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The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life by Thomas S. Davis

The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life. Thomas S. Davis. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv + 307. $60.00 (cloth).

A brilliant and timely book, The Extinct Scene joins the growing list of scholarly works that deal with Anglo-British modernism in the middle of the twentieth century, such as Tyrus Miller’s Late Modernism (1999), Marina MacKay’s Modernism and World War II (2007), Leo Mellor’s Reading the Ruins (2011), Peter Kalliney’s Commonwealth of Letters (2013), and Gill Plain’s Literature of the 1940s (2013). These works establish continuities from the interwar years through the Second World War and into the era of British decolonization. In The Extinct Scene, Davis defines an “outward turn” as characteristic of late modernism (3). Consciousness, feeling, and inwardness—traits important to high modernism—did not suit mid-century writers. From the 1930s through the 1960s, writers and artists turned to the political and economic turbulence in the world as resources for artworks; in particular, they represented the alignments and misalignments between citizens and states. At the same time, late modernist texts correlated everyday phenomena with political crises, such as the Spanish Civil War, the Sino-Japanese War, the Second World War, and the Notting Hill Riots. In The Extinct Scene, Davis focuses on British culture, though he keenly notes the international stance of British writers and filmmakers; they look outward to Spain, China, and the Caribbean to understand changes in world-systems.

Throughout The Extinct Scene, Davis keeps a steady focus on everydayness. In an explication of John Grierson’s documentary aesthetics in the 1930s, Davis claims that “art must capture and reveal something about everyday life. It should neither assume a mimetic function nor drift into a self-contained world of endless experimentation” (39). The everyday throws up any number of opportunities for seizing capitalism, politics, and history in action. For Humphrey Jennings, Charles Madge, and other researchers associated with Mass-Observation, the everyday manifests itself in singular events and anecdotes. Mass-Observation aimed to “uncover the particularities of everyday experience and show how that experience permeates the collective” (57). In this regard, late modernist film, fiction, and art renounce the avant-garde experiments of high modernism—interruptions, lyrical monologues, defamiliarization—unless they address the radical disruptions inflicted on everyday life by geopolitical forces. Davis puts the matter more succinctly: “Late modernism designates the moment when modernism no longer recognizes itself” (11). Neither realism nor the resources of high modernism adequately captured changes in the world-system that happened at mid-century. If anything distinguishes the difference between high modernism and late modernism, it is the determined politicization of art forms that occurs in works by George Orwell, Humphrey Jennings, Elizabeth Bowen, and numerous others.

Davis’s superb analysis refreshes what scholars know about late modernist works, not least because he draws upon an original and compelling corpus of materials: Henry Green’s novel Party Going, the sociological interventions of Mass-Observation, Virginia Woolf’s The Years, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s Journey to a War, Henry Moore’s paintings of women and children in tube shelters, Cecil Beaton and James Pope-Hennessy’s History under Fire, Elizabeth Bowen’s short stories about blitzed London, a clutch of novels by Vic Reid, Sam Selvon, and Colin MacInnes, and, in an epilogue about the afterlife of modernist everydayness, W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Davis’s close readings are virtuosic. His analysis of power relations between white landowners and black Jamaicans in Vic Reid’s New Day, for example, dwells on the transformative power of seeing, especially the ways that white and black citizens understand uprisings and bloodshed as actions that impinge on everyday life and incrementally register changes in geopolitics. By giving meticulous accounts of specific works, Davis vivifies late modernism.

In one vector of inquiry in The Extinct Scene, Davis offers commentary on the duties and entitlements of citizenship. As expressions of a political unconscious, artworks model citizenship as a form of necessary engagement. Vernacular fictions such as Absolute Beginners (1959) and Lonely Londoners (1956) “participate in broader transformations in citizenship and political belonging at midcentury” (223). Citizenship also inflects documentary cinema. According to John Grierson, documentaries educated citizens about their responsibilities within the liberal state, namely to participate in democratic processes. Instead of conceding that the masses were ineducable and easily swayed by cinematic images, Grierson saw documentary as “trying to articulate this wider world of duties and loyalties in which education and invention and democracy have made us citizens” (quoted on 6). Davis pursues the effective education of the British citizen through other examples. During the Second World War, Mass-Observation aimed “to facilitate a process of normalization; it want[ed] to adapt citizens to everyday life under the cold reach of the security state” (65). The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, first passed in 1939 and renewed every year throughout the war, suspended civil rights and protections in order to allow the state full access to human and material resources. Although such legislation could have opened the door to totalitarianism in wartime Britain, that did not happen. Within the myth of the People’s War, the interests of the state and its citizens coincided. Davis interprets this legislation in terms of state sovereignty and the everyday consequences that state power perpetrates upon its citizenry. Although Davis perceives cracks and crevices in the myth of the People’s War—in Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal (1939), for example, and Henry Moore’s drawings of vulnerable sleepers—he interprets the reworking of citizenship as the very heart of late modernist cultural production.

Davis also offers a thoughtful meditation on the nature of violence. Unlike other studies of violence, such as Sarah Cole’s At The Violet Hour (2012) or W. G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (1999), Davis concentrates on the intrusion of violence into everyday life. Violence in the world necessarily produces aesthetic responses. For mid-century writers and artists, the experience of violence requires a “concrete and documentary” response (226). In 1937, Auden and Isherwood—to cite just one example of such a documentary response—scarcely grasped the immediacy of violence in China, notwithstanding the war with the Japanese that was happening around them. As they travelled from Hong Kong to Canton, Su-Chow, Hankow, Shanghai, and various villages where Chinese inhabitants expected to be attacked by Japanese bombers at any moment, Auden and Isherwood treated violence as a spectacle. At Hankow, they put on smoked glasses and lay on the lawn of the British consulate to watch an air-battle overhead. As they flippantly remark in Journey to a War, lying down prevents stiff necks when watching aerial combat. Although critics tend to read Journey to a War in terms of British bewilderment before Asian inscrutability, Davis understands the book, which combines diary entries, photographs, and poems, as a late modernist response to violent historical change: “formless war permeates all facets of daily life and corrodes the very conceptual frameworks and forms of attention long used to narrate and make sense of political turmoil” (139).

Davis assesses the various consequences of violence, good and bad. Violence may induce revolutionary change; violence may lead to emancipation; violence may consolidate the workings of the state; violence may be enacted on buildings as substitutes for human bodies. Whatever its intention and outcome, violence leaves its effects on genres and forms. In Davis’s insightful reading of Elizabeth Bowen’s short story, “Oh Madam . . . ” (1941), about a London house bombed during the blitz, the surface texture of the story, filled with ellipses, is “pockmarked,” as if hit multiple times by bombs (161). Damage to the house transfers to the surface of the text. Another of Bowen’s stories, “In the Square” (1941), provides Davis with his title: a character in the story looks upon “the extinct scene” of a bombed-out square in London, where everything looks familiar, but empty and unnaturally still. As Davis observes, “Bowen’s stories ask what the unsettled surfaces of the everyday might tell us about less visible historical transformations” (2). Seeing an urban scene as “extinct”—with its implications of being quenched, annihilated, and lifeless—places it beyond animation. The extinct scene can be forensically examined to understand where history went wrong.

The Extinct Scene provides discerning, original commentary on an array of topics, such as the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, the adaptation of gothic tropes to London architecture after the blitz, and the political purposes of the vernacular in 1950s British novels. This book combines theoretical sophistication with historical detail to produce finely grained readings. It grounds mid-century studies in theories of the everyday, which encompasses experiences of violent disruption, dispossession, and social transformations that can be measured incrementally through culture and its artifacts.