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Jelly-mould domes and murderous computers

Jelly-mould domes: The ceiling of Cardiff Castle

Not strictly domes but little compartments

“Jelly-mould domes” — I’m not sure if it’s the reference to the enduringly magical substance of jelly, or the mystical form of the dome (probably both), either way, the jelly-mould domes Alan Hollinghurst describes in The Stranger’s Child have remained prominent in my mind ever since I read that book, as much if not more than many of the characters.

Contrary to expectations — and this indeed might be part of the magic — the domes aren’t something used to make jelly, but features of the ceiling in the aristocratic Victorian country house, Corley Court, also a crucial and memorable part of the narrative (Bart Eeckhout [2012], suggests the house is modelled on Knightshays Court)

These domes, I would like to argue, and Hollinghurst’s use of them in his narrative, are also excellent examples for practitioners and researchers whose work, unlike Hollinghurst’s, is turned towards the future rather than the past.

This is less so because of the type of thing the domes are — though this is no doubt part of the appeal — but because of how they are made to mean as part of the narrative Hollinghurst constructs.

The domes are first referenced at the beginning of the novel, when the aristocratic Cecil, heir of Corley, is visiting the less auspicious dwelling Two Acres, home of his university friend and lover George. George’s younger sister, Daphne — one of the other central characters, who is a young girl at this point in the narrative — asks the aristocratic Cecil about the domes:

‘Do you have jelly-mould domes?’ she wanted to know.
‘At Corley?’ said Cecil. ‘As a matter of fact, we do.’ He said the word ‘Corley’ as other men said ‘England’ or ‘The King’, with reverent briskness and simple confidence in his cause.
‘What are they,’ Daphne said, ‘exactly?’
‘Well, they’re perfectly extraordinary,’ said Cecil, unfolding his lily, ‘though not I suppose strictly domes.’
‘They’re sort of little compartments in the ceiling, aren’t they,’ said George, feeling rather silly to have bragged to the family about them…
‘I imagine they’re painted in fairly gaudy colours?’ Daphne said.
‘Really, child,’ said her mother.
Cecil looked drolly across the table. ‘They’re red and gold, I think — aren’t they, Georgie?’
Daphne sighed and watched the golden soup swim from the ladle into Cecil’s bowl. ‘I wish we had jelly-mould domes,’ she said. ‘Or compartments.’

(Hollinghurst 2011, 20–21)

In this brief exchange the domes are not part of the observable reality occupied by the characters. For Cecil, the authority on the domes, they are present in his memory, though even here they exist in a condition of ambiguity: he describes them as not “strictly domes”, and nonchalantly defers to George regarding the colour (“‘They’re red and gold, I think — aren’t they, Georgie?’”). George has seen the domes too, on a visit, though in his case, knowledge is less a matter of pride than embarrassment. Then there is Daphne, for whom the domes exist purely as a figment at this point, as wishful thinking. Like many wishes, Daphne’s vision of the domes is informed by an endearing naiveté: regardless of what the they are (jelly-mould domes or compartments) Daphne feels that she wants them in her own, imaginary house.

In this exchange Hollinghurst draws expansively on the resources of fictional form to show how observable aspects of the empirical world exist differently as mutable, fantastic forms contingent on perspective — something we don’t exactly ‘see’ in the worlds we inhabit, but which is among the defining characteristics of our lived experience nonetheless.

Written narrative to some extent affords writers the opportunity to at once be specific (who could argue that the domes weren’t memorable features?), and yet to some extent indeterminate (they are not “strictly domes” but “compartments” — and what, then, is a compartment that is analogous to a dome but not a dome?). In some instances this inchoate specificity is advantageous (when wanting to provoking imaginings), in others it is a hindrance (when wanting to communicate a specific, immutable plan to numerous different people).

