Victorian Speed of Life: The Video

Having suitably intrigued you about the projection shown on Victorian Light Night and/or made you sorry you missed it, we are excited to share video footage of “Victorian Speed of Life”, the light and sound show which arose from a research collaboration between Professor Sally Shuttleworth (and the Diseases of Modern Life team), and Ross Ashton and Karen Monid, aka The Projection Studio.

The show is designed to highlight areas of Diseases of Modern Life research on the experience of the pressures of life within the Victorian period. Of the many represented, see if you can spot sequences relating to the rise of the railways, (over)connectivity via the telegraph, environmental pollution, and the retreat to sea or countryside (places which, in turn, became overcrowded sites of pollution). And if you find today’s advertising annoying, there’s a nice sample of Victorian medical adverts here to reassure you that this particular strand of information overload was shared by your ancestors… Enjoy!

Oh what a – Victorian Light – Night!

On Friday 16th November Woodstock Road was a hive of activity for “Victorian Light Night”, part of both the national Being Human Festival and Oxford’s own Christmas Light Festival. The Radcliffe Humanities building (known by many as the former Radcliffe Infirmary) became the canvas for a unique light and sound spectacular created by the Projection Studio in conjunction with the Diseases of Modern Life project and TORCH.


The stage is set for the inherent theatricality of the Radcliffe Humanities building… (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)

The looped five minute show transported audiences from the rolling green countryside to the mad dash of Victorian mechanisation with its attendant steam, symptoms, and stresses. From the invention of the telegraph to the cholera contagion, the rise of patent medicines to cure the ills of modern life to the overcrowding of  previously peaceful seaside resorts, ‘Victorian Speed of Life’ was a whirlwind tour of the many difficulties facing our ancestors.

Torch Event by Ian Wallman

Beginning the influx of Victorian advertising: the public choose their poison, ahem, I mean, patent medicine.  (Photo credit: Ian Wallman)


Advert Overload! Source me some of that Neuralgine… (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)


In St Luke’s Chapel visitors played two research-informed card games: Dr Sally Frampton’s Mind-Boggling Medical Histories and Dan Holloway’s Mycelium. There was also a projection of work by students from Cheney School. Members of the Diseases of Modern Life team had previously been into Cheney School to present ideas about Victorian communication technologies and how the nineteenth century saw radical changes in the ways that people got around (the railways) and transmitted their thoughts and feelings (the invention of the penny post, the telegraph). In discussion, we thought about how these developments might be mirrored in modern-day use of such things as WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Skype. The Cheney students produced artistic responses to this presentation which ranged from poems, to pictures, to a song and even a 3D model of a Victorian zoetrope with a modern twist!

We also presented prizes to the winners of the projection competition, whose designs based on the ‘speed of life’ were projected onto the building by The Projection Studio. Seeing your artwork on the front of a three-floor building is quite the honour!


Winner of First Prize in the Projection Competition 12-year-old Freya Blundel receives her prize from (L to R) Ross Ashton of the Projection Studio, Professor Sally Shuttleworth and Dr Catherine Charlwood. (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)

Freya Blundel 1.jpg

Freya’s winning design featuring timepieces through the ages saw the building awash with colour. (Photo credit: The Projection Studio)


Inside the Mathematical Institute, we had a whole host of different activities and a series of flash talks offering an insight into the variety of research happening on the project. Members of the public also enjoyed creating their own weird Victorian Christmas card, following the strange trend for bizarre images – such as a frog dancing with a beetle, or a stone-dead robin – gracing the the front of Victorian festive post.


On the left we have Dr Alison Moulds with her ‘Death and Disease Behind the Counter’ stall, while on the right visitors have a go at ‘Messaging Madness’ as they tap out and decipher messages in Morse Code. (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)


Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown entertains a full house for her talk ‘A Victorian Christmas: Pies, Puddings & Indigestion!’ (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)


The evening wasn’t just about light shows, talks and activities though… In a collaboration with science troubadour Jonny Berliner, Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown and David Pirie danced to a song about Dr Taylor-Brown’s research.

‘The Stomach is the Monarch’ is a song and dance performance inspired by Victorian understandings of digestive health. Does being hungry make you grumpy? Have you ever said “you’re so cute I could eat you up?” Modern science is proving that our stomachs and minds are inexplicably intertwined, but the Victorians got there first!

