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Amodern 2: Network Archaeology


James Purdon

Why look at networks? The question comes with a corollary: what does a network look like? If much recent network-minded thinking in the humanities has been content to let the network remain at the level of concept, the usefulness of such abstraction is clear given how fuzzy the limits of networks can seem. One doesn’t relish the idea of setting concrete limits to network-mindedness for fear of failing to account for the hybrids and crossings that proliferate in the weird regions where one kind of network passes into another; indeed there are times when it feels safest to reach for the kind of abstraction offered by Dr Johnson’s definition of “network” as “any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.” Yet we shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which an expanding critical and theoretical interest in the ontology of networks – indeed, in network as ontology – has been shaped by the kinds of technological object that come unbidden to mind whenever network-imagery is invoked. Structures of wire and mesh, conductors and insulators, connections and nodes, coaxial cables, optical fibres, substations, conduits and sockets: these things (to borrow Johnson’s term) constitute a material substrate, the infrastructure that our immersion in networked experience tends to take for granted.

Far from constituting a problem to be overcome, however, this tendency to oscillate between thinking about networks in abstract and in concrete terms has long conferred upon the idea of the network its unique value for modelling social assemblages that we instinctively understand both as abstract collectives and as concrete entities. As Laura Otis has pointed out, the new communications networks of nineteenth-century Britain not only provided fiction and social theory with metaphors for the new kinds of social and economic relationships they encouraged, but also gave rise to new ways of thinking about the embodied mind and its capacities for communication.1 In another context – that of electric lighting in 1880s New York – Lisa Gitelman and Theresa M. Collins make the point even more pithily when they describe how the new technology was experienced simultaneously “as system and component, as looking with and looking at.”2

Bearing this in mind, the present essay aims to read both the systematic and the component aspects of one particular network at a crucial moment in its history. Concentrating on the cultural resonances of the vast National Grid constructed around the United Kingdom in the 1920s and 1930s, it argues that certain writers and film-makers experienced the new infrastructures of the Grid both as a challenge and as a resource. From the late 1920s onwards the infrastructure of this network, and more especially the transmission tower, or pylon, was a new and unfamiliar presence in the rural landscape. It was also a divisive presence. For the modernist architect Sir John Leslie Martin, the “line of electric pylons,” along with the motor-car and the aeroplane, was representative of a “new aesthetic” that had at last “abandoned the accidental for the exact and […] replaced the ornamental by the constructional.”3 Likewise, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth drew inspiration from the sight of “pylons in lovely juxtaposition with springy turf and trees of every stature” seen from the window of an electric train.4 For others – including Rudyard Kipling, John Maynard Keynes and John Galsworthy, co-signatories of a letter to the editor of The Times – the erection of “steel masts” carrying “high-tension wires” over the Sussex Downs amounted to nothing less than “the permanent disfigurement of a familiar feature of the English landscape.”5 Others still stressed contextual factors with a decidedly chauvinistic bent: “the series of pylons seen striding across the bare and rather dull hills of Palestine may possess some of the impressive qualities of the aqueducts on the Campagna,” wrote the town planner Sir Patrick Abercrombie, “but carry that same hard line across the South Downs and a scene of exquisite balanced beauty is mechanized and marred.”6

As these competing views suggest, the Grid was a site of contested meanings and strange alliances even before it had been completed. Proposed and begun under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, the project gave rise to the spectacle of a Conservative government pushing for a large nationalised infrastructure funded by the Treasury in opposition to the interests of regional business interests. To compound the irony, the Electricity Supply Bill was shepherded through Parliament in 1926, the year of the General Strike: while socialism was making its presence most powerfully felt in British cities, a Conservative government signed into law the country’s biggest ever peacetime programme of public works. By the time the last of 26,000 planned pylons went up, in September 1933 in the New Forest, the project had seen out Baldwin’s Conservative administration, then Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour, and had become the responsibility of a coalition government.

