Saturday, December 7, 2019

Sean Grass's "The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative"

Sean Grass is Professor of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology and is the author of The Self in the Cell: Narrating the Victorian Prisoner (2003), Charles Dickens's 'Our Mutual Friend': A Publishing History (2014), and several essays on Victorian literature and culture.

Grass applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative: Autobiography, Sensation, and the Literary Marketplace, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book places the reader late in Chapter 2, which takes up Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-1). Because the page really gets into the intricacies of an argument specific to that novel, it is not probably worth quoting at great length here. But it does contain this short passage:
… Pip [structures] his story around the idea that his life is a debt owed, his subjectivity a deficit that must be made up to repay his sister for bringing him up by hand, or to make amends to Magwitch, Miss Havisham, Joe, and the others who have been his benefactors. The contrast that Pip draws between himself and his five dead brothers in the churchyard is that they died without repaying that debt, lying mendicant “with their hands in their trousers-pockets” after giving up “trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle” (9). The language is Darwinian but also Malthusian. Having “insisted on being born,” Pip owes a debt embedded in origins, as if biological beginnings, like textual ones, bring subjectivity into economic relations just by making it a material thing.
Even though it is focused narrowly on Great Expectations, page 99 does—in this passage, at least—illustrate a key component of the book’s argument: that the transformation of subjectivity, or identity, into a textual object during the first half of the nineteenth century brought it into new kinds of relations to the capitalist sphere. Broadly speaking, my book is an unusual one because it straddles the line between book history and postmodern theory, and between distant and close reading, to make a significant point about the proliferation and popularization of life writing during the nineteenth century. We have tended often to treat Victorian life writing as notable particularly for the ways in which it constructs identity, whether along the lines of gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity and national identity, or some other category. For these reasons and for others, until the last few decades, we have also tended to focus on certain canonical, conventional, and predictably structured instances of life writing by figures such as Harriet Martineau, Anthony Trollope, and John Stuart Mill. But we have paid very little attention to the fact that, to paraphrase Trev Lynn Broughton, most writers produced life writing, and most publishers published it, simply to make money. In my book, then, I wanted to ask: when exactly did life writing become big business, how did it intersect with other emerging practices—from copyright law to portraiture, and from the census to the carte-de-visite—for textualizing and economizing identity, and what where the cultural implications of entangling identity with property and thus exposing it to the laws of ownership and exchange? As I argue, we can answer that question in part by examining mid-century fiction, principally though not exclusively the sensation novel, which represents in myriad ways the profound entanglement of textuality, subjectivity, and property at and after the middle of the nineteenth century. Written in the first-person, drawing from Dickens’s own life, and designed explicitly as a commodity for the market, Great Expectations exemplifies this argument and is the first novel I address, though subsequent chapters on Mary Elizabeth Braddon, George Eliot, Charles Reade, and Wilkie Collins all make (I hope) compelling and complementary cases. So while page 99 of The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative doesn’t really reflect the full complexities of the picture that the book offers, it certainly illustrates the way in which I bring my broad thesis to bear on one particular, and particularly familiar, mid-century novel.
Learn more about The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Camilla Townsend's "Fifth Sun"

Camilla Townsend is Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University. She is the author of numerous books, including Malintzin's Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, and The Annals of Native America: How the Nahuas of Colonial Mexico Kept Their History Alive, which won multiple prizes, among them The Albert J. Beveridge Award awarded by the American Historical Association.

