Parsing Passing Events

[I’ve been invited to speak at an expert seminar prior to the launch of Welsh Newspapers Online at the Pierhead in Cardiff today (follow along on Twitter: #papur). When asked to give the paper I was thinking about genre quite a bit, particularly the print genre of the newspaper and the emerging (but surprisingly stable) genre of the digital archive. As I’ve argued in previous posts, I think genre is a key term for understanding how media operate and this applies to both historical and newspapers and the resources that provide access to them today. I was also thinking a bit about the aura of old newspapers in hard copy and what happens when this is remediated digitally. Like many bloggers interested in the nineteenth-century media, I have been sent some papers by Thomas Walker on behalf of Historic Newspapers. Bob Nicholson has written a great post about the pleasures to be had when confronted with original papers. The success of large digital archives of historical newspapers testifies to the pleasures that lots of people find in researching the past online, too. I’m interested in the extent to which these remediated newspapers reproduce aspects of their materiality in print, particularly with regards to their seriality. People often remark on those facets of materiality that digital resources cannot reproduce (smell, texture etc); but what about those aspects that are also missing in print? No newspaper really exists in isolation and, as serials, are always embedded in a complex dynamic in which they represent, partially, their predecessors while asserting that there will be more issues to come. It’s not about recovering this – and I’m not making an argument about some sort of deficiency in the resources we have. Rather, I think we (and by that I mean scholars of the media mainly) need to take seriality (and so genre) seriously as an object of study. Simulation plays a part here, but so might more abstract models too.]

Digitization returns newspapers to us, but differently. What I want to focus on today is how we might leverage this difference to help us learn more about how newspapers actually work. The benefits of searchable newspaper archives to historical research are, I think, well understood. In fact, if anything I think we take them for granted, with the considerable work that goes into creating archives such as Welsh Newspapers Online often overlooked. Yet I think that because newspapers are so familiar to us, we assume that reading newspapers from the past is just the same as reading them in the present. This afternoon, I’m going to say a little bit about old newspapers. What I want to know is what happens to these objects, so oriented towards a present that has passed, when they are digitized and rendered searchable according to the words they contain. My argument is that users of historical digital newspaper archives treat what they find online much as they would had they read it in a current issue of the paper. This is not to say that users naively assume the content is somehow up-to-date or mistake it for the news; rather, users apply their existing interpretive practices, honed through a lifelong engagement with the news, uncritically to the news from the past. In doing so, users overlook the formal and the repetitive, the features that allow the news to both identify the new and novel while reconciling it with what has gone before

Reading newspapers from the past is pleasurable as it returns us to a moment when the news was new. The contingency of events, before they have become accommodated into broader, over-arching narratives, allows us to see them differently, to see them as new once again. However, newspapers do not provide direct access to events as they occur, but carefully situate them within interpretive frameworks that turn novelty to their own ends. For instance, in order that readers can make sense of the new, newspapers present it as an example of something that they are already familiar with. The news is always situated ideologically, told in such a way that the disruptive potential of newsness is mitigated. In this way, newness becomes about difference, with the latest turn of events becoming another example of what has gone before. However, the mediation of novelty must be carefully judged. Newspapers are commodities that sell timely information and so the newness of their contents is both an important part of their identity as a genre and an important way in which publications compete against one another. And, of course, the affective shock of novelty has long provided a welcome spur to sales.

One of the paradoxes of the news is that we’ve heard much of it before. Newspapers are testament to the predictability of events. They deal in a cast of characters already known to readers and draw from a known repertoire of scenarios; they allocate their contents into a set of predetermined sections, each attributed a regular place in the issue in advance; they are constituted from a set of pre-existing textual genres, many of which also appear in other forms of publication; and the newspaper itself is a recognizable genre, easily identifiable both by the way it looks and what it contains. The appeal of the newspaper is predicated on the promise of novelty, but the newspaper itself consists of a complex set of recurring forms. Repetition is key to the way newspapers opertate and, because they are serials, is encoded into their DNA. All serials create a sort of contract between publisher and reader: publishers attempt to anticipate the demands of their readers by giving them more of what they have already demonstrated they want; readers repeatedly spend their money on the understanding that they will not be disappointed. Each issue of a newspaper attempts to narrate the present, assimilating events into a set of pre-existing structures that assert the individual publication’s identity. In other words, the single issue does not exist in isolation, but re-presents, through its form, the issues that precede it. Newspapers might be oriented towards the present and contemporary, but they do so by establishing continuity with the past and promising it into the future.

