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The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself (Andrew Pettegree, 2019/#16): The development of "news" and their transmission (which can only teleologically be described as "the evolution of newspapers") in Europe and, later, North America, from the late Renaissance to the end of the 18th century. It's not the kind of book you can summarize, so I'll fall back to [ETA: wow, a lot of] impressionistic takeaways and quotes:

  • Many medieval chroniclers were partisan – fierce critics or passionate supporters of the kings whose deeds they record. But they also exhibit a precocious instinct for the ethics of news reporting. If they rely on second- or third- hand accounts, these are identified as such: ‘so it is said’, ‘so people said’ (ut fertur; ut dicebantur). When they know of conflicting accounts they are often scrupulous in reporting this fact. Of course chronicles are written with the benefit of hindsight, when events have been resolved; this was reporting without any of the hazards of contemporaneity. The chroniclers were able to look back and draw the appropriate morals: that a comet had portended great evil, that a king had been rewarded for his virtue or laid low by his vices. News was never fleeting or ephemeral, but always imbued with purpose. This form of moralizing was equally characteristic of much of the news reporting of the following centuries, as we shall see. In this and so many other respects the medieval chroniclers' views of contemporary history would prove profoundly influential in the development of a commercial news market. They reflected a shared vision of the continuum of history, linking past, present and future events in one organic whole.

  • The book (and pretty much every other on the topic) emphasizes that our concept of news — and, I'd add, much of our contemporary concepts of time, space, country, history, you name it — was profoundly changed by the re-creation (fitful, and often interrupted by wars and political conflict), expansion, and commercialization of the old Roman postal service. Perhaps no family in European history has been more under-appreciated than the Tassis: They began by running some of the Pope's postal routes (every big city in Rome had their own local and semi-local system, necessary is such a turbulent and competitive environment), then they were hired by Emperor Maximilian to do the same for the Roman Empire, and for centuries they pretty much built or ran Central and Western Europe's (not France's, though; they were more or less the Hapsburg's Postmasters) postal systems, without which a lot of the political, and most of the cultural, history of Europe wouldn't have been logistically feasible. No Republic of Letters without regular mail. And the least of the Tassis wasn't Alexandrine de Rye, widow of Leonhard von Taxis, who took charge of the imperial post after his death in 1628, preserving and enhancing their operations so well that the family would keep running the postal system until replaced by the Reichspost in the 19th century.

  • [During most of Early Modern European history] The news reporting of the newspapers was very different, and utterly unfamiliar to those who had not previously been subscribers to the manuscript service [the avvisi and its descendants]. Each report was no more than a couple of sentences long. It offered no explanation, comment or commentary. Unlike a news pamphlet the reader did not know where this fitted in the narrative – or even whether what was reported would turn out to be important. This made for a very particular and quite demanding sort of news. The format offered inexperienced readers very little help. The most important story was seldom placed first; there were no headlines, and no illustrations. And because newspapers were offered on a subscription basis, readers were expected to follow events from issue to issue; this was time- consuming, expensive and rather wearing.

  • One of the main points of the book is that the newspaper wasn't the primary source of news (nor of opinion) until possibly the 19th century. The main conduits of news, besides mouth-to-mouth and via messengers, correspondence networks between traders, already very developed in the Middle Ages, specialized (and expensive) manuscript subscriptions for the political elite, songs and rumor for the commoners, and, after the expansion of the printing press, event-specific, highly-partisan, and hugely popular pamphlets. The view of the printing press having its major impact first through books and then through newspapers is eminently wrong, and due more than anything to survival bias and our relative familiarity with different mediums: pamphlets and other ephemera were by far the most influential printed medium during most of this period.

  • Arguably, Luther would've found himself very quickly, if not, one way or another, for long, in a dungeon somewhere, if not because he got quickly famous in a way that would've been impossible before the printing press, and without the intricate postal system of Northern Europe. Sermons, pamphlets, images, his cause was quickly visible and to a large degree popular, with the results you know. By 1518 he was Germany's most published author; by 1520–1, when the Pope finally pronounced his excommunication and the new Emperor Charles V endorsed this sentence, Luther was a publishing sensation.

