Proposal for #MLA18 — Historical Time Machines: Time-Criticalities of Nineteenth-Century Media

Session Description:
While several panels in the past few years at the MLA have focused on the intersections of media archaeology, literature, and the digital humanities; relatively few of these panels have explored the impact of media time on the construction of our histories. Wolfgang Ernst has described media as “time machines.” For him, cultural history is never an a priori given, but is an effect of time-axis manipulation, built upon an infrastructure of media techniques used in measuring, recording, narrating and transforming time. Ernst himself follows Friedrich Kittler in describing time-axis manipulation as the product of nineteenth-century technological media that record and playback signals. Further research including that of Jussi Parikka, Sean Cubbitt, and John Durham Peters have pointed out that natural ecologies mediate their own time-critical frameworks. Recordings and remixes occur in the DNA strands of lifeforms and in the geological records of Mountains, just as they occur in digital media.

Our work emerges in the juxtaposition of media archaeology’s approach to time-criticality and the historical sensibility of nineteenth-century writers. The Nineteenth Century was a fascinating period in media history — not only because, as Kittler and others have shown, the technological infrastructure of our media culture emerged in the inventions of gramophones, film, typewriters, and (arguably) computers; but also because a variety of new conceptions of temporality emerged during the century. Nineteenth-century scientists observed a media environment in which the discovery of non-human temporalities — like James Hutton and Charles Lyell’s geological deep time, William and Caroline Herschel’s cosmic and astronomic temporalities, and the time associated with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution directly contested the otherwise exclusively human-, social-, and religious-centered historical frameworks so central to Victorian historiography.

Panel in Brief
Our panel presents nineteenth-century media histories in which a growing awareness of slow temporality confronts the rapidity of advances in print circulation, the standardization of time-keeping, and the algorithmic functions of mechanical computing.

Andrew Burkett opens the panel with “Big Time: London’s Big Ben, Deep Time, and Time-Criticality Studies” exploring London’s Big Ben and the clock at Elizabeth Tower, Palace of Westminster. Burkett focuses on the origins of the iron ore that was used to cast the Great Bell housed within the iconic clock tower, as well as the rather complex networks of material fabrication, transport, and metallurgy employed during the site’s construction. Big Ben first chimed over Westminster in 1859, the same year as the first publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, and this talk explores this historical coincidence in order to address at length the period’s shifting theories of temporality—drawing on nineteenth-century notions of media time. Yet these notions of deep time are also indebted to Romantic representations and theories of temporality, which in an earlier historical moment set some of the most important parameters for what would become for Darwin and others a newfound appreciation of the multimillion year history of the Earth. Burkett closes his talk by drawing upon the poetry of William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley to expose these temporal currents and circuits linking Romantic and Victorian depictions of temporality and especially notions of deep time.

Romantic precursors to technological time-criticalities continue with Roger Whitson’s “Babbage and Blake, Lovelace and Byron: The Algorithmic Condition of Nineteenth-Century Poetics.” My presentation argues that the temporality of algorithmic time in Babbage’s computing may be more entangled with poetics than Babbage may think. I begin with an analysis of Ada Lovelace’s computer program to compute Bernouli numbers written in the notes to her translation of Luigi Menabrea’s “Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage.” Looking particularly at the algorithmic functions of looping, branching, and nesting in the program, I suggest that such themes have their precursors in Romantic poetics — particularly those of her father George Gordon Byron. I, then, show how Romantic temporalities are also implicated in Babbage’s reliance on mechanical escapement and industrial efficiency in On the Economies of Machines and Manufactures. While William Blake’s purpose is to escape the “dark satanic mills” of industrial England that Babbage’s theories exemplified, I show how the temporalities he uses to deny linear time in The Book of Urizen also work as proto-algorithmic functions strikingly similar to those employed by Babbage to work against the “idleness” of human labor.

Finally, Richard Menke’s New Grub Street on Paper” by focuses on the paper trade as central to the temporality of literary circulation. In many histories of modern British literature, George Gissing’s 1891 New Grub Street represents a watershed in fiction’s rise to self-consciousness about its own mechanics and institutions in the face of an emergent mass culture. Underneath this story of authorship and modern commerce is a family saga about paper, the substrate of all that writing: the tale of an older generation, the elderly brothers Yule, whose careers map out a different set of positions: from selling content on paper, to selling unprinted sheets of it, to its manufacture. In fact, the only brother who has thrived is the literature-phobic John Yule, who set up a company to manufacture coarse, cheap “whitey-brown” paper intended not for printing but for wrapping in shops—the ultimate reduction of the paper medium to its bare materiality. In this talk, I want to read New Grub Streetfrom its medium up, holding the novel’s aesthetic self-consciousness against the dynamics of its medium—and the material history of the paper trade as wood pulp began to provide a serious rival to rag. Thinking about literature and paper in this way might also help offer a sense of how we might talk about literature in an age when paper has ceased to be its inevitable material platform or interface.

Crystal Lake finishes the panel by briefly responding and discussing the metallurgical and economic implications of time-critical functions in eighteenth-century coins.

Works Cited
Babbage, Charles. On the Economies of Machinery and Manufactures., Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

Cubitt, Sean. Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies. Durham, Duke University Press, 2017.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Edited by Joseph Carroll, Peterborough, Ontario, Broadview Texts, 2003.

Ernst, Wolfgang. Sonic Time Machines: Explicit Sound, Sirenic Voices, and Implicit Sonicity. Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2016.

Gissing, George. New Grub Street. Oxford, Oxford UP, 2016.

Menabrea, Luigi, and Ada Lovelace. “’Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage’.” Scientific Memoirs, no. 3, 1842, pp. 666–731.

Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Peters, John Durham. The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Andrew Burkett is Associate Professor of English at Union College.  He is the author of Romantic Mediations: Media Theory and British Romanticism (SUNY Press 2016), a finalist for the 2016 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award in the Social Sciences category and a nominee for the British Association for Romantic Studies’ First Book Prize for 2017. Additionally, he is co-editor of two Romantic Circles volumes:  William Blake and Pedagogy (2016), co-edited with Roger Whitson for the site’s Pedagogies series, as well as Multi-Media Romanticisms (2016), a Romantic Circles Praxis volume co-edited with James Brooke-Smith.

Crystal B. Lake is an associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures at Wright State University. Her research has appeared in ELH, Modern Philology, RES, and The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, among other places. She has received fellowships from the Lewis Walpole Library, the Yale Center for British Art, and the Centre for the Study of Early English Women’s Writing at Chawton House. She is currently completing a monograph entitled Artifacts: 1660-1837.

Richard Menke is an associate professor of English at the University of Georgia and the author of Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems (2008). His most recent publications include articles on late-Victorian fictions of the telephone (Victorian Studies) and on electricity and objectivity in nineteenth-century journalism (English Language Notes). He is at work on a book about the invention of media in the late nineteenth century.

Roger Whitson is Assistant Professor of English at Washington State University. He is author of Steampunk and Nineteenth-Century Digital Humanities: Literary Retrofuturisms, Media Archaeologies, Alternate Histories (2016); and, with Jason Whittaker, William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media (2012). In addition to articles about Blake, media archaeology, digital humanities and steampunk, he has also written widely on pedagogy and critical making.

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