If the pylon was neither Tory nor Labour, perhaps it was neither new nor old. The great steel pylons that had been ordered for the National Grid conformed to a design originally proposed by an American firm, Milliken Brothers, and were adopted subject to modifications proposed by the resolutely anti-modernist architect Reginald Blomfield. For Blomfield, to whom continental “Modernismus” was anathema, the British pylon fit into the tradition of a particular kind of classicism. Even the word “pylon” seemed to emphasize the connection. Initially borrowed from Greek by French Egyptologists as a term for the gateway towers of Egyptian temples, the word pylon (which simply means “gate”) had remained in current use to designate the end tower gates of suspension bridges, and more recently had been applied to the steel towers used to mark the course in the new extreme sport of aircraft racing, as in the title of William Faulkner’s 1935 novel about barnstorming pilots. Besides this, Egyptian-style pylons had been much in vogue in the early 1920s as proposed structures for the commemoration of the Great War dead, and the enduring Egyptological interest only increased with the discoveries made by Howard Carter in 1922. There does not seem to be any firm evidence for the claim that Blomfield’s adaptation of the Milliken design was intended to reflect the form of Egyptian temple architecture – indeed, on the few occasions when he took to the pages of The Times to defend the aesthetic merit of the pylons against their nimbyish detractors, he preferred to describe them as “cable towers” or “masts” – but Blomfield, who admired and had written extensively on the art and architecture of Egypt, a land still dominated by British imperial interests, would doubtless have approved of the word’s classical associations.

In the early 1930s, the pylon, as a local synecdoche for a national-scale network, became a significant subject for British landscape painting, particularly among a younger generation of artists, writers and film-makers. The otherworldly form of the pylon arrived in the landscape at a propitious time, when the aesthetics of modern British art were the subject of intense public debate. Two events in particular – the Unit 1 exhibition of modern British painting, architecture and sculpture organized by Paul Nash in 1934, and the storied International Surrealist Exhibition which took place two years later in London – encouraged artists and audiences to think carefully about the visual techniques appropriate to art in the age of Freudian psychoanalysis, social revolution and high technology. As I have argued elsewhere, the pylon appealed to many of these 1930s painters not, ultimately, because of the stark choices that J.L. Martin thought it embodied, but because its form seemed to offer a resolution of those binary alternatives, opening up a radically different way for artists to think about the artistic representation of British modernity.7 But whereas the painters of the 1930s used the pylon as a totemic object to resolve the competing claims of representation and abstraction, other arts took different approaches. Film-makers came to understand electrical infrastructure as uniquely apposite to the development of a cinematic language of addition, of a syntax which could produce meaning not from the imitation of reality alone but from the way in which discrete quanta were put together to produce a unified whole. Meanwhile, the poets of the British Left found in infrastructure a reflection of their own hesitation between continuity and revolutionary rupture. For W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, the pylon-line resembled a heroic ideal, stalking off over the hills into a clean, rational future, but it also risked becoming merely monumental; raised up like Ozymandias, the pylons suggested a kind of hubris, as though they might yet stand sentinel over the deep England they threatened to abolish. It certainly seemed so to E.M. Forster, who in “The Abinger Pageant” (1934) lamented “arterial roads, by-passes, petrol pumps, and pylons – are these going to be England?”8

Pylons marked, and transgressed, all sorts of boundaries. Jane Bennett puts it well when she describes U.S. electrical infrastructure as “a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire, and wood – to name just some of the actants.”9 The British Grid, similarly, was not just a network made up of steel and cable, but a high-tension system compounded of materials, forces, politics – and, to add to Bennett’s litany, of cultural representations. But it should be remembered that such representations amount to more than straightforward depiction of new technologies and materials: part of what mattered about the cultural response to national electrification was the way it seemed to demand new ways of thinking poetically as well as mimetically. Electrical infrastructure, I shall insist, was something to think with, as well as something to think about.

Pylon Pastoral

Not everyone thought that the pylon heralded a bright future of electric plenty: inevitably, there were some who felt that the development of the National Grid’s infrastructure marked a certain kind of spoliation. For the conservative and country-loving poet Edward Meyerstein, the pylon was:

      • That carrier of life-imperilling light,
      • That skeleton to mar the lovely sight
      • Of shaw and pasture, like the old
      • Gibbet on hill that ghasted travellers bold.

((E.H.W. Meyerstein, “Peace,” Times Literary Supplement, 28 March 1936: 266.))

