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Infrastructures of Being:
Modernism as Media Theory
The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing. Paul Stephens. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. Pp. xvi + 240. $25.00 (paper); $87.50 (cloth).
Corridor: Media Architectures in American Fiction. Kate Marshall. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Pp. xvii + 233. $25.00 (paper); $75.00 (cloth).
Literature in the First Media Age: Britain Between the Wars. David Trotter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 352. $31.50 (cloth).

British writer and artist Tom McCarthy’s recent Satin Island (2015) is a theory of our present information society—and its abiding fantasies of connectivity—disguised as a novel. Early on, the book’s protagonist, an in-house corporate anthropologist named “U,” describes the enigmatic Koob-Sassen Project that preoccupies the organization for which he works. The Project is both “a pretty boring subject” and the very infrastructure of the present: “in fact,” he tells the reader, “there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or another, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this. Not that it was secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring. And complex.”1 Formed of other projects, interfacing with other projects, the Project’s shape and contours defy description, proliferating visual metaphors—hovering spaceship, rabbit warren, pond lilies—that fall short. The complexity of projects like these, U senses, poses the problem of infrastructure: they are “equally boring, equally inscrutable” (13). To think them, he will get equally systematic, compiling endless dossiers that only compound the informatic surfeit sustaining the Project. To approach “some kind of infrastructural master-meaning,” which is to get a grasp of the present, he relies on the methodology of his hero, Claude Lévi-Strauss (28). [End Page 233]

McCarthy excels at theory novels like Satin Island, and the terrain of literary modernism has held a special place in his earlier work’s way of using fiction to do media theory and thinking hard about the medium of the novel in the process. Modernism, McCarthy insists, enjoys a special relationship to the technical media of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and its encounters with media bear directly on what U dubs “Present-Tense Anthropology™.” The rare intensity of this convergence between technique and technology, directly explored in McCarthy’s inhuman bildungsroman C (2010) and its knowing return to 1922, has also fueled a number of important scholarly attempts to embed modernism in a messy terrain of media practices and rivalries.2 I have in mind here the explosion of work over the last decade or so by literary critics who have recast high-modernist media experiments as ways of domesticating and estranging the inhuman dimensions of the old new media of mechanical reproduction by forging fragile human intimacies with it. Positioning modernist aesthetics within the dynamics of media change and competition, critics have recast modernist form as an event within a competitive media environment in which vanguard sensorial experiments become so many ways of making media a lifestyle, accommodating the challenge of technicity to the prestige and epistemic authority of the human.

Approached anew as a kind of media pedagogy, literary modernism itself has been variously redescribed as a defensive process of homeopathic inoculation against the traumatic incursion of a new media environment; or as a more ambivalent lesson in how to feel about mechanical prosthesis; or as creative receptivity to noise and the stochastic; or as a coping mechanism for the early twentieth century’s climate of excessive information.3

Such work has productively challenged some of the less controversial, even banal claims about why modernist studies has so obviously needed “the media concept”: namely, because media store and transmit information, messages, and narrative content. Or that something later called modernism emerged fitfully alongside new technologies of storage and transmission (the telegraph, telephone, radio, cinema, rotary press, etc.) and within a climate of informatic density. Within such an environment, the mass media, understood as influential distributors of messages and meaning, seemed to have achieved a new degree of ideological power in the one-to-many communications of the nascent broadcast era.

What if we approach modernism—as much of the best revisionist work in the field has done—as a series of encounters with what Mark Goble dubs “the mediated life”? This requires also understanding media a bit more expansively, as what John Durham Peters has recently called the “fundamental constituents of organization” within a modernity shaped by massive infrastructural transformations and their making of being.4 In his thrilling new book, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, Peters reminds us that the early-twentieth-century development of mass media, redubbed “old media” in the wake of the digital turn, is a rather specific, even limited, way of conceptualizing what media are and do. Following in various traditions of media theory extending from Lewis Mumford, Martin Heidegger, James Carey, Harold Innis, and Marshall McLuhan to Bruno Latour and Friedrich Kittler, Peters suggests instead that media should be thought less as vessels or conduits of messages than as “providing the conditions for existence,” offering the historical constituents for culture and being itself (14). In doing so, he adduces a new category, “logistical media,” to describe how, in addition to sending and transmitting messages, media also track and orient us in time and space. Logistical media, from ancient inventions like the index, calendar, or census to the latest digital devices, are in the business of organization and, thus, power and calculation. “Wherever data and world are managed,” he claims, “we find media” (22). They distribute and arrange people and property, bodies and populations, often by putting them on a grid. Peters’s attention to “logistical media” thus allows him to expand on the Kittlerian insight that media are “world-enabling infrastructures; not passive vessels for content, but ontological shifters” (25).

