Ephemera belong to the dead: affect, print, and memory

[this is my contribution to a panel called Victorian Archival Mediations at the NAVSA 2019 conference in Columbus Ohio. The panel was organised by Matthew Poland and our fellow contributors were Ann Garascia and Anna Wager]

In M.R. James’s short story ‘Casting the Runes’, first published in More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), two men are haunted, one after the other.  Each is the victim of a man called Karswell, who is disgruntled because nobody takes seriously his research into the occult.  The first, John Harrington, was killed in 1889 when Karswell cast the runes upon him because of a bad review of his book.  The focus of the story, however, is on the second, Edward Dunning, on whom Karswell cast the runes because he recently rejected one of his papers.  While trying to work out what is happening to him, Dunning meets John Harrington’s brother, Henry, who tells him about when he and John first found the runes.

I suppose the door blew open, though I didn’t notice it: at any rate a gust – a warm gust it was – came quite suddenly between us, took the paper and blew it straight into the fire: it was light, thin paper, and flared and went up the chimney in a single ash.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘You can’t give it back now.’1

You can’t give it back now, says Henry to his brother just after the runes go up in smoke.  Written on light and thin paper, this is material that wants to be destroyed, that resists becoming part of the record.  Ephemera is alive in ‘Casting the Runes’ but wishes for its demise.  Ephemera belong to the dead.

* * *

There is something special about unexpectedly finding a piece of ephemera, tucked away, perhaps, in the leaves of a book.  In what follows I want to consider why the unexpected survival of ephemera has the power to move us.  Rediscovering something that we have chosen to keep but have since forgotten evokes powerful and complex feelings: not only do such mementos allow us to relive the moment so fully, but they surprise us by their capacity to do so.  Something of this underpins the way we experience all encounters with ephemera when we happen to find it.  Regardless of who preserved it or why, chancing upon such material strikes us so because it reminds us of all that we have chosen to forget.

‘Casting the Runes’, however, warns us about such pleasures.  Not only are the runes themselves ephemeral, seeking their own destruction, but the haunted receive warnings that take ephemeral forms.  Surviving when it should have been destroyed, there is something of the grave about ephemera.  We keep such things because we want to remember and we recognise that such timely objects remain anchored in the moment even when that moment has gone.  Yet in choosing to keep some things and not others we acknowledge that we cannot keep it all.  In ‘Casting the Runes’ the ephemeral is a threat to the well-ordered world of the archive and its gatekeepers.  Ephemera stand for the transient, the modern, and the abundant, all of which threaten institutionalised memory.  In the end the gatekeepers triumph: Karswell is killed by the runes, and so history is preserved against the overwhelmingly ephemeral.  Yet the custodians of this archive remain haunted, aware of what they do not collect and aware, too, of the other histories that such material might preserve.  The persistence of ephemera charms us because it takes us back, but it does so by undermining the past as we think we know it.

* * *

‘Casting the Runes’ is probably the best-known story about the dangers of peer review in English literature.  In many ways it is quite typical of M.R. James.  As in most of his other stories, it concerns a group of men, most of whom live alone and are more comfortable in homosocial, scholarly communities; and, as in most of his other tales, the supernatural threat comes when they stray out into the world.  In an often embarassingly literal return of the repressed, James’s scholars and anitquaries usually become haunted when they disturb some ancient relic, struggling against their supernatural assailant until they escape back to the safety of museum or quad.  In ‘Casting the Runes’ there is no relic and those haunted are already out in the world, yet it too is about policing boundaries, about expelling or escaping what is provoked when curiosity strays too far.

The story focuses on Edward Dunning.  On the way back from the British Museum, where he has been doing some research in the reading room, he notices an advertisement in the tram window that reads ‘In Memory of John Harrington, FSA, of the Laurels, Ashbrooke.  Died Sept. 18th 1889.  Three months were allowed’ (150). This ominous warning is followed by another a couple of days later when he is given a leaflet on which he glimpses the name ‘Harrington’ before it is twitched out of his hands (153).  Later, in the Select Manuscript Room, Dunning is just about to leave when a man taps him on the shoulder and hands him some papers he had left behind.  ‘May I give you this?’, the man says, ‘I think it should be yours’ (153).  Dunning thanks him and takes the papers; on his way out he asks the staff who the man was and learns that his name is Karswell.

Returning home Dunning finds himself out-of-sorts, as if ‘something ill-defined and impalpable had stepped in between him and his fellow men’ (154).  A sleepless night follows, including a disturbing moment when, reaching beneath his pillow, he finds, ‘a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it’ (155).  Seeking company Dunning meets the Secretary who, in turn, introduces him to John Harrington’s brother, Henry.  Henry Harrington tells Dunning that, before he died, John had also run into Karswell and had subsequently experienced a similar feeling of oppression.  John was a keen concert goer and, on looking around for his programme, had one handed to him; on later inspection, it was found to contain ‘a strip of paper with some very odd writing on it in red and black’, which, as we know promptly went up in smoke (158).  Two things later came in the post for John: a Bewick woodcut of a man being pursued by a demon, and a calendar with the pages after 18 September 1889, torn out.

