Reflection by Richard Menke

Formulating my response to Susan Zieger’s rich book on ephemeral media, literature, and cultures of consumption in the nineteenth century, I pause to check email, scan the headlines for the latest outrage, or to check out my social media. A buzz from an app on my phone distracts me. I zone out for a moment. I wonder what my V21 interlocutors are writing—and whether they’re as distracted by such mundane and fleeting media experiences as I am.

Probably so. The nineteenth-century predecessors of our contemporary platforms for ephemeral daily anticipate them in a crucial way, argues Zieger: they generate affect, and they do so in a way we might miss if we simply looked to them for their discursive content (content that is often transitory or perfunctory, in any case). Affect here offers the somewhat protean term of art for psychic intensities that run below—or beyond—individuality, cognition, or emotion to range across minds and bodies while connecting them to objects and environments. Explicitly created as vehicles for iterable, indirect experience, media—mass media in particular—present a paradigmatic case for exploring affect. (Brian Massumi’s “The Autonomy of Affect” [1995] sets off from the rift between children’s professed emotional reactions to a creepy German TV show and the physiological responses of their bodies.)

Taking seriously the emergence of print as a true mass medium in the nineteenth century, The Mediated Mind: Affect, Ephemera, and Consumerism in the Nineteenth Century tackles materials that at once embody the reach of Victorian print culture and suggest possible limits to more familiar modes of interpreting it: temperance tracts, cigarette cards, pools of ink. As it happens, the Victorian literary works that engage with such media and their consumption in Zieger’s study are novels and tales that cut across print media with different affordances, audiences, and temporalities. The Moonstone, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the Sherlock Holmes stories, Peter Ibbetson: all of these appeared as part of regular serial printforms in advance of publication in their own volumes.

But even today, Victorian literature and journalism maintain both their affiliation and their distance from the ephemeral print media of their time. In contrast to books and journals published in the nineteenth century, which today seem to be joining an ever-expanding archive of materials digitized from the off-copyright Anglophone cultural commons, we might think of Zieger’s ephemeral media as now inhabiting something like an unsearchable dark web of Victorian print culture. So far, Google, ProQuest, and company seem to be showing little inclination to create an encyclopedic, searchable database of cigarette cards or temperance prizes. Even if they did, we would still need to think carefully which modes of interpretation would suit these kinds of highly varied yet explicitly occasional and formulaic media objects.

In a media-rich world, cultural consumption is kaleidoscopic, ever-changing yet also as constrained, routine, and repetitious as the algorithmically optimized distractions on the devices on which this reflection was composed and with which it will be read. Subjective yet structural, affect might offer a somewhat euphemistic (even coyly “Victorian”?) term for the economies of mediated attention that might also go by a name such as neurocapitalism.

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