This essay argues for the critical value of situating Romantic poetry—particularly as it’s theorized by Wordsworth and Scott—as a “medium” between the two extremes that often shape accounts of media history: the “primary orality” of Walter Ong and the “techno-informatic vanishing point” of aesthetics recently described by Alan Liu in The Laws of Cool. I propose that Sir Walter Scott’s story, “My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror,” offers a “supernatural” or occulted account of how literature operates as a kind of telepathic medium, enabling readers to be “affected by absent things as if they were present.” But it offers at the same time, in its almost anachronistic play with the concept of “resolution” as a feature of the televisual screen, an account of all perception—both “immediate” and mediated—as a process of discretization and resynthesis that works remarkably like Wordsworth’s “digital” theory of meter.
—W. Scott, epigraph to “My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror”
There are times
When Fancy plays her gambols, in despite
Even of our watchful senses, when in sooth
Substance seems shadow, shadow substance seems,
When the broad, palpable, and marked partition,
‘Twixt that which is and that which is not, seems dissolved,
As if the mental eye gain’d power to gaze
Beyond the limits of the existing world.
Such hours of shadowy dreams I better love
Than all the gross realities of life. —Anonymous
We have generalized the notion of communication. In the present state of affairs, it’s touch and go whether the entire theory of what goes on in living beings will be revised as a function of communication. Read anything by Mr. Norbert Wiener; its implications are huge. Among his many paradoxes he presents this strange myth of transmitting a man by telegraph from Paris to New York by sending exhaustive information on everything that constitutes his individuality. Since there is no limit to the transmission of information, the point-by-point resynthesis, the automatic recreation of his entire true identity at a distant place, is conceivable. Such things are curiously deceptive, and everyone wonders at them. They are a subjective mirage which collapses as soon as one points out that it would be no greater a miracle to telegraph over two centimeters. And we do nothing less when we move ourselves through the same distance. This extraordinary confusion is sufficient indication that the notion of communication has to be treated cautiously.—J. Lacan, Third Seminar: The Psychoses (37)
To feel at a distance. What does it mean? How does one come to feel that way? Is there any necessary connection between the two “senses” implied in such a phrase? On the one hand, to feel at a distance might be to register an attenuation of feeling, whereby the sensation loses “vivacity,” becomes fainter—whether or not one is at a spatial or temporal remove from the sensory stimulus. On the other hand, it is the peculiar power of prostheses—from the cane of someone blind to the telescope of someone who becomes, by virtue of that technology, a little less blind—to enable feeling at a distance. Certain media, moreover, seem to enable not only the feeling that things elsewhere are somehow here, but also that even things and people not there (whether because they are dead, fictional, or merely absent) are somehow here, before our eyes, productive of tears and other emotional reactions.
Feeling at a distance, mediated feeling: let us call this double trajectory, the sense at once of sensory impoverishment and magical-prosthetic enrichment, telepathos. It was such a phenomenon that Rousseau identified when he complained that theatrical representations of suffering were more likely to produce tears in spectators than actual suffering: “There are people who sob at tragedies but never in their lives took pity on a single unhappy person” (243n). Rousseau suggested that this second-order feeling, the “’as-if” of pity and compassion that theatrical representation provoked, came at the cost of a certain social anaesthesis. We need not accept Rousseau’s judgment—which is also, ironically, Irving Babbitt’s judgment against Rousseau in Rousseau and Romanticism—that the anaesthesis accompanying telepathos is an ethical lack of feeling; inattention to what we call, for lack of a better word, the “immediate” situation may be said to accompany every act of reading, after all. As we bring the page (or the screen) into focus, the background fades; eventually, this is true of the page or screen as well: as we read word or image, we make the page, the word, the pixel—the material and sensory substrate of the sense-making activity—essentially disappear.
When Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media, made his famous distinction between “hot” and “cool” media, he had this dimension of what I am calling “telepathos” in mind. What he describes as “the hotting-up of the medium of writing to repeatable print”(23) represents at once an intensification and an “etherealization” (19): the ease and the speed with which we acquire the “content” of the form seems to animate that content, lends it a sort of warmth and motion. The “cool” medium, on the other hand, allows us still to feel our own agency in the parsing of information. Since we now associate television with passive consumption, McLuhan’s classification of television as “cool”—“low in definition” and therefore “high in participation or completion by the audience” (23)—may surprise. But perhaps a more important point is that McLuhan calls such media “cool” rather than “cold,” as if to suggest that all media are vampiric, warming themselves with the user’s more or less somnambulized body.
If we can call this transfer of warmth from makers and users to the medium itself “telepathos,” then this telepathos, this mediated feeling at a distance, would also describe the phenomenon of “cool” as it has recently analyzed with such rigor by Alan Liu. In The Laws of Cool, Liu chronicles the simultaneous rise of the information and service industries, describing their conjunction in terms that seem to reenact the structure of theatrical representation. On the one hand, there is “the cold work of the back-office information worker”; on the other, “the warm work of the front-line service staff” (123). Their conjunction, Liu argues, produces the (an)aesthetic of “cool.” If in Liu’s account, cool still entails a certain improvisatory participation, that participation is distinguished from McLuhan’s new “tribalism” by its cubicle-situated isolation, privatization. Even more important, perhaps, cool is no longer countercultural; rather, “cool” has become “the techno-informatic vanishing point of contemporary aesthetics, psychology, morality, politics, spirituality…No more beauty, sublimity, tragedy, grace, or evil: only cool or not cool” (3).