Appreciation, devaluation and rediscovery

This, really, is only the beginning of the dalliance that readers of The Stranger’s Child will share with the domes. They are a talking point in a discussion about Victorian aesthetics during a dinner party at Corley after WWI. Cecil dies in the war and Daphne marries his brother Dudley and is now lady of the house. George is among her guests at dinner and his previous delight in the domes and what they stood for has now faded. For George a “dispiriting odour, of false piety and dutiful suppression, seemed to rise from the table and hang like cabbage-smells in the jelly-mould domes of the ceiling” (2011, 147). Dudley too is far less fond of the domes than Cecil, and boxes them in not long after the dinner party as part of his efforts to modernise the house. Corely is then converted into an elite prep school, as many grand country houses were in the UK, and the boxed-in domes are rediscovered close to half a century later by the teacher and Victorian enthusiast Peter Rowe, who takes his love interest Paul Bryant to see them in the ceiling by the light of a flame. The domes are described in the third-person indirect style through Peter as a vision of “lost decoration, a glimpse of an uncharted further dimension of the house” and “a dream, a craze, put aside now almost ruefully in favour of [Peter’s] other craze, his bank clerk friend” (2011, 346).

The domes might occupy a material reality, with a specific form and colours, they are, however, never not a dream or vision: whether in the eyes of those for whom the vision is contemporaneous and still vivid (like Cecil); those who regard the domes as having devalued in some sense and see themselves as having moved on (George or Dudley); or those like Peter, who rediscover the lost vision and regard it in a new light, in part defined by its lostness, its antiquated or nostalgic quality.

All of this might seem very much in the world of the past: Victorian architecture, lost decoration, dark ceilings, flickering flames, world wars… However, the way Hollinghurst structures his narrative can be used to equally compelling effect to describe influential but in some senses dwindling or at least changing visions of the present, which is exactly what I attempt to do with this little story about Facebook here, which sort of substitutes for Corley’s jelly-mould domes.

Or, looking towards the future, what I attempt to do with smart technology in Section 5 here. In each instance, the thing or technology is not just a selective novelty (aka an innovation) but something that has changing meanings and is shaped by changing practices depending on different perspectives: whether the different perspectives of Cecil, Daphne and George in the same time, or different perspectives over time — Dudley and Peter, or indeed, George before and the same-different George after the war.

As sociologists studying consumption such as Alan Warde (2005) and David Evans (2019) have shown, the acquisition of a new product is only one moment in its lifecycle. At the front end of a product lifecycle there also appreciation and appropriation (Warde 2005), and at the back end, devaluation, divestment and disposal (Evans 2019) — and these two alliterative triplets (a, a, a/ d, d, d) should not prevent people from imagining there might also be many other important moments too: forgetting and misplacement come immediately to mind. The point is that new technologies, technologies of the future, seem less likely to be shaded by these stages of change, but they could and should be.

Metonymic labyrinths

Readers might at this point be forgiven for thinking that the domes are central aspects of the plot in The Stranger’s Child. They are, however, in some sense just a peripheral detail: a feature of a house, one of many houses and many features, referred to four or five times over the course of a five hundred-odd page book.

I say ‘peripheral’, but the implicit spatial metaphor (of centre and periphery) is the wrong framing with which to analyse the storyworld of The Stranger’s Child. For the domes are like a thread in fabric, that if pulled begins in turn to undo or implicate a cascading series of other items in the world: whether seemingly slower or harder to change things like generational attitudes expressed through design and architecture (Victorian and modernist); slightly bigger things like houses, such as Corley Court and Two Acres, both of which undergo significant transformations (there’s an achingly melancholic scene at the end of the book when Paul Byrant, who is writing a biography on Cecil, takes a train to try and find Two Acres, George’s old family home and the site and title of Cecil’s most famous poem, which has become absorbed into spread of suburbia around London); Cecil himself, the youthful spirit of 19th century England and its longer, aristocratic history, who, as the above dialogue from the book suggests, possessed a “simple confidence” in the values that had arguably to a large extent been taken for granted, at least by a certain class, before the war; then there is George, who experiences his own change of heart regarding Corley, the domes and all that it might have stood for (later in life George takes perverse delight being an aesthete living in a mock tutor house); and perhaps most importantly, Daphne, who is arguably the central character of the book — though again, ‘central’ doesn’t quite get at it— who is swept up into the romance of Corley and its heirs, and in old age, when Paul visits her towards the end of the narrative, is living in a former servants cottage on the edge of a large estate with her eldest son Wilfred (though, true to form, Hollinghurst doesn’t allow our easy sympathies for Daphne, she seems resilient and not entirely likeable in her way, giving as little away to the reader as she does to Paul in his efforts to piece together the life of Cecil and discover the supposed truth of his sexuality).

