Open Access Journal Publishing and the History of Science

[I was asked to contribute a short piece for Viewpoint, the magazine of the British Society for the History of Science. This has been published, and is available via the BSHS’s website. While researching the piece, I put out a request on twitter for information about open access history of science journals. I received really helpful responses from a number of people, including Vanessa Heggie (@HPS_Vanessa), Rebekah Higgitt (@beckyfh), Doris Lechner (@dolechner), Leucha Veneer (@LVeneer), Maths Books (@MathsBooks), Medical Heritage Library (@MedicalHeritage), and Jaipreet Virdi (@jaivirdi). Here is the list – let me know if I’ve missed any:

Isis is not open access, but does make its ‘Focus’ section available freely online here. There are also, of course, other useful open access publications out there such as Reviews in History and Dissertation Reviews that cover the history of science, not to mention the many, many blogs devoted to the subject. The editor of Viewpoint, Melanie Keene, has given me permission to republish my piece here, so here it is…]

BJHS: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

This is an interesting moment to have an anniversary in academic publishing. It seems like the industry is always in a crisis of one form or another, whether related to declining sales of monographs or increasing subscription costs for journals (the two are not unconnected). However, the publication of the Finch report in July and its recent endorsement by the UK government represents a real shift in the economy that underpins how journals are financed. The Finch report, for those of you not following the tribulations of British HE, recommended moving towards Gold Open Access (ie peer-reviewed content that is available free at the point of use) funded through Author Processing Charges (APCs). These recommendations, while representing a welcome embrace of open access, have been roundly criticised for what the report left out. Rather than go over this again, I’d like to focus on what these recommendations might mean for the academic journal as a genre.

The journal is a remarkably durable print form that has served scholarship well for centuries. While what was understood as appropriate scholarship has shifted dramatically over time, the form of the journal has robustly resisted innovation. Although readers unfamiliar with early volumes of the Philosophical Transactions might be thrown by the typography and range of content, they would easily recognise it as a journal and know how it should be read. The form of the journal successfully serves a number of purposes. It is a good way of getting content out promptly, but its rhythms also allowed the supply of content to be managed. As a business model, journal publishing is more forgiving than one-off publication as overheads are lower and investment can be recouped over a sustained period of time. It has proven a good way to make money, allowing publishers to profit by serving scholarship, whether through publications published in collaboration with societies or as independent commercial concerns. For scholarly societies, the journal provides a textualised representation of the community, helping to distribute its codes and ideals and coalesce distant readers into communities, while also providing a useful source of income. For contributors, the existence of a parent publication can provide a useful famework for content, conferring authority onto whatever is published. For the scholarly community as a whole, the journal distributes content in a way that is easily organised, forming a browsable archive in the volumes lined up on the shelf.

What has been surprising is the way the print journal migrated into digital form. The emergence of the web transformed the internet into a publishing platform and prompted endless predictions of print’s demise. As we know, whereas the newspaper industry has still not worked out how to make news pay in the digital age, the book has thrived, albeit, perhaps, at the cost of the high street book shop. Scholarly publishing came late to the web, suspicious of a medium that looked ephemeral when compared to print. The benefits of digital archives, however, were quickly grasped and enterprises such as JSTOR (1995-) demonstrated how back-issues might be digitised and presented online. For publishers, the digital archive was a way of monetising old volumes, creating new products of tremendous value to scholars that could be sold to libraries in addition to ongoing institutional subscriptions. The main benefits, online distribution and search, derived from new digital properties, but the way they were digitised replicated the forms of the print genre.

The key question is whether these print-first digital journals get the best out of the web. If they are primarily a way of distributing peer-reviewed articles, then the replication of seriality is not so important; and if scholars want their work read, they would be better served avoiding a publishing model that locks articles behind expensive paywalls. Publishers are trying to adapt, offering access to articles online before they are attributed a place in the print journal and open access options to contributors who can pay, yet there are many features native to the web that still have no place in scholarly publishing. The link, for instance, that fundamental building block of the web, remains excluded and the persistent use of pdf explicitly models paper. The Finch report by no means answers these questions and, with its assumption that Gold Open Access must equal ‘author pays’, was never going to. What it will do, however, is make scholars think differently about what they publish. I hope that the shock at having to pay to give work away will prompt scholars to think harder about current forms of academic scholarship. Many scholarly societies, including the BSHS, use their journals to raise revenue but, if there are better ways to publish research then I think we have a responsibility to pursue them.

