The Modernist Corpse: Posthumanism and the Posthumous.
The coda to Erin E. Edwards's The Modernist Corpse cites Gertrude Stein's attempt to excise nouns from Tender Buttons: "I struggled," Stein writes, "with the ridding myself of nouns, I knew nouns must go in poetry as they had gone in prose if anything that is everything was to go on meaning something" (2014: 41). Edwards's study, by contrast, begins by expunging all verbs in the first lines, which enact a roll call of famous--and infamous--dead bodies in the modernist canon. Thus abandoning the verb, the opening paragraph rushes to reawaken the corpus and its corpses, summoning As I Lay Dying's Addie Bundren, Their Eyes Were Watching God's Tea Cake Woods, The Sun Also Rises' Vicente Girones, and Native Son's Mary Dalton, among others. The urgency of the prose alongside these posthumous subjects sets the stage for the posthumanist critique to follow, which explores the thin boundary separating the quick from the dead. If the dearth of action in the opening paragraph unintentionally underscores the lack of agency possessed by the literary deceased, The Modernist Corpse is not long in correcting this emphasis. Resisting the urge to simply expand the meaning of "life," Edwards argues, "The goal of this project is not to recuperate the 'humanity' of these subjects but to problematize the categorical privileging of the human that has made such dehumanization possible" (2). From early twentieth-century media images to the untold literary depictions of dead bodies within modernist writing, the sheer number of ways in which Edwards addresses the corpse can be daunting, but such an obstacle is a testament to the theoretical agility of the author.
The Modernist Corpse is a timely project inasmuch as it responds to growing scholarly attention to the body in general and the corpse in particular. Regarding the latter, uncanny, and at times fruitful parallels emerge between Edwards's study and David Sherman's In a Strange Room: Modernism's Corpses and Mortal Obligation (2014). On the one hand, their source texts are remarkably similar, both devoting extended analysis to the works of William Faulkner, Djuna Barnes, and William Carlos Williams. On the other hand, The Modernist Corpse is crafted, to some degree, as a posthuman rejoinder to Sherman. In a review of his book, Paul K. Saint-Amour (2017: 362) shows how the author's critical engagement with corpses was explicitly "premised on a human exceptionalism that implicitly abandons the nonhuman animal, both alive and dead, to an utterly instrumentalized being." Saint-Amour is thus led to ask, "How ... might modernism help us to a sense of mortal obligation grounded in something other than or nonexclusive to humanity?" (363). Enter Edwards, whose approach is meant to serve as a "counterpoint" to In a Strange Room, surveying the corpse's afterlife "beyond human mourning and burial rites" (14). Moreover, Edwards contends that a more robust accounting of the corpse can counter the familiar characterization of modernism as "anti-humanist." She writes, "Modernism's experiments with the corpse have an inherently ethical charge, moving the reader out of her normative assumptions and into an engagement with the human in what may be its most profound form of otherness" (33). While The Modernist Corpse offers its own ethical views on the fraught categories of the "human" and "nonhuman," its most compelling arguments invite readers to reconsider experimental modernism anew, finding a literary moment full of complex and ethical thinking about the boundaries of the "human" life. Put another way, Edwards argues that the corpse becomes a primary site of experimentation.
For Edwards, a posthuman accounting of the posthumous helps reframe texts that engage with issues of race and gender, since posthumanism emerges, at least in part, from the dehumanization that shapes racist and misogynistic language. For his part, Cary Wolfe (2013: 56) asserts that once one acknowledges how the category of the "human" has historically been used against certain groups of people, "It is impossible to talk about race without talking about species (and vice versa)." The Modernist Corpse takes up the "vice versa" set forth in Wolfe's formulation, demonstrating how a posthumanist account of the corpse demands a deeper consideration of how these corpses are then treated differently depending on their race, class, or gender. The most compelling of these analyses is found in the book's second chapter, "Autopsy-Optics: Jean Toomer's Cane through the Photographic Lens," which primarily explores how Toomer's writing engages directly with visual and aural media in an effort to humanize his black subjects, whether in life or death. In the introduction, Edwards explains how modernity's media, chief among which are the photographic image and phonographic sound, served to rupture notions of finality and death in the modernist imaginary. "Early-twentieth-century media," she writes, "attenuated the finitude of death by reproducing images and voices of the dead; media also complicated the singularity of the event that lives and irrevocably dies in time, as viewers and listeners were able to stop, rewind, and replay recorded events" (25). Media's ability to save and continually restage the singular event is expressly troubling in the case of lynching photographs, which are often so violent that they possess the "qualities of an autopsy, actively exposing its interior in an absolute evisceration of personhood" (77). For Edwards, the physical staging and authorial gaze of these photographic images render the corpse as less than human, justifying and thus promising to replicate racial violence.
