February 20, 2011


"Every journal is like a wire carrying a psychological current which winds its way intricately across and through the country, and it is continually crossed and recrossed by thousands of other wires."
R. A. Scott-James, The Influence of the Press.  London: 1913.

Scott-James was describing the news network of journals and newspapers that spread across the country, which was feeding a voracious reading public.  The use of wires as a trope to describe the connectedness of society seems to be gaining ground.  Not surprising since Britain's towns and country roads were very quickly covered with overhead wires that darkened the skies.  The difference between the 'before' and 'after' scenes would have been very stark.

More to the point, the network of communications is anthropomorphised.  Wires or cables are the nerves of the city, carrying electrical impulses with messages, impressions, emotions.  If a person's central nervous system is damaged, he will be reduced to a vegetable state.  If a city's network of wires comes down, the city is crippled and everything comes to a halt.  Tens of thousands of Brooklyn residents found this out the hard way in 1975 when a fire in a New York telephone exchange burned their connections.  The chaos in telephone service was second only to that caused by the 9/11 attack.

As a visual device, wires dominate in Nevinson's Amongst the nerves of the world, painted in 1930.  Telephone wires dissect the air above Fleet Street into angular blocks, St Paul's is visible in the background.  I like the dichotomy inherent in the wires: they connect and unite people and places, yet at the same time cut and separate the scene into smaller, disparate sections.  A truly modern element, this ambiguous 'same, but different.'  The painting shows not only the nerves of the urban body, but also all the other flows of communications: lines of buses and cars running up and down Fleet Street, flanked by streams of pedestrians.  The painting is exhibited by the Museum of London, together with other works by Nevinson.  Enjoy!

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.