Dinerstein, Joel. Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars. Amherst: UMASS Press, 2003.
Introduction: Bodies and Machines
Dinerstein provides a framework for understanding his work in this first section. He notes that he is interested in exploring an “aesthetics of acceleration” – or a demonstration of the way that A.A. cultural forms constitute any American claim of being an “accelerated” culture. But what is accelerated? D. says it is comprised of the “sudden turns, the shocks, the swift changes of pace” (7). Later, he claims that the term “machine aesthetics” is key to understanding the human experience between the world wars. Next, D. offers a definition of technology. He states that,
“Technological” here refers not only to industrial innovations and mechanical rhythms, but also to the ongoing changes in human perception brought on by the experience of modernity. The social function of nearly all A.A. musical practice before 1945 was to create a public forum that provided the following: social bonding through music and dance, an opportunity to create an individual style within a collective form, and a dense rhythmic wave that imparts ‘participatory consciousnesses to the audience. (8).
Dinerstein’s main thesis throughout the rest of the chapter seems to posit that machine aesthetics, embodied by the manufacturing/technofuturist craze of Italian futurists and mavens of industry during the 1920s and 1930s were countered by the embodied machine aesthetics of jazz and swing dancing. This human machine aesthetic was necessitated by a need for taking one’s body back from the machine. Central to this concern was the role of rhythm. In order to fight the machine aesthetic, American’s adopted West African-derived cultural aesthetics that embodied the rhythm of the machine. In understanding the role of rhythm, D. traces the evolution of two main narratives in the introduction: 1) the story of the industrial revolution and technological innovation and 2) the cultural influence of black migration. The cultural and material productions of the era were rooted in one of two technologies – 1) technology (the industrial technology created by European-descent Americans) and 2) survival technologies (the “public rituals of music, dance, storytelling, and sermonizing that create a forum for existential affirmation through physicality, spirituality, joy and sexuality – “somebodieness” as some A.A. preachers call it – against the dominant’s society’s attempts to eviscerate one’s individuality and cultural heritage” – the eviscerator here being “machine aesthetics” of the Modernist era. The rest of the intro discusses how this “survival technology” is embodied in swing music and dance of the era between the two world wars and how this music and expressive technology were embodied and created in the A.A. experience.
Chapter One: The Tempo of Life is Out of Control. . . and Then Righted
Chapter One discusses how the white, liberal attitude of folks in the interwar period were fundamentally afraid of the acceleration occurring in the daily life of most Americans. Because of rapid industrialization, many social theorists and philosophers bemoaned the mechanicazation or machination of the human condition. This is most obvious in Marx’s discussion of the machine. In response to these fears, swing music and incorporated this acceleration into its discourse. Instead of seeing the roar of industrial urbanities – like Rebecca Harding Davis’ bleak Life in the Iron Mills – the “New American Tempo” incorporated the accelerated noise into music. Dance, in turn, also used tap and other forms to weave acceleration into new cultural forms. The symphony orchestra, with its lack of real improvisation, provided an accelerated musical analog to the factory of the early 20th century.
Chapter Two: The Jazz Train and American Musical Modernity
Chapter two investigates the “locomotive onomatopoeia” embodied in train song and dance. The train, as the central metaphor for progress (for white Americans) and freedom (for Black Americans) became the defining locomotive symbol in the Modern era. As such, the train found its way into jazz, blues, and symphony orchestras. It also found its way into dance through tap. As D. notes, “By putting the train into music, musicians enabled listeners and dancers to ‘wear’ their cultural identity through an embrace of technology, optimism, speed, and power in the form of big-band swing” (73). The train becomes incorporated into popular culture through the figures of “train” men like Superman (more powerful than a locomotive) and the Steel Man on the Prairie. In a final take away from the chapter, D. notes that, “three elements are intertwined in big-band swing culture: A.A. musical practices integrate locomotive onomatopoeia; the machine aesthetics of music and dance help fuel the nation’s imagination; and social (and caste) stratification reify the exclusion of blacks in the nation’s songs and movies” (102).
Chapter Three: A.A. Modernism and the Techno-Dialogic: From John Henry to Duke Ellington
Chapter three begins by describing an interesting space that many early 20th century social critics found themselves: if the prevailing view of Blacks is that of a slower, lazy race, how in the world could they produce music like jazz? In answering this question, D. explores two key aspects of A.A. music: the call-and-response nature of the compositions and the dialogic relationship between the music and technology of the era. The call-and-response model of West African oral composition finds many analogs in jazz. This identification creates a social musical product – something to be explored, danced, felt, physicaled rather than something to passively consume (classical/Victorian). In addition to call-and-response, the techno-dialogic functioned prominently in A.A. music during the interwar period. The techno-dialogic is “an artistic bridge between self-expression and the technological soundscape” (116) or “my term for revealing how the presence (or ‘voice’) of machinery became integral to the cultural production of A.A. storytellers, dancers, blues singers, and jazz musicians” (126). In other words, the techno-dialogic is the integration of technology into the expressive traditions of the people – in this case jazz. So, as technological discourses permeated early 20th century lives and experiences, the music took up those discourses and included them in the compositions of A.A.’s.
Chapter Four: Swinging the Machines: Big Bands and Streamliner Trains
Chapter Four traces how big band swing and streamliner trains represented two sides of the technodialogic coin. Whereas the horse and buggy had served as the “natural” rhythm of folks in the 19th century, the locomotive created the natural rhythm of many in the 20th. Because of a loss of faith in the machine throughout the Depression era, many Americans were wary of machinized life. Soon, corporations realized the problem wasn’t the creation of materials for folks that they didn’t want, but poorly marketed existing materials. In other words, an image problem. Through some smart marketing, streamliner trains became symbols of the nation’s industrial past retooled for the future, gleaming new physical body blending human and machine attributes. The big band was itself an icon of humanized machine aesthetics: it generated waves of musical energy that served to rejuvenate human agency and a sense of renewed physicality in the face of human obsolescence (140-1). These two creations were technodialogic melds that assured many Americans against the threat of over mechanization.
- Music, for the author, serves as a response to the material conditions of reality.
- A.A. created a motorized form of music that met the demands of a motorized (read mechanized in both accounts) world. This is why the music of A.A. during the interwar period (and ever since) has effectively represented an ever-technologizing society.
- Trains meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people in this time period. For Black men, it meant a way to escape to freedom. For Black women, it represented abandonment. For most folks, the train was an embodiment of the mechanized future. This was cyborged when the train went from locomotive to Streamliner.
- The techno-dialogic, as traced from John Henry forward, is a central component to A.A. cultural production. This is seen in jazz, blues, and numerous dance forms. Fred Astaire, Benny Goodman and others stole this techno-dialogic and used it to produce wildly popular films/productions for white America. These productions set American’s at ease with post-Depression technologies and primed them for the tech race that was to occur after WWII.
- A.A. cultural productions of the period are liberatory. Even though the A.A. musical experience of the interwar period represented an integration of the machine into the rhythm and tempo of the song, the music at the same time allowed human beings to incorporate those rhythms and tempos into physically embodied technologies of dance – notably tap.
- The European American cultural productions of the era – those that occur in chapter 5 – reflect the completely soulless, non-embodied machinations of a Modernist-fascinated population . . . a swing without any humanness.