Rethinking Romantic Textualities with Media Archeology

In my first post for this blog, I wrote about how my background in archeology influences my perception of texts as physical objects, and how I’d like to move towards an “archeological hermeneutics” that takes into account a text’s material conditions as contributing to its contents and their significance. Moving forward, I’d like to complicate our understanding of text-as-object by introducing what I’ve so far learned in my “Media Archeology” seminar taught by Lori Emerson. It came as a surprise to my family and friends that I enrolled in this course, because I tend to take classes that focus on the study of 18th and 19th century literatures. Although I won’t be reading any texts “in my period” for this class, I’ve found it has in fact supplied me with a variety of alternative methodologies for my Romantic-era research.
Although those who work in the field tend to resist a concrete definition, Jussi Parikka calls media archeology “a way to investigate the new media cultures through insights from past new media, often with an emphasis on the forgotten, the quirky, the non-obvious apparatuses, practices and inventions” (Parikka loc 189). We’re encouraged to take apart machines in order to understand how they operate, and in turn expose the conditions and limits of our technologically mediated world. Relying on Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, among other texts, media archeologists expose structures of power embedded within the hardware of modern technology, revealing the ways in which media exert control over communication and provide the limits of what can be said and thought.
I find this way of thinking about the structures and limitations imposed by media particularly useful for the study of 18th and 19th century texts. Instead of thinking about how printing and publication practices give rise to individual texts, as I have in the past, I’ve started to consider texts from the inside out: what do books tell us about the cultural conditions and constraints imposed by the media in which they were (and are) written, manufactured, and consumed? Like the ASU Colloquium’s post, I wonder what three volume novels, for example, might tell us about communal reading practices and circulation of texts and, importantly, our modern reading practices in comparison. I’d hypothesize that circulating texts and libraries would contribute to communities of readers in which reading was, perhaps, a shared experience. In contrast, modern reading tends to be solitary experience which involves owning texts (especially when the library has only one copy of the book you need).
I’ve also found media archeology’s rethinking of linear time and notions of progress particularly useful and interesting. Collapsing “human time” allows us to bring together seemingly unrelated technologies for comparison and analysis. I’m thinking here of the Amazon Kindle and 18th century circulating libraries, which both create spaces for communal reading. In contrast to the private reading practices I described above, I think the Kindle – and specifically the “popular highlight” feature – presents an opportunity for readers to become aware of their participation in collective readerships. When you click on a pre-underlined sentence, it shows how many other people have also highlighted it. While at first I found this feature annoying – perhaps evidence of the private relationship I tend to have with books – I’ve begun to enjoy the way it makes me aware that I’m one of many readers who’s enjoying this particular text. Furthermore, I wonder if my newfound sense of collective readership would also give me a better understanding of Romantic-era reading practices that were likewise characterized by shared texts and mutual engagement. The ASU Colloquium posed an important question about whether we should attempt to read texts as their original readers would have; since many of us no longer have access to the original 3 volume novels and their circulating libraries, maybe we can gain insight into these texts and reading practices from the vantage point of our own collaborative technologies.
To close this post, I want to introduce one more concept from my media archeology reading that I’ve also found particularly applicable to the study of Romanticism: glitch aesthetics. Typically understood as accidents and hick ups within games, videos, and other digital media, glitch artists exploit them in order to “draw out some of [that technology’s] essential properties; properties which either weren’t reckoned with by its makers or were purposefully hidden” (McCormack 15). Again, media archeologists are concerned with exposing the power structures embedded in technologies, this time by giving us a peek of what lies beneath. While looking at glitch art, I couldn’t help but think of an experience I’d had in the British Library reading Keats’s manuscripts. I remember finding an additional verse to “Isabella: Or, the Pot of Basil” in George Keats’s notebook in what I think was Keats’s hand etched nearly invisible on the opposite page. Of course, this mysterious stanza threw a wrench in the carefully constructed argument I’d planned, and I had no idea what to make of it. Now that I look back on it, I’d like to think of that stanza as a textual glitch – it’s possible that Keats never intended for it to be read. Perhaps it had even been erased from the page. For me, this “glitch” reveals the textual instability of the poem and disrupts the sense of solidity and permanence with which I’ve come to regard Keats’s oeuvre.
I still have much to learn about media archeology and its methodologies (which I’ve certainly oversimplified), but I think this field could lead our work in Romanticism in new and exciting directions.

Towards a Tangible Romanticism; or, One Student’s Search for the “Real”

I have a confession to make: I’m not getting a Ph.D. in English because I’m interested in literature. An avid reader since childhood, books were something I enjoyed, but not necessarily found interesting enough to study. Sure, Pride and Prejudice was a great read, but I’d never thought it more than that. My early thinking went like this: “Fiction is entertaining, but it’s not real. What’s the value in studying something that isn’t real? If it isn’t real, what’s there to study?” This line of thought must abhor many of you, but I confess that I struggled (and still struggle) to convince myself that studying literature was a worthwhile, productive endeavor. It didn’t help that I went to a college where most students viewed education as a means to a well-paying job—a degree worthwhile for the job at Goldman it could score you. I was certainly influenced by this environment, and haven’t entirely discarded its thinking. I was, for better or worse, interested in the real, the tangible.
My quest to study something “real” (quite literally) led me to declare a major in Archeology, a field where I got to touch things and feel their realness. Literature was about ideas, archeology was about objects. A poem didn’t have the same tangible meaning for me that, say, a clay pot did. The pot was created for a purpose: to hold liquid, cook food, decorate a home. I liked that I could touch the artifacts I studied; they had real meanings behind them, not the “imaginary” meanings that people superimposed over novels and poems. You could find an object’s meaning within its material form—it had been shaped a certain way for a reason.
Yet a few months later, I found myself missing literature. I started to crave the “humanness” of books from which artifacts, although made by humans, felt detached. I started taking more English classes, mainly for fun, when an idea struck me: what if books could be read, not as abstractions upon which readers inserted meaning, but as objects? This watershed moment transformed the way I thought about literature, and led me to switch my major. I stumbled across a new kind of reading that I want to call an “archeological hermeneutics.”
How this works: I read a book as a material object, not only significant because it’s the product of a distinct cultural moment, but because it has a relationship to all other objects of the same type. In archeology, we think about a decorated Tlingit mask as it exists alongside hundreds of undecorated masks. The mask is both an independent object with a unique history, and a type working within a tradition of objects. Likewise, books are interesting, as opposed to entertaining, when I can read even the smallest moment in a text as related to the book’s position in its unique cultural moment, and as a product within a history of moments. So, when Keats writes Hyperion in unrhymed heroic verse, it’s significant on a local level—revising the verse form after the critical failure of Endymion—but also engages within a tradition of verse that hearkens to Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pope, and others. Books are both local and transhistorical artifacts.
In archeology, material constraints dictate what kind of objects people create. The indigenous peoples of the Great Basin make baskets out of yucca, a material which obviously constrains their shapes and colors. Applying this to my studies in Romanticism, the material conditions of a book’s creation, publication, and dissemination are important to my understanding of its content. As I’ve learned in my current course on Romantic Drama with Jeffrey Cox, the material conditions of Regency theatre culture—there were only 2 theatres in London allowed to perform spoken drama—led to the development of musical forms like melodrama, pantomime, and other forms of Jane Moody’s “illegitimate theatre.” And then there are the constraints of publication: Why does Equiano choose to publish by subscription, and why does he include a list of subscribers on the first page of his Narrative? Does it affect our reading of the narrative that follows? These are the questions, inspired by Romanticism’s material conditions, that I find worth discussing. To me, they are real, almost tangible.
Yes, there are benefits to reading books as closed systems. It’s useful to understand how a text functions within itself, how it teaches the reader to read. But often with this approach, the meaning I find within texts is one I’ve placed there myself. Nietzsche (and Paul Youngquist, from whom I first heard it paraphrased) explained it thus: “If someone hides something behind a bush, looks for it in the same place and then finds it there, his seeking and finding is nothing much to boast about.” In my burgeoning career as a Romantic scholar, I want to discover truths that emanate from texts without having to place them there myself.
Perhaps I ought to rephrase my opening statement: I’m not getting a Ph.D. in English because I’m interested in literature; I’m getting a Ph.D. in English because I’m interested in literature’s interaction with the material world and the truth that emerges from it.