- Modernist Informatics: Literature, Information, and the State by James Purdon
There has allegedly been a joke going around Russia of late that takes grim aim at organizational manipulations of narrative frames: when a wife reports to her husband that their son [End Page 699] has been killed during military service in Ukraine, he replies, “we never had a son.”1 To readers inured to the “overload” of tracking numbers and pings and streaming feeds that is so regularly peddled as the epitome of the contemporary information age, a Stalinist-Orwellian wisecrack from another place might instead appear to be from another time, another epoch. Yet the joke’s pivot on suppression, redaction, and denial—conditioning aspects within any information economy—serves as a timely reminder of the dynamic and multifarious effects of the long social history of information control on today’s world. In doing so, it gestures to the mediated fields of cultural production and political turbulence we now call modernism, while also emphasizing the institutional stakes of the recent “media turn” in modernist studies during a moment ready to disappear yesterday into the glare of tomorrow.
The urgent reasons for this reflexivity are made abundantly and admirably clear in James Purdon’s Modernist Informatics. Approaching modernist works simultaneously as aesthetic objects and as properly historical formations, Purdon reconstructs the growing public use and subjective acceptance of informatic control: “It is part of the achievement of such works that they offer not only a record of precedents but also a frame of reference: a shadow network of unofficial textuality within which certain constitutive experiences of modernity can be understood as affective experiences of the subject as well as operations of government” (189). It is part of Purdon’s achievement that his book delineates this “shadow network” with such patience and sensitivity, but without flinching from the relations between “shadow” and the bare bulb, klieg light, or functionary’s desk lamp. From this historical awareness, he distinguishes between “political” and “symptomatic” modes of analysis, suggesting that the latter on its own is unable to account for the mix of epistemological unsettledness and bureaucratic rationalization so prevalent in the modernist period: “‘the politics of information,’ far from constituting a new field for the exercise of forms of official power later to be represented in cultural artifacts, was one of the principal ways in which both the state and literary culture came to define themselves in the new century” (8). It is a methodological point well worth considering in light of pressures currently facing literary studies at large, but more pressingly as an indication of how modernist studies in particular can illuminate their framing outlines.
Even so, this is not a presentist book, and wisely so: it describes itself as a “genealogy” of the present moment, as a work “about how our informatic world was written into existence” (22). Modernist Informatics surveys how the forms and forums, the creation and interpretation, of narrative contended with the emergence of varied systems of bureaucratic control over the production of and access to information, what Purdon identifies as “the infrastructure of information”: “Informatics supplemented the bureaucratic fantasy of government-by-numbers with a more complicated set of protocols, technologies, and social assemblages designed to mediate between states and populations” (5). One of the book’s virtues, however, is that it never forgets that “information” itself was a highly contested term, its meanings subject to a number of practices of classification in different, if frequently and ever more overlapping, institutional settings. Rather than as a thing, Purdon shows, information was understood as a “form of mediation which structures the relations between individuals, corporations, and state bureaucracies” (5). Indeed, without ever quite naming them as such, Purdon’s work offers a detailed account of the processes by which specific practices become instituted, gain institutional validity, and in turn function as procedures (or routines) toward and against which subsequent practices take form. This understanding of institution—not as static monolith, but as disputed process of instantiation—has real consequences. Noting how “a concern...