Contact details

As I posted back in May, I’m starting a new job at the University of Leeds from 1 September 2013. There will be a short moment of transition as I close down my Birmingham email accounts and create my Leeds account. From the 29 August, the best ways to contact me are:

email: jimmussell[at]
twitter: @jimmussell

I hope to have a Leeds email account set up in my first few days. I will post my new address here once it’s up and running.

Victorian Studies at Birmingham

There are two upcoming Victorian Studies events at Birmingham, both hosted in association with the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity:

New Approaches to the Victorian Short Story, Thursday 4 July 2013

On the afternoon before MIVSS, there will be a seminar on the Victorian short story. The speakers are Kara Tennant, Elizabeth Ludlow, Rebecca Styler and Maddie Wood. The programme is available here. The seminar will be held in Arts 119 (R 16 on the campus map) and is open to all.

MIVSS: ‘Books, Authors, Audiences’, Friday 5 July 2013

The Summer meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar will be on the theme of ‘Books, Authors, Audiences’. The programme is available on the MIVSS website. MIVSS will take place in Arts LR3 (R 16 on the campus map) and is open to all.

The Proximal Past: Digital Archives, and the Here and Now

[This is the text of my keynote for Digital Transformers, Manchester Metropolitan University, 23 May 2013.]

Web access to digital resources of various kinds has made the past proximal. Digitized historical objects and the databases that house them are only a keyword search (and maybe a few logins) away. Yet proximal is an interesting word. Through its connection to proximate, it implies succession and causation, a kind of temporality; yet when opposed to distal, proximal operates spatially, indicating that which is closest to some sort of feature or phenomenon. What I want to do today is use these two meanings – proximity in time and proximity in space – to think about how the forms of digital media affect the way we construct the past. Whereas it might appear that digitization pushes the past away from us by rewriting the objects that document it, what it reveals is that these objects are already to some extent written: situated, stabilized and ready for use. Digital transformation changes the past by changing what we can do in the present.

I am a historian and theorist of the nineteenth-century media based in an department of English. I tell the histories of printed objects of various kinds by inverting the traditional aims of the discipline: rather than focus on content, I’m interested in form; rather than identify the exceptional, I want to know about the generic; and the object of my analysis is not just text, but a version of textuality that encompasses materiality. There has never been a better moment to study the history of media. The different materialities that digital media put into play have denaturalized print culture, making explicit the role of media in producing meaning. For people like me who are interested in the actual objects that people read, digitization offers further advantages. The bibliographic complexities of nineteenth-century print culture – there is a lot of it, it’s very diverse, and it survives in fragmented runs – has encouraged researchers to approach it as if it was an archive of interesting texts rather than the surviving record of a set of cultural practices. However, its advantageous copyright status has attracted large-scale digitization projects from commercial publishers, libraries and scholars that have each exerted different degrees of bibliographic control. It has never been easier to read nineteenth-century texts in their original print contexts. But the crucial point is that this is reading predicated on seeing: these remediated forms are radically different, but this difference is itself mediated to enable something that resembles reading them in print. This morning, I want to focus on this attempt to reproduce but enhance, and what it means for understanding the past. Making historical objects proximal means making them something else.

My argument is in three stages. In the first, I explore why digital transformations are often understood in terms of deficit, with the new, digital object, seen as an impoverished imitation of the historical object on which it is based. In the second, I argue that digital transformations are always interpretive, identifying one aspect of whatever they transform and making it into something new. Finally, I will claim that deficit models of digitization are the result of a mistaken conception of historical objects. The past does not reside in the various objects, printed or otherwise, that we have inherited; rather, it must be produced by the ways these surviving objects are disciplined and put to use. These objects, in other words, are already subject to transformation. Throughout, my focus is on digitizing the various nondigital objects that survive from the past – what Tim Hitchcock has recently described as ‘stuff we inherit from dead people.’ Underpinning my paper is an argument about the performative nature of both materiality and historical significance: the traditional, nondigital archive is already constructed and interpreted; when we transform it, we reconstruct and reconfigure, granting its objects new forms that invite new uses. All digital transformations are abstractions, but moving away from the archival objects does not mean that we move away from the past. Quite the opposite: it is easy to mistake the objects as they survive with the objects as they once were, enmeshed in various contingent moments of use. Yet unmediated access to the past has always been impossible. Going away is also coming back again.

