Colette Colligan and Margaret Linley (eds), Media, Technology, and Literature in the Nineteenth Century and Alex Goody, Technology, Literature and Culture

Colette Colligan and Margaret Linley, eds., Media, Technology, and Literature in the Nineteenth Century: Image, Sound, Touch. The Nineteenth Century (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 302 pp. £ 60.00 hb. ISBN 978-1-4094-0009-7.

Alex Goody, Technology, Literature and Culture. Themes in 20th and 21st Century Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), 193 pp. £ 15.99 pb. ISBN 978-0-7456-3954-3.

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

The complex and often surprising connections between literature and the manifestations of technological modernity constitute the focus for these two books, each with its distinctive take on the topic. Colligan and Linley’s collection offers individual case studies of Victorian media sensibilities centring on the experience of image, sound and touch, while Alex Goody’s wide-ranging introduction to the scholarly field sets out to chart the twentieth-century technological imaginary through a remarkable and compelling range of examples, stretching from Fordism to digital computing, from Virginia Woolf to cyberpunk and beyond.

Introducing their volume of essays, Colligan and Linley turn the attention to the rapidly transforming environment of media discourse and media machines of the nineteenth century, asking what it could have meant to see, hear, and touch in an age when new and complex relationships to the human sensorium were emerging in response to unprecedented media development and expansion. The collection’s emphasis on sound and touch along with visual experience is designed to correct what the editors perceive as the ocular-centric focus of much nineteenth-century study, placing it in a terrain of recent studies of nineteenth-century sounds, voices and musical culture, as well as studies of corporealised and haptic seeing.  The particular premise of the present collection, however, is that many of today’s models of media and mediation originated in the nineteenth century and were explored through the varied encounters of image, sound, and touch. Consequently, each of the eleven chapters in the volume concentrates on the specific visual, acoustic, or haptic dimensions of the media under investigation while also addressing their interaction.

Combining close textual reading with cultural history and a framework of media theory, the collection offers insights into a range of mediated experiences and their significance, extending from the kaleidoscopic textuality of George Sim’s social reportage to debates surrounding blind reading and embossed printing, and from the multi-media form of the Christmas gift book to the influence of the piano keyboard as a conceptual and practical model for new media technologies and representational practices like the typewriter and the telegraph. This works well in many cases, as in Helen Groth’s deft analysis of Sim’s work, Lorraine Janzen Kooistra’s study of Christmas gift books, and in the chapters by Linda K. Hughes and Collette Colligan on remediation in Victorian poetry and painting and the clandestine book trade in late-Victorian London, respectively. Colligan’s study of an obscure, homoerotic novel called Teleny deftly combines close attention to the cultural context of its production in a Covent Garden bookshop with close scrutiny of the tactile qualities of the text.

Of particular interest from a literature and science perspective are the two chapters by Vanessa Warne and David P. Parisi, both engaging Victorian sensorial science, specifically the work by the German physiologist and psychologist Ernst Heinrich Weber, De Tactu (1834). Nineteenth-century science was profoundly interested in the physiological mechanisms of touch, as Warne observes, and Weber’s experiments on sensation, now widely understood as having laid the groundwork for haptic studies as well as for modern experimental psychology, inspired widespread curiosity about both the acuity of touch and the bodily structures and processes that made tactile perception possible. Parisi’s study of Weber’s research and the conversation about touch that developed around his corpus sets out to locate Weber as a foundational figure, arguing that Weber’s experiments, starting in the mid-1820s, represented a shift towards a modern thinking on touch in which the project of modernity is articulated in a new model of rationalised tactility that still underlies current understanding and scientific involvement in touch-based human computer interfaces.

Where Parisi describes and assesses the legacy of Weber’s experimental method, Warne’s engaging study of cultural debates surrounding blind reading and the development of a print culture for blind people, shows that the educational discussion was influenced by contemporary scientific work on the mechanisms of touch and the haptic origins of depth and distance perception such as Weber’s. Disagreements over how to teach the blind to read abounded, however, and Warne’s argument is that the sighted community’s habitual privileging of sight over touch effectively impeded the development of a print culture for blind people. In many cases, tactile print systems based on embossed printing methods and special symbols created by blind or visually impaired innovators were slighted or ignored by sighted commentators.

While the opening chapter of Alex Goody’s Technology, Literature and Culture clearly acknowledges and accounts for the continuities between nineteenth- and twentieth-century technocultures, the focus of this detailed and accessible study is on the impact of technology from the earliest modernist movements of the 1900s through to the formal experiments of late postmodernism. Following the introduction are five chapters devoted to writing technology, media technologies, cold war technologies, technological texts (from typewriters to hypermedia), and, lastly, a chapter on robots, cyborgs and the technological body. The study surveys and considers all the most important theories of technology that came to currency in the twentieth century, including Benjamin, McLuhan, Kittler, Jameson and Haraway, elucidating and assessing theoretical constructions of technology by placing them alongside close readings of a wide variety of Anglo-American literary texts, reading Adorno with Woolf, Benjamin with William Carlos Williams, Fredric Jameson with William Gibson, and so on.

Goody’s own theoretical position is informed by what she describes with Nicholas Gane as ‘media materialism’, contemporary work on technological media by Kittler, Paul Virilio and Lisa Gitelman, which pays attention to the materiality of technology as much as its interpretation and representation. But Goody is also importantly concerned with the social meanings and politics of technology and its impact on literature, as well as the place of the human body in the techno-sphere of the late-twentieth century, concerns this study serves to demonstrate through detailed readings of a range of literary texts and cultural phenomena. While Goody’s expertise stretches seemingly effortlessly from Beckett to James Bond to the Terminator, from technologies of leisure to death by electrocution, it may be argued that the range and detail also constitute the potential weakness of this book. Reading from cover to cover one may feel swamped by information and at times more than a little impatient with the aim for comprehensiveness. At the same time it is undoubtedly the broad engagement with popular and avant-garde culture, and the inclusion of technologies of production, destruction, replication, communication, transmission and reception that make the book so useful as a resource for researchers approaching the topic from a range of literary and cultural contexts, as well as a starting point for further study in the field. Though wide-ranging, the readings are never lacking in interest, managing to convey insightful, sophisticated and convincing arguments in accessible prose. If Amazon’s demand for second-hand copies of this book is anything to go by, Goody’s timely and highly competent study has already found its market.

R. S. Koppen, University of Bergen