Panel for NASSR 2016: Romantic Posthumanities

Recent panels for NASSR have emphasized eco-criticism and animality in relation to the non-human, charted the varied responses of the Romantics towards technology, and explored emerging methodologies associated with the digital humanities. Relatively few of these panels, however, have fully considered the posthumanities as a conceptual frame uniting these scholarly approaches. Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman (2013) expands our sense of the applicability of posthumanism by stressing the way various critical theories have displaced the Renaissance ideal of da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” as the central focus of humanities research. For her, fields such as feminist, queer, disability, animal, and critical race studies challenge the narcissistic anthropocentrism traditionally associated with humanist inquiry. She stresses that a “technologically mediated post-anthropocentrism” can enlist new bodies, subjectivies, histories, and technologies to the service of renewing the humanities as “stressing heteronomy and multi-faceted relationality, instead of autonomy and self-referential purity” (145).

The papers in this panel see the Romantic Posthumanities as a revisionist historical and interpretive practice driven by a growing awareness of the complex non-human ecologies involved in the production of Romantic literature and media. We argue for an understanding of the posthumanities that is not focused on the cyberspace transcendence of Ray Kurzweil’s singularity, but rather explore — as Jussi Parikka argues with reference to the nineteenth-century interest in insects — the way non-human actors are “capable of weird effects, strange sensations, and uncanny potentials that cannot immediately be pinpointed in terms of a register of known possibilities” (xiii). We argue that the Romantics were particularly interested in these “strange sensations” and used them to understand the histories and worlds they encountered. Further, the Romantic fascination with non-human affects inspired reactions to and adaptations of their work that continue today. This panel uses the posthumanities as an interface connecting close readings of Romantic authors to critical theory, contemporary environmental art, and machine-reading: all to disturb the sense that Romanticism is an exclusively human ideology or history rather than an ecology stretching from animals to poets to artists to philosophers to various artificial intelligences.

Evan Gottleib (Oregon State University), author of the forthcoming Romantic Realities: British Romanticism and Speculative Realism (Edinburgh UP) will chair the session and offer brief opening remarks.

Ron Broglio (Arizona State University), “Why Pursue a Posthuman Romanticism?” performs a genealogy of humanist and posthumanist theory in Romantic Studies. For him, the Romantic period develops a particular construction of the self with a privileged interiority, what MH Abrams aligned with an expressive theory of aesthetics. Broglio suggests that posthumanist criticism, by contrast, flattens this interiority — pushing our critical attention away from the artist’s expression of internal feelings to the material relations between bodies in landscapes. His survey moves from the social construction of the self and technicity of language critiques performed by New Historicism and Derridean deconstruction to radical forms of eco-criticism, animal studies, and object-oriented theories: particularly in the influence of figures like Gilles Deleuze and Gilbert Simondon. Broglio’s talk will develop the utlitity of late-twentieth century and contemporary philosophy for a Romantic posthumanisim, cite specific examples from theorists and show how they have been deployed by Romantic scholars, and overview current directions in posthumanism as they are relevant to Romantic scholarship.

Andrew Burkett (Union College), “Romanticism and Radical Mediation,” continues the panel by addressing the work of contemporary experimental media artist Kim Keever, whose work in dioramic photography experiments with Deleuzian mobilizations of difference and repetition. Specifically, Burkett shows how Keever’s landscapes self-consciously capture the Wordsworthian “light of setting suns” by constructing the diorama just behind a six-foot long, two hundred gallon fish tank in his East Village studio in New York City. Such a juxtaposition causes Burkett to consider Deleuze’s frustrations with the primacy of psychoanalytic interiority, as well as the argument made by many scholars in Wordsworth studies that landscape reveals some psychological truth. For Deleuze, repetition occurs before any psychological repression and this theoretical point is fundamental in the development of what Burkett calls Romantic media theory. Of course, the Romantics were not the first to concern themselves with mediation, but they were the first generation to consider mediation is so many varied contexts. To engage with the relationship between repetition, posthuman subjectivity, and mediation, Burkett turns to accounts of non-human media in the work of John Durham Peters and Richard Grusin. Their provocative projects surrounding what Grusin calls “radical mediation” have clear Romantic origins — particularly in the way that Romantic authors explored natural environments as forms of media. In the final part of the talk, Burkett will discuss how mediation generates the conditions for a posthuman Romantic subjectivity as a distributed network of repetition.

Elizabeth Effinger (Penn State University), “Beastly Performances in William Blake’s Lyca Poems,” delves into the “strange kinship” of William Blake’s Lyca poems has with the genre of the beast fable and the performativity of sovereign, anthropocentric power. As Derrida reveals in The Beast and the Sovereign, the figure of the wolf is not only a figure for human political savagery and power, but also a symbol for his beastliness and stupidity. Indeed, it is this very mark of the animal’s dual nature — as power and stupidity — to which the Lyca poems bear witness. Following Derrida’s analysis, Effinger argues that the Lyca poems subversively stage the performativity of violent political power, or the beastliness of political man. The irony, of course, is that at the heart of this fable is a beastly woman, Lyca, whose name means “wolf,” from the Greek λύκος (lykos), or the lycaon. Lycaon is also the name for the wolf-like animal described in Georges Cuvier’s The Animal Kingdom (1824-35), which becomes the conditions of possibility both through and against man’s beastliness shows itself. Thus, Lyca’s “strange kinship” undercuts the sovereign power of andro- and anthropocentric life.

Roger Whitson (Washington State University), “There is No William Blake: Twitterbots, Artificial Intelligences, and Posthuman Conditions” examines a Twitterbot created in the summer of 2013 to automatically tweet lines of poetry mimicking the style of William Blake. What does it mean for a tweet to be Blakean? The question recalls Alan Turing’s famous test of artificial intelligence: how do we know when a machine exhibits intelligence? Whitson explores Turing’s question with specific reference to the temporal structure of algorithmic loops and branches found in Blake’s poetry, the Markov-chain structure used to statistically generate natural language, and the auto-generated lines of poetry produced by his Twitter program. The article takes inspiration from Friedrich Kittler’s article “There is No Software,” in which Kittler questions what writing means when automatic processes are increasingly mediating communication online and communicating with one another without the need for a human mediator. For Whitson, Blake’s poetic syntax enables an analogous exploration in the field of Romantic Studies. How we can understand the meaning of poetry and literature when it is computationally mediated and generated or when its posthuman condition stresses machinic relations rather than social history or authorial subjectivity?

 

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