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Reviewed by:
  • Sublime Noise: Musical Culture and the Modernist Writer by Josh Epstein, and: Optical Impersonality: Science, Images, and Literary Modernism by Christina Walter
  • Claire Barber-Stetson (bio)
Josh Epstein, Sublime Noise: Musical Culture and the Modernist Writer. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, xxxix + 338 pp. $54.95 paper.
Christina Walter, Optical Impersonality: Science, Images, and Literary Modernism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, 339pp. $59.95 paper.

Both Josh Epstein and Christina Walter embrace Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new” (or, to do it again, with a difference) in their recent monographs for the Hopkins Studies in Modernism series, edited by Douglas Mao. They view modernist literature, including canonical texts like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), through lenses established by several “new” theoretical movements, including the new modernist studies and the new materialisms.

What Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz have called “the new modernist studies”3 expands traditional—i.e., more formalist—modernist criticism temporally and spatially. Both Epstein and Walter do so by including art and philosophy produced outside of the time period often assigned to modernism (1890–1945): see, for instance, Walter’s attention to Walter Pater and Epstein’s to John Cage. They are also more conservative in their spatial approach, largely restricting their arguments to Western Europe. From a different spatial perspective, though, Walter and Epstein each trouble distinctions between high and low art. Epstein does so more explicitly with his response to Theodor Adorno, while Walter attends to popular technologies like film (as Epstein does radio) and includes authors whose contributions to modernism are not always recognized, such as H. D., Mina Loy, and most unusually, Michael Field. Epstein’s concern with cultural influence and publicity places him most squarely in this strand of modernist criticism.

The new modernist studies has continued to develop since Mao and Walkowitz’s article was published, in part through the incorporation of innovative theoretical approaches. Relevant to readers of this journal are the contributions that Epstein and Walter make to the new materialisms.4 They expose the naturalization of cultural norms surrounding two different but interrelated sensory modalities: sight (Walter) and hearing (Epstein). They take as their subjects two concepts that other critics have treated as immaterial: personality and noise. While the body lurks more in the background of Epstein’s text, both authors acknowledge that art objects, like humans, are embodied and embedded in their historical and cultural contexts. More specifically, Walter discusses the physiological mechanics of vision, and her afterword engages with contemporary affect theory.

Epstein’s text participates in a third “new” field, the new musicology, as he is less interested in form than he is in musical culture. Sublime Noise rejects the aesthetic and cultural independence attributed to music by figures like Pater and Adorno, whose influence on modernism Epstein criticizes for a tone-deaf tendency “to disseminate cultural politics while cloaking them in the language of sublimity” (p. xx). The presence of noise in modernist texts represents, for Epstein, “the sound of the artwork coming to grips with the failure of its autonomy from social life” (pp. xv–xvi). Though he engages with Adorno throughout the text, Epstein’s approach is more motivated by Raymond Williams, who acknowledges the fluidity of cultural norms and the active physical interaction between a person and an object (here, a work of art). [End Page 266]

Epstein devotes some (but not as much) attention to sonic technologies (e.g., the phonograph) as Walter does to optical ones; however, music itself becomes a technology for Epstein, as do compositional techniques like rhythm and dissonance. While Epstein defines rhythm as “homologous to the patterns of social life,” dissonance reflects “a dialectical rupture within the artwork that gives voice to an oppositional or critical position to cultural order” (p. xxviii). Both techniques allow artists to cope with noise while mediating our access to history. To analyze them in modernist literature, Epstein performs what he calls “the Adorno-Williams two-step”: first identifying the different sounds that contribute to particular instances of dissonance, and then locating the patterns, or rhythms, created by instances of dissonance within each text (p. xxxiii). Interpreting noise as dissonance makes both...


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