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May 12, 2011

Old and new: from periodical to ipad


This picture shows the presents that I (rather unexpectedly!) received from my (wonderful, generous) parents for completing my PhD. In the top right is, quite recognisably, an iPad: the future - or is it present? - of publishing. And the aged book and blue pamphlet next to it? That's a first edition of Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit (1857) and one of the original serialised parts (No. XI, October 1856).

The contrast between these gifts couldn't be more apparent, the past and future of the history of the book; and questions around the history and development of the book have been very much on my mind this week following the "What is Academic Writing" session run by IATL on Monday. In a day of interesting talks, it was Richard Miller's discussion of writing instruction in the US which stuck with me, focusing as it did on the shift to new media and what this means for writing. Using images from Al Gore's Our Choice recently published as an eBook app, which makes thoroughly innovative use of interactive features - Miller argued that this is what we are now - or will be, or need to be - writing for; the text is no longer just text, but increasingly embracing not just visual/auditory media, but this entirely responsive interactive style. And this, he stated, was what we now need to be teaching students to write for and with. With the example of his text2cloud blog he showed how he is changing the future of writing instruction by teaching students to work with new media so that their academic essays are written through and for digital technologies. Video, sound, and other audio-visual features were integrated into the text such that these became not just texts for critical reflection but part of the process of analysis themselves.

This raised a lot of interesting ideas about teaching and learning academic writing (and critical thinking more generally), and whilst I'm not convinced that the days of the academic essay are over, there were many discernable advantages that I could see in this, not least getting students really engaged in the writing process - not just focusing on the end product for the final mark, but really getting involved in critical analysis in a much more involved and responsive way. The open-endedness of the project seemed particularly valuable - that students continued to work on pieces past submission deadline because, as Miller pointed out, thinking doesn't stop the moment the piece is turned in (or at least, we'd hope it doesn't! hence the value of actively enabling that on-going process). The lingering question for me was whether the advent of new media needs to signal the end of the academic essay in the way Miller suggests; why does new media need to be positioned as diametrically opposed to the traditional academic essay? Can't all of this fantastic work also develop into a reinvigorated approach to "traditional" academic writing? There's a lot of value in the crafting of argument and reflective processes that enable that, which the immediacy of new media doesn't seem to allow for.

periodicalAll of which I'm still mulling over as this academic year ends and fresh opportunities for teaching hopefully await at the end of the summer. But in the meantime there were some more immediately resonant questions about the history of the book and where we're at with the move into the digital age, especially as I sit here with Dickens and the iPad side by side. The literary student in me wants to resist the move to the digital age, no more so than when handling a 160-year old copy of my favourite novel, in all its sturdy weightiness. I can't help but feel guilty at downloading a book or two onto the iPad, which feels like another nail in the coffin for the physical book, even though it's justifiably so much easier when your research largely focuses on 800-page novels. And what about this idea of writing for this new form of reading, crafting academic work into a form that not only embraces but is specifically designed for new technologies, which really seems like the final nail in the coffin for print publication, as though we're thoroughly capitulating to digital media and decrying the end of the book as we know it.

But then the periodical pamphlet is a stark reminder that perhaps all of this is just sentimentalising the book, because the core concept here is nothing new: as the periodical reminds us, writing has always adapted to and embraced new forms. With the advent of serial publication, Dickens and others experimented with writing that was specifically crafted to the new possibilities this raised, utilising the formal qualities that the material format both enabled and delimited. (And if we bemoan the presence of targeted adverts on every webpage, the 27 (!) pages of advertising that precede and commence the pamphlet again stand as testament that this is nothing new!) Going further back, too, the development of writing has always been dependent on the material conditions of the book, evolving and adapting to new forms of print publication. The written text itself isn't a "natural" product, it's a cultural artifact, and writing is always a historically and materially conditioned process. So whilst it's easy to despair as paper gives way to screen, perhaps it's not so much the end of the book but just another stage in the evolution of what a book is, what it can do, and the possibilities it offers us as writers.

October 23, 2010

Nineteenth Century Seminar @ IES

The London 19th Century Studies Seminar's theme for the term is "Novel Spaces", which kicked off this morning with two fascinating papers. Whilst I found Andrew Thacker's "Rhymers on Fleet Street" to provide a stimulating continuation of his other work on modernism*, it was Josephine McDonagh's paper "Provincialism: Affect and Mobility in Our Village and elsewhere" on which I want to focus some thoughts on, as it was this that was more pertinent to what I'm working on now.