“Scarers in Print”: Media Literacy and Media Practice from Our Mutual Friend to Friend Me On Facebook. Part 5


I have just begun reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember or, to give it its American subtitle, What the internet is doing to our brains.  Carr’s argument is that the internet encourages certain forms of behaviour that, in turn, have affected the wiring of the brain.  Now, I am sceptical, as this smacks of a technological alarmism that stretches back a long way.  In 2009, for instance, Baroness Greenfield warned that social networking was eroding relationships and that gamers would do themselves inevitable neurological damage.  Further back, we were warned that the MTV generation would have short attention spans because of the brevity of the pop video.  And of course, nineteenth-century women readers were warned against certain types of literature due to its stimulating physiological effects.  Yet I think the underlying premise is right.  The reading or writing subject is not just a subject but also an object, and so the practices of reading and writing also reread or rewrite the body.  Whether conceived as intentional product of design or unexpected property, bug or feature, malfunction or truculence, objects push back against those that would master them.  In trying to discipline the material world and make it meaningful we, too, are disciplined.
What tends to happen in many analyses is that a certain form of literacy becomes naturalized and stands in place of all the others ways in which we read and write.  The reduction of literacy to the production of verbal text makes it a cognitive process rather than an embodied social practice, allowing real differences between the times and spaces of reading, as well as the way reading alters whatever is being read, to be ignored or overcome.  This model of literacy is predicated on repression and so creates the conditions for uncanny return, for objects to assert and reassert their identity as things.  Derrida has established that writing is predicated on absence, but writing never occurs without its material supplement: a repository of materiality that is always in excess of its instantation in the moment.  Even binary code, that basic system of differences, depends on inscribed traces on durable material.  Reading and writing are embodied practices.  The possibility of literacy depends on the mute insistence of the unthinkable material world.

“Scarers in Print”: Media Literacy and Media Practice from Our Mutual Friend to Friend Me On Facebook. Part 4

4. Friend Me On Facebook

Last summer, one of my local papers, the Birmingham Mail reported that the appearance of some photographs on Facebook had caused a scandal in the City Council. The images showed a young, Conservative councillor apparently drunk and wearing a bikini. The paper suggested that her fellow councillors believed this made her unfit for office; in her defense, she pointed out that the images were taken while she was at University and before she joined the council. The Birmingham Mail declined comment, but duly republished the images on its website for all to see.1

There have been countless such scandals in the eight years since Facebook has been in existence. Currently with 955 million users and, apparently, the largest archive of images ever assembled, Facebook is both a major cultural institution and an incredible archive of social life. Its success is due to the way it markets mutuality, exploiting the connections between people to both acquire content and the means of organizing it. The desire of users to share the minuitae of their life is surpassed by Facebook’s desire to remember it, and this has produced a vast archive of outsourced, perfect memory. However, although Facebook may be able to remember everything, it has demonstrated that it cannot keep this to itself. Since at least 2007 the press has been running scare stories about job applicants being tripped up by their Facebook profiles and they continue to appear today.2 Whether true or not, the recurrence of such stories indicates a broader cultural anxiety about the persistence of the past. Facebook’s value lies in the difference between the way it permits its users to manipulate content – uploading, downlaoding, writing, and sharing – and the way that it manipulates this material for its own ends. This disjunction means that tensions flare up periodically around privacy, but are really prompted by Facebook’s need to rewrite users’ content for commercial purposes. Whereas it appears to be one type of writing space, where users can write things for select, delimited groups controlling (with some difficulty) who reads what, the boundaries between this network and the rest of Facebook have proven permeable, as have those between Facebook and the rest of the web. Sometimes, this is because the reading and writing machines on which Facebook depends reinscribe material from one context to another; but usually it is because these acts of reinscription have been carried out, intentionally or not, by other users.

The appeal of Facebook for its users lies in the way that it satisfies the desire for gossip, repackaging user-supplied content so that it can be consumed by others. In its commodification of gossip, Facebook is situated firmly in a narrative that runs back to sectors of the nineteenth-century press and beyond. Back in 1982, Walter Ong suggested that electronic media were cultivating a secondary orality, but printed gossip was already remediated in this way, identifying its origins in orality and recapitulating them through written discourse. Facebook is a major writing space and the language of writing is deeply embedded within its interface. One of the oldest features of Facebook is the ‘wall’, where friends can leave messages for both the owner and his or her friends. This simulation of the notice board has has been complemented with a number of additional ways for users to interact, including chat, messaging, company and product pages, and the news feed. Despite the different dynamics each utilises (turn-based instant messaging, comments etc), underpinning all these modes of communication are acts of reading and writing. Content is served from a storage medium, passed over the network, and processed by the user’s device. Facebook’s capacity to startle, to resurrect material from the past, lies in the fact that underneath this network are inscribable spaces.

What Facebook demonstrates are the limits of what is known as the medial ideology. One of the foundational myths of the digital age is that it is defined by information. Early fantasies of cyberspace offered the virtual as an alternative to a materialized real; knowledge work was privileged over other forms of labour; and information itself was increasingly taken to stand for both commodities and capital. These myths persist: this, for instance, is how the information age is presented by Luciano Floridi in Oxford University Press’s recent Information: A Very Short Introduction:

We are modifying our everyday perspective on the ultimate nature of reality, that is, our metaphysics, from a materialist one, in which physical objects and processes play a key role, to an informational one. This shift means that objects and processes are de-physicalized in the sense that they tend to be seen as support-independent (consider a music file). They are typified, in the sense that an instance of an object (my copy of the music file) is as good as its type (your music file of which my copy is an instance). And they are assumed by default to be perfectly clonable, in the sense that my copy and your original become interchangeable. Less stress on the physical nature of objects and processes means that the right of usage is perceived to be at least as important as the right to ownership. Finally, the criterion for existence – what it means for something to exist – is no longer being actually immutable […] or being potentially subject to perception […], but being potentially subject to interaction, even if intangible. To be is to be interactable, even if the interaction is only indirect.3

