Keats’s ode To Autumn warns about mass surveillance and social sharingRichard Marggraf-Turley, Aberystwyth University
John Keats’s ode To Autumn is one of the best-loved poems in the English language. Composed during a walk to St Giles’s Hill, Winchester, on September 19 1819, it depicts an apparently idyllic scene of harvest home, where drowsy, contented reapers “spare the next swath” beneath the “maturing sun”.
The atmosphere of calm finality and mellow ease has comforted generations of readers, and To Autumn is often anthologised as a poem of acceptance of death. But, until now, we may have been missing one of its most pressing themes: surveillance.
The opening of the second stanza appears to be a straightforward allusion to personified autumn: “Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?” But that negative is odd, and hints at a more troubling side to the famous poem. Keats, a London boy, was walking in Winchester’s rural environs to get away from it all – but rather than describing a peaceful stroll, the poem seems to form an anxious meditation on the impossibility of privacy.
We might assume mass surveillance is a modern phenomenon, but “surveillance” is a Romantic word, first introduced to English readers in 1799. It acquired a chilling sub-entry in 1816 in Charles James’s Military Dictionary: the condition of “existing under the eye of the police”.
But why would Keats have been thinking about spies in the St Giles cornfield? Rewind six days to September 13, 1819, when Henry “Orator” Hunt was entering London to stand trial for treason.
The political reformer had been arrested in Manchester for speaking at the Peterloo Massacre. Hunt was welcomed to the capital by a crowd of 300,000, with Keats, whose literary circle included political radicals, among those lining the streets to catch a glimpse of the government’s greatest bugbear.
London was on lock down. The Bank of England had closed its doors, the entrance to Mansion House was packed with constables and the artillery was on standby. Spies mingled with the Orator’s supporters, listening out for murmurs of popular uprising.
These were dangerous times, which To Autumn perhaps acknowledges with its opening allusion to close conspiracy and loading (weapons):
Usually a garrulous letter writer, Keats waited until September 18 – the day before he wrote his ode – to describe Hunt’s procession to his brother and sister-in-law, and then in only the sketchiest terms. He notes the huge numbers but carefully distances himself from the cheering crowds, claiming it had taken him all day to feel “among men”.
Keats is uncharacteristically circumspect, almost as if he feared his correspondence might be intercepted – and perhaps for good reason.
Keats posted two letters during Hunt’s pageant, to his fiancé Fanny Brawne, and to his friend Charles Brown. The first letter arrived without mishap, but Brown’s went missing for 11 days. Later, Keats told him he believed the letter “had been stopped from curiosity” – that is, read by third parties.
The truth was more mundane: Keats had got Brown’s address wrong, and the missive duly turned up on September 24. The letter has since been lost, and we can only guess at its contents, but it’s not inconceivable that, in the midst of Hunt’s maelstrom, Keats had been more candid about his support for the “hero of Peterloo”.
What we do know is that when Keats was writing his great ode on September 19, he suspected his private correspondence, posted during one of the most controversial political marches of the age, was in the hands of government spies.
Spies and informers
Keats’s creative antennae were already attuned to the issue of surveillance before this incident. His long poem Lamia, finished that same September, describes its heroine being tracked through the streets of Corinth by “most curious” spies (compare the phrase Keats used to refer to his missing letter: “stopped from curiosity”). That poem opens with a queasy scene in which Hermes transforms Lamia from serpent to woman. The price is information: Lamia agrees to give up the location of a nymph’s “secret bed” to the priapic god.
A rosy-hued Winchester cornfield might seem a long way from buzzing Corinth, or the violent scenes at Peterloo, or indeed the convulsed capital itself. But the field’s apparent calm is actually a fault line in Keats’s supposedly idyllic poem: the reapers, whose hooks lie idle, ought to be working flat out.
Landowners often grumbled about the laziness of Hampshire’s (poorly paid) casual labourers. It could be that Keats’s ode unwittingly drops the delinquent reapers in it, the poem’s lens giving them away at their “secret bed” (to recall Lamia’s betrayal of the sleeping nymph).
To Autumn is full of directed acts of invigilation: looking (patiently), watching (hours by hours), and seeking abroad (Keats’s first draft was more ominous: “whoever seeks for thee”). All the while those poor labourers were oblivious to the fact that their furtive nap was being observed, and carefully recorded.
Because let’s not forget, Keats is describing actual workers, real people whose slacking off he reports as unthinkingly as we might share our own peers’ political views or locations on social media. As casually as a Google car might capture a moonlighting worker up a ladder outside someone’s house.
When we take all this into account, To Autumn begins to read as an all-seeing optic, internalising the very surveillance culture Keats worried about, and itself becoming a spy transcript.
The ode is an early example of how art and literature process the psychological impacts of intrusive supervision. Written (in Keats’s mind) under surveillance, and bearing the marks of that imaginative pressure, the poem offers itself as a powerful document of what happens to communities, to social groups – to sociability itself – when watching, informing and being informed on become the norms of human interaction.
1. "Ye are many – they are few"
Britain continues to experience the aftershocks of perhaps the most divisive General Election since Clement Atlee’s Labour Party ousted Winston Churchill’s Tories in 1945. With Labour’s narrow defeat on 8 June 2017, the National Health Service and other key public services remain vulnerable to a relentless programme of state shrinking. By the same token, deregulation, a 1% public sector pay cap and the removal of Welfare State safety nets will reduce further the living standards and life chances of low earners, children and vulnerable citizens throughout the UK. In the last year, over a million people – the homeless, ill, unemployed, veterans, single parents, nurses – were forced to rely on food banks. Incredible as it may seem in the tenth most prosperous country in the world, bare-ribbed Austerity continues to stalk the land.
