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Reviewed by:
  • Cold Modernism: Literature, Fashion, Art by Jessica Burstein
  • Bonnie Roos
Jessica Burstein. Cold Modernism: Literature, Fashion, Art. University Park: Penn State UP, 2012. 336pp.

Jessica Burstein’s Cold Modernism: Literature, Fashion, Art is everything one expects from Penn State’s formidable modernism publications. Burstein is erudite, interesting, witty, and stylish, and the text is a beautifully produced edition, a pleasure to read and thumb through. Burstein posits what she identifies as “cold modernism” as an underdeveloped aspect of modernist studies that emphasizes the dehumanized aspects of modernist works—their cultures of copy, duplication, reproduction, mimicry, and prosthesis. Her discussion ranges from Wyndham Lewis’s novels to the doll sculptures of Hans Bellmer, from Coco Chanel’s fashion production industry to Mina Loy’s poetry and visual and decorative arts, and she ends with the paintings of Balthus. Burstein’s choice of visual and cultural texts is thoughtful and her readings of these works exceptional and persuasive.

Burstein argues against what she sees as “hot modernism,” a tendency among modernist critical investigations to focus on the subjectivity of its characters and figures—sometimes treating them almost as real people. Burstein argues that this tradition “continues to be taken to represent literary modernism as a whole” (24), and counters that “modernism’s story of the individual has running through its heart the presentation of a world in which the individual has no place” (3). I find Burstein’s view of what she calls “hot modernism” to be reductive, and also less influential than she sees it—when was the last time we saw a psychological character analysis in the pages of Modernism/modernity? But I do agree with her more supplemental observation that “our most authoritative ‘genealogy of modernism’ is incomplete insofar as it has understood subjectivity to be modernism’s bedrock” (66). As recent trends in modernist and modernity studies have demonstrated, modernist arts frequently reflect a dehumanized and dehumanizing world.

Burstein opens with a discussion of Lewis’s Tarr, in which she emphasizes that the humor in Lewis’s writing derives from the “confusion between a person and a thing,” or “taking characters for persons, or more broadly, mistaking a novel for a form of life” (44). By this logic, as Burstein reads it, Bertha’s rape by Kreisler becomes the invariable end product of the processes of objectification. Burstein’s analysis of Lewis’s Snooty Baronet, with its prosthetic replacements and reduplicating identities, confirms this reading and introduces the prosthetic as a major theme of Burstein’s work. As Burstein concludes,

It should be plain that in the current I am calling cold modernism not only is the copy all there is, but what [Rosalind] [End Page 182] Krauss calls “the discourse of the copy” is endlessly engaged and, far from being repressed, is ubiquitous. Operating with little or no regard for the notion of selfhood, cold modernism is free to bank wholly on relational qualities. Here, characteristics are as wholly exchangeable as currency itself, to be traded, lost, and at base, forged.


As a contingent part of this culture of copy, Burstein frequently turns to Roger Caillois to reinforce the idea of mimicry, not only in terms of prosthetic parts but also in terms of aesthetic goal. As she puts it, “The praying mantis, Lewis’s ‘demented arthropod,’ even the made-to-order glass bees in a later [Ernst] Jünger novel: each occurs on a plane where connection and engagement entail the most stringent forms of relation, beginning with empathy and ending in cold modernism” (94).

Bellmer becomes a necessary aspect of this trajectory, with his photographs of doll sculptures with added appendages and prosthetics. Though Burstein works against the psychological conclusions of Sue Taylor, she explains that in the displaced anthropocentrism made use of in her own book, psychology and cold modernism are not necessarily enemies. As she writes, “The issue of cold modernism’s collision with psychology or with an art indebted to psychology is thrown into useful relief. What happens when the mind is acknowledged, but as an extension of surface appearance?” (96). Burstein elaborates on the relationship of psychology to Bellmer’s development of and writings on the ball joint...


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pp. 182-185
Launched on MUSE
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