Tag Archives: new media

Dickens’s Extraordinary Traveller: Immersive Media Forms and the World as Panorama

By Daniel Martin

Of all of Dickens’s prose non-fiction, the one piece that has consistently troubled me the most since I started thinking about Dickens’s journalism and its bearing on the prehistory of immersive media spectacles is “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller,” published in Household Words in April, 1850. A typical Dickensian flight of Fancy, this notice introduces readers to the figure of Mr. Booley, who at the age of 65, “left England for the first time” (511) on a series of trips around the world. “Mr. Booley’s powers of endurance are wonderful,” Dickens writes: “All climates are alike to him. Nothing exhausts him; no alterations of heat and cold appear to have the least effect upon his hardy frame. His capacity for travelling, day and night, for thousands of miles, has never been approached by any traveller of whom we have any knowledge through the help of books […] Though remarkable for personal cleanliness, he has carried no luggage; and his diet has been of the simplest kind” (511-12). Readers follow this account of Mr. Booley’s travels, which take him to such far-off locales as New Orleans in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Egypt, India, and the Arctic regions of the World, before reading in Booley’s own words the inspiration for his “roving spirit” (515):


Floating Academy: Twitter in the Victorian Studies Classroom

By Karen Bourrier

For the past few semesters, inspired by Joshua Eyeler’s post on “Teaching with Twitter; or Adventures in Student Engagement,” I’ve had a social media participation component in my classroom. I’ve now used Twitter at all levels, from the freshman writing seminar to the graduate classroom. It’s worked well in all of these settings, but I think I’ve had the most success at the 400-level, with third and fourth year university students studying Victorian literature. The reason for this success, I think, is two-fold. One, third and fourth year students are sophisticated and engaged enough with literature that they get the possibilities of the medium immediately: they use Twitter to respond in real-time to plot developments (there’s a madwoman in the attic!), to comment on versions of Victorian texts that have entered the cultural mainstream (Please sir, can I have some more?), and of course, to raise questions for class discussion. The second reason for this success, I think, is that third and fourth year university students are not yet too worried about formulating identities as professional literary critics on the web, which leaves room for a freewheeling discussion.

What I enjoy most about using Twitter in the classroom is finding out more about my students and what they think about the works we’re reading early on in the semester. I learn about their sense of humour and the many ways they encounter Victorian literature in popular culture. I also find out who the really smart but shy students are early on, since they will Tweet, but not necessarily put their hands up in a class of 40. (Incidentally, our class Twitter stream is also a pretty good gauge of who is keeping up with the reading!) In my class of 40, which is something in between a seminar and a lecture, social media fosters some of the bonds that would come from a smaller classroom. I also assign a Storify, where a student archives the Tweets from one day’s class, in lieu of a seminar presentation. This serves as a record and a study guide for the final exam.

The odd student won’t complete the Twitter assignment. That’s okay, it’s only worth 5% and won’t kill their grade. When I started this assignment, I thought more students would want to remain anonymous, and though I have the option written into the assignment, I have yet to have a single student take me up on it. If you are interested in seeing what we’ve done with Twitter, you can take a look at our Storify archives for Early Victorian Literature here, and Late Victorian Literature here.

I’ll post my assignment below. In the meantime, I’d love to know, have you used social media in the classroom? Was it successful?

Twitter Assignment for ENGL 449

The social networking site Twitter has gained tremendous currency over the past few years as a place where academics and professionals can learn and share ideas. To spark our class conversations and keep them going throughout the week, everyone in the class will tweet a minimum of six times a week (three tweets per class). We will use the hashtag #ENG449 to keep track of the tweets. The only guidelines are that your tweets must be respectful and relevant to the class. Your tweets could include 1) a question or an observation about the reading 2) a quotation from the reading 3) a response to a tweet 4) a link to a relevant resource (scholarly article, film adaptation etc.). Each student will also be responsible for creating a Storify narrative of the tweets from one day’s class, due before the next class, which I will post to our course website, and which everyone can draw on to generate ideas for papers and to study for the final exam.

