Category Archives: Romanticism

New MA course in literary studies: Gothic Transformations

My new Literary Studies course for Athabasca U’s MA program is now open for enrollment.

Illustration from 1897 edition of Marsh's The Beetle. (Public domain image via British Library.)

Illustration from 1897 edition of Marsh’s The Beetle. (Public domain image via British Library.)

The 19th-Century Novel: Gothic Transformations assigns readings in major English novels like Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818), Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860), and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897) and explores how British fiction in the nineteenth century both was influenced by and also adapted Gothic themes and elements, like supernatural horror and psychological suspense.

Gothic fictions and those that adapt the Gothic represent important cultural mediations of the social, political, and economic issues and transformations that characterize Britain during the rise of industrial capital and the global expansion of England’s empire: the transformation of literary production (e.g. serialization, copyright change, circulating library distribution); the advent of public education, industrialization and class conflict; imperial expansion; feminism (e.g. the “New Woman” discourse); and developments in science and technology (e.g. new recording media).

Erratum for “The Cento, Romanticism, and Copyright”

Professor Michael Gamer (U Pennsylvania) has alerted me to an error in my recent article “The Cento, Romanticism, and Copyright” (ESC 38.2 [2012]). My claim that “the statutory copyright term was doubled” in 1808 (74) is taken from William St Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004). Dr. Gamer points out that “the bill introduced in 1808 was read twice in Parliament but then – or so I’ve long thought – never passed,” and has referred me to

a synthetic summarizing essay by Ronan Deazley … “Commentary on Copyright Act 1814,” Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900). Deazley starts the narrative of the aborted 1808 and successful 1814 Copyright acts with Basil Montague, who in 1804 found in the Cambridge University Library only a 5% deposit rate for books published in 1803. He concluded that booksellers had effectively ceased depositing new books after a 1798 legal case, Beckford v. Hood, had raised questions about whether the deposit requirement could be enforced. This raised a bit of a fire storm that led to the 1808 bill, but questions arose during debate and it was tabled.

I am grateful to Dr. Gamer for contacting me about the error.

Works Cited
Gamer, Michael. E-mails to author. 28 Jun. 2013.

New article on copyright and literary production in the Romantic period

William Hazlitt (1778-1830), prose centonist

William Hazlitt (1778-1830), prose centonist

My article in the new issue of English Studies in Canada brings some historical perspective to the copyfight, and suggests some precedents for fair dealing in the work of Romantic writers usually identified as exemplars of originality: William Hazlitt and William Wordsworth. The article focuses on the curious case of the cento – a genre of poetry made from quoted lines of other poems – and its various uses in literary production during the Romantic period. This was a very interesting period for copyright: neither before nor since has the term of copyright protection been as brief, and arguably as accommodating (to users and writers), as it was from 1774 to 1842. The article belongs to a special section in this issue of ESC on Romantic and Regency authorship, featuring some exciting new work on the period’s print culture – and its implications for cultural production and copyright today.

“The Cento, Romanticism, and Copyright.” English Studies in Canada 38.2 (2012): 71-101. [Published June 2013]
Published journal version (for readers with university library access)
Open Access version (for readers without university library access)

Abstract: This article excavates the obscure literary genre of the cento – a genre of poetry defined by its wholly derivative composition from quotations of other works – and its supplementary relation to Romantic literature and the period’s transformations of copyright regulation. The cento’s Romantic reworkings position this genre as a precedent for later appropriation art, especially digital culture’s sampling and remix practices. Specific uses of the cento form by the essayist William Hazlitt and the poet William Wordsworth suggest precedents in the period’s culture of literary production for fair dealing, the “user’s right” to the limited appropriation of copyrighted works that has more recently become ensconced in copyright law. By investigating the place of the cento in Romantic literary production, this study argues for the importance of fair dealing to both creative and critical forms of writing, and contributes historical context to the present-day “copyfight.”

The Open Access version of “The Cento, Romanticism, and Copyright” is made available with the author’s grateful acknowledgement of English Studies in Canada for the original publication of the article.

Review of #frankensteinapp for iOS

The British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies’ Media Reviews site has published my review of Dave Morris’ Frankenstein, an interactive fiction app for iOS. It’s an arch adaptation of prior adaptations, and a teachable text. (I particularly like the subtle nod to Blade Runner, but identifying it here would be a bit of a spoiler.)

