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Ordinary Matters: Modernist Women's Literature and Photography.

Ordinary Matters: Modernist Women's Literature and Photography.

Lorraine Sim (London: Bloomsbury, 2016) 228 pp.

When American photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller posed in Hitler's bathtub within days of the Third Reich dictator's suicide (and directly following a visit to Dachau), she enlisted surreal methods to reveal harrowing realities to a Vogue readership accustomed to photo spreads on fashion and beauty trends. Elsewhere, in her contributions to Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire, Miller extinguishes reassuring perceptions of a far-off front line. Lorraine Sim argues, "Positioning the viewer as a London civilian implicated in the daily trauma of survival, Miller disrupts any complacent gaze on the part of her American audience as war has here moved into the space of the home and private experience" (165). In Miller's work in Normandy and across France to Nazi Germany, distinctions between agents and victims, sites of horror and shelter, continue to be clouded: a GI casually chats with two smiling German POWs at a U.S. evacuation hospital, presenting a compassionate but unfamiliar tableau. Nurses eat, bathe, do laundry, and enjoy leisure time even as some of the war's most vile perpetrators are rounded up in a nearby village. Miller approaches the unfolding events from an unconventional perspective, positing that war is not just a spectacle of death, but an event whose currents extend to small things and intimate moments. Power hierarchies shift and evil-doers display human qualities.

In her introduction to Ordinary Matters: Modernist Women's Literature and Photography, Sim takes aim at the marginalization of women's contribution to modernist studies' "everyday life theory," arguing that such a position overlooks the rich theoretical interpretations of the ordinary, the daily, and the mundane. Ordinary Matters, she declares at the outset, "focuses on conceptions of the ordinary and how particular forms of modernity shaped modernist women's personal, artistic and ethical investments in the ordinary and daily" (15). With broad use of the work of Henri Lefebvre, Maurice Blanchot, Michel de Certeau, and a host of other male scholars, Sim establishes that male sociologists, philosophers, and theorists have long had a corner on everyday life theory. Through case studies of Dorothea Lange, Dorothy Richardson, Helen Levitt, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Lee Miller, and Margaret Monck, Sim sets out to establish the ethical value of attention, empathy, intersubjective relations, and intimacy in women's considerations of the everyday.

Dorothy Richardson's positive treatment of London's nexus of "streets and by-ways" constitutes the first chapter, "'I am part of the dense smooth clean paving stone': The Street in Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage." In these pages, the protagonist, Miriam Henderson, cultivates a sense of appreciation and self-reliance in wandering through neighborhoods, granting urban space a positive value and finding delight in simple human interactions. As Sim explains, Henderson engages with the cityscape, building awareness of others, finding consolatory meaning, and securing independence: "Miriam imagines the street not only as a companion but as a part of her own being, that is, as connected to her in kind" (22). Sim explicates Miriam's relationship to the street through various lenses--"ontological, intersubjective, epistemological and effective--foregrounding how the street takes on existential value in her life" (25).

Before she traces the street's animating effect on Miriam, Sim summarizes the long, dreary history of the streets that poets, novelists, and scholars have illustrated in their work, preparing the reader for the radical inversion of Miriam's "positive city consciousness" (27). Sim begins with Richardson's predecessors and fellow modernists who, expressing prevailing currents of Western thought, depict London as a city of vice, endangerment, and moral deterioration. Sim presents a roll call of writers who perpetuate visions of a purgatorial city populated by human husks: "Such dystopian renderings of the city can be found in the work of Charles Dickens, Charles Booth, Henry Mayhew, George Gissing, H. G. Wells and T. S. Eliot" (24).

But for Miriam, exploring the London streets builds a sense of self-awareness and social empathy, personal and social gratification. Moving against the human current becomes a way of pushing back at traditionally and normatively sanctioned power. Miriam's perceptions contradict traditions of masculine flanerie, in which perspectives are often "panoramic and detached" (33). Miriam moves through a lyrical London as twilight gives way to lamp-lights, and "'the sudden glare of yellow shop-light'" (36). Noises and sudden irruptions are a "'happy symphony'" and kerbs are "friendly." Miriam and the street enjoy a metaphorical embrace, and London is a "'mighty lover.'"

In the late 1930s and 1940s, American photographer Helen Levitt documented inhabitants of New York streets, capturing people in medias res--at play and at rest, climbing a tree or following bubbles floating through the air. Her improvisational images of everyday life convey a guileless beauty, "an aesthetics of the everyday" (42). Countering agreed-upon standards of interest, Levitt saw her subjects through an apolitical lens and was "non-interventionist in approach" (44). Her graceful presentation of "poor neighbourhoods, the working classes, women and children, and often African-American and immigrant subjects" offers social commentary on urban life during her historical moment (47). In her candid shots of children climbing trees, jumping rope on sidewalks, playing tag, and laughing, Levitt "challenges cultural histories of the street by figuring it as a rich, positive and dynamic social sphere, not, as was historically the norm, a site of alienation, depopulation or social degeneration" (59). Her warm and quirky photos document human expressiveness without condescending interpretations of heroism and silent dignity.

