Media Theory before Media Theory

David Trotter (University of Cambridge), ‘Media Theory before Media Theory: Lightning as Discursive Catalyst in the Human and Natural Sciences, 1880-1930’


This paper will argue that a neglected vernacular discourse on lightning as a flash or strike that happens in the middle – between sky and ground – had a significant part to play in prompting radically new thoughts about what a ‘medium’ might be during the period of the formation of a modern media ecology. It will examine two episodes in particular: the physicist Oliver Lodge’s identification of electromagnetic waves, in the 1880s; and the classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison’s feminist revision of the history of Greek religion, in the 1900s. There will also be briefer guest appearances by two other lightning aficionados whose work during the 1920s might help us to connect that vernacular discourse to the emergence of something we can confidently call ‘media theory’.


David Trotter is King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the British Academy. He has written widely about nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature in English, in particular in relation to the history of media such as cinema and telephony. He is currently working on a project entitled ‘Lightning Fields: Literature after Electromagnetism’.

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