Something in the Air: Ether, Viruses, and the Late Nineteenth-Century Unknown [3/3]

The ether was known theoretically and was mathematically demonstrable; however, it defiantly resisted materialization. In contrast, I’d briefly like to offer another scientific object, this time one that was not imponderable, but that also refused to materialize in the late nineteenth century.

In 1889 influenza broke out in St Petersburg, and rapidly spread across Europe. London was one of the last European capitals to be affected and, as the pandemic spread from city to city, its population had five weeks to monitor its progress. The last recorded pandemic had been in 1847, and so people were confident that improved sanitary conditions and medical science would halt the spread of infection. Since then germs had been identified as the causative agents of both cholera and tuberculosis and a germ was confidently mooted as the cause of influenza. However, the germ – the material, causative agent of what were otherwise interpersonal effects across space – eluded doctors while progressing rapidly across Europe and then, eventually, around the United Kingdom.

The 1889 influenza pandemic was characterized by high morbidity but low mortality: although deaths were relatively few, the virus was especially contagious; for instance, in London there were 600 deaths, but about half the population – 2 and a half million people – experienced its symptoms. In fact, the failure of medicine to identify the germ permitted influenza to inhabit conditions that were not feasible from a scientific perspective. For instance, outbreaks in the United States and Canada seemed to suggest that not only did the germs travel by railway, but they could also be spread by telegraph; indeed, as the symptoms were not severe and there was no way to establish if the germ was present, allegations that people were either faking the disease or were caught up in what was termed the ‘fashionable epidemic’ suggested that it could be spread by the news, whether received in letters or over the wires, read in the paper, or heard through gossip.

Viruses, particularly since the emergence of the computer virus, have often been used to model the spread of malicious information. What the late nineteenth-century influenza pandemics demonstrate is the way in which information and materiality are connected. A leading physician of the period, Sir Morrell McKenzie, described influenza as, and I quote, ‘the very Proteus of disease, a malady which assumes so many different forms that it seems to be not one, but all diseases’ epitome’.1 He thought influenza was a germ, but it caused its diverse effects by affecting the nervous system. From his medical perspective, influenza had to be a thing, but its effects could only be explained if it was thought of as information in a system, i.e. the nerves. Influenza, of course, is etymologically linked to the idea of influence, and the contagious nature of the ‘flu allowed it to represent other sources of pathological influence in the period – for instance the poisonous influences exposed by the trial of Oscar Wilde. Just as influence questions the idea of the autonomous subject, so viruses challenge the idea of autonomous bodies, whether individual or social.

Without a body of its own, influenza could pass from the biological to the social, from material object to information, from bodies to minds. Unlike the ether, a causative agent was vigorously pursued that could unite symptoms in the body and permit its spread to be traced. Without such an agent, the knowable aspects of phenomena fall away into the chaos of the unknown. In the late nineteenth century both influenza and the ether were fluid entities that questioned the boundedness of things by suggesting they were connected in unknown ways. As such, both concepts offered themselves in ways that could be known – germ theory, Maxwell’s equations – while also suggesting that they existed in ways in excess of scientific knowledge. This necessary supplement to objectification – the virtual unconscious – writes the social and psychological into scientific knowledge while also guaranteeing it as provisional: scientific objects are thus rendered provisional media through which new things can and cannot be known.

1 Morrell MacKenzie, ‘Influenza’, Fortnightly Review 55 (June 1891), 877-86 (p. 881). [back]

Something in the Air: Ether, Viruses, and the Late Nineteenth-Century Unknown [2/3]

Now this was recognized at the time. In a short note to the journal Mind in 1905 on the relationship between thought and reality, the physicist Oliver Lodge wrote:

One method of constructing a theory is by the use of analogies and working models: of which it is a commonplace to say that, however good they may be, they must fail in representation at some stage, or else they must be no analogy but the thing itself.1

This difference, for Lodge, is important as it maintains the boundary between mind and model and model and reality. But it is also a creative difference, the model allowing new aspects of reality to emerge. Lodge gives the ether as an example of something intangible that we only know theoretically and Maxwell’s theories of electromagnetism as theory that was later proved experimentally. However, despite these fairly well-defined examples, Lodge cautions that in certain cases – ‘in the transcendental, or ultra-mundane, or super-sensual region’ – such models are limited as they lack a definite boundary condition (295). In such cases, he argues, there can only be suspended judgement or ‘a tentative scheme or working hypothesis, to be held undogmatically in an attitude of constant receptiveness of further light, and in full readiness for modification and improvement’ (295). Although he states these are different to scientific theories, their difference is not ontological but related to the subject. Lacking a boundary condition, these theories do not produce the expected results of a well-made scientific theory because they are not defined enough. Rather than approach objectivity, they are within the mind, are non-objectified, and constitute spaces through which unknown things can emerge.

