The pairing of modernism and posthumanism highlights a constitutive paradox of new modernist studies. In recent years it has become increasingly difficult not to think about “modernism” as a historical term, yet from its early days of intense critical and aesthetic self-consciousness, modernism has existed, indeed has aggressively positioned itself, and defined itself, in conflict with the historicity of the present moment. So goes an old critical narrative: modernist art stages a constant struggle against the possibility of being historicised, and chases the urgency of an ever-receding future, ripe with revolutionary or technological promise.

Paul de Man traces this condition back to its Nietzschean roots, when he identifies a contradictory desire at the heart of all modernist experimentation, a will to break free from the past that can only be realised as part of a deliberate, self-conscious historical project.

Modernity invests its trust in the power of the present moment as an origin, but discovers that, in severing itself from the past, it has at the same time severed itself from the present.[1]

This tension has become all the more fraught today as the body of work that comprises the modernist syllabus sinks further into historical memory. The idea of a modernism at odds with its historical present may be, by now, an old critical chestnut to be interrogated and challenged with the benefit of hindsight. Yet it remains part and parcel of the critical viability of the concept, and of its legacy. Modernism is of the past, but there is still no sense that it can be safely or comfortably periodised.[2]

The recent posthuman turn in modernism intensifies these paradoxes precisely because the relationship between the two rubrics is emphatically historical, and as often happens with vintage, cutting-edge technology, simultaneously stylish and dated. Where the posthuman is the cultural paradigm of the third industrial revolution, modernism attends to the spatial and temporal distortions that obtain in the age of mechanical reproduction. It is, in an important and by now irresistible sense, the age of the fast car, of the cinema and of the robot—this last, not incidentally, a coinage of high-modernist European theatre.

Karel Čapek’s R.U.R premiered in Prague in January 1921, and by late 1922 the robot had been exported to the American stage. The next year saw the debut of the Berlin production, the play’s most influential run. It is this version, with Friedrich Kiesler’s set designs, that helped establish the look and character of the automaton in the early twentieth-century imaginary. Both its themes and its design aesthetic would be picked up a few years later by Fritz Lang in the influential film Metropolis (1927).

For modernism, the city is the privileged metaphor of a becoming-inorganic of human social relations. We know that early twentieth-century art responds to this moment in a variety of ways—sometimes euphorically, embracing the utopian possibilities of mechanisation, and celebrating the “the imminent and inevitable identification of man and motor” which will bring about “a continual interchange of intuitions, rhythms, instincts, and metallic disciplines”,[3] sometimes critically as in the aforementioned examples of Čapek and Lang—or indeed Chaplin. Early cinema provides us with an array of visual cues. Lang’s vision of the modern city as a huge underground industrial complex that offers up its workers to be chewed up by Moloch is reprised in Chaplin’s more comedic image of the factory worker trapped in the cogs of a factory machine in Modern Times (1936).

For all their differences in tone, both films are self-conscious reflections on the ways in which the mechanisation of labour defines the historicity of the present moment. Both imagine the modern condition as a dehumanising existence, severing work from work-product, transforming the labourer’s body into a replaceable part of an inorganic whole. And yet the scenes are propelled forward by a compulsive rhythm, as though the medium of film cannot but turn even the darkest allegory of alienation into dance. Chaplin, incidentally, cannot help himself, and his version of the workers’ mechanical ballet soon gives way to a parody of expressive lyrical movement.

On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum is Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine (1924), a meta-cinematic parable that celebrates the romance of modernity with speed and technology. In this case, the pairing of man and machine is a triumph of modernist style. The car reshapes the rhythms of modern city life, lab work is combined with seduction, and the frantic mechanical ballet that crowns the plot liberates the body from its material constraints. Einar, the male lead, cheats death, harnesses the airwaves, and abolishes time and space with an invention that seems to be an early imagining of the globalising power of television.[4]

The line from this mythology to late 20th Century robotics and cyborg theory is temptingly straightforward. If I chose, at the outset, to highlight the example of Čapek’s robots, and the simple genealogy this image implies, it is not simply to affirm a notable instance of art foreshadowing science, or even to remark on a stylistic affinity between a century-old idea and contemporary mythology. Several other details from the literature and art of the 1920s could have been adduced to similar effect. My point, rather, is that as the notion of the pastness of modernism gains critical purchase, the political stakes that attach to the theme of the mechanisation of everyday life, the existential anxieties about the automation of labour, or the excitement sparked by the promise of an entirely new coordination of matter, rhythm and life, all come into ever clearer focus as ways of characterising what counts as historically dated and as theoretically current in the thought and the style of the period.

