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Those who happened to glance at the cover of the NAVSA 2012 conference program would have found the 1901 map of the Eastern Telegraph Company displayed in its full glory (see fig. 1). Working in concert with the conference’s theme, “Victorian Networks,” the map depicts an interconnected earth with Atlantic civilization, and London especially, at its center. It conjures a particularly modern world—one where people, information, and goods travel at record speed and with remarkable fluidity. The inhabitants of such a networked world looked, we might imagine, relentlessly to the future, hastened by accelerating flows and liberated from old ways. Certainly, the proliferation and intensification in the use of the word “network” during the Victorian era adds linguistic freight to this understanding. Instances of the word conjuring a chain or system of interconnected things multiplied in the nineteenth century. Taken together, the map and its vocabulary cultivate an understanding of a modernizing nineteenth century that culminates in the fluid, forward motion of people, goods, and ideas.

An ephemeral object, the conference program seems destined to be tossed out or filed away. By using it as a starting point, I wish to emphasize the important work performed not only by maps and words, but by conference rubrics, too. A generation of critical studies of cartography has left us with the lesson that maps are historical and social texts that function at the behest of states, empires, trading companies, and telegraph agencies. Maps privilege perspectives and locations, and in so doing, imply processes and narratives. The same can be said, ultimately, for the thematic frameworks employed on a yearly basis by the conveners of NAVSA conferences. While rubrics open and organize, they also occlude and exclude. What sort of conference did the notion of Victorian networks produce? And what sorts of nineteenth-century narratives did it enable?

With these questions in mind, I began, some months ago, to assess the vision of the Victorian age on offer at NAVSA 2012. As I anticipated, the conference spotlighted work on empire and travel, on clubs and commodities, and on telegraphy and photography. As an explorer of sorts, I was interested, though, in the unexpected detours, hidden corners, and buried treasures that might unfold. I wanted to discern topics and themes that a modernizing notion of networks did not necessarily privilege. As if to meet my expectations, the program offered up a rich array of scholarship on the handmade, the rural, the traditional, and the familial. Conference planners and presenters alike, it turns out, were responsive to the capacious connotations of “network,” which in its original meaning designated twisted, crossed, and interlaced products made of thread, whether ribbons, embroidery, or lace. These discoveries notwithstanding, I should admit that, like the Victorian explorer David Livingstone who searched doggedly for the source of the Nile, I had my own moment of origin in mind as I dug into the program and investigated the conference.

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Fig. 1. 

“The Eastern Telegraph Co.’s System and its General Connections,” from A. B. C. Universal Commercial Electric Telegraphic Code by W. Clausen-Thue (London: Fisher, 1901).

Specifically, the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of E. P. Thompson’s 1963 The Making of the English Working Class was at the fore-front of my thinking. In that book Thompson transformed class from a structural into a relational category. He combined a Marxist’s appreciation of materiality, a critic’s ear for literature, and a humanist’s belief in dignity to tell a riveting and textured tale of a class’s becoming. As Thompson famously declared, class “happens” (9). To show as much, he traversed the terrains of work and radicalism, and of religion and custom, thereby charting the prehistory of the proletariat as it developed between 1780 and 1832. As he tracked the arrival of the working class, Thompson performed the work of historical recovery, bringing a set of notoriously “backward-looking” actors into sharp focus. He sought to render visible “the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘Utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott.” As he rescued these figures from what he called “the enormous condescension of...

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