They realise that Dunning, too, has three months to live and the rest of the story follows Dunning and Harrington as they try and escape the curse.  Finding the runes amongst Dunning’s papers (and stopping them disappearing out the window) they hatch a plan to return them to Karswell.  Shortly before the day Dunning is due to die they learn Karswell is to travel to France and so plan to board the train with him.  After a tense journey they manage to slip Karswell the runes in his ticket wallet just as the train reaches Dover.  As Karswell boards the ferry a crewman remarks that he thought he saw someone following him.  The next they hear Karswell is dead.

* * *

So far, so uncanny. The narrative tension in ‘Casting the Runes’ comes because Dunning knows when he will die, his life revealed to be plotted for him in advance.  However, my interest is in the role of ephemera in all of this.  Not only are the warnings of impending death carried by ephemeral objects – advertisements, leaflets, scraps, calendars – but the runes, with their propensity for self destruction, are ephemeral too.  The story was published in 1911 and set sometime after the turn of the century so it demands the longest of nineteenth centuries to be discussed here.  With its first murder in 1889, however, and its focus on the British Museum, it deals with how the Victorian archive was set against a modern world characterised by abundance, temporal compression, and the onward rush of modernity.  Susan Zieger calls ephemera ‘facilitators of ephemerality’: when we look at such objects we move from evocations of temporality, moments in time, to the technology that makes time pass.2

The story distinguishes between the acceptable study of the occult by disinterested scholars and its enthusiastic pursuit by those such as Karswell who believe in what they research.  It then maps these two approaches, the disciplined and ill-disciplined, onto distinct media economies.  While Karswell can research in the British Museum, Harrington’s hostile review means that his work will only be admitted to mark the boundary of what is acceptable leaving him with just ephemeral scraps.  The Museum here represents the archive as a place of ordered knowledge preserved for all time; Karswell instead becomes a peculiar representative of modernity, identified with the contingent, the transient, and the supplementary.  As Priti Joshi and Susan Zieger have noted, ephemera are constituted by their exclusion from the archive and so haunt it, marking the deficiencies of institutional collections and so becoming more authentic witnesses to the past as a result.  However, as they also note, the archive, too, haunts the ephemeral, either dooming the it to extinction outside the archive’s walls or extinguishing the its ephemerality by subjecting it to institutional discipline within.3

With the British Museum at its heart, James’s story dramatises these narratives of inclusion and exclusion.  However, by identifying the ephemeral with the occult it insists on its impending annhiliation, the expected fate that makes it ephemeral.  We are used to thinking of the contents of the archive as the remains of a process of institutionalised forgetting.  The matter that structures our lived experience of the present is too vast, too complex, to be preserved in entirety and so instead we make just a portion available for future recollection.  Monuments to the discarded, ephemera often find their way into the archive as part of this process.  But ephemera are designed to pass.  It is when they survive despite themselves – the ticket stub in the book; the annotation in a margin – that they have the ability to evoke the rest.

The forgotten can only be evoked as an absence, however.  Susan Stewart’s definition of the souvenir provides a useful explanation for the powerful feelings that ephemera can prompt. For Stewart the souvenir is both of the moment and stands for it: metonym and metaphor, it offers the possibility of authentic connection to a moment passed, but, in its partiality, creates a space for narrative. Stewart argues that the power of the souvenir comes through its impoverishment, its failure to bring back the moment in its entirety creating instead that desire for origins we call nostalgia.4 Ephemera make such good souvenirs because they belong to the fabric of what was. Ephemera, as mentioned above, belongs to the dead.

‘Casting the Runes’ sides with Dunning and Harrington against Karswell, ultimately upholding the values of the archive against ill-disciplined ephemera.  However, by making Karswell the victim of his own occult machinations, the story recognises the efficacy of his practices even as it expels them from the narrative.  Indeed, by passing the runes to Karswell Dunning and Harrington embrace the logic of ephemerality.  Slipped inside programmes, papers, and a ticket wallet, the runes are always accidental survivors and, as each of these things have been left behind in the story, the runes are also associated with the discarded or forgotten.  Each time the runes are exchanged from one person to another there is contact: they are, then, transitive and transactional, connecting people together for a moment before passing away.  And as the runes themselves are indecipherable, they have no other meaning than the action they accomplish, which is to perish. 

To pass on and to be passed on, to receive the runes is to die.  When they persist, ephemera are so compelling because they offer a glimpse of the richness of the present that has passed.  Yet they cannot bring it back: even our own souvenirs fall short, leaving a gap that we fill with nostalgic desire.  What the runes remind us is not that we will die but that we, too, will become part of the unrecoverable past.  The archive serves to reassure us that memory is safe in other hands while the ego tricks us into thinking we persist, in all our richness, from one moment to the next.  Marked as disposable and so part of the technology that allows the world to move on, ephemera remind us of what we have forgotten: that the past as lived was immeasurably richer than we remember it and that we, too, will be diminished when recalled.

