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

[This is the final part of this serial on print culture and Mugby Junction. I've given versions of this on a couple of occasions now, the next being in Oxford in March. I'm hoping then to write it up as a journal article]

For Steven Connor, Dickens’s characters, trapped as so many are in the frequentative mode, stand for Dickens himself: a haunted man, who nonetheless haunted his various texts and the firesides into which they circulated. Connor suggests that this haunting differs according to specific media culture: what Friedrich Kittler would call a discourse network:

Dickens’s energetic desire to inhabit all space, to be everywhere, to do everything, to be all of his characters all at once, could never succeed because it worked in mechanical or thermodynamic terms. But the churning mills and wheels of the thermodynamic age have been virtualised into the immaterial and “immediatised” informatics of the age of media and communication. The merely local knottings and convulsions of space and time which Dickens evokes so often in his work have become generalised in this era, in which Dickens keeps on carrying on where he never left off.1

There is something seductive about this comparison, linking as it does the churning mills and wheels with the repetitive, frequentative mode. Yet it relies on an informatics that has somehow broken free of the material world. Early fantasies of cyberspace presented it as a disembodied virtual realm, distinct from the metal and meatspace represented by the industrial era. However, we can hear the hard disk spin, and computers remain counting machines.

Just as the Dead-Letter Office stood to remind information of its body, so we are frequently reminded of the materialities put into play by digital media. In February last year, the Huffington Post announced ‘Google Fingers Revealed In New Ebook’, but sightings of these spectral digits has been going on for some time. In 2006, shortly after the appearance of Google Books, Dan Cohen wrote a post about them; and since 2011 the lovely Art of Google Books tumblr has published many such images. As Natalia Cecire has noted in a recent post, these fingers are stark reminders of both the work that goes into the production of digital resources and the way that this work is elided through the presentation of apparently unmediated content. The hand, as Cecire notes, is synecdoche for the worker, but these hands also represent something else. The image of the hand, Cecire writes, is ‘a photograph of its own scene of production, complete with visual evidence of the hand that wrought it.’2 These images of ghostly hands, then, also conjure up something of the Freudian primal scene: that originary moment of writing, the signature, that links writer and reader. Yet, the hands that are glimpsed here also remind us, uncomfortably, of mediation, of the fact that these digital objects are not, really, what they claim to be.

This is not to say that such digital resources are deficient or deceptive, misrepresenting the print culture of the past. Rather, they demonstrate, by making it strange, how much more there is to know. We are trained to look for the singular and the exceptional, rather than the repetitive and generic. Still enmeshed in a naturalised print culture, we readily overlook its materiality until it is transformed. The digital revolution has, I think, exacerbated the tendency to reify surviving print objects as ‘originals’, objects that allow the creation of stable points of origin for content that reaches us in a remediated, digital form. Rather than understand digitisation as a kind of loss, as the new digital object fails to capture all the aspects of print, I would rather think of it as an opportunity. Once alienated and transformed, we can more easily recognize the properties of print culture and ask different questions of its remains. We need to recognize the many hands that touch print objects from the past as they come down to us in the present, be they those of the author, printer or bookseller; or archivist, programmer or technician. We need, in other words, to open ourselves up to be haunted, in order to move more things from the past.

1Steven Connor, ‘Dickens, The Haunting Man’, Literature Compass, 1 (2003), 10. [back]
2Natalia Cecire, ‘The Visible Hand’, Works Cited [accessed 24 October 2014]
[back]

Moving Things: Repetition and Circulation in Victorian Print Culture (4/5)

Part Three: Being Moved

As they sustain relationships, objects become enmeshed in the emotional lives of those they bring together. For Marx, commodity fetsishism meant that objects mediated social relations, taking on a fantastical form that then became naturalised. According to Thomas Richards, this is the reason that descriptions of commodity culture tend to produce accounts ‘of a fantastic realm in which things think, act, speak, rise, fall, fly, evolve.’1 All objects, in this view, can become social actors, but it is those that directly address us, that have been inscribed in some way and are perceived to pass on some sort of message, that interest me here. Mediating objects, according to Derrida, create the sender and receiver, the you and the me, as they move between people. The telepathic connections they activate promise a touch across time and space. Touching always involves touching back: as these media interpellate, they demand a response of some kind, creating the conditions for reciprocity. These things move because they are moving things.