Meyerstein understood the pylon as a sign of deathliness and decay: its weird invisible light was both dangerous in itself and ugly in what it could bring before the pastoral gaze. Indeed, despair at this new horror rather pushed Meyerstein into contradiction, since it’s not clear from these lines which is worse: the old horror of the body on the gibbet, or the new horror of the pylon on the skyline. But for a younger generation of poets the pylon was less an eyesore than a symbol of potentials good and bad, caught between the social upheaval they saw coming and the powerful national iconography of rural landscape they had internalized. One possible mode of expression for this fearful fascination was prophecy, as Auden understood when he adopted the metre of Tennyson’s prophetic poem “Locksley Hall” in “Get there if you can” (1930):

      • Get there if you can and see the land you once were proud to own
      • Though the roads have almost vanished and the expresses never run:
      • Smokeless chimneys, damaged bridges, rotting wharves and choked canals,
      • Tramlines buckled, smashed trucks lying on their side across the rails;
      • Power-stations locked, deserted, since they drew the boiler fires
      • Pylons falling or subsiding, trailing dead high-tension wires

((W.H. Auden, Poems (London: Faber, 1930). John Fuller notes that the poem as written in Auden’s MS bears the same title as Tennyson’s. See his “Tennyson and Auden” in Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and Seamus Perry, eds, Tennyson Among the Poets: Bicentenary Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).))

Prophecy was the right mode not only because it matched its own strange future-perfect temporality to the temporal disturbance produced by electrical simultaneity – the everywhere-at-onceness of a high-voltage grid – but furthermore because prophecy itself can be understood as emerging in the moment between desire and dread. The “pylon” poems of Auden and his contemporaries often seem most urgent in their warnings precisely when they crave the crisis they foresee, an urgency that coalesces around the particularly charged word “power.” For these poets of the 1930s, electrical “power” is ghosted by other implications. Contemporary fear and fascination for the role of the powerful state looms large in two poems of 1933, Day Lewis’s Audenesque “The Magnetic Mountain” – “Power-house chimneys choke sun, ascetic pylons pass / Bringing light to the dark-livers, charged to deal death” – and Charles Madge’s “Instructions”:

      • Along our cables flowing and in our streets going
      • Into the houses breaking and the doors banging and shaking
      • Marching along with drums and humming high in the pylons comes
      • Power and the factories break flaming into flower

((Charles Madge, “Instructions,” in New Verse 2 (March 1933); C. Day Lewis, The Magnetic Mountain (London: Leonard & Virginia Woolf, 1933).))

The main problem these poems of power try to negotiate is one of legitimacy: the distribution of power brought by national electrification, while significant in being a planned national works project of benefit to the widest possible constituency, is hardly matched by any redistribution of political power to those who labour under power-house chimneys or in factories. The power carried by each of the poems is, ultimately, the power of a rhetoric that increasingly associated socialist power with electrical modernity: Lenin’s famous definition of communism as “Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” (Day Lewis’s alliterative, cod-Anglo-Saxon “dark-livers” is even a passable translation of the Russian narod, meaning “peasants” or “dark people.”) In English, however, these proletarian poems suffer from the pastoralizing vice identified by William Empson in Some Versions of Pastoral, a book that first appeared in 1935. This is the reason for the strange inadequacy of most 1930s “pylon” poems: they keep collapsing into ambivalent metaphors of power or into uneasy versions of what Empson called “covert pastoral”. Stephen Spender, for instance, in “The Pylons” – a kind of type-specimen for the genre of pylon-poem – laments the demise of “sudden hidden villages” and “the valley with its gilt and evening look” before turning to survey the skyline:

      • But far above and far as sight endures
      • Like whips of anger
      • With lightning’s danger
      • There runs the quick perspective of the future.
      • This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
      • So tall with prophecy:
      • Dreaming of cities
      • Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck

((Stephen Spender, “The Pylons,” in Poems (London: Faber, 1933).))

