Debating the Book

[On Thursday 8 October I’m taking part in a public debate on the Future of the Book at the University of Leeds, part of the White Rose Consortium’s Debating the Book festival. My fellow debaters (debatees?) are the University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton, Stella Butler; Professor Brian Cummings (York); the CEO of Waterstones, James Daunt; the novelist, Linda Grant; Dr Bridgette Wessels (Sheffield), and we will be chaired by Melvyn Bragg. Further details about the debate are here and about the festival here. We’ve been asked to give short opening statements. Mine’s below.]

One of the remarkable things about the book is how readily ‘book’ now describes something without paper and ink. We had books before the invention of printing, so it shouldn’t really be a surprise that we now have digital books. There is lots to say about the differences between print and digital books: about the way the form of one has been incorporated into the other, for instance; or the way digital properties make us look again at print. But what interests me is what they have in common. When we’re no longer talking about paper and ink, what is a book?

For me, this is about wholes. The book describes something bounded, something complete, and this has a peculiar appeal in a digital world where everything is connected.

The book establishes wholeness in two different ways. Firstly, the page sets out edges, marking off where the text stops and the rest of the world begins. More importantly, the sequence of pages, one after the other, establishes temporal boundaries – a start and an end – as well as a sense of direction. It is this sequence of pages that makes a book a book. You just have to look at how wary ebooks have been to leave behind the linearity of the codex and embrace multi-dimensional hypertextuality. Although in practice not all books are read cover-to-cover, what we tend to think of as a book starts on page one and ends when there is no more to read.

This, I think, is important, as it means that the form of the book, whether paper and ink or bits and bytes, is well-suited to structuring narrative. Narrative, the telling of stories, is fundamental to the way in which we understand ourselves and the world we live in. I don’t mean that we make the world up, but that narratives are how we put things in order, establish chains of cause and effect, and, crucially know where to start and to end. Narratives break the chaos of the world into chunks that have some sort of integrity and can be retold again and again.

The thing is, narratives can be tricky. Where does a story really start? And how do we know it’s finished? I don’t know how well you remember Alice in Wonderland, but there is a bit where the Red King, sitting in judgement over the Knave of Hearts, asks the White Rabbit to read a poem in evidence against him:

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. ‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asked.
‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

The book incarnates narrative. It gives it a body. Not only does it make clear beginnings and endings, you also always know much there is to go. And, because you turn the pages, you are the engine that drives the story on. Good books – in print or digital – move us. But we, crucially, also move through them.

Living with technology: the printing press

[As part of a new discovery module at the University of Leeds, I was asked to be filmed taking about the printing press as technology. I was going to extemporize (there’s so much to say, and they only wanted 3-4 minutes), but as I’ve never used an autocue before, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try it out. Here’s the script.]

It is hard to overstate the importance of the printing press. For about 500 years, printed material has shaped both the way we communicate, whether mediating between those living alongside us, or allowing us to read material from the past or bequeath our own to the future. In many ways, print’s very ubiquity has blinded us to its contours, to the way it shapes the material to which it gives shape. But now, in what’s sometimes called the late age of print, when electronic communication offers an alternative medium for reading and writing, we are beginning to see print and its legacy anew.

Print is a technology of copying. After some experimentation, its technical basis was more or less stable from 1500 until the introduction of steam in early nineteenth century. As with all technological shifts, older methods persisted alongside new ways of printing, but steam provided a new motive force that vastly increased the rate of reproduction. It was steam, along with innovations in paper-making, that created the conditions for a mass readership, where large groups of people were reading the same things at the same times. Even so, the everydayness of books was a fairly late development. The printed book has long been venerated, but it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that it became a common object found in most households. We have had books for a long time, but for much of this people’s encounter with print would have been in other forms: newspapers and chapbooks; posters and broadsides.

Print is a medium, a way of making text reproducible. As such, it intervenes between the hand that writes and the eye that reads. While we might usefully think of handwriting as a type of technology, too, print makes texts mechanical, the work of a machine. It is curious that few people even notice the shapes of letters or the format of printed texts, instead experiencing reading as a kind of contact with the mind of the author. On the one hand, print masks human agency, making all texts seem like species of the same; on the other, print, a collaboration between a human and a machine, sets text free.

As a technology of reproduction, it is easy to see printing as secondary. Authors do the important creative stuff; printers just turn it into reproducible form. But this is to underestimate the power of copying. For almost half a millennium, print has allowed people to get to know those they have never met; it has served as the basis of a public sphere; and it has archived the world’s knowledge. Now, as we come to terms with a new technology of copying, we are beginning to learn the extent to which we have depended on print, the ways in which this technology has set the conditions for textuality itself.

Conservative attitudes to old-established organs: Oliver Lodge and Philosophical Magazine

[I’ve recently had an article published in Notes and Records on Oliver Lodge and the Philosophical Magazine. It was co-written with the brilliant Imogen Clarke and is available ahead of print publication via the Notes and Records website here (£). I’ll put a link to the postprint version (OA) once the embargo has passed. The abstract is below]

In 1921 Oliver Lodge defended Philosophical Magazine against charges of mismanagement from the National Union of Scientific Workers. They alleged that its editors performed little editorial work, the bulk being done by the publishers, Taylor & Francis. Lodge reassured Nature’s readers that the journal did consult its editors, and suggested ‘a conservative attitude towards old-established organs is wise; and that it is possible to over-organise things into lifelessness.’ The paper explores Lodge’s response by considering the editorial arrangements at Philosophical Magazine. Founded in 1798, it remained remarkably unchanged and so appeared old-fashioned when compared with its closest rivals, Proceedings of the Royal Society and Proceedings of the Physical Society. We argue that for Lodge the management of Philosophical Magazine gave it the flexibility and independence required to sustain the kind of physics, also open to accusations of obsolescence, in which he believed.

Abstract: Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth Century

[this is my proposal for this year’s BAVS conference. I’m on a special Northern Nineteenth-Century Network panel ‘Victorian Secrets’. The conference website is here.]

Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century

The telling of secrets punctuates time. The revelation of whatever has been concealed creates a before and after, in which things are never quite the same. New information, should it be accepted as true, rewrites the ‘before’ as fiction and leaves the ‘after’ as truth. But such truths are only provisional and one never knows what other secrets there are to tell.

Secrets make the concealed past present. In a kind of gothic move, things that should have been left behind are resurrected, demanding attention. Such returns are the staples of countless literary plots in the period; they also underpin the many scandals that filled the pages of newspapers. Whereas literary plots can exploit the moments leading up to revelation, as tension increases, newspaper scandals break suddenly, creating a moment that calls for something to be done.

In my paper I sketch out some of the links between secrecy and temporality in the nineteenth century. In its first sections, it explores the ways in which secrecy depends upon time, focusing particularly on the way that telling secrets reorders past and present. I then go on to look more closely at such revelations in literary and nonliterary narratives. The paper concludes by looking closely at the way that telling secrets creates a moment in which past and present appear provisional. My argument will be that while secrets rewrite the past, they do so at the cost of the present.

Abstract: Telling Tales about Secret Remedies: the Case of Chlorodyne

[This is the abstract of a paper I gave at Working with Nineteenth-Century Medical and Health Periodicals, St Anne’s, Oxford, 30 May 2015. The conference website is here and the tweets have been storified here. I’m planning on posting my paper here soon]

Telling Tales about Secret Remedies: the Case of Chlorodyne

In February 1892 two undercover police officers entered John Thistlewood Davenport’s pharmacy and bought a dozen bottles of chlorodyne. Two months later, Davenport was prosecuted at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court for selling poison. Davenport claimed that chlorodyne was exempted from the Pharmacy Act as, for the purposes of the Act, proprietary medicines were considered patent medicines. The Magistrate, however, disagreed, insisting that a patent medicine must be patented and fined Davenport a symbolic five pounds and five guineas costs.

The prosecution was arranged by Ernest Hart, editor of the British Medical Journal, and was the culmination of a long campaign to close the loophole under which controlled substances, particularly opium, were freely sold despite the strictures of the Pharmacy Act. Patent medicines, which declared their constitution in the process of gaining legal protection as intellectual property, had been exempted when the Act was passed. Proprietary medicines, however, kept their ingredients secret thus avoiding the disclosure demanded under patent law. For Hart and his colleagues, it was this secrecy that made proprietary medicines so dangerous.

This paper tells the tale of chlorodyne. A vital part of the economy that supported the vibrant market for periodicals, advertisements for proprietary medicines like chlorodyne were the public face of secretive entities. By prosecuting its manufacturers, Hart and the BMJ asserted their right to tell chlorodyne’s secret, subjecting it to legal control.

‘In Chancery’. Again

I wrote a post as part of the Dickens Our Mutual Friend Reading Project underway at Birkbeck. They’re reading Our Mutual Friend in its monthly parts to mark the 150 years since it was published. I’m really interested in these kinds of projects, as I spend a lot of time arguing that seriality matters. It is very hard to describe things like the significance of waiting or repetition that underpin the experience of serial reading. The difference is experiential and it’s only really by joining projects like this that we get a flavour of what this way of encountering texts was like. I’ve tried similar things in class before: on a course at Birmingham called ‘Victoria’s Secrets’ we read The Moonstone in parts; I also taught She in weekly parts on a survey course called ‘Writing and the World’, also at Birmingham. Both novels were serialised in weekly parts, which made them good candidates for this kind of task, but because of the length of the semester we still had to squeeze them in. It would be very difficult to do something similar with a work published in twenty monthly parts like Our Mutual Friend.

Below I’ve reproduced my opening paragraph, but you can read the whole post on the project site.

February 1865’s number brings an end to both Book Two and the first volume of Our Mutual Friend. It is one of those curious points in a serial where the monographical is made present in virtual form. The words ‘the end of the second book and the end of the first volume’ make clear where we are: even though we are reading in parts, we cannot escape the sense that we have reached a point in a whole. This serial mode of reading is a process in which we fill out an empty form, the parts read accumulating behind us as the end gets closer. We know that there is a wholeness here, that the novel will reach a conclusion eventually, that there will be a moment when there is no more to come, when we can close the book and look back. In Part Ten this virtual wholeness is made strikingly present in the volume titlepage and contents that appear in the wrapper. Not only are we reminded where we are in the novel, we are also enjoined to enact this putative wholeness by turning parts into a book. Or rather, half a book.

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 May. 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]

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-)

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-)

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]