The information fetish makes it easy to forget the materiality of digital objects and the work required to create and maintain them. It reduces the behaviour of objects to how they appear on the screen, disregarding their dependence on reading and writing, whether carried out by the user’s interaction with hardware, or the more alienated acts carried out by the machine on their behalf. It is a discourse that depends on the absolute distinction between immaterial content and material form, but does not recognize how the former is derived from the latter. It is, in other words, precisely why Walter Ong did not think it worth adopting media theory.

Matthew Kirschenbaum’s important book Mechanisms is a useful critique of this medial ideology. Kirschenbaum distinguishes between two types of materiality: a formal materiality that describes the properties of digital objects as they interact within designed digital environments; and a forensic materiality dedicated to understanding the individuated material traces written into storage media. Kirschenbaum’s analysis is useful because it situates both the computer and the digital environments that it sustains within the long history of writing machines. Ong demonstrated that what made literacy distinct was its dependence upon objects and Kirschenbaum’s critique of the medial ideology restores the digital to its body. What is interesting is that Kirschenbaum delineates two possible sets of conditions for this embodiment. Each is distinct – one concerned with bits, one with magnetic traces in storage media – but they are interconnected and co-present nevertheless. This disinction thus seems to be the product of discourse, a particular way of approaching and delineating the object world. Embodiment, once again, can be seen to be the result of practice.

If literacy is simply deciphering written code, then the competencies from the nondigital world can simply be applied to the digital. But if reading, like writing, involves doing things with objects, then this attitude is naïve at best, negligent at worst. This sounds obvious, but it is worth repeating: to understand textuality in the age of print, it is necessary to attend to the objects that bear inscribed traces and the practices that allow them to become signs. The same is true for the digital world: reading and writing still occur, and they still necessitate configurations of human and nonhuman actors, but the nature of these processes is different because the objects are different. The computer is a universal machine and, as such, is capable of sophisticated simulation. Yet focusing simply on what occurs onscreen – what Nick Montford has called ‘screen essentialism’ –reproduces the logocentricism developed over the course of our long exposure to print and too often mistaken for literacy.4 Digital literacy – and by this I mean a literacy that recognizes the materiality of the digital – will allow us to understand the objects we create and the environments into which they are placed. Just as a denaturalized print literacy is necessary for studying the nineteenth century through the objects that survive, digital literacy is necessary to understand how these objects are remediated in digital form. Without digital literacy, we cannot reckon with Facebook and all those other aggregators of digital content churning out ghosts.

1 I’m not going to provide a link to the article, as that would only perpetrate the sleazy agenda of the paper. The true scandal, of course, is that any young person would want to be a Conservative councillor. [back]
2 Right on cue, two weeks before I gave this as a paper in London, the Guardian published a blog post entitled ‘Could your Facebook page ruin your job prospects?’, 5 March 2012 . [back]
3Luciano Floridi, Information: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 12. [back]
4See Kirschenbaum’s discussion of screen essentialism, Mechanisms, p. 31. [back]

“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]

“Scarers in Print”: Media Literacy and Media Practice from Our Mutual Friend to Friend Me On Facebook. Part 2

Part 2. The Things we Forget

My recent book, The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age (Palgrave, 2012), opens with a discussion of the way Amazon market their Kindle. This is how they described the Kindle on its launch in 2007:

‘Kindle: Amazon’s Original Wireless Reading Device (First Generation)’, Amazon (2007) <> [accessed 16 March 2012].

Throughout, the Kindle is described in relation to the book. It is a ‘convenient portable reading device’ that offers ‘an exceptional reading experience’. Its ‘electronic paper’ makes screen-reading ‘as sharp and natural as reading ink on paper’. It can be located in usual sites of reading: over breakfast, during the commute, on a journey, for the book club. Yet there is an interesting ambiguity here. Kindle might offer a ‘reading experience’, but it is the device that is called the reader, not the user. Open the box, for instance, and there is a user guide, not a reader guide: the implication is that users already know how to read, but might not know how to use. This is a point of anxiety, as it reminds potential customers of the strangeness of technology. If Kindle is like a book, but better, Amazon don’t want to remind readers that what makes it better is also what makes it strange.

When Amazon launched their 6” Kindle in 2009, they marketed it as follows:

‘Kindle: Amazon's 6" Wireless Reading Device (Latest Generation)’, Amazon (2009) <> [accessed 16 March 2012].

