Encountering Choran Community: Literary Modernism, Visual Culture, and Political Aesthetics in the Interwar Years

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Encountering Choran Community: Literary Modernism, Visual Culture, and Political Aesthetics in the Interwar Years. Emily M. Hinnov (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 2009) 246 pp.

How did modernist authors and photographers seek interconnectivity--in their works as well as between their works and readers/viewers? What were their visions of utopian community in a time of poverty, racism, and impending world war? How might we as scholars and teachers seek interconnectivity with our colleagues, students, and the larger world around us? Emily M. Hinnov raises such questions in Encountering Choran Community: Literary Modernism, Visual Culture, and Political Aesthetics in the Interwar Years.

Hinnov introduces her thesis by noting that studies of modernism often emphasize canonical male writers, whose literature of fragmentation, isolation, and ennui, along with the denigration or romanticization of the social or racial Other, too often holds sway in literary criticism and in the classroom. Hinnov instead focuses on modernist literature by women that she sees enacting a "key counternarrative to Modernism's engagement with early twentieth-century master narratives" (14). Vital to such counternarratives is the choran community arising from the choran moment, terms drawn from Julia Kristeva's concept of the semiotic chora, "a prelinguistic state of consciousness and connection with the maternal body that leads to an integrated understanding of self and, by extension, other" (Hinnov 19). It is a place of wholeness and bliss as yet untouched by the symbolic--the realm of structured language and social order we enter into the moment we are born. Throughout our lives, however, the semiotic might pulse through the symbolic as a counter-language, such as poetry or whisperings, murmurs, humming, and song--anti-patriarchal rhythms and sounds capable of disrupting the status quo. Choran community occurs "when characters and/ or readers (re)cognize their connection with a larger, inherently unified whole," Hinnov writes (14).

Hinnov prefaces Chapter 1, "The Phantasmic Mother: Virginia Woolf's Fiction, Gertrude Kasebier's Photography, and Utopian Maternal Longing," with the 1884 photograph of two-year old Virginia Stephen sitting on her mother's lap, gazing at the camera while her mother looks down, and a stylized photograph by Kasebier called The Manger, or Ideal Motherhood (1899), in which a woman in a white dress and long diaphanous veil holds a swaddled baby to her breast. Hinnov presents these images of the photographic choran moment to show that both Woolf and Kasebier "made use of maternal longing in envisioning wholeness through their art" (60), and she proposes that readers and viewers of such scenes might recall "their own maternally-bonded self," prompting "a tiny freedom, a sense of life inherent in the intertextuality between our own memory of a similar cohering moment and the image at hand" (61).

Acknowledging that Kasebier comes under criticism for privileging "a visual code of whiteness as ideal" (65), Hinnov nevertheless regards her as "particularly modern" for seeking wholeness "through deeper understandings of early states of consciousness" (65). The Manger depicts "unity with the lost maternal body" while Mother and Child (Decorative Panel) (1899) shows a woman bending towards a baby girl who has already begun to break the maternal bond, turning away from her mother, like the toddler Virginia looks away from Julia Stephen--a painful rupture but necessary for the child to achieve individuation. In Blessed Art Thou Among Women (1899), a mother guides her school-age daughter out the door, "benevolently shepherd[ing] her daughter from one stage of consciousness to the next" (67). While Kasebier might be seen as "replicating the Angel of the House ideology of her day" (68), Hinnov urges us to read these photographs "both aesthetically and politically" (68), for such choran moments between mothers and daughters counteract master/male pictorial narratives with "a phantasmic maternal presence [that] becomes the catalyst for self-revelation" (68). …