- Digital Modernism: Making It New in New Media by Jessica Pressman
“We look at the present,” Marshall McLuhan famously claimed, “through a rear-view mirror.” What he meant was that our contemporary paradigms are partly modelled on, and mediated by, earlier precursors, such that “we march backward into the future.” McLuhan’s remark forms [End Page 1042] the epigraph to the final chapter of Jessica Pressman’s excellent Digital Modernism (158), but it applies equally to her book as a whole. Pressman’s project is to “build bridges” (22) between high modernist writers, like Joyce and Pound, and today’s digital avant-garde, including, among this book’s case studies, the American authors William Poundstone and Judd Morrissey, and the Korean online art collective Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries. In building such bridges, Pressman puts a present-day spin on the modernist credo that “innovation happens by remaking the past” (161).
At its most straightforward, Digital Modernism explores the above artists’ allusions to specific modernist predecessors, whose texts sometimes serve as their source material. Thus, Morrissey’s The Jew’s Daughter (2000) makes use of the “Ithaca” episode of Ulysses, and Young-hae Chang’s Dakota (2002) adapts the first two of Pound’s Cantos. But this book isn’t simply a study of literary adaptation. It’s also a wider inquiry into “the intertwined relationship between literature, reading and media” (60)—a set of connections which Pressman portrays as transcending both periodic and generic boundaries. So, while she defines digital modernism in terms of electronic texts that “remix literary modernism” (2), she also maps the common ground that makes such remixes possible. That is, she shows how her chosen modernist and online writers share an awareness that “literature is materially grounded in media ecologies and, as a result, literature and reading practices are entwined with and dependent upon media” (71). Hence her account isn’t only about the allusive and adaptive aspects of particular digital literary works; it’s also about the continuing convergence of art, technology, and attention—a trend which traverses the long twentieth century, shaping modernist and contemporary writing alike.
Unsurprisingly, Pressman’s emphasis on continuity complicates periodized definitions of “modernism.” If she describes the “central act” of digital modernism as “returning to the past to make it new through new media” (122), she stresses that this was equally central to modernism’s earlier manifestations. Indeed, part of her argument is that literary modernism was itself “digital.” Chapter 1 illustrates how Cambridge practical criticism—in its own way, an integral part of modernist culture—directly influenced Marshall McLuhan’s contribution to media studies. According to Pressman, practical criticism already positioned “the literary within complex media ecologies” (29). Chapter 2 investigates a more literal instance of modernist mediatisation: the “reading machine” invented by the American avant-garde poet Bob Brown in the 1930s—a mechanism whose aesthetic effects Pressman compares to those produced by Poundstone’s digital works. Chapters 3 and 4 explore the ways in which digital formats like Flash and hypertext “renovate” modernist aesthetic strategies, including montage and stream of consciousness. Chapter 5 tracks the continuing currency of the modernist desire for a universal language, moving from Pound’s ideograms through to recent understandings of computer code. Finally, a brief “coda” brings Pressman’s concerns to bear on contemporary print literature, using Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions (2006) to demonstrate how “digital technologies have so permeated our culture that all literature, regardless of its output platform, is impacted by digitality” (158).
Throughout all of this, Pressman’s historical picture is one of subtle parallels and recurrences, rather than dramatic ruptures. This nuanced approach yields numerous insights. Most notably, it helps to deflate the rhetoric of division that has often dominated both academic and public discussions of the digital. As Pressman argues, such debates have been beset by a simplistic tendency to “see difference wherever there’s digitality” (102), whether in the case of doom-mongering declarations of the death of print (her preferred example is Robert Coover...