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Jessica Burstein. Cold Modernism: Literature, Fashion, Art. University Park: Penn State UP, 2012. 336pp.

Jessica Burstein’s Cold Modernism: Literature, Fashion, Art is everything one expects from Penn State’s formidable modernism publications. Burstein is erudite, interesting, witty, and stylish, and the text is a beautifully produced edition, a pleasure to read and thumb through. Burstein posits what she identifies as “cold modernism” as an underdeveloped aspect of modernist studies that emphasizes the dehumanized aspects of modernist works—their cultures of copy, duplication, reproduction, mimicry, and prosthesis. Her discussion ranges from Wyndham Lewis’s novels to the doll sculptures of Hans Bellmer, from Coco Chanel’s fashion production industry to Mina Loy’s poetry and visual and decorative arts, and she ends with the paintings of Balthus. Burstein’s choice of visual and cultural texts is thoughtful and her readings of these works exceptional and persuasive.

Burstein argues against what she sees as “hot modernism,” a tendency among modernist critical investigations to focus on the subjectivity of its characters and figures—sometimes treating them almost as real people. Burstein argues that this tradition “continues to be taken to represent literary modernism as a whole” (24), and counters that “modernism’s story of the individual has running through its heart the presentation of a world in which the individual has no place” (3). I find Burstein’s view of what she calls “hot modernism” to be reductive, and also less influential than she sees it—when was the last time we saw a psychological character analysis in the pages of Modernism/modernity? But I do agree with her more supplemental observation that “our most authoritative ‘genealogy of modernism’ is incomplete insofar as it has understood subjectivity to be modernism’s bedrock” (66). As recent trends in modernist and modernity studies have demonstrated, modernist arts frequently reflect a dehumanized and dehumanizing world.

Burstein opens with a discussion of Lewis’s Tarr, in which she emphasizes that the humor in Lewis’s writing derives from the “confusion between a person and a thing,” or “taking characters for persons, or more broadly, mistaking a novel for a form of life” (44). By this logic, as Burstein reads it, Bertha’s rape by Kreisler becomes the invariable end product of the processes of objectification. Burstein’s analysis of Lewis’s Snooty Baronet, with its prosthetic replacements and reduplicating identities, confirms this reading and introduces the prosthetic as a major theme of Burstein’s work. As Burstein concludes,

It should be plain that in the current I am calling cold modernism not only is the copy all there is, but what [Rosalind] [End Page 182] Krauss calls “the discourse of the copy” is endlessly engaged and, far from being repressed, is ubiquitous. Operating with little or no regard for the notion of selfhood, cold modernism is free to bank wholly on relational qualities. Here, characteristics are as wholly exchangeable as currency itself, to be traded, lost, and at base, forged.


As a contingent part of this culture of copy, Burstein frequently turns to Roger Caillois to reinforce the idea of mimicry, not only in terms of prosthetic parts but also in terms of aesthetic goal. As she puts it, “The praying mantis, Lewis’s ‘demented arthropod,’ even the made-to-order glass bees in a later [Ernst] Jünger novel: each occurs on a plane where connection and engagement entail the most stringent forms of relation, beginning with empathy and ending in cold modernism” (94).

Bellmer becomes a necessary aspect of this trajectory, with his photographs of doll sculptures with added appendages and prosthetics. Though Burstein works against the psychological conclusions of Sue Taylor, she explains that in the displaced anthropocentrism made use of in her own book, psychology and cold modernism are not necessarily enemies. As she writes, “The issue of cold modernism’s collision with psychology or with an art indebted to psychology is thrown into useful relief. What happens when the mind is acknowledged, but as an extension of surface appearance?” (96). Burstein elaborates on the relationship of psychology to Bellmer’s development of and writings on the ball joint. I found her correlations between Bellmer’s articulated dolls and the syntax of language to be among her less persuasive arguments, though such an assessment is to quibble with an embarrassment of riches.

