Eleven years ago at the Wordsworth Summer Conference, while hiking the hills of the Lake District, Michael Eberle-Sinatra and I discussed the possibilities and challenges of digital publishing. The year was 1995, one year before the date now commonly given as the start of the Internet’s viability. Thanks to Michael’s vision, perseverance, and coding skills, Romanticism on the Net is now celebrating its tenth anniversary; the first issue appeared February 1996. Now in 2006, I cannot help but feel like Wordsworth after Simplon Pass—or, more properly, like Robert Jones since Michael is surely Wordsworth in this scenario—a sense of surprise that we have managed to make it across after all.
When Michael asked me to edit the tenth-anniversary special issue of the journal, I decided that I wanted to take this moment, a decade after the Internet’s emergence onto the scene, to reflect upon the relationship between Romanticism and technology. I wanted that relationship to be explored in the volume in two opposing directions at once. On the one hand, I asked representatives from well established and well admired digital archives to reflect—in properly Romantic fashion—on the territory already traversed. On the other hand, I asked critics to consider—in unabashedly anachronistic fashion—the ways that Romanticism prefigures and informs future technologies. My hope was that such multiple temporal crossings would underscore the difficulty of establishing simple cause-and-effect narratives when it comes to technological innovation. Any such innovation tends to be at once more revolutionary and more conservative than is usually acknowledged: revolutionary in so far as an innovation like the Internet helps us to see past innovations differently, working like Stephen Hawking’s conception of anti-time, which has causality moving backwards in chronology; conservative in so far as any new innovation is necessarily delimited by the inescapable material drag caused by past practices, leading to the reliance of new technology on what N. Katherine Hayles terms the skeuomorph: “A skeuomorph is a design feature that is no longer functional in itself but that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time” (17). Her example is the vinyl on the dashboard of her Toyota Camry, which has been formed to simulate stitching, though the effect is actually produced by an injection mold. The skeuomorph calls into play “a psychodynamic that finds the new more acceptable when it recalls the old that it is in the process of displacing and finds the traditional more comfortable when it is presented in a context that reminds us we can escape from it into the new” (17). The eight essays in this special issue underscore both the skeuomorphic limitations of and the revolutionary, if anti-temporal, potential in the new.
The first section, “The Rossetti Archive, the Blake Archive, and Romantic Circles as Case Studies: The Transformation and Future of Romantic Scholarship,” asks the individuals behind the three most established digital archives of nineteenth-century studies to take stock: Morris Eaves and Joseph Viscomi on The Blake Archive; Steven Jones on Romantic Circles; Jerome McGann on The Rossetti Archive. All four critics look at once nostalgically backwards and prophetically forwards. Like Wordsworth crossing the Alps, any recollection in tranquility is filled in these essays with failed paths. In both Romantic and revolutionary fashion, however, any acknowledgment of failure is tempered by a vision of “awful promise” as each critic faces the future with “Effort, and expectation, and desire/ And something evermore about to be.”
Eaves and Viscomi get us started by thinking about not only the ways Blake’s own innovations in his medium speak to the new medium of the Internet but also the ways that the Internet helps us better to understand what was always already revolutionary, if only latent in Blake’s original engravings—or in the editing of Blake’s work. As Eaves puts it, “My attention had gradually shifted to [Blake’s] work as a particularly revealing instance of historical transmission and especially of what happens in the editorial realm when the artistic ideas and technologies of an artist in one era encounter the ideas and technologies of subsequent eras.” Through such an encounter, we can see how “the shift to new digital media refreshes our understanding of print.” In thinking about that negotiation between different media, Eaves ultimately reads in the Blake Archive a history “as much about recapitulation and recycling as about restoration—and as much about fragmentation as integration.” In his own version of skeuomorphic drag, he lays out the many layers of editorial “settlements” over the body of Blake’s work, each of which has left its own mark on that body. And, indeed, Eaves illustrates that the Blake Archive provides us with not only a new Blake corpus but also an embedded history of usage, for one advantage of the digital realm is its conservative ability to mark up that history of editorial marks. As Eaves explains, “Paradoxically, the accomplishment we should probably be proudest of is inseparable from the underlying compromise, which is less a break with past scholarship than a monument to it and to the level of scrutiny it makes possible.” Indeed, Eaves goes so far as to admit that “Most of the separable elements in the Archive’s makeup, down to the minute details of imaging, transcription, editorial notes, search apparatus, tracking and navigational devices, metadata--the lot--have compelling analogies if not direct precedents in precursor scholarship.” Eaves goes on to see in the very accommodations and false paths of the Blake Archive’s past a vision of some greater truth: X-editing, he terms it, “here the Power so called/ Through sad incompetence of human speech.” Like Wordsworth, he casts his project as a sublime venture: with a more “acute awareness…of the boundary between known and unknown,” he presents such “dirty editing” as “unnerving, potentially even paralyzing,” adding that “our greatest challenge is sticking with it despite the abiding uncertainties.”