It is no doubt the technological newness of cinema that first captures the modernist imagination. But the new art is also steeped in the old magic of shadow theatre and phantasmagoria, and forces a recalibration of the relation between the eye, the image and phenomenal reality. Virginia Woolf’s 1926 essay on cinema provides what has always struck me as a perfect allegory for the times. The new art, Woolf writes, “has been born the wrong end first”; [5] and in a variant of the same text: “while all the other arts were born naked, this, the youngest, has been born fully clothed”.[6] We might extend the insight to the historical emergence of modernism itself. Born the wrong end first, and fully clothed, modernism is always too eager to control its own legacy, far too involved in determining the instant of its own birth, to be accurately identified with a punctual historical present. This is how it can be futurist and decadent at the same time, driven by a cult of youth yet somehow full of the sense of its own historical belatedness. Woolf’s essay captures this condition in the tension between primitive, vital energies and an exhausted historical consciousness—and once again the art of film, this combination of old magic and new technology, of technical mastery and naïve expression, functions as a metaphor for the age: “People say that the savage no longer exists in us, that we are at the fag-end of civilization, that everything has been said already, and that it is too late to be ambitious. But these philosophers have presumably forgotten the movies”.[7]


Critical History and Early Circulation

One of the most influential definitions of modernism is provided by Clement Greenberg who identifies as a key trait of modernist art the tendency of a work always to turn back on itself, to encode within its performance a critical moment that corresponds, in the final analysis, with a reflection on the material conditions of its artistic production. Simply put, modernism is that self-conscious aesthetic in which materialist critique and avant-garde inspiration coincide. Its most essential trait is “the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence”.[8]

We encounter here a first variation on Woolf’s idea of an art form born fully clothed: an artistic sensibility that from the first moment – by its very first impulse – knows to criticise itself. Linking modernism with a late moment in post-Kantian thought, Greenberg’s definition is at the same time an invitation to think through the impossible coincidence of intuition and reflection, of art and theory, of vital, creative energy and historical self-consciousness. About a decade later, Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane would emphasise the anti-humanist resonances of this insight, speaking of “the coming of a new era of high aesthetic self-consciousness and non-representationalism, in which art turns from realism and humanistic representation towards style, technique and spatial form in pursuit of a deeper penetration of life”.[9]

Several versions of the same debate have accompanied the reception of modernism in different academic circles, from the New Critical turn in Anglo-American universities (peaking between the 1950s and the early 70s), through the heyday of poststructuralist theory in Europe and the romance of French theory with high modernist poetics (roughly, the 1970s and 80s), to the decades of postcolonial critique and the postmodernist pronouncement of modernism’s death (the 90s and early noughties), and finally the recent establishment of New Modernist Studies.

Joyce first used the word posthuman in describing his characterisation of Molly Bloom as Penelope in the concluding chapter of Ulysses: “I have rejected the usual interpretation of her as a human apparition—that aspect being better represented by Calypso, Nausikaa and Circe, to say nothing of the pseudo Homeric figures. In conception and technique I tried to depict the earth which is prehuman and presumably posthuman”.[10] Not a human apparition, then, but something that is more primordial, irreducible to human history or representation, and given to a wholly different order of figuration.

The importance of modernism for posthuman thought has a lot to do with the intuition that it is the task of literature precisely to reach beyond the limits of figuration, to exceed human modes of perception and human ways of being in the world. Joyce would pursue this idea through a poetics of excess and oversaturation. Simply put, there is too much writing in his fiction; too much data (too much cultural memory) in his version of human consciousness; too much stylistic variation in his paragraphs; too many condensed images in his representations; far too much ego in his characterisations (but also too much fluidity in his concept of ego); too many clauses in his sentences; too many entries in his catalogues. All of this excess gestures to a kind of radical perspectivism, an attempt to liberate phenomenology from the human eye.

Woolf’s fiction is similarly concerned with developing a radical perspective, in her case, a new novelistic method that is far less interested in dramatising scenes of ordinary life, or in holding a mirror up to human nature, than in encountering life as a series of emergent forces. (In this connection, stream of consciousness is best dismissed as a lazy, overused concept that has served modernist studies very poorly.) Her writing always seeks to occupy the infinitesimal interval between characters and the world of which they are conscious, the space of transformation, or vanishing point, at which one body transitions into another. More consistently than any other writer, Woolf attacks the idea that being human entails a position of privilege, or a vantage point from which to observe reality. She reminds us that the human eye is always already emplaced in the scene it perceives, just as consciousness is already embedded in the world it inhabits, one emergent process among others.

