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Book Review: Modernist Objects

1 July 2021

Dazheng Gao, Durham University

Noëlle Cuny and Xavier Kalck, Modernist Objects (Clemson: Clemson University Press, 2020)

This eclectic collection of essays places objects at the heart of modernism. Or, to put it in another way, it attempts to establish the field of object study as underpinned by a modernist frame of meaning and, by doing so, manage a unified view of objects while retaining the capaciousness of the term ‘modernism’. One encounters the phrase ‘modernist objects’ with a certain trepidation as either halves of the term has gathered a degree of conceptual density that only becomes more elusive with every act of definition. The addition of every strand of new, valid significance is essentially a well-ventilated instance of alienation from its own airtight self-referentiality. On this occasion, it is the acknowledgement of the insecurity of the subject as the pre-eminent source of epistemological productivity, which is poised on two problems: the problem of the real (the contestation of the rigid categorization of objects that distinguishes between commodity and symbol, between ‘goods and gods’ (2); the recognition of deceitful perceptions, unstable surfaces of things) and the problem of the human (the object that is human body, whose meaning resists cancellation when the validity of all else is questioned; object experiments that ultimately are ‘human-oriented operations (10)’).

The coalescent structure that comes out of Noëlle Cuny and Xavier Kalck’s co-editorship maintains busy traffic across the porous disciplinary boundaries of modernist and object studies which fulfils the requisite for the integration of a conceptual compound. Alongside a varying disarray of literary objects sampled from the works of canonical writers      such as Samuel Beckett, Djuna Barnes, and Jean Rhys are Baroness Elsa’s hybrid, intermedial artistic objects and performances and Eileen Gray’s subversive recliner chair.. It is through this inclusive and eclectic taxonomy that the current volume asks a crucial question: what alternative way of seeing is modernism able to proffer after deliberately breaching the perennial subject-object paradigm? [1] To wit, as techniques, sensitivities, and discrete domains of expression and vision converge on a singular point and emerge as a unified and unifying consciousness and presence, do these heterogenous gears of signification and materialization—literary, cultural, performative, sculptural, visual, as well as commercial—belong to the selfsame machine of progression? And further, what principles not only guide the operations, failings, and edifications of that epistemological machine, but also cancel those of the old one, resulting in fluidity in standards and qualities that turn the table through the most fundamental units of experience of which the most discerning mind will need to acquire anew the basics? A revealing case, as Cuny and Kalck invoke Anne Fernihough’s analysis of D. H. Lawrence’s work, is a revision of aesthetics. Following the Greek etymology, Fernihough regards aesthetics as primarily anchored in perception—a subjective act relying on the participation of the human body—before it is in objective beauty, ‘in the activity of the observer as she delineates objects by filtering and transforming the influx of sensory stimuli […] dictated by [her] agenda’ (9).[1] This volume charts modernism’s affection for objects as the comprehensive trajectory of a progression: from objecting to the traditional sense of the real, to the experiments in the formation of an object-informed ontology, and finally to an aesthetic refashioning of reality. It stands undoubtedly at the vanguard of the fields of both modernist and object studies.

As Douglas Mao readily admits in his chapter on ‘objectionable objects’, his remarkable elucidation does not diverge from the conclusions he drew two decades ago in Solid Objects (1998). Nonetheless, Mao revises his materialist critique of objects with the addition of an existentialist optic by putting Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roquentin from La Nausée (1938) side by side with the eponymous narrator of Wyndham Lewis’s 1932 novel Snooty Baronet, about whom he aptly writes, ‘[h]e has […] to compete with other objects—especially those other objects we call people—for a share of reality’ (25). For Mao, objects become objectionable when they ‘come to bear some likeness to humanity in the mass, as this mass threatens to submerge one, or overwhelm one, or simply importune one when one would rather be left alone’ (39). The widening scope of objecthood that Mao continues to define is more than a reiteration of the modernist agenda of destabilising the given sense of the real. It is the explicit, and needed, statement of a distinct trend in the scholarship: the loosening of the human subject from its subjectivity. The same goes for Rachel Bowlby’s pithy analysis of Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ with which she levels the roles played by objects and the human subject in the gestation of modernist sensitivity. Here, the process of chemical reaction compels an analogy with the poet’s mind, whose scientific valence is automatically translated into a poetic principle. ‘[T]he inevitability of what happens’ (85) coordinates re-established systems of subject-object relations, in which both the poet and the vicissitudes of physical manifestation are in ‘a continual surrender’ of themselves to something more valuable.[2]