Now suppose, for the purpose of constructing a media history that relinquishes the temptations of technological determinism, we were to focus neither on the origins of communication (Walter Ong’s “primary orality”) nor on its possible end, what Liu calls its “techno-informatic vanishing point.” In that case, we might want to consider the case of Romanticism—a kind of “techno-informatic mid-point” of communication technologies, and of “feeling at a distance.” Singularly characterized by a print-cultural nostalgia for a “prior” (alternative) technology of communication—orality—poetry in the Romantic period is virtually redefined as a species of communication caught between then and now, here and there. Opposed to the speed, the “rapid communication of intelligence” associated with the newspaper and the metropole, yet able only to simulate, on paper, the dispassionately “measured phrase” “such as grave livers do in Scotland use,” Romantic poets achieve only what we might call a “medium cool.”
Medium Cool is, of course, the title of a classic film of 1968, directed by the cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Wexler’s title itself is a playful allusion to—and an implicit critique of—McLuhan’s opposition between “hot” and “cold” media. As a faux documentary (real footage of the 1968 Chicago convention is included; one sees a young Peter Jennings and hears, famously, someone warning the director about tear gas: “Look out, Haskell, it’s real!”), the film can also be read in terms of Rousseau’s critique of the difference—and distance—between actual and represented suffering. In Wexler’s film, “medium cool” is a kind of political dis- or half-engagement, somewhere in between the two “senses” of cool—participatory and detached—offered, respectively, by McLuhan and Liu. In this respect too it seems to offer itself as a valuable analogue to a romanticism associated with both “disenchantment” and “default.” For in foregrounding the “techno-informatic” conditions of cultural experience, Wexler uses his medium—film—in ways that suggest why, in a different era, another medium—poetry—might illuminate all the ways in which the subject of those regimes whose passing is lamented by Liu— “aesthetics, psychology, morality, politics, spirituality”—was already a “techno-informatic” subject as well.
The opening scene of Wexler’s film foregrounds two characters: a Chicago cameraman, who in the opening scene “coolly” gathers footage of a fatal car accident, detached by his prosthetic eye from feeling; and his sound man, who, later describing himself as a mere extension (elongation) of his microphone, appears to complete the redefinition of cool when he says, “a typewriter doesn’t really care about what’s being typed on it”: cool here is the transformation of the human(e) into ‘l’homme machine.” Yet the film counters this representation of visual and auditory media as anaesthetic with a sentimental narrative, of a woman and child from Appalachia, who gradually rehumanize the cameraman. The woman, who now works at a Motorola factory, was formerly a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse; the boy raises carrier pigeons (that pre-modern medium of communication) and prefers reading about them to watching the television in their tenement apartment. Perhaps this sentimental narrative—described by Wexler and his producer as adding a “human interest” to the footage they’d gathered of the riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention—is why the film earns a titular rating of only “medium” cool: the archaic content serves to “warm up” the film’s self-reflexive meditation on the technological medium.
A Romantic poet is at once camera- and sound-man, although that very congruence, that flesh-and-blood, user-friendly embodiment of mediation that is the Romantic poet, may help to obscure the pathos of Wordsworth’s famous definition of the poet as a “cool” medium, one who has “an ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events” (165). The poet’s distance from actual feelings (from “real events” as well) robs his language of “liveliness and truth,” making his representations mere “shadows”; indeed, to the extent that he records and retransmits (“describes and imitates”) passions, “his situation is altogether slavish and mechanical” (166). It is this situation—the ironically painful feeling of distance—Wordsworth claims, which induces in the poet a wish “for short spaces of time perhaps, to let himself slip into an entire delusion, and even confound and identify his own feelings” with “the persons whose feelings he describes” (166).
Much of what is most interesting about Wordsworth’s account of the metrical contract seems to follow from this “wish of the Poet to bring his feelings nearer” to those he represents. In this light, perhaps the most curious dimension of Wordsworth’s defense of poetry as a medium of representation is his preference for what we might, by another anachronism, heuristically describe as a digital (rather than analog) encoding of feeling. By substituting elevated language for the “excitement” of real feeling, a poet acts as a “translator,” Wordsworth acknowledges; but (what I am calling) this analog transmission associated with neoclassical poetics (“iconic” sound and image) is subject to “infinite caprices upon which no calculation whatever can be made.” “Analog” devices, one historian explains, whether “mechanical or electrical, product of nature or man-made, are subject to disturbing influences” otherwise known as noise, or static. Such noise disrupts analogy because it is indistinguishable from the original data: “If its voltage input is disturbed, even by a small amount, this new state represents a perfectly valid value for the system, and the mechanism has no way of distinguishing between the new (false) state and the original (correct) state” (anon. n. pag.) Meter, by contrast, seems to operate as a kind of “pulse code modulation” of data streams; its “superadds” a finite set of variables to the “continuous stream” of words and so renders the data flow relatively immune to exterior “noise.” In Wordsworth’s account, meter immunizes by resolving into “regularity” the “unusual and irregular state of mind” produced by excitement; “small, but continual and regular impulses of pleasurable surprise from metrical arrangement” (172) diminish the threat that represented excitement will be felt as actual pain: “if the images and feelings have an undue proportion of pain connected with them, there is some danger that the excitement may be carried beyond proper bounds,” he writes.
Since noise has been identified, by Kevis Goodman and others, as the very stuff or “pain” of history, of the event, the real, the question I’d like to pose is this: does Wordsworth’s poetics (and, by extension, medium cool romanticism) “bind together the vast empire of human society“ only at the cost of substituting a fantasized space for an experience of the “here-and–now”? Those “short spaces of time” in which identities and events (the reproduced event and its reproduction) are confounded: do they not at the same time—by the “calculable” short duration of these delusions—fortify the (perhaps deluded) sense of our own time as “real” time, as the “lived” event? Or can they be understood instead to enact “another doubt, another decomposition, which is resolute?”
