Deborah L. Madsen and Mario Klarer. The Visual Culture of Modernism. SPELL 26, 2011

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(available online one year after publication)


The Visual Culture of Modernism offers a wide-ranging exploration of intertextual relations that bring together artists, artistic forms and artistic periods in response to the question: what is the relevance of early twentieth-century American Modernism to our present historical moment? Scholars from Europe and America develop responses to this question based on the philosophical heritage of modernity and in the context of the range of Modernist cultural praxis. The essays collected here explore links between literary and cultural Modernism, the relationship between the concepts of modernity and Modernism, and the legacy of Modernism in the late twentieth century and the contemporary period. Cinema, cinematic paratexts, television, the visual arts of painting and photography, poetry, fiction, and drama are among the artistic forms discussed in terms of issues ranging from cinematic and stage reinterpretations of Modernist literary texts to the genre of televisual melodrama and the trope of racial passing. The essays argue that visuality remains an urgent concern, from the Modernist period to our present age of media revolution.


Table of Contents

Mario Klarer (Innsbruck):
Introduction 11

Thomas Elsaesser (Amsterdam)
Modernity: The Troubled Trope 21

Scott Curtis (Northwestern University):
The Efficiency of Images: Educational Effectiveness and the Modernity of Motion Pictures 41

Vinzenz Hediger (Frankfurt):
Body Rebuilding: Tracing the Body at the Dawn of the Cybernetic Age 61

Elisabeth Bronfen (Zurich):
Hitler Goes Pop: Totalitarianism, Avant-garde Aesthetics and Hollywood Entertainment 85

Johannes Mahlknecht (Innsbruck):
Promotion vs. Suppression: Intermedial Relationships between Early Narrative Film and its Fan Magazine Fictionalizations 105

Christian Quendler (Innsbruck):
I Am a Camera: The Development of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin across Stage, Screen and Time 119

Viorica Patea (Salamanca):
The Poetics of the Avant-Garde: Modernist Poetry and Visual Arts 137

Kangqin Li (Leicester):
Presenting the Real: Hopperesque Updike in “In Football Season” (1962) 153

Heike Schäfer (Mannheim):
The Cinema and Modernist Innovation: Serial Representation and Cinematic Immediacy Effects in Gertrude Stein’s Early Portraits 169

Michael Röösli (Geneva):
Picturing the Depression: Ambivalent Politics of Representation in FSA Photography 185

Carola Moresche (Innsbruck):
Haptic Close-ups and Montage: Surrealist Desire in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou 197

Cornelia Klecker (Innsbruck):
Time- and Space-Montage in Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours 209

Julia Straub (Bern):
Pathetic Copycats: Female Victimhood and Visuality in Melodramatic Films 225

Kimberly A. Frohreich (Geneva):
Making the “Monstrous” Visible? Reading “Difference” in Contemporary Fantastic Film and Television 239

Notes on Contributors 255

Index of Names 261



Modernity: The Troubled Trope

Thomas Elsaesser

The essay argues that the term Modernism, since the 1970s, has to be seen within a divided semantic field of force, where Modernism, Modernisation and Modernity connote different approaches and even embody opposed world views in the face of the changes and transformation that the idea of the “modern” wants to signal. In particular, a number of distinct tropes of “modernity” can be identified, such as “the metropolis and modern life” (taking its cue from Walter Benjamin), “the cinematic city” (focused on the impact of moving pictures on urban lifestyles, questions of gender and consumption) and the “history of vision” trope which, following Michel Foucault’s disciplinary regimes, argues that modernity is characterised by the soft, but coercive and regulatory powers of vision. Reviewing these tropes from the perspective of cinema studies, and its renewed investigation of “early cinema” and the pre-history of cinema, the essay comes to the seemingly paradoxical conclusion that in these particular fields at least, the most exciting aspects of twentieth-century modernity from our contemporary situation are not necessarily visual, while the most pertinent thinking about the visual today leads us beyond the twentieth into the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.