Sim turns her attention to the value of modest objects and ingenuous human encounters in Chapter Three, "Homely Things: Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf." In these pages, Sim adds to modernist studies' growing interest in objects and "ordinary things" and the effort to liberate them from "'the cultural logic of capitalism'" (68). In this effort, Sim examines "how the writing of familiar things in [Tender Buttons and To the Lighthouse] contributes to the reanimation and revaluation of the object world..." (69). Stein is deeply invested in the vitality of everyday objects--the things that populate her carefully curated domestic world. In sections titled "Objects," "Food," and "Rooms," Stein flouts patriarchal discourse's denigration of "'the female domain'" (22), delighting in an intimate, intersubjective relationship to objects, redefining them for her own purposes, and engaging in a private dialogue that often defies readers' efforts to translate. By way of example, Sim offers: "Prose-poems like 'a purse.' indicate how Stein rejects modernity's proscription of objects to their material or instrumental value, instead transforming this object--which is normally associated with economies of money--to object-subject economies that are private, pleasurable, embodied and interpersonal" (78).

In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf affirms the value of intimate attention to domestic objects "knitted stockings, shawls, boots, jewellery, [and] chipped tea cups" (82). Where some characters experience reciprocal relationships with objects, others remain detached. "Thus, in the early stages of the novel, contrasting perceptions of and modes of relation to the object world are set up via the characters of Mr Ramsay (philosophical/abstract), James Ramsay (child's wonder and fascination) and Lily Briscoe (the artistic)." (82). Objects not only stir subjective feelings and create private vectors of meaning, they also operate as psychic fulcrums between people, "serv[ing] as an affective bridge connecting the interior worlds of different characters" (83). The objects that occupy domestic space in To the Lighthouse are both inner-directed and outer-directed; they are intermediaries for human connection.

Sim continues to make inroads into "everyday life theory" with "Mrs. Brown and the Face-to-Face," Chapter Four, the second chapter dedicated to Woolf's work. Here, Sim draws on Emmanuel Levinas's phenomenological method, in particular, its refusal to reduce the Other to the same. To Levinas, the Self and the Other must have absolute, irreducible distinction. As Sim explains, Woolf and Levinas share a disdain for totality as a social structure that denies the humanity of Other and as a political structure that culminates in fascist regimes. Readers unfamiliar with Levinas will find the second section to the chapter ("Totality and Infinity") informative; unfortunately, this explication results in an overly long chapter. But the discussion of Mrs Dalloway at the chapter's end refocuses the study, concluding that "the framework of Levinas' account of the face-to-face, that the ordinary...assumes an important position in Woolf's ethics, particularly her account of self-other relations and responsibility, as well as in her account of the ethics and aesthetics of characterization in the modern novel..." (119).

To today's viewer, Dorothea Lange's iconic photographs present both human despair, frozen time and wide-frame, expressive commentary on the economic, political, and environmental conditions that their human subjects endured. Sim cites key ideas from Susan Sontag's On Photography to criticize received opinions of the medium's inherent "aestheticization of the banal and simple" (122) and the questionable ethics therein. Sim adopts Sontag's argument for her own purposes, announcing that her chapter "examines the relationship between photography and the everyday... and considers [Lange's] work in the context of some of Sontag's claims about the moral risks and limits of photography" (123). (As an aside, the almost-rote invocation of Sontag in scholarship on photography warrants some critical assessment.)

Reproducing nine of Lange's photographs, Chapter Five, "Dorothea Lange: On Photographing the Familiar," documents pea-pickers, migrant laborers, drought refugees, and children--destitute, dust-coated, with faraway eyes. Lange had early success as a portrait photographer but her exemplary White Angel Breadline, San Francisco placed her work squarely in the social documentary genre. Soon Lange was photographing victims of Depression-era, rural America living "in appallingly squalid and dangerous conditions, in makeshift dwellings with no running water, sanitation or adequate food" (127). With human subjects, Lange's framing balances intimacy and acknowledgement of the Other.

"Everyday life theory" receives its final treatment with Sim's chapter on Miller's war photography (though there is also a coda on Margaret Monck). Sim convincingly concludes that Miller's "photographs possess a semantic and moral ambiguity and complexity that distinguishes them from most Allied photojournalism of Germans and Germany post-victory" (173). Though the chapter could have done without reference to Hannah Arendt's "famous thesis on the banality of evil" (175) (which Holocaust scholars have almost unanimously discredited), Sim draws together many the disparate themes of her study here.

Ordinary Matters demonstrates how themes of everydayness yield "positive value and sufficiency" (206). In the work of modernist women writers and photographers, ordinary objects and themes of everydayness transform into media of mutual appreciation, points of attention, modes of intervention, and bases for ethical contemplation. Sim's study makes persuasive inroads toward bringing the value of these contributions to light.

--Annalisa Zox-Weaver, Independent Scholar
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Author:Zox-Weaver, Annalisa
Publication:Woolf Studies Annual
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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