Logistics, the art and science of efficiently managing the mobility of things and people, seems a twenty-first century phenomenon, associated with global supply chains and their emblem, the shipping container. Logistics manages the flow of production and distribution, reducing inventory costs and delivering goods just-in-time; it nimbly adjusts to fluctuations and disruptions in the supply chain, whether from under-sourced materials, workers’ strikes, or software malfunctions. Though the efficient transportation of goods is as old as antiquity, it clearly accelerates after the Industrial Revolution, as part of the famous annihilation of space and time at which Victorians marveled. Steamships, steel hulls, and refrigerated shipping expanded the volume and variety of transportable goods; and modernizing national and international postal, telegraph, telephonic, and wireless networks facilitated fast flows of financial and commercial information. Moreover, the term logistique was a nineteenth-century one; it originally meant the supply of materiel to troops in warfare. The Napoleonic Wars made logistics a new area in the study of war, on par with strategy and tactics. Military logistics was never aloof from the movement of capital in the prehistory of commercial logistics. In both senses, logistics was a new nineteenth-century phenomenon. What happens if we readjust a traditional Marxist account of industrial modernity, to consider alienated labor and consumer subjectivity anew, as logistical experience?
Time. Focusing on logistics repositions the Victorian period at the center of longue durée history, between the logistical considerations of the early-eighteenth-century slave trade, and the late twentieth-century emergence of logistics as a formal management science. The famous diagram of the Brookes Ship, showing slaves packed like cargo, demonstrated that the Middle Passage was a profound exercise in new commercial practices of logistics. Slave ship designers planned for perceived dimensions and imagined minimum needs of slaves. Boycotts of sugar and other slave-made commodities raised consumer knowledge of, and affective engagement with, supply chains. After the slave Henry “Box” Brown mailed himself from slavery in Richmond, Virginia, to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849, his narrative became an homage to the possible subversion of logistical regimes. Yet the very next year, the Fugitive Slave Act demonstrated the nimbleness with which logistical systems could correct themselves, to close such loopholes. Building on longue durée histories such as Ian Baucom's Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (2005), and Stefano Harney and Fred Moten's The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013), we can identify the slave trade as a modern origin of logistics, and reorient the Victorian period toward it.Footnote 1 Moreover, looking backward from our own moment of global supply chains, container ships, and just-in-time delivery, we can see logistical thinking beginning to govern both industrial manufacturing and global trade in the nineteenth century—a critical narrative often occluded in conventional accounts of industrialization.
Space. As the emphasis on the slave trade makes clear, focusing on logistics resituates Britain and its empire in the far wider context of transatlantic and other regional and global commercial and military spaces. It creates new geographical configurations, facilitating studies of transcolonial, translocal, and global corporate spaces, networks, and exchanges. Logistics as keyword gives us the opportunity to redraw nineteenth-century maps. These might follow maritime history, linking it to finance, insurance, and the opening of new markets; they might trace the global impacts of national efficiency movements in Britain, the U. S. and Germany at the century's end; and they might chart new pathways of migration and immigration, as people uprooted and resettled spaces across the world. In the military sphere, recasting the Crimean War not as a military disaster but as a logistical one or rethinking the Boer Wars—the origins of modern concentration camps—as logistical successes, integrates military history into wider and broader cultural history. Opening new archives, logistics regenerates the expected critical topics in Victorian studies.
Method. Logistics as a keyword also adjusts the familiar account of the nineteenth century given by Marshall Berman by way of Walter Benjamin and Karl Marx, in which “all that is solid melts into air.”Footnote 2 This phrase conjures nineteenth-century modernity as promise and threat, adventure and destruction, a disorienting intoxication in which Victorians can still remember what it was like not to be modern. Literary scholars favored the melting metaphor because it licensed postmodern textual play and interpretation over the putative solidity or seeming factual results of quantitative methods. Logistics prompts us to confront material anew: to think about the movement of goods, people, and information across space; to consider the assembly of goods through supply chains; to acknowledge that distribution is continuous with production and consumption. As a keyword, logistics engages the wider material turn, toward new materialisms, distributed agency, ecocriticism, and infrastructure studies. If, at the same time, we interpret the way language, literature, and aesthetics construct logistics’ cultural meanings—for example, through metaphors of resilience and forms such as chains—then we can give a fresher and fuller account of the experiences and meanings of modernity.
What does the study of logistics look like for literary scholars? Exciting work is already brewing, for example Jonathan Grossman's analysis of global transport networks and infrastructures in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, Richard Menke's discussion of the telegraph's relation to realism, and Laura Rotunno's study of literature and the postal system—in particular, the effect of Anthony Trollope's work for the post office on his novels.Footnote 3 For the canon-breakers, the possibilities are even more extensive. The Victorians clearly prized efficiency, and laid the foundations for global commerce and militarism; these two facts are linked in ways that will re-illuminate modern experience as modes of logistical life. New attention to logistics will make the nineteenth century crucial to understanding the twenty-first.