Henry James and the Media Arts of Modernity

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Chung, June Hee. Henry James and the Media Arts of Modernity: Commercial Cosmopolitanism. New York and London: Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group), 2019.

The literary feud (1915 and thereabout)[1] between Henry James and H. G. Wells[2] was once well known in literary circles and could rouse passions even fairly recently[3] — and we will avoid discussing it. But the existence of the feud can underline how far Henry James and June Hee Chung's book are outside SF and SF criticism, and thereby underline as well the potential usefulness for criticism of finding in James's works concerns that appear in SF (and elsewhere), and appear with increasing frequency in SF of the 20th century.

Note that a number of James's important works[4]come in the period between the notable narratives of H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895) and E. M. Forster's long story, "The Machine Stops" (1909) — and is succeeded fairly closely by the commercial take-off of US pulp SF with the start of Amazing Stories (April 1926)[5] and the appearance of technological themes and images in, e.g., Kafka's "In der Strafkolonie" ("The Penal Colony," 1919) and D. H. Lawrence, with his concern with "the organic principle" vs. "the inorganic or mechanical principle" in, say, Women in Love (1920): see the discussion by Joanna G. Semelks of Lawrence and technology in her "Sex, Lawrence, and Videotape" (and note a somewhat related argument in Richard D. Erlich's "Catastrophism and Coition: Universal and Individual Development in Women in Love," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 9.1 [Spring 1967]: 117-128).[6]

See also Mark Seltzer's Bodies and Machines (1992) and Richard Menke's "Telegraphic Realism," cited by Chung.


Both Chung and James refer often to mechanisms, literal machinery but including people figuratively within mechanisms — people up the social and employment scale from Lawrence's miners and other working-class workers: and then note the common move in satire and SF of literalizing such figures of speech, as, arguably, in "The Machine Stops." Writing more recently than Henry James, Chung can also refer (figuratively) to prosthetics.

In the transition between the 19th and 20th c.'s ("the fin-de-siècle") and into the 20th (all page references in Chung unless otherwise noted):

[...N]ew mass technologies encouraged workers to think about art as a tool for transforming perceptions, whereas visual media facilitated this treatment of this art as techne. [...] Thus, the permeability between the spheres of work and play figures beyond just the effects of rationalization from mechanization as a distinctive cultural influence of the corporation. (pp. 11-12)
In Bodies and Machines, the American economy's reliance on technological innovation for its material success accustomed the public to representations as a mode of manufacture that erodes the boundaries dividing persons from things. Seltzer looks at examples from realist literature that imagine the couplings of bodies and machines to show how they familiarized consumers with words as prosthetics or techne, that is as object extensions of the body. (p. 13)
[...W]ealthy Americans in the 1870s and 1880s used their collections as souvenirs to represent themselves in the public sphere. The ornaments are prosthetics, physical extensions of the owner's self. (p. 24; see also p. 168)
Thus, as critical and anxious as James could be of the pressures of mechanization and the state of mass-produced literature [... he] was [...] also fascinated by what he saw as technology's influence on literary style. (p. 28) 

Chung goes on to apply N. Katherine Hayles on "'inscription technologies' — such as photography, cinema, telegraphy and phonographic sound recorder and reproduction — in contrast to older visual art forms such as painting and theater" (p. 29; see also p. 123). This relates to the significance of things and "remediation" in the sense of "re-media-ation," transferring from one medium to another. "The material arts as doubly remediated in theatrical performance and public museums offer access to new emotions and experiences via an embodied cognition in which interior decoration functions prosthetically to enhance the mind's activities" (p. 29).

Like media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan, James foresees the threat of a machine culture that simultaneously looks to machines to mediate distances and create a sense of a global community at the same time that it depersonalizes the relationship between the senders and receivers of communication. (p. 50)

— In "The Machine Stops," such "machine culture" becomes quote literally (and globally) The Machine, which does both "mediate distances" on a global scale and depersonalizes — as we come to see — relationships.

In "The Death of the Lion" (1894, with title punning on "lionized" celebrities), the "ringleader of the media circus" (in Chung's formulation); in James's words that ringleader "played her victims against each other with admirable ingenuity, and her establishment was a huge machine in which the tiniest and the biggest wheel went round to the same treadle" (James's figurative language, pp. 298-90 in the 1986 collection, ed. Frank Kermode, The Figure in the Carpet and Other Stories).