This approach to media as something like the infrastructure of being gets considerable traction within the modernist period.5 “Whatever else modernity is,” Peters claims, “it is a proliferation of infrastructures.” Here, Peters quotes approvingly Paul N. Edwards’s assertion that “To be modern means to live within and by means of infrastructure” (31). This conviction is shared by three important recent scholarly studies under review, and the various approaches to media and modernism they model: Kate Marshall’s Corridor: Media Architectures in American Fiction; [End Page 234] David Trotter’s Literature in the First Media Age: Fiction Between the Wars; and Paul Stephens’s The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing. Together, they consider a broad range of modernist and avant-garde artists, writers, and practices within a modernity defined chiefly by emergent organizational protocols and media, new infrastructures of being, and the modes of sociality and communication (primarily novel writing and poetics) that would accompany them. This is the modernity shaped by what James R. Beniger once described as the “control revolution.”6 The modernism that emerges, and is transfigured in its wake, is marked less by shock and distraction, or by an energetic culture of speed and alienated expressivity, but rather betrays a cooler attitude, something more attentive to the repatterning of the everyday within and as infrastructure. This modernism needed to learn what it meant to communicate within bureaucratic or technocratic architectures of organization and would enact this knowledge in highly reflexive forms of writing marked by what Trotter calls a “new awareness of the interface between consciousness and system.”7 We are used to definitions of modernist form as ways of estranging us from our habits of knowing, seeing, and sensing. We are less accustomed to thinking about the formal reflexivity of modern writing as a kind of “infrastructural inversion”: a breaching of normativity that brings into visibility the infrastructural organization of modernity.8 Modernism, to steal one of Peters’s puns, understood how understanding media would mean revealing their capacity to stand under. In this way, ostranenie is rebooted as a kind of glitch modernism.

On a methodological level, such recent critical attention to infrastructure, by returning us to blocked pipes, patchy grids, and other moments of infrastructural dysfunction, promises a reflexive, materialist approach to aesthetics and media that finds something to love about the remediation of the built environment in literature. This is the work of Kate Marshall’s terrific book Corridor, which argues that the most banal circulation technologies of modern life—plumbing systems, air vents, highways—function both as material symbols, at once describing and producing the social, and as self-aware medial objects. Corridor offers a rigorous analysis of the relationship between architecture, media, and modern American fiction, from Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson to John Dos Passos, Henry Roth, and Richard Wright. But it is also a methodologically self-reflexive, formally attentive study about the reflexive and material dimensions of form in modern fiction. She describes it as a “study of the traffic conditions of communication in twentieth-century American fiction”: one that explores how “literature observes itself as a communication system” within the noise and routine blockages of modernity’s various systems of physical circulation.9

Taking up various topoi of the built environment—infrastructure, transit networks, and the titular corridor—as they appear in modern American novels (chiefly late naturalist novels), Marshall argues that these structures and systems should be understood as media, “for through them novels encode their own communicative processes” (2). By understanding communication itself in its broader, McLuhanite sense—that is, as a conduit or a transit system for persons, things, and messages—Marshall’s methodology offers a provocative way of reading the entanglements of physical and abstract or informational infrastructures within narratives like Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, in which, say, sewers metaphorize flows of information; or corridors trope the threshold condition of media interfaces themselves—those “mysterious zones of interaction,” in Alex Galloway’s terms, that “mediate between different realities,” from “windows and screens … to channels, sockets and holes.”10 When the material infrastructure of the built environment appears in its most explicit form as the “architecture of communication” in a novel, the novel communicates itself (83). This is literature’s way of thematizing its own “participation in the communication systems of modern sociality.” These communications force themselves into visibility when they are blocked, when their transmissions fail, or when they reveal the foundational noise in every communicative act.