This is not as bleak as it sounds and the story suggests how we might read the runes aright.  On the one hand ‘Casting the Runes’ suggests there is comfort in bachelor life, in the archive and its proper use, and it distrusts what lies outside: women, sex, modernity.  But as always in M.R. James this comfortable world is haunted by what it excludes.  Karswell works in the reading room alongside Dunning; museum collections contain ephemera too.  We are all going to die, but until then, the story suggests, we should keep the runes in motion.  What we feel when we find something tucked away in a book, surviving despite itself, is a reminder that to remember we have to forget.  Keeping the runes in motion allows us to see that what we remember, and what we forget, depends upon what we choose to keep.

1 M.R.James, ‘Casting the Runes’, Collected Ghost Stories, edited by Darryl Jones (Oxford: Oxford Worlds Classics, 2011), pp. 145-164 (p. 158). [back]

2 Susan Zieger, The Mediated Mind: Affect, Ephemera, and Consumerism (NY: Fordham University Press, 2018), p. 3. [back]

3 Priti Joshi and Susan Zieger, ‘Ephemera and Ephemerality’, Amodern, 7 (2017) available here. [back]

4 Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1993), pp. 135-6. [back]

Binding and Embodiment: Oliver Lodge, Physics, and the Book

[I’m giving a talk in the Science Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century Seminar Series at the University of Oxford on 14 May 2019. Here’s what I’m going to be talking about.]

This paper considers the role of embodiment in the work of the physicist and spiritualist Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) through two very different books. The first is the visitor book from Mariemont, the Lodges’ house in Birmingham from 1901-1920; the second is Lodge’s book Raymond (1916), which details his ongoing relationship with his dead son, Raymond, killed the previous year at Ypres.  These two early twentieth-century books have much to tell us about how Lodge, then at the peak of his fame, began to seem increasingly Victorian.  They also reveal details of a social life that radically involved the living and the dead.

Best know for his work in wireless telegraphy in the 1890s , Lodge spent his career trying to understand the intangible and imponderable. An adherent of the ether, defending it until his death in 1941, Lodge was committed to a universe in which matter was nothing but etheric motion.  The ether provided an ontological basis for both psychical and physical phenomena as well the epistemological ground on which to reconcile science, spiritualism, and religion.  While Lodge’s philosophy proved remarkably popular in the first decades of the twentieth century, establishing him as not just a scientific authority but probably the best-known scientist of his day, it also made him seem curiously out of time.  In the years after the second world war Lodge’s popularity became a problem and Lodge himself a Victorian sage who lived too long.

The two books, in their different ways, are an attempt to document social relations by locating individuals in time and space.  The visitor book records the range of people the Lodges hosted at Mariemont, whether visiting dignitaries or the extended Lodge family, scientists or mediums.  Raymond, on the other hand, gives details of Raymond’s life before his death then transcripts of encounters with his spirit on the other side.  Whereas the visitor book’s list of names testifies to the intangible connections that constitute social life, Raymond desparately seeks to situate the personality of Raymond somewhere in the ether, surviving on with integrity in a medium that should not permit survival in such a form.  Whereas the pages of the visitor book consitute a chronological narrative as people come, go, and come again; Raymond offers the book itself as a surrogate body that could ensure he was close at hand.  Both books can help us understand Lodge’s reputation, at the time and afterwards.  Both books, too, can help us understand how Lodge recognised identity in a universe in which we were all always connected.

Proposal for Dregs, Dross and Debris: The Art of Transient Print

[I’m really excited to be speaking at ‘Dregs, Dross, and Debris: The Art of Transient Print‘, a two-day conference organised Print Networks with Liverpool John Moores University and the Centre for Printing History and Cultures (CPHC). My paper is the first of a number I plan to give exploring print ephemera in preparation for a chapter of my book to be written later in the year. The proposal is below]

Ephemera belongs to the dead: affect, print, and memory

This paper considers a particular genre, printed ephemera, and the ways in which it survives in collections, whether formally (as a designated category) or informally (tucked away inside books etc). There is something charming in those things meant to be discarded, their unexpected survival evoking the moment passed. It is for this reason we keep ticket stubs and leaflets; it is for this reason too that libraries have acquired collections of printed ephemera. Not printed to be kept, such material feels more authentically of its time.

My paper is on printed ephemera as a category, with a focus on nineteenth-century print in particular. Job printing underpinned the trade in all periods, but the development of new imaging technologies and the reduction in paper and advertising duties meant that the Victorians not only handled more bits of printed paper, but they kept more too. I consider how print helped enable the everyday in the nineteenth century and the forms it which that everyday was preserved.

Print is both a way of fixing information in condensed form, stabilising it for futurity, and a technology of reproduction, producing copies whose abundance operated to offset fragility. With oblivion in view, ephemera stands for the latter facet of print culture and its unlikely survival, its return from the dead, gives it historical value. My argument, however, is that while ephemera promises to resurrect the passing moment, it bears a peculiar affective charge because of what is not there. Finding something between the pages of a book hints at a story that will never be told; what we feel is the echo of all that must be forgotten.