These three scientific objects – the ether, the electromagnetic spectrum (i.e. light), and Maxwell’s equations – are all connected and together they provide an important exemplar of something that is both well-defined and yet so nebulous that it stands between the subject and the nonhuman unconscious. The ether was an elusive substance that arose in order to account for the otherwise empty spaces in the universe. By the late nineteenth century, it had become a fundamental component of wave theory: if sound was transmitted through vibrations in the air, then there must be an equivalent medium to produce light. The work of Helmholtz, Thomson and Maxwell from the 1840s onwards refined the action of the ether and, as Maxwell’s equations set out the mathematical principles behind a unified theory of electromagnetism, it soon became established as the medium through which all such invisible forces could act.

Although objects clearly affected one another in mechanical, physical and chemical ways, the ether brought into being relationships on a stubbornly subvisible level. Conceptions of magnetic and electric fields had already extended the limits of objects beyond their physical edges to the limits of their influence. These limits, however, were not absolute, and rather than distinguishing between different objects, they instead served to demarcate areas of mutual effect. Once the ether was considered the medium for these effects, space was transformed from the thing that separated discrete entities and instead became what connected them: in other words, the ether challenged the autonomy of things, putting into question their boundaries while reaffirming their influence upon one another.

This idea extended the ether into matter. Mid to late nineteenth-century physcists conceived of atoms and molecules as swirling vortices of ether: ether, in other words, made solid by the forces that it carried. Although the emergence of the electron at the turn of the century conceived charge as a particle rather than wave, it further reaffirmed the importance of the ether. As charge and atomic mass were known, the physics of the atomic model suggested that the distance between the nucleus and the orbiting electrons was relatively large: atoms, then, were also mostly empty, constituted by force acting over space rather than matter.

The ether put the world into motion, denying the boundaries of things and insisting on a complex network of unseen effects. The human body, of course, was part of this, and ether theory was easily applied to social relations. For instance, Lodge argued that:

There are those who think that these material bodies represent ourselves, – our personality, our memory, and our character. If they can work out everything by that hypothesis, by all means let them do so. But let them also take the whole of the facts into account. The atoms are not isolated, and we are not isolated. We are members one of another. There is a link between the atoms.1

Lodge was a spiritualist, joining the Society for Psychical Research in 1884 and taking over the Presidency after Myers’s death in 1901. He argued, cautiously, by analogy: if matter affects matter, and we are composed of matter, then so too might mind affect mind. Here the ether becomes the medium for thinking both the world and its organization: once matter is conceived as a system of effects, the boundaries between mind and world disappear.

The ether offers itself as an unrepressed unconscious that is vital for, but resistant to, scientific objectification. Although universal, the ether was not detectable. Rather, its presence was necessary to permit other parts of science – electromagnetic phenomena, atomic structure – to emerge. The ether facilitated relations, between minds, bodies, and things, while also constituting thoughts, force and energy. Its capacity to be both the way in which we become conscious of the world, and the world itself, meant that the ether could never be an object in its own right; rather, it was an interface that permitted the nonhuman to be known.

1 Oliver Lodge, ‘Note Concerning Thought and Reality’, Mind, 14 (1905), 294–95 (295). [back]
Sir Oliver Lodge, The Link Between Matter and Matter (London: British Science Guild, 1925), p. 15. [back]

Something in the Air: Ether, Viruses, and the Late Nineteenth-Century Unknown [1/3]

[These posts are based on a position paper I wrote for a panel on the unrepressed unconscious for the first Subjectivity conference way back in 2008. In the panel, ‘Contagions, Rhythms and Energies’, Jan Campbell, Lisa Blackman, and I discussed the various ways an unrepressed unconscious might help explain various fugitive connections and the flows of affect they enable. I never did anything with this work, but thought it might make a good series of posts ahead of Spirits in the Ether: Oliver Lodge and the Physics of the Spirit World at the Royal Institution next week.]

In ‘The Subliminal Consciousness’ Frederic Myers famously recast consciousness as a spectrum, in which what we habitually understand as consciousness, the ’empirical self’, is merely one part of a subliminal consciousness ‘indefinitely extended at both ends.’1 However, it is not just the spectrum that Myers imagines, but the spectrum as imaged by the spectroscope. The spectroscope was a means of ascertaining the elemental contents of a light source, whether this was the flame emitted by a burning chemical compound in the lab, or the light emitted by a star many years ago in a galaxy far, far away. The light emitted was directed through a prism and projected as a line that corresponded with the electromagnetic spectrum: as different elements have different masses and so correspondingly different wavelengths, they appear as bars against the spectrum. The images produced by the spectroscope were predicated on presence and absence: the lines indicated the presence of a substance but the gaps registered absence as virtual presence, a possible presence disavowed.

