“Novel Forms of Immanent Death”

My thoughts on accidental phenomena in Victorian material culture have been a long time coming, so I apologize for my inability to sit my butt down and write. Having done so, finally, I want to focus on a peculiar, but actually quite commonsense, aspect of Victorian social theories of accidents and catastrophes, namely the period’s realization that new forms or types of accidents could have significant future payoffs with regard to accident prevention. Our own “risk society” is so preoccupied with the travesties of large-scale industrial or environmental disasters that it sometimes seems, especially if we compare ourselves to the Victorians, that we have lost any sense of forward thinking. Perhaps, rightfully so, because it’s a hard sell suggesting that major catastrophes and disasters can teach us something about how to prepare for future accidents, or even teach us something about living in a industrial-capitalist economy. We’d rather believe, perhaps naively, that there won’t be any future industrial catastrophes, that it can’t happen here, whatever “it” is. Or, to put things another way, we have become so focused on the traumatic aspects of accidental events, that we tend to forget the biopolitical elements of disaster preparation and planning, that Western economies rely extensively on the fact that “accidents happen.” Accidents are good for business – they put our informatic selves in motion, we become insured subjects through extensive research in accident planning, simulation, and anticipation.

For the Victorians, and especially post-1860s when medical, engineering, and economic experts began to really tackle the topic of accident prevention, railway accidents were but one type or genre of accidental phenomena, albeit the most privileged and visualized of all accidents. I want to focus on an obscure American publication – Charles Francis Adams’ Notes on Railway Accidents (New York 1879) – because it encapsulates the bizarre, yet common sense, realizations of the period that accidents can have extraordinary benefits in the realms of public safety and risk. Like his early British contemporaries (Dionysus Lardner, in particular), Adams posits that the victims of railway accidents do not lose their lives “without great and immediate compensating benefits to mankind” (2). Such a quintessentially Victorian statement, I suspect, seems odd to most of us today, especially when reinforced by Adams’s further suggestion that “the whole world travels with an appreciable increase of safety” with every new “horror” on the lines of all world railway networks.

In Notes on Railway Accidents, anticipation of future risks marks a forward-thinking outlook premised on technical expansion of world railway systems. Despite a rather limited cataloguing of various accidents, Adams’s text turns to the infamous Versailles accident of May 1842 as emblematic of public reactions in the media of the period. “The railway,” Adams writes, “was at once associated in the minds of an excitable people with novel forms of immanent death” (60). In the eyes of the public, every new reported death by railway collision tended to produce new forms of accidental phenomena in addition to new public thrills and sensations. This emphasis on the formal qualities of emerging phenomena corresponds to popular writing of the period, particularly in both popular fiction and journalism. The emphasis on sensational events for an increasingly sensation-hungry public in Britain and the United States plays a considerable role in the publication of such studies as Adams’s. The curious nature of such catalogues of infamous disasters is that they tend to remain optimistic about the progress of public safety. This is how the system accident reproduces itself as a public phenomenon and as an interpretive dilemma – systems such as the railway network expose their violent potential as strangely a necessity for future safety.

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