It is repetition that permits mediation, allowing readers to differentiate between the formal features that delineate the mediating object and those that mark the content. As readers pick out the content, the repetitive formal framework that sustains it fades into the background. This dynamic, where content is identified as what changes while form becomes what stays the same, underpins the logic of print. Although the newspaper has a history that dates almost to the invention of movable type, it is most associated with industrial print culture, its focus on contemporaneity and the commodity identifying it as the medium of modernity. Readers learn to subjugate form to content every time they read; but this process is particularly important for types of content that appear to be unmediated such as the news. Reading makes form become invisible, enabling content to appear distinct from whatever it becomes marked, and then forgotten, as its media.

Digital newspaper archives foreground a different type of reading. Most users want to find articles about something and most newspaper archives conceive of their content as a repository of information, waiting to be found. The rhetoric of the digital newspaper archive is that by using this particular interface the user will be able to find the article they want, even if they do not know what, exactly, this might be. This is search exploiting the differences within processable text strings to find the one particular article as opposed to all the others. Given that the newspaper archive is characterized by its fragmentation and abundance, subjecting it to some sort of order and then making this accessible to a wide range of users is some achievement. Nevertheless, most resources are based on two sets of elisions: they encourage users to overlook their own mediating role, presenting themselves as transparent gateways rather than publications in their own right; and they circumvent the various levels of structure that situate the article within the newspaper. These elisions are encoded features: deliberate attempts to reproduce the effect of a particular type of reading focused on the verbal information contained within articles. However, different uses produce different objects, so by changing the way we interact with the configurations of hardware and software that produce such effects, we can generate different representations of the newspaper. Rather than use processing power to differentiate between articles in order to find the ‘correct’ one, we might use it to map the generic and the repetitive.

One of the very powerful things that newspaper archives do is reveal the connections between different publications. Searching for a particular figure or event will reveal a range of perspectives. It will also, probably, reveal some surprising treatment of the subject in other parts of the newspaper: advertising tie-ins; correspondence; satirical references etc. Computers, in other words, are good at making visible repetition and, because they are not so susceptible to fatigue and, dare I say it, boredom, they can detect patterns over datasets that are too large to work on by people alone. The genre of the digital newspaper archive, however, is oriented towards the specific rather than the repetitive. I think this is right. One of the interesting things that the digitisation of the press has revealed is the appetite amongst all sorts of people for this material and digital newspaper archives rightly devote processing power to detecting significant differences between the verbal content within articles or that appended as metadata so that users can find the articles they want. I am certainly not criticizing existing newspaper archives here, nor the way they are designed. For scholars, the gains offered by searchable transcripts – challenges presented by ocr notwithstanding – are tremendous. The bibliographical control offered by searchable transcripts alone is sufficient, I think, to redefine historical research in many areas, my own period in particular. In addition, the use of page images as reading texts – a way of compensating for errors in the transcripts – means that it has never been easier to see what historical newspapers looked like, making available many of the repetitive features that I have been discussing. Instead, what I want to suggest is that some scholars – especially those working in my area, media history – need to start thinking more seriously about form and genre, both of the digitized material and the way in which it is digitized. One of the good things about the process of digitization is that it forces us to rethink what we thought we knew about newspapers. One of the things that stayed with me from working on a newspaper digitization project, the Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition, was watching experts question the extent to which they really understood their material. The radical transformation that digitization entails means that almost everything about the source material must be defined and modelled in digital form. I do not want scholars to stop using digital resources to access content – that is, after all, what they are designed to do – but instead start to think about how they might be used to study form. If questions of form and genre, so integral to the way the press operates, do not seem that important, that is because of the history of the disciplines as they stand, and of reading more broadly, remain grounded in print. The digitized press gives us the tools, intellectual and technical, to look differently at print and the culture we have built with it. It also furnishes data that can reveal how the news, however it may be mediated, depends upon what we have seen before.

Making Waves: Oliver Lodge and the Cultures of Science, 1875-1940

[I recently found that I had been successful in a bid to the AHRC Research Networking scheme. The bid was to organize a research network to focus on Oliver Lodge, physicist, engineer, spiritualist, science popularizer and university manager. My interest in Lodge is related to my current research, on secrecy and science in the nineteenth century. Working across very different domains, Lodge was adept at negotiating regimes of concealment and exposure, revealing certain aspects of his work while concealing others. As such, he is an important case study for secrecy in the period (and just after). The bid was conceived in response to the AHRC’s Science in Culture theme, so the focus in the bid is on disciplinarity.].