  • The Reformation was Europe's first mass-media news event. The quantity of books and pamphlets generated by interest in Luther's teaching was quite phenomenal. It has been estimated that between 1518 and 1526 something approaching eight million copies of religious tracts were placed on the market. This was a very one-sided contest. Luther and his supporters were responsible for over 90 per cent of the works generated by the controversy. The Reformation also provided a lifeline for a struggling industry. The bankruptcy of many of the first printers in the fifteenth century had brought about a substantial contraction in the numbers engaged in publishing printed books. By 1500 about two-thirds of Europe's books were being published in just a dozen cities, mostly major commercial centres like Venice, Augsburg and Paris. The industry was dominated by large firms with deep pockets, able to sustain the financial outlay (and raise the venture capital) to cope with the frequently long delays between publishing and selling large books. For the German publishers and booksellers who had previously struggled to make money from printed books, the Luther controversies offered a new way forward. For the books of the Reformation were different. Many of Luther's writings, and those of his supporters, were short. The vast proportion were published in German at a time when most books published for the international scholarly community were in Latin. Short books, with a largely local market, which sold out quickly: these were the ideal product for small, less well capitalized print shops. As a result of the Reformation printing returned to, or was established for the first time in, over fifty German cities. Wittenberg itself became a major centre of print.

  • The Reformation was also responsible for substantial changes to the design of books, changes that would be highly influential in the subsequent production of news pamphlets. Much of this design innovation emanated from Wittenberg itself. Here again Luther was lucky. His patron, Frederick the Wise, had succeeded in attracting to the city Lucas Cranach, one of Europe's most distinguished painters. Cranach was not only a fine painter, he was also an exceptionally shrewd businessman. He established both a busy painting workshop and a business for the production of woodcut blocks, used to illustrate some of Wittenberg's earliest publications (including, rather ironically in the light of Luther's later criticism of indulgences, a glossy catalogue of Frederick's relic collection). Although Cranach would cheerfully fulfill commissions for Catholic clients to the end of his life, he was an early and sincere supporter of Luther. His Wittenberg workshop was soon playing an important role in the promotion of Luther's cause. It is to Cranach that we owe the iconic images of Luther that marked the stages of his career from idealistic preacher to mature patriarch. Thanks to the woodcut portraits taken from Cranach's sketches, Luther's was soon one of the best-known faces in Europe. Cranach's artfully presented portrait iconography of the solitary inspired man of God did much to build the mystique of Luther. In an age where few outside the ranks of the ruling classes would ever have had their portrait taken, this gave Luther a celebrity status that greatly enhanced his aura. It was as a celebrity that Luther was greeted and mobbed as he made his way through Germany to face the Emperor at the Diet of Worms in 1521. It was because Luther was a celebrity that the Emperor could not follow the private advice of his advisers, and deal with Luther as the Council of Constance had dealt with Jan Huss: that is, withdraw his safe conduct, arrest and execute the heretic.

  • A catholic might claim this as a parallel example: There can be no doubt that print played a large and malignant role in fueling the witch-craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Up to this point Church leaders had retained a degree of skeptical distance from demands to pursue witchcraft prosecutions. The Austrian Inquisitor Henry Kramer, an early enthusiast of witch-hunting, had a chilly relationship with the local bishop, who threatened to expel him by force if he remained in the diocese. Kramer turned the tables by having his witch-hunting manual printed. Although the Malleus Maleficarum failed to win approval from university theologians, it was an instant publishing success. The Malleus Maleficarum took its place in libraries as a handbook of persecution; alongside a contemporary rival publication by Ulrich Molitor it established an important and popular new genre of learned publication. The manuals taught people how to search out and prosecute witches; news pamphlets enthusiastically reported the consequences. We can reconstruct in some detail the emergence of witch trials as news events through the notorious case of a woman who was executed after having set fire to the town of Schiltach in the Black Forest in 1533. An account of her trial appeared in print little more than a week later, to be reprinted in Leipzig, on the other side of Germany, within a few weeks. The case acquired its greatest notoriety when the Nuremberg publisher commissioned a woodcut from the artist Erhard Schön, which was then issued as a broadsheet. Obviously the text had to be greatly simplified, but this only added to its sensational impact. It was this version that Wick obtained, years later, to paste into his scrapbooks. According to Christopher Froben, by this time the ‘devil of Schiltach’ had become proverbial throughout Germany. If this was so, it could only have been due to the success of the case as a media event.