On the page, “The Pylons” turns out to resemble a fanciful visualization of its own theme: each stanza’s two pronged longer lines carry rhyme across the face of the poem. Spender’s invocation of the prophetic mode is more overt than Auden’s, a statement rather than an implication, and the poem suffers for it. In 1934, Day Lewis felt able to write that poets “are learning to communicate through a new kind of power, like the pylon-carried wires of which Spender writes.”10 Yet Spender’s portentousness opens his poem wide to parody, while his sense of electrification as an historical inevitability pushes him into a queasy alliance with the dangerous pylons, harbingers of a utopian future in which cloud-washed cities, free of industrial grime, compensate for the countryside’s toleration of “the concrete / That trails black wire.” And yet “they” build on “our” emerald country in ways that do no justice to the intricate negotiations of various forms of local and national power that infrastructural projects bring to prominence. This “they” and “our” is the surest indicator of the pastoral impulse in Spender’s poem, which lays claim to a rather forced intimacy with rural feeling that ultimately turns out to be little more than an artefact of urban sentiment. (The feelings of actual people in rural areas with regard to pylons were rather more varied. One practically-minded former country-dweller wrote to The Times to complain about the complaints: “Rightly regarded as ministering to the needs of the less favoured, a steel mast is a thing of beauty and with spiritual value. It means better light and many a convenience and less drudgery to country folk.”)11 Spender’s overwritten poem quickly came to stand for a genre unkindly described by Julian Symons as the work of “Pylon-Pitworks-Pansy” poets, and was still being mocked in 1943, when Penguin New Writing published a send-up by the critic and literary editor G.W. Stonier. In Stonier’s jovial account of the previous decade’s poetry, an Audenesque gang on a tour-bus emerges from the waste lands of the 1920s into the new English countryside: “Pylons! Arterial roads, semi-detached villas, Butlin’s camps, ping-pong, scooters! Hurrah! But chiefly the pylons. […] “Like nude giant girls,” said Stephen Spendlove with that wonderful felicity of his for daydreaming.” As usual, Spender’s poem bears the brunt of the mockery.

Only one poem, also published in 1933, seems to me to respond adequately to the strangeness of the electrified landscape and its new infrastructure. “Pylons,” by the poet and librarian Stanley Snaith, follows the opposite trajectory to Spender’s poem. Beginning with a vision of triumphant pylons traversing the countryside, it resists both the impulse to resolve the utopian contradiction between electrification and tradition into prophetic vision and the easy slide into pastoral idealization:

        • Over the tree’d upland evenly striding,
        • One after one they lift their serious shapes
        • That ring with light. The statement of their steel
        • Contradicts nature’s softer architecture.
        • Earth will not accept them as it accepts
        • A wall, a plough, a church so coloured of earth
        • It might be some experiment of the soil’s.
        • Yet are they outposts of the trekking future.
        • Into the thatch-hung consciousness of hamlets
        • They blaze new thoughts, new habits.
        • Traditions
        • Are being trod down like flowers dropped by children.
        • Already that farm boy striding and throwing seed
        • In the shoulder-hinged half-circle Millet knew,
        • Looks grey with antiquity as his dead forbears,
        • A half familiar figure out of the Georgics,
        • Unheeded by these new-world, rational towers.

((Stanley Snaith, “Pylons,” in The Silver Scythe (London: Blythenhale Press, 1933).))

Like Spender’s pylons, Snaith’s also trek, from Dutch trekken, meaning to pull or drag. To trek is to move, but it is also to carry something with you. “One after one,” writes Snaith, and these pylons begin to seem less a series of still, solid figures than the manifestation of a single movement, as though each line of pylons were a recording whose temporal dimension has been caught in the manner of a Muybridge motion photograph. The conceit that pylons move – that the whole line of pylons stretching into the distance should appear like a strip of film-frames recording a sequence of movements – recurs in poem after poem, painting after painting, as if British culture of the 1930s were in search of some mode adequate to respond to the connective switch-flick instantaneity of electricity across the landscape from power-station to lightbulb. The metaphor of movement had entered pylon-discourse easily and quickly. In 1929, when Kipling and Keynes wrote their letter of protest to The Times, Reginald Blomfield – who had overseen the tender for Pylon design – responded in a further letter that:

Anyone who has seen these strange masts and lines striding across the country, ignoring all obstacles in their strenuous march, can realise without a great effort of imagination that [they] have an element of romance of their own. The wise man does not tilt at windmills – one may not like it, but the world moves on.12