Proposal for RSVP 2018: To Lay Open the Nerves and Arteries of a Book: Bodily Metaphors and Archival Forms in the Nineteenth Century

[this is my proposal for this year’s RSVP conference, held jointly with the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada (VSAWC), University of Victoria, 26-28 July 2018]

To Lay Open the Nerves and Arteries of a Book: Bodily Metaphors and Archival Forms in the Nineteenth Century

Henry Wheatley’s How to Make an Index (1902) opens with a quotation from Isaac D’israeli’s Literary Miscellanies. ‘I for my part venerate the inventor of Indexes; and I know not to whom to yield the preference, either to Hippocrates, who was the great anatomises of the human body, or to that unknown labourer in literature who first laid open the nerves and arteries of a book.’ The index might be informational, naming content in order to abstract it, but for D’Israeli it first involved an encounter with a body.

My paper looks at the way bodily metaphors informed both archival technologies and the archives themselves. As the storage and retrieval of information is always accompanied by its embodied supplement, working with documents problematises the relation between body and spirit. By exerting bibliographic control, the ghosts in the archive can be ordered, mapped neatly onto objects to await orderly resurrection. Yet my paper goes beyond the way that manipulating the bodies of archival objects produces content. Complementing my work on the bibliographic schemes of the period – the British Museum catalogue; the indexing of periodicals – I consider how bodies of archival material are described as resisting attempts to put them in place. The newspaper collections in the British Museum were a constant threat to its orderly workings; the establishment of the Public Records Office was based on archival destruction. Material was never far away when it came to organising information, and it was understood in bodily terms.

Something in the Air: Ether, Viruses, and the Late Nineteenth-Century Unknown [3/3]

The ether was known theoretically and was mathematically demonstrable; however, it defiantly resisted materialization. In contrast, I’d briefly like to offer another scientific object, this time one that was not imponderable, but that also refused to materialize in the late nineteenth century.

In 1889 influenza broke out in St Petersburg, and rapidly spread across Europe. London was one of the last European capitals to be affected and, as the pandemic spread from city to city, its population had five weeks to monitor its progress. The last recorded pandemic had been in 1847, and so people were confident that improved sanitary conditions and medical science would halt the spread of infection. Since then germs had been identified as the causative agents of both cholera and tuberculosis and a germ was confidently mooted as the cause of influenza. However, the germ – the material, causative agent of what were otherwise interpersonal effects across space – eluded doctors while progressing rapidly across Europe and then, eventually, around the United Kingdom.

The 1889 influenza pandemic was characterized by high morbidity but low mortality: although deaths were relatively few, the virus was especially contagious; for instance, in London there were 600 deaths, but about half the population – 2 and a half million people – experienced its symptoms. In fact, the failure of medicine to identify the germ permitted influenza to inhabit conditions that were not feasible from a scientific perspective. For instance, outbreaks in the United States and Canada seemed to suggest that not only did the germs travel by railway, but they could also be spread by telegraph; indeed, as the symptoms were not severe and there was no way to establish if the germ was present, allegations that people were either faking the disease or were caught up in what was termed the ‘fashionable epidemic’ suggested that it could be spread by the news, whether received in letters or over the wires, read in the paper, or heard through gossip.

Viruses, particularly since the emergence of the computer virus, have often been used to model the spread of malicious information. What the late nineteenth-century influenza pandemics demonstrate is the way in which information and materiality are connected. A leading physician of the period, Sir Morrell McKenzie, described influenza as, and I quote, ‘the very Proteus of disease, a malady which assumes so many different forms that it seems to be not one, but all diseases’ epitome’.1 He thought influenza was a germ, but it caused its diverse effects by affecting the nervous system. From his medical perspective, influenza had to be a thing, but its effects could only be explained if it was thought of as information in a system, i.e. the nerves. Influenza, of course, is etymologically linked to the idea of influence, and the contagious nature of the ‘flu allowed it to represent other sources of pathological influence in the period – for instance the poisonous influences exposed by the trial of Oscar Wilde. Just as influence questions the idea of the autonomous subject, so viruses challenge the idea of autonomous bodies, whether individual or social.

Without a body of its own, influenza could pass from the biological to the social, from material object to information, from bodies to minds. Unlike the ether, a causative agent was vigorously pursued that could unite symptoms in the body and permit its spread to be traced. Without such an agent, the knowable aspects of phenomena fall away into the chaos of the unknown. In the late nineteenth century both influenza and the ether were fluid entities that questioned the boundedness of things by suggesting they were connected in unknown ways. As such, both concepts offered themselves in ways that could be known – germ theory, Maxwell’s equations – while also suggesting that they existed in ways in excess of scientific knowledge. This necessary supplement to objectification – the virtual unconscious – writes the social and psychological into scientific knowledge while also guaranteeing it as provisional: scientific objects are thus rendered provisional media through which new things can and cannot be known.

