Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative from 1900 to 1945

Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative from 1900 to 1945

by Mark Wollaeger
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Princeton University Press


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Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative from 1900 to 1945

Though often defined as having opposite aims, means, and effects, modernism and modern propaganda developed at the same time and influenced each other in surprising ways. The professional propagandist emerged as one kind of information specialist, the modernist writer as another. Britain was particularly important to this double history. By secretly hiring well-known writers and intellectuals to write for the government and by exploiting their control of new global information systems, the British in World War I invented a new template for the manipulation of information that remains with us to this day. Making a persuasive case for the importance of understanding modernism in the context of the history of modern propaganda, Modernism, Media, and Propaganda also helps explain the origins of today's highly propagandized world.

Modernism, Media, and Propaganda integrates new archival research with fresh interpretations of British fiction and film to provide a comprehensive cultural history of the relationship between modernism and propaganda in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century. From works by Joseph Conrad to propaganda films by Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, Mark Wollaeger traces the transition from literary to cinematic propaganda while offering compelling close readings of major fiction by Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, and James Joyce.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691138459
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 09/15/2008
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Modernism, Media, and Propaganda

British Narrative from 1900 to 1945



COMMON SENSE, that mysterious repository of unarticulated assumptions, may suggest that modernism and propaganda have little to do with each other. The case of Ford Madox Ford indicates otherwise. Ford is central to the larger argument of this book (and therefore receives extended treatment in chapter 3) because his passionate engagement with both literary aesthetics and the contemporary media environment reveals the sense in which modernism and propaganda are two sides of the same coin of modernity. Setting out to define literary impressionism (which is to say, modernism) early in 1914, Ford proclaimed that an impressionist "must not write propaganda." But within weeks of completing his modernist masterwork, The Good Soldier (1914), Ford began writing two books, Between St. Dennis and St. George (1915) and When Blood Is Their Argument (1915), for the propaganda operation run by C.F.G. Masterman out of Wellington House. With respect to style and narrative technique, the three books are indistinguishable. The conjunction of propaganda and modernist style is not in itself surprising. Just as Dziga Vertov's film Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is at once a brilliant city symphony and a piece of Leninist propaganda, so Picasso attacked fascism through the cubist abstraction of Guernica (1937). But by grounding his theory of impressionism in a refusal to propagandize even as he wrote propaganda grounded in impressionist technique, Ford betrays a deeper connection between modernism and propaganda. Understood in relation to his belief that modern writers had a civic duty to repair a dysfunctional culture of information, Ford's modernism and propaganda begin to look less like strange bedfellows than like conjoined twins.

Ford, like George Orwell and Joseph Conrad, wrote both as a novelist and as a propagandist, but whereas Orwell felt compelled to theorize the relationship between art and propaganda, and Conrad, like Virginia Woolf, felt threatened by their cultural adjacency, Ford largely shrugged off perceived tensions. With information overwhelming the processing capacity of consciousness, Ford's impression is designed to resist the onset of the posthuman by reinvesting facts with feeling. That is, where T. S. Eliot posited a dissociation of sensibility that began in the seventeenth century with the English Revolution, Ford, more attuned to recent media history, described a split between factuality and the human caused by the surfeit of quantitative data spewed out by the mass press, reference books, and sociology. In Ford's theory, the impression mediates between the human sensorium and a body of facts that otherwise cannot be held together by the mind; propaganda steps in later to manipulate the reunified individual into the greater unity of a collective cause. Rehumanized to appeal to the modern citizen's overtaxed powers of synthesis, the impression is Ford's less direct method for controlling reader response. Propaganda, in this understanding, is acceptable so long as it does not advertise itself as such. The British Ministry of Information (MoI), as I shall describe in this chapter, held a similar view.

This is not to say that the shared subjectification of the fact in impressionism and British propaganda elides all distinctions between the two. Even in Ford, who wrote for the government, friction persists despite the close meshing of gears. Rather, the ease with which Ford moved between impressionism and propaganda indicates how important it is to grasp what modern writers thought propaganda was. To some it recalled the dead hand of Victorianism; to others it heralded a new age (now recognizable as our age) of informatic indeterminacy. By tracing the concept's significance through a range of modernists, and by looking closely at the distinctiveness of the British propaganda campaign, this chapter seeks to show how modernism and propaganda were constituted within an information-propaganda matrix.