Marshall’s capacious understanding of modernity’s “communication systems” is equally indebted to post-Kittlerian media studies and Luhmannian systems theory. This conceptualization is crucial, since it allows Marshall to avoid some of the more familiar ways of approaching “interiority” (of persons and buildings) in scholarly accounts of the relationship between modernist fiction and architectural form. Rather than interpret architectural forms in fiction as metaphors for psychic states or the concretion of a modernist subject, Marshall reads novelistic interiors [End Page 235] as “taking part in a social system composed of communications rather than psyches”; she is “interested in interiority as an unstable attribution of modern novelistic personhood rather than as a psychic state” (15). Novelistic interiors are fiction’s way of communicating communication, through observing and “encoding” their own operations. In this fashion, Marshall extends the Luhmannian insight that novels be considered a “set of observational techniques” for specifically modern individuals—modern because they can “observe their own observing” (27). Interiority, then, is a product or effect of communication systems: “individual subjects can have individualized, self-observed interiors if they participate in the social systems of communication found in novels, letters, and hallways” (27).

Marshall’s privileged architectural form for communicating communication is the titular corridor. Following architectural historian Mark Jarzombek’s conception of the corridor as the “ultimate architectural index of modernity,” Marshall suggestively positions the corridor’s “connecting and mediating function” at the communicative center of modern life: its divisions of public and private; its spaces of organized flows; its systems of circulation and transit. The corridor, she argues, is “the architectural form that most insistently encodes the mediality of novels and persons in modern American fiction” (7). Arising historically as a radical break from domestic spaces navigated by interlocking rooms, the corridor was imposed to produce and control private spaces. Corridors provided the “material conditions for private thought,” where previously there was more promiscuous contact between bodies and persons, even as they installed hierarchies of power within space. As “the dominant organizational structure in modern domestic and institutional architecture,” the corridor regulates the circulation of bodies, objects, and messages. It thus enjoys a special prominence within the conditions of “reflexive modernity,” producing the conditions of modern personhood. As a literary space, “the corridor thematizes both mediality and interiority at the same time that it produces them” (15). When novels foreground their formal character, observing reflexively their medial functions within a modernity defined by communication, they display what Marshall calls their corridoricity.

These relays between corridors and novels, the concrete and the figurative, and this way of casting the novels themselves as corridors for communication, have “particularly literary ramifications” (15). So, while Marshall’s sensitivity to the recursive and reflexive operations of literature is indebted to second-order systems theory, she also insists on the medial specificity of the novel “as a technology and a set of observational techniques” (20). In other words, to talk about mediality itself “is another way of talking about form.” Marshall’s materialist approach to literary form builds on N. Katherine Hayles’s conceptualization of novels as “material metaphors,” a “category of physical object that is both constructed by and functions through its metaphoric networks” (28). The novels that Marshall discusses “stand out” for the particularly dynamic ways that they stage, figuratively, their own materiality as medial objects: “Corridors, furnaces, electric third rails, and other concrete material structures are media in novels because they doubly encode the reflexivity of writing technology and fictional technique: that is, they embed the forms of self-reflection in a material object that also demonstrates a capacity to reflect upon itself” (29).

What is it, we might ask, about these sorts of novels, or their literary-historical moment, that bears upon their capacity to “stand out” as they do in Marshall’s readings as “reflexively doubled material metaphors”? Does it matter that we think of these self-aware gizmos in relationship to something called the modernist novel? Does literary modernism enjoy some privileged relationship to the medial conditions of corridoricity? In her introduction, Marshall adduces Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! to claim that “underneath … the larger canon of American modernism lies a material and medial aesthetic unaccountable to narratives of the period that imagine a representational relationship between interiors and interiority” (6). But she also often describes her chosen fictions as “wayward novels of American modernism” that often read “more like late naturalist works than modernist” and evince particular affinities to “displaced genre categories” like proletarian fiction and social realism (24, 6, 32). In other words, it seems to matter to Marshall that the “genre frictions and irritations” posed by these novels have a quality of “near-minorness” vis-à-vis high modernism that challenges genre categories, producing “a media aesthetic just as exciting and experimental as that attributed to more traditionally modernist texts” (34). For so deftly drawing our attention to the reflexive operations of this aesthetic in places we wouldn’t normally look, we can be grateful. [End Page 236]

