Book Review | Novel Theory and Technology in Modernist Britain
Reviewed by Eric B. White, Oxford Brookes University
Heather Fielding’s engaging author-focused study Novel Theory and Technology in Modernist Britain connects several interrelated strands of high modernist orthodoxy to problems of reading and timing through motifs of technology. The book stages a series of dialectical encounters between the modernist novel and mass culture in the “Machine Age” and beyond. As Fielding notes, the term “machine” had a complex etymology “associated with ideas of volition” (92). In one historical definition pertaining to literature, a “machine” referred to a “contrivance for the sake of effect” that took the form of “a supernatural agency, personage, or incident” (OED), while in theatre it could also be a prop or device. Such usages provide plenty of scope for slippage between novel theory and technology, and the various ways in which writers and readers negotiate these fields in culture. Fielding’s protagonists are Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis and Rebecca West, all of whom, along with a range of critics and theorists, pit high culture against mass culture, “‘soft, feminist’” organicist aesthetics against “mechanistic, masculinist abstraction,” affect against epistemology, and so on. Fielding’s figurative machines mediate and instantiate these contests, while propelling her book’s narrative between its modernist subjects.
The introduction and conclusion roam broadly across the modern and contemporary period, engaging critics and theorists from Lewis Mumford, Martin Heidegger, and Percy Lubbock to Q.D. Leavis, Marshall MacLuhan and Bernard Stiegler. In chapter 1, Henry James sets the machinery in motion by "initiat[ing] a way of thinking about the novel that would be developed further by writers in the 1920s" (32). Building on work by Mark Goble, Pamela Thurschwell, Christina Britzolakis, and others, Fielding argues that James configures the magic lantern as a disruptive technological prosthesis, particularly in his preface to The Ambassadors. An early form of slide projection technology, magic lanterns provide James with a “metaphor to suggest how separate the reader is from the fictional scene” and thereby to manipulate point of view in his later works (37). The upshot is that James creates a mechanism to show how “the novel can resist its incompetent readers or save itself from them by utilizing strategies drawn from contemporary discourses of technology” (32). It’s not that these readers don’t matter in Fielding’s book – they do – but primarily as the antagonists of her study. Such readerships become persistent targets of a high modernist pedagogy that attempts to replace reader-consumers with (to borrow a phrase from The Little Review) “reader critics.”
Shifting the emphasis from visual to audio technologies, the second chapter extends this project to Ford Madox Ford’s engagement with telephony in his First World War tetralogy Parade’s End. Fielding pairs Ford’s literary impressionism with the fragmentation/connection dynamics associated with the telephone, and indeed, with modernism itself. In Parade’s End, she argues, this telephonic “narrative mode . . . ‘carries’ the novel ahead without inducing the kind of homogeneity Ford thinks occurs when a reader does the carrying” (62). Ford – or, as Fielding goes on to claim, the novel as a technological agent – accomplishes this feat by connecting narrative fragments thematically, even if they do not necessarily connect in the flow of narrative time. The reader does not act as the operator here, but rather, these movements and connections are “built into the structure of the novel itself” (78). Through that structure, Fielding engages with technology as a sphere of knowledge management more broadly conceived in the following chapter.
In chapter 3, Fielding artfully splices concepts from Frederic Jameson and the French philosopher Julien Benda to argue that, in texts such Paleface, Time and Western Man and The Apes of God, Wyndham Lewis mobilizes the “art of the eye” (“which exists as a contained object that a spectator regards intellectually, from a distance”) against the “art of the ear” (which “moves through the spectator and solicits an emotional reaction”) (88) to contest the primitivist aesthetics of D.H. Lawrence and Sherwood Anderson. In Paleface, Lewis contends that technological innovation is a feature of every human civilization, embedded in and inseparable from artworks, particularly those that express the “art of the eye.” If the novel can achieve a similar perspective, Lewis’s argument runs, then readers might reimagine their relationship to both the novel and technology. To Fielding, The Apes of God is Lewis’s most advanced articulation of this theory, suggesting “a utopian possibility” (99) where Lewis “imagine[s] the novel as a machine at the moment it stops being read, at the moment where a reader can gaze upon a contained, clearly defined visual object without being involved, feeling empathy, or otherwise experiencing a text” (115). The experiment, Fielding concedes, is doomed to fail, but then again, “[t]he effort to reimagine the machine is significant not because it will succeed [. . .] but because of the possibility it opens” (116). That possibility is extended by Rebecca West, who, in Fielding’s view, reimagines the novel as a kind of information technology.