Kindle is marketed on the basis that reading makes books disappear. It has been so well-designed that, like the book, users will not know they are using, only reading. This is obviously important for Amazon, as it still appears on the publicity material for the current Kindle, launched last autumn. Reading provides access to the ‘author’s world and ideas’, magically transforming the constitutive role of both text and technology into passive and dispensable intermediaries. The consistent emphasis on reading over use naturalizes the technical, but in doing so downplays what reading actually involves. Reading (and, as Walter Ong makes clear, writing) is not natural but must be learned through considerable effort. Amazon’s users can already read – they already know how to make a book disappear – so, it is implied, they simply need to transfer their existing literacy to the new ‘reading device’ so that it too can go away.

But what happens to objects when they disappear? When we stop reading, the book returns (‘Purple ribbon in every wollume’, says Mr Boffin, ‘to keep the place where you leave off’1). Yet the book’s insistent materiality is there all the time, offering up marks to be recognized as words, pages to be turned, the weight of the volume to be accommodated by our bodies. The act of reading is predicated on the form of crafted material objects and the application of learned behaviour; the resulting text effects a further transformation, changing the relationships between reader, text, object and environment. These components are reconfigured in the moment of reading, but only for the duration of the act. Not only is the transformation temporary (when we start to read, we establish a time when the book will inevitably return), but it is also incomplete. The book is suspended, but, in the meantime, it asserts itself in other ways.

The material resistance of media has given it a reputation for truculence. When delineating the difference between primary orality and literacy, Ong locates the power of writing in its generative inertness. The dependence upon sound in oral cultures makes language a form of action, situated within the moment as its ephemeral signifiers fade away. The spoken word is driven by power, and Ong believes that this is why oral cultures grant language magical potency. Writing recasts the word as space, inscribing it as an object located on a surface. ‘Such “things”’, Ong writes, ‘are not so readily associated with magic, for they are not actions, but are in a radical sense dead, though subject to dynamic resurrection.’2 In oral cultures the spoken word has physical and cultural force; writing places the word in the object world, alienating it from the lived moment through mediation by things. The dead word is resurrected when it is read, but this metaphysics of presence is not solely produced through language. The latency of the unread word depends upon the integrity of the object upon which it is inscribed.

A vestige of the magical potency of language lingers on in the charm. In M.R. James’s ghost stories, the animated objects that literalize the return of the repressed, punishing the too-curious scholars that populate his tales, are usually marked by text. In ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad’ Parkin finds an old whistle buried amongst the remains of a Templar’s preceptory. It is inscribed, but the narrator tells us that ‘the meaning of it was as obscure to him as the writing on the wall to Belshazzar.’3 This warning, an ominous portent of animated inscription if ever there was one, is for us, not Parkin; he, on the contrary, confesses he is ‘a little rusty in his Latin’, translates part of the message as ‘Who is this who is coming?’, and decides to blow the whistle to find out (p. 199-200). ‘Casting the Runes’ is a tale of supernatural revenge prompted by the comments of an anonymous peer-reviewer. Karswell, a cranky dabbler in the occult, likes to bump off his critics by means of a curse bestowed by the red and black writing on a piece of paper. The only way to remove the curse is to pass on the paper, but this paper has a peculiar tendency to destroy itself. The words, it is implied carry the curse, but its operation depends on the life of the paper.

In neither case is the writing legible except in the crudest sense of it being identified as writing. This is important as it means that this writing is operating as an object. The writing does not bestow agency on the cursed objects by permitting them to enter into language; nor does it record a vestige of the power of the spoken word. Partly it operates in a gothic economy, signalling a time forgotten to the present; but more importantly this writing is simply writing, the inscribed marks of a performance that have left a decipherable, but undeciphered, text. These are labels, but the lack of lexical meaning permits the writing to operate formally, marking a difference rather than proclaiming something about the object. If, as Derrida argues, writing underpins all signification, then objects, as crafted intentional and recognizable entities, all also already to some extent written. However, the addition of actual writing marks a difference: in the case of these cursed objects it signals their special potency – but this applies more generally too. By inscribing an object we give it the potential to misbehave, to establish its autonomy by marking it as something else. All objects have some sort of use built into them – their form is always intentional, objects are always in some way plotted – but writing on them grants them a different sort of agency by giving them something to say. A label gives an object a voice, helping it to assert itself in language, but the crucial thing is that the presence of writing, of the textual label, creates something against which the radical otherness of the object can assert itself.

This assertion of otherness underpins the frequently noted uncanniness of media technologies. Rather than the found objects of the gothic ghost story, the emergence of new information technologies are often marked by myths of uncanny agency. As critics and cultural historians such as Stephen Kern, Roger Luckhurst, Avital Ronnell and Jeffrey Sconce, amongst others, have noted, these technologies enable a telepresence that at once extends human faculties while alienating them from the self.4 It this reconfiguration that grants technology its apparently occult powers as it takes on mediated agency: the needle taps and writes; the telephone calls and speaks. This alienation also enables other agents to interpose themselves, seizing control of mediating technology to deliver unexpected messages, sometimes even from beyond the grave. Dickens’s ‘The Signalman’ places the body as part of an occult communications circuit with both signalman and narrator acting as receivers and transmitters; Kipling’s ‘Wireless’ reimagines such a circuit for the age of wireless telegraphy.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Ong’s critique of media theory was based on its assumption that media acted as passive pipelines, delivering something called ‘information’. This way of thinking about mediality has become institutionalized within information theory, with noise understood as the difference between the signal at source and at destination. In this model, the body of mediating technology can only produce a deficit by imposing itself, obstructing the signal. Yet these technologies are prosthesis not pipeline: it is they that touch or speak, pick up signals, and translate messages from one form to another. The passivity that produces information does not overcome the material body of mediating technology, but is produced as result of the way that the body is put to use.

