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Conference Report: Transforming Objects, 28-29 May 2012, Northumbria University

2012 June 7
by lucinda matthews-jones

Nicole Bush (Northumbria)

This two-day conference hosted papers that addressed the transformation of objects and the transformations effected by objects from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. Object theory and discourses of materiality largely engage with objects as stable items of a permanent nature; as the conference co-organiser, I was keen to attract papers which sought to address those moments which slip through the gaps of such readings and explore the process of transformation and the between-ness or not fully realised state of an object. We received a fantastic response, allowing us to run parallel panels across the two days. This report reflects my particular research interests in the nineteenth century, but paper topics ranged from Daniel Defoe to Thomas Pynchon with panels considering domestic items in Elizabeth Gaskell’s fiction, the transformation of national identity through travelling objects, curatorial practices and the creation of artworks based on museum collections, transformations of the book as object, and the significance of souvenirs and kitsch objects.

Day One

‘Naming and Placing Nineteenth-Century Technology’

Prof. David Wheeler (Armstrong Atlantic State) opened with a paper on the ‘Iron Bridge, Coalbrookdale, and Early Industrial Tourism’. Wheeler argued that the Iron Bridge (built 1779) functioned as a destination for recreational travellers keen to see this product of industrial manufacture, aided by commissioned artworks which imagined the bridge as a gateway to a newly transformed landscape of modernity and industrialisation. Kate Katigbak (Durham) addressed the intersection of mechanisation, reality, and imagination in Victorian narratives of technology. Speaking on ‘Machine as Monster, Machine as God: Building the Character of Industry’, Katigbak identified patterns of mythic narrative and metaphor which worked to document, examine, and explain the effect of industrialisation on Victorian Britain. Courtney Salvey (Kent), in her paper on ‘Meaning Machines: the Linguistic Transformation of Machines in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, argued against a narrative of technological determinism and pointed out the changing understandings of machines as they were constructed in popular literature and made comprehensible to the general reader through visual aids, diagrams, and glossaries of terms. Closing the panel was Jack Rundell (York) with a paper on ‘Roller Skating into Mass Culture’. Using archival sources, his paper demonstrated how, on the expiration of the George Plimpton’s patent in 1883, roller skates became items of industrial mass production for a public eager to purchase new consumer items and join in the craze of ‘rinking’, and his conclusion established an interconnection of technology, commodity, leisure, and mass culture.

‘Altered States’

Dr Greg Lynall (Liverpool) began the panel with an account of ‘‘The Sun it self’s here in a piece of glasse’: the between-ness of the burning mirror’’. His paper looked at the optical history of burning mirrors from their early ‘magical’ phantasmagoric effects to their use as an instrument of Enlightenment technology, and addressed what he termed the ‘aesthetic terrain’ of the mirror. Dr James Mussell (Birmingham) spoke on ‘Chlorodyne: Telling Transformative Tales about a Drug Whose ‘Composition Cannot be Discovered’’. Chlorodyne was a potent mix of drugs and was used as a pain reliever for a number of ailments. Taking us through a history of its advertisements, descriptive wrappers, and patent issues, Mussell demonstrated that material culture and object history is recreated through layers of telling. His paper led on to a discussion of nineteenth-century regulatory practices and medical description, gesturing towards issues of naming and construction. Mark Blacklock (Birkbeck) closed the panel with a paper on ‘Higher-dimensional thinking things: recreating Hinton’s cubes’ which explored the mental exercise demanded by Charles Howard Hinton’s coloured cubes. Using a number of contemporary accounts, Blacklock explained how the user attempted to imagine a four-dimensional cube through colour combination, visualisation, and memory, and spoke more broadly on the psychological and cultural impact of the cubes.

‘Transforming Art: the Pre-Raphaelites and Science’

The day ended with a keynote from Dr John Holmes (Reading). His paper explored the painting, sculpture, and poetry of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood (PRB) in relation to the methods of contemporary scientific investigation. Through a close reading of articles and poetry from The Germ (the PBR periodical which ran for four issues in 1850) Holmes drew out a number of references to terms such as ‘observation’, ‘fact’, and ‘truth to nature’. He argued that the scientific aim of detailed observation leading to ‘true’ knowledge was drawn on by the PRB in an attempt to transform their art practice. Holmes’s argument was further developed by a focus on the marvellously intricate level of detail in the water, rocks, and cattle of Pre-Raphaelite landscape paintings. Holmes asserted that this was an attempt to capture the natural environment in a way that even photography at this time could not manage. The Pre-Raphaelite brush therefore became a new form of technology for the capture and display of a scene with scientifically-observed accuracy and denotes, for Holmes, an embrace of scientific principles and approaches in their works. He is the recipient of an AHRC Fellowship (Oct 2012 – June 2013) to develop this research.

