Temporizing Modernities

  • James Gifford
    Personal Modernisms: Anarchist Networks and the Later Avant-Gardes. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Jane Nicholas
    The Modern Girl: Feminism Modernities, the Body, and Commodities in the 1920s. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Judith Paltin

A complicated dance with cultural power occupies the subjects of both of these works. Marginalized as late or irrelevant in the one case by a reluctance to conform to developing Cold War antagonisms, and propelled by a constellation of disciplining consumerist forces in the other, these modern subjects negotiate a serious place for themselves in a twentieth-century cultural history that too frequently, these authors argue, has underappreciated their absorbing contributions.

Jane Nicholas’ analysis of Canada`s early twentieth-century Modern Girl discloses how Canadian cultural regimes depended on the complacent passive voice. Canadian women “were encouraged” or “were warned” without respite through those decades, about their body and their behavior, about a need to be guarded from dangers to “racial purity” or an overwrought sexuality, and a promise, not to put too fine a point upon it, that they could achieve the financial rewards of compliance. These discourses also worked against inclusion of Canadian populations such as the Indigenous Modern Girl, who was barely allowed visibility in the period. Nicholas argues that in spite of these promised enticements, many women performed sophisticated repossessions of their own bodies and their images to abscond from that sanctimonious custody. Nicholas skilfully blends theories of gender and sexuality with close readings of commodified cultural objects, media-driven discursive patterns, and Canadian local practices. Her argument opens with a compelling emblem: a late 1920s photograph of Sylvia Horn, with the bobbed hair and exposed chest that marked the typical Modern Girl, posed in a dance position, and as Nicholas puts it, “precariously balanced and stretched in all directions.”

Nicholas has a strong conception of the strategic value of “modern expertise” asserted by advertisers and beauty columnists in producing the Modern Girl`s idealized body (and selling the commodities which were to conjure it). Nicholas traces how the industrialization and scientization of beauty fed quite easily into the common advertising conflation of girl body and modern car in the age of mass (re)production. Against that, she observes how difficult it was in fact to regulate from above an ideal formed around principles of modern freedom and fulfilled desires. Recurrent events such as beauty contests brought the same conflicts into public debate over and over. Some of the most fascinating material Nicholas uncovers are of images inscribing this competition between freedom and social control in all its ambivalence, such as an advertisement in which the Modern Girl’s body is elongated and dominates a background of skyscrapers. As Nicholas argues, that elastic malleability served the Canadian Modern Girl well in eventually taking control of her own pleasures, energies, and enthusiasms.

Where Nicholas’ subjects saw their selves and their bodies become highly public battlegrounds in media-rich conflicts over feminine modernity, James Gifford’s networks in Personal Modernisms must be discerned in the relative shadow of wartime economies, scattered small presses, private letters, and a decades-long history of critical readings of varying inexactitude. The book concentrates on the relations among writers associated with Henry Miller’s Paris home, Villa Seurat, such as Anaïs Nin and Lawrence Durrell, a London-Oxford contingent, and various expatriate communities in Egypt, New York, and California, perhaps even stretching to China. Gifford makes a set of difficult arguments with enthusiasm and forensic carefulness. He works methodically through the necessary historical context and integrates within a generous rubric various shades of anti-authoritarianism. It is a strategy that mirrors the philosophical quality which allowed the writers in question to sympathize intellectually while refusing to coerce each other (or their readers) into a “movement or school.” He argues with reason that these writers, as well as their ideas, for various causes have been undersold, and the extent and influence of their networks repeatedly underestimated, and Gifford successfully puts a great deal of pressure on received notions that they were either apolitical or largely on the wrong side. On the contrary, they were placed in temporizing positions, when being associated with a kind of quietism may be the least poor choice in a war between powers with which they wanted nothing at all to do.

Perhaps the weightiest contribution of Gifford’s scholarship in this project is to be distilled from the third and fourth sections, where Gifford insists on the historical, changeable, local and personal character of the varieties of anarchist and anti-authoritarian thought and vision among these core groups of writers, and rereads them, not to establish who was strongest or best or most influential, but so that “the subject position from which their creative work developed” becomes better understood. In a resonant passage, Gifford shows how and why the anti-authoritarian position resists systemic efforts to contain it:

However, bodies end and have finite limits without regard to ideology, cultural heegemony, or any exercise of power or needful desire—in this the limits of social authority and the impossibility of its strictures are made apparent. Hence, death or the damaged body become irresistible instances of the individual who has become autonomous from social control, and such bodies give the lie to authority.

Gifford raises a charge that the very name of anarchism seems to bring out the worst “calcified attitudes” against “non-state possibilities” in critics. He notes the comfort we take in the closeness of the social whole, implying a defensive origin for the fear of losing that idea, even if it be false consciousness. In a memorable formulation, Gifford says “We are never without power, yet we never fail to resist it.” After recalibrating the leanings of late modernism in so thorough an examination, we may feel less surprise at the idea of its connection to, perhaps even revival in, the counter-cultural tactics, writings, and practices of later communitarian movements.



This review “Temporizing Modernities” originally appeared in Radio, Film, and Fiction. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 225 (Summer 2015): 141-142.

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