Because Twitter is public, I encourage you to put your best, most professional foot forward in your tweets. You can follow your classmates and me @kbourrier, but I also encourage you to follow people in your future career path. It will be easiest for everyone in the class to link Twitter identities with classroom identities if you are comfortable using your name and a picture of yourself as part of your Twitter handle, but this is not required. If you choose to be anonymous, let me know what your Twitter handle is so that I can give you credit for participation. Students who complete the Storify assignment, the minimum number of tweets (78) and whose tweets show engagement with the texts can expect to receive an A- (4/5), with an A+ (5/5) being reserved for exceptional engagement.

Adapted from Josh Eyler, Rice University: https://josheyler.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/teaching-with-twitter-or-adventures-in-student-engagement/

Floating Academy: New media’s ghosts: an experiment in composite photography

By Alan Galey

The Victorian-era mansion Hill House, from Robert Wise's classic film The Haunting (1963; avoid the remake)

The Victorian-era mansion Hill House, from the classic
1963 film The Haunting (avoid the 1999 remake)

The modern form of Hallowe’en isn’t particularly Victorian in its origins (unlike Christmas and Valentines Day), but there’s something very 19th-century about it nonetheless. Any holiday that celebrates ghosts is one that calls attention to the past’s uncanny tendency to manifest itself in the present, like the unquiet dead. Hallowe’en’s aesthetics are thoroughly Victorian, gothic, and pseudo-medieval, drawing our attention backward in time. It’s at this time of year that I’m most reminded how much of our present world, especially architecture and infrastructure, is composed of layers sitting atop what was laid down in the 19th century. For example, my neighbourhood in Toronto has several infamous leaning houses (scroll down at the link), whose foundations are sinking due to a buried creek beneath them, the result of a badly implemented infrastructure project begun in the late 19th century. At Hallowe’en, however, these crooked houses look just right. They’re a reminder that the past has unfinished business with the present, and Hallowe’en is its appointed reckoning day.

In that spirit, I thought I’d write a ghost-themed post about a curious photographic artifact that I recently encountered in my research, in which layers of past images coalesce into a strange apparition. In 1885, one Walter Rogers Furness (the son of Shakespeare Variorum editor Horace Howard Furness) undertook an experiment to reveal Shakespeare’s true face from among the various surviving portraits and sculptures, as well as Shakespeare’s death mask. Furness attempted to do this by taking semi-transparent photographs of all these images of Shakespeare’s face, and then layering them over each other in different combinations to produce a composite. That composite, so the theory went, would reveal the true face behind the representations, channeling the long-dead subject like some photographic Ouija board (another 19th-century new medium, so to speak). Continue reading

Floating Academy: The Victorian new media demo as a performance genre

By Alan Galey

As I’ve been finishing off the manuscript for my book The Shakespearean Archive: Experiments in New Media from the Renaissance to Postmodernity, I’ve been realizing that a spin-off project could explore the new media demo as an emergent performance genre with a cultural history of its own. This should be a familiar genre thanks in part to Steve Jobs’s sense of theatricality in his Apple rollout presentations, which serve as a kind of technology theatre. Another famous tech demo from the era of modern computing is Douglas Englebart’s so-called “Mother of All Demos,” which gave the world its first look at now-commonplace features like a windowed GUI, a computer mouse and pointer, word processing, hypertext, real-time collaborative document editing (think GoogleDocs), and teleconferencing — and this was in 1968 (!!). (There’s plenty of surviving video of this particular demo, which is worth a look.) Considering this kind of event as a cultural and social phenomenon — and as a performance susceptible to critical interpretation — is something I often do with my students, and someday I’d like to teach a course on the cultural history of the tech demo at U Toronto’s iSchool.

Electric pen sample text with opening lines of Richard the Third and a standard business letter

Detail of a page from one of Edison’s notebooks showing sample
text generated by the electric pen prototype, as discussed
in Lisa Gitelman’s book Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines
(Stanford University Press, 1999), pp. 161-2. Click to see the
full original at the Thomas A. Edison Papers project.