The Efficiency of Images: Educational Effectiveness and the Modernity of Motion Pictures

Scott Curtis


This essay places early educational film (roughly between 1900 and 1930) in the context of the impulse toward “efficiency” that swept the industrialized nations after the turn of the twentieth century. Drawing on educational literature in the United States and discussions of medical education and training films in France and Germany, the essay describes how educators articulated the efficiency of the (moving) image, especially in terms of the cost of teaching or the psychology of learning. Ultimately, the essay argues that the deployment of visual materials in the classroom during this period is best understood through the rubric of “efficiency.”



Body Rebuilding: Tracing the Body at the Dawn of the Cybernetic Age

Vinzenz Hediger

This essay traces figurations of the body in visual culture at the dawn of the cybernetic age. Through technological and organizational change from the mid-twentieth century onwards work has become increasingly dissociated from the body. In terms of work the body has, in fact, become progressively obsolete, and we have been witnessing, in the twentieth century, a fundamental realignment of body, work and self. Based on an understanding of visual culture as a key element of culture in the sense of a system of symbolization that provides a social semantics to contemporary societies, this essay proposes to read a number of figurations of the body in post-industrial societies as paradigmatic of what may be called the body’s age of obsolescence. Particular attention is accorded to the obese body, the sculpted body of the body builder, and the composite body of the cyborg. The contribution proposes to read all three body types in the light of Georges Bataille’s concept of “dépense” while highlighting the structural melancholia of the performance of the body builder and the problem of the technological self in the cyborg.



Hitler goes Pop: Totalitarianism, Avant-garde Aesthetics and Hollywood Entertainment

Elisabeth Bronfen


This essay takes Susan Sontag’s concept of fascist aesthetics as its point of departure to explore similar structures and themes in Hollywood films. Reflecting on the murky interface between the totalitarian political projects of the 30s and early 40s and avant-guard aesthetics, this essay proposes a cross-mapping of Riefenstahl’s Olympia with Busby Berkeley’s musical Dames and Walt Disney’s cartoon Bambi. While Hitler’s speeches on art offer a historical context for my discussion, the close analysis of key scenes of these three films serves to illuminate both the analogy in visual form and narratives, even while foregrounding seminal differences. Not only do these three directors differ in their intentions. Rather, both Busby Berkeley and Walt Disney consciously undermine the very fascination for a totalitarian aesthetic, which they also celebrate in their joyous enactment of mass body formations. I claim that it is not only fruitful but critically necessary to bring a film language, which in the case of Leni Riefenstahl explicitly served the purposes of a totalitarian political system, to bear on the films Hollywood produced at the same time, even if American visual culture emerged from a social order that was precisely not totalitarian but rather aggressively democratic.



Promotion vs. Suppression: Intermedial Relationships between Early Narrative Film and its Fan Magazine Fictionizations

Johannes Mahlknecht


At least since 1977, when the innovative marketing strategy of Star Wars showed film producers how much money could be made with tie-in products, Hollywood studios have come to appreciate movie fictionizations as a lucrative source of added income. Essentially adaptations of screenplays into prose fiction, they are routinely published alongside major cinematic releases, providing easy entertainment while boosting awareness of the films they adapt. Such fictionizations from the early days of cinema, between 1911 and 1915, published as short story versions in monthly magazines, can be seen as having served an additional and more vital function: along with other paratextual phenomena like lantern slides, expository intertitles, and filmaccompanying lectures, they clarified the often crude and obscure narrative techniques employed by the fledgling new medium. This essay draws attention to the variety of ways in which filmmakers relied on the established medium of written narrative in order to explain and promote the new, visual one. By comparing various examples, the essay shows to what degree a concept of textual unity in early film can be understood as extending beyond the boundaries of film itself.



I Am a Camera: The Development of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin across Stage, Screen and Time

Christian Quendler


Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939) is often cited as a modernist work that introduces a cinematic idiom to literary fiction. His invocation of the camera as a metaphor for a literary narrative stance has become a well-known example of modernist intermedial exchanges that gauge the limits of verbal and visual regimes. This essay revisits such exchanges from the perspective of historical theories of adaptation. I will begin by situating the novel within an intertextual chain of feedback looping between literature and film that has contributed to innovative forms of literary and filmic writing. The remainder of the article examines two adaptations of Isherwood’s novel. The stage play I Am a Camera (1951) and its subsequent cinematic adaptation (1955) complete what may be called a transmedial circle of artistic interpretation. They serve as explications of what becomes synthesized in the intermedial figure of the camera eye. Since these adaptations were produced over a decade after the novel’s publication, they also present new sets of media-specific assumptions concerning literature and film. Thus the novel’s history of versions helps to trace a historical narrative of the further development of word-and-image relations in late modernism.



