travelling histories

Research, thoughts, links

‘I Can’t Think of a Better Title Right Now’ – Conference Season: Part Two

This is the second part in what will probably be a long-ish series on my recent experiences as a first-year PhD student in the world of academic conferences. In the last post I wrote about looking for a conference to present at, looking for an idea to write about and the writing process itself. This post is an edited version of the paper I presented at Cambridge CRASSH’s Thinking with Things: Material Cultures 1400-1940 graduate symposium and Portsmouth University’s Detecting Objects: Materials and Detective Fiction symposium. As you can see, in comparison with the ‘initial ideas’ I briefly covered in the last post, my paper changed shape dramatically between initial proposal and presentation version.

Sherlock Holmes’s Things

In the Sherlock Holmes stories, the line between people and their environments is indistinct; bodies are not bounded entities but intimately connected to the world around them. Things can be understood, for instance, by both definitions of the term ‘property’: as something possessed by a person but also as a distinguishing mark or feature. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, Dr. Mortimer’s cane is not just his possession, it is an item that marks him out as a rural inhabitant, a medical man and a keen walker. Neither is it a mere accessory, for he tells us that he, “would not lose that stick for the world”.[1] It is not just things close to the body which distinguish their possessors. At the beginning of The Cardboard Box Holmes is able to break into Watson’s train of thought, much to Watson’s surprise, by following Watson’s gaze around the room and noting which objects his eyes rest on.[2] Holmes’s feat of deduction is made possible by recognising the interactive, affective relationship that occurs between Watson and these particular things.

The blurred line between persons and things indicates that these characters are what Carl Knappett has termed, ‘extended organisms’.[3] These ‘props’ emphasise the performative nature of identity, its materiality, and through its dependence on recognition by an observer or observers, its social rather than innate nature. Sherlock Holmes is the best example of this phenomenon of ‘fuzzy boundaries’ between the human body and its physical environment. As Watson explains in a famous passage from The Cardboard Box, “He loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour and suspicion of unsolved crime.”[4]

There is a duality at work in this metaphor. Firstly, the imagery is both organic and technological. Undoing the idea that bodies are bounded by their skin, we are presented with a figurative coupling of a man and his environment, where words and messages replace nervous signals, and where people are imagined to be at once individual and yet combined into a system. The term ‘filaments’ suggests a particular organic and inorganic hybridity. Though it conjures up an image of living nerves, those little rumours and suspicions of crime more often come to Holmes by mechanical means: through telegraph wires, postal services and transport networks. Although Holmes is described at various times in the stories as being akin to a ‘calculating machine’, he is in fact closer to what Donna Haraway has described as a ‘cyborg’.[5] His mental and physical capacities are augmented by materials. These range from the encyclopedia of crime and the communications networks he relies on for information, to the Hansom cabs that speed him around the city and the magnifying glass he uses to discern what his eye alone cannot.

Secondly, the quotation suggests a tension between stillness and mobility at the heart of Holmes’s character. The organic and inorganic hybridity of Holmes’s filaments reflects the late-Victorian imagery of the ‘All Red Routes’: the imperial communications network. This was made of postal steamer ships as well as the telegraph wires that spanned the globe (known as the All-Red Line) and connected the various colonial outposts with Britain’s heartlands. Although they gained their nickname from the red colouring by which they were marked on maps, these ‘All Red Routes’ were also metaphorically described as the Empire’s arteries and veins; carrying material messages of love, friendship and trade that were the lifeblood of imperial connections.[6]

Yet, as the filaments quotation illustrates, Holmes is not just aware of the power of the communications network; he is a part of its power. This does not just reflect his position as a servant of the law. Though there is an element of the panoptic about his ability to ‘lie in the very centre’, being, ‘responsive to every little rumour and suspicion’, Holmes doesn’t actually lie in wait, like a Victorian NSA agent. He actively makes use of the network, becoming a part of the great, democratic access to communications, first made possible by the universal penny post.

Following Thrift, the nineteenth-century telegraph system should be regarded as a ‘machine complex’, one kind of technology – others include stagecoaches, railways and, more recently, the internet – whose operation relies on synergy between humans and machines. The stagecoach and the telegraph are well known for their contributions to the ‘annihilation of time and space’. Yet, by enhancing the motility – the potential for movement – in people, they also turn places into “stages of intensity…Traces of movement, speed and circulation”.[7] So while Holmes appears to be lying still, in the centre of London, through his connections to the communications networks his stillness is no more than an illusion.


[1] Doyle, Complete Stories, p.181.

[2] Ibid. p.1113.

[3] Carl Knappett, Thinking Through Material Culture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), p.16.

[4] Doyle, Complete Stories, p.1113.

[5] Adey, Mobility, p.201.

[6] Kate Thomas, Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal and Victorian Letters, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p.162.

[7] Cresswell, On the move, p.47


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