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Reading Machines in the Modernist TransatlanticAvant-Gardes, Technology and the Everyday$
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Eric B. White

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781474441490

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: May 2021

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474441490.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM EDINBURGH SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.edinburgh.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Edinburgh University Press, 2022. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in ESO for personal use.date: 06 July 2022

‘Our Technology Was Vernacular’: Radical Technicities in African American Experimental Writing

‘Our Technology Was Vernacular’: Radical Technicities in African American Experimental Writing

(p.214) Chapter 5 ‘Our Technology Was Vernacular’: Radical Technicities in African American Experimental Writing
Reading Machines in the Modernist Transatlantic

Eric B. White

Edinburgh University Press

Chapter 5 focuses on technicities of African American vanguardists, including Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Bennett, Ralph Ellison and Amiri Baraka. These writers joined the civil rights lawyer and writer Pauli Murray in recognising illegal rail travel and other appropriations of infrastructure as signifyin(g) spatial practices. Building on research by sociologists, historians of technology and literary critics, the chapter uses a techno-bathetic framework to explore how railroads became signifyin(g) machines for the everyday technicities of black life throughout the twentieth century. The long-running crises sparked by the Scottsboro trials encouraged African American avant-gardes to formulate a vernacular, counter-servile technicity that served as a hinge between rhetorical and spatial practice. When Ellison claimed that ‘[o]ur technology was vernacular’, the shared valences he identifies between language, technology and strategies of adaptation and appropriation elides closely with Rayvon Fouché’s conception of ‘black vernacular technological creativity’ and Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s definition of motivated signifyin(g). African American vanguardists dragged the invisible and over-determined rail networks, and the spaces that framed them, back into plain sight, and made them the targets of sustained attack. The chapter argues that by doing so, these writers practiced a nuanced vernacular technicity articulated across the longue durée of industrial modernity.

Keywords:   African American avant-gardes, Harlem Renaissance, modernism and technology, motivated signifyin(g), Scottsboro trials and literature, railroads and literature, subway and literature, black vernacular technological creativity, communism and modernism, technology and the body

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