By Timothy Wientzen

My scholarship focuses on literature of the early twentieth century, a period that scholars generally refer to as the “modernist” period. This era is so named because it was defined by the rapid and novel transformations of everyday life. Mass urbanization, the advent of new technologies of communication and transportation, and universal suffrage created a fertile ground for literary innovation and optimism about the future. But the modernist period was also a period beset by an unmistakable pessimism. In writing my book, Automatic: Literary Modernism and the Politics of Reflex, I was particularly struck by the tension that writers, philosophers, intellectuals, and ordinary people felt about these changes. Even as this period promised unprecedented freedoms of sexual expression, personal choice, and political participation, many worried that everyday life stripped people of agency and the ability to actually exercise the freedoms of the modern world. As I write in the book, the early twentieth century was as at once a moment of radical and expanding liberties, and “an era dominated by robots, hollow men, and automata incapable of escaping the grooves of thought and action patterned by society.”

As I began my research, I discovered two things. First, I noted the dominance of these anxieties among modernist writers like D. H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, Rebecca West, and many, many others. But I also discovered that many of the intellectual formations of the early twentieth century were actively discussing these questions with a specific orientation toward the science of reflex. The study of reflex has a long history, but by the early twentieth century, scientists like Ivan Pavlov in Russia and John B. Watson in the United States had begun to argue that human behavior was entirely dependent upon physical stimuli—indeed, that what we traditionally call thought and action is really nothing more than the reflexes produced by our environments.
These ideas had deep and lasting political implications. If our thoughts and behaviors are determined by how we have been conditioned, the job of politics would not be to convince citizens to vote or consume in particular ways, but rather to manipulate social environments. As Pavlov explained before a British audience in 1906, the study of reflex promised to yield “incalculable advantages and extraordinary control over human behavior,” control that would be wielded by scientists and other experts. In Automatic I trace a number of different trajectories that this “politics of reflex” took in the modernist period. Of particular interest to me was the field of public relations, which emerged out of the propaganda efforts of the First World War. As I show in the book, pioneers in public relations, such as Edward Bernays, understood the public in the same terms as physiologists like Watson and Pavlov. As Bernays explained in his 1928 book, Propaganda, the public is entirely dependent on the organized manipulation of their environment by an “invisible government” of PR experts. The job of this invisible government was not, he explained, to educate citizens but rather to condition them to behave in profitable and socially-desirable ways. Producing these reflexes was simply a matter of knowing how to manipulate the human machine: “Touch a nerve at a sensitive spot and you get an automatic response from certain specific members of the organism.”


For the writers that I study, these ideas were absolutely central to how they understood the purpose of literature and culture. Some, like the British avant-garde writer Wyndham Lewis, saw reflex as part of a broad conspiracy of mass modernity in which our so-call liberties merely occluded deeper, more sinister forms of control. Others appropriated the language of reflex to diagnose the political behaviors of the era’s most dangerous ideologies, such as Nazism. In the work of Rebecca West, for example, Ivan Pavlov’s ideas helped her anticipate the language “brainwashing” that would become common after the Second World War but also helped her imagine the endurance of cultural traditions threatened by the forces of modernization. In each chapter of Automatic, I demonstrate how one intellectual formation took up questions raised by the politics of reflex and demonstrates how modernists engaged with, extended, and critiqued the entailments of a modern world that thrust us, as Lewis put it, into “prescribed tracks” of thought and action.

Literary studies are often motivated by historical questions, but a large part of what animated my thinking in this book was the novelty of twenty-first-century political life. The challenges we face in the digitized world in many ways recapitulate the problems that modernists first faced. The successes of digital platforms like Facebook depend on models of political behavior first elaborated a hundred years ago, models in which our cognitive habits are mapped, and our behaviors shaped through occult practices. As they grappled with new communication technologies and an emerging science of political behavior, modernists forged a critical vocabulary for the dangers and utility of such thinking. It is my hope that in returning to the era of modernism, we may begin to formulate a critical vocabulary that will serve us in understanding and contesting the political forces of our own era.

Timothy Wientzen is an associate professor of English at Skidmore College.He is the author of Automatic: Literary Modernism and the Politics of Reflex.



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