Townsend applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, and reported the following:
Indigenous youths of the late 1500s [who came to accept the Spanish friars’ story of Moctezuma’s purported belief in the “white gods”] had no way of knowing the deep history of either the Old World or the New. They had no way of knowing that in the Old World, people had been full-time farmers for ten thousand years. Europeans had by no means been the first farmers, but they were nevertheless the cultural heirs of many millennia of sedentary living. They therefore had the resultant substantially greater population and a panoply of technologies—not just metal arms and armor, but also ships, navigation equipment, flour mills, barrel-making establishments, wheeled carts, printing presses, and many other inventions that rendered them more powerful than those who did not have such things. In the New World, people had been full-time farmers for perhaps three thousand years. It was almost as if Renaissance Europe had come face to face with the ancient Sumerians. The Mesopotamians were stunningly impressive—but they could not have defeated Charles the Fifth of the Holy Roman Empire working in combination with the Pope. Had the young indigenous writers of the late sixteenth century known all of this, it would have been a relief to their minds. But that relief was denied them. And so they participated in constructing a version of events that Moctezuma would have derided—but that he had no power to change from the land of the dead.
The “page 99 test” works for Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs if we accept that a western reader’s eye will always move from left to right. Opening the book to page 99, the reader will find it on the right side. To the left, on page 98, lies a paragraph that is, in truth—I kid you not—the crux of the book. Fifth Sun tells the story of the Aztecs from about 100 years before the Spanish conquest to about 100 years after, and it does so by relying entirely on sources written in Nahuatl (the Aztec language), many of which have only recently been translated into English, or are only now being translated. It accepts as a basic premise the idea that the Aztecs were every bit as creative, smart, brave and rational as the Europeans, but that they simply did not have equivalent technology they could use to defend themselves. Why didn’t they? The paragraph above is the culmination of a section that explains the profound importance of the Old World having turned to farming millennia before the New World did. It also refers to young indigenous men in the late 1500s choosing to believe the Spanish friars who taught them that their grandparents had perceived the newcomers to be gods. But when we read the sources written by their parents and grandparents closer to the time of the conquest, we find no evidence that the people thought Hernando Cort├ęs was Quetzalcoatl or any other god. There, it becomes clear that at the time, the Native Americans recognized they had a technological problem, not a spiritual one.

Numerous issues become much clearer when we pursue the indigenous-language sources rather than taking at face value everything the Spaniards had to say, and when we also take seriously all that archaeologists can teach us about the advent of farming and its results. Fifth Sun is an action-packed romp through the history of the Aztecs as they described it themselves in the years in which it happened, rather than as we have chosen to tell it in after years, based on the words and assumptions of other people.
Learn more about Fifth Sun at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Gareth Russell's "The Ship of Dreams"

Educated at Oxford University and Queens University, Belfast, Gareth Russell is a historian, novelist, and playwright. He is the author of Young and Damned and Fair, The Emperor, and An Illustrated Introduction to the Tudors. He lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Russell applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Ship of Dreams: The Sinking of the Titanic and the End of the Edwardian Era, and reported the following:
The ninety-ninth page of The Ship of Dreams discusses the cabin arrangements taken on the Titanic by silent movie star, Dorothy Gibson, who was travelling back to America with her mother. Dorothy had gone to Europe to rest after a string of exhausting successes in the movie industry, but also to test the old adage about absence impact on the heart’s fondness. Dorothy was involved in a love affair with a married movie producer, Jules Brulatour, and she hoped this separation would make him consider getting a divorce so that they could be together properly.

I think Ford Madox Ford’s test might have worked rather well for The Ship of Dreams, in terms of giving a flavour of what the book is about and attempting. I try to weave the story of the Titanic, through the six passengers I have selected, to give a wider idea of what was going on in the world in 1912. Dorothy’s narrative gives the reader a view into the nascent film industry, its cruelties as well as its spectacular successes, while also highlighting some unusual features about life in the Titanic’s first-class quarters. Not all cabins cost the same price, with Dorothy occupying one of the cheapest available in the most expensive part of the liner. I hope the book, and this extract, balances the panoramic with the personal. History is the collision of people with forces beyond their control, which is what I hope I captured in The Ship of Dreams. I will leave you with some of the words from page 99, as a hearty convert to Ford’s theory:
As famous as she was, Dorothy was still part of a nascent industry and the astronomic wealth enjoyed by movie stars was nearly a decade away. A salary of $275 was huge to most of Dorothy’s generation, but not to many of the Titanic’s other first-class passengers. Tellingly, she remained preoccupied with a need for permanent security, for which she looked to marriage and not her career, which she always, perhaps fairly, regarded as inherently and terrifyingly unstable.

