The Modernist Review #34: Modernism and Science

30th September 2021

The beginning of Autumn is a great time for reflection, and 2021 has given us more than enough to think about. As we debate the ethics of vaccine boosters, try to interpret the erratic rise and fall of the graphs, and do our best to resist imitating Chris Whitty’s ‘Next Slide Please!’ whenever we open Powerpoint, it’s clear that science – and the debates it elicits – have become increasingly unavoidable. The last two years have shown more than ever the ways in which science – its methods, images, and practical applications – pervade and shape both our lived experience and our artistic interpretation of our place in the natural world. Of course, though science’s cultural presence may have been particularly stark of late, it is certainly nothing new. This issue of the Modernist Review brings a wealth of examples of the varied ways in which modernism and science were interwoven in the first half of the twentieth century to generate innovative aesthetics, striking social commentary, and dramatic philosophical and political conversations across fields.

Our first two essays draw attention to questions of authority, fact, and fiction. The line between fact and fiction is not always as clear cut to the public as it might seem to the scientist. Adele Guyton’s discussion of ‘Novel Facts’ demonstrates how, in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, readers turned to fiction to help them understand the implications of new scientific developments, often ascribing fictionalised and speculative accounts as much credence as non-fiction. This phenomenon emerged alongside a wider debate about science’s ‘analytic’ methodology and the forces at play when ‘facts’ are presented to the public. This is showcased by the propaganda film-maker Humphrey Jennings who, as Aoiffe Walsh explains, was aware of how ‘imaginative’ documentary ‘selected and altered and pruned and enlarged and minimised and exaggerated’ the very ‘facts’ it set out to convey.

Modern scientific developments in physics – from the atomic bomb to optics – spoke to writers and artists seeking innovative ways to interpret and represent modern experience. For some, they granted a new language and set of images through which to encode their distinctly modern experience. Hannah Voss shows us how H. D.’s experience of physical and emotional annihilation came to be filtered through atomic imagery, as the atom emerged as a dual symbol of intense creative energy and mass destruction. In the visual arts, abstract painters like Wassily Kandinsky turned to scientific textbooks to produce a ‘deeply intellectual art that challenged modern aesthetics’. Anne Grasselli takes us on a tour through the mind-bending innovations of Vienna’s psychologists and how their ideas manifest in Kandinsky’s work.

If science offered a toolbox of images and concepts that inspired modernist writers and artists, it also offers us as scholars creative ways to approach and interpret modernist texts. Zoe Kempf-Harris brings Isaac Newton into conversation with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to reinterpret the movement of the novel’s central characters within a rippling framework of centrifugal and centripetal forces. 

Developments in the exploration of the natural world, plunging to the depths of the sea and the equally obscure expanse of geological deep time, led to a shifting perception of humanity’s relationship with nature. Anya Reeve reminds us of the multi-faceted, and often queer, symbolism available to writers engaging with natural forms as she performs a taxonomical examination of how modernist women poets worked with shells. Christina Heflin uncovers the scientific provenance of the images behind the surrealist Eileen Agar’s ‘Marine Collage’, and uncovers a feminist story of women’s pioneering roles in marine exploration. Back on dry land, Catherine Enwright conducts her own exploration into David Jones’s heady fusion of geology and religion in his epic poem, The Anathemata (1952). In each case, the natural sciences inform and enrich the artists’ work.

From the study of nature to the study of humanity, its health, its technologies, and its ethnographic history, our final group of articles ask us to look at our own engagement with science, implicating human perception and intention as the lens through which scientific ideas are transmuted and transmitted. Rhiannon Cogbill’s work on Stella Benson shows that threads of science can appear in the least expected places as she turns her attention to sound and deafness in the novelist’s fantasy novel, Living Alone (1919). Raising questions about disability and technology, form and formlessness, Cogbill shows how the novel’s protagonist takes on a telephonic form and functions as a transductor. The implications of new and projected reproductive technologies had profound implications for women; Allegra Hartley’s discussion of Charlotte Haldane’s Man’s World (1926) demonstrates how speculative fiction enabled Haldane to interrogate women’s position in debates around sexology and eugenics. 

My review of Thomas O. Haakenson’s Grotesque Visions (2020) ties in closely with the concerns of our final article, where Michael Clegg reflects upon the curatorial efforts of the British artist Eduardo Paolozzi. Bringing together issues of presentation, authority, and the manipulation of scientific ‘fact’ to shape audience interpretation, both review and article centre on the troubling history and methodology of ethnography to interrogate how facts are made, the ideologies that shape them, and, ultimately, who controls this thing we call ‘science’.

The vast range of approaches and sub-fields covered within this issue attest to the vibrant interdisciplinary work being done within the field of modernist studies and science. It has been a pleasure to see how these at first disparate areas speak not only to one another (thematically, conceptually, formally), but also to the debates and issues we face in our own pandemic moment.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed editing it.

Best wishes,

Rachel Eames


Cover image: Giacomo Balla, Street Light (1909), MoMA <WikiArt>

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