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.

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