I was very pleased when we first decided to call this blog “The Floating Academy” because I’ve been interested in the metaphorics of floating for a few years now. The Victorians were fascinated, as well as irritated, by floating things. Spirits (whether in séances or photography); phantasmagorias and other magic lantern exhibitions that produced rudimentary projected images onto screens or thick clouds of smoke; 360 degree panorama exhibitions that left spectators with new feelings of “see-sickness,” to borrow a phrase from Stephen Oettermann (The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium); the chug-a-chugging of railway travel and the fleeting impression of the moving world outside the railway compartment; the revolutionary politics of the period that inspired Marx and Engels to write about solid things melting into air (not to mention the floating signification of value in Marx’s concept of the commodity); new theories of perception that decentered the authority of the viewing subject; the commodification of entertainment in amusement parks and World’s Fairs (switchbacks, water chutes, Ferris wheels, cineoramas and other motion simulators and moving dioramas); the early cinema with its jerky reproduction of real life at an “unnatural” rate of 16 frames per second; and countless narratives of the seductive qualities of the flitting female form (in Dickens, the sensation novels of the 1860s, the New Woman novels of the 1890s). For the Victorians, these were all indicative of a moving age, a dizzying era, an age of transition, and fundamentally a new moment in time in which difficulty of finding one’s bearings was as much an aesthetic problem as it was social or political (or more appropriately, aesthetic uncertainties would be expressed often through demands for political certainty).

Lately I’ve been reading Dickens’s prose journalism from Household Words and All the Year Round, and I’ve been fascinated by the complexity of his numerous commentaries on the aesthetics and phenomenology of floating. The following passage from an 1856 piece, for example, strikes me as particularly intriguing. It doesn’t explicitly reference the sensations of floating, but much of Dickens’s railway journalism expresses such a sense of the eerie ungrounding of the body undergoing new technologies of transportation:

“I am never sure of time or place upon a Railroad. I can’t read, I can’t think, I can’t sleep – I can only dream. Rattling along in this railway carriage in a state of luxurious confusion, I take it for granted I am coming from somewhere, and going somewhere else, I seek to know no more. Why things come into my head and fly out again, whence they come and why they come, where they go and why they go, I am incapable of considering. It may be the guard’s business, or the railway company’s, I only know it is not mine. I know nothing about myself – for anything I know, I may be coming from the Moon” (“Railway Dreaming” from Household Words).

For Dickens, the railway compartment and the railway terminal had both become representatives of a kind of floating world, a non-space, in Marc Augé’s sense, in which bodies and luggage flit and float, are constantly in transition from one place to another, and never seem to stop circulating.

Another piece from 1851 further reinforces this sense of the ungrounding of the body as it circulates through the British railway network:

“I wonder why it is that when I shut my eyes in a tunnel, I begin to feel as if I were going at an Express pace the other way. I am clearly going back to London now. […] No! After long darkness, pale fitful streaks of light appear. I am still flying on for Folkestone. The streaks grow stronger – become continuous – become the ghost of day – become the living day – became I mean – the tunnel is miles and miles away, and here I fly through sunlight, all among the harvest and the Kentish hops” (“A Flight” from Household Words).

Here Dickens draws connections between railway perception and ghostly scenes, which seems to me a kind of affirmation of floating subjectivity, or more appropriately an expression of a burgeoning awareness of the tricks that speed and technology play on the senses. The body becomes ungrounded in its flight through space, as it seems to float without direction or order, forwards or backwards, and directionless despite the fact that the rails know only straight lines from one point to another. Aesthetic impressions of the world outside the railway compartment reflect both the limits and the tremendous possibilities of the body. Railway bodies float both literally and figuratively in Dickens’s impressive series of railway commentaries throughout the 1850s and 1860s. I hope to explore a few more examples of this railway journalism in the coming months.

2 thoughts on “On Railways and the Aesthetics of Floating

  1. This is lovely, Daniel – I like the way that the lightness of your “floating subjectivity” contrasts with the heaviness of the iron-clad railway, and the way in which your account challenges depictions of railway travel that emphasize heaviness and bodily restriction, like Michel de Certeau’s idea of “travelling incarceration.”

    And for no reason other than my love for this quote, here’s an American account from 1844 of rail and steamship travel that describes a few kinds of floating:

    “Steam is annihilating space…Travelling is changed from an isolated pilgrimage to a kind of triumphal procession… Caravans of voyagers are now winding as it were, on the wings of the wind, round the habitable globe. Here they glide over cultivated acres on rods of iron, and there they rise and fall on the bosom of the deep, leaving behind them a foaming wheel-track like the chariot-path of a sea-god…”

    That passage is quoted on p.196 of Leo Marx’s The Machine and the Garden, and I think it was originally written by Henry T. Tuckerman in an article called “The Philosophy of Travel.”

  2. Thanks for the Leo Marx passage, Fiona. So much was said and published about the railway at the mid-century point that it’s sometimes easy to forget that commentaries were often imaginative, descriptive, and creative in their responses to the railway. There’s another one from the 1830s that I’ve been meaning to unbox recently (I’ve been moving from place to place too much lately) that I find thoroughly fascinating — it basically imagines all of England as one big sitting room with the railway drawing everyone closer to the fire. A glorious but also hopelessly idealistic sense of democracy in that one!

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