1 Morrell MacKenzie, ‘Influenza’, Fortnightly Review 55 (June 1891), 877-86 (p. 881). [back]

Something in the Air: Ether, Viruses, and the Late Nineteenth-Century Unknown [2/3]

Now this was recognized at the time. In a short note to the journal Mind in 1905 on the relationship between thought and reality, the physicist Oliver Lodge wrote:

One method of constructing a theory is by the use of analogies and working models: of which it is a commonplace to say that, however good they may be, they must fail in representation at some stage, or else they must be no analogy but the thing itself.1

This difference, for Lodge, is important as it maintains the boundary between mind and model and model and reality. But it is also a creative difference, the model allowing new aspects of reality to emerge. Lodge gives the ether as an example of something intangible that we only know theoretically and Maxwell’s theories of electromagnetism as theory that was later proved experimentally. However, despite these fairly well-defined examples, Lodge cautions that in certain cases – ‘in the transcendental, or ultra-mundane, or super-sensual region’ – such models are limited as they lack a definite boundary condition (295). In such cases, he argues, there can only be suspended judgement or ‘a tentative scheme or working hypothesis, to be held undogmatically in an attitude of constant receptiveness of further light, and in full readiness for modification and improvement’ (295). Although he states these are different to scientific theories, their difference is not ontological but related to the subject. Lacking a boundary condition, these theories do not produce the expected results of a well-made scientific theory because they are not defined enough. Rather than approach objectivity, they are within the mind, are non-objectified, and constitute spaces through which unknown things can emerge.

These three scientific objects – the ether, the electromagnetic spectrum (i.e. light), and Maxwell’s equations – are all connected and together they provide an important exemplar of something that is both well-defined and yet so nebulous that it stands between the subject and the nonhuman unconscious. The ether was an elusive substance that arose in order to account for the otherwise empty spaces in the universe. By the late nineteenth century, it had become a fundamental component of wave theory: if sound was transmitted through vibrations in the air, then there must be an equivalent medium to produce light. The work of Helmholtz, Thomson and Maxwell from the 1840s onwards refined the action of the ether and, as Maxwell’s equations set out the mathematical principles behind a unified theory of electromagnetism, it soon became established as the medium through which all such invisible forces could act.

Although objects clearly affected one another in mechanical, physical and chemical ways, the ether brought into being relationships on a stubbornly subvisible level. Conceptions of magnetic and electric fields had already extended the limits of objects beyond their physical edges to the limits of their influence. These limits, however, were not absolute, and rather than distinguishing between different objects, they instead served to demarcate areas of mutual effect. Once the ether was considered the medium for these effects, space was transformed from the thing that separated discrete entities and instead became what connected them: in other words, the ether challenged the autonomy of things, putting into question their boundaries while reaffirming their influence upon one another.

This idea extended the ether into matter. Mid to late nineteenth-century physcists conceived of atoms and molecules as swirling vortices of ether: ether, in other words, made solid by the forces that it carried. Although the emergence of the electron at the turn of the century conceived charge as a particle rather than wave, it further reaffirmed the importance of the ether. As charge and atomic mass were known, the physics of the atomic model suggested that the distance between the nucleus and the orbiting electrons was relatively large: atoms, then, were also mostly empty, constituted by force acting over space rather than matter.

The ether put the world into motion, denying the boundaries of things and insisting on a complex network of unseen effects. The human body, of course, was part of this, and ether theory was easily applied to social relations. For instance, Lodge argued that:

There are those who think that these material bodies represent ourselves, – our personality, our memory, and our character. If they can work out everything by that hypothesis, by all means let them do so. But let them also take the whole of the facts into account. The atoms are not isolated, and we are not isolated. We are members one of another. There is a link between the atoms.1

Lodge was a spiritualist, joining the Society for Psychical Research in 1884 and taking over the Presidency after Myers’s death in 1901. He argued, cautiously, by analogy: if matter affects matter, and we are composed of matter, then so too might mind affect mind. Here the ether becomes the medium for thinking both the world and its organization: once matter is conceived as a system of effects, the boundaries between mind and world disappear.

The ether offers itself as an unrepressed unconscious that is vital for, but resistant to, scientific objectification. Although universal, the ether was not detectable. Rather, its presence was necessary to permit other parts of science – electromagnetic phenomena, atomic structure – to emerge. The ether facilitated relations, between minds, bodies, and things, while also constituting thoughts, force and energy. Its capacity to be both the way in which we become conscious of the world, and the world itself, meant that the ether could never be an object in its own right; rather, it was an interface that permitted the nonhuman to be known.

1 Oliver Lodge, ‘Note Concerning Thought and Reality’, Mind, 14 (1905), 294–95 (295). [back]
Sir Oliver Lodge, The Link Between Matter and Matter (London: British Science Guild, 1925), p. 15. [back]

Something in the Air: Ether, Viruses, and the Late Nineteenth-Century Unknown [1/3]

[These posts are based on a position paper I wrote for a panel on the unrepressed unconscious for the first Subjectivity conference way back in 2008. In the panel, ‘Contagions, Rhythms and Energies’, Jan Campbell, Lisa Blackman, and I discussed the various ways an unrepressed unconscious might help explain various fugitive connections and the flows of affect they enable. I never did anything with this work, but thought it might make a good series of posts ahead of Spirits in the Ether: Oliver Lodge and the Physics of the Spirit World at the Royal Institution next week.]

