Reviewed by
Alice Gavin. Literature and Film, Dispositioned: Thought, Location, World. Basingstroke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. xi + 180 pp. $100 (Hardback).

In Literature and Film, Dispositioned, Alice Gavin wishes to offer a counter-narrative to that “optimistic” narrative of modernity that claims that modernist narrative and aesthetic techniques can expose a world of interiority that may be said to exist by virtue of the invention of those very techniques. Instead, Gavin argues that the poster child for modernist narrative strategies—free indirect discourse—when deployed scriptively in fiction and visually in film, renders a paradox, as it “involves both a disposition (a subjective temperament) and a dispositioning (subjectivity’s displacement)” (7). For Gavin, the venerable technique of free indirect discourse in its modernist versions results in a recognition that subjectivity is the “silence” of silent film and the inarticulate “stuff” of consciousness in twentieth century literature. While the concept may not be news in the wake of those theorists upon whom Gavin relies—Barthes, Agamben, Deleuze, Rancière, etc.—the ways in which Gavin brings modernist literary and cinematic sensibilities into alignment as discursive entities equally enthused and troubled by the comparable techniques that enable the invention of modernist subjectivities are compelling. Putting Henry James’s “pre-cinematic” imaginary and Woolf and Beckett’s discernments of the cinematic aspects of their fictions alongside Buster Keaton’s silents and Deleuze’s theory of the movement-image effectively reveals the interdiscursivity of modernism in its ongoing conversation about its own capacities and limits. Suggesting the ways in which the free indirect discourse of modernist writing (often inaccurately described as “stream-of-consciousness”) is paralleled in Deleuze’s notion that the camera’s movements yield a form of perception neither identical with that of a character nor with objective reality, Gavin observes an important trajectory in modernism from James to Beckett that manifests what lies outside communication, both verbal and visual. This “excommunicative” limit, she argues, can be said to limn the “dispositioned,” uninhabitable space paradoxically inhabited by modernist subjectivities. [End Page E-9]

Literature and Film, Dispositioned is above all a discussion of the intermedial poetics of film and literature, and it is structured accordingly. An opening chapter on literature provides the theoretical framework for the consideration of free indirect discourse in its linguistic, stylistic, and narratological registers while touching upon a diverse array of literary works by James, Woolf, and Joyce (especially Joyce’s “The Dead”) that convey the ways in which literary free indirect discourse anticipates or parallels silent film’s visualization of “dispositioned” subjectivities. Two chapters entitled “Intermedium” and “Intramedium” follow. The first of these focuses on Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner” and The Portrait of a Lady and brother William James’s studies of cognition and perception in order to demonstrate that the vaunted “inward turn” instigated for modernism by Henry’s narratives does not result in an exposure of the putative riches of consciousness so much as reveal the “anxiety of mediation” (65) that occurs when the newly discovered “inside” necessarily configures an “outside.” “Stream of consciousness,” in this perspective, becomes centrifugal, a flight outwards as the exteriorization of thought manifests a blank or absent center. In “Intramedium,” the focus is on Virginia Woolf, primarily The Years and A Room of One’s Own. In this chapter, Gavin suggests the ways in which Woolf’s portrayal of consciousness as a receptive vehicle parallels developments in radio technology and cinema that illuminate the ways in which, for Woolf, “the animation of the interior [as it receives sounds, voices, images] is the dissipation of interiority” (93). In my view, these two chapters are the most compelling of Literature and Film, Dispositioned: they contain full, intensive readings of the works under discussion that provide convincing evidence of James’s and Woolf’s intermediality as they configure what consciousness is for them, thus preparing the ground for the book’s final chapters on cinema.

In those chapters—both entitled “Film”—Gavin traverses a host of film theorists and several silent films to describe how early film visually manages free indirect discourse as it “inscribes the streaming of a consciousness that does not speak” (105). The parallels to what James and Woolf accomplish in the use of free indirect discourse to both register and evacuate the contents of consciousness are implicit in these chapters, though not fully explored, as expectation might lead us to believe. Gavin works intensively with Deleuze and Copjec to describe how F. W. Murnau, among other early filmmakers, develops an “insistence on the uninhabitable position” (117) through camera movements that parallel the modernist poetics of impersonality. But she relies upon another critic—David Trotter—to make explicit the connections between film and literature that clarify the intermediality of both as modernist projects developing comparable notions of externalized subjectivity. The final chapter, focusing on the single example of a film for which Beckett wrote the script (simply entitled, in Beckettian fashion, Film, and starring Buster Keaton near the end of his life), offers a more satisfyingly detailed reading of how this odd collaboration between two modernist icons embodies, in a “late” silent film, a visualization of dispossessed subjectivity that corresponds with those evident in James, Woolf, Joyce, and their contemporaneous cinematic peers. In the close reading of Film, Gavin offers a compelling summary of how Beckett’s visualization of identity as accompanied by—but always elsewhere and other than the camera freely rotating around it—gestures to [End Page E-10]

language’s elsewhere—the body uttering, the place of utterance—[where] “I” and “here” also index their own deficiency, and it is this indexing of insufficiency, more so than any positive correspondence between indexicality in the linguistic sense and indexicality in an imagistic sense, that we can think of as weirdly mediating between the scriptural and the unscripted, between Beckett’s “letters” and Beckett’s Film.


The example is a perfect one: a 1965 filmscript for a silent film authored by a writer of novels and plays renowned for his logorrheic invocations of silence and deployed as an instance of intermediality that reveals the ways in which modernist writers and filmmakers come to terms with the representation of subjectivities that never come into focus.

Literature and Film, Dispositioned is thus a valuable contribution to ongoing discussions of modernism and how modernist aesthetics and strategies inform emergent intermedial relationships between film and literature. The careful readings of James, Woolf, and Beckett’s Film found here are substantial and compelling; less forceful are the barrage of paraphrastic summaries of theoretical positions found in the “Literature” and first “Film” chapters that pave the way for the readings to follow but fail to take full advantage of extending needed connections and throughlines for the sake of the book’s overall arguments and theses. This is a book to be recommended to any and all interested in the important set of interconnections that exist between film and literature under modernism, especially as the discussion of intermediality continues to develop within evolving theoretical, historical, and aesthetic frameworks. [End Page E-11]

Patrick O’Donnell
Michigan State University