Moving Things: Repetition and Circulation in Victorian Print Culture (3/5)

Things that Move

Media have often been linked with the uncanny, but this has tended to be because of possible telepresence, rather than through repetition. The (more or less) repressed fantasy that underpins all media forms is that of telepathy, the distant touch of mind on mind. This fantasy is disavowed, something desired but never accomplished, and so named occult. Instead, as J. Hillis Miller argues, we employ mediating objects to accomplish action at a distance.

With all forms of telepathy, traditional, modern, or postmodern, it is always a question of transferring spirit to some form of matter that than can then be read as comprehensible signs and turned back into spirit, that is “meaning”.1

Miller reiterates the common association between content as soul or spirit and form as body, but recognizes that turning back is problematic. As much as we may imagine media as vehicles that simply move content from one place to another, the ‘recovery’ of any content requires interacting with an object. In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong wrote that he was suspicious of the term ‘media’ and what he called ‘media theory’ because it ‘suggests that communication is a pipeline transfer of units of material called “information” from one place to another.’2 Ong was suspicious as this conception of communication misses out the active, interpretive role of the listener or reader. However, information, or content more broadly, is never prior to its media and cannot exist without mediation in one form or another. Content is produced through an encounter with a mediating object, and its continuity is established retrospectively.

Mediating objects are intentional, carefully designed to be used in ways that allow them to fulfill their mediating function. If used correctly, it is as if they are not there at all. Amazon certainly think so, claiming that books can disappear leaving you ‘immersed in the author’s world and ideas.’ As I discussed in my second post in the series ‘”Scarers in Print”‘, they claim their Kindle is so well-designed that it, too, will disappear, thus mistaking the design of the object for the use to which it is put. Books only seem to disappear because we have become so used to using them. What we call reading is a complex, learned practice that produces content by doing things to an object, sorting signifiers to distinguish between those that mark content and those that mark the mediating object. As Leah Price has recently explored in How to do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton, 2012), the Victorians did not just read books in one simple way, nor were they just for reading. It is easy to overdetermine objects and see them as bound up in a readily comprehensible materiality that is limited, bounded, and fixed. Yet, what we think of as relatively uncomplicated objects are actually the socialised surfaces of unknowable things. As Bill Brown agues in ‘Thing Theory’, thingness comes both before and after the object and so ‘amounts to a latency (the not yet formed, or the not yet formable) and to an excess (what remains physically or metaphyscially irreducible to objects).’3 If objects are on the threshold of an unknowable but productive materiality, then the subject-object relations they produce at any point can only be provisional.

Derrida calls the provisionality of intentional objects ‘destinerrance.’ For Derrida the iterability of any meaningful mark, whether letter, sign, or number, means that it can always withdraw from any intended context and function in any number of others. What appeals to me about this formulation is that it includes objects, too. Although Derrida is interested in the word or the sign (and the relation between word and sign), he turns to the postcard for his example as it, crucially, is portable (so it can wander) and is open to anybody’s eyes. For Derrida, the possibility for interception pluralises sender and receiver. Meaning does not reside within the (potentially) intercepted object, but rather in its moment of reading; as such, there are many potential senders and many potential receivers. Mediating objects can function variously, summoning up all sorts of origins and destinations, virtual and actual.

The table of contents from Dickens's Mugby Junction, published in All the Year Round, 1866.

Detail from front page of Mugby Junction, All the Year Round, 16 (1866), 1. From Dickens Journals Online (DJO) (2012-) http://www.djo.org.uk/.


A good example of this can by found in Mugby Junction. The first story, ‘Barbox Brothers’ introduces us to the eponymous character and sets out the conceit for the issue. Each of the seven narratives stands for one of the Lines that Barbox Brothers might take. Dickens wrote his contributions eighteen months after the Staplehurst rail accident that emperilled both his lover, Ellen Ternan, and number sixteen of Our Mutual Friend (only the latter was acknowledged publicly). In the fourth narrative, ‘No 1 Branch Line. The Signal-Man’, Dickens offers a ghost story that explores the way that messages create sender and receiver as they move through communication networks of various kinds.

When the narrator meets him, the eponymous signal man has been twice warned by a ghostly figure of some impending tragedy that has subsequently occurred. The signal man is worried as the figure has returned for a third time, repeating the first warning and ringing the signal man’s electric bell. Neither of the previous warnings provided enough information to avert the disasters and, if the purpose of these appearances was to affirm their truth, he wonders why these recent appearances are equally vague. At the conclusion of the story, the signal man is killed in a train accident, the driver of the train signalling for the signal man to get out of the way in the manner of the ghostly warnings.

The ghost’s various warnings only make sense in retrospect. As the signal man himself realises, prior to the accidents their only meaning is as an annunciation without any content. It might appear that the ghost is trying to tell the signal man something, but it merely states the empty forms of its media, whether this is a ringing bell, a shout, or a gesture. These forms become filled with content, become legible as warnings, only after the accidents take place. The narrator does not witness any of the uncanny actions of the haunted media, just hears about them from the signal man; nonetheless, it is his account of events that fills the media with meaning. If there is a ghostly agency at work, it turns both signal man and narrator into media.

This is a story punctuated by anxiety as to the origins of messages and it implies that everyone is at the service of signals from elsewhere. When the narrator first meets the signal man, the signal man mistakes him for the ghost because of his cry, ‘Halloa! Bellow there!’, and so looks the wrong way.4 Yet the narrator, looking at the signal man’s ‘fixed eyes and […] saturnine face’ suspects that he too ‘was a spirit, not a man’ (21). Unsure of the narrator’s mortality, the signal man avoids touching him when they first meet, and so witholds his tale. However, once assured of their mutual corporeality, the signal man recounts his tale, repeatedly touching the narrator’s arm, establishing a contact between man and man that, subsequently, creates a channel for the ghost. The signal man’s account, once told, creates a problem for the narrator, who is uncertain to whom the disclosure should be reported. In the final paragraph, the narrator admits his complicity in this spectral circuit, this transference and counter-transference, noting that the words of the train driver immediately before he struck the signal man, ‘“Below there! Look out! Look out! For God’s sake clear the way!”’, combines the words of the ghost (which were also called out by the narrator when he first met the signal man), ‘“Halloa! Below there! Look Out!”’, with the narrator’s verbal description of the ghost’s gestures, which he interprets as ‘“For God’s sake clear the way!”’ (25).