In recruiting Don Quixote and his windmills to the cause of modernization, Blomfield neatly reminds his readers that the land which they wish so fervently to protect is already a site of technological interventions which have long been accommodated to ideals of rural picturesqueness. Behind all this, of course, is a thinly concealed metaphor: the march of progress. Snaith’s pylons and Millet’s painted farm boy inhabit different temporalities but are connected by a similar lexicon: like Blomfield’s pylons, each of them “strides” across the landscape; the boy’s hinged arm insists on the difficult mechanical movements of agricultural labour, while the presence of the plough, like Blomfield’s windmills, calls into the poem a more complex history of land remade by machines than Spender’s binary opposition between advanced technology and rural tradition would allow for. Where Spender’s pylons and wires pass across, pass through, leaving their mark on the land, Snaith’s are more deeply engaged in the processes of mutual shaping undertaken by the earth, the productive soil, and its inhabitants. Those processes, Snaith suggests, involve dominance and resistance, contradiction and accommodation, a kind of residual conservatism (or even classicism) as well as a vision of modernist progress. Again, where Spender states explicitly the “lightning’s danger” conducted by high-voltage wires, Snaith displaces the thought into a matter of proximity between the “thatch-hung consciousness of hamlets” and the “blaze” of “new thoughts, new habits”, without renouncing the hint of backwardness that “thatch-hung” brings to “consciousness.” This seems to me the point in this poem at which it goes beyond the “pylon poets” in thinking with, rather than merely thinking about infrastructure. For, grand as it is, the mode of prophecy doesn’t stop to wonder about how rural electrification might bring about “new thoughts.” Dealing in the grand abstraction of “power,” it fails to account, as Snaith’s poem does account, for the more mundane force of “habit,” and how habit might carry over, or fail to carry over, into the “traditions” of the following line. Where Spender’s poem thinks prophetically about infrastructure, then, Snaith’s might be said to think prosthetically, giving a truer sense of the processes of cultural shaping that surrounded the nationwide expansion of the National Grid’s network.

These two ways of approaching infrastructural technology, the prophetic and the prosthetic, were both in operation in the 1930s as writers responded to electrification. As the reputation of the group surrounding Auden grew, and as critics rushed to designate them a “Pylon school,” the prophetic mode came to dominate. Yet beyond the pylon school, it is possible to excavate another history of infrastructural thinking in the thirties which understands bodies as being themselves not only electrified, but newly networked, newly intermediated.

Electric Cinema

One place where the fascination with the vision of a modern, networked Britain was increasingly popular was the cinema. Even in its earliest days, British documentary had its eye on network infrastructure. From The Coming of the Dial (1933), to the W.H. Auden-scripted Night Mail (1936), to Roadways (1937), the GPO Film Unit in particular produced an extensive catalogue of films tracing the structures of Britain’s domestic and imperial connectivity. It was natural, therefore, that when the Central Electricity Board wished to extol the merits of its national electrification scheme it should have turned to one of the rising stars of the British documentary movement, Paul Rotha. Made under the auspices of Gaumont-British Instructional Films, The Face of Britain is as much a hymn to the changing British landscape as to the technical prowess of the country’s designers and engineers. Even its title cards insist on a nation transformed by the character of its networks: as the power of electromagnetism supersedes the satanic mill, the neotechnic pylon displaces the palaeotechnic smokestack.

The third sequence of the Rotha’s film traces the production of hydroelectric energy. Against a series of wide and close-up shots of pylons and insulators, a voiceover (contributed by the journalist A.J. Cummings) describes the progress of transmission: “From the sources of this energy to north, south, east and west the pylons carry their living load, over mountains, fields and rivers, never checking in their stride as they carry the new power to the waiting cities and the eager countryside.” Cummings’s voiceover works hard to invigorate the steel form of the pylons, which nonetheless remain uninspiringly stationary. To counteract their inertia, Rotha adds an electrical-sounding hum that increases in pitch with each cut to suggest the internal drama of force playing out within the wires they bear aloft.13

If the painterly pylon of 1930s British art owed its form to the French surrealists of the early 1920s, this cinematic cousin was more closely affiliated with the documentary work of Soviet film-makers such as Esfir Shub and Dziga Vertov.14 But it should also be remembered that the association between electrification and the experimental techniques of Russian cinema was in place even before the propaganda campaigns of the GOELRO plan. Indeed, the pylon – which features prominently in Lev Kuleshov’s early experiments with montage – can be understood as a foundational object for narrative cinema. Kuleshov’s debut feature, Engineer Prite’s Project (1918) has been of interest to film historians primarily because it constitutes the first extended experiment in the form of montage which Kuleshov himself was the first to theorize, and which would soon become a mainstay of early Soviet cinema until its suppression in the 1930s. In Art of the Cinema, Kuleshov describes how he first used “the fundamental principles of montage” in order to make a connection across distance between two distinct spaces:

In shooting Engineer Prite’s Project we encountered a certain difficulty. It was necessary for our leading characters, a father and his daughter, to walk across a meadow and look at a pole from which electric cables were strung. Due to technical circumstances we were not able to shoot all this at the same location. We had to shoot the pole in one location and separately shoot the father and daughter in another place. We shot them looking upward, talking about the pole and walking on. We intercut the shot of the pole, taken elsewhere, into the walk across the meadow.15