I draw this last phrase from Bernard Stiegler, who, in an argument that is consonant with Liu’s, suggests that digitalization may be “decomposing the social bond” by distancing people from the very events that would shape their identity (147-63). Referencing television news, Stiegler writes,
What is already there in all editing becomes massively problematic when it occurs live, in the temporal flow of current events. For this flow has the effect both of occulting more profoundly the artifices of imaging…and of blurring the difference between reality and fiction….
These possibilities engender a phantasmagoria that in recent years has given rise to a dangerous doubt which affects democracy, a doubt which is not very far from panic, and which is decomposing the social bond—and to which must be opposed another doubt, another decomposition, which is resolute, and, as much as possible, conscious of itself. …A more knowing belief; and by the same token, a less insipid and credulous one; this is what the things we fear about the analogico-digital photo would also make possible.151-2
In thus linking “decomposition” and resoluteness—resolution—Stiegler references the process of analog to digital conversion; “resolution” names the level at which change in the analog signal elicits a change in the digital signal, the “algorithm” determined by “industrial strategies” for “the discretization of the ‘continuity’ of the image-object” (161). But rather than lament the transfer of “resolution” from the human will to the machine, Stiegler suggests that this “decomposition” of resolution has the important function of reminding us that “the visual image is always synthetic” (158); that anima (mind, spirit) is always already cinema (162). In short, resolution “itself”—our sense of an intentional and perceptual capacity prior to the “’techno-informatic”—is a perceptual illusion.
To determine whether Wordsworth’s reimagining of the metrical contract as a kind of teletechnology constitutes the dangerous “phantasmagoria” referred to by Stiegler, or rather allows a “decomposition which is resolute,”—which insistently discovers, in other words, that perception operates as a process of “discretization and synthesis”—I’d like to examine a little-known prose tale by Sir Walter Scott, “My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror.” It is an appropriate object for several reasons: first, because it yokes together poetry (including a specific reference to “what your favourite Wordsworth calls ‘moods of my own mind’”) and new “teletechnologies” so as to suggest their relation; second, because it contains what is perhaps the first extended prose consideration of “live broadcast” television news—described in only slightly less anachronistic terms as a “phantasmagoria”—and so allows us to address, more or less directly, Stiegler’s account of its dangers and advantages; third, because it puts an imperial-military frame around both technological advances in communication and poetic reverie. Finally, it even provides us with an embodied figure of “cool romanticism,” for the televisual medium in the story is at once a screen and a person. A foreigner, thereby alienated or distanced from the “domestic” feelings he attempts to assuage, this occult medium exhibits all the complexities of the “cool” paradigm delineated by Liu. As the service “front” of the technological, he is markedly courteous, user-friendly; but when involved in his technological work, the spectators “could hardly recognize him,” the “deadly paleness of his countenance, and a certain rigidity of muscles” suggesting that he has lent all his warmth and animation to the scene shortly to be exhibited.
It seems to me that in his elaboration of the phantasmagoria Scott wishes us to see (at least) two dangerous delusions at work in understanding poetry as a medium. One is the supposition that poetry is “truer” (higher in resolution) than reality because the poet “superadds” a musicality and imagery richer than what’s available in the here-and-now, greater than if it had not been subjected to digitalization. In this model the “shock of the real” is its relative sensual impoverishment, its very lack of “vivacity,” animation. (But that supposition, Wordsworth says, would “encourage idleness and unmanly despair.”) The other is that it is the relative sensory impoverishment of poetry—an impoverishment or “distress” brought into new relief by emergent acoustic and optical technologies —that guarantees its critical power as a tool of disenchantment. But to make this supposition would be to exhibit an uncritical nostalgia for Appalachian schoolteachers and carrier pigeons. In my argument, poetry’s critical power derives neither from its technological superiority to speech (that “original” teletechnology) nor from its technological supercession by radio and television.
There remains another alternative. Instead of debating the progressive or regressive features of poetry relative to other forms of communication, we might see in Romantic poetic practice precisely a self-reflexive attempt to stage that debate internally, thereby drawing attention to the “discretization” at work in all communications technologies, even “orality,” even “feeling.” An historical convergence of intellectual and technological achievements would have motivated this self-reflexiveness: on the one hand, empirical analysis of all phenomena associated with sensory perception, specifically as they relate to communication, from Diderot’s letters on the blind and deaf to to Thelwall’s treatment of stuttering and Itard’s experiments with sign language and Rousseau’s with musical notation; on the other, the development of technologies of communication in the service of new geopolitical formations (for example, optical telegraphy, the technology almost certainly anachronistically referenced in Scott’s tale, that was developed by Claude Chappe in 1794, because “the unity of the Republic can be the more consolidated by the speedy communication with its provinces”) (Holzman and Pershon). It is a dangerous mistake, I believe, to imagine as entirely discontinuous the history of “technological” advances in communication and the history of poetry—for that would truly be to occult its operations.
“My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror” first appeared in The Keepsake of 1829, itself a kind of capital-intensive, multimedia experiment, with stories, poems, engravings, even “Stanzas for Music.” Scott’s attitude toward the prominence given to engraving in the annual is at least equivocal: while “the plates are beyond comparison beautiful,” he comments, “the letterpress is indifferent enough” (qtd. in Lockhart 7: 89). And, although he acknowledges no such intention, the magic mirror at the center of his tale seems unavoidably to comment on the “uncommon splendour of its illustrative accompaniments.”
