Modernist Women’s Literature and Photography

Lorraine Sim discusses how the women of modernism allow us to reimagine the ordinary and the everyday
Lorraine Sim, Ordinary Matters: Modernist Women's Literature and Photography (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Lorraine Sim, Ordinary Matters: Modernist Women’s Literature and Photography (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What inspired you to write Ordinary Matters?

The idea developed from my first book, Virginia Woolf: the Patterns of Ordinary Experience. Towards the end of that project I realised there was much more that I wanted to explore, both in terms of the concept of the everyday and its applications to modernism and cultural histories of early twentieth-century modernity. I remember reading H.D.’s fascinating wartime memoir, The Gift, while I was working on my book on Woolf, and seeing some of Lee Miller’s photographs of London during the Blitz around the same time, and I felt I needed to extend my exploration of the ordinary to a broader range of women writers, artists and contexts. The final chapter of Virginia Woolf looked at what I termed the ‘ethics of the ordinary’ in her oeuvre. This idea, of the ways in which the ordinary functions as a site of value (be it personal, social, moral or political), really fascinated me, and I wanted to explore it in a more comprehensive way. Also, many canonical and contemporary theories on the topic view the everyday negatively, or as requiring radical transformation, and I felt that this was a critical habit or commonplace that itself required interrogation.

Why do you think it is important to be attentive to the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘everyday’?

As many writers, artists and critics have observed, the ordinary is that which we often overlook or take for granted because of its always close proximity. This is true of commonplace things and environments, routines, daily habits and gestures, loved ones, and so on. As such, we often fail to apprehend and appreciate the richness of ordinary life, its complexity, its importance, but also (from a political perspective) the social and ideological structures that underpin and shape it. Like writers such as Virginia Woolf and contemporary critics such as Ben Highmore, I find that once we start to analyse the ‘ordinary’ we realise that it is a very capacious category and concept: there is little in our experience which is not in one way or another related to or a part of it (for example, love is a part of ordinary experience as much as boredom; things seemingly extraordinary such as war can, disturbingly, become routine and a way of life). My sense of the importance of attending to the ordinary, then, crosses multiple registers: aesthetic, phenomenological, political and philosophical.

What do you mean by the expression ‘women’s modernism’?

I’m basically referring to cultural productions by women that form part of the broader modernist project, and in the case of Ordinary Matters I focus on British and American modernism and modernity in the first half of the twentieth century. Definitions and narratives regarding what modernism is/was have undergone significant revision since the 1990s as part of what is commonly referred to as the ‘new modernist studies’. This new phase in the field invites a rethinking of traditional accounts of modernism’s temporal, geographical and vertical (high/popular culture) axes, as well as the conventional emphasis on radical innovation. Now we tend to think in broader terms about the various kinds of artistic and cultural innovation that respond to particular experiences, conditions and locations of modernity. So in modernist studies we now speak of modernisms rather than modernism, as we speak too of multiple rather than a singular modernity. So my book deals with canonical (e.g. Gertrude Stein) and lesser-known figures (e.g. Margaret Monck), but their work is equally relevant to a study of modernist art and culture. The expression ‘women’s modernism’ also registers my sense that canonical accounts of what modernism is have always been highly gendered, and that there is still a need for that gender bias to be further interrogated and redressed. This is true in terms of literature but even more so for media such as photography. For example, Henri Cartier-Bresson is a name that most modernist scholars would be familiar with, but I’d hazard a guess that few would have heard of his equally talented contemporary, Helen Levitt.

“Henri Cartier-Bresson is a name that most modernist scholars would be familiar with, but I’d hazard a guess that few would have heard of his equally talented contemporary, Helen Levitt.”

How did you assemble your list of artists and writers for this project?

