Victorian Game Night

•April 21, 2013 • Leave a Comment

This post was first published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online. I am very grateful to the Editors for permission to re-publish it here.

Martin Wallace’s board game Brass. Image courtesy of author.

If I take out a loan now, I’ll have enough money to build a coal mine.  The coal I produce will enable me to build rail to my cotton mill and eventually sell the cotton I produce to the distant market.  Or I can build a foundry, use the iron I produce to build another cotton mill, and then produce and sell cotton through other people’s ports, capitalizing on their infrastructure.

It’s Friday night and I’m in my living room playing Martin Wallace’s game Brass, an industrial revolution-themed board game in which players develop industry in Northern England during a canal era and then a railway era.  In the game, players own coal mines, cotton mills, foundries, ports, and shipyards; and they build canals and railways: truly captains of all industries.  The purpose is to build the most productive network, to earn money and points for every building and shipment, and there are no bonus points for efficiency.  Although the game begins in the eighteenth century, by its conclusion in the Victorian era Britain from Macclesfield to Barrow-in-Furness is a wasteland of mines and rails and buildings.

Brass is an economic game, and it’s no Monopoly.  It is one of thousands of such high-strategy board games circulating today in the back rooms of game shops and living rooms of enthusiasts, enjoyed by those who have long since graduated from the likes of Sorry or Risk.  These players prefer physical pieces and human interaction to the relatively virtual and detached computer and video game world.  Nor is Brass the only Victorian-flavored board game: there are games based on Victorian literary characters, such as Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, and games based on notorious personages and events, like Jack the Ripper and colonialism (the most amusing title in this last category is Rampant Colonialism).  There is an entire sub-genre based on the development of the railway systems in Europe and the United States, several games of which incorporate historical events into the game play.  There are hundreds if not thousands of Victorian-themed games.

I contemplate this as I decide whether it’s worth trying to sell my cotton to the distant market (“distant” here means “East”: the distant market card features what appears to be a British chap in a top hat shaking hands with a man wearing a turban).  Why do games such as Brass adopt historical themes?  What do players get out of these themes—if anything at all?  It’s easy for me to see that this game designer knew a thing or two about the history and economics of the industrial revolution, though the game is not overly historical.  A casual inquiry among players, however, indicates that fewer than half of them really think about the theme of Brass or, for that matter, any of the games they play.  While theme may be an initial draw, the way a game works is ultimately the most important factor.  Competition is the focus; to win efficiently, players abstract the game to its bare mechanics.  For many players, Brass could be set anywhere.

Distant Market cards. Image courtesy of author.

Nevertheless, I hazard to suggest the game teaches something, however subtle the lesson and however unreceptive the audience.  This game, no matter how abstractly a gamer may look at it, is blatantly about setting up industrial trade routes.  People have been effaced from the game: goods simply appear, and each player represents more of an unregulated corporate conglomerate than any one person or company.  This is an apt mechanic for a game set during the explosion of the business corporation, and players might learn a bit about the depersonalization and mechanization underlying such financial ventures despite themselves.

The larger lesson might be about our own estrangement from history.  Let me explain, via a more extreme example.  Another, even more popular game, features as its theme plantation development and the circulation of goods in Puerto Rico during the sixteenth century.  The game, called Puerto Rico, works very well as a game, and hence its popularity.  It is also covertly about the triangle trade, and the surreptitious way it deals with this is troubling.  In the game, ships arrive with “colonists” on board.  These “colonists” are represented by dark brown discs, and they go to work on the plantation or in the businesses each player controls.  They are converted, during the next phase of the game, into goods: sugar, tobacco, corn, indigo, and coffee.  The goods are loaded onto the ships, the players collect points for the shipments, and the cycle repeats.

Although this game does not hide its theme, it uses the euphemistic name “colonists” in place of “slaves.”  Perhaps in part as a result of this displacement, players do not tend to over-analyze the fact that they are effectively playing at being slave owners.  This lack of reflection is disturbing.  If the themes of these games are so frequently dismissed or under-analyzed, what purpose do these themes then serve?  They seem to satisfy a mild interest, a kind of passive engagement with history.

“Colonists” working plantations in Puerto Rico. Image courtesy of author.