In the story, we do not encounter the “uncommon splendour” of the “illustrative” magic mirror (literalized in the engraving that accompanied Scott’s short story) until we have negotiated a series of frame narratives that seem designed to suggest both dimensions of telepathos—the prosthetic capacity to hear and see beyond the here-and-now, and its “discomposing” effect on the experience of that here-and-now. As the narrator traverses a “greensward path” to his Aunt Margaret’s house, each step induces a kind of decomposition and resolution of the self—a “teleportation” in the sense referenced by Lacan in one of the epigraphs to this essay. As his body moves “forward” (ultimately toward his grave, as his aunt will remind him), his memory moves back: “Every step of this way,” the narrator reports, “has for me something of early remembrance” (4). A specific childhood memory of ambulatory infirmity—lacking “the elastic steps of my more happily formed brethren,” he had to be lifted over the stile by a nurse—foregrounds the extent to which the footpath now seems itself a prosthetic medium enabling a far greater “elasticity”; the narrator can (in the words of Scott’s verse epigraph) “gaze/ Beyond the limits of the existing world.” But note how this “telepathic” power is registered also as the negative kind of telepathos, the vivacity of memory threatening his sense of the here-and-now, the “live”:
There is so much more of remembrance about the little walk that,—as I stop, rest on my crutch-headed cane, and look round with that species of comparison between the thing I was and that which I now am,—it almost induces me to doubt my own identity…4
It is in the very present tense of “as I stop” that the narrator feels the dilemma of the “live” broadcast, as Samuel Weber describes it:
For what appears on the television screen is not a previously accomplished work but the quasi-simultaneity of another vision reproduced here and now. The minimal difference necessary to distinguish reproduced from reproduction, model from copy, repeated from repetition, is reduced, tendentially at least, to the imperceptible. One can no longer distinguish, visually or aurally, between that which is reproduced and its reproduction. …We must be informed whether or not what we are seeing is ‘live.’ In short, we cannot perceive through our senses alone between what we take to be ‘alive’ and what as reproduction, separated from its origin, is structurally posthumous.120-21
The frame narrative, of course, also has the effect of serving as a narratological equivalent of meter, superadded to “derealize” the pathos of the story. Only when we shift from the narrator’s acts of teleportation to the titular aunt Margaret do we approach a “supernatural” content with the potential power to make us forget the frame (to occult it, that is). Margaret, who, like the narrator and Scott himself, represents herself as a mere medium (“I tell the tale as it was told to me,” Scott writes in his 1831 introduction), tells or retransmits the story of her aunt’s encounter with the foreigner, a Paduan doctor named Damiotti, whose appearance in Edinburgh excites report of remarkable cures. Among his reputed powers is the ability to “cure” that universal bodily disability, the limited horizon of vision. In the narrative he is called a “man of art”: of what does his art consist? Quite in advance of the Lumière Brothers or Edison, Damiotti produces “the appearance of a real scene, existing in the mirror, as if represented in a picture, save that the figures were moveable instead of being stationary” (34). If he is clearly modeled on historical figures like Robertson and Philipstal, creators circa 1800 of the optical entertainments called “phantasmagorias,” the telepathic experience he offers seems significantly to advance upon known technologies for optical and “thought-transmission” illusions. Indeed, since his claim is that the spectators will see what is taking place at the same time elsewhere (“Damiotti could tell the fate of the absent, and even show his visitors the personal form of their absent friends, and the action in which they were engaged at the moment” ), the art is not cinematographic but televisual—not a storage but a broadcast medium. In its approximation of “live” transmission, the phantasmagoria has a telepathetic function: it imagines informational speed as alleviating the suffering of soldiers’ relatives, “greatly augmented by the suspense in which they were detained by weeks.” Aunt Margaret comments, “In all our modern improvements, there are none, perhaps, greater than the accuracy and speed with which intelligence is transmitted from any scene of action to those in this country whom it may concern” (21). Notice here that relief consists in information “itself,” not the putatively affective content of that information.
There is much more to say about the magic mirror scene, as well as the—strikingly Romantic rather than necromantic—televisual frames that enclose it. But before proceeding to that analysis, I want to highlight the first of two unusual conditions that Scott imposes on his phantasmagoria, as it is afterwards called: an injunction to silence. Damiotti informs his visitors that
the danger only consists in the risk of your resolution failing you. The sight can only last for the space of seven minutes; and should you interrupt the vision by speaking a single word, not only would the charm be broken, but some danger might result to the spectators. But if you can remain steadily silent for the seven minutes, your curiosity will be gratified without the slightest risk….29
In the event, the nearly electric “shock” given to the deserted wife by what she sees—her husband advancing down the aisle of a foreign church, poised to marry another woman—causes her to utter “an imperfect exclamation, at the sound of which the whole scene seemed to stir and separate” (33). This almost literal rendering of a failure of “resolution”—an inadequate will to silence resulting in that metaphorical “noise” or static that disrupts the resolution of our television screens when we lack proper reception—is dwelt on at some length in Scott’s narrative.
Risking a curious conflation of narrative frames—its own version of noise—the next paragraph begins with a quotation of the tale’s original teller; not Aunt Margaret, but her grandmother: ‘I could compare it to nothing,’ said Lady Bothwell, while recounting the wonderful tale, ‘but to the dispersion of the reflection offered by a deep and calm pool, when a stone is suddenly cast into it, and the shadows become dissipated and broken’” (33-4). For Romanticists, this comparison recalls nothing so much as Coleridge’s famous account of the de-composition of “Kubla Khan”: “with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but alas! Without the after restoration of the latter!” The preface to “Kubla Khan,” we recall, goes on to quote lines from Coleridge’s “The Picture; or the Lover’s Resolution,” in which “the pool becomes a mirror” once again.
