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  • Mallarmé, Technology, and the Poet Engineer
  • Ellen Wayland-Smith

Traditional accounts of aesthetic modernism frame it as a reaction against technological modernity, art taking refuge from the alienating and dehumanizing aspects of an increasingly industrial culture. This overly simplified narrative of what Andreas Huyssen has called a "great divide" between modernism and technology has been emended over the last twenty-five years; the work of such critics as Jonathan Crary, in the field of art history, and Carrie Noland and Sara Danius, in the field of French literature, has resulted in a more nuanced picture of aesthetic modernism and technology as existing in symbiosis.1 Following suit in the sphere of Mallarmé studies, a number of scholarly correctives to the high-modernist portrait of Mallarmé as an ivory tower poet have appeared in the past ten years. Felicia McCarren, for instance, investigates the links between electricity and subjectivity in Mallarmé's writings on dance; Gayle Zachmann unearths the presence of photography in the margins of Mallarmé's poetry and art criticism; and Christophe Wall-Romana discusses Mallarmé's œuvre as a cinépoetics, deeply influenced by the temporality of early film. Each study has helped to develop a more historically grounded portrait of Mallarmé's poetics as in active dialogue with—rather than in opposition to—the technological and media shifts of the late nineteenth century.

Yet technology defined as a process of increasing rationalization and control over economic, political, social, and cultural life, which has been central to twentieth century accounts of modernity from Weber to Heidegger, is notably absent from studies of Mallarmé.2 Siegfried Kracauer and his critical heirs, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, identify technology at the heart of the rationalizing Enlightenment project to demythologize nature by gaining scientific control over her forces and processes. In what Horkheimer and Adorno famously termed the "dialectic of enlightenment," the technological [End Page 89] push to rationalize all spheres of human activity has the potential to double back on itself, as reason turns purely instrumental: rationalization, organization, and efficiency become ends in themselves rather than the means to finding and expanding human truth. In his essay "The Mass Ornament" (1923), for example, Kracauer explores the rise in popularity of chorus-line dancing in the 1920s as an aesthetic symptom of rationalization gone awry. In these spectacles, the dancers' bodies are choreographed into ever-more complex ornaments, "girl-clusters whose movements are demonstrations of mathematics" (72). The aesthetic equivalent of assembly-line production, regularity and efficiency of movement becomes an end in itself, as the individual dancing bodies are effaced behind abstract "pattern[s] of undreamed of dimensions" (72).

It is the aim of this essay to explore the ambivalent philosophical complicity between technology as rationalization and Mallarmé's poetic project. To some extent, Mallarmé's work and its notorious "difficulty" resists the rationalizing processes of technological modernity, which prizes streamlined and standardized patterns of production and consumption. From his 1862 essay "Herésies Artistiques: L'Art pour tous" to the mature formulations of "Le Mystère dans les Lettres" (1896), Mallarmé claimed true poetry must "détourner l'oisif " (Œuvres 382), resisting "industrialized" consumption by the masses. And yet at the same time, a close examination of Mallarmé's work reveals it to be subtly informed by the very rationalizing, managerial instincts of the technological culture from which it takes its distance. In his 1895 essay "Bucolique," Mallarmé speaks of the poet's relationship to nature in terms that directly invoke what he calls an "industrial" parallel between the organizing instincts of poetry and technology. What Mallarmé calls "la Nature" is "primitif " or "foncier, dense des matériaux encore (nul scandale que l'industrie l'en émonde ou le purifie)" (403). Nature's "primitive," dark materiality must be worked upon and "purified" by the penetrating force of industry. Poetry works, in parallel fashion, upon the body of Nature in order to illuminate, aerate, and transform it into thought: poetry, or what Mallarmé here calls "Musique," is the "ardent, volatil dépouillement" of Nature in "traits qui se correspondent, maintenant proches la pensée" (403). Poetry is the dismantling or stripping of nature in order then to re-arrange its...


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