This production of meaning through editing constitutes the celebrated “Kuleshov Effect,” a process explained to lay audiences most memorably by Alfred Hitchcock, who in a 1964 interview demonstrated it by intercutting identical shots of his own smiling face first with a shot of a woman playing with a toddler, and then with a woman sunbathing in a bikini. For Kuleshov, however, montage began to demonstrate its power not in its ability to influence the semantic content of a sequence of shots so much as in its potential to articulate space in new ways: “In The Project of Engineer Prite, I show people looking at electric pylons in this way. It was thus that I made an accidental discovery: thanks to montage, it is possible to create, so to speak, a new geography, a new place of action. It is possible to create in this way new relations between the objects, the nature, the people and the progress of the film.”16

Elsewhere in the film, as Prite explains his new power network, a sequence of location shots conducts the viewer around the power production and transmission network, from an open field and peat bog to the hydraulic extraction site, from there to the power station itself and finally, as Prite raises a visionary hand towards the camera, to the towering electricity pylons that will carry the current-bearing wires across the countryside.17 Later, when the oil tycoon’s daughter raises her hand in a gesture mirroring Prite’s, the two are connected across the film by their association with the material structure of the grid. Yet as Kuleshov was at pains to point out, the actor playing the love interest never pointed at the pylon at all. What the naïve film viewer reads as an effect arising out of the filmic representation of a scene (out of mimesis), in fact arises out of the creative manipulation of the medium’s formal possibilities of connection. There never was any non-cinematic position from which the whole of this action could be seen and understood as conveying a certain meaning.

In Kuleshov’s account of Engineer Prite’s Project, montage emerges as a solution to a problem of “technical circumstances,” as an “accidental discovery.” Montage, Kuleshov suggests, matches the capacities of film to the condition of the network itself. There never has been any position from which the whole electrical grid can enter fully into representation either — not even, since such a network passes into buildings and underground, from the air. And the problem is greater still, since as Engineer Prite’s Project shows the network depends not just on pylons and peat, but on a vast and heterogeneous structure of interpenetrating systems and bodies. Representation, as usually conceived, balks at the electricity network, which conveys neither people capable of describing or depicting it (like the railway) nor messages recuperable as content (like the telegraph and telephone). Though constructed to service human ends, its physical form calls individual human agency into question, first through its state-mandated restructuration of rural landscape around a new signifier of industrial power, the pylon, and secondly by producing changes in the habits of mind and body which accustom human agents to the world they inhabit.

Where Kuleshov’s cinematic experiments with pylons and power-stations had helped to construct a new cinematic utopia – a non-place in which the syntactic connection of disparate images could produce representations with no originals – the British Central Electricity Board turned to Rotha for a film that would construct its new National Grid in the popular mind as a utopian project in the more usual sense. An admirer of Kuleshov’s pioneering work, Rotha paid tribute in “The Development of the Film as a Means of Expression” (1930). “It is certain,” he wrote, “that the first Soviet experiments in film editing […] were due to Lev Kuleshov, an instructor and film director in Moscow. From his original theories regarding the relation and inter-relation of pieces of film […] there have been developed the principles of constructive editing.”18 Rotha’s own editing takes advantage of sound, an element unavailable to Kuleshov in Engineer Prite’s Project. But it certainly draws on techniques developed and perfected in the Soviet cinema in its spatial poiesis of the new zones produced by the capacities of the network, from the control rooms of hydroelectric plants to the wirescape of rural hillsides. Rotha’s film doesn’t just record these scenes, it arranges them and articulates them, placing them in a systematic relation in order to confer a particular sense of unity upon the disparate parts of a system that comprehends gentle streams, thatched cottages, white-coated boffins and advanced industrial plant.

Unlike its Soviet predecessors, Rotha’s film does not make its way inside the domestic interior, offering only external shots of the “small villages” to which central planning has brought the benefits of electricity. One film-maker who was not so coy about the reach of the network was Alfred Hitchcock, and it is a moment in Sabotage (1936) that provides a final example of the anxieties of connectedness that accompanied the new ubiquity of the expanded Grid. Sabotage begins where Engineer Prite’s Project ends: with an act of sabotage at a power station causing a widespread blackout. Or, rather, it begins with the consequences of that act. First the lights go out across London. We see the street-lamps dark in front of Nelson’s Column and the statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus, then a brand-new landmark of electrical modernity: the twin chimneys of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s Battersea Power Station. Foregrounded against the new power-house, the saboteur Verloc is revealed in a framing which serves to collapse distance into co-presence, saboteur and target into a single shot.

