Addressed to the Nines: The Victorian Archive and the Disappearance of the Book
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Victorian Studies 48.2 (2005) 305-319

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Addressed to the NINES

The Victorian Archive and the Disappearance of the Book

Purdue University

Steven Hawking starts A Brief History of Time with the following anecdote:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady, "But it's turtles all the way down!"

This paper is, in part, about the question of ground, a question that I would say lies at the heart or, rather, at the base of not only cyberspace but also postmodern culture generally. I wish also to continue a dialogue about Victorian studies itself, one taken up in a panel at the 2004 NAVSA conference by Amanda Anderson, Catherine Gallagher, and Matthew Rowlinson and published in the following spring issue of Victorian Studies.1

I take as my point of departure Rowlinson's astute observation that "the association of NAVSA with a print journal establishes specific— and arguably anachronistic—practices of reading and writing as the material basis of its members' collective identity" (241). He points out that NAVSA established this "arguably anachronistic" relationship despite the fact that "the founding of NAVSA . . . takes place in the context of far-reaching changes in the forms of scholarly publishing and communication" (241). Responding to Rowlinson's comments, I wish also to continue the discussion articulated by Anderson and Gallagher regarding the dominant theoretical maneuvers of the last twenty years of Victorian studies. [End Page 305]

As many critics of both postmodernism and cyberspace have contended, we are seeing today a transformation in the way we perceive the universe, a change as radical as the Copernican revolution that is the center of Hawking's old joke. According to many critics in the evolving field of media studies, the paradigm shifts of the postmodern age are driven by changes in the media by which we communicate. We have entered a new age of virtuality and knowledge work. The result has been what N. Katherine Hayles describes as a "systematic devaluation of materiality and embodiment" (How We Became 48).

While she highlights the effects of these changes on human consciousness, Hayles also calls on us to acknowledge the inescapability of embodiment in our understanding of the human and its current transformations. (In this, she has been followed more recently by Mark Hansen in Embodying Technesis). But Hayles does not completely escape the logic of either postmodernism or critical theory more generally, both of which are caught within Hayles's primary dialectic of inscription and incorporation.2 It may prove useful to set out this dialectic as a first step toward thinking about possible approaches to digital publishing in the humanities.

I offer these reflections in light of a digital project with which I am involved, one officially sponsored by NAVSA. Dubbed NINES, or Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship, the initiative will be realized over the next four years, aided by Jerome McGann's million-and-a-half-dollar Mellon Achievement Award, which he has dedicated to this effort.3 The goal of the initiative is precisely to respond to and engage in the transformations mentioned by Rowlinson—transformations of "the temporal organization of scholarly exchange, along with the forms of intertextuality and citation by which scholarly texts are linked to one another" (241). Before I turn to NINES and the specific problems it faces, I will first discuss more generally the problem of ground and the way it speaks...