Between the Canon and the Commons

My time at the Library of Congress’s Kluge Center is coming to an end. This is sad news. It might also come as a surprise to many (any?) of you reading this blog, given the little time I have devoted to chronicling the relatively rare experience of being a British Research Councils Fellow at the Library of Congress. (I would recommend anyone interested in finding out what it is like to study at the Library’s Kluge Center, or to be a part of the AHRC’s IPS programme, to read the fascinating blogs by Sibylle Machat and Natalie Cox, respectively.

Sighting the beginning of the end of my Kluge time has brought with it the honour of presenting to the distinguished crowd of researchers that make up the Center’s Fellows and staff. To that end, last week I gave a talk on the ways in which fans of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlockians) have used and framed representations of geographical mobility in their fan fictions. I called my paper, ‘Between the Canon and the Commons’ in reference to the work of David Brewer and his notion of fan fictions as a ‘textual commons’, and to suggest that fans’ representations of Holmes and his world have always brought with them elements of Doylean originalism and fan evolution.

Like many academics before me, I made life considerably easier on myself by presenting a paper that I had already given: in this case, I wrote ‘Between the Canon and the Commons’ to be delivered at the Association of American Geographers’ (AAG) annual meeting in Chicago, the week before my Kluge talk.

In this post I will talk a bit about each presentation, show some photos and slides and talk a bit about how my work was received. If you want to read a full-length speaking text of my paper (as yet without footnotes – those will come in time), head over to my page on


AAG – Chicago 2015

Millennium Gate, otherwise known as the Bean, in Chicago's Millennium Park
Millennium Gate, otherwise known as the Bean, in Chicago’s Millennium Park

The AAG Annual Meeting is perhaps the largest gathering of geographers (and some others) at any one time. This year, in Chicago, the conference stretched over three venues and six days, involving thousands of attendees, hundreds of panellists and tens of rooms. Yet, the way the conference was set up, with multiple panels at any one time, meant that I only got a sense of the its size and scale at certain moments – in the lobby of the main hotel venue, for instance, or in the nearby bars and restaurants where nearly every customer was wearing the tell-tale green lanyard. Given the small size of each room and the many choices available, the panels themselves were relatively intimate affairs.

Me and my friend and fellow geographer Edward-John eating Chicago deep dish pizza. Almost everyone in this restaurant was a geographer
Me and my friend and fellow geographer Edward-John eating Chicago deep dish pizza. Almost everyone in this restaurant was a geographer

There were around thirty people in the room when I spoke. My paper was part of a panel organised by myself and my supervisor, partly to give us both space in which to contextualise our work and partly to ensure that, at a conference where literary geographers are a rare breed, we would’t get lost on panels with little or no relevance to what we are doing. Phil chaired the first panel, in which I spoke, which was about mobility and circulation as they related to the relationship between literature and the world. Here is a photo of me speaking, and few slides from the presentation:



The author presenting his paper in a windowless room in Chicago's Hyatt hotel
The author presenting his paper in a windowless room in Chicago’s Hyatt hotel

Public Property



We had a good series of papers, with the first two (my own and Maddy Hamlin’s) considering the formal relationship between literary representations of mobility and meaning in quite different texts; and the latter two (by Perry Carter and Stephen Dreiver) looking at the ways circulation of books or their authors have affected their representations and their impact on the world.


Kluge Center Work-in-Progress

At the Kluge Center I was back on home turf, presenting to a group of academics and the center’s staff,with whom I had discussed my own topic many times. The paper as I gave it was essentially unchanged. Again, here is a photo of me giving the talk, along with a few slides:

The author speaking in the Library of Congress
The author speaking in the Library of Congress





What was really interesting was the difference, in depth and complexity, of the questions I received at the Kluge. Whereas in Chicago I was speaking to a room of geographers, many of whom presumably shared many of my underlying assumptions about the importance of representations of geography in narratives, at the Kluge I was in front of an interdisciplinary audience, whose members’ work differs greatly from my own.

While in Chicago questions focussed on my use of theory, in Washington the questions probed more deeply into my own orientation to the texts and to the ideas of readerly ‘borrowing’ and relationships to originary authors that I was exploring. The different angles from which each listener came gave fresh (and valuable) insights into my work which I will certainly build on.

Perhaps the message to take away here is, even if large, many-panelled conferences seem more prestigious and vital to one’s academic CV, it’s the small, intimate, interdisciplinary places where the real academic growing happens.


‘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