Dancing the lindy hop, Emilie and David drew huge crowds of gastric health and history of science enthusiasts (and maybe just a few Strictly Come Dancing fans) as they brought research to life.


Dr Emilie-Taylor Brown and David Pirie mid-performance of ‘The Stomach is the Monarch’, to music by Jonny Berliner. (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)


Throughout the evening, visitors enjoyed carefully curating an outfit from an array of props in order to have a photo taken at the Victorian Photo Booth, enthusiastically run by Decadent Times. After a long evening of engaging with the public, we let our beaver buddy – the mascot of St Anne’s College – fulfill her dream of wearing a top hat.

Anne's Photobooth

‘Tis important to be a dapper creature. Especially if you represent St Anne’s College. (Photo credit: Decadent Times)


Thank you so much to everyone who came out to Victorian Light Night – we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

Victorian Speed – Time Flies When You’re Having FUN!

On Thursday 18th October, the Museum of the History of Science threw open its doors for its first ever ‘late’ – Victorian Speed: The Long History of Fast Living. With six separate activities based on our postdocs’ research interests and a Victorian photo booth to boot, we had a riotous evening of nineteenth century hijinks.

Here, the Diseases of Modern Life team reflect on their individual activities.

Dr. Hosanna Krienke

My “Timing the Victorians” quiz invited guests to try to guess the speed of various aspects of life in the 1800s. Many quiz-takers were amazed by how fast some things were (it took only 9 minutes to send a telegram from London to Bombay!), but were also caught off-guard by the slowness of other aspects of Victorian life (convalescent homes let patients stay by the seaside for a month or more to recover their health). I enjoyed hearing the ways people reasoned their way through the questions, and some even gasped or cheered when they discovered their hunches were correct. In the end, my aim was to help people imagine more concretely what life was like in the 1800s, so I was really pleased when one person reported that the event made her “reevaluate a nostalgic view of the Victorian era.”

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Hosanna Krienke, in Victorian dress, letting participants know they’re running out of time to answer! Photo: Ian Wallman

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Eager to find out if they are correct! Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Jean-Michel Johnston

My ‘telegraphic tweeting’ activity introduced visitors to the full experience of sending an ‘instant’ message in the Victorian age. After considering many of the practicalities of sending a telegram, from the limitations of post office opening hours to the relatively high cost of sending a mere 20 words, they were then encouraged to have a go at sending their chosen message to another visitor ‘across the line'(or, rather, table) using one of the replica telegraph apparatuses. It was great to see that people from a wide range of age groups had fun trying out this activity – some of the children who attended were natural ‘Morse coders’, and some of the adults enjoyed trying to bemuse their counterparts across the table by sending messages in foreign languages!


Tapping out a Morse message. Photo: Ian Wallman

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Receiving and decoding – the effort is palpable! Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Alison Moulds

‘Death and Disease Behind the Counter’ introduced visitors to the pressures of retail work in the late nineteenth century. The title was drawn from Thomas Sutherst’s 1884 book about the plight of shop assistants, and I used pie charts to explore the long hours worked by those in retail, drawing on case studies from fiction, periodicals, autobiographies, and polemical writing. People were particularly surprised and aghast to hear about the demands placed on teenaged apprentices and the pressures of the ‘living-in’ system, which blurred the boundaries between work and leisure time. Visitors used blank pie charts and colouring pencils to plot their own average working day, and shared their retail work ‘horror stories’ on our interactive board. There were common themes between then and now, namely the long hours, the expectation to stand rather than sit, and the perennially rude customers. One women told me how, when working in a supermarket, a customer threw broccoli at her after hearing they’d run out of brie! In the feedback, several visitors suggested the activity had prompted them to find a new appreciation of our modern work-life balance.

