Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English and Cultural Studies


Imre Szeman


Mary O'Connor



Committee Member

Susan Searls-Giroux


This dissertation investigates a turn in the modernist period towards organicist and life-science frameworks to explain political conflicts. How is it, I ask, that organic form comes to be a leading aesthetic ideology in a period in which the reproduction of social relations was in crisis? In my introduction, I frame a historical argument that the remainder of the dissertation draws out in detail: modernism is best understood as a response to the failure of nineteenth-century liberalism's organization of social relations, and a politics of life in different guises—decadence, vitalism, organicism, and everyday life—is modernism's way of conceptualizing alternative modes of social reproduction under new, transnational conditions and pressures.

In the first half of the dissertation, I outline how the historical avant-garde's revolutionary aim to merge art with everyday life presumes that life can offer a new foundation for social organization beyond liberalism’s institutional forms. Turning to the Futurists in Italy, I argue for a more complex understanding of how intertwined discourses of national organicism and a revolutionary vitalism resulted in their self-contradicting political program for anti-liberalist and, occasionally, anti-colonial revolution that frequently exceeded its own self-imposed national limits. The dissertation’s second half shows how modernism’s politics of life were eventually recuperated to a liberal consensus in the twentieth century, first in William James’s figure of a new social body traversed by overwhelming and destabilizing sensations, which required better systems of self-management, and which, I argue, anticipates the regulated national space of mid-century welfare state liberalism. Meanwhile, D. W. Griffith's compulsive return to scenes of rebirth in two films, Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), expresses an ideology of imperial rebirth that rearticulates liberalism as the management of sensations and populations in America’s turn of the century, transnational moment.

Focusing on two national contexts in which migration and imperialist expansion were transforming domestic politics, this study extends a recent turn towards transnational articulations of modernity, by reconsidering how the cultural forms emerging in these sites are marked by a biopolitical discourse that reimagines how social reproduction can take place.

McMaster University Library