The materiality of media must become disciplined so they can function, in a particular instance as a particular type of object. Bill Brown’s distinction between ‘object’ and ‘thing’, where objects become socialized through discourse while things remain obliquely out of view, is useful here. As Brown notes, ‘we begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us’.5 But what if rather than positing a binary we rethink thingness as a repository or resource, something that can be drawn upon to recast objects from one form to another? In her book, Writing Machines, N. Katherine Hayles posits a materiality that is emergent and shifting, linking together representation and the physicality of the object that allows representation to operate. If, as Hayles suggests, ‘the physical attributes constituting any artefact are potentially infinite’, then objects – standing on the threshold of a generative, unknowable, thingness – are repositories of materiality.6 The object world marks the boundary between the socialized properties of things and the vast repository of the unknown that constitutes their thingness. As use is social practice, the form of this threshold constantly changes: objects manifest different properties and, in turn, recast the social relations in which they are embedded. As Brown suggests, the ‘thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.’7 In a very real way, then, objects are interfaces because they make things happen.


1 Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (London: Chapman and Hall, 1865), p. 39.
2 Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 33.
3 M.R. James, ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to Thee’, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (London: Edward Arnold, 1905). p. 199.
4 See Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983); Roger Luckhurst, The Invention of Telepathy, 1870-1901 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Avital Ronnell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1991); Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).
5 Bill Brown, ‘Thing Theory’, Critical Inquiry, 28 (2001), p. 4.
6 N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2002), p. 32.
7 Brown, ‘Thing Theory’, p. 4.

“Scarers in Print”: Media Literacy and Media Practice from Our Mutual Friend to Friend Me On Facebook. Part 1

[On the 17 March 2012 I gave this as a talk at the London Nineteenth-Century Studies Seminar at the Institute of English Studies, Senate House. It’s quite long, so I’m going to blog the talk in five parts. More Great Expectations pace than Our Mutual Friend, hopefully…]

Part 1: Introduction

The quotation – ‘Scarers in Print’ – comes from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. In Boffin’s Bower, the Golden Dustman, Noddy Boffin, listens to Silas Wegg, one-legged ballad-seller and sometime runner of errands. Boffin, the retired servant of a recently deceased, rich, miserly dust contractor called Harmon, wants someone to read to him in the evenings and Wegg, who Dickens describes as an ‘igneous sharper’ on account of his wooden appearance and wily ways, is more than happy to oblige – at twice the proffered rate.1 Boffin wants what he calls an opening into print, but the revelation of the contents of the book, which turns out to be Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, startles him. The narrator tells us:

Mr Wegg, having read on by rote and attached as few ideas as possible to the text, came out of the encounter fresh; but, Mr Boffin, who had soon laid down his unfinished pipe, and had ever since sat intently staring with his eyes and mind at the confounding enormities of the Romans, was so severely punished that he could hardly wish his literary friend Good-night, and articulate “Tomorrow.”2

Here, the action of Silas Wegg transforms the book from one thing – a smart set of volumes, ‘red and gold. Purple ribbon in every wollume, to keep the place where you leave off’3 – into something quite different. For Boffin, Wegg has performed some sort of arcane rite, unlocking the contents of the book while, at the same time, bestowing it with depth so that it becomes a container.

Boffin is struck by this transformation of object into archive, turning the book into a repository, in a way that Wegg, who reads on by rote and dwells not on what he reads, does not. Boffin thinks this is because of Wegg’s worldliness

‘Commodious,’ gasped Mr Boffin, staring at the moon, after letting Wegg out at the gate and fastening it: ‘Commodious fights in that wild-beast-show, seven hundred and thirty-five times, in one character only! As if that wasn’t stunning enough, a hundred lions is turned into the same wild-beast-show all at once! As if that wasn’t stunning enough, Commodious, in another character, kills ’em all off in a hundred goes! As if that wasn’t stunning enough, Vittle-us (and well named too) eats six millions’ worth, English money, in seven months! Wegg takes it easy, but upon-my-soul to a old bird like myself these are scarers. And even now that Commodious is strangled, I don’t see a way to our bettering ourselves.’ Mr Boffin added as he turned his pensive steps towards the Bower and shook his head, ‘I didn’t think this morning there was half so many Scarers in Print. But I’m in for it now!’4

The scarers here are ghosts, conjured out from the archive by the apparently magical process of reading. However, the scarers are not in the book, but are produced through overlapping sets of technology put to work in a particular social configuration. The technology of writing creates a decipherable code that can be transposed without deformation from one material context to another. In this instance, the code is inscribed onto the printed pages of the book; but to become meaningful the book must be opened, there must be light to see, and there must be a reading mind able to process the information produced by the eyes. But there is even more here. Wegg’s mind processes what he reads and his vocal chords (mellowed with gin and water) articulate his translation of the marks on the page as sound. These utterances are, in turn, received by Boffin’s ear, which detects the vibrations in the air. His mind processes this information, separating Boffin’s voice from the other sounds in the room and isolating the spoken signs from one another as comprehensible units. This mental reckoning is not divorced from bodily reaction, and what Boffin hears affects his body, giving rise to sensation that provokes further articulation.

