“Awful Unknown Quantities”: Victorian Studies in Hard Times

[This post is a revised version of a paper presented at the 2016 gathering of the North American Victorian Studies Association].

In the Winter 2016 semester, I had one of those moments in an undergraduate seminar on the topic of “Victorian Bodies” when I recognized that my students finally understood the overall rationale and scope for a reading strategy I had been trying to instill in them. We were discussing Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which became my student’s favorite text in our reading list. I was trying my best to show students how Stevenson’s descriptions of Hyde’s strangely unknowable body relates to the broader problem of the body in Victorian literature and culture. In short, the problem I wanted my students to see was the human body’s conceptual and categorical evasion of any kind of rational or utopian system of management or classification. Clearly, this slipperiness of the body’s indexicality relates well to Jekyll and Hyde’s gothic narrative, but my intentions were grander. I was pushing my students toward a reading of the unmediated thingness of the body – the Real that cannot be completely touched by any Imaginary or Symbolic register. At one point in our discussion of Hyde’s body, one of my students put up their hand to ask a question. I could see in this student’s face that some kind of lightbulb had gone off. “Does Hyde’s body relate to Dicken’s notion of “awful unknown quantities” in Hard Times?” my student asked. As I nodded my head in the affirmative, my student continued: “huh, I think I’m finally starting to see how the novels we’ve been reading all relate to each other. At first, I thought they were all so different.”

Continue reading ““Awful Unknown Quantities”: Victorian Studies in Hard Times”

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Dickens’s Extraordinary Traveller: Immersive Media Forms and the World as Panorama

Of all of Dickens’s prose non-fiction, the one piece that has consistently troubled me the most since I started thinking about Dickens’s journalism and its bearing on the prehistory of immersive media spectacles is “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller,” published in Household Words in April, 1850. A typical Dickensian flight of Fancy, this notice introduces readers to the figure of Mr. Booley, who at the age of 65, “left England for the first time” (511) on a series of trips around the world. “Mr. Booley’s powers of endurance are wonderful,” Dickens writes: “All climates are alike to him. Nothing exhausts him; no alterations of heat and cold appear to have the least effect upon his hardy frame. His capacity for travelling, day and night, for thousands of miles, has never been approached by any traveller of whom we have any knowledge through the help of books […] Though remarkable for personal cleanliness, he has carried no luggage; and his diet has been of the simplest kind” (511-12). Readers follow this account of Mr. Booley’s travels, which take him to such far-off locales as New Orleans in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Egypt, India, and the Arctic regions of the World, before reading in Booley’s own words the inspiration for his “roving spirit” (515): Continue reading “Dickens’s Extraordinary Traveller: Immersive Media Forms and the World as Panorama”

Stuttering in Victorian Studies

I’ve been working on a book project about Victorian representations and narratives of speech dysfluency for a number of years now, and I’m starting to see a dim shape for the entire project. I think it now has an introduction and a skeleton of chapters, but who knows if I’ll radically blow things up and completely reorganize the thing. As of today, I’m staring, with excitement, at what I hope will be a summer of relatively uninterrupted writing, so I thought I would give our readers a glimpse at some extraneous material from my introduction and early chapters. Basically, some of this material is in the book, some of it isn’t, and some of it is in the book but written in different ways. In a sense, the following paragraphs attempt to outline what I see as some fundamental problems in the ways in which Victorian studies and cultural studies appropriate or misuse metaphors of stuttering and stammering, or dysfluency in general. This is my contribution to thinking about speech dysfluency both within the paradigm of disability studies and more broadly in current critical practices in Victorian studies..   Continue reading “Stuttering in Victorian Studies”

In Defence of Smaller Conferences: VSAWC 2015 in Kelowna BC, Canada.

I’ve attended the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada’s annual conference countless times since I was a Masters student at the University of Victoria fifteen years ago (that number is disgusting to look at, but it’s true). Something about the smaller size of the conference and its intellectually generous and supportive participants always brings me back. Now, the CFP is available for VSAWC’s 2015 conference on the topic of “Victorian Bodies,” and I think anyone who reads this should seriously consider submitting a proposal and attending the conference. Here’s why: Continue reading “In Defence of Smaller Conferences: VSAWC 2015 in Kelowna BC, Canada.”

On Forgotten Paragraphs

We’ve stalled on The Floating Academy of late, for a variety of reasons. But there’s still life in this floating collective, so I’m hoping to resurrect the not-yet-dead a little bit. I thus offer to readers the following paragraph, which I hope will be the first of an ongoing series of excised, deleted, or forgotten paragraphs from scholars in Victorian studies. Without giving away too much context, I should say that this was an almost-deleted paragraph from the introduction of a book project on Victorian narratives of stuttering and speech disfluency that I’ve been working slowly on for a few years now. We all have such forgotten words that don’t fit or no longer seem to make sense. If you’re a Victorian scholar and you have similar paragraphs somewhere in a lonely file on your desktop, please feel free to send them my way and I’ll see if we can revitalize them a little bit in the near future. Here’s my forgotten paragraph:

While sifting through vast amounts of material, and often lacking a narrative to unite the archaeological messiness of stuttering research from the 18th to the 21st centuries, I came to one fundamental conclusion (of course, one that not-coincidentally corresponds with my literary training in nineteenth-century British literature): the Victorians were intensely preoccupied with the psycho-physiological phenomenology of the stutterer in ways that current popular discourse is not. More particularly, Victorian medical, elocutionary, and literary knowledge of stuttered speech introduced an “incitement to discourse” (to use Foucault’s words) that would make the stutterer speak, and be spoken about, and would ensure that the stutterer confess his most melancholic, traumatic, and private sufferings, even while maintaining a sensitivity to the stutterer’s melancholic, inward-turning, and lonely disposition. My research project thus introduces a cultural criticism of stuttering that resists the self-help bias of much current thinking about stuttering as a speech disorder.

“What Thor Said to the Bard Before Dinner”

My last post called for a return to the study of some of the major authors in Victorian literature, so I didn’t think it would be appropriate to follow up with a post on the details of my current research in Victorian medical and popular discourses about stuttering and stammering. My stuttering project addresses far too many archival materials and has virtually no discussion of any of the major figures in Victorian literature, give or take a few anecdotal observations here and there. So how about Tennyson, then, for this post? He’s a big deal, and deserves a little love in the Floating Academy. Continue reading ““What Thor Said to the Bard Before Dinner””

Melancholia and the Digitization of Victorian Culture

We’ve been talking recently about the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada’s 2013 conference in Vancouver a few weeks back, so I thought I would add a few of my own thoughts. The conference was a truly fantastic and welcoming weekend of Victorian studies on the topic of Victorian humanity and its others. I learned a lot, and had a great time connecting with some good friends and colleagues.

From a personal perspective, though, one paper in particular really made me think about what it is that we do in Victorian studies, and why our field has embraced wholeheartedly a cultural and print studies turn in literary criticism. At the risk of sounding kind of self-promotional, that paper was by my wife, Allison Fieldberg, who read some new work on silence and the ethics of the novel genre in the Brontes. Strangely, despite the fact that we’re both Victorianists and spend probably far too much of our time together talking about Victorian literature and literary and cultural criticism, we don’t often get a chance to share our ideas with each other, especially as they appear in our formal writing. Continue reading “Melancholia and the Digitization of Victorian Culture”