In the 1903 novella The Papers, examining the "New Journalism" of interviews and commodification of authors, James, in Chung's words, "argues that these interviews betray the impersonality of their content because the celebrities lose their distinctiveness when they are" figuratively "transformed into interchangeable units of a publicity machine" (p. 67; see also Chung 73, 75). However, Chung asserts, James "resists concluding that the sole aesthetic impact of the newspaper is to mechanize modern society and instead anticipates a transformation away from commodification, reification, and standardization" (p. 68). Still, Chung presents out of the novella a brief but dense series of analogies in which the newspaper industry is, or is seen by its workers as, a "corporate structure" figured "as a hierarchical ladder" — cf. and contrast Silverberg's The World Inside — that is also, in James's words, "a receptacle owing its form to an instinct more remarkable, as they held the journalistic, than that even of the most highly organized animal," a receptacle that in a dying metaphor can have dropped in it "odds and ends, all grist to the mill" (The Papers. Complete Stories: 1898-1910, ed. Denis Donoghue, p. 543). Chung comments, "By comparing the newspaper business to living animals" — birds in the full quotation — "James emphasizes the institutions's unnaturalness in its mechanical impersonality," but capable of absorbing/incorporating workers: "For example, Maud Blandy is introduced as a product of the newspapers," in the sense, Chung has it, "that her individual identity is dependent on this anonymous, collective entity [...]." In Blandy's case, "The worker is conflated with the product she manufactures [...]" — cf. and contrast the image of the workers at the Moloch Machine in Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS (1927; see below).

Chung's chapter 3 is titled "Writing Machines." In her discussion of James's 1902 story "Flickerbridge," Chung asserts that "As a symbol of a corporatized publishing industry," the character "Addie embodies the traits of a machine in a factory by identifying herself with her work and internalizing her occupation's values [...]" (Chung p. 97), becoming "a kind of mechanical amanuensis or typewriter" (p. 98).

In "The Velvet Glove" (1909), a playwright responds to a flawed romance novel — read "romance novel" in the technical sense of "Romance" — with the complaint that it "represented an object as alien to the careless grace of goddess-haunted Arcady as a washed up 'kodak' from a wrecked ship might have been to the appreciation of some islander of wholly unvisited seas" (Complete Stories 745-6)." Chung considers the odd simile and concludes that whether photo or a whole camera, "The Kodak image suggests" that the playwright sees the novel as "an intrusion of the modern, mechanical world into a pastoral, 'unvisited' realm" (Chung 111-12). We might consider the Kodak a novum or "objective correlative" for a novum in Darko Suvin's sense.[7] Cf. and contrast the SF motif of high-tech objects turning up among people with a low-tech culture.

Lewis Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors (1903) goes to a post/telegraph office and, in Chung's words, "ominously considers the telegraph as in inscription device that heralds a future that will proceed at an excessive intensity and pace [...]" (Ambassadors, ed. Harry Levin, Penguin, 1986: 472; Chung 146-47); consider the telegraph here as a real-world as well as fictional novum, in terms of not just Suvin but Isaac Asimov on "Social Science Fiction" (1953; rpt. Science Fiction: The Future both editions) as the form of SF considering seriously the effects on human society of one or more technological developments.

Note Henry Adams's "The Dynamo and the Virgin" essay (1900), and consider in James's The Golden Bowl (1904) and Chung's discussion of it:

By marrying an American [...] the Prince hopes that "[h]is life would be full of machinery, which was the antidote to superstition [...] ([Bowl Penguin 1987] 52). [... The Prince] even imagines that Americans' moral sense works mechanically, "works by steam — it sends you up like a rocket" (62) [...].
[The character] Adam complains that business success has entailed a loss of autonomy so that his labors, the millions he has made, "were one with perfection of machinery" (131). Those habits die so hard that [...] even his collecting practices show traces of a rational logic [...]. (Chung p. 186)

It is an assembly-worker, Charles Chaplin's Charlie, that gets trapped in the machine in MODERN TIMES; here an upper-class character is associated with machinery, and "rational logic" at least juxtaposed with a reference to machinery.

As later in Y. Zamyatin's We (ca. 1920), in The Golden Bowl the "compression or suppression" of strong (adulterous) passions "contrasts the methods of the machine against the powers of irrational passion. [...] As F. R. Leavis has famously noted [in The Great Tradition], Charlotte's and the Prince's affair denotes the only natural passion in the novel [...], [with] Their kiss [... signaling] a pact to cease being 'only facing and faced, only grasping and grasped [...]' (259), not just parts of a machine. ¶ Later in the second part of the novel, Maggie will come to realize how trapped she and her family have become by the mechanical set of production principles she established" (Chung pp. 188-89).

Note Chung's section title, "Modernist Machine Art: Aestheticizing Technology and the Cosmopolitan Art Market" (p. 194).

RDE, Initial Compiler, 23Dec19/13Jan20 f.