October 08, 2008

London 19th Century Studies Seminar @ University of London Institute of English Studies

Writing about web page http://ies.sas.ac.uk/events/seminars/19C/index.htm

The theme for the nineteenth-century studies seminars this term is "The Nineteenth Century on the Move: Mobility, Networks, Exchanges", and given the promising relevance of this title to my research, this looks to be an extremely useful and interesting series. The first seminar on Saturday 4th October certainly lived up to my expectations, with stimulating talks and discussion that provoked more ideas and suggestions for further reading than I currently know what to do with!

Saturday's seminar started off the series with a roundtable on "Thinking through mobility in the Nineteenth Century": cultural geographers Professor Tim Cresswell and Dr David Lambert from Royal Holloway, and Professor Josephine McDonagh from the English Dept. at Kings College London, each gave short presentations that offered diverse interdisciplinary approaches to the panel theme. Tim Cresswell began talking through his paper "Constellations of Mobility" (this, and the extracts of work by the other two speakers, are available on the seminar website above); the paper outlined the "new mobilities paradigm" that has emerged in recent years, raising issues with this and posing an alternative theorisation of mobility that Cresswell termed "constellations of mobility". This was an incredibly useful paper for me- I haven't yet encountered the "new mobilities paradigm" in such a form, and for all the problems of this terminology, Cresswell's analysis drew together theorisations that have appeared somewhat disparate in my research thus far, whilst introducing many new theorists that I need to read in this area. (This was for me one of those wonderful, yet slightly terrifying, moments of research when suddenly you discover an entire area that, despite being hugely relevant to your research, you had no idea existed as such...). Cresswell then worked through the inteconnecting aspects of mobility -  movement, meaning and practice - which must be considered together in order to fully understand the politics of mobility. Cresswell concluded by proposing a notion of "constellations of mobility" which accounts for the interrelatedness of movement, meaning, and practice, and the historical contexts in which they occur. I think this could be a useful terminology to work through as I develop my own theorisation of spatiality and embodiment in transit: I like the idea of "constellations of mobility" which posit journey-spaces as sites of encounter between (or constellations of) a number of factors- historicised spatial consciousness, embodied spatial experience, the material practices of movement, discursive meanings ascribed to mobility, and so on. It's a fluid, adaptable theory, as mobile as journeys themselves.

David Lambert's talk drew upon the introduction to Colonial Lives Across the British Empire: Imperial Careering in the Long Nineteenth Century (edited by Lambert and Alan Lester), focusing on the imperial career of Sir John Pope Hennessy to formulate a "networked" approach to British Empire. Working against older "core-periphery" models of empire, Lambert argued for understanding the British empire as an interconnected space constituted from multiple spatial networks; rather than reading relationships between Britain and the colonies, this involves understanding the networks of connections between different colonies, exemplified in the book by studying the "imperial careering" (in both sense of the word) of British individuals through multiple imperial spaces. Whilst Lambert's study is interesting in relocating the core, binary, understandings of imperial spatiality, I was most excited to see the application of Doreen Massey's For Space in the context of travel writing, something I've been attempting in the last chapter I wrote.

Finally, Josephine McDonagh spoke on mobility and the novel, in which she addressed how (Victorian) literary scholars could productively work with ideas of spatiality and mobility- rather reassuring to hear that I'm not alone in the general aims of my thesis! McDonagh used Lefebvre's theory of spatiality as the theoretical framework for her study, in particular, Lefebvre's notion of abstract space, which McDonagh applied to characteristics of nineteenth-century literary realism to identify ways in which we can read nineteenth century "sense of place" in more particular ways than the generalised ideas of "region" and "landscape" that tend to predominate in literary studies- it was exciting to (finally!) see a literary theorist get to grips with the postmodern geographical notions of space and place, and really talk about literary places in these heavily theorised terms. Turning to mobility, McDonagh looked at how mobility is typically through a mobility/stasis binary, and proposed the need to read mobility outside of this binary- to recognise the multiple meanings and layers of mobility, and thus to better understand stasis (which is just as hard work, and as politically charged, as mobility) as a process which always involves degrees of mobility. This provoked some interesting ideas for my own work as I've recently been trying to define what "counts" as a journey in fiction in order to define the limits of my thesis- not an easy job, because even the most stationary of novels involves no end of journeys on different spatial scales.

I'm looking forward to the next two seminars, on the 8th and 29th November and in the meantime will no doubt be kept occupied with follow-up reading and research inspired by the first seminar.

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