The death of the signal man ends the narrator’s uncertainty as to what to do with his account and allows him instead to tell the tale to the reader. Hillis Miller claims that ‘given medium is not the passive carrier of information. A medium actively changes what can be said and done by its means’.5 Whatever spectral agency that is at work in ‘The Signal-Man’ uses the media at hand, but can only communicate its performative affect. The narrator’s narrative, on the other hand, places the events in order and so fills both the ghosts and the signal man’s signals with content. If one of the purposes of narrative is to store and transmit stories, allowing them to be retold in different ways in subsequent tellings while still retaining a degree of integrity, then narrative too is a form of storage and transmission media. The uncanny agency identified as responsible for the moving things in the ‘Signal Man’ is an effect of its mediation and remediation. Its uncanny presence – that there is something out there, trying to warn the signal man – is only realised by a further shift in media. This, too, invokes a ghost, Dickens himself, who serves as the originary source for the signal; however, this ghost can be dealt with, bounded and known by the institution of authorship.

1J. Hillis Miller, The Medium is the Maker: Browning, Freud, Derrida and the New Telepathic Ecotechnologies (Brighton: Sussex, 2009), 11. [back]
2Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World (London: Methuen, 1982), 175-6. [back]
3Brown, Bill, ‘Thing Theory’, Critical Inquiry, 28 (2001), 5. [back]
4Charles Dickens, ‘No. 1 Branch Line. The Signal-Man’, All the Year Round, 16 (1866), 20. [back]
5Miller, Medium is the Maker, 22. [back]

W.T. Stead Lectures

headshot of James Harding (BBC)

James Harding (BBC) will delvier the first W.T. Stead Lecture on the 13 January 2014.

The W.T. Stead Lectures are a series of three lectures to be held at the British Library in 2014. Stead was a pioneering journalist who died on the Titanic just over a hundred years ago and it is in his spirit that we have invited our speakers to consider the role of the media today. The first lecture will be given by James Harding on Monday 13 January 2014, tickets are available from the British Library here. Subsequent lectures, by Emily Bell (ex-Guardian and now Director of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, Columbia University) and Professor Aled Jones (Chief Executive and Librarian of the National Library of Wales) will be given in April and November respectively, once the new news and media reading room has opened at the British Library.

cover of W.T. Stead Newspaper RevolutionaryThe lectures are funded from the proceeds of a conference, ‘W.T. Stead: Centenary Conference for a Newspaper Revolutionary’ held at the British Library in April 2012. Stead’s campaigning zeal and wide range of interests meant that he played a part in (or at least had something to say about) most of the defining issues of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: the conference, taking place on the centenary of his death on the Titanic was an opportunity to reconsider his legacy. It resulted in two publications: a book, W.T. Stead: Newspaper Revolutionary (British Library, 2012) and a special issue of 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century.

Stead was an agitator, a campaigner, and was fascinated by new technologies, always quick to recognize their potential. We were particularly keen to use the conference and publications to reflect on the changing role of the media in the present. The conference itself took place in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal in the UK, providing a dramatic context for discussions about a muck-raking journalist a century earlier. It was also an important moment for the British Library, taking place as it did on the eve of the closure of Colindale. There were fascinating panels on the law and the state of the newspaper archive, both of which used Stead to explore issues today. Equally, in the foreword to the book, Roy Greenslade considered whether Stead would have hacked phones, reflecting on the Levenson Enquiry then underway. The Stead Lectures, which are funded from the proceeds of the conference, allow us to continue this work while celebrating the opening of the new news and media reading room at the British Library. There are three lectures, and we hope to establish the W.T. Stead Lectures as an annual series into the future. They are:

  • James Harding, 13 January 2014. For tickets and further details, click here.
  • Emily Bell, 25 April 2014.
  • Aled Jones, November 2014 (precise date tbc).

I’ll add further details when they become available. For more about the new news and media services at the BL, have a look at their new blog, The Newsroom.

Moving Things: Circulation and Repetition in Victorian Print Culture (2/5)

Moving Things

What is interesting about Dickens’s ‘A Preliminary Word’ is that it is not really preliminary. It appears as the first article in the first issue of Household Words, rather than in some sort of supplementary or preliminary space. The same is true of the notice that declares, unequivocally, that Household Words will end. In neither case are these pieces outside of the sequence of articles that constitute each issue; nor are they in some sort of space outside of the numbered sequence of issues. Serials such as periodicals and newspapers have a troubled relationship with beginnings and endings. Even if they announce their commencement or mark their demise within their contents, their form still posits a series that precedes the first issue and could continue beyond the last. The first issue of Household Words might declare it as first in two of the sequences in which it performs – the issue and the volume number – but the date places it in a temporal sequence that both precedes and extends beyond them. Now, there is no number prior to this one but, nonetheless, no issue of a serial, even the first one, exists in isolation. Just as the date indicates a virtual prehistory for the serial, its combination of typographical features also suggest how these fictional predecessors might have looked. Had they existed, the actual first issue suggests, they would also have had the same masthead, the two columns, the same range and tone of articles, and be made of the same size paper cut into the same number of pages. Equally, Dickens’s final note might declare the end of Household Words at issue 479 at the end of volume 19, but we can, nonetheless, imagine number 480.

Household Words, 19 (1859), p. 620.  From Dickens Journals Online (DJO) (2012-) www.djo.org.uk.