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Alison Moulds looks on as participants colour in their own ‘A Day in the Life’ charts by the ‘Retail Horror Stories’ board. Photo: Ian Wallman


One member of the public shades in her ‘work time’. Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Sally Frampton

In the ‘Emergency’ quiz we introduced visitors to the history of first aid, as we got people sorting fact from fiction and past from present by testing them on first aid trivia. The development of the first aid movement was an important aspect to people’s growing awareness of the health risks of modern life in the nineteenth century, as organisations like the St. John Ambulance Association trained up railway workers, miners, police officers and others to deal with the accidents and illnesses that seemed to arise from new technologies and industries. For the game, visitors were given ten statements relating to first aid. They then had to decide whether they related to first aid practices in the past, current day first aid practice…or whether we had made it up! The idea was to get people thinking about how ideas and practices can come in and go out of fashion, and how even the strangest practices from the past were based upon theories that appeared valid at the time. For example, ‘Blowing tobacco smoke into the anus of a semi-conscious person will revive them’ (past) introduced people to the use of tobacco smoke enemas in the nineteenth century for resuscitation, a medical technology which seems completely bizarre now but which had its roots in the belief that quickly administering warmth and stimulation could be effective in to reviving the near dead. The tobacco enema also led to conversations about early attempts by doctors to find effective resuscitation techniques. The statement ‘a snakebite can be treated by sucking the poison out from the wound’ was another one that generated debate. Until relatively recently the practice was recommended in first aid manuals, but it today considered ineffective, and yet most people thought it a ‘present’ day practice, because it is still seen in TV and films. This led to discussion about how even when new medical evidence proves a medical idea is not right, the idea can linger on in wider culture.

Visitors enjoyed learning weird and wonderful facts about first aid and emergency medicine and the game proved a good way to get people thinking about first aid and to need to keep up-to-date with the current advice about what to do in an emergency!

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Our resident Victorian nurse, Dr. Sally Frampton, administers advice to players. Photo: Ian Wallman


Who knew Victorian First Aid could be so fun?! (We had a hunch). Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Emilie Taylor-Brown

My exhibition, ‘Gastric Time’ started with a story. It was the story of Alexis St Martin, a Canadian man who was shot in the abdomen in 1822, which left him with a hole in his stomach through which the workings of digestion were made visible! People were intrigued and disgusted in equal measure as I recounted how American army surgeon William Beaumont carried out a series of experiments on St Martin which involved dipping bits of food into his stomach on a silk string and timing how long they took to break down! The language of ‘digestibility’ that was produced from the experiments led to a new way of thinking about food: in terms of time. After discussing how Victorian meals and dietetic rules differed from their modern experiences, they were keen to put their own hands in my oversized woollen stomach to choose their meals and try to beat the clock-time dice. If they succeeding in “digesting” 5 meals within 24 hours—symbolised by a giant steam-punk clock face—they were rewarded with a “good digestion” sticker, if not they were diagnosed with chronic indigestion! People enjoyed thinking about food in relation to broader ideas about standardising and controlling bodily processes and were not too shy to sit on our Victorian commode! My advertisement for a “rocking horse” cure for indigestion gave one man a new outlook on the French phrase “aller à la selle” (to have a bowel movement), while the exhibition as a whole purportedly changed many attitudes to dietary choices and even inspired a new MPhil project!


Dr. Emilie Taylor-Brown engaging her audience. Photo: Ian Wallman


Happy game players – some already wearing stomach stickers! Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Sarah Green

‘Clusters of hard wart-like growths around anus, causing considerable discomfort’. This was the kind of symptom that those visiting the Victorian Sexual Diseases Tombola were (hopefully) surprised to be presented with. And things didn’t get much better from there. In an age without antibiotics, chances of recovery from syphilis, gonorrhoea, and a whole host of other nasties were slim. By dipping into the tombola drum, visitors had assigned to them a variety of treatments that were at best useless, and at worst downright painful. Fancy a urethral cauterization? A spiked ring to wear round the penis at night? A washing out of the intimate parts with champagne? No, me neither. And that, as visitors came to realize, was the slow, tedious and repetitive nature of Victorian sexual disease treatment. As one visitor commented, ‘I’m glad I got my STI in 2018!’

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Sarah Green explains how the Sexual Health Tombola works. Pick a card, any card… Photo: Ian Wallman


One of the more horrifying treatments for problems of a sexual nature. Photo: Ian Wallman


We also had an extremely popular Victorian photo booth, enthusiastically run by Decadent Times. (We may have got in on the action ourselves at the end of the evening…).


