Media, Technology, and Literature in the Nineteenth Century: Image, Sound, and Touch by Colette Colligan and Margaret Linley, eds., Reviewed by David Finkelstein

Media, Technology, and Literature in the Nineteenth Century: Image, Sound, and Touch
Eds. Colette Colligan and Margaret Linley
(Ashgate, 2011) xiii +302 pp.
Reviewed by David Finkelstein on 2011-08-14.

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The curious role of the kaleidoscope in 1880s English social reportage, a literary reconnoitering of the thriving if seedy literary underworld of London's Covent Garden at the fin-de-siecle, and links between telegraphy, typewriters, and the piano are just some of the topics explored in this wide ranging collection. The contributors aim to link more general cultural studies, which focus on the visual, with overlooked corollaries of oral and tactile value. The twelve essays in this volume follow recent cross-disciplinary work on media history, such as Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree's thought provoking edited collection, New Media, 1740-1915 (2003). Material is clustered under three distinct heads: Image, Sound, and Touch.

At times densely written and highly theorized, the collection wraps slices of mediated experience within a sandwich of media theory. This works well in several cases, such as Vanessa Warne's study of blind reading and nineteenth-century print culture, and Daniel Novak's meditation on the place of time, space, and representation in Victorian photography. Interestingly probing the contested production of books for the blind throughout the nineteenth century, Warne explains that.scientists disagreed on how to teach blind people to read, and what format to use: while some recommended a tactile system based on embossed printing methods and special symbols, others argued for raised surface printing through which the Roman alphabet could be taught. Tactile print systems created by blind or visually impaired innovators were frequently slighted and ignored by sighted commentators, who judged them mainly on grounds of aesthetics rather than tactile ease. Debates over how to teach the blind to read ceased only with the introduction of the Braille system of raised script in 1870; its almost universal adoption by 1900 signalled the triumph of tactile systems over sight-led formats. By contrast, Novak urges us to rethink our notion of how the Victorians viewed, debated, and used photography. Unlike current theorists of photography, who see it as a way of imparting "shared realism" and of freezing space, place, and time, Victorians saw photography as a means of creating abstract representations of individuals. To show how the Victorians "remediated" visual material, Novak points to the popularity of photomontage family albums, for which photos were cut and reassembled into fragmented life narratives.

The Victorian preoccupation with depicting "absent things to ourselves and others" (87) exemplifies remediation, the refashioning of material created in one media format to fit into another. First recognized and popularized by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin over a decade ago (Remediation: Understanding New Media, 1999), this concept is discussed with uneven results in a collection that combines close textual readings with cultural history and historically inflected interpretations. The lead piece in the section on the image, Richard Menke's study of William Wordsworth's well known poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" (here called "The Daffodils"), argues that it sheds light on memory as "a medium for virtual perception" (23). Beginning solidly, Menke explains that the shift from orality to print literacy in the Romantic period is re-enacted by the history of Wordsworth's poem, which grew out of his sister Dorothy's diary account of their encounter with a field of daffodils near their home in Grasmere. If the diary account can be read or imagined as the transcript of what might have been said about this encounter at the time, the finished, printed poem completes the movement from an oral account of immediate, sensory experience through remembance to a memorialization of events within a carefully controlled print environment. But this argument is not new. Nor is his close attention to the positioning of stanzas in the editions of 1807 and 1815, or his analysis and interpretation of the potential visual impact of the blank spaces and stanza placement that Wordsworth insisted upon. Menke's sharp focus on meaning fits the orientation of past critical studies on original authorial intention in Wordsworth's poetry, but besides its lack of novelty, his close attention to paratextual matters is slightly undermined by his later insistence that the poem is best understood as an attempt to erase writing.

Completing the examination of image in Victorian texts is Helen Groth's piece on George Robert Sims's social reportage. Sims's two-volume study of London life in The Social Kaleidoscope, published in 1881, drew on imagery associated with David Brewster's 1815 invention, the tubular kaleidoscope. In Sims's volumes, the fractured, ever changing nature of the kaleidoscope was reworked into a textual bricolage of urban experiences. Combining novelistic and journalistic description, much as Dickens had done almost fifty years before in Sketches by Boz (1836), Sims etched social vignettes of life in working class areas. Tailor shops, dependent sweatshops producing fine clothing for well off clientele, and slum life in Southwark were all fused into an impressionistic and earnest work of social description. Groth's close analysis of Sims's work is impressive, though she might have said more about the relevance of this text to general Victorian debates about social conditions.

