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  • Kate Flint

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  • Kate Flint
    Rutgers University

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This edition of RaVon grows out of the 2007 NAVSA conference on Victorian Materialities, and, more particularly, out of the panel on Materiality and Memory—a panel that attracted a large number of submissions, and that raised many issues that were energetically discussed not just in its three sessions, but in other panels as well. The title, of course, is strongly reminiscent of Matter and Memory (Matière et mémoire, 1896): Henri Bergson’s philosophical diagnosis of the nature of experience, in which he asserts the reality both of matter and of the spirit. It is through the body, with its own unarguable biological materiality, that one perceives the matter of the exterior world; it is in the mind—the unconscious as well as the conscious mind—that associations, apprehensions, and indeed memory is formed and found. Bergson’s is not a pathological model of mind, since Bergson believes in the existence and power of something more nebulous than this, however much he also understands the importance of physiological “cerebral vibrations” (Bergson 23). It is, nonetheless, a model that unmistakably elevates the importance of each human individual, whose sense of the present, of the immanence of duration, can only be apprehended through his or her consciousness of the body. While for Bergson the concept of the image—less than a thing, but more charged with interpretive potential than a mere representation—provides a crucial mediating concept between the real and the ideal, he keeps returning to the centrality of the individual consciousness. Only in such a consciousness do the “discontinuous objects of daily experience” hold—however tenuously—together. Without it, matter “resolves itself into numberless vibrations, all linked together in uninterrupted continuity, all bound up with each other, and traveling in every direction like shivers through an immense body” (Bergson 208).

The whole of NAVSA 2007 could be seen as a celebration of these discontinuous objects as they manifested themselves within Victorian culture—or more particularly, a celebration of the idea of things, and hence a reflection of an influential turn in Victorian studies in recent years. In general terms, such a focus on the material world has several points of origin: cultural studies, especially those that examine the circumstances as well as the economics of production and consumption; visual culture, with its concern for the Victorian fascination with—and with recording—the surfaces of their world; book history, directing our attention to the physical volume or periodical or pamphlet or newspaper in our hands, with its advertisements and illustrations as well as its columns of print; and an understanding of empire (and, indeed, travel more generally) that has demanded that we become alert to the traffic in material objects as well as in people and in ideas. Asa Briggs’s Victorian Things (1989), with its interest in how things were used, valued, and related to one another, its first part taking its opening epigraph from T. S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (“Even the humblest material artefact, which is the product and symbol of a particular civilization, is an emissary of the culture out of which it comes”), and its early quotation of Karl Marx’s declaration that “to discover the various uses of things is the work of history,” has come to seem a particularly prescient volume. And there was plenty of scope for Victorianists to carry forward the work performed for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the contributors to the magisterial volume of essays edited by John Brewer and Roy Porter, Consumption and the World of Goods (1993). Here, the editors describe how all their authors firmly believe that “our understanding of the development of western societies will remain dramatically impoverished unless we confront the fact that such policies, uniquely in world history, have come to revolve around the mass consumption of goods and services,” and seek to connect this material culture with “the political and social systems with which it has become symbolic” (Brewer and Porter 3).

“Victorian Materialities” was, indeed, filled with such things, or at least with talk about them: things that Victorians sat on or ate at or read or wrote on or wore; things that they consumed, inhaled, or became addicted to; that they smelt and touched and saw and heard; things that were stolidly there, like umbrellas and stuffed birds and kashmiri shawls, and those, like gas and ghosts, that floated around in a more indeterminate fashion. But the conference also reflected the more recent methodological shifts that, while they may take the history of material culture as their starting point, explore “things” that enjoy a less stable ontological position. Here, the volume of Critical Inquiry that Bill Brown edited on “Thing Theory” (Fall 2001) has had an enormous influence. Taking as its starting point Heidegger’s distinction between objects and things—which posits that an object becomes a thing when it somehow stands out, or is made to stand out, against the backdrop of the world in which it exists—this approach isolates a “thing” yet further, making one consider not just the terms of its making, sale, circulation, and use, but the very conditions of its being, its singular thinginess. We are led to ask—as Brown does in “A Sense of Things,” his study that builds upon the premises of the Critical Inquiry edition—how we employ things “to make meaning, to remake ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, and to sublimate our fears and shape our fantasies” (Brown 4).