Format-shifting and fidelity: on reading and adaptation

Recent work on adaptation studies (the study of novels turned into movies, and so on) suggests that the ideas the field was founded on – like how “faithful” a movie is to its source – have been superseded, left behind as passé or outmoded. That’s the state of the field according to Linda Hutcheon’s 2006 book A Theory of Adaptation, for instance.

So reading Jamie Lee Wallace’s blog post about how “audio books are not cheating” – to gether with its comments – is a useful reminder that ideas about fidelity to source texts and authenticity in original versions are alive and well in everyday language and popular culture. Wallace is responding to criticisms that reading audio rather than print editions of books is a kind of “cheating.” She makes solid, practical arguments: that the text is the same; that audiobooks make reading possible for otherwise busy schedules; and, most interestingly, that the speaking voice adds presence (what Walter Benjamin calls “aura”) and, sometimes, additional interpretive layers.

My main criticism of the post was going to be that she doesn’t name those who think audiobooks are cheating: who are the “bibliophile purists” she’s responding to?

Then I started reading the comments. The overwhelming majority agree with the blogger (not surprising, since the blog medium itself would filter out a lot of print purists). But the dissenting comments are revealing. (I admit I’m taking some of these out of context.)

“I don’t listen to books — I read them.”
“I’m still just purist enough to be annoyed by eBooks. I still think nothing beats the feeling of actually holding the book and turning the pages.”
“I am totally one of those people who wouldn’t be caught dead with a kindle or any fandangled technology device that’s trying to replace books.”
“I felt dirty for listening to it. I was cheating myself of the experience of cradling a book in my hands and being curled up on the couch with it, but it freed my hands up to do other things..granted there was a few sound effects added into the story, which helped enhance the experience but I don’t think I can really say I’ve “read” that book because I didn’t physically hold it in my hands.”
“I still insist that books are meant to be read. However, I do not consider audio-books or kindle versions to be cheating, with one condition: That the book is intact. That is all summaries, short versions and most obviously movie adaptations are cheating. Mostly because they give everything in bite size, easily digested pieces. The point about a book is to let your imagination go wild and enjoy the imagery the author so carefully created.”

As you can see, the discussion ends up encompassing not just audiobooks but e-books as formats seen to compete with print as more people shift to them. But the shift isn’t one-way, just as adaptation isn’t one-way. (Hutcheon discusses how novels changed over the 20th century to adopt more “cinematic” techniques.) In this light, the last quoted comment’s point about abridgments is well taken – I read unabridged audio editions – but to call a film adaptation “cheating” is to misconstrue what films do (unless you’re talking about films that cheat estates out of their royalties), and yet it’s a widely held opinion. I myself confess to having felt vaguely like I was taking a shortcut by reading Ulysses (unabridged) as an audiobook; but that feeling was easily trumped by a rewarding feeling of accomplishment: I’ve read Ulysses!

Ulysses, by James Joyce

What this blog post suggests for adaptation studies is that it needs to engage critically with the popular romance of fidelity: the fetishes of authenticity and aura that we have inherited from Romantic tradition and that clearly continue to inform popular receptions and understandings of popular culture. (There’s also, among this post’s comments, a recurring sense that new media simply replace old – as I discussed last week.)

But by the same token, “purists” need to ask themselves what purity they are defending, and what that defence serves. Discourses of purity, for instance, are historically bound up in pernicious practices and institutions of race and nation. And defences of purity are one of the main ideological weapons still deployed by multinational media conglomerates to sell the public on increasingly restrictive, censorious, and invasive copyright regulation. In addition, media today are so diverse and multi-directional in their mutual appropriations and cross-pollinations that more pertinent and productive questions beg to be asked than whether audio editions are more real or more readable than paper, or whether Clueless is “faithful” to Austen.

Take Canadian poet Christian Bok’s Xenotext Experiment, for instance: a poem transcribed into a bacterium’s genome, for it to replicate and mutate – literally re-writing Bok’s poem – ad infinitum. What might readers attached to print make of this writing? How does one read the “original” text of a bacterial genome?

