Attribution matters

[This is my contribution to the MVSA Lifetime Achievement Award Roundtable in Honor of Patrick Leary: Exploring Print and the Victorians – Views from 2021. It’s hard to overstate Patrick’s influence on the field, both through his genial participation in (and leadership of) various scholarly organisations to his various intellectual achievements, and it was a real privilege to be asked to take part in the panel. My fellow panellists were Paul Fyfe, Andrea Korta, Leanne Langley, Jennifer Phegley, and Jonathan Rose. The chair was Linda Hughes. The panel took place on 22 May 2021]

Back in December, in an email to Victoria announcing a bumper update to the Curran Index, Patrick made a plea for the Index’s underlying rationale.  ‘Attribution matters’, wrote Patrick, ‘An anonymous review of Little Women would mean one thing if it was written by Harriet Martineau and quite another if the author turned out to be Eliza Lynn Linton.’  ‘Which, by the way’, he adds, cheekily, ‘it did’.  He goes on: ‘There’s a big difference between being able to write, “Popular playwright and longtime civil servant Tom Taylor observed in Punch that..” and instead having to write, simply, “Punch observed…”.  ‘Periodicals don’t write things’, Patrick quite rightly observes, ‘we only pretend that they do when we don’t know any better.’ 

The Curran Index, for those of you who don’t know, is an online database of newspaper and periodical attributions that grew out of Eileen Curran’s ongoing attribution work published on Patrick’s Victorian Research Web.  Eileen’s generous bequest to the Research Society of Victorian Periodicals permitted the Society to formalise its relationship with the Index, and, more to the point, it editor, Gary Simons.  Gary’s recently retired and the editorshiphas passed to Lara Atkin and Emily Bell.  To give you a sense of the achievement of the Curran Index, the Wellesley Index, that bedrock of periodical scholarship out of which the Curran originated, contains nearly 89,000 attributions.  The Curran Index now has 170,000.

After Patrick’s email a lively discussion on Victoria then ensued, which included a response by Laurel Brake on the salience of house style and the politics of anonymity, pseudonymity, and signature.  I don’t want to recapitulate those exchanges.  Instead, what I want to do is endorse Patrick’s arguments but suggest we go further.  Attribution matters, he argues, and I agree, but I want to suggest it matters in two further ways.  Firstly, while periodicals don’t write themselves, they’re not really written by authors, either.  Sure, authors provided copy and people wanted to read their words, but not all writing in the press was “authored” and not everything printed was verbal matter.  Similarly, the words read weren’t made by authors but by the press of inked type on paper.  And this brings me to my second point.  Attribution need not be limited to naming people.  Authors are important, but so too are illustrators and engravers, printers and publishers, presses and type.

In my own work I have to confess that I should probably care a little bit more about who wrote what.  I try to think of press as process, attending to newspapers and periodicals first as objects then as texts.  I’m interested in material and textual forms, how serial media punctuate space and time, and that characteristic interplay between predictable pattern and the thrill of the new.  Centering the press in this way tends to foreground the constraints under which authors performed.  We’re all familiar with how agency is circumbscribed – by the author’s background, the limits of langauge, the various cultural discourses that make certain things utterable – but agency is circumbscribed by writing for the press too.  There’s literary genre, of course, and the expectations of a particular set of readers, but seriality makes all of this much more tangible.  Readers come back for the next issue because they know what it will contain.  Authors might provide words to fill white space, but that white space is already partially written: a type of article, at a set length, in a particular place in a particular publication.  In this way, perhaps, periodicals do write themselves.

There’s a risk in an approach like mine that people get forgotten as the press becomes more animate.  Attribution matters.   We still know so little about those commissioned to fill white space, and the literary canon, with all its biases, still looms large.  But one of the advantages of studying the press is the diversity of writing it contains. Those of us of a literary bent might want to know who wrote a particular essay or review, but what about the person who wrote the copy for an advertisement that appeared all over the place? And what about all those other people whose labour also deserves our attention?  We know so much more about authors than writers, but we know so much more about writing than printing, publishing, editing, illustrating, and engraving.  And we know so much more about them than distribution, marketing, sales, and haulage. 