They’ve got props at the ready and poses sorted… Photo: Ian Wallman

VictorianSpeedEventatMuseumoftheHistoryofSciencebyIanWallman-5889 (1).jpg

…e voilà! Photo printed (a bit more instantaneously than in Victorian times). Photo: Ian Wallman


None of this would have been possible without a collaboration with colleagues at the Museum of the History of Science, especially Robyn Haggard: thank you for lending us your space to us – it formed the perfect backdrop for our research! For our Victorian get-up, we kindly thank the Oxfordshire Drama Wardrobe, and for our wonderful props, The Prop Factory

Most of all, thank you to our photographer, Ian Wallman, for capturing all the different facets of #VictorianSpeed so beautifully!

Thank you to everyone who came

or, in Morse Code,

– …. .- -. -.- / -.– — ..- / – — / . …- . .-. -.– — -. . / .– …. — / -.-. .- — .


Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

PS. I got caught taking twitter photos by our fabulous photographer, Ian Wallman…

The Victorians had the same concerns about technology as we do

We live, we are so often told, in an information age. It is an era obsessed with space, time and speed, in which social media inculcates virtual lives that run parallel to our “real” lives and in which communications technologies collapse distances around the globe. Many of us struggle with the bombardment of information we receive and experience anxiety as a result of new media, which we feel threaten our relationships and “usual” modes of human interaction.

Though the technologies may change, these fears actually have a very long history: more than a century ago our forebears had the same concerns. Literary, medical and cultural responses in the Victorian age to the perceived problems of stress and overwork anticipate many of the preoccupations of our own era to an extent that is perhaps surprising.

This parallel is well illustrated by the following 1906 cartoon from Punch, a satirical British weekly magazine:

Worrying Trends. Internet archive

The caption reads: “These two figures are not communicating with one another. The lady receives an amatory message, and the gentleman some racing results.” The development of the “wireless telegraph” is portrayed as an overwhelmingly isolating technology.

Replace these strange contraptions with smartphones, and we are reminded of numerous contemporary complaints regarding the stunted social and emotional development of young people, who no longer hang out in person, but in virtual environments, often at great physical distance. Different technology, same statement. And it’s underpinned by the same anxiety that “real” human interaction is increasingly under threat from technological innovations that we have, consciously or unconsciously, assimilated into daily life. By using such devices, so the popular paranoia would have it, we are somehow damaging ourselves.

Cacophony of voices

The 19th century witnessed the rapid expansion of the printing industry. New techniques and mass publishing formats gave rise to a far more pervasive periodical press, reaching a wider readership than ever before. Many celebrated the possibility of instant news and greater communication. But concerns were raised about the overwhelmed middle-class reader who, it was thought, lacked the discernment to judge the new mass of information critically, and so read everything in a superficial, erratic manner.

The philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle, for example, lamented the new lack of direct contact with society and nature caused by the intervention of machinery in every aspect of life. Print publications were fast becoming the principal medium of public debate and influence, and they were shaping and, in Carlyle’s view, distorting human learning and communications.

John Orlando Parry, ‘A London Street Scene’, 1835. © Alfred Dunhill Collection (Wikimedia Commons)

The philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill heartily agreed, expressing his fears in an essay entitled “Civilisation”. He thought that the cacophony of voices supposedly overwhelming the general public was creating:

A state of society where any voice, not pitched in an exaggerated key, is lost in the hubbub. Success in so crowded a field depends not upon what a person is, but upon what he seems: mere marketable qualities become the object instead of substantial ones, and a man’s capital and labour are expended less in doing anything than in persuading other people that he has done it. Our own age has seen this evil brought to its consummation.

Individual authors and writers were becoming disempowered, lost in a glutted marketplace of ideas, opinions, adverts and quacks.

Old complaints

The parallels with the concerns of our own society are striking. Arguments along not at all dissimilar lines have been advanced against contemporary means of acquiring information, such as Twitter, Facebook, and our constant access to the internet in general.

In his 2008 article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, journalist Nicolas Carr speculated that “we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think”. Reading online, he posits, discourages long and thoughtful immersion in texts in favour of a form of skipping, scanning and digressing via hyperlinks that will ultimately diminish our capacity for concentration and contemplation.