In ‘The Subliminal Consciousness’ Frederic Myers famously recast consciousness as a spectrum, in which what we habitually understand as consciousness, the ’empirical self’, is merely one part of a subliminal consciousness ‘indefinitely extended at both ends.’1 However, it is not just the spectrum that Myers imagines, but the spectrum as imaged by the spectroscope. The spectroscope was a means of ascertaining the elemental contents of a light source, whether this was the flame emitted by a burning chemical compound in the lab, or the light emitted by a star many years ago in a galaxy far, far away. The light emitted was directed through a prism and projected as a line that corresponded with the electromagnetic spectrum: as different elements have different masses and so correspondingly different wavelengths, they appear as bars against the spectrum. The images produced by the spectroscope were predicated on presence and absence: the lines indicated the presence of a substance but the gaps registered absence as virtual presence, a possible presence disavowed.

Spectroscopic image from Sir Norman Lockyer, KCB, FRS, 'Preliminary Note on the Spectrum of the Corona', Proceedings of the Royal Society, 64 (1898-9), facing 170.

Image from Sir Norman Lockyer, KCB, FRS, ‘Preliminary Note on the Spectrum of the Corona’, Proceedings of the Royal Society, 64 (1898-9), facing 170.

The spectroscope reveals what is there at the same time in the context of what is not. However, this sense of immanence, of an absent phenomena signalled by what is present, is not really the same as an unrepressed unconscious. What is missing in the spectroscopic view is ultimately knowable and predictable: it is a gap or absence in a coherent system. In using the spectroscope as a metaphor, Myers employed both the latest research into subvisible electromagnetic radiation and the powerful rhetoric of the spectroscopic image to legitimate his hypotheses regarding psychical phenomena. Yet in doing so, he displaced a model of the subliminal consciousness that, because founded on the unknowable, was suggestive and generative, to one that was always potentially knowable. In the posts that follow, I want to suggest that scientists in the late nineteenth century had a troubled relationship with the unrepressed unconscious. In thrall to nature’s mysteries and its potential for the unexpected, scientific discourse nonetheless attempted to isolate new phenomena and give them shape. Whether by defining their edges or establishing intergrity through demonstrable repeatability, the scientific project of objectification insisted that nature was, ultimately, knowable. Although nineteenth-century scientific rhetoric often gestured towards the mysteries at its edges, often to romanticize the scientific project or maintain conceptual space in the cosmos for God, the condition of nature as a suggestive state of the unknown was only temporary, something to be gradually eroded by a new nature that made sense. The tools of science were designed to carefully distinguish between the observer, whatever was observed, and the chaos against which it was observed; however, such structured relationships could only be predicated upon the knowable aspects of things, their hard edges and predictable behaviour, producing a world that was haunted by what was left out. In the posts that follow, I will describe some of the ways in which nineteenth-century science produced the troublesome entities at its margins. Looking again at such things not only tells us much about how people understood the world around them, but also provides an opportunity to think again about our world. When objects exceed the way we imagine them, we confront a nonhuman unconscious whose otherness we share. It comes down to reading between the lines.

1 F.W.H. Myers, ‘The Subliminal Consciousness’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 7 (1892), 306. [back]

Catalogues

[I’m giving the Wolff lecture at the 2016 RSVP Conference at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. I cut this section, on catalogues and the British Museum, out of the lecture, but, as it makes sense on its own, have posted it below].

Abundance, excess, is the precondition of all bibliographical activity: tools such as catalogues and indexes structure that abundance, create difference, and so enable content to emerge. In other words, by instituting what gets left out, both outside the collection and in the spaces between entries, bibliographical tools both write a collection while leaving matter unwritten, room for others to return and write the collection anew.

A good example of this can be found in that most abundant collection of printed objects, the British Museum. The walls of the museum and its many miles of shelves might have gathered together the physical objects, but without bibliographic tools the collection itself to represent them to readers they were simply rows and rows of volumes, loosely arranged by subject and inaccessible to their readers. There were a number of catalogues, usually trade publications, that provided an overview of the growth of the press. There were the press directories, most obviously, as well as publications like Longman’s London Catalogue of Periodicals, and the first edition of Sampson Low’s English Catalogue (1864) had an appendix listing periodicals from 1835 to 1863. However, the largest collection of periodicals and newspapers was to be found in the British Museum and it was in the burgeoning sets of manuscript volumes that constituted its catalogue that the growth in print could be most readily be appreciated. Between 1813 and 1819 a catalogue to the Sloane collection and Royal Library was printed in seven volumes; these had then been interleaved to receive manuscript editions with the intention of printing an updated edition in the future. However, work was printed and collected quicker than it was catalogued: by 1851 the 23 volumes had become 150; by 1869 1500; by 1875 they it had reached two thousand, fifty of which were dedicated to solely to periodicals.1

Printing was itself a form of bibliographical control, reducing the size of the catalogue and bringing its edges into view. It would also make the catalogue reproducible and distributable, allowing this version of the Museum’s collections to move beyond its walls. Barbara McCrimmon’s excellent book, Power, Politics, and Print, sets out the history of the catalogue’s printing. Briefly, in 1839 the Trustees ordered the catalogue printed. Panizzi, who preferred to complete the manuscript catalogue first, reluctantly complied but, when the first volume ‘A’ appeared in 1841 it was so full of errors that, horrified, he halted production and instead reorganized the compilation of the manuscript catalogue.2 It was not until 1880, the year after Panizzi’s death, that another attempt was made. The Principal Librarian Edward Bond persuaded the Trustees that the Museum should print manuscript volumes when they became so large they needed rebinding. The first to be printed was volume 43 of ‘A’ and, from there, it was fairly straightforward to make the case to print the rest. It was estimated that there were 2500 volumes of the manuscript catalogue to print; when it finally appeared in December 1900 the General Catalogue filled 374 printed volumes.3 A catalogue of newspapers – the first – was published in 1905 as a supplement.4

