Proposal for NAVSA 2016: Victorian Posthumanities

Recent panels for NAVSA have emphasized both revisionist historical approaches inspired by steampunk literature, on the one hand, and by non-human and posthuman social networks, on the other. Even though these discourses have separately been identified as important influences for Victorian studies, relatively few of these panels have focused on the intersection between them. Rosi Braidotti expands our notion of the “posthuman” 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 work to displace the narcissistic anthropocentrism traditionally associated with humanistic inquiry. She stresses that a “technologically mediated post-anthropocentrism” can enlist new bodies, subjectivities, histories, and technologies to the service of renewing the humanities as “stressing heteronomy and multi-faceted relationality, instead of autonomy and self-referential disciplinary purity” (145).

The papers in this panel see posthumanism as a revisionist practice driven by non-human social networks including physics, design, and even artificial intelligence. To this end, Megan Ward’s “She’s Artificial, but is she Intelligent?: Lizzie Eustace, Realism, and AI” reads the development of Trollopian realist character through the standards of imitation developed by artificial intelligence pioneer Alan Turing in 1950. Tamara Ketabgian’s “The Voices of Things: Steampunk, “Savage Minds,” and Well’s “Lord of the Dynamos” turns towards the short story “The Secret History of Steampunk” written by the mechanical pseudonym “Mecha-Ostrich” for traces of divine design, a spiritual discourse posed by William Paley in Natural Theology (1802) and developed by H.G. Wells into a racist caricature of animism and object-worship. Lisa Hager’s “From Chemistry to Cogs: Ether’s Victorian Aestheticism and Contemporary Steampunk” explores the fin de siècle Scottish poet John Davidson and his theories of ether, finding resonance between how ether figures into Davidson’s posthuman theory of matter and the reappearance of aether in Karina Cooper’s steampunk novel Tarnished (2004). Finally, Roger Whitson’s “Repairing Maker Culture: Steampunk as Posthuman Articulation Work in the Projects of Jake Von Slatt” examines how steampunk fans resist the human extraction of value from nature by insisting upon a making methodology that explores the interaction between non-human material, technological, and ecological systems. Through evolving narratives of science, technology, and design, the Victorian posthumanities embraces non-human social networks as central to reading Victorian literature’s multiple pasts and futures.


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