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Roundtable 5: Inventories of the Material and the Natural

Sam Frederick
The Media of Plant Collecting

I’m interested in two media: one are vascula (Botanisiertrommel) and similar containers created to store and transport botanical specimens. The other, related, are the variety of botanical collecting guides that were written in the mid-19th century. Both aim to make inventorying more effective, though one is practical and one is part of a discursive network of amateur collectors.

Matthew H. Birkhold
Inventorying Glaciers in Nineteenth-Century Switzerland

In the eighteenth century, during the peak of the Little Ice Age, Swiss shepherds used stones to mark the advance of nearby glaciers, watching in horror as they slowly destroyed pastures and even buildings. Systematic measurements of glaciers began in 1827, when the Swiss naturalist Franz Joseph Hugi recorded the growth of the Unteraargletscher for four years. A scientific debate soon followed about how and why glaciers move and grow, resulting in competing measurements and rival publications.

To study what we recognize today as “glacier dynamics,” Swiss scientists had to first inventory Alpine glaciers and then measure them over time – creating an inventory of glacier movement. Sharing their findings, however, proved challenging. One obstacle stemmed from the implicit support glaciology lent to the newly theorized existence of the Ice Age hypothesized by the Swiss naturalist Ignaz Venetz (1788-1859). The Bible-based worldview rejected the notion that giant glaciers once covered the earth, making for a skeptical audience. The size and location of the glaciers themselves presented another difficulty. How could large white masses with unequal and multidirectional movement be convincingly measured, charted, and depicted? How could scientists communicate their inventories?

Over time, Hugi’s notebooks grew more complicated: single lines of measurements gave way to tables. His 1830 Naturhistorischen Alpenreisen - part travelogue, part scientific treatise – includes detailed descriptions as well as graphs. As inventories grew, the media in which they were communicated to the broader public evolved to accommodate more data. And scientists began working closely with artists and cartographers, including Jacques Bourkhardt (1811-67), Johannes Wild (1814-94), and Johann Rudolf Stengel (1824-57). Consequently, later publications by Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873) and his collaborator, the German naturalist Karl Friedrich Schimper (1803-1867), included meticulous maps, imagined aerial views, panoramas, and fold-out illustrations in an attempt to properly document and convincingly communicate the changes they measured. The media seemed to grow with the glaciers themselves.

Although historians and scientists have investigated the nineteenth-century glacier debates as a precursor of current studies of climate change, little scholarly attention has been devoted to the evolving media practices involved. Studying the birth of modern glaciology in nineteenth-century Switzerland from this perspective offers a lesson about how to convincingly represent seemingly inexpressible ideas and demonstrates the ways in which media are bound up with methods of inventorying.

Tyler Whitney

My presentation will approach the topic “Media Inventories” through the media and literary histories of phonography as an amalgamation of print, image, and sound in the late nineteenth century.  More specifically, I will examine two gramophone recordings originally published as visual images in the periodicals Über Land und Meer (1890) and Prometheus (1890), which were ‘educed,’ that is, transformed from high-resolution digital image files into playable sound recordings over one hundred years later by the research group First Sounds Initiative.  Taking this remarkable technical achievement as my starting point, I am concerned to further situate these initially inaudible visual representations of mechanical sound within the broader medial economy of print and serial publication in nineteenth-century Germany, showing how early encounters with, and thinking about, phonography occurred outside the domain of the strictly audible and relied instead on an ‘auditory imagination’ activated by a combination of text and image.

The methodological stakes of the project are twofold.  On the one hand, I use the two recordings as a way to push back against contemporary critiques of a textually-grounded approach to sound studies, articulated most forcefully with reference to deconstruction and affect theory.  The study of sound has, to its detriment, I argue, gradually distanced itself from literary studies and the material histories of reading and writing.  Steve Goodman’s theory of sonic affect, for example, condemns “the linguistic imperialism that subordinates the sonic to semiotic registers […] forcing sonic media to merely communicate meaning, losing sight of the more fundamental expressions of their material potential as vibrational surfaces, or oscillators” (82).  Similarly, Christopher Cox faults extant histories of sound for their “primarily textual orientation for an epistemological and ontological insularity that separates nature from culture” (Schedel and Uroskie 138).  Yet, as Douglas Kahn writes, “During the heyday of the avant-garde, some of the most provocative artistic instances of sound came from literature and other writings and were distant from the development of the arts or aurality of the time” (Noise Water Meat 101).

At the same time, I contend that it is imperative that we borrow from the conceptual resources of media theory in order to complicate traditional notions of textual analysis, replacing a naïve hermeneutics or mere historicization with a more media-theoretical approach to texts and textual practices in terms of paperwork, transduction, intermediality, sonification and the archive.  In my own research, I reconstruct the history of phonography with an emphasis on its conceptual fluidity and the hybridity of its technical operations across technical and literary fields.  What makes late nineteenth century literary works (e.g. Naturalism and Impressionism) ‘phonographic,’ I argue, is not merely their approximation of acoustic phenomena through textual imitations of sound, or, onomatopoeia.  When we speak about phonography, it is important to recognize that the capability for audible playback as we know it today was only one of many things the device was called upon to do.  Focusing on images of sound recordings published in Über Land und Meer and Prometheus, I show how their combination of sound, image, and text functioned to denaturalize and draw into question the immediacy of writing as pure signifieds, redirecting attention instead to material processes of conversion and transduction, an intervention that was not lost on literary authors of the same period.

Vance Byrd
Saving the Forest: The Archival Techniques of R. B. Hough’s The American Woods (1888–1913)

Part of a media genealogy including cabinets of curiosity, scientific collections, and xylotheques, Romeyn Beck Hough’s The American Woods (1888–1913) does not illustrate trees, their characteristic barks, leaves, flowers, and fruits using contemporary illustration processes, such as engravings or photomechanical reproduction. Instead, the book in parts showcases the materiality of trees as natural objects by publishing 2 x 5 inch rectangular natural-wood preparations of tree species and varieties in each of its fifteen fascicules. These fragile and diaphanous paper-thin veneers present the anatomical structure of a given tree in transverse, radial, and tangential representation. This presentation draws attention to the cultural techniques that stand behind this publication’s manner of representation. The manufacture of wood veneers for Hough’s American Woods produced material carriers which determine how knowledge about the forest was stored and represented. First, I outline the epistemological context of such a publication by providing a brief overview of the scientific and administrative practices of quantifying nineteenth-century forests and the representative publications used to visualize this inventoried information. I then turn to the mechanical technique of cutting involved in the veneer manufacturing process. This production and design practice, in my view, rendered the multiple places of the American woods into a collection of reproducible and portable fixed proportionalities for non-specialist mass reading audiences. Rather than a scientific visual regime that merely stabilizes and controls nature, the cross-sections of tree specimens destabilize what it means to encounter the forest because the publication introduce new notions of geometrical space in which the irregular three-dimensionality of tree trunks and branches are replaced by a flat veneer planes. Moreover, the publication exchanges the observation of external surfaces for the interior structure of trees which invite examination by the naked eye or microscope. I conclude that the archival techniques driving the material and media transformations of this publication captures a nostalgic mode in which taking stock of North American forests was in tune with the work of late nineteenth-century conservation movements. The consumption of authentic wood veneers for Hough’s serial publication was a synecdochic measure to store and disseminate fragments of a natural world increasingly dominated by monoculture rather the biodiversity the publication’s pages present.