- The Chatter of the Visible: Montage and Narrative in Weimar Germany by Patrizia C. McBride
In her interesting and insightful book, The Chatter of the Visible, the Germanist and Musil scholar Patrizia C. McBride articulates a novel framework for approaching one of the foundational aesthetic practices of the twentieth century—montage. Rather than focus on one specific aspect of montage, McBride turns her attention to the material, cultural, and signifying practices surrounding its use in aesthetic movements ranging from Dadaism to New Objectivity. This allows her to craft a unique investigation across a range of artists and theorists, including Hannah Höch, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Walter Benjamin, Albert Renger-Patzsch, and Kurt Schwitters. Together these figures generate a constellation for original comparisons and novel re-articulations of an otherwise well-worn subject matter.
McBride intervenes against a particular conception of montage—implicit in the work of avant-garde scholars such as Peter Bürger, Rosalind Krauss, and Jacques Rancière—that emphasizes its ability to deconstruct codes and disrupt meaning. This notion of montage as an antinarrative, antihermeneutic practice captures the fragmentary, ephemeral, and radically open-ended quality of modern experience in an age of disruptive technological change. Its bold juxtaposition of physical objects becomes a weapon against idealist and illusionist practices of aesthetic representation that stress the continuity of signification over the materiality of the signifier. Montage, on such a view, throws the detritus of the material world into the idealistic workings of hermetically and hermeneutically sealed systems of representation.
McBride's book challenges this description's opposition of materiality to meaning, signifier to signified, and corporeality to narrativity. Rather than emphasize opposition, McBride stresses cross-contamination. Montage practices reveal that inscription is itself "part and parcel of [a] thing's thingness, and not simply . . . an effect of signifying strategies that superficially overlay the object" (20). Likewise, "the material status of language [is] reliant on the physical properties of specific media and modes of inscription" (20). As such, montage "does not stand in antithesis to signification but is rather the result of a complex interplay between an object's (or medium's) physical qualities and available signifying modes" (20). Montage reveals the intricate [End Page 775] weave of materiality and signification as opposed to the obstinate materiality of a mythical given.1
McBride explores this complex interplay of materiality and signification through the idea that modernist and avant-garde montage practices are not merely modes of disruption and interruption but in fact integral parts of narrative construction. To this end, she utilizes an expanded conception of narrative—one that privileges the "experientiality" of narrative practices over their function as discursive modes of sense making and signification. McBride borrows this term from the work of Monika Fludernik, according to whom experientiality is "a quasi-mimetic evocation of 'real-life' experience."2 Experientiality, for Fludernik, stresses the embodiedness of a cognitive subject in relation to their environment, as opposed to the forward motion of plot. Taking this into account, McBride argues that "[n]arrativity is the ability to perceive the relational structures engendered through repetition of embodied forms as constitutive of communicable experience . . ." (10). This reorientation of narrative around the body makes it possible to read a number of seemingly disruptive montage practices as simultaneously constructive of experience as experientiality—that is, the experience of embodied forms mimicking a techno-materialist world.
McBride's book title, The Chatter of the Visible, is meant to evoke this type of experiential narrative. Montage practices "upended the uninspected conventions of a traditional, print-based culture, . . . demanding instead that words be viewed like pictures and images decoded like signs" (4). These painted words and legible images underscore the chatter of the visible, "the physiognomic belief that the visible surface of reality speaks to us in a language of sorts . . ." (4). Helping us decipher this chatter—this mesh of material modes of signification—montage not only highlights the materiality of the signifier but also allows us to construct novel ways of embodying experience. By "shaping the encounter between...