Digitization as Deficit

If you ask most people what they want from digitization, it is access to the stuff. The affordances of digital objects – the way they can be reproduced, distributed and processed – means that even the crudest – a page scan, for instance – can dramatically increase access. But the key question is access to what? If digital objects only serve as surrogates for nondigital objects, then they will always be in some way deficient. This deficiency is mitigated by identifying the key features of the source material – the way it looks, if it is to be read – and reproducing that at the cost of other, less important features. As the bulk of users come to digital resources to do something similar to what they would do with nondigital objects – read, in the case of the material I work with – it is important that designers put as few barriers in their way as possible. The rhetoric of the digital archive, where interface is presented as portal and distinguished from content, is about tempering the digital difference. The interface is where you search, the page images are what you read.

If we understand genre as social action, as a way of negotiating unfamiliar circumstances and transforming them into a species of the same, then we can see that many resources are designed to accommodate behaviours learned from interacting with nondigital objects. For commercial resources that seek to recoup costs through subscription this is particularly important, and so many are marketed as if they are transparent gateways to content. However, users never really leave the interface and it is what they do there that produces the distinction between the mediating framework of the resource and the content that it contains. Digitization takes place in an economy of loss and gain: what happens in these resources is that whatever is gained is appropriated as a kind of compensatory functionality that provides access to ‘content’ that is consequently marked as deficient. The new and distinctly digital properties are separated off, leaving only the minimal set of features that have been reproduced from the nondigital media and that allow users to do whatever it is that they already know how to do.

When lined up against the nondigital object upon which it is based, the digital object can only ever appear impoverished. A quick example. Charles Dickens had great success with his weekly periodical, Household Words. This was a weekly miscellany containing a range of literature, reviews, and commentary on a variety of subjects. It was explicitly designed to reach lower middle- and upper working-class readers, part of a typically Victorian project to extend ‘good’ reading to this constituency – while making lots of money for the journal’s proprietors, of course. Some of Dickens’s novels were first serialized in Household Words, but he also published other well-known authors from the period such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins. Household Words was available in a range of formats:

  • weekly (2d)
  • monthly (9d)
  • six-monthly volumes (5s 6d, bound in cloth)
  • a set of 10 vols (£2 10s)
  • There was also the Monthly Narrative (2d; 3s for an annual volume) and an annual Almanac (4d)

The text of Household Words exists in multiple forms, each designed for a particular group of readers and moment of reading. Each object has its own set of meanings and each can be constructed as a kind of ‘original.’ The letterpress might be more or less the same, but each has its own history: reading the cheap weekly parts was not the same as reading them bound together as a (more expensive) monthly.

All serials have a complex relationship with temporality. The current issue is different to all those that have gone before as it, and only it, speaks to a moment that is still unfolding. On the appearance of the next issue, what was the current issue becomes part of the past, perhaps preserved as part of an archive, perhaps thrown away. Serials tend to be marked by their moment of publication and their place within the series. Each issue of Household Words, for instance, has a date on the masthead, as well as its number in the sequence; the bottom left hand corner also records the volume number and in the bottom right is the page number, which runs in a series throughout the volume. In the monthly parts, each part is numbered in the inside cover, meaning that not only are weekly issues numbered, but so too are the monthly parts and six monthly volumes, each in their own sequence. Serials segment time, marking it spatially. As the weeks pass, the pile grows; as the years pass, the volumes accrue on the shelves. Although constituting one series among many, each serial insists on a linear, standard time, reaching back and stretching beyond the current issue. However, serials also keep the past in play in the present. Each issue offers something new, but this novelty is carefully tempered by a set of recurring forms already known to readers. Layout, typography, the range of articles, the tone – a large part of the current issue is material that has been seen before, resurrected from previous issues. Readers are already good at recognizing this sort of material as part of what makes a serial, but with each issue they become adept at identifying it as separate from, and incidental to, the changing content. This repetition, which is integral to all serials, insists that the future is knowable and predictable, that any new content can be assimilated to known forms that have already been established and that will recur into the future.

The image shows the various ways that seriality is marked on the first page of the weekly number, cover of the monthly number, and titlepage of the six-monthly volume.

The image shows the various ways that seriality is marked on the first page of the weekly number, cover of the monthly number, and titlepage of the six-monthly volume.

The way serials are currently digitized is as a set of imaged files that are indexed through an ocr-generated transcript. This allows keyword searching and, if they have been appropriately marked-up, the retrieval of articles. For example, take ProQuest’s British Periodicals, published in 2007. In allowing users to search for text strings, the resource returns a list of articles, which are read, one after the other. By exerting a measure of bibliographic control over the archive, this resource makes it much more navigable than it ever could be in print; by offering page images as the reading text, it makes it much easier to see what the printed page looked like; and by making the articles accessible, it brings this material much closer to hand, allowing scholars to place it alongside the more familiar texts that have become canonized over time. However, this resource conceives of its source material as a repository of texts that are understood as identical to the words that each article contains. It privileges the verbal over the visual; the article over the section, page or issue; and the content that changes over the various formal features that mark seriality through their repetition. Although what is read is an image of the article on the page, rather than the transcript, there is no way to read in sequence, or interrogate any of the elements that make serials serial.

