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Modernism Media and Propaganda

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Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative from 1900 to 1945

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Registered Charity No. Ford Madox Ford Society. Powered by Create your own unique website with customizable templates. Never the stable units of self-evident truth seized on by British empiricism, facts became even less trustworthy in the media ecology of the early twentieth century.

Facts were of course under assault from multiple directions. The rise of positivism and modern science in the nineteenth century, always shadowed by its dialectical counterpart, idealism, inevitably elicited responses that challenged the notion that facts were the only possible objects of knowledge. They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything! But for the duration of the war, Wellington House made mutilated Belgian children as real as actual German brutalities by translating the Bryce Report into thirty languages and circulating it throughout the world.

Tracing the emergence of this duality back to the seventeenth century, Poovey argues that the ambiguity of facts as both preinterpretive and wholly derived from theory is fundamental to modern epistemology. Propaganda exploits the internal bifurcation of modern facts by amplifying their rhetorical appeal even while insisting on their value-free neutrality. Modernism also troubles notions of objectivity, but not so much by spinning facts into spurious coherence as by pressuring one extreme into another.


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Without a socially derived hierarchy of values guiding the selection and disposition of realistic detail, modernism succumbs to an arbitrariness that de-composes objective reality into the stasis of allegorical abstraction and solipsism. Ulysses offers a telling example of the historical embeddedness of the play between fragmentation and wholeness in modernism. The word seems as disposable as the thing it designates.

Particularly prominent in Joyce, tension between the relative autonomy of the realistic detail and the integrative power of modernist form is felt throughout modernism. Itself chronologically disjunct, a narrative that makes fragmentation its main subject draws itself together through the agency of metaphor in order to comment on the fate of the easily manipulated within urban modernity. For Conrad, the lived experience of fragmentation and the hunger for coherence could be narrated only as an uneasy mix of dark comedy and tragedy.

Analytic commentaries traced similar fault lines. Army approached Lippmann to help offset the crude propaganda being produced by the CPI. The resulting pseudo-environment is then manipulated by propagandists. In consequence, a screen of language seems to rise between the reader and narrative events. Indeed, Heart of Darkness, published in the opening moments of the twentieth century, anticipates the complex entangling of modernism, new media, and propaganda that is the subject of this book.

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In part Marlow sees Kurtz as a symbol of the capacity for belief he himself desires. The death of his helmsman, killed by a spear, is pivotal.


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But what Kurtz supplies is the consoling coherence that is the special province of propaganda. A staple of propaganda, atrocity stories have always counted on the appeal of uncomplicated savagery. Propaganda mediates other relations as well. Such subversions notwithstanding, Marlow is far from immune to popular myths. The conjunction of primitivism and the factual is crucial here. Kurtz is going to be the one real thing in the pseudo-environment Marlow navigates on his way upriver.

In the end, however, Marlow does not quite commit himself to a world of vital bodies and dependable facts but to a complexly confused idea about Kurtz in which the distinction between propaganda and authenticity is both crucial—affectively and ideologically— and unstable. In some fundamental sense much of modernism can be read as an attempt to clear a space within the pseudo-environment for more authentic modes of communication. On November 6 Conrad sailed out for ten days on the Ready, a brigantine disguised as a merchant vessel.

Modernist Cultures, Feb 2017, vo. 12, No. 1 : pp. 16-35

Shared generic conventions reinforce numerous verbal and thematic links between the essay and Heart of Darkness. Framed by an awkward conversation between a naval commander home on leave and his wife or lover, the story recounts how the commander comes across a neutral ship he suspects of resupplying German submarines. The commander weighs every word of the interview and every nuance of facial expression, straining his interpretive abilities to decide whether the master is lying.

Deeply skeptical by nature, Conrad was not a natural propagandist. Conrad certainly wanted England to win the war, but his deepest concern always lay with the Polish question: would the war result in the reestablishment of an independent Polish state? From on board Conrad telegraphed to his agent J. The German airship had emerged in classic Conradian fashion from a dense fog, was shot at twice, and departed to points unknown, perhaps to Norway, where newspapers reported sometime afterwards a damaged zeppelin had alighted.

The Admiralty even seems to have lost its copy. Conrad revisits two favorite tropes, darkness and silence, in a self-consciously revisionary way. This darkness is rather the literal fact of England under black-out. With this gesture the premodern is uneasily superimposed over the modern: the zeppelin will emerge from the fog as a phantasm of modernity within an older darkness understood as the epitome of romance. Yet if such blackness evokes premodernity, it also paradoxically discloses the inescapably modern.

By the same logic, he typically linked romance with the negation of such media. A strategic military resource in World War I, the radio would become a major medium of propaganda by the next world war. Where else would Masterman have turned? By the end of World War I, the cinematic propaganda that Wellington House initiated in had become a major enterprise within the Ministry of Information MoI , and by World War II, government propagandists no longer hired writers to supply material for print but to write for radio and cinema.

The analysis turns on the notion of mastery, a concept as important to Conrad and Hitchcock as it is to discourses of modernism and propaganda. Like imperial rhetoric, which becomes more jingoistic as actual imperial power declines, media tend to demand recognition for themselves as the medium when competing media challenge their cultural privilege. Whether on the rise or in decline, media compete by appropriating the effects of their competitors or by developing what is peculiar to themselves. In the modernist period, some media did both. Hitchcock ultimately earned the title Master of Suspense, a mark of his control over his audience and on his sets.

Conrad was highly sensitive to the power of the written word in relation to the expanding cultural presence of competing media, and The Secret Agent measures its rhetorical power against advertising, journalism, posters, propaganda pamphlets, and the persuasive force of violence. The novel is particularly concerned with the ethics of propaganda—or rather the absence of ethics, for The Secret Agent positions propaganda along with advertising and political discourse more generally as an exemplary instance of the growing dominance of rhetoric ungrounded by ethics in the opening decade of the century.

Conrad presents young Stevie Verloc as the ideal target of such rhetoric. As it turns out, propaganda by the word is as responsible for his death as propaganda by the deed. Ironically, Hitchcock later used propaganda as his ticket back out of the studio system, but that is the story of my last chapter.

Raymond Durgnat points out that for Conrad in anarchist threats were already becoming a thing of the past and that for Londoners in the threat of aerial bombing in the event of a second European war had become a widely publicized concern. Hitchcock had one eye on Hollywood producers, for they were the audience that could reward him with a contract, and the other on the generic spectator, the person whose rear end he wanted to keep in the seat. Conrad, in contrast, did not write a popular book until he had been publishing for almost twenty years.

His sailing career drying up with the advent of steam and lacking a patron or his own printing press, Conrad could not afford to turn his back on the mainstream audience as Joyce, Woolf, and Forster could. Experimental by temperament yet in need of readers to support his family, Conrad thought he had contrived a compromise in The Secret Agent.

His readership felt otherwise.

Like James, Conrad attempted the theater in his effort to tap into a wider audience, and like James, he failed. Much of the anxiety attached to the darkened cinemas themselves, which many feared as places of moral corruption. Attendants were to wear badges, escort unaccompanied children to a special seating area, and instantly report any cases of molestation to the manager. Nonetheless, over the next several years many licenses were refused or revoked.