of the most thought provoking ideas about the rhythm of technology are to be found not where we might expect them—in, say, the work of Walter Benjamin—but in an essay by an advertising psychologist named Käthe Kurtzig published in 1926 in the trade journal Industrielle Psychotechnik. Kurztig comments on how the deployment of rhythm in an advertising film can lead to a "resonance" between film and viewer, an effect she captures with the German word Mitschwingen (130). Also writing in 1926, Fritz Pauli, the head of the Hamburg Phönix rubber factory, similarly discusses the compulsion to achieve "resonance," or what he calls, using a Latinate term, Resonanzzwang (133). In both cases, culture is viewed [End Page 796] as a visceral process that brings people together in shared bodily rhythms that can be managed and manipulated but also cultivated in ways that need not only increase profit or productivity. Cowan's book gives us the sense of culture as a shared corporeal activity, something that happens with and between bodies.

To portray "culture"—from Stravinsky to driving—as a form of bodily activity is partly to sum up what modernist critics of modernity were themselves saying; think of Adorno's critique of Stravinsky and mass culture, or of Lawrence's critique in Lady Chatterley's Lover of "jazzing" and Proust as bad ways of living our physical being. But the material Cowan brings together is striking because the elegiac tone—readily found in Adorno or Lawrence—emerges as only one note among many. However, other aspects of Cowan's argument are presented in a more familiar manner. In the narrative he constructs, rhythm becomes especially important, because following Simmel and Benjamin he suggests that modernity produces an urban environment in which individuals are subject to constant stimuli and shocks, and like those theorists he argues that the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6601
Print ISSN
1071-6068
Pages
pp. 796-797
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-28
Open Access
No
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