Ironic errata and Whispers of Print

I’m currently in the privileged position of having research leave and am using the time to finish the manuscript of my monograph, Whispers of Print.  I’ve been working on the book on and off for the past eight years or so and I’m grateful to have the time to finally get the manuscript together.

Titlepage of volume 33 of Dublin Review featuring a crest with two dogs, a castle, and a gaelic harp. The motto reads 'eire go brath'
Titlepage for Dublin Review, 33 (1852). From HathiTrust (2008-), <>

I wrote the chapters out of order but now I’ve drafts of them all I’m working through them consecutively to cut them down to size and make sure they all make sense.  I’m currently still on the first, ‘Damnably Reiterated: Understanding Serial Form’.  Despite being first, it was actually one of the last I wrote, mainly because it’s based on two journal articles: ‘Repetition: Or, “In Our Last”’, which came out in Victorian Periodicals Review in 2015; and ‘Confused and Ill-Arranged: Reading Miscellaneity with Enquire Within’, which was published in Victorian Periodicals Review a few years later in 2020.  The first article addressed seriality, the second miscellaneity, and I’ve revisited both to produce a chapter that makes an argument about how these features structured serial form.

While revising the first part of the chapter I found I’d made a mistake in the earlier journal article on which it was based.  In the article I claimed an unsigned article ‘Summary of German Catholic Literature’, published in the Dublin Review in 1852 was by Jeffrey Francis.  I’m not checking everything as I go but this attribution just didn’t seem right.  I couldn’t remember why I was so certain the author was somebody called Jeffrey Francis.  I knew it couldn’t have been a mistake for the well-known Francis Jeffrey, the noted lawyer, Whig MP, and longstanding editor of the Edinburgh Review .  Not only was it unlikely Jeffrey would have contributed articles on German Catholic literature to a journal based in London but he’d been dead since 1850.  A check in the Wellesley Index revealed the author to be James Burton Robertson, a frequent contributor to the Dublin Review and the author of a number of surveys of Catholic literature in German.  I’ve no idea why I didn’t look before.  I failed periodical studies 101.

I’m very embarassed about this and have duly noted the error in the book.  But what makes all of this particularly galling is that I was using what I thought was Francis’s article to write about errata.  My argument, in both the journal and the book chapter, is that errata demonstrate the povisionality entailed by never coming to an end.  Open-ended serials are predicated on not finishing, on there always being another issue, and so there remains the possibility that whatever is written can be written again.  At the same time, of course, back issues exist as witness to what was written.  As I put it in the chapter, ‘errata attempt the doubly impossible: to rewrite a past that was already written from a standpoint that might itself be rewritten in future.’

The fact that I’m doing the same thing is not lost on me.  A footnote in the chapter records my own errata, rewriting the error I’ve left in the scholarly record.  This blog post does the same thing.  A whiff of seriality runs through both media.  Books get revised (although I don’t imagine Whispers of Print going to a second, revised edition).  My blog is serial, although so irregular that I wouldn’t claim periodicity.  But there’s a more interesting provisionality that underpins all of this.  I’m pretty confident the article was by Robertson (the Wellesley sources are legit) but you never know.  The past is like that.  We write it as we go.

Letterpress Printing: Past, Present, Future

cover of book Letterpress Printing showing a set of spacing
Cover of Letterpress Printing: Past, Present, Future, ed. by Caroline Archer-Parré and James Mussell (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2023).

I’m really pleased to see Letterpress Printing: Past, Present, Future out in the world. Co-edited with Caroline Archer-Parré and published by Peter Lang, the book is a collection of essays that address the state of letterpress printing today. It’s the result of the AHRC Research Network of the same name (Letterpress Printing: Past, Present, Future: AH/P013473/1) that ran from 2017-2018 (details here) and brings together many of the network’s contributors. There are chapters on preserving presses and type and the many ways presses and type are currently being used. There are accounts of how designers finally got access to the composing room as well as various artistic interventions into tyographic practice. The book ranges from a survey of surviving press rooms in institutions of higher education in the UK to the range of people working with letterpress in Portugal to the history of a set of hanzi types currently preserved at Te Wai-te-ata Press in New Zealand. The table of contents is below:


Joanna Drucker, ‘Letterpress Aesthetics’


Caroline Archer-Parré and James Mussell, ‘Introduction: Letterpress Printing: Past, Present, Future’

