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  • Romantic Connections
  • Delphine Gatehouse
The Literature of Connection: Signal, Medium, Interface, 1850–1950 by David Trotter. Oxford University Press. 2020. £30. ISBN 9 7801 9885 0472

'Open and closed, ostentatious and hermetic, stupid and sly': so David Trotter describes telecommunications systems in The Literature of Connection. In its literary elaboration and playful pairing, it is a good definition of the book's main themes: managing data channels by balancing 'signal-to-noise', the medium as the message, and the interface as a give-and-take cultural form. This is not a smash-and-grab, not a book from which to quickly glean a couple of quotes; instead, it is a cumulative affair, with Trotter regularly referring to other scholars for productive contributions. Its greatest powers lie in the socio-political shift towards the end, and the pairings of unlikely texts and media throughout. In the latter, Trotter conjures the same invisible-to-the-naked-eye electromagnetic pulses between two parties that are the subject of the book. Examples are sometimes dashed off–Peggotty kissing Copperfield's keyhole to show medium as message, a history of corridors as 'couriers' in two pages–or expanded on at length. This makes for a bumpy read, not helped by the tension implicit in a 'romance of connectivity' (all-encompassing) founded on signals as 'thrills' (violent, short-lived). It is not a book for those who prefer a systematic approach, but I came to think of the unevenness as a strength. This way, we better see the multivalence of signalling in the period.

On periodisation, Trotter doesn't want to dwell. In Literature in the First Media Age: Britain between the Wars, he identified the 1920s as the decade when a regime of information superseded a regime of energy.1 This shift of [End Page 80] emphasis 'occurred during the hundred years or so preceding the Macy Conferences' (Literature of Connection, p. 4). No matter; the broad sweep is necessary for the romance. Nor does Trotter want to invoke a Kittlerian archaeology, where ancient scribes are refashioned as typists or the Victorian Panorama as film. Instead, his 'telegraphic principle' starts with the semaphore telegraph, whose success, Trotter tells us, 'lay in a double condensation: of distance, and language' (p. 21). We are introduced to an invention which turned encryption inside out, at once derisibly hackable but also, as Carlyle described, rapid and mysterious. The semaphore, Trotter argues, was used by George Eliot and Thomas Hardy to epitomise 'to both comic and tragic effect, the romance of connectivity' (p. 23). Eliot is hard done by here. The analysis of an 'oddly contentless' (p. 27) signalling between Gwendolen and Deronda is fine–their relationship does seem to be 'made and remade by a sort of fugling' (p. 27)–but so sparse as to feel insignificant. No time is spent on the narrator's purposeful obscuring of meaning. This is a shame not in terms of Eliot scholarship, but because of Trotter's reliance throughout on Serres's third man theory ('to hold a dialogue is to suppose a third man and to seek to exclude him'), which could have been advanced by Eliot's own narrative theories.2 In a later description of The 39 Steps Trotter will reflect upon the ways in which 'the camera, tracking back ahead of him, has itself been compelled by information, drawn ever deeper in by information's magnetic field' (p. 201). I feel it would have been generative to forgo loyalty to the bipartite structure to make some comparisons between the narrator's and camera's attempted exclusion of the third man. Or, given all other pairings are original and drawn out, not include Eliot at all, the result being undeniably bitty. Especially as Hardy gets a whole biography.

In 'Wessex as Medium' we get Hardy the proto-media theorist. Along with three other subheadings dedicated to Hardy, this is the most comprehensive analysis of any single author's work in the book, allowing Trotter to establish his theories of medium and 'signal-thrill' in detail. Particularly dexterous is the implicit comparison between W. Ross Ashby's coffee experiment described in the introduction and the 'banality of a system engineered...


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