Household Words, 19 (1859), p. 620. From Dickens Journals Online (DJO) (2012-) www.djo.org.uk.

Repetition establishes an abstract structure that surpasses any particular issue, regardless of its place in the series. Simply by indicating that they are serials, individual issues of periodicals and newspapers summon up this broader structure. All nineteenth-century printed objects associated themselves with a genre so that readers could tell, in advance, what it was that they were looking at. Newspapers and periodicals also signalled where they belonged in this wider print ecology, identifying themselves both as newspapers or periodicals and a particular type of newspaper or periodical. As miscellanies, newspapers and periodicals also printed a wide range of textual genres, the selection often going some way to indicate the type of periodical or newspaper a particular publication considered itself to be. However, the open-ended seriality that defines these print genres also causes a further genre effect. In this post, I argue that it is this particular type of genre effect that allows periodicals and, especially, newspapers, to structure the emerging definition of information in the period.

Genres are commonly used for classification, helping to allocate instances of something to a particular class and then, usually, mapping a genealogy. However, as I’ve posted previously (see, for instance, ‘The Matter with Media’ and ‘Parsing Passing Events’), Carolyn Miller’s definition of genre as ‘social action’ usefully takes us beyond the classificatory. For Miller, ‘a rhetorically sound definition of genre must be centred not on the substance or form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish.’1 This is genre as situational and pragmatic, helping people to negotiate new situations and achieve their respective ends. Now, nineteenth-century newspapers and periodicals served a number of purposes, both for producers and consumers, but all parties had a stake in this underlying virtual form. The dynamic of seriality entailed a sort of contract: publishers attempted to anticipate the demands of their readers by giving them more of what they had already demonstrated they wanted; readers repeatedly spent their money on the understanding that they would not be disappointed. Each issue of a periodical or newspaper responded to a particular moment, orienting content towards the perceived interests of its readers, while resurrecting forms from the past to assert its underlying identity. In this way, the abstract identity of the periodical, imperfectly manifested in each individual issue, was a negotiated, consensual structure into which new content could be accommodated and made familiar. Every new issue was already attuned to this structure, and the repetition of (predominantly formal) features reaffirmed its presence.

First four issues of Household Words

Front pages of first four issues of Household Words. Household Words, 1 (1850), pp. 1, 25, 49, 73. From Dickens Journals Online (DJO) (2012-) www.djo.org.uk.

As miscellenies, nineteenth-century periodicals and newspapers had a tendency towards fragmentation: the virtual structures that I’m trying to describe, partially manifested in each issue, asserted a centripetal force that countered this tendency and asserted the identity of the publication between issues. As no two issues were the same, these virtual structures evolved over time, allowing periodicals to shift their identity according to the vicissitudes of the market. Although virtual, these genre forms had real agency and social meaning, structuring the specific material forms of individual issues and lending presence to the broader publications of which they were a part. They also constituted an interpretive structure that preceded individual issues and articles, determining in advance how they might be understood. The printed newspaper or periodical, issue after issue, invoked a perfect medium – perfect because virtual – that promised to organize and make legible the complexities of everyday life. Yet it is the effect of seriality that I want to stress here. The repetition of the generic features that signalled continuity helped the reader to differentiate between mediating form and the mediated content: those features that were repeated, issue to issue, were associated with the mediating form, and so discarded, while those that differed were associated with the content. Commercial products of the industrialised press, newspapers and periodicals enacted a process where immaterial content was produced through formal repetition.

In this way, newspapers and periodicals played a part in the emerging and increasingly dominant understanding of information in the period. Just as information was being defined as an immaterial commodity, able to be communicated without deformation, the press appeared to offer a way of structuring information, granting it both material form and social presence. Many scholars have identified the nineteenth century as the period where the modern concept of information was consolidated. This was information as self-evident, immaterial, portable, reproducible and able to reside in any form of media without deformation. The discursive foundations for this understanding of information were established in the eighteenth century, but it was with the demands of industrial capital that information came into its own. A number of information-gathering initiatives by the state – the census, civil registration, income tax – were complemented by the development of elaborate bureaucracies as companies struggled to manage their works. Beyond the developing civil service, the largest were in the post office and railway companies, organizations that specialized in moving things. In George Eliot and Blackmail, Alexander Welsh claims that the value of information lies in its moment of use, so there was an imperative to store it up and make it ready for recall.2 As the value of information is difficult to judge in advance, it exerts material pressures of storage and management. The industrial age was built on paperwork and the resultant bureaucracies were a frequent source of satire, not least for Dickens. Information might be pure spirit, allowing power to operate at a distance, but it depends on doing things with paper, and so is always in a way fallen. Novelists, engaged in paperwork of their own, were particularly attuned to the potential for paperwork to fail, for the crucial document to be misplaced, or the body of paper to take on a life of its own and exert itself, like Krook’s shop or Harmon’s mounds, against those that would seek to master it.

Unauthored, and so without origins, information only exists as mediated. In a paper from 2002, Steven Connor associates the period’s interest in patterns of recurrence – evident in the development of statistics, evolutionary theory, and the management of time in industrial production – to the growth in mass media.3 Connor opposes the frequentative to the singular; the recurrent, which keeps taking us back, and the event that marks a break and so moves us on. The iterability of information – its conditions of storage, reproducibility and recall – mean that it belongs to this frequentative mode. As serials, periodicals and newspapers, too, are frequentative, mediating difference through repetition. The newspaper, in particular, was linked to the emerging informational culture. For Welsh, the ‘newspaper was the institution that above all made the people of the nineteenth century aware of information and communication.’4 For Richard Terdiman, newspapers became the ‘most characteristic informational and commercial institution of the nineteenth century.’5 However, as information transcends the contingent forms that give it substance, the material form of the newspaper only partially accounts for its role in this economy. It is when the newspaper – or, to a lesser extent, the periodical – is in action, when readers encounter these recurrent forms over time, that they can produce and circulate information. Readers might read newspapers and periodicals one article, page, or issue at a time, but they nonetheless invoke the larger abstract generic forms that give these smaller components meaning. These abstract forms, which are always prior to any act of reading, mark content as that which changes and, in many cases, indicate its derivation beyond the page. In this way, content becomes liberated from a complex set of recurrent formal structures, allowing information to flow.