The stakes of literary criticism

The stakes of literary criticism sometimes turn out to be higher than prevailing preconceptions about it would suggest (you know, the preconceptions involving elbow patches, overpaid obscurantism, and social irrelevance). For instance, earlier this year a New York law professor faced criminal libel charges in France for publishing a critical book review. Around the same time, a Kuwaiti blogger got sued for posting a bad restaurant review.

The counter-discourse about literary criticism as a matter of life or death has roots in the pamphlet and periodical hostilities that marked (and marred) print culture in the Romantic period. The most famous example is the poet Keats, famously sensitive to critical reviews. “Who killed John Keats?” asked Byron in 1821, promptly answering on behalf of one particularly persecuting periodical: “‘I,’ says the Quarterly…”

But Keats’ case is still figurative, not literal, after all: it wasn’t bad reviews that actually killed Keats — it was tuberculosis, whose close reading skills apply only to deconstructing the ambiguities and aporias of the body’s immune system. Rather, the real life-or-death stakes of literary criticism surface in the fact that most negative reviews themselves were published anonymously — as were numerous now-famous novels, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Walter Scott’s Waverley series, to Austen’s oeuvre. As William St Clair argues in his endlessly absorbing study The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, “anonymity protected publishers and printers from the law of libel” (174).

Perhaps that’s a protection that some of the aforementioned present-day critics wish they had, just as, perhaps, it’s a protection that explains the death of netiquette and the ubiquity of commentating trolls. But anonymity warded against more than just libel in the romantic period:

Anonymity also reduced the risk of being called out to fight in a duel, a form of literary criticism which killed more than one writer of the romantic period. (175)

Such wryly observed literary history puts in perspective “the death of the author,” reminding us of a time when an act of reading represented a kind of re-writing that was radically and literally tantamount to murder (not even murder most foul, but murder socially sanctioned, at that). Let’s hope that, amidst increasingly extremist, neoliberal forms of deregulation, IP law enforcement, and extreme sports (like ultimate fighting or chessboxing), the current spate of libel actions against critics doesn’t augur a return to the good old bad old days when running an unfavourable critique could risk catching a bullet.


Cross-blogged from the AU Landing

Glenn Gould, copyfighter

“The role of the forger, of the unknown maker of unauthenticated goods, is emblematic of electronic culture.”
–Glenn Gould, 1964 (343)

In the mid-1960s, the virtuoso Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, caused a sensation by abandoning live concert performances and tours, as well as speaking engagements, to focus strictly on recording and broadcasting. Gould had quickly tired of touring performances and the concert-hall economy that demanded them. His profession had ensconced concerts as the test and affirmation of authentic virtuosity. Gould not only dropped them, retiring to the studio and the radio booth; he also began to attack them, in thoughtful — and prescient — critiques, as the antithesis of artistic achievement in an age of mechanical reproduction.

Gould’s major statement of his thesis on recording as the future of music is his 1965 CBC radio documentary, “Dialogue on the Prospects of Recording”. Gould’s argument uncannily echoed Walter Benjamin’s, on art and mechanical reproduction, of which, as far as I know, Gould was unaware; his position was more specifically influenced by Marshall McLuhan. Gould argues that new electronic media represent a more private, individualized, and aesthetically satisfying future of music in contrast to the outmoded public “museums” of
live performance that, for him, no longer lay claim to the optimal appreciation of music. Gould echoes Benjamin in criticizing the romanticization (what Benjamin would call the aura) of the artist at the expense of appreciating the artwork: “the determination of the value of the work of art according to the information available about it is a most delinquent for of aesthetic appraisal” (“Prospects” 341). To illustrate his case, Gould tells the story of a wartime forger of Vermeer paintings, Hans van Meegeren. Van Meergen was reviled as a forger who had fooled expert art historians; he got only momentary reprieve after the war when it became apparent that the Vermeers he had sold to Nazis for enormous sums were in fact forgeries. Gould hails van Meergen as a “private hero” whose case “perfectly epitomizes the confrontation between those values of identity and of personal-responsibility-for-authorship which post-Renaissance art has until recently accepted and those pluralistic values which electronic forms assert” (341).

