Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Shifting Gears

Charles Sheeler, "Ford Plant, River Rouge, Criss-Crossed Conveyors", 1927

Title: Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (Chapel Hill: the UNC Press, 1987)

Cecelia Tichi, of the English department at Vanderbilt. Her other books are numerous and have a broad range of subject matter: Exposes and Excess: Muckraking in America, 1900/2000 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003); Embodiment of a Nation: Human Form in American Spaces (Harvard UP, 2001); Reading Country Music: Steel Guitars, Opry Stars, and Konky-Tonk Bars (Duke University Press, 1998) (did she mean "honky-tonk bars"? I bet so); High Lonesome: The American Culture of Country Music (University of North Carolina Press, 1994); Electronic Hearth: Creating an American Television Culture (Oxford University Press, 1991); and New World: New Earth: Environmental Reform in American Literature from the Puritans through Whitman (Yale UP, 1979). Apparently she's also written three novels! Cool.

Stuart Davis, Percolator, 1927

My review: Tichi writes that although some writers, artists, and poets took an antimodern stance regarding the technological advances of the 1880-1930 period (there's gotta be a better name for that fifty years!), others of their contemporaries embraced not only the subject matter of the machine age, but also its methods of composition, adopting what Tichi calls a "gear and girder" approach to art-making.

On the ground, this engineering-style approach reflected itself in more pared-down prose (Hemingway, who cited his apprenticeship with a newspaper, during which he had to telegraph stories to his editor, as a motivator for his simple sentence construction); a materialist approach to poetry (William Carlos Williams - glad to see you again!); and a heightened sense of the motion and physicality of the "real world", taken from Taylorization's attention to detail (John Dos Passos).

Tichi's approach is at its most effective when she goes into deep textual analysis, but when she situates these writers in their cultural milieu, things feel more scattershot. The images chosen to illustrate this book exemplify the problems with this approach - many of them are postcards of major engineering projects, or advertisements mentioning "efficiency", "waste", or other Taylorizing keywords in a commercial context. But often the images are not analyzed in depth or situated within a larger analysis, serving mostly as window dressing for her larger points.

By far the most useful chapter for my purposes is the one on the "cult of the engineer" in American culture (p 97). Here, Tichi describes how the engineer became a heroic figure in children's lit, movies, advertisements, and fiction, taking the place of the cowboy in stories of Western settlement and becoming an aspirational figure. Tichi writes of his appeal: "He signified stability in a changing world...he was technology's human face, providing reassurance that the world of gears and girders combined rationality with humanity" (99). Here she cites Henry Adams, Rex Beach, and Herbert Hoover, among others.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater, 1935

Reviews of others: Howard Segal wrote in the Journal of American History that the book was dispassionate and smart and steered clear of either hostility or worshipfulness, which were dangerous tendencies of other books about technology (this did come out in 1987, which was early in the "social-construction" game, I guess). He wished the book could have been more international. In American Literature, Christopher Nelson wrote that Tichi's method of analysis sometimes had trouble with matters of emphasis: why foreground one "cultural tendency" and background another as "latent"? This overstatement, Nelson wrote, led to occasional oversimplification, as when Tichi hit multiple times upon the "analogy of literary economy and engineering values". Nelson also wished that Tichi had included more material on the social realities of technology and its power relationships, such as the implications for labor or the structure of the working class.

Rube Goldberg device for cleaning shop windows; date of drawing unidentified on Rube Goldberg site. Goldberg's machines were parodies of labor-saving methods, exemplifying, like Chaplin's "Modern Times", the comic side of these obsessions with efficiency.

Books to follow up on:
Primary: the Erector set for kids (1910s); The Book of Wonders (1916 kids' text); St. Nicholas magazine; journal: School and Society; Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888); William Book, The Intelligence of High School Seniors (1922); John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (1925); Frank Norris, The Octopus (1901); John H Randall, Our Changing Civilization: How Science and the Machine are Reconstructing Modern Life (1931); Civilization in the United States (anthology of intellectual thought in early 1920s); childrens' lit about engineering listed on page 100.

Secondary: Roland Barthes, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies (1979).

No comments: