Book Review: « Modernist Objects, » edited by Noëlle Cuny and Xavier Kalck.


Noëlle Cuny and Xavier Kalck (eds.). Modernist Objects. Clemson, SC: Clemson University Press, “Seminal Modernisms”, 2020. 256 p. ISBN: 978-1-949979-50-3. £90.



In the second of his 1929 “Cartesian meditations”, Edmund Husserl presented his transcendental phenomenology of the object as “cogitatum”, around which the mind creates an “intentional horizon” of complementary facets and projections. He proposed that no object is ever “given”, grasped once and for all by our perception, but always in a process of being illuminated, as its horizon becomes ever wider and richer through experience. In reading Modernist Objects, one is reminded of this notion, which echoed a wider modernist preoccupation with the depth and complexity of things. Indeed, it is one of the great strengths of the book, that its editors and contributors never take their objects of study for granted, but instead endeavour to delineate wide, rich and compelling constellations of potentialities around them, deepening our understanding of objects, object-theory, and, crucially, of modernism.

The first compliment that should be made to Modernist Objects concerns the open-ended and fascinating array of items – both as material things and objects of study – with which it deals. Throughout the pages, readers encounter a dizzying palette of objects, from lyres to magazines, Chanel dresses to cotton cloth, slick Bibendum chairs and pirogues to surreal orgasmic beauty toasters and the poems thereof, and from fully built houses to Louis Bourgeois’s “femmes-maisons”. This juxtaposition in itself questions the boundaries between the artwork, the commodity and consumable, the private belonging, even the refuse. Furthermore, the analyses reveal the depths behind the word “object”, the many modalities of “thingness” that modernist writers and artists came to approach. We are made to wander in mazes of shapes and colours and textures, guided by the well-presented and beautiful illustrations (a crucial addition to the book, which must have taken a great deal of time and effort to assemble and get the rights for, so bravo to the editors!). We navigate through practical usage and symbolic meaning, the use-value and trade-value and the fantasies sold by advertisement or fiction, the individual or collective processes of creation and crafting, of consumption, disintegration and Beckettian existential “wear and tear”, or oppositely of repurposing and recycling. Objects are caught up in dynamics that transcend their materiality, betraying emotional attachments – as exemplified by Pavlina Radia’s notion of “affective mobilities” – or even obsessive violence, in the case of Le Corbusier’s vengeful murals in Eileen Gray’s “E-1027” house. As a matter of fact, another profound achievement of the book is its ability to go beyond the status of objects as what is simply there. As Nonia Williams penetratingly argues, modernist texts tend to dwell on the specific and pervasive “thingness” of the absent, the fake, the forgotten or lost object. This echoes the bold and intriguing proposal of Louise Kane to introduce the language of computer-sciences to the treatment of modernist magazines, going beyond temporal and technological linearity to better define the complexity of modernist reading experiences. The culmination of such a movement is perhaps Rachel Bowlby’s fascinating reflection on the phantasmagoric signifier that is the “Test-tube baby”, a thing which exists nowhere, but dramatically shaped the imaginary background behind new processes in science, especially artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization, and the enormous paradigm shift that led to the dissociation between sexuality and procreation in the 20th century. Such visions remit to our own epoch, of interpenetration between the actual and virtual in the age of the Metaverse, and ever wilder fantasies surrounding the real or imagined results of science.

These distinct perspectives also highlight and build upon very different theoretical conceptions of the object, which the book intertwines in compelling ways. Theories from the start of the 20th century, such as the Bergsonian musings on the organic and mechanical in Le Rire, recur in the artistic thoughts of Fried and Wyndham Lewis, as Martin Schauss argues, while the Benjaminian meditations on modernity serve to reconsider the experience of gazing upon objects and the duality of modern commodity culture, for instance in Justine Baillie’s analysis of Good Morning Midnight. The book features cogent re-appropriations of classical theories of the object, such as Marx’s insights into commodity culture (which perhaps could have been approached more actively, since passages of the Capital such as the famous scene of the dancing table constitute some of the more important roots of modern interest in the agency of objects), Baudrillard’s vision of consumption, as well as psychoanalytical theories of object-relation, most notably a very interesting use of Winnicott in Lynn Somers conceptualization of the art of Louise Bourgeois. These are placed in constant dialogue with more recent developments, in Queer theory, the feminist reversal of Hegelian aesthetics developed by Naomi Schor, as well as newer conceptions of the object, in computer theory or in the thinking of Bruno Latour, whose ideas underlie the very interesting concept of “objectionable objects” in Douglas Mao’s chapter. Perhaps a small remark on that point concerns the introduction, where, however difficult the task, readers might have benefited from a slightly more panoramic view, stressing these theoretical echoes and the intellectual horizon that they delineate.

For the ultimate aim of Modernist Objects lies perhaps not so much with the objects themselves, as with the profound insights that we can receive from them, into the world that these objects inhabit: into the relations which they materialize, those to which they testify through their existence, and those which they create. Ultimately, the entire book does what Douglas Mao expresses when he questions the notion of “aristocratic” autonomy of the object, of the artist, and of the public within modernism. Lynn Somers proposes to take up the notion of “adjacency” theorized by Edward Said, to shed light on the interdependence and “mutual tension” in the object world, bringing forth a web of open-ended interplay, beyond intersubjectivity, breaking boundaries between actors and objects. This materializes throughout the chapters in many different ways, from Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec’s musings on the “formative” value of the lyre, to Martin Schauss’s notions of cycles, the sets of market-dynamics, social rites and transmissions which intertwine the world of people and that of things. It appears in the concepts of “reflections” and “protocols” which Louise Kane takes up from the language of computers and applies to the montages of modernist magazines. And it acquires an illuminating concreteness in Yasna Bozhkova’s analyses of Baroness Elsa’s “Ready-To-Wear poem-objects”, conflating performance, commodity and craft in this great insight, wherein modernist art is in essence being “worn”. Indeed, from Beckett’s notion of “wear and tear”, to Sasha’s weariness and worn identity in Good Morning Midnight, to Louise Bourgeois’s instructions regarding the fact that her statues should be moved and handled, it is interesting to see how the idea such as that of “wearing”, in all its forms, pervade Modernist Objects, linking the thing and the human in a larger array of disseminating potentialities.

In the end, Modernist Objects leaves the reader with powerful insights, and yet more powerful questions waiting to be answered. As one raises the eye from the book, gazing one last time at the mysterious, machine-like cover image by Suzanne Bellamy, one is sure indeed that the cogs in one’s mind will still be turning long over its fascinating content.

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