As I said, it’s not just about authors, but it’s also not just about people.  At the risk of further animating print, I do think that the contribution of things matters and so deserves attribution too.  The periodical press looks very different when seen from the perspective of a particular advertisement, for instance, as it is tracked across pages and perhaps, onto the walls.  It looks different again if we monitor what passes through a particular print shop, or, indeed, a particular printing press.  These are material histories, and so cultural histories, and they matter too.

A few years ago our chair today advocated going ‘sideways’, both materially, turning the pages, and conceptually, embracing what she calls print’s ‘pervasive dialogism’.1  Attribution, I want to suggest, readily allows such lateral moves.  While attribution can be understood as the shoring up of authorship, insisting that texts belong to their authors and that the fact of their authorship is inseparable from what they might mean, attribution can also be understood as a radical unravelling.  Instead of ressurecting the author as origin, there’s nothing to stop us going in the other direction, placing their texts as nodes in a network that links together all those other people and processes responsible for the production of print.  One of Gary Simons’s achievements as editor of the Curran Index was to turn its lists into a database, providing an architecture that models just such a network.  As it stands, contributions in the Curran Index are classed by genre and contributors by gender, education, and nationality; rather than simply reveal who wrote what, in other words, it can reveal how many Irish women wrote reviews, or whether a particular publication drew its contributors from the same Oxford college.  The Index, then,already decenters individual authors by placing them, and their contributions, in relation to one another.  Rather than further reify the link between author and text, I think we should embrace the way texts become necessarily collaborative as they approach the printed page and add further nodes accordingly.  Authors don’t write newspapers and periodicals – that’s why we call them contributors – and for their writing to be read it has to be combined with other texts (both verbal and visual, original and otherwise), printed, distributed, and sold.  Attribution matters, so lets start to attribute those other contributors, and all their diverse contributions too.

1 Linda K. Hughes, ‘SIDEWAYS!: Navigating the Material(Ity) of Print Culture’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 47.1 (2014), 1–30 <>. [back]

A Pioneer of Connection

cover image of a Pioneer of Connection

Our collection of essays on Oliver Lodge, A Pioneer of Connection: Recovering the Life and Work of Oliver Lodge has recently been published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

The book originated from an AHRC Research Network ‘Making Waves: Oliver Lodge and the Cultures of Science’ that ran from 2013-2015. Details of the book are available on the publisher’s website here.

The table of contents is as follows:


James Mussell and Graeme Gooday, ‘Oliver Lodge: Continuity and Communication’

Part One: Lodge’s Lives

Chapter 1
David Amigoni, ‘Communication, (Dis)Continuities, and Cultural Contestation in Sir Oliver Lodge’s Past Years

Chapter 2
Peter Rowlands, ‘Becoming Sir Oliver Lodge: The Liverpool Years, 1881–1900’

Chapter 3
Di Drummond, ‘Lodge in Birmingham: Pure and Applied Science in the New University, 1900–1914’

Part Two: Science and Communication

Chapter 4
Bruce J. Hunt, ‘The Alternative Path: Oliver Lodge’s Lightning Lectures and the Discovery of Electromagnetic Waves’

Chapter 5
Matthew Stanley, ‘Lodge and Mathematics: Counting Beans, the Meaning of Symbols, and Einstein’s Blindfold’

Chapter 6
Bernard Lightman, ‘The Retiring Popularizer: Lodge, Cosmic Evolution, and the New Physics’

Chapter 7
Imogen Clarke, ‘The Forgotten Celebrity of Modern Physics’

Part Three: Science, Spiritualism, and the Spaces In Between

Chapter 8
Richard Noakes, ‘Glorifying Mechanism: Oliver Lodge and the Problems of Ether, Mind, and Matter’

Chapter 9
Christine Ferguson, ‘The Case of Fletcher: Shell Shock, Spiritualism, and Oliver Lodge’s Raymond

Chapter 10
Georgina Byrne, ‘Beyond Raymond: The Theology of Spiritualism and the Changing Landscape of the Afterlife in the Church of England

Chapter 11
David Hendy, ‘Oliver Lodge’s Ether and the Birth of British Broadcasting’

Chapter 12
James Mussell, ‘“Body Separates: Spirit Unites”: Oliver Lodge and the Mediating Body’

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]


[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]