Roundtable on Paul St George’s Telectroscope – Jay Clayton

The post below is Jay Clayton’s initial response to the questions posed in the JVC Online roundtable on Paul St George’s Telectroscope. Jay Clayton is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. To view the questions and ongoing conversation, as well as the other participants’ initial responses, use the links below.

Questions & Ongoing Conversation || Jay Clayton || David L. Pike || Paul St George

The drill emerges in London,

In May, 2008, two enormous drills burst upward through piers on the South Bank and in Brooklyn, the bits still rotating from the stupendous effort supposedly required to dig a transatlantic tunnel [1]. This event was the brainchild of the artist Paul St George, who imagined the completion of a tunnel beneath the Atlantic and the construction of the Telectroscope, a 37-foot long, 11-foot tall, brass and wood viewing tube at the mouth of the tunnel in each city. Via the magic of satellite video conferencing, spectators, for a small fee, could wave and dance and scrawl messages to their counterparts across the pond. The massive faux-Victorian viewing tubes were only the tangible manifestations of a more elaborate fiction. On an accompanying web site and blog, the artist tells the story of his (imaginary) great-grandfather, Alexander Stanhope St George, who began construction of the 3,460 mile tunnel in the 1890s but was forced to abandon the dig because of a series of disastrous mishaps. Lost from history, the project lay dormant until Paul St George “rediscovered” his fictitious great-grandfather’s plans and set out to complete both the transatlantic tunnel and the Telectroscope.

Children using the Telectroscope
Children using the Telectroscope to send messages,

Quaint, captivating, tongue-in-cheek, yet oddly inspirational in its invocation of an age of heroic aspirations and grand engineering, the installation nicely captures twenty-first century attitudes toward Victorian culture. How did we grow so nostalgic for clunky nineteenth-century machinery? When did commercialism, irony, and simulation get reconciled with childlike pleasure and utopian dreams? And how do all of these attitudes comport with today’s generally critical perspective on Victorian colonialism, racial attitudes, gender assumptions, and class inequalities?

"A technical drawing showing a cross-section of the tunnel,"
"A technical drawing showing a cross-section of the tunnel,"

To begin thinking about these questions, I want to draw attention to the hybrid status of the Telectroscope as artwork and communications device. As an artwork, the Telectroscope’s anachronistic size, its pseudohistorical backstory, its transparent fictionality, and its strange confinement to the visual register are all markers of its “Victorianness.” The Victorian stands in for—is almost equated with—art, and art’s primary function, here, is defamiliarization, as David Pike and Paul St George also note. As a communication device,

the Telectroscope lacks several features typical of instantaneous communication today. To begin with, it uses visible signaling only. You can gesture, pose, mime, dance, do acrobatics, write words on a white board, or just peer and wave. If you want to speak to someone on the other end, though, you have to get out your cell phone. If you merely sought to make real-time audio-visual contact with someone overseas, you would flick on a web-cam and log on to Skype. In the case of the Telectroscope, the artist could easily have included an audio channel on his giant machine. Instead, the eerie silence of visual signaling defamiliarizes digital communication. Forced to perform a message with your body, you are thrown into a different kind of relationship with today’s communication technologies.

The London Telectroscope
The London Telectroscope.

The anachronistic Victorian trappings of the machine also estrange us from our own time period. This brass-and-wood machine casts us back in time, even as it reaches forward to reveal features of our own day that are obscured by the wonders of instantaneous communication. Peering into a massive tube and seeing other visitors peering back “in real-time,” as they say, we are touched by an unreal temporality. We are made hyperconscious of distinctive features of the present by the dramatic contrast with a past, a past that we know in our heart never existed at all.

The size and materiality of the installation enforces a similar estrangement. In an age of miniaturization, where vast storehouses of music and videos can be downloaded onto mobile phones and where video conferencing and the web allow information transfer to take place anywhere, anytime, the notion that you would have to travel to the docks and stand in front of a gigantic tube to communicate alters your relationship with materiality and space. The outing itself turns communication into a journey. And on a hot spring day, as it was when I visited—or a rainy, blustery day, for that matter—the physical circumstances of your position in the communications network are brought home to you in bodily terms. Let’s call this aspect of the experience its “haptic” character. The OED defines haptics as “the study of touch and tactile sensations, esp. as a means of communication.” The jostling crowds, the sounds of strangers queued up in line, children running around or climbing on the machine—all these elements, like the weather, are part of the unusual haptic dimension of this communication situation.