A culture can be understood, in part, through the games it plays.  The Victorians played games such as Beggar My Neighbor, Speculation, and Commerce—games that reflect an interest in the world of finance.  What do our loosely historical games say about us?  The complexity of the industrial revolution in England is flattened out in Brass—how could it not be?  It’s a game that takes an hour and a half to play on a board that can fit on my coffee table.  But maybe what we learn in place of a complete Victorian history is a story about our cultural values, mirrored in the game mechanics themselves.  These values appear to prioritize abstract mechanization over historical narrative, corporate conglomeration over individual worker, economic triumph over anything else.  Perhaps this is a bit unjust—after all, winning is the goal of most games.  But if you win by being the most ruthless captain of industry or slave owner, what do you take away from the game?

I overbuild someone else’s foundry in Manchester, which is this game’s way of messing with your opponent.  It also represents a corporate takeover and worker layoffs.  This will allow me to earn immediate points and money, to build a ship in Liverpool, and to win.

The Cinematic Aura

•March 15, 2013 • 3 Comments

It was clear–too clear—that something was not right.

I recently attended a screening of the award-winning 1989 film Glory, and noticed, a few seconds into the first scene, that everything looked too…real.  Everything was extremely crisp, as though I were watching daytime television.  This crispness gave the visual impression of hyper-reality.  I found myself distracted by the overly clear visual quality of this DVD (certainly not present in the original VHS version I remembered watching several times in the 1990s) and unable to settle into the film’s story.

I know others have written on this topic before; in fact, a casual Google search yields numerous discussion threads dedicated to complaints and questions about precisely this visual quality.  But whether the issue with Glory was poor lighting conditions, poor film quality, or (probably more likely, given the differences between VHS and DVD) an incorrect television refresh rate or a somehow-inept remastering for DVD, the experience made me think about those naturalized visual qualities of film; those qualities I unthinkingly value.   

The hyper-real quality of Glory jarred me out of the viewing experience.  Ironically, I realized, the relatively less realistic quality of most films enables a more engrossing movie-going experience.  Visually less photorealistic, most films paradoxically draw us into their worlds precisely through a heightened visual mediation.

Is it that the hyper-reality forces us to confront how unreal the film actually is for us—makes us consider, through this heightened reality-effect, the actual distance between viewer and film?  Does it disrupt that imaginative sense of escapism that can accompany a trip to the movies?  Is it just that we are used to a vaguely fuzzy quality in our films, so that anything visually crisper seems less natural?

The strange visual effect made me realize not only how comfortable I am with a mediated viewing experience, but how the look of that mediation is crucial to the experience.  This hazy, somehow not-quite-photorealistic look is the cinematic aura.  It works by protecting us, its viewers, from the harshness of reality (even while it may be used in the representation of extremely harsh, extremely real events).  It works by distancing us, visually, from too close an encounter.  Like Impressionism, in both the literary and art-historical senses of the term, the cinema evokes the real, not through mimesis, but through something in-between the realistic and the imaginary; the objective and the subjective; the external reality and the internal psychology.  The aura protects us by distancing us from the every-day; it evokes significance by aestheticizing.

As I wrote in a recent post, I am a bad Benjaminian in that I cannot hate the aura.  The aura is what separates my everyday view of the world from a film; my mind-numbing reality-TV weekdays from a vision of a different sort.  The aura asks me to participate, psychologically anyway, in narratives, whereas the hyper-real merely pushes me out of the story.

Does Glory, a film about the first African-American U. S. Army regiment during the Civil War, mean the same thing and do the same memorial work if its viewers feel detached?  In our distracted culture, it is hard enough to dedicate two hours to an engrossing narrative, but it seems to me that we forfeit our capacity for such engagement at our peril.


Discipline Envy

•February 19, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Sometimes I have discipline envy.  Like this weekend, when an overzealous afternoon with the interlibrary loan system at my university meant that I found myself with 48 hours to survey 18 books carefully enough to be able to reference them in The Book Project.  It was an unpleasant way to spend a weekend, to be sure—a utilitarian exercise in speed reading.

Of course things went awry.  Just read the introductions and relevant chapters, I told myself—and then I came to the three books by Famous Author from the Other Discipline (FAOD) and Pretty Book that Weighs a Ton (PBWT).

Besides possibly giving me carpal tunnel,  PBWT made me extremely jealous about my own as-yet hypothetical book.  I can only imagine what the image permissions cost, let alone the 9X11.5 glossy pages.  The word that comes to mind is “luxurious.”  The book, about the more scientific uses of Victorian photography, ironically presented those scientific uses in the most artistic way possible (was this the editor’s subversive intent?).  This was a book that could very well make William Morris appreciate mass production.

