From the Print Journal

Still Modernism: Photography, Literature, Film by Louise Hornby


Still Modernism: Photography, Literature, Film. Louise Hornby. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. 256. $74.00 (cloth).

© 2018 Johns Hopkins University Press

At the Oxford University Press stall at last year’s Modern Language Association Convention in New York City, Louise Hornby’s Still Modernism: Photography, Literature, Film was propped up next to Moving Modernisms: Motion, Technology, and Modernity, a collection of essays edited by David Bradshaw, Laura Marcus, and Rebecca Roach. Accidental, perhaps; mischievous, I hope: an editorial assistant with a twinkle in her eye.

Either way, the play between Still Modernism and the many Moving Modernisms made Hornby’s point succinctly, which is that stillness jars, jolts, and recalibrates our received narratives of modernism in motion, of moderns always in a rush, on the go, swept along by trains or automobiles, or else by the cinema, that other kind of transportation—chasing the thrill of what Enda Duffy calls “adrenaline aesthetics,” accelerating away from boredom, inertia, the stagnant, the past.[1] Hornby’s witty and surprising new study proceeds from her recognition that our accounts of modernism’s relentless kinetic drive are imbricated with a discourse of technological progress that crowns the cinema victorious over photography, as film is seen to subsume and overcome—outrun, outpace—the stasis and fixity of the earlier medium. Enshrined in the classical film theory of André Bazin and others, this discourse of cinema as the modernist medium par excellence emerges out of the same media landscape it claims to organize, since it is only after the invention of motion pictures that photography’s stillness comes into (negative) focus: as pathologized lack, as refusal and failure. But what if we take photographic stillness on its own terms? Stillness usually falls, Hornby notes, “on the wrong side of the subject–object divide,” standing for “immobility, finitude, paralysis, and death” (3). These negative categories are specifically gendered ones, as Hornby argues with reference to F. T. Marinetti’s futurist manifestos, in which the celebration of “movement and aggression” for the futurist subject is correlative to the condemnation of a “pensive immobility” pejoratively associated with the feminine.[2] For the moderns and for us, stillness is unpleasant, aberrant, wrong; it’s a wrench in the gears of Bergsonian durée and a roadblock frustrating a masculinist need for speed.

Hornby’s purpose isn’t to recuperate stillness but instead to accommodate it: to let it be the strange impediment or obstruction within the field of modernist cultural production that, she maintains, it always was. For as ideologies and technologies of motion proliferate in modernism, “stillness is not actually taken over by kinesis, but . . . lingers as a perceived threat or source of fear” (Still Modernism, 20). Hornby elaborates on stillness as threat in the first chapter of Still Modernism, identifying how early film sought to stave off photographic stasis by its impressionistic depictions of ephemeral phenomena—the floating, puffing, undulating movements of dust, steam, wind, and so on. However, in materializing and dematerializing motion, this visual trope inherited its effects of blur and abstraction from photography, the very technology it was designed to repudiate. And the cinema’s formalizing of motion as visual obscurity and difficulty yolks it with photography as media confronted by, and obsessively meditating on, motion’s illegibility as representation.

In making this argument, Hornby carves out a place for photography in film studies, from which it has conventionally been excluded. This critical move reflects a certain catholicity in her approach, which incorporates an impressive range of texts and theoretical perspectives. The first chapter alone gives detailed attention to early film, including the Lumière brothers’ famous Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the train films of Thomas Edison, and a host of British comedies featuring cars that can’t, or won’t, stop; early twentieth-century writing on film and photography by Bazin, Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein, and Virginia Woolf; Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s well-known photograph of a speeding race car, Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France (1912); Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929); the photographs of “smoke fillets” produced by the French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey as the nineteenth century became the twentieth; and more besides.

Hornby is meticulous and thoughtful at each juncture, displaying her fluency across film studies and art history—and, in the three subsequent chapters, literary studies, as she juxtaposes various photographic technologies and traditions with major works of modernist prose writing by Woolf, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust.[3] Such an associative logic—more or less a necessity, I think, in truly interdisciplinary work like this—carries the risks of prolixity or digression, of diffusing or scattering the argument it should serve. For me, Hornby’s intricate, somewhat demanding style of argumentation is one of the book’s pleasures. The narratives of modernist texts that we recognize most effortlessly as modernist—Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, The Waves, and Jacob’s Room—are stalled productively when they are read with various modes of photographic stillness. In Proust, for instance, the iterative incompletion of photographic portraiture (always repeated, never finished) structures the inscrutability of the lesbian subject, Albertine, for the novel’s first-person narrator. Albertine’s visible absence moves “beyond the heterosexual division of scopic agency,” partaking in the dynamic of revelation and concealment that defines the photographic representations of other queer female figures in modernism, namely Georgia O’Keeffe and Greta Garbo (Still Modernism, 95).