If we approach resources such as this as surrogates for the nondigital objects that they represent, they will always be deficient in some way. Yet deficiency can be instructive. This is transformation as interpretation: in focusing on one particular aspect of the source material, these resources make an implicit argument about what they think the objects are, and are for. In the case of British Periodicals, it is a searchable database of articles, which can be read as usual. However, in advancing this particular aspect of the source material, the resource also makes visible those aspects that had hitherto been taken for granted. When users remark that page size, for instance, is misrepresented in a digital resource, they are at least acknowledging its significance. The key is to reconceive loss as difference and use the way the transformed object differs to reimagine what it actually was. Critical encounters with digitized objects make us rethink what we thought we knew. And, because these digitized objects are radically different, the underlying data can be used to model this difference, creating new representations of both old objects and the connections between them.

People have begun to do this for resources based on nineteenth-century serials. I’m particularly interested in what Tim Sherratt has been doing with the data from Trove, the search engine of the National Library of Australia. His Querypic allows users to generate instant visualisations of the occurrence of search terms over time, both as a percentage of the total content and as a raw total. His The Front Page maps the constitution of the front pages of Australian newspapers by genre. This allows users to quickly visualize the decline of advertising and the rise of news; but it also makes clear the remarkable consistency of a print genre that deals with passing events. One of Sherratt’s arguments is that the emergence of news on the front page turns the newspaper inside out. The same is true of these visualizations: they subordinate content to form, making patterns visible by mapping both repetition and change.

The lines plot occurrences of 'Charles Dickens' and 'Household Words'. The two lines spike and converge after 1850, suggesting that it was the popularity of Household Words that brought Dickens's name before the Australian public.

The lines plot occurrences of ‘Charles Dickens’ and ‘Household Words’. The two lines spike and converge after 1850, suggesting that it was the popularity of Household Words that brought Dickens’s name before the Australian public.

This visualization plots the number of articles in each genre on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. What is striking is its formal consistency for almost a century.

This visualization plots the number of articles in each genre on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. What is striking is its formal consistency for almost a century.

The reason digitization operates in this economy of deficit is because we misrecognize the status of the nondigital objects on which resources are based. Reading the content of digital resources as deficient representations of nondigital objects implies a transmission model of digitization whose ultimate goal is perfect simulation. Such a process is impossible as it depends upon being able to fully describe the source object, whatever it might be. We tend to think of these objects as well-defined and bounded, with a set of given properties and stable meanings. Yet materiality simply does not work like this. All material objects, digital or nondigital, are always in excess of their stated properties and always have the potential to become something new. Materiality is emergent, the properties of an object becoming tangible as they are put to some sort of use. The same is true for what historical objects might mean. As we know, not only does the historical significance of surviving objects change over time, but so too does the way in which they are identified and defined. This is the reason why using data to model historical phenomena does not necessarily take us further away from the past: all historical practice is already compensatory. What we have – whether around us, or in designated archives – is what has survived, and the persistence of these objects cannot but remind us of that unknown sum that have been lost. The virtual and actual acts they record – what an object was designed to do; what was actually done with it – similarly point to a set of histories that can only be reconstructed. Even well-researched historical objects mark an absence. They are already deficient.

History has a considerable stake in the stability of its objects; their fixity provides a necessary point of departure to which the discipline can return and correct itself. Yet the objects are also deficient, the product of a practice that defines them and, crucially, maintains that definition even as it acknowledges their deficiency through supplementary historical explanation. The objects of history are not out there, waiting to be found, but are produced by historians. They become interfaces that enable a particular practice, history, that, in turn, transforms them into something else, something authentic, the raw witnesses of the past. Our digital transformations are an extension of this process, reinterpreting historical objects by reconfiguring them, and thus enabling them to anchor new narratives that depend on digital properties. Digital media appear to threaten the aura of authenticity that allows an object to link to the absent past; but the authentic object is already the result of a discursive transformation, with its own history, materials, and processes. The proximal past is made possible by transformation, digital or otherwise.

Going Away and Coming Back

If digital resources are considered surrogates, then they can only be conceptualised in terms of deficit. This deficit can be turned to account if we use it to recognize the interpretive nature of digitization. Digital transformations assert something about both the material before transformation and the material that results. There is, therefore, always a politics at play and so transformation requires reflection and critique. We have to continue to choose objects for digitization for particular reasons, and be prepared to argue the case for them. This involves thinking carefully about the way objects are digitized, the way digitized objects are processed in specific environments, and the composition of the archives themselves. No archive is ever neutral and transformation is a cultural practice.

