The Research Project

On November 22. 2017, we submitted our first proposal for a research project grant from the Norwegian Research Council (NFR). Here is the first page from our proposal:

The Medial Breakthrough in Norwegian Literature 1855–1905 (TMB)

1. Introduction and relevance to the call for proposals

In a world of “social media”, “fake news”, and ”cyber wars”, historical knowledge of how advanced media systems regulate our access to the world is much needed. TMB is a research project that seeks to provide such knowledge by studying how Norwegian literature responded to historical media developments between 1855 and 1905. Our current media situation did not start with the Internet, but traces back to the second half of the 19c when the introduction of electrical telecommunication (telegraph and telephone) and analog media devices (photocamera and phonograph) radically changed the speed and ratio of human communication and perception. A rich body of otherwise diverse media- and communication scholars seem to agree that many of the concepts and cultural logics that define digital media culture, such as communication (Peters, 1999), information (Menke, 2008), digitality (Franklin, 2015), control (Beniger, 1986), code (Hayles, 2005), real-time (Otis, 2001) or networks (Mattelart, 2000), first took off with 19c media developments. Such developments reconfigured human capacities to calculate and manipulate natural environments, and paved the way for new conceptions of human nature that ruptured the idealistic worldview of Romanticism (Kittler, 1990). In a time when brains and clouds are re-conceptualized through data-storage and computing, a profound understanding of 19c media is necessary to equip us with knowledge of how and why current technologies enable and restrain our conceptions of ourselves and our environment.

We propose a broad study of Norwegian literary history that will chart the impact of media on human thought and conduct. In Norway, the publication of our first modern novel, Amtmandens Døttre (1854/55), coincided with the introduction of the postage stamp, the railroad, and the electrical telegraph. The ensuing fifty years saw the concurrent advent of modern media systems with the most influential and important period in our national literary history. This historical coincidence confronts us with a series of research questions that have never been systematically studied: How did Norwegian literature respond to the media developments from 1855 to 1905? How did such responses feed back into cultural conceptions of media and mediation? How did these conceptions inform the period’s ideas of human and non-human nature? How can a study of literary responses to 19c media developments shed light on political, ethical and epistemological challenges that are usually seen as pertaining to 21c media culture?

Our main hypotheses are 1) that the literature written between 1855 and 1905 responded to the period’s media developments by renegotiating relations between Man, nature and technology, and 2) that studying such responses will enable a literary historiography that recasts received aesthetic periods as epiphenomena of a media ecology that still governs how we look at ourselves and our environment. 19c media developments did not only introduce technological media, such as electrical telegraph, telephone, photography, phonograph and cinema, but they also involved new means of scientific communication that changed how natural phenomena were perceived and studied (including the human body), and expanded the limits of what could be seen and heard; they altered the cultural conditions of communication by enabling swift news-distribution in the press; facilitated a globalized and increasingly abstracted money-medium, and spurred new ideas of spiritual mediation between living and dead.

TMB will approach this complex field from four perspectives, ranging from the material realm of technological media (wp1), via the social realms of press (wp2) and financial media (wp3), to the spiritual realm of occult media (wp4). Our researchers will combine critical text analysis of single case studies and discursive formations with quantitative surveys of some 17000 digitized literary texts. In collaboration with the National Library (NB) we will pilot a topic modelling tool that can read large corpora of digitized books and newspapers from the period, and return frequent themes and word clusters. This digital humanities (DH) approach allows us to test our hypotheses and nuance our case studies relative to the “great unread” of the entire fifty years. TMB relates to all three of SAMKUL’s thematic areas, but most notably, we combine “Man and Nature” with “Technology and Material Environments”. From cave-paintings to oil drilling, the macro-history of Man’s relation to nature is also a history of media, understood as means of communication. 19c media infrastructures initiated a shift in this macro-history and inaugurated Man-, nature- and technology-relations that resonate in today’s media environment. By studying how literary texts responded to this shift, we aim to rekindle both scholarly and educational approaches to Norwegian literary history with new knowledge of the epistemological, political, social and spiritual upheavals that confronted human beings in the introductory phase of our modern media era.