Reading as Listening/ Modernism and Technological Noisiness

This is a short extract from a chapter that I’m working on, like, right now. But I think it makes a neat thing on its own. It’s me trying to give enough context about modernism and technology before reading Zadie Smith’s NW. But I’m trying to make that context not just a straightforward literary studies manoeuvre. Instead I want it to make sense with a way of reading that is influenced by Levinas’s ethics and Haraway’s idea of reading as a “situated argument” which can be “consonant and cacophonous”:

The central aim of this study is to listen carefully to the noise created by the confluence of digital mediated communication and the novel. In the case of NW, there is a distorting strain which is difficult to shut out, ringing in the reviews, press releases and other writing concerning the novel. This strain is the discursive category of literary modernism. This distortion will be listened to here, in order to better hear the peculiar noise of NW, and thus to more clearly situate the reading performed here. Technologies of modernity like the gramophone, the radio and cinema are said to have had a major influence on approaches to understanding the cultural significance of art, artistic practice and experimentations with form and styles. The perspective on technological forms provided by reading texts in this period is an ambiguous and complex one, as has been re-imagined by many critical works.[1] It is not only that there are contradictory perspectives in literary modernism on the value of contemporary mediating technologies, but that there is a noise surrounding them which is unresolved by the works themselves. The disembodied voice of the gramophone, and the present-but-absent body over the radio, are two forms most regularly linked to ideas of reading, in that they most obviously create a problem for the metaphysics of presence. This study, in wishing to stick with the idea of mediated technologies as an interruptive or excessive force, turns here to Juan A. Suarez’s observation of the position of otherness in these technologies in Pop Modernism: Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday (2007). This is in order to situate this chapter’s work at the confluence of ethics, technology and reading. Suarez states that ““[t]he pulses of quotidian otherness” can be seen in the “kaleidoscopic nature of the urban spectacle and in the cacophony of the media”.[2] In Suarez’s reading of modernism is found a focus on cacophony, a reading which resonates with Haraway’s reading practice, situating itself in reading technology in literary modernism as concerned with “popular ways of doing” which “stimulate our sensorium”.[3] Suarez reads technology through marginality, through one of the literary texts most associated with modernism. It is a kind of reading which augments Haraway and Levinas, helping to add to a cyborg ethics in preparation for reading NW.

Juan A. Suarez’s perspective in provides a useful way of thinking the relation between technological mediation and problem of otherness in meditating technologies as produced by the cultural discourse of modernity. Rather than viewing such mediation as made part of objective states of knowing, Suarez explains that reading modernist texts can show:

that popular practice does not only trade in meanings but also in intangibilities and opaque affect… [that] It is just as important to take into account the way the media and popular ways of doing and seeing move our bodies and stimulate our sensorium.[4]

The sensorium in modernity exists in “an art of users confronted with a new, at times overwhelming, material environment – the second nature of industrial capitalism”[5], which new technologies form a dominant part of. In this focus on the body as the locus of sensibility, Suarez’s reading records an impulse to engage with the lived experience of mediating forms via literary experimentation, in an attempt to understand mediation in a radically empirical, rather than purely aesthetic, sense. Suarez’s reading of The Wasteland refers to the mediation of sound by the concrete, with the sound of the gramophone describing part of the structure of the poem, integral to its vocality. The Wasteland becomes in his reading “essentially a D.J. session that treats the literary tradition as a sound archive to be manipulated by means of gramophone technology.”[6] Within this fertile ground of multiple voices as enabled by the gramophone such distinctions between high and low are viewed as “temporary positions in the cultural feedback loop rather than actual substantive differences”.[7] In this way, Suarez suggests that Eliot’s vanguard literary text troubles a binary of high and low culture when a reading is situated in the technological.

Suarez observes that “Noise, in the cybernetic sense of non-signifying matter, is another name for the otherness that modernism, as an art practice, discovered in the heart of the quotidian.”[8] This is constructed here as a meaninglessness alongside intelligibility, in that “media/ted representation thus reveals an uncanny double of the quotidian […] daily life as a realm that is at once knowable and enigmatic, predictable and contingent.”[9] Suarez confirms that the treatment of mediating technologies by literary modernism can be characterized by an ambiguity which recognizes the process of mediation not only as a site only of either transcendence or as a method for control, but rather as a process which enacts an irreducible difference which is disruptive and difficult to articulate in a comprehensive way. In the sense that mediating technologies are crisis points for literary modernism, situated around the voice and the body, it is because such forms (the phonograph, the camera, cinema) actively highlight the problem of otherness without providing the means of resolving it. The other, in some form, is always present in the moment of mediation, because of the continuous possibility of the breakdown of communication, which is manifest in noise. As Suarez suggests, “telephones and radio relayed personality through disembodied vibration [and] became bearers of human presence”.[10] Listening to this particular reading of modernism helps to make a reading of NW more careful, more subtle. It opens up a guide for reading this novel consonantly with literary modernism, by situating the reading in an awareness of the radical necessity of noise. Suarez’s “quotidian pulse of otherness” in technology is a cyborg image, one that is suggestive of a mode of reading which accepts the fragility of the relation between modernity, modernism and technology in the twenty-first century novel.

 

[1] See: Alex Goody, Technology, Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Polity, 2011); Marita Sturken, Douglas Thomas, and Sandra Ball-Rokeach, Technological Visions : The Hopes and Fears That Shape New Technologies (Philadelphia, Pa. ; [Great Britain]: Temple University Press, 2004); Tim Armstrong, Modernism, Technology, and the Body : A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Cecelia Tichi, Shifting Gears : Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987); Ryan Bishop and John Phillips, Modernist Avant-Garde Aesthetics and Contemporary Military Technology : Technicities of Perception (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010).

[2] Juan Antonio Suárez, Pop Modernism : Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press ; [Chesham : Combined Academic [distributor], 2007). p.7

[3] Ibid. p.12

[4] Ibid. pp.11-12

[5] Ibid. p.5

[6] Ibid.p.7

[7] Ibid. p.3 “The Art of Noise: The Gramophone, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and the Modernist Discourse Network” in Pop Modernism pp.119-140

[8] Suárez, Pop Modernism : Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday. p.8

[9] Ibid. p.9

[10] Ibid. p.120

 

Works Cited

Armstrong, Tim, Modernism, Technology, and the Body : A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Bishop, Ryan, and Phillips, John, Modernist Avant-Garde Aesthetics and Contemporary Military Technology : Technicities of Perception (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010).

Goody, Alex, Technology, Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Polity, 2011).

Sturken, Marita, Thomas, Douglas, and Ball-Rokeach, Sandra, Technological Visions : The Hopes and Fears That Shape New Technologies (Philadelphia, Pa. ; [Great Britain]: Temple University Press, 2004).

Suárez, Juan Antonio, Pop Modernism : Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press ; [Chesham : Combined Academic [distributor], 2007).

Tichi, Cecelia, Shifting Gears : Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).

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