1Carolyn Miller, ‘Genre as Social Action’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70 (1984), 151–167. [back]
2Alexander Welsh, George Eliot and Blackmail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 44. [back]
3Steven Connor, ‘Dickens: The Haunting Man’ (presented at the A Man for All Media: The Popularity of Dickens, 1902-2002, Institute of English Studies, 2002). Available here. The published version is ‘Dickens, The Haunting Man’, Literature Compass, 1 (2003), 1–12. Available here (£). [back]
4Welsh, p. 52. [back]
5Richard Terdiman, Discourse / Counter Discourse: The Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance (Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 119.
[back]

Moving Things: Circulation and Repetition in Victorian Print Culture (1/5)

[This series of posts is derived from the keynote lecture I delivered at the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar (MIVSS) in July 2013 (details here). I'm currently revising this lecture as a seminar paper in preparation for publication. I will post it in five parts.]

In the first issue of Dickens’s Household Words, he issues ‘A Preliminary Word’ to his readers:

To show to all, that in all familiar things, even in those which are repellant on the surface, there is Romance enough, if we will find it out:- to teach the hardest workers at this whirling wheel of toil, that their lot is not necessarily a moody, brutal fact, excluded from the sympathies and graces of imagination; to bring the greater and the lesser in degree, together, upon that wide field, and mutually dispose them to a better acquaintance and a kinder understanding – is one main object of our Household Words.

The mightier inventions of this age are not, to our thinking, all material, but have a kind of souls in their stupendous bodies which may find expression in Household Words. The traveller whom we accompany on his railroad or his steamboat journey, may gain, we hope, some compensation for incidents which these later generations have outlived, in new associations with the Power that bears him onward; with the habitations and the ways of life of crowds of his fellow creatures among whom he passes like the wind; even with the towering chimneys he may see, spirting out fire and smoke upon the prospect. The swart giants, Slaves of the Lamp of Knowledge, have their thousand and one tales, no less than the Genii of the East; and these, in all their wild, grotesque, and fanciful aspects, in all their many phases of endurance, in all their many moving lessons of compassion and consideration, we design to tell.1

Dickens’s language is that of the fairy tale, describing an enchanted world full of animated things. It is partly whimsical, a conceit that positions himself as storyteller, telling tales that bring things to life. But there is also a telling ambiguity here. In finding out this concealed ‘Romance’, Dickens implies that it is already there, disavowing his own agency as a narrator as he merely gives it expression. Questions of agency run throughout this passage. If the ‘mightier inventions of this age’ have souls, then have these also been invented? If so, who was the creator: the inventors of these icons of industry? Or the narrator, whose tales grant them life? More troublingly, maybe these ‘swart giants’ have become alive of their own accord and now reckon themselves among the storytellers of the world?

Dickens has a great deal at stake here. To ‘show it all’, Dickens requires the cooperation of his mediating object, Household Words. Despite his own remarkable energy and penchant for the stage, Dickens primarily relied upon printed objects to speak on his behalf. As his well-known involvement in the intellectual property debates of his day demonstrate, Dickens took a keen interest in the way his words were mediated. Dickens might have considered himself the originary source of the tales he told, yet by whimsically attributing souls to the products of the industrial age he nonetheless acknowledged that this might not be quite the case. In no other writer of the period is the object-world more alive; and in no other writer of the period are the boundaries between human and object less defined. Like railroads and steamboats, Household Words was also a product of the industrial age and so it, too, Dickens implies, might have a soul. In his whimsical introduction to his own mediating object, Household Words, Dickens both imagines himself as passive media, passing on messages from the world around him, while recognizing that he, too, is a product of the mediating objects that he pressed into service. Just as these emblems of the industrial age trust Dickens to give their stories form, so Dickens trusts to Household Words.

I do not really believe that Dickens thought that objects were alive and I recognize there is a difference between Dickens taking inspiration from the world around him and the way he chooses to represent both this world and himself in his periodical. Nonetheless, there is in Dickens a sustained examination of the role of objects and the way that they mediate relationships between people. In this series of posts I want to explore some of the ways that print objects were disciplined so that they could function as media. My argument is that nineteenth-century print culture imposed a set of mediating forms with their own distinct features that, in turn, affected the way that people related to one another. There will be four further posts. I the next, I pick up on Dickens’s ‘whirling wheel of toil’ to examine how repetition can create flow. The steam engine – one of the master signs of the period – translates heat into repetitive motion. When used to turn a wheel, this repetitive motion is made continuous, providing a constant force that can drive other machines or, in the case of the steam train, provide motive force for itself. Although it long predates the industrial age, print embodies its repetitive logic, producing copies of an impression that, if made on an appropriate medium, could circulate widely. Of all print forms, periodicals and newspapers – print genres defined by repetition – embody the logic of industrial print most closely. Through an examination of repetition, I will argue that the recurrent forms of periodicals and newspapers – those formal aspects that are common to all issues of a particular title – help to establish the separateness of content, allowing it to flow.

A Boulton and Watt rotative steam engine (1788), by Snapshooter46 via Flickr under a CC BY SA-NC license.

A Boulton and Watt engine (1788), by Snapshooter46 via Flickr under a CC BY SA-NC license. Available here.