Elaborating on the theme of modernism as “as a vehicle of crisis within the ‘progress’ of modernization”, Ástráður Eysteinsson suggests that the twentieth century “is felt to signal a radical ‘inward turn’ in literature, and often a more thorough exploration of the human psyche than is deemed to have been probable or even possible in pre-Freudian times”.[11] Yet, at the same time, the experimental novel of the age features a definite rejection of psychological depth, a disregard of character study in favour of mythic forms and symbolist or expressionist aesthetics. The art of Robert Musil and Franz Kafka replaces that of Henry James. The fully realised personal histories created by Flaubert and Tolstoy give way to the paranoid parables of Witold Gombrowicz or Flann O’Brien, on the one hand, but also, on the other, the vast cultural repositories of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

This varied legacy comes to inform key issues in posthuman thought, but the field of modernism remains far too vast for any comprehensive coverage. I have therefore limited my references to a few representative authors and filmmakers who may be relied upon to showcase important lines of dialogue between twentieth-century literature and posthuman thought.[12] A fuller and more leisurely treatment might include an extended discussion of futurist aesthetics alongside the erotics of the machine; a study of the Century’s awareness of itself as an age of mechanical reproduction and the ethics born of that awareness; a comparison between modernist approaches to gender and cyborgian approaches to sexuality; Nietzschean and post-Nietzschean articulations of the human as a historical and trans-historical being.[13]

As modernism extends its lifespan into a new century, as it reinvents itself to survive its first historical delimitations, co-opting its own postcolonial critique, outliving postmodernism, it continues to confront its formative anachronisms.[14] The challenges to perspective, to models of sense perception, to theories of consciousness posed by the twentieth-century avant-garde, the technological anxieties and technological euphoria thematised by the modernists, directly prefigure the contemporary interest in new ecologies, non-human subjectivities, virtual bodies, and cybernetic environments. Eminently modernist is the call for a new understanding of materiality, or the investment in vitalist metaphors as a way of short-circuiting the opposition between technology and organic life. Always at stake is the honing of a conceptual grammar and a mythology by which even today we might be able to grapple with and historicise our own sense of an inherent belatedness vis-à-vis the historical present.

– The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, September 2017 [Revised and updated September 2021]


[1] Paul, De Man, “Literary History and Literary Modernity,” Daedalus (1970), p. 390.

[2] On this issue I refer the reader to two important works that gave Modernist Studies their impetus and their direction in the last twenty years or so: Jean-Michel Rabaté, Ghosts of Modernity Rabaté, Jean-Michel, The Ghosts of Modernity (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996); and Susan Stanford Friedman, “Periodizing Modernism: Periodizing modernism: Postcolonial Modernities and the Space/Time Borders of Modernist Studies,” Modernism/Modernity 13.3 (2006): 425-443.

[3] F.T. Marinetti, “Multiplied Man and the Reign of the Machine,” Futurism: An Anthology. Ed. Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009 [1900]), p. 90.

[4] For an extended analysis of this film in light of posthumanist themes see Ruben Borg, ‘Three Articles of Posthuman Modernism: The Meta-Cinema of Marcel L’Herbier (and Friends)’, Modernism/Modernity Print Plus, 4.4 (2020) <>.

[5] Virginia Woolf, “The Cinema,” The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4 (1925-1928). Ed. Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth Press, 1994), p. 352.

[6] Woolf, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4, p. 595.

[7] Woolf, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4, p. 348

[8] Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” Arts Yearbook 4 (1961), p. 103.

[9] Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, “The Name and Nature of Modernism,” in Modernism 1890-1930, ed. Bradbury and McFarlane (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), pp. 24-25.

[10] James Joyce, Letters, ed. Stuart Gilbert (London: Faber and Faber 1957), I: 180.

[11] Ástráður Eysteinsson, The Concept of Modernism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 26.

[12] Sustained critical attention to this line of dialogue has, broadly speaking, fallen into two categories: single author studies devoted to the ways in which posthumanism might be able to revitalize critical staples in the reading of individual modernist writers, and, more recently, general titles that focus on the historical and philosophical continuities between key figures in posthuman theory and the modernist imagination. A select bibliography would have to include Jeff Wallace, D.H. Lawrence, Science and the Posthuman (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Derek Ryan, Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory: Sex, Animal, Life (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013); Erin E. Edwards, The Modernist Corpse: Posthumanism and the Posthumous (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2018); Ruben Borg, Fantasies of Self-Mourning: Modernism, the Posthuman and the Finite (Leiden: Brill, 2019); and Jonathan Boulter, Posthuman Space in Samuel Beckett’s Short Prose (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019).

[13] For an excellent commentary on the shared Nietzschean ancestry of modernism and the posthuman see Jeff Wallace, ‘Modern’, The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman, eds Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. 41-53.

[14] This includes a thorough revisiting not only of modernity but, by implication, of “humanity” as a performative construction to separate humans from all pre-modern others along the lines of Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993) or Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).