At the same time, Marshall is less forceful—perhaps with good reason—in making claims about the coevolution of architectural and novelistic form in modernity. She notes, for example, that novelists make the corridor “newly visible in fiction” at roughly the same interwar moment that the function of the corridor returns in architectural theory and urban planning (12). She also refers to architectural historian Reinhold Martin’s influential account of the “organizational complex” to identify a new concept of personhood she links to the domain of the modern novel and to the corridor as the architectural figure of “organization.” Martin’s study tracks architecture’s own becoming “one among many media … one among many technologies of organization” under the pressure of a rising cybernetic technocracy following the Second World War and finds in such managerial forms of self-regulation new architectures, new cities, and new selves, “none of which could be said to possess the traditional spatial properties that divided inside from outside in any traditional sense.”11 Taking up this claim, Marshall notes, tantalizingly, that “the architectural persons Martin identifies are the modern novel’s unlikely but intransigent inhabitants” (28). To my mind, Marshall slightly undersells the power of her formulation, which would seem to propose a more sweeping rethinking of personhood in the modern novel within cybernetic paradigms, one that would put significant pressure on extant literary-historical models. What stories might be told of these architectural persons, emerging at the edges of modernism, wandering in its corridors?

If for Marshall “communications media” includes a diverse terrain of technologies, architectural forms, and infrastructural systems in and through which modern novels observe their own mediality, for David Trotter communications technology “is an attitude before it is a machine or a set of codes” (2). And the terrain of interwar British writing, as his Literature in the First Media Age brilliantly reveals, became a site for a decidedly “cool” compromise between literary technique and technology. Late modernist writing, for Trotter, is the terrain of cultivation of the practices and protocols surrounding the “technological mediation of experience,” and specifically of the saturation of life by the experience of what Raymond Williams once dubbed “mobile privatization.”12 Whereas Marshall, following German media theorist Joseph Vogl, insists on the adverbial or adjectival dimensions of media—of mediation as a dynamic process rather than a static object—Trotter summons Lisa Gitelman’s influential definition of media as “socially realized structures of communication, where structures include both technological forms and their associated protocols, and where communication is a cultural practice, a ritualized collocation of different people on the same mental map, sharing or engaged with popular ontologies of representation” (Trotter 2). In doing so, Trotter reframes Julian Murphet’s superb account of “multimedia modernism,” which recasts early modernist form as a reaction formation to the critical mass of inhuman technical media in the model of a defensive integration of their capacities and thingly contours. For Trotter, though, the crucial rivalry within the competitive media ecology of the early twentieth century was not between “old” and “new” media, or between lyric experience and technological mediation, but rather between the aesthetic and political values of “representational” and “connective media.” The former involve the “storage and deferred release of information,” and their axiom is “two places at two times”: photography, phonography, cinematography (7). The latter—telegraphy and, crucially for Trotter, telephony—aim for “instantaneous, real-time, and preferable interactive one-to-one communication at a distance,” and their axiom is “two places at one time” (7–8). Representational media, whose content is doubly removed in time and space, “enable us to reflect upon a reflection of our world,” whereas media of connectivity offer the frisson of immediacy and the experience of the instant. And it is the scale and intensity of the rivalry between representational and connective media, Trotter argues, that defined the first media age.

For Trotter, the landscape of literary modernism—insofar is at plays host to this rivalry—witnesses the gradual giving way, “at some point during the 1920s,” of the “preoccupation with energy” that typifies strands of high modernism to “what looks very much like preoccupation with something else altogether: call it information, or connectivity” (22–23). Here and elsewhere, Trotter is more willing than Marshall to make normative claims about the status of modernism, and yet he shares her conviction that this modernism—whatever it was—would be decisively altered within bureaucratic, organizational imperatives and their watchword, connectivity: [End Page 237]

Where the energized Modernist text ever so slightly fades out, information advances. That advance into consciousness, and into literature, depended on a profound social and cultural change. It depended on the emergence during the first half of the twentieth century of bureaucratic structures of ‘generalized control,’ and of a new class of clerical and other service workers whose job was information management.


The key medium of this shift in modernity’s discourse network is the telephone, whose “organizational impact” was huge and which had by the late 1920s “sufficiently penetrated the infrastructure of British society to create a ‘separate space’ in which … information really did matter” (27).