Gould’s elaboration on the “pluralistic values” of electronic forms centres on “a new kind of listener — a listener more participant in the musical experience” — indeed, a “listener [who] can ultimately become his own composer” (347). For Gould’s new kind of listener, private listening eclipses public listening. The intimacy and clarity of home listening lends the music higher definition and opens it not only to more involved appreciation, but also to transformation by the listener: “It may well be that the very near future will produce a do-it-yourself laboratory of home recording techniques…We already see this happening in the case of the hi-fi bug, the fellow who places his own interpretative notions of questions of dynamics, of balance, of separation, of textural preferences [on] the recording which he plays on his home stereo” (“Forgery” 219). Gould is extrapolating from the increasing availability of home stereo EQ controls and home audiotape systems, in 1964, to accurately project new, participatory forms of music production-consumption (prosumption) that have since materialized: a decade later, in the vinyl-synching, cassette splicing foundations of hip hop music; forty years later, in the digital redistributions and remix forms enabled by CD, MP3, and P2P.

What’s more: Gould recognizes the symbolic and material threat that DIY listening-composing would pose to music critics, concert halls, and record labels alike. “To those who insist that the relation of audience to the performing act be a passive one, it already constitutes licentious interpretative interference” (219). Echoing Benjamin’s argument about aura, Gould identifies the “controversy [of] the tape splice” as a target of “the antirecord lobby [which] proclaims splicing a dishonest and dehumanizing technique” (337). As for the emerging pro-record (but anti-recording) lobby, Gould imagines a “local club of spare-time mechanics … concentrating upon the project of producing a master tape amalgamating the perfect virtues of the Beethoven Fifth as rendered by Klemperer, Karajan and Bruno Walter,” and then reflects that “there may be certain contractual difficulties here. Perhaps EMI, Deutsche Grammophon and Columbia Records will be less warmly disposed than I to this idea” (“Forgery” 219-20).

Gould even nods inadvertently to the discourse of intellectual property regulation in reflecting on the audience’s departure from public performance scenes to private home listening. “Those experiences through which the listener encounters music electronically transmitted are not within the public domain” (“Prospects” 347, my emphasis). For his purposes, Gould simply means that electronic media encourage domestic, individualized, and customizable music appreciation; yet by unwittingly referring to the “public domain” of copyright law, Gould ironically describes what has since become one of the most hotly contested issues in the copyfight today: the gradual disappearance of the public domain amidst the “new enclosures” of corporate copyright exploitation and entrenchment. On this account, Gould’s remark that “the technology of electronic forms makes it highly improbably that we will move in any direction but one of even greater intensity and complexity” (352) is similarly right on the money, both in terms of the technics and the legalities now involved.

Yet despite his incisive (and sometimes inadvertent) recognitions of Big Media’s impositions, Gould remained consistently optimistic about the implications “that the mechanics of electronic creation and preservation will determine the large part of the future of artistically ordered sound — if that is a safe word than music” (“Forgery” 218).

In the electronic age the art of music will become much more viably a part of our lives, much less an ornament to them, and that it will consequently change them much more profoundly … The audience would be the artist and their life would be art. (“Prospects” 353)

As an iconoclastic icon of Canadian culture, Gould shared important insights about art, adaptation, and appropriation — not to mention “pluralistic values” — that have proven prescient and urgently critical to current debates over intellectual property, and how best to define and regulate it, among the fast-changing technoscapes of electronic media. In the face of the attempted lockdowns, confiscations, and extortions of Access Copyright, Bill C-32, ACTA, and so on, I take as a heartening affirmation Gould’s assertion that “there is, in fact, nothing to prevent a dedicated connoisseur from acting as his own tape editor … exercising such interpretive predilections as will permit him to create his own ideal performance” (348, my emphasis).

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). Rpt. in Marxists Internet Archive, 2005.
Gould, Glenn. “Dialogue on the Prospects of Recording.” CBC Radio, 10 Jan. 1965. Rpt. in Time 4 Time [blog], 7 Oct. 2008.
—. “Forgery and imitation in the creative process” (1963). The Art of Glenn Gould: Reflections of a Musical Genius. Ed. John P.L. Roberts. Toronto: Malcolm Lester, 1999. 204-221.
—. “The Prospects of Recording.” The Glenn Gould Reader. Ed. Tim Page. New York: Knopf, 1984. 331-53.

See also:
“Glenn Gould on recording.” The Music of Man. Perf. Yehudi Menuhin, ,Glenn Gould. CBC et al, 1987. Rpt. at Youtube.