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Networking: Communicating with Bodies and…

Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth…

by Laura Christine Otis

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Laura Otis's monograph explores the way nineteenth-century writers and scientists imagined communications, especially how their conceptions were shaped by the idea of the network, as in both the telegraph and the nervous system. Viewing these two systems as relatable could cause one to see human networks as mechanical: Charles Babbage "approached bodies and machines in the same way, studying patterns of movement and seeking the simplest arrangements of parts that could produce a desired motion" (29). It could also cause you to view mechanical networks as living things; Emil DuBois-Raymond believed that a "telegraph network modeled on an organic system would allow a society to survive-- and conquer-- just as a sophisticated nervous system allowed a living animal to succeed" (49).

Otis moves from this set-up of the issues to discuss the influence of these network theories on nineteenth-century literature. Most notable is, of course, Eliot's Middlemarch and its famous "web." This is often taken evolutionarily, but Otis provides a strong reading of the novels webs of communication. The book ends with readings of literature that's more explicitly telegraphic, most of which I've read: Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes, Wired Love, and Henry James's "In the Cage." The book then ends by considering the "web without wires" (i.e., telepathic communication) and Dracula. One sometimes wishes Otis could step back more: there are compelling readings of individual texts here (I ought to cite her take on Middlemarch), but the overall "theory" of her argument is not readily apparent. But as an examination of ways of thinking embodied in ways of writing, it rates highly.
  Stevil2001 | Apr 30, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0472112139, Hardcover)

This compelling interdisciplinary study investigates the scientific and cultural roots of contemporary conceptions of the network, including computer information systems, the human nervous system, and communications technology, demonstrating that the image of the network is actually centuries old. Networking places current comparisons of nerve and computer networks in perspective, exploring early analogies linking nerves and telegraphs and demonstrating how 19th-century neurobiologists, engineers, and fiction writers influenced each other’s ideas about communication.

The interdisciplinary sweep of neuroscientist and literary scholar Laura Otis’s book is impressive, focusing simultaneously on literary works by such authors as George Eliot, Bram Stoker, Henry James, and Mark Twain and on the scientific and technological achievements of such pioneers as Luigi Galvani, Hermann von Helmholtz, Charles Babbage, Samuel Morse, and Werner von Siemens. Networking will appeal to general readers as well as to scholars in the fields of interdisciplinary studies, 19th-century literature, and the history of science and technology. The paperback edition of the book has been updated with a preface by the author.

“A sophisticated but jargon-free analysis of the ways in which scientific and technological ideas created novel explanatory metaphors that also became powerful tools for understanding social and natural systems.”
—Technology and Culture

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:38 -0400)

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