Dorothy and her mother shared cabin E-22, one of the cheapest rooms available in First Class. The Countess of Rothes’s maid was travelling on the same corridor. Nonetheless, Dorothy was impressed by the Titanic, which she described as ‘glorious’. The three manned lifts for First Class, running from A- through E-Deck, opened on the latter opposite the ladies’ bathroom since, like most of the Titanic’s cabins, even in First Class, the Gibsons’ room did not have its own lavatory. Sinks were provided in all first-class staterooms, but only a few of the suites on B- and C-Deck had their own private bathrooms. Communal toilet facilities, similar to those in a restaurant, were provided in lieu and this was to remain the norm in First Class until the arrival in 1938 of a Dutch luxury liner, the Nieuw Amsterdam, after which en-suites throughout First Class came to be expected. … Immediately around the corner from this bloc was Dorothy and Pauline Gibson’s two-berth white-panelled cabin, with its mahogany dressing table, wardrobe and chest of drawers, over which their porthole looked out to the sea. The voyage would offer Dorothy her final few days of rest before she met Jules for another bout of filming. At Cherbourg, she had assured a reporter from the Moving Picture News that she felt ‘like a new woman’ and ‘so happy at the prospect’ of getting back to America that ‘I couldn’t think.’

Well versed in the hyperbolic politesse of the movie industry, Dorothy had also once assured a journalist, ‘I am a daughter of Hoboken. There is a pride in that.’ Only she, and perhaps her mother, ever knew how much truth there was in that statement. On another occasion, Dorothy contrasted her stepfather’s evangelicalism with her ambition in what sounds like a more frank admission of why she had left the path expected of a girl from her background in Hoboken: ‘My father is a great man of the spirit and is contented with the simple life. But I and my mother are bohemians and we find the pleasures of this lovely world irresistible!' Whether she would find permanent access to the pleasures of the world through the career she had won for herself or the marriage she wanted remained to be seen.
Follow Gareth Russell on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Arthur I. Miller's "The Artist in the Machine"

Arthur I. Miller is Emeritus Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at University College London. He is the author of Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art and other books including Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty That Causes Havoc.

Miller applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Artist in the Machine: The World of AI-Powered Creativity, and reported the following:
From page 99:
“Translating one image into another … is like translating between languages, like between English and French. They are two different representations of the same world,” says Phillip Isola.

Isola and his coworkers invented a variation on GANs that he calls conditional generative adversarial networks (CGANs). They are conditional because instead of starting the generator network (G) from noise, from nothing, they condition it by using an actual image. Rather than feeding the discriminator network (D) on huge caches of images, they use pairs of images, such as a black-and-white image of a scene and the same scene in color. Then, they input a new black-and-white scene into the generator network. Initially D rejects the new scene, so G colorizes it. In other words, the output is conditioned by the input, which is what GANs are all about. As a result, Pix2Pix, as Isola calls his system, requires a much smaller set of training data than other supervised learning algorithms.

Thus Isola discovered how to translate an image of one sort into another sort: Pix2Pix, pixels to pixels. As he puts it, all those “little problems in computer vision were just mapping of pixels to pixels.” While style transfer transfers the style of one image onto another, creating an image “in the style of” a painting by Picasso, for example, Pix2Pix goes further. Like Leon Gatys, who invented style transfer, Isola is interested in perception, how we see.
My personal litmus test for reading a book is to be gripped by the first sentence in the first substantive section. If I had to make this decision on the basis of page 99 of The Artist in the Machine I would be tempted to put it back on the shelf. While what is on this page is highly interesting – almost magical – the reader will have to have gone through preceding chapters to know, for example, what a GAN (Generative Adversarial Network) and style transfer are. Opening up to page 99 could give the prospective reader the impression that this is a book meant for a computer scientist. Not so. I wrote The Artist in the Machine for the educated layperson interested in learning about the up-to-date ways in which AIs (artificial intelligences) can amazingly create art, literature and music of a sort that we cannot imagine. My book focuses on concepts and uses no mathematics. So, the page 99 test does not work for my book.

