Category Archives: Modernism

149: Cecelia Tichi’s Shifting Gears

In Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America, Cecelia Tichi traces the change in metaphors, images, and methods of composition used by American writers from the 1890s to the 1920s as evidence of a change in worldview, a “shifting of gears” from a romantic view of the world to a mechanical one.  Incorporating a wide variety of texts, including popular journalism, ads, kids’ books, westerns, medical textbooks, government publications, modernist poetry, novels, and books on technology, not to mention toys, movies, and buildings, Tichi argues that the new “gear and girder” technology altered the ways writers used language – and that by adopting the tools, logic, and aesthetic of their surroundings, Machine Age writers made technology legible.

This new mechanical writing style differed from the older romantic style in a couple of key ways:

  • it emphasized identical, interchangeable parts, arranged not according to some intrinsic, holistic logic but to an artificial, rational and efficient scheme
  • it focused not on an emotional relationship with surfaces but on a rational, content-based understanding of internal structures
  • it celebrated the human power to manipulate and transform the environment
  • it figured the writer as an engineer rather than an artist
This emphasis on mechanics, rationality, and component parts led to a wide variety of results.  Housewives became “homemaker engineers in efficient domestic factories;” Sinclair Lewis wrote of machines as predators and assembly lines as death camps; Bellamy, Henry James, and Veblen indicted social waste and instability; Frederick Taylor’s time and motion studies served as models of style and texture for William Carlos Williams and TS Eliot; Henry Adams was not afraid of technology but excited about engineering; Dos Passos and Hemingway developed machine-inspired prose styles; and, of course, William Carlos Williams made machines out of words.
While Tichi sets up more of a high/low divide than she probably intended (or maybe I just pulled out the names I knew?) and likely needs more historical context, her book serves a similar purpose to Terry Smith’s: showing how technology and culture, together, created the modern era.

147: Terry Smith’s Making the Modern

Terry Smith is an art historian, and Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America is a study of the relationship between the visual imagery of the 1920s and 1930s and the era’s cultural, economic, and industrial configurations.  Far from focusing on high modern art and design, Smith studies modern architecture, painting, photography, design, advertising as gleaned from sources as varied as Ford Motor Company photos of plants and work processes, architectural plans for office buildings, and documentation of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.  Methodologically, Smith deconstructs each work or artifact via a rigorous investigation of its historical setting for signs that the work documents conflict or social change.  Working across disciplinary boundaries, the book draws together a “visual regime” or “ensemble of processes of visualization and representation” of modernity, where visual representation and sociocultural processes work together to create a uniquely modern worldview called the “iconology of modernity.”

The body of the book is organized around case studies that trace the emergence of this new way of seeing.  Topics include the modernization of work in the Ford Highland Park plant, where the moving assembly line provided a new way to frame space and inspired a new “industrial-functional” architecture; a new modern business aesthetic along these Fordist lines that was celebrated by Life, Time, and Fortune, resisted by Rivera and Kahlo, and complicated by New Deal Social Realist photographers Lewis Hyne and Roy Stryker; and an extension of the “aestheticization of American industry” to the increasingly commercial industrial design profession, MOMA’s purist modernism, and Futurism at the 1939 World’s Fair. Throughout, Smith also investigates three conceptual pairs that seem to be at the core of the modernist worldview: cities/crowds, industry/workers, and products/consumers.

Slippage between industry and culture aside, Making the Modern is pretty effective at showing how culture and technology intertwined to create a worldview from a particular way of life – to the extent that aesthetics can speak for culture, anyway.  However, it’s debatable whether cultural production is still this tightly connected to the means of production.

133: Edward Relph’s Modern Urban Landscape

Edward Relph’s The Modern Urban Landscape examines the landscapes of large cities since 1880 for clues as to the relationship between modernization and urban form.  In particular, he studies the visual landscapes of the “modern parts of towns and cities” in North America, Britain, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand; building on this firsthand experience, he concludes that “the modern urban landscape is both rationalised and artificial, which is another way of saying that it is intensely human, an expression of human will and deeply imbued with meaning.”  He thus shifts the focus of human geography from the rural to the urban, while retaining the discipline’s focus on empirical observations of coherent visual landscapes.

To collect data on the changes in urban architecture, planning, technology and social conditions since 1880, Relph takes the “geographical” approach of “watching:” he starts with “the totality of what I see,” then follows “several directions more or less at once,” looking for unusual details, new developments, and ironic juxtapositions within the larger context of the urban fabric.  Landscapes, to Relph, are the “visual contexts of daily existence,” and he insists on retaining the wholeness of the urban landscape because so much of landscape is about context, about the relationships between buildings and the streets and spaces and other structures around them, that you cannot study any one element in isolation.  Only by preserving landscape’s “fragile wholeness” can we hope to learn anything about how it functions.