McDonagh's discussion of provincial writing focused in particular on Our Village, Mary Russell Mitford's series of sketches of life in a Berkshire village, published throughout the 1820s-30s. The paper began with an indicative contextual setting, situating provincial writing within a global context as McDonagh identified how the provincial "place-writing" of the 1820s was popular with emigrants and settlers abroad. Centring upon the question of "what kind of space does provincial writing produce?", the early part of the talk considered the differentiation between regionalism and provincialism through reference to Ian Duncan's 2002 essay on the subject: in particular drawing out Duncan's assertion that the provincial place is defined specifically against the metropolis (over 150 miles becomes regionalism), and that any provincial location is substitutable for any other, whereas regionalism is sustained by the specifics of its particular region. McDonagh also noted the critical concern with provincial writing as, consequently, a static and nostalgic genre, but argued instead for reading provincial writing as necessarily engaged with modernity, produced in and by cultures of mobility. This is a literature in which mobility is central to the narratives, in which the process of place-making, constructing a "sense of place", is key; thus, the appeal to settlers and emigrants elsewhere, involved as they were in the practice of producing space.

The paper raised some fascinating insights for my own work; to go back to that initial wider context, I was especially interested in this situating of place-making literature within the global context of mobilities, resonating as this does with David Harvey's assertion that in an era of space-time compression and global expansion, place becomes increasingly important. The increasing importance of place can be easily supported by turning to, say, regional literature and the way in which it asserts, in this era of global expansion, specific (British) places as unique, identifiable, and important. But what I was getting from Jo McDonagh's ideas here is that in provincial literature there's a further, more complex, process going on, which is that not just specific places but rather a "sense of place", an idea of what place is as a more abstract concept, is also being worked out. The emergent spatial consciousness of what space "is" is accompanied by a similar process occuring on the level of place, in which place, too, is becoming more abstractly conceptualised.  And, perhaps more crucially, this "sense of place" seems to be one in which mobility, movements within places as well as mobile connections with wider surrounding networks of spaces, is centralised, perhaps suggesting that what's forming here is something like Doreen Massey's idea of place not as a bounded and distinct entity but rather as "articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings" (Space, Place and Gender). The assertion of place isn't just part of the process of nation-building etc. but also something on a more complex conceptual level, and something which recognises the impossibility of statis as a foundation for the solidity of place in the mobile, modern world.

* ( - as an aside, it was his Moving Through Modernity that sparked my initial interest in my phd topic, provoking the necessary combination of agreement and contention that gave me the first roots of a thesis idea... so it was great to finally see/hear the person with which this all began),

June 14, 2010

Travels into Print: Professor Charles Withers talk @ University of Warwick, 13th May 2010

Writing about web page

This talk by Professor Charles Withers was part of his two-week IAS visiting fellowship in May- as it's taken me just over a month to write something on this, and the lecture can be found as a podcast on the website, I'm mostly writing this to record a few responses for myself.

Professor Withers is currently coming to the end of a 2-year project titled "Correspondence: Exploration and Travel from Manuscript to Print, 1768-1848"at the University of Edinburgh's Centre for the History of the Book, and his lecture at Warwick discussed some of the key points and issues on which the project has focused. Using the John Murray Archives, Withers has been reseaching the modes of production involved in the publishing of travel writing: he began the talk by setting out this context, asserting that too little consideration is given to the relationship between the experiences "in the field" and the final narrative that is produced; too often, the finished artifact is taken as read without thinking about the processes of production that it went through to get to that point. Yet perhaps more than any ofter form of writing, in travel writing there is a huge amount of correspondence between publisher and author that impacts upon how the original writing is shaped into what becomes the finished, published, travel narrative. There's a presumption of "truth" between the two; perhaps because of the nature of travel writing and the "eye-witness account" it promises, we assume that the words on the page bear a largely unmediated relationship to the initial experiences of the writer.

Of course in the critical study of travel writing there is an attentiveness to the literary nature of travel writing and the fictionalising processes that are at work in all writing, and so the work of the project offers an important contribution to opening up these frameworks further, extending this concern with literariness into thinking about the nature and making of the texts: exploring the demands of publishers, audiences, cultural reception, and meta-textual additions are just some of the areas Withers touched on in the talk.

I was especially interested in thinking about how this works to further break down the disciplinary boundaries between fictional and non-fictional accounts of travel writing, emphasising as it does the constructed natuer of travel writing. Despite the critical awareness of travel writing's "literariness", it seems to me that there remains a distinct disciplinary boundary between non-fictional travel accounts and the study of other types of literary journeys- in my case, fictional renderings of journeys in novels. There is, of course, a great difference between the genres and the discursive practices, forms, purposes, reception, and so on; how "travel writing" is produced, read, understood, interpreted is different to the ways in which fiction is produced. But, whilst taking these differences into account, I think that there are important ways in which the critical distinction can be broken down to offer useful and productive new perspectives. I've been working to re-orientate the frameworks within which we situate writing about travel, thinking about how all forms of "travel writing", fictional and non-fictional alike, can be seen as participating in discourses of spatial production; as Mary Louise Pratt writes, travel narratives have “produced ‘the rest of the world’ for European readerships at particular points” (Imperial Eyes p. 5). To define writing about travel as a mode of “spatial production” – albeit specifically of “other” spaces of the wider world rather than the immediate spatiality of a particular culture – opens up a framework in which we can understand all writing about travel, non-fictional and fictional accounts alike, as participating in the production of spatial imaginaries- as Charles Withers said, in the "cultural production of knowledge (and ignorance)". Whilst different forms of writing might play different roles in this production given the different modes of representation and reading practices involved across literary genres - and attention should be paid to these issues - nonetheless the core practice of constructing textual socio-spatial relations that are indicative of the wider cultural spatial consciousness and its discourses, situates "non-fictional" and "fictional" accounts of journeys as participating in a similar project. Such a perspective, that defines “travel writing” in terms of its function and effect rather than by the processes and origins of its production, is important both in understanding the wider meanings and interconnections of travel writing, and opening up the field to new forms of discourse, and, I think more importantly from my perspective, for extending the possibilities of how we think about literary journeys in more complex ways: not as spatial sites that are somehow enclosed in a vacuum of textual representation, but as engaged in practices and productions which extend beyond the realm of the text itself, contributing to wider discourses of spatial knowledge.