It might seem a reasonable assumption that any UK government aspires to create the conditions in which the majority of the population can flourish, and realise their aspirations, rather than to load the dice so that an already privileged, overwhelmingly privately educated and health-insured elite is allowed to siphon off even more of the common weal. That assumption would be wrong. We shouldn't forget that the idea of a government working for the masses, not the few, committed to an equitable distribution of resources, is in important respects a Romantic innovation. It's fuelled by political texts such as Tom Paine's Rights of Man (1791) – one of the most widely read books of the age – gathers shape in responses to the French Revolution, and is tested in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, when hundreds of thousands of soldiers returned to Britain seeking work during a period of suppressed wages and poor harvests.
Romantic literature was closely attuned to these debates around how the country was to be managed. Jayne Archer, Howard Thomas and I have argued elsewhere about the ways in which well-loved, apparently non-political Romantic poems such as John Keats’s “To Autumn” are concerned with issues out there in the social world, such as poor working conditions and the unjust distribution of natural wealth. The drowsy reapers in Keats's poem would have struggled to purchase the bread their labour helped produce, and would have relied on cheap French imports that were contaminated with the psychotoxic wheat mimicker, darnel. Such poems often codify their resistance – wisely enough, perhaps, at a time when habeas corpus (a recourse in law preventing arrest without trial) was suspended and surveillance networks rapidly expanding.
Other Romantic figures, though, did not trouble to disguise their opposition. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1819 poem, “The Mask of Anarchy”, was, in the end, unpublished in its own day. Initially, though, it was envisaged as a quick and furious public response to the Peterloo Massacre on St Peter’s Field in Manchester, where on 16 August 1819, cavalry broke up a vast but orderly meeting of some 60,000 protesters who were demanding parliamentary reform and cheaper bread. Incompetent and prejudiced, the Manchester yeomanry rode through the crowd slashing and trampling indiscriminately, killing at least a dozen men, women and children, and injuring many more.
Shelley’s incandescent masque did not balk at condemning Tory ministers by name, including Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, immortalised in one of the most uncompromising opening stanzas ever written:
I met Murder on the way--
As many people now know, Jeremy Corbyn drew his 2017 campaign slogan, “For the many, not the few”, from Shelley’s final rousing address to the (literally) down-trodden electorate – "Ye are many – they are few":
“Rise like Lions after slumber
The Labour leader recited the entire final stanza at his climactic campaign rally in Islington on 7 June 2017, and spoke openly of his admiration for Shelley’s poem when he addressed a giant crowd of some tens of thousands at the Glastonbury festival. His recital there of Shelley (below: begins at 12:33) drew deafening chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. While that chant is not Romantic in origin, I couldn’t help think of a now little-known play from the Romantic period, What’s a Man of Fashion? (1815) – “a farce in two acts” – which contains the line “Oh, Jeremy! It’s you, Jeremy!”
2. Shaking the money tree
Corbyn’s borrowing from Shelley wasn’t the only example this tumultuous summer of how a prominent Romantic figure helped to frame the discourse of the 2017 General Election. One of the enduring images of the campaign was of Conservative leader Theresa May during the BBC Question Time Leaders Debate sternly lecturing a nurse who’d had the temerity to raise the issue of fair pay. There was, May insisted, figuratively wagging her finger, “no magic money tree”.
The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of “money tree” in this sense to 1937:
In fact, the phrase was coined by Romantic political radical and nature writing pioneer William Cobbett (1763-1835) in an 1810 pamphlet entitled “Paper against Gold”:
Writing from his Newgate prison cell, where he’d been imprisoned for “treasonous libel”, Cobbett railed against the government’s dependence on "paper money" – banknotes. An implacable opponent of Tory financial policies, Cobbett despised the fact that there wasn’t enough gold in the nation’s reserves to guarantee the face value of all the banknotes sprouting from the government's "paper-money tree". The other “limb” of this tree, Cobbett argued, was the County Banks, whose owners were licensed to print money. Percy Shelley also hated paper money. It was, he argued, an even "subtler and more complicated contrivance of misrule" than debasing specie with alloy. Romantic critic Jeffrey N. Cox puts it well, ventriloquising Shelley in terms that resonate in these post-election days:
"Paper currency is a representation of a representation, and it is issued to obscure the gap ... between the purported value of the paper bill and the labour it purchases: people work just as hard but they are paid in a bill worth a fraction of that labour's value. England's monetary system is based upon a corrupt and debased form of representation".
Having disparaged the idea of a paper-money tree before the nation, Theresa May, faced with an unworkably small parliamentary majority, has somehow magicked almost £1.5bn over two years in a pact with the DUP that locks the Northern Irish unionist party into a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the Conservative Party. Cobbett – scourge of government linguistic obfuscation in his own age – would no doubt have insisted on calling the agreement what it indubitably is: cash for votes; a bung. At any rate, now we’ve remembered the origin of the magic “money tree” in Cobbett’s radical oppositional politics, a delicious irony becomes apparent. What is today presented by the Prime Minister as a socialist fantasy actually began life as a rhetorically inventive attack on the Regency-period Tory party’s own paper-money tree.
What follows is a version of a collaborative paper on Romanticism, biometrics and geotourism I gave at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales's inspiring Digital Past conference in beautiful Llandudno on 11 February 2016. The paper reported on research conducted with computer scientist Prof Reyer Zwiggelaar and geographer Dr Hywel Griffiths. Now you might assume English literature, computer vision and geography have little to say to each other. Actually, our experience is that the most interesting things often happen at the intersection of different bodies of knowledge. So, what happened?
In eighteenth-century aesthetic theories, geology, geomorphology and physical geography are often key components of the supposed visual and emotional effect – the affective charge – of sublime or picturesque landscapes. Many Welsh sites were seen at the time as particularly productive of the sublime – that sense of being overwhelmed, physically and emotionally. Several of these Romantic sites continue to represent important tourist destinations, such as the glacially-sculpted landscapes of Snowdonia. See left for Turner's watercolour painted during a visit in 1799, at the beginnings of modern tourism. These days, the mountain receives some 400,000 visitors a year. Geotourism, originally a Romantic phenomenon, then, is now crucial to the economy and sustainability of these regions. While tourism in Wales is clearly doing a lot of things right, Welsh Government is committed to exceed 10% tourism growth by 2020. Perhaps there’s room – with the Digital Past conference's keyword, recalibration, in mind – to do more, and do it differently, to shift, to renovate, the visitor’s sense of relation, and connection, to spectacular Welsh landscapes and their layered histories. Which is where biometrics – devices that can measure our emotional states – comes in.