Part one: Letterpress in Transition

Chapter one:
Catherine Dixon, ‘Designers in the Composing Room: A Progressive Tale of Typographic Transgression’

Chapter two:
Angie Butler, ‘A Tangible Space: Letterpress Printing within Artists’ Books and Small Publishing Practice’

Chapter three:
Alexander Cooper, Rose Gridneff, Andrew Haslam, ‘An Education in Letterpress: Charting the History of Letterpress Education in the United Kingdom and Ireland’

Part two: Letterpress and Preservation

Chapter four:
Patrick Goossens, ‘Preserving Historically Correct Letterpress Printing in Theory and Practice’

Chapter five:
Alan Marshall, ‘Between Theory and Practice: Bringing Letterpress and Digital Together in Printing Museums’

Part three: Letterpress’s Future Potential

Chapter six:
Nick Thurston, ‘Inmediate Writing: Pavel Büchler and the Logic of Letterpress ‘

Chapter seven:
Pedro Amado, Vitor Quelhas and Catarina Silva, ‘Letterpress in Portugal: The Future of Design and Its Engagement with Past Printing Techniques’

Chapter eight:
Richard Kegler, ‘P22 Blox: Space-Age Letterpress Modularity ‘

Chapter nine:
Sydney J. Shep and Ya-Wen Ho, ‘East Meets West: Merging Technology, Language and Culture’

Podcast: Enquire Within: How the Victorians Invented the World Wide Web

[Back in the summer I wrote and recorded a podcast for the Ilkley Literature Festival’s Settee Seminars. It was published last November but in all the rush of the semester forgot to link to it from here. The podcast is in season three of the Settee Seminars. All three seasons can be found here. I’ve pasted the summary and further reading below.]

When Tim Berners Lee was thinking of a name for his new hypertext system he thought of a dusty volume that used to be on his parents’ bookshelves. That volume was Enquire Within (1856), a miscellany of domestic advice now forgotten, but went through 97 editions before the end of the nineteenth century. Berners Lee named his system ENQUIRE, the next version of which would become the World Wide Web. But what was it about this book that made Berners Lee think of it? Why was it so popular in the period? And why has it become forgotten today?

Further reading:

Tim Berners-Lee and Mark Fischetti, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor (New York: HarperBusiness, 2000).

Malcolm Chase, ‘“An Overpowering ‘Itch for Writing’”: R.K. Philp, John Denman and the Culture of Self-Improvement’, English Historical Review, 133.561 (2018), 351–82:

Malcolm Chase, Chartism: A New History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).

Enquire Within Upon Everything (London: Houlston and Stoneman, 1856). Available at Internet Archive:

James Gillies, How the Web was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

‘Click, click, click’: Capturing the time of hot-metal composition in the late nineteenth-century press

[this is a proposal for a conference called ‘Capturing Ephemerality: Praxeological Modes of Fixing Journal Literature’ to be held at the Philipps University Marburg 24-26 August 2022. Once my current book is complete I’m thinking of doing some work on hot metal printing. This paper will be my first look at what’s out there]

In my paper I consider how late nineteenth-century periodicals and newspapers captured the new processes of hot metal composition.  All letterpress printing is ephemeral, type and furniture locked up just long enough to print the edition before being redistributed and used for something else.  However, whereas in traditional letterpress printing compositors worked in a condition of scarcity, setting type from cases with a limited number of sorts, hot metal composition took place in a condition of limitless excess as sorts were cast anew for each job.  In each case the printing matrix was ephemeral, but the hot metal process challenged the idea that the elemental units of printing were the letters of the alphabet.  Instead of sorts in the case, metal manifestations of the constituent units of language, there was only illegible molten metal.

The pages of newspapers and periodicals are both the products of the printing process and records of it.  My paper takes this double focus – the page as material record of the process; the text as description of it – and uses this to consider how hot metal composition was introduced to readers.  I outline how images were used to make the process meaningful.  I look at how human agency was represented as reconfigured.  For instance, in many accounts of the process compositors became machine like, providing input, while the machines seemingly regulated themselves.  I attend to the role of the hot metal itself, now rendered the primordial form of language.  And finally, I note how many articles remark on the distinctive sound of the machines, the ‘click, click, click’ of their operation so evocative of a ticking clock.