The books by FAOD are similarly beautiful art objects.  What interests me so much about FAOD, however, are his arguments and his style: they surprise me; they seem so similar to the arguments and style I have encountered in books of a particular theoretical persuasion in my own discipline.  FAOD’s books remind me that no matter how far apart these two disciplines appear to be, they are also capable of sharing a discourse, a theoretic approach, a particular style.  Now, this style rubs some in my own discipline the wrong way, let alone the Other Discipline, where I am willing to bet FAOD is not universally adored.  So where does the primary loyalty lie?  To argument and style or to object of study?

The truth is, it’s hard to break into the Other Discipline from the outside—and for all our platitudes about “interdisciplinary scholarship,” it turns out that many of us in academia have grown comfortable in our silos.  So these books and the discipline they represent become objects of envy and desire—desire for the grass that’s always greener, in some ways, but also desire for a plot of grass that has no sides at all—or at least a plot of grass where the sides are measured by different criteria.

And all of this is a long way of saying that I did not make it through 18 books this weekend.

On Auratic Books

•February 3, 2013 • 1 Comment

I am currently editing a special issue, and as one of the essays in the issue discusses the non-auratic in Benjaminian terms, I have been thinking a lot about Benjamin and the aura of late.  It’s like the best part of grad school all over again, but with fewer spontaneous Wordsworthian hiking trips.

The thing is, the mechanical reproduction essay has always bothered me.  This is because I like the aura.  I am a Victorianist, after all, but more than that, I am a collector of Victoriana.  No matter how troublingly bourgeois/elitist it may have been and still is to fetishize art objects, I covet them all the same.  And my most auratic object is one that has been mass-produced, to the tune of 34,000 copies.

Take these books, for instance.  How wonderful it would be, I begin to fantasize while reading the article, to discover an errant first edition of Wuthering Heights at a garage sale.  The most desirable book on this list of “the most valuable rare books in existence” (a problematic list: where is the Dickens?) is really a toss-up for me between the Gutenberg Bible and the copy of Frankenstein, signed by Mary Shelley to Byron.  The first book is the first book, and it’s kind of hard to argue with that, but the signed copy has the added bonus of combining the aura of the first edition with the celebrity mystique of authors in the plural.

The list makes me ruminate on my own fledgling collection, which consists of several old but not first editions that once belonged to my grandmother; several daguerreotypes, tintypes, cartes de visite, and stereoviews; a penny from 1853 that cost $20 in 2010; an original illustration from Bleak House that must have been cut out of the novel and that consequently makes me feel guilty every time I look at it; and a first edition of Bleak House.  I will admit to treating the first edition with all the auratic esteem of a holy relic on occasion, and without much reason.  The book was clearly read multiple times, it is sturdy in its binding, and it was clearly meant–like all of Dickens’s novels–to be read.  I suppose if everyone had treated Dickens’s novels like auratic objects, we would never know what he had written about; it is, after all, difficult to read small typeset at a distance.

My first edition has been mechanically reproduced in various ways, of course–the text and illustrations clearly use print technology, and according to the Glasgow University Library Special Collections Department, approximately 34,000 complete first editions editions of the text were sold in the form of monthly parts (from which my copy is bound).  How can I feel the aura from a book that was 1 in 34,000?

I think the aura inheres in the word “first.”  While intellectually I understand that there were many other “firsts,” in practice I don’t think about those other copies–I consider my first edition the first.  My book takes on an added auratic charge when I consider its differences–its particular foxing, its unique binding.  These things diminish the value of the book, but in the process increases its auratic power.

Is the process of rendering auratic a mechanically reproduced art object a depoliticizing, fascist process?  Or does it possibly indicate an acceptance of mechanical reproduction into more facets of psychic life?  Can the aura be politicized?

Dickens Wikis and Blogs!

•December 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

My Dickens class designed blogs (and one group designed a wiki) as part of a group project on reading communities and Dickens.  Take a look!

One group’s blog, All Things Dickens, integrates audio recordings, passage interpretations, and reflections on our own public reading of A Christmas Carol.

The blog Dickens in Performance combines research on Dickens’s public readings with reflections on our class reading.

Another blog, Illustrating Dickens, provides contextual and interpretive information for all of the illustrations in Oliver Twist, Bleak House, and A Christmas Carol.

In the blog Team Dickens, students created a character web for Oliver Twist and included film clips and illustrations to help create a portrait of each character.

Finally, the wiki Dickens Force Four also tackled the character web, linking between characters throughout the novels covered in our class.