Understanding what "propaganda" meant to modernists requires us to see the word's problematic status in light of its complicated history in the twentieth century. Specialists in propaganda studies today disagree so much about terminology that some have argued that "propaganda" is useless as an analytic tool and use "persuasion" instead; but "persuasion," others counter, covers too much ground. In mainstream discourse, "propaganda" is regularly used to dismiss purportedly documentary accounts for their deceptive inaccuracy or deliberate bias, as if "propaganda" were the accepted name for the capacious category of politically motivated falsehood. But slinging the term rarely settles the case: one person's propaganda is another person's information, and the distinction between the two is often difficult to draw.

"Propaganda" has not always been so difficult to define. The English word derives from a Latin term that originally referred to a committee of Cardinals, or Congregation of Propaganda, established by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 to propagate Roman Catholicism. The word was later extended to designate "any association, systematic scheme, or concerted movement for the propagation of a particular doctrine or practice" (OED). But with the professionalization of advertising in the late nineteenth century, and the emergence of public relations specialists and the rapid development of mass media in the twentieth century, "propaganda" became increasingly difficult to pin down. Although the word began to acquire some negative connotations over the nineteenth century owing to government distrust of secret organizations designed to sway public opinion, the OED does not record until 1908 the now-common definition of "propaganda" as tendentious persuasion by interested parties. At that time, with so much of modern society dependent on the rapid exchange of information, "propaganda" usually denoted persuasive information or mere boosterism. The information propagated might come from interested sources, but its integrity or reliability was not necessarily suspect. That would change over the first half of the twentieth century, when two world wars helped link "propaganda" to lies and deception without completely erasing the notion that "to persuade" might simply mean "to inform."

By the forties, when the propaganda techniques pioneered by the British had been refined and deployed around the world for over two decades, propaganda seemed inescapable, and the sinister connotations it had began to gather by the twenties were firmly established. For the Western world, Soviet domestic propaganda had begun to blur distinctions between propaganda and education, and the Nazi campaign added associations with obfuscation and systematic deception. With the surge in global propaganda in the interwar years, artists felt the pressure acutely. Themselves engaged in acts of communication within a media ecology that was changing rapidly, artists were forced to compete not only with increasingly pervasive new media but with organized efforts to use those media to manage the public. When in 1918 Ezra Pound referred to poets as "the antennae of the race," he was already tuned in to the new medium of radio, which he himself exploited as a propagandist during World War II.

But modernists responded to propaganda and the media that made it possible in diverse ways. D. H. Lawrence, for instance, was in one sense a born propagandist. He wrote entire books of doctrine urging readers to live their lives differently, and his fiction sometimes turns away from his characters to advocate alternative modes of being. Perhaps for that very reason, recruiting tactics during World War I enraged him. In December 1915 he spent some time in Battersea Town Hall at a recruiting station. He was there because when British recruitment fell off drastically in the spring of 1915, Lord Derby, the newly appointed Director-General of Recruitment, devised a program under which men of military age would come forward "to attest" their willingness to serve if required. The so-called Derby Scheme was intended as a compromise between conscription and volunteerism. And so Lawrence, confident that his poor health would earn an exemption and needing to attest before he could apply for a passport to America, went to the town hall to proclaim himself ready and willing. But the next day Lawrence wrote to Ottoline Morrell that after waiting for several hours he left before securing an exemption because he "hated the situation almost to madness." Lawrence was not put off by the recruiting officials or the potential recruits: "waiting there in the queue, I felt the men were very decent, and that the slumbering lion was going to wake up in them: not against the Germans either, but against the great lie of this life." Taken out of context, Lawrence's remarks simply repeat one of his familiar metaphysical points: men fail to live in truth because they do not live in harmony with their leonine passions. Yet the context of recruitment suggests that Lawrence's visceral hatred-in the letter he underscores "hated" five times-was catalyzed in this instance not so much by the men's capitulation to the bogey of mental consciousness as by their "spectral submission" to the untruth associated with war propaganda. The real enemy is not Germany but, as Stephen Dedalus puts it in Ulysses, the priest and king within. And like Stephen, Lawrence declares that he will not serve: "I had triumphed, like Satan flying over the world and knowing he had won at last."

