- William Faulkner in the Media Ecology ed. by Julian Murphet and Stefan Solomon
This important new collection of essays grew out of an Australian research project titled “William Faulkner between Cinema and Literature,” which in turn sponsored an international conference on “Faulkner in the Media Ecology” at the University of New South Wales. It was therefore born global in ways that appeal to this southerner’s soul. However, replacing the title “Cinema and Literature” with the more theoretical (and more vague, hence conference-friendly) “Media Ecology” threatens to obscure the collection’s originating question: how did the rapidly evolving technologies of the early-twentieth-century film industry and its major architects influence and engage William Faulkner’s life and work?
Previous scholarly forums and publications have posed similar questions. The University of Mississippi’s 2010 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference focused on “Faulkner and Film,” and selected essays from that conference were published in 2014. A search for scholarly articles on Faulkner and film published since 2010 yielded thousands of results as I sat down to write this review, and that number grows almost daily. And so the Faulkner factory continues to generate ever more light and heat, seeming to contradict the core principles of literary physics. [End Page 709]
So, how to define this “media ecology”? According to an excellent introduction by Julian Murphet, the “techno-mediation” that Faulkner lived through and wrote about included traditional media technologies—radio, film, television, photography, the phonograph, the telegraph—as well as American culture’s mediation by other forms of technology—automobile, air, and rail travel as well as news journalism, monetary currency, and even celebrity status (p. 5). These “technologies,” which existed during the writer’s lifetime, were “mechanical and electric, if not yet digital” (p. 9). This answers one major question that the collection raises: whose “media ecology” are we talking about? Here I would caution potential readers that this book does not adequately address twenty-first-century media ecologies. There is little talk of social media or streaming video in these pages, although certain essays reference contemporary photo-editing software and recent television miniseries.
Nevertheless, this book does many things well. As a conglomeration of erstwhile conference papers, it manages to hold together, both through the juxtaposition of thematically related essays and through a certain theoretical lingua franca. Theorists such as Sergei Eisenstein, Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan, and Theodor W. Adorno make frequent appearances, lending a sense of coherence among essays that otherwise range widely. Many essays offer brief but fascinating (and well-documented) history lessons on the emergence of particular technologies, which will be especially interesting to students and scholars of cultural studies, American studies, and science and literature. Often these histories disclose that new technologies inspired Faulkner’s thinking less through the revelatory modes of perception that they made possible than through their early foibles and shortcomings.
Other themes emerge, such as the notion that despite Faulkner’s adversarial relationships to the various technologies discussed herein, his work frequently attempted to co-opt and supersede the new modes of thinking that they made possible. For example, John T. Matthews compellingly argues that The Sound and the Fury (1929) moves from “the most purely cinematic narration” in its first section (that is, Benjy’s) to more traditional forms of literary narration in subsequent sections (Quentin’s and Jason’s), culminating with a return to “the conventions of realist fiction” in section four (p. 30). In sum, Matthews argues, “The Sound and the Fury is the novel that swallowed the movies” (p. 30).
This is not a book that most readers will read from cover to cover: there is simply too much high-octane scholarship to take in, even under a rigorous reading regime. It would provide a meaningful backbone to a graduate seminar on Faulkner and film, or literature and media theory. Yet many of these essays can be understood and appreciated on their own. Jay Watson, for example, invites...