Jessop on DeMaagd, 'Dissensuous Modernism: Women Writers, the Senses, and Technology'

Allyson C. DeMaagd
Anett Jessop

Allyson C. DeMaagd. Dissensuous Modernism: Women Writers, the Senses, and Technology. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2022. 202 pp. $170.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-6916-6.

Reviewed by Anett Jessop (The University of Texas at Tyler) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (October, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

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Allyson C. DeMaagd, in Dissensuous Modernism: Women Writers, the Senses, and Technology, contends that her contingent of anglophone female experimental writers—H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) (American, 1886-1961), Mina Loy (British-born, 1882-1966), Virginia Woolf (British, 1882-1941), and Elizabeth Bowen (Irish-British, 1899-1973)—were calling for an “awakening” that was different and distinct from the earlier twentieth-century modernist awakening envisioned by male writers (as Ezra Pound exhorted: “Make It New” [in his publication by the same name, 1934]).[1] While her premise has been well documented in feminist recovery projects over the last fifty years, DeMaagd argues for a new angle into difference and revolt that lies in a social hierarchy of the human senses of vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Dissensuous Modernism focuses on how sense perception, reception, and portrayal entwine with gender as well as new technologies and media across the twentieth century. The monograph deploys lesser-known works of fiction, markedly chosen for their biographical alignments, to track each writer’s (through her protagonist’s) experience within her sensed environment. Additionally, the book’s chapters are organized to present the works by chronology of completion (H. D.’s HERmione [1927]; Loy’s Insel [ca. 1936]; Woolf’s Between the Acts [1940]; Bowen’s Eva Trout [1968]), which also helps track technological advancements across the twentieth century. While literary modernism is more typically assigned to the period spanning the late nineteenth century through the start of World War II, DeMaagd extends her modernist study to include Bowen’s 1968 publication in order to complete the trajectory of disruption and reclamation that she reads across her writers’ explorations.

Drawing on the work of the late Swedish scholar Sara Danius (The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception, and Aesthetics [2002]), French philosopher Jacques Rancière (Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics [2010]), and others whose scholarship engages science, politics, and aesthetics, DeMaagd coins her term “dissensuous” as a counter to and co-option of the social encodings of women as identified with the body and, in particular, the “lower senses” of smell, touch, and taste. A dissensuous text, she tells us, is “one that wages dissent through radical acts of sensing and radical reconfigurations of the senses,” that is, in this study, novels that resist misogynist and patriarchal biases in the social and natural sciences, as well as technology, that work to elevate men and devalue women (p. 31). The word “dissent” in this definition, with its echoes within the term “dissensuous,” exemplifies DeMaagd’s rhetorical-analytic method whereby language is often used to create lexical networks of meaning. In the course of her claims, she likewise draws connections between the corporal senses and “common sense,” “making sense,” “consensus,” and even “nonsense” as she parses cultural conceits.

To scaffold a critical context for her claims, DeMaagd draws on histories of the natural and social sciences, as well as philosophy, to expose theories and notions about the senses that were used to undergird arguments for gender, race, and class hierarchies. In the West, vision principally, and then hearing, the “higher senses,” were associated with intelligence and reason (following René Descartes’s dictum, that “the mind ... sees, not the eye”) and coded masculine, while smell, taste, and touch were deemed inferior as more directly connected with the body and physicality and therefore coded feminine (p. 4). As a result, men in positions of authority were “visionaries” while women were relegated to private and domestic spheres, usually kitchens and the nursery. Indeed, such “sensory hierarchies”—taxonomies of social ranking and order based on gender, as well as sexual orientation, class, race, religion, and physical abilities—were used to justify why not only women but also large populations were consigned to marginal status. As DeMaagd reminds us, biopolitics of this kind was practiced by the Nazi regime in its attempts to legislate religious, ethnic, and political discriminations, notoriously leading to policies of extermination. The modernist period, with its social, political, and aesthetic upheavals (including women’s suffrage and proletarian revolutions) helped expose core prejudices.

