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July 05, 2012

'What connection can there be?': Objects, People and Place, c.1851"; paper at MIVSS, 29th June

On Friday 29th June, I presented a paper at the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar which focused on the theme of "Victorian Things Revisited" (full conference write-up here). My paper "'What connection can there be?': Objects, People and Place, c. 1851" represents a new direction in my work, developing a gradually emerging interest in material culture and the ways in which objects can be reconsidered in the context of space and mobility.

The paper originated in some research on Bleak House last summer, when I began to think more about the significance of the Great Exhibition for the national-global relations in the novel. I was particularly interested in some images by George Cruikshank (below), and the many questions they open up around the relationship between people, things, and place. As I blogged at the time, in looking at these images one can't help but recall the central question of Bleak House: "what connexion can there be [...] between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!”



Cruikshank's images illustrate the text of Henry Mayhew's comic novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and family who came up to London to 'enjoy themselves' and to see the Great Exhibition, and it was this that formed the focus of my paper. Most attention to this text has focused on the glimpses Mayhew gives us of the Exhibition, where we find an interest in the objects on display, the new people present in an internationalised London, and the potential social good of the Exhibition (against the backdrop of Mayhew's other work of the same year, London Labour and the London Poor). But what interested me most was the way in which the narrative surrounding this also demonstrates a continual interest in things, people, and place, and their changing relations to one another. As the Sandboys family make their way to and around London, they encounter a continual stream of comic accidents and misfortunes in which people and things repeatedly surface and come into contact in unexpected ways. In particular, it's the connections forged through the mobility of people and things, and the implications for the space of the nation, which emerges as a key question of the text.

The wider framework for this reading, which I'm still teasing out somewhat, is the move towards thinking about objects in the context of global networks of mobility. This has emerged particularly in the context of imperial networks of commodities, and John Plotz's Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move is a fascinating study of objects "on the move", suggesting that pieces of "portable property" become resonant repositories of national identity in an increasingly global, mobile world. Plotz's main concern is with objects moving out from Britain, and his reading of "reverse portability" is concerned primarily with identifying an "imperial panic" raised by objects coming into Britain. I think, though, there's a lot more to be said about the circulation of objects (both British and foreign) within Britain not just as producing an adverse imperial reaction but also for the narratives of national identity, and physical traces of national space, that mobile objects create. There is, too, further scope for thinking about the ways in which objects function within a world being physically reshaped through mobile networks; objects make visible the abstract concept of a compressing world space, leave tangible traces of the connectedness of the nation to wider networks of mobility.

These are ideas that I'll be exploring as I develop the paper further, and the discussion that followed was extremely helpful in shaping some of the directions this will take. I'll be thinking more about 1851 alongside Bleak House, another novel written in the wake of the Great Exhibition and similarly preoccupied with the connections between people and things on the move; I was reminded, though, that there's the potential for connections to work as a more positive, benevolent force in Dickens, whereas my reading of Mayhew focused more on the anxiety surrounding these interactions. There's also more to be said around ideas about bodies and/as places/things: my discussion of body-thing interactions started to stray into ideas around embodiment and of the body-as-place, with feminist geography theory lurking in the background; in my next reading of the text I'll be thinking more about the mobility of the gendered body and the more nuanced readings of place/space relations that this might open up.

I'm entering into discussions of objects from the perspective of someone more familiar with ideas around space and mobility rather than material culture and I've still got a way to go with fully drawing out the nuances of these arguments - and I'm aware that a lot more reading (and re-reading) on material culture awaits - but I'm excited by the wealth of ideas this has opened up; it feels like this work will be productive both in terms of the perspectives on objects and material culture that it provides, and for refreshing my thinking on mobility and space.

July 02, 2012

Victorian Things Revisited @ Keele University, 29th June 2012

This meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar focused on the theme of "Victorian Things Revisited", seeking to explore where the "material turn" has taken us in Victorian Studies and what new possibilities for research still remain. Throughout the day, each of the 6 presenters approached the theme of material culture from a different angle, demonstrating the rich diversity of approaches to material culture and opening up many new possibilities for new directions in this research.