At the time of “My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror”’s composition, Scott was already in communication with Sir David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope and author of a work, dedicated to Scott, that was published in 1832: Letters on Natural Magic, which included an extensive discussion of Philipstal’s Phantasmagoria. Brewster’s careful study of sensory perception makes him eager to discover the interface between illusion and reality—or what Scott, in the “anonymous” verse epigraph to “My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror,” describes as that space where the “the broad, palpable, and mark’d partition,/ ‘Twixt that which is and is not, seems dissolved” (1). Phantasmagorias are valued by Brewster as feats of disenchantment: the deception they seek to create is temporary, even prophylactic; they demonstrate to mass audiences how appearances can be deceptive, and so encourage an enlightened skepticism. But Brewster remains dissatisfied with even the most advanced technologies of illusion, complaining:
Superior as the representations of the phantasmagoria are to those of the magic lantern, they are still liable to the defect which we have mentioned, namely, the necessary imperfection of the minute transparent figures when magnified. This defect cannot be remedied by employing the most skilful artists. Even Michel Angelo would have failed in executing a figure an inch long with transparent varnishes, when all its imperfections were to be magnified.85
One improvement he proposes seems directly to motivate Scott’s representation of the effect of Lady Forester’s exclamation on the scene in the magic mirror. He writes,
A series of curious representations might be effected, by inserting glass plates containing suitable figures in a trough… If spirits of wine, or any ardent spirits, are mixed with the water so as to produce throughout its mass partial variations of density, the figure…will be as it were broken down into a thousand parts, and will recover its continuity and distinctness when the two fluids have combined.79
Thus Brewster gives us the technology sufficient for understanding how the illusionist might create the effects of “tuning in” and “static”—effects of imperfect representation that seem to contribute, in Scott’s story, to the reality effect of the televisual mirror.
Yet the value of Brewster’s extensive discussion of optical illusions, besides offering proof that Scott’s story is kind of meditation on “natural magic,” is that it also underscores Scott’s flirtation with the truly supernatural. For the story he tells might be said to strain incredulity; although rational explanations for the magic mirror’s televisual broadcast are proffered, they do not seem sufficient. Even when we learn, after the fact, both that Damiotti is a Jacobite foreign agent (“’And so there remained a possibility,’ said I, ‘that by some secret and speedy communication the artist might have received early intelligence of that incident”) and that the broadcast wasn’t in fact “live” (“’It is hard to be obliged to maim one’s story,’ answered my aunt, ‘but, to speak the truth, it happened some days sooner than the apparition was exhibited’” ), the problem remains. With only the limited technology of the magic lantern at his disposal and with only the slightest advantage in terms of the transmission speed associated with diplomatic and telegraphic code, how could Damiotti have had sufficient time to generate the number of “minute transparent figures” necessary to facilitate the sophisticated illusion?
Answering that question may depend on our understanding of the word “resolution.” The narrative seems to employ the term in the sense at work in Wordsworth’s poem “Resolution and Independence” (though that poem too plays with the figure of an unsettling mirror): as decision, resolve, will. The usually “feeble” and “irritable” sister, Jenny, is “resolutely determined” to seek information on her husband; Lady Bothwell, despite her “habitual courage,” seeks “to fortify herself by the desperate resolution of her sister” (28, 30). But Scott also seems to play with the term in its anachronistic, “televisual” sense (of “the number of horizontal lines—bits of information—that make up an image”). Consider the process by which the picture gradually “resolves” itself into intelligible form: whereas “objects began to appear within it, at first in a disorderly, indistinct, and miscellaneous manner,” soon it achieves a “definite shape and symmetry.” This “definite” shape, identified as a “foreign church,” with “stately” pillars and “lofty” arches, is not exactly high-definition; in fact, Scott provocatively suggests that the picture operates as a binary or Boolean information code: “But there were no separate shrines, no images, no display of chalice or crucifix on the altar. It was, therefore, a Protestant church…” (33; emphases added). Even the book, that paradigmatically “hot” or high-definition medium, is reconceptualized, by being looked at, scanned, rather than read. Placed upon an altar before the mirror is “a large open book,” which the two sisters visiting Damiotti “conceived to be a copy of the Holy Scriptures, but in a language unknown to them” ). “Resolution” here does seem to be at once the will to perceive (attention) and the technological effect of an “optical instrument in making the separate parts of an object…distinguishable by the eye” (OED 1867).
But it may be that even the “will to perceive” that we might wish to regard as the vestigial agency of the subject is technologically enabled. For there is another condition—or rather precondition—of televisual experience in the narrative, of almost equal interest. After enjoining the would-be spectators to be resolute in their silence, Damiotti temporarily leaves the room. Noting that the sisters, “hand in hand,” “sat down on two seats in immediate contact with each other,” Scott’s narrative emphasizes the spatial aspect of “communication”; the two sisters touch, as if preparing to feel through each other whatever excitements are in store. But they are then “diverted from their own situation” by an unexpected stimulus: “by a strain of music so singularly sweet and solemn, that, while it seemed calculated to avert or dispel any feeling unconnected with its harmony, increased, at the same time, the solemn excitation which the preceding interview was calculated to produce” (30). The source of the music is a mystery, though it elicits a later speculation: “The music was that of some instrument with which they were unacquainted; but circumstances afterwards led my ancestress to believe that it was that of the harmonica, which she heard at a much later period of life” (30). Only after what are called “these heaven-born sounds” have ceased are the sisters led into the dark room—the “camera obscura”—in which the magic mirror hangs.
