[On the 17 March 2012 I’m giving a paper at a day-long meeting of the London Nineteenth-Century Studies Seminar to mark the end of the series. The theme is Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: my paper uses Ong to explore the relationship between media and memory in the nineteenth century and today. Here is the abstract – I’ll post the talk once it’s ready.]
Building on the work of Walter Ong, this paper explores a broad definition of literacy that considers what we do with objects as an integral part of making them meaningful. By placing that extended Victorian discussion of literacy, Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, in dialogue with current discussions of literacy in the digital age, I advance a model of materiality that is emergent and rooted in practice. Considering materiality in this way directs us to the multivalent and unsuspected properties of objects, bringing to light their disruptive potential when out of place. Moving from nineteenth-century mechanisms for ordering information to more recent implementations in digital culture, I argue that mediation is always in some way haunted. When Mr Boffin says that he did not know there were such scarers in print, he not only alludes to the macabre details told by Silas Weg, but also reminds us of the necessary processes of repression that allow us to make sense of the world.