The day started with a panel comprising of myself and Mary Addyman, a first-year PhD student also based in the Department of English here at Warwick. I gave a paper titled "'What connection can there be?': Objects, People and Place c. 1851", which I'll write about in a separate post as the panel generated a lot of ideas that I want to follow up in more detail. Mary's paper explored new research into the collection of Richard and Henry Cuming, a father and son who collected a vast array of objects from the 1780s to 1900, including geological and archaelogical artefacts, art, textiles, ceramics, Egyptian objects, and objects representative of British social history - including everyday packaging. The disorganisation and variety of the Cuming collection goes against our usual understanding of the Victorians as systematic collectors imposing order in a disordered world, but Mary sought to find a more nuanced reading of the way in which this disorganised mode of collecting might be read, thinking about the collector recording his place in the world and the sense of responsibility to future generations involved in this accumulation and preservation of the present. Mary ended by considering the temporality of collecting, drawing out some fascinating links between collecting and geology.


Image from Southwark Collections

In the second panel, two papers centred around objects that sit at the intersection between bodies and things and trouble the binaries between living and dead, natural and artificial. Julia Courtney (Open University) raised the question of "Living Things?" in her paper on Victorian taxidermy. This focused first on taxidemied animals and birds that are posed in scenes that recreate their "natural" environments, and then on animals that are anthropomorphised in artificial scenes, such as a scene of mice sat at a table playing cards. This raised interesting questions about the relationship between bodies and things, the point at which a body becomes a "thing", and by what means the status of "thing" is ascribed. Courtney also thought about the differences in cultural appreciation for taxidermied animals, comparing the Victorian fashion for and fascination with taxidermy as something that evokes a pleasurable response, versus the rather more reluctant way in which taxidermy is viewed - with humour? disgust?- today.

Card players

Walter Potter's Red Squirrels Playing Cards, c.1871

Courtney was followed by Michael Lee (Leeds Met) whose body-object discussions took a literary turn in a paper on "Eating Things in Lewis Carroll". Lee began with a theoretical exploration of the different conceptualisations of things and objects, raising the question "what kind of a thing is food?" His subsequent discussion of Alice in Wonderland suggested that through Carroll's use of food the borders between different types of things are blurred: food is a social thing which moves within a network of circulation that supercedes the human. Food also troubles the boundaries of body/thing and life/death: the body itself has the potential to be a thing that can be consumed, moving from subject to object status. In networks of consumption, Lee suggested, everything is edible and everything is social.

In the final panel of the day we moved towards science and industry. Stella Pratt-Smith's paper "Material, Manufactured, Modern: the Science of Victorian 'Thing' Culture" posited a more thorough understanding of the relationship between science and material culture: science was not just one aspect of Victorian material culture but central to allowing that material culture to come about. Her paper demonstrated how putting Victorian things into the contexts of their production, exploring and understanding how things were made, is not only illuminating for our understanding of particular Victorian objects but also for interpreting the significance of the Victorians' fascination with things. Pratt-Smith's discussion of the science of various objects, such as the development of purple dyes that held a particular allure and new glass technologies, provided a fascinating insight into the scientific developments fuelling material culture. This was particularly interesting in light of the recent Transforming Objects conference: Stella referred to Jim Mussell's discussion of chlorodyne (and I must thank Stella for her generous mention of this blog in her talk and handout!), and I was also reminded of Eugenia Gonzalez's talk on narratives of doll production.

Stephen Etheridge (Huddersfield) finished the day with a paper on "Brass Instruments, Bandsmen and Working-Class Identity: Brass Bands in the Southern Pennines and the creation of working-class identity, 1840-1900". Etheridge began by noting the overly romanticised notion of brass bands as symbolic of northern working-class culture, but moved in to offer a more nuanced understanding of the role of brass bands in the Southern Pennine region and the various ways in which bands featured as a centre-point of masculine working-class identity. Etheridge noted the strong community element of this identity: bandsmen forged a strong group identity within their band and were well known within the local community, and this was strengthened by the competitiveness between bands from different towns. But there was also a particularly strong individual identity forged through relation to one's own instrument: after the death of a player the instrument would feature as a strong reminder of the individual, often proudly displayed in his memory - we were also shown the image of a gravestone decorated with a trombone engraving. Here again the intersections between people and object, life and death, and the permanence of objects in comparison with the mortality of people - taking us full circle to the ideas raised about collections in Mary's paper.

