- Media Laboratories: Late Modernist Authorship in South America by Sarah Ann Wells
Sarah Ann Wells’s Media Laboratories rewires the circuit board of late modernism in South America in the 1930s. Then and there, she argues, writers rethought their relationship to the “formerly new media like the cinema, radio, and typewriter” that had helped to inspire notions of literary rupture and possible revolution in earlier twentieth-century avant-garde writing (4). By the 1930s, as those technologies became everyday emblems of an increasingly consolidated mass media, late modernist writers—from Argentines Jorge Luis Borges and Nicolás Olivari, to Uruguayan Felisberto Hernández, to Brazilian Patrícia Galvão—recast authorship itself as a kind of residual practice that contained its own hopeful, if more modest, possibilities: “To the earlier understanding of authorship as the creator of new worlds,” Wells explains, “late modernist authorship juxtaposes alternative figures, including the listener, tinkerer, viewer, or feeler” (xiii). Drawing on recent discussions within media archeology, film studies, the digital humanities and global modernisms, as well as a deep engagement with studies of Latin American literary modernity, Wells reveals a less familiar face of modernism—one that fashions the literary not as a space of privilege, distinction, or refuge, but rather as a dynamic, nimble category that enables writers to blur the lines between producer and consumer, center and periphery, and writing and newer forms of media.
Media Laboratories builds on the challenges to “the commonplace of modernism’s inveterate antagonism to mass culture” posed by scholars including Mark S. Morrisson, Robert Scholes, Suzanne W. Churchill, and Adam McKible, who have all reconsidered modernist texts in the context of the magazines in which many of them first appeared.1 Wells’s argument emerges [End Page 112] from extensive research in the archives of South American modernist periodicals and builds upon recent work on modernism and media change by Mark Goble, Jessica Pressman, and others. At the same time, Media Laboratories extends the horizons of such work by suggesting that the encounter between modernist writers and “no-longer-new” media might be just as generative as the earlier moment of emergence and experimentation to define new media practices (64). Moreover, Wells asserts the centrality of South American writers in masterminding such negotiations—through a selection of canonical and noncanonical texts in Spanish and Portuguese that breaks new ground by looking across the “interconnected but distinct contexts” provided by 1930s Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil (xiv). From such a vantage point, South America becomes a site of “some of modernist literature’s most powerful accounts of media change, consolidation, and disenchantment” (xii).
Enter the notion of the media laboratory, through which Wells revives experimental reconfigurations of authorship in the 1930s and their corresponding notions of the literary that “have often been overlooked by scholars in favor of the movements of the 1910s and 1920s, whose ‘sales pitch’ of the new continues to exercise its own seductions” (7). Within the book’s analysis, media laboratories become portals into the shadows of literary modernity where “eccentric users create ‘touch chambers’ to rival cinema palaces; a writer constructs a ventriloquist dummy jury-rigged with a phonograph to vie for the clamoring masses; an all-encompassing virtual reality machine is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a wayward hand that quivers, uncannily” (xii). In such settings, writers are no longer “prescient seers and producers of new worlds” but rather “conduits of a dense, embodied reception of a troubled present, recasting themselves as spectators, listeners, and users” (4).
Media Laboratories uncovers the potential that long-overlooked ideas about new possible roles for literary writing in relation to modern media and mass society once contained. Borges’s short stories collected in A Universal History of Infamy show the Argentine writer reflecting on Hollywood cinema as a means of remaking the author as a kind of “spectator [who] is not a passive consumer but a sly, strategic retooler”(39). This original and powerful claim, as Wells herself points out, reveals a far less familiar Borges than the avant-garde innovator of his...