Using this method, Relph traces a history of ideology in the landscape, from 1890s Progressive Era landscapes, through the Machine Age and into the Postmodern city.  He shows how Bellamy, Morris and other Utopians created landscapes of the future in the 1890s; how the Machine Age created both unornamented, standardized. geometric factory buildings and a chaotic mess of wires and tracks, the results of business needs, consumer demands, and municipal safety engineering; how the Modern “international style” was only briefly popular, but dominates the landscape because it belonged to an era of skyscraper-building; and how the Information Age has both refined and profoundly changed the forms of the Modern era, so that like “plastic flowers: things are left looking much as they always did but their materials and meanings are profoundly changed.”

Relph also discerns two sweeping trends with huge impacts on urban landscapes in the last 100 years:

  • internationalism: new building technologies, combined with faster communications and transportation, mean that “virtually identical bits of cities now seem to crop up almost everywhere, and behind any national or regional differences that might be visible there are always widely shared patterns and an international habit of thought.”
  • a “conviction in the merits of self-consciousness:” “everything now is subjected to cool analysis and technical manipulation, leaving little room for the traditions which stood behind most preindustrial landscapes.”  Elements of landscapes, from buildings to parking meters, follow an increasingly rationalised and institutionalized (and specialized) process, so very little building happens in a vernacular sense.
While Relph retains human geography’s emphasis on the coherent “fragile wholeness” of landscape, he also discerns power differentials and the impacts of capitalism on the landscape.  While he needs to work on his positionality (he argues at one point that everyone in cities works a sedentary job), I suspect this use of social theory is Relph’s way of making a few plastic flowers of his own.

126: Groth & Bressi’s Understanding Ordinary Landscapes

The essays in Paul Groth and Todd Bressi’s collection Understanding Ordinary Landscapes are compiled from a two-day symposium at Berkeley in 1990 called “Vision, Culture, and Landscape” that was intended to both celebrate and critique JB Jackson’s version of cultural landscape studies.  In general, while the essays underscore Jackson’s reliance on and use of visual and spatial information as a way to understand past and present cultures, they grapple with ways to deal with the realities of social and cultural pluralism and their effects on the landscape.  While in many ways Jackson’s work was radically subjective and Postmodern before its time, in others it is distinctly Modern, particularly in its emphasis on underlying universals, empirical research, and continuity.

According to Groth, cultural landscape studies defines landscape as the combination of people and place, with an emphasis on the history of how people have used everyday or vernacular space – buildings, rooms, streets, fields, yards – to establish and articulate identities, social relations, and cultural meanings.  When JB Jackson started publishing Landscape in 1951, he also emphasized the activist mission of cultural landscape studies: the more people know about ordinary environments, the more they will become attached to them and the less likely they will be to wantonly destroy them.  Groth and Bressi build on cultural landscape studies via a 6-part framework updated for the 1990s:

  1. focus on ordinary landscapes to get at cultural meaning and environmental experience
  2. shift from a rural emphasis to both rural and urban landscapes, as well as landscapes of production and landscapes of consumption
  3. continue to study diversity and uniformity, but emphasize difference, fragmentation, intertextuality and hybridity instead of a single, unifying narrative
  4. continue to write for the intelligent lay reader
  5. support a broad notion of interdisciplinarity that includes cultural, human, social, critical, landscape architecture, art history and other approaches
  6. engage with visual and spatial information, either in support of or in direct opposition to it; the landscape must remain the primary object of study.  Respect JB Jackson’s argument that “landscape… must be regarded first of all in terms of living rather than looking.”
This collection includes many heavyweights: David Lowenthal, Peirce Lewis, Dolores Hayden, Wilbur Zelinsky, and more – all folks who are contributing to and thinking about what a new cultural geography might mean and how it might be updated to include social difference and PoMo cultural theory.  It also holds up JB Jackson as the methodological exemplar of cultural landscape studies – which makes sense, because as far as I know, he invented it.

117: Doreen Massey’s For Space

Massey’s For Space is an attempt to develop a theory of subjectivity/ agency through a postmodern conception of space as geographical, temporal, and relational.  Because of Cresswell, I expected Massey’s construction of “the spatial” as relational flows, especially in counterpoint to Harvey’s construction of place as nodes where the flows of capital get stuck.   
But I didn’t expect her to be so tightly bound with high postmodern thinkers.  Massey draws a great deal from Laclau & Mouffe’s radical democracy and Deleuze’s reconfiguration of subjects from nodes to trajectories; I guess this is what happens when you shift focus from bodies to space as the field where bodies interact.  Of particular interest to me is her search for agency/ construction of radical subjectivity as uniquely spatial, outwardlooking and aware of its own relational constitution.  Space, rather than time, makes agency possible.   
Massey is trying to find a way to move beyond Modernism, which (she says) falsely annihilates space through time, and beyond the extremes of Postmodernism, which falsely annihilates time through space, and to articulate depth with breadth.  Yes, connecting depth with breadth is the project of all cultural theory, but her solution – to focus on space-time as the product of relations/ interactions between heterogeneous elements dissolves binaries like global/ local, place/space, space/time, and thereby makes space for agency.  She does a better job of situating potential agents within an uneven power grid than do Laclau & Mouffe/ other radical democracy theorists, but I do wonder if she’s falsely assuming that everyone would take freedom if given the space to do so – in which case she’s more of a product of the Enlightenment than she cares to admit.  (Not a bad thing to think that all people are fundamentally equal on some level; I’m just sayin…)   
Anyway.  I like that space and social relations are mutually constitutive – the concept is very useful for talking about transportation-based social movements.  She’s also got a nice discussion of how local movements might articulate into larger global struggles that looks a lot like how (radical) transportation movements, by their nature, have to grow.  And she clearly reads.  A lot.

