Automatic Modernism: Habit, Embodiment, and the Politics of Literary Form

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Wientzen, Timothy


Moses, Michael V

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Literary modernism followed a century during which philosophical speculations about the mechanistic basis of human life found experimental validation in the work of physiologists, who stressed the power of environment to shape and delimit thought and action. By the late 19th century, the hypothesis that humans were "automata," as Descartes had conjectured, began to seem much more than philosophical speculation, as statesmen and industrialists appropriated blueprints of the human machine originally mapped by the sciences. So dominant was the conjunction of politics and habit that, writing in 1890s, the American psychologist William James would call the automatic operations of body and mind the very engine of political life: "Habit," he declared, "is the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor." But James was only anticipating the wide range of thinkers who would associate physiological automatism with politics in the coming years. By century's end, the belief that habit determined social action and circumscribed individual volition was to find wide currency in a variety of cultural fields, including literary modernism.

Situating literary modernism in relation to this emergent sense of political modernity, Automatic Modernism argues that modernists reconfigured the discourse of automatism for political and aesthetic ends. Wary of the new political environment in which government, political parties and industry exploited the science of conditioned reflex to ensure automatic responses from docile subjects, writers of this period turned to the resources of literature in order to both disrupt the clichés of thought and action enforced by environmental stimuli and to imagine forms of politics adapted to the physiologically automatic body. Looking in particular at the fiction and non-fiction work of D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Rebecca West, and Samuel Beckett, this dissertation attempts to understand the recurrent equation of automatic behavior and twentieth-century modernity. Even as modernists vigorously rejected habitual behavior as the very element of twentieth century life that imperiled authentic art and social belonging, they forged alternative notions of bodily being, investing in the potentialities of human automatism as the basis of aesthetic possibility and social coherence. The formal experiments of these modernists emerge, then, as efforts to foreground, manipulate, rupture, and mimic the political habits of readers.






Wientzen, Timothy (2012). Automatic Modernism: Habit, Embodiment, and the Politics of Literary Form. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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