The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Fall Interview: Q & A with Melissa Dinsman

The Space Between publishes interviews with scholars of intermodernism in the spring and the fall.  Our Fall 2016 interview features Melissa Dinsman, author of Modernism at the Microphone:  Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics during World War II (Bloomsbury, 2015) and Assistant Professor of English at the City University of New York—York College.  Prior to joining the faculty at CUNY—York, she held a CLIR/DLF Postdoctoral Fellowship in Data Curation for Visual Studies at the University of Notre Dame.  Dinsman is also the author of "Militarizing the Messiah:  Britain's Wartime Rebranding in The Man Born to be King" (vol. 11, 2015).  The interview was conducted over email by the Editor of The Space Between, Janine Utell, during the Summer of 2016.  

Your scholarship does the important work of bridging modernist studies and media studies.  Can you talk a bit about how you see these two areas of enquiry feeding and informing one another?
I think for me this has always seemed like an obvious pairing, in part due to history. I don’t think it is a coincidence that we see the birth of modernism—a shift toward a form of literature with a greater emphasis on subjectivity—coinciding with a major technological revolution. The chaotic displacement that resulted from an influx of new technologies, technologies that changed the way people traveled, communicated, worked, fought—every aspect of human life really—resulted in a shift or a retreat inward. It led to a sort of questioning of what makes us human in literary form. For me, the seminal text for this is Dracula. I always teach this in my modernist classes as the first modern (British) novel because it is a montage of internal thoughts (recorded by various means) dealing with issues of what it means to be human in a technologically changing world. And of course media studies, as we understand it today, was greatly influenced by the study of modernism. Marshall McLuhan was a modernist scholar with a particular interest in Ezra Pound; he even visited Pound in St. Elizabeth’s hospital. You can see influences of Pound’s focus on poetic form in McLuhan’s work, most notably I think in the phrase “the medium in the message.”
But I think that my understanding of the two as feeding off one another in a sort of reciprocal or symbiotic way also stems from my love of the Frankfurt School. I was introduced to Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno as an undergrad and I think reading their essays on literature, and culture, and technology was formative to the ways in which I approach the intersection of modernism and media theory as mutually influential to and reliant upon one another.
Where are some gaps in modernist studies with regard to the study of media cultures:  sound, visual, digital, etc.?  How do you see your own work filling those gaps?
My first book was on radio, and when I was writing it, there wasn’t yet a considerable amount published on sonic media. (To be honest, there still hasn’t been a windfall.) There was, however, a fair amount in the works, (and I met a lot of the people working in this area at the Buffalo MSA conference in a seminar with Debra Rae Cohen and Michael Coyle). In the past few years a lot of these pieces have been published as articles and as books. I think my first book was part of a sort of mini-movement in modernist sound studies. And I hope that inquiries into sound: radio, noise, static, music, etc. is still on the rise. My first book, however, was also very interested in network theory. People like Bruno Latour, Alexander Galloway, and Eugene Thacker were key to my understanding of modernist radio writing during World War II. As were figures like Bertolt Brecht, who theorized (albeit incorrectly) the means by which radio networks would work. I think if I were to locate a gap, I would say it is in the area of network theory. Yes, modernist scholars have long been interested in the connections between writers. But what I am thinking of in part stems from my interest in the digital and that is the connections made between the human and the nonhuman. This is where I see a gap and where I would like to see modernist studies head. As for film, I think film and the broader visual arts have had the longest critical tie to modernist studies of the three. Not that there isn’t more work to do in this area, but as far as media cultures go, film has been the chosen gem by modernists for many years.
You’ve just published your first book, Modernism at the Microphone:  Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics during World War II.  What kind of an intervention were you seeking to make in the field of intermodernism?
When I started writing this book (what was originally my dissertation), I set out to find a way to engage with global modernisms. I came from a comparativist program, rather than an English department, and I think because of this I naturally wanted to find a way to look at modernism on an international scale. But I also didn’t want to be strictly comparative, as in English literature does X, whereas German literature does X and Y. After reading Brecht’s Lindbergflug, a radio play about Lindbergh’s flight across the ocean that had both national and international broadcasts, I realized that studying radio plays would be a way to engage with global modernisms without falling into a strictly comparative format. So on one level, the intervention I set out to make had everything to do with wanting to look at modernism on an international, but not necessarily comparative scale.
