Marketing British Modernism: 'The Egoist' and Counter-Public Spheres

By Morrisson, Mark | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Marketing British Modernism: 'The Egoist' and Counter-Public Spheres


Morrisson, Mark, Twentieth Century Literature


In pre-WWI London, mass-circulation publications like Alfred Harmsworth's Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips, and best-selling novels like Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan, epitomized a commercial culture that arose alongside a huge increase in the availability of consumer products, and a concomitant expansion of the advertising industry to create markets for new goods.(1) Though Habermas implicates the commercialization of the press in the decline of the liberal public sphere, Edwardian oppositional groups discovered ways to deploy some of the same tactics that made Harmsworth a millionaire in order to unite large publics and support widespread social and political change. Suffragists and radical political groups created discursive spaces outside of the dominant public sphere - what I will call "counter-public spheres"[2] - but the burgeoning commercial mass culture made these counter-public spheres viable. Commodity ads funded suffrage papers; public spectacles and popular advertising campaigns helped package, publicize, and sell causes like "the vote" to thousands of women (see Tickner). Anarchists, syndicalists, and socialists also turned to mass-publication strategies to create an alternative press and to reach new followers.

As Andreas Huyssen suggests, many early modernist writers and artists responded to aspects of this expanding commodity, culture with antipathy (Huyssen, pt. 1). The Egoist (E) and its predecessors, The Freewoman (FW) and New Freewoman (NFW), would seem to exemplify, the type of "coterie" publication that turned its back on mass audiences and published either for posterity or for what Ezra Pound would call the "party of intelligence" (E2/1/17, 21).(3)

These little magazines were arenas for radical political and economic theories, the "egoistic" philosophy affirmed by Dora Marsden, and the early work of modernist authors like Pound, Richard Aldington, H. D., F. S. Flint, and T. S. Eliot - all of whom generally appear to affirm the high-culture side of Huyssen's "great divide."(4) But Huyssen's argument overlooks an important phase of early modernism, one that blurs the separation of modernists from avant-gardists by their stances toward mass culture? I wish to explore the close, if brief, contact between modern commodity-advertising tactics and the modernists who in many ways most upheld a notion of high culture against mass-culture "contamination."

The counter-public spheres that I will discuss - those of suffragism and of anticapitalist and antistatist political movements - showed these modernists how to adapt mass-advertising tactics to further political and social, rather than explicitly economic, goals. I will argue that the writers and editors for The Freewoman/New Freewoman/Egoist were attracted to the proliferating types of publicity of an energetic advertising industry, and that they also attempted to adopt mass-advertising tactics - not directly from the commercial enterprises of the mass-market magazines, but rather via the suffrage and anarchist movements - in order to seek out large audiences within the prewar London masses. These attempts mark a surprising optimism among modernists about the possibility of forming broad-based counter-public spheres in opposition to bourgeois social norms, liberal and statist politics, and, above all for modernist authors, conventional literary taste. I will give an overview of developments in commercial advertising, and how those developments were deployed by suffragists and other political radicals in prewar London. These oppositional movements provided an institutional context for the little magazine that began as The Freewoman - a feminist paper - and ended as The Egoist - a primary vehicle for modernist authors. I will then discuss these authors' attempts to forge ties to oppositional movements and to market modernism via the institutions and material practices of commercial culture.

Avant guerre oppositional groups, like women's suffrage organizations and socialist, anarchist, and syndicalist political movements, were intricately related to mass-advertising and mass-publication techniques, which were enjoying unprecedented success. …

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