The writers and artists of the Spanish avant-garde, enthralled with the streamlined, mass-produced commodities of the Machine Age, incorporated these objects into their literary and visual works. In doing so, they launched a broad inquiry into the relations between mind and matter, people and things, words and world. In Modernism and Its Merchandise, Juli Highfill traces that dissonant but productive line of inquiry by focusing on the objects of obsession for the Spanish vanguardists—starting with the fruit bowls of cubist still life; continuing with the merchandise, machines, and fashions of the 1920s; and concluding with objects of ruin and decay. The trajectory moves from the natural to the technological domains, from the newfangled to the outmoded. Throughout this study, objects appear ever in motion, engaging and altering their human subjects—whether as objects of exchange, as prosthetic organs, or as triggers for powerful affective responses, such as appetite, taste, and disgust. The insights that arise from these encounters with material things anticipate the knowledge emerging today in the fields of material culture, technology studies, and network theory.
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Juli Highfill is Professor of Spanish at the University of Michigan.Review:
“There are many reasons to read Modernism and Its Merchandise, and I think all of them are excellent. First of all, the book is a very welcome and timely complement to the countless studies on the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). . . . Secondly, [it] is a study that is both extremely well-focused and smartly inclusive. . . . Finally, this book is also a marvelous thing to hold and to have: great design, great iconography, great writing.”
—Jan Baetens, Leonardo Reviews
“Modernism and Its Merchandise draws together, relates, and interprets an astonishing variety of literary, plastic, commercial, and discursive artifacts created between the end of World War I and the declaration of the Second Spanish Republic. Cultural studies scholarship is sometimes faulted for being an inch deep and a mile wide. Juli Highfill’s is as deep as it is wide. Philosophy, art, etymology (in French, Latin, and Spanish), literature, fashion, economics, history, technology, and commerce: at one point or another, Highfill delves into primary and secondary texts in all of these fields in order to present her interpretation of avant-garde culture in Spain. It is a tour de force, and I have no doubt it will become the standard work of reference, or jumping-off point for further research, for this period in Spanish culture.”
—Geraldine Cleary Nichols, University of Florida
“This book breaks new ground by considering the Spanish avant-garde from the standpoint of material culture. By focusing on the fascination with the commodity, it shows the Spanish avant-garde to have been much more concerned with the everyday than has been previously recognized. A major contribution to scholarship.”
—Jo Labanyi, New York University
“Juli Highfill offers a coruscating revision of the debates on dehumanization (and rehumanization) in Spanish art and letters of the early twentieth century. Her discussion of early champions of the modern such as José Ortega y Gasset, Ramón Gómez de la Serna, and Guillermo de Torre as well as others associated with surrealism—including Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí—brings new kinds of subjectivity and lyricism to light. Spain’s modernity is placed on an international stage, where the art of the moment answers the challenge of technology and market forces—and devours itself in the process.”
—Roberta Quance, Queen's University Belfast
“Juli Highfill’s perceptive and painstakingly researched book weaves subtly complex ideas about modern and modernist cultural texts, commercial display, taste, and distinction into a tapestry resplendent with innumerable brilliant and illuminating insights. As the chapters progress from Ortega and the still life to questions of merchandise, machines, and fashions, ending with ruin and decay, the reappearance of images, concepts, and characters throughout allows the reader to glean a rich sense of the period. This organic structure is complemented by the unpretentious elegance of Highfill’s writing, which is simultaneously diaphanous and weighty, pleasurable and satisfying. Although Modernism and Its Merchandise is destined to become a classic for scholars of modernism and Iberian studies, any intelligent reader will enjoy this beautifully written book.”
—Jill Robbins, University of Texas at Austin
“Juli Highfill’s persuasive new book blends contemporary theory and criticism with philosophers’ views from the Machine Age to present an insightful and stimulating assessment of Spanish modernity. Demonstrating first-rate scholarship conversant with technology studies and network theory, Highfill establishes a wide range of literary and artistic connections. Her case is presented from a material culture perspective and follows an itinerary from the objects of nature to the objects of technology and commerce. The result is a startlingly innovative reexamination of the Spanish vanguardia, adding new perspectives on the so-called Silver Age. Readers will rediscover, among others, Gómez de la Serna, Guillermo de Torre, Salinas, Buñuel, and Dalí.”
—Enric Bou, Ca' Foscari University
“In Modernism and Its Merchandise, Juli Highfill explores the multiple ways in which creators and artists engaged with the material world at a time of great technological innovation and changing attitudes toward art, reality, and representation. The book provides a solid and sophisticated theoretical contextualization grounded in philosophy, aesthetics, and cultural and literary studies. It investigates areas and approaches that will certainly guide future studies. A very valuable addition to the study of the Spanish avant-garde.”
—Carlos Ramos, Wellesley College
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