I selected writers and photographers whose work reveals a sustained preoccupation with both the concept and aesthetics of the everyday, and that reflects in some way on the relationship between the ordinary, modernity and ethics (or value). Of course, many other writers and artists could have been included – I focused on those that interested me the most and that covered a range of approaches and topics. As my research background is in British and expatriate modernist literature, I had a fairly clear idea from the outset of the writers I wanted to include, although I couldn’t include all of them (H.D., for example, was jettisoned). Being fairly new to the history of photography when I started work on this project, assembling the list of photographers was a more exploratory and organic process based on hunches and a few unexpected but wonderful discoveries! Helen Levitt was one example of this, but as soon as I saw some of her inimitable images of the streets of New York from the 1930s and 1940s, I knew she had to be included. The British street photographer, Margaret Monck, was a fairly late addition to the project. Very little has been published on Monck’s life or work and it was after seeing maybe four of her photographs in a book by Val Williams that I had a hunch she would be a valuable addition to the project. It was only upon visiting her archive at the Museum of London in 2013 that I realised how important it was to include a chapter on her in the book, not only because her photography was so apposite to the project, but because her fascinating work needs to be more widely known and studied.

“I’ve always been interested in philosophical questions, but believe strongly that these kinds of questions – as fundamental to human experience and the human condition – should also be examined and explored in ways that are accessible and engaging to the non-professional philosopher.”

Could you say a little bit about your multidisciplinary approach?

My research background and interests have always been multidisciplinary: at base I’ve always been interested in too many things! My Bachelor of Arts degree and doctorate were in literature and philosophy. Over the years my interests have expanded to other fields – particularly cultural history and theory, and the visual arts/media. I’ve always been interested in philosophical questions, but believe strongly that these kinds of questions – as fundamental to human experience and the human condition – should also be examined and explored in ways that are accessible and engaging to the non-professional philosopher. I think this is why I’ve been drawn to the work of writers such as Albert Camus and Virginia Woolf. So my research has always examined the ways in which philosophical and theoretical issues and questions have been explored and communicated via the arts. I believe that all kinds of fruitful and suggestive insights can be gained by putting different media and disciplinary knowledge and methods side by side. I also feel that drawing on the insights of different disciplinary methods and knowledge paradigms can help us to avoid becoming blinkered or dogmatic.

What critical or theoretical approaches helped you to develop the book?

I have found the work of Ben Highmore extremely rich and helpful for my own research in modernism and the ordinary. His studies on the everyday and modernity bring together works from philosophy, cultural theory, literature, the visual arts and more with incredible grace, insight and apparent ease. There is, for me, a poetry as well as real depth of insight to his work. His first monograph, Everyday Life and Cultural Theory, as well as later studies such as Ordinary Lives, have served as something of a methodological template for Ordinary Matters. The ‘critical and theoretical approaches’ of Virginia Woolf have of course guided the book too – I’m a very big fan of Woolf the essayist. She ended up featuring in Ordinary Matters in more ways, and more often, than I expected (I did not, for example, expect that some of her ideas on hospitality would find echo in the essays of Dorothea Lange). The philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas also provided me with a rich and suggestive lens for thinking about the everyday, ethics and self-other relations. Levinas’ philosophy is notoriously open-ended: Michael Morgan’s study, Discovering Levinas, provided me with greater confidence in my own reading of Levinas, which sees the everyday and ordinary as fundamental, not ancillary, to his philosophy and ethics.     

What’s next for you?

I’ve recently started working on an essay on Virginia Woolf and integrity for an edited collection entitled Portraits of Integrity. Later in the year I plan to write something on the linocuts of the Australian graphic artist Ethel Spowers.   

Ordinary Matters is available from Bloomsbury.

About the Author

Lorraine Sim is a Lecturer in Modern English Literature at Western Sydney University, Australia. She is the author of Virginia Woolf: the Patterns of Ordinary Experience (2010) and peer-reviewed articles in modernist literature, twentieth-century visual culture, women’s studies, and theories of the everyday.

Add Your Comments, Links, and Recommendations

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.