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The title of Patrick Collier's Modern Print Artefacts contains an important clue to one of its key polemics. Although the book appears in Edinburgh's Critical Studies in Modernist Culture series, the artifacts under investigation in Collier's study are modern rather than modernist, and the distinction is a crucial one. Collier is resolutely unwilling to jump through any hoops to make his material fit even the loosest paradigm of an aesthetic modernism. For the most part, Modern Print Artefacts is concerned with shining a light on the duplicitous way that literary value is encoded in his chosen materials, but in a bold coda Collier explicitly decries the way that similar notions of value play out in the present academic configuration of Modernist Studies, that "relatively small intellectual world dominated by institutions entitled the Modernist Studies Association, the British Association for Modernist Studies and Modernism/modernity" (234). Here, argues Collier, anyone wishing to work on the types of literature written for and consumed by mass audiences ("a realist novel, a nature poem in rhyming quatrains, a prose satire with undisguised didactic aims"—the forms that Modernist Studies tends to pass disdainfully over) will find themselves restricted to a second-class scholarly culture. Sure, we can tweak our definitions, but ultimately "[n]o amount of redefinition or vertical and horizontal expansion of 'modernism,' or pluralisation of 'modernisms,' will ever make the term capable of comprehending the half-century or so of aesthetic production it has come to represent" (233). Print culture is far too various for that, and of the publications under Collier's microscope here (three periodicals and a poetry anthology), although three belong to the first decades of the twentieth century, all fall outside any definition of modernism tight enough to be useful (the other, the fin-de-siècle Illustrated London News, being an outlier in terms of period too).
Nevertheless, as Collier puts it, "print artefacts constitute representations of the world that help readers make sense of that world; and … their textual materiality—the paper on which they are printed, their organisation, the many elements of their physical appearance, their price, their interaction with the conventions of various print genres and more—is no small part of this sense-making, value-creating process" (236). Here Collier follows Jerome McGann's distinction between the linguistic code and the bibliographic code of a work. In The Textual Condition (1991), McGann set out how we should read the material form of a book: paper, ink, typefaces, layouts, price, advertising mechanisms, and distribution venues. Like the linguistic text, each of these elements is laden with intention and selected with a particular readership in mind. The difference is that, while in the case of the linguistic text we usually locate this intention with the author, when it comes to the bibliographical code, the author is not the principal meaning-maker. Thus, Collier concludes that the protagonists of his story are not the literary celebrities of the early twentieth century, but rather the scores of people he cannot name: "subeditors, printers' assistants, typesetters, staff artists and others who did the literally creative work of making print artefacts" (236).
While Collier finds McGann's framework useful, he is critical of McGann's conclusion that "the key works of the modernist movement in literature, especially the work produced before 1930, heavily exploit the signifying power of documentary and bibliographical materials" (quoted on 12). The problem here is the implicit suggestion that other works of the period—publications that are not the key works of the modernist movement—are less canny in their exploitation of their bibliographical codes. Here, as elsewhere, Collier scents an unexamined assumption that that a modernist canon, formed largely during the Leavisite critical moment with its insistence on an abstracted "pure" form of text, will conveniently map onto a bibliographical canon of the same period. At its simplest then, the argument of Modern Print Artefacts is to show "that exercising care and creativity on the materiality of texts was...