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Automatic

Literary Modernism and the Politics of Reflex

A fascinating study of how behavioral science shaped twentieth-century politics and the modernist literary period.

The advent of the twentieth century famously brought about new personal and political freedoms, including radical changes in voting rights and expressions of gender and sexuality. Yet writers and cultural critics shared a sense that modern life reduced citizens to automatons capable of interacting with the world in only the most reflexive ways. In Automatic, Timothy Wientzen asks why modernists were deeply anxious about the role of reflexive behaviors—and the susceptibility of bodies to physical stimuli—in the new political structures of the twentieth century.

Engaging with historical thinking about human behaviors that fundamentally changed the nature of political and literary practice, Wientzen demonstrates the ways in which a "politics of reflex" came to shape the intellectual and cultural life of the modernist era. Documenting some of the ways that modernist writers and their contemporaries mapped, harnessed, and intervened in a political sphere dominated by conditioned reflexes, Wientzen reads writers like D. H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, Wyndham Lewis, and Samuel Beckett in conversation with fields that include public relations, physiology, sociology, and vitalism. Ultimately, he justifies a reckoning with some of the most enduring preoccupations of modernist studies.

Automatic further emphasizes the role of politics and science in the aesthetic projects of modernist writers. At a moment when political enfranchisement and the mass media promised new modes of freedom, agency, and choice, Wientzen argues that the modernist era was beset by apprehension about the conscription of liberty through the conditioning force of everyday life. Analyzing such thinking through a neglected archive about embodiment and reflex reveals modernists responding to the historically novel conditions of political life in the twentieth century—conditions that have become entrenched in the politics of our own century.

About the Author

Timothy Wientzen is an associate professor of English at Skidmore College.

Endorsements

"This is life before Nudge. Automatic represents a major step forward in showing how modernists conceptualized the corporeal mind. Perhaps its greatest contribution is demonstrating how a certain breed of materialism in the soft sciences feeds through the culture we think we have today stumbled upon, but that is, in fact, a direct outgrowth of the modernist era. Exercise your free will—you do have other options—but I'd strongly suggest you read this book."

- Jessica Burstein, University of Washington, author of Cold Modernism: Literature, Fashion, Art

"Automatic takes aim at the default settings of modernism by giving us a captivating new account of how literature and criticism from the period contended with the body's power over the mind. Required reading for anyone interested in twentieth-century literature, the history of science, and the politics of social control."

- Aarthi Vadde, Duke University, author of Chimeras of Form: Modernist Internationalism beyond Europe

"Wientzen's terrific book arrives at just the right time to remind us that we abandon ourselves to automatism at our peril. The early 1900s possessed a rich vocabulary for addressing crises of consciousness now so widespread as to seem mundane. Automatic, like the modernists themselves, defamiliarizes its epoch so as to consider these urgent dilemmas anew."

- Jennifer Fleissner, Indiana University Bloomington, author of Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism
Johns Hopkins University Press
Hopkins Studies in Modernism
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