Writers, too, have shared Carr’s anxieties. Philip Roth and Will Self, for example, have both prophesied these trends as contributing to the death of the novel, arguing that people are increasingly unused to and ill-equipped to engage with its characteristically long, linear form.

Of course, all old technologies were once new. People were at one point genuinely concerned about things we take for granted as perfectly harmless now. In the later decades of the 19th century it was thought that the telephone would induce deafness and that sulphurous vapours were asphyxiating passengers on the London Underground. These then-new advancements were replacing older still technologies that had themselves occasioned similar anxieties on their introduction. Plato, as his oral culture began to transition to a literary one, was gravely worried that writing itself would erode the memory.

While we cannot draw too strict a line of comparison between 19th-century attitudes to such technologies as the telegraph, train, telephone, and newspaper and our own responses as a culture to the advent of the internet and the mobile phone, there are parallels that almost argue against the Luddite position. As dramatically as technology changes, we, at least in the way we regard it, remain surprisingly unchanged.The Conversation

Melissa Dickson, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Telegraphs, Electromagnetic Polkas and the Vienna New Year’s Day Concert

When I was a teenager growing up in a tiny border town in Romania, we used to look forward to the first day of the year, when the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra would play its traditional New Year’s Day Concert. I remember being fascinated by the glittering chandeliers, the massive, colourful bouquets of flowers, the guests from all over the world sporting their traditional attires and, of course, the music. Johann Strauss II’s famous waltz The Blue Danube was a favourite with us, perhaps because the music had a tinge of familiarity: the Danube was the artery which connected us to the rest of Europe and, via the Black Sea, even with the rest of the world. Listening to the waltz was like a reminder of the myriad ways in which our lives and histories had been intertwined with the history of this beautiful and sometimes capricious river. The Vienna Concert often became a topic of discussion among classmates and friends; for our music teacher, in particular, admitting that you didn’t watch the concert was just as objectionable as saying that you hadn’t done your holiday homework.

After I moved away and began my peregrinations around the world, I forgot about Vienna and its glamorous New Year’s Day Concert. Every now and then a friend would ask whether I was still watching it—to which my answer was an almost invariable “no”. But this year was different. As I was browsing idly the TV channels on the first day of the year, I happened upon the BBC broadcast of the event. What’s more, this year’s concert took place under the baton of the celebrated Indian conductor Zubin Mehta and marked the 650th anniversary of the University of Vienna and the 200th anniversary of the Vienna University of Technology. Little wonder then that the repertoire included compositions with intriguing names such as “Electro-magnetische Polka” (Electromagnetic Polka), “Accelerationen” (Accelerations), “Mit Dampf” (At Full Steam). For me, this was a new perspective on the New Year’s Day Concert and the music of the Strauss family, one which is quite connected with my professional interest in steam engines, telegraphy and other things electric.

It turns out that the Viennese waltzes and polkas were well attuned to the technological innovations of the nineteenth century. A quick look at the musical heritage of Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) shows the extent to which his music documented the technological developments of his age (or celebrated the old ones). Here are some examples, on topics ranging from the pigeon post to the telegraph and the telephone:

  • “Electro-magnetische Polka” (Electromagnetic Polka, 1852)
  • “Motor-quadrille” (Motor Quadrille, 1853)
  • “Schnellpost-Polka” (Express Mail Polka, 1854)
  • “Taubenpost Polka” (Pigeon Post Polka, 1860)
  • “Telegrafische Depeschen Waltzer” (Telegraphic Despatches Waltz, 1857)
  • “Motoren Waltzer” (Motors Waltz, 1862)
  • “Elektrofor-Polka” (Electrophorus Polka, 1865)
  • “Telegramme” (Telegrams, 1867)
  • “Durch’s Telephon Polka” (Over the Telephone Polka, 1890)
  • “Telephonische Nachrichten Polka” (Telephonic Messages Polka, 1894)

Many of these compositions were performed for specific audiences. The “Electromagnetic Polka”, for instance, was dedicated, quite fittingly, to the Vienna engineering students on the occasion of their ball (which, by the way, is Vienna’s oldest ball). The telegraph and telephone-themed compositions, on the other hand, were presented at the Concordia Ball, an annual event organized by the Concordia Association of Viennese Authors and Journalists. The association between telegraphy and journalism was hardly surprising, especially since in my doctoral dissertation I had dealt exactly with this topic: how the telegraph was used to report news in nineteenth-century India. But it was nevertheless fascinating to hear how Strauss transformed the sounds associated with the working of a telegraph instrument into music, thus creating a different type of archive which documents the history of this technology from an alternative, more … aural angle. If you listen carefully to the “Telegraphic Despatches Waltz” you can hear the tapping sound of the telegraph key; in fact, you can almost hear how the messages are transmitted over the wires.