Dissensuous Modernism examines gender biases and women’s expressions of revolt and reclamation across its four chapters, each offering the historical and biographical context for the work of fiction under analysis, alongside contemporaneous technological innovations, followed by a careful close reading of the text. DeMaagd submits that her writers’ experimental interventions occur at the level of sense prioritization—notably the “lower senses”—in opposition to modernist men privileging sight and sound in their works. And while new technologies benefited women, easing the burden of domestic labor and amplifying efforts to promote suffrage and other movements through press, publication, film, radio, and telephone, in other ways technology and media were used to delimit women, such as in print and broadcasts deriding their efforts and advertising, perpetuating sexist stereotypes. Additionally, new automations assaulted the senses through environmental noise, exhaust, lights, and public concerns about the invisible energies and waves that technology produced. In the end, technology and media changed the human environment and reconditioned the senses: in one quotidian example, the way the telephone reduced conversation exclusively to listening, eliminating the visual and tactile cues of communication. As the century moved forward, the technological landscape came to include militarization and warfare, including the atomic bomb, leading many to dystopic visions of planetary annihilation. DeMaagd’s analysis aims to show how her writers “expose patriarchal or authoritarian powers who use technology to standardize minds, bodies, and senses or to amplify some voices and sensory experiences and silence others” (p. 23).

The first chapter, “H. D., Synesthete,” riffs on H. D.’s famous signature, “H. D. Imagiste,” bequeathed to her by fellow imagist writer Ezra Pound (to whom she was briefly engaged to be married). H. D.’s roman à clef, HERmione, explores, in part, the protagonist’s (Hermione’s) psychological responses to her scientist father and brother as well as to her controlling (often dismissive) fiancé—who was based on Pound. The novel advances the protagonist’s subjective accounting of male prioritizing of optical technologies, signified by the microscope used by the men in her family, and, in the process, ignoring and even humiliating both Hermione and her mother. Eventually “Her” experiences a breakdown and exhibits sensory confusion and distress, a state that DeMaagd reads as revolt leading to transformation. In the realm of aesthetics, synesthesia (often used by the surrealist artists)—the commingling of sense experience and expression—was viewed by nineteenth-century scientists, such as Max Nordau, author of Degeneration (1895), as subversive crossovers, an irrational pathology, and evidence of social decline. In particular, Nordau condemns the promotion of the "lower senses" in the contemporary literature. DeMaagd argues that sensory disorientation can lead to new orientations, including the transformative possibilities in a unity of the senses in opposition to single-sense apprehension (in this case, an ocular-centrism interpreted as myopic), that defy binaries in the social and natural order (women/men, queer/heterosexual, nature/technology, disabled/abled, human/animal).

Chapter 2, “‘choked by a robot!’: Technology, Gender, and the Battle of the Senses in Mina Loy’s Insel,” examines Loy’s novel Insel, which portrays protagonist Mrs. Jones’s fascination with a repellant futurist-styled painter, Insel (based on Loy’s relationship with the German artist Richard Oelze). For a time, Loy was affiliated with the Italian futurists, including Filippo Marinetti, whose infamous futurist manifesto included a fetishizing of military machines as symbols of hypermasculinity while exhorting overt misogyny. Written during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the mid-1930s, Insel presents a warring of the sexes that interfaces with technology. A number of scholars have read Insel as a rebuttal to arguments about modernist art’s degeneracy as well as a harbinger of the growing threats of fascism in Europe. DeMaagd extends Loy’s critique to include the ends to which male modernists used optical technologies, like the camera, to both possess and devalue women’s bodies. DeMaagd claims that Loy turns technologies back on the men by reading the body in terms of technological powers and effects: auras, magnetism, fluoroscopy, electricity (of touch), and radioactivity (in sexual energy and fluids). As DeMaagd formulates it: Loy “naturalizes technology” as a reclamation (p. 64). By disregarding the range of sense experience—the full sensorium—modernist men (such as the character Insel and as also anxiously expressed by T. S. Eliot and others) remained truncated and impotent. In the course of the chapter, DeMaagd parallels the marginalization experienced by female modernists and female scientists (Marie Curie, for one) from receiving full recognition and regard.

