Serving Man: The United Nations Art Collection, Mid-century Modernisms, and the Apparition of Universality
By Nico Israel, CUNY Graduate Center and Hunter College
“Respectfully submitted for your perusal—a Kanamit. Height: a little over nine feet. Weight: in the neighborhood of three hundred and fifty pounds. Origin: unknown.” So begins Rod Serling’s characteristically clipped voice-over narration near the beginning of “To Serve Man,” a 1962 episode of the cannily uncanny half-hour television series The Twilight Zone, in which one such Kanamit arrives in his spaceship in New York City and soon afterward appears before the Security Council of the United Nations. There the hyperintelligent giant, speaking perfect English (though without moving his lips) offers Earthlings freedom from war, hunger, and disease—problems that the Kanamits themselves, he says, long ago overcame.
By Kent Emerson, University of Tulsa
During the early period of her work, from her Imagist poetry until around 1927, H.D. experimented with an array of real and imagined techniques for seeing into, casting light onto, and gaining access to otherwise obstructed areas of knowledge and history. Through the artistic affordances of what she variously called the “over-mind” consciousness, “a special layer or stratum of thought,” “a state containing past and future,” and “an intermediate place or plane,” she developed a radically new way to organize and retrieve information: one which, in addition to facilitating wider access to neglected materials, also provided her with the freedom to manipulate and reassemble fragments from literature and history. I propose that we call this method an “interface.” The concept of the “interface”—a collection of media effects that we today associate mainly with digital technology—best captures the many different functions that H.D. developed to gain access to a buried women’s tradition. H.D.’s interfaces are, simultaneously, an expression of her creativity on multiple media platforms and of her feminist critique of women’s secondary status in the literary and historical tradition.
By Adrian Anagnost, Tulane University
“The task of a museum,” wrote Italian critic and curator Pietro Maria Bardi in 1951, “should be to make resound, to interpret with perspicacity and appropriate technique, those monuments that sing: thus will be avoided the risk of useless sentimentalities, dangerous neutralities, hybrid educations, and eclecticism.”
By Patrick Milian, Green River College
In the editorial statement of the first issue of Rhythm, John Middleton Murry writes: “Our intention is to provide art, be it drawing, literature or criticism, which shall be vigorous, determined, which shall have its roots below the surface, and be the rhythmical echo of the life with which it is in touch.” He would later explain that the magazine treated rhythm as “the distinctive element in all the arts, and that the real purpose of ‘this modern movement’ . . . was to reassert the preeminence of rhythm.”
By Beryl Pong, University of Sheffield
Birds and certain varieties of birds have long been potent symbols related to war and conflict. But as airplane technologies developed in rapid tandem with the coming and arrival of the Second World War, the connection between avian and aviation reached new heights in the cultural imagination.
By Seo Hee Im, Hanyang University
How did the novel, which shared most of its history with the rise and consolidation of the modern nation-state, adapt to a new world order scrambled by war, colonialism, and migration?
By Sonita Sarker, Macalester College
New. Now. Motion. Speed. Acceleration. Expansion. Pause. Renew. Now, again.
In the early twentieth century, there is no such thing as transnational literary modernism. Yet, in the early twenty-first century, there is transnational modernist studies.
Modernist Afterlives In Performance—Playing the Avant-Garde: The Aesthetics, Narratives, and Communities of Video Game Vanguards
By Mike Sell, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
My son sits at the desk, knee propped on its edge, keyboard in lap. Nearby, a television bolted to the wall displays a high-definition humanoid, clad in luminous armor inscribed with obscure heraldry, dancing with ecstatic abandon. Were it not odd enough that they are dancing in the lugubrious depths of a biomorphic dreadnaught inhabited by a terrible and hostile alien race intent on destroying the earth and everything upon it, the dance they dance is the “Carlton,” made famous by actor Alfonso Ribeiro on the 1990s sit-com The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Modernist Afterlives In Performance—Inside Ibsen: Avant-Garde Institutionality and Time in Vinge/Müller’s Ibsen-Saga
By Andrew Friedman, Ball State University
Vegard Vinge and Ida Müller’s performance series, the Ibsen-Saga (2006–), is an extraordinary limit case for staging Henrik Ibsen’s expansive internal temporalities. The Saga uses Ibsen’s works, in the words of Heiner Müller, as “an instrument of deceleration against the general acceleration of life” (Barnett, “Müller’s Hamlet/Machine,” 197). The Saga slows the sense of the present through a dramaturgy of open-ended performances in which the content and length are rarely predetermined, with works lasting upwards of two weeks without intermission or ending after forty-five minutes. The unpredictability of the Saga’s performances—inspired by the latent Romantic idealism of Ibsen’s plays—challenges the ability of institutions to regulate time in relation to labor and the larger economy. The Saga declares art’s autonomy from institutional oversight by confronting the temporal limits of theatre production in the twenty-first century. Like its antecedent in the historical avant-gardes, the Saga employs time as a tool to differentiate itself—and art—from the realities of the world. Attending to the idealism of Ibsen’s plays, the Saga conjures the avant-garde inside Ibsen to challenge the institutional regulation of time, illuminating the limits of contemporary theatre.