Originally published on 6.17.12.

116: Doreen Massey’s Space, Place, and Gender

Doreen Massey’s Space, Place, and Gender is a collection of articles from the late 1970s to the 1990s, all of which attempt to formulate concepts of space and place in terms of social relations, class and gender in particular.  Her basic arguments, many of which she develops later in For Space, have to do with the development of a decentered, relational, temporal/process-based, postmodern concept of space, and the mutually constitutive relationship between space and social relations/ inequalities.  She sees
“space-time as a configuration of social relationships within which the specifically spatial may be conceived of as an inherently dynamic simultaneity.  Moreover, since social relations are inevitably and everywhere imbued with power and meaning and symbolism, this view of the spatial is an ever-shifting social geometry of power and signification.” (3)
In other words, space is the social “stretched out.”  Hence there are echoes of Deleuze, de Certeau, Bourdieu in here, and moving space and place to the cultural plane gives her more flexibility in constructing it (yes, she insists that space and place have objective, material components, too, but what she’s talking about for the most part is meaning rather than the physical environment itself.)

While I’m not terribly interested in gendered spaces, I DO, however, like her use of feminist theory as a way in to social/ spatial difference rather than as the be-all and end-all of social difference, and I also like that she actually began with class, which I agree is probably more important than gender as far as social/spatial shaping.  

I also like that she develops her theses regarding the social construction of space, place, and gender in direct response to political issues – her empirical studies lend weight to her ideas AND provide examples for how seemingly abstract theory can actually be useful.  These case studies are particularly effective with respect to issues of gentrification (Docklands/ Isle of Dogs yuppie invasion), class and gender-based economic exploitation (siting factories where working-class or ethnic people or women will provide cheaper labor sources), or inner-city deterioration (thinking of place as porous and geography as linked to social and economic factors helps contextualize urban problems and provide support for structural solutions rather than just blaming the poor for their poverty).

Her writing is compelling and well-organized, and I can imagine using one of her case studies, or the intro to one of the sections, in a course on transportation and culture.  

Originally published on 6.8.2012.

108: Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

In All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Marshall Berman cautions against jumping on the PoMo bandwagon to make sense of the world.  Against Postmodernism, which he sees as a dead-end way of interpreting the world that only leads to the I, death, and fragmented searches for authenticity in depthless space, he argues that Modernism, and the larger Enlightenment project of which it is a part, have room for human agency, collectivity, and social change.  Further, instead of being the way out of global capitalism, Postmodernism is just a phase in the modernist dialectic, one of those moments when Marxism and modernism collide.

Berman accepts that Modernism in the mid-20th century became the top-down, monolithic grand narrative that Postmodern theorists reject, but for his definition of Modernism he points instead to the 19th century, when Modernism was a way of making sense of a chaotic new “modern” world and asserting human agency in the face of totalizing industrial development.  Modernism is a dialectic between top-down and bottom-up culture, and the Enlightenment project of Progress proceeds not in a

smooth grand narrative but through the public resistance, systematic rebellion, protests and other struggles by which “modern men and women assert… their right to control their future” and their right to “make a place for themselves in the modern world, a place where they can feel at home.”  Within this dialectic, if modernization involves social fragmentation and detachment from place, Modernism is about reattaching, creating roots, and connecting to the past through history and memory and to each other through shared experiences.  If this interest in place and developing roots sounds like a Postmodern project, that’s because Postmodernism is a phase of Modernism; Modernism, Postmodernism, anti-modernism are all interrelated in the same project.

Two things that Berman finds essential in Modernism that he doesn’t see in PoMo are time, which he associates with progress, and dialectic, which is the process by which structure and agency struggle to move history forward.  He also hones in on modernity as contradiction: between place and placelessness, subject and object, old and new modernities, global corporations and individual workers.  Mired in a search for authenticity among the depthless surfaces of Postmodernism, we are likely to become so obsessed with our navels that we don’t even realize we’re being increasingly controlled and oppressed.  Like Marx, Berman argues that we need to make ourselves both subjects and objects of history; to peel back the surface and see how the system really works, and then to work together to make sure modernization doesn’t eclipse human agency altogether.