Modernist Interference: Inhuman Frequencies between Modernism and Media
Morton, Seth Aaron
Doctor of Philosophy
This project argues for the existence and role of an idiosyncratic tradition of media theory within modernist aesthetic practice over the course of the twentieth century. This tradition in modernism and media theory is organized around the concept of interference. Modernism and media theory interfere with each other in ways that amplify or diminish each other across high and low culture and across the twentieth and twenty first centuries. Mainstream media theory focuses on the ways media and technology either enhance or diminish our human capacity, while the new tradition I am calling “modernist media inhumanism” highlights how the modernist interpretation of media and technology engenders modes of analysis that challenge this dialectic entirely. Instead of doubling down on the debate over the human, these idiosyncratic engagements call for new modes of reading and gesture toward the need to revise media studies’ continuation of the Cartesian enlightenment project of the human subject as such. This dissertation thus moves away from accounts of media and media theory that follow or imply enlightenment technologies of progress and betterment and it treats modernist writers as media thinkers, whose aesthetics are engaged in incorporating the challenges of media into their practice. Instead of offering aspirational stories of utopic possibilities, the media archive I explore here interrogate breakdowns, disruptions, noise, ephemera, failure, groundlessness, and the undead as ways that media frame ways of understanding. From the hybrid and transmedia possibilities explored in Virginia Woolf’s late prose to the dark horizon of mass communication as biopolitical horror presented in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, this dissertation’s century-long engagement with new media offers a grim view on the possibilities of media and technology. This dark drift is not altogether nihilistic, but instead seeks to appropriate a set of media-informed concepts that expand and complicate our modes of analysis. This project considers moments of failure and breakdown as object-lessons that critique the expansive promise of new media. Further, this project charts a recursive relationship between modernism and the contemporary, through which modernist media thinkers offer ways of critiquing contemporary media theory, and contemporary concepts in media theory offer new vantages onto the modernist literary archive.