The work of Professor Withers and his research team seemed, at least in my reading of it, to be working towards a similar perspective - re-orientating the study of travel writing to think about the ways in which knowledge is produced and circulated -  but from the opposite angle, bringing to light the very literary, constructed nature of travel accounts through looking at the transitions and transits - "voyages into print" - that are involved in producing knowledge about travel.

December 14, 2009

2010 British Women Writers Conference

I'm very pleased to have had my paper proposal accepted for next year's 18th-19th Century British Women Writers Conference, taking place at Texas A&M University from the 8th to 11th April 2010. This will be my first time speaking at a conference abroad, and I'm especially pleased to be able to go as the conference theme is "Journeys" so in addition to this being a good opportunity to present my own research, it will be very interesting to find out more about the kind of work that is being carried out in this field in the US academic community. My paper is provisionally titled "'Wandering out into the World': Women Walking in the mid-Victorian Novel" and will explore accounts of women walking alone in selected novels by Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot. Taking the framework of the gendered associations of travel spaces as a starting point, I argue that Bronte and Eliot contend with these assumptions by positioning women walking alone in the streets, and explore spatial gendering through the embodied experience of travellers by demonstrating how gendered codes act to alter the ways in which bodies and spaces interact. Furthermore, these narratives go beyond gendered codes to explore the process of travel as a material, embodied practice and thus offer illuminating perspectives on the subject-space relationship that have implications for the critical understanding of literary geographies. The paper will demonstrate how focusing on the movement of characters through space – particularly in the process of walking – enables the development of a more fluid, mobile theorisation of spatiality that is attentive to the transitory nature of the embodied subject-space relationship.

December 06, 2009

"Through the Sash Window": History of Art Seminar @ University of Warwick, 2nd December 09

As part of the History of Art Department's Seminar Series, Dr. Steven Parrissien gave a talk on Wednesday entitled "Through the Sash Window: Space and the Home in the Early 19th Century". I found this to be a thoroughly interesting and engaging talk which gave me a fresh perspective on ideas of space in the 19th Century. The focus was on the early 19th century- just up to the 1830s- which Parrissien situated as a period in which the middle-classes were able, for the first time, to choose how to decorate their homes (the term "interior decoration" was first used in 1807): with industralisation and the subsequent growing wealth of middle classes, people were more able to devote time an money to the decoration of the home. Home design was largely about demonstrations of wealth, with the home as a venue for displaying new wealth; but Parrissien also emphasised the importance of having choice over how the home was decorated, conveying the sense of excitement and possibility in this new mode of display- pictures of interiors of homes showed the new fabrics and designs on offer; the talk also touched on the periodicals and magazines on home interior design which were being produced by the 1820s, displaying all the wonderful items that could be chosen.

Much of the talk focused on windows- a subject which has interested me since reading Isobel Armstrong's Victorian Glassworlds, and many of the themes here resonated with Armstrong's work. Parrissien detailed the revoltions in glass production that allowed for developments in the construction and design of window: glass could be produced as bigger panes, and with greater clarity (earlier, thicker types of glass offered limited visibility, with windows functioning predominantly to let in light); the window could therefore be constructed to offer a bigger, clearer viewing space. The view from the window now featured as integral to a room, almost part of its decoration: this is emphasised in paintings that position the window view as almost a painting-within-a-painting, creating a landscape in itself.

However, not only was the view out improved, but so too was the view in: the passer-by on the street could more easily see into the home. This de-stabilised the typical public/private sense of space: whilst the home might be ideally conceptualised as an enclosed, private world, the window disturbs this relation and opens up the home which is now a transparent, more vulnerable space that can be penetrated by the gaze of those outside, as well as being more aware from inside of the presence of that "beyond". Parrissien ended by positing the increased importance of spaces around the home, such as the front garden and the front door, as a form of protection and boundary from the outside world.

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