By Sarah Bay-Cheng, York University
There is a striking moment about two-thirds of the way through Jordan Peele’s satirical horror film Get Out (2016). While visiting his white girlfriend’s family estate for the weekend, the film’s black protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is approached by one of the family’s African-American servants, Georgina (Betty Gabriel). At this point in the film, the audience is aware that Washington has been uneasy about the visit since before the couple arrived, in large part because his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) had not disclosed his race to her family before their visit. As a black man surrounded by the white family and their mostly white friends, Washington’s discomfort increases despite the reassurances of his girlfriend. In this brief exchange with Georgina, he attempts to find some commonality in his discomfort. Structured as a series of slowly tightening counter-shots between the two characters, the sequence depicts Georgina approaching Chris to explain why she has unplugged his cell phone (repeatedly). When he confesses to her that “When there are too many white people, I get nervous,” Georgina responds with a repeated, “No. No. No.” It’s a phrase intended as comfort, but the moment instead conveys a sense of the uncanny that is, indeed, the key to understanding the film as a whole. It is also a moment deeply indebted to the interwoven histories of acting and media in modernism.
By John Attridge, University of New South Wales, Sydney
© 2019 Johns Hopkins University Press
By Rasheed Tazudeen, Yale University
In a 1907 letter to Stefi Geyer (the young violinist for whom he wrote the First Violin Concerto), Bartók writes: “It’s not the body that’s mortal and the soul that’s immortal, but the other way around. The soul is transitory and the body (that is, matter) is everlasting! . . . The body, as matter, is ‘immortal’ indeed, for matter in this world is never lost; it only changes its form” (Béla Bartók Letters, 76, emphasis in the original). Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1918; first version, 1911) can be read as an attempt to give expression to the idea of “immortal,” as well as agential, matter, beginning with the castle itself. The drama of the opera revolves around the opening of the castle’s seven doors by the light-bringing human characters, Judith and Bluebeard, leading to the inner chamber. Here Judith becomes absorbed into the object world of the castle as Bluebeard simultaneously becomes swallowed by the closing “night forever” of the opera’s final curtain. The sweating, weeping, sighing, bleeding, and shrieking castle was originally conceived by librettist Béla Balázs as the third character of the opera: it is both a noisy environment into which the characters are thrust and a sonic agent in itself, its “voice” (and the discordant voices of its objects) as central to the opera as those of its human characters.
By Emily James, University of St. Thomas
Modernism and camouflage would seem to be unlikely allies. One advances and the other retreats. One rebels and resists; the other lurks undercover. But during World War I, a group of renegade camoufleurs forged an uneasy truce between modernism’s flash and camouflage’s muted secrets. Their sources were extraordinary and eclectic. Drawing inspiration from animal behavior, avant-garde design, and women’s fashion, the camoufleur—and, as I argue, the camoufleuse—worked to reimagine visibility and warfare in modern terms.
By Ksenia Sidorenko, Yale University
Henry Kiyama’s semi-autobiographical bilingual comic strip, The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904–1924 (1931), follows four Japanese student immigrants in the early years of the twentieth century and depicts the hardships they face as they try to settle in California, find employment, and learn to navigate the modern American metropolis. The Manga takes on contemporaneous cultural representations of East Asian immigrants, simultaneously uncovering and giving form to the affective, social, and historical processes that underlie the production of racial stereotypes. At the same time, it traces the author’s artistic development and shows him working assiduously to master traditional Western painterly techniques in order to “create some masterpieces, fusing the best of East and West.” In this way, the comic strip represents and examines its own mode of production, typifying the modernist artwork’s self-conscious reflection on its own conditions of possibility. In setting up the parallel between Henry’s artistic labor and the other characters’ abortive attempts to secure jobs and make profitable investments, Kiyama’s work makes explicit the interdependence of the historically specific forms of aesthetic production at the turn of the century and the form of labor under capitalism. It gives expression to what Stewart Martin characterizes as the “antinomy of autonomous art in capitalist culture,” whereby the modernist work of art “obscures its constitution within commodity culture” by way of its formal abstraction, only to converge with the commodity form by virtue of the exchange-value it accrues, paradoxically, as a work of art.[2
By John Michael Corrigan, National Chengchi University
By Bridget Chalk, Manhattan College
A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.
