Megan Ward, Theorizing the Historical Middle
While Benjamin Noy’s evocative “Fog, Mud, and Dust” examined how we are still Victorian, I’d like to think about how the Victorians were the future. Much of the discussion in the wake of the V21 manifesto has taken place within the confines of a too-familiar argument of history vs. theory, without taking up the manifesto’s invitation to “interrogate” this “habitual opposition.” To accept that invitation, we need to blur, rather than fall back on, the line between history and theory. Historical moments and documents are, themselves, a kind of theory – and one that need not always be contextual. That is, rather than responding to a call solely to theorize, I want to respond to a call to historicize anew, by considering information theory as a particular entanglement of theory and history.
But rather than turning either to Victorian information or its digital counterpart, I propose that we consider the historical middle, the period between the Victorians and ourselves. The twentieth century stretches between us, studded with responses to Victorian ideas, yet is seldom invoked as a relevant historical interlocutor. Instead, we most often see Victorian futures invoked in the form of presentism. And assuredly, Victorian resonances in the present feels particularly urgent in our climate of outcome-based education; as Adela Pinch notes, “engaged presententism” is the most salient trend among recent studies in the nineteenth-century.  One difficulty of presentism, however, is its tendency to pose as historicism’s only alternative. As the V21 manifesto suggests, there may be “variations of and alternatives to presentism [that] have not yet been adequately described or theorized.” The historical middle represents one such alternative. After all, our present is not the only futurity that the Victorian era foreshadows.
Richard Menke offers an example of just such a potential future when he suggests in his response to the V21 manifesto that “perhaps among the theories we need are theories of Victorian information (in its historical formation as well as its digital transformations and circulation).” That parenthetical gives a delightfully capacious turn to what makes information “Victorian,” signaling Victorian information theories while also suggesting that other theories of information might be useful in making sense of Victorian literature. For an era that was in, Paul Dobraszczyk’s words, witnessing “an ‘information explosion’ no less momentous than our own,” theories of information are certainly relevant, but we must, in Benjamin’s words, “blast open the continuum of history” in order to understand information’s earlier explosions. 
The historical middle between the Victorian telegraph and the semantic web is vast and underexplored. What might it look like, for instance, to consider game theory not in its present incarnation but in John Von Neumann’s original iteration in 1922? Or to perform a cybernetic reading of feedback loops in mid-Victorian industrial fiction? The development in the 1970s of improved source coding or the data compression innovations of the 1980s may also present new ways of understanding fin-de-siècle fictions of telegraphy. If, as Geoffrey Nunberg has argued, the “information age” begins in the nineteenth century, then its subsequent unfurling encompasses all of these iterations and more, which may usefully be read back into their origins – not just to illuminate their development, but to understand those beginnings, as well. 
The historical middle is rich with work that we don’t typically consider theoretical but should. We might expect the publications of the Bell System Technical Journal (1922-1983) to fall under the heading of “twentieth-century historical context” rather than a kind of theory. Yet, this journal published much of twentieth-century information theory and it – along with other twentieth-century technical, bureaucratic, or scientific documents – presents new possibilities for Victorian studies. For instance, Claude Shannon’s landmark 1948 article defines information as a measure of predictability rather than as specific pieces of knowledge. The first to fully articulate this sense of modern, abstract information, Shannon’s work helps to explicate mid-Victorian informatic forms that inchoately captured the transition to modern information, forms that range from the analytical engine to mystery fiction. I invoke Shannon’s idea of the stochastic system to reassess predictability for mid-Victorian realist character by reading predictability across a system of characters rather than, as Forster would have it, as a measurement of individual interiority. Shannon’s theory comes to us neither from the present nor from these novels’ Victorian context but from 1948, the very heart of the middle.
In some ways, my methodology is an extension of the interdisciplinary work that has defined our field for the past several decades. But in other ways, it challenges us to rethink our categories of history and theory, to reclassify what constitutes a historicist and a presentist approach to studying the past. By reading the nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, we both theorize and historicize in a way that challenges our definitions of both of those terms. I hope that doing so can shift critical debate away from the well-trodden ground of history vs. theory and re-imagine the relationship between the Victorian past and its multiple futures. The historical middle is – like most middles – the thing we must move through.
Adela Pinch, “Recent Studies in the Nineteenth Century.” SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 54.4 (2014): 943, accessed May 21, 2015, doi: 10.1353/sel.2014.0039
Paul Dobraszczyk, “Useful Reading? Designing Information for London’s Victorian Cab Passengers.” Journal of Design History 21.2 (2008): 121, access May 19, 2015, doi: 10.1093/jdh/epn009. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schoen Books, 1968), 262.
Geoffrey Nunberg, “Farewell to the Information Age,” in The Future of the Book, ed. Geoffrey Nunberg (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 103-38.