What makes Edwards's reading of Toomer's Cane so sharp is that it refutes violent depictions of African American death through language rather than media forms like photography. Toonrer, in fact, turns to the tradition of the blazon, which--much like an autopsy--dissects the bodily form of a lover in order to praise them for their individual characteristics. In "Her Lips Are Copper Wire," Toonrer resists the "penetrating gaze" often directed at black, female bodies. Reading this blazon, Edwards comments,
Cane imagines the body in technological assemblages that are not just the camera-eye assemblage that [Walter] Benjamin describes but a more thoroughly imbricated relationship.... The title announces the mode of the blazon, but rather than fixing a penetrating gaze upon inert bodily fragments, the poem describes the concurrence of technical media with an atmospheric circulation of the body. (102-3)
Cane reconfigures the way characters' bodies are viewed by freeing their visual representation from images of human death. "Autopsy-Optics" summons the 1919 lynching of William Brown in Omaha, Nebraska, paying particular notice to the harrowing photograph that was taken after his murder. For Edwards, the fact that Brown was hanged, mutilated, and shot in succession indicates that these men were "redundantly killing a corpse--killing what has already been disqualified from life" (77). In response to such portrayals of black bodies, Cane and W.E.B. Du Bois's "Georgia Negro Exhibit" invert photographic and linguistic media, experimenting with the technologies of vision in order to contest the monolithic portrayal of black bodies as always already corpses before the lens of racially violent culture.
In contrast to the steady stream of lynching photographs that populated the nascent media landscape of the early twentieth century, the work of Jean Toomer and Du Bois stages the body, alive or otherwise, in ways that emphasize the humanity of their black subjects. In particular, his "Georgia Negro Exhibit," a series of 363 photographs shown at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, was designed to show, in Du Bois's words, "the human face of blackness." He presents portraits of young African American women and more candid images of a bacteriology laboratory at Howard University as "a corrective to more historically visible photographic depictions of African Americans, such as the lynching photograph, the ethnographic photograph, and the mug shot" (94). The vibrancy of these photographs responds, in Edwards's reading, to infamous images of African American death, which take on the quality of autopsy rather than art. Du Bois turns the lens around in an effort to reclaim the aesthetic possibilities of media: "turning," she adds, "the ideological apparati of white visual culture back onto itself" (95). By hijacking technologies that so often reproduced only autoptic pictures of black bodies, Du Bois pursues a sense of common humanity, giving these photographic subjects the right to be fully alive and active.
The third chapter, "Sutures and Grooves," continues the discussion of technical media but moves away from the subject of marginalized bodies, instead focusing on an impressively wide array of avant-garde figures. The chapter begins by nearly overwhelming the reader with references to work by Rainer Maria Rilke, Mina Loy, Boris Karloff, Man Ray, and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (114). This chapter repeatedly expresses its commitment to theoretical methods pioneered by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, such that the wide array of texts contained in it may serve to align form and content, creating a critical "assemblage" that unifies as it disconnects, inscribes as it erases. The chapter is theoretically grounded in an image drawn from Rainer Maria Rilke's 1919 essay, "Primal Sound," where the poet imagines what would happen if he placed a phonograph stylus in the skull's fissure, or its "coronal suture." In so doing, Edwards argues, Rilke "creates an assemblage that exemplifies the unity between vitalism and mechanism" (117), which then anticipates "the moment when the negative gap of the fissure becomes a seam encoded with information--the moment, that is, where the body becomes data" (119). If "Autopsy-Optics" primarily concerns the photographic image's relationship to the form of the corpse, then "Sutures and Grooves" concerns itself with sound. The chapter, clarifies Edwards, "explores something like an acoustic autopsy which similarly deploys technology to penetrate the surface of matter, accessing the previously unheard sounds of the body and matter" (116). Even if these sounds are only imaginary, as they are for Rilke, the body in general, and the skull in particular, represents a space of sonic-bodily interaction that suggest new ways of reading the many sound experiments of modernism.