Fielding makes a compelling case in chapter 4 for reconsidering the act of reading as a distancing rather than embedded and experiential process in West’s “The Strange Necessity.” In this critical exegesis of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Fielding argues, West “dismisses reading as a central critical category in order to situate the novel in the domain of technology, as a device for gathering and organizing knowledge” (118). West further describes the novel’s function in Pavlovian terms, connecting it to “a collective ‘super cortex’ that stores and co-ordinates knowledge” (119). She also “situates the novel at the heart of technics” via experimental processes in laboratory science and stresses the corollaries between these fields of cultural production (120). In an analogous move to West, who uses the “super cortex” to link writing novels with writing criticism, Fielding completes the circuit with previous chapters by creating a conceptual mechanism that allows readers and writers to become critics through technologically-mediated engagements with texts and their cultural contexts, and vice versa. The chapter concludes by looking forward and backward simultaneously, establishing West’s remarkable debate with Marshall McLuhan as a point of contact between high modernist theories of the novel and technology and their mid-century equivalents. Whereas McLuhan argued “that new media inherently encourage participation,” West, in Fielding’s argument, viewed “the novel as a prosthesis that creates knowledge itself, without concern for its reader and without . . . requiring participation” (120). This pivot points towards the book’s conclusion, which reconsiders the terms of engagement between high modernist novel theory and socio-technical relations in twentieth-century Britain and the modernist transatlantic. As a result of rethinking those relations, Fielding argues, the writers she covers went “to great lengths to imagine how to write a novel” that could “repel the involvement of its readers” (157), and in doing so, wrest back the sense of authorial agency they felt draining away in the “Machine Age.”
In Novel Theory and Technology in Modernist Britain, Fielding achieves cohesion by tacking closely to its novelists’ and critics’ points of view, but in doing so, encounters some problems. For instance, in her reading of West, Fielding argues that art “has an advantage over science…because it allows us to gather information about emotions and mental states, which are inaccessible to physiological science (Pavlov, of course, would disagree)” (125). However, the text does not explore that crucial disagreement. The comment remains a parenthetical aside, because the book’s narrative gears have already processed the novel into a kind of “laboratory in which experiments are performed on real people” (124). Such narrative maneuvers tend to collapse distinctions between fields and terms, such as science and technology, which, here, seem to merge with one another in the space of the laboratory. In a similar elision, in West’s work, “the distance between a creative and critical work [becomes] vanishingly small” (124). Fielding’s comparisons and similes keep close pace with West’s, “moving novel theory away from the reader and towards knowledge” (125), and “analyzing experience to reduce the unnecessary and turn the rest into useable knowledge” (129). However, in the process, Fielding appears to advocate for a form of instrumentalization that resembles the teleological model of reading the authors she discusses strongly rejected. A more agile and sustained consideration of reading, and other transductive processes such as “consuming” technology, might have headed off such issues. And a more substantial engagement with Stiegler, and a key term he developed, “technicity,” might also make such prosaic activities look less passive and more active, opening the possibility of transfiguring or re-imagining the study’s adversarial encounters between writers, texts and technology, rather than recursively reinstating them. The brisk, bipartite arguments in Novel Theory and Technology in Modernist Britain are both fascinating and well-wrought, but they tend to occlude the sustained engagement with key concepts that less context-driven studies should provide ample space for. Too often, when Fielding does open such spaces, “the novel is read, the machine works again,” and the book’s rigid dialectics churn past them, onto the next tantalizing duel (116).