No other reference is made to the musical prelude. Moreover, the speculation that the sounds emanated from a “harmonica” constitutes an anachronism relative to the fictive historical setting (the War of the Spanish Succession, 1701-14) since Benjamin Franklin’s glass harmonica was not invented until 1762. In two senses, then, the music seems superfluous to the narrative. Why, if silence is the necessary condition of televisual perception, are the viewers first subjected to a (wordless) music that cannot even be called instrumental, since the design seems to be precisely to occult the question of material instrumentality, of mediation?
In his Letters on Natural Magic, Brewster also includes an extended discussion of auditory perception. Just as in his discussion of optical illusions Brewster had discussed how the mind can be fooled into perceiving static images as moving, so he remarks that “When a number of single and separate sounds follow each other in rapid succession, they produce a continued sound, in the same manner as a continuous circle of light is produced by whirling round a burning stick before the eye. In order that the sound may appear a single one to the ear, nearly sixteen separate sounds must follow one another every second” (180). There are two important discoveries here: one, that like vision, sound too works in “brief slices” of time, as the film sound theorist Michel Chion puts it: “we don’t hear sounds, in the sense of recognizing them, until shortly after we have perceived them” (13); two, that precisely because hearing and seeing are acts of re-cognition, a kind of re-transmission of the original signal through a semantic code, therefore playing with temporality—speeding up sounds, speeding up visions—can create the illusion of continuity.
The first part of this sequence—when the women hear “heaven-born sounds” before being ushered into the room with the magic mirror—is an occasion of what Chion calls “acousmatic sound”: a situation in which one hears sound without seeing its source. According to Chion, such a situation increases attentiveness, both to the sound’s formal properties and to the possibilities of its “cause”: “Confronted with a sound from a loudspeaker that is presenting itself without a visual calling card, the listener is led all the more intently to ask, “What’s that?” (i.e., What is causing this sound?)” (32). The introduction of an image to this situation has the effect of “magnetizing” sound: even if the sound of footsteps emanates from a loudspeaker, for example, we attach those sounds to the image of someone walking across the film screen (which may explain the tendency of poetry scholars to regard the “sound effects” of poetry as strictly iconic). Off-screen sound, particularly music, also has the important effect of temporalizing the static image, imposing on successive shots the illusion of linear succession. Of course the women do not hear the music in conjunction with the image; but, because sound has been shown (by Brewster et al.) to function as an after-effect, we understand that their minds have been prepared by the music to perceive temporality.
At the very least, it ought to be registered that the distinctiveness of Scott’s supernatural tale derives from his emphasis on these preconditions of televisual experience; he derives none of these details—from his historical source (Traditions of Edinburgh). Although it is obviously important to know that both Mesmer and the phantasmagorists regularly used the glass harmonica—hidden behind a curtain—and to register Scott’s interest in the optical telegraph’s improved speed of communication, I do not highlight these technological developments to historicize the tale. My purpose has been to suggest that Scott’s careful structuring of the scene—his disarticulation of the illusion of presence into a sequence of sound, silence, (tele)vision —challenges the two dominant “telepathic” ways of conceptualizing the modality of the poem. By suggesting that the “magic” of audio-vision depends less on material image or sound than on a mental echo in the subject—a suggestion reinforced by the fact that actual sound (Jenny’s interjection) disrupts the illusion—Scott attempts to “disenchant” poetry, to expose its occulted technology. In a related manner, the apparent redundancy of the information provided by the mirror—after the moving picture has vanished, Damiotti declares, “After all, you have but learned a little sooner the evil which you must still be doomed to endure.… The next packet from the Continent will explain what you have already partly witnessed” (36)—undermines the notion that the audiovisual “high-definition” of the magic mirror (in my reading, of poetry) offers a greater or deeper truth.
Of course, far more evidence would be required to make a convincing case that Scott’s story is an allegory of the poetic medium—but some evidence is available in the frame narrative’s reference to Wordsworth’s “moods of my own mind” as a “sort of waking dream” (10).
Only when we recall the contents of “Moods of My Own Mind,” a section of the second of the Poems, in Two Volumes published in 1807, do we understand the full relevance of this allusion. The most familiar of the poems—“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”—foregrounds, after all, the complex relation between retinal stimulus and afterimage; it explores the “persistence of vision” that produces the cinematic illusion. In the context of the animated, motion picture that is the subject of Scott’s story, Wordsworth’s representation of his visual experience takes on new interest. Does one really see motion (“dancing” daffodils and “sparkling” waves) “all at once,” as he claims? Later he seems to abandon such a claim; the second stanza reports, “I gaz’d—and gaz’d—but little thought/ What wealth the show to me had brought.” Here the repetition—“gaz’d and gaz’d—seems to acknowledge that vision is not continuous, but rhythmic—even metrical. It is because the perception of motion cannot be “all at once” that the vision lingers, in a manner equivalent to the auditory memory that is the subject of “The Solitary Reaper” (also in Poems in Two Volumes):“The music in my heart I bore/ Long after it was heard no more.” Both poems, in other words, represent those illusions that Brewster described in his comparison of continuous sound and the circle of light.