By considering sound's connection to the body, "Sutures and Grooves" proposes some refreshing genealogies among modernist artists. After her reading of "Primal Sound," Edwards is led to conclude that "Rilke inevitably, if surprisingly, aligns himself with dadaist sound poets and futurist noise artists whose practices are otherwise quite different from his own interest in the traditional lyric voice" (121). To think that the highly experimental avant-garde movements of Dadaism and Futurism might be affiliated with the likes of Rilke would challenge many scholars' assumptions about artistic influence in the early to mid-twentieth century (no small task indeed). Yet, to the extent that this chapter creates new arrangements within literary archives, it fails to situate this project within the critical traditions of media thinking. In recent years, many scholars have imagined how media, including sound, have shaped literary studies--and specifically studies of the past century's avant-garde movements. The lack of reliance upon studies like Jonathan Sterne's The Audible Past (2003), Julian Murphet's Multimedia Modernism (2009), and Siegfried Zielinski's Deep Time of the Media (2008) felt particularly noticeable by the chapter's end. In The Modernist Corpse, media studies is often referenced but never explored on its own terms, which is unfortunate given that a more sure-footed theory of mediation could lend greater clarity to how these sonic and visual assemblages inform our understanding of life, death, and the body.
Deleuze and Guattari's oft-cited concept of the "assemblage" serves as an important touchstone for Edwards's book, which "examines the corpse ... as a site of disassemblage" (14). According to Edwards, the assemblage describes operations within the text as well as outside of it, aesthetic principles as well as techniques. With reference to the corpse in particular, the author asks, "What kinds of assemblages, passages, and intensities exist between the living human and the corpse?" (35). The Modernist Corpse invites its readers to reconsider concepts like "assemblage" and "mediation" in light of a third term: "death." As many of these modernist texts demonstrate, literary deaths involve both disassemblage and mediation. In the first chapter, Edwards writes, "Death in As I Lay Dying is not so much a discernible moment as a liminal and unpredictable domain" (42). In some ways, "liminal" is a keyword for Edwards's entire study, especially if one considers how technical media work to ensure that our bodily image and voice outlive our mortal limits. When seen in view of these media, therefore, the corpse challenges us to rethink the ontological boundaries of human life and, by so doing, to champion transgressive or experimental attempts to redefine bodily meaning. Of course, The Modernist Corpse includes far more examples than this review could hope to address, but they all serve to point readers toward a modernism that is far from "anti-humanist." Instead, Edwards demonstrates that certain threads of the modernist imaginary--even the most experimental varieties--serve to champion the value of life in its many forms and species.
All told, the dead bodies populating The Modernist Corpse challenge even the act of reading. In her closing reflection on Tender Buttons, Edwards considers how Stein's prose famously forces readers to face the porous boundary between human and nonhuman by way of our "uncertain material and sensory engagement with the text" (193). Inspired by Stein's phrase "in kind cuts," Edwards asks, "But what kind of alteration is achieved 'in kind cuts'? Where do we cut the boundaries of the human, either from the body of the text or a larger body of matter?" Such questions help explain the breadth of the media and textual examples throughout The Modernist Corpse, which demonstrates the struggle--on every author's part--to execute the most effective critical cuts and divisions. In turn, the weaknesses of Edwards's book result not from a failure to make cuts, but from a failure to consider more closely scholarship from contemporary media studies. More critical context would have enlivened the relationship between media and death, which is only hinted at within several of the book's key chapters. However, despite this oversight, Edwards manages forcefully to make her main point: the modernist corpse reminds us that all our actions are in the end contingent, but that such contingency empowers literature's inexhaustible meanings. "Reading might always be a kind of posthumous and posthuman activity," she writes, "as the living cuts of readership animate, and reanimate, the text that otherwise exists in a state of dormancy, if not death" (194). That reading is a "living cut" upon the "dormant" material of literature is a striking thought, for it suggests that readers always possess the ability to resurrect a text in the simple act of cracking its spine.
Clint Wilson III is a doctoral candidate in the English department at Rice University, where he is also a fellow with the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences (CENHS). His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, Environmental Philosophy, ASAP/J, and Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, among others.
Murphet, Julian. 2009. Multimedia Modernism: Literature and the Anglo-American Avant-Garde. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Saint-Amour, Paul K. 2017. Review of In a Strange Room: Modernism's Corpses and Mortal Obligation, by David Sherman. Twentieth-Century Literature 63, no. 3: 359-64.
Stein, Gertrude. 2014. Tender Buttons. San Francisco: City Lights.
Sterne, Jonathan. 2003. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Wolfe, Cary. 2013. Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Zielinski, Siegfried. 2008. Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of
Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means. Translated by Gloria Custance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.