Spectroscopic image from Sir Norman Lockyer, KCB, FRS, 'Preliminary Note on the Spectrum of the Corona', Proceedings of the Royal Society, 64 (1898-9), facing 170.

Image from Sir Norman Lockyer, KCB, FRS, ‘Preliminary Note on the Spectrum of the Corona’, Proceedings of the Royal Society, 64 (1898-9), facing 170.

The spectroscope reveals what is there at the same time in the context of what is not. However, this sense of immanence, of an absent phenomena signalled by what is present, is not really the same as an unrepressed unconscious. What is missing in the spectroscopic view is ultimately knowable and predictable: it is a gap or absence in a coherent system. In using the spectroscope as a metaphor, Myers employed both the latest research into subvisible electromagnetic radiation and the powerful rhetoric of the spectroscopic image to legitimate his hypotheses regarding psychical phenomena. Yet in doing so, he displaced a model of the subliminal consciousness that, because founded on the unknowable, was suggestive and generative, to one that was always potentially knowable. In the posts that follow, I want to suggest that scientists in the late nineteenth century had a troubled relationship with the unrepressed unconscious. In thrall to nature’s mysteries and its potential for the unexpected, scientific discourse nonetheless attempted to isolate new phenomena and give them shape. Whether by defining their edges or establishing intergrity through demonstrable repeatability, the scientific project of objectification insisted that nature was, ultimately, knowable. Although nineteenth-century scientific rhetoric often gestured towards the mysteries at its edges, often to romanticize the scientific project or maintain conceptual space in the cosmos for God, the condition of nature as a suggestive state of the unknown was only temporary, something to be gradually eroded by a new nature that made sense. The tools of science were designed to carefully distinguish between the observer, whatever was observed, and the chaos against which it was observed; however, such structured relationships could only be predicated upon the knowable aspects of things, their hard edges and predictable behaviour, producing a world that was haunted by what was left out. In the posts that follow, I will describe some of the ways in which nineteenth-century science produced the troublesome entities at its margins. Looking again at such things not only tells us much about how people understood the world around them, but also provides an opportunity to think again about our world. When objects exceed the way we imagine them, we confront a nonhuman unconscious whose otherness we share. It comes down to reading between the lines.

1 F.W.H. Myers, ‘The Subliminal Consciousness’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 7 (1892), 306. [back]


[I’m giving the Wolff lecture at the 2016 RSVP Conference at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. I cut this section, on catalogues and the British Museum, out of the lecture, but, as it makes sense on its own, have posted it below].

Abundance, excess, is the precondition of all bibliographical activity: tools such as catalogues and indexes structure that abundance, create difference, and so enable content to emerge. In other words, by instituting what gets left out, both outside the collection and in the spaces between entries, bibliographical tools both write a collection while leaving matter unwritten, room for others to return and write the collection anew.

A good example of this can be found in that most abundant collection of printed objects, the British Museum. The walls of the museum and its many miles of shelves might have gathered together the physical objects, but without bibliographic tools the collection itself to represent them to readers they were simply rows and rows of volumes, loosely arranged by subject and inaccessible to their readers. There were a number of catalogues, usually trade publications, that provided an overview of the growth of the press. There were the press directories, most obviously, as well as publications like Longman’s London Catalogue of Periodicals, and the first edition of Sampson Low’s English Catalogue (1864) had an appendix listing periodicals from 1835 to 1863. However, the largest collection of periodicals and newspapers was to be found in the British Museum and it was in the burgeoning sets of manuscript volumes that constituted its catalogue that the growth in print could be most readily be appreciated. Between 1813 and 1819 a catalogue to the Sloane collection and Royal Library was printed in seven volumes; these had then been interleaved to receive manuscript editions with the intention of printing an updated edition in the future. However, work was printed and collected quicker than it was catalogued: by 1851 the 23 volumes had become 150; by 1869 1500; by 1875 they it had reached two thousand, fifty of which were dedicated to solely to periodicals.1