  • In the development of international diplomacy a crucial figure was the shrewd and far-sighted Ferdinand, King of Aragon (r.1479–1516). As ruler of Spain's Mediterranean kingdom he had a close interest in Italy at a time when French ambitions in the peninsula were transforming its politics. As co-ruler of Castile, through his wife Isabella, Ferdinand was the master of Europe's incipient superpower, Spain. His great strategic goal was to challenge the hegemony of France; his principal instrument, alliance backed by traditional dynastic marriages. In the pursuit of these goals Ferdinand established a web of permanent embassies: his was the first of Europe's nation states to do so.

  • The avvisi of the sixteenth century generally consisted of one or two sheets of paper folded once, to make the equivalent of a quarto pamphlet of four or eight pages. These were filled with a sequence of reports, each consisting of a short paragraph of two or three sentences. They began in the style that Dei had pioneered with a dateline: ‘News from Venice, 24 March 1570’; ‘In a letter from Constantinople it is reported’. The paragraph then summarized the news reported from that place. So under ‘news from Rome’ would be listed all the news emanating from Roman sources, even if it related to places far away. It would be followed by news gathered from Venice, France, Constantinople, from the Low Countries and England. This style of presentation was maintained largely unchanged in manuscript news services into the eighteenth century; it also proved deeply influential in shaping the first printed news serials. The newspapers of the early seventeenth century would in this respect owe far more to the conventions and news values of the avvisi than to the very different style of the printed news pamphlets. The places from which news was gathered were a largely unvarying list of key news hubs: in the case of transalpine locations, generally major commercial centres well served by the continental postal services. The tradition was that the news should be transmitted in crisp sentences with little by way of commentary or analysis. The emphasis was on providing the maximum information; the merchants and members of the governing classes who were the major clients of the novellanti could draw their own conclusions. Thus the avvisi were very different from diplomatic dispatches, where the information supplied would be shaped by the known political priorities of the ambassador's home state. The avvisi, in contrast, affected an air of studied neutrality. Although this could sometimes be deceiving, it did permit commercial newsmen to develop a wide circle of clients among the leaders of Italy's often feuding states. The avvisi were neither tailored to nor adapted for individual clients. In the newsletters supplied to the Duke of Urbino from Rome after 1565 he would regularly receive news of his own activities – at least as they were reported in the eternal city. A further unvarying convention was that the newsletters were unsigned.This may seem rather odd to us, since the novellanti certainly wished to advertise their skills and broaden the circle of their clients. The best, like Poli and the Venetians Hieronimo Acconzaicco and Pompeo Roma, became well known figures. The tradition of anonymity has more to do with a conscious attempt to differentiate between fact, as reported, and opinion. Unverified reports were clearly indicated as such: ‘it is said ’; ‘it is reported from Lyon’.

  • The largest surviving collection was that compiled by the merchant and banking family, the Fuggers of Augsburg. The Fuggers had profited massively from their close association with the Habsburgs in the first half of the sixteenth century. In later decades their commitment to Philip II left them more exposed and imperiled. To protect their far-flung business interests the Fuggers built the most extraordinary news information service of the age.

  • In the Europe of the sixteenth century, however, singing played an important role in mediating news events to a largely illiterate public. The news singers, sometimes blind and often accompanied by children, would sing out their wares, then offer printed versions for sale. In Spain the writers of ballads would sometimes teach them to a group of blind pedlars before sending them out on the roads. The pedlars displayed their wares on a wooden framework strung with cord, rather like a clothes line; in consequence these publications are sometimes known as ‘cord literature’. Broadsheet ballads were clearly printed in enormous quantities, as we can see from the thousands of copies listed in the inventories of booksellers's stock [...]

  • In the sixteenth century, and particularly in Protestant northern Europe, the sermon became an important part of the weekly round. This was a new development: for medieval Christianity, the sermon had been a part of public festival culture, but a sporadic one. [..] The great achievement of the Protestant Reformation was to make the sermon an integral part of the service of worship. This brought the sermon indoors; it also passed responsibility for preaching to the clergy in general, rather than a small cadre of preaching specialists. This had advantages and disadvantages. For parishioners the weekly act of worship became more participatory and comprehensible. Rather than being mere observers of a Mass conducted in Latin, they now sang, recited prayers and listened. They became a more informed but also a more demanding audience.For the minister was required not simply to intone the liturgy and perform the Mass: he was expected to expound the word of God.

  • For 15th/16th century Europe, whatever the Ottomans were and were not doing was much more important than whatever happened in America.