Trotter acknowledges modernism’s familiar hostility to various regimes of representation but suggests that scholars of the interwar period consider how representation itself, and its accompanying regime of media, “came under challenge from a different set of principles altogether”: those offered by connective media (32). Such media eschewed the “heat” thrown off by modernism’s more energetic experiments and required instead the “cool” attitudes and behaviors that Alan Liu and others have associated with the information age. Trotter tracks this style of late-modernist equipoise, and the “slack” this cool seeks to open up between technique and technology, across a dazzling array of texts, medial forms, and substances (36). “Cool” protocols of “connective sociability” (“connecting in order to connect,” “palpable intimacy at a distance”) are formally tested in the various interwar writers who, as Trotter demonstrates in his stunning first chapter, explored the “solitary-promiscuous erotics of connection” and “clannishness” opened up by telephony (38). But it is also prefigured in what Trotter describes as interwar writing’s “techno-primitivism.” This, Trotter argues in chapter 2, developed as the domain of representation “rearmed itself” with a keen awareness of synthetic and semi-synthetic substances (shellac, Bakelite, rubber, celluloid) that were technologically produced but also somehow primitive in their appeal to the sensations of touch, taste, and smell. Interwar technoprimitivism, at the convergence of nature and culture, the organic and the thermoplastic, was literature’s way of opening itself up to forms of strategic archaism, a kind of friction or recalcitrance within the will-to-connect that enabled “acts of judgment” (36).

Like Marshall, Trotter is attentive to how modernist subjectivity, and the very notion of something like interiority, is remade (and cooled down) within modern infrastructural systems. In this sense, what Marshall calls “corridoricity,” a quality not restricted to architectural form, often overlaps with Trotter’s formulation: “connective sociability.” Like Marshall, Trotter hops on transit as central to understanding media as a process rather than a thing—an essential, infrastructural condition of modern sociality. Through the expansion of mass transit and transportation networks, “transport could now be understood as an enhancement to connectivity” and communication as the transit of bodies and objects, not just of messages or data (219). His wonderful fifth chapter “Transit Writing,” defines transit not as passing across or through but as “the process or system by which passage across or through had been organized” (218). The chapter thus develops a fascinating generic distinction between travel writing of the storied interwar modernist variety, in which transport is the mobile frame for a representational endeavor, and transit writing, the former’s “internal generic limit,” which supplants the traveler’s series of mobile views with the feeling of connectivity (226). Over the course of bravura readings of texts like Graham Greene’s Journey without Maps (1936), Edward Upward’s Journey to the Border (1938), and Wyndham Lewis’s Revenge for Love (1937), Trotter develops a phenomenology of transit writing that achieves its most accomplished form in the work of Elizabeth Bowen. In transit, humans are not travellers but what John Ruskin once called “living parcels,” undergoing a qualitatively different experience of “constrained time”: the suspended conditions of vacancy, blank time, waiting, and seeming slowness—the Beckettian “gress” in progress—that people in transit agree to undergo (220, 221).

Being in transit, characters are made over into messages, bundled within abstract flows of data. They experience themselves as nodes within the bureaucratic and surveillance networks of the state, which is why passports and customs stations—exposing “the constraint built into transit”—are essential features of transit writing (254). “Like the telephone you hold in your hand,” Trotter observes, the customs space “constitutes an interface between consciousness [End Page 238] and system, storage and communication, the representational and the connective” (254). In the process, especially in the work of Bowen, modes of modern intimacy and desire are reconfigured with characters who don’t so much fall in love as “fall into connectivity.” Trotter’s groundbreaking approach to interwar transit writing is precisely what Peters means when he urges us to consider media as the infrastructure of modern being in modernity.

And Marshall, for her part, makes similar moves throughout Corridor. Her superb third chapter, “The Flu and the Media,” explores how the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918 assumes the properties of media in novels that describe it like Willa Cather’s One of Ours (1922) and Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939). This entails more than just clever metaphorical associations between viral and media transmissions—the communication of infectious diseases and the pathological conditions of modern communications technologies. Rather, Marshall offers a patient and compelling reading of contagion as a “condition of media,” one that makes visible the infrastructures of modern sociality, a specifically “permeable sociability” (123, 117). Observing how the communications of viruses, media technologies, and modern novels mutually indicate each other, Marshall’s chapter culminates in a wonderful discussion of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933). West’s brutal masterpiece, of course, is not an influenza novel per se. But as Marshall shows, it functions as a deft enactment of the flu novel’s abiding logic: that media contagion portends the conditions of modern sociality characterized by the rejection of expression and the personal, marked instead by “dedifferentiation,” “likeness,” the self-observation of modern persons in “endlessly reflecting media” (146, 143).

