“Scarers in Print”: Media Literacy and Media Practice from Our Mutual Friend to Friend Me On Facebook. Part 3

3. Our Mutual Friend

The title of Our Mutual Friend invites us to consider the novel as an exploration of intersubjectivity. Many have done so, identifying the various economies in the book, whether of people or goods, capital or dust, or bodies or parts, as a critique of the way that everything is put to the service of exchange. The lassitude of Eugene Wrayburn and Mortimer Lightwood stands out in a world where circulation is the necessary condition of survival. But I want to view mutuality differently, looking instead at the transformations that underpin the process of exchange and consider what happens at its ends. With its resurrected bodies and mounds of dust, Our Mutual Friend attends to the role of supplementary material, refusing to ignore refuse and instead recognizing it as a social agent. In its discussion of materiality, Our Mutual Friend constitutes what N. Katherine Hayles calls a ‘technotext’, a literary work ‘that interrogates the inscription technology that produces it.’1

In a famous passage, Dickens considers the waste paper blowing around the streets:

That mysterious paper currency which circulates in London when the wind blows, gyrated here and there and everywhere. Whence can it come, whither can it go? It hangs on every bush, flutters in every tree, is caught flying by the electric wires, haunts every enclosure, drinks at every pump, cowers at every grating, shudders on every plot of grass, seeks rest in vain behind the legions of iron rails.2

Andrew Stauffer, in his rich article exploring the connections between paper, dust and Egyptian ruins in the work of Dickens, notes that this paper is not just blown about the streets, but actually comes alive.3 Freud was notoriously unenthusiastic about the uncanniness of animated objects, dismissing them as a vestige of primitivism, a primary narcissism now forgotten. Yet the fetish that marks the animated object might also describe our response to their assertion of thingness as they shift between discourses. Stauffer reads the paper as a confrontation with blankness: this is paper that does not signify, only operates in a dead economy, accumulating, as Stauffer writes, ‘in prevalent mockery of its former purposes’ (23). In a novel concerned with residue, I prefer to think of this paper as asserting its thingness, as poised between two not-necessarily exclusive states. As Stauffer notes, Dickens imagines it as pigeon, rat and waif, but it is also ghost. This is rubbish, but was not always, and it is the shift between states that marks it as uncanny.

This exhausted media, circulating around London, mimics the circulation of print (particularly printed paper money), but also stands for material that has been left behind. As a number of historians have noted – Daniel Headrick, Geoffrey Nunberg, Toni Weller, and, most recently, James Gleick – the modern concept of information as disembodied and essentialized, able to be transmitted without deformation, was consolidated in the nineteenth century.4 I’ve argued previously that industrialized print provided the necessary context for this new model of information. The newspaper, with its recurring forms and changing content, plays an important role here. As Richard Terdiman writes, the newspaper ‘almost seems to have been devised to represent the pattern of variation without change, the repetitiveness, autonomization, and commodification which, since the twin revolutions of the nineteenth century, have marked fundamental patterns of our social existence.’5 It is these same attributes – variation without change, repetitiveness, autonomization and commodification – that serve as the condition for information. Apparently wihout a body, information was nonetheless connected with certain classes of objects whose behaviour was carefully regulated. The newspaper, with its carefully controlled play of sameness and difference, day after day, found its analogue in the printed form, whose regular spaces distinguished between recurring form and variable content. By controlling acts of reading and writing, the printed form was a textual technology designed to allow information to flow while also providing a mechanism to store it up. In the nineteenth century, computers were people, who processed information by doing things with paper.

The increasing importance of information, coupled with the anxiety surrounding the ephemerality of paper identified so clearly by Stauffer, necessitated the creation of new institutions of memory. The production, processing, and archiving of information was prompted by industrial organization and was organized on an industrial basis. One of the strange things about Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is that Thornton’s mill apparently runs without paperwork; but when Trooper George, in Dickens’s Bleak House, visits his estranged brother in his factory in the North, he notices the account books, and ‘some sheets of paper blotted with hosts of figures and drawings of cunning shapes’.6 State innovations such as the census (especially after 1841), the 1836 Registration Act, the reintroduction of income tax in 1842, the 1848 Public Health Act, the 1852 Patent Act, all required methods of collecting, sorting and storing information. The increasing bureaucratization of government, at local and national levels, was matched by London’s other city. As Stauffer notes, John Hollingshead’s well-known piece in Household Words, ‘City of Unlimited Paper’, is another text that links paper’s increase to ‘fears of devaluation and disintegration’ (10).7 Hollingshead places the Royal Exchange at the centre of ‘the ruins of a great paper city’. It is ruined, according to Hollingshead, because it has collapsed, but it will rise, trembling, again. I would argue, following Alexander Welsh, that the British Museum, with its archive of paper surrounded by a spatialized configuration of other objects from around the world, represents a complementary site of circulation and accumulation.8 Rather than exploit the portability of paper, the museum cherishes it as material record. If the empire represented the mastery of space, then it was underpinned by information produced by the spatialization of objects.

