19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 6 (2008)

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Gasworks

Steven Connor

Abstract


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.

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