Jul 20 2009

Tracking Sam Halliday’s Ideas on Pierre

by at 9:14 pm

“The predominant means whereby most characters in realist novels resemble themselves is undoubtedly physiognomy, the influential ‘science’ of human nature formulated by Johan Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) and others in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In Kant’s useful definition, physiognomy is the ‘art of investigating the human interior through external, involuntary signs.’ Physiognomy, we can therefore say, assumes the legibility of the body, and grounds the possibility of judging character in the body’s availability for inspection. And though the scientific credentials of physiognomy were often queried–Kant, in fact, dismisses them–its assumptions continued to inform the artistic and literary practice long into the nineteenth century […] Throughout nineteenth-century fiction, then, characters typically ‘represent themselves’ and are represented to the reader by means of their bodily appearance: the stances they adopt, and the expressions of their faces” 79).

Physionomic accuracy, the ability to read the interior through the exterior, is intimately tied to portraiture, where the physignomic exactitude is thought to be the stamp of an excellent portrait. Portraits are, of course, often not what they seem (as depicted in Pierre: Halliday brings the example of the contradictory portraits of Pierre’s father: one of a sinful womanizer, and one of an older patriarchal figure, 80):

“The ways in which nineteenth-century novelists represent their characters thus occasionally contain autotheorizations of the dialetic of truth and deceit, credence and suspicion, and disguise and revelation that the imperative of self-resemblance sets in motion. Many such cases center on the subject of portrait paintings, where the artifice involved in fashioning representations is placed in the foreground […] an apparently irreducible gap is opened up between the character one really is, and the representations fashioned of it” [79-80]

In the following passage, Halliday draws links between portrait making, self representation, and communication technologies (in this particular case, the telegraph):

“By now, the complex of anxieties surrounding ‘the imperative of resembling oneself’ should be clear. It may be far from clear, however, how this has anything to do with the telegraph, or indeed any other communication technology. The connection does exist, however, and again, Pierre allows us to locate it. In one of the first interviews between Pierre and his half sister Isabel, the latter reproaches the former for the looks he casts upon her, and the feelings these betray (an inference, incidentally, grounded in the logic of physiognomy). Pierre answers that these looks do not represent him as he truly is but correspond instead to ‘vile falsifying telegraphs’ (157). Melville alludes here to a practice that had, by the middle of the nineteenth century, become sufficiently prevalent to attract attention: the use of telegraphy for the dissemination of lies. By virtue of the very time and space-effacing qualities that made it useful, it was discovered that the telegraph lent itself easily to ‘falsification,’ since it could convey information, and inspire action based upon it, before this information could be empirically verified. The telegraph thus became the technology of deceit; or, in Pierre’s words, a means of ‘falsifying’ people, and thus more particularly a technology of misrepresentation” (81).

Question: More generally, Isn’t Pierre really just a novel about misrepresentation? Halliday certainly hints at this, but never quite goes there. Isabel claims to be Pierre’s half sister but, even by the end of the novel, we never know if she is who she says she is.

More on the connection between the telegraph and the portrait and the separation of actual body to representation of a body (either via code or the image in a portrait):

“Physiognomy and portrait painting, two of the predominant techniques for ensuring adequation between self and representation in nineteenth-century culture, share an obvious similarity: their dependence on the body. As I suggested earlier, each assumes not only this, but also the body’s legibility, or ability to be ‘read’ by an observer” (81).

“With the advent of communication technologies, people become able to interact with each other in the absence of each other’s bodies. More specifically, people are faced with the need to ascertain the truth about other people, and their sincerity or lack of it, who may be many miles distant, and whose palpable, physical being is unavailable for inspection. It is obvious that such technologies suspend the operations of those physiognomic rules that govern the correspondence of persons and representations in the realist text. One consequence of this, to which we return shortly, is that alternative means must be found to verify the truth of people in the absence of such visual cues” (83).

All passages from: Halliday, Sam. Science and Technology in the Age of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and James. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

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Feb 04 2009

Of Blog Banner Images

by at 10:01 pm

I was poking around the Library of Congress’s image database and came across this image from around 1899 of a Washington DC classroom. The room is filled with women studying electrogmagnetism. The image is really quite amazing. You see women drawing pictures of circuits. You also see the notes on the board, which I’ve cropped as the header of my banner. You can see “electric telegraph” and “telegraph” pretty clearly. I get excited everytime I look at it. I wonder what kind of classroom this was. Were these women scientists? Were these girls in highschool? Was this a “normal” part of nineteeth-century female education?

Since Cima’s paper, I’ve become more and more interested in just how much science nineteenth-century women were exposed to. Margaret Fuller talks about women’s heightened electrical compositions; Lydia Maria Child, as mentioned before, is also very much aware of this kind of scientific discourse. My outline and notes on how to take my paper for Cima’s paper further will be posted. Eventually.

On a side note, I’m reading Sister Carrie for Merish’s class now and it’s startling just how much electromagnetic language Dreiser uses. I could definitely see myself writing an analysis of this for a chapter of my thesis.

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Sep 15 2008

Here’s to the first post!

by at 5:29 pm

Ok, might as well jump right in:

Lately, I’ve gotten really interested in the ways in which electricity is depicted in 19th century American and British lit. I’ve been particularly interested in the electromagnetic telegraph and its symbioitic relationship with the nervous system metaphor. Marie informed me about the Capitol’s telegraphic history, which got me really interested. Hmm, I wonder if I could somehow do a reading of the building itself….

So I decided to do some exploring (specifically, trying to find more information on the intersection between the technological history and the history of the Capitol) and I found this link. Oh, the wonders of google. Talks about the history of the telegraph and the Capitol, and specifically brings an example of a piece of artwork that’s in the Capitol.

Here’s the article:


And here’s a close up of the painting, entitled Telegraph by Constantino Brumidi:


Weird stuff! I’m especially intrigued by the Europa myth and how Brumidi tailored it for an American myth. Don’t know what to make of it yet, but it could be useful.

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