In what is Burstein’s most successful and provocative chapter, she sets in dialogue Virginia Woolf’s short story “The New Dress,” Coco Chanel’s fashion innovations, and Henry Ford’s production of the Model T, emphasizing the ironies and aesthetics of successful and unsuccessful imitations. Invoking Woolf’s ambivalent relationship with fashion innovations and her character Mabel Waring’s decision to wear an unfortunate, outdated dress to Mrs. Dalloway’s party, Burstein turns to model and fashionista Viola Paris, lauded by Vogue for her ability to choose minimal dresses that emphasize the body and blend in with—mimic—her modern environment. Here, we find Burstein at her best, weaving a tapestry of layers of interdependent interests developed from the sources of numerous other chapters and incorporating inherent oppositions into her argument. In typical wry tone, Burstein writes, for example, “Viola exhibits the same ‘legendary psychasthenia’ that we have seen Roger Caillois later tracing to insects capable of mimicking their surroundings so as to [End Page 183] survive—in order to mate, eat, or destroy predators and competitors: the proceedings, after all, of the average cocktail party” (138). As one of Viola’s primary style choices, Burstein introduces Chanel’s chemical-scented perfume, Chanel No. 5 (chosen, Burstein argues, as more than mere imitation of traditional flower scents) and the mass-produced Little Black Dress. She connects Chanel’s minimalist fashion sense to menswear, wartime needs, and industrialization. Burstein also emphasizes Chanel’s success due in part to her embrace of her imitators as a kind of reinforcement of the aura of the original and in contrast with the magazine Vogue, which displayed her works, but was more protective of its copyrights. Finally, Burstein reveals a relationship between fashion and the needs of modernity, suggesting that women required more streamlined clothing for the speed of their active lifestyles, including the use of automobiles.

From Chanel and the infinitely reproducible woman, Burstein moves to Mina Loy, focusing on several surprising texts, including some of Loy’s less recognized poems, drawings, and discussion of the corset in Rogue (which made fun of Vogue and included self-contradictory duplication as part of its ethos). The corset becomes, by Burstein’s account, a kind of prosthesis, making the body both more and less natural, and Loy advocated the corset for both men and women to help nature along as one aged. Burstein points to Loy’s concern with imitation, in contrast to Chanel, focusing even on a kind of virginity attributed to first-time clothes wearing amid the reproducibility of the modern woman. She finishes with a discussion of Loy’s lampshades and other artifacts of domesticity subject to Loy’s eye for design, as well as her relations with sponsor Peggy Guggenheim, in which Loy rejected stores and products she saw as too mainstream despite the suspect business acumen of such decisions—which Guggenheim often disregarded. As Burstein explains, “the issue of seeing or recognizing something, even at the most quotidian level, is an essential part of the question of not just how to tell a history of modernism, but what modernism is” (17). Particularly in Loy’s case, Burstein’s cold modernism strikes me as reflecting the (subjective) angst felt by modernist artists as they engaged with issues of the copy and reproduction in their world.

In her final chapter, less connected to the others yet critically prescient, Burstein analyzes several paintings by Balthus. The chapter’s function, she explains, is primarily to demonstrate how her approach might be used even in less abstract works, and she neatly ties the chapters together by implicitly evoking her beginnings in Lewis, reveling in Balthus’s “formal confusion of the human body and thing” (232). But Burstein goes on to focus less on the trompe l’oeil effect of the missing and extra legs than on the subject of balance, [End Page 184] games, gambling, addiction, and the psychology of play. While less integrated than some of her earlier chapters, Burstein’s analysis of Balthus offers intuitive analyses of these works and suggests the directions that her vision of cold modernism might be applied.

Burstein’s Cold Modernism is a welcome addition to the body and breadth of what we today understand as the transatlantic modernist movement. It’s recovery of less canonical works and its important integration of the claims of modernity on these texts make it a pleasurable, timely read and merit its inclusion in undergraduate and graduate coursework.

Bonnie Roos
West Texas A&M University