The most interesting moment in Hitchcock’s opening, however, occurs when Verloc returns home to his flat above the cinema he owns. Dependent upon the electrical network, the cinema is in darkness, and a crowd of angry customers has formed outside it to demand their money back. Sneaking in, Verloc first washes away the sand with which he has sabotaged the plant. Then, checking his fingernails, perhaps feeling the grit which marks him as the saboteur, he goes upstairs. But then something strange happens. As he opens the door to his bedroom, Verloc turns, and – with the unthinking force of habit – flicks the light switch. The room stays dark, of course, and Verloc looks up, puzzled, off-screen, to where the light should be. Then, turning back with a smile, he seems to realize his mistake and resets the switch.

In media-archaeological terms, network infrastructures can be understood as transmission technologies, in order to differentiate them from those storage technologies on which recent theoretical and historical work has tended to concentrate. Such agents of transmission have not been well served by inscription-focussed theories of media, which tend to valorize local manifestations of materiality while undervaluing the equally important structures – wires, pylons, electrical fields – that render transmission conceivable as a material practice in its own right.19 In the verse works and films discussed here, the Grid is not simply a set of objects and processes to be represented, but the site of rhetorical struggle in which components could be coded as revolutionary or reformist, socialist or imperial, utopian or corrupting. Those components had already begun to generate new meanings as well as new energies, changing the ways in which the Grid’s wider social, political and economic implications were understood even as the network itself was under construction. As Verloc comes to understand the network as a prosthetic device which not only extends our capacities but refashions our habits and instincts, so too can we remind ourselves, through encounters with texts that make the shapes and effects of networks new, that the production of a networked culture depends on a wide variety of mutually shaping practices, bodies and discourses. With that knowledge, we might be better able to understand that Siberian server farms, Congolese coltan mines, and the launch vehicles of communications satellites – in short, all the hidden infrastructures of our own cultural moment – are not nugatory or merely contingent parts of contemporary network formations. Rather, they are sites where the high-velocity transmission of content whispers through the materiality of embodied form, insisting on the intimacy of objects and data in an affect felt not everywhere at once, as a distributed network function, but at particular moments and places, here and now.

  1. Laura Otis, Networking: Communicating With Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2001). 

  2. Lisa Gitelman and Theresa M. Collins, ‘Medium light: revisiting Edisonian modernity’, Critical Quarterly 51 (2009): 11. 

  3. J.L. Martin et al. Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art (London: Faber & Faber, 1937): 215-16. 

  4. Herbert Read, ed. Unit 1: The Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting and Sculpture (London: Cassell, 1934): 19. 

  5. “Cables over the Sussex Downs,” The Times, 3 October 1929: 15. 

  6. Patrick Abercrombie, Town and Country Planning (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1933): 235. 

  7. See “Landscapes of Power,” Apollo 605, January 2013: 42-49. 

  8. E.M. Forster, Abinger Harvest (London: Penguin, 1936; repr. 1974): 384. 

  9. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010): 25. 

  10. C. Day Lewis, A Hope for Poetry (Oxford: Blackwell, 1933; repr. 1942): 65. 

  11. “Steel Masts on the Downs,” The Times, 13 September 1929: 8. 

  12. Reginald Blomfield, “Pylons on the Downs – Colour and Design,” The Times, 1 November 1929, 12. 

  13. Paul Rotha, The Face of Britain (Gaumont-British Instructional Films, 1935). 

  14. See Emma Widdis, Visions of a New Land: Soviet Film from the Revolution to the Second World War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003): 19-58. 

  15. Ronald Levaco, ed. Kuleshov on Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 19794): 51. 

  16. Jay Leyda, Voices of Film Experience: 1894 to the present (New York: Macmillan, 1977): 249. 

  17. Lev Kuleshov, Engineer Prite’s Project (Ruscico, 2008 [1918]). 

  18. Duncan Petrie and Robert Kruger, eds, The Paul Rotha Reader (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1999): 104. 

  19. For a fuller critique of such theories, see Jay Clayton, Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003): 65-70. 

Article: Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Image: "Introduction: Paragraph 24”
From: "Drawings from A Thousand Plateaus"
Original Artist: Marc Ngui
Copyright: Marc Ngui