Just as Eaves attempts to read a revolutionary new conception of editing backwards into past editorial practices, Viscomi reads in Blake an anticipation of our virtual present. As Viscomi explains,
Blake himself no doubt could vividly recall any image to mind and could mentally alter any image before his eyes into a new composition. Such envisioning, or what we would call visualization, characterizes an artistic mind and, interestingly enough, was becoming widespread through the popularity of the picturesque, since, in effect, picturesque tourists were virtual artists. Their pleasure, William Gilpin tells us in his “Essay on Picturesque Travel” (1st ed. 1792), came from perceiving nature in terms of art, comparing real scenes with those called to mind through their study of landscape paintings (usually in the form of reproductive engravings); pleasure also came from mentally “correcting,” or rearranging the real scene according to principles of landscape composition derived from their studies.
Using new digital technology to manipulate Blake’s images—a visual version of the “deformation” McGann calls for in Radiant Textuality, Viscomi reveals relations between disparate Blake images to underscore what was always already revolutionary, if only half-perceived in Blake’s own experimentation with new print technologies. As Viscomi puts it, “We, in our digital medium, and Blake, in his graphic medium, see designs—things already executed—generating new inventions that are in turn realized through execution.”
Like Viscomi, Jones reads technological innovation backwards into the Romantic record in order to counter the tendency to characterize the Romantics as Luddites. He thus seeks to critique a movement that he identifies as appearing around the same time as the establishment of the Internet in 1995-96: “This is more or less what happened in the press (and sometimes in the academy) around 1995: an anti-technological Romanticism and a Romantic version of Luddism were co-defined and sometimes simply conflated.” In teasing out our skeuomorphic reliance on Romantic models to make sense of both our love and fear of new technologies, Jones sets the stage for the emergence of Romantic Circles as a site that anachronistically looks both backwards and forwards even as it engages in present-day debates about the value of new technologies. Recalling the reasons he and Neil Fraistat first established Romantic Circles, Jones explains that “the real question, it seemed to us, was not whether to be involved in technology, or whether Romantic literature was somehow inherently incompatible with technological media, but how precisely to respond to the increasingly Romantic rhetoric with which technology was itself being figured.” As Jones illustrates, our very ability to make sense of present-day innovations, regardless of whether we wish to celebrate or denigrate them, is ultimately constrained by Romantic metaphors and maneuvers.
Jerome McGann finishes this section by exploring the limitations of both print editions of poetry and his own Rossetti Archive, thus repeating the strategy he employed so successfully in Radiant Textuality. In so doing, he underscores the extent to which any new technological innovation is necessarily delimited by the skeuomorph, even as he imagines a bold new future:
Right now the tools provided by the Archive have been largely built out of models drawn from the technologies of the book. Given what we know about the people who designed and built the Archive, that is hardly surprising. But having done what we have done, we now can see what we didn’t do and what we might and should do with our digital resources.
That bold new future may well be written as ‘NINES’ or Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship, as both McGann and Jones suggest at the end of their essays, an initiative to which the Blake Archive, Romantic Circles, the Rossetti Archive and also Romanticism on the Net have all subscribed.