It is not enough, I want to insist, to regard these allusions to Wordsworth, like the allusion to “Kubla Khan” in the Damiotti narrative, as thematic; still less to see in them Scott’s attempt to oppose the “natural magic” of Romantic memory to necromantic delusions of telepathy. For by connecting Damiotti’s necromancy to optical telegraphy and acousmatic effects, the story might well lead us to regard Damiotti’s “magic” as more natural, in the sense that Brewster means—susceptible of scientific explanation—than that of the poem, which creates its audiovisual illusions in ways that seem to defy explanation. (To the extent that we imagine the audio-visual effects of the poem as emanating from the poem, I believe Scott wants to suggest, we are types of the sister who is shocked into imbecility by the magic mirror’s power.) Scott’s own transformative use of poetry—after the popularity of his verse romances peaks, the only poetry he writes are those “anonymous” epigraphs that frame his prose narratives—reinforces the point. For in such a context, we must assume that poetry is read silently—when it is read at all, and not merely “scanned” as an aesthetic marker. In his 1815 Preface, Wordsworth suggested that “an animated or impassioned recitation” (emphasis added) might do the work formerly done by “classic lyre or romantic harp.” But how many readers—even among those who still read poetry aloud—read Scott’s epigraphs aloud?
If we therefore assume that Romantic poetry does not seek to produce its audiovisual effects in the way normally suggested by its privileging of song and ballad; if, in other words, its “music” cannot be localized or made “present” by oral performance, in the same way that the images it conjures do not properly belong to the field of vision that is the page, how are we to understand its mediations? Sir David Brewster points to the potential impossibility of attaining such an understanding when he comments on the difficulty of extending the demystification of optical and auditory illusions to the problem of audiovisual hallucination. Since “even the vision of natural objects presents to us insurmountable difficulties, if we seek to understand the precise part which the mind performs in perceiving them,” Brewster admits, we are unlikely to be able to understand how the mind might differentiate, for example, between the “afterimage” of memory and the phenomenon of persistence of vision. The problem is exacerbated for Brewster himself, since he insists that “the ‘mind’s eye’ is actually the body’s eye, and that the retina is the common tablet upon which both classes of impressions [of imagination and memory on the one hand, and of external objects on the other] are painted” (48-9). Since everything that is “painted” on the retina the retina in turn “communicates to the brain,” according to Brewster, mixed signals are indeed likely, although he contends that they do not occur in a “healthy” state.
Perhaps we are to understand the “line” of poetry as the trace form of that “broad, palpable, and mark’d partition/ “Twixt that which is and is not” that has “dissolved” in Scott’s epigraph to the story. In this regard, among the most interesting (and as yet unnoticed) problems discussed in Brewster’s Letters is a case of audiovisual hallucination recounted in Letter III, which associates susceptibility to hallucination with the technologies of poetry. As if ghost-written by Freud, the letter describes “the interesting case of Mrs. A,” who experienced more than a dozen “spectral illusions” (47). Brewster attributes these illusions to what he calls her “morbidly sensitive imagination,” which seems to be nothing more than a pathologized version of Wordsworth’s description of the poet as “more deeply affected by absent things as if they were present”: “the account of any person having suffered severe pain by accident or otherwise produces acute twinges of pain in the corresponding parts of her person. The account, for example, of the amputation of an arm will produce an instantaneous and severe sense of pain in her own arm (47).” But what is particularly notable in this account of hysterical transference is the apparently superfluous information he adds: “She is subject to talk in her sleep with great fluency, to repeat long passages of poetry, particularly when she is unwell, and even to cap verses for half an hour together, never failing to quote lines beginning with the final letters of the preceding one till her memory is exhausted (47-8; emphasis mine). For Brewster does not tell us why the mind of the hysteric should be occupied—even possessed—by poetry, nor why the poetry should have become so mechanical, automatic. (When Anne Elliott suggests in Persuasion that too much poetry contributes to morbid sensibility, surely it is not this rote repetition she has in mind.) Even more curious is the game of “capping verses,” since this exercise attends to the letter, not the sound.
Mrs. A’s near-reduction of poetry to nonsense and random letters may remind us of later, somewhat similar appropriations of (Romantic) poetry without attention to meaning. For despite its apparent obsolescence, in what we might call its post-history (Romantic) poetry takes a surprising counter-turn: printed poetry becomes the raw material of research into memory and probability, those building blocks of the same computer technology that now is thought to threaten print itself with obsolescence. Friedrich Kittler has pointed out that Hermann Ebbinghaus’ research on memory used cantos of Don Juan as a control against which to measure the capacity of the mind to store strings of nonsense syllables; we know also that the inventor of the Markov process developed his new statistical method for predicting futures of random variables by studying the sequences of letters in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (207-12). Like the constrained set of signals by which the optical telegraph was able to speed communication over great distances (with the aid of the telescope), perhaps the constraints on lexical choice and syntactic order required by meter represent not so much a regressive anti-technological disposition as a compression of information made possible by a sophisticated feedback loop.
Or, we might prefer the account that is offered by Scott. As if in response to Brewster’s claim that, while “it is not probable that we shall ever be able to understand the actual manner in which a person of sound mind beholds spectral apparitions in the broad light of day, yet we may arrive at such a degree of knowledge on the subject as to… strip the phenomena of every attribute of the marvelous”(48-9), Scott invokes a “spectral apparition” of a slightly different sort. Recall that we have not yet treated the title object of Scott’s story—Aunt Margaret’s mirror. That object comes into play only when Margaret is describing the “milder supernatural awe” that represents a “cool”—Romantic—disposition in the story. (Unlike her ancestress, who “nurses her wrath to keep it warm,” Aunt Margaret identifies herself as “a loyal subject” of George IV, and a Jacobite “in sentiment and feeling only” ; like Wexler’s cameraman, she evinces a political dis- or half-engagement.) According to Aunt Margaret, one of the symptoms of this distance between reason and feeling, especially among women, is a disinclination to look into a mirror when alone in a room sometime after having heard a supernatural tale. Facetiously, the narrator suggests that few women must be capable of such a disinclination, but Margaret responds: “All women consult the looking-glass with anxiety before they go into company; but when they return home, the mirror has not the same charm” (11). But of course, we may presume that the person who consults the mirror before going into company will sometimes do so “in the broad light of day”—and what she sees there—a self—is a spectral apparition indeed. Were we to understand its technology—how the optical information offered by the interface between gaze and gaze is transformed into the probability of identity—perhaps then poetry would become obsolete.
