David Bradshaw, Laura Marcus, Rebecca Roach (eds), Moving Modernisms: Motion, Technology, and Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016) 336 pp. £55 Hb. ISBN: 9780198714170
The aim of this volume of essays, according to the introduction by Laura Marcus and David Bradshaw, is to ‘open up the many dimensions and arenas of modernist movement and movements: spatial, geographical and political; affective and physiological; temporal and epochal; technological, locomotive, and metropolitan; aesthetic and representational’ (1). As this rather broad statement suggests, in the ensuing essays the term ‘movement’ is taken to mean many different things. Jean-Michel Rabaté, for instance, considers ‘moving modernism’ as an affective emotional response (one is ‘moved’ by a text), as does Enda Duddy in her essay on ‘somatic’ responses to modernist texts (reading ‘stops being a matter of becoming still’) (84). Other contributors take geographical and spatial movements as their themes, whilst for others an array of objects, technologies, and concepts, including film, dance, energy, quantifying scales, and bicycles, all become ways of approaching concepts of movement. It would be very easy for such a broad set of approaches to appear chaotic and incoherent and, indeed, for this reason most of the editors’ introduction is given to a descriptive account of what readers can expect, helpfully situating the different approaches in relation to one another. In actuality, however, such diversity proves to be a considerable strength here. The volume does indeed have a sense of ‘opening up’ ideas of modernist movement; one finishes reading with a similar sense to what one might have after an especially invigorating day at a conference (in fact, many of the contributions to this volume arise from the ‘Moving Modernisms’ conference held at the University of Oxford in 2012).
Excluding the introduction, the book contains seventeen essays which are split across six sections: ‘Times and Places’, ‘Horizons’, ‘Energies and Quantities’, ‘Avant-Gardes’, ‘Discourses/Voices’, and ‘Motion Studies’. All of the essays are thought-provoking and each deserves detailed attention in its own right. But for those working on science and technology, a few of the essays are likely to be of especial interest. One of these is Steven Connor’s essay ‘Numbers It Is: The Musemathematics of Modernism’ which, taking its title from the ‘Sirens’ episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, explores a dichotomy Connor has identified between scaled graduations and discrete values. This is epitomised by cinema’s ‘dramatic slicing and dicing into the continuity of the visible for the purposes of capturing motion’ so that what appears a fluid continuation is actually a series of minimised discontinuities (100). Connor considers this dichotomy via Henri Bergson’s philosophy of Time (‘the pulsive current of becoming […] all is continuous commingling of retention and protention’ rather than the ‘inconceivable passage from one fixed condition to another’ (101)), and then, in the final third of his essay, within Virginia Woolf’s writings, to argue that ‘modernist movement is mathematized […] Modernity may be characterized by the multiplicity of the gearing mechanisms needed to effect […] transpositions between levels, scales, and ratios’ (108). Connor’s essay adds life to the long-noted coincidence of modernism with ideas of relativity, suggesting new dimensions in how we might usefully compare the ‘transpositions’ of the two and offering a fresh perspective on the relationship between mathematics and literature in this period.
Connor’s essay pairs well with Paul K Saint-Amour’s excellent contribution, ‘Stillness and Altitude: René Clair’s Paris qui dort’. Saint-Amour reads Clair’s film via Roland Barthes’s conceptualisation of ‘stillness-in-speed’ (exemplified by the difference between the 1950s figure of the jet pilot and the earlier, slower, propeller pilot) to show the interconnections and paradoxes in the film’s portrayal of orders of speed – these orders belonging, variously, to cinema itself, economic capital, morality, and sexuality. The film is set in a 1920s Paris that has been subjected to a paralysis ray – the entire city is frozen in time, with only a handful of ‘castaways’ left to roam the still city (all as a result of altitude – on the Eiffel tower, or in an aeroplane). Eventually the castaways fight a mad scientist to restore conventional time to the city, causing a variety of cinematic time effects, and the film ends with the central character, Albert, becoming betrothed to the mad scientist’s niece. As in Connor’s essay, orders of speed (and movement), rely on orders of scale: ‘normal speed’ is relative, and appears slower or faster depending on spatial factors such as distance (combined with altitude) and the comparative speed of the observer (different characters existing in different orders of time). Saint-Amour suggests, among other things, that the technique Clair used to show a still city – filming cinematic stills projected onto a screen to maintain a static ‘mimetic content’ whilst the visual field ‘pulses and coruscates with motion’ (226) – played with the paradoxes of cinematic time. As the characters fight over the paralysis machine (Saint-Amour calls it a ‘Bad Camera’), trying to restore normal time, a question about ‘the second order of velocity’ is raised: ‘what, after all, is the proper speed of speed?’ (228). The frozen city still moves at sixteen frames-per-second, narrative time continues unabated. Alongside this are further questions about economic speed, and then, finally, social and romantic speeds: able to purloin money at will from the static Paris, banknotes become meaningless to the film’s animate characters but when normal speed is restored, monetary value is suddenly reinstated; bored by the motionless city, the characters are saved by the sudden radio reception of a distress call from the mad scientist’s niece – ‘At last: someone else to live for!’, reads the title card. Saint-Amour’s argument remains impressively cogent and compelling across these different strands which are eventually drawn together in the final, wonderfully intricate, analysis: ‘whether you are moving at the speed of sound or at the speed of a bourgeois couple moving towards matrimony, you are also moving at the speed of money if you are moving at all’ (234).
Overall, this is an eclectic collection and there are perhaps times when the speed across discordant conceptual terrain threatens (slightly ironically) to be a little too quick and readers may becoming ocassionally disorientated in transitioning between the different approaches. Thematic links can be found relatively easily between essays like Connor’s and Saint-Amour’s, but across the book as a whole even central terms can sometimes feel confusingly instable, diffused across too many dimensions. The very title, ‘moving modernisms’, seems wildly open to interpretation, both words caught in a plurality of definitions. That said, this is not because any single essay is inconsistent or lacks conceptual stability – far from it – but rather it is a side-effect of such an impressive array of original approaches. This is not a serious problem at all, however, because readers will find that any momentary disorientation in moving from one set of coordinates to another is vastly outweighed by the insights found therein. All in all, then, this is a highly valuable collection of essays which will likely offer many provocative new avenues for scholars of twentieth-century modernisms, especially literary modernism. For scholars working more generally on the history of technology and science, there are important discussions to be found in essays like those described above, although it is worth noting that not all of the essays in the collection place a great deal of emphasis on the ‘technology’ part of the subtitle.
Jonathan Potter, Coventry University