Somewhat less satanic, George Orwell and Virginia Woolf both devoted relatively measured attention to propaganda. Woolf thought about the problem more than she wanted to, while Orwell devoted more attention to propaganda than any British writer of his generation. Although both were ambivalent, both sometimes wrote as propagandists, and their explorations of the blurred boundaries between art and propaganda shed light on problems of definition that were newly emerging as matters for public debate.

Orwell's various writings reflect the polarized thinking of the thirties even as they suggest why it is difficult to generalize about relations between art and propaganda. In a 1941 BBC radio broadcast, "The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda," Orwell tries to draw some conclusions from the propaganda wars of the previous decade. For Orwell, art since the 1890s took for granted the notion of art for art's sake, even after the slogan itself was driven underground by the trial of Oscar Wilde. Writers still emphasized "technique" throughout the twenties, but in the thirties Nazism and the global economic depression made it impossible to preserve the "intellectual detachment" required by aestheticism: "any thinking person had to take sides, and his feelings had to find their way not only into his writing but into his judgements on literature." Orwell has mixed feelings about this development. Although he is happy to wave goodbye to the notion that literature ever could wholly detach itself from politics, the politicizing of literature, now "swamped by propaganda," also caused "countless young writers ... to tie their minds to a political discipline"-"official Marxism"-that "made mental honesty impossible" (Collected Essays 2:123, 126). Orwell draws the reasonable lesson that writers can neither remain wholly detached from their times nor sacrifice their "intellectual integrity" to political exigency (ibid., 2:126). Unsure how to reconcile "aesthetic scrupulousness" and "political rectitude," Orwell can only conclude that the decade's events at least "helped us to define, better than was possible before, the frontiers of art and propaganda" (ibid., 2:126-27).

Relatively inconclusive here, Orwell remains illuminating as a guide, in part because he refuses pat solutions to real problems, in part because he wrote both as an artist and as a propagandist. Orwell reflected at length on his dual identity in his diaries-and on whether his roles could even be separated. As a novelist, Orwell probed deeply into propaganda's colonization of everyday life. 1984 is the most powerful novelistic indictment of propaganda ever written in English, perhaps in any language. But the most frightening and prescient element of the novel is not so much the state's "rectification" of the news or the invention of Big Brother, for which the book remains famous. With Big Brother, Orwell simply anticipated Michel Foucault's extension of Jeremy Bentham's nineteenth-century fantasy of the panopticon from the prison to the whole of society, and "rectified" news, sad to say, was already a fact of life as Orwell was writing in 1948. More shocking is Orwell's implicit claim that modern propaganda is able to restructure desire to such an extent that the very concept of internalizing authority breaks down. By the end of 1984, the distinction between private and public no longer exists: Winston Smith truly loves Big Brother. Authority cannot be internalized when authority has always and already occupied the inner life of the mind. Or to borrow Stephen Dedalus's formulation again, how can the priest and king within be killed if to do so means extinguishing consciousness itself?

Orwell nevertheless felt that propaganda had its uses: the object of his critique in 1984 is not propaganda per se but the totalitarian system it serves. In Homage to Catalonia(1938), Orwell expresses disgust over the fact that propaganda during the Spanish Civil War is being produced by noncombatants sheltered from actual bullets, but within five years Orwell (who did fight against fascism in Spain) was writing propaganda for BBC radio and confiding in his diary: "All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth. I don't think this matters so long as one knows what one is doing, and why" (ibid. 2:416, 411). Nietzsche never put it better. Nor did Orwell restrict himself to anti-Nazi propaganda. In August 2003 the Public Record Office in England released a list of "crypto-communists" that Orwell compiled in 1949 for the Information Research Department, a propaganda bureau that operated out of the Foreign Office. The important point for my purposes is not that a leftist would collaborate with the government to root out suspected communists. Although the notion of Orwell as a McCarthyite is alarming, there is no evidence that his handing over of the list did anyone any harm, and Orwell was not alone in believing that the Soviet Union had betrayed the left and that many British Marxists had in effect become Soviet nationalists. More significant is that Orwell, anticipating the analysis of Jacques Ellul, had correctly seen that modern governments cannot survive without propaganda. Rather than decry the decay of organic communities, he decided to help hold things together against the perceived threats of Marxism, fascism, and Nazism.

