Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Susan Zieger reviews Literature, Print Culture, and Media Technologies

Richard Menke. Literature, Print Culture, and Media Technologies, 1880-1900: Many Inventions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 259 pages.

Review by Susan Zieger

27 May 2020

When does “the media” begin? (And when, some might rejoin, will it ever end?). Whereas the answer to the latter question remains undivined, Richard Menke’s new book answers the former. He makes the case for the late nineteenth century, when media, newly unlinked from the senses, became readable by other machines, and connected in systems. No longer devoted to inscribing, recording, or storing events, media technologies such as the telephone instead transmitted them through networks. Menke describes how, as a system or complex, “the media” began to seem monolithic and impersonal, in contrast to literary writing. Menke’s book forms an early chapter in the story of our sojourn through the mediascape, a “peculiarly modern combination of repetition and amnesia,” as we clutch our own “many inventions” (p. 70).

The opening chapter proposes US President James Garfield’s assassination as “the first American media event”––in 1881, well before the age of radio and television, let alone the internet or TikTok (p. 45). The new telephonic network united the nation in suspense and then mourning. In Britain, where the telephone’s systematic use came more slowly, literature largely ignored it, or construed it as an emblem of mass media, in spite of its conversational intimacy: so contends chapter two.  Three, on George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street (1891), traces the transition of readership from a public to a market, via the new journalism, and the novel’s representation of Chit-Chat, a satire on George Newnes’ Tit-Bits. Gissing implicates modern-day novel-writing within a new, nakedly commercial system of mass print.

The remaining chapters of Literature, Print Culture, and Media Technologies tell the story of how the media transformed the novel. The triple-decker, together with the circulating library that disseminated it, was a stalwart of Victorian literature that Menke reinterprets as another tottering media system. In chapter four, he observes its fall to the single-volume novel, which was better geared to briefer reading on mass transit, between tasks, and by younger readers. In chapter five, best-selling authors Marie Corelli and George Paston bury the old, male-dominated media system, as drivers of a new, more intimate and seemingly less mediated “codex novel.” Chapter six deploys the informatics term “lossy” to describe the way media transcriptions in Dracula shed details to create a flow of information that destroys the vampire’s authentic aura and relationship to ritual. The seventh chapter sets Mark Twain’s fatal investment in typesetting technology against A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, observing how both stage a violent collision between media and history. With its transatlantic, fin de siècle range, Literature, Print Culture, and Media Technologies builds on Menke’s first book, Telegraphic Realism, establishing his leading authority on the relations of nineteenth-century literature and media technologies.

Menke’s emphasis on devices such as the telephone, and, in his introduction, the “phonoautograph,” an early sound recorder, categorize his analysis as media archaeology. Yet his is not of the Wolfgang Ernst variety, that dwells in technological ontology and verges on antihumanism. Similarly, though Menke’s project broadly aligns with Bernhard Stiegler’s effort to rethink the human-media connection as something more profound than McLuhanesque prosthesis, his focus on literature maintains a more traditional conceptualization of the human. His effort to register the pressure media technologies exert on the literary puts Menke in closest conversation with Friedrich Kittler, the most literary-minded of the German media studies scholars. While Menke does not reproduce Kittler’s schematic psychoanalytic linkages between the real (gramophone), the imaginary (film), and the symbolic (typewriter), and while he rejects Kittler’s thesis that the technical affordances of media circa 1900 are fundamentally arbitrary and untranslatable, he is similarly interested in the human “strain” between existing and new media systems. To this reader, Menke’s humanistic and literary focus, and broader archive, yield a richer picture of media change than rigidly technologically-focused media theories and philosophies. Enchanted by high technology, these often ignore print, its dissemination, and its literary forms. Conversely, from a literary perspective, Menke’s engagement with media history defamiliarizes the single-volume novel, for example, as a “codex novel,” and explains how a popular writer of occult themes such as Marie Corelli could become one of its most successful producers.

Menke’s concern with the human and literary aspects of media generate a leitmotif of the enduring affects associated with media transition: the cynical world-weariness, for example, in Octave Uzanne’s illustrated essay “The End of Books,” which predicts the fin of those printed objects, conjuring their replacement with an “audio device . . . [that] could easily be a Walkman from the 1980s, a Discman from the 1990s, an iPod or an iPhone” (p. 190). The pathos of our own mourning of printed books, and our irritation at the profitable planned obsolescence of Apple products, is as old as the telephone and the single-volume novel. Relatedly, Literature, Print Culture, and Media Technologies keeps the political economy of late Victorian media systems in view, noting, for example, that Newnes’ Tit-Bits, a near ancestor of the Daily Mail, juiced its circulation numbers by promising £100 to the heirs of railways accident victims who were reading the current issue at the time their trains crashed (p. 83). Here, the railway, the newspaper, and the literary all converge in an example of techno-capitalistic excess that undergirds “the media.”

Showing how literature first confronts its own death as its material basis, print, dissolves into “media,” Literature, Print Culture, and Media Technologies recontextualizes our laments of the screen’s vanquishing of the paper page. Such complaints index a host of related cultural anxieties, about the demise of authorship, communication, and knowledge itself: when Menke notes that Tit-Bits “point[s] to the prospect of writing without writers,” he calls to this reader’s mind our own moment of text generators and stories written by algorithms (p. 91). Menke’s lively analysis and engaging critical narrative offer refreshing antidotes to 150 years of fretting over the transitions and convergences that keep conjuring the bugbear of “the media.”