Creatures of habit: Perception, automation, and American modernism
Lam, Joshua D.
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Automated technologies have long characterized twentieth-century modernity, from automobiles and the assembly line to cinematic technology. Encompassing industrial production, scientific management, physiological investigations of reflex and habit, and public discussions of neurasthenia, the automatic body became a figure for unconscious or unwilled behavior. This project demonstrates how this figure shaped the thought of American writers in the early decades of the twentieth century. Forged in the context of public anxieties about mechanization, literary modernism engaged closely with automatic figures and processes, from automatic writing to its preoccupation with dolls, marionettes, and automatons. Not simply a habit-driven, mechanical being subject to the imperatives of efficiency and productivity, the automaton is an elastic figure that writers employ as means of interrogating the social forces that conscript the agency of the culturally disempowered. Bringing together American pragmatism, early psychological research, and literary modernism, "Creatures of Habit" argues that well-known anxieties about mechanization are underwritten by a logic that connects automatic behavior to animality and racial otherness. From the residual phenomena of phrenology and mesmerism, each fraught with contemporary sciences of race, to the nascent discourse of hysteria and double consciousness at the turn of the century, the automaton is deployed in the literature and science of this period as a figure representing the conscription of free will and compromised autonomy. I argue that the automaton—represented as distracted, stupid, and susceptible to intellectual coercion—was persistently linked to the under-classes, in contexts ranging from urbanization and immigration to the historical legacies of slavery and miscegenation. Articulating hysterical condemnations and hagiographic celebrations of automatic behavior, this project demonstrates how modernist writers explored automation in order to interrogate the tensions between embodiment, free will, and mechanization. This project looks specifically at how modernist writers appropriated technological and psychological vocabularies of automatism in ways that examine the cultural politics of personhood and corporeality. It argues that automatism plays a crucial role in modernist configurations of perception, one that is frequently racialized and connected to a primitivist fantasy. Tracing a formative moment in the development of psychology and modernist aesthetics, this project maps the specific ways in which modernist literature examined the language of impulse, reflex, and automatism in concert with contemporary bodily and racial ideologies. Moving from Henri Bergson to Henry James, from William James and Gertrude Stein to B.F. Skinner and Wyndham Lewis, from Pierre Janet and Alfred Binet to Pauline Hopkins, "Creatures of Habit" ultimately argues that the perceptual aesthetics of American modernism are structured not just in their dialogue with the impersonal forces of technology, but also around ideological investments in embodiment. It demonstrates that primitivism is integral to the modernist fantasy of a "pure" perception because of this fantasy's reliance on the construction of automatic bodies and reflex actions. Whether those bodies are rhetorically wielded against the constrained automata of everyday bourgeois living, or are denigrated to maintain racist hierarchies privileging civilization over "savagery," their fabrication and deployment are at the heart of American modernism.