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The Age of Atmosphere: Air, Affect, and Technology in Modernist Literature

  • Author(s): Abramson, Anna Jones
  • Advisor(s): Abel, Elizabeth
  • et al.
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The Age of Atmosphere: Air, Affect, and Technology in Modernist Literature


Anna Jones Abramson

Doctor of Philosophy in English

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Elizabeth Abel, Chair

In the first three decades of the twentieth century, new technologies drastically altered the relationship between humans and the atmosphere: poison gas, airplanes, and radio waves made air lethal and palpable in unprecedented ways while innovations in meteorological forecasting transformed the legibility of the sky. A surge of interest in perceiving the invisible world extended to affective atmospheres, with sociologists and psychologists developing tools to measure the public mood in urban crowds and morale on the frontlines of World War I. Modernist writers seized on the concept of atmosphere in a series of formal experiments designed to capture elusive phenomena that drift somewhere between conventional distinctions of setting, character, and plot. In The Age of Atmosphere: Air, Affect, and Technology in Modernist Literature, I trace this convergence of meteorological, affective, and aesthetic atmospheres in order to rescale modernism. Rather than emphasizing psychological interiority, I make a case for the centrality of vast transpersonal and environmental phenomena; and instead of following the traditional narrative of modernist shock and rupture, I examine gradual climatic fluctuations. I argue that, contrary to expectations, it was not literary impressionism or indeed any sort of painterly aesthetic which contributed most directly to modernism's construction of atmosphere. Modernist rendering of atmosphere was actually taking place within and through the experiments with literary form we are familiar with, but do not tend to associate with atmosphere: experiments with narrative framing, free indirect discourse, unreliable narration, reversals of background and foreground, and the temporal displacements engendered by flashbacks and forecasts.

My project is motivated by the conviction that we need a richer vocabulary and more robust set of conceptual tools to account for experiences that bypass a standard subject-object divide, the kind of profoundly immersive conditions that Woolf had in mind when she wrote of being “steeped in atmosphere.” An atmospheric intervention shifts conventional emphases in modernist studies: visible becomes palpable, shock becomes absorption, perception becomes attunement, fast becomes slow, event becomes environment.

Chapter One, “Fog,” argues that for Conrad, atmosphere is a way of gesturing at something larger than any local or individual experience, something that inflects human life but is always in excess of it. The striking persistence of meteorological and affective atmospheres throughout Heart of Darkness (1899) – the “brooding gloom” that recurs across narrative frames, temporal registers, and geographical locations – reveals atmosphere to be irreducible to setting in the manner of Dickens’ foggy London. I argue that it is not the text’s impressionist descriptions that contribute most directly to the construction of atmosphere, but rather the particular way that Conrad experiments with narrative framing. Conventionally, we expect frames to erect partitions between components of a narrative, yet Conrad’s atmosphere overflows all such divisions, rolling slowly through the text and refusing to burn off, much like literal fog. I suggest that because the narrative sections divide while still also remaining permeable, these frames provide a structural model of attunement, with the atmosphere of each section striking a chord with the others in resonant harmony. I propose that attunement can be applied to “reading atmospherically,” a practice that seeks to replace epistemological decoding with affective attunement. However, these discoveries introduce distinct ethical problems: because Conrad’s colonial violence is embedded in environment rather than events – an all-encompassing fog - it is difficult to see how one could ever step outside of it.

In Chapter Two, “Poison Gas,” Conrad’s creeping fog transforms into the lingering of lethal gas in World War I literature. Whereas the previous chapter examined the question of inhabiting atmosphere, here I turn to the problem of uninhabitable atmospheres. My readings expand upon philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s assertion that the uniquely modern danger of gas warfare lies in its assault on the atmosphere rather than on human bodies. I begin by tracing representations of failed impact, splintering effects, and indirect experience in Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1924). I suggest that consistent emphases on oblique rather than direct experience challenge the widely accepted position that noncombatants cannot possibility understand war because they lack the sensory immediacy of “firsthand” experience. The problem might be not that we lack the imagination, I suggest, but that we have overactive imaginations that glide right past the sensory and atmospheric subtleties implied by a term like “undertones.” In my subsequent close reading of Blunden’s narrative, I suggest that the centrality of atmosphere to war experience makes the text’s use of the pastoral tradition seem less anachronistic, archaic, or escapist than some have assumed it to be. Rather than reading Blunden’s “pastoral” and “modernist” styles in opposition, I assert that the text’s seemingly archaic tone itself operates according to principles of atmospheric manipulation. Poison gas carves out pockets of air and is susceptible to “blow back” dependent on the direction of the wind, just as Blunden’s narrative follows anachronistic counter-currents and formally embeds pastoral microclimates within the prevailing climate of war and modernity. Similarly, Blunden takes the propensity of poison gas to “loiter,” “linger,” and “cling,” and applies these principles of slow pacing to his own writing style, consistently interrupting the forward march of narrative to notice affective fragments of the past still clinging to the present.