In the first issue of Household Words, Dickens and his subeditor William Henry Wills provide an account of a visit to the General Post-Office at St Martin’s-le-Grand. ‘Valentine’s Day at the Post Office is supposed to be one of Household Word’s romances of the everyday, where the souls of the ‘mightier inventions of the age’ are revealed to the reader.2 The General Post-Office is the ‘mighty heart of the postal system of this country’ (12), distributing letters around London, the rest of the country, and across the empire. While the article celebrates the achievements of the postal service, with a heavy dose of human interest, it returns obsessively to the issue of theft. The Post-Office, it transpires, blames the public for using the post to send money, especially coins. ‘The temptation’, they write, ‘it throws in the way of sorters, carriers, and other humble employés is greater than they ought to be subjected to’ (10). At the end of the article, Dickens and Wills return to this theme, noting the dimmed glass window installed, panopticon-like, through which the sorters might be watched. They remark that it ‘is a deplorable thing that such a place of observation should be necessary; but it is hardly less deplorable […] that the public, now possessed of such conveniences for remitting money […] should lightly throw temptation in the way of these clerks, by enclosing actual coin’ (12). By 1850 the post office was understood as a closed communications system: the invention of the penny post, the use of envelopes, and the Post Office Scandal of 1844 buttressed the understanding of the postal system as a set of private channels between sender and receiver. The insistence on the senders’ guilt for tempting the clerks, responds to uncertainty about the conditions of this privacy. Coins are particularly troublesome, as they can be felt through the envelopes, rendering them transparent. There is an uneasiness here about the hands through which letters must pass: hands that fondle and caress the bodies of the moving things that convey content from one place to another.

These mentions of theft come either side of the description of the Dead-Letter Office. The place where undeliverable letters are sent, the Dead-Letter office fascinates Dickens and Wills as a place where wealth accumulates. For Derrida, destinerrance means that all letters can become dead letters, as all letters can activate any number of multiple connections and so summon up all sorts of people. Yet, as John Durham Peters notes, the letters in the Dead-Letter Office are dead precisely because they have no chance of interception. These are bodies that have been interred (the word repository also means a tomb) and so have stopped moving. The Dead-Letter Office is a necessary corollary to the emergent role of the postal system in the broader information economy, serving as a material supplement to the disembodied content moved from place to place. As Durham Peters argues, the ‘need for it to exist at all is an everlasting monument to the fact that communication cannot escape embodiment and there is no such thing as a pure sign on the model of angels.’3 As Durham Peters puts it, this is not a problem of the rupture of minds, but of bodies. It is a problem of erotics.

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/.

Mugby Junction is set around the related system of the railway, rather than the post, but it too deals with dead letters. The conceit of Mugby Junction is that ‘Young Jackson’, now known as Barbox Brothers, the name of the firm he works for, is in a kind of stasis, depersonalised and unable to find a place in the world. He is haunted by memories from his past: his mother; his schoolmaster; the former head of Barbox Borthers, and most bitterly the betrayal of his lover and his friend; come back and trap him in a perpetual present. Steven Connor claims Dickens’s characters have, and I quote, ‘a particularly intense relationship to the frequentative, to the condition of simply living on.’4 Unable to continue his journey, Barbox Brothers haunts Mugby Junction, a railway station in the Midlands. His haunting eventually takes in the home of the railwayman known as Lamps and his disabled daughter, Phoebe. Each of the seven Lines seen through Phoebe’s window represents a possible departure, but to help him decide which to take, he offers Phoebe (and sometimes Lamps) a tale from each. In the telling the Lines become lines, designed to fill the space and so put off Barbox’s intended departure.

The analogy with the serial form of Household Words and All the Year Round is clear. Dickens, as Steven Connor has argued, also set out to haunt the homes of his readers, not least by circulating his words into their households. As a Christmas number, Mugby Junction is both part of the weekly series of All the Year Round and also distinct. Its distinctness – it is twice as large (and expensive) and has its own pagination sequence – allows it to better suit Christmas and also serves to situate it in the annual series of Christmas numbers. Mugby Junction, then, haunts the fireside at Christmas, filling the holiday period; but it also, as a supplement, haunts the weekly series, reminding readers that there are other rhythms in play – and, of course, that these, too, have their own print forms.

What is odd about Mugby Junction is that the narrative of Barbox Brother’s decision is the second in the series, not the last. ‘Barbox Brothers and Co.’ tells of Barbox Brothers’s trip to the ‘great ingenious town,’ Birmingham, where he stumbles across a lost girl called Polly (10). This turns out to be an elaborate sting operation by his ex-lover, who wants Barbox Brother’s forgiveness. Dickens uses the two girls to rejuvenate Barbox Brothers and open him up to the influence of others (this is Dickens after all). After Barbox Brothers forgives his ex-lover and her husband, he becomes Barbox Borthers and Co, taking, and I quote ‘thousands of partners into the solitary firm’ (16). Barbox’s Brothers’s Birmingham experience reconciles him to his past, transforming him from the ‘Gentleman for Nowhere’, as he is known at Mugby Junction, into the ‘Gentleman for Somewhere’. He decides not to move on and instead takes a house in Mugby. No longer haunted, Barbox is no longer compelled to haunt and so makes his haunt his home.