Printing was itself a form of bibliographical control, reducing the size of the catalogue and bringing its edges into view. It would also make the catalogue reproducible and distributable, allowing this version of the Museum’s collections to move beyond its walls. Barbara McCrimmon’s excellent book, Power, Politics, and Print, sets out the history of the catalogue’s printing. Briefly, in 1839 the Trustees ordered the catalogue printed. Panizzi, who preferred to complete the manuscript catalogue first, reluctantly complied but, when the first volume ‘A’ appeared in 1841 it was so full of errors that, horrified, he halted production and instead reorganized the compilation of the manuscript catalogue.2 It was not until 1880, the year after Panizzi’s death, that another attempt was made. The Principal Librarian Edward Bond persuaded the Trustees that the Museum should print manuscript volumes when they became so large they needed rebinding. The first to be printed was volume 43 of ‘A’ and, from there, it was fairly straightforward to make the case to print the rest. It was estimated that there were 2500 volumes of the manuscript catalogue to print; when it finally appeared in December 1900 the General Catalogue filled 374 printed volumes.3 A catalogue of newspapers – the first – was published in 1905 as a supplement.4

The British Museum’s collections were mediated by two sets of books: the manuscript volumes, bulging from the manuscript additions pasted inside; and the printed volumes, neatly uniform, with every entry rendered in the same type. The manuscript volumes allowed readers to view the collections as an ordered whole; the printed volumes then condensed this representation further, reifying it as a set. In each case the codex form encompassed the collection within its covers, the capaciousness of the book recreating that of the walls of the Museum. Like all bibliographical projects, loss was incorporated into this assertion of control. The collection itself, in all its diversity, had been reduced to handwritten slips; these slips, themselves subject to bibliographic control, were then further standardized through print. The triumph of the General Catalogue was its provisional assertion of order, the glimpse it offered of print culture tamed. Yet it was only a glimpse. Twenty years in production, its neatly uniform volumes offered a snapshot of a collection that no longer existed, that had escaped the limits through which it was necessarily described.

1 Barbara McCrimmon, Power, Politics and Print: The Publication of the British Museum Catalogue, 1881-1900 (Hamden, Conn: Linnet Books, 1981), p. 19, 96. [back]
2 McCrimmon, Power, Politics and Print, p. 20-1. See also David McKitterick, ‘Organizing Knowledge in Print’, Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, edited by David McKitterick, 6 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 542. [back]
3 See McCrimmon, Power, Politics and Print, chapters seven and eight. For the management of the printed catalogue, see Alec Hyatt King, ‘The Traditional Maintenance of the General Catalogue of Printed Books,’ in The Library of the British Museum: Retrospective Essays on the Department of Printed Books, edited by P.R. Harris (London: British Library, 1991), pp. 165-199. [back]
4 For its manuscript predecessors see P. R. Harris, A History of the British Museum Library, 1753-1973 (London: British Library, 1998), p. 327. [back]

Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (4/4)


For Derrida, secrets make us tremble not in anticipation of what is to come, but rather because of what has come before:

We tremble in the strange repetition that ties an irrefutable past (a shock has been felt, some trauma has already affected us) to a future that cannot be anticipated; anticipated but unpredictable; apprehended, yet, and this is why there is a future, apprehended precisely as unforeseeable, unpredictable; approached as unapproachable.1

Every revelation is, then, a kind of disappointment as what is revealed falls short of that absolute mystery, the end we cannot foresee, that makes us tremble. For Derrida, this is the value of secrecy, allowing the mystery of the end to be buried anew in the otherwise apparent revelation of truth. If Brooks and Benjamin are right, the pleasure we take in narrative derives from a similar dynamic. Telling tales allows us to experience endings at second hand: not only have the events told, if real, already happened, but the ending, the reassuring limit that allows us to see the whole, belongs to someone else. Narrative, like the secrecy upon which it depends, is about glimpsing the end while concealing it anew. For Derrida the logic of secrecy is that a secret is, and I quote, ‘never better kept than in being exposed’. Secrets make us tremble because they make a show of revelation. Every secret told promises to reveal the truth; but each revelation only represses the contingency of the present. What secrets tell us is that the truth is provisional; that the true remains so only until somebody else tells.

1 Jacques Derrida, ‘The Gift of Death’, The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret, translated by David Wills (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 55.[back]

Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (3/4)

Telling Secrets

One of the paradoxes of reading, especially novel-reading, is that it creates an intimacy that is no intimacy at all. The mythical promise of reading – the unmediated touch of one mind upon another – is enabled by an object that is not the reader’s alone. Secrecy is essential for all kinds of narrative, its premise – that the narrator knows something you don’t, but will tell all – is designed to elicit and then sustain the desire to know. As Peter Brooks has noted, there is something fugitive – he calls it a ‘subterranean logic’ – about the way narratives are structured.1 As he points out, plot signals both the boundedness of a plan as well as a conspiracy of some kind. Plot, for Brooks the organizing logic of narrative, determines what gets revealed when and so is vital for generating narrative suspense. Walter Benjamin, in the ‘Storyteller’, writes that the, and I quote, ‘suspense which permeates the novel is very much like the draft which stimulates the flame in the fireplace and enlivens its play.’2 As this suspense is generated by anticipation and delay, its characterisation as air is appropriate, as is of course the way that it fuels the engine of narrative desire.