Anyone working at museums or galleries will be aware of the tensions that exist between the wish to enrich visitor experience through interpretation and informative signage – about the geomorphology of Welsh mountains, for example – and the desire to avoid over-mediating, or interrupting in any way, that experience. Many people visit Snowdonia and other National Park landscapes precisely to immerse themselves in – to “become one” with – nature, without distractions. Ecocriticism alerts us to problems with that organicist idea of “oneness”: Christa Grewe-Volpp cites such factors as pollution, toxicity and cultural differences that “act against notions of an undifferentiated merging”. At the same time, ecocritics would wish to preserve the value of that “active … relational process”. The concept of “oneness” also emerges, of course, from within a Romantic paradigm, famously articulated in Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s notion of “the One life, within us and abroad”, in which a mysterious force, or unifying principle, runs through all humans and nature, connecting and uniting. We might regard this sense of contiguity with the natural world as yet another example of Romanticism’s seductive self-representations, which need to be resisted. On the other hand, it heralds our own understanding of ecological connectedness and ethical responsibility. Further, it remains a fact that many of us – still under the spell, or hex, of a Romantic aesthetic – continue to visit stunning sites such as the summit of Snowdon precisely for something akin to what the Romantics categorized as the Welsh sublime, for what Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey called “a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused”.
So what questions would a Romanticist, a computer scientist, and a physical geographer pose in this context? What can we contribute to the visitor economy? We’re interested in the quantifiable aspects of that mysterious interconnection between landscape and emotion. In other words, are its effects measurable using biometric sensor platforms? And can modern biometric technology be used to enhance that sought-after experience of immersion, of “oneness”, by making the interconnection between landscape and emotion available to (self-)analysis and interpretation? Our project isn’t simply an attempt to sidestep the issue of whether we should “educate” visitors about Wales’s geomorphology using signage. We think biometric analysis technology could emerge as a valuable tool in landscape heritage tourism in Wales, helping visitors become differently aware of, inward with, and able to interpret, their physical and emotional relationship with Welsh geoheritage. Put another way, we think biometrics can help us to become better tourists – better (post-Romantic) lovers of nature.
But let’s take a step back into the sublime. In 1757 Edmund Burke published his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke argued that vast, spectacular, rugged scenes of nature – whether experienced first-hand, or mediated through art and literature – provoked painfully pleasurable symptoms of terror in the spectator. The idea was that terror produced by the sight of mountain summits, chasms, raging seas, thundering cataracts – preferably with a ruined castle or abbey – was visible, and legible, through its physical proxies, or symptoms, such as a racing pulse, breathlessness, a swooning sensation, fever. As well as a linguistic discourse, then, the sublime had its own biophysical vocabulary. Moreover, what begins as an eighteenth-century aesthetic theory quickly becomes for the Romantics a category, or cast, of mind, a mode of intellect.
For Wordsworth, mountainous terrain becomes the topographical centre of the sublime. Above is a well-known passage from The Prelude, where he relates climbing Snowdon by moonlight. You can hear in it, as Wordsworth broods on “the dark abyss”, that active connection Burke made between the “body and mind”. The last line – “and cannot choose but feel” – is key. Once the sublime has overwhelmed the intellect, and language itself, it leaves us with no choice but to feel the connection between landscape, the emotions and the body.
Now the Romantic sublime was always teetering at the rough precipice of parody. This satire by Gillray depicts four women reading Matthew Lewis’s insalubrious gothic novel, The Monk (1796), set in a ruined abbey in the middle of a dark forest – of course. The women are reading by candlelight, again, of course, and exhibiting physical symptoms of terror, which Gillray clearly thinks are rehearsed. But were Romantic audiences simply performing what was expected of them when they read sublime literature, or were they actually experiencing emotion-specific biophysical reactions? Until recently, your guess was as good as mine. But the advent of modern biometric technology allows us to measure – to quantify, and assign numbers and values to – exactly what’s going on.
Over the couple of years, interest in wearable biometric sensor platforms – think Apple Watch, Samsung Gear and Fitbits – has grown. The tech we’re developing as part of our Romanticism, biometrics and geotourism project shares abilities with those commercial devices that tend to concentrate on heart rate, movement and location. But our wristbands can also measure temperature and galvanic skin response – basically, how much we sweat, which is itself a proxy of anxiety – movement, blood pressure, location (if paired with a GPS-enabled device), and so on, and we hope to couple that with information about respiration. In addition, our methodology includes the use of a more finely calibrated baseline normalization approach to compensate for the variation in biometric response between individuals. So far, the application of biometrics in tourism contexts has overwhelmingly been in a regulatory capacity – for example, Disney’s use of fingerprint scanners to combat illegally traded park passes and tickets. We want to put biometrics to different work. The Romantic period saw an explosion of tourism opportunities in Wales. Perhaps this boom can be repeated in the biometric paradigm – as part of the biometric sublime.
So what have our pilot projects looked like? Reyer and I first met in the thermal domain, so to speak. Our initial collaboration back in 2010 used data from postgraduate English literature students reading poems by Romantic poet, John Keats, while being filmed with a thermal imaging camera. It was the run-up to Valentine’s Day. Reyer had just been given a new piece of kit, and obviously, I wanted to get my hands on it. The results surprised us both. Reyer had been using thermal imaging for lie detection, and it turns out that when you lie, the periorbital region of the face – the skin around the inner corners of the eyes – heats up, just as the cheeks cool down. See above for a view from Reyer’s and Rajoub's work on that all-important periorbital region.
