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Abstract

This dissertation is about the significance of automatism as a theory and mode of aesthetic production in the British avant-garde. It proposes that the British avant-garde begins with the founding of the Pre-Raphaelites in 1848 and concludes with the multiple interwar movements (vorticism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism) that climaxed and dissipated in the 1930s. The dissertation narrows and examines this timeframe through the figures of William Morris, Mina Loy, and Wyndham Lewis, whose work across mediums and genres outline a useful schematic for redefining the qualities of the British avant-garde. The stakes of the dissertation lie in proposing a solution to the riddle of a British avantgarde that alternated between a conservative aesthetics and a radical politics (such as in Morris), between a reactionary sexual politics and a radicalized poetic style (such as in Loy), and between a radical aesthetics and a conservative politics (such as in Lewis). The dissertation proposes that the alternation between conservatism and radicalism in these three authors can be explained through the lens of automatism, which changes shape, purpose, and import in the work of each author. More than any British author in a similar time frame, Morris, Loy, and Lewis embody the essential features of British avant-gardism in many of its contradictions and valances. Automatism is a conceptual term that I develop throughout the dissertation. It will come to signify three different forms of aesthetic performance: an automatism of craft, an automatism of reproduction, and an automatism of violence, which find their correlates, respectively, in the work of Morris, Loy, and Lewis. By automatism, I refer to what Morris calls the “unconscious intelligence” of the skilled artisan who works with great facility in a given medium. In a broader sense, automatism simply refers to moments and patterns of skilled performativity (or “mastery”) standardized by a nearly automatic engrossment in a material situation. The dissertation chapters are organized as follows. Chapter One examines the transmedial work of William Morris and its relation to labor, craft, and industrial automatism. The first section looks at Morris’s epic poem, Sigurd the Volsung (1876), which allegorizes Morris’s hostile attitude toward industrial automatism and the hope he placed in the revival of handicrafts. I argue that Morris conceptualizes handicraft as a technical automatism that repairs and strengthens human agency. The second section looks at Pilgrims of Hope (1885), which dramatizes the events of the Paris Commune. I argue that Pilgrims represents Morris’s utopic hope that incorporation into a socialist community might erase troubling notions of bourgeois married life, property fetishism, and domesticity. Chapter Two examines the work of Mina Loy and its relation to the sexual politics of the avant-garde. The first section looks at Mina Loy’s anxieties over aesthetic and biological reproduction, and the problematic relationship she maintained with futurism. I argue that her early poems develop a theory of automatism that regards sexual difference as the key to “spiritual” (as opposed to biological) evolution. In the second section I look at Mina Loy’s novel Insel, written in the 1930s and unpublished in her lifetime. Insel narrates Loy’s exploration of surrealist art and its tangled commitment to automatism as a generative technique. I argue that Loy reframes automatism as a medium for transgressing the politics of sexual difference and creating new forms of life. Chapter Three examines the work of Wyndham Lewis and its relation to political and aesthetic violence. The first section looks at Lewis’s collection of short stories, The Wild Body (1927), and his novel, Tarr (1918, 1928), and I argue that these works capture the heart of Lewis’s painterly style of writing, as well as his core ideas regarding the automaton-nature of the human organism. In the second section, I look at One-Way Song (1933), Lewis’s only major work of poetry. I argue that One-Way Song offers a compelling account for automatism as a means of preserving human culture, paradoxically, through satire and mimetic violence.

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