Narrative takes part in a particularly morbid gothic economy. The reader’s experience of narrative is as if it is in the present; yet the telling always locates the story at some point in the past. When we read, we live a resurrected past out of time, moving from the told towards the time of telling. For both Benjamin and Brooks, the engine of narrative desire consumes the finite lives of characters as it hurtles the reader towards the end. Narrative endings make wholes: with no more to come, the reader can stop, look back and make sense of beginning and middle. ‘The novel is significant, therefore’, writes Benjamin, ‘not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about’ (100). For Brooks, narrative desire is fuelled by, and I quote, ‘the anticipation of retrospection’ (22). Denied the possibility of understanding our own lives as narrative (while we still live we do not know what is to come), we consume the finite lives of others, instead. There may still be things undisclosed at the end, there may still be secrets kept by characters and narrators, but there is no more to tell.

This is one reason why the book, as object, is so significant. Endings are important as they demarcate units: a story must end before it can be retold. What the book does is align narrative form with material form: when the narrative ends, so does the book. Part of its appeal, both in the nineteenth century and today, I think, is precisely this alignment of narrative form and print technology. Unlike, say, a short story in a volume, or a serial novel in a periodical, one always knows how much more there is to go in a book. If narrative ‘demarcates, encloses, establishes limits, order’ to quote Brooks, then the book achieves this through its material form (4). While certainly not the only way in which narratives circulated in the period – nor, indeed, the most common – the book was privileged because of its putative wholeness. Binding serves as a material complement to narrative endings, joining the covers around content to produce an object that can circulate or, in a different version of narrative resurrection, be shelved, left, and read again. Both narrative and codex are technologies for structured revelation: secrecy, then, is curiously written through the form of the book.

New books were expensive in the period, but books themselves were commonplace. In fact, the high price of new books made them more public: the books that were read were mostly old texts in new (cheap) reprints, or those already been read by others, whether obtained second hand or through a library. Yet the book retained links with concealment. T.P. O’Connor, for instance, writing in 1889 about the new journalism in the New Review, remarked that, and and I quote, the ‘newspaper is not read in the secrecy and silence of the closet as is the book.’3 O’Connor stresses the opposition between public newspaper and private book for rhetorical effect; as Leah Price has recently made clear in How To Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain (2012), the book’s relationship with sociality or asociality is much more complex. Book culture is structured by the interplay between inside and outside, text and object, and that goes for readers too. Nonetheless, there is something about the combination of material and narrative form that fosters the middle-class model of the perfect reader, reading alone, transported out of his or her body, in intimate communion with the mind of the author.

Not all books have a linear narrative running through them and many use the form of the codex for other purposes. Below, for instance, is Townsend’s Manual of Dates (first edition 1862, this is the fourth). It is, and I quote, ‘a concise and trustworthy compendium of the principal events of Ancient and Modern times.’ There are over eleven thousand entries, arranged alphabetically, with a supplementary index at the back. This is not a book for reading, but for mining; this is not a narrative but a repository. Although a kind of resurrection remains possible, bringing long lost facts back to life, the perfect archive should store but not conceal; it should not, in other words, keep secrets. However, archives are at least doubly marked by intentionality: firstly, the contents of the archive is determined by a process of selection; secondly, in the information architecture itself – the organization of content, the indexing – that structures where items are located and how they’re found. Nobody would read Townsend’s Manual of Dates from cover to cover: the book still has an ending, a final page, but its content goes on.

Frontispiece for George H. Townsend, The Manual of Dates: A Dictionary of Reference to the Most Important Events in the History of Mankind to be Found in Authentic Records, ed. by William W. Croft, 4th ed. (1862; London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1874), p. iii

George H. Townsend, The Manual of Dates: A Dictionary of Reference to the Most Important Events in the History of Mankind to be Found in Authentic Records, ed. by William W. Croft, 4th ed. (1862; London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1874), iii