For Marshall, these recursive loops in West’s novel and their enabling media infrastructures help make her point about the very “structure of communicative, medial sociality. The only tools available for self-making, like the selves, are shared” (146–47). Thus does the infrastructural commons frame the conditions for mediated life, as modern American fiction reveals interiority as an effect of modernity’s systems of reflexive observation within which modernist novels communicate themselves. The topography of infrastructure, Corridor argues, “reveals the complex, communicative relays systematically connecting persons and spaces that would otherwise remain unconnected”; inherently metaphoric, infrastructure “always refers to physical structures and to the collectivities joined by them” (81–82). Through the shared corridoricity of architectural, infrastructural, and novelistic form, Marshall urges us to attend to how “the structures of communication for both bodies and information are constantly indicating each other, and can be historicized” (25). Trotter, as I’ve suggested, is more interested in a precise periodization of the interwar period as the moment in which modernist subjectivity is reorganized for a regime of information and its protocols of connective sociability. In fact, Trotter names the late 1920s and 1930s as the moment in which technologies like telephony and the radio rendered “obsolete” modernism’s “diagnostic fragmentariness.” In the process, “other techniques supervened, as an acknowledgment of, and resistance to, information overload” (271).

It is this problem—how, as a matter of technique, to acknowledge or resist a connected world of superabundant data—that is the subject of Paul Stephens’s The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing. This lively study turns to the domain of experimental and avant-garde poetics to explore “the extraordinary range of innovative responses to changing technological conditions”—specifically those resulting in “the information glut that characterizes modernity” (36, 1). As Stephens’s wide-ranging introduction swiftly demonstrates, the contested phenomenon of “information overload” bears directly on questions of human cognitive capacity and how we read today; on the problem of attention—increasingly an economic as well as a cognitive problem; and on questions of the archive, which are of course questions of storage and memory, access and power. These questions, Stephens acknowledges, have been with us for some time, as have aesthetic responses to them: “poetry informed by data excess has been with us at least since the emergence of modernism” (2). In One Way Street (1926), Stephens reminds us, Benjamin sourced poetic modernism “in Mallarmé’s reaction to unprecedented ‘locust swarms of print’ in the 1890s,” the decade that witnessed the “magazine revolution” brought about by cheap paper, the rotary press, and the Linotype machine. Like Trotter, then, Stephens positions aesthetic modernism as presiding over the emergence of a regime of information, whose pressures are evident in Benjamin’s anxious distinction between “experience” and “information” in “The Storyteller”; in T. S. Eliot’s concerns in “The Rock” (“Where is the wisdom we have [End Page 239] lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”); in modernism’s encyclopedic ambitions; or in Pound’s desire to “provide the average reader with a few tools for dealing with the heteroclite mass of undigested information hurled at him daily” (11).

As Mark Wollaeger has argued, this climate of informatic surfeit and the dominance of the pseudo-fact sparked a high-modernist search “to clear a space for more authentic forms of communication” within modernity’s pseudo-environment of propaganda and informational density—a climate that demands either “arbitrary exclusion or impossible totality.”13 In this world, excessive information seemed hostile to experience and cultural tradition, or was deemed to pose a representational problem for meaning-making operations dependent on some semblance of narrative coherence. In part, this was Georg Lukács’s beef with modernism—its being haunted by an absence of a hierarchy of value; its hypertrophy of detail; the spread of so much data without proper scale.14 Wollaeger thus describes a series of modernism’s more infamous technical gambits—its dream of lyric immediacy, its desire for a humanizing “impression,” its mythic schemes of order or encyclopedic totality—as ways of dealing with information flows “exceeding the processing capacities of the mind.”15

While Wollaeger’s important argument isn’t referenced directly by Stephens, his introduction does cite art historian Sven Spieker’s related description of “early-twentieth-century modernism as a reaction formation to the storage crisis that came in the wake of Beniger’s [control] revolution, a giant paper jam based on the exponential increase of stored data, both in the realm of public administration and in large companies whose archives were soon bursting at the seams.”16 Instead, Stephens tends to prioritize the strains of modernism selected by contemporary conceptual writers and the most visible exponent of neoconceptualism: Kenneth Goldsmith. As readers of Goldsmith’s own “uncreative” work and critical practice know, his genealogy of conceptual writing’s putatively anti-expressivist, anti-lyrical-humanist strategies of vanguard appropriation includes: Stein, Duchamp, and Benjamin; situationist strategies of psychogeography and détournement; concrete poetry and Oulipo; the cut-up of Gysin, Burroughs, and Acker; and the rethinking of writing itself as indiscriminate, “indexical” recording practiced in Warhol’s forays into the everyday.17