Those aficionados of AI who open to page 99, will be struck by how an artificial network machine, trained on pairs of images, one in black and white and the other in colour, can colorize an image. The process is called Pix2Pix. Artists use it to create highly interesting works. Examples are in The Artist in the Machine. Pix2Pix also shows how a machine can take on its own creativity to produce an original work of art.

For some decades I have written about creativity in humans and touched on creativity in machines. In this book I have addressed both with focus on machines. I discuss how my own theory of creativity can apply to machines which, in the future, will create art, literature and music with emotions and consciousness. These works will interest us and their brethren too and perhaps will be even better than we can produce. In this way humans and machines can bootstrap each other’s creativity.
Visit Arthur I. Miller's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 2, 2019

Cynthia A. Kierner's "Inventing Disaster"

Cynthia A. Kierner is professor of history at George Mason University and the author of Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood, and reported the following:
Page 99 is the first page of the fourth of six chapters of Inventing Disaster. Titled "Benevolent Empire," this chapter examines how colonial Americans increasingly expected disaster relief from Britain after 1755, when the king and Parliament sent the impressive sum of £100,000 in aid to Portugal after a massive earthquake annihilated Lisbon, the Portuguese capital. The first page of this chapter reads as follows:
The Lisbon earthquake was more a turning point than a starting point in the history of British benevolence. In addition to local philanthropy to aid the poor and the sick at home, eighteenth-century Britons sometimes sent charitable gifts to the king’s American subjects. The most impressive case of British aid to colonists came in response to the Charleston fire of 1740, when the relief efforts of colonial governors, London merchants, and others were supplemented by a sizable contribution from the king and Parliament. Government relief for Charleston, which was not widely publicized, was an act of statecraft designed primarily to preserve order in a valuable colony that seemed vulnerable to slave insurrections and also to Spanish attacks from nearby Florida. In 1755, by contrast, disaster relief for Lisbon, whatever its other purposes, was presented and perceived as state-sponsored humanitarianism first and foremost.

Despite the outpouring of support for Charleston in 1740, colonists’ routine and explicit expectation of relief from Britain in the aftermath of disasters was a post-Lisbon development. The king’s gift to Portugal was a grand gesture that resonated profoundly among subjects who cherished the ideal of a benevolent monarch. Fortified by the lessons of Lisbon, colonists sought help from the mother country in the wake of calamity. More often than not, Britons assisted colonial disaster victims but—like the £20,000 dispatched to Charleston, a city that had suffered some £250,000 in fire-related losses—the sums provided were less a practical remedy for a dire situation than a performance of benevolence…
In some ways, the Page 99 Test works for Inventing Disaster, but in others it does not. On the one hand, this page points readers to several important issues at the heart of my story, most notably the increasingly dependable spread of information about disasters across the Atlantic world, the clamor of affected populations for post-disaster assistance from both government officials and private charities, and the idea that humanitarian aid could be deployed both to relief suffering and to maintain order. (Spoiler alert: disaster survivors were less apt to expect, and even less likely to get, relief in post-revolutionary America.) On the other hand, because the material on page 99 is overwhelmingly argument and analysis, it is not really representative of the entire book, which is full of graphic and heart-wrenching disaster stories and also some terrific illustrations.

Inventing Disaster traces the gradual coalescence of the idea and culture of disaster over nearly three centuries. I argue that a new modern response to calamity grew out of three Enlightenment-inspired developments: the spread of information via trade, travel, and print; belief in science, human agency, and progress; and the growing influence of the culture of sensibility. Page 99 stands more or less midway between the beginning and end of my story. In the Jamestown colony (1607) famines, diseases, and other deadly things routinely happened, but few people knew about them and no one really sought to relieve the suffering or even to prevent it in the future. By the time we get to the Johnstown flood (1889), disaster relief and prevention, as well as the popular culture of calamity, looked in most respects much like it does in twenty-first-century America.
Learn more about Inventing Disaster at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue