- The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism, and: Consuming Traditions: Modernity, Modernism, and the Commodified Authentic
These two books, strikingly dissimilar in topic and sensibility, between them indicate the range of the field of modernist studies. They are sure to command attention and imitation in that field, since Outka's Consuming Traditions inaugurates a Modernist Literature & Culture series from Oxford University Press, and Duffy's The Speed Handbook recently won a Modernist Studies Association Book Prize. Indeed, these books consolidate some of the most fruitful working methods and theories of the new modernist studies. Through close analyses of novels and other cultural productions, they complicate established ideas about consumption, the role of innovation, and the nature of the divisions between high and low in early-twentieth-century British, European, and American culture. But both Outka and Duffy also register in their overarching claims some of the conceptual difficulties that trouble current work on literary modernism.
Outka's Consuming Traditions links commercial ventures in urban design, architecture, and advertising to early modernist literature in Britain in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Outka argues that what she calls the "commodified authentic"—the packaging and selling of the unique, the nostalgic, and the authentic in commodity form—pervades British culture in this time, from cocoa advertisements and department store windows to works by Shaw, Forster, Wells, James, and Woolf. Not just a marketing ploy, the commodified authentic is, for Outka, a crucial feature of British modernity, which encapsulates the longing for an authentic past in a paradoxically up-to-date, widely available form. Indeed, early modernist literature is "about the vacillations among these various contradictions" between tradition and modernity, authenticity and constructedness, high-cultural purity and commerce (Outka 156).
Consuming Traditions aims to dismantle any idea that "high" literature has no affinity to commercial styles—or that it has a monopoly on critique. Critiques of both authenticity and commodification are, for Outka, equally immanent in some of the new modes of doing business invented in prewar Britain. Outka is not alone in making such claims. As she explains in her brief, clear introduction, Consuming Traditions draws on two decades' worth of scholarship arguing that modernism, instead of being [End Page 281] isolated within an aesthetic domain, is inescapably entangled with the market. Outka extends this understanding back from the 1920s of high modernism into earlier decades, with equal attention to literary and commercial practices. She demonstrates a tendency in both marketing and literary practices to defuse critique in advance by acknowleding the trade-off necessary to make purity, authenticity, or refinement widely available in the marketplace. According to Outka, these practices are emblematic of a modern British sensibility equally drawn to nostalgia and progress.
Outka's most original contribution may be in her historical work in corporate archives from the chocolate manufacturer Cadbury's to Selfridges department store. Her detailed explanations of little-considered episodes in urban-design, architectural, and advertising history are fascinating. In the first of these accounts, Outka describes the rationales for the planning of "garden cities" like Bournville, which was built with Cadbury's cocoa money. She then goes on to demonstrate, in a compelling passage, how newspaper advertisements for Cadbury's and Lever's products drew in multiple ways on the appeal of the companies' Arts-and-Crafts-influenced model villages, implying that the commodity (cocao, soap) itself possessed the artisanal authenticity of the town where it was produced. Outka connects the permeability of the boundary between genuine housing reform and marketing campaign to two plays by Shaw with garden-city-like settings. Whereas John Bull's Other Island expresses the playwright's skepticism about country-village nostalgia, Major Barbara is more sympathetic to the benevolence of a frankly commercial enterprise than to naive purism.
Outka's next case study shows how Domestic Revival architecture and an "Ideal Home Exhibition" organized by the Daily Mail united urban commercial...