Telegraphic Realism explores “how fiction could begin imagining itself as a medium and information system in an age of new media” (3). Linking media studies, narratology, and Victorian cultural studies, this book reads realist literature through the lens of various emerging technologies, ranging from the early penny post to electric and wireless telegraphy. While admirable and intriguing in many respects, Richard Menke’s study is especially welcome as a revision of new media theories that have dynamized the academy and the digital frontier. For, as Menke stresses, “our own [present-day] encounters with media are part of the afterlife of Victorian information” (250). In Telegraphic Realism, this afterlife is equally figurative and material, drawn from popular narratives of “information flow” and “liquid” electricity that developed both in literary texts and new technical practices. Indeed, Menke suggests that realist fiction has crucially shaped our current vision of a world flooded by information. Through this “literary history of information” (4), he shows how realism may profitably complicate our understanding of media—whether old or new, oral or textual, analog or digital, abstract or embodied.
Menke most eloquently poses these aims in his introduction, which evokes Charles Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, an eccentric technological defense of miracles that imagines the universe as a library, a databank, and a work of multiplot fiction requiring careful information management. Following Babbage, Telegraphic Realism envisions realist fiction “as part of an analog library initiative, a project to translate and reimagine the data composing the world, in a medium that maintained a sense of potential connection to that world” (26). In chapters spanning the Victorian period, two of which previously appeared in ELH and PMLA, Menke provides an exciting account of these informatic possibilities in fiction.
Telegraphic Realism joins a prominent and rapidly expanding field of Victorian literary and cultural studies concerned with technology, embodiment, and modern discourse. Recently, Nancy Armstrong, Jay Clayton, Nicholas Daly, Jennifer Green-Lewis, Ivan Kreilkamp, and Laura Otis have all offered compelling portraits of a culture allied with and imagined through technology in its various forms. Yet, with the exception of photography, the relation between Victorian fiction and Menke’s topic—media systems that use writing—has remained relatively unexplored. Telegraphic Realism focuses on the transcoding and transmission of information and how these new devices for the “conveyance of thought” both altered the nature of textuality and formed complex circuits of meaning—“systems for setting down, processing, and circulating discourse, systems that linked media to each other as well as to the bodies and minds of their users” (7, 8). Friedrich Kittler famously termed such systems “discourse networks,” and Menke is clearly engaged not only with Kittler but also with other media theorists such as Katherine Hayles, Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Jay David Bolter, and Richard Grusin. However, instead of simply aping postmodern communications theory, Menke explores the neglected middle years of Kittler’s Discourse Networks 1800/1900—what he terms the “discourse networks of 1850” (8). His study’s first half is especially inventive in this regard, showing how “the telegraphic imagination of writers such as Brontë, Gaskell, and Dickens outran the actual progress of the telegraph in England” (163).
Aside from its contributions to media theory, Telegraphic Realism is impressive as a study of the literal, figurative, and thematic functions of information in fiction. Beginning with Dickens and ending with Kipling, its chapters are distinguished both by sophisticated literary interpretation and a fine-grained treatment of the discourses predating and inaugurating technological change. Chapter one reads early Dickens and Anthony Trollope’s The Three Clerks through popular debates surrounding the Mulready postal envelope and the new postal order of Rowland Hill. As “part of a national discourse network” (43), Hill’s postal system supported a regular, inclusive, and transparent mode of communication that, Menke argues, was remarkably analogous to literary realism. The next chapter explores how the electric telegraph fuelled fantasies of immediacy, objectivity, and disembodied cosmic telephony in Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Dickens’s Household Words, and Gaskell’s letters. Here Menke offers one of the most compelling interpretations I have encountered of Jane’s spiritual “call” by Rochester from miles away—as a premonitory telegraphic fantasy of long-distance narrative intimacy.
