Jane Elliott Lecture and Graduate Student Seminar Recap
By: Kevin Gallin
Novel: A Forum on Fiction, and the Novel Project at Duke, along with the Duke English Department enthusiastically welcomed back Jane Elliott, senior lecturer of post-’45 Literary and Cultural Studies at King’s College in London, to give a talk and lead a graduate student seminar consecutively on October 27 and 28. Recently, Elliott has investigated the evolution and recombination of politics, aesthetics, and theory in the wake of fading post-modernism, a line she traces through her recent articles and edited collections, Theory After Theory, Genres of Neo-Liberalism, and Suffering Agency. Her lecture on Thursday, entitled “Binary Life,” built on this trajectory, specifically focusing on “life-interest,” a feature of the narrative form that she has defined as the ‘microeconomic mode.”
Elliott gave a compelling reading of Michael Punke’s The Revenant, the novel on which the recent Academy Award winning film was based. The novel places the protagonist’s struggle in the context of settler colonialism that pushes every participant to the very limits of his or her survival. In doing so, the novel mobilizes what Elliott calls “the microeconomic mode,” a narrative form that crosses genres and media by creating conditions under which “life necessarily exists at the expense of other life.” Played out in discrete exchanges between individuals who must pursue their own “life interest,” these encounters require kill-or-be-killed choices. These games of survival force a shift in the concept of the individual from “a liberal individual with a right to life” to a “a subject with an interest in life” who cannot choose not to choose even though that choice inevitably comes at the cost of another person’s death. This reduction of the individual subject to their life-interest authorizes a logic of “fractal subtraction” in which every step forward results in even more human death and suffering. Elliott’s reading of The Revenant undermines the film version’s apparent argument for “good colonialism.” Rather than exemplifying the good man doing his best to survive in a corrupt and violent system, Hugh Glass is the avatar of an economic system that grinds each of its constituents down to “life interest.”
Nancy Armstrong’s introduction to the talk called attention to Elliott’s ability to allow theory to emerge from the text as its own self-theoretical dimension, and to “slide across various theoretical discourses that support and give affective heft to the text on which she focuses.” Elliott indeed opened up her reading of The Revenant to address everything from The Hunger Games to Life of Pi, The Road to Zootopia, with occasional pit stops in New Orleans and the Saw film franchise. The lecture sparked a lively discussion afterwards, in which a clearly enthusiastic audience probed some of the limits of the microeconomic mode – when did it start, where did it come from, is there such a thing as a macroeconomic mode? – and Elliott provided answers that drew clearer lines around the scope of her project as a specific form in a particular political and sociocultural moment, which allowed for both compelling readings in her own work and the potential for broad applications beyond it.
These questions were also taken up in the graduate seminar the following afternoon. Elliot started by laying out her writing process for her manuscript, and detailed how after months of research, a great deal of structuring and outlining, and about 20,000 words, she found herself at a loss of how to proceed. She threw out most of that work, but reiterated that she “had to do that work to know that I needed to throw it out.” This acknowledgement of the iterative process of writing was a daunting but ultimately reassuring thing for graduate students to hear as they move toward and through their dissertations. This process also prompted students to ask about the relationship between the works she chose and the arguments she made, and how they influenced one another. To this, she reaffirmed the importance of revision and rethinking, advising that archive and argument constantly reform each other in novel and unexpected ways. Ultimately, though, she challenged the students to trust their own arguments when they think they’re on to something: “No way you can do it unless you believe in it.”
NOVEL is excited to announce that Jane Elliott from King's College London will be visiting Duke University October 27-28.
Elliott will give a talk titled "Sovereign Capture" on October 27 from 5-7 p.m. in 314 Allen Building.
Elliott will also participate in a seminar with graduate students on noon the 28th.
Elliott is a senior lecturer of post-'45 Literary and Cultural Studies at King's College London. Elliott's current research concerns the combined aesthetic, political, and theoretical developments to emerge with the waning of post-modernism, as suggested by her recent articles and edited collections, Theory After Theory, Genres of Neo-liberalism, and Suffering Agency.
The event is sponosored by Novel: A Forum on Fiction, The Novel Project at Duke, and the Duke English Department.
On Thursday, September 15, Duke University Middle East Studies Center, the Novel Project, the Franklin Humanities Institute, and the Program in Literature will sponsor a talk by Aamir Mufti titled “Strangers in Europa: Migrants, Terrorists, Refugees.” The event will take place in the Thomas Room of Lilly Library on East Campus and begins at 6 p.m. The talk is free and open to the public.
Aamir Mufti, Professor of Comparative Literature at UCLA, is the author of Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Enlightenment Culture.
For more information about the event, please see the flyer below.
Society for Novel Studies 2016 Conference: Tom McCarthy Keynote
By: Nick Huber
Tom McCarthy delivered a keynote speech entitled “Vanity’s Residue” to the 2016 Society for Novel Studies Biennial Conference held in Pittsburgh, PA on May 13th and 14th. As the author of four novels including Remainder (2005) and Satin Island (2015), a work of criticism revolving around Herge’s Tintin comics (Tintin and the Secret of Literature), and dozens of essays on contemporary aesthetic problems, McCarthy offered a welcome repositioning of the conference’s viewpoint from the scholar of the novelist to the novelist himself.