In my previous work I have considered the interplay between fixity and change that characterises periodical publication.  I have also discussed how periodicals conceive of themselves as both ephemeral and archival forms.  In this paper, I turn to how the press captured this latest transformation of its mode of production.  The newness of the process meant it was newsworthy, interesting to readers in the here and now.  As it was also the final stage in the industrialisation of print, it merited capturing in a way suitable for those readers yet to come.

Attribution matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pioneer of Connection

cover image of a Pioneer of Connection

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

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

The table of contents is as follows:


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

Part One: Lodge’s Lives

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

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

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

Part Two: Science and Communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ephemera belong to the dead: affect, print, and memory

[this is my contribution to a panel called Victorian Archival Mediations at the NAVSA 2019 conference in Columbus Ohio. The panel was organised by Matthew Poland and our fellow contributors were Ann Garascia and Anna Wager]

In M.R. James’s short story ‘Casting the Runes’, first published in More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), two men are haunted, one after the other.  Each is the victim of a man called Karswell, who is disgruntled because nobody takes seriously his research into the occult.  The first, John Harrington, was killed in 1889 when Karswell cast the runes upon him because of a bad review of his book.  The focus of the story, however, is on the second, Edward Dunning, on whom Karswell cast the runes because he recently rejected one of his papers.  While trying to work out what is happening to him, Dunning meets John Harrington’s brother, Henry, who tells him about when he and John first found the runes.

I suppose the door blew open, though I didn’t notice it: at any rate a gust – a warm gust it was – came quite suddenly between us, took the paper and blew it straight into the fire: it was light, thin paper, and flared and went up the chimney in a single ash.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘You can’t give it back now.’1

You can’t give it back now, says Henry to his brother just after the runes go up in smoke.  Written on light and thin paper, this is material that wants to be destroyed, that resists becoming part of the record.  Ephemera is alive in ‘Casting the Runes’ but wishes for its demise.  Ephemera belong to the dead.

* * *

There is something special about unexpectedly finding a piece of ephemera, tucked away, perhaps, in the leaves of a book.  In what follows I want to consider why the unexpected survival of ephemera has the power to move us.  Rediscovering something that we have chosen to keep but have since forgotten evokes powerful and complex feelings: not only do such mementos allow us to relive the moment so fully, but they surprise us by their capacity to do so.  Something of this underpins the way we experience all encounters with ephemera when we happen to find it.  Regardless of who preserved it or why, chancing upon such material strikes us so because it reminds us of all that we have chosen to forget.

‘Casting the Runes’, however, warns us about such pleasures.  Not only are the runes themselves ephemeral, seeking their own destruction, but the haunted receive warnings that take ephemeral forms.  Surviving when it should have been destroyed, there is something of the grave about ephemera.  We keep such things because we want to remember and we recognise that such timely objects remain anchored in the moment even when that moment has gone.  Yet in choosing to keep some things and not others we acknowledge that we cannot keep it all.  In ‘Casting the Runes’ the ephemeral is a threat to the well-ordered world of the archive and its gatekeepers.  Ephemera stand for the transient, the modern, and the abundant, all of which threaten institutionalised memory.  In the end the gatekeepers triumph: Karswell is killed by the runes, and so history is preserved against the overwhelmingly ephemeral.  Yet the custodians of this archive remain haunted, aware of what they do not collect and aware, too, of the other histories that such material might preserve.  The persistence of ephemera charms us because it takes us back, but it does so by undermining the past as we think we know it.

* * *

‘Casting the Runes’ is probably the best-known story about the dangers of peer review in English literature.  In many ways it is quite typical of M.R. James.  As in most of his other stories, it concerns a group of men, most of whom live alone and are more comfortable in homosocial, scholarly communities; and, as in most of his other tales, the supernatural threat comes when they stray out into the world.  In an often embarassingly literal return of the repressed, James’s scholars and anitquaries usually become haunted when they disturb some ancient relic, struggling against their supernatural assailant until they escape back to the safety of museum or quad.  In ‘Casting the Runes’ there is no relic and those haunted are already out in the world, yet it too is about policing boundaries, about expelling or escaping what is provoked when curiosity strays too far.

