Modernism and the Marketplace: Literary Cultures and Consumer Capitalism, 1915-1939

Karl, Alissa G. Modernism and the Marketplace: Literary Cultures and Consumer Capitalism, 1915-1939. 2005. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation seizes upon the unique situation of European and American modernist production—at the confluence of significant changes in economics, international politics, and everyday life—to consider how transatlantic modernist texts in English engage with consumerism to theorize the operations of capital in interwar social, political and cultural life. The texts brought together here—by Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and Nella Larsen—grapple with consumerism's growing predominance, and collectively insist upon consumption as a category of everyday life in which capital is manifest at the most intimate levels of practice, and through which it formulates social and political organization.

Through the frequently tragic circumstances of their shopper-heroines, Rhys' novels expose consumerism's management of marginalized and ‘foreign’ women in European metropoles, even as it generates longings that undermine its own disciplinary mandates. Similarly, Woolf's The Voyage Out and Mrs. Dalloway theorize the commodity's enforcement of regimes of nationality, race and gender that are advantageous to evolving manifestations of capital and empire. In Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Beach's memoir Shakespeare and Company , the proliferation of modernism itself is located squarely within the consumer marketplace, suggesting distinct conceptual affinities between the priorities of modernist culture and those of market capitalism, and between the values of American business culture and certain tropes of national identification. Larsen's Quicksand furthers this commentary on American consumer culture, as the “choices” it affords effectively abdicate personal identification and agency to the marketplace in the interests of racial discipline and demographic rationalization that are advantageous to the projects of US industry and domestic empire.

These readings posit consumerism as both an ideological format and a material structure for the proliferation of capitalist culture, and demonstrate the contribution of literary texts to ongoing negotiations of commercialized life. While these texts suggest no definitive formula for reconciling consumerism's promises and risks, they reveal the malleability and force, as well as the limits and contradictions, of consumerism as the mode of cultural, social and political engagement most appropriate to Anglo-American economic and political organization since the early twentieth century.

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