There were many interconnections arising throughout these papers, more than I could hope to cover here, and I was struck by how such a diverse range of perspectives on material culture could simultaneously raise so many points of interaction. This was interdisciplinarity at its best - balancing breadth and depth, generating new ideas without losing particularity or focus, and enabling stimulating and lively discussion in each of the question sessions. The day revealed material culture to be a thriving area of study with many possibilities for new directions and approaches, suggesting that this is an area which we can keep visiting and revisiting for some time to come.

January 13, 2012

Borders in the Long 19th Century @ Loughborough, 13th January 2012

This joint meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar (MIVSS) and the Midlands Romantic Seminar (MRS) focused on the idea of borders and periodisation in the long nineteenth century, particularly thinking about the Romantic-Victorian border: where do we draw the line between Romantics and Victorians in teaching and research, what purposes do they serve, and what about the grey areas in between?

I only attended the afternoon sessions, which began with Julian North speaking about "teaching and researching across the Romantic/Victorian border", and it's this paper which I want to focus on here. Julian started by discussing the plurality of Rom/Vic borders, suggesting the possible dates that might be chosen - the beginning of Victoria's reign in 1837, the deaths of the Romantic poets in the 1820s, the Reform Bill of 1832 - the possibilities are endless and always problematic in their attempt to neatly define the end/ beginning of an era. From my perspective, I'd suggest the coming of the railway in the 1830s as the decisive moment separating the Romantics and Victorians: Thackeray's comment that “we who have lived before the railways were made, belong to another world ... It was only yesterday; but what a gulf between now and then!” encapsulates the sense of the railway creating the world anew, but even with this we can't neatly date "the coming of the railway" (the Stockton-Darlington railway in 1825? the first passenger line between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830? or the spread of the railways in the "mania" of the 1840s?). Or from a global perspective,we might take 1815, the re-opening of continental borders at the end of the Napoleonic wars, as signalling the first moves into a new era of global modernity.

Turner, "Rain, Steam, Speed"

Julian North also thought about the motives for imposing and crossing borders - something, it emerged later in the discussion, that is particularly a product of literary studies (and perhaps history of art), rather than history where the borders tend to depend on the specific research project. Periodisation was posed as a product itself of the Victorian period: the impulse in Victorian biography to impose a sharp distinction between the Romantic and Victorian periods- a generational conflict, in which the Victorians assert themselves as the responsible grown-ups to the young, immature Romantics.

The borders for teaching purposes were also raised: how do we define a module, what kind of borders do we construct within and around it, and what does this say to students about the period they're studying? How do we teach the nuances of different parts of the periods in question, and how much does it matter? I wondered here too about generic differences: are the Rom/Vic borders more clearly defined or more easily imposed, perhaps, with regards to poetry (neatly divided here between term 1 on the Romantics, term 2 on the Victorians) than with the novel? The 19th century novel course on which I teach moves back and forthwithin the period 1800-1899 at various points as it's structured thematically rather than chronologically; and as a result, we rather quietly cross - or rather, leap - over the problematic Rom/Vic area: there's a noticeable gap in our chronology of texts from Austen in 1814 to Emily Bronte in 1848. Arguably when teaching the novel it's the mid-century period where things begin to get really interesting (I'm biased, yes) but that's not to say there isn't a lot of interesting work going on around the Rom/Vic borderlines and it is of course indicative to think about the kinds of negotiations in literary form going on around that period, and how that leads the way for what feels more firmly established by the later decades.

The question of the end-point of the century was also discussed - are the 1890s the start of a new period completly defined from what comes before? - and I'll be thinking about these questions more over the next few weeks as we move into the later nineteenth-century and start to think about what kind of meaningful connections are to be made (or not) both with the mid-century and across the period as a whole.

The MIVSS/ MRS event also raised some interesting questions around collecting objects, with Kate Hill's paper on Romantic and Victorian collections, which was pertinent in light of this cfpfor a conference on "Transforming Objects" which was recently announced - I'm considering revisiting a short section of the thesis on foreign objects in the Victorian novel, which will provide a nice change of direction to all the Dickensian mobility of late.

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