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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Vertical Turn: Topographies of Metropolitan Modernism

  • Author(s): Haacke, Paul
  • Advisor(s): Alter, Robert
  • et al.

This dissertation argues that the dominant vertical orientation of metropolitan modernist culture was put into question above all in response to World War II and the global emergence of the Cold War. While grounded in Comparative Literature and Film Studies, it also engages with interdisciplinary questions of philosophy, history, religion, economics, media studies, urban studies, art, and architecture. The first part demonstrates the growing fascination with vertical height, aspiration and transcendence in modernist aesthetics and everyday life, and the second part focuses on the critical suspicion of such transcendence in literature, film, and theory after World War II. The conclusion discusses how this history helps us better understand the more horizontalist rhetoric of globalization and new media that has become dominant since then.

My argument is that, in response to new developments in technology and metropolitan experience over the course of the long twentieth century, trans-Atlantic writers and artists became increasingly interested in vertical ideas of aspiration and transcendence that diverged from both romantic ideas of spiritual inspiration and realist ideas of mimetic reflection. Although there were critics of this modernist vertical turn already during the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, it was put into question above all after World War II, when more postmodern tropes of suspension, circulation and sprawl - and theoretical concepts of deconstruction, immanence, and deterritorialization - began to gain prevalence. After the destruction of European and Asian cities from above, American metropolitanism ascended to the world stage even while its national landscape became more suburban, decentralized, and mass-mediated. During the Cold War "balance of terror," First World capitalism also became more decentralized as it expanded further into the Third World, and Fordist methods of vertical integration and nationalization began to be replaced by more transnational methods of horizontal integration, production, and distribution. Thus, while the first half of the long twentieth century could be symbolized by the skyscraper and the airplane, the second half has come to be recognized by more horizontal images of suburban sprawl, extra-terrestrial images of zero-gravity in outer space, and multi-linear images of telecommunications networks and media flows. Although distinct, these two historical movements of the twentieth century may be conceptualized as part of an overall geopolitical turn from European to American dominance, from vertical modernism to horizontal globalism, and, in terms of metropolitan cultural capital, from Paris to New York. That said, despite the utility of these broad generalization and terms, I ultimately also argue that they also call for critique.

More specifically, my first chapter, "The Aesthetics of Aspiration," introduces my argument that metropolitan modernist writers and artists became interested in ideas of vertical transcendence in relation to contemporary material developments in urban space, architecture and aviation. Here I focus on spatial conceptions of urbanism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism in writings by Guillaume Apollinaire, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. My second chapter, "Metropolitan Ascendance and Catastrophe," begins with a short history of American architectural verticalization, especially as it was critiqued by John Dos Passos and Frank Lloyd Wright, before focusing on French writings about New York City by Fernand Léger, Le Corbusier, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Michel de Certeau, among others. Here I show how these critics turned from Paris to New York in order to come to terms with the increasing commercialization, secularization and Americanization of twentieth-century modernity. In my next chapter, "The Aesthetics of Suspension," I show how major post-World War II American novels by Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon each responded to wartime violence and trauma by dispelling the modernist aesthetics of aspiration in favor of new ideas of historiography, immanence, and "vertical wandering." My fourth chapter, on "Alfred Hitchcock and the Displacement of Terror," focuses on the 1958 film Vertigo, and the post-war French novel on which it was based, in order to show how the meaning of this eponymous term was reoriented from the horizontal to the vertical in relation to lingering anxieties about wartime destruction. Finally, my Afterward, "On the Horizon," considers appeals to horizontal equality and flow in more recent discourses of urbanism, globalization, and new media.

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