The steam engine was not just a way of mediating energy, converting heat into motion, but it was also self-governing. The invention of the ‘governor’, the spinning mechanism that regulated pressure in the boiler, meant that the steam engine was able to monitor its own performance and react accordingly. While it granted steam engines a degree of autonomy and provided a useful metaphor for other self-regulating systems (society for instance), it also implied that the engine was something that needed supervision. The boiler explosion was one of the most dramatic examples of a common phenomenon: that we tend to notice objects when they misbehave. In my second post, ‘Things that Move’, I consider what happens when mediating objects – train and telegraph, newspaper and periodical, author and narrator – do not function quite as they should, producing new and unexpected connections between people, living and dead.

If the steam engine suggests one way in which repetition and circulation were connected, the heart suggests another. The third post, ‘Being Moved’, examines the ‘many moving lessons of compassion and consideration’ that Dickens promises to tell. As Peter Brooks has argued, narratives make use of desire to drive the reader on towards their conclusion.2 Yet narrative is also a form of repetition, a way of storing up and transmitting stories so that they remain the same despite differences in telling. Brooks claims that the nineteenth-century novel differed from its predecessors in that it takes ambition, the desire to get ahead, seriously. Yet in the repetition of narrative, this getting ahead is constantly thwarted. Serials such as periodicals and newspapers mediate between the desire to move on and the desire for stasis, establishing a perpetual present that is nonetheless designed to pass.

Whirling wheels and moving lessons, the steam engine and the heart: this series of posts argues that until we take repetition seriously we cannot really understand the print culture of the past. In literary studies, our usual way of dealing with repetition, with things coming back, is through the gothic and each of my posts draws upon this tradition to account for repetition’s various cultural effects. Throughout, my focus is on the way mediating form posits content that apparently derives from elsewhere. In a sort of repetition of my own, I will keep coming back to Mugby Junction, Dickens’s Christmas issue of All the Year Round from 1866. The frame narrative tells the story of Barbox Brothers, who haunts Mugby Junction as he does not know which line to take. In these posts I argue that Barbox’s decision to stay is similar to the way periodicals like Household Words and All the Year Round mediate through repetition. Just as Barbox Brothers moves on by becoming part of Mugby, so the Christmas number of All the Year Round becomes part of the archive, part of a space called the past, on the appearance of the January number.

1Anonymous [Charles Dickens], ‘A Preliminary Word’, Household Words, 1 (1850), 1. [back]
2Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot (1984; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 37-61. [back]

What’s the use of theory?

[At RSVP this year, I gave a paper entitled '"In Our Last": The Presence of the Previous in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical'. It was presented as part of a panel entitled 'What's the use of theory', along with excellent papers by Margaret Beetham and Matthew Philpotts. I'm currently revising the paper for Resurrecting the Book, but thought that the introduction, which is being cut, was worth blogging. It's been slightly edited so it makes a bit more sense as a standalone piece.]

The title of this panel, ‘What’s the use of theory?’ provocatively suggests that theory might be useless. I want to explore why it appears that this is so. There is an irresistable supplementarity about this question, which implies – in true Derridean fashion – that theory is both in addition to periodical studies, and yet periodical studies is somehow deficient without theory. For me, this sums up one of the frustrating – and exciting – things about working in this area. For many of us, periodicals represent an important object of study because they were what people in the nineteenth-century actually read. To account for material found in periodicals, it is necessary to account for the periodicals themselves: how they looked, what they cost, how they presented their contents, and how they were put together. The great strength of periodical studies is the way that it is grounded in the archive and the field has been characterized by a strong tradition of methodological reflexivity. The bibliographical problems associated with working with this material – there is a lot of it; it often exists in fragmented runs; it is (or was) hidden away on library shelves – are well known and attempts to solve them have characterised our work. However, the objects themselves still seem to resist us. Each attempt to exert bibliographical control exposes how much more there is to know and how much can never be known. Every volume on the shelf signals the many different formats in which it also exists and has existed. Page after page offers references and allusions to people, texts, commodities and publications of which there are no trace. We want an object of study, not a kaleidoscopic range of forms. We want a single originary source, not plural accounts of writers, editors, illustrators, engravers, publishers and printers. We want a neat set of objects, accessible and delimited, not the fragmented remains of a publishing process. What we have, I will argue, are not nineteenth-century periodicals, but representations of them. We have no choice but to be theoretical.

The richness of the archive makes theory appear supplementary. It is so large, complex and suggestive, that worrying about theory seems somehow redundant (if not indulgent). Given that these were objects designed to be read, theory seems suspiciously to take us away from what the periodicals actually were and were for. Yet without theory we cannot do justice to these complex print objects from the past. Reading periodicals today is not the same as reading periodicals in the nineteenth century: the objects may be date from the past, but we can only work on them now, in the present, in an attempt to recreate a set of uses that have necessarily passed. When we ask what is the ‘use’ of theory, it is implied we have no use for it; yet we never really engage with historical objects in any unmediated way. What we do is already theoretical but, encompassed within the aura of the archival object, we overlook the way our scholarly resurrections of the periodical limit what it might have been.

Contact details

As I posted back in May, I’m starting a new job at the University of Leeds from 1 September 2013. There will be a short moment of transition as I close down my Birmingham email accounts and create my Leeds account. From the 29 August, the best ways to contact me are:

email: jimmussell[at]googlemail.com
twitter: @jimmussell

I hope to have a Leeds email account set up in my first few days. I will post my new address here once it’s up and running.

Victorian Studies at Birmingham

There are two upcoming Victorian Studies events at Birmingham, both hosted in association with the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity:

New Approaches to the Victorian Short Story, Thursday 4 July 2013

On the afternoon before MIVSS, there will be a seminar on the Victorian short story. The speakers are Kara Tennant, Elizabeth Ludlow, Rebecca Styler and Maddie Wood. The programme is available here. The seminar will be held in Arts 119 (R 16 on the campus map) and is open to all.

