The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics during World War II

Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics during World War II. By Melissa Dinsman. Bloomsbury, 2015. xiv + 247pp. $108.00 (cloth); $39.95 (paper); $80.99 (eBook).

Reviewed by Ian Whittington, University of Mississippi

Explicitly modernist and transnational in focus, Melissa Dinsman’s Modernism at the Microphone argues that writerly engagements with radio during the Second World War adapted the experimental forms and themes of early twentieth century literature and extended them both in space—to a mass public spread around the world—and in time, into the 1940s and beyond. Dinsman’s volume is refreshing in its treatment of radio as a medium for which national borders are permeable, if persistent, barriers to cultural exchange. By connecting the wartime output of writers from Germany (Thomas Mann, Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, and Walter Benjamin), the United States (Archibald MacLeish, Ezra Pound, and Orson Welles), Britain (Dorothy Sayers, Louis MacNeice, and George Orwell), and the British Empire (Mulk Raj Anand), Dinsman captures the global extent of wartime broadcasting and its ability to forge networks for both quasi-military aggression and cultural connection. Dinsman’s analysis outlines a series of binaries or “paradoxes” inherent to wartime broadcasting (19): mass media exhibit progressive promise but too often have served totalitarian ends; much modernist writing fetishizes autonomy, while modernists themselves participated in propaganda; generative networks of collaboration are haunted by their weaponized other; and the drive towards communication is frequently frustrated. Late modernist writers, in Dinsman’s account, revealed these paradoxes as they negotiated them, whether those negotiations were ultimately successful or not; in the attempt, however, modernism’s aesthetic legacies were modified and extended to new audiences.

While radio seemed, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, to offer new models of acoustic citizenship, enthusiasts like Brecht and Benjamin quickly found their dreams of mass enlightenment and engagement scuppered by the rise of fascism on the Continent and its embrace of radio as a tool of indoctrination (18). Dinsman’s introduction handily outlines this trajectory of promise and disappointment, and in the process sketches the distinct pre-war histories of broadcasting in Britain, Germany, and the US. With the arrival of the conflict, as is well known, agents of cultural production mobilized themselves along with everyone and everything else. As Dinsman emphasizes, however, the wartime infrastructure of broadcasting—its physical networks of studios, transmission cables, antennae, and receivers—yielded new kinds of cultural infrastructure in the form of interpersonal networks of aesthetic exchange (25). As against a Kittlerian view of technology in which media speak through their users, Dinsman emphasizes the human influences on the networks and institutions of broadcasting (26).

But while Dinsman resists theories of hard determinism, a concern with the impacts of the technological apparatus itself runs through the volume, with media theorists like Friedrich Kittler and Bernhard Siegert lingering amid the human-centric analysis as if to illustrate the tensions that animate Dinsman’s larger subject. In Chapter 1, for example, Adorno’s wariness about broadcasting as an inherently fascistic medium derives from its one-way transmission and what he saw as its tendency towards standardization (38); and yet, as Dinsman argues in that same chapter, Welles’ The War of the Worlds (1938) demonstrates not only that radio can be deployed to anti-fascist ends, but that its audience members understood its protocols and codes. Both versions are, in a sense, true; media afford their users a necessarily constrained range of communicative possibilities, but cannot control all possible engagements within that range.

The central chapters of the work concern the BBC’s propaganda overtures to audiences at home, in America, and in the British Empire. In Chapter 2, “Militarizing the Messiah,” Dinsman addresses The Man Born to Be King, a multi-party radio play cycle about the life of Jesus Christ by Dorothy Sayers, who remains a relatively under-studied figure of the war years (with the notable exception of a recent essay by Alex Goody in the Bloomsbury collection Broadcasting in the Modernist Era [2014]). Dinsman foregrounds here the contradiction between Sayers’ representation of a peace-loving Christ and the uses to which that peaceful figure was put: “[U]nder Sayers’ direction,” writes Dinsman, “Jesus was transformed in to a militarized Messiah promoting a Britain unified by the Christian faith as an antidote to German Nazism” (59). Chapters 3 and 4 handle figures more familiar from extant accounts of broadcasting during the war, but Dinsman’s treatment puts them in a new light. With Chapter 3, she highlights how Louis MacNeice’s connections with America conditioned his wartime propaganda work for the Features department of the BBC. Of particular interest here is Dinsman’s treatment of MacNeice’s epic radio play Christopher Columbus (1942); she foregrounds both his translation of modernist techniques (particularly in the play’s rendering of the psychology of its anti-heroic protagonist) and his commitment to transatlantic understandings at a time of war. Dinsman’s reading of this play, together with Emily Bloom’s recent analysis in The Wireless Past (2017), significantly expands the critical literature on this important work of midcentury broadcasting.

The emphasis of Chapter 4 on the India Section of the BBC offers Dinsman an opportunity to map the book’s interest in networks onto a more human scale, by attending to collaborations between British and Empire writers—here, most notably, George Orwell and Mulk Raj Anand. While this chapter covers territory that is more familiar to scholars of wartime literature and culture than is much of the rest of the volume, Dinsman’s treatment of the subject is assured, and correctly focuses less on “Saint George” Orwell as a heroic figure than on the India Section as a “site of cosmopolitan difference and transnational contact” (114). This chapter also functions as a bridge with the following chapter, which though American in focus is similarly concerned with collaborative networks between broadcaster-authors. In Dinsman’s deepest archival excursion, she traces the history of postal communication to and about Ezra Pound following his postwar institutionalization for treasonous broadcasts during the war. In her reading, communication breakdowns between Pound and his correspondents (notably Archibald MacLeish) mirror larger tendencies within modernism, a movement that can at times exemplify and at times thematize communicational difficulty.

The analysis of Thomas Mann’s BBC broadcasts in the final chapter (apart from a short Epilogue on radio traitors) makes for a fitting close to the volume, as it brings the reader back to the words of a German exile in Hollywood, the city that offered refuge not only to Mann but to Adorno and Brecht as well. In its closing assessment of the infrastructural chain that allowed Mann’s broadcasts to reach Germany—recorded in California, air mailed to New York, transmitted via telephone to London, and again via long-wave transmission to Germany—Dinsman accentuates the simultaneously global and local qualities of wartime radio (165-68). Every net is built of nodes; these nodes, as Dinsman demonstrates over the course of Modernism at the Microphone, consist of particular people, devices, and institutions located in particular places. By addressing a broad swath of the figures who made important contributions to wartime radio, Dinsman makes a significant contribution to the fields of wartime literary and cultural study.

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