Literature in the First Media Age, by David Trotter

Gary Day on an exploration of new technologies’ effects on artists’ representation of the world

February 20, 2014

If Hugh Kenner were alive, he might be a little aggrieved not to have received at least a mention in David Trotter’s Literature in the First Media Age. Kenner could be said to have pioneered the study of the relationship between Modernism and technology, Trotter’s theme. For example, in The Mechanic Muse (1987), Kenner showed the role the typewriter played in the poetry of Ezra Pound. True, Trotter’s focus is late rather than early Modernism and he might also claim, with some justice, that his interest is in how canonical and non-canonical writers resisted as well as registered “the technological mediation of experience”. All the same, he is not boldly going where no man has gone before. At the very least, Kenner anticipated his discussion of the way the telephone reconfigured personal relations. This is not to detract from Trotter’s achievement, and of course you can’t read everything, but Kenner’s book was such a landmark that it’s hard to see how it can have been overlooked.

Trotter’s claim is that various technologies of travel and communication as well as the development of a variety of synthetic substances had a profound effect on how artists represented the world. Formal experimentation was no longer an adequate response to this new situation, and a return to realism was not the answer either. What was needed was a form of representation that registered the impact of these new phenomena on the understanding of the social. Trotter finds it in what he calls “unimportant passages”.

One such is a description of Connie Chatterley donning a pair of crepe rubber tennis shoes to visit Mellors’ cottage. At the time D. H. Lawrence was revising Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the Rubber Growers’ Association was mounting an aggressive campaign to market crepe rubber as the perfect material for sports shoes. This is one context for Connie’s choice of footwear. But the shoes also signify a complex negotiation between instinct and civilisation, as crepe rubber was both a natural product and a processed one. Trotter argues that its fusion of nature and manufacture transcends the opposition in the novel between sensual freedom and mechanical routine. Connie’s shoes represent an awareness that “saves her both from Sir Clifford [her husband] and Mellors: from too much civilizing and too little”.

Trotter uses the term “cool” to describe this slippage between two systems of thought. To that extent his book can be seen as promoting an attitude. But since “cool” is one of the most commodified poses on the planet, it is hard to see how it symbolises any kind of respite from necessity. Cool is the province of the fashion industry, not the freedom fighter. Trotter’s terminology, in fact, more often blurs than clarifies. Key terms such as “connectivity” and “representation” are asked to do too much. On the one hand they designate new forms of communication, and on the other they denote normative categories: true versus false sociability, and so on.

There is no doubt that Trotter is a highly informed and sensitive reader of British and American culture between the wars. He makes fascinating links, for example between glass and a new idea of diplomacy, and his remarks about the lobbies of buildings jolt you into an awareness of their utopian possibilities. But in the end I was left wondering whether this was no more than a brilliant exercise in ingenuity. For what is Trotter actually saying? That the technologies of the modern world give us information but no meaning? That we must therefore strive to create that meaning? That’s old news. But at least Trotter gives us a new way of looking at it.

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