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  • Staging the Trials of Modernism: Testimony and the British Modern Literary Consciousness by Dale Barleben
  • James Gifford (bio)
Dale Barleben. Staging the Trials of Modernism: Testimony and the British Modern Literary Consciousness. University of Toronto Press. viii, 176. $70.00

Dale Barleben's slim study of literary modernism, testimony, and trials is provocative – it suggests new directions for research and attends not only to the legal trials of modernism but also to the conceptual parallels between modernist literature and the law. Staging the Trials of Modernism derives from Barleben's doctoral work, and the decade between the two projects is sometimes visible in the critical components of the study, but he succeeds in demanding attention to the trauma of testimony, modernism's inward turn, and legal matters of ontological states. The ontological problems are perhaps strongest in the chapter dedicated to Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, and Conrad [End Page 113] scholars are sure to respond. The red thread of the argument runs most directly from Oscar Wilde's De Profundis to James Joyce's Ulysses by pressing on the inward turn and stream of consciousness as intimately bound up with the birth of psychoanalysis and legal consideration of mens rea and intention. Other projects consider the jurisdictional challenges of contested fields from culture and the law and their establishment through testimony, such as how expert testimony may establish legal precedent for forms of subjectivity. That sociological model is distant here. Instead, Barleben juxtaposes literary and legal response to paradigms of interiority and the speech act of testimony. The confessional mode, historiographic metafiction, and speech acts return across the project in its chapters dedicated to Wilde, Conrad, Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford. The conclusion expands beyond the strict focus on 1905 to 1922 by addressing Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, although the language of "sexual preference" surprises even while the problem of legal standing and its absence as suppression is highly effective. Gestures in the conclusion to law and the formation of identity are laconic, but productive, recalling Mary Douglas's sense of institutions conferring identity through forms of analogy. Identity is anticipated as well in Barleben's early contention that during a trial the accused increasingly adopts the identity impelled by law. The last provocation of the book is to expand beyond literature and the law to the inception of the British Broadcasting Corporation and how the mass media constructs identity. The flourishing recent work on radio modernism would be the natural answer here.

The inevitable limitation of any work deriving from a dissertation and published at a later point in time – in this instance, a decade – is the growth in scholarship. Moving from dissertation to book (and this is clearly a book, not a hybrid form) means engaging with how criticism has progressed since a project was not only first finished but also first begun. It is surprising not to see reference to Sean Latham's The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law, and the Roman à Clef from 2009, which makes similar arguments about Sigmund Freud and Wilde. Latham's scholarly prominence makes the comparison inevitable. Likewise, while the inward turn has been outwardly politicized since Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious, arguments in the new modernists studies have been particularly adept at expanding it. David Kadlec's reading of anarchist influences on Joyce's sense of the stream of consciousness (as distinct from Virginia Woolf) would seem valuable, as would Thomas Davis's argument for an outward turn as characterizing late modernism, a position that would meaningfully contrast with Barleben's. A more traditional psychoanalytic approach to the inward turn is instead at work here. The real challenge for the reader, however, is the provocation to think through Barleben's argument in relation to other authors and other situations in modernism beyond those addressed in his study. His discussion of libel would certainly alter approaches to John Cowper Powys, and the difficulties he notes in discussing Woolf call for exploration. The attention to women's suffrage made possible by the extension of the book's time period in the conclusion [End Page 114] would also make a consideration of Woolf and Dorothy Richardson...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 113-115
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-21
Open Access
No
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