The story focuses on Edward Dunning.  On the way back from the British Museum, where he has been doing some research in the reading room, he notices an advertisement in the tram window that reads ‘In Memory of John Harrington, FSA, of the Laurels, Ashbrooke.  Died Sept. 18th 1889.  Three months were allowed’ (150). This ominous warning is followed by another a couple of days later when he is given a leaflet on which he glimpses the name ‘Harrington’ before it is twitched out of his hands (153).  Later, in the Select Manuscript Room, Dunning is just about to leave when a man taps him on the shoulder and hands him some papers he had left behind.  ‘May I give you this?’, the man says, ‘I think it should be yours’ (153).  Dunning thanks him and takes the papers; on his way out he asks the staff who the man was and learns that his name is Karswell.

Returning home Dunning finds himself out-of-sorts, as if ‘something ill-defined and impalpable had stepped in between him and his fellow men’ (154).  A sleepless night follows, including a disturbing moment when, reaching beneath his pillow, he finds, ‘a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it’ (155).  Seeking company Dunning meets the Secretary who, in turn, introduces him to John Harrington’s brother, Henry.  Henry Harrington tells Dunning that, before he died, John had also run into Karswell and had subsequently experienced a similar feeling of oppression.  John was a keen concert goer and, on looking around for his programme, had one handed to him; on later inspection, it was found to contain ‘a strip of paper with some very odd writing on it in red and black’, which, as we know promptly went up in smoke (158).  Two things later came in the post for John: a Bewick woodcut of a man being pursued by a demon, and a calendar with the pages after 18 September 1889, torn out.

They realise that Dunning, too, has three months to live and the rest of the story follows Dunning and Harrington as they try and escape the curse.  Finding the runes amongst Dunning’s papers (and stopping them disappearing out the window) they hatch a plan to return them to Karswell.  Shortly before the day Dunning is due to die they learn Karswell is to travel to France and so plan to board the train with him.  After a tense journey they manage to slip Karswell the runes in his ticket wallet just as the train reaches Dover.  As Karswell boards the ferry a crewman remarks that he thought he saw someone following him.  The next they hear Karswell is dead.

* * *

So far, so uncanny. The narrative tension in ‘Casting the Runes’ comes because Dunning knows when he will die, his life revealed to be plotted for him in advance.  However, my interest is in the role of ephemera in all of this.  Not only are the warnings of impending death carried by ephemeral objects – advertisements, leaflets, scraps, calendars – but the runes, with their propensity for self destruction, are ephemeral too.  The story was published in 1911 and set sometime after the turn of the century so it demands the longest of nineteenth centuries to be discussed here.  With its first murder in 1889, however, and its focus on the British Museum, it deals with how the Victorian archive was set against a modern world characterised by abundance, temporal compression, and the onward rush of modernity.  Susan Zieger calls ephemera ‘facilitators of ephemerality’: when we look at such objects we move from evocations of temporality, moments in time, to the technology that makes time pass.2

The story distinguishes between the acceptable study of the occult by disinterested scholars and its enthusiastic pursuit by those such as Karswell who believe in what they research.  It then maps these two approaches, the disciplined and ill-disciplined, onto distinct media economies.  While Karswell can research in the British Museum, Harrington’s hostile review means that his work will only be admitted to mark the boundary of what is acceptable leaving him with just ephemeral scraps.  The Museum here represents the archive as a place of ordered knowledge preserved for all time; Karswell instead becomes a peculiar representative of modernity, identified with the contingent, the transient, and the supplementary.  As Priti Joshi and Susan Zieger have noted, ephemera are constituted by their exclusion from the archive and so haunt it, marking the deficiencies of institutional collections and so becoming more authentic witnesses to the past as a result.  However, as they also note, the archive, too, haunts the ephemeral, either dooming the it to extinction outside the archive’s walls or extinguishing the its ephemerality by subjecting it to institutional discipline within.3

With the British Museum at its heart, James’s story dramatises these narratives of inclusion and exclusion.  However, by identifying the ephemeral with the occult it insists on its impending annhiliation, the expected fate that makes it ephemeral.  We are used to thinking of the contents of the archive as the remains of a process of institutionalised forgetting.  The matter that structures our lived experience of the present is too vast, too complex, to be preserved in entirety and so instead we make just a portion available for future recollection.  Monuments to the discarded, ephemera often find their way into the archive as part of this process.  But ephemera are designed to pass.  It is when they survive despite themselves – the ticket stub in the book; the annotation in a margin – that they have the ability to evoke the rest.