  • Yet if much of the communication infrastructure of Europe was familiar and unchanging, the beginning of the seventeenth century did witness a step change so decisive as to amount, if not to a revolution, then certainly to a new beginning. This has escaped the view of most historians because it was an organisational shift, rather than a technological one. It was not like the introduction of gunpowder or printing: rather it required the application of bureaucratic intelligence to existing systems. Its impact was, however, as dramatic as many of those developments to which we attach the label ‘revolution’. The change in question was the wholesale transformation of the international postal service. In a few decades from the beginning of the seventeenth century, communication by post became quicker, cheaper and more frequent. The network of places linked by the post became dense and more intricate.For the provision of news this was a vital transformation.It made possible the frequent, rapid and reliable delivery of news necessary for the next crucial media innovation: the invention of the newspaper.

  • Dutch papers were the first to include advertisements – and advertisements, interestingly, were the first local content in most traditions of the newspaper, regardless of the country.

  • From a French pamphlet during the Fronde: Aristotle tells us that some are good by nature, some by doctrine, and some by custom. Cardinal Mazarin demonstrates that he is of a fourth type, since he could only be good by a miracle.

  • Not newspapers, that would come later, but pamphlets in England achieved hitherto unexplored peaks (or depths) of vituperative animosity during the whole Charles I-to-William of Orange period. Understandably so. That said, after a later period of censored calm, as urban population grew and Parliamentary politics became more forceful, newspapers would come to take a local focus that in most other countries in Europe they wouldn't take until much later.

  • Journals, less frequent but more flexible in content and form, became influential in ways newspapers didn't until later, and, although in France they were very popular as an alternative outlet in the well-enforced newspaper monopoly, in England they became a cultural force: The age of the journal witnessed the emergence of a thoughtful, self-confident industry that facilitated intellectual exchange over a wide spectrum of disciplines. For publishers this offered a welcome field of innovation in new ventures positioned between the established but sometimes complaisant world of book publishing and the turbulent world of pamphlets and ephemeral print. Even for the most established and conservative publishing houses, journals were an attractive economic proposition. They offered a regular and predictable sale thanks to the subscription system. For major new enterprises the compilation of a subscription list provided both valuable advertising and a means of testing the water before printing got underway. The extended friendship and correspondence network of the Republic of Letters provided a natural conduit for such information, and both editors and publishers were happy to move in these circles. The publication of even very substantial intellectual enterprises in numbered sections ensured that there was no risk of the unsold portion of an edition rotting in the warehouse, as had been the case with many overly ambitious scholarly works issued in the first centuries of print. With periodicals, customers paid in advance and each issue had a built-in sequel, whereas books were individual events, dangerous and unpredictable in their success. It is no wonder that periodicals became the fastest growing sector of eighteenth-century publishing.

  • The tulipmania has gone down in history as one of the first great financial bubbles: an extravagant boom, followed by a ruinous bust. In fact, much of what was assumed to be known about this episode turns out to be myth. Most of those involved in the trade were prosperous citizens who could absorb the losses. There were few bankruptcies and the wider Dutch economy was barely affected. The tulipmania did not lead simple artisans, tempted into the market by hopes of a quick fortune, into penury. The most extravagant stories of destitute carpenters and weavers emanate from the moralizing pamphlets that followed the collapse of the market.

  • Rather like tulipmania, the vast majority of dealings occurred within the closed circles of the privileged. The South Sea Bubble was that most satisfying thing: a fraud perpetrated by the elite on itself.

  • Defoe’s Review had ceased publication before the South Sea calamity, but it is not likely that he would have spoken out against it. Few voices were raised in criticism as the financial miracle of 1720 unfolded. The South Sea venture was never in any real respect a trading company. To establish a trade with South America depended on an unlikely conjuncture of political circumstances opening a previously closed market, and this prospect had in any case disappeared by 1718. Where it did find success was in creating a counter-weight to the Whig-dominated East India Company and Bank of England, and by sucking in surplus liquidity it had soon raised a huge capital. With no trade in view the directors now made an audacious attack on the Bank by proposing to take on the whole national debt. In a period of frantic negotiation a counter-bid from the Bank was seen off, and the South Sea Company emerged victorious. Such a huge liability, however, required a greatly increased share capital, and a rising share price would also greatly increase the prospects of meeting the Company's obligations. By judicious management of the market this was for a time achieved. Between January and April 1720 the price of South Sea stock had risen from 130 to 300; in the next two months stock appreciated a further 300 per cent. The South Sea stock was not an isolated beneficiary of this frantic activity.Bank and East India stock also rose sharply, and during the year to August a further 190 projects were floated, most as joint stock companies. All were seeking to catch the same hopeful tide that created money from nothing.