The section on Sound features several contributions that return us to poetry and its interweaving of sound with image. In a clear headed study of Christmas gift books produced between 1855 and 1875, Lorraine Janzen Kooistra examines works annually published for women and children that featured poetry and song accompanied by copious wood engravings and illustrations. Though contemporary critics thought such visualisation of texts vulgar, Kooistra soundly argues that they popularized and materialized metaphors, directly appealing to the sense of sight, sound, and touch. Wood engravings put poetry and images on the same page. Such mass production of fine art launched cultural battles over the status of poetry: was it a high art or a popular form of domestic entertainment, "whose musical and pictorial effects were enhanced by the presence of scored tunes and printed images" (108)? In either case, access to such "modern poetry of sensation" offered middle class households a "multimedia performance" --a strikingly modern combination of genres.

Kooistra's argument sets the stage for Linda K Hughes's strong analysis of word, image, and text in the work of Tennyson, D.G. Rossetti and William Morris. To exemplify remediation, Hughes shows how their poetry and painting closely linked music, visual art, and language. The section is rounded off with Ivan Raykoff's piece on the poetry of typing, telegraphy and pianos: more precisely, on nineteenth-century discourse about the insertion of new inventions such as typewriters and the telegraph into communication circuits. The tactile, aural, and visual features of these instruments were often discussed: early typewriters and telegraph keyboards drew their shape from piano keyboards; much decoding of telegraph messages depended on sound sensitive operators; and long before Leroy Anderson composed "The Typewriter," Victorian commentators described the distinctive clattering of typewriters in industrial settings. By the 1930s, the tactile nature of such communication devices had been matched by analogous developments in film, sound recording, and telephony, paving the way to another shift in cultural communication.

The tactility noted by Raykoff anticipates what the final section of this volume explores: touch. In considering how sensitivity to and perception of touch were measured in the nineteenth century, David Parisi argues that the monstrous devices used for such measurements laid the intellectual foundations for current understanding and scientific involvement in touch-based human computer interfaces. Yet while Parisi observes these devices carefully, he does not clearly explain how they fit into a collection of essays focused mainly on literary and cultural texts. Better fitting are Colette Colligan's insights into the clandestine book trade in London between 1880-1900. In studying the production-- in the 1890s-- of an obscure, monosexually erotic English novel called Teleny, she interestingly combines geography, culture and print production. Surreptitiously composed by several hands (which may have included that of Oscar Wilde), Teleny emerged from a Covent Garden bookshop located at the heart of bohemian London cultural life. While closely scrutinizing the tactile qualities of the novel, Colligan also explores the gay, cosmopolitan neighborhood that nurtured the printing of it.

Touch is supposedly at the heart of Christopher Keep's piece on telegraphy, gender, and the representation of both in Henry James's short story In The Cage. As telegraphy and Morse code-operated systems moved into the mainstream of communication systems in the late nineteenth century, women were allowed to enter the workplace as keyboard operators. As Keep shows, this feminization of the keyboard sparked debate. Since keyboard operators using Morse code systems depended on the ear to decode messages, often at a faster rate than via the eye, this was said to affect their senses directly, to communicate directly to the nervous system. Hence the telegraph came to be seen as a feminine or gendered form of communication, relying on sensual intuition to decode its meaning. Furthermore, since a woman's so-called "neurological nervous sensibility" might be dangerous in a job relying so much on the senses, the question of whether such a job should be given to women was hotly debated, even as it became--for upwardly mobile women-- a clear entry into the workplace. Contemporary anxieties over the role of the senses in industrial communication are played out in Henry James's novella, wherein a female postal employee succumbs to "the sympathetic vibrations she detects in the correspondence between two members of the gentry class" (242). But in the end, as Keep points out, James's tale confounds general views. Rather than being overcome and socially lost as a result of her work with the telegraph, the heroine becomes more feminine and sensitized.

To conclude the volume, Margaret Linley examines Frankenstein as a case study in media migration or remediation. Closely tracking the evolution of Mary Shelley's text from its first publication in 1818 to its revision in 1832, Linley shows how it wound its way into the popular culture of its time. It was cited in political debates about slavery, class rights and struggles, political reform, and science. The text also seeped into the sports domain as a short-hand way of suggesting how animals might be turned into valuable machines created for the entertainment and profit of human beings. Between 1832 and 1833, Linley tells us, a racing horse named Frankenstein rose to prominence on the back of several key Derby wins, only to wither away and be renamed as its performance diminished. Thus the Frankenstein myth produced the kind of mindset that discarded what no longer did its job--whether animal or mechanical.

What comes through in this collection, then, is a diversity of voices seeking to make sense of Victorian media sensibilities. Some case studies work together better than others. Several are groundbreaking in their perspectives. Within the domain of Victorian studies, each distinctively shows how to use media history and theory in the analysis of specific works.

David Finkelstein is Research Professor of Media and Print Culture at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.

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