This project takes one particular historical case study in order to understand disciplinary difference at a crucial moment in the past. Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) was a key figure in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century culture. Today, however, he remains relatively neglected, largely because of the apparent contradictions between different aspects of his career. This research network uses these contradictions as a starting point to consider the role of the disciplines in shaping knowledge. Taking Lodge as a case study allows us to understand the place of science in his period and to learn how disciplinary boundaries continue to structure research and knowledge today.

Lodge has much to teach us about the place of science in culture because, in his life and career, he transcended many of the boundaries we imagine structure the cultural status of science. A pioneer of wireless telegraphy, Lodge was an internationally-acclaimed physicist and engineer, equally at home in laboratory and workshop. Alongside his commercial interests Lodge carved out a career in the new Victorian universities, becoming the first professor of physics at the University of Liverpool and then Principal of the University of Birmingham after its move to Edgbaston. Not only did Lodge help science consolidate its place at the heart of the university, but he also saw the institutionalisation of the differences between scientific disciplines. A prolific writer, speaker and, later in his life, broadcaster, Lodge was widely known as a populariser of science and commentator on current affairs. Yet in the latter part of his life, Lodge became a famous spiritualist, carrying out psychical investigations alongside his scientific research and publishing a besteller, Raymond (1916), detailing encounters with his son killed in the trenches. Focusing on Lodge can help us understand the differences between science and the arts and humanities; the place of faith and the imagination in scientific practice; and the role of the arts and humanities in popularising science.

To understand a career such as Lodge’s, it is necessary to take an interdsciplinary approach. The project is designed to bring together a range of scholars, archivists and museum professionals at four workshops, each focusing on a particular aspect of Lodge’s career. The first will consider the place of science in the new Victorian universities; the second the many ways that signalling though space was understood in the period; the third Lodge’s physics and engineering and the supposed differences between pure and applied science; the fourth scientific lives more generally, investigating different tools and methodological approaches for the study of historical scientific figures. The project will maintain a blog, enabling conversation to continue between workshops and extend the network beyond the immediate participants; it will include a public demonstration of Victorian popular science, exploring the way in which scientific ideas were communicated in the past; lastly, it will publish an edited collection, producing the first scholarly book on Lodge to bring together the various aspects of his life and career.

In 1913 Lodge gave the Presidential Address at the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Birmingham. Lodge’s talk was on the continuity of the physical universe in the face of relativity, but Lodge – physicist and engineer; scientist and spiritualist; entrepreneur and civic leader – was himself an exemplary demonstration of continuity. A century later, this research network will reappraise Lodge’s career, tracing the connections that structured scientific practice over Lodge’s lifetime and so learning how the disciplines might be restructured today.

The Matter with Media

[this is my position paper for the forthcoming MLA Convention in Boston, 4-6 January 2013. I’m speaking on panel 384 ‘What Is a Journal? Toward a Theory of Periodical Studies’ convened by Matthew Philpotts alongside Ann Ardis, Dallas Liddle, and Sean Latham. The panel is on Friday 4 January 2013 in Public Garden, Sheraton, 5:15-6:30pm, and will be chaired by J. Stephen Murphy. You can read all the papers on the ESPRit website.]

The Matter with Media

Any theory of the periodical must recognize both the materiality of each individual printed object and the broader virtual structures that give it meaning. Periodicals, just like any other serial text, are established through the interplay of sameness and difference, where changing content is presented through a set of features that recur, issue after issue. No article is encountered in isolation, but sits alongside others on the page, in the issue, and in the issues that have appeared previously; equally, each issue reminds readers of those that have come before and promises more to follow. In my contribution to this panel, I want to foreground this interplay between what stays the same across a periodical and what differs to explore mediality more broadly. Reading is a practice, I argue, that depends upon contact with a material object in order to discard and forget those aspects deemed merely formal. Periodicals, which complement the necessary repetition that drives textual signification with both an explicitly-marked set of repetitive formal features (regular layout, typography, graphical features etc) and the repetition of seriality more broadly (the appearance of the next issue), remind us of the constitutive role of the repetitive and generic, even if that role is to be forgotten.


Periodicals manifest the logic of repetition that defines the practice of print, and it is on these lines that we must think theoretically. Yet repetition can be frustratingly invisible. Those trained in literary studies are particularly susceptible to the seduction of exceptionality, the telling difference that establishes the importance of this text amongst all others. Historicist scholarship of various kinds is likewise attuned to the significant case study, especially if it can be posited as a site of resistance to dominant cultural trends. Such approaches are a response to the problem of abundance: when there is too much to read, it is easier to focus on the exceptional and leave the recurring and predictable reassuringly undefined. Yet there have been a number of important recent moves to recognise repetition. The return to form in nineteenth-century studies, sometimes called cultural neo-formalism, offers an explicit recognition of both the meaning of form and, especially in recent work on meter, its connection with repetition.1 Equally, disciplines such as book history and textual scholarship have long grappled with questions of continuity and how these are established across different textual objects. The embrace of distant reading in the digital humanities has directed attention to patterns that are only discernible across large textual corpora.2

