Reflection by Lindsay Wilhelm
There’s always something slightly squishy—or as Susan Zieger puts it, “frustratingly tautological” (9)—about the term affect. In common parlance, we often use the word as a catch-all for physiognomic presentation, with the connotation (in contrast to its more interiorized cousin, emotion) of outwardness and relationality. And yet affect is not purely performative either; it is rather a kind of interface that, to quote Zieger again, “links emotion to cognition, self to other, and self to environment” (8). As such, affect furnishes Zieger a flexible concept for exploring the varied experiences and interactions that mass media ephemera enabled in the nineteenth century.
I begin with this word for a couple reasons. Most immediately, the capaciousness of Zieger’s usage of affect highlights one of the most rewarding aspects of The Mediated Mind—that is, its refreshing comfort with ambiguity. As a scholar of aestheticism in particular, I was also fascinated by the intersection of affect, as Zieger defines it, and aesthetics, which is a less obvious but still important watchword of her book. Her opening chapter on temperance-related ephemera, for example, foregrounds how the temperance rally harnessed the “contagious excitement of the live mass event” (38), in part by mass-producing and broadcasting a unique “aesthetics of sobriety” (25). Throughout, Zieger draws our attention not only to the practical functions of ephemera, but also to the creation and reception of ephemera as art objects in their own right.
As might be expected, the interplay of aesthetics and affect is especially relevant in Zieger’s sharp final chapter on mass culture and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). On a micro level, her placement of Dorian within “the new psychological terrain shaped by mass media” poses an elegant solution, of sorts, to the always-perplexing problem of the novel’s moral allegiance (198). Dorian’s fatal flaw, in this reading, is not his decadence per se, but his continued adherence to older, ego-centric methods of media consumption: methods that leave him ill-equipped to process modern mass media. More broadly, her analysis of Dorian Gray also demands that scholars of aestheticism expand our notion of precisely what forms of culture interested Wilde and his fellow aesthetes. Although Arts and Crafts, aestheticism, and related movements largely emerged as critical, often elitist responses to the rise of mass production, Zieger’s account of Wilde reminds us that aesthetes didn’t uniformly reject mass
culture. Reading The Mediated Mind, I found myself wondering if aestheticism’s mania for
collecting and curation—whether it be blue china or leather-bound editions—might owe
anything to the popular collecting fads Zieger discusses, or if mass audiences ever figured into
the Paterian vision of a revived Hellenistic culture. A surprising number of aesthetes wrote for
newspapers, published textbook-like digests, or otherwise engaged a greater lay public: Zieger’s
book leads me to consider whether and how these writers leveraged mass media, even as they
advocated for the cultivation of ostensibly “higher,” more refined tastes.
This brings me to my final takeaway from The Mediated Mind: its implications for teaching the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Zieger’s project is its archival research, which unveils the complex histories of oft-overlooked media such as cigarette cards, temperance medals, and advertisements; by her own reckoning, her “elevat[ion of] such trivial ephemera to critical attention…illuminates neglected facets of nineteenth-century experience” (2). In doing so, I would add, she challenges us to diversify our syllabi, to reexamine how we might show our students a more complete picture of Victorian literary life. The ephemeral, as Zieger proves, might be disposable and temporary but never insignificant.