Starter Kit – The Ambient Infrastructure of George Eliot’s Middlemarch

Starter Kit: “The Ambient Infrastructure of George Eliot’s Middlemarch

By Leila Stegemoeller, English Department, UC Santa Barbara
Published Nov. 29, 2018

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“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

— George Eliot, Middlemarch

Invisibility. Inaudibility. The impenetrability of other minds. These preoccupations animate the narrative of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which is the story of a provincial town and the intersecting lives of its inhabitants, and the “web” of social life in the English countryside.  So what does this novel have to do with infrastructure studies? The invisible and inaudible are key qualities of functional infrastructure in reality, and within the narrative of Middlemarch, infrastructure does edge into the background.  For some critics, this is a problem.  Terry Eagleton’s critique of Middlemarch as a historical realist work, indeed, pivots on the invisibility or periphery of the ‘real,’ frequently infrastructure-related, elements of the novel: “[t]he Reform Bill, the railways, cholera, machine-breaking: these ‘real’ historical forces do no more than impinge on the novel’s margins” (p. 120, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory).

This starter kit seeks to not only illuminate areas where infrastructural elements enter the narrative imagination of Middlemarch, but to explore the ways in which critical infrastructure methodology can expand the literary critic’s conception of Victorian realist fiction. The idea invoked in the title — that infrastructure can be ambient in a novel, which I use instead of Eagleton’s marginal, derives largely from John M. Picker’s observation that the central metaphor of Middlemarch, the “roar on the other side of silence,” is symptomatic of a cultural shift towards close listening which arose with infrastructural changes of the time. Through the sources and framework below, this starter kit should be the jumping off point for the reader to decide whether Middlemarch, as a work of realism, fails or succeeds to meet that definition in its engagement with infrastructure.

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Framing: The “Infrastructural Disposition”

Media infrastructure theorist Lisa Parks’s article on a phenomenology of infrastructure and affect does not engage with Victorian literature, but it does present a critical infrastructure methodology that can be applied to literary studies.

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Foundations: Thinking in Infrastructure

Case studies of infrastructure applied as literary critique. The first, from Kate Marshall, pertains to American fiction, but the second, from John M. Picker, deals directly with Middlemarch.

  • Kate Marshall. “Introduction,” Corridor: Media Architecture in American Fiction. University of Minnesota Press, 2013. pp. 1-42.
  • John Picker. “Introduction,” Victorian Soundscapes. Oxford University Press, 2013. pp. 1-14.

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Readings: The Infrastructural Imaginary…

These articles range in their engagement with traditional modes of infrastructure and their employment of critical infrastructural approaches, but each provide important historical and literary context for your own critical reading of infrastructure in the novel.

…Of Cottages and Hospitals

…Of Medical Records

  • Janis Caldwell. “Middlemarch and the medical case report: the patient’s narrative and the physical exam.” Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth Century Britain. Cambridge University Press, 2004. pp. 143-170.

…Of Railways

  • Jesse Givner. “Industrial History, Preindustrial Literature: George Eliot’s “Middlemarch“” ELH, vol. 69, no. 1, 2002, pp. 223–243. JSTOR, JSTOR.  PDF

…Of Labor and Land Management

  • Chinnie Ding. “‘Myriad-Headed, Myriad-Handed’: Labor in ‘Middlemarch.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 52, no. 4, 2012, pp. 917–936.  PDF

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