The British Museum’s collections were mediated by two sets of books: the manuscript volumes, bulging from the manuscript additions pasted inside; and the printed volumes, neatly uniform, with every entry rendered in the same type. The manuscript volumes allowed readers to view the collections as an ordered whole; the printed volumes then condensed this representation further, reifying it as a set. In each case the codex form encompassed the collection within its covers, the capaciousness of the book recreating that of the walls of the Museum. Like all bibliographical projects, loss was incorporated into this assertion of control. The collection itself, in all its diversity, had been reduced to handwritten slips; these slips, themselves subject to bibliographic control, were then further standardized through print. The triumph of the General Catalogue was its provisional assertion of order, the glimpse it offered of print culture tamed. Yet it was only a glimpse. Twenty years in production, its neatly uniform volumes offered a snapshot of a collection that no longer existed, that had escaped the limits through which it was necessarily described.

1 Barbara McCrimmon, Power, Politics and Print: The Publication of the British Museum Catalogue, 1881-1900 (Hamden, Conn: Linnet Books, 1981), p. 19, 96. [back]
2 McCrimmon, Power, Politics and Print, p. 20-1. See also David McKitterick, ‘Organizing Knowledge in Print’, Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, edited by David McKitterick, 6 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 542. [back]
3 See McCrimmon, Power, Politics and Print, chapters seven and eight. For the management of the printed catalogue, see Alec Hyatt King, ‘The Traditional Maintenance of the General Catalogue of Printed Books,’ in The Library of the British Museum: Retrospective Essays on the Department of Printed Books, edited by P.R. Harris (London: British Library, 1991), pp. 165-199. [back]
4 For its manuscript predecessors see P. R. Harris, A History of the British Museum Library, 1753-1973 (London: British Library, 1998), p. 327. [back]

Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (4/4)

Conclusion

For Derrida, secrets make us tremble not in anticipation of what is to come, but rather because of what has come before:

We tremble in the strange repetition that ties an irrefutable past (a shock has been felt, some trauma has already affected us) to a future that cannot be anticipated; anticipated but unpredictable; apprehended, yet, and this is why there is a future, apprehended precisely as unforeseeable, unpredictable; approached as unapproachable.1

Every revelation is, then, a kind of disappointment as what is revealed falls short of that absolute mystery, the end we cannot foresee, that makes us tremble. For Derrida, this is the value of secrecy, allowing the mystery of the end to be buried anew in the otherwise apparent revelation of truth. If Brooks and Benjamin are right, the pleasure we take in narrative derives from a similar dynamic. Telling tales allows us to experience endings at second hand: not only have the events told, if real, already happened, but the ending, the reassuring limit that allows us to see the whole, belongs to someone else. Narrative, like the secrecy upon which it depends, is about glimpsing the end while concealing it anew. For Derrida the logic of secrecy is that a secret is, and I quote, ‘never better kept than in being exposed’. Secrets make us tremble because they make a show of revelation. Every secret told promises to reveal the truth; but each revelation only represses the contingency of the present. What secrets tell us is that the truth is provisional; that the true remains so only until somebody else tells.

1 Jacques Derrida, ‘The Gift of Death’, The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret, translated by David Wills (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 55.[back]

Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (3/4)

Telling Secrets

One of the paradoxes of reading, especially novel-reading, is that it creates an intimacy that is no intimacy at all. The mythical promise of reading – the unmediated touch of one mind upon another – is enabled by an object that is not the reader’s alone. Secrecy is essential for all kinds of narrative, its premise – that the narrator knows something you don’t, but will tell all – is designed to elicit and then sustain the desire to know. As Peter Brooks has noted, there is something fugitive – he calls it a ‘subterranean logic’ – about the way narratives are structured.1 As he points out, plot signals both the boundedness of a plan as well as a conspiracy of some kind. Plot, for Brooks the organizing logic of narrative, determines what gets revealed when and so is vital for generating narrative suspense. Walter Benjamin, in the ‘Storyteller’, writes that the, and I quote, ‘suspense which permeates the novel is very much like the draft which stimulates the flame in the fireplace and enlivens its play.’2 As this suspense is generated by anticipation and delay, its characterisation as air is appropriate, as is of course the way that it fuels the engine of narrative desire.