The essays in the next section, “Neuromanticism,” think anachronistically about Romanticism’s relationship to the innovations of our temporal present. Since technological prostheses for memory like the codex and the Internet affect our very perception of space and time, there is a way that such technologies not only set the stage for the future but also work backwards in time to recast the past, giving us new insight into past technologies. Celeste Langan in her essay puts it this way: “A medium is not merely the exoskeletal form of our nervous system, for what we call our nervous system is itself shaped, ‘informed,’ by the sensory (not merely imaginary) data that media feed back to us.” That insight leads her to read Romantic poetry not as a form on the verge of obsolescence but rather as an instrument for registering technological change:
“because poetry was conceived, by Wordsworth and others, as a ‘regulation’ of impulses from vernal woods, an attempt to route the ‘continuous’ stream of sensory data into ‘measurable’ information, its experiments have more in common with scientific and technological advances of the early nineteenth century than has been recognized.”
Andrew Stauffer similarly explores the ways that technological changes in our present can shed new light on earlier technologies. The very fact of Romanticism on the Net, for example, and the anxieties of loss such digital initiatives sometimes inspire, can help us better to understand how earlier innovations, like the periodical review, began to make possible what we now too readily take for granted, even as we hear calls for its supersession: the age of paper. As he writes, “The literature of the period registers its unease with its own archival future in ways that illuminate the vexed relationship of Romanticism to materiality, and can help us see more clearly our own complex attitudes regarding the material record at the end of the age of paper.” Both Stauffer and Langan thus underscore the interrelation of Romanticism and the technologies of our present, illustrating the material ways that technology makes itself felt either in the body or in the body of texts that are left behind.
Like Langan and Stauffer, Christopher Keep is concerned with materiality, particularly the insistence of the material world in any imagining of virtuality as an easy escape from either our bodies or the bodies of past texts. In particular, he is interested in the ways that our material bodies are tied to the reading act, thus countering the tendency of critics like George Landow to read hypertext novels as “the fulfilment of the Cartesian desire to divorce the mind from its material substrate.” As Keep illustrates by analyzing Shelley Jackson’s 1995 hypertext fiction, Patchwork Girl, reading such work is “a physical activity, one in which bodies engage with other bodies, each leaving the mark of its passing on the other.” As with the other essays in this collection, Keep could therefore be said to explore the skeuomorphic drag of material history—including the continuing press of Romantic bodies such as Frankenstein’s monster on the present. He also explores the mark that our own material bodies leave on any (hyper)text we read. As he puts it, “In what follows I want to further explore the gothic nature not simply of this particular work of hypertext literature, but of the activity of reading electronic texts in general, to explore the ways in which what Jackson calls ‘the banished body,’ the monstrous materiality of subjectivity, haunts not only the eighteenth-century faith in the powers of rational powers of intellection, but our own post-millennial dreams of transcendence.”
This special issue ends with one effort to imagine the new, an effort to escape the material drag of past habits and practices. As Paul Youngquist writes, “Too many on-line essays re-enact off-line standards of production and performance,” and, so, Youngquist offers up both in message and medium one vision of the new in the logic of the mix. In so doing, he also exemplifies the inescapable mixing of past, present, and future in any understanding of technological innovation. He calls that mixing “Techno-Prosthetic Romantic Futurism”: “Time to gene-splice: Blake to Gibson, Equiano to MF Doom, Barbauld to Butler, Byron to Burroughs. Revise. Replicate. Remix!”
As Romanticism on the Net returns to its beginnings and examines in this tenth-anniversary issue the past it has both recorded and helped to make, it is with an eye to the future, which beckons from the other side of the pass.
I make this argument in “Addressed to the NINES.”
- Felluga, Dino Franco. “Addressed to the NINES: The Victorian Archive and the Disappearance of the Book. Victorian Studies 48 (Winter 2006): 305-19.
- Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999
- McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave, 2001.