  • The social consequences of the Bubble should not be exaggerated. Most of those who had invested were moneyed, and few were left destitute. The collapse of the Company was most deadly for its directors, who had made stock available, often on very preferential terms, to numerous Parliamentarians. Faced with personal losses, the Members of Parliament were at their most virtuous and censorious. The directors were summoned before the House of Commons and stripped of much of their personal wealth. Having performed this ritual sacrifice, the appetite for more fundamental investigation palled. The most scandalous aspect of the project had been the terms under which stock had been made available to persons of influence. They were allowed an option to buy at a stipulated rate, at no payment. It was a risk-free trade: if the stock went up, they took the profit, and if it did not the option lapsed. This irregular procedure, a bribe by any other name, had been recorded in the famous green book of the Company Secretary, Robert Knight. This mysterious volume had disappeared when Knight fled the country, but its pages included many surprising names, including that of the king, George I. When Knight was taken into custody in the Austrian Netherlands, the ministry was obliged to make energetic public efforts to secure his return to face trial, while simultaneously making equally urgent representations to the Hapsburg authorities to ensure that these formal requests were denied. Incredibly, this tortuous procedure was successful; still more surprisingly, it remained secret. Although long suspected, the full extent of the ministry’s duplicity was only revealed by documents discovered in the imperial archives in Vienna during the past twenty years. The famous green book was never seen again.

  • The Gazette, as a paper of record, resisted advertisements for six years, until in 1671 it started to accept personal ads. These were often, it must be admitted, of a rather superior nature. In the issue of 21 September 1671 the queen appealed for the return of a missing spaniel, with furry feet and liver-coloured spots. And who could imagine a grander lost-property notice than that inserted in The Gazette of 4 May 1685 after the coronation of James II: Lost at their Majesties coronation the button [knob] of his Majesty’s scepter, set about with 24 small diamonds, three rubies and three emeralds; a pendant pearl from his Majesty’s gown about 9 carets of 30 common grains, and about 16 great links of a gold chain.Whoever gives notice thereof to the officers of her Majesty’s Jewel-house, shall be well rewarded.

  • It is a singular fact that in contrast to the newspapers, not only the political journals but also pamphlets were held in high esteem. At the end of the eighteenth century, pamphlets were considered an entirely reputable medium for political discussion; a remarkable enhancement of their status since the early days of print. It is a reminder, if one were needed, that too simple a view of news gathering as a series of evolutionary steps, from manuscript to print, and from pamphlets to newspapers, risks distorting reality. Well into the nineteenth century, great reformers and political philosophers addressed a wide public in pamphlets.

  • The taking of the Bastille (where there were exactly seven prisoners, including four convicted forgers and two who had to be reincarcerated in mental institutions) was perhaps more symbolic than anything else — about what it had been, rather than what it was — or, more likely, about the guns and gunpowder stored there. Be it as it may, it was the immediate coverage by Parisian pamphleteers what built it up to what it now is.



Spanish Milan: A City within the Empire, 1535-1706 (S. D'Amico, 2019/#17): What the title says. It's one of those historiographical "second-tier" Renaissance Italian cities (i.e., not Florence, Venice, or Rome), that regardless an enormous contemporary importance (e.g. Naples). Milan began as a strongly and famously "industrial" city — by the standards of the age — which was lost, pace the Black Legend, more to external competition than to Spanish obscurantism. This orientation to commerce and craft was reflected in its architecture, with lavish interiors, a large population of craftspeople, a very dynamic real state market, but quite plain-looking exteriors. Its key position in the Spanish Road to Flanders gave it quite a bit of leverage with the Spanish king, so it was loyal (it was the only province that never rebelled) but also administered with a light touch, with strong local privileges and most positions of power filled by local patricians. An special shut-out to Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, an extremely good and hard-headed administrator so strongly committed to the then-new agenda of the Council of Trent that Milan for a while was known as a Second Rome, so much he strengthened the Church's internal and external discipline (this didn't make the Milanese behavior holier, mind you).