Narrative takes part in a particularly morbid gothic economy. The reader’s experience of narrative is as if it is in the present; yet the telling always locates the story at some point in the past. When we read, we live a resurrected past out of time, moving from the told towards the time of telling. For both Benjamin and Brooks, the engine of narrative desire consumes the finite lives of characters as it hurtles the reader towards the end. Narrative endings make wholes: with no more to come, the reader can stop, look back and make sense of beginning and middle. ‘The novel is significant, therefore’, writes Benjamin, ‘not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about’ (100). For Brooks, narrative desire is fuelled by, and I quote, ‘the anticipation of retrospection’ (22). Denied the possibility of understanding our own lives as narrative (while we still live we do not know what is to come), we consume the finite lives of others, instead. There may still be things undisclosed at the end, there may still be secrets kept by characters and narrators, but there is no more to tell.

This is one reason why the book, as object, is so significant. Endings are important as they demarcate units: a story must end before it can be retold. What the book does is align narrative form with material form: when the narrative ends, so does the book. Part of its appeal, both in the nineteenth century and today, I think, is precisely this alignment of narrative form and print technology. Unlike, say, a short story in a volume, or a serial novel in a periodical, one always knows how much more there is to go in a book. If narrative ‘demarcates, encloses, establishes limits, order’ to quote Brooks, then the book achieves this through its material form (4). While certainly not the only way in which narratives circulated in the period – nor, indeed, the most common – the book was privileged because of its putative wholeness. Binding serves as a material complement to narrative endings, joining the covers around content to produce an object that can circulate or, in a different version of narrative resurrection, be shelved, left, and read again. Both narrative and codex are technologies for structured revelation: secrecy, then, is curiously written through the form of the book.

New books were expensive in the period, but books themselves were commonplace. In fact, the high price of new books made them more public: the books that were read were mostly old texts in new (cheap) reprints, or those already been read by others, whether obtained second hand or through a library. Yet the book retained links with concealment. T.P. O’Connor, for instance, writing in 1889 about the new journalism in the New Review, remarked that, and and I quote, the ‘newspaper is not read in the secrecy and silence of the closet as is the book.’3 O’Connor stresses the opposition between public newspaper and private book for rhetorical effect; as Leah Price has recently made clear in How To Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain (2012), the book’s relationship with sociality or asociality is much more complex. Book culture is structured by the interplay between inside and outside, text and object, and that goes for readers too. Nonetheless, there is something about the combination of material and narrative form that fosters the middle-class model of the perfect reader, reading alone, transported out of his or her body, in intimate communion with the mind of the author.

Not all books have a linear narrative running through them and many use the form of the codex for other purposes. Below, for instance, is Townsend’s Manual of Dates (first edition 1862, this is the fourth). It is, and I quote, ‘a concise and trustworthy compendium of the principal events of Ancient and Modern times.’ There are over eleven thousand entries, arranged alphabetically, with a supplementary index at the back. This is not a book for reading, but for mining; this is not a narrative but a repository. Although a kind of resurrection remains possible, bringing long lost facts back to life, the perfect archive should store but not conceal; it should not, in other words, keep secrets. However, archives are at least doubly marked by intentionality: firstly, the contents of the archive is determined by a process of selection; secondly, in the information architecture itself – the organization of content, the indexing – that structures where items are located and how they’re found. Nobody would read Townsend’s Manual of Dates from cover to cover: the book still has an ending, a final page, but its content goes on.

Frontispiece for George H. Townsend, The Manual of Dates: A Dictionary of Reference to the Most Important Events in the History of Mankind to be Found in Authentic Records, ed. by William W. Croft, 4th ed. (1862; London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1874), p. iii

George H. Townsend, The Manual of Dates: A Dictionary of Reference to the Most Important Events in the History of Mankind to be Found in Authentic Records, ed. by William W. Croft, 4th ed. (1862; London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1874), iii

This difference in codex forms is nicely played out in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. When published weekly in All the Year Round over eight months in 1868, The Moonstone had a syncopated rhythm in which narrative breaks between periods, narratives and chapters were also broken by the pauses between parts. The book, published by Tinsley before the serial came to an end, elided the gaps between numbers while bringing the end into view. The novel is an exemplary analysis of narrative secrets: characters keep secrets from each other and the reader; the various narrators all pretend they don’t know what’s going to happen. In weaving its narratives together, Franklin Blake plots the narrative that both clears him of guilt and straightens him out. Although the frame narrative focusing on the moonstone troubles the sense of closure, the book ends with the identity of the thief revealed, the moonstone restored, and the marriage plot fulfilled. Yet when Blake travels to Yorkshire to tell Betteredge, loyal servant of the Verinder family, that Rosanna is pregnant, Betteredge already knows. Betteredge forestalls this final revelation by dipping into Robinson Crusoe. Here, Defoe’s novel is treated like Townsend’s Manual of Dates, an archive of useful fragments rather than a linear narrative. In an novel of secrets, this final one is no secret at all (of course Rosanna is pregnant, the marriage plot demands it); if narrative is about revealing secrets, genre is about setting out the framework within which such difference is managed. Nonetheless, Betteredge has substituted one regime of bookishness, the book as linear narrative, with another, the book as archive or collection. One regime of secrecy supplants another.

1Peter Brooks, ‘Reading for the Plot’, Reading for the Plot (1984; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 11-12. [back]
2Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov’, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (1970; London: Pimlico. 1999), p. 99. [back]
3T.P. O’Connor, ‘The New Journalism’, New Review, 1 (1889), p. 434. [back]