For Menke, Jane Eyre’s spiritual telecommunication resonates with an influential vision of realist fiction as a technological medium for conveying neutral, bodiless information beyond human limits. This image of disembodied objectivity repeatedly appears in his third and fourth chapters, both of which explore abstract forms of perception promised by modern media systems. Chapter three traces the uneasy tension between past and mid-nineteenth-century media environments in A Tale of Two Cities, dwelling both on the early telegraphic use of optical semaphore signals and on a later media form: Sydney Carton’s death and consequent transformation into the novel’s “speaking machine for modern information: neutral, bodiless, swift, communal, transcendent” (131). Menke’s fourth chapter further examines the power and costs of such disembodied information in George Eliot’s short story “The Lifted Veil.” It analyzes Eliot’s fiction as an objective record of internal and external life, comparing the uncanny clairvoyance of her character Latimer to other forms of storage, inscription, and dissemination realized by mid-Victorian photography, physiology, and print media. Indeed, whether in the case of Latimer, Sydney, or Jane, Menke shows how the most implausible fictional scenarios follow a “telegraphic” narrative logic—a logic that pursues “the machinic possibilities of characters and their stories” (128).
The remaining three chapters of Menke’s study explore telegraphy both as a figure for narratorial consciousness and as an increasingly central theme in late-Victorian literature. Menke does not accord this fiction the same premonitory cultural power that he credits to earlier texts. Nonetheless, his analyses perform crucial and insightful work, examining the role of the telegrapher’s own mind and body in ordering, transmitting, comprehending, and sometimes confounding information also idealized as objective and disembodied. Discussing fiction by Dickens, Trollope, R. M. Ballatyne, and Bracebridge Hemyng, his fifth chapter considers the rise of women telegraphers, the development of acoustic telegraphy, and new forms of labor, trauma, and desire that attended these transformations.
As Menke shows in his final two chapters on James’s In the Cage and Kipling’s “Wireless,” the late-Victorian figure of the telegrapher condensed a variety of concerns surrounding interiority, sexuality, mediation, and mass culture. Representing parallels between fiction and information, James’s telegraph girl gains an author-like critical faculty through her identification with the network. She is an “instrument of connection” that enables intersubjectivity—“the coupling that links the couple” (207). While James uses telegraphy to sketch an ironic drama of consciousness, Kipling treats it as a blend of modern mass culture and unconscious poetic creation, realized through the wireless transmission of Keats in a vulgar apothecary’s shop. “Wireless” poses a “weirdly objective and impersonal” (239) portrait of individual psychology, in which literary production becomes another form of communal mechanical reproduction—of garbled media transmission and dissemination, relayed by unthinking senders and receivers. For Menke, “the story highlights the meagerness of [the telegrapher’s] character,” as “less like a poet’s than like a modern machine’s” (239). One wonders, however, whether more could be made of this peculiar affect (beyond its meagerness), especially since Telegraphic Realism elsewhere stresses the robust machinic possibilities of character and narration.
Menke’s ending chapters on James and Kipling are elegant, nuanced, and highly deserving of praise; this reader only wishes they merited further mention in his “Coda,” which returns to the mid-century with a brief reading of Gaskell’s Cranford. Kipling’s leap from Keats to 1902 would seem an especially fertile site for revisiting both Kittler’s vision of modernity (“1800/1900”) and related questions of historical elision. For, beyond its final emphasis on the “discourse networks of 1850,” Telegraphic Realism also has a great deal to contribute to modernist studies through its evocation of late-Victorian media systems. In his introduction, Menke questions “[a]ccounts of modernism” that contrast Victorian “continuity (expressed as development, evolution, or organicism)” with modernist “discontinuity,” since “in the paradigm of the information network” either position “depends on your perspective” (21). Through its portrait of complex Victorian literary and media systems, Telegraphic Realism urges us to challenge narratives of technological determinism that have long informed our views of literary history and periodicity. Indeed, as Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz have observed, new modernist studies are now, more than ever, premised on the early-twentieth-century “development of novel technologies for transmitting information” (742). Both new modernist studies and new media studies would do well to consult Menke’s remarkable book, which deftly historicizes questions about information as challenges of realism that continue to preoccupy digital culture today.
Tamara Ketabgian is Associate Professor of English at Beloit College in Wisconsin. She has received fellowships from the American Philosophical Society and the American Council of Learned Societies, and recently completed a manuscript entitled The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture. Her new research concentrates on natural theology, science fiction, and fantasies of technological design and spiritual intelligence from Charles Babbage to the present.
- Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies.” PMLA 123.3 (May 2008) 737-48.