The Poetics of the Avant-Garde: Modernist Poetry and Visual Arts

Viorica Patea


This essay offers a brief overview of the relationship between modernist poetry and avant-garde art and examines the way in which key concepts of modernist aesthetics – e.g., the ideogram, the vortex, the objective correlative and theories of impersonality – are poetic equivalents of the new experiments in the visual arts. The interaction between poetry and visual arts marked the beginning of the twentieth century and remained the hallmark of postmodernist poetics. Cubist, Dada, Expressionist, Surrealist and abstract painting articulated the technical repertoire that was later adopted by other artistic disciplines. American modernist poets such as Eliot, Pound, Cummings, Stevens and Williams found in the technique of visual arts the key of how to recenter poetic expression on abstract designs that put an end to poetry’s reliance on mimetic principles. In the twentieth century Anglo-American poetry draws on the aesthetic principles of non-representational arts that provide the model of a new poetic language. 



Presenting the Real: Hopperesque Updike in “In Football Season” (1962)

Kangqin Li


This paper offers a formalist analysis of John Updike’s visual composition in his 1962 short story “In Football Season” by putting him alongside the American Realist painter Edward Hopper. Applying Jose Ortega y Gasset’s perspectivist theory and Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Postmodernist definition of Realism, the paper will first look at how “the real” is presented in Updike’s short story and explore Updike’s approach toward Realism as a representational form. With a better understanding of the form of Updike’s short story and the relation between the form and the world beyond, the paper further explores the visual representation of form and space in the short story. The purpose of the paper, therefore, is not to claim how similar Updike and Hopper are in their artistic sensibility, nor to subvert Updike’s status as an American Realist writer. Rather, it is to see Updike’s short fiction in a different light and to understand his “visual” contribution to the short story form.



The Cinema and Modernist Innovation: Serial Representation and Cinematic Immediacy Effects in Gertrude Stein’s Early Portraits

Heike Schaefer


“Montage structure,” “camera eye perspective”: it is common critical usage to describe the formal innovations of modernist literature in cinematic terms. And, indeed, the cinema provided numerous modernist writers with a model for their break with the conventions of realism. This essay seeks to expand the critical understanding of how early film affected literary practice – and thus also to broaden the scope of what may count as cinematic writing – by addressing an aspect that has received little attention to date: namely, the impact that the immediacy effects of early cinema had on modernist writing. My analysis focuses on an author who began writing during film’s early years and who was particularly invested in modernist experimentation: Gertrude Stein. In her literary portraits of the 1910s, Stein uses a cinematic form of serial variation to develop a performative non-mimetic mode of writing that is able to convey both the presentness and processuality of experience, identity, and signification. Stein’s concern with temporal, perceptual, and representational immediacy, her use of seriality as a compositional method to create the impression of presence and movement, and her recognition that autoreferentiality can be employed to heighten immediacy effects establish a correlation between her portraits and early film.



Picturing the Depression: Ambivalent Politics of Representation in FSA Photography

Michael Röösli


The genre of photojournalism is situated at a crucial intersection of the Modernist landscape. It took not only technical innovations to capture and distribute photographic images quickly and cheaply among a growing readership of newspapers and magazines: photography as a new medium of communication also required an entirely new paradigm of reading. One of the most rewarding places to look at the development of this conventional apparatus is the Farm Security Administration or FSA, which created an extensive archive of journalistic pictures, and at the same time produced some of the most famous American photographers of the Depression period. The work of Walker Evans – especially the portfolio for his and James Agee's book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) – is of particular interest here, because it adopts the strategy of systematically disrupting the generic rules that encompass the fieldwork of FSA photographers. Evans thereby presents the implicit traits of the genre to the viewer's awareness, and at the same time renegotiates several of its problematic implications. In short, his work functions as an indicator of both a new paradigm of reading photographic texts and the need to uproot the same paradigm as a prerequisite to achieve political change. 