Now – and here’s the interesting bit – we measured the exact opposite when our student volunteers read Romantic poetry: the corners of their eyes cooled down, and their cheeks warmed up. Pretty much exactly what Keats tells us in his letters when he talks about the “holiness of the heart’s affections” and the “beauty of truth”. So it was part publicity stunt in the run-up to Valentine’s Day, but there was some serious science sitting under it.
A more recent pilot project was the Quantified Romantics event, which ran as part of the UK-wide Being Human festival of the Humanities last October. It was staged in the wonderfully eclectic Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth, and basically involved placing people in The Vortex, our name for the darkened enclosure – event-horizon dark – inside which we projected images of sublime and gothic art from the Romantic period. We fitted members of the public with prototype wristbands, and showed them paintings such as “Mad” John Martin’s “The Great Day of His Wrath” and Fuseli’s famous “The Nightmare” while we captured their biometric data streams, which we analysed together afterwards, interpreting changes, and asking people to reflect on their own awareness, or otherwise, of their biophysical responses. We got some nice media coverage, wider interest, including an edition of Radio Wales’s Science Café, broadcast 8 February 2016, which is now on iPlayer, if you’d like to listen to it.
Looking forward, we’re now exploring applications for geoheritage and geotourism in Wales. One of our outputs there will be a biometric map that we’re tentatively calling the Quantified Life Guide to Wales. The idea is to use biometric equipment to measure visitor responses to spatial aspects of culture at eight Romantic sites, and by collating the data statistically predict the categories of “body and mind” experiences tourists can expect – moreover, at precise locations within these sites. In that respect, The Quantified Life Guide to Wales will be a biometrically enhanced version of Romantic-period tour guides – those foot-stepping descriptive maps written with the express purpose of leading others to the exact spots where they might experience sights that, according to J. Evans’s Letters Written During a Tour of South Wales During the Year 1803, would “please while they astonish the beholder”.
Here’s a tourist guide from 1796, A Descriptive Account of the Devil's Bridge, penned by the aptly named Mr Walker, which instructs tourists, step by step, how to work their way from the triple-stacked bridge itself, around some “frightfully projecting rocks”, Walker’s words, to exactly the right spot that would give them a “commanding view of the various falls, which burst upon the astonished sight, in all their sublimity and grandeur”. So the aim of such Romantic guides is to instruct us exactly where to stand to experience various physical symptoms of “terror and amazement”, without actually toppling into the chasm below. Amusingly, Walker points out that his instructions needed to be so precise, because of unscrupulous guides – or “lazy clowns”, in his words – whose own familiarity with Devil’s Bridge meant they couldn’t always be bothered to take visitors to the best viewing spots, when, quote, “half the trouble will secure the expected fee”. If the field data confirms our lab results, we’ll be able to create biometrically calibrated versions of tourist guides like Walker’s – biometric maps using non-traditional hierarchies, ideally more participatory, and crowd-sourced, rather than top down. It’s a new way of thinking about touristic field space.
What about wider applications? There are potential uses for museums and galleries. (Click here for an interesting Swiss project pioneering the use of biometrics in museums in 2009.) We’re used to thinking about gallery space narrativized according to genre, or chronology. We tend to group the old masters, the abstract art, and so on. But what if we arranged things according to the statistical probability of visitors experiencing a certain kind of embodied, bio-emotional response? We could reorganize museums and galleries according to a different conceptual rubric, where all the pulse-raising objects go "over there", and all the ones likely to induce calm "in that corner", and so on. We could have mood rooms, bringing together artists and sculptors from different periods and styles who would otherwise never rub shoulders. Sounds bonkers, but in recent years we’ve seen major rethinks around contextualization and participation – so why not biometrics?
Of course, there are ethical dimensions to consider. We’re particularly aware, after the Edward Snowden revelations – a different kind of Snowdon, a different kind of sublime – of the potential for abuse of personal biometric data. The use of remote bio-sensing technologies to take our data from us without our knowledge or consent is a growing problem. (Click here for the Chaos Computer Club's 2014 expose of how even your fingerprints can be captured remotely.) Thermal imaging cameras at airports monitor differential temperature in our faces, and can make good guesses about our emotional state, as well as our health. Linked up with face recognition software and tracking algorithms – well, you can see there’s a real problem around mass, warrantless surveillance. And on a smaller scale, there’s the thorny issue of our biometric devices knowing more about our biophysical condition than we do. On Monday 8 February, the Guardian carried a piece entitled “Your fitness tracker knows you’re pregnant before you do”. But don't get me started on surveillance.
And that's more or less where I left the paper at the Digital Past conference. [Cue audience applause. Questions]
“I’ve got chills, they’re multiplying,” sang John Travolta, dancing-off with Olivia Newton John at the end of 1978’s musical spectacular, Grease. Travolta – or rather his screen persona, Danny Zuko – could almost be an early advocate of the “Quantified Self” movement, the name adopted by those who use biometrics to capture as much information as possible about physical aspects of their daily life. As well as temperature (chills, flushes), pulse rate skin conductivity, blood-sugar levels, and most recently mood, can all be tracked, and analysed for trends. For some self-quantifiers – or “body-hackers” – the aim is to live happier, healthier, more productive lives. Others are simply fascinated by the data-streams generated by their own bodies. At any rate, these days if you want to know how many chills you’ve got, and precisely how quickly they’re multiplying, you only need glance at your smart watch or health-and-fitness phone app.
The greaser, Danny, was by no means the first person to notice physical changes taking place in his body in response to a strong stimulus (in his case, a black-clad ONJ). We can trace a fascination with the body’s reaction to visual and imaginative stimuli at least as far back as the Romantic period in Britain, to the 1780s–1820s. In this period, a popular new modality had emerged in art and literature: the Gothic. It aimed to produce emotionally vertiginous shocks and thrills; sensations of any kind, in fact, so long as they put the viewing subject – the Self – at the centre of the experience. “O for a Life of Sensations!”, declared the poet John Keats, articulating an important aspect of the spirit of the age.