The library or archive functions as a disciplinary institution, exerting control over various forms of documents so that they can enable certain acts of reading. In a way, these institutions represent the end of circulation, as they ingest material and place it in spatialized order. Of course, they do so in order that it can be accessed into the future, serving as the basis for further material produced by readers. As Stauffer makes clear, Our Mutual Friend engages with the library as part of its discourse on paper. Dickens situates the main driver of the plot, the misidentification of John Harmon’s body, amongst alternative versions of the library. When Charley Hexam first informs Mortimer Lightwood that Gaffer Hexam has found the body, he does so by passing on a note in a library. Lightwood is having dinner at the Veneerings, a family of surfaces, as Dickens, with little subtlety, makes clear. The narrator decsribes Charley as follows:

There was a curious mixture in the boy, of uncompleted savagery, and uncompleted civilization. His voice was hoarse and coarse, and his face was coarse, and his stunted figure was coarse; but he was cleaner than other boys of his type; and his writing, though large and round, was good; and he glanced at the backs of the books, with an awakened curiosity that went below the binding. No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot. (p. 18)

Reading and writing, here, reconfigure the body. An inverted Veneering, Charley’s alienated writing testifies to the presence of character while the presence of his body can only testify to its absence. Charley’s father, Gaffer Hexam, lives amongst print but cannot read. Notices advertising the bodies that he has found plaster the wall, but it is their location that allows him to know their contents. For Stauffer, these notices are ‘a sort of catalogue raisoneé of Gaffer’s work, and it amounts to a collection of the dead’ (26). Gaffer cannot read, but he has disciplined the notices to make them legible on the basis of their position in the room and their differences to one another. To literate eyes, however, they become a different sort of object, able to signify with reference to other graphemes across the whole world of print. Charley’s eyes, in the Veneering’s library, turn the book into a container; but the important thing is that this works both ways: his writing, in turn, bestows depth on his body, too.

Stauffer argues, convincingly I think, that the library serves the Victorian imagination as ‘the perfect setting for nightmares of excess and entropy; overproduction and decay’ (17). The library is a space for reading and writing, where objects become disciplined so that they can be recalled correctly. But the library is haunted: these complex objects, which themselves spatialize language, resist the order to which they are subjected. Or rather, in doing things with these objects, we provide the opportunity for them to assert their thingness. In Our Mutual Friend, reading and writing are never separated from inscribable surfaces of various kinds. The nightmare economy of circulation at its heart leaves behind its material residue, the waste paper and other forms of detritus that find their way into Harmon’s mounds. The mounds are certainly haunted – when Wegg first visits Boffin he sees him initially as ghostly white figure – and they stand for a particularly disordered archive, whose contents are unknown and conditions of recall uncertain. They are subjected to a degree of control: Rokesmith manages Boffin’s affairs, dealing with his paperwork; while Boffin is, in his own words, a ‘pretty fair scholar in dust’ and so takes care of the Mounds (140). Over the course of the novel they are used to draw out Wegg, enabling Boffin to carry out his elaborate pretence of being a miser. If narrative is about putting things in their proper place, then Our Mutual Friend works through and orders its material carefully. Wegg is enticed by the promise of revelation, of something emerging from the endless potential of the material, just like we are, too, as readers. Reading and writing are fantasies of mastery, of asserting agency over the world, but as practices they are predicated on material transformations that necessarily produce its otherness. The mounds are not exhausted, just displaced from the narrative; we close the book and it becomes something else.

1 N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), p. 25. [back]
2 Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (London: Chapman and Hall, 1865), p. 144. [back]
3 Andrew Stauffer, ‘Ruins of Paper: Dickens and the Necropolitan Library’, RaVoN: Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, 47 (2007), paragraph 23. Available here [back]
4 See Daniel R. Headrick, When Information Came of Age (Oxford University Press, 2000); Geoffrey Nunberg, ‘Farewell to the Information Age’, in The Future of the Book, edited by G. Nunberg (University of California Press, 1997) available here; Toni Weller, The Victorians and Information: A Social and Cultural History; and James Gleick The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (London: Fourth Estate, 2011). [back]
5 Richard Terdiman, Discourse / Counter-Discourse: The Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance in Nineteenth-Century France (NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), p. 120. [back]
6 Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852-3; London: Chapman and Hall, 1868), p. 520. [back]
7 John Hollingshead, ‘The City of Unlimited Paper’, Household Words, 17 (19 December 1857), p. 1. Available in Dickens Journals Online (2010-) here. [back]
8 See Alexander Welsh, George Eliot and Blackmail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 1-29. [back]

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3 thoughts on ““Scarers in Print”: Media Literacy and Media Practice from Our Mutual Friend to Friend Me On Facebook. Part 3

  1. Thanks for this great engagement with my essay on Dickens and Victorian paper. I love the idea of paper as ghost: that gets at the case more evocatively than I managed, and it recalls for me Kevin McLaughlin’s characterization of paper as “apparitional” in his book Paperwork. Would love to talk more about these issues at some point.

  2. I found the extension of the bits of paper to the Victorian imagination of information, to be right on. I would never have thought of it myself, so thanks. My question was what are these electric wires? I don’t picture them in the London of the time.

    • They’re almost certainly telegraph wires, although I have to admit I don’t know how many there would have been, nor where they were hung.

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