The forgotten can only be evoked as an absence, however.  Susan Stewart’s definition of the souvenir provides a useful explanation for the powerful feelings that ephemera can prompt. For Stewart the souvenir is both of the moment and stands for it: metonym and metaphor, it offers the possibility of authentic connection to a moment passed, but, in its partiality, creates a space for narrative. Stewart argues that the power of the souvenir comes through its impoverishment, its failure to bring back the moment in its entirety creating instead that desire for origins we call nostalgia.4 Ephemera make such good souvenirs because they belong to the fabric of what was. Ephemera, as mentioned above, belongs to the dead.

‘Casting the Runes’ sides with Dunning and Harrington against Karswell, ultimately upholding the values of the archive against ill-disciplined ephemera.  However, by making Karswell the victim of his own occult machinations, the story recognises the efficacy of his practices even as it expels them from the narrative.  Indeed, by passing the runes to Karswell Dunning and Harrington embrace the logic of ephemerality.  Slipped inside programmes, papers, and a ticket wallet, the runes are always accidental survivors and, as each of these things have been left behind in the story, the runes are also associated with the discarded or forgotten.  Each time the runes are exchanged from one person to another there is contact: they are, then, transitive and transactional, connecting people together for a moment before passing away.  And as the runes themselves are indecipherable, they have no other meaning than the action they accomplish, which is to perish. 

To pass on and to be passed on, to receive the runes is to die.  When they persist, ephemera are so compelling because they offer a glimpse of the richness of the present that has passed.  Yet they cannot bring it back: even our own souvenirs fall short, leaving a gap that we fill with nostalgic desire.  What the runes remind us is not that we will die but that we, too, will become part of the unrecoverable past.  The archive serves to reassure us that memory is safe in other hands while the ego tricks us into thinking we persist, in all our richness, from one moment to the next.  Marked as disposable and so part of the technology that allows the world to move on, ephemera remind us of what we have forgotten: that the past as lived was immeasurably richer than we remember it and that we, too, will be diminished when recalled.

This is not as bleak as it sounds and the story suggests how we might read the runes aright.  On the one hand ‘Casting the Runes’ suggests there is comfort in bachelor life, in the archive and its proper use, and it distrusts what lies outside: women, sex, modernity.  But as always in M.R. James this comfortable world is haunted by what it excludes.  Karswell works in the reading room alongside Dunning; museum collections contain ephemera too.  We are all going to die, but until then, the story suggests, we should keep the runes in motion.  What we feel when we find something tucked away in a book, surviving despite itself, is a reminder that to remember we have to forget.  Keeping the runes in motion allows us to see that what we remember, and what we forget, depends upon what we choose to keep.

1 M.R.James, ‘Casting the Runes’, Collected Ghost Stories, edited by Darryl Jones (Oxford: Oxford Worlds Classics, 2011), pp. 145-164 (p. 158). [back]

2 Susan Zieger, The Mediated Mind: Affect, Ephemera, and Consumerism (NY: Fordham University Press, 2018), p. 3. [back]

3 Priti Joshi and Susan Zieger, ‘Ephemera and Ephemerality’, Amodern, 7 (2017) available here. [back]

4 Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1993), pp. 135-6. [back]

Binding and Embodiment: Oliver Lodge, Physics, and the Book

[I’m giving a talk in the Science Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century Seminar Series at the University of Oxford on 14 May 2019. Here’s what I’m going to be talking about.]

This paper considers the role of embodiment in the work of the physicist and spiritualist Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) through two very different books. The first is the visitor book from Mariemont, the Lodges’ house in Birmingham from 1901-1920; the second is Lodge’s book Raymond (1916), which details his ongoing relationship with his dead son, Raymond, killed the previous year at Ypres.  These two early twentieth-century books have much to tell us about how Lodge, then at the peak of his fame, began to seem increasingly Victorian.  They also reveal details of a social life that radically involved the living and the dead.

Best know for his work in wireless telegraphy in the 1890s , Lodge spent his career trying to understand the intangible and imponderable. An adherent of the ether, defending it until his death in 1941, Lodge was committed to a universe in which matter was nothing but etheric motion.  The ether provided an ontological basis for both psychical and physical phenomena as well the epistemological ground on which to reconcile science, spiritualism, and religion.  While Lodge’s philosophy proved remarkably popular in the first decades of the twentieth century, establishing him as not just a scientific authority but probably the best-known scientist of his day, it also made him seem curiously out of time.  In the years after the second world war Lodge’s popularity became a problem and Lodge himself a Victorian sage who lived too long.