“‘…A zoom severed it’: Sensory Interruptions in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts,” chapter 3, reads Woolf’s final novel, Between the Acts, against the backdrop of impending world war. The novel is structured around a dramatic performance and its intermissions to contrast the public and private circumstances of the characters’ relationships, conflicts, and biases around class, sexuality, and nation. DeMaagd examines the novel’s many angles associated with the sensuous—sensing, common sense, nonsense—in order to point out that sensing and sense-making are socially constructed and conditioned. She reads two female characters as dissensuous figures who exhibit nonnormative sensory practices: the kinetic and overconsuming Mrs. Manresa, who eats and drinks with gusto (like a man/a “man-eater”), and the androgynous—possibly lesbian—and foreign-looking Miss La Trobe. While DeMaagd claims that Woolf appreciated the disruptive effects of technology, she illustrates that the main characters in Between the Acts consider technology a threat to tradition and the social order. For example, a new factory in the village has recruited outsiders with dreams of increased income and social status. With the comingling of working and leisure classes, city and country estate conventions are observed to be destabilizing. Governmental attempts at social-sensory control through technologies lead DeMaagd to draw connections between Woolf’s text and eugenics, propaganda via the megaphone, air raid sirens, and the sound of warplanes overhead. Additionally, DeMaagd attaches significance to Woolf’s nature imagery as an alternative to and enhancement of sensory consciousness beyond the logocentric.

In her final chapter, “Sensory Dystopia: Stifling Sounds, Sights, and Technologies in Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout,” DeMaagd concludes what she sees as the pessimistic end point of the modernist continuum. The full title of Bowen’s novel, Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes, emphasizes the instability and apprehension that later twentieth-century people experienced, with the world still processing the militarized force and devastation of World War II plus the ensuing geopolitical divisions of the Cold War. Set in the 1950s and ’60s, the novel narrates the coming-of-age of the protagonist, Eva, who from childhood has been neglected and abandoned by her parents as well as constantly uprooted to schools and holidays across Europe, the Americas, and Asia. Eventually, Eva’s mother is killed in a plane crash (aviation technology) and her father commits suicide. Increasingly volatile and resistant, Eva seeks to limit sense stimulations, principally by surrounding herself with machines that become extensions of herself (e.g., computers for thinking, intercoms for speaking), to the point where her home is choked by electric cords and cables. Additionally, while living in the United States, Eva acquires Jeremy, her surreptitiously "adopted" son, who is deaf and cannot speak—her telling progeny. Deploying a psychoanalytic framework, DeMaagd looks at how technology destabilizes, even nullifies, human subjectivity (self, agency, and other) toward a collapse of social interconnectedness. Eva’s strategies for control and self-protection are represented by her stockpiling of machines to make up for her own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, which, in the end, create dependencies that disable Eva’s powers of perception. At novel’s end, Eva enacts a sham wedding departure at Victoria Station when Jeremy finds a gun and, believing he is in a movie, shoots Eva dead on the landing. DeMaagd acknowledges that the creative and constructive uses of technology alluded to in the previous novels are now missing as Eva Trout moves from “redemption” to “erasure” (p. 23). While DeMaagd does not invoke Donna Haraway, the novel’s protagonist would seem to be en route to a cyborg existence—Haraway’s more positive vision of the inter-lives of humans and technology.

In sum, Dissensuous Modernism asks how a cultural history of social and natural theories of the senses contributes to our understanding of modernism, particularly the contributions of women modernist writers. DeMaagd’s answer is that “dissensuous” women modernist writers’ creative works offer both a valorization and reclamation of the "lower" senses, traditionally ascribed to women, as a radical opposition to the patriarchal order. DeMaagd contributes to the many entry points in modernist studies that affirm why this interdisciplinary field remains a rich and dynamic site for inquiry and exploration. This book may be useful to scholars and readers interested in modernist studies, feminist history and literature, gender and race, studies in sense and sensibilities, and the intersections of culture and technology, aesthetics, animal studies, and disability studies. The work’s strengths are in the level of its historical research and the constellation of the multiple and disparate fields aligned in DeMaagd's thesis, as well as her close attention to narrative form and language in the works of fiction she examines. While the gender and sexual-orientation marginalities of her chosen writers are well situated to show how they experienced exclusions, all four writers are white women. In a work devoted to untethering binaries and hierarchies of exclusion, an interrogation into the work of modernist period anglophone women of color would enrich and empower her premise.


[1]. The phrase has lots of baggage as to its origin in modernist circles. See Michael North, "The Making of 'Make It New,'" Guernica, August 15, 2013,

Citation: Anett Jessop. Review of DeMaagd, Allyson C., Dissensuous Modernism: Women Writers, the Senses, and Technology. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL:

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