And yet McCarthy proved to be as intellectually nimble and canny as readers of his novels might have expected. Proposing we understand the work of the novelist as a series of distress signals or, more emphatically, of pings from a black box unrecovered from terra incognita, from the gap between world and map, McCarthy followed the smoke trails from Clytemnestra to Trevor Paglen in a provocative demonstration of the ricochet from content to form and the point at which the latter becomes the former. The talk’s speculative thesis—that the novelist’s prerogative is to get lost—was a familiar trope but McCarthy built a de-narrativized conceptualization of writing, marking, and transmission that consistently valorized negativity as a powerfully generative force, thereby dissolving any rote New Age pseudo-bildungsroman of self-discovery that often accompanies such a position. The state of being lost, for McCarthy, is not existential so much as material: “how do you put the world on paper?” In a move characteristically erudite and puckish in equal measures, McCarthy deflected easy answers to this question by offering his own in the form of a quotation from an early 20th century geographer (J. A. Steers) that resists settling anything: “As it is impossible to make a sheet of paper rest smoothly on a sphere, so it is impossible to make a correct map on a sheet of paper.” The impossibility of definitively mapping what is perceived, let alone interpreting that map with final confidence, arises out of the materials themselves, McCarthy argued, in the spatial breach between the markings and their referents.
It is in these terms—and in following Agamben—that McCarthy suggested that Melville’s “Bartleby, in not writing, becomes the writer par excellence, embodiment of the Arabic Qualam or Pen, angel of unfathomable potentiality.” Or take his next example, Francis Ponge’s rumination on the capacities of the sponge (which comes to McCarthy via Derrida) which figures writing as “a messy, always incomplete engagement with material surplus, dirty spillage.” These models seem to describe McCarthy’s work as a novelist as well as his work in the International Necronautical Society. McCarthy shared a few examples of the work produced under this heading, including Greenwich Degree Zero, an historical rewriting and filmed reenactment of the 1894 failed bombing of the Greenwich Observatory as the successful 1894 bombing of the Greenwich Observatory. McCarthy, before fielding questions from the audience, traced outward from this reenactment using Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life to consider the figure of “someone—anyone—who is dying” and suggested in conclusion and in agreement with de Certeau that the “dying man who tries to speak” might be, precisely, the writer.
Pre-Neo-Liberalisms and the Novel
By: Jackie Kellish and Hannah Rogers
Our goal in planning this symposium was to convene a discussion among graduate students and faculty at Duke with invited speakers and roundtable participants from other universities in which consider how the novel takes and/or resists the turn from liberalism to neoliberalism. In the process, we hoped to unearth an alternative genealogy of neoliberalism. Some questions we hoped to take up were: At what point does liberalism “turn” and become something else? Can empire exist without it? How do novels explain this tipping point and the emergence of other forms of community? How far back in history do we have to go to address these questions, and how would doing so affect current histories and theories of “the novel?”
Presentations and Response
In her paper, “Submerged Under the Desert Sands of Capitalist Prose”: History, Neoliberalism, and Thackery’s Novel of Things, Zarena Aslami used Thackery’s Vanity Fair to explore the transition from absolute sovereignty to a detached liberal governance (a headless power). Using Eric Santner’s frame of a move from fetishism of persons to the fetishism of commoditites, Aslami argues that the novel charts the after-effects of sovereignty and its overlap with early British liberalism in the nineteenth-century. In showing this pivotal moment where we turn from an embodied monarchical sovereignty to a diffuse abstract sovereignty, Aslami raises the question of whether or not the novel form supports or resists this move. Her remarks described how faith in the foundation of the political sphere evaporates as power is dispersed from the body of the king to the bodies of citizens. But, with reference to Vanity Fair, Aslami finds “utopic horizons” that transcend national boundaries to produce belonging and make efforts to present a map of global networks that show systems in which Victorians live. This leaves us with questions of where these moments of utopia come from and how they “work.” Is this utopia the untheorized excess of liberalism, an example of “pre-neo-liberalism” in practice, or the undomesticated surplus of liberalism? And are these utopian glimpses unique to the novel or can they appear in other spaces, such as forms of bureaucratic busyness?
