Writing the Disaster: Babbage and the Black Box

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

I’m teaching a course in Victorian culture this summer, and planning to open the class with a chapter from Charles Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (on “Natural Theology”). His mathematical speculations in this text seem to me perfectly representative of the anxious and industrious Victorian desire to apprehend every incident and accident of the physical world. In his chapter  “On the Permanent Impression of our Words and Actions on the Globe we Inhabit,” Babbage theorizes that an exhaustive and precise archive of past events would give us an exact vision of our future (to the extent that the latter unfolds as the accumulated consequence of the former). Continue reading “Writing the Disaster: Babbage and the Black Box”

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Accidents in Victorian Visual and Material Culture

For the next month or so, the Floating Academy has decided to focus our collective blogging efforts on the topic of the Accident in Victorian visual and material culture. I’ve volunteered to write the opening rationale for our upcoming explorations of this topic because I’ve been thinking and writing about Victorian narratives of accidental phenomena for a few years now, and it has always occurred to me that the topic deserves more attention in literary, historical, and cultural criticism. One of the realizations that comes from any sustained interrogation of all things accidental is how truly uncomfortable we (post)moderns are with the very idea of accidental events and phenomena. In response to large-scale technological and economic disasters, we find it difficult to accept the accidentality of living with technology because the industrialization of everyday life since the nineteenth century has trained us to look for causes and place blame when technologies don’t do what they’re supposed to do. The very idea of something accidental tends to go against everything we like to believe about order, design, meaning, and justice in the universe. Someone or something must be at fault when industrial catastrophes happen, something or Someone must be the true cause of such economic, environmental, or industrial catastrophe. Continue reading “Accidents in Victorian Visual and Material Culture”

“Foundress of Nothing?”: Report from the annual Victorian Studies Association of Ontario Conference

Rubens, Teresa of Avila's Vision of the Dove, c.1614

Many of us from The Floating Academy attended the annual Victorian Studies Association of Ontario conference this weekend. The conference’s theme — “Manipulation: Victorian Variations on Hands, Handling, and Underhanded Behaviour” — was taken up in various illuminating ways by the day’s speakers (including our own Gregory Brophy) but one key thread that emerged through all the papers was a critical identification of hands with agency. In addressing this concept of agency, or, in some cases, control (as in the case of Thackeray’s puppetmaster, which Peter Capuano discussed in his interesting analysis of the relationship between text and image in Vanity Fair), the day’s speakers often highlighted the ambiguity inherent in the concept of agency.

I found James Eli Adams’s talk, “The Dead Hand: George Eliot and the Uses of Inheritance” particularly compelling in this regard because he added a new layer to my understanding of the image of Dorothea Brooke as a “foundress of nothing” in Middlemarch:

“Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering on some long-recognizable deed” (4). Continue reading ““Foundress of Nothing?”: Report from the annual Victorian Studies Association of Ontario Conference”

Sensation vs. Gothic

I’ll be teaching a new MA course on Sensation and Gothic fiction at the University of Amsterdam next year, and I would love to hear suggestions about what Victorian novels I should include. I am also hoping the course will help me answer some of the questions I have about the differences between these two genres. A key difference seems to be setting, as sensation novels typically take place in England, with Gothic fiction more often adopting a foreign setting; yet the urban gothic novels of the late-nineteenth century (novels like Dracula, for instance) seem to blur these lines. Is it the element of the supernatural or fantastic that defines a novel as gothic vs. sensationalist?