Such things, however, may never have had a concrete existence outside of literature, and this is where thing theory allows one to depart from, as well as build upon, the history of material culture. What is the difference, as Clare Pettitt has asked, “between the affect stored in an object owned and used, and in objects seen, re-imagined, and represented in literature” (Pettitt 3)? How is this complicated yet further when resurrecting the silent history of a generic object, material, or commodity that appears in an imaginative work to reveal the “grisly specifics of conflicts and conquests that a culture can neither regularly acknowledge nor permanently destroy” (Freedgood 2), as Elaine Freedgood puts it in The Ideas in Things (2006)? Here, she sets out to reveal, in particular, the “knowledge [that] has remained unexplored and unexamined” (Freedgood 1) in the mahogany furniture of Jane Eyre, the calico curtains of Mary Barton, and the “Negro head” tobacco of Great Expectations. She acknowledges the easy forensic pleasures offered up by a clue in, say, a Sherlock Holmes mystery, sitting there in the text waiting to be decoded, but knows that to make “things” within most literary texts yield up their meaning—or at least some of their deeper meaning—we have to investigate more comprehensively the “symbolic grammars—the systems of meaning or value—in which they are found” (Freedgood 151). In Portable Property (2008), John Plotz also is concerned with “how particular objects come to be endowed with cultural value” within Victorian imaginative writing (Plotz 21), and how this meaning travels: does it carry a sense of nationhood with it—above all, is Englishness portable?

Much of this recent work has been preoccupied, however, less with Brown’s interest in the relationship between things and personal affect, than with the meanings that inhere within things that derive from their social histories and contexts, and that can be exhumed in order to understand the development, embedding, and transmission of shared—but barely consciously recognized—cultural values. Even though Plotz briefly mentions such Victorian curiosities as photographic altar-pieces to departed children, complete with locks of their hair and memorial rings, he discusses them as a generic phenomenon, rather than exploring the particularity of recollection that might be contained within them. In putting together both the “Materiality and Memory” panel, and the issue of RaVoN that grows out of it, I wanted to return our attention to the conjunction of inanimate things and the individual consciousnesses that invest their emotions and feelings in them (and, for that matter, invest them with emotions and feelings—acknowledging what Jane Bennett terms their “kind of thing-power” [Bennett 358]). My engagement has been with what Sherry Turkle calls “evocative objects”—or, to borrow from the subtitle of her essay-memoir collection of that name, “things we think with.” In her Introduction, she considers what used to be a scholarly reluctance to “examine objects as centerpieces of emotional life” (Turkle 6)—to do so was to align oneself, perhaps, with the unsavory excesses of materialism or the whimsies of fetishism or hobbyism. But the 1980s, as she shows, brought an increased interest in concrete ways of thinking, and in “the richness of objects as thought companions, as life companions” (Turkle 9)—as objects, that is, that engage the heart at the same time as they engage the mind; that demand that we consider personal history at the same time as we consider the history of the social, and that stimulate, and deploy, both individual and shared memories.

This issue opens with Clare Pettitt’s piece on “Peggotty’s Workbox,” which extends Pettitt’s questioning of the difference between material objects with an existence in the real world, and those that we encounter in literature. She asks about the potential, and limitations, of exploring the social context of one fictional object, and explores the memories that attach to Peggotty’s workbox in David Copperfield—are they in fact Peggotty’s, or David’s, and what difference might possession make to the memories that adhere to a particular souvenir? The word “souvenir,” of course, shifts in translation: abstract “memory” in French, it gains physical shape and commercial functionality in English. “Immortelles” enjoy a double existence in both French and English: they are a type of everlasting dried flower, that—as Kara Marler-Kennedy investigates in her article—were typically used on nineteenth-century funerary monuments, their own decay mimicking the dissolution of the body whose immortal soul they simultaneously commemorated.