MIVSS: ‘Books, Authors, Audiences’, Friday 5 July 2013

The Summer meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar will be on the theme of ‘Books, Authors, Audiences’. The programme is available on the MIVSS website. MIVSS will take place in Arts LR3 (R 16 on the campus map) and is open to all.

The Proximal Past: Digital Archives, and the Here and Now

[This is the text of my keynote for Digital Transformers, Manchester Metropolitan University, 23 May 2013.]

Web access to digital resources of various kinds has made the past proximal. Digitized historical objects and the databases that house them are only a keyword search (and maybe a few logins) away. Yet proximal is an interesting word. Through its connection to proximate, it implies succession and causation, a kind of temporality; yet when opposed to distal, proximal operates spatially, indicating that which is closest to some sort of feature or phenomenon. What I want to do today is use these two meanings – proximity in time and proximity in space – to think about how the forms of digital media affect the way we construct the past. Whereas it might appear that digitization pushes the past away from us by rewriting the objects that document it, what it reveals is that these objects are already to some extent written: situated, stabilized and ready for use. Digital transformation changes the past by changing what we can do in the present.

I am a historian and theorist of the nineteenth-century media based in an department of English. I tell the histories of printed objects of various kinds by inverting the traditional aims of the discipline: rather than focus on content, I’m interested in form; rather than identify the exceptional, I want to know about the generic; and the object of my analysis is not just text, but a version of textuality that encompasses materiality. There has never been a better moment to study the history of media. The different materialities that digital media put into play have denaturalized print culture, making explicit the role of media in producing meaning. For people like me who are interested in the actual objects that people read, digitization offers further advantages. The bibliographic complexities of nineteenth-century print culture – there is a lot of it, it’s very diverse, and it survives in fragmented runs – has encouraged researchers to approach it as if it was an archive of interesting texts rather than the surviving record of a set of cultural practices. However, its advantageous copyright status has attracted large-scale digitization projects from commercial publishers, libraries and scholars that have each exerted different degrees of bibliographic control. It has never been easier to read nineteenth-century texts in their original print contexts. But the crucial point is that this is reading predicated on seeing: these remediated forms are radically different, but this difference is itself mediated to enable something that resembles reading them in print. This morning, I want to focus on this attempt to reproduce but enhance, and what it means for understanding the past. Making historical objects proximal means making them something else.

My argument is in three stages. In the first, I explore why digital transformations are often understood in terms of deficit, with the new, digital object, seen as an impoverished imitation of the historical object on which it is based. In the second, I argue that digital transformations are always interpretive, identifying one aspect of whatever they transform and making it into something new. Finally, I will claim that deficit models of digitization are the result of a mistaken conception of historical objects. The past does not reside in the various objects, printed or otherwise, that we have inherited; rather, it must be produced by the ways these surviving objects are disciplined and put to use. These objects, in other words, are already subject to transformation. Throughout, my focus is on digitizing the various nondigital objects that survive from the past – what Tim Hitchcock has recently described as ‘stuff we inherit from dead people.’ Underpinning my paper is an argument about the performative nature of both materiality and historical significance: the traditional, nondigital archive is already constructed and interpreted; when we transform it, we reconstruct and reconfigure, granting its objects new forms that invite new uses. All digital transformations are abstractions, but moving away from the archival objects does not mean that we move away from the past. Quite the opposite: it is easy to mistake the objects as they survive with the objects as they once were, enmeshed in various contingent moments of use. Yet unmediated access to the past has always been impossible. Going away is also coming back again.

Digitization as Deficit

If you ask most people what they want from digitization, it is access to the stuff. The affordances of digital objects – the way they can be reproduced, distributed and processed – means that even the crudest – a page scan, for instance – can dramatically increase access. But the key question is access to what? If digital objects only serve as surrogates for nondigital objects, then they will always be in some way deficient. This deficiency is mitigated by identifying the key features of the source material – the way it looks, if it is to be read – and reproducing that at the cost of other, less important features. As the bulk of users come to digital resources to do something similar to what they would do with nondigital objects – read, in the case of the material I work with – it is important that designers put as few barriers in their way as possible. The rhetoric of the digital archive, where interface is presented as portal and distinguished from content, is about tempering the digital difference. The interface is where you search, the page images are what you read.

If we understand genre as social action, as a way of negotiating unfamiliar circumstances and transforming them into a species of the same, then we can see that many resources are designed to accommodate behaviours learned from interacting with nondigital objects. For commercial resources that seek to recoup costs through subscription this is particularly important, and so many are marketed as if they are transparent gateways to content. However, users never really leave the interface and it is what they do there that produces the distinction between the mediating framework of the resource and the content that it contains. Digitization takes place in an economy of loss and gain: what happens in these resources is that whatever is gained is appropriated as a kind of compensatory functionality that provides access to ‘content’ that is consequently marked as deficient. The new and distinctly digital properties are separated off, leaving only the minimal set of features that have been reproduced from the nondigital media and that allow users to do whatever it is that they already know how to do.

When lined up against the nondigital object upon which it is based, the digital object can only ever appear impoverished. A quick example. Charles Dickens had great success with his weekly periodical, Household Words. This was a weekly miscellany containing a range of literature, reviews, and commentary on a variety of subjects. It was explicitly designed to reach lower middle- and upper working-class readers, part of a typically Victorian project to extend ‘good’ reading to this constituency – while making lots of money for the journal’s proprietors, of course. Some of Dickens’s novels were first serialized in Household Words, but he also published other well-known authors from the period such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins. Household Words was available in a range of formats:

  • weekly (2d)
  • monthly (9d)
  • six-monthly volumes (5s 6d, bound in cloth)
  • a set of 10 vols (£2 10s)
  • There was also the Monthly Narrative (2d; 3s for an annual volume) and an annual Almanac (4d)

The text of Household Words exists in multiple forms, each designed for a particular group of readers and moment of reading. Each object has its own set of meanings and each can be constructed as a kind of ‘original.’ The letterpress might be more or less the same, but each has its own history: reading the cheap weekly parts was not the same as reading them bound together as a (more expensive) monthly.

