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.

2 thoughts on “Accidents in Victorian Visual and Material Culture

  1. Daniel, this is a really illuminating outline — your description of our theme for the month gets the brain working on some interesting questions. Since I spend a lot of my days down the hall from people who study and train to work in museums, the “museum of accidents” idea got me thinking along a couple of lines.

    One is that the modern museum has its roots in a thoroughly accident-oriented genre: the early modern cabinet of curiosities. The author of the wikipedia entry describes the genre nicely, as “an encyclopedic collection … of objects whose categorical boundaries were yet to be defined.” The encyclopedism and uncategorized phenomena of these proto-museums echoes two of the tendencies you described in Victorian anxieties about accidents. Granted, the cabinet of curiosities isn’t the sole origin of what we call a museum today, but it suggests there might have been a period where all museums were museums of accidents. How did things change in the intervening periods, such that Virilio’s idea can seem like a new one?

    You also pointed out the close connection between accidents and temporality — that also complicates the museum metaphor, if we think of museum exhibitions as forms that step back from the day-to-day pace of life and examine long-term patterns. Yet accidents often make good spectacle, especially in photographs. I can’t really form a point here, except to say that the museum exhibition as metaphor makes me wonder about the difference between accidents as experiences and as representations. (For example, Dickens’s account of a train wreck versus a photograph of one.) Was there such a thing as an unrepresentable accident for Victorians?

  2. Alan, your comment — especially when you talk about the photographic spectacle of accidents and the potential unrepresentability of an accident — puts me in mind of Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean war.

    As various critics have noted, Fenton’s war photography did not represent the real fallout of war, that is, the actual dead bodies on the battlefield. For instance, Jennifer Green-Lewis writes, “Fenton’s photographs are for the most part portraits of the dramatis personae and scenes of major bloodletting — not, however, either during or immediately following battle but in the days after the human waste had been removed. The pictures are, without exception, invested with a sense of physical well-being and, indeed, order” (100).

    The fact that this Victorian venture into war photography was deliberately orderly, and intentionally erased the traces of the dead bodies, makes me think that for Fenton — for various political reasons too, of course — the accidents of war were difficult to represent.

    (We could certainly dispute my categorization of the battlefield as an accident site, after all, the mass death that happens in war is certainly deliberate but perhaps each individual death could be considered in itself as somehow accidental?)

    *Green-Lewis, Jennifer. Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism, 1996.

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