Pylon Modernism

Presentation by James Purdon (Jesus College, Cambridge).

This paper addresses the cultural resonances of the National Electricity Grid constructed in Great Britain between 1926 and 1933. It will approach the high-voltage grid through the grounded, infrastructural vision of a number of other works of national importance: the ‘Pylon’ poems written by several 1930s poets including Stanley Snaith and Stephen Spender, the painting Amongst the Nerves of the World (c1930) by CRW Nevinson, Paul Rotha’s documentary film The Face of Britain (1935), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936). The aim of the paper will be to show how this vast and controversial form of infrastructure — itself shaped in part by Britain’s fascination for Egyptology — expanded both outwards, into the country at large, and inwards, into the fantasy of a clean, progressive, electrified future.

The wider project to which this paper contributes explores the shaping dialectic of material infrastructure and cultural discourse in Great Britain from the First World War to the present. Inter- and post-war infrastructural projects gave British writers, artists and film-makers new opportunities for conceptualising and representing many of the problems of industrial modernity, including the relationship between public space and private space; the obligations of the state to its citizens (and vice-versa); and the presence of invisible and incomprehensible bureaucratic relations and systems on which the most quotidian actions come to depend. They also structure some of the twentieth century’s most influential accounts of what it means to be modern, not only in Marx’s writings on economic theory and Freud’s model of the unconscious, but in Heidegger’s later theories about technology.

James Purdon is completing a doctorate on the relationship between early twentieth-century British literature and the rise of the information state. In October 2012 he will take up a three-year Research Fellowship at Jesus College, Cambridge, in order to pursue a further project about infrastructure and the British imagination. He recently spoke about Fritz Lang and identification technologies at the ‘Cultures of Surveillance’ conference (University College London) and in February 2011 organised an international two-day conference in Cambridge on the subject of ‘Covert Culture: Art and the Secret State’. He has published on early modern biography, on spy fiction, and on neglected writers of the 1930s, and writes regularly for The Observer, the Times Literary Supplement and the Literary Review.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Sorting Network Artifacts, Part 2 | Words in Space

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