All serials have a complex relationship with temporality. The current issue is different to all those that have gone before as it, and only it, speaks to a moment that is still unfolding. On the appearance of the next issue, what was the current issue becomes part of the past, perhaps preserved as part of an archive, perhaps thrown away. Serials tend to be marked by their moment of publication and their place within the series. Each issue of Household Words, for instance, has a date on the masthead, as well as its number in the sequence; the bottom left hand corner also records the volume number and in the bottom right is the page number, which runs in a series throughout the volume. In the monthly parts, each part is numbered in the inside cover, meaning that not only are weekly issues numbered, but so too are the monthly parts and six monthly volumes, each in their own sequence. Serials segment time, marking it spatially. As the weeks pass, the pile grows; as the years pass, the volumes accrue on the shelves. Although constituting one series among many, each serial insists on a linear, standard time, reaching back and stretching beyond the current issue. However, serials also keep the past in play in the present. Each issue offers something new, but this novelty is carefully tempered by a set of recurring forms already known to readers. Layout, typography, the range of articles, the tone – a large part of the current issue is material that has been seen before, resurrected from previous issues. Readers are already good at recognizing this sort of material as part of what makes a serial, but with each issue they become adept at identifying it as separate from, and incidental to, the changing content. This repetition, which is integral to all serials, insists that the future is knowable and predictable, that any new content can be assimilated to known forms that have already been established and that will recur into the future.

The image shows the various ways that seriality is marked on the first page of the weekly number, cover of the monthly number, and titlepage of the six-monthly volume.

The image shows the various ways that seriality is marked on the first page of the weekly number, cover of the monthly number, and titlepage of the six-monthly volume.

The way serials are currently digitized is as a set of imaged files that are indexed through an ocr-generated transcript. This allows keyword searching and, if they have been appropriately marked-up, the retrieval of articles. For example, take ProQuest’s British Periodicals, published in 2007. In allowing users to search for text strings, the resource returns a list of articles, which are read, one after the other. By exerting a measure of bibliographic control over the archive, this resource makes it much more navigable than it ever could be in print; by offering page images as the reading text, it makes it much easier to see what the printed page looked like; and by making the articles accessible, it brings this material much closer to hand, allowing scholars to place it alongside the more familiar texts that have become canonized over time. However, this resource conceives of its source material as a repository of texts that are understood as identical to the words that each article contains. It privileges the verbal over the visual; the article over the section, page or issue; and the content that changes over the various formal features that mark seriality through their repetition. Although what is read is an image of the article on the page, rather than the transcript, there is no way to read in sequence, or interrogate any of the elements that make serials serial.
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If we approach resources such as this as surrogates for the nondigital objects that they represent, they will always be deficient in some way. Yet deficiency can be instructive. This is transformation as interpretation: in focusing on one particular aspect of the source material, these resources make an implicit argument about what they think the objects are, and are for. In the case of British Periodicals, it is a searchable database of articles, which can be read as usual. However, in advancing this particular aspect of the source material, the resource also makes visible those aspects that had hitherto been taken for granted. When users remark that page size, for instance, is misrepresented in a digital resource, they are at least acknowledging its significance. The key is to reconceive loss as difference and use the way the transformed object differs to reimagine what it actually was. Critical encounters with digitized objects make us rethink what we thought we knew. And, because these digitized objects are radically different, the underlying data can be used to model this difference, creating new representations of both old objects and the connections between them.

People have begun to do this for resources based on nineteenth-century serials. I’m particularly interested in what Tim Sherratt has been doing with the data from Trove, the search engine of the National Library of Australia. His Querypic allows users to generate instant visualisations of the occurrence of search terms over time, both as a percentage of the total content and as a raw total. His The Front Page maps the constitution of the front pages of Australian newspapers by genre. This allows users to quickly visualize the decline of advertising and the rise of news; but it also makes clear the remarkable consistency of a print genre that deals with passing events. One of Sherratt’s arguments is that the emergence of news on the front page turns the newspaper inside out. The same is true of these visualizations: they subordinate content to form, making patterns visible by mapping both repetition and change.

The lines plot occurrences of 'Charles Dickens' and 'Household Words'. The two lines spike and converge after 1850, suggesting that it was the popularity of Household Words that brought Dickens's name before the Australian public.

The lines plot occurrences of ‘Charles Dickens’ and ‘Household Words’. The two lines spike and converge after 1850, suggesting that it was the popularity of Household Words that brought Dickens’s name before the Australian public.


This visualization plots the number of articles in each genre on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. What is striking is its formal consistency for almost a century.

This visualization plots the number of articles in each genre on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. What is striking is its formal consistency for almost a century.

The reason digitization operates in this economy of deficit is because we misrecognize the status of the nondigital objects on which resources are based. Reading the content of digital resources as deficient representations of nondigital objects implies a transmission model of digitization whose ultimate goal is perfect simulation. Such a process is impossible as it depends upon being able to fully describe the source object, whatever it might be. We tend to think of these objects as well-defined and bounded, with a set of given properties and stable meanings. Yet materiality simply does not work like this. All material objects, digital or nondigital, are always in excess of their stated properties and always have the potential to become something new. Materiality is emergent, the properties of an object becoming tangible as they are put to some sort of use. The same is true for what historical objects might mean. As we know, not only does the historical significance of surviving objects change over time, but so too does the way in which they are identified and defined. This is the reason why using data to model historical phenomena does not necessarily take us further away from the past: all historical practice is already compensatory. What we have – whether around us, or in designated archives – is what has survived, and the persistence of these objects cannot but remind us of that unknown sum that have been lost. The virtual and actual acts they record – what an object was designed to do; what was actually done with it – similarly point to a set of histories that can only be reconstructed. Even well-researched historical objects mark an absence. They are already deficient.

History has a considerable stake in the stability of its objects; their fixity provides a necessary point of departure to which the discipline can return and correct itself. Yet the objects are also deficient, the product of a practice that defines them and, crucially, maintains that definition even as it acknowledges their deficiency through supplementary historical explanation. The objects of history are not out there, waiting to be found, but are produced by historians. They become interfaces that enable a particular practice, history, that, in turn, transforms them into something else, something authentic, the raw witnesses of the past. Our digital transformations are an extension of this process, reinterpreting historical objects by reconfiguring them, and thus enabling them to anchor new narratives that depend on digital properties. Digital media appear to threaten the aura of authenticity that allows an object to link to the absent past; but the authentic object is already the result of a discursive transformation, with its own history, materials, and processes. The proximal past is made possible by transformation, digital or otherwise.

Going Away and Coming Back

If digital resources are considered surrogates, then they can only be conceptualised in terms of deficit. This deficit can be turned to account if we use it to recognize the interpretive nature of digitization. Digital transformations assert something about both the material before transformation and the material that results. There is, therefore, always a politics at play and so transformation requires reflection and critique. We have to continue to choose objects for digitization for particular reasons, and be prepared to argue the case for them. This involves thinking carefully about the way objects are digitized, the way digitized objects are processed in specific environments, and the composition of the archives themselves. No archive is ever neutral and transformation is a cultural practice.

Digital transformations can make the archive proximal, bringing disparate collections together, and making them reconfigurable and processable. The proximal past seems to come at the cost of the aura of the original; yet this historical presence is a product of a particular relationship to the nondigital object and, to follow Benjamin, is amplified through the ways in which it is mediated. The point is not to recreate the object in all its latent materiality and significance, but rather model a particular version of it for a particular end. In the case of historical documents, the most common historical object, this might be simply to encode textual content; however, even these objects mean more than it is written upon them, and so can – and should – be transformed in multiple ways.

The archive, however conceived, has always been a more or less formal institutional repository for the past and a point of departure for the way the past is made knowable by the discourse of history in the present. Some digital archives recreate the logic of the library, declaring themselves places where history can be carried out, much as it had been previously. Yet these archives take their place alongside the many other products of digital culture, whether these are the digital artefacts generated, intentionally or not, as part of everyday life, or the way the present is narrated across various social media. The proximal past seems to collapse the difference between the ratified documents of a formal, institutionalised and disciplined history and the vast, apparently disordered evidence of a culture trying to understand itself. The boundaries between these well-demarcated archives and the rest of digital culture are porous and their constituent objects have the potential to be repurposed and reconfigured, combined and visualized in new combinations and at various levels of scale. However, the differences that are imperilled are themselves the products of a history, a particular way of conceiving of and doing things with objects, and so they are recoverable. This new archive – heterodox, unbounded, and changing – both witnesses the archives that have preceded it and allows their constituent objects to be used in new ways. History is a practice that transforms its objects, whatever they might be. Digital history, or rather, doing history today, requires scholars able to understand digital transformations and make them for themselves; to recognize how the objects in the archive have been transformed and will be transformed again. In other words, it requires scholars to be both digital transformers, and recognize that transformation creates a new object that, at the same time, redefines whatever it once was.

Moving On

I’ve recently accepted a new job at the University of Leeds. From September I will be Associate Professor in Victorian Literature. This means that after six years I will be leaving the University of Birmingham. Here is not the place to go into my reasons for leaving (buy me a drink and maybe I’ll tell), but I wanted to reflect on some of the things that I’ve done while at Birmingham and what I’m looking forward to in my new role at Leeds.

I don’t think you ever really know what a department will be like before you join it.  Before I came to Birmingham I taught in a number of universities in and around London while working as a postdoctoral research assistant on the Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition (ncse) at Birkbeck.  I didn’t really know Birmingham as either a city or a university, and had had no contact with the English department before my interview.  I count myself very lucky to have found such a welcoming group of people in my first full-time academic post.  Birmingham has been a great place to work, and it has been my colleagues – administrators, students, and academics – that made it so.

The department shaped the various things I was able to do in many ways, always for the better.  The idea that one should have a research day, something that has come under sustained assault recently, allowed me to continue to work on ncse, seeing it through to the successful project launch in May 2008.  The book that came out of the project, The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age (Palgrave, 2012) was inflected by the department’s interest in textual scholarship and the history of the book.  It also led directly to my colleague Oliver Mason’s challenge to put my money where my mouth was and incorporate digital humanities teaching into the undergraduate curriculum.  I will be speaking about the course that resulted, Hacking the Book, at (Re)Presenting the Archive on 28 May at the University of Sheffield and will blog my paper here.  This course, which ran 2011-2012 for final-year students and then again in a new form in 2012-2013 for second-year students, reaffirmed my belief in the importance of digital skills for students in the humanities, but also allowed me to keep thinking and learning about digital culture too.

There have been many highlights.  The cluster of scholars working in and around the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made it a rich environment in which to situate my own work.  Together, we set up and ran the seminar series The Making of Modernity (previously Late Victorianism and Modernism: the Making of Modernity), ran the 2011 BAVS conference, established the MA Literature, Culture and Modernity, and, most recently, the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity.  All this activity also meant that my work on W.T. Stead – the book W.T. Stead Newspaper Revolutionary, conference, and special issue of 19 – all had a departmental home.

At Leeds, I’m looking forward to pursuing my interests in print culture and the history of science.  I hope to be involved with the Centre for the Comparative History of Print, and hope that ‘comparative’ might incorporate what Kate Hayles calls ‘Comparative Media Studies’.  The Centre (and Museum) for the History and Philosophy of Science will ensure that there will be some interesting conversations as I continue to work on Oliver Lodge and my next book on secrecy and science.  And I’m looking forward to getting to know a whole new set of colleagues and learning from a whole new set of students.