The Legibility of the Modern World
Like a host of European writers born in the late nineteenth century, Mann and Proust chronicle how the new collides with the old. Staging first encounters with various technologies, they contemplate how the new machines and their environments alter the ways of the world. Traditional modes of experience flare up one last time, visible for yet a few moments until the new technologies have been domesticated by the cognitive and perceptual habits they simultaneously help to transform. Those older worlds of habit, now subject to transfiguration, are henceforth experienced as having been organic. Technology thus enters the novels of Proust and Mann as an emblem of historical rupture. In fact, in modernism at large the image of the machine is so often grouped together with images of mortality, finitude, and spectrality that the constellation appears as a standing figuration. Consider, for example, the allegorical killing machine in Franz Kafka's short story “In the Penal Colony” (1919), or the furious attack on cinema as the Hades of modern man in Joseph Roth's Antichrist (1934), or the deadly automobile chase in Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf (1927)—“I saw at once that it was the long-prepared, long-awaited and long-feared war between men and machines, now at last broken out,” as Hesse writes.1 For all its existential overtones, the recurrent machinedeath figure has to be accounted for as a way of managing and making sense of those historical processes called modernization.
Technology helps change not only the world but also the perception of that world. This is partly why the image of the machine enters modernism together with problems of intelligibility. In The Magic Mountain, the hero's first experience of X-ray photography is a focal point, a narrative