Hogarth's Gin Lane

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Gin Lane: Mapping Poverty

Joel E. Salt

As an introductory remark it must be made clear that while Katherine Hayles defines a need to ask "what is a text" in the changing Digital Landscape, she fails to ask "what is a text made of?" The questioning of haptic loss when switching to Electronic Texts (both e-text and digital) is nothing new: Critics in the 1990s were both for and against e-text. The idea of this haptic loss caused some critics to react very strongly and negatively (see Sven Birkert The Gutenberg Elegies), while others were excited for the new directions this would take text (see Jerome McGann "The Rationale of Hypertext).

The loss of the feel of the book causes the reader to lose information: texture, scent, bilbiograpic code, etc.; more importantly, however, it affects how the reader reads. The computer screen refreshes (i.e. unperceptable millesecond flickers), and emits (as opposed to reflects) light. The book, however, has limitations, such as the inability to zoom, to use advanced search/TAPoR features. A potential technology, e-paper, as used in the Amazon Kindle that reflects light, and so can be read outside and after the machine turns off. This may be an effective way of mimicing the "book" - but why would one want to? E-paper is a regressive technology. Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, calls paper "the last bastion of the analogue," but is he being ironic? Is it the last bastion because it is effective or is it the last bastion at Waterloo?

Digital texts and digital mapping tools (or other tools) are extremely useful for understanding texts. Take William Hogarth's Gin Lane, for instance:

Hogarth Gin Lane

The Gin Act of 1750 required gin sellers to be licensed and increased the licensing fee, which begat several illegal distilleries and black market gin shops. This act was a potential reaction to the end of the 17th century when gin (and other spirts) overtook beer for the first time in history as the most comsumed alcoholic beverage. Other legislation restricting imported brandywine and encouraging corn-distillation were efforts to boost nationalism and to coincide with a Mercantilist outlook in England.

Such texts as Edward Whitaker's Directions for Brewing show beer and ale as overtly connected with English natoinalism; Gin Lane could have been doubly vile as a non-English (even though the flower Gin is made from, Juniper, grows in England. Gin would have considered "Dutch" alcohol). The cheap Gin, produced illegally and as cheaply as possible due to legistlation, often contained methane, which boils off at an early temperature than ethyl alcohol (what humans consume as alcohol). Thus, when distilling it is common to throw out the first bit of fluid, as it contains a high concentration of methane. Methane is a poisonous substance to humans, which can cause blindness and death. Likely this is where the phrase "drink yourself blind" comes from.

The area of Gin Lane depicted by Hogarth can be mapped, and thus the poverty of the area is given immediate context, especially when mapped around other areas of the city. Literary texts (or other texts) that have this area as a setting are immediately improved by having this mapping tool: it is a very useful visual cue to understanding social spaces in London. Gin Lane and Beer Street occupy a different social space. Due to legislation and national feelings toward beer, these social spaces become political spaces, and their proximities are easily seen in this map:

1: Rake's Progress, Tavern Scene, Rose Tavern at the intersection of Fussel and Bridges Street next to Drury-Lane Theatre
2: Rake's Progress, Arrested for Debt, St James's
3: Industry and Idleness, The Idle 'Prentice Executed, Tyburn
4: Industry and Idleness, The Industrious 'Prentice, Lord Mayor, Cheapside
5: Beer Street, near St Martin-in-the-fields
6: Gin Lane, near St George's Church, Bloomsbury, in the St Giles slums
10: Noon, Hog Lane near St Giles in the fields
12: Night, near Charing Cross


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