Emma Reddy

2016 AFPGR Participant


Paris, Modernism and Artificial Light (1900-1939)
About Emma

Emma Reddy is an AHRC funded research student working towards completion of her doctoral degree in the School of English. Emma is supervised by Professor Martin Halliwell.

See Emma's PhDepiction entry.

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About My Research

In this project the fields of modernist studies and science converge on the topic of lighting to contribute to a neglected aspect of literary history. My research takes a new look at modernism, illuminating a previously neglected area: the impact of artificial lighting on Anglo-American modernist literature between 1900 and 1939. I have selected primary texts on the basis that they have a connection with Paris because modernism reached across Europe’s capitals with peaks of productivity in different disciplines and in different locations throughout the thirty nine year period which my thesis takes into account, but Paris maintained its position as an artistic centre until 1939. This period of cultural activity coincides with Paris' emergence as a stage for innovative public lighting. Historians agree that for many the streets of Paris provided the first demonstration of electricity’s potential. My research has shown that Paris was not only the location of a several international expositions promoting electric light, but it was also a city whose world-class experiments in lighting and sumptuous public lighting displays were admired by the seminal commentators of the time.

Furthermore, by anchoring the study in Paris a theoretical framework becomes possible that brings together canonical modernists in the City of Light and asks: how do their words interrelate with the historically specific emergence of electric lighting? While significant work has been carried out in relation to depictions of Paris’s artificial lighting in fine art, a thorough assessment of the impact of lighting technology on the modern movement is absent from recent critical analysis and literary modernism has not yet been accounted for in relation to developments in public and private lighting. My research analyses a comprehensive index of evocations of gas and electric lighting in order to better understand the links between artificial light and modernist literary aesthetics. These links are illuminating for what they reveal about the place of light in the modern imagination, its unique symbolic and metaphorical richness, as well as our adaptability to (and encouragement of) technological change more broadly.

Lighting is a revelatory lens through which to consider modernist literature for various reasons. The invention of networks of artificial light presented a current and real system which writers could position in their texts in order to comment on life in the modern world, while simultaneously taking advantage of the intricate spectrum of associations which artificial light offers. These associations incorporate mythology, divinity, epiphany, spirituality, imagination, modernity, science, war, heaven and hell, knowledge, intellectualism, spectacle, surveillance, and of course the many forms of natural light that exist.

My Festival Presentation

My poster focuses on Paris' contemporary international appeal and cultural legacy as a creative hub. I wish to emphasise this by adopting the style of 1920s vintage travel posters, which frequently emphasised the allure of the city's modern lighting. The writers at the centre of my thesis, with the exception of Wyndham Lewis who was English and James Joyce who was Irish, are all Americans who formed part of the legendary migration to Paris and who might have been exposed to such kind of advertising. In order to satisfy the challenge of designing a poster with which to advertise my research it seemed fitting to manipulate a form of real advertisement. 

Research Findings

This thesis makes a significant contribution to modernist studies because it investigates how the dissemination of artificial modes of lighting coincided with, shaped and contributed to literary experiments in fragmentation, stream of consciousness, spatial representation, literary epiphany, formal self-awareness, imagism, surrealism and the merging of forms. Tracing the history of lighting technology and its aesthetic dimensions unearths numerous and surprising parallels between lighting and writing, parallels which justify my claim that modern lighting, above all other scientific innovations of the late nineteenth century, was a symbol for and constituent part of the direction and execution, style, form and techniques of Anglo-American modernist literary innovation.

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