Lost in Time and Space

•October 27, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I’ve often thought to myself that I like the world of Neo-Victoriana—not necessarily in itself, but because I like the enthusiasm such a trend implies for Victorian things.  If someone really falls in love with The Eyre Affair, it’s not such a stretch to see them reading Jane Eyre next.

Yet the reader who falls in love with The Eyre Affair may never read Jane Eyre—or, even worse, may try to read Jane Eyre and hate it.  The Neo-Victorianist and the Victorianist are not necessarily one and the same.  Indeed, I would go so far as to brashly suggest that the very logic that governs Neo-Victoriana is in an important way antithetical to Victorians studies.

Neo-Victoriana—and I’m aware that I’m generalizing outrageously here for rhetorical effect—operates according to a logic of ahistoricism.  This may seem contradictory: it is, after all, a movement very much tied to a specific historical period.  But it is also, at its heart, a movement about temporal and spatial dislocation.  It is about playing with the past from the perspective of the present; in some cases, it is about the reinvention of the present through a reappropriation of the past.

For all its seeming historicity, it strikes me as profoundly anti-historical.

Allow me to explain myself via a detour with Charles Dickens.  Dickens hated having his photographic image taken: he found the experience of sitting for photographers uncomfortable, and he turned down at least one sitting, citing his unwillingness to multiply his photographic images.  Yet multiply they did: he sat for at least 120 distinct photographic portraits.  While we may wonder about the source of Dickens’s discomfort, as well as the seeming contradiction represented in his simultaneous disdain for photography on the one hand and the fact that he was the most photographed Victorian person beside Queen Victoria herself on the other, this recalcitrant abundance (loudly hating photographic portraits and yet sitting for so many) is nothing less than the logic of celebrity.

The fiction of the celebrity photograph is that it promises to “put one in the presence of fame” (Marsh 106).  And at the heart of its logic lies its failure to live up to that promise.  Alexis Easley writes that “Although celebrity culture was premised on reconstruction of the past, it was also focused on the ephemeral world of the day-to-day literary marketplace” (11).  The discourse surrounding celebrity was “premised on what could be seen and known about popular authors” as well as “the mysterious and unknowable aspects of their lives and works” (12).  A celebrity is someone you know about but about whom you want to know more—a person in some respects available to you but yet withheld.

Dickens’s celebrity is going strong today.  Jay Clayton lists some of the uncountable, uncontainable, unknowable number of films, television episodes, songs, comics, fictions, nonfictions, web sites, stores, and other allusions to Dickens and his novels that are alive and well in our contemporary culture.  An important subset of these proliferating allusions is the category featuring Dickens’s images.  Photographic portraits played a vital role in establishing Dickens’s celebrity as an author and continue to play a role in sustaining that celebrity today.  Photographic reproductions understandably adorn the covers of biographies of Dickens, but also objects such as coffee mugs, hats, and t-shirts.  This Dickens, the Dickens of the coffee mug industry, is in one sense the “right” Dickens in spirit, a postmodern anachronism with just the right amount of “allusion, parody, irony, and hyperbole” to do Dickens—the man who “took pleasure in noting the spinoff products from his imagination”—-proud, as Clayton suggests (164, 4).  In another sense—or perhaps it’s more just to say on the other side of this same sense, this endlessly reappropriated face of Dickens holds “No depth—-just surface” (102).  These reappropriated photographic portraits are completely out of historical context.  This is a different, completely ahistorical way of encountering a historical personage.  Photography not only makes the image possible—-for they are photographs—-its logic of image reproduction also makes this proliferation possible.

Instead of a conscious or subconscious cultivation of celebrity, we might read Dickens’s reaction to his photographic recalcitrance a bit more generously.  Was it, perhaps, an acknowledgment on some level of the anti-historical move of such photographic celebrity?

Neo-Victoriana is not all concerned with photography or celebrity.  I think the comparison is apt, however: both Neo-Victoriana and Dickens’s celebrity image are definitionally dislocated.  The “Neo” in Neo-Victoriana emphasizes its historical separation from the object of its fixation.  I’m not convinced this is a bad thing, but I do think it is a worth notice.  Readers and scholars have treated the Neo-Victorian seriously as a subject of analysis: 2007’s University of Exeter conference on Neo-Victorianism: The Politics and Aesthetics of Appropriation, for instance, indicates a willingness to engage with Neo-Victoriana critically.