Haptic Close-ups and Montage: Surrealist Desire in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou

Carola Moresche


The Surrealists were fascinated by cinema’s ability to visualize desire. The close-up and montage were taken up by surrealist film critics such as Louis Aragon to hail the medium’s capacity to focus on the hidden details of quotidian reality. In an evaluation of directors based on their surrealist potential the Surrealists gave advice as to which directors’ films to see and which not. Erich von Stroheim is amongst those directors on the to-see list. The frequent use of close-ups in Greed focusing the attention of the viewer on the body and the elaborate montage sequences visualizing internal processes such as fear, longing or anger make it an ideal example for what the Surrealists valued in cinema: the visualization of desire by concentrating the look and “restrict[ing] the field of vision so as to intensify the expression” (52), as Louis Aragon states in “On Décor”. To emphasize the haptic and emotive qualities of Erich von Stroheim’s close-ups I will contrast and compare them with the quintessential surrealist film Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel. 



Time- and Space-Montage in Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours

Cornelia Klecker


In the film adaptation of The Hours (2002), director Stephen Daldry employs a kind of montage that was frequently used as the literary device of stream-of-consciousness. For that reason, this essay seeks to apply to the film the model of time- and space-montage that David Daiches established when analyzing Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which will help explain the framework of the adaptation. In very plain terms, one could say that Mrs. Dalloway is about one day in the life of a woman. The Hours is, essentially, about one day in the lives of three women. Through these three women, the film provides representations of the writer, the reader, and the protagonist of the novel Mrs. Dalloway. Furthermore, the motivation behind the filmmaker’s choice to draw particularly upon spacemontage will be explained by the basic arrangement of the story and parallels with Mrs. Dalloway will be drawn. Just as Virginia Woolf connected two of her characters – Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus – in her novel, Stephen Daldry interlinks his three protagonists, who all exist in separate, locally and temporally distinct settings, by the two entities of time and space.



Pathetic Copycats: Female Victimhood and Visuality in Melodramatic Films

Julia Straub


This essay explores the representation of copied victims in David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Two characters, Twin Peaks’ Madeleine Ferguson and Vertigo’s Judy Barton, are the focus of my discussion. They are referred to as “copycats” since they temporarily adopt the identity of a dead original victim: “Laura Palmer” and “Madeleine Elster” respectively. Victimhood seems to be an attractive option for them because it gives them, in various forms, emotional gratification. However, both Judy Barton and Madeleine Ferguson copy originals that do not exist: the original victims are ultimately constructs which are reflective of other people’s desires and projections. The more prominent claim this essay makes is that the copied victim represents the postmodernist radicalization of the victim stereotype that is common to traditional melodrama. Melodrama thrives on the pathos it generates with the help of visual means of expression. The copied victim doubles this effect of visualizing meaning and embodies the close link between melodramatic affect and the visual as it has shaped melodramatic cinema in the twentieth century.



Making the “Monstrous” Visible? Reading “Difference” in Contemporary Fantastic Film and Television

Kimberly A. Frohreich


Following the trend of the humanized monster in the contemporary fantasy genre, the three X-Men films and the True Blood television series question the visual representation of the monster and the way the figure has been used to stigmatize the racial and/or sexual other. These narratives use the somatic metaphor of “passing” to highlight the ways in which identity categories are defined through visible “difference,” thereby suggesting that race and sexuality are performative rather than essentialized. Yet while these stories seem to discourage stigmatizing readings of “monstrosity,” or racial and/or sexual otherness, and encourage the spectator to see and interpret “difference” in new ways, the filmic discourse sometimes represents the humanized monster as complicit with white heteronormativity. In this essay, I argue that the discourse of the X-Men films positions the spectator in such as way as to visually identify the passing monster and ultimately reinforces the binary between the racial and/or sexual other and white heteronormativity. The discourse of True Blood, however, plays with spectators’ visual expectations and often positions them on the same level as characters, thus destabilizing the distinction between the monster and the human.

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