The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Automatic: Literary Modernism and the Politics of Reflex

Automatic: Literary Modernism and the Politics of Reflex. By Timothy Wientzen. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021. ix + 256 pp. $94.95 (cloth); $34.95 (paper); $34.95 (ebook).

Reviewed by Megan Faragher, Wright State University

Timothy Wientzen ends Automatic by bringing attention to “choice architects” – those who nudge or psychologically manipulate consumer decisions by taking advantage of scientifically-verified conditioned responses. We live, largely, in a world in which the management of human response is an omnipresent factor in our lives; our social media and online environments are entirely managed by experts in human responses and reflexes. This phenomenon has greatly come to be understood as the cause of larger political crises in our era; rising waves of authoritarianism and white supremacy, facilitated by these algorithmic systems of response management, are amongst the most ominous reminders of the vitality of “reflex” – automatic response that is scientifically estimable – as a critical discursive framework for our modern era. Wientzen’s book takes as its concern the burgeoning discourse around reflex and automatic response in the early 20th century that sets the stage for our current world of choice architects and algorithms; Automatic not only provides a history of reflex but convincingly contends that that “reflex played a decisive role in configuring the political dimensions of literary modernism” (4).

Wientzen’s focus on reflex as a central concept contributes not only to scholarship on embodiment and modernist aesthetics, but also to the work of new materialisms. This is particularly fitting, he argues, because just like the debate over reflexes that his book records, new materialism likewise “affirms the power of matter in conditioning behavior [. . .] while resisting the temptation to see matter in deterministic ways” (7). So while Automatic shares with books like Sara Danius’s The Senses of Modernism and Tim Armstrong’s Modernism, Technology, and the Body a recuperation of corporeality as vital to an understanding of modernism’s political import, it adds to this project as well by attending to the historically evolving physiological models of the relationship between bodily sensation and automatic behavior.

Automatic establishes that discourse around reflex is foundational to modernist and intermodernist studies, particularly as regards the rise of mass culture. To the extent that technologies like the wireless and film demonstrated abilities to impact mass audiences, fears that these new media would homogenize human experience have persisted. Wientzen is aware of these ongoing debates, framing the argument about reflex as, at least in part, a continuation of larger debates around Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “cultural hegemony” whereby “social milieu” became established “as the domain of politics,” and whereby reflex was determined to play a “significant role in political life” (28). Chapter one previews the continuity between this “politics of reflex” and other already popular topics in modernist scholarship, including the rise of modern advertising techniques (via Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays) and Taylorist theorizations of human behavior incorporated by managerial psychologists.

Wientzen homes in on the evolution of “reflex” as it evolved within the sciences, developing a complex and persuasive argument that British literature of the 20th century was reacting to a correlating and conflicted evolution in the psychological understanding of human responses. Chapter one, fittingly titled “Automatic Man: A Genealogy,” cites the etymological emergence of “automatism” in the 1930s as a foundational moment in the history of reflex but continues to unearth critical evidence in the evolving academic discourse around automatic response throughout the 20th century, convincingly asserting that debates over reflex were a wellspring for 20th-century literature and thought. On the one hand, theories of reflex provided an avenue for viewing human behavior as predictable and manageable, if aided by scientific exploration. Along these lines, the book details the intellectual rise of Watsonian behaviorism, Pavlovian psychology, and Bernaysian public relations, all of which lauded reflex as a new avenue for enriching the masses through the mastery and manipulation of human response. But others considered such theories of reflex anathema to the complexity of human experiences and responses, and Wientzen likewise traces how the vitalism of Bergson critiqued automaticity. In addition to tracing the historical debate around reflex within academic and professional fields, Wientzen tracks the varying responses to  debates over reflex, which included a mixture of skepticism and intrigue. The book centers on four authors – D.H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Rebecca West, and Samuel Beckett – each of whom wrestled with automaticity in their works. Wientzen traces authors’ simultaneous fascination with and resistance to the specter of the “automatic man,” and likewise produces some of the most compelling readings of enigmatic works like West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and Beckett’s trilogy.