Romantic writers and painters were convinced that “sublime” art and nature – anything that conveyed massiveness, volume, the all-encompassing – provoked a distinctive physical and emotional signature (terror), which others could “read” in the form of a fevered brow, breathlessness, or flushed cheeks. A craze developed among members of the public eager to experience these changes for themselves, moreover in a self-aware manner. Enthusiasts would slog for miles to stand in exactly the right spot to get the full effect of a dizzying precipice, or gaze up at a thunderous waterfall, or contemplate the dark ruins of a medieval abbey. At home, candlelit connoisseurs would turn the pages of the latest gothic shocker to gasp at the nefarious schemes of a priapic monk or uncanny doppelgänger, or fall headlong and senseless into an engraving of towering waves, and black, depthless, watery vortexes. The goal was to overwhelm the senses, to annihilate Self. In Dany Zuko’s terms, it was all about “losing control” – while loving every minute of it!
Perhaps Romanticism can lay claim to the first (fictional) Quantified Selfer. In 1816, Mary Shelley drafted her famous gothic novel, Frankenstein, while holed up on the shores of Lake Geneva with the self-exiled Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Byron’s physician, Dr Polidori – author of the The Vampyre (1819), the book that spawned a thousand TV series from Buffy to The Strain. Mary’s classic not only generated chills in its readers, but foregrounded the very issue of how nerves and sinews – the body’s sensorium, or sensing apparatus – came together in the first place. Frankenstein’s creature, obsessed with how he was put together, with the relation between body, mind and emotions, is both proto-embodiment and practitioner of bio-hacking.
The consumer face of self-tracking today – think biometric wristbands like Apple Watch, Android Gear, Nike+ FuelBand, Jawbone and Fitbit – was first developed in the decade in which Grease topped the billboard charts. Hardly portable, the technology was used mainly by researchers who recognized the potential of analysing personal data to correlate useful information about lifestyle. Only in recent years, with the miniaturization of components, has the Quantified Self movement entered the mainstream. Most people who use smart watches to “drill down” into their jogging stats, sleep patterns and heart rate probably don’t think of themselves as bio-hackers anymore, which suggests that self-analysis, or self-surveillance, is fast becoming routinized. Indeed, few of us even stop to think about the possible dangers of allowing so much information about our fitness or daily routines to be mined by third parties. Quite aside from issues of personal privacy, there may be companies out there looking for trends in our health data we’d rather they didn’t know about.
Were the Romantics right about the link between emotional or imaginative stimuli and physical response? Aberystwyth University friend and colleague Professor Reyer Zwiggelaar (Computer Science) and I will be staging an event around art and biometric analysis as part of this year’s “Being Human” national festival of the humanities. Our Gothic-flavoured extravaganza is entitled “The Quantified Romantics”, and will take place in Ceredigion Museum, Aberystwyth, between 11am and 3pm on Saturday 14 November. Members of the public will be invited to enter – if they dare – The Vortex, a dark enclosure in which they’ll be shown Gothic images. While they experience (we hope) an annihilation of Self, Reyer and I will be using a package of specially built biometric instruments to measure any changes in pulse rate, and counting chills (multiplying, or otherwise). We’ll also be discussing the wider social and political implications of biometric wearables and other self-tracking technologies. The event is free, and everyone is welcome.
“The Quantified Romantics”: Ceredigion Museum, Aberystwyth, 11am–3pm, Saturday, 14 November 2015. Free entrance. No booking required.
A version of this blog appears in the October edition of AberEgo.
A full-length interview on such topics as surveillance, the Romantics, the imagination, sustainability, public engagement, university teaching, The Cunning House and the state of political discourse in the UK today has just been posted on Sustainable Wales (@SusWales). Head on over for the full, candid experience.
Last week, an old friend and fellow Romanticist posted an indignant "name and shame" tweet in defence of her gay friend, who'd been thrown out of a well-known chain of Irish pubs for kissing his boyfriend. It brought home how little, in some respects, has changed in terms of public attitudes to same-sex relations since the Romantic period, when homosexuality was a capital offence, and when hangings for "bestial" acts were regular occurances in London, enjoyed by large, hate-filled crowds.
My historical crime novel, The Cunning House, appeared this week. The book is set in Regency London's most notorious "molly house" (or gay bar, in today's parlance). I first had the idea for The Cunning House during a module I teach at Aberystwyth University entitled "Romantic Eroticism", which focuses on popular print and visual culture in the early nineteenth century. I'd been discussing the raid on The White Swan with my undergraduate class in the context of Cantos 5-6 of Byron's Don Juan. To explain: the Swan mollies, Dr Sweet-Lips, Blackeyed Leonora, Mistress Fox, et al, cross-dressed, as does Juan/Juana in Byron's satirical romp. The White Swan raid was so notorious at the time that it's inconceivable Byron wouldn't have known about it. I think we can consider the public outcry at, and press attention to, the events around the White Swan as "co-texts" to Don Juan.
The White Swan was situated in seedy Vere Street, near the theatre district. (It was torn down, along with Vere Street, in 1905 as part of the Kingsway-Aldwych improvement scheme.) For six months in 1810, mollies assembled there to indulge passions for which the age tried to hang them. And tried hard. Following a raid by Bow Street police on 8 July 1810, five of the "Vere Street gang" were pilloried, and two were launched into eternity from Newgate gallows.
The statutes permitting judges to reach for the noose dated from King Henry VIII’s time, and were finally removed from English law in the 1860s. However, discrimination and intolerance against non-heteronormative sexual behaviour remains deeply enshrined, socially and ideologically. The Catholic church, for example, still considers same-sex relations to be “contrary to natural law”, a formulation that would not look out of place on old Henry’s 1530s statute book.
