The Victorian Google: Indexical Grids and the Construction of Identity in Wilde’s The Importance of Earnest
This paper considers the indexical grid, those texts such as the railway time table, the army list, or the postal directory upon which the Victorians depended to manage the proliferation of information in the nineteenth century even as we use internet search engines such as Google today. Then as now the indexical grid surpassed its utilitarian function as simply a means of locating a person’s address or confirming a fact. It fundamentally altered the subject’s relation to the organization of knowledge, and, in so doing, provided possibilities for new modes of identity formation. This paper takes Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest as its case in point in order to argue for the productive function of the indexical grid, its capacity to disinter the subject from its organic rootedness in history, even while invoking history as the condition of this alternative model of subjectivity. In the modern world of information, it concludes, one discovers the “truth” of one’s being not in the experiential process celebrated by the bildungsroman, but in the depthless alphabetical arrangements of the archive.
Foucault’s The Order of Things describes the modern episteme as resulting from the breakdown of the taxonomic imperatives of Classicism. The exemplary form of such imperatives was the scientific table, the mathematical function of which was to link things together through external resemblances and differences that effaced their relation to history; in such an order, “the sequence of chronologies merely scanned the prior and more fundamental space of a table which presented all possibilities in advance” (218). By the nineteenth century, however, things begin to turn in on themselves, and, in the process, to retreat from the ordered domain of the visible; time erupts from the occulted depths of the scientific table and reveals a realm that exists beyond the limits of representation. This is the space of the organic in which the forces that bring things into being can be glimpsed only in “fragments, outlines, pieces, shards” and whose “unity, whose point of connection, always remains hidden in that beyond” (239). Foucault is emphatic on this point, insisting that under the pressure exerted by the organic, the “space of order is from now on shattered” and things “have now escaped the space of the table” (239).
Many Victorians, however, would have been surprised to learn that things had been emancipated from the space of order, or that the table had been rendered an anachronism. Awash in a sea of print, in government memoranda, census data, blue books, train schedules, cheap novels, and daily newspapers, the information managers of the nineteenth century embarked on a series of monumental indexical projects to bring the vast proliferation of printed materials into some semblance of order: new commercial enterprises, such as Bradshaw’s Railway...