As Walter Ong reminds us, the scene of communication is always complex, taking place in the company of both speaker and listener, writer and reader (even if the latter is imagined), and depending on a range of learned competencies, technologies, and material. Yet in Orality and Literacy, Ong is suspicious of analyses that foreground media as they suggest ‘communicaiton is a pipeline transfer of units of material called “information” from one place to another.’5 As Ong makes clear over the course of the book, he recognizes the constitutive role material media play in enabling communication, but he argues that focusing upon these risks neglecting the necessarily intersubjective nature of human communication. However, I want to follow the lead of people like Friedrich Kittler and try and explore what happens to material media in acts of reading and writing.6 Literacy rests on doing things with things: in these posts, I want to explore what happens to those things during the production of text.

These posts explore whether Mr Boffin is right. Taking Boffin’s impression that there are ‘Scarers in Print’, I consider both the apparently uncanny nature of textual content as well as its putative location in print. Is content really ghost-like? And in what ways is it imagined as being within media? My argument is that reading involves learning to ignore (or at least unconsciously process) the material media necessary to permit text to be in the world. This is not, of course exceptional, but happens all the time, whenever a piece of text attracts a glance. The industrializtion of print in the early nineteenth century led to the proliferation of text upon a wider range of surfaces. The effect was to emphasize the promiscuity of text while lending it presence. The same words appeared in lots of places and appeared in the same fashion, reifying themselves as objects, while occluding more of the material world by bringing it into textual discourse. There had never been so many texts, and they had never been so dispersed. The result, I argue, is an unprecedented opportunity for objects to misbehave, to assert their agency in unexpected ways.

There are four posts to come. The first explores the role of materiality in media more thoroughly, arguing that shifts in material presence underpin the practice of reading. Although literacy is usually described as a cognitive process, deciphering signs inscribed in written code, it necessitates interactions with objects of various kinds. Rather than understand these interactions as secondary, I argue that they are the condition of reading. The second turns to Our Mutual Friend, offering the novel as an explication of the agency of material. If, as Ong argues, writing is predicated upon an economy of death and resurrection, then this novel – published in parts, featuring characters who play parts, and, in the case of Wegg, become alienated from their parts – reminds us that this economy is based on material media. The third turns to the present, and applies this analysis to the digital objects that enable textuality today. If the nineteenth-century archive betrays a concern about keeping things in line, then the web, the largest, most ill-disciplined archive we have ever created, permits new material possibilities. Taking Facebook as an example, I demonstrate how a different technology of inscription – a set of networked servers and a carefully designed software architecture – create different conditions of reading and writing. As Facebook forces us to live with alienated ghosts from our pasts, we are reminded of both the central role that material plays in literacy, as well as the potential for objects to exert themselves against their prescribed passivity as media. The final post offers some conclusions. While I argue that we need to remember both objects and what we do with them when we think about literacy, recognition of the reflexivity of these process tends to be bit alarmist. Looking briefly at this history, I nevertheless stress that in disciplining the material world by making it legible, we too are disciplined.


1 Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (London: Chapman and Hall, 1865), p. 40. [back]
2 Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, p. 45. [back]
3 Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, p. 39. [back]
4 Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, p. 43. [back]
5 Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 176. [back]
6 See for instance Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks: 1800 / 1900 (Stanford NJ: Stanford University Press, 1992). [back]

Chlorodyne: Telling Transformative Tales about a Drug Whose ‘Composition Cannot be Discovered’

[This is the abstract for the paper I am giving at Transforming Objects, 28-29 May 2012.]

My paper uses the controversies surrounding the well-known nineteenth-century proprietary medicine chlorodyne to explore the relation between commodity culture and the unknown. Chlorodyne was a proprietary medicine and, as such, its inventors, J. Collis Browne and John Thistlewood Davenport jealously protected its composition. However, this secret came under sustained pressure over the period. When rival versions of the drug appeared on the market, Browne and Davenport were unable to prove that their chlorodyne was the original without giving away its composition. When the British Medical Association looked for a test case in order to regulate the market in medicine, they chose chlorodyne and contrived a way to make it confess its constitution. By maintaining the mystery of its composition, its creators found that others were able to transform chlorodyne into something else

The composition of chlorodyne was not really a secret, but it functioned as such because of the way its materiality was rendered knowable by chemical, commercial, legal and medical discourse. By concentrating on two key moments in its history, this paper explores how the imponderable otherness of materiality is converted into a knowable set of properties that allow objects to play a part in social life. Through an analysis of chlorodyne, I argue that objects play an important cultural role, operating as interfaces to the unknown. Standing on the threshold of what is knowable, objects not only provide the material media of social relations, but also, in always exceeding the discourse that describe them, constitute an inexhaustible and generative resource for narrative desire.