Regency molly culture was rich, irreverent and often outrageous. Among the men captured in “nankeen trowsers” or wearing women’s clothing on 28 July were Richard Francis, Thomas White and James Amos, aka Miss Sweet-Lips, Blackeyed Leonora and Mistress Fox. The newspapers had a field day, reporting on how the “odious reptiles” had been held at the St Clement Danes watchhouse ahead of their hearing, relating the vehemence of the enormous crowds that lined the street to pelt the culprits whenever they were moved, and printing coy allusions to the men’s “detestable sins” and “bestial” conduct. 50,000 Londoners turned out to pillory five of the “Vere Street Coterie”, hurling everything from offal and rotten fruit, to dead cats and stones. The air was thick with it.
The Cunning House is narrated around two historical events from the Summer of 1810, each the key to the other. The first is the raid on The White Swan, the second the discovery of a dead body in St James’s Palace, a short carriage ride away. The corpse was that of Joseph Sellis, the Corsican valet to the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George III. The official account – still reeled out by official biographers today – is that Sellis killed himself after attacking the sleeping Duke with his own military sabre. But the Palace servants whispered: that the Duke had indulged illegal passions of his own; that he’d been in the habit of visiting The White Swan to see his particular favourite, Thomas White (Blackeyed Leonora); and that Sellis had tried his hand at blackmail.
Government cover-ups of sex crimes and conspiracies of silence by cosy, entrenched power is another thing our own period has in common with the Romantic era. A hastily convened inquest conducted under the aegis of St James’s Palace’s Court of Royal Verge exonerated the Duke from any involvement in Sellis’s death. Shortly afterwards, the raid on The White Swan took place, and even though the 17-year-old drummer boy Thomas White wasn’t in the pub that night, he was arrested and hanged at Newgate prison. Conveniently for the Duke, perhaps, who was watching in the press yard. Royal biographers see valet, drummer boy and The White Swan as footnotes to the life of the Duke of Cumberland, who shrugged off rumours of a murderous conspiracy, and duly went on to be King of Hannover. I saw a Regency cold case waiting to be reopened.
My fictional inestigator, Junior Prosecutor Wyre, is a man dipped in the prejudices of his age. His Courthouse day job is to deliver mollies to the hangman. Following a visit, however, from the secretive Miss Crawford – who may be both more and less than she seems – Wyre finds himself reluctantly drawn into a dark nexus of conspiracy, fanatical religious cults and agents in the war with France. As I write in a guest blog for Crime Time, by the end of the case, Wyre is thrown hard against his prejudices, and must choose between his innermost desires and those of his all-powerful masters.
The novel is graphic, and unblinking, and it won’t be for everyone. It’s not without its humorous moments, though, and for Romanticists, there are cameos from a certain South Molton Street printer called William, and a soon-to-be famous resident of the Swan and Hoop coaching inn.
And The White Swan today? The London School of Economics occupies its original site. But the tavern’s gleefully indecorous spirit lives on in BJ’s White Swan of the east end, almost closed down by Tower Hamlets council last year for hosting amateur stripper nights. More of those continuities …
I’d like to return to Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798) to think through some of the ways in which Romanticism seems presciently attuned to issues that might seem entirely contemporary – mass surveillance, mutual informing (sometimes called "lateral surveillance") on Facebook, Snapchat and other social media platforms, as well as military practices such as “enhanced interrogation”. I'm particularly interested in Wordsworth’s rather odd poem, “The Thorn”, which focuses on the plight of an outcast woman in the Quantock Hills, Somerset. It's often read as an example of Romanticism's gothic mood, and a comment on intolerance in communities. However, it also offers a very specific, historically grounded set of insights into the psychology of interrogation that resonate afresh in post-9/11 contexts, especially in the light of the US Senate's recently declassified “CIA Torture Report”.
In the years before the publication of Lyrical Ballads, amid fears that the "Terror" of the French Revolution would soon be exported to Britain, an atmosphere of suspicion descended. The prime minister William Pitt established extensive surveillance webs, and closely policed debates, both in print and in the taverns and debating clubs where ultra radicals met and conspired. The chilling effects were felt in both civic society and the private realm. In The Spirit of Despotism (1795), Vicesimus Knox complained that the government's web of “spies and informers” had corrupted the “sequestered walks of private life” and destroyed life’s “confidential comforts and most valuable virtues”.
Such laments resonated among Romantic writers, who lived through this first age of public surveillance. In lectures delivered in February 1795, the twenty-two-year-old Coleridge used similar rhetoric, accusing Pitt’s “system of spies and informers” of destroying social confidence. He also observed that, worryingly, the population had internalized Pitt's logic of suspicion:
We have breathed so long the atmosphere of Imposture and Panic, that many honest minds have caught an aguish disorder; in their cold fits they shiver at Freedom, in their hot fits they turn savage against its advocates.
Three years later, in Lyrical Ballads (1798), Coleridge’s poetic and one-time radical confrère Wordsworth used “The Thorn” to meditate precisely on the atmosphere of “Imposture and Panic” in a rural community. In a poem “about” snitching and its psychological effects, Wordsworth offers a powerfully claustrophobic study of guilt, isolation and social disconsolidation. The poem's narrator is an ex-mariner, an agent of inspection who arrives in the rural community equipped with a telescope. He gleans local gossip about an outcast woman, Martha Ray, and conducts his own optical surveillance of her on the mountain head. As the poem begins, the ex-mariner finds himself in the role of the cross-questioned, as he passes on information to a shadowy, unnamed interlocuter, whose prompts become increasingly insistent. Indeed, the rhetorical scaffolding of the poem reads like an interrogation transcript:
“Now wherefore thus …
does this poor woman go.
O wherefore? wherefore? tell me why”
“I cannot tell; I wish I could;
For the true reason no one knows ...”
“But that she goes to this old Thorn …
which I described to you,
I will be sworn is true ...”
“But what’s the Thorn? and what the pond?
And what the hill of moss to her?”