Everydayness, for Goldsmith and for the range of writers discussed by Stephens, is the site of informatic abundance, yielding not just boredom and banality but also a barrage of strategies for reframing the glut of language. So, while Stephens’s chapters proceed in a roughly chronological order (from Stein and Rob Brown in the interwar period to Charles Olson’s interest in postwar cybernetics, through writing in the expanded field of the 1960s and the language poetry of Lyn Hejinian and Bruce Andrews in the ‘70s and ‘80s), the versions of modernist poetics discussed here all appear in the rearview mirror of our data-saturated digital present. The poetic archive Stephens assembles is thus meant to be a kind of usable past of vanguard data management. Goldsmith, of course, has a similar habit of rescuing modernist practices that seem suited to the superabundance of textuality in the wake of the Internet: “never before,” he asserts, “has language had so much materiality—fluidity, plasticity, malleability—begging to be actively managed by the writer.18 But conceptual writing’s way of digitally doing things with words, Goldsmith suggests, yields results that “are distinctly analog, taking inspiration from radical modernist ideas and juicing them with twenty-first century technology” (4).

Stephens’s final chapter, perhaps the strongest in the book, takes up the strategies of linguistic appropriation of Goldsmith and other contemporary conceptual writers and artists (Tan Lin, Robert Fitterman, Rachel Zolf, Seth Price, and Vanessa Place) in the context of the post-2008 financial crisis. These diverse writers, Stephens argues, share a strategy of “passive indexing” that “mimics the informatization as well as the financialization of the global economy” (160). By “index,” then, he means not Peircean “indexicality” but rather “the bureaucratic forms taken by large quantities of information,” works that “thematize in some manner the relation of a writer to a data set” and thus “bear witness to the forms taken by the bureaucratic mechanisms of contemporary capitalism—to which conceptualism bears an uneasy relation” (154). If to be modern is to live in and by infrastructure, to be contemporary, Stephens suggests, is to live in and by the digital data set. “Passive indexing,” we might say, is a strategy of formal reflexivity in which conceptual writing observes—and thereby makes visible in the mode of exposed infrastructure—the technical apriority of living today. Or, to follow Trotter’s language, conceptual [End Page 240] writing—appropriating and reframing life in an era of finance capital—is positioned as an interface between consciousness and system, a system that structures contemporary markets’ tendencies to socialize risk and loss while privatizing profit.

As Stephens acknowledges, strategies of conceptual writing predicated on the formal mimicry of what Liu might call the “look of information” owe a great deal to modes of institutional critique developed by the conceptual and systems-based art of the 1960s, another high-water mark of the kind of informatic “cool” that Trotter locates around 1927, at the end of energetic modernism’s “diagnostic fragmentariness.” For conceptualist artists, and for Warhol, so much depends on how much “slack” one can create between technique and technology. Goldsmith, for his part, in finding modernist antecedents for the approaches to linguistic materiality he values, notes that modernism’s way of “emphasizing its materiality disrupts normative flows of communication” (35) and posits a sliding scale between linguistic recalcitrance or opacity and complete transparency, when “language becomes functional discourse” (35).

This feared merger between technique and technology, we should recall in closing, presided over modernism’s canonization at the midcentury moment of rapidly expanding bureaucracies. At midcentury, as Mark Goble has reminded us, “the study of both modernism and communications emerged almost simultaneously as twentieth-century preoccupations and flourished as conglomerating triumphs of the postwar university in the United States.”19 Enshrined by the New Critics and the New York Intellectuals, high modernism’s aesthetics of communicative ambivalence, difficulty, and authenticity square off against an expansive, technocratic postwar “control” paradigm that desires communicative efficiency and transparency, and understands human expression as integrated within communication networks that service and regulate organisms and information-processing machines alike. In the process, human communication was rethought within a new paradigm of organization—what Reinhold Martin called a “networked, systems-based, feedback-driven” organicism.20 Writing in 1957 in the wake of the influence of these new communicative paradigms on the postwar avant-garde, cresting in the first wave of conceptual and systems-based art, Meyer Schapiro made a plea for a modernist formalism of “non-communication.”21 For him, postwar communication theory abetted a world of “social relationships which is impersonal, calculating, and controlled,” and art that followed from it indexed the pathos of a culture “increasingly organized through industry, economy, and the state.”22 Joshua Clover has recently offered a related periodizing account of “conceptualisms old and new,” characterizing both as “languages of the boom,” of “productivities regnant,” approaching their limit: the first a reaction formation to the long postwar boom that went bust in the early 1970s; the latter, what Stephens would call a “passive index” of the hyperproduction of objectless services, data management, and the virtuosity of knowledge work.23