The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street (Rob Nunn, 2019/#18): An AU, but attempting to keep the text as close as possible to canon. So Holmes is a consulting criminal who attempts to minimize the chaos and violence of traditional crime, Watson is Watson but a bit looser with violence, etc. Some of the canonical cases end up having been planed by him, but a good number of them are stopped or punished by him anyway, e.g. if they were done by people outside his organization. His war with Moriarty is for control of London, Mycroft knows and doesn't approve, but with Holmes being less violent than his competitors, and the discrete services he renders to the Government now and them (all of the political cases happen more or less as in canon), etc. As much as possible, Nunn even keeps dialogue and scenes, although the book is quite short, as a lot of developments are quickly glossed (sometimes an entire case with an offhand mention). Not unenjoyable, but its charm lies perhaps less on the criminal bits than on how closely it follows canon.


Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography (eds. G. Byron and David Punter, 2019/#19): A collection of essays on the Gothic, very loosely grouped and covering a large thematic, geographic, and chronological span. There's no thesis to describe, so I'll just mention a few interesting bits:

  • The phrase [...] producing monsters of accuracy and detail

  • The answers offered – or perhaps it would be better to describe them as ‘takes’ on the question – are manifold, and that seems entirely apposite. It is apposite because any genre surviving over several centuries will undergo change and development; but it is also apposite because of the peculiar nature of the Gothic as a para-site. I mean by this to suggest that Gothic exists in relation to mainstream culture in the same way as a parasite does to its host, and that Gothic writing can often be seen as a perversion of other forms, albeit a perversion which, as perversions do, serves to demonstrate precisely the inescapability of the perverse in the very ground of being. But I also mean to suggest that it is, in fact, impossible to see this relation as merely one-way: the parasite supports the host as much as vice versa, as the pragmatic daylight world survives only in its infolding of the spectral world of desire.

  • The above is an interesting observation, echoed in more than one essay, in different ways: the Gothic isn't necessarily (only) a challenge to contemporary social and psychological structures of self- and other-control, but also to stabilize them by defining, however multifariously, the Outside. In that sense, the Victorian form of sexual repression took also the form of almost continuous *talk* about sex, which should be understood not only as the failure of repression, but also part of its mechanism.

  • Similarly: What would it be like, I want to ask, if we were to see Gothic differently from this; if, instead of the moment of transgression, we were to focus on the moment of stabilisation? I am not speaking here of apolitical argument about conservatism and subversion; the shape of my argument has perhaps more to do with a logic of parasitism, as described by Derrida; with a logic whereby Gothic might be seen to function as a ‘foreign body’ within the institution of literature. This logic, as we might expound it, would focus on the curious, essential co-necessity of parasite and host, and therefore on the moment at which we can no longer clearly see what is the bearer and what is being borne; we might wish to see – or we might come to see, despite our overt wishes – stability from the viewpoint of the parasite rather than of the host. Gothic, then, not as an irruption through an otherwise smooth surface, as a disruption of what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as the plane of consistency; but rather in the manner in which, as I shall go on to describe, Lacan refers to the perversions, the site – the para-site – only on which, and by means of which, such a smoothness can be attained. In order to help me to focus on this view, I have adopted the stand-point of ceremonial. I have in mind a view of Gothic as a panoply of ceremonies, and we can begin by listing some of them: the ceremony of the expulsion of the vampire, precisely of the foreign body; magical ceremonies and exorcisms; ceremonial feasts and banquets, at which a ghost is inevitably present; religious services, in places appropriate and inappropriate; funerals and other ceremonies of mourning; Black Sabbaths and ceremonies of all souls; ceremonious robings and disrobings; the list, like the struggle, continues.

  • ‘a ceremonial represents the sum of the conditions subject to which something that is not yet absolutely forbidden is permitted, just as the Church’s marriage ceremony signifies for the believer a sanctioning of sexual enjoyment which would otherwise be sinful’ (Freud, 1907: 124–5). A ceremonial, therefore, is the Other of transgression. What would ‘otherwise’ have been transgression is now allowed; ceremony supersedes the law, permits a breach through which things may flow. We see here again the motif of stabilisation: a threatened irruption can be stabilised by surrounding it with, embedding it in, a sequence of actions.