By Jesse Schotter, Ohio State University
In her 1926 essay “Impassioned Prose,” Virginia Woolf seeks to distinguish herself from her Edwardian predecessors, writing that “they ignore [the mind’s] thoughts, its rhapsodies, its dreams . . . while prose itself . . . will be fit . . . to write nothing but the immortal works of Bradshaw and Baedeker.” Like her fellow modern novelists E. M. Forster and Henry James, like Mina Loy with her Lost Lunar Baedeker or T. S. Eliot with his “Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar,” Woolf mentions the famously popular Baedeker travel guides of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Woolf here seems unconcerned with what the Baedekers and similar guidebooks have to say about changing patterns of tourism and travel, or about how they mediate the relationship between cultures. The content of travel guides—what Roland Barthes sees as the “disease of essence,” the tendency to reduce cultures to “types”—is not the issue for Woolf. Instead, Woolf uses the Baedekers to characterize the language of Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy: a language perfect for the simplest forms of communication, but unsuited to creative expression. The “Bradshaw” to which Woolf refers is probably the Bradshaw railway guide—a textual form reduced to a list of times and city names. Bradshaws and Baedekers impart information, but they don’t express; they don’t, as she says, dream. Woolf defines the modern novel against the travel guide, yet the persistent invocation of guidebooks in fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries points to a deeper connection between them. While the modernist novel and the travel guide both claim to be totalizing genres that can more fully represent the reality of cities or countries, they each confront the limits of that endeavor. Both genres are characterized, I argue, by their selectiveness rather than by their expansiveness. While they attempt synecdochally to construct an encyclopedic portrait of a nation or metropolis, they are faced with the need to choose which people or places or events should be focused on, or, in the words of the Bradshaw, what “objects” are “worthy of attention.”[3
By Caroline Hovanec, University of Tampa
The London Film Society was founded in 1925 with a mission of bringing avant-garde and foreign films to British audiences. Its programming included a number of films that have gone down in history as landmarks of experimental cinema: Ballet mécanique and Entr’acte from France, the German expressionist classics The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and October from the Soviet Union. These selections gave the Film Society a certain modernist cachet, and its screenings attracted the likes of Roger Fry and Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Alongside these ambitious international films, however, the Film Society also had a curious liking for a humbler, more homegrown kind of programming: the natural history short
By Brett Nathan Boutwell, Louisiana State University
By Ian Afflerbach, University of North Georgia
From 1920 to 1932, the Literary Digest—a weekly American magazine—accurately predicted the winner of each presidential election in the United States by conducting massive straw polls. In 1936, however, the magazine fell into irreparable ignominy when, after distributing over ten million questionnaires, the editors predicted a landslide victory for Republican candidate Alf Landon, only to have Franklin Roosevelt win handily, securing sixty-one percent of the popular vote. George Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion, founded just the year before, gained widespread notoriety for not only correctly predicting the election’s outcome using only 50,000 respondents, but also estimating the Digest poll’s error in advance of their publication, with a sample of just 3,000. Gallup took the technique of the questionnaire, made politically potent by mass print culture, yet still employed as a blunt instrument, and infused it with a newfound statistical rigor. Gallup’s confrontation with the Digest at once exemplified and accelerated the growing influence that questionnaires had in American culture in the 1930s, and particularly highlighted how modern periodicals might thrive—or wither—by using this technique to actively engage national political debates. The Literary Digest, founded in 1890, endured its shame only briefly, being sold in 1938 and shortly thereafter dissolved into Henry Luce’s Time. Gallup’s Institute, meanwhile, became a leading authority in evaluating public opinion, his name soon treated as metonymic for the use of modern, quantitative polling.
By Gabriel Hankins, Clemson University
Are digital methods weak or strong? How should we understand the conjunction of digital tools and methods with modernist studies? In some accounts of the rise of weak theories in literary studies, weak theory and digital methods like distant reading are taken as correlative terms, with associative logic and epistemological modesty common to both. Yet a nearly opposite set of arguments is as familiar: digital literary methods are too “strong,” so goes the claim, because they conceal naïvely positivist notions of evidence and proof, reductively quantify cultural production, or advance a neoliberal agenda within the academy. Digital methods appear both too weak and too strong for use on literary objects, particularly objects so delicately rebarbative as those of modernism.
By Kate Stanley, Western University, Ontario
In 1923 Alfred Stieglitz published “How I Came to Photograph Clouds,” a short essay in which he writes:
I always watched clouds. Studied them. . . . So I began to work with the clouds—and it was with great excitement . . . Every time I developed I was so wrought up, always believing I had nearly gotten what I was after—but had failed. A most tantalizing sequence of days and weeks.
This “tantalizing sequence” of initial experimentation would later yield a formidable legacy, as Stieglitz would spend nearly a decade (1923–31) producing the pivotal series of cloud photographs he would title the Equivalents. During this period he printed and exhibited hundreds of cloud images, most taken during the summers he spent with Georgia O’Keeffe at Lake George, in the Adirondacks. When Stieglitz turned his camera to the skies in the early 1920s, the resulting photographs sometimes included a sliver of horizon or the silhouette of a tree, inclusions which hold the vastness of the cloudscape in relative perspective against the scale of the earth. Yet by the late 1920s, most visual references to solid ground disappear from the work, seeming to set the clouds adrift within their frames. Free of mooring, their spatial proportions and positioning indeterminate, the cloud images become disoriented from any authoritative vantage: their shapes and textures may imply certain atmospheric vectors or conditions, but no single beholder’s grounded point of view definitively calibrates them (fig. 1).