restricted access Technology’s Pulse: Essays on Rhythm in German Modernism by Michael Cowan (review)
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Technology’s Pulse: Essays on Rhythm in German Modernism. By Michael Cowan. London: Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies Books, 2011. 252 pages + 45 b/w images. £25.00.

Michael Cowan’s study on rhythm is bound to appeal to a wide range of students and scholars of German Modernism. The title anticipates the broad scope of the work, which brings together two current and relevant areas of inquiry in studies on Modernism: technology and the body. Cowan is quick to indicate what the book is not intended to do: it does not make claims about what rhythm is, propose a philosophy of rhythm, or fashion an empirical history of the term (44). Instead, Cowan’s work considers various discourses on rhythm in the early twentieth century, as they reflected and shaped the changing experiences of industrial modernity, and it explores how an engagement with rhythm impacted the understanding and development of various media. Cowan argues that through rhythm, artistic media become mediators “between organic and machinic movement, between the vital and the rational experiences of time, between the body and technology and ultimately between tradition and modernity” (44).

The study is rooted in close readings that give due concentration to formal concerns, while clearly situating the readings in the social and historical context. It draws heavily on thinkers of the early twentieth century (e.g. Karl Bücher, Emil Jaques-Dalcroze, Ludwig Klages, Fritz Pauli, Georg Simmel), but is also involved with the contemporary scholarly landscape on film, the body, and dance (e.g. Inge Baxmann, Tom Gunning, Christine Lubkoll). The strength of this volume is the way in which Cowan combines various discourses from multiple disciplinary traditions: chapters on poetry, film, advertising, and music, as well as the presence of dance and eurythmic body culture throughout, exemplify Cowan’s broad inter-arts approach to the study of rhythm.

An introduction and epilogue frame four essays that could stand alone, but are joined by a leitmotific return to central texts, thinkers, and theories. In Chapter One, Cowan demonstrates a fundamental ambiguity in ideas about rhythm, which at once associated the body with nature and the “primitive,” but also with technology, as the repetitive and rhythmic movement of the body in industrial work resembled that of machines. A major concern at the time was the subordination of the human to the machine, and that of natural rhythm to the technological Takt. Cowan cautions against reading rhythm only from a vitalist, anti-technological standpoint, and suggests we must also consider the ways rhythm is positively connected to machine production.

Chapter Two focuses on the poetry of Gerrit Engelke, usually read in the tradition of Arbeiterdichtung. Cowan underscores Engelke’s larger importance in understanding the role of rhythm in the poetics of Modernism, in which the acceleration and incessant motion of modern urban life is reflected in the rhythms of poetry. Engelke’s aesthetic of Unrast forms the basis for media-theoretical reflections on the possibilities of lyric poetry not only to mimetically represent the chaos of modern [End Page 333] life, but—through the inclusion of vital rhythms and bodily metaphors—to penetrate below the surface in order to “re-spiritualize” it. Ultimately, Cowan proposes Engelke’s poetic rhythm as an interface: “the poet is the mediator and the poetic medium mediates between the traditional and modern rhythms, adapting readers to the new temporality of the city” (84).

The third chapter draws connections between rhythm and the body in cinema. First, it considers how theories that rhythm in film directly affects the body and emotions of the spectator figured into debates about representational/narrative cinema versus avant-garde experiments in rhythmic filmmaking. Exploring connections between rapid montage in film and the association of modernity with acceleration, Cowan provides compelling readings of Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin—die Sinfonie der Großstadt and of Wilhelm Prager’s Wege zur Kraft und Schönheit as films dealing with the “opposition between machinic movement and organic rhythm” (106). Cowan takes up the discussion of cinema’s ambiguity as a medium of flowing images and/ or seriality, and suggests that cinema embodied rhythms function as interface between nature and culture. This informs...