BAVS 2011: ‘Composition and Decomposition’
University of Birmingham, 1-3 September
The organisers of this year’s conference asked delegates to consider the double meaning of composition and its inverse, decomposition. Suggested subjects ranged between recycling, inventories, print culture, scientific processes, degeneration, town planning, and musical composition.
The wide selection of papers addressed the theme predominately in terms of movement: the movement of composition, of making, and the movement of process and span between an initial formation and the end-point of decomposition, the unmaking, undoing, unravelling of a thing previously made. In a paper on the history of the gyroscope by Lina Hakim, the counterpoint, the momentary act of stasis between composition and decomposition, was even discussed.
The three-day event included a good number of papers given by postgraduate research students, and the first day began with a warm welcome to all postgrad delegates. There was a hustings on the second day to elect a new postgraduate representative to sit on the executive committee of BAVS. Allison Neal, of the University of Hull, was successful, so congratulations must go to her. She is keen to work hard in representing the experience of all PhDs, so please feel free to contact her (email@example.com) with any issues or suggestions over the next year.
The first paper I attended was presented by Anne-Marie Beller and entitled ‘M. E. Braddon and Composition: Production and Proliferation’. Beller argued that Braddon’s writing habits (often, and fast) which were at times denounced in the popular press, worked to raise questions about the status of authorship as a practice in the period. Henry Mansel’s comments in the Quarterly Review (113, April 1863) likened this type of writerly proliferation to shop manufacture. Further points raised included the legitimacy of literary labour when its composition was thought to be too swift, and the change in the 1860s which negatively linked popular authorship to mechanistic discourses of literary production. During questions, Beller hinted at an important further issue: that this compositional distaste arose not solely because of production modes but because of genre and readership.
Katherine Inglis’s paper linked Thomas Carlyle’s laystall with the paper-mill in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Quoting from Sartor Resartus, Inglis noted that the reader is here figured as a waste-maker, as books ‘returned thither’ to their place of manufacture without being read, the cycle of composition and decomposition unable here to be broken even by a reader. Focusing on the waste paper, rags, and cloths in Dickens’s novel, Inglis argues for a mutually enforcing theory of composition and its opposite, questioning how far a form must be broken down before it qualifies as waste, if ever at all.
The next paper I attended was Michael Davis’s, who was speaking on ‘Mind and Matter in The Picture of Dorian Grey’. This paper addressed chemistry, materiality, psychology, and atom theory in Wilde’s novel. Davis’s paper looked at the work of philosophers W K Clifford (who was read by Wilde) and William James, and discussed the relationship between mind and matter in Dorian Grey. Clifford’s concept of ‘mind-stuff’ becomes ‘cell-soul’ in Wilde, Davis argues. The mental activity of producing impressions in the mind creates matter, and the mind is active in shaping the data it receives. This two-way relationship means, as Davis points out, that consciousness not does not merely take in external impressions but can exert ‘meaningful’ change of own agency. ‘Data is sifted to produce a distillate’, his paper explained. The application of Davis’s paper to Wilde’s novel results in an emphasis on Basil’s painting of Dorian as a collection of atoms, able to be manipulated and changed materially by the mental activity and molecular chemistry of Dorian’s mind. The paper is an early part of Davis’s current project, a study on atoms and consciousness, in which he aims to theorise subjectivity in relation to physiology and evolution.
In a panel on serialisation and modes of composition, Jude Piesse gave an excellent paper, ‘Decomposing Great Expectations: Reading Migration in Serial Form’ which argued for weekliness as a compositional rhythm and narrative trajectory of Dickens’s serialised novel. Piesse linked the magazine context of the novel as it appeared serially in All the Year Round to its theme – each serial was surrounded by articles on migration and travelling, and thus Great Expectations was read by its contemporaries as part of this cultural milieu, demonstrating ‘the difficulties of going home in a moving world’. The paper further linked the novel’s events (notably Pip’s weekly visits to Miss Havisham’s residence) to its weekly serialised form. Of particular note in this paper was her illumination of the migration of character formation as the serialised story travelled to the US in Harper’s Weekly magazine, in which Biddy appeared in a pope’s hat, and Magwitch was recomposed as a typical American villain.
I’ve already made mention of Lina Hakim’s paper on ‘Making and Unmaking a Scientific Instrument’, the object here being the gyroscope. Hakim drew our attention to what she terms a ‘gyroscopic imagination’ and ‘morphic resonance’ in the works of Yeats and Hardy, linking these authors to their scientific context. Another paper on Hakim’s panel, on technology and machines, was James Emmott’s ‘Parameters of Vibration, Technologies of Capture, and the Layering of Voices and Faces in the Nineteenth Century’ which described the drawing back movement of composite photographs. They are ‘discontinuous and serial’, tells Emmott, as the early nineteenth-century ideas of stasis melts into notions of flow of the 1870s and 1880s. You can find a version of this paper published in Victorian Studies (53:3, Spring 2011) here.