Any course, book project, or other consideration of the genre of the tech demo would need to give serious attention to Englebart’s and Jobs’s antecedents in the nineteenth century. It’s probably not a stretch to call the period from roughly 1870 to 1920 the great age of the new media demo, when inventors, journalists, and audiences alike refined their shared sense of these events as participatory texts, with operative generic conventions just like any other kind of performance such as a stage play, opera, or carnival attraction. There has already been some excellent work by researchers such as Jonathan Sterne and John Picker on the emergence of new media into the cultural imagination, but Lisa Gitelman’s work probably goes furthest in considering tech demos as performances in the context of the Edison phonograph. My book covers different territory, with a chapter on the use of Shakespeare in demos of sound technologies (especially Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone; see image), which is where I’ll draw most of my examples for this post.

(Here I should mention a few excellent resources for this kind of research: the online Thomas A. Edison Papers project at Rutgers, and the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers collection at the Library of Congress. FirstSounds.org collects some very cool material, too.)

Alexander Graham Bell demonstrating the telephone in Salem, Mass., as depicted in the New York Daily Graphic (6 March 1877)

Alexander Graham Bell demonstrating the telephone in Salem, Mass., as depicted in the New York Daily Graphic (6 March 1877)

One challenge in this kind of inquiry, however, is not to get carried away by the celebratory tone of the demos themselves, which often include a history-telling component of their own that places their particular invention at the end of a clearly defined progress narrative. Jobs did exactly that in the first iPad rollout, as you may recall. To take a nineteenth-century example, when Bell took his telephone on tour through 1877-1878, demonstrating it to audiences in music halls and theatres, he usually framed the demos as lectures on the history and scientific principles of telephony. Journalists covering these events usually found the lectures less interesting than the actual technology demos, which involved live participation by people at the other end of the telephone line who would read newspaper extracts, discuss local weather, sing songs, play musical instruments, and sometimes exchange recognizable literary references (including quotations from Shakespeare). Herein lies the need to read these demos critically: claims for the appeal of new media usually rest on their ability to represent nearly anything, but it matters when technologists use literature and other cultural texts to test, demonstrate, and authenticate new media prototypes. A confident assertion of content-neutrality often underpins progress-driven histories of technology, in which materials like literary texts become passive content to be remediated by the active agents in the equation, the new media themselves.

Another illustration from the New York Daily Graphic’s story on Bell’s Salem, Mass., telephone demo (6 March 1877)

Another illustration from the New York Daily Graphic’s story on Bell’s Salem, Mass., telephone demo (6 March 1877)

My interest, however, is in how cultural materials push back, mutually shaping the media (and the avatars of those media) which seek to appropriate them into technological progress narratives. For example, accounts of the development of sound technologies often describe scenes of the inventors straining to make out messages amid silence or noise. With the telephone, those test messages often amounted to ordinary speech acts, such as “Do you understand what I say?” or the famous first telephonic transmission, “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you,” sent by Bell to his assistant Thomas Watson in the telephone’s first expression of bodily absence and desire. An example of this kind of prototypical telephonic exchange is recounted as an exhibit in an 1880 telephone patent case, in an exchange that occurred during prototyping in October, 1876, according to Bell’s lab notes [1]:

victorian new media img 4

Bell caps off the telephonic test with poetry, in this case the final stanza from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life.” In moments like this a stanza of poetry becomes ontologically layered. In one sense, the stanza’s status as a shared cultural reference serves to naturalize its utterance as a speech act, despite its seeming incongruousness in this scientific test (and, later, legal testimony). In a different sense, poetry becomes just another sequence of sound waves to be converted into electrical signals and back again, transmitted through an information system utterly indifferent to content. (A definition which, notably, works only when the humans are not considered parts of the information system.) In yet another sense, this transmitted poem remains very much a poem in the typographical form it takes in the court testimony, in which the transcriber of Bell’s notebook has made sure to reproduce bibliographic codes such as lineation, indentation, and capitalization. Typographic intervention into the representation of sound is also visible in the italicized “I” in Bell’s correction of Watson, where Bell emphasizes hearing over seeing.