Once I narrowed the project’s scope down to the intermodernist period, so from the late-1930s to 1945 more specifically, the intervention I wanted to make became a sort of three-pronged beast. I firmly believe that modernism in the 1940s continued to be international, despite the familiar narrative that says late-modernism in Britain became more insular. I think this narrative exists because of our still-existing narrow definition of what counts as “literature.” By studying radio plays I wanted to challenge both this spatial narrative and what we consider “modernist literature” to include more middlebrow works and high-modernist pieces created for technological mediation to a mass audience. This leads me to my second goal, which was to show that far from sitting in an ivory tower, modernists were engaged with mass culture, technology, politics, and especially propaganda. This certainly isn’t a new argument. But I think that some of the narratives I included about modernists and their participation in government propaganda during the war are significant and should shape the way we understand both their works and modernism on the whole (and not just say the 1930s) as being political. Finally, I wanted Modernism at the Microphone to position modernists as early media theorists. For example, in the final chapter of the book I write about Thomas Mann as being a forerunner to Bruno Latour and his work on extended networks. Because I see modernism and media studies as being in a fundamentally symbiotic relationship, it was important for me to show that modernists were not just using media, but were theorizing it through their use in ways that helped shape the post-war engagement with media theory and modern literature.
In addition to completing this book, you’ve also recently published a series of interviews in the Los Angeles Review of Books with practitioners, theorists and critics of digital humanities.  Can you tell us how this project came about and what you’ve learned?
When I started my CLIR postdoc in June 2015, I was really more of a media scholar than a digital humanist. I had, like many grad students, worked with digital technology rather extensively from a pedagogical standpoint in the classroom and I also had experience building MOOCs as part of Notre Dame’s venture into edX, but I wasn’t a programmer or distant reader or experienced in computational research by any means. And I certainly wouldn’t have labeled myself a digital humanist, at least as I understood the term then. Research-wise I was much more interested in digital media theoretically, rather than say practically speaking. I was much more likely to pick up a book by say Alex Galloway or Richard Grusin than Franco Moretti or Ted Underwood.
Around the time that I became a CLIR postdoc I also started writing for the L.A. Review of Books. I got into this work through Kate Marshall, one of my Ph.D. advisors. I had written one review on a media studies book for the critical theory section and enjoyed doing the more public writing. It was a nice break from the work I had been doing on the book. It seemed to me that the critical theory section would be the perfect place to have a discussion about the sometimes-contentious divide between media studies and DH. It was for me a way of exploring the potential bridge between the two types of academic work that I was already doing. I wanted to explore the reasons why I struggle to meld my more traditional academic work in radio and my tinkering with digital tools through conversations with others in the field. I ended up pitching the idea to my editor, working with him to construct the questions, and got Moretti and Galloway to agree to do the very first interviews. After LARB reviewed these, I was given the green light to do ten more.
Looking back on these a couple months out I’ve learned a number of things. First, that I’m not alone in struggling to combine my work in media studies and DH. This is a struggle most of the people I interviewed openly discussed. I also learned that the divide between DH and media studies is all too real. Even though people from both sides would at times agree in their interviews, the reactions on social media to this series from other academics, some in DH and some in media theory, suggested that there is a lot of frustration with the emergence of the digital humanities and the perception that the field is being too-generously funded and is not critically engaged with politics or larger societal issues. (Not that these are the only divergence points by any means.) Second, interviews are a lot of work for the interviewer (even though that work often goes unnoticed, which I think is really the goal). The struggle is to make the interview seem as immediate and present as possible, when in fact it has gone through multiple levels of remediation—from oral, to written, to back to sounding oral but in a written format. Finally, I would say that I discovered both the positive and negative sides of participating in a more public venue and had to often remind myself that I was never going to be able to please everybody. Overall, the experience was definitely a positive one and I don’t plan on giving up public writing. But Twitter can also be like an overwhelming conference in which everyone wants you to ask the questions they want you to ask or interview the people they want to interview. I just had to say, “sorry, that isn’t the interview series I decided to write, but you should feel free to explore that yourself.”
How does your work as a scholar of modernism and your work as a digital humanist fit together? 
As I’ve said, it is a real struggle for me to combine my work as a scholar of modernism and a digital humanist, but I am working with a larger team, including former CLIR fellows and modernist scholars Carrie Johnston and Liz Rodrigues, on an augmented text platform that enables researchers and students to read modernist texts in new and exciting ways. The site is called “Reading Cities” and our pilot text, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “May Day,” is now online. “Reading Cities” allows scholars interested in modernist texts, histories, spaces, and cultures to build and read early-twentieth century literature in a way that enhances texts through multi-media interpretations. We hope that this site will lead to a more immersive experience of reading, one that takes into consideration other modes of learning, including spatial, visual, and sonic. We’ve won two small grants so far that have helped us move forward with beta testing and new design plans before we start a second round of building. For me this mixture of pedagogy and research, DH and modernism is the type of intervention in the field I want to make. It is a tool that is creative, scholarly, and will be publicly available.
