- Media, Technology and Literature in the Nineteenth Century: Image, Sound, Touch ed. by Colette Colligan and Margaret Linley
This ambitious and diverse collection of essays joins in an ongoing reconsideration of literary and cultural history as media history. Most of its contributors are literary scholars specializing in the British Victorian period, and the book is most immediately addressed to similar readers, although it also aims to engage more broadly in conversation with others interested in the overlap of media and literary studies. As editors Colette Colligan and Margaret Linley point out in their substantial introduction, the collection shares some conceptual overlap with Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree’s New Media, 1740–1915 (2003), although the collection reviewed here is more focused on a specifically literary history. Colligan and Linley present a forceful case for the “fundamental premise that many of the current models of media and mediation today originated in the nineteenth century” (p. 10), although, as is typical with this kind of collection, the wide-ranging group of essays do not really advance any coherent position and do not always necessarily even seem to support that central claim. For example, some of the pieces seem to point less to continuities between “current models of media” and those of the nineteenth century than to ruptures or breaks in media history in this time span.
Readers of this journal should be advised that the “technology” promised in the collection’s title takes more or less literal or concrete forms throughout. A few of them offer what is clearly a version of the history and theory of technology. Ivan Raykoff, a music historian, presents a quite fascinating argument that “[t]hroughout much of the nineteenth century, the piano keyboard provided a practical and conceptual model for new technologies such as the typewriter and the telegraph” (p. 159). He “explores the shared history of the piano, telegraph, and typewriter” in this period, “considering how the haptic and sonic interface of the piano keyboard has shaped modern practices of interpersonal communication” (p. 161).
Other essays in which fairly concrete or literal forms of technology play a key role include Vanessa Warne’s piece on the nineteenth-century evolution [End Page 1002] of, and battles over, tools and methods to aid the vision-impaired in reading, and David P. Parisi’s strong essay about the German anatomist Ernst Heinrich Weber’s underrecognized role in the development of new ways of thinking about touch and the “haptic.” Warne argues that “sighted educators and printers for the blind” were “[d]riven by the desire for touch to imitate sight, for the books of the blind to conform to those of the sighted, and for blind readers to emulate sighted readers” (p. 44). She demonstrates that non-Roman systems such as Braille posed an ideological challenge to those who preferred to incorporate the blind as fully as possible into normative sighted culture. Parisi begins with a focused examination of the experiments conducted in the late 1820s by Weber, who “set out to quantify the relationship between applied tactile stimuli and his subjects’ mental experience of it” (p. 189) by instructing “his subjects to remain still while he applied a beam compass to various parts of the body,” then asking them to report when they could feel two or just one contact points. From here, however, Parisi develops a persuasive set of claims regarding Weber’s key role in defining a “tactile modernity,” “a new set of discursive formations and disciplinary structures that encompassed the tactile and defined it as a distinct psychophysical system” (p. 194).
In many of the other essays, technology and media play a more figurative role. Helen Groth examines the metaphor of the “social kaleidoscope” in reformer George Sims’s social theory, arguing that “Sims embraced the kaleidoscope as an idealized model of receptive consciousness” (p. 91). Richard Menke, Christopher Keep, and Linley reconsider canonical works of British literature (respectively, William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a...