Morrisson, Mark S, Modernism, Science, and Technology

Mark S Morrisson, Modernism, Science, and Technology (London: Bloomsbury 2017) 192 pp. $23.00 EPUB, PDF, $29.95 Pb, $94.00 Hb. ISBN 9781474233415

Modernist studies have been at the forefront of the recent turn towards interdisciplinary research in literature and science. In Modernism, Science, and Technology (2017), Mark S Morrisson offers an illuminating overview of the field. The book is organised around the proposition that the sense, commonly ascribed to Modernist writers, that ‘people self-consciously understood themselves to be participating in a present intensely marked by its modernity and modernization’ was ‘shared by many scientists and engineers, inventors and marketers of new technologies – so much so that we might speak of a “scientific and technological modernism”‘ (7). What Morrisson calls the ‘paradigm shifts’ in the sciences did not just take place in parallel with Modernism’s broader social and cultural revolutions but were, rather, its ‘constituents’ (30).

The opening chapter introduces Morrisson’s position and includes a helpful summary of the central principles that have guided research into Modernism and science to date. In the effort to explore the transformative implications of Modernist technology and science, Morrisson observes, scholarly approaches to the topic have themselves undergone profound change. Unfortunately, one of the examples through which Morrisson presents this dynamic borders on the tautological: the discovery, by the physicist Ernest Rutherford and the chemist Frederick Soddy, of radioactivity. The event revolutionised the pair’s respective disciplines in the face of what Soddy called the ‘natural conservatism and dislike of innovation’ characteristic of scientific institutions at the turn of the century (12). Morrisson’s argument, that the revolutionary rhetoric in which Soddy presented his Interpretation of Radium (1909) anticipates the emphasis on novelty in the writings of Ezra Pound and F T Marinetti (12), does little more than reaffirm the truism that the radical dismantling of ‘conservative’ scientific and literary practices during the early twentieth century was the effect of a Modernist zeitgeist. His suggestion that new research into literature and science has inherited the subversive cultural politics of Modernism because it is similarly opposed to rigid disciplinary boundaries is an unnecessary overstatement.

Happily, the rest of Morrisson’s book offers a fascinating introduction to the diverse scientific events that contributed to the development of Modernism. Chapter Two emphasises the transformation of the theme of energy during the Modernist period. From their Victorian predecessors, Modernists inherited a preoccupation with the crisis in which ‘the stable normal science of Victorian physics and chemistry […] planted the seeds of its own instability’ (66). In the late eighteenth century the mechanistic conception of the universe derived from Newtonian physics gave rise to a cultural reaction in the form of ‘vitalism’, which posited the abstract notion of the ‘life-force’ in order to distinguish living things from inanimate objects (41-2). But with the mid-nineteenth-century discovery of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, according to which the gradual dissipation of the universe’s energy would inevitably lead to its ‘heat death’, authors such as H G Wells, D H Lawrence and Joseph Conrad began to associate energy with powerful and destructive social forces, with cultural ‘degeneration’ (43-8). This unsettling of the Newtonian conception of a stable, predictable universe of causes and effects was later confirmed by the new physics of Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg. Of particular interest to Modernists were the forms in which periodicals such as the Athenaeum or the Nation disseminated Einstein’s theories of relativity (77-80). In Einstein’s observation that all objects exist in relation to each other in space-time, for example, authors already sceptical of absolute cultural values found a series of provocative metaphors through which to advance their own political and aesthetic programmes (71). Morrisson cites the example of James Joyce, whose engagement with the implications of Einstein’s discoveries influenced the linguistic experimentation of his later work, particularly its concern with ‘the unity of opposites, and the joining of space and time’ (76).

In Chapter Three Morrisson shifts his focus to Modernist attitudes to the life sciences. In their creative explorations of ‘the murky boundaries between the organic and the inorganic’ (32), Modernists were heavily influenced by scientific discourse; and in turn, their work can itself be said to have impacted on the way in which scientific research was received and directed. Morrisson refers to two medically-trained Modernist authors, William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein, each of whom developed a characteristic writing style through their attempts to perform, in language, the (dys)functioning of the nervous system and the epistemological limitations of both medicine and literature (96-102). The chapter concludes with a useful overview of the recent turn to ecocriticism in Modernist studies, whose focus on the neglected areas of biocentrism and the study of nature during the Modernist period has helped scholars to reframe contemporary debates surrounding a variety of twenty-first century ecological crises (109-115).

Chapter Four assesses the ways in which the practitioners of areas of research that are arguably more familiar to students of Modernism, such as psychology, anthropology and sociology, sought to establish their fields as areas of scientific inquiry in their own right. Morrisson pays relatively little attention to Modernist literature in this chapter, which is instead focused on the intersections between emerging fields such as sexology, trauma theory, the study of crowds and the Mass Observation movement and eugenics, and the developments in biology discussed in the previous chapter.

The book concludes with a ‘Coda’ that sheds light on the impact of disability studies on recent research on Modernism. Viewing Modernist aesthetics through the lens of disability studies ‘is not simply a matter of calling attention to representations of the disabled body’, Morrisson asserts. ‘Rather […] disability is central to modern art and has evolved an aesthetic value itself’ (130). Disabled minds and bodies haunt and inspire the writing of a period during which the removal of people considered physically or psychologically ‘deficient’ from public life was institutionalised. Admirers of Virginia Woolf, for example, may be shocked to read her claim that ‘a long line of imbeciles’ she encountered on a walk ‘should certainly be killed’ (151); but the recurrent concern with various forms of mental illness displayed in her fiction demonstrate its ambivalent role in her creative practice (152-3).

Modernism, Science, and Technology will provide students and scholars working in literature and science, especially those focused on Modernism, with a succinct overview of the field. Although Morrisson’s repeated insistence on interdisciplinarity occasionally leads him overstate its political import, the book’s rich array of critical contexts suggests the invigorating possibilities of future research into Modernism, science and technology.

Oliver Neto, University of Bristol