I do think that there is a real difficulty facing modernists interested in DH work and that this difficulty exists in part because of the lack of openly available texts to the broader public. It is exceedingly difficult to create a corpus of modernist literature due to copyright laws. For example, you can’t just download The Great Gatsby or Mrs. Dalloway from due to the texts still being under copyright in the U.S. Now there are certainly some digital humanist scholars that are working around this. Matt Wilkens at Notre Dame, for example, is part of a larger group working with the HathiTrust to gain access to a corpus of texts that extends through the twentieth century. Richard Jean So at Chicago also works on more contemporary American literature, and has found ways to access digital versions of texts by minority writers. So access to the texts, but also access to the resources to move around copyright laws is a big part of being able to do computational research on modernist works.
What advice would you give to academics who would like to write for a wider audience, as you do in the LARB?
Usually when I am asked about my public writing, I am asked about how to get started. I always just tell people to use the contacts they have. It’s like anything in the academy—it’s all about networking. I have been actively working on publishing outside of LARB too, and again, this just comes about by talking to people, pitching ideas, and then sitting down to actually write something. I’ve had less success with sending pieces out cold. So for me, networking has always been the best means for this type of writing. The other piece of advice I commonly give has to do with gaining a few extra layers of skin to prepare them for the comments sections and social media. Our profession of course prepares us to have a thick skin to a certain degree with its sometime brutal peer review and one-upmanship. But entering the world of public discourse requires both an added level of apathy and restraint.
Next project(s)?
I am actually working on two different book projects, both of which are keeping me (mostly) tied to the WWII time period. While finishing Modernism at the Microphone I became really interested in Hollywood’s WWII film culture, and in particular adaptations of British novels. I became particularly intrigued by the film Mrs. Miniver, which is often dismissed now as melodramatic propaganda. But I find this film fascinating for the very reason that people now find it to be ineffectual. It is because the film is so melodramatic that it worked well as propaganda. There are historical and structural similarities between melodrama and propaganda that allow the two forms to collaborate with one another. You can see this in other dramas of the time, like Casablanca and The Mortal Storm where the quickly following highs and lows depicted in both the storyline and the mise-en-scène manipulate the audience’s emotions for political purposes. This isn’t always as obvious as one might think. Sometimes it can be the simple inclusion of tilted gardening tools that suggests to the audience that all is not right with the world. The larger project, which I am currently calling America’s Blitz, looks at the ways British texts and propaganda from the Blitz were translated by Hollywood for an American audience, making the threat abroad applicable to people sleeping safely an ocean away.
Realistically though, this book is going to take a while to write, not least because it will require a tremendous amount of archive work to be done in California and London. I’m based in New York City, which, while great for a number of research projects, is not ideal for a historical study of Hollywood or the Blitz. So this project will be a slower write and will happen as extended travel times become possible. I also have a shorter-term book project that I am just starting on that keeps me well within the media theory realm. In this book I am looking at a broader historical scope—from WWI to Vietnam—and am exploring the ways in which novelists used the metaphor of weaponry (from the telephone, to radar, to the atomic bomb) in their books to express a civilian population’s ability to cope with the devastation of war. For me this project is really exciting, as it seems a sort of culmination of both my academic work as well as my life growing up as an Air Force brat. I also think it brings together my interest in literature, history, and media materiality in a new, and at least for me, interesting way.
If you were going to characterize the cutting edge of (inter)modernist studies, where you see the field in the next five years, what would you say?
This is a tough question and my own interests are going to sway my answer somewhat. Of course the intersection between modernism and media studies isn’t new by any means, but I don’t think we are going to see a shift away from this pairing any time soon. I think that what we’ve seen a considerable amount of so far has been, on the one hand, archival recovery of the way modernists engaged with media and, on the other hand, an analysis of how emergent types of media impacted modern literature. Often these two blend together to greater or lesser degrees. I think where the shift is headed in modernist studies is to see media objects as not just objects that can be acted upon and utilized by human subjects, but objects that can narrate in their own right. I think this is really what my next two books are dealing with—the way in which all objects (including media objects) challenge what we understand as human subjectivity through a type of verbification, that enables them to not only tell stories, at times at odds with those of the human characters, but also disrupt the narrative of human centrality implied by forms like stream-of-consciousness. This interest takes bits and pieces from the old: media studies, thing theory and the up-and-coming: network theory, nonhumanism and even inhumanism. Of course these aren’t the only up-and-coming areas of modernist studies, but they are the ones that I am most deeply invested in and I’m excited to see how they further evolve our understanding and teaching of the modernist era.

This page has tags:

Contents of this tag: