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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: October 2019

Chapter 1 - Mermaids Amongst the Cables: The Abstracted Body and the Telegraphic Touch in the Nineteenth Century


The 1880s inaugurated the movement from analogue to digital communication as the global possibilities of electronic communications became visible for the first time. This chapter considers the effects of what Paul Virilio has called ‘tele-contact’ on two painters, Evelyn de Morgan and Burne-Jones, and a poet, Swinburne. All three reinvent old forms in the context of newly imagined global distance and possibilities of transmission, communication and signal-failure and loss. Evelyn De Morgan’s The Sea Maidens (sometimes called The Sea Sisters) of 1885-6 and Burne-Jones’s The Depths of the Sea (1887) take up the ancient emblem of the mermaid to consider both the seductive and the dangerous possibilities of global connectivity. Their paintings dramatise the paradox of contactless contact. Swinburne re-makes the medieval French verse form of the rondeau in his A Century of Roundels (1883), a sequence of poems which undermines sequentiality and suggests the degeneration of meaning during transmission. All these works pose sharp questions about the relation of structure to meaning, of surface to depth, and of transmission to communication in the 1880s. These were fundamental questions for aesthetics, but they were also political questions.