Day Two

‘Curating Memory and Identity through Objects’

Jessica Allsop (Exeter) spoke on ‘Issues of Inheritance: Curious Objects of the Country House Collection in Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth-Century Literature’ in which she engaged with moments of collection and curation in a selection of late-nineteenth-century texts and spoke on issues of containment, preservation, and inheritance. Following this was Graeme Pedlingham (Sussex) with a paper entitled ‘Something was going from me – the capacity, as it were, to be myself’: Richard Marsh’s The Beetle and the ‘Transformational Object’’. The human form of the beetle in Marsh’s tale is, for Pedlingham, an unsettling figuration of process and a continual coming-into-being and links the tale to its contemporary context of interest in the boundary between self and world. Camilla Cassidy (Oxford) concluded the panel with a talk on ‘‘Frozen, Lunar Landscapes’: Objects, Souvenirs, and Relics in George Eliot’s Romola (1862-3)’. Cassidy argued that objects operate in Eliot’s historical fiction as prompts to memory and enablers of narrative twists and reversals. The panel illuminated various approaches to working on objects in fiction, and I was struck by how much abundance matters here: focusing less on single objects, the panellists all found importance in the mass of objects and in the text’s curation of their meaning.

‘Paper in Process’

Claire Friend (Edinburgh) reconstructed the story of ‘Rag-Grubbers to Rich Men, Making Paper in Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh’, making the point that linen picks up a multitude of dirt and dust which then is incorporated into the paper recycled from its rags. Paper, then, was itself a transformed object which incorporated any number of miscellaneous objects from its previous incarnation. Dr Eugenia Gonzales (Ohio State) then gave a paper on ‘The Work of Fairies: Deconstruction and Imagination in Victorian Narratives of Doll Production’. The insides of dolls, themselves made of recycled paper and rags, showed them as items of mass manufacture, yet as Gonzalez argues this demonstration of materiality was not an impediment to imaginative play but its ‘raw materials’, encouraging the narrativisation of the toy’s history. Katie McGettigan (Keele) developed her argument of materiality and narrative with ‘Transforming the Book: Material Metaphors and the Literary Marketplace in Moby-Dick’. Arguing against previous critics, McGettigan provided a persuasive account of how industry, commercialisation, and the marketplace was not a constraint on Melville’s creativity but rather a productive engagement and through a focus on metaphor demonstrated that the poetics of exchange are mirrored by the values of commodity exchange in Moby-Dick.

Roundtable: ‘Single- and Multi-Author Blogging Models’

Dr Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores), co-editor of the Journal of Victorian Culture Online, chaired the session and has written a fantastic report on the discussion, which can be found here. The participants were Martin Paul Eve (Sussex), Dr Kieran Fenby-Hulse (Bradford), Dr Charlotte Mathieson (Warwick), and Dr James Mussell (Birmingham). After introductions, the discussion addressed what the single- and multi-authored blog might look like and Charlotte Mathieson described her successful experiences with alternative forms of blogging, such as podcasts and video. Kieran Fenby-Hulse then asked about our ‘imagined audience’ and questioned how types of readership might affect both the style of blogging. Panellists pointed out that the multi-author model might require a more academic voice, whereas the single-authored blog, as James Mussel suggested, is often used to document academic practice and build a personal narrative around the research topic. Finally, the panel looked in more detail at the multi-author model and the role of the editor: might the review process mean that contributions are considered a more acceptable form of peer-reviewed output that the single-author blog post? Martin Paul Eve commented that to write for both forms of blog enables the author to drive traffic to each site, thereby increasing and potentially sustaining a regular readership. Deciding to create or contribute to one form of blog does not necessarily negate participation in the other; rather, as the roundtable showed, both formats have specific uses and values, the combination of which can potentially benefit both the researcher and their readership.

‘Transforming Time: Cowper, Correspondence, and Chronometry’

The final speaker of the conference was Dr Sarah Haggarty (Newcastle) who spoke on temporality in eighteenth-century letter-writing and the connected cultural effects of the post. Contending that clock time drew experience away from its local context, her paper focused on William Cowper’s correspondence to show that, in his example, time was local, subjective, and embedded in the personal epistolary relationship. Her talk developed to make a case for correspondence, or the systematic back and forth of sending and receiving, as a contract which demanded reciprocity across time by evoking the ‘metronome of the post’ and ‘rhythms of epistolary expectations’. Lost, late, or not returned letters complicated this scheme, and drew the correspondents to enact on the page their strategies of managing intervals between letters: waiting and wondering were addressed and described within the content of the letter. In this way, Haggarty argued that epistolary silence is always the regular mode, but that receiving letters breaks this temporal limbo and retrospectively remakes silences into waiting.

Our thanks go to the British Society of Victorian Studies (BAVS) for generously supporting the event and allowing us to offer a reduced conference fee and a number of postgraduate travel bursaries.

Nicole Bush is a second-year PhD candidate at Northumbria University working on a thesis provisionally titled ‘The Eye in Motion: Visual Technology, Speed, and Perception in Victorian Fiction’. Her research focuses on moving image technologies (such as the kaleidoscope, zoetrope, praxinoscope, and chronophotography) in the period 1840-1880 and assesses their impact upon the representational strategies and linguistic register of a selection of canonical nineteenth-century texts by Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot. Nicole co-organises the North East Nineteenth-Century Research Network (NENC) and tweets about her research @Nicole_Bush.

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