Automatic positions each of the featured authors within phases of the evolution of reflex psychology. For example, in Chapter two Wientzen reads Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent in terms of Bergsonian vitalism.  Vitalism represents one of the most critical “interventions in the politics of reflex,” as exemplified by Bergson’s argument in Creative Evolution, where the philosopher rails against a mechanistic model of human evolution and promotes one with due respect to flux (42). Bergson’s work represents one key vector of influence in the history of automatism. Wientzen argues that Lawrence’s relationship to reflex is similarly critical of its limited respect for human creativity; the chapter convincingly argues that Lawrence’s repeated critiques of the deadening impact of institutions on human habit and behavior in novels like Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Lover are testament to a deep understanding that, while not directly influenced by Bergson, was coterminous with the latter’s efforts to wrest the individual from the grasp of automatic response.

Pairings of literary figures and the history of reflex not only provide for elucidatory readings of the texts in question but further explorations of some of modernism’s most abiding tropes. For example, in Wientzen’s reading of Lawrence, we also find alternative approaches to the concept of myth and modernism; where Eliot’s myth worked to invigorate respect for tradition and continuity, Lawrence understood myth as resistant to mechanistic response. For Lawrence, myth elicits a focus on feeling rather than intellect, negating its power to evoke collective reflex. Just as Lawrence’s model of myth opposes other tried theories of myth within standard literary modernist readings, Wientzen offers reflex (and responses to it) as critical for understanding a series of other tendencies within literary studies. As another example, Chapter one presents Schlovsky’s “Art as Technique” and the Formalist practice of defamiliarization as a foil to the “politics of reflex” (35). Additionally, critics like C.K. Ogden, I.A. Richards, and F.R. Leavis are likewise repositioned within this debate over reflex, with critiques of mass culture and the rise of close reading best understood as repudiating reactionary responses to art. Wientzen thus centers the literary studies itself as a central ground for debates over the psychology of reflex.

If literary critics responded to reflex, Wientzen also rightly emphasizes the resistance of many writers to the threat reflex posed to art’s autonomy; one recurrent quotation from Samuel Beckett that appropriately frames the book is “Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit" (8). Far from being chained to the vomit of habit, authors featured in Automatic uncover new ways to counter, or embrace, automaticity. Chapter four brings a new perspective to the early Beckett novel Murphy, framing the book’s underlying tension as that between Murphy and a series of conditioning influences, all of which he desperately, futilely, tries to resist. Embracing tools like the horoscope, which promise a determined world, Murphy rejects the conditioning of his body from the outside stimuli, even working to stop his own breathing by interrupting his body’s natural responses. Despite himself, Murphy becomes more and more constrained, eventually working in an asylum, with the institutional “management of the mind” at the center of its mission (158). Wientzen concludes by reframing the more oft-discussed Molloy trilogy in terms of the repetitious mentions of words like habit and routine in a later play like Waiting for Godot. Wientzen interprets Molloy’s senseless but automatic rock-sucking (among other of his quirks) as a form of aesthetic response with reflex as its basis. In Beckett’s later work, Wientzen argues, “reflex becomes part of an aesthetic agenda rather than a political one” (163). The humorous references to Pavlovian conditioning in latter dramatic works like Waiting for Godot provide a sense of Beckett’s entire oeuvre as holistic, evolving continuously as it grapples with his changing responses to the traumatic impact of habit.

Among those embracing, or even just accepting, automatism as conducive to community, Wientzen brings to the fore Eliot and West, each of whom believed that environmental conditioning of the body established the bounds for national sympathies. In Chapter three, West’s ouvre demonstrates the importance of Pavlov, particularly the publication of Conditioned Reflexes (1926). The theory of Pavlovian nationalism likewise informed common responses to fascism; the book notes that figures like Hannah Arendt and Rebecca West integrated rhetoric around brainwashing and reflex to explain the actions of the individual under totalitarianism. 

This book’s argument is deeply persuasive, and Automatic signals a new and robust direction in literary studies, which brings to the fore alternative narratives for understanding modernism’s rise and trajectory. It presents significant contributions not only to our understanding of the impact of scientific discourse on literature but also to a growing body of literature redressing the worn narrative of modernist “interiority” with new and exciting engagements with works of literature both in the canon and outside of it. The book presents not only a clear central idea, but also a compelling narrative arc of the concept of “reflex” as it is reflected across its history within literature and culture.

Works Cited
Beckett, Samuel. 1930. Proust. Grove Press, 1957).

This page has paths: