28 April 2016

Review: Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century by Laura Otis

Trade paperback, 268 pages
Published 2011 (originally 2001)

Acquired and read December 2012
Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century
by Laura Otis

Laura Otis's monograph explores the way nineteenth-century writers and scientists imagined communications, especially how their conceptions were shaped by the idea of the network, as in both the telegraph and the nervous system. Viewing these two systems as relatable could cause one to see human networks as mechanical: Charles Babbage "approached bodies and machines in the same way, studying patterns of movement and seeking the simplest arrangements of parts that could produce a desired motion" (29). It could also cause you to view mechanical networks as living things; Emil DuBois-Raymond believed that a "telegraph network modeled on an organic system would allow a society to survive-- and conquer-- just as a sophisticated nervous system allowed a living animal to succeed" (49).

Otis moves from this set-up of the issues to discuss the influence of these network theories on nineteenth-century literature. Most notable is, of course, Eliot's Middlemarch and its famous "web." This is often taken evolutionarily, but Otis provides a strong reading of the novels webs of communication. The book ends with readings of literature that's more explicitly telegraphic, most of which I've read: Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes, Wired Love, and Henry James's "In the Cage." The book then ends by considering the "web without wires" (i.e., telepathic communication) and Dracula. One sometimes wishes Otis could step back more: there are compelling readings of individual texts here (I ought to cite her take on Middlemarch), but the overall "theory" of her argument is not readily apparent. But as an examination of ways of thinking embodied in ways of writing, it rates highly.

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