Popular Materials: Late-Victorian Illustrated Magazines and the Technological Imagination

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My dissertation, “Popular Materials: Late-Victorian Magazines and the Technological Imagination,” deploys a theoretical framework of media archaeology and digital humanities to track continuities between print and digital cultures. I examine the multimodal aesthetics of four popular illustrated magazines, the Illustrated London News, the Graphic, Pearson’s, and the Strand, between 1885 and 1918. Situating popular print media in this era’s consumerist, new media milieu, I analyze the aesthetic and material characteristics through which these magazines sought to influence how readers conceptualized popular culture.

In the Introduction, I demonstrate that Victorian readers possessed a print media literacy through which they could interpret the material traces of production that were part of a periodical’s aesthetics and situate a print object in its real and imagined socio-technological contexts, a capacity I describe as the technological imagination. Print media literacy also enabled readers to attend to how a physical print object mediated culture, which I describe as medial awareness. As I show, readers’ technological imagination and medial awareness shaped their engagement with print depictions of popular culture and their own identities as subjects of that culture.

Chapter 1 relates how, at the turn of the century, the Illustrated London News and other popular illustrated magazines repositioned themselves within a milieu increasingly characterized by new, non-print media. Using the media theory of André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, I argue that the increasingly multimodal character of magazines, enabled by new image reproduction technology, constituted the “second birth” of this print medium. In turn, the visual and material aesthetics of periodicals engaged readers’ technological imagination and drew their attention to mediation itself. I employ Michel de Certeau’s theory of strategy and tactic to show that, while periodical producers strategically invoked readers’ technological imagination to acquire cultural authority, readers could use their medial awareness to poach producer techniques, becoming critical and productive agents of mass culture.

I explore the implications of the dynamic between periodical producers and consumers in several case studies. Chapter 2 demonstrates that advertisers in news weeklies such as the Illustrated London News and the Graphic encouraged readers to conflate reading and consumption, but readers could appropriate advertising strategies using curatorial and hyper-reading tactics. This chapter applies N. K. Hayles’ theory of digital hyper-reading to historical print, showing this reading method’s historical roots in Victorian illustrated periodicals. Chapter 3 shows how, in monthlies such as Pearson’s, population journalism prompted readers to conceptualize themselves using a “biopolitical” rubric of normalization, in Michel Foucault’s sense. However, this genre’s spectacular strategies also created space for readers to respond with critical tactics. Drawing attention to its own spectacular remediation of bodies, photorealistic data visualization opened its graphical methods and biopolitical values to reader scrutiny. Foucault acknowledges few means by which biopolitical subjects can exert agency, but I demonstrate that illustrated periodical media afforded opportunities for Victorian readers to scrutinize biopolitical discourse.

Chapter 4 reveals how readers of “Curiosities,” a long-running feature of participatory journalism in the Strand, used their print media literacy to appropriate multimodal magazine production and contribute to what Patrice Flichy terms the “socio-technical frame of reference” for the hand camera. As “Curiosities” demonstrates, late-Victorian illustrated periodicals influenced the terms of user engagement for twentieth- and twenty-first-century mass media by encouraging readers to attend to medium-specific qualities and popularizing forms of expression such as information graphics.

“Popular Materials: Late-Victorian Magazines and the Technological Imagination” presents new research on under-addressed historical magazines, such as Pearson’s and the Strand, and print technologies, such as photomechanical image reproduction processes. The project also contributes to recent efforts to apply media archaeology to print history in order to understand the nineteenth-century history of digital knowledge production.