Detail from ‘Main Line. The Boy at Mugby'.

Detail from ‘Main Line. The Boy at Mugby.’, Mugby Junction, All the Year Round, 16 (1866), p. 17. From Dickens Journals Online (DJO) (2012-) .

This exorcism produces a temporal change that is enacted spatially: Barbox Brothers moves on by staying put. The reader, too, does likewise: now Barbox has made his choice, the rest of the narratives – the ‘Main Line’ and the five ‘Branch Lines’ – are, in effect, dead letters, sitting alongside the two Barbox Brothers tales instead of moving the frame narrative onwards towards its end. In a kind of switch of genre from novel to periodical, from author to editor, the remaining Lines move the reader through the issue, creating striking cross references as they mediate across the issue and beyond. For Barbox Brothers, repetition is stasis, a kind of living death as he haunts Mugby Junction. Recapitulating his origins in narrative gives his life direction and allows him to reach an ending. He settles down and the narrative ends: a quiet death that allows the reader to pass on too.

Open-ended serials like newspapers and periodicals also negotiate these two potential ends. As frequentative media, there is always the potential that they become too stuck, like Barbox Brothers, in repetition; but, in constantly chasing novelty, there is also the danger that they will break free from the structure set out in advance and, so, like Barbox Brothers at the conclusion of his story, become something else. Like the Freudian death drive and pleasure principle, eros and thanatos, each of these possible ends has its own motive force. The skillful editor carefully balances these two drives, creating a kind of perpetual present, issue after issue. In narrative, it is only at the end that the beginning and the middle can be conceived as a whole, but then you have to start again with another. Newspapers and periodicals also employ this constant changing of the subject to drive readers on from article to article, issue to issue, volume to volume. However, an editor is not, really, a narrator, and all they can offer is a precarious middle from which the reader can survey the past (represented by the neat sequence of back issues) and the future, tantalizingly out of reach but reassuringly expected to be much the same. This middle, a present teetering between the past and future it produces, is itself intended to pass. As print genres predicated on not finishing, newspapers and periodicals enable repetition while ensuring progression, ordering both past and future by allocating each a period and numbering it accordingly. Moving on by staying put, the next issue displaces the previous, a temporal change enacted spatially. Barbox Brothers might reach his happy end, but the stories keep coming nonetheless.

1Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 11. [back]
2Anonymous [Charles Dickens and William Henry Wills], ‘Valentine’s Day at the Post Office’, Household Words, 1 (1850), 6-12. [back]
3John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 169. [back]
4Steven Connor, ‘Dickens, The Haunting Man (On L-iterature)’, conference paper given at A Man for all Media: The Popularity of Dickens 1902-2002, Institute for English Studies, 25-7 July 2002. Available here. [back]

‘The Prospect of Our Brethren Slain’: Oliver Lodge, Raymond, and Paperwork

[On the 23-24 June I am giving a paper at Objects of Modernity, a conference being held at the University of Birmingham by the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity. I'm currently working on Oliver Lodge as part of my AHRC Research Network, Making Waves: Oliver Lodge and the Cultures of Science, 1875-1940. This is my abstract.]

My object of modernity is the absent body of Raymond Lodge, who was killed in the trenches in 1915. Raymond was the son of Sir Oliver Lodge, physicist, spiritualist, and first Principal of the University of Birmingham. In my paper, I consider the way that Oliver Lodge’s best-selling book Raymond testifies not just to his loss, but also to Raymond’s continuing presence.

Lodge’s spiritualism was closely allied to his scientific research. Lodge had spent his career working with the ether, the imponderable fluid believed to fill all space and that explained a whole host of electromagnetic phenomena, from wireless telegraphy to the internal structure of the atom. It also provided the material basis for a range of psychical phenomena, including spiritual existence after death.

Raymond is presented as a dispassionate account of the evidence for Raymond’s continuing life. However, it is also an exercise in paperwork. Lodge’s attempts to communicate with his dead son should be understood alongside his wider interest in mediation. Lodge was a pioneer of telegraphy and radio and, as many scholars have noted, there was an uncanny continuum between these technological media technologies and spiritualism. Yet Raymond, as a book, represents a further remediation, as the printed object testifies to the reality of the various connections Lodge made with his son. Despite its apparent impersonality, Raymond is concerned with one specific body, Raymond’s, the title of the book asserting his asserting his ongoing presence. My paper considers the place of the book, that old print form, amongst the strikingly modern technologies of the early twentieth century. It considers the way that printed paper offers Raymond a kind of body, while worrying over where (not what) this new body might be.

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.