Eddy’s thoughtful post about Jeremy Deller’s kaiju-Morris mural in this year’s Biennale is full of interesting observations about what happens when nineteenth-century ideas about art and commerce and social engagement are juxtaposed with twenty-first-century versions of the same. Amid all those big ideas, I found myself quite taken by the small affective moment that kicks off Eddy’s discussion, the “Hey!” that resulted from Eddy’s unanticipated encounter with William Morris in a Globe and Mail image.
That “Hey!” reminded me of a reaction I have when I come across a nineteenth-century reference in an unexpected context, especially when I’m perusing a newspaper or browsing a website for entirely non-professional reasons. This reaction generally opens out into a delicious feeling of defamiliarization that results from the startling (because startlingly obvious) realization that other people are actively interested in the nineteenth century, too. I’ve been delighted, for example, when a site like BibliOdyssey curates a collection of Victorian infographics or when the good people of MetaFilter respond to an introduction to yellowback novels with enthusiasm and appreciation.
Sometimes these unforeseen encounters offer incredibly compelling windows into new areas of knowledge for me, such as when Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG describes nineteenth-century efforts at capturing hydropower on the coast of California, reviews a book about Victorian eclipse fieldwork, or turns his interest in the semiotics of space to vintage mountaineering photographs.
At other times, these encounters suggest new resonances of the Victorian era in this day and age. I first became interested in Lily Stockman’s work after my sister introduced me to Lily’s gorgeous paintings of obsolescing things: heritage animal breeds that no longer have a place in large-scale factory mono-agriculture, for example, or abandoned homesteads in Joshua Tree National Park. I was then thrilled when Lily developed an entire series around her long-standing fascination with nineteenth-century botanical art. Her excitement about Anna Atkins‘s work was contagious, as was her joy to be following in the Himalayan footsteps of Marianne North.
What strikes me most when I’m visited by this academic startle reflex is how tellingly it reveals the artificial boundaries I’ve constructed around “my work.” Academic metadiscourse is littered with the language of territory and possession, property and proprietorship, suggesting a properly defined academic “field” to be a species of cognitive enclosure.
This kind of epistemological corralling is necessary and pragmatic, of course, especially at this early stage of my professional life, and I do understand that all disciplines are siloed in their own ways. Still, I can’t help but chafe a little against what feels like a kind of ontological corralling brought to the surface in these “Hey!” encounters. The boundaries of critical expression seem especially defined in these moments, with enthusiasm and joy to one side and scholarly seriousness to another, as Karen describes in her post on literary tourism. I suppose the internet is where delight and zeal thrive. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read about more- and less- successful efforts to bike around around the world in the 1890s…
Image from Century Magazine, June 1894