Lynn Somers’ psychoanalytic reading of Louise Bourgeois’s art installations regards them as uncanny objects that ‘come alive in potential or intermediate space’ (164). As Somers is quick to point out, these objects’ capacity for performative elasticity, emotional mobility, and configurational variety, reflects a self that is no longer autonomous but interdependent and in constant mutual tension with objects. Somers contends that the object lesson here is that ‘the realities with which psychoanalysis concerns itself are as much synthetic constructs as are literary and poetic versions of reality’ (156-57). Based on this point, Somers’s reference to the English paediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott indicates in objecthood another region of homology with selfhood. A statement of human nature, either through psychology or poetics, will fall short of describing the experience that life provides and the modern eye has begun to see more clearly, if it fails to address the reflection of the inner world on external materiality. It would be interesting to regard Somers’s evaluation of sculpture as a critique of the modernist art in general, particularly in the light of literature, which has in fact been conducted by scholars such as Steven Connor, Jean-Michel Rabaté and Angela Ales Bello. For one thing, the modernist endeavour to locate a more authentic sphere of the real— the liminal space between the interior and exterior of the object—has progressively become the crux of psychological and material signification.[3]For another, the equivalent of Winnicott’s concept of ‘transitional object’ in literature is not only the things that the text points out as individual instances of embodiment, but the poetic reality that the text offers as a distinct entity, and further, the dynamic existence of the textual object.

The Benjaminian exegesis of Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight with which Justine Baillie concludes the volume is a tacit reminder that the front of resistance against the inundation of things and thingliness, which threatens to become the ‘objective correlative of human irrelevance’ (15), should not only be reactive but constructive. According to Baillie, what Walter Benjamin calls the ‘dream image’ (Traumbild) of modernity is articulated in a ‘chiasmatic logic’ in Rhys through ‘the economy with which the street passage […] is inscribed in the literary passage of text’ (226). The revolutionary potential of the dream image lies in its recognition of the crossing: the chiasma—somewhat anticipating the postmodern dissipation of both reality and the written text—not as an ongoing process but as the affirmed representation of experience itself. It is a rather fitting conclusion for a volume that stands on an extensive body of object criticism in the modernist context that has already started to treat chiasma as the key to understanding the fundamental fabrics of human consciousness and creativity of the period. If, as Cuny and Kalck suggest, it is with Benjamin’s rediscovery of the utopian origins of objects as ‘aura’ and its loss that one can best explicate the transformation of an entire structure of feeling, then for further development of scholarship, in both modernist and object studies, which this volume so reassuringly promises, one should probably turn to Benjamin once again: the gradual yet inevitable reversal of the monstrosity of the machine that he gestures towards after his critique of modern material culture, a meaning that is at once materialistic and anthropological.[4]


[1] Anne Fernihough, D.H. Lawrence: Aesthetics and Ideology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 168.

[2] T.S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th edition, vol.2, ed. by M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt (New York: Norton, 2000), p. 2398.

[3] Steven Connor, Beckett, Modernism and the Material Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Jean-Michel Rabaté, The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and Psychoanalysis, Cambridge Introductions to Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Angela Ales Bello, The Sense of Things: Toward a Phenomenological Realism, trans. by Antonio Calcagno (London: Springer, 2015).

[4] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, ed. by Michael William Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, trans. by Rodney Livingstone and others, 4 vols (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 1999), II (1927-1934), p. 209.

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