Comparative Literature Studies 39.1 (2002) 78-81
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A Return to the Scene of the Modern
Reading 1922: A Return to the Scene of the Modern. By Michael North. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. vii + 269 pp. $35.00
The vogue for single-year studies (1688, 1800, 1819, 1831, 1857, 1898, 1910, to name a few) may flood us with mere facts, but not in Michael North's Reading 1922: the most wonderful thing about this wonderful book is that it has it both ways, fleshing out its year in the richest detail but also making a mighty argument about the year's general will. North has all the facts of 1922, in linguistics, anthropology, psychology, advertising, photography, film, travel, literature, and other fields and activities. But he also finds that 1922's developments share a certain pivotal dynamic: each entails a bid for universality of some kind (in linguistics, a universal language; in travel, a world picture) but finds that the drive toward universality leads to recognition of plurality. The dynamic here makes brilliant sense of the events of 1922, and places the year at a pivotal point in the history of modernity. It also provides the best possible structuring principle for the single-year study: ingeniously, North makes what he finds his mode of finding, so that we get, in Reading 1922, a dialectic perfectly suited to its object.
North argues that 1922 saw the establishment of what became not only the period's zeitgeist but a century's main preoccupations. For 1922 found artists, scholars, businessmen, and politicians all eager to "[make] the world into one grand unity" (18) but forced to find it utterly diverse. The hope for unity came from many quarters. From the boom in radio, the assimilability of archeological findings to popular culture, "the dream of reason" in the humanities, mass psychology, and the new globality of the world tour, the movers and shakers of 1922 found a new faith in totalities of many kinds. But of course their faith failed in the face of modern disorder. Radio, for example, may have unified its listeners, but it [End Page 78] also "[imported] into the heart of things an entirely new kind of estrangement," separating speakers and listeners in unprecedented ways (18). Likewise, the dream of a universal language confronted Wittgenstein and others with proof of "the multiplicity of incommensurable language games" (45), and the hope to make a photographic archive of the whole of humankind found itself "disrupted by the very conditions of mass reproduction and distribution" (136). Such disruption in turn became the hallmark of the cultural projects of modernity: noting that "it may be, in fact, in this fundamental disruption of the universal that the year 1922 found its most universal theme" (171), North captures the peculiar paradox upon which so much of modern culture is founded. Caught between the urge to universalize and the truth of diversity's disruptions, the producers of modern culture toss themselves perpetually into the crucible of antagonism; but to say they all do so is of course to court disruption, which forces North into the very subtle distinctions among dialectical moments that makes Reading 1922 a model of good cultural history.
Disruption of the "total" view gives Reading 1922 a remarkable genius for juxtaposition: knowing that the elements of modern culture are always on some volatile trajectory between hope for the universal and recognition of the diverse, North knows to isolate locations strangely shared by elements apparently unrelated to one another. So modernist literature shares with advertising an interest in "irrationality": both get from contemporary psychology a sense that the "public unconscious" has institutionalized irrationality, transforming the public sphere, and both make this diagnosis their key advantage. And so Charlie Chaplin is a modernist, sharing with the higher artists a response to the new standardization of reception: for Chaplin, as for those who apparently had little to do with his styles or admirers, there was a crucial tension between participation in and "burlesque" of the standards...