Form and Content in the Nineteenth-Century News of the World

[On the 24 February I participated in a panel on ‘Victorian Beginnings’ at a Study Day on the News of the World hosted at King’s College London. Below is my position paper]

As you would expect for a London paper with a circulation as large of the News of the World’s, it has an entry in the first number of Mitchell’s Newspaper Press Directory in 1846. This is what it says:

This is one of the many papers which compresses into a capacious double sheet the news of the week; and the manner in which it is arranged adapts it for the the perusal of a class of readers who, though respectable, may be supposed – through incessant occupation in the week – not to have had much opportunity before the Saturday evening for newspaper reading.  It has no very distinctive feature in its composition, which simply aims at giving as much news as possible; and of a general as well as political character. There is some attention given to literature; and a small selection of sporting news.  Its commercial intelligence is good, and its ‘Grocer’s Gazette’ seems to mark it out as favoured by that class of traders. It is well suited for the respectable tradesman and intelligent persons in that sphere; and its being cheaper than any newspaper (except one), tends of course to enlarge the circle of its readers. It appears to be designed in a great degree for country circulation; and the main feature in its management is, the number of its editions – in fact from Friday evening to Sunday morning, there is a perpetual succession of editions, with augmented if not amended intelligence; so as to secure to every post through which it is sent out the latest news from every source.

Mitchell’s Newspaper Press Directory (London: C. Mitchell, 1846), pp. 79-80.

I think the insistence that the NOTW is not distinctive in terms of its composition is important. The entry makes clear that this is not an innovative paper, but nonetheless has some noteworthy features. I think the following are the key points:

  • it was based around news but there were other types of content such as literature and sport
  • it was aimed at a class of readers who didn’t read during the week, probably because they were keeping shop
  • it was cheap
  • and it published multiple editions

Below, I explore these aspects of the NOTW with reference to its run over the nineteenth century. What I think this analysis reveals is an often overlooked aspect of the appeal of the newspaper: its stability, despite the changing material of the news.

1. Content

From its first number in 1843 until the 1890s, The NOTW consisted of eight pages, each with six columns. The front page was notably consistent over the run. The first columns were always devoted to advertisements: in the early issues, this space was reserved for its proprietor John Bell’s publications, but in the 1850s a much wider range of advertisments appeared, including advertisements for the theatre. From the 1860s, the theatre advertisements moved onto page four, in an important space immediately before the leading articles, leaving the front page to carry miscellaneous advertisements for a range of goods.

The front page also carried a column called ‘The Politician’, the NOTW’s main political content. This ran I until the 1860s, when it was replaced by a weekly letter by ‘Hampden’ – a regular contributor whose letters had already been printed within the paper for a decade. Its other main feature was a column of jokes from the previous day’s Punch. This appeared from the very first issue of the paper in column six and was joined by jokes from Fun in the 1860s. This must have proved popular, as it was a consistent feature of the paper up until the end of the century.

The literary content was also a regular component of the paper. Throughout the run there were two columns dedicated to literature on page 6. Until the 1880s this always consisted of reviews, nearly always of nonfiction and featuring copious quotations. In the 1880s the NOTW began to publish serial fiction, but still within the two columns of ‘Literature.’ In the 1890s, however, when the NOTW sold for a penny but consisted of twelve pages, each with seven columns, usually two pages were devoted to literature, including serial fiction for the adults and content aimed at children.

Unlike literature, sport became more important over the run. Initially published on page five, after the late news and alongside reports about army and navy deployments, it occasionally made its way onto the front page throughout the 1850s. In the 1860s it obtained its regular space on the last page, often extending to a column and a half. By the 1890s it was five columns, covering a range of sports and taking up most of the back page.

News occasionally appeared on the front page, but it was mainly relegated to pages two and three, where regular columns of ‘Foreign News’ were followed by ‘Country News’ and then, from pages five onwards a miscellany. Court reports were a regular feature, usually appearing on page seven. Page eight carried the closing market prices from the Saturday. The NOTW clearly saw its news as important and the gesture towards the international was not empty rhetoric – in fact, in 1853 the paper claimed that ‘every publication that is issued from any country on the globe’ was duly examined ‘(in addition to private correspondence) for interesting articles for the News of the World’ – but the paper also, as the press directory noted, published much more.

2. Readers

The readers of the NOTW are difficult to pin down. There was a ‘Correspondents’ column from the first issue, which usually just printed the paper’s responses but occasionally printed a (signed) letter from a reader too. Reader’s letters did not appear until the 1890s, and then only sporadically. Advertisements were for a range of goods and services: men’s and women’s clothes; as well as the usual clutch of advertisements for insurance and patent medicines. Perhaps most revealing are the frequent advertisements for emigration, which complemented the regular columns of ‘Emigration News’ in the 1850s and 60s. These were readers interested in the colonies, and readers advertisers thought might become emigrants themselves.

