Attention and Distraction: Cinematic Perception and Spectatorship in Modernist Texts, 1897-1941
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Tracing sensory and affective experiences associated with cinematic modes of perception in modernist literature, this study reveals how modernist writers embraced the medium of cinematic language as a means to examine new forms of subjectivity, and how through this appropriation they attempted to reconfigure culture’s audiences by situating both author and reader in the position of spectator. Drawing on methodological approaches such as early cinema studies and reception theory, this study performs a comparative reading of modernist texts that feature spectator characters and that speak to issues of spectator/spectacle relations. Previous scholarship has regarded literary modernism as an elite craft refined in secret, inattentive or hostile to audiences, and modernist attributes as what makes an artist figure in the face of modernity. However, moving beyond the field’s focus on the relationship between the artist and the artwork, this study highlights the presence of art spectators both inside and outside of the textual space to redefine literary modernism as an active exchange between artists and audiences. By focusing on three different types of spectators that are seemingly vulnerable, uncritical, and passive—a child, a woman, and the masses, respectively, this study shows that modernists’ preoccupations with spectatorial subjectivity are not only indicative of their susceptibility to the rise of cinema spectatorship in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century but also promote a new method of reading that is audience-oriented and receptive to the effects of media change. As a response to the emerging media culture in the late 1890s, Henry James foregrounded spectatorial experiences and employed the language of early film to expose the gap between the old assumptions of literary readership and the actual culture’s audience. Dorothy Richardson used the silent cinema spectatorship in the 1920s as an essential backdrop for her feminist strategies to express critical dissent from dominant narratives of gender. Conceiving the masses as a new type of art spectators in the 1930s, Virginia Woolf valorized contingency and distraction, both of which she discovered from her own cinematic experience, to achieve a strategy that confronts the crisis of language in the age of machines.
perception in literature
Kim, Boo Sung (2017). Attention and Distraction: Cinematic Perception and Spectatorship in Modernist Texts, 1897-1941. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from