Thursday, April 25, 2013

Common Precedents: The Presentness of the Past in Victorian Law and Fiction

By Ayelet Ben-Yishai

Common Precedents maintains that precedent constitutes a sophisticated and powerful mechanism for managing social and cultural change. Reading major novels by George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and Wilkie Collins, this analysis of law and literature shows that precedential reasoning enjoyed widespread cultural significance in the nineteenth-century as a means of preserving a sense of common history, values, and interests in the face of a new heterogeneous society. An in-depth analysis of Victorian law reports argues that precedential reasoning enables the recognition of the new and its assimilation as part of a continuous past. The binding force of precedent, which ties judges to decisions made by their predecessors, also functions as the binding element of an always shifting commonality, pulling it together in the face of rupture and dispersion.

By appearing to bring the past seamlessly into the present, the form of legal precedent became material. It was vital to the preservation of a sense of commonality and continuity crucial to the common law and Victorian legal culture. But the impact of precedent extended beyond legal practices and institutions to the culture at large, and especially to its fiction. Ben-Yishai's monograph argues that understanding the structure of precedent also explains fictional form: how fictionality works, its epistemology, and the ways in which its commonalities are socially constructed, maintained, and reified. Common Precedents thus presents a cultural history of the forms of precedent and an intricate study of the formation of social convention.

  • Reveals how precedential reasoning as a strategy for managing change produced innovations in legal and fictional writing
  • Identifies precedential reasoning as the fundamental epistemological paradigm employed by Victorians
  • Brings together a rare combination of considerable legal and literary knowledge

"Common Precedents is a fascinating study of the form and substance of the formation of social convention. It's lucid, informative, and offers some truly brilliant readings." –Elaine Freedgood, author of The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Are We There Yet? Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism

By Alison Byerly

Are We There Yet? Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism connects the Victorian fascination with "virtual travel" with the rise of realism in nineteenth-century fiction and twenty-first-century experiments in virtual reality. Even as the expansion of river and railway networks in the nineteenth century made travel easier than ever before, staying at home and fantasizing about travel turned into a favorite pastime. New ways of representing place—360-degree panoramas, foldout river maps, exhaustive railway guides—offered themselves as substitutes for actual travel. Thinking of these representations as a form of "virtual travel" reveals a surprising continuity between the Victorian fascination with imaginative dislocation and twenty-first -century efforts to use digital technology to expand the physical boundaries of the self.

Byerly’s work is unusual in approaching a Victorian phenomenon through the lens of contemporary conceptualizations of media and its effects. Other critics who have applied current theories about media to nineteenth century cultural forms have generally focused on the social or economic dimensions of these forms in order to examine topics like representations of empire, ideas about gender, or the development of consumer culture. This book places cultural studies into dialogue with an aesthetics that is re-energized by engagement with contemporary debates about virtual reality.  It is a foundational work in the emerging field of Victorian media studies.

"Byerly is chock-full of new materials brought into view through a fresh perspective straightforwardly grounded in the network-computer concerns of our present. It feels both intuitively right and brilliant."—Jonathan H. Grossman, University of California, Los Angeles, author of Charles Dickens’s Networks