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Virtual Modernism

Writing and Technology in the Progressive Era

2013
Author:

Katherine Biers

Virtual Modernism

A fascinating analysis of the relationship between modernist writers and the popular culture they so often claimed to reject

Virtual Modernism examines the emergence of American literary modernism from the eruption of popular culture in the early twentieth century. Employing readings of the works of Stephen Crane, Henry James, James Weldon Johnson, Djuna Barnes, and Gertrude Stein, Katherine Biers argues that American modernist writers developed a “poetics of the virtual” in response to the rise of mass communications technologies.

Virtual Modernism examines provocative links among literature, journalism, and social theory during the Progressive Era in the United States. Katherine Biers persuasively makes the case that the period’s emphasis on the cognitive and corporeal effects of new media is particularly resonant with theorists today. Moreover, contemporary interest in ‘the virtual,’ she suggests, can trace its roots to this period in U.S. cultural history. A stimulating and important book.

Jane Thrailkill, author of Affecting Fictions: Mind, Body, and Emotion in American Literary Realism

In Virtual Modernism, Katherine Biers offers a fresh view of the emergence of American literary modernism from the eruption of popular culture in the early twentieth century. Employing dynamic readings of the works of Stephen Crane, Henry James, James Weldon Johnson, Djuna Barnes, and Gertrude Stein, she argues that American modernist writers developed a “poetics of the virtual” in response to the rise of mass communications technologies before World War I. These authors’ modernist formal experimentation was provoked by the immediate, individualistic pleasures and thrills of mass culture. But they also retained a faith in the representational power of language—and the worth of common experience—more characteristic of realism and naturalism. In competition with new media experiences such as movies and recorded music, they simultaneously rejected and embraced modernity.

Biers establishes the virtual poetics of these five writers as part of a larger “virtual turn” in the United States, when a fascination with the writings of Henri Bergson, William James, and vitalist philosophy—and the idea of virtual experience—swept the nation. Virtual Modernism contends that a turn to the virtual experience of language was a way for each of these authors to carve out a value for the literary, both with and against the growth of mass entertainments. This technologically inspired reengagement with experience was formative for American modernism.

Situated at the crossing points of literary criticism, philosophy, media studies, and history, Virtual Modernism provides an examination of Progressive Era preoccupations with the cognitive and corporeal effects of new media technologies that traces an important genealogy of present-day concerns with virtuality.

Virtual Modernism

Katherine Biers is assistant professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

Virtual Modernism

Virtual Modernism examines provocative links among literature, journalism, and social theory during the Progressive Era in the United States. Katherine Biers persuasively makes the case that the period’s emphasis on the cognitive and corporeal effects of new media is particularly resonant with theorists today. Moreover, contemporary interest in ‘the virtual,’ she suggests, can trace its roots to this period in U.S. cultural history. A stimulating and important book.

Jane Thrailkill, author of Affecting Fictions: Mind, Body, and Emotion in American Literary Realism

At the crossroads of media studies and American studies, but also of philosophy and cultural history, this book offers a highly innovative and dramatically inspiring close-reading of the way in which five major America modernists developed new ways of writing in response to mass culture and the new (media) technologies that reshaped American culture in the pre World-War I years.

Leonardo Reviews

Engaging and original, with useful notes, this well-researched study provides insight into the development of modernism and its connection to the turn-of-the-century conception of the virtual.

CHOICE

Katherine Biers’s Virtual Modernism provides a welcome collection of well-thought-out, critical, and deeply insightful readings of Modernist texts that elucidate the power of the virtual as a concept.

American Studies Journal

The greatest triumph of Virtual Modernism is that Biers successfully demonstrates how each of her subjects strives to articulate the quest for virtual experience, or what Martin Jay terms “experience without a subject.”

The Year’s Work in English Studies

Biers’s bracing interpretations bring cultural critique into exhilarating conjunction with the lessons of media studies.

American Literature

Situating a literary text in the midst of a changing media landscape makes it possible for Biers to recover a forgotten set of concerns. . . that once filled these texts with a sense of relevance, novelty, and potentiality.

American Literary History

At the crossroads of media studies and American studies, and also of philosophy and cultural history, Virtual Modernism offers a highly innovative and dramatically inspiring close reading. . . Biers has written a landmark study that gives an inspirational twist to modernism studies.

Leonardo

A study of considerable brilliance that will set the terms of debate on modernism’s relation to media, pragmatism, and progressivism for many years to come.

Textual Practice

Skillfully sketching out a genealogy of the early encounters of modernist writing with mass media and communications technologies, Katherine Biers’s Virtual Modernism is a valuable contribution to both American literary criticism and media studies.

Journal of Modern Literature

Virtual Modernism

Contents

Introduction: The Promise of the Virtual
1. Stephen Crane’s Abilities
2. Realizing Trilby: Henry James, George du Maurier, and the Intermedial Scene
3. Syncope Fever: James Weldon Johnson and the Black Phonographic Voice
4. Wonder and Decay: Djuna Barnes’s New York
5. Gertrude Stein Talking

Acknowledgments
Notes
Index