It has been a challenge for me to imagine how I might put the concepts we’ve encountered in this class together with the project I’m working on, which is currently focused on Thomas De Quincey’s autobiographical project. I’ve found myself repeatedly linking the readings with the titular piece of technology in De Quincey’s final major autobiographical contribution, The English Mail-Coach, an essay published in two installments in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1849.
In use decades before the adoption of the electric telegraph, the mail-coach was the fastest available means of sending messages over long distances. Messages and people and technology travelled at the same pace and also in the same space. This spatial and temporal contiguity between passenger and mail, horse and coachman, wheel and road make visible the network of articulations that make up what De Quincey calls “mail-coach society” (237).
Andrew Franta, along with many other scholars, makes a link between social relations within the coach and English society in general: “Mail-coach society, like English society, has its classes, politics, fads and fashions, love affairs, comedies and tragedies; it is, in short, a microcosm.” But he also correctly notes that this “microcosm” is “organised around the mail and in accordance with its architecture, schedules, and routines” (326-7). In this unique society—almost, but not quite, the same as English society—the mail-coach system serves as a mediator in the sense explained by Slack and Wise (117). It simultaneously stands between, brings together, and actively transforms the human and non-human members of the assemblage it represents.
In the above picture, observe the visible seating arrangement. In front, on the driver’s box, is the coachman. Beside him is a passenger, and behind him sit two more. The solitary seat to the rear of the coach is reserved for the guard, a liveried official who carries a horn to alert travellers of the coach’s approach and also a blunderbuss and two pistols to discourage bandits. On top of the coach, under a protective cover, is the mail. Inside the coach are four passengers we can’t see. These four, “the illustrious quaternion,” were members of the wealthy and privileged class, evidenced by their ability to pay for the expensive interior seats. They are thus socially far above the “trinity of Pariahs” (234) in the “cheap seats”—or at least, the less expensive seats (the poor are not actors in the mail-coach assemblage unless they are too slow removing themselves from the coach’s path, in which case they might be briefly articulated at the end of the coachman’s whip).
De Quincey describes how these seat-based class assumptions, “an old tradition of all public carriages from the reign of Charles II.” (234), become re-articulated within mail-coach society. De Quincey recalls how he and his fellow Oxford students, “the most aristocratic of people,” preferring “the air, the freedom of prospect, the proximity to the horses, the elevation of seat” afforded by the cheaper seats, “instituted a searching inquiry into the true quality and valuation of the different apartments about the mail”:
We conducted this inquiry on metaphysical principles; and it was ascertained satisfactorily, that the roof of the coach, which some had affected to call the attics, and some the garrets, was really the drawing-room, and the [driver’s] box was the chief ottoman or sofa in that drawing room; whilst it appeared that the inside, which had been traditionally regarded as the only room tenantable by gentleman, was, in fact, the coal-cellar in disguise. (235-6)
This “perfect French revolution” (237)—the leveling, or inversion, of social class distinctions—is contingent on the Oxfordians’ brash youthfulness, on their sympathy with the egalitarian ideals behind the events in France, and, above all, on the mediation of the coach’s architecture. The moment the passengers leave the coach, the traditional hierarchies of English society reassert themselves. De Quincey describes occasions when the mail-coach stops at an inn for a meal break and the exterior passengers attempt to sit at the same table as the interior passengers, a breach of protocol so ludicrous that an old gentleman dismisses the act as “a case of lunacy (or delirium tremens) rather than of treason” (234).
