The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Wastepaper Modernism: Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Ruins of Print

Wastepaper Modernism: Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Ruins of Print. By Joseph Elkanah Rosenberg. Oxford University Press, 2021. 240 pp. $84 (cloth); $79.99 (e-book).

Reviewed by Debra Rae Cohen, University of South Carolina

I’ve been waiting to read this book since I heard Joseph Rosenberg give a talk in 2014 at the London meeting of the Space Between on the passports of Vladimir Nabokov. I remembered the talk as intriguingly concerned with the documentary interface between materiality and identity, with plenty of striking visual examples. And Wastepaper Modernism (including its chapter on Nabokov) more than lives up to the promise of that talk. But if I was expecting a book largely focused on what Rosenberg here calls the “new compact of blood, land, and paperwork” (161), the modernist-era proliferation of documentation (in line with work on bureaucracy and the information state by scholars like James Purdon, Bridget Chalk, and Patricia E. Chu), what Rosenberg has produced is far more subtle and suggestive, attuned less to the machineries of documentation than the anxieties attendant on them.

Rosenberg here attempts nothing less than to establish a new strand of modernism, one in which the era’s concern for communicative possibilities is dogged by an obsession with the material decay of literature’s own papery materials: with modernism, he argues, “the paper-thin distinctions between permanence and ephemerality, meaning and matter, detritus and jewel, collapse—a collapse emblematized by the return of paper to its rag-heap origins” (27). The fault line between “high” and “wastepaper” modernists seems to run right down the middle of Joyce’s oeuvre , with the portentous reappearance of the “throwaway” in Ulysses an example of high modernist meaning-making via paper fragments, and the wastepaper-stuffed lair of Shem the Penman in Finnegans Wake a sign of how “ [l]etters, once committed to paper, become litter” (29). Wastepaper modernism, argues Rosenberg, existed “around the fringes of the high modernist 1920s,” when writers like Woolf had “too much faith in the circuitry of communication” to succumb to the vision of history as junk heap (32). Rather, he claims, a sense of communicative distemper and malaise more associated with late modernism is presaged by Henry James’s fascination with paper—as archive, as residuum, as exteriorized memory, ripe for burning.

After a pleasing overview of the metaphysics of paper through book history, Freud, and Derrida, Rosenberg turns to James’s fixation on “the negative capabilities of communication” as manifested in paper waste (41). Letter-burning, as in “The Aspern Papers,” is of particular import: “what makes letter-burning such a responsible act of destruction” for James, says Rosenberg, “is not just that it lays troubled ghosts to rest but that, at the same time, it curiously re-enchants matter by eradicating it, transforming the palpable objects of the past into implacable objects of desire. It turns them, in other words, into objects of uncommunicating communication” (78). Similarly, in the novels of Elizabeth Bowen—whose work serves as a connective thread—junk mail is a site of dissipating meaning, which “transforms the postal system into a means of circulating waste” (91); throughout her fiction, the “improper circulation of unwanted mail” corrupts “the relationship between mind and matter” (89). For both, the material excess of paper and its threatened degradation are constantly on the verge of overwhelming its communicative possibilities.

Rosenberg insists on distinguishing this mode of communicative discontent, and his treatment of it, from what he characterizes as a predominantly agonistic mode of modernist media studies, in which literary works are “only medially self-aware when imitating” rival media (15). If this seems a bit of a straw man—one he elsewhere backs away from by acknowledging the possible role of new media in accelerating Victorian anxieties around the “degenerative threat” of paper (26)—it nevertheless serves as a useful recentering of literature’s own “inevitable material remainder” (15). Rosenberg’s work thus helpfully supplements accounts like Richard Menke’s Literature, Print Culture, and Media Technologies, 1880–1900: Many Inventions (2019), David Trotter’s Literature in the First Media Age (2013), and Mark Goble’s Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life (2010). Though Rosenberg doesn’t quite convince me as to the necessity of establishing “wastepaper modernism” as a discrete aesthetic and a necessary term (or of James as a singular precursor to what seems otherwise a coherently late modernist syndrome) his individual studies are each tremendously vivid and convincing, with his treatment of Bowen particularly gripping.

But the stunning centerpiece of Rosenberg’s volume is its least characteristic chapter, a brilliant overview of the place of paper in Second World War literature and culture. In it Rosenberg moves deftly between historical detail and what he has termed throughout (following Steven Connor) “the material imagination of textual destruction” (8). What E.M. Forster called “a battle of books against bonfires” (qtd. in Rosenberg 117) was also, and more complexly, Rosenberg argues, a war in which books became bombs, in which the destructive potential of paper (literally recycled into the making of shells, as HD so memorably evokes in “The Walls Do Not Fall”) saw “one kind of book-death . . . utilized to defeat another” (132). The thick-description density of this chapter, in which Rosenberg mobilizes an array of cultural examples rather than focusing on a single author—examples that range beyond the scope of his announced concentration on narrative— shows him braiding together historical situation, theoretical models, and close readings in something of a tour de force. Fittingly, the chapter comes around to Bowen again, whose wartime writing demonstrates a characteristic “self-conscious[ness] about its own precarious textuality” (154).

Precarious, indeed, seems an apt term for the phenomenon of “wastepaper modernism,” which, says Rosenberg, itself yielded, later in the century, to the resurgence of meaning-making. Pointing, for instance, to the conspiratorial excess of meaningful waste in The Crying of Lot 49, Rosenberg reminds us of the irony behind the fascination with the decay of the page: “it is difficult to describe texture without turning it into text; difficult to represent a breakdown in communication without, at the same time, affirming literature’s ability to communicate; and difficult to write about the formless without giving it at least a basic form. The wastepaper modernists may write about destroyed pages, but they do so within perfectly intact books” (195).


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