“More know I not, I wish I did,
And it should all be told to you …”
Martha emerges as the focus of escalating suspicion: first as unmarried mother, then mad woman and finally as child murderer. The narrator, far from retailing “facts” about the outcast, which are scant, begins to offer ever more improbable and lurid explanations for her presence on the mountain top in a bid to mollify or impress his interrogator. What Wordsworth describes is a psychologically credible paradigm, and it resonates presciently in our own era of “enhanced interrogation”. In December 2014, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) published its declassified 6,000-page Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention Interrogation Program, widely known as the “CIA Torture Report”. The first of twenty key findings concluded that the “CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence”, since under duress, detainees tended to say whatever they thought their captors wanted to hear, “provid[ing] fabricated information on critical intelligence issues”.
Toby Benis has argued suggestively that in framing Martha Ray’s experience, Wordsworth is remembering his own feelings at Alfoxden House, Somerset, when he and Coleridge were betrayed during their residency there by a servant who deciphered the poets’ interest in the sea and inland waterways as French spiery. The affair triggered the infamous “Spy Nozy” episode in which spycatcher James Walsh was dispatched from Whitehall to surveil the two men. Benis is right to see “The Thorn” as possessing personal significance for Wordsworth in the context of the surveillance the poet himself experienced. But it seems to me Wordsworth’s concern lies less with Martha Ray’s victimhood than with the effects that turning informer have on the narrator himself. Shortly after Walsh’s visit, Wordsworth and Coleridge, alarmed by the rapidity in which they found themselves at the centre of proliferating suspicion, “betrayed” a would-be member of their circle, the radical John Thelwall, refusing his overtures to establish a close-bosom community in Somerset. Thelwall was hot company, to be sure, having survived a trial for high treason in 1794. Indeed, the question-and-answer form of "The Thorn" possibly conjures the “enhanced” state inspection Thelwall had experienced at first-hand five years earlier in The Tower, and which Wordsworth and Coleridge were anxious to avoid in the future.
“The Thorn”, then, demonstrates Wordsworth’s sophisticated awareness of the profoundly disorienting and psychologically corrosive effects of constant surveillance and informing. It develops metaphors that attempt to identify and calibrate the violence of state intrusion into private and communal life. And, I suggest, it is precisely in such attempts where Romanticism communicates most resonantly with our own age of information – an age in which informing on our own and each other's movements, likes, orientations and dreams has become routine and habitualized. Indeed, social media check-ins have become normative, and those of us who don't regularly reveal our whereabouts or provide blow-by-blow accounts of our activities are often viewed with suspicion. What have we got to hide? Poems like "The Thorn" make visible, and dare us to dismantle, our own contract with the eavesdroppers.
Just back from the congress. It's the third time I've attended the Chaos Computer Club's annual gathering, the 31C3, in Hamburg, and it was bigger than ever. Some 12,000 hackers/ hactivists, security consultants (yeah, right!), black-, white- and grey-hats, academics, sysadmins, network advisors and computer science students from all over the world came together to put their heads in the same space around tech, ethics, culture, society, art and the future. I'm still processing much of what I encountered, and will write a fuller account once I've managed to make something coherent of it. The conference motto was "A new dawn", and I can't decide whether it was hopeful, acerbic, or throwaway. Probably all three, since that seems to capture the mood of many attendees, a year on from the Snowden revelations, and – in @tante's resonant phrase – well into the establishment of the "new normal".
Over the years, the Chaos Computer Club has woven (often ludic) counter narratives to the would-be normative, whether this involves breaking Apple's biometric ID security – all biometry, in fact – as Starbug did (again) during this congress, or puncturing the veneer of "respectable" politics by publishing details of active CIA assassination lists, as @ioerror and Laura Poitras did in front of a 3,000 capacity Hall 1 crowd, and simultaneously on Der Spiegel online. So perhaps we expected a more co-ordinated, and co-ordinating, response to the general mood of resigned acceptance that has marked public reaction to Snowden (not to mention Manning, Hammond, Assange, et al). That didn't come. Instead, the keynote chosen to follow ferocious talks in the last two years by Jacob Appelbaum and Glen Greenwald was that given by Alec Empire of Teenage Atari Riot. While smart and suggestive, and delivered with often beguiling off-the-cuffness, it seemed to lose its sense of purpose at times – and in that respect, perhaps, perfectly chimed with the congress as a whole. For me, at least.
Far older hands will probably point out the congress isn't supposed to have a "purpose", at any rate, not in the sense I'm perhaps suggesting. Nevertheless, the 29C3 and 30C3 were rousing precisely because – and from early on in the respective programmes – a consensus emerged, a sense of shared rendezvous. I came away from 31C3 wiser, but like Coleridge's wedding guest leaving his own gathering, a sadder man.
There were some incredible moments on stage – the Invisible Committee's talk got under the skin, as did the appearance of the Pay Pal 14 (who redefine the concept of being laid back on stage). These talks were unmissable.
More thoughts to follow ...
Why, when there’s more than enough food in the UK, were a million families forced to rely on food banks in 2014? Why, as agri-tech brings astonishing new capabilities online, from synthetic food and cisgenics, to agri-robots, could an all-party report conclude that “hunger now stalks the UK”? And why, in an age of technological convergence, are we as far from an equitable distribution of bio-resources than ever before? In a talk I’ll be giving on 29 December at the 31C3 congress in Hamburg, I’ll be exploring how art and literature can help us gain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms underlying this ethical and material dissonance.
My talk draws on the new book Jayne Archer, Howard “Sid” Thomas and I published earlier this month, Food and the Literary Imagination.
The book collects together much of the research into Keats and Shakespeare that garnered media attention in 2012 and 2013, along with new chapters on Chaucer and George Eliot. We also take a long look at the Field in Time, and end with some observations on future trends.
You can watch the talk live, and in hi-def, at the Chaos Computer Club’s live stream, 29 December - I’m on at 20.30 (19.30 UK time). For those at the 31C3, where some of the world’s best-known figures in tech and hactivism will be giving talks, I’ll be in Saal 6. Hope to see you there. If you’re interested in some of the astonishing new tech-led capabilities, from agri-robots and cisgenics, to content plant phenotyping - and the role of art and literature in deep processing the social and ethical dimensions of technological convergence, Saal 6 is definitely the place to be.
I’ll be structuring my talk around a reading of Daniel Suarez’s Freedom TM (2011) and – with my Romanticist hat on – Britain’s best-loved painting, John Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821).
A full conference report will follow in the new year.
John Keats’s phrase “balmy zephyrs” comes to mind to describe Cyprus’s humid breezes this late-Autumn. More balm than zephyrs: October, according to the taxi driver, has been unseasonably warm. Climatologists seem unable to decide whether the island’s weather should be classified as subtropical or hot-Mediterranean, though either category appeals to this native of verdant but often sodden Wales. The trick of heat is the thing. It doesn’t come from one direction, but is a 360-degree phenomenon. The air rises from the stones, wraps you in its arms. Squeezes you, in the summer months. “Too much hot in Cyprus,” the driver grumbles as the road to Paphos from the airport takes us along the razor wire of the Cyprus Airforce base.
I'm visiting the Mediterranean following an invitation from the University of Cyprus to talk about Keats and surveillance at its “Romanticism and the Future” conference. My talk brings State eavesdropping in Keats’s age into creative apposition with the mass surveillance of civilian populations in our own epoch of “security”. Romanticism insists – I insist – on its pertinence to current debates around surveillant society. Keats’s letters and poems, embedded in the era that first imagined total surveillance, help us to identify and calibrate the violence of State intrusion into 21st-century private lives, as well as alerting us to our own, internalized acts of self-inspection. They dare us to decide what it means to inform on ourselves and our acquaintances casually on websites and apps such as Foursquare and Facebook … what it means to divulge our whereabouts, plans, “likes” and radiating affiliations ... what it means to have so quickly, so thoroughly, socialized the act of informing ... and what it means to label those who use anonymity services like Tor to resist inspection of their private data as “extremists”, or worst.
As we skirt the Airforce’s perimeter fence, I think of Keats in April 1817 on the Isle of Wight, an altogether colder pastoral. While exploring the isle’s environs, Keats spotted an “extensive barracks”, which he felt disrupted “so beautiful a place”. What he’d spied was the Albany Barracks, built in 1798 as part of a line of heavy fortifications against the French along the southern coast. Back in his rented lodgings, Keats found an inscription on his window: “O Isle, spoiled by the military”. Perhaps we hear a slant rhyme in Keats’s “La Belle Dame” (1819), whose first line, “O, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms”, delivered in the voice of the doctor Keats trained as, also seems attuned to symptoms of military trauma, exteriorized in the knight’s moist brow and listlessness. If what ails Keats’s isle is the garrison that disfigures it, Keats’s knight-at-arms is haunted by a more individual experience of war, by the ghastly, deathly “pale warriors” who rise again in his imagination, the trouble of his dreams.
Cyprus hosts another military base: a few miles east of Larnaca lies Ayios Nikolaos Station, the GCHQ’s biggest listening post outside the UK. This Sigint (signals intelligence) facility is able, as Snowden revealed last June, to monitor and intercept electronic communications from the Middle East by tapping into undersea fibre optic cables. That role’s performed in the UK by the donut-shaped installation in Cheltenham. The irony isn’t lost on me that my paper on Keats and surveillance has already been scooped up by dragnet data gathering and analysing systems such as TEMPORA, PRISM and XKEYSCORE long before the conference delegates will hear it. Indeed, my paper was being collected, analysed and stored as I was writing it, along with the history of all the websites I visited during its composition, all the search terms I entered, and all the false starts and changes of heart along the way. All the delegates’ papers were. Yet such is the cognitive dissonance around surveillance, that even though people know mass data gathering is happening, they still think you're paranoid for pointing it out.
Responding to Snowden’s leaks about the endemic surveillance of the UK citizenry, then-Foreign Minister William Hague reassured people with the familiar mantra: if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to fear. Even if that were true – and the documented misuse of metadata, and alarming effects of networked, algorithmic databases tells us that it wasn’t – what about the future? Can we be certain that the data portraits being constructed for each of us now will not be incriminating in days to come? That future Lords of Information will not use them to sift populations into “inner” and “outer”, “desirable” and “undesirable”?
Back to the future, to “Romanticism and the Future,” which wrapped up earlier this evening. The hosts, Evy Varsamopoulou and Maria Varsam, co-ordinated it with remarkable energy and a vivid sense of purpose. The event felt timely and significant throughout. Topics ranged from Continental philosophy and contingency to prophecy and myth, with all the papers finding intriguing purchase on the ways in which Romanticism attempted to imagine the shape of future possible societies. It was convivial from start to finish. Such social and intellectual exchange, it’s worth remembering, lay at the centre of the Romantic project, with the two modes of exchange coming together in “conversation”. Then, as now, the surveilling of conversations, of networks of conversers, threatened – threatens – to place a chill on the free exchange of ideas and the flow of social agency alike.
Over sardines at Theo’s fish restaurant in Paphos Harbour, Keats’s biographer, Nicholas Roe and I are drafting the “call for papers” for the second Keats Foundation bicentenary conference, which we’re organizing together with fellow Romanticist, Sarah Wootton. Scheduled for 1-3 May 2015, it follows the “John Keats and his Circle” conference at Keats House, Hampstead, last May, which was tremendous fun. Next year’s gathering, entitled "John Keats: Poet-Physician, Physician-Poet, 1815-1821", will be held on the 29th floor of Guy’s Hospital tower, with vertiginous views over the city of London. In addition to a full programme of papers reflecting on Keats and medical culture in the Romantic era, the conference will include a talk over wine in the Old Operating Theatre, and a reception in the wooden-panelled private rooms of London's last surviving mail coach inn with courtyard, the sixteenth-century George Inn. We’ve kept prices low, and academics, postgraduates and members of the public are equally welcome to attend.
As suggested conference themes appear on the back of one of Theo’s serviettes – infection, medical advances, dissection, hypochondria, pharmacopeia, surgery, madness – a tremendous electrical storm sends flashes of red and white light across the island’s skies, accompanied by low, but insistent rumblings.