Five years ago Catherine Robson headed off for the annual NAVSA conference in Victoria with the morbid—and perhaps prescient—sense that the phenomenon of the academic conference was on the verge of anachronism. To what extent, she asked, did the mutual “physical presence” of scholars improve upon their virtual communication by “print . . . e-mail, telephone, or letter”? (Robson 254). I couldn’t help but reflect on Robson’s words in the interval between this year’s iteration of the conference in Madison and the arrival a few months later of the three fascinating papers I discuss below. For on 15 November, my own institution announced that it would join a small nationwide consortium of universities planning to offer regular, accredited courses online in real time to any registered student at the consortium schools (“Leading Universities”). From the perspective of 2U, the for-profit company overseeing the venture, traditional classes are now more precisely denominated as the “brick and mortar counterparts” of the new virtual classrooms (“New Consortium”). Thus in five short years we’ve gone from wondering about the continuing relevance of academic conferences to having to worry about the continuing relevance of the classroom itself.
What role might the humanities—and more specifically the disciplines of literary and historical interpretation—have in this evolving discussion of the nature and status of virtual communication? In what sense are institutional and technological forces modifying our very sense of the material situatedness of “being there”? How do we sustain the figure of the conversation as a model for scholarly exchange when it is disappearing from (or transforming the very notion of) the classroom itself? And is it only out of a belated, and perhaps reactionary, logocentrism that we cling to the hermeneutical and ethical claims of Socratic conversation? [End Page 222]
Each of the papers I discuss below considers the transformation of communication in the context of an increasingly modern, technological, and scientific society. And each recognizes in the Victorian period a culture not only preoccupied by prosthetic extensions of identity and experience, but wrestling as well with the seemingly inevitable technologization of that prosthesis, a technologization distinct from earlier and various versions of illusionism (such as fiction, painting, theater, dream, and hallucination), whose conventions and tropes it nonetheless borrows. Taken collectively, these papers outline a set of Victorian practices in which an intractable materiality is forced into intimate contact with various forms of suppositionality, and they suggest an itinerary for future research, in which our understanding of technology’s impingement on imagination and identity is both broadened and critically sharpened by a sense of the supple forms that prosthetic experience may take.
In “The Material of Form: Vernon Lee at the Vatican and Out of It,” Jonah Siegel notes the ways in which the increasing facility of travel to the Continent in the second half of the nineteenth century correlated with the development of a Victorian aesthetic premised on the direct encounter with a corpus and tradition of visual works that had until then been apprehended primarily in mediated form. But Siegel immediately proceeds to argue that Lee’s 1882 essay “A Child in the Vatican” represents a departure from this developing aesthetic precisely to the extent that Lee sees the “actual” and the “real” as inhering in the form rather than in the material of the art object, thus vitiating the privilege of any direct, ostensibly unmediated encounter with it. Lee’s response to the Apollo Belvedere is symptomatic, according to Siegel: in contrast to Winckelmann, who describes being “transported” by the sculpture, Lee insists on the experience of standing in the room where the Apollo is housed. Siegel is alert to the paradox engendered by Lee’s emphasis on standing: while one might think of that trope as gesturing toward a metaphysics of presence (the signifier dissolves, and I stand directly before the signified), it is rather distinguished from any idealistic yearning for immanence (I recognize that I am still standing in front of the signifier). I have noticed a similar paradox in the period’s literature on the stereoscope: the verb most commonly used in popular writing to describe the intensified sensation of...