I mentioned non-human actors earlier. The agency of things is a central assumption in De Quincey’s analysis of the mail-coach system, which “recalled some mighty orchestra, where a thousand instruments, all disregarding each other, and so far in danger of discord, yet all obedient slaves to the supreme baton of some great leader, terminate in a perfection of harmony like that of heart, veins, and arteries, in a healthy animal organisation” (232). In this description of the perfectly functioning mail, De Quincey invokes not people but tools—instruments and the guiding baton—as well as the parts of an animal’s body. There’s nothing unusual about comparing the perfection of an institution to the organic unity of a healthy animal, but there is reason to think that De Quincey regarded the linkages between the instruments as something similar to Stuart Hall’s idea of articulation: “the form of the connection that can make a unity of two different elements, under certain conditions . . . the so-called ‘unity’ of a discourse is really the articuation of different, distinct elements which can be rearticulated in different ways because they have no necessary ‘belongingness'” (53). The unity De Quincey identifies is highly contingent, and the object of his essay is “to analyze the logic of mediation – not in idealized abstraction but in particular instances and with particular attention to the material agencies of transmission” (Franta 325). I am tempted, almost, to interpret De Quincey’s objectives in The English Mail-Coach as similar to those of a sociologist, one using tools that anticipate the work of Hall and Latour.
The mail-coach system was a relatively stable network, reliably delivering mail and transporting passengers from 1784 to the mid-eigtheenth century, when it was phased out to be replaced by the new rail system. De Quincey’s mail-coach, the “spiritualised and glorified object” (233), was very specifically the mail-coach of his youth, and its special status derived from the awesome significance of its cargo, “the heart-shaking news of Trafalgar, of Salamanca, of Vittoria, of Waterloo,” English victories in the Napoleonic Wars, which formed a powerful articulation with De Quincey’s own “impassioned heart” (233).
The vital importance of the letters bundled on top of the coach invests those who ride with the mail with a sense of mission and shared glory. De Quincey delights in the awe and terror that causes gates to fly open at the mail-coach’s approach and carters to precipitously remove their carts from the path. He fancies himself and the other exterior passengers to share this authority: “We, on our parts, (we, the collective mail, I mean,) did our utmost to exalt the idea of our privileges by the insolence with which we wielded them” (240). Even the horses are made to understand the nature and importance of their mission, communicated through the “inter-agencies . . . between the horse and his master,” which “spread the earthquake of the battle into the eyeball of the horse” (244). Here the complex assemblage of articulations—from the horses to the reins and whip to the coachman to the bundled papers to the inscribed messages to the distant battles, all mediated through and articulated to the mail-coach, the mail-coach system, and the nationalist spirit of the times—achieves a sublime unity, but a unity that cannot last if even a single element is removed or rearticulated.
In the second installment of his essay, De Quincey relates an incident which illustrates the contingency of the mail’s supposed unity. Two or three years after the Battle of Waterloo, a time of relative peace after three decades of conflict, De Quincey arrives at the Manchester post-office. He is late for the mail-coach, but the mail-coach, very unusually, is running late as well due to “a large extra accumulation of foreign mails” (266). The cargo being of no particular importance, no one’s in any hurry to leave, and soon after their departure, the coachman, the guard, and De Quincey, the sole passenger, fall asleep. De Quincey later awakens in time to witness, but not stop, the collision of the mail-coach with a small cart carrying two young lovers. The young woman is almost certainly killed by the impact. The mail, which Quincey earlier praises as seeming to possess “a central intellect, that, in the midst of vast distances, of storms, of darkness, of night, overruled all obstacles into one steady co-operation” (232), has failed utterly. The “inter-agencies” linking horse to coachman collapse with the man’s inattention. The entire assemblage disintegrates because the mail is no longer articulated to a nationalist mission, a circumstance which leads first to delay and then to disaster.
Many other questions occur to me now, not least De Quincey’s mediating role as autobiographer and the personal, economic, and ideological concerns articulated to, and through, the cultural product he published in Blackwood’s. These are issues I may return to in my doctoral work, but they are thankfully beyond the scope of the present probe.
De Quincey, Thomas. “The English Mail-Coach.” Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Ed. Joel Faflak. Peterborough: Broadview, 2009. Print.
Grossberg, Lawrence. “On Postmodernism and Articulation: An Interview with Stuart Hall.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10 (1986): 45–60. SAGE. Web. 31 Aug. 2008.
Franta, Andrew. “Publication and Mediation in ‘The English Mail-Coach.'” European Romantic Review 22.3 (2011): 323-330. JSTOR. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
Slack, Jennifer Darryl, and J. Macgregor Wise. Culture + Technology: A Primer. New York: Peter Lang, 2005. Print.