The list of candidates for plot centrality could go on: the poem Two Acres, written by Cecil while staying with George, ostensibly a secret love poem to Daphne, but really to George, and the symbol of a generation regarding a stereotype of old England, country life and the war. The poem is both ‘small’, perhaps, in the sense that it is just a poem, but ‘big’, in the sense that for a time possessed an anthemic quality, standing for something much larger; though also ‘small’ again, as it fades from national consciousness, along with Cecil, only a matter of concern for aficionados like Paul and the niche of literary writers within which he operates.

In the research literature associated with speculative worldbuilding and storyworld creation Von Stackelberg and McDowell (2015) describe the relationship between particular features or segments of a storyworld as “vertical core samples”: “detailed investigations [that] demand answers of the ecologies and domains of the world that in turn tighten the logic” (39). Candy (2010) has used the comparable notion of “experiential synecdoche”, which describes how scenarios “manifest only some tiny portion of the stupendous array of conceivable objects that populate, and moments that comprise, the future at hand” (104). With reference to Bart Eeckhout’s (2012) exemplary analysis of The Stranger’s Child I’ve proposed “metonymic labyrinths” (Lee 2021) as a way to understand the way meaning is generated in storyworlds through sets of references in dynamic, proliferating chains of meaning. Metonymy is related to synecdoche, but it doesn’t necessarily imply part and whole. Metonymy generates meaning through association rather than equivalence or likeness: Two Acres the house becomes Two Acres the poem which becomes the symbol of a generation, a generation that then becomes a object of history and biography, which then becomes an a book project, which then becomes train trips to old houses, and so on— these relationships are not of mere likeness or stable symbolic identification but of association and slippage from one thing, to the next, to the next, to the next.

The American literary critic Angus Fletcher (2009) described metonym or metonymy as a device of “location” as opposed to metaphor, which is a device of “classification” and he argues it is among the central poetic devices that allows writers like John Ashbery, Boris Pasternak and Walt Whitman to create “environment poems”. Echoing Freud, Fletcher describes metonymy as meaning moving through “displacement and condensation”, rather than similarity and contrasts between classes, as is the case in metaphor.

Scaling the events from The Stranger’s Child listed above as big, medium and small, or indeed as parts and wholes (with the implicit small and big spatial framing) doesn’t capture the texture of the storyworld. There is of course no perfect higher-order schema adequate to the complexity of daily life or century spanning novels. I do feel, however, that we can do a little better than always beginning to think of worlds in twos, threes or fours, and, perhaps more importantly, can do a little better than assuming certain categories of things will always be macro or slow changing and widely influential, while others will always be small and restricted in influence. (Cecil’s brief visit to Two Acres became poem, which became generation defining, which then only persists due to the work of biographic enthusiasts of later generations, who can only piece together their stories by assembling the fragments of history).

Cascades of in the world items

There’s a great list used by the philosopher of science, Ian Hacking, in The Social Construction of What? (1999), to describe the sets of things in the world (he calls them “in the world items”), which are claimed to be socially constructed by sociologists of varying stripes. It’s a useful alternative to the hierarchical three tier frames used for the analysis of socio-technological change and the world building approaches that draw from such analyses. I’ve used his categories and added some extra examples to his in brackets below:

People (celebrities, children)
States (childhood, being a celebrity)
Conditions (long Covid, Fugue, hysteria)
Practices (social distancing)
Actions (coughing)
Behaviours (nervous, fidgety)
Classes (working class, laptop class)
Experiences (falling in love, going on holiday, being disabled)
Relations (gender)
Material objects (rocks, chairs)
Substances (sulphur, ether, dolomite, phlogiston)
Unobservables (genes, sulphate ions)
Fundamental particles (quarks)

And homes, landlords, housecleaning, rent, dry rot, evictions, bailiffs, squatting, greed, and the Caspian Sea” (Hacking 1999, 21)

Hacking’s purposes are vastly different to mine. He’s an analytical philosopher attempting to bring some clarity to the many needless misunderstandings that persist in the so called ‘science wars’. The Social Construction of What? is the best book on that topic I’ve ever read and would probably be the top candidate for the book I’d recommend for anyone wanting to understand the nuances of the antagonisms between the sciences and the humanities in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Hacking is as impartial as anyone could possibly be, and his thinking combines the rigour of analytical philosophy with the free-thinking of French theory, particularly Michel Foucault, one of his big influences.