Items that have been deliberately constructed, gathered, or collected in order to remember the dead are, of course, inseparable from the topic of materiality and memory, even if few have the condensed associative power of an experimental form of memorial photography described by Aaron Scharf when he “noted the gruesome suggestion which was offered in 1896 for ‘post-mortem’ photographs. These were to be made by using the ashes of some cremated loved one,” attached to the unexposed part of a photograph by means of the gum bichromate process (Scharf 25-27). My own essay looks briefly at the practice of death-bed photography, but uses this as a starting point to interrogate the origins and limitations of the phrase “photographic memory,” showing that, despite the desire for some nineteenth-century physiological writers to describe the brain as though it functioned like a photographic plate, this was a decidedly inflexible metaphor: the photograph may be used to stimulate memory, but only in the form of the rapid flash-back does the brain come close to displaying a replay of a camera recording an image for posterity. The difficulty of finding terms for the “place” in which memory is stored in the brain is a challenge with a lengthy history, as Douwe Draaisma, among others, have shown. Athena Vrettos examines this problem in her article on George Du Maurier’s Peter Ibbetson. Here she takes on, too, the important question of the part that memory plays in constituting an individual’s identity, and extends that to an issue that was highly topical in the late nineteenth century: what is the relationship of an individual’s memory to ancestral, or race memory—and where might this memory, too, be said to inhere if we think about it in material terms?

Memory’s physical existence in the material composition of the body is not just something that we should think about in relation to the brain; it also involves the body’s whole sensorium: the way in which we take in our impressions of the world, and indeed recall them, through employing the senses of touch and taste and smell, as well as sight. Too frequently, memory is conceived of in terms of the visual alone, in resurrected images, and although some recent scholarship (like Janice Carlisle’s Common Scents [2004] and John Picker’s Victorian Soundscapes [2003]) has done much to encourage work that acknowledges the role of the other senses in laying down and retrieving memories, there is still much to be done in relation to their importance. Megan Ward engages with these issues in her discussion of William Morris’s “The Defence of Guenevere,” which juxtaposes the idea of the sudden, violent moment, the memorable interruption of history, with one’s ongoing bodily experiences, whose consistency, as she says, resists memorialization.

The degree to which memory is something lodged within an individual’s mind and body, and the degree to which it is something shared, is a distinction that does not just apply to race memory, but to forms of memorialization that are widely shared within a culture. An often-learned and repeated poem would be an example of this, as Catherine Robson demonstrates in her piece on Charles Wolfe’s 1817 poem “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna,” which enjoyed a century-long appropriation on both sides of the Atlantic to signify the death of the common soldier, and, over and above its personal, consolatory application, to have a role in the construction of cemeteries and hence in public memorialization. She offers a compelling example of the way in which literary memory can come to have a traceable impact on the material environment. Shared literary memories are the starting place, too, for Adelene Buckland’s article on fireside culture, opening with the Dickensian model of reading around the hearth as a means of consolidating family unity, but moving on to consider the implications of the material history of what is being consumed—not in a readerly sense, but in terms of the combustible material in the fireplace. By alerting us to the Victorian debates about the quantity or exhaustibility of coal, she enables us to understand the subtle place that this material bears within Dickens’s own fiction when it comes to embedding issues to do with economic surplus and waste: issues that are central to domestic and national economies alike.

Finally, Jonathan Farina urges us to think hard about what we mean when we talk about “things”—a valuable counter-corrective to the materiality of “thing theory.” To use the word “thing,” he demonstrates through George Eliot’s deployment of the word in Middlemarch (both in the narrator’s prose and in the speech of her characters) may, in fact, be to avoid precision; to avoid naming or stating or calling the material into being. Individual consciousnesses may perceive the world, but their evasion or inability when it comes to giving it firm shape in language acts as a marker of the limits of both personal and social knowledge. These gaps, he suggests, may also be gaps in history: in incorporating them in a novel written in 1869-70 about the time of the 1832 Reform Bill, Eliot is also pointing to the way in which we might remember ways of knowing, and reforms that take place in ways of knowing: vagueness, as well as circumstantial detail, has an important role to play in the operations of memory.

To forget is to send a thing back into the crowded, undifferentiated, cultural limbo from which it once stood out. If we can no longer recollect something—its sight, its sound, its smell, its touch; if this cannot, moreover, be resurrected, deliberately or unconsciously, through an encounter with a photograph, an unanticipated whiff of a forgotten corner, the unexpected song that comes over a store’s sound system—then its thingness has disappeared back into being a mere object—and from there, it is only a stone’s throw from Bergson’s atomized condition of the unremembered, the “discontinuous objects of daily experience” imploding into atoms traveling in all directions, without any enduring individual consciousness in which it may be held together. Yet such a thing may continue—or come—to hold memory and meaning for someone else, as it itself passes on through history. It is this oscillating movement between individual body and consciousness, and the material object that both needs an individual’s perception to give it meaning, and yet has its unarguable impersonal concrete being within the world, that is perpetually in play when we consider the relationship between materiality and memory.