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

ILN News Van

How did the aesthetics of popular illustrated periodicals shape late-Victorian reader engagement? How did these terms of engagement relate to the role magazines played in emerging mass culture? My dissertation investigates these questions using evidence from four popular periodicals between 1885 and 1918: the Graphic, the Illustrated London News, Pearson’s Magazine, and the Strand. 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.

Combining close reading with historical contextualization and a media archaeological emphasis on materiality, I analyze aesthetic characteristics of these four illustrated magazines that influenced reader engagement by invoking readers’ technological imagination. At the turn of the century, the Illustrated London News and other popular illustrated magazines underwent what André Gaudreault and Phillippe Marion would call a “second birth,” repositioning themselves within the era’s new media milieu. The increasingly visual and multimodal aesthetics of these periodicals engaged readers’ technological imagination and drew their attention to mediation itself. Using Michel de Certeau’s theory of strategy and tactic, I argue that periodical producers strategically invoked the technological imagination to acquire cultural authority, but readers could use their medial awareness to poach producer techniques, becoming critical and productive agents of mass culture. In news weeklies such as the Illustrated London News and the Graphic, advertisers encouraged readers to conflate reading and consumption, but readers could appropriate advertising strategies using curatorial and hyper-reading tactics. In monthlies such as Pearson’s, population journalism prompted readers to conceptualize themselves using a “biopolitical” rubric of normalization, in Foucault’s sense, but this genre’s spectacular strategies created space for readers to exert tactical agency. In “Curiosities,” a participatory feature in the Strand, readers used the technological imagination to appropriate multimodal magazine production and contribute to what 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.