In his paper, “History’s Happy End,” Vaughn Rasberry offered an alternative to the neo-liberal conception of capitalist democracy as the inevitable “end of history” through an analysis of Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty. Taking his audience back to a Cold War-era moment, Rasberry drew attention not only to the utopian promise of socialism for many in the mid-to-late twentieth century, but also the significance of a moment in which the apparent choice between two ideologies created an open and unfinalized sense of historical possibility. But this sense of possibility, according to Rasberry, was not without its own contradictions and challenges. He highlighted the problematic elements of communist doctrine that on the one hand, supported decolonization struggles and movements for African-American rights, while also subjecting black self-narratives to yet another ideological master narrative. Rasberry’s close reading of a scene in the novel focused on a scene between a young Soviet girl and a pro-capitalist black American man at an American exhibition in Moscow, debating the merits of their respective ways of life. In the absence of a conclusive sense that one has triumphed over the other, Rasberry suggests that the value of the novel itself actually lies in its ability to re-stage the question itself. By moving beyond factual accounts of history proper and using narrative to open up imaginative possibilities that undo and re-fashion familiar teleologies, we embrace a productive, speculative “fairy-tale” genre of writing and thinking. His conclusions prompted spirited discussion from the audience, many of whom raised questions concerning the question of genre in African-American writing of the era, the relationship between self-narration and political ideology, whether alternative historical readings allow us to imagine the triumph of a system even beyond the capitalism-socialism binary, and the ways in which the novel provides a space for the kind of experimental world-making that allows us to revise our historical experience.
In her paper, “Hands off, and off with their heads! Toward an Epistemological Anatomy of Capitalism from Laissez-Faire to Neoliberalism,” Dierdra Reber questions the implied relationship(s) between liberalism and neo-liberalism, and between the respective political and economic undertones of both terms. Beginning with the age of revolutions, she charts the manner in which liberalism ushers in free-market democracy, its subsequent hybridization in the colonial period, and finally, in a post-Soviet age, the return to and intensification of free-market democratic ideals marked by epistemological affect rather than rationality. This last phase, she suggests, has been subsumed under the term “neo-liberalism” and indicates a shift away from the privileging of the political in early democracy to a privileging of the economic in the post-imperial age of democracy’s unchallenged dominance. Reber also examines contemporary political phenomena ranging from the rise of the Tea Party to Donald Trump’s candidacy to emphasize the pushback against vertical logic, organization, and any form of hierarchy in this neo-liberal era. In concluding, she pointed out the inherent paradox of neoliberalim’s staunchly free-market logic, in which trade supposedly acts as a force for freedom and equalization among peoples, and yet, in this era, we simultaneously witness the media attention--fueled by vast sums of money--surrounding a “politician” like Trump and realize that even the democratic process is at its heart, a process of consumerism driven by an incredibly unbalanced hierarchy of money and power. Discussion after Reber’s presentation considered the relationship between neoliberalism and “low” cultural elements, the accuracy of neoliberalism’s self-presentation as dispersed and non-hierarchical, and the idea of a particular affect surrounding neoliberalism.
The symposium overall raised questions both about neoliberalism and the novel form: Is the idea of “pre-neo-liberalism” actually related to liberalism or something else entirely — and, if so, how should we characterize this? What kind of alternative communities can be formed outside of neoliberalism? Does the novel have such an alternative community in mind, even when it seems most committed to the model of European liberalism? We know that empire can exist without liberalism, but can liberalism exist without empire? How far back in history would one have to go to address this question, and how would doing so alter current histories of “the novel”?
An Evening with Colson Whitehead
By: Justin Mitchell
On April 19th the Novel Project at Duke in collaboration with Novel: A Forum on Fiction, the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts, the English Department, the Center for International Studies/Global Cities, and the Department of African-American Studies hosted author Colson Whithead at Duke University's Nasher Auditorium. Whitehead, whose celebrated works include the zombie novel Zone One and the essay collection The Colossus of New York, spoke at length about his origins as a writer before reading a passage from his forthcoming book The Underground Railroad, a work of speculative fiction that envisions the slaves’ legendary road to freedom in the antebellum south as an actual network of underground tunnels. Afterward, Whitehead engaged in a stimulating conversation with two professors from the English department— Popular Culture scholar Mark Anthony Neal and novel theorist Nancy Armstrong—and responded to a broad range of questions from the audience.
Whitehead explained how he grew up reading novels by Stephen King and initially aspired to write books like The Shining and Salem’s Lot from a black perspective. “Basically if you put ‘the black’ in front of [the title of] every Stephen King novel, that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. As an undergraduate at Harvard he also found inspiration in modernist literature, partly because it shared genre writing’s preoccupation with the “the fantastic.” Initially, however, Whitehead lacked the discipline to achieve his literary ambitions. “I considered myself a writer in college,” he said, “but I didn’t actually write anything. Apparently that’s part of the process. I wore plaid and smoked cigarettes, but I didn’t actually sit down and write.” He tried twice to enroll in one of Harvard’s creative writing seminars but was rejected both times.
After college Whitehead landed a job at The Village Voice, a newspaper that nurtured writers who felt equally drawn to highbrow and popular cultures. He eventually convinced an editor to let him review television shows. His work as a television critic inspired his first novel, which he described as a “very theoretical” work of “Gen-X fiction.” The book got him an agent, but failed to find a publisher. Whitehead offered a droll account of how he dealt with all the rejections and finally resolved to start writing fiction again: “As I sat in my dirty studio apartment, watching Jerry Springer, I realized that I was a recipient of all that sit-on-your-