- Newspapers, Telegraphs, and Railroads:Infrastructuralistic Approaches to Bjørnson’s Critical Realism
Between 1854 and 1855, Norway saw the historical co-occurrence of modern literature with modern communication infrastructures such as the railroad, the electrical telegraph, and the postage stamp. The introduction, and interconnection, of these communication infrastructures made a considerable impact on the flow of discourse throughout society, measurable in a newspaper industry that thrived on the new systems of news-exchange and distribution. From a modest number of forty-eight newspapers in 1850, Norway had a total of 203 registered newspapers by the start of the twentieth century (Ottosen et al. 2009, 26). Ibsen had already made his debut as a playwright (1850); young Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson surfaced in the capital’s papers as an aspiring and provocative literary reviewer (1854); and Camilla Collett published Amtmandens døttre (1854–1855), the country’s first modern novel. The ensuing 50 years saw the concurrent advent of advanced communication infrastructures with a golden age in Norway’s national literature. This historical co-occurrence is often commented on; however, it rarely gets center stage in analyses of nineteenth-century literary texts. As a result, we know little about the intersections between technologies of communication and literary aesthetics in nineteenth-century Norway.
My main argument in this article is that the new communication infrastructures of the nineteenth century established conditions of possibility for literary realism, and that literary realism critically negotiated the epistemological and political consequences of these infrastructures. I mobilize and juxtapose examples from the Norwegian mathematician [End Page 241] and politician Ole Jacob Broch’s writings on infrastructures, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s early writings on literature, and Bjørnson’s dramatic realism as it developed in the 1870s. The article has four main sections. The first section outlines a theoretical framework for understanding literature as part of and as responsive to communication infrastructures. The second section provides an example of nineteenth-century discourse on communication infrastructures, exemplified by Ole Jacob Broch, whose alleged “gospel of communication” emphatically connected communication infrastructures with cultural development. The third section compares one of Broch’s early observations on technology and culture with two examples from Bjørnson’s early literary criticism, while the fourth section turns to Bjørnson’s dramatic realism in the 1870s. Together, these last two sections of the article explore the epistemological and political modes through which Bjørnson’s realism responds to the period’s infrastructural developments.
The study of literature and technology cannot be reduced to motif-studies or simple models of cause (technology) and effect (literary expression). As we have learned from years of materialist-oriented literary studies, cross-fertilized from media archaeology, systems theory, and communication theory, we must acknowledge that discourse production is integral to historical communication systems. The article’s concluding section demonstrates my overarching claim, which is that the perspective of infrastructuralism has something to offer literary studies and that the study of literary texts and practices has something to offer our understanding of infrastructures.
What Is Infrastructuralism?
The term “infrastructure” usually denotes accessible and broadly integrated human-constructed systems that facilitate modern ways of life. Whether they are educational institutions, water supplies, electrical power systems, railroads, highways, the newspaper industry, the internet, air traffic control, shipping routes, lighthouses, or weather forecast systems, infrastructures shape the environments in which we live. The OED defines “infrastructure” as “[a] collective term for the subordinate parts of an undertaking; substructure, foundation; spec. the permanent installations forming a basis for military operations, as airfields, naval bases, training establishments, etc.”1 The prefix, infra, [End Page 242] means underneath, beneath or below—or even within in Medieval Latin—and infrastructure thus signifies a foundation upon which something is built or conducted.
In his essay, “Infrastructure and Modernity,” Paul N. Edwards concludes that “to be modern is to live within multiple, linked infrastructures, … to inhabit and traverse multiple scales of force, time, and social organization” (2003, 222). Edwards convincingly shows that infrastructures should be studied on “different scales of force, time, and social organization” (220), from the microscales of how individuals interact with user interfaces (e.g., water faucets, cash machines...