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  • Efficiency, Modernism, & Ideology
  • Molly Youngkin

Evelyn Cobley. Modernism and the Culture of Efficiency: Ideology and Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. ix + 344 pp. $65.00

Modernism and the Culture of Efficiency not only made me think about early-twentieth-century fiction in a new way but also about my own complicity in shaping the experience of others living in postmodern culture, which is perhaps driven by efficiency as much as modernist culture was. Cobley adeptly examines the culture of efficiency, “the very cornerstone of modern civilization” and an “ideology” that “infiltrated the consciousness of individuals and suffused the social fabric.” The first half of the book focuses on cultural examples of this ideology, with chapters on the 1851 Great Exhibition, Henry Ford’s Model T, Auschwitz, and middle-class suburbs, while the second half provides new interpretations of classic fiction, including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, Ford Madox Ford’s The [End Page 121] Good Soldier, E. M. Forster’s Howards End, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

While Cobley divides her study into two distinct parts, it is evident she takes a new historicist approach to culture, showing that art influences culture as much as reflecting it. The chapter on the Great Exhibition of 1851, which traces the emergence of the ideology of efficiency in the Victorian period, includes a discussion of Russian writers’ representations of the exhibition: Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground is a “diatribe” against the Crystal Palace, which Dostoevsky saw as a space “antithetical to human creativity,” while Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done expresses enthusiasm for spaces that could blur “inside/outside confusions,” anticipating modern spaces such as the mall and suburban planned communities. These competing representations then shaped how people thought about modern spaces, exerting a cultural influence as much as reflecting cultural attitudes about such spaces. Likewise, in the chapter on middle-class suburbs, Cobley uses literary representations alongside cultural texts to build a history of the ideology of efficiency. Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922) is discussed with William H. Whyte’s sociological study The Organization Man (1957) to show how subtly yet thoroughly the ideology of efficiency works its way into society. Babbitt is a “thoroughly standardized personality” who “embraces uniformity as a reassuring safety net,” filling the role of the “highly specialized and professionalized ‘organizational man’” Whyte describes in his study. This kind of man, Cobley argues, embraced life in the suburbs, where security through the collective spilled over into people’s private lives and institutions such as church and school reinforced conformity. Though there were methods of “escape” from the “iron cage,” as Cobley refers to suburban life, the most promising escape—“charisma”—had little political influence and dangerous implications when taken to an extreme.

These new historicist discussions of the Great Exhibition and middle-class suburbs are interesting, but the central chapters in Part One are those on Ford’s Model T and Auschwitz, since it is in these chapters that Cobley lays out the extreme effects of the ideology of efficiency. In the case of the Model T, Ford’s obsession with efficiency began innocuously; he worked to streamline production of a car that would be affordable to more Americans, and he was driven by this goal rather than by profit. But his obsession turned menacing when he began selecting workers for his production lines based on their personal habits and handed over surveillance of his workers’ lives to Harry Bennett, [End Page 122] who implemented extreme measures such as the fifteen-minute lunch, limited toilet breaks, and silence on the production line. This belief in efficiency at any costs, Cobley shows, is not unconnected to the ideology practiced at Auschwitz, where Nazi commanders such as Rudolph Höss saw themselves as “dutiful bureaucrats” who “lived only for work.” Though Cobley is careful to make the distinction between the “brutal violence” of Auschwitz and less life-threatening methods at the Ford Company, she convincingly argues that the “ideologically internalized mechanisms at work in each case differ more in degree than in kind.”

Particularly interesting in the chapters on Ford’s Model T and Auschwitz...


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pp. 121-125
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Will Be Archived 2021
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