The immersive “virtual reality” of a Wordsworth lyric, pre-Braille print culture for the blind, photographic montages, piano-telegraph-typewriter hybrid interfaces, fin-de-siècle
Coventry Street’s titillating media attractions: such objects, among others, are attentively considered in Colette Colligan and Margaret Linley’s illuminating recent collection, Media, Technology, and Literature in the Nineteenth Century
. To borrow a phrase from Helen Groth’s contribution on George Sims’s Social Kaleidoscope
(1881), one might say that Colligan and Linley’s collection provides readers with kaleidoscopically shifting perspectives from one chapter to the next, “turning … now this way and now that” (92) the keywords listed in the volume’s title. Colligan and Linley’s introductory essay offers some sense of the inter- or non-relations of these changing terms during the century in question, but they focus more tightly and expertly on one of the terms, “media,” and its interplay with “the ratio of senses” (239), in Christopher Keep’s McLuhanesque phrase. “Literature” or its relation to the other two terms, for instance, receives relatively scant attention in their introduction, an observation I make not in the elegiac-belletristic vein but as notice that in the introduction, as in the volume as a whole, the collection’s title is more umbrella than through-line. Still, with a fusion of material cultural studies and media archaeology as the predominant methodology, the volume is especially sharp on how “new and complex relationships to the human sensorium developed alongside media’s coming of age, calling for a reconceptualization of the human body” (3). Throughout their introduction, the co-editors repeat their largest thesis, that “what the term media obscures is media history” (1), a provocative claim worth revisiting after a consideration of the collection they have curated. The essays are distributed across sections titled “Image,” “Touch,” and “Sound.” But the co-editors, aligning themselves with recent studies on sound and touch in the Victorian era, are particularly interested in challenging the “visual hegemony” (10) of nineteenth-century media as well as the “ocular-centric bias” (9) of nineteenth-century studies, and this ambition is most fully realized in the volume’s investment in haptic matters. One might recall, in this connection, Walter Benjamin’s memorable statement in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that “the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation alone … [t]hey are mastered gradually by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation.” A full five of the eleven contributions, including some from the “Image” and “Sound” sections, can be grouped together as an exchange about “the guidance of tactile appropriation” in the nineteenth century. How did tactility adjust and guide the sensorium’s uneasy adjustment to “the emergence of media ubiquity” (2)? Two essays look specifically to reading and writing by fingers, and jointly posit an “earlier ‘digital revolution’” (160). Vanessa Warne documents how a late eighteenth-century French “inkless” (46) embossing technique sparked the invention of several competing alphabets for books for the blind in Britain. Yet because sighted educators favored “the minimization of distinctions between reading by touch and reading by sight” (56), and thus endorsed an embossed version of the familiar Roman alphabet, they retarded the installation of a non-Roman universal script system most suitable for finger reading— i.e., Braille— until the century’s end. The passing mention of a set of pin-pricking stamps used by blind children for writing (49) aroused my curiosity about the compositional side of literacy in this context, but Warne’s fascinating chapter covers a great deal of research as it is. Ivan Raykoff’s contribution is devoted to the transmission rather than ...
Yohei Igarashi is Assistant Professor of Poetics at University of Connecticut and is at work on a book entitled “The Poetry Channel,” which explores how British Romantic poets imagined the transmission of poetry through history and space.