Orwell's ambivalence toward propaganda opens onto complex attitudes shared by many of his fellow writers and citizens in the early twentieth century. Orwell believed that literature should participate in politics, but he did not want to dispense with distinctions between the aesthetic and the ideological. His famous essay "Politics and the English Language" is based on the premise that the operations of language should not be subordinated to political exigencies and on the belief that language can shake off ideology. And yet, as Orwell knew, this was easier said than done.

Virginia Woolf found herself in a similar bind in the thirties. Feeling the unwelcome pressure of propaganda while writing "The Pargiters," Woolf decided that even though "this fiction is dangerously near propaganda," she could not "propagate at the same time as write fiction." But if she was dismayed with a new era in which "people must have things written in chalk and large and repeated over and over again," she was more than willing to enter the fray: with Three Guineas(1938) Woolf earned the title of "the most brilliant pamphleteer in England" from the Times Literary Supplement (Diary 5:148). Not that Woolf would have appreciated being called the most brilliant propagandist in England. Keenly attentive to National Socialist propaganda, Woolf had come to see "propaganda" as a dirty word.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xxiii

INTRODUCTION: Modernism and the Information-Propaganda Matrix 1

Making Sense of Propaganda: From Orwell and Woolf to Bernays and Ellul 2

Propagating Fictions: Wellington House, Modernism, and the Invention of Modern Propaganda 13

Modernism and the Media of Propaganda: Heart of Darkness and "The Unlighted Coast" 26

CHAPTER ONE: From Conrad to Hitchcock: Modernism, Film, and the

Art of Propaganda 38

Manipulation and Mastery: Film, Novel, Advertising 42

From Novel to Theater to Film to Hollywood: In Search of an Audience 48

Killing Stevie: Death by Literalization/Death by Cinematography 55

Picking up the Pieces: Modernism, Propaganda, and Film 62

CHAPTER TWO: The Woolfs, Picture Postcards, and the Propaganda of Everyday Life 71

Postcards, Exhibitions, and Empire 77

Woolf and the Culture of Exhibition 84

Education as Propaganda: Bildungsroman, Sex, and Empire 88

Scripting the Body: Colonial Postcards and the Journey Upriver 93

Leonard's Jungle, Conrad's Trees 105

In Virginia's Jungle 111

Destabilizing the Ethnographic Frame and the Returned Stare 117

Empire, Race, and the Emancipation of Women 120

From Male Propaganda to Female Modernism 123

CHAPTER THREE: Impressionism and Propaganda: Ford's Wellington House Books and The Good Soldier 128

Ford and Wellington House 130

Ford's Critical Writings: Propagating the Impression 135

Impressing Facts: When Blood Is Their Argument and
Between St. Dennis and St. George 145

Navigating the Pseudo-Environment in The Good Soldier 151

CHAPTER FOUR: Joyce and the Limits of Political Propaganda 164

Recruitment and the Art of the Poster 166

Reading Posters/Reading Ulysses 176

Maeve, Bloom, and the Limits of Propaganda 192

Identification, Cultural Predication, and Narrative Structure 200

Carnivalizing Propaganda: Bloom and Stephen in Nighttown 203

Reinventing Ireland: Ulysses and the Art of Dislocation 213

CHAPTER FIVE: From the Thirties to World War II: Negotiating Modernism and Propaganda in Hitchcock and Welles 217

War, Propaganda, and Film: Pairing Hitchcock and Welles 222

Orson Welles: Theater, Film, and the Art of Propaganda 229

Autonomy and Innovation: From the Studio to the
MoI and CIAA 239

Citizen Kane and It's All True: Documentary and Propaganda 242

Bon Voyage, Aventure Malgache, and the Materiality of Communication 251

Coda 261

Notes 269

Index 323

What People are Saying About This

Michael North

The thesis of Modernism, Media, and Propaganda is original and Mark Wollaeger's readings in support of it are thorough, ingenious, and illuminating. This is an original, persuasive, and authoritative study.
Michael North, University of California, Los Angeles

Garrett Stewart

This book has everything. It is scrupulously researched, lucidly and appealingly written, interdisciplinary in the most rigorous sense, thickly historicized, and forcefully argued.
Garrett Stewart, University of Iowa

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