Modernist Objects Review

Keyboard of an old german vintage typewriter with cyrillic keys

Review of Noëlle Cuny and Xavier Kalck (eds.), Modernist Objects (Clemson, SC: Clemson University Press, 2020).

Sean Mark (Université Catholique de Lille)

This sprightly and eclectic collection of essays, edited by Noëlle Cuny and Xavier Kalck, seeks to place objects—“how they emerge or withdraw, what they do to us, what status can be assigned to them” (8)—at the very heart of modernism, and deepen our understanding of modernism through them. In the book’s introduction, the editors draw incisively on Orson Welles, Walter Benjamin, James Joyce, and Siegfried Kracauer amongst others, while tracing a brief history and development of object studies, to piece together an overarching reflection that the individual chapters body out. Blending literary and cultural studies with visual arts, the volume explores the “dance” of “goods and gods” (2) that compose “the universe of things” (21), and the modernist fascination for it. Adopting perspectives by turns global, feminist, materialist and psychoanalytic, the essays—with their galvanising diversity of objects under scrutiny—help tease out some of the recurring tensions and ambivalences inherent in the modernist attention to objects, products, things and artifacts. “Objects may be the necessary mirrors in which our selves are built,” note the editors, highlighting this pregnant co-dependence, but “they still need us to say them into being” (7). 

Eliot is first summoned to help negotiate anxieties around the flattening of objects into their function as social constructs, mere materiality: “what if one of the main features in the study of modernist objects and perhaps in material culture studies as a whole had been the search for our own objective correlatives…?” (3). In addressing the question, in other words, of where the object ends and the artwork begins, Eliot might indicate a more “objective” route to George Steiner’s directive that criticism should arise from a debt of love. One of the book’s strengths is the capaciousness of its understanding of modernism, with a corpus of study that spans from Dada and Woolf to Le Corbusier and Louise Bourgeois. Of note is Louise Kane’s essay which focuses on little magazines like the Caribbean Kyk-Over-Al and Japanese Shirakaba, which Kane considers as “metaobjects” with a reading informed by computer science. Part of the volume’s appeal lies undoubtedly in its mission, through these polymorphous objects and approaches, to extend the remit of enquiry beyond the canonical and conventional.

The editors identify three interconnected processes in modernist object experimentation, which structure the collection: “1) objecting to realism, 2) fashioning the human, and 3) performing the ornamental” (10). Highlights include Douglas Mao’s opening essay, which aligns Wyndham Lewis’s Snooty Baronet, Sartre’s La nausée and Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” to probe the epiphanies occasioned by repellent objects, things “obtruding their thingness” (34). In these encounters with “objectionable objects”, Mao counterposes the object world, “crowding upon the viewer importunately” (35), to a more aristocratic or meaningful mode of being, arguing that objects appear objectionable in these works when they “come to bear some likeness to humanity in the mass, as this mass threatens to submerge one, or overwhelm one, or simply importune one when one would rather be left alone” (39). In stimulating contrast, Martin Schauss’s essay on post-war Beckett reads the Beckettian object in relation to its nineteenth-century realist precedent and charts its wearied arc, as it “threatens to morph into quite a ‘modernist thing’—independent, stubborn, monadic—within increasingly stripped environments, but ultimately succumbs to wear and tear after having been passed from text to text” (47). Of particular interest to Eliot scholars will be Rachel Bowlby’s chapter, “Tradition and the Test-Tube Baby,” which explores its subject/object of study—“an embryo that had begun in glass, in a lab, rather than in the body” (79)—via the writings of Huxley, Woolf, and Eliot’s “chemistry lesson” (85) in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Riffing on Eliot’s conception of the poet’s impact on the canon as predicated not on individuality but (in Eliot’s terms) “a continual extinction of personality” (84), Bowlby relates Eliot’s description of the “mind of the poet” as “receptacle” through analogy with a catalytic reaction to an idea of creation that is “neither erotic nor interpersonal” (85). Bowlby’s piece flourishes in delving into the apparent anachronism, elucidating the modernist forelives (preceding the titular scientific breakthrough of 1978) of “impersonal generation,” where “the forging of a ‘new compound’ for which the co-presence of the many particles of assorted contents, received and then stored in the one place, is the sufficient condition” (85).

Elsewhere, Nonia Williams’s chapter offers a “reading in detail” of the concrete symbolism of “common things” in Woolf, Mansfield, and Stein, with an invitation, particular to works by women, to attend “to the absent, lost, broken, forgotten, and cancelled details as much as those present” (223). Pavlina Radia traces “affective mobilities” in the work of Djuna Barnes, where objects function “as affective spaces where socio-political, ethical, gender, and racial conflicts are mobilized,” arguing that these objects be read as sociocultural commentary on American modernity and modernist aesthetics (64-5). Yasna Bozhkova’s diverting survey of the poem-objects of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven enlivens the “Dada Baroness”—a female counterpart to Duchamp’s “King Dada”—and her ready-to-wear creations and appropriations of the everyday. Other essays look at cotton cloth in the art of Paul Klee, Varvara Stepanova, and Lyubov Popova (Sanja Bahun); harps and lyres as paradigmatic objects of poetry (Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec); Louise Bourgeois’s “melancholic effigies” (Lynn M. Somers); and Eileen Gray’s decorative orientalism and “alter-modernism” versus Le Corbusier’s (Maurizia Boscagli). Concluding the collection, Justine Baillie links Jean Rhys’s and Walter Benjamin’s views on history and critique of modernity as “Baudelaireian modernism” (227), enlightening Rhys’s writings of displacement, obsolescence and exile.

One might observe, by way of criticism, that with an object of study so difficult to delimit and define, the very disparateness and broadness of scope that contribute to the book’s charm come inevitably at the expense of a potentially more unitary and cohesive framing of the object and its imbrications with modernist authoriality. An index that includes concepts as well as names would have made it easier to navigate thematically; and on occasion, the writing would have gained from further attention, with several typos in the introduction. Such minor quibbles, however, do not detract from an invigorating offering to studies on modernism and the question of the object, which will be propitious to further reflection. Indeed, this is a book that revels in the porosity of disciplinary boundaries, that teems in the interstices: a jubilance reflected in its cover design, aptly constructed around Suzanne Bellamy’s Poem (2019)—a mixed media assemblage of wood, metal, and machinery including deconstructed typewriters—which renders it a pleasing aesthetic object in its own right.