Voicing Modernism: Talk, Technology, and Aesthetics

Bryant, Sara, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wicke, Jennifer, Department of English, University of Virginia

This project traces how modernists in the verbal and visual arts engage with embodied voice and its technological mediation. Through attention to theorists such as Kaja Silverman, Stanley Cavell, Mladen Dolar, and Bruno Latour, as well as through extensive archival research, I show how works of both British and American modernism from the 1920s to the early 1940s interrogate the political and aesthetic significance of the voice in modernity. Scholars such as Sara Danius and Douglas Kahn have provided compelling accounts of sound in modernity and modernism. Critical attention specifically to voice within the modern soundscape, however, has remained scant. Voice proves an elusive topic because even while blurring divisions between exterior and interior, subject and object, and mind and body in meaningful ways, it also proves resistant to the work of unsettling binaries such as human/nonhuman, phone/logos, and presence/absence. I demonstrate how modernist writers and filmmakers experiment with the shifting status of voice across media and genres as they explore concerns made urgent in the epoch of world war: technology’s purchase upon embodied experience, the gendered ramifications of this experience, and the troubled link between politics and aesthetics.

This focus on voice in modernism allows me to link seemingly disparate artistic moments. My first chapter reads the filmmaker Dorothy Arzner’s meditations on gendered voice in her silent and sound films, situating her Hollywood career within modernist and feminist discourses about gender and filmic voice. The second chapter explores James Joyce’s specific encounters with sound film theory and practice and their significance for his cinematic understanding of _Ulysses_ in the 1930s as well as his approach to voice in _Finnegans Wake_ (1939). In my final chapter, I turn to Virginia Woolf’s attempt in her final novel, _Between the Acts_ (1941), to conjoin human, animal, and machine sounds into a choral voice whose unison resists fascist conformity. By forging dialogues among modernist scholarship, sound studies, archival research, and theoretical work, I uncover modernism’s attempt to rework the conceptual boundaries of voice. My coda begins to consider how we might draw upon modernism’s simultaneously aesthetic and political work on voice as we grapple with notions of the posthuman.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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