Yet I believe at stake is a larger issue of our contemporary relationship to history.  My students often seek connections between the Victorian texts I assign and contemporary events.  Indeed, I teach them to look for these connections.  In one sense, that’s what the study of literature is all about: why read something from long ago if it does not resonate?  Yet there is something disquieting about this appropriation, to borrow from Exeter’s conference title.  In making all history our history, we efface important differences.

Do we even know what it would mean to approach history without attempting to appropriate it in some way?

Works Cited

Clayton, Jay. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

Easley, Alexis. Literary Celebrity, Gender, and Victorian Authorship, 1850-1914. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2011.

Marsh, Joss. “The Rise of Celebrity Culture.” Charles Dickens in Context. Ed. Sally Ledger. NY: Cambridge UP, 2011. 98-108.

“Where’s Ma? Oh, she’s the one ensconced in the rug.” (Part II)

•May 18, 2012 • 7 Comments

“I am almost certain that the last picture shows a deceased subject.”

“Actually it looks like four of them are deceased imo.”

“They all look alive to me, but I’m often wrong.”

“Ok; pictures 2 and 3 are 100% photographs of deceased children.”

“Actually I disagree about most of these photos being memento mori.”

“None of these children are dead.”

“I can guarantee that shots 2 and 3 are post mortem in fact.”

“there is the possibility that one or two of these might be post mortem.”

“I don’t agree that these depict deceased children.”

Everyone is concerned about whether or not the kids are dead.  Which, don’t get me wrong, is a valid concern (except, of course, that they are all dead, by now). The quotes above, excerpted from responses to Hidden Mothers in Victorian Portraits, steer the conversation away from the mothers-ensconced-in-rugs-issue and into macabre memento mori terrain.  So my questions in this, Part II of my post on mothers-as-furniture, are as follows: 1) what does it say that people become so angsty about whether or not the kids were dead in these images, and 2) doesn’t the fact that the memento mori conversation has somewhat hijacked the hidden mother conversation ironically reproduce the very problem illustrated in the hidden mother images to begin with?  In other words: these mothers are effaced, and instead of debating this issue, we instead efface them further by focusing on dead babies.

This problem–alive or dead?–is interesting, don’t get me wrong.  It is creepy to see a photograph of a person who was clearly dead; it is creepier still to see a photograph of a dead (?) person posed as though still alive.  The prevalence of nineteenth-century memento mori indicates that this creepiness factor is not transhistorical: we have become less comfortable with this kind of proximity to death (somehow it is okay to watch graphic violent deaths on the evening news, but taboo to have a photograph of your dead uncle in his coffin hanging on your wall).  At the same time, we remain obsessed with these images of death, and–as the dialogue excerpt above indicates–obsessed with being able to identify them as such.

Like My Last Duchess, the children in the Hidden Mothers images all look as if they were alive, and so to me this conversation exposes a desire to know whether these poses are real.  Viewers are either skeptics or believers in this realism, and the debate suggests that realism itself is on the line.  How much do we trust the stories these images tell?  If a given image is “not real”; i.e., if the child is dead and posed to look alive, what might that say about other elements within the image we take for realism?  What might it say about similar images?  Photography at large?  Realistic representation at large?  Some of these are grandiose questions and I’m not suggesting we answer them here; my point, however, is that the weight of these underlying, implicit concerns might explain some of the responders’ impassioned and absolutist arguments.

So we want to know whether or not the images we look at are “real.”  But there’s an additional hysteria at play here, I would suggest, because these are children.  And if anything is creepier than a memento mori, it’s a memento mori of a child.  Or a potential memento mori of a child.  And what I find so interesting about this is, as I mentioned above, thatallthe people in these nineteenth-century images are by now quite dead.  The argument is about whether the dead people–specifically, the dead children–were dead at a certain point in time.

We want to know when we are looking at life or death.  And our inability to truly know contributes, I would suggest, to the tenor of the debate on the Hidden Mothers page.  One commenter might say he or she can “guarantee” an image is post mortem; another states bluntly that “None of these children are dead.”  Everyone is so sure, and it’s starting to remind me of the time one of my graduate school advisors told me, “Susan, you can’t prove a point simply by stating it 100 times.”  But we need to know if these kids were alive or dead, and since we can’t know, we have to insist we know anyway (this need underlies the horror of the vampire and the zombie–albeit in different ways–as I will discuss in a future post).

It also leads us away from the other very creepy–and central–aspect of these images.  The images illustrate the effacement of the Victorian mother.  It is therefore extremely ironic that effacement falls into the background (yet again) in the response section of this post.  Ironic and, to my mind, just as creepy as dead babies.