Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism

By Paul Poplawski | Go to book overview

T

Technology and Mechanization 1890–1939

Modernist literary experimentation is closely linked to scientific and technological development. In the last decades of the nineteenth century the process of industrialization (with its radical transformation of the landscape, intense urbanization, mechanization of labor, mass production, gradual globalization), which had been pioneered by Great Britain, was quickly spreading through Europe, as was witnessed by the opening of the Paris Exposition in 1889 (a more sophisticated “replica” of the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851), followed by the one in Turin (1902) and by the Deutscher Werkbund Exhibition in 1914. New technological inventions like the telegraph, telephone, and typewriter, photography and the cinema, the bicycle, car, and airplane, along with the widespread use of electricity, completely changed the quality of life and human communication, as well as traditional concepts of space, time, distance, and speed.

One of the great, central symbols of modern industrialization was the Eiffel Tower, which in 1913 transmitted the first time signal to the rest of the world, and which found an echo in one of the most radical modernist poetic experiments, Apollinaire’s Lettre-Océan. The modern industrial metropolis and the multiplicity of its intricate labyrinths, its disorienting discontinuity, its cacophony of different languages and sounds, became a protagonist in Joyce’sUlysses (especially in “Aeolus” and “Wandering Rocks”); its overwhelming but also disturbing impressions on the individual were analyzed in the account of an imaginary plane ride in “Flying over London” by Woolf. The new worlds opened up by the machine and its multiple applications were celebrated by Italian futurism as the key to innovation, the essence of an art which, freed from the obsolete forms of the past, expressed the impetus and convulsive dynamism of modern life. Futurism exerted a profound influence on some English and American artists (such as Lewis,Pound, and Lawrence) who, however, as fierce enemies of the effects of industrialization, could not fully and uncritically embrace Marinetti’s cult of the machine.

Indeed, in modernist literature (and in modernist films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) the machine is also typically seen as the expression of man’s willful desire to dominate nature, and as a dehumanizing force that reduces the individual to a mere mechanism, a type of robot (the word was first coined in 1921). In many modernist works, therefore, there is a close link between technological determinism and cultural pessimism, the apparent promise of technology being represented as a dangerous illusion opening the way to the sort of mass destruction seen in World War I and

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