The two books, in their different ways, are an attempt to document social relations by locating individuals in time and space.  The visitor book records the range of people the Lodges hosted at Mariemont, whether visiting dignitaries or the extended Lodge family, scientists or mediums.  Raymond, on the other hand, gives details of Raymond’s life before his death then transcripts of encounters with his spirit on the other side.  Whereas the visitor book’s list of names testifies to the intangible connections that constitute social life, Raymond desparately seeks to situate the personality of Raymond somewhere in the ether, surviving on with integrity in a medium that should not permit survival in such a form.  Whereas the pages of the visitor book consitute a chronological narrative as people come, go, and come again; Raymond offers the book itself as a surrogate body that could ensure he was close at hand.  Both books can help us understand Lodge’s reputation, at the time and afterwards.  Both books, too, can help us understand how Lodge recognised identity in a universe in which we were all always connected.

Proposal for Dregs, Dross and Debris: The Art of Transient Print

[I’m really excited to be speaking at ‘Dregs, Dross, and Debris: The Art of Transient Print‘, a two-day conference organised Print Networks with Liverpool John Moores University and the Centre for Printing History and Cultures (CPHC). My paper is the first of a number I plan to give exploring print ephemera in preparation for a chapter of my book to be written later in the year. The proposal is below]

Ephemera belongs to the dead: affect, print, and memory

This paper considers a particular genre, printed ephemera, and the ways in which it survives in collections, whether formally (as a designated category) or informally (tucked away inside books etc). There is something charming in those things meant to be discarded, their unexpected survival evoking the moment passed. It is for this reason we keep ticket stubs and leaflets; it is for this reason too that libraries have acquired collections of printed ephemera. Not printed to be kept, such material feels more authentically of its time.

My paper is on printed ephemera as a category, with a focus on nineteenth-century print in particular. Job printing underpinned the trade in all periods, but the development of new imaging technologies and the reduction in paper and advertising duties meant that the Victorians not only handled more bits of printed paper, but they kept more too. I consider how print helped enable the everyday in the nineteenth century and the forms it which that everyday was preserved.

Print is both a way of fixing information in condensed form, stabilising it for futurity, and a technology of reproduction, producing copies whose abundance operated to offset fragility. With oblivion in view, ephemera stands for the latter facet of print culture and its unlikely survival, its return from the dead, gives it historical value. My argument, however, is that while ephemera promises to resurrect the passing moment, it bears a peculiar affective charge because of what is not there. Finding something between the pages of a book hints at a story that will never be told; what we feel is the echo of all that must be forgotten.

Proposal for RSVP 2018: To Lay Open the Nerves and Arteries of a Book: Bodily Metaphors and Archival Forms in the Nineteenth Century

[this is my proposal for this year’s RSVP conference, held jointly with the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada (VSAWC), University of Victoria, 26-28 July 2018]

To Lay Open the Nerves and Arteries of a Book: Bodily Metaphors and Archival Forms in the Nineteenth Century

Henry Wheatley’s How to Make an Index (1902) opens with a quotation from Isaac D’israeli’s Literary Miscellanies. ‘I for my part venerate the inventor of Indexes; and I know not to whom to yield the preference, either to Hippocrates, who was the great anatomises of the human body, or to that unknown labourer in literature who first laid open the nerves and arteries of a book.’ The index might be informational, naming content in order to abstract it, but for D’Israeli it first involved an encounter with a body.

My paper looks at the way bodily metaphors informed both archival technologies and the archives themselves. As the storage and retrieval of information is always accompanied by its embodied supplement, working with documents problematises the relation between body and spirit. By exerting bibliographic control, the ghosts in the archive can be ordered, mapped neatly onto objects to await orderly resurrection. Yet my paper goes beyond the way that manipulating the bodies of archival objects produces content. Complementing my work on the bibliographic schemes of the period – the British Museum catalogue; the indexing of periodicals – I consider how bodies of archival material are described as resisting attempts to put them in place. The newspaper collections in the British Museum were a constant threat to its orderly workings; the establishment of the Public Records Office was based on archival destruction. Material was never far away when it came to organising information, and it was understood in bodily terms.