Genre provides a way of conceptualising formal repetition while rooting it in cultural production. It is more than just typology: it is both situational and pragmatic, mediating between a specific utterance and the social situation in which it occurs. For writers, it provides a set of productive constraints, a repertoire of forms inherited from the past and already known to readers; for readers, genre tempers the novelty of new texts and connects them to existing social formations. For Bakhtin, it is the social aspect of genre that accounts for its transmission and its effect, arising from particular situations and delimiting possible meaning. Yet genre is not simply a phenomena of text, but describes a whole host of recurring forms that are embedded in the material fabric of the everyday.3 Carolyn Miller’s reformulation of genre as ‘social action’ foregrounds the pragmatic, extending genre beyond a simple definition of textuality to encompass the recurring forms of social life.4 Genre makes things happen and it is in this pragmatic sense that it can help us understand seriality.

Genre operates in a number of ways for periodicals.5 As miscellanies (and all periodicals are in some way miscellaneous), they combine a number of different textual genres (leading article, review, advertisement, news, literary genres such as fiction or verse). This configuration of textual genres will situate a periodical within a periodical genre (journal, review, magazine, miscellany), which will also be marked by a range of formal features (paper size, typography, illustration, price). The periodical itself is a type of print genre: a serial, but distinct (more or less) from both the newspaper and the work issued in parts. All these aspects of genre help define the periodical and allow it to serve a range of social functions, circulating particular types of texts for particular configurations of readers. However, just as genre enables social interaction, so the dynamic of seriality entails a sort of contract: publishers attempted to anticipate the demands of their readers by giving them more of what they had already demonstrated they wanted; readers repeatedly spent their money on the understanding that they would not be disappointed. Each issue of a periodical responds to a particular moment, orienting content towards the perceived interests of its readers, while restating its underlying identity. In this way, the abstract identity of the periodical, imperfectly manifested in each individual issue, is a negotiated, consensual structure into which new content could be assimilated as a version of the familiar. Every new issue is already attuned to this structure, and the repetition of (predominantly formal) features reaffirms its presence.

Periodicals, like all serials, foreground the repetitive structures that underpin all genres to assert their identity between individual issues. When we read periodicals from the past, we have to recreate the effect of repetition, comparing articles, issues, and volumes in order to discern the underlying structures. Although these are to an extent recoverable, what we can never experience is the effect of currentness, of the latest issue to be published. This always has a special status, its novelty tempered by the way it invokes all the issues that have preceded it. The presence of the current issue, which speaks to a moment that still unfolds, marks its predecessors as belonging to the past despite their respective connections to their moments of publication. Yet even this issue projects its structures into the future through its recapitulation of virtual form. The formal rhetoric of the current issue, just like its predecessors, asserts that the future is knowable, and can be reconciled with a virtual structure that is laid out in advance.

The virtual structures partially manifested in every issue assert a centripetal force to counter the tendency towards fragmentation inherent in miscellanies. The introduction of difference in these partial manifestations in turn re-write the virtual structures, allowing periodicals to shift their identity according to the vicissitudes of the market. Yet it is the effect of seriality that I want to stress here. The repetition of features that signal continuity enforce the difference between form and content, with form associated with what stays the same and content with whatever changes. Considered in this way, genre accounts for the way media mediate.

Digital Mediation

Reading sorts form from content; it delineates the contours of the mediating object and then marks it as supplementary. The repetition of generic forms helps the reader attribute signifiers to bibliographic and linguistic codes and then determine which constitute the material text and which can be discarded. This is textuality as both ‘methodological field’ (as defined by Barthes) and ‘material event’ (as defined by McGann), with reading the practice that produces the distinction between the forms that structure textual content and those belonging to the mediating object.6 Attention tends to be focused on the production of meaning, but this means that the production of the accompanying mediating object is frequently overlooked. As N. Katherine Hayles has noted, no set of bibliographic codes can encompass the totality of the signifying object: instead, bibliographic codes permit certain aspects of materiality to manifest themselves, effectively producing a bounded, signifying object from the repository of unknowable materiality that Bill Brown has called ‘a thing’.7 It is what we do with objects that produces their material effects, and reading is a practice that delineates a set of structures in order to make them disappear.

