SERIAL FORMS: THE UNFINISHED PROJECT OF MODERNITY, 1815-1848 by Clare Pettitt, Reviewed by Matthew Poland
 


SERIAL FORMS: THE UNFINISHED PROJECT OF MODERNITY, 1815-1848
By Clare Pettitt
(Oxford, 2020) xviii + 368pp.
Reviewed by Matthew Poland on 2021-03-16.

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"THE DESTRUCTION OF POMPEII EVERY EVENING," reads an advertisement displayed just above the figures at left in John Parry's painting A London Street Scene (1835). Jostling for attention alongside notices for opera, theatricals, and another Vesuvius show, the nightly-erupting spectacle became what Isobel Armstrong calls "a cross-class obsession" (Victorian Glassworlds [2008], 314). "It must have been difficult," Clare Pettitt muses, "to ignore the insistent presence of Mount Vesuvius in London from the 1820s onwards" (148).

When John Martin's huge picture, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, could be seen for a shilling at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly in 1822, its glowing lava and fleeing figures excited "extraordinary interest...among the graphically untutored," as one critic observed (qtd. 149). Across the river at Vauxhall Gardens, the volcano had been "fizzing, and roaring" in 1821, and in 1837, a print of another erupting display at Surrey Gardens "morphed from a daytime image of Vesuvius into a scene depicting a night-time eruption" when held up to the light (148, 150). Everywhere else in London, Vesuvius flickered and smoked in magic lantern shows. In newspapers, serial eruptions became a multimedia event with transhistorical resonances, linking recent disasters to early-modern Naples and ancient Rome. As the image of Vesuvius circulated throughout Europe, it came to suggest "the eruption of repressed political energy," most spectacularly when it was upcycled into Daniel Auber's new and loud grand opera La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici), which became, if not the flashpoint, at least the soundtrack to the Belgian Revolution in 1830 (156, 159).

With its busy assemblage of ads for print and performances whetting popular appetites for history, science, and melodrama, Parry's London Street Scene exemplifies the subject of Serial Forms. Just as Pettitt's important new study comprehensively links serial media to the nascent "serial historicist mentality" in the first half of the century (291), the painting reflects the multimedia density that Pettitt finds emblematic of nineteenth-century culture. On her final page she concludes that "the serial, rather than the novel, the poem, or the drama, [was] the true generic type of the age" (293). The foregoing seven chapters cogently lead the way to this conclusion.

Seriality itself, Pettitt argues, undergirds early nineteenth-century experiences of modernity: that is, the apprehension of being in a present distinct from the past, whose events are both ephemeral and cumulative. In what she calls her "history of contemporaneity" (292), Pettitt explains a process that Wordsworth described in 1802: how "the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies" the "craving for extraordinary incident" produced by "great national events which are daily taking place" (Preface to Lyrical Ballads [1802] 395). The experience of an historically-inflected present, Pettitt shows, was mediated by residual print forms including ballads and almanacs, emergent ones like daily newspapers and periodicals for the working classes (which themselves hybridized with earlier forms), and the visual impact of spectacular shows, historical miniatures, and magic lanterns.

Typifying seriality as a form and a process, these various technologies facilitated growing awareness of what Pettitt calls "daily eventfulness." "By the mid-1830s," she writes, "the acceleration of communications had multiplied daily eventfulness many times over. The interference of circadian rhythms by a polyrhythmic media time, alongside the increasing standardization of the workday...was producing a newly paradoxical sensibility of mundanity and repetition punctuated by, or spliced together with, national or global events" (170). This all sounds abstract. But Pettitt explains that in order to grasp those perceptions of eventfulness, as news accelerated into history, we must scrutinize not just mentalities but also materiality and embodiment:

Understanding nineteenth-century historicism as a series of material practices, and not as a purely "intellectual history," means that we can investigate what equipment was newly put within people's grasp, sometimes quite literally, and how they chose to use it. (219)

This point is vividly illustrated by the case of Vesuvius. By the 1840s, Vesuvius was no longer the preserve of the Grand Tour and the aesthetic sublime, but of whiz-bang shows in the Strand and rough illustrations in the Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, a two-penny miscellany that in 1822 began printing quality reading material for the lower tranches of the print market.

The Mirror is one of many texts and objects from across British society that make up the abundant archive of this study. While abundance is common in print culture scholarship, this book pursues the theoretical implications of its archive with uncommon tenacity. Pettitt puts nineteenth-century serial media into conversation with canonical thinkers like Derrida and Deleuze as well as with theorists of liberalism, postcolonialism, contemporary serialized television, and affect. Nevertheless, she circles the range of her references deftly enough to engage an equally wide range of readers.