  • If Dracula manifests part of the process whereby the unconscious, as it is popularly imagined, is made visible and naturalized by literature, the success of this naturalization is evinced in the manner that psychological science subsequently assumes sole responsibility for its management and explanation. With literature’s role in the production of the unconscious occluded, to the extent that it becomes a practically natural mental phenomenon, literary criticism in the twentieth century can authorize itself and its readings with the knowledge provided by sciences of the mind. Retrospectively, the unconscious is (re)discovered everywhere, and Gothic fiction becomes one of its best illustrations.

  • That's a *very* interesting claim, one that I quite believe (and which expands on Harold Bloom's analysis of Freud's work): The psychoanalytic understanding of the human mind doesn't *explain* the Gothic, but rather *enacts* it in a "scientific" register. To be more precise, it not only describes the mind as a Gothic labyrinth of ancient secrets manifesting themselves in bizarre apparitions overdetermining lives even unto further generations, etc, etc. — a model that it *got from* Gothic itself — this act of explanation is in itself a Gothic displacement, a forgetting and re-projection of the uncomfortable.

  • In that vein (pun not intended): Childhood, sexuality and a screened, unconscious scene cohere as a truth too readily recognized in the mirror of vulgar psychoanalysis as an uncanny return of repressed unconscious wishes and desires. The movement, however, may be otherwise: rather than psychoanalysis revealing the eternally buried and universal unconscious of repressed human nature through the parapraxes of a literary imagination interpreted by eager critics, the unconscious may take its bearings from fictional figures. For Terry Castle, Freud is as ‘suffused with crypto-supernaturalism’ as Ann Radcliffe, so that the concern with mental apparitions and daemonic energies is itself a ‘product of late eighteenth-century romantic sensibility’. Radcliffe’s ghosts become ‘our own’ in a way quite different from common assumptions about unchanging human nature and its repressed and darker side: they are ‘the symptomatic projections of modern psychic life’, an effect of the images pervading the culture, subject and history of modernity

  • The link is ‘more complex and primary’ than the interplay of a primitive natural, and living energy welling up from below, and a higher order seeking to stand in its way; thus one should not think that desire is repressed, for the simple reason that the law is what constitutes both desire and the lack on which it is predicated. Where there is desire, the power relation is already present: an illusion, then, to denounce this relation for a repression exerted after the event.

  • I would put the above in this way: Some things we want and get in a fluid sequence – we don't experience a desire for breathing. The feeling we label desire only appears when there's some sort of restriction (of whatever combination of external/internal origin) associated to it.

  • On a possible concept of Gothic healing: Today in Guatemala, white people can go for healing to Indian shamans whose power is presumed by the whites to be indigenous, a consequence of the Indian essence as dark Other. What Taussig establishes, however, is that the shaman’s demonic power derives from the white Spanish missionaries who came to Guatemala in the sixteenth century and ‘believed firmly in the efficacy of sorcery, which they supposed Indians to be especially prone to practice on account of their having been seduced by the devil... the magic of the Indian is a colonial creation’ (142–3, 145). Taussig is not simply recycling here the banality that conquerors project their fears onto the lowly, who then come back to terrorize them. What occurs with the Guatemalan shaman is not the return of the repressed to haunt but the return of the projected to heal. The healing is self-healing, for what the whites encounter in the shaman is white magic, not black; not his power, but theirs, displaced. The colonisers had been injured by projecting onto the colonised a puissant part of their own being, those desires that were unacceptableto the European orthodoxy of their time. The wound that lingers in the Guatemalan whites today is self-division. They can therefore be healed only by regaining contact with their own puissant desires through the mediation of the terrifying Other. They can be healed only by themselves.

  • There's also an interesting chapter on The Phantom of the Opera focused both on the Leroux' original novel, and on how successive adaptations evade some of the more disquieting aspects, simplifying it to what's mostly a version of The Beauty and the Beast. There are deep (pun not intended) issues of class involved in the Phantom's actions — he's the son of a mason and just as him a former itinerant performer, parlaying his knowledge of and power over the very foundations of the Opera into money, artistic influence, and, generally speaking, the trappings of aristocracy (while at the same time re-creating in his subterranean lair the bourgeois rooms whence he was expelled by his mother. In that sense (and there are other aspects) he both threatens and stabilizes the French's early 20th-century anxieties about class, precisely in one of, if not the, most symbolically regulated buildings and art forms.