Clearly, Strauss used music to celebrate the technological achievements of his time, but perhaps there was also more music about the telegraph than we usually acknowledge (there was also more noise about it, as many telegraph operators would have readily testified). For Strauss, the telegraph was not simply a medium for sending impersonal, concise, lapidary messages, as it often happened with market quotations and political news; it was also a means of transmitting music. The illustration below shows him seated in a corner, composing his “Telegrams Waltz”. In the opposite corner, his wife Henrietta Treffz, herself an accomplished mezzo-soprano, reads his musical telegram as it is being despatched via the five telegraphic wires of the musical stave. In many ways, this illustration is emblematic of a common theme in much nineteenth-century discourse: the telegraph as a vehicle for establishing connections between people, businesses, nations. But Strauss himself would have been aware that the telegraph could break, as well as make, connections. Rumour has it that in 1856, when the Viennese press published reports of his alleged marriage in St Petersburg, Strauss lost no time in disavowing the news. And he did so by telegraph.

Telegramme, Strauss

The Bane of Modern Technology

The tragedy of comedy, for those who work at creating it, at least, is that jokes will go off. This is a phenomenon familiar to joke-receivers as much as tellers. Who does not detect a fishy odour whenever someone begins a tale with a man walking into a bar? Even the best ones can only be cellared for so long before they turn, as anyone passingly acquainted with the classics will attest. The eternal joke is very rare; little always has and always will work. Pratfalls, maybe – schoolboy humour, broadly speaking, but the shelf-life of satire or any jokes involving social commentary tends to be shorter, not surprisingly, given the load of cultural context they have to bear in order to be intelligible. I have a lot of pity for these miserable, rotten gags, struggling vainly to retain their relevance. I try to force a laugh, or chuckle politely, and I find it quite heartening when an old joke succeeds at reinventing itself, as they occasionally do. I came across one such recently when I was picking through the comedic wasteland of Punch, that inexhaustible repository of mid-nineteenth century England’s often outworn wit, its pages filled with caricatures of obese be-whiskered patriarchs stuffing their elastic maws with oversize slices of Victoria sponge inscribed “Duty on Hair-Powder Act”, inscrutable drolleries so many historical and literary researchers have leafed through, bemused or benumbed. This is it:

Punch Forecasts

It caught my eye because it reminded me of an image I was shown not long ago, snapped of a gaggle of girls – the photographer’s teenaged daughter and her friends – seated in a bedroom, allegedly “hanging out together,” the photographer had claimed, each absorbed in her own smartphone. Different technology, same joke, underpinned, I think, by the same anxiety that real human interaction, mediated by nothing bar visceral experience, is under threat from the technological innovations that we have assimilated into our daily lives. By using such devices, these artists claim, we are somehow damaging ourselves and relationships. I thought, too, of Michael Leunig’s famous sunrise cartoon, which is another variation on the theme:

Leunig Cartoon

What is this essential, authentic, real communication with whose fate we are so vitally concerned that this joke in its various manifestations keeps becoming relevant? Can it really be said to exist at all? Such a position would seem to presuppose that there is nothing lost in face-to-face conversation, which is, on consideration, untenable. If I talk to you directly, is my expression not immediately limited by the degree to which I am capable of rendering my subjective experience into language? And I would be doing it off the cuff, at that. Of course, I could write down what I want to tell you, thereby permitting me to articulate the ideas I want to communicate to you more fully. I wouldn’t need anything as modish as these suspect products of “technology” to do that, would I, simply to write? Unless you wanted to call writing itself technology, and worry that it might have some sort of insidious effect on our minds, that it might implant forgetfulness in our very souls, say. But what sort of intelligent person would ever be concerned about that? Oh, wait… Plato was. No joke!

Melissa Dickson