Book Review: Modernism and Its Environments

1st September 2020

Jack Dice, The University of Kent

Michael Rubenstein and Justin Neuman, Modernism and Its Environments (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2020)

Within cultural criticism, modernism has in the past been thought of as an artistic movement with a singular and concretely defined set of principles that were either indifferent to, or in some cases deliberately adverse to, an environmentalist conception of nature.[1] From Ezra Pound’s 1934 assertion to ‘Make it new!’ to the machine-cult of the Futurists, modernists were chronicling and at times championing the industrial revolution, urban expansion, and generally what we now think of as the early stages of the climate emergency. However, since the rise of New Modernist Studies and the foundation of the Modernist Studies Association (MSA) in 1998, modernism’s boundaries have been expanded beyond any singular vision and now include more than just the ‘high modernist’ thinkers. Thus the idea of an exclusively ecocidal modernism has become outdated. New modernism’s broader definition of modernism coincided with the arrival of environmentalist cultural criticism, or ecocriticism, in 1992 with the foundation of the American Society for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). By exploring the connection between these two watershed moments in cultural criticism, Rubenstein and Neuman’s Modernism and Its Environments contributes to a growing movement that seeks to explicitly read these two disciplines into each other, exposing how the traditional view that the two are incompatible could not be further from the truth.

Rubenstein and Neuman in Modernism and Its Environments ask the question: ‘[w]hat would it mean to present a cultural history of modernism under the banner of environmentalism?’ (p. 3). In doing so  they provide a refreshingly clear and intuitive guide as to how these two disciplines overlap and inform each other. The book exists in multiple historical moments, acknowledging that the need to reassess the past comes directly from the present moment. They therefore take great care to separate the intentions of their book from the authors, artists and thinkers discussed within. The distinction between past and present is also crucially relevant to the two disciplines being examined, as our understandings of modernism and the environment have evolved significantly over the last century. Rubenstein and Neuman discuss these cultural developments at length in their introduction, drawing attention to the way ‘modernism was in pieces, and came to be understood as multiple and diverse modernisms. And the diverse and multiple environs of high modernism were reimagined as one singular, interdependent, planetary, and ecological whole: the environment’ (p. 3). The complexity of viewing twentieth century texts through the lens of the contemporary moment is navigated thoughtfully throughout the book. The aim never seems to be to prove that modernism’s intentions were, in fact, historically environmental. Instead, Modernism and Its Environments interrogates how modernist texts look forward and speak to their future (our present).

The text is split into five sections: ‘Modernism’s Energy Environments’, ‘Modernism’s Urban Environments’, ‘Modernism’s Animals’, ‘Modernism in the Wilderness’ and ‘The Climate of Modernism’. These distinctions allow the interdisciplinary aspect of Rubenstein and Neuman’s work to flourish, with textual and visual examples existing together under each of these headings. For example, in chapter one, ‘Modernism’s Energy Environments’, Rubenstein and Neuman link the  simultaneously mechanical and biological image Portrait of a Young American Girl in the State of Nudity (1915) by Francis Picabia with Stephen Dedalus’ experience passing Dublin’s power station in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). The ‘throb always within’ (p. 35) reveals modernism’s concern with the symbolic potential of electricity, rather than the ways in which it was sourced. By drawing attention to this shortsighted approach to new technologies, Rubenstein and Neuman display how ecocritics must rethink typical modernist sensibilities. This is picked up again in chapter five, where they tie together Virginia Woolf’s high modernist novel To The Lighthouse (1927)which uses weather and meteorology as an almost conversational banality – to Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 installation at the Tate Modern, The Weather Project, which uses the constant presence of a manufactured climate to evoke a sense of dread in the viewer (it also serves as the front cover image of the book). By bringing these two seemingly disparate texts together, Rubenstein and Neuman are able to show how our relationship with weather has been completely altered since Woolf was writing. No longer can the weather simply be a way of filling social silences; our climate is now a source of direct and imminent danger. These examples demonstrate how Modernism and Its Environments attempts to remap modernist texts within a contemporary moment, whilst simultaneously broadening what one can think of as modernism. It is a thought provoking foray into new critical territory which forces us as readers to reconsider what may be missing from typically modernist perceptions of the modern world and in doing so, attempts to interrupt traditional modernist discourses.

Each chapter provides an impressive array of source material, ranging from modernist theory, and traditionally ‘high modernist’ texts, to contemporary ecocriticism, new modernist theory, contemporary art and literature, and the environmental sciences. The extensive bibliography makes this text a really valuable starting point for any scholar interested in the ecological implications of modernism, as Rubenstein and Neuman guide the reader through these topics in an accessible and engaging manner.  Occasionally there are points where the textual examples provided lack in-depth analysis and critical rigour. This was particularly evident in chapter three, where texts were included based on their mention of animals without further interrogation: ‘The poetry of Marianne Moore – filled with pangolins, flightless birds, octopi, and other creatures – presents a veritable menagerie’ (96). Nonetheless, Modernism and Its Environments provides its readers with numerous avenues to explore further, and this, rather than concentrated close readings, appears to be the authors’ aim. This is a book that invites the reader to read on, to seek out and discover more from the sources that Rubenstein and Neuman refer to throughout, and this is its key strength. The use of a clear and concise structure allows Rubenstein and Neuman to explore various historical, cultural and critical materials without obscuring the vital and pertinent nature of the topic at hand. The text provides significant insight into how an ecocritical reader thinks about modernist texts and how contemporary readers should be thinking about modernist texts in a world which seems as uncertain, volatile and confusing as it did a century ago.


[1] Rubenstein and Neuman refer to what Hugh Kenner called the ‘mechanical muse’ (p. 4) from his 1987 book of the same name. However, this idea can be traced directly back to the modernists’ themselves, with Hart Crane calling for an ‘acclimatisation of the machine’.

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