When Still Modernism turns, in its second half, to the writing of Joyce and Woolf, it turns also to photography’s special purchase on the object world: the world seen “without a self,” as Woolf puts it at the end of The Waves, a description Hornby glosses in terms of photography’s invitation to visualize “the world in our absence . . . without us and impartial to us” (147).[4] Hornby explains Woolf’s theory of photography beyond the human via the example of Anna Atkins’s beautiful cyanotypes, cameraless photographs of algae, ferns, and flowers that Atkins made in the 1840s by pressing plants directly onto cyanide-treated paper. For Atkins and Woolf, the point of the image is the image, its autotelic, light-illumined relation to the object world—a proximity undisturbed by an embodied human observer.

In fact, this eyeless optic is crucial to Hornby’s sense of photographic stillness as “an indispensable aesthetic category in modernism” (Still Modernism, 1). If it is in part because of stillness’s “refusal of anthropocentrism and phenomenological experience” that the photographic has been trucked over by the cinematic in modernist studies, that same refusal to center the human subject is a “negative defamiliarization [that] opens the visual field to things that would normally remain unseen, unoccupied subject positions that would normally remain unrecognized, ways of seeing the world that are otherwise unknowable” (3, 9). In Woolf’s writing, then, photography augurs both “the absence of the subject and the presence or emergence of the object” (185). The suspended solidity of the material world rendered photographically forces a confrontation with human limits, and ultimately with death; but it also explodes those limits, offering “access to something beyond the confines of the self” (186).

In Hornby’s formulation of the “things that would normally remain unseen,” there is an unremarked yet resonant echo from a classic account of the permeable boundaries of cinema and photography. In Theory of Film (1960), Siegfried Kracauer claims that one of photography’s most compelling characteristics is its capacity to “reveal things normally unseen,” including “the transient,” “the small and the big,” and the “blind spots of the mind” that “habit and prejudice prevent us from seeing.”[5] Hornby’s reading of how photographic stillness “points beyond the parameters of human experience, to unoccupied times and spaces” certainly recalls Kracauer’s account of the medium’s revelatory powers, by which, as I’ve written elsewhere, photography works to “attenuate totalizing accounts of experience, history, and culture” (Still Modernism, 191; In and Out of Sight, 21). And in this regard, Still Modernism sits with other new work in photography studies, which is invested in the photograph for its defamiliarizing strangeness.

Yet Hornby’s book also sits a little apart from this new work. Scholars such as Elizabeth Abel, Shawn Michelle Smith, and Karen Beckman discover in the photograph ways to reconceive of social and political relations, to see through the filters of “habit and prejudice,” in Kracauer’s words. “Because the eye of the camera cannot overlook what the mind’s eye chooses not to see,” Abel suggests, “it opens up a more democratic signifying field in which the repressed can have its say (or see).”[6] But such social and political relations are eclipsed, at least partially, as Hornby reaches “beyond the scale of the human” (Still Modernism, 192). This is not to say that Still Modernism is apolitical, nor that it is uninterested in how the camera scripts the operations of power or social hierarchies of difference. Indeed, what is beyond the human, for Hornby, is a different kind of empathy, a “universal” kind, which allows us to “see as someone else or as no one.” What I am suggesting is that Hornby’s theorization of photography in terms of its perverse, impossible immobility is hugely usable for modernist studies: it calls and enables us to attend to other perversities and impossibilities in the field of modernist literary and visual culture, whether nonhuman or human. (Is there higher praise of scholarly work than that it generates still more scholarly work?) This is also part of the implicit challenge of the book, as Hornby selects her hypercanonical objects of study to prove “that stillness does not lurk at the edges of modernism, but constitutes its bastions” (15). As the brilliant Still Modernism gives us the shock of the still, it also puts us to work, sets us in motion, to slip beyond the canon of moving modernisms to a modernism obstructed, arrested, made strange.

 

Notes

[1] See Enda Duffy, The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).

[2] F. T. Marinetti, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” in Futurisms: An Anthology, ed. Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 51.

[3] Like other recent studies such as Daniel A. Novak’s Realism, Photography, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), Stuart Burrows’s A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography, 1839–1945 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008), and my own In and Out of Sight: Modernist Writing and the Photographic Unseen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), Still Modernism is interested less in establishing direct lines of influence between writing and photography in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than in articulating their “shared problems” of representation (Hornby, Still Modernism, 14–15).

[4] Virginia Woolf, The Waves (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1959), 285.

[5] Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960; repr., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 46–59.

[6] Elizabeth Abel, Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 79.

Comments