One of Bell’s most important telephone demos was reported in the London Times of January 16, 1878 as a private performance for Queen Victoria and members of her household given at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight on two days prior, with a telephonic connection to nearby Osborne Cottage, the home of the Queen’s private secretary. [2]

Queen Victoria waiting for the next available customer service agent during Bell's telephone demo at Osborne House, 1878. Click to see the full image at the British Library website.

Queen Victoria waiting for the next available customer
service agent during Bell’s telephone demo
at Osborne House, 1878. Click to see the full
image at the British Library website.

The demo included a performance by the American journalist and actor Kate Field, who happened to be making a pilgrimage to Stratford-on-Avon a few months prior, and was subsequently recruited by Bell to help promote the telephone in England. Field sang songs including “Kathleen Mavourneen” and “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” as well as an Irish folk song not mentioned in the London Times story, which her biographer Gary Scharnhorst believes was motivated by Field’s Irish Republican sympathies.[3] Shakespearean material played a large role in the form of the “Cuckoo Song” from Love’s Labour’s Lost and Rosalind’s Epilogue from As You Like It. Rosalind’s repeated reference to gender and embodiment in the Epilogue (“If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not” [5.4.212–5]) would certainly have called attention to the disembodiment of Field’s performing voice. The power dynamics would also have been fascinating to observe, given that an independent American actress was speaking in the voice of Shakespeare’s strongest heroine, asking the audience’s sanction for the performance that went before. Rosalind conjures that response from a divided audience, speaking first to the women and then to the men, herself (and himself, on the early modern stage) a palimpsest of genders and identities by the end of the play. The telephone’s ostensible power was to overcome distance, but the telephone also served to make strange the subjectivities involved in performing and listening.

As I mentioned, my book limits its scope to the use of Shakespeare in new media demos (which, surprisingly enough, has unearthed a fair amount of examples) but one could follow this thread forward and backward from the nineteenth century. Researchers in science and technology studies (STS) have considered the iconography of science that took shape in demos of technologies such as Robert Boyle’s air pump and representations such as Joseph Wright’s 1768 painting Experiment on a Bird in the Air-Pump (which was itself remediated in another tech demo of sorts in the James Bond film Skyfall, in which Q briefs bond in the National Gallery with Wright’s painting behind them).

I would be curious to hear what others think about the idea of the new media demo as a genre, and what we might learn from exploring its heyday in the nineteenth century.

[1] Telephone Suits: Circuit Court of the United States, District of Massachusetts, In Equity: Bell Telephone Company et al. v. Peter A. Dowd (Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1880), part II, p. 84, italics in original. I am unable to tell what the italics and parentheses mean in this transcript; they could indicate notes on delivery, or the transcriber’s interpolations, or one of each.

[2] “The Telephone at Court,” London Times (January 16, 1878). See also Gary Scharnhorst, Kate Field: the Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist (Syracuse University Press, 2008), pp. 125–30. John M. Picker describes a more elaborate program for the event, including a long-distance connection to an orchestra; see Picker, Victorian Soundscapes (Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 101, 103.
[3] Scharnhorst, p. 128. Kate Field is a fascinating figure in nineteenth-century media history; for more on her, see Scharnhorst and Picker, as well as the discussion in our fellow-blogger Jennifer Esmail’s book Reading Victorian Deafness (Ohio University Press, 2013), where you can find a fascinating reading of Field’s discussion of Charles Dickens’s public readings.

Alan Galey

Dr. Alan Galey is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information and a part of the Book History and Print Culture Program. Dr. Galey has a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Master of Arts degree from the University of Victoria, as well as a Ph.D from the University of Western Ontario. His research interests include textual studies, history of books and reading, critical information studies, interface design, history of information, culture, and technology, archival theory and practice, and Shakespeare.