The recent digitization of the nineteenth-century press has radically altered the terms under which we encounter the periodicals from the period. The reliance on OCR-generated textual transcripts asserts an identity between what a periodical means with whatever is written on the page. At the same time, the use of page images as a reading text (they hide any errors in the transcript) makes the appearance of nineteenth-century print much more accessible. Because the transcripts are used as an index, there is an asymmetry here, with the verbal information privileged over everything else. It is the verbal text – or rather, the representation of the verbal text in the transcript – that organizes material and makes it recoverable. As keyword searching is foregrounded in the interface, many of the mediating structures of the printed periodical are elided as articles are returned according to the words or phrases they contain. While the page images provide access to visual representations of many of the bibliographic codes, the focus on the article as the constitutive unit of the periodical makes it difficult to recover the repetitive structures that define this type of publication. There are a set of repetitive features at article level – typography for instance, or textual genre – and the article is, of course, an important unit within a periodical, but such features only become meaningful with repetition, and this means resituating the article on the page and within the section, issue, and volume. Most resources are based on two sets of elisions: they encourage users to overlook the way they mediate (and so define) content, offering themselves as transparent gateways rather than publications in their own right; and they circumvent the various levels of structure that situate the article within the periodical. These elisions are an encoded feature, a deliberate attempt to reproduce the effect of a particular type of reading focused on the verbal information contained within articles. However, different uses produce different objects, so by changing the way we interact with the configurations of hardware and software that produce such effects, we can generate different representations of the periodical.8 By directing our attention to the material properties of digital resources – routinely concealed in an attempt to offer an apparently unmediated encounter with nineteenth-century text – we can make visible the elided repetitive structures of the periodical. Rather than use processing power to differentiate between articles in order to find the ‘correct’ one, we can use it to map the generic and the repetitive.

Our familiarity with Google’s search engine blinds us to the significance of abundance. The reason there are so many hits is that the same word or phrase recurs multiple times. This might be the result of some significant event and, given that most resources are designed to help users find articles about something, such abundance is unproblematic: just like with Google’s search, the user is usually happy with one or two hits, and can disregard the rest. Google routinely excludes hits that it thinks duplicate content (although you can, of course, opt to see them), but in doing so it masks the inter-connectedness that drives the web. Similarly, even a casual user of digital resources based on periodicals will find repetitions that result from the inter-connections that structured print culture. Periodicals mention, quote from, and articulate themselves against their rivals; they also directly republish content, whether deriving from beyond the publication (advertisements, news) or as part of the wider culture of reprinting. But there are also those repetitions that mark the recurrent features of a periodical. These include the repetition of titles, advertisements, particular types of article, notices, or any other repetitive textual features. Due to the asymmetry encoded into such resources, these analyses remain grounded in verbal information and analyses of non-verbal features usually rely on the addition of some sort of metadata. Yet it is only by turning our attention to the unrealised and frequently forgotten materiality of digital media – the way digital media mediate – that we can acknowledge and address the generic and repetitive aspects of periodical publication. The role of these features might be to be forgotten, but we cannot afford to do so if we are to understand what makes periodicals periodical.

1 See J.R. Rudy, ‘On Cultural Neoformalism, Spasmodic Poetry, and the Victorian Ballad’, Victorian Poetry, 41 (2003), 590–596 and Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics (Athens, OH: University of Ohio Press, 2009). [back]
2 For some recent discussions of distant reading and the nineteenth-century press see Dallas Liddle, ‘Reflections on 20,000 Victorian Newspapers: ‘Distant Reading’ The Times using The Times Digital Archive’ and Robert Nicholson, ‘Counting Culture; or, How to Read Victorian Newspapers from a Distance’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 17 (2012): 230-7; 238-46. [back]
3 For genre and materiality, see John Frow, Genre (London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 12-15. [back]
4 See Carolyn R. Miller, ‘Genre as Social Action’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70 (1984), 151–167. [back]
5 Genre remains overlooked with regards to the periodical. The only book to engage extensively with genre in the nineteenth-century press is Dallas Liddle’s The Dynamics of Genre: Journalism and the Practice of Literature in Mid-Victorian Britain (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2009). [back]
6 See Roland Barthes, ‘From Work to Text’, in Image, Music, Text, ed. and trans. by Stephen Heath (1971; London: Fontana, 1977), p. 157 and Jerome McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 21. [back]
7 Hayles, ‘Translating Media: Why We Should Rethink Textuality’, The Yale Journal of Criticism, 16 (2003), 263–290. Brown, ‘Thing Theory’, Critical Inquiry, 28 (2001), 1–22. [back]
8A good example of how different uses produce different objects focusing on nineteenth-century print is Leah Price’s How to do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012). [back]

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.