By the 1890s, there was a deliberate attempt to target women. In the earlier decades there was plenty of content considered suitable for women, and the lighter matter – especially the regular ‘Varieties’ column – that might be marked as feminine. The introduction of serial fiction, too, can be seen as an attempt to broaden the readership. However, the expanded NOTW in the 1890s had dedicated columns such as ‘Our Home Circle’ (by ‘Clarisse’) covering fashion and gossip, as well as the much extended literary sections. It also had a separate column of advertising dedicated to women.

3. Cheapness

The NOTW’s cheapness was an explicit bid to gain a large circulation. In the first issue cheapness was justified as an attempt to bridge an apparent divide between journalism for the rich and the poor; with the former characterized ‘by the the manners, the dress, and the habitations of the rich’, while the latter was marked by ‘the customs, the squalor and the dens of the poor’ (p. 1). Melissa is going to say a bit more about this, but when the paper claimed that it represents no classs or party, only ‘truth’, and its prime motivation was to serve ‘dear old England’, it was clearly trying to occupy as neutral an ideological position as possible for a liberal, reform-minded Sunday paper.

On the News of the World’s tenth anniversary the paper recast its price as a deliberate response to the reduction of the newspaper stamp in 1836. Rather than lower the price by a penny, as many of its competitors had done, the NOTW boasted that it had set its price as if it passed on the whole saving to its readers. This revisionist account of their pricing strategy – I’ve not seen anything about this in the early issues – seems to be an attempt to ally the NOTW to the agitation for the repeal of the remaining ‘Taxes of Knowledge’. What is notable about the price is the extent to which the paper advertised it while insisting that it would never change. Price was clearly the NOTW’s main selling point, but this was complemented by a concern for the quality of the paper. This was literalized in December 1844, with a boast that ‘Our newspaper shall be perfect in information – perfect as respects the quality of the paper it is printed upon – and perfect also with respects to its type’ (p. 1). Throughout the run there were frequent claims that it was a ‘First Class’ paper, and this clearly refers to both its content and properties as a commodity.

4. Editions

From the outset the NOTW published three editions: the early edition published on Friday was sent by evening post and rail so that it was available Saturday; the second edition was published on Saturday; and the final, late edition early Sunday morning. News was inserted, usually around the middles, up until publication so the NOTW, especially the Sunday edition, was up-to-date. Yet I am a little puzzled by the Newspaper Press Directory’s remarks about editions. It was common for weeklies to publish multiple editions in this period, certainly for those published on Saturdays. Perhaps this was a bid on behalf of the directory to appeal to advertisers?


So what can we make of all this? Well, the NOTW obviously found and maintained a large readership throughout the nineteenth century and it did it by steadfastly not innovating. I suspect that the NOTW, although clearly serving to deliver content of various kinds to its readers, also served to represent ‘the newspaper’. This is why the paper continually stressed its quality: although it was cheap, it was not second class, in terms of its form or content. Of these, I think the form was more important. The remarkable consistency of the NOTW performed that often undervalued aspect of the newspaper: stability. The NOTW was able to offer a consistent framework through which to accommodate the events of the past week. It provided readers, week after week, with a stable form that promised mastery over the recent past. In buying the NOTW readers were buying a fairly robust, crafted object that warranted its readers’ participation in the emerging force of public opinion.

Abstract: “Scarers in Print”: Media Litreracy From Our Mutual Friend to Friend Me On Facebook

[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.

British Association for Victorian Studies Annual Conference 2011

In 2011 the annual conference of the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS) was hosted at the University of Birmingham. The theme was ‘Composition and Decomposition’, an attempt to signal both the processes of production (artistic and industrial) and decline. The conference was held in the University’s Business School and ran from 1-3 September 2011. There were 117 speakers and 140 delegates; plenary lectures were from Herbert Tucker, Tracy Davis and Colin Cruise; and the conference finished with a plenary panel that featured a talk about ‘The Value of Victorian Studies’ from Shearer West with comments from Linda Bree, Regenia Gagnier and Sarah Parker. The conference was accompanied by an exhibition of objects from the University’s Cadbury Research Library that was curated by Nicola Gauld. The exhibition flyer is available here.

As far as a I know, this was the first BAVS conference to have a dedicated hashtag (#bavs11) and a lively discussion ensued online. I preserved the tweets with TwapperKeeper until it became part of HootSuite in January 2012. Using Martin Hawksey’s excellent Google Spreadsheet (following the instructions posted on his blog), I’ve exported the tweets into Google Docs and shared them here

Given that this post is archiving various things to do with the conference, I thought it might be a good place to host links to the conference program and poster too. The conference website hosted by the University of Birmingham is actually still up and running, but the bulk of material was hosted elsewhere. So:

  • to view and download the conference prgram, click here
  • to download the conference poster, click here

If there is anything else from the conference anyone would like made available then let me know.