This difference in codex forms is nicely played out in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. When published weekly in All the Year Round over eight months in 1868, The Moonstone had a syncopated rhythm in which narrative breaks between periods, narratives and chapters were also broken by the pauses between parts. The book, published by Tinsley before the serial came to an end, elided the gaps between numbers while bringing the end into view. The novel is an exemplary analysis of narrative secrets: characters keep secrets from each other and the reader; the various narrators all pretend they don’t know what’s going to happen. In weaving its narratives together, Franklin Blake plots the narrative that both clears him of guilt and straightens him out. Although the frame narrative focusing on the moonstone troubles the sense of closure, the book ends with the identity of the thief revealed, the moonstone restored, and the marriage plot fulfilled. Yet when Blake travels to Yorkshire to tell Betteredge, loyal servant of the Verinder family, that Rosanna is pregnant, Betteredge already knows. Betteredge forestalls this final revelation by dipping into Robinson Crusoe. Here, Defoe’s novel is treated like Townsend’s Manual of Dates, an archive of useful fragments rather than a linear narrative. In an novel of secrets, this final one is no secret at all (of course Rosanna is pregnant, the marriage plot demands it); if narrative is about revealing secrets, genre is about setting out the framework within which such difference is managed. Nonetheless, Betteredge has substituted one regime of bookishness, the book as linear narrative, with another, the book as archive or collection. One regime of secrecy supplants another.

1Peter Brooks, ‘Reading for the Plot’, Reading for the Plot (1984; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 11-12. [back]
2Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov’, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (1970; London: Pimlico. 1999), p. 99. [back]
3T.P. O’Connor, ‘The New Journalism’, New Review, 1 (1889), p. 434. [back]

Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century (2/4)

On Secrets

Secrecy represents the pathological other to communication. If public life is based upon social intercourse, then secrecy is an impediment to the exchange of information. Yet public life is not solely about untrammelled communication, whether for liberal Victorians who understood themselves in terms of their difference from foreign despots, or over-sharing millennials on Facebook. Privacy has always been a necessary counterpart to publicity, all the more fiercely defended when new ways of connecting people seem to enable publicity to encroach too far. Neither publicity nor privacy exists in isolation and the borders between the two shift at particular periods. Equally, both are multilayered and experienced variously according to who one is. Yet, intertwined though they are, the relationship between publicity and privacy is not equal. As publicity means accountability, privacy, while recognized as necessary, is only permitted under sufferance. The private, a space to nurture the self, is always a contested space, carved out in the shadows of oppressive openness and incessant exchange. Privacy’s necessary concealments are justified by trust; however, whereas privacy is a legitimate secreting away, secrecy implies that this might be abused. The secret, then, offers an affront to publicity because it troubles the boundaries of acceptable privacy. The problem, of course, is how to distinguish between the discrete nondisclosures that safeguard privacy from surreptitious activity carried out in secret.

For the Victorians, both publicity and privacy were venerated as cornerstones of national life. Publicity was celebrated as public square, the ideal market where strangers could meet on equal terms and do business; or, as Alexander Welsh, in particular, has argued, the light of public opinion, guide for both sovereign Parliament and, in the case of those whose stories found their way into the papers, the judge of private behaviour. With its roots in utilitarianism, publicity was not just heralded as a good thing, but as the basis for goodness itself. But publicity’s expansion, depersonalized and bureaucratized, undermined the basis of publicity by threatening the individual selves that, in liberal ideology, constituted the public. The private was the public’s necessary supplement, a space in which the self could develop that moral sense that was then mobilized by publicity. Private space, epitomized by the middle-class home, was celebrated as both hallmark of national character – the Englishman’s home and all that – and safeguard of a class-bound and gendered subjectivity that was generalized for all. Of course, access to privacy was limited to those with means; like the franchise, those without the resources to create private spaces of their own were considered unworthy of trust. It was no coincidence that the urban working classes were subject to surveillance by the regimes of law, public health, and Mrs Pardiggles. Without the means, the only way to assert the right to escape publicity was by tolerating it.

Secrecy was universally despised. In public life, secrecy was suspiciously foreign, the refuge of continental despots; in private life, it represented the failure of character, the inability to live as one should without promptings from others. As David Vincent has shown, this explains the outrage that followed the 1844 Post Office scandal, as well as the late development of the secret service.1 These high ideological stakes meant that the uncertain border where privacy edged over into secrecy was a point of particular obsession. The home, for instance, provided rich material for novelists, particularly the sensation novelists of the 1860s. It was also the source of the impossible standards expected of Victorian women, whose behaviour was expected to be exemplary in order to sustain the sanctity of the domestic and justify the right to dwell within it. Victorian middle-class masculinity, gentlemanliness itself, was predicated on discretion but this could conceal hidden ambitions, mask a secret life or a concealed past. Not only was the border between private and public contested and uncertain, then, but so too was that between the private and the secret. And the only way to ensure that privacy was not being abused was to subject it to publicity, to invade private space and root out its secrets.