But me: I’m trying to help contribute ideas and approaches to the practice and theory of worldbuilding and design fiction. What I like about Hacking’s list is:

  1. the way the categorical or classificatory impulse which drives the list at the beginning then spirals into a metonymic series of examples that blend things, practices, emotions, people, places and so on. It’s a neat display of the tension between these two different ways of expressing information, to some extent echoing the distinction between metaphor and metonymy discussed above;
  2. the list is non-hierarchical and thereby doesn’t favour certain kinds of phenomena as big or macro, and other kinds as small or micro: a fundamental particle can be as world-shaping as a practice, as a state, as a kind of person and so on;
  3. the list is diverse: while not comprehensive, Hacking’s thirteen items are far better than the three (macro-micro-meso) that are often used as structuring foundations in the analysis of socio-technical change and worldbuilding.

Rather than limit the candidates for macro to generic images or future archetypes — such as Grow, Collapse, Discipline, or Transform used in the Thing From The Future game — or in the typical examples of macro, such as utopian, dystopian, socialist, capitalist — what happens if different ‘in the world items’ from Hacking’s list are randomly chosen as the initiating world-or-scenario-defining phenomena, with other examples from other categories on the list forming metonymic chains. For example: what does a world defined by a particular substance (sugar, DMT, cement), when combined with a relation (gender), a behaviour (fidgety), and a material object (chairs)? It might seem odd to suggest a substance like sugar can be world-defining, but history tells us otherwise. So can air conditioning, so can the suburban bungalow, so can carbon, so can seafaring, so can love, greed, consumers or a little story about a man from Nazareth.

The point in such plural and randomised selection process is in part to avoid limiting the constraining impact of standardised candidates for ‘macro’. In futuring research words like ‘captialism’ or ‘collectivist’ are often used as high-level, unexamined inputs into world-building approaches, often preventing exploration both of internal differences within different capitalist cultures (socialist experiments within capitalist countries, e.g. there are plenty in post-war Britain, or capitalist experiments within socialist ones, e.g. China) and external differences among different capitalist (Ghana, Japan, Germany, etc.) and socialist (China, Algeria, India) countries. In both cases, mixed, not pure is the norm and the only good way to be a determinist about large-scale forces is by making sure there’s a motley of different candidates in the mix for what constitutes your determinist poison.

In the context of Design Futuring and Design Fiction, it makes sense to add a further category to Hackings list: Style, Tone, or Aesthetic. Daniel Harris’ (2000) ‘cute, quaint, hungry and romantic’ might be a good prompt in this regard, to which Sianne Ngai’s ‘interesting’ and ‘zany’ might be added, plus the list of aesthetics Rebecca Ariel Porte uses in her review of Ngai’s book, many of which are associated with art or cultural movements: “Expressionism, Imagism, Objectivism, Cubism, camp, kitsch, hip, cool, retro, pop, minimalism, maximalism, hysterical realism, Flarf, New Wave, the New Weird, the New Thing, the New Aesthetic, the New Sincerity”. And really that’s just scratching the surface.

List of works cited

Candy, S. (2010). The futures of everyday life: politics and the design of experiential scenarios. Unpublished PhD thesis. The University of Hawai’i, August.

Eeckhout, B. (2012). English Architectural Landscapes and Metonymy in Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. Comparative Literature and Culture, 14(3), Article 8.

Evans, D. M. (2019). What is consumption, where has it been going, and does it still matter?. The Sociological Review, 67(3), 499–517.

Fletcher, A. (2004). A new theory for American poetry. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Hacking, I. (1999). The social construction of What? Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press.

Harris, D. (2001). Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism. New York: Da Capo.

Hollinghurst, A. (2011). The Stranger’s Child. London: Picador.

Lee, T. (2021). Beyond archetypes: advancing the knowledge of narrative fiction in future scenarios. Futures 132.

Ngai, S. 2012. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

von Stackelberg, P., & McDowell, A. (2015). What in the world? Storyworlds, science fiction, and futures studies. Journal of Futures Studies, 20(2), 25–46.

Warde, A. (2005). Consumption and theories of practice. Journal of consumer culture, 5(2), 131–153.

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Tom Lee

Tom Lee

Technology, landscape, narrative, poetics, design. Senior lecturer in Design at UTS, author of Coach Fitz. https://giramondopublishing.com/product/coach-fitz/