My chief purpose in this exercise has been to suggest that poetry—at least as it is imagined circa 1800—is not a “distressed” or regressive medium, even if it plays with distressed genres, even if it “confounds” its identity with minstrels, milkmaids, and necromantic “men of art.” Rather, 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. But I have also hoped to suggest, in a more preliminary manner, that these technologies—poem, telegraph, television—are not, or not simply, what McLuhan called “extensions of man.” 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 is the (telepathetic) prospect that Aunt Margaret faces in her mirror: a sense of animation captured neither by the image-object nor the act of perception, but instead, always, operating only as a medium between them.
For accounts of the relation between “vivacity” and the prosthetic imagination, see the first chapter of Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book, and Lurie’s Prosthetic Culture.
McLuhan’s appropriation of the term “cool” from an urban black vernacular was meant to underscore the “new tribalism”—and the potential emergence of a “global village”—that he regarded as a potential effect of media that invited or required audience participation.
The allusion is to E.P. Thompson’s classic essay, “Disenchantment or Default? A Lay Sermon.”.
See the commentary appended to the DVD version of the film.
The “digital” method of meter has disadvantages as well as advantages, as Dino Felluga helpfully points out: “the 1010 of digital encoding necessitates the regulated absence of information (which is why vinyl’s analog form continues to attract music aficionados). So it is with meter: the x/x/ of scansion enforces a regular pause/absence that assuages the pure and unregulated scream of lived pain” (Felluga).
Cf. Friedrich Kittler’s similar suggestion that our sense perceptions are the “dependent variable” of “a compromise between engineers and salespeople”’ which “regulates how poor the sound from a TV set can be, how fuzzy movie images can be” (2).
The allusion is to Wordsworth, but the experience may have been Coleridge’s; see Terada.
A wonderful facsimile edition has recently been published, with an introduction by Kathryn Ledbetter and Terence Allan Hoagwood, by the Scholars’ Facsimile Press. All quotations from Scott’s story refer to this edition.
The question here is how the eye itself perceives. Stiegler argues that “the evolution of the technical synthesis implies the evolution of the spectatorial synthesis” (161); one does not precede the other. Edward Tufte reviews studies of perception which suggest spectators examine only half of a symmetrical object, because the information/redundancy ratio in the other half is not sufficient (96-8).
By hiding the instument by which the sound is produced, Damiotti creates, avant la lettre, a kind of “surround-sound” effect, whose difference from what Roland Barthes calls the “reality effect” is marked by its seeming “heaven-born.”
The rest of the passage is relevant as well: “Poems, however humble in their kind, if they be good in that kind, cannot read themselves; the law of long syllable and short must not be so inflexible,—the letter of metre must not be so impassive to the spirit of versification,—as to deprive the Reader of all voluntary power to modulate, in subordination to the sense, the music of the poem;—in the same manner as his mind is left at liberty, and even summoned, to act upon its thoughts and images.” Here Wordsworth suggests precisely what Stiegler calls the “transductive relation” (161) between the technical and the spectatorial synthesis. In contrast to “reifying” schemas of art, Wordsworth refuses to oppose production to consumption; instead of “putting analysis on one side (production) and synthesis on the other (consumption),” he suggests that consumption too involves analysis (decomposition) (163).
- Anon. ‘The Tyranny of the Numbers as it shows its self in the History of Computers.’ A Revolutionary Technology. 10/12/2005. <http://www.ionprocessor.com/comphistory.htm>.
- Brewster, Sir David. Letters on Natural Magic, addressed to Sir Walter Scott, Baronet. London: John Murray, 1832.
- Holzman, Gerard J. and Bjorn Pershon. The Early History of Data Networks. Los Alamitos, CA: IEEE Computer Society, 1995.
- Kittler, Friedrich. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Trans. Michael Metteer with Chris Cullens. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.
- ———. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.
- Lockhart, J. G. Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Baronet. 7 vols. Philadelphia: n.p., 1938.
- Lurie, Celia. Prosthetic Culture: Photography, Memory, and Identity. New York: Routledge, 1998.
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The First and Second Discourses together with Replies to Critics and the Essay on the Origin of Languages. Ed. Victor Gourevitch. New York: Harper, 1990.
- Scarry, Elaine. Dreaming by the Book. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2001.
- Scott, Sir Walter. “My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror.” The Keepsake, 1829: A Fascimile Reproduction. Eds. Kathryn Ledbetter and Terence Allan Hoagwood. Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimile, 1999.
- Stiegler, Bernard. “The Discrete Image.” Trans. Jennifer Bajorek. Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler. Echographies of Television. Malden, MA: Polity, 2002.
- Terada, Rei. “Phenomenality and Dissatisfaction in Coleridge’s Notebooks.” Studies in Romanticism 43:2 (2004): 257-81.
- Thompson, E.P. “Disenchantment or Default? A Lay Sermon.” Power and Consciousness. Ed. Conor Cruise O’Brien and William Dean Vanech. New York: New York UP, 1969.
- Tufte, Edward. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics, 1983.
- Weber, Samuel. Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996.
- Wordsworth, William. “Preface” to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads. Lyrical Ballads 1798. Ed. W.J.B. Owen. New York: Oxford UP, 1969.