Impersonality and the Cultural Work of Modernist Aesthetics

Arvidson, Heather. Impersonality and the Cultural Work of Modernist Aesthetics. 2014. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation reanimates the multiple cultural and aesthetic debates that converged on the word impersonality in the first decades of the twentieth century, arguing that the term far exceeds the domain of high modernist aesthetics to which literary studies has consigned it. Although British and American writers of the 1920s and 1930s produced a substantial body of commentary on the unprecedented consolidation of impersonal structures of authority, social organization, and technological mediation of the period, the legacy of impersonality as an emergent cultural concept has been confined to the aesthetic innovations of a narrow set of writers. “Impersonality and the Cultural Work of Modernist Aesthetics” offers a corrective to this narrative, beginning with the claim that as human individuality seemed to become increasingly abstracted from urban life, the words impersonal and impersonality acquired significant discursive force, appearing in a range of publication types with marked regularity and emphasis but disputed valence and multiple meanings. In this context impersonality came to denote modernism's characteristically dispassionate tone and fragmented or abstract forms, yet it also participated in a broader field of contemporaneous debate about the status of personhood, individualism, personality, and personal life.

This dissertation asserts impersonality's conceptual plasticity and makes a case for its paradigmatic importance in literary and cultural discourse of the 1920s and 1930s. Through literary texts that engage impersonality formally and thematically, the dissertation contextualizes narrative experiments in point of view within the broader questions about effaced individuality that the word impersonality condenses. By elaborating specific narrative criteria for impersonal fiction, “Impersonality and the Cultural Work of Modernist Aesthetics” also addresses a critical gap in formal understandings of impersonality. New readings of canonical as well as less often studied modernists—Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, Tess Slesinger, Djuna Barnes, and Nathanael West—suggest that modernism is invested in not only performing impersonality but also interrogating it as a contemporary mode of sociality.

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