Yohei Igarashi, The Connected Condition: Romanticism and the Dream of Communication. Reviewed by Andrew Burkett.
A transformative contribution to the vital subfield of Romantic media studies, Yohei Igarashi’s The Connected Condition: Romanticism and the Dream of Communication investigates the dense network of connections among a range of canonical Romantic writers and texts and the period’s heightened fantasies and anxieties concerning the modern communications order. Despite the fact that the Romantics lived and worked during the period just previous to what John Guillory has persuasively shown to be the emergence during the Victorian age of the modern media concept as the technological channel of communication, Romantic writers were keenly aware of and tuned into what Igarashi refers to as their era’s version of the “dream of communication,” or the fantasy of a “transfer of thoughts, feelings, and information between individuals made as efficient as possible, and of perfectible media that could facilitate the quickest and clearest communication” (4). Because of his focus on the higher-order concern of communication, Igarashi is less interested in the technological or medial levels characteristic of much media studies scholarship (and especially of recent work in media archaeology) and more invested in seeking to understand Romantic poets’ various responses to and interventions with the period’s broader dream of communication, which both attracted and repelled authors who “internalized fantasies and norms” of their Romantic connected condition while simultaneously expressing “contrarian literary strategies” challenging them (6).
While Igarashi playfully warns that his investigation of such communicative “norms” might necessarily lead readers through a “Romanticism of ‘boring things,’” the connections that his work forges among Romantic poetics and largely overlooked “bureaucratic routines, paperwork, standards, or administrators” are both captivating and groundbreaking (28). The book’s first chapter, for instance, uncovers a neglected aspect of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s notebook writings: his fascination with transcription practices and theories, which express “a persistent fantasy about rapid writing methods” and which are linked, as Igarashi reveals, to Coleridge’s own invention of an idiosyncratic system of shorthand writing for taking down his thoughts (40-41). This chapter culminates in a startling new reading of the signs, symbols, and images of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798, 1817) in the context of “those other kinds of letter-like signs Coleridge invented, scribbled, and theorized” (43). Like Coleridge, William Wordsworth too was responding to and rethinking Romantic communicative norms and protocols of streamlined writing, and, as Igarashi exposes in his second chapter, the latter poet was particularly poised to do so given his thirty-year-long career as Distributor of Stamps for the Westmorland, Whitehaven, and Penrith districts in Britain. Although Wordsworth’s imaginative writings never directly address his distributorship or work in taxation, and despite the fact that critics have nearly universally ignored this other vocation in civil service, Igarashi brilliantly unearths the ways in which Wordsworth’s engagement with standardized blank forms—their “formulariness, formatting, and the standardized blank form” itself—resonated with and reinforced the period’s broader New Rhetorical norm of brevitas and, in doing so, informed Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), Essays upon Epitaphs (comp. 1810), and The Excursion (1814)—all texts that “accommodate, as much as they ignore, the rule of streamlined writing” (91, 34).
While the book’s first two chapters thus investigate inventive new types of “formalist” readings of classic Romantic works, The Connected Condition’s final two case studies center attention on what Igarashi explores as “different forms of poetic obscurity” (36, emphasis mine). The book’s third chapter addresses the challenging philosophy and poetics of Percy Bysshe Shelley, focusing on the ways that Shelley’s thought and his imaginative works must be placed in the context of a coalescing Romantic information society that, as Clifford Siskin, William Warner, and others have shown, was coming into being during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry (comp. 1821), “On Love” (comp. 1818), and especially his Epipsychidion (1821) specifically meditate abstractly on what Igarashi refers to as Romantic “networked life,” or “the historically specific feeling of social disconnectedness amid heightened communicative and infrastructural connectedness” (120). Persuasively fusing the histories of the proto-discourses of sociology and media theory, Igarashi freshly reads the often-acknowledged obscurity and opaqueness of Epipsychidion as encoding and, in fact, endorsing a unique way of navigating life as a networked being through the text’s presentation of an “ambiversion of literary communication,” a poetics that is simultaneously “communicative and yet uncommunicative” and that thus models for readers the possibility of a novel relationality for existence under the connected condition: “to be in a state of connection at some times, disconnection at others” (120, 121). The book’s final case study addresses similar concerns regarding the often-challenging nature of Romantic poetics and focuses on the tension in both the poetry and prose of John Keats between, on the one hand, a cultural wish or fantasy for unmediated transmission of knowledge and, on the other hand, the complex realities of the opacities of textuality and communication. In a fascinating new reading of Keats’s journal letter of December 1818—January 1819 to his brother and sister-in-law in America, Igarashi aligns Keats’s famous ideas about instantaneous transatlantic contact with his relatives via coordinated readings of Shakespearean text with the broken-off concluding scenes of his two fragmentary attempts with epic verse, Hyperion (1819-1820), which memorably cut off in “scene[s] of nearly instantaneous communicative transfer” (149). Unlike the case of Shelley, which presents some type of middle state or ground, perhaps, between instances of communicative dis/connection, moments of instantaneous mediation in Keats are, Igarashi reveals, real outliers in his oeuvre and significantly “grate against” his “career-long devotion to figures of slow, perplexed communication, to the difficult processes of mediation and reading alike,” a pervasive logic of communication that Igarashi nicely terms Keatsian “dark passages” (146-147, 147).
As Igarashi notes early on in his study, his work has taken important inspiration from the pioneering (indeed, the discipline-altering) scholarship of Celeste Langan and Maureen N. McLane, whose “The Medium of Romantic Poetry,” among various other projects, arguably launched Romantic media studies as a subfield (6). To be sure, Langan and McLane’s enabling work on the notion of a “Romantic Poetry Channel” has helped to open up this vibrant research area in a rich variety of ways and perhaps most importantly by underscoring, on the one hand, Romanticism’s amplifying obsessions with technological channels of storage and processing media and, on the other hand, the period’s sustained, if complexifying, commitments to broader socio-cultural acts and practices of human communication (7). As a study that fundamentally embraces the widespread “imaginative horizons of communication” during the Romantic age while simultaneously interrogating and contextualizing a range of communicative norms involving “information storage systems, telecommunications, [and] informational genres,” The Connected Condition adeptly synthesizes these two major methodologies of Romantic media studies scholarship (16, 28). In doing so, Igarashi undoubtedly succeeds in his goal of crafting what he calls a “normal method” or a “normal Romanticism”—a scholarly methodology that does not, of course, celebrate normativity but instead highlights norms and standards of the era in order to investigate how Romantic-age works “subscribed to linguistic-communicative norms as much as they may have also deviated from them” (23, 24). What emerges as a result of Igarashi’s innovative methodology is no less than an entirely original vision of Romantic poetics as a unique kind of communicative order reflecting not just on the nature and function of the medium or the message but indeed on the dream of communication itself.