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  • Digital Modernism: Making It New in New Media by Jessica Pressman
  • Paul Benzon
Jessica Pressman. Digital Modernism: Making It New in New Media. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. xiv + 224 pp.

What boundaries define and demarcate the newness of “new media,” that slippery term used by scholars, artists, technoprophets, and corporations alike? What ideological and historical blind spots reside within an attachment to such a term and to the presentism it implies? What other histories and critical vantage points become possible in unpacking this emphasis? In Digital Modernism: Making It New in New Media, Jessica Pressman engages these questions from the vantage point of digital literary studies, approaching electronic literature not as the latest development of postmodern digital culture but rather as part of the long modernist history of cultural appropriation and revision suggested by the book’s Poundian subtitle. Her study focuses on a series of key texts from the canon of electronic literature that she identifies with “digital modernism” (2). These computer-based works appropriate, rewrite, and remediate high modernist texts and techniques rather than foregrounding the cutting-edge attributes of recent digital technology, and in doing so they pose “a surprising counterstance to [the] privileging of newness” in contemporary digital culture (1). Yet while these digital renovations of modernist literature serve as the backbone of the book’s argument, Pressman offers more than a simple history of the old becoming new (again) in the new context of the digital. On the contrary, she traces a continuity that moves forward as well as backward, showing modernist authors to be engaged in a kind of digital literary practice avant la lettre, “a literary genealogy of machine poetics” (76) that suggests complexly layered relations between old and new, modern and contemporary, analog and digital.

This genealogy begins in chapter 1 with Pressman’s consideration of Marshall McLuhan, the founding father of modern media studies, alongside the New Critical approaches of F. R. Leavis and I. A. Richards. Reading against the grain of the dominant conception of New Criticism as hermetically distanced from the social, Pressman shrewdly suggests that Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism (1928), “the cornerstone work in the field later known as literary criticism,” laid the groundwork for comparative media studies (35). Yet she also builds upon this insight to show how McLuhan picked up this otherwise largely lost strand in New Critical thought, modifying it in order to envision “literary analysis and, specifically, the ability to close read [as] not positioned against the medial environment but situated squarely within it” (37). Pressman’s readings of McLuhan’s media criticism show its origins both in the New Critics and in Ezra Pound and James Joyce themselves; by tracing these intertwined [End Page 359] histories of critical methodology, literary experimentation, and media studies, she makes a compelling case for the value of literary close reading in relation to digital textual artifacts.

Digital Modernism’s subsequent chapters present readings of recent digital works alongside their modernist precursors, interweaving and juxtaposing texts and temporalities in order to conduct a multilayered archeology of technologically specific reading and writing practices. Chapter 2, for example, shows how William Poundstone’s Flash animation Project for the Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit} (2005) draws parallels between subliminal advertising techniques and the avant-garde aesthetics of concrete poetry, both of which emerged in the 1950s. Pressman traces the antecedents of these practices through Bob Brown’s Readies for Bob Brown’s Machine (1931), an anthology of typographically and verbally experimental works by authors including Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein. The Readies were designed to be projected in motion on Brown’s machine in a kind of verbal montage. This machine was never produced, and thus the Readies were never realized in their intended form. Yet this dead end looks forward to Poundstone’s work, providing precisely the hinge of Pressman’s literary and media-historical argument that “literary texts can promote media-specific analyses that propel critical acts of media archaeology on forgotten reading machines. Such work, in turn, prompts reconsideration of the literary texts they inspire” (76).

Chapter 3 continues this focus on the media-specific analysis of digital literature through a close reading of...


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pp. 359-361
Launched on MUSE
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