Keeping secrets places one in the hinterland beyond privacy and so attracts suspicion. Private space, for the Victorians and for us, was understood as necessary to create independent citizens, able to account for themselves in public. However, it is secrecy that creates the individual, the set of differences that make us distinct from one another. Rather than understand secrecy as pathological, then, beyond the legitimate contest between privacy and publicity, perhaps we should understand it as their precondition. The private self privileged in the liberal tradition is, after all, already the result of repression, as the ego establishes itself against its unknown other. If privacy provides the means through which we become socialized as individuals, then the private self is already founded on a secret.

Rather than jeopardize society, secrecy is the barely repressed basis of social life. Not only is the liberal self carved out from the repressed unconscious, but telling secrets provides the means of forging intimacy. The knowledge that someone has a secret generates conflicting feelings: on the one hand, the secret awakens a desire to know; on the other, we want to know why we have not yet been told. Although circumstance vary, not knowing a secret places one at a disadvantage: we know that the truth is other than what it appears, but we depend upon someone else to find out what it is. Telling secrets is both a sacrifice of individuality, as the secret keeper gives up something that makes them different, and a way of creating bonds, as both secret keeper and the person to whom it is told now share something that nobody else knows. Telling secrets breaks down difference while, at the same time, reasserting it as a line is redrawn between those in the know and those that aren’t.

We cannot but keep secrets – to do so would eradicate difference and make us the same – but we build social bonds through partial disclosures, whether these are the whispered intimacies of courting lovers or the putative openness of democratic government. When secrets are shared it creates a connection that, in turn, excludes others. Intimacy is not built on knowing the other – how can it, when we barely know ourselves – but rather on what we choose to share.

1David Vincent, The Culture of Secrecy: Britain, 1832-1998 (Oxford University Press, 1998), chapters one, two and three. [back]

Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century (1/4)

[This is a paper I gave at BAVS in September 2015. I’m in the process of redrafting it for a chapter of my next book, provisionally entitled Whispers of Print. It’s in four parts.]

Tremble. What does one do when one trembles? What is it that makes you tremble?

A secret always makes you tremble. Not simply quiver or shiver, which also happens sometimes, but tremble.1

Why does a secret always make you tremble? For Derrida, secrets make us tremble because they remind us of former trauma. As the secret has not yet been revealed, we do not tremble because of its content – we don’t yet know what it is going to be – but rather because it reminds us of something. ‘We are afraid of the fear’, Derrida writes, ‘we anguish over the anguish, and we tremble’ (55). We know to fear the fear, to anguish over the anguish, because we have experienced such revelations before. The tremble, for Derrida, comes because of something that has already taken place: it is a sign of repetition, of violence breaking out once again. My argument in this series of posts is that what we fear about secrets is the power they have to rewrite the past. The revelation of what was previously concealed means that what I thought was true was actually false. Secrets, no matter how banal, make real life into fiction.

Once a secret is told the world is not the same. The revelation, if accepted, rewrites the past and marks it off as separate from the newly revealed present. Telling secrets, then, is a way of drawing a line between past and present and so moving on, each secret revealed getting closer to the truth. Yet this implies that it is possible to know everything; or, to put it another way, that everything is already there, concealed and waiting to be found out. Such a world is already written, plotted but concealed, with an ending yet to come. But the world is not narrated and absolute disclosure is impossible. Secrets might make us tremble because they make life into fiction, but they also make us tremble for what they tell us about the world. Every secret reveals what is really going on but, at the same time, cannot but remind us that this new world is itself subject to rewritings yet to come.

In the next post, I think a little about the cultural life of secrets. Whereas secrecy might appear to be something aberrant, I will argue that it performs a vital social function, creating bonds between some people and so differences between others. The third post turns to narrative. As structured revelation, narrative depends on secrecy, on letting the other know that you know something and, crucially, you are willing to tell. Narrative, according to Peter Brooks’s reading of Walter Benjamin, is a way of experiencing an ending, a moment in which one can look back and comprehend the story as a whole.2 The book, I will argue, is a privileged cultural object, both in the nineteenth century and today, because it maps narrative onto its material form. The everydayness of books means it is easy to overlook their role as both repositories of secrets and engines of structured revelation, but if narrative allows us to enjoy what Brooks calls the ‘anticipation of retrospection’ (22), then the book’s numbered pages make explicit when it is to come.