One of the four plenary papers particularly resonated with my research: Colin Cruise’s talk on ‘Arranging Meanings: Pre-Raphaelite Compositions and Narratives’. Showing a selection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, his talk assessed the ‘move towards surface’ of Ford Madox Brown’s work specifically, drawing attention to the ‘visual puzzles and pools of clarity’ apparent as the eye makes its way over Chaucer at the Court of Edward III (1851). When considering The Last of England (1855), Cruise notes the aperture framing of the circular painting, linking it to new developments such as photography. I would go further, however, and direct attention not just to the circular shape of the canvas, but to the concentric movement which the form of the painting itself seems to demand of its viewer. Our gaze is directed swiftly around the edges of the painting in a circular line traced by the ship’s ropes, then dragged up and over the heads of the two central figures to fall on the passengers in the background, before being whisked off again down the arm of the male figure and up to the face of the central woman. Our gaze stops at their eyes which, as Cruise points out, look slightly off to the side, but which are central enough to pin the viewer into the uneasy feeling of being stared back at from within the canvas.
Following this was a panel on medicine and science. Will Tattersdill gave a lively and engaging paper, ‘Composing the Pigeon-Holes: Science and Fiction in the late-Victorian Periodical Press’. Making the point that categories answer not to content but rather to practices of curating, Tattersdill urged us to think about the meaning of categories when we encounter them for what they say about the culture that composed them. His particular research specialisation formed the basis of his paper, and so discussion led on to science, fiction and the role of the periodical in forming literary categories in the 1890s. Tattersdill called for a scholarship model which assesses the nineteenth century through its own lens, before specialisation and the boundary line of segregation between the arts and sciences. Following this interdisciplinary (or should I say undisciplinary?) method, Pamela K. Gilbert presented on ‘Emotional Expression and Self-Control’. This paper was drawn from work on what will be her next book-length study, and focused on the theories of emotion and expression in the works of Charles Bell. Gilbert drew links between Bell’s work and actors composing facial expressions in the domain of the theatre, highlighting the issue of ‘authenticity or performance’ in such self-compositions.
The final paper of the conference that I attended was Charlotte Matheison’s ‘‘A Perambulating Mass of Woollen Goods’: Bodily Composition in mid-Nineteenth Century Railway Representation’. This paper took the railway as its subject and discussed its presence in Victorian novels as both a symbol of and an active participant in capitalist modernity and the homogeneity of mass production. Placing emphasis on the human body as it experienced this new mode of travel, Matheison spoke about the anxieties of travelling on this new ‘industrial machine’. Looking to Robert Audley in Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, Matheison’s paper argued that his rug-wrapped body referenced Ruskin’s notion of the body being parcelled up in railway transport. Robert is protected, Matheison argued, but his body is also hidden away from view. Coddled like this, Robert becomes the parcel of mass consumerism, a travelling commodity, as his individuality is lost amongst the railway rugs and he becomes a freight of commercial exchange. This represents how ‘texts were working to accommodate the body into industrial modernity’, as the paper argues.
The final plenary panel involved four speakers: Shearer West, Head of Humanities at Oxford University; Regenia Gagnier, current BAVS president; Sarah Parker, a third-year PhD student at the University of Birmingham; and Linda Bree, Arts and Literature editor at Cambridge University Press. The topic of discussion was ‘What is the Use of Victorian Studies in the Twenty-First Century?’ Shearer West began by questioning what the institution of the University is for, and what its civic duty, if any, should be. Moving on to address the impact of academia more generally in public life, West argued that although researchers could have more input into public policy decisions, the policy-makers were not interested in opening a dialogue between the two streams. However, to qualify this, West also stated that researchers should take more of an active role in promoting what they know to policy-makers, and be clear in how this could be of use in public life. Linda Bree’s statement followed this. She claimed that although Victorian studies was ‘resilient’ in publisher’s minds, they are increasingly looking for those manuscripts which took a broader view instead of those treating their subject with a narrow perspective. The crossed wire between the desires of publishers and those of the academy itself seemed all the more stark when Sarah Parker spoke next of the experience of postgraduates. Claiming that it was impossible to overestimate the anxiety surrounding publications, jobs, and even whether those academic jobs of the future will be anything like those which postgraduates are currently training for, Parker’s final statement, that ‘it is not about where established scholars are, but where we [the postgraduate community] is going’, expressed the opinions of many in the audience and persuasively put across the urgency with which the academy must address the future of Victorian studies within universities and must consider new models of research and training to ensure that a generation of future scholars do not become lost in the backlog of the job market. Following this, Regenia Gagnier spoke about the importance of collaboration and the worth of the university to its society – that knowledge is good for its own sake, and should be treated as such. PhD students are ‘applied humanists’, she argued. Her talk closed with a reminder that there is a lot of effort being put in to disseminating ideas and getting knowledge out there from within Victorian studies, and the humanities more widely, especially through large organisations such as BAVS. The university system may be changing, but work in this field is ever-strong and can play an important role both within its own disciplinary confines and outside the ivory tower as it engages with public life and interest, and the plenary panel of speakers from opposite ends of the academic career spectrum summarised this mood well.
I’ll look forward to next year’s BAVS conference, held at the University of Sheffield, and addressing the theme of ‘Victorian Values’.