The best known attempt to compare nineteenth and twentieth century communication devices is by the German media theorist, Friedrich A. Kittler. Kittler’s pioneering works Discourse Networks and Gramophone, Film, Typewriter contrast discourse networks “circa 1800” with discourse networks “circa 1900.” His research has become a touchstone for thinking about media and modernity. But Kittler’s focus on recording technology—gramophones, for example, or typewriters—leads him to ignore communications almost entirely. His work has little to say about the telegraph or telephone, nineteenth-century devices that foregrounded the haptic element in all communication. The Telectroscope helps us to recover the haptics of such Victorian devices by the paradoxical means of stripping away one of the sensory features of contemporary telecommunications while at the same time plunging us into an unusually physical encounter with a machine for communication.

By ignoring the haptic dimension, Kittler’s work has encouraged media theorists to obscure the differences between data signals readable by one sense rather than another—sight and sound, preeminently, but as the example of the Telectroscope makes clear, other senses as well. In the “Introduction’ to Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, where he muses on the future of information systems, Kittler asserts that the digitization of all data “will erase the very concept of medium” and reduce “sound and image . . . to surface effects, known to consumers as interface. Sense and the senses” become irrelevant [2]. Such predictions are a variant of what Katherine Hayles has identified as the “erasure of embodiment” in the computer age, so that information is conceived of as a “kind of bodiless fluid that could flow between different [media] without loss of meaning or form” [3]. The history of the communications technology confounds such assumptions by showing that signals, which even in the nineteenth century could be decoded optically or acoustically, had profoundly different impacts depending on how they were apprehended. The artist’s choice of interface for his Telectroscope has effects on the body of its users, which influence all aspects of the message—form, content, and those accidents of communication that arise because of the time and place the message was sent. In fact, the contingent elements of the exchange, which ordinary communication attempts to eliminate as “noise,” becomes part of the message, perhaps the most important part.

Calling attention to the haptic dimension of Victorian technology can help us complicate some common assumptions about the origins of modern scopic culture. As the source of numerous visual technologies, nineteenth-century culture is routinely identified as contributing to oppressive regimes of surveillance, discipline, and control. A long line of theorists stretching from Walter Benjamin to Michel Foucault to Jonathan Crary and a host of other commentators point to visual technologies pioneered or perfected in the nineteenth century as the source of modernity’s all-encompassing regime of power. The panopticon, the mental asylum, the stereoscope, the photograph, and the microscope; visual techniques for advertising and product branding; new methods of consumer display, such as the arcade, the department store, and the plate glass window; imperial technologies of visualization, such as the ethnographic exhibit, the natural history museum, and the Great Exhibition—the list of Victorian visual technologies of control goes on and on. The connection between Victorian visual technology and modern practices of surveillance and control has become axiomatic. But there were other dimensions of Victorian communications devices, a material and embodied appeal to senses other than sight, which coexisted with the visual domain. Sound, touch, and scent were never absent in the Victorian experience of technology—even visual devices—and accounting for these haptic qualities greatly alters one’s understanding of the nineteenth-century’s relation to modernity.

Let me shift perspectives on the Telectroscope and focus on its status as a work of art rather than as a communication device. The installation piece can help us characterize a contemporary structure of feeling, a new artistic stance emerging in the twenty-first century, and in neo-Victorian literature in particular. Reflect again on the reactions this artwork evokes. Delight in quaint, oversized technology, especially since one knows the performance relies on the digital; fascination with grand ambitions, especially when doomed to failure, because acknowledging the likelihood of defeat upfront allows the renewal of utopian dreams without naïveté; the temptation to abandon oneself to childlike enjoyments—clowning around, mugging for the camera—and to watching children bestow a more earnest attention on this imposing machine; the willingness to pay money for a simulation, and having paid for the privilege, to sustain the fiction that it is real; the many delicious indulgences irony affords and the benefit of being in on the joke; and finally, an awareness of the problems of colonialism, racism, misogyny, and class prejudice inherent in the age one is visiting courtesy of this elaborately staged piece of art. Together these responses form a distinctive set of affects, intellectual perspectives, beliefs, aspirations, and desires. They suggest the outline of a twenty-first century structure of feeling, which stands in contrast to what we used to call postmodernism.

The casual visitor to the installation might miss the project’s critical dimension. Viewed as a tourist attraction, the Telectroscope seems like another example of what Fredric Jameson complained about in his book on postmodernism. Jameson deplored the tendency in postmodernism to substitute an “indiscriminate appetite for dead styles and fashions” for the ability to engage in genuine historical thought. Surrounded by crowds of spectators enjoying a brief outing on the docks, the exhibition does seem to betray some of the very symptoms that led Jameson to diagnose contemporary culture as “irredeemably historicist, in the bad sense”: commercialism, marketing, retro fashion, the past as style not substance [4]. But the Telectroscope is the centerpiece in a larger intermediated fiction, accessible through its web site and a blog, which uses simulated maps, architectural drawings, doctored historical photographs, video, and the written word to tell a story about the artist’s imaginary great-grandfather, the pioneer who supposedly initiated the project. The multimedia and networked character of the production is integral to what is distinctive about twenty-first century responses to the past: even the most casual spectators grasp the analogy between today’s global digital communication environment and Victorian networks of technology and conquest.

According to the web site, the artist’s (fictional) great-grandfather Alexander Stanhope St George, was a colonial subject—the Creole product of a Sierra Leonian mother and a British father, one of three children out of seven to survive to adulthood in mid-nineteenth century London. (The artist characterizes himself as “cultural diversity personified with German Jewish, Sierra Leonian, French and Manchester Jewish ancestry” [5],) Driven to better himself, he takes as his role model the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who built the first tunnel under the Thames. Brunel is one of those legendary Victorian overachievers, who remains something of a hero to the British populace even today. In 2002, the British public voted Brunel as the second greatest Briton of all time, ranked behind only Winston Churchill. It is a testimony to British values that a Victorian engineer, known for building great iron bridges, tunnels, rail lines, and two steamships, should command such respect more nearly 150 years after his death.

Alexander Stanhope St George with Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Alexander Stanhope St George with Isambard Kingdom Brunel,

The imaginary Alexander St George determined to emulate Brunel and “make my name through my own endeavour alone” [6]. The web site includes a famous photo of Brunel, standing in front of the anchor of his steamship the Great Eastern just before its launch. The photo has been doctored by the addition of a section supposedly torn off the original, showing the young Alexander posed by the great man. Dressed in working class clothes, the boy dramatizes the distance I. K. Brunel has risen from his father’s humble origins, while the racialized features of the boy’s face remind viewers that mid-Victorian London was then, as it is now, an ethnically diverse world capital. Alexander’s determination, however, came at a cost to his wife and newborn child, whom he abandoned for his dream, and the workers, many of whom died in the tunneling operation. Less skilled laborers, drafted to continue the project, ultimately mutinied against their working conditions. Disappointment, the shame of failure, and confinement in an asylum for the insane were Alexander’s only reward.

The racial and class issues that lie behind this tragedy of overweening ambition give a critical edge to the Telectroscope installation. The powerful drill that smashed upward through the docks on the exhibit’s first day and the massive mechanism itself take on a more intimidating aspect in the context of a Victorian tale of monomania, relentless ambition, an abandoned wife and child, mistreatment of laborers, and worksite insurrection. Unlike academic and postmodern critiques of Victorian literature, this critical edge is not isolated from popular feelings and desires. At least a rough grasp of the historical and intellectual contexts of the exhibit is an inextricable part of what makes it fun.

[1] The first two paragraphs and the last four in this piece are adapted from Jay Clayton, “The Future of Victorian Literature,” in The Cambridge History of Victorian Literature, ed. Kate Flint (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 712-29.

[2] Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1986; 1999), p. 1-2.

[3] N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999), p. xi.

[4] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke UP, 1991), p. 287.

[5] Paul St George, “The Artist,” (accessed 10 June 2008).

[6] Paul St George, “Story: The Inventor,” (accessed 10 June 2008).

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