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Reading Modernism on Election Day

It’s election day in the United States. So, of course, I’m thinking about modernism.

How could I not? Though as a scholar of modernism I spend most of my professional life in the past, I’ve always been animated by the sense that texts are much more than the ephemera of worlds long outmoded. If old books are not exactly keys to the contemporary, they are at least keyholes through which we can peer, catching glimpses of a world quickly coming into being, shorn of familiarity. In seminars on modernism, I ask students to read with an attention to those things that were historically novel in the early twentieth century, but which have become almost second nature to us. The point of this is both to help students understand the tectonic shifts that modernism witnessed, but also to remind them that many facets of our own lives are not transhistorical and were not inevitable. I feel a particular urgency to do this when we talk about political institutions, like the nation-state system and universal suffrage. But more than anything I find myself ruminating lately on an institution whose meaning as a political force is sometimes overlooked: the mass media. Reading modernism’s encounter with this new institution is a stark reminder of the ways that politics became entwined with technology and the science of public opinion—a set of relationships ever more at the heart of our elections and the experience of public life.

Life by Rote

With the spread of cinema and radio technology, one could by the 1920s talk of the “mass media” as an entity in its own right, or simply just “the media.” The expanding range of communications technologies was important for practical purposes, of course, but it was the political affordances of the mass media that made it an object of interest for modernists. The expansion of newspapers in the late nineteenth century had often been regarded as the predecessor to a new era of enlightenment for an expanding electorate—a way of burning away the provincialisms and prejudices of an old order. But cultural commentators of the interwar period were likely to regard the mass media as threatening to do just the very opposite, providing citizens with ready-made and clichéd attitudes. In Practical Criticism, I. A. Richards wrote that the mass media “threatens us by stereotyping and standardising both our utterances and our interpretations” of the world.[1] Through daily exposure to the media we become not the Enlightenment ideal of self-governing citizens, but repeating machines—and susceptible to novel forms of political influence.

Anxieties about the power of this new informational milieu were widespread in the interwar era. In most senses, the power of the mass media was relatively weak in the early century as compared to the networked and social media of our era. Yet, in key respects, modernists anticipated the ways that media threatened to usher in a science for orchestrating behaviors. No figure more rigorously sensed this tidal shift in political life than Wyndham Lewis. Like many of his contemporaries, Lewis railed against how the media conditioned citizens to think and act in predetermined ways. As he wrote in The Art of Being Ruled (1926), “At a word (or when sufficiently heated by a week’s newspaper-suggestion), at the pressing of a button,” citizens, “with their technician-trained minds and bodies” can be mobilized toward specific ends.[2] Lewis’s analysis is cognate with those of his contemporaries, but what makes it apposite for thinking about elections in the twenty-first century is that he saw that the effort to shape behaviors in this way was quickly becoming a science in its own right. Modernists could not, of course, have foreseen the era of political analytics and the technologies that have made it possible. But they were perhaps more alive to the interface of science, voting, and information than some of their successors, in part because of nascent institutions that focused on the science of political behaviors, such as the public relations industry. Edward Bernays, the “father” of the PR industry, saw the mass media in the same terms as Lewis—as a way of orchestrating the behaviors of citizens without their knowledge. As he wrote in the opening pages of Propaganda (1928), the goal of PR was nothing less than the rational “manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society,” he wrote, “constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”[3] For Bernays and Lewis, the era of scientific control over our habits was just around the corner. By the late 1920s, Bernays and his successors were already elaborating empirical methods for determining the unconscious motivations for the behaviors of citizens, and new techniques for manipulating them.

The Automation of Us

That an “invisible government” could map our desires or anxieties and manipulate them for paying clients—this was central to Lewis’s acerbic analysis of modernity in the 1920s. Anxiously scrolling through Twitter today, I can’t help but share in the anxieties that prompted Lewis’s response to the growth of the mass media. In the twenty-first century, our deepest political values are mapped in fine-grained detail, bought and sold at scale, and given back to us in ways that are engineered to “nudge” us toward specific behaviors—and almost always without our awareness. Shoshana Zuboff has recently analyzed this digital apparatus as an economic paradigm, noting that its squarely rooted in a science of behavior established in the early twentieth century. In the era of networked media, we are constantly generating and supplying behavioral data about ourselves to corporations and political entities, who use it to predict our actions and actively shape our attitudes. Echoing Richards, Zuboff explains that for companies like Google, “it is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us.”[4] As our lives are increasingly transacted in the digital realm, we by necessity transmit the blueprints to our makeup for others’ use.

Recent history has given us countless examples of this behavioral paradigm at work. One thinks of the scandals around foreign influence in the American presidential election of 2016 and the UK Brexit campaign. In both instances, foreign and domestic political parties leveraged the prejudices and cognitive habits that citizens had themselves provided to social media companies in order to “nudge” the vote in clear and measurable ways. These are high profile cases, but they are broadly representative of the ways that data analytics and social media have reshaped the nature of political life at every level. Consider, for example, just the smartphone apps used by the Trump and Biden campaigns in 2020; according to the MIT Technology Review, these “bespoke campaign apps” are designed to capture massive amounts of data about voters and sort them for better, more effectively targeted engagement. But they also provide ways for users in “closed media environments [to] bring in like-minded people” through “the addictive engagement strategies that social media and apps have perfected in the past 20 years.” These apps bind voters to given political ideologies and motivate specific actions because they take advantage of our inherent need for economies of attention. The data gleaned about voters through such platforms allows invisible actors the ability to understand our often-unconscious motivations, and to channel our behaviors in ways that they deem desirable. And the data available to political campaigns, corporations, and governments is only growing, threatening to plunge electorates ever deeper into established modes of thought and action. Comas from which we seldom awake, in other words.

As I spend election day endlessly refreshing my browser, I can’t help but wonder how little we will ever know about the measurable effects of social media (including viral conspiracy theories) and targeted advertising on voters by political forces both in and outside of this country. Bernays was clear about public relations: it worked because its influence was covert. This invisibility was paramount in Lewis’s thinking; as he wrote in the introduction to Time and Western Man, every person “must be prepared to sink to the level of chronic tutelage and slavery, dependent for all he is to live by upon a world of ideas, and its manipulators, about which he knows nothing: or he must get hold as best he can of the abstract principles involved in the very ‘intellectual’ machinery set up to control and change him.”[5] While I don’t necessarily mean to hold up Lewis as an exemplar of the virtues of paranoia, he was among the most dedicated in attempting to suss out the ways hidden actors worked to manipulate citizens, and turn individuals into automata. And in this he represents to me one of the most appealing facets of modernism—its perspicacity in signposting the shifting nature of political life. It often feels to me as if, as electorates, we are constantly backfooted by these shifts. It’s not that we are wholly unaware that our behaviors are being mapped and influenced by digital platforms, but that we have a curiously stunted vocabulary for understanding and contesting the political powers that impinge upon us as political agents. Looking at our own moment through the keyhole of modernism, however, might allow us to begin to better understand systems that would seek to “nudge” us toward predictable outcomes. As institutional forces vie to record, analyze, and anticipate our behaviors, the work of modernists stands as a valuable body of thinking about the interface between science, politics, and media. It is perhaps a place to begin constructing a critical vocabulary adequate to our political moment.



[1] I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgments (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1960), 339–40.

[2] Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1989), 106.

[3] Edward Bernays, Propaganda (Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing, 2005), 37.

[4] Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2019), 8.

[5] Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1993), xi.