My dissertation focuses on popular illustrated print media from the turn of the last century, between 1880 and 1910, in Great Britain. In this cultural moment, magazines and newspapers were the most widely circulated media, and illustrated magazines and newspapers were the most widely read multimodal media. Illustrated periodicals used not only verbal, but also visual, spatial, and material modes of information expression.
Turn-of-the-century illustrated magazines and newspapers continued many of the practices of Victorian print culture while participating in a new media climate that was largely defined by non-verbal modes of communication—for example, still images, moving images, and recorded sound. Illustrated periodicals participated in both old and new media traditions. I argue that illustrated periodicals, poised between Victorian popular culture and twentieth-century mass, consumer culture, shaped the strategies of modern media and the terms of modern media engagement.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, illustrated periodicals educated readers in print media literacy by offering articles on aspects of illustrated periodical production itself, from engraving techniques to steam-powered printing and the distribution of papers from the publishing office. Through this literacy, Victorian readers could interpret the material traces of a print object’s production and situate it in its socio-technological contexts. I describe this interpretive process as the technological imagination (a concept for which I draw from work by art historian Gerry Beegan and media theorist Matthew Kirschenbaum). The technological imagination was important to how readers engaged with an illustrated magazine’s multimodal affordances and interpreted its depictions of popular culture.
One of the most important goals of my dissertation research is to demonstrate that, in many ways, illustrated mass periodicals were the forebears of digital mass media. And, whether we recognize it or not, the cultural politics enacted by late-Victorian magazines and newspapers continue to resonate in digital mass media. For example, it was in the Victorian period that data visualizations became a way to disseminate scientific information to the reading public—to entertain, to educate, and to instill social and political values. Many of the bar graphs, pie charts, bell curves, and other visualizations in popular illustrated magazines were of the British people themselves: these graphics quantified real human bodies and behaviours and statistically normalized them. Such visualizations encouraged readers to conceive of themselves—and all British citizens—as rationalized units of a managed population. These politics resonate in contemporary data visualizations, though digital tools have enabled them to become more complex and dynamic.
Data visualizations are only one set of techniques that were established in Victorian illustrated papers and now are used by online communication platforms. When digital platforms include info graphics, weather charts, diagrams, multimodal techniques that blur ads and content; when the sheer overabundance of text and image tidbits encourages readers to skim and juxtapose; when digital magazines encourage readers to contribute or even to poach and appropriate content—all of these feature of digital media have a genealogy that goes back at least as far as the nineteenth century, and particularly to nineteenth-century British popular print. Having a fuller understanding of the role that Victorian illustrated print played in shaping emerging mass culture can give us a fuller understanding of the role that digital media play in our own culture.