1 Jacques Derrida, ‘The Gift of Death’, The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret, translated by David Wills (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 54.[back]
2 Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot (1984; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 22.[back]

Debating the Book

[On Thursday 8 October I’m taking part in a public debate on the Future of the Book at the University of Leeds, part of the White Rose Consortium’s Debating the Book festival. My fellow debaters (debatees?) are the University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton, Stella Butler; Professor Brian Cummings (York); the CEO of Waterstones, James Daunt; the novelist, Linda Grant; Dr Bridgette Wessels (Sheffield), and we will be chaired by Melvyn Bragg. Further details about the debate are here and about the festival here. We’ve been asked to give short opening statements. Mine’s below.]

One of the remarkable things about the book is how readily ‘book’ now describes something without paper and ink. We had books before the invention of printing, so it shouldn’t really be a surprise that we now have digital books. There is lots to say about the differences between print and digital books: about the way the form of one has been incorporated into the other, for instance; or the way digital properties make us look again at print. But what interests me is what they have in common. When we’re no longer talking about paper and ink, what is a book?

For me, this is about wholes. The book describes something bounded, something complete, and this has a peculiar appeal in a digital world where everything is connected.

The book establishes wholeness in two different ways. Firstly, the page sets out edges, marking off where the text stops and the rest of the world begins. More importantly, the sequence of pages, one after the other, establishes temporal boundaries – a start and an end – as well as a sense of direction. It is this sequence of pages that makes a book a book. You just have to look at how wary ebooks have been to leave behind the linearity of the codex and embrace multi-dimensional hypertextuality. Although in practice not all books are read cover-to-cover, what we tend to think of as a book starts on page one and ends when there is no more to read.

This, I think, is important, as it means that the form of the book, whether paper and ink or bits and bytes, is well-suited to structuring narrative. Narrative, the telling of stories, is fundamental to the way in which we understand ourselves and the world we live in. I don’t mean that we make the world up, but that narratives are how we put things in order, establish chains of cause and effect, and, crucially know where to start and to end. Narratives break the chaos of the world into chunks that have some sort of integrity and can be retold again and again.

The thing is, narratives can be tricky. Where does a story really start? And how do we know it’s finished? I don’t know how well you remember Alice in Wonderland, but there is a bit where the Red King, sitting in judgement over the Knave of Hearts, asks the White Rabbit to read a poem in evidence against him:

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. ‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asked.
‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

The book incarnates narrative. It gives it a body. Not only does it make clear beginnings and endings, you also always know much there is to go. And, because you turn the pages, you are the engine that drives the story on. Good books – in print or digital – move us. But we, crucially, also move through them.

Living with technology: the printing press

[As part of a new discovery module at the University of Leeds, I was asked to be filmed taking about the printing press as technology. I was going to extemporize (there’s so much to say, and they only wanted 3-4 minutes), but as I’ve never used an autocue before, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try it out. Here’s the script.]

It is hard to overstate the importance of the printing press. For about 500 years, printed material has shaped both the way we communicate, whether mediating between those living alongside us, or allowing us to read material from the past or bequeath our own to the future. In many ways, print’s very ubiquity has blinded us to its contours, to the way it shapes the material to which it gives shape. But now, in what’s sometimes called the late age of print, when electronic communication offers an alternative medium for reading and writing, we are beginning to see print and its legacy anew.

Print is a technology of copying. After some experimentation, its technical basis was more or less stable from 1500 until the introduction of steam in early nineteenth century. As with all technological shifts, older methods persisted alongside new ways of printing, but steam provided a new motive force that vastly increased the rate of reproduction. It was steam, along with innovations in paper-making, that created the conditions for a mass readership, where large groups of people were reading the same things at the same times. Even so, the everydayness of books was a fairly late development. The printed book has long been venerated, but it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that it became a common object found in most households. We have had books for a long time, but for much of this people’s encounter with print would have been in other forms: newspapers and chapbooks; posters and broadsides.

Print is a medium, a way of making text reproducible. As such, it intervenes between the hand that writes and the eye that reads. While we might usefully think of handwriting as a type of technology, too, print makes texts mechanical, the work of a machine. It is curious that few people even notice the shapes of letters or the format of printed texts, instead experiencing reading as a kind of contact with the mind of the author. On the one hand, print masks human agency, making all texts seem like species of the same; on the other, print, a collaboration between a human and a machine, sets text free.

As a technology of reproduction, it is easy to see printing as secondary. Authors do the important creative stuff; printers just turn it into reproducible form. But this is to underestimate the power of copying. For almost half a millennium, print has allowed people to get to know those they have never met; it has served as the basis of a public sphere; and it has archived the world’s knowledge. Now, as we come to terms with a new technology of copying, we are beginning to learn the extent to which we have depended on print, the ways in which this technology has set the conditions for textuality itself.