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. The very idea of the Accident also seems to go against our training in material culture because we’re used to thinking about the material conditions of existence as the determining factors in our lives and in the lives of the past. What happens when those material conditions are themselves potentially explosive or catastrophic? Do we become catastrophic or accidental subjects? These are still questions for all of us today, but they were also exceedingly anxiety-ridden questions for the Victorians.
As a number of theorists, such as Ross Hamilton and Paul Virilio, have observed in recent years, it’s about time that we come to terms with that which happens ex nihilo. Virilio’s work on the concept of the “original accident” is particularly influential, and I hope that some of our posts in the coming weeks on Victorian accidents will attempt to address some of his concerns, whether directly or indirectly. In particular, I find Virilio’s curatorial work on the “museum of accidents” especially intriguing because it challenges all of us to reconsider everything we think we know about the proliferation of technological disasters in everyday life. “There is one particularly urgent necessity,” Virilio writes in the Forward to his 2002-03 exhibit, Unknown Quantity, at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris, “to expose and to exhibit the Time accident.” Accidents increasingly happen in real time as most of carry in our pockets the tools for recording and reproducing the visual experiences of our lives. As such, we need to learn how to represent the immediate experience of the accidental. We need to learn how to live with the Accident.
These concerns reach back into the Victorian era, where new developments in print, media, and visual culture began, perhaps for the first time, to come to terms with the acceleration of modern life. As Virilio writes throughout his work, the substance of new technological modes of production or transportation invents new forms of accidents. For the Victorians, developments in travel, factory production, manufacturing, and large-scale public exhibitions and entertainment led to all kinds of new genres of accidental phenomena. As Victorian scholars, we have not yet completely addressed the extent of such an emergence of technological accidents and disasters. Hopefully over the next month or so, we here at the Floating Academy can build towards an understanding of what a Victorian “museum of accidents” might have looked like in visual and material culture.