Satin Island’s U, like many of us, is just such a knowledge worker at the tail end of a long boom. For him, “The Contemporary” is “a suspect term” (92). Like McCarthy, and indeed like Marshall, Trotter, and Stephens, he prefers to think “of a moving ratio of modernity,” with its modes of bureaucratic organization and medial infrastructures, and to imagine the kinds of projects that would best ascertain such modernity’s often-shrouded movements (92). If, following Hejinian, the avant-garde is always pedagogical, Marshall, Trotter, and Stephens all return to modernism for the kinds of medial lessons that bear on an anthropology of our own present. For Liu, what opens up the “slack” between technique and technology, and thus charts the future of the literary, is a dark kind of history, a blend of aesthetics and critique that bears witness to what modernity had to destroy or disavow in order to organize and create. These three studies perform this vital futurity in surprising and innovative ways, reminding us of modernism’s formal powers of witnessing and observing, its capacity for a reflexive pressure that brings modernity’s unseen infrastructures into view—and, perhaps, into reflection and judgment. This, such scholarship teaches us, is why we should still listen to how modernism communicates.

Justus Nieland
Michigan State University


1. Tom McCarthy, Satin Island (New York: Knopf, 2015), 12.

2. On McCarthy as a media archaeologist of modernism, see my “Dirty Media: Tom McCarthy and the Afterlife of Modernism,” Modern Fiction Studies 58:3 (Fall 2012): 569–99. [End Page 241]

3. For a compelling reading of strategies of literary modernism as a traumatic response to an old new media environment, see Julian Murphet, Multimedia Modernism: Literature and the Anglo-American Avant-Garde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). On modernist literature reckoning with film as a modernist “meta-technology: a medium whose constant subject-matter was the limits of the human,” see David Trotter, Cinema and Modernism (London: Blackwell, 2008), 239. For a discussion of modernism’s anti-mimetic strategies as abetted by the inhumanity of mechanical recording technologies, see Michael North, Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). And for a rewriting of modernism as an encounter with modernity’s shadow domain of meaninglessness, opacity, and asignifying matter that finds its model in “indiscriminate recording media,” see Juan Suárez’s Pop Modernism: Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006).

4. John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 18.

5. See also Michael Rubenstein’s groundbreaking study, Public Works: Infrastructure, Irish Modernism, and the Postcolonial (Notre Dame, Ind: Notre Dame University Press, 2010), as well as his forthcoming “Infrastructuralisms,” a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies (co-edited with Bruce Robbins and Sophia Beal). Many thanks to Mike Rubenstein for sending me a draft copy of “Infrastructuralisms: An Introduction” as I prepared this review.

6. James R. Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986).

7. David Trotter, Literature in the First Media Age: Britain Between the Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 2.

8. Peter Krapp, Noise Channels (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), qtd. in Peters, 35.

9. Marshall, Corridor: The Media Architectures in American Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 15, 38.

10. Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect (Cambridge: Polity, 2012), vii. As John Durham Peters has explained elsewhere, this notion of physical communication (of railroad travel as “steam communication,” for example) rather than dematerialized information was familiar in the nineteenth century, returned to vogue in the media theory of Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, and was later redeployed in the media theory of Friedrich Kittler. See Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999).

11. Reinhold Martin, The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media, and Corporate Space (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 8, 7.

12. Raymond Williams, Television: Ideology and Cultural Form, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1990), 26.

13. Wollaeger, Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative from 1900 to 1945 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 30.

14. Lukács, “The Ideology of Modernism,” in Realism in our Time: Literature and the Class Struggle, trans. John Mander and Necke Mander (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).

15. See Wollaeger, Modernism, Media, and Propaganda, 13.

16. Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 5.

17. On Warhol’s writing and the index, see Liz Kotz, Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007).

18. Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Making Language in the Digital Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 25.

19. Goble, Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 4.

20. Martin, The Organizational Complex, 8.

21. Meyer Schapiro, “The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art,” ARTnews 56:4 (1957): 40.

22. Ibid, 40.

23. Joshua Clover, “The Technical Composition of Conceptualism,” Mute, April 2, 2004, http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/technical-composition-conceptualism. [End Page 242]