Chapter Three, “Heat Wave,” moves from the front lines to the home-front. While shock and distraction have long dominated the study of urban modernism, my reading of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) shifts the focus to absorption. City dwellers absorb – and are absorbed by – the city’s immersive environment. Furthermore, I suggest, the shock absorbing capacities one tends to associate with the psyche play out at the level of atmosphere: the city as a collective has absorbed the shocking blows of the recent past, becoming a kind of affective repository for history. It is no accident that the novel takes place on a summer day in which London is overwhelmed by a heat wave. On this day, there is no downpour, clouds are not bursting in the sky like bombs. Rather, the heat wave is slow moving, enervating, sluggish. It blankets the entire city rather than striking individual targets. I suggest that, while atmosphere often goes unnoticed, it becomes perceptible in moments of what I call “gentle turbulence” rather than “culture shock.” Throughout the chapter, I argue that absorptive processes are not just central to the novel’s historical thematics but in fact drive Woolf’s formal innovation. Woolf’s particular brand of free indirect discourse allows the narrator to simultaneously absorb and be absorbed by the novel’s extensive cast of characters. It is a narrative strategy that avoids shock, embracing gentle turbulence instead.

Chapter Four, “Snow and Wind,” begins by moving from London’s heat wave to the freezing cold snow of Dublin in “The Dead” (1914). In my reading of Dubliners’ final story, I argue that Gabriel is affectively tone deaf because he fails to recognize the precise distinction between decoding and attunement intuited by Marlow in Heart of Darkness. While decoding seeks to master its objects and to reduce distance, attunement facilitates intimacy not in spite of but because of difference. Gabriel’s attempt to read his wife’s mind and to “master” her mood is therefore misguided on two levels: it fails to preserve the distance necessary for attunement, and it centers on the problem of private minds while the real issue at stake is public moods. The character’s romantic fantasies about the snow similarly rely upon the assumption that environment can be controlled and molded by the human imagination. The famous epiphany featured in the story’s finale is not a vision but an act of auditory attunement: Gabriel listens to and is chilled by a snowstorm that cannot be coaxed into a human frame of reference. While such a nonhuman environment cannot be mastered, it can be moving, in both physical and affective senses of the word. “The Dead” leaves us with the sense that, despite common associations, snow is not frozen or fixed but slowly moving. Ulysses (1922) zeroes in on the way that air moves in its treatment of wind, with characters paradoxically locating a breath of fresh air in the emanations of dead bodies. Leopold Bloom is a kind of anti-Gabriel, forever attuned to the complex entanglement of bodies and environments: breath transforms into wind, stinking bodily emissions mingle with urban pollution, living subjects inhale and swallow air emanated from the dead, gas inside leaks out. Throughout, Joyce embraces disgust, thereby inverting an affective state that is conventionally all about the policing of borders. While Bloom and Stephen seem to be polar opposites, I argue that their respective concerns with disgust and inspiration point to a principle of underlying unity rather than dichotomy, for disgust and inspiration operate according to similar respiratory processes. I suggest that the structure and rhythms of breathing inform the text’s interest in the way that moving air troubles barriers without completely abolishing them: like Conrad, Joyce dismantles hard boundaries without dissolving everything and everybody into one atmospheric blur.

Chapter Five, “Clouds,” foregrounds the tension between spatial climate and temporal weather patterns that has been implicit throughout my study. The first section of Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927) begins with a forecast and conforms to the short-term scale of weather’s day to day fluctuations. Weather should be something that one can perceive empirically – as opposed to climate, which is invisible and abstract – but here I show that the displacements engendered by forecasting make even the weather out of reach for first-hand observation. Drawing extensively on the history of meteorology, I show that characters’ attempts to forecast the weather run up against the precise limitations that were simultaneously motivating an early twentieth-century shift in the atmospheric sciences from individual observation to large-scale physical and theoretical modeling. Thus, while the novel has traditionally been read as nostalgic, I call attention to an affective atmosphere of anxious foreboding. Woolf’s second section, “Time Passes,” expands temporal and spatial scales in order to register gradual climate changes that cannot be perceived empirically as well as the slow violence of “weathering,” a phenomenon which I suggest brings weather and climate together. The novel’s third section, “The Lighthouse,” serves as a kind of bookend corresponding to the first section – but now, forecasting the weather has become remembering the atmosphere. Thus, I argue, Woolf depicts the displacements that distinguish modern weather forecasting at the level of the text’s own structure, which consistently expels characters and readers alike from the present moment and from a human frame of reference.

My afterword, “A slow, dripping loss: Time Passes, Climate Changes,” suggests that today’s debates over climate change center on many of the problems engaged by my dissertation, particularly issues surrounding atmosphere as a shared habitat, legible object, and invisible phenomenon. The striking and well-documented contrast between apathy in the face of climate change and rapid mobilization in response to discrete catastrophic events reflects the precise tension I study: shock, rupture, and immediate first-person experience on the one hand; ongoing, diffuse, impersonal atmospheres on the other. I surmise that World War II temporarily returned focus to the shock of weather (as anticipated by To The Lighthouse) and I make a case for the value of rediscovering the ways in which twentieth-century writers and thinkers grappled with their own problems of climate and atmosphere.

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This item is under embargo until November 2, 2020.