Moving Things: Repetition and Circulation in Victorian Print Culture (5/5)

[This is the final part of this serial on print culture and Mugby Junction. I’ve given versions of this on a couple of occasions now, the next being in Oxford in May. I’m hoping then to write it up as a journal article]

For Steven Connor, Dickens’s characters, trapped as so many are in the frequentative mode, stand for Dickens himself: a haunted man, who nonetheless haunted his various texts and the firesides into which they circulated. Connor suggests that this haunting differs according to specific media culture: what Friedrich Kittler would call a discourse network:

Dickens’s energetic desire to inhabit all space, to be everywhere, to do everything, to be all of his characters all at once, could never succeed because it worked in mechanical or thermodynamic terms. But the churning mills and wheels of the thermodynamic age have been virtualised into the immaterial and “immediatised” informatics of the age of media and communication. The merely local knottings and convulsions of space and time which Dickens evokes so often in his work have become generalised in this era, in which Dickens keeps on carrying on where he never left off.1

There is something seductive about this comparison, linking as it does the churning mills and wheels with the repetitive, frequentative mode. Yet it relies on an informatics that has somehow broken free of the material world. Early fantasies of cyberspace presented it as a disembodied virtual realm, distinct from the metal and meatspace represented by the industrial era. However, we can hear the hard disk spin, and computers remain counting machines.

Just as the Dead-Letter Office stood to remind information of its body, so we are frequently reminded of the materialities put into play by digital media. In February last year, the Huffington Post announced ‘Google Fingers Revealed In New Ebook’, but sightings of these spectral digits has been going on for some time. In 2006, shortly after the appearance of Google Books, Dan Cohen wrote a post about them; and since 2011 the lovely Art of Google Books tumblr has published many such images. As Natalia Cecire has noted in a recent post, these fingers are stark reminders of both the work that goes into the production of digital resources and the way that this work is elided through the presentation of apparently unmediated content. The hand, as Cecire notes, is synecdoche for the worker, but these hands also represent something else. The image of the hand, Cecire writes, is ‘a photograph of its own scene of production, complete with visual evidence of the hand that wrought it.’2 These images of ghostly hands, then, also conjure up something of the Freudian primal scene: that originary moment of writing, the signature, that links writer and reader. Yet, the hands that are glimpsed here also remind us, uncomfortably, of mediation, of the fact that these digital objects are not, really, what they claim to be.

This is not to say that such digital resources are deficient or deceptive, misrepresenting the print culture of the past. Rather, they demonstrate, by making it strange, how much more there is to know. We are trained to look for the singular and the exceptional, rather than the repetitive and generic. Still enmeshed in a naturalised print culture, we readily overlook its materiality until it is transformed. The digital revolution has, I think, exacerbated the tendency to reify surviving print objects as ‘originals’, objects that allow the creation of stable points of origin for content that reaches us in a remediated, digital form. Rather than understand digitisation as a kind of loss, as the new digital object fails to capture all the aspects of print, I would rather think of it as an opportunity. Once alienated and transformed, we can more easily recognize the properties of print culture and ask different questions of its remains. We need to recognize the many hands that touch print objects from the past as they come down to us in the present, be they those of the author, printer or bookseller; or archivist, programmer or technician. We need, in other words, to open ourselves up to be haunted, in order to move more things from the past.

1Steven Connor, ‘Dickens, The Haunting Man’, Literature Compass, 1 (2003), 10. [back]
2Natalia Cecire, ‘The Visible Hand’, Works Cited [accessed 24 October 2014]