Digital transformations can make the archive proximal, bringing disparate collections together, and making them reconfigurable and processable. The proximal past seems to come at the cost of the aura of the original; yet this historical presence is a product of a particular relationship to the nondigital object and, to follow Benjamin, is amplified through the ways in which it is mediated. The point is not to recreate the object in all its latent materiality and significance, but rather model a particular version of it for a particular end. In the case of historical documents, the most common historical object, this might be simply to encode textual content; however, even these objects mean more than it is written upon them, and so can – and should – be transformed in multiple ways.

The archive, however conceived, has always been a more or less formal institutional repository for the past and a point of departure for the way the past is made knowable by the discourse of history in the present. Some digital archives recreate the logic of the library, declaring themselves places where history can be carried out, much as it had been previously. Yet these archives take their place alongside the many other products of digital culture, whether these are the digital artefacts generated, intentionally or not, as part of everyday life, or the way the present is narrated across various social media. The proximal past seems to collapse the difference between the ratified documents of a formal, institutionalised and disciplined history and the vast, apparently disordered evidence of a culture trying to understand itself. The boundaries between these well-demarcated archives and the rest of digital culture are porous and their constituent objects have the potential to be repurposed and reconfigured, combined and visualized in new combinations and at various levels of scale. However, the differences that are imperilled are themselves the products of a history, a particular way of conceiving of and doing things with objects, and so they are recoverable. This new archive – heterodox, unbounded, and changing – both witnesses the archives that have preceded it and allows their constituent objects to be used in new ways. History is a practice that transforms its objects, whatever they might be. Digital history, or rather, doing history today, requires scholars able to understand digital transformations and make them for themselves; to recognize how the objects in the archive have been transformed and will be transformed again. In other words, it requires scholars to be both digital transformers, and recognize that transformation creates a new object that, at the same time, redefines whatever it once was.

Moving On

I’ve recently accepted a new job at the University of Leeds. From September I will be Associate Professor in Victorian Literature. This means that after six years I will be leaving the University of Birmingham. Here is not the place to go into my reasons for leaving (buy me a drink and maybe I’ll tell), but I wanted to reflect on some of the things that I’ve done while at Birmingham and what I’m looking forward to in my new role at Leeds.

I don’t think you ever really know what a department will be like before you join it.  Before I came to Birmingham I taught in a number of universities in and around London while working as a postdoctoral research assistant on the Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition (ncse) at Birkbeck.  I didn’t really know Birmingham as either a city or a university, and had had no contact with the English department before my interview.  I count myself very lucky to have found such a welcoming group of people in my first full-time academic post.  Birmingham has been a great place to work, and it has been my colleagues – administrators, students, and academics – that made it so.

The department shaped the various things I was able to do in many ways, always for the better.  The idea that one should have a research day, something that has come under sustained assault recently, allowed me to continue to work on ncse, seeing it through to the successful project launch in May 2008.  The book that came out of the project, The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age (Palgrave, 2012) was inflected by the department’s interest in textual scholarship and the history of the book.  It also led directly to my colleague Oliver Mason’s challenge to put my money where my mouth was and incorporate digital humanities teaching into the undergraduate curriculum.  I will be speaking about the course that resulted, Hacking the Book, at (Re)Presenting the Archive on 28 May at the University of Sheffield and will blog my paper here.  This course, which ran 2011-2012 for final-year students and then again in a new form in 2012-2013 for second-year students, reaffirmed my belief in the importance of digital skills for students in the humanities, but also allowed me to keep thinking and learning about digital culture too.

There have been many highlights.  The cluster of scholars working in and around the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made it a rich environment in which to situate my own work.  Together, we set up and ran the seminar series The Making of Modernity (previously Late Victorianism and Modernism: the Making of Modernity), ran the 2011 BAVS conference, established the MA Literature, Culture and Modernity, and, most recently, the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity.  All this activity also meant that my work on W.T. Stead – the book W.T. Stead Newspaper Revolutionary, conference, and special issue of 19 – all had a departmental home.

At Leeds, I’m looking forward to pursuing my interests in print culture and the history of science.  I hope to be involved with the Centre for the Comparative History of Print, and hope that ‘comparative’ might incorporate what Kate Hayles calls ‘Comparative Media Studies’.  The Centre (and Museum) for the History and Philosophy of Science will ensure that there will be some interesting conversations as I continue to work on Oliver Lodge and my next book on secrecy and science.  And I’m looking forward to getting to know a whole new set of colleagues and learning from a whole new set of students.

Parsing Passing Events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Matter with Media

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

The Matter with Media

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


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

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

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

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

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

Digital Mediation

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

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

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

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

Open Access Journal Publishing and the History of Science

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

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

BJHS: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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


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