  • I don't have the chops to write it, but imagine a black 21st century "office sanitation contractor" having crytopgraphic keys to the entire infrastructure of a large US Internet company, and using that power, anonymously, to blackmail and influence company policies. Imagine the anxieties and undercurrents of, say, that movie — specially as received by wealthier audiences (which would better match, I think, Leroux's original readership.


"Britain's Maritime Empire: Southern Africa, the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, 1763-1820 (John McAleer, 2019/#20): We're used to thinking of empires as controlled land, although even for the early Spanish empire that was more aspirational than true, but for the late XVIIIth/early XIXth century British empire that was particularly not true. This book looks at a series of British bases/possessions — mainly the Cape of Good Hope (before, between, and after the two conquest of it), St. Helena, and Mauritius — south of the equator, and how they were seen and used as an integral part of the defense of the possessions and, most importantly, the profit of the East India Company.

The book assumes most of it, but I think it's worth spelling out the background for this. Before steam ships became practical for long voyages, exploration, trade, and warfare (never really or even mostly separate activities), were conditioned by winds and currents. A geographical map of the world is in this sense very inaccurate (in fact, we can measure the overall development of transport technology as attempting to reduce the difference between the Euclidean map and the Travel one); if your main long-distance vehicle is the sailing ship, you (a) need bases to resupply, refit, etc, and (b) places like St. Helena or even Brazil make perfect sense as possibilities for intermediate steps in a Britain-to-India-to-Britain route, which if you're traveling by finger-over-map is an insane idea.

Add to that an increasingly competitive environment between empires, with the British coming, as it were, from behind against the Dutch, and then having a much closer overseas fight against the French than post-Napoleonic historiography would led you believe, the convenience or even need to own defensible bases along the way could reasonably be argued to be helpful for, or even necessary to, the sustained defense of India and its profits. It was later than the Cape would be thought of as a possible colony: it was a logistical node for troops (and information) and even considered as a "seasoning" stage to let British troops adapt to a hotter climate — we, or at least I, tend to underestimate how much of an environmental shock was India for them, and the very real toll this took on troops.

Judging by this book, it doesn't seem contemporaries, either in Britain or elsewhere, really doubted this. The Cape, St. Helena, Mauritius, and other places, all were called at one time or another "the key of India", "the Gibraltar of India", etc., and although troops and money weren't always available, there was never, I think, an strong aversion to holding and extending this network of bases. In many cases this was done for purely exclusionary reasons. French islands in the Indian Ocean were frequently used as havens to harass British shipping even after they had lost the battle for commercial dominance, so even if a location could be thought of as redundant (none of them was ever thought of, or expected to be, economically self-sufficient), there was much value in keeping them out of French hands.

The British Invasions (of the River Plate) of 1806 and 1807 are relatively significant events in Argentine history, so it was amusing to learn that it was basically an unauthorized stunt by Sir Popham, using troops from the conquest of the Cape to go and take Buenos Aires, which he thought would be easy (and commercially profitable) pickings. It hadn't been planned by London, but of course after news of the initial victory (and booty) arrived, he became the hero of the hour. Sadly for him, he had severely misjudged the political situation on the ground, and creole elites raised local troops and expelled his forced. A second attempt a bit later wouldn't go any better. Ironically, this failure would contribute to their indirect goal of weakening the Spanish, as their successful defense helped reinforce local feelings of independence. Interestingly, Sir Popham is mostly remembered not for this cock-up, for his work on signal codes — it took a while, but his flags-based code ended up becoming the official one of the British Navy. The book doesn't mention it, but it does explain the throwaway comment that he convinced the Governor of St. Helena to lend him some troops in exchange for some enhancements to the island's semaphore system; that sounds weird unless you factor in that he was an expert on that sort of thing.

A few other observations:

  • This book clearly shows how "world wars" predated 20th century world wars; if certainly not their equal in even relative intensity of effort, definitely so in their geographical scope.

  • It also pays a lie to some of our intuitive segmentation of the world (e.g., Madagascar was as much part of the "Indian world" as if it was of the "African one", if not more so).

  • Soldiers from non-British European countries, particularly Germans, played a much larger role in the EIC troops than I had realized. They were always short on European troops, so they would recruit, and pay relatively well, anybody they could hire. Except, of course, the French.

  • The limits between the EIC's and the King's troops, or their interests, was as vague as you'd imagine. Crown and Company shared literal stakeholders, after all.

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