Likewise, she reunites parts of the nineteenth-century social world that have become disconnected spheres of knowledge. Besides melding book history and periodical studies, Serial Form's major methodological distinction is to link them both to "show culture," the sensational popular events that were once the most pervasive but are now the least appreciated element of mid-century British culture. "What did nineteenth-century readers respond to," asks Stephen Arata, "...that later readers have trouble discerning? The short answer, I believe, is spectacle" (qtd. 168). Quoting this catechism approvingly, Pettitt applies it to wide swathes of early nineteenth-century popular culture, coloring in connections between print and exhibitions that Richard Altick sketched in The Shows of London (1978). The spectacles circulating in print and in stage tableaux at the Adelphi and elsewhere, she contends, did serious historical work. Fueling "not only...the development of the...novel but also...the development of a nineteenth-century understanding of history and of politics" (58), they helped to form "new readerships" and, especially in the lower classes, they "help[ed] people to visualize themselves into a developing civic culture" (223). In recent years, scholars like Brian Maidment, Thomas Smits, Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge have highlighted links between seriality, illustration, and politics. Pettitt's book demonstrates how the study of show culture can enrich this "visual turn" in nineteenth-century periodical scholarship.

Four of the chapters in this book link historicism with serial media produced for working-class audiences. Asking "what we risk in dismissing the 'commercial spectacle and sensation' of the early decades of the nineteenth century," these chapters argue "that what have often been described as passive and commodified forms of entertainment were more open to interactive participation than is usually allowed, and were often in dialogue with radical ideas of democratization" (109). Analyses of commodified aesthetic objects tend to turn the "commodity" into a totality, edging out both production and audience interaction. Correcting this tendency, Pettitt finds working-class consumers less passive than in some studies of the culture industry by the Frankfurt School and their followers, though she engages Adorno, Bloch, and Kracauer in the conversation.

Juxtaposing serial media like almanacs and ballads with proliferating daily and weekly newspapers, "Yesterday's News" argues that, since working-class readers often got hold of incomplete parts produced at different intervals, popular historical consciousness developed by fitting together the "disarticulated pieces of story or information" (66). "History in Miniature" explains how working-class people began "consuming the past" by using miniatures -- like the tiny Colosseum that David Copperfield plays with on the Peggottys' boat -- as well as dioramas, models, and engravings. These toys and texts show how "novel time-space frames were beginning to be inserted into the common experience of working-class people" (216).

Turning to ideology critique in discussing the globalizing liberalism of the 1840s, "Biopolitics of Seriality" shows how sympathetic identification became "a powerful tool of social consciousness" in the early fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell, which was printed in the radical liberal Howitt's Journal (270). But even as its masthead and contents proclaimed that progressive reform could unify the whole human race, Pettitt notes that Howitt's also reproduced biosocial division on the compartmentalized periodical page, breaking out content for different classes, ages, and genders as well as reinforcing differences between its readership and "Irish" or "Black" racial others (254-55). Pettitt's political critique is agile here. While she does not treat lower-class readers as passive consumers of commodity capitalism, she still discerns "a self-contradiction at the heart of the progressive project": the politics of care as "a cure for the social divisions created by capitalism" (255). These politics trouble our own time, too.

The other three chapters revise the relationship between canonical literary texts and their "serial historicist mentality" (291) by focusing on the media that underlie them. Pettitt examines Walter Scott's novels (which she calls his "collections of stuff" [75]), the news and affect in Byron's Don Juan and Childe Harold, and the emergence of the "historical present" in Carlyle's Past and Present, Pugin's Contrasts, and Dickens's Sketches by Boz. Public historical consciousness, we are told, was nurtured partly through the "long seriality of periodization" (186) in Carlyle and Pugin's histories, and partly through Dickens's prescient depiction of the changes that his urban types experience as "political and artistic practices in historical transition" (206, emphasis added). In Futures Past (2004), which has been gaining traction in anglophone scholarship, Reinhart Koselleck called this period the Sattelzeit: the "saddle-time" when, after the failed Restoration in 1815, "consciousness of a transitional period had become the common property of the peoples of Europe" (Koselleck 241). But while Koselleck smoothly conceives "this transition" into a "newly calibrated version of social time," Pettitt convincingly articulates "how very bumpy" it felt for those living through it (183).

The Byron chapter is itself a bumpy reading experience. Canto II of Don Juan, which includes a shipwreck that "made a scene men do not soon forget" (2: 243), was completed and published in the same year that Théodore Géricault exhibited his iconic painting, Le Radeau de la Méduse in the Paris Salon of 1819:

Théodore Géricault: The Raft of the Medusa

Théodore Géricault, Le Radeau de la Méduse. Musée du Louvre.

As Pettitt notes, both the painting and the poem respond to the widely-reported 1816 wreck of the Méduse off the coast of modern-day Mauritania (110). Given the re-creation of this news in painting as well as poetry, Pettitt argues that the accumulation of "these novel forms created a particular affect around news that eventually led to the widespread public imagination of the virtuality of contemporary life.... It was only in developing forms of immersive virtual reality that a consensus on what constituted 'actuality' was achieved" (109).

The final point about "actuality" is well-taken. But beyond the "somatic," Pettitt never elaborates on "affect," which is surprising in a book so otherwise conversant with theory. In a wonderful comment on the transition from the aesthetic sublime to show culture, Pettitt writes that "a kind of sticky topicality began to adhere to formerly polite abstractions" (128). But if the news is sticky, the embodied experiences of spectators is a subject stickier still, and a slack concept of affect is not enough to hold together news media, Byron, Géricault, shows, and the feeling of participating in mass culture. Nevertheless, the chapter begins to suggest what we can learn by applying affect theory to the study of historical media.

More successful because more focused is the chapter on Scott. Working in the broadly Lukácsian tradition, critics such as Ian Duncan and Ann Rigney treat Scott as a writer bound by the generic and material strictures of the novel as a book. Contesting this assumption, Pettitt flags "the danger of retrospectively attributing characteristics to the form of the book...at a moment when readerships were expanding and the technology of reading and reception were undergoing very significant changes" (74). In his unpublished satire Reliquiae Trotcosienses, Scott coined the term "gabions" to denote "curiosities of small intrinsic value" collected in a cabinet and thus turned into an ad hoc assemblage of antiquarian artifacts, fiction, and history (Reliquiae, ed. Gerard Carruthers and Alison Lumsden [2004], 6). Though Pettitt does not cite this satire, she writes that Scott "put the cabinet of curiosities into motion," creating narrative gabions that allowed "the fixed pleasures of the topical and taxonomic to punctuate the ongoing flow of narrative in ways that were peculiarly well adapted to stop-start periodical rhythms" (81).

The word "taxonomic" evokes the scientism developing alongside historicism. In general, Serial Forms might have conversed more directly with scholarship on the intersection of science with historical and literary thinking, with books such as Devin Griffiths' The Age of Analogy (2016) and Eric Gidal's Ossianic Unconformities (2015). Unlike show culture, however, the topics of those books have been well explored. Besides illuminating show culture, Pettitt provides fresh insight into the media underlying Scott and, by extension, early evolutionary science. "[I]t is not Scott's fiction," she writes, "that somehow 'produces' historicism out of itself, but rather the material conditions of his publication and reception in a newly emergent media environment that is itself starting to enact the cultural logic of historicism" (104). This book materializes connections to popular print culture which, if unacknowledged, render literary and intellectual history artificially abstract.

Across this ambitious study, the core idea of seriality "as form and process" can be hard to grasp. Like "form," "seriality" sometimes becomes so elastic that we lose the shape of its meaning. Nevertheless, this book sounds a call for "undisciplining" nineteenth-century studies from deep within the archive. Pettitt insists that "quarantining the 'book,' and perhaps particularly the literary 'novel,' from all other forms of popular entertainment [between 1810 and 1840] is the work of hindsight and disciplinary protectionism which might now need to be undone" (74). With its thrilling combination of small details and big insights, this book should attract a readership as wide and grateful as that achieved by Linda Hughes and Michael Lund's The Victorian Serial. Fittingly, the book concludes by teasing its forthcoming sequel. Pettitt quotes Frederick Douglass, who counted the Howitts among his comrades:

...Thanks to steam navigation and electric wires...a revolution now cannot be confined to the place or the people where it may commence, but flashes with lightening [sic] speed from heart to heart, from land to land, till it has traversed the globe. (qtd. on 291)

"The year 1848," Pettitt adds, "was the moment when serial media and the serial historicist mentality that we have been tracing in Serial Forms finally realized its full pan-European potential" (291). I, for one, am eager for the next installment.

Matthew Poland is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Washington in Seattle.


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