Crossed Lines

Steven Connor

This review of Nicholas Daly, Literature, Technology, and Modernity, 1860-2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), appeared in Modern Language Review, 103 (2008): 207-8.

Nicholas Daly’s book continues the meditation on the relations between modernity and mechanisation that has been under way, in the work of Mark Seltzer, Wolfgang Schivelbusch and Tim Armstrong, for more than a decade. This short book skilfully twins two forms of modern technology, the railway and the cinema (readers encouraged by the inclusive-sounding title to expect accounts of radio, X-rays, lightbulbs, guided missiles and reproductive technology had better look elsewhere). Daly is a follower of D.A Miller, who, in The Novel and the Police (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1988), argued that novels like Bleak House were forms of training, drilling readers into the new work-disciplines of modern life even as they seemed to represent temporary abatements of its demands. Daly is particularly good on the relations between the aesthetic temporalities of melodrama, depending as they do on rhythms of suspense and climax, and the anxious syncopations of the new railway time (the sensation novel is, says, Daly ‘the first subgenre in which a Bradshaw’s railway schedule and a watch become necessary’ (p. 47). In both work and play, anxious attentiveness is increasingly a requirement for what Daly calls ‘the modernization of the senses’ (p. 34). As Lynne Kirby suggested in Parallel Tracks (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1997), the new technology of cinema was closely associated with the railway, which frequently provided its subject-matter and, in the early practice of fastening a movie camera to the front of a moving train, its technological correlate. Daly moves into the consideration of cinema via a sharp and suggestive reading of  the convergence of trains and movies in Rudyard Kipling’s strange story ‘Mrs Bathurst’, in which a South African widower is tormented by the sight of a woman of his acquaintance caught on a documentary film stepping out of a train in London. Against the background of the Boer War, which turned so many of the departing soldiers that were filmed into ghosts, Kipling’s own story itself becomes a kind of flickering ‘Boerograph’ (a popular alternative name for the cinema during the South African war).

The last two of the book’s five chapters take us briskly through to the end of the twentieth century. The emphasis increasingly is not on the agitated, anxious, time-pestered railway body of the nineteenth century, but on the sexualised body induced by cinema. Chapter 4 charts the appearance and ramification of ‘It’ – charisma, animal magnetism, or sex-appeal – through an analysis of the successful novel of the same name, by Elinor Glyn, and subsequent film starring Clara Bow that appeared in 1926-7. Here Daly’s leading hypothesis that cultural forms provide a kind of coercive training for modernity seems to lose something of its force. The suggestion that ‘the machinic body can be a body for pleasure, and that industrial modernity can be, among other things, breathtaking fun’ (p. 102) makes one wonder what there might be to object to or be uneasy about. Ballard’s Crash, the subject of the final chapter, providentially brings together the themes of the book, involving as it does both the literal collision of bodies and machines, and the creation of a specifically machinic sexuality. Daly concludes that, where earlier mechanical fictions offered humans the consolation of hair’s-breadth escapes from the machine, here, we are able to feel braced in our humanity only because of our thorough engagement by the cinema machine.
It is fitting that the book should end with Ballard’s novel, since this is itself a book of collisions and convergences rather than of systematic continuities, its characteristic mode being the jump-cut rather than the long-shot or lap-dissolve. Slim, but brimming with ideas and insights, Nicholas Daly’s book is a distinguished contribution to the understanding of the complex human relationship with machines.