Steve Connor is Professor of Modern Literature and Theory at Birkbeck College, London and Academic Director of the London Consortium, a Graduate Programme in Humanities and Cultural Studies taught in collaboration between Birkbeck, Tate, the Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Architectural Association. He is a writer and broadcaster for radio and the author of books on Dickens, Beckett, Joyce and post-war British fiction, as well as of Postmodernist Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989, 2nd edn 1996), Theory and Cultural Value (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), The Book of Skin (London: Reaktion, 2003) and Fly (London: Reaktion, 2006). His forthcoming book Next to Nothing is an historical poetics of the air. His website at www.steveconnor.com includes lectures, broadcasts, unpublished work and work in progress.
The material imagination of the nineteenth century had to deal increasingly with what had previously been thought to be immaterial, or as good as, and with largely imaginary forms of material. The century was one in which the material and the immaterial entered into new and surprising alliances and exchanges, exchange becoming in the process the principal mode in which the material world was made apprehensible. Increasingly, the material world was immaterialised, with the growing dependence on invisible gases, vapours and substances, from steam (or, more strictly, water-vapour), to coal-gas, to the ether of space that provided such an indisputable and indispensable ground for nineteenth-century physics. This essay considers the ways in which gas, and in particular gaslighting, was imagined, especially in Victorian fiction. I conclude that gas became a mediate material, which connected up the global and the local, the economic and the physiological, the immediate and the mediate. As such, it provides a kind of correlative to the imaginary plasma of the novel itself, which equally arises from a curiosity about the complexity of conjunctures, with the intimate traffic of proximity and distance.