The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception, and Aesthetics

By Sara Danius | Go to book overview
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Orpheus and the Machine

Friedrich Nietzsche once contemplated what he called the premises of the machine age. “The press, the machine, the railway, the telegraph are premises whose thousand-year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw,” he wrote in 1878.1 Nietzsche's words are as valid as ever, and in the age of cybernetics, they raise the question once again: What are the relations of modernization and modes of experience? More specifically, what are the relations of technological change and aesthetics, and how may they be conceptualized?

This is a book about technology and aesthetic modernism. It takes a closer new look at high modernism, opening a hitherto unexplored domain in the study of modernism and modernity: the nexus of perception, technological change, and literary form. Moving within a historical trajectory that extends from, roughly, 1880 to 1930, I argue that modernist aesthetics from Marcel Proust to James Joyce is an index of a technologically mediated crisis of the senses, a perceptual crisis that ultimately cuts across the question of art as such.

I began this book with a hunch. My original intention was to explore how, in the modernist period, the human sensorium came to be invoked as a touchstone for aesthetic gratification and experiential authenticity. In the process, it became clear that the machine invariably appeared in the same thematic cluster as the corporeal, the sensory, and the aesthetic, a complex of problems which offered an infinitely more interesting object of study. I decided to explore the thesis that the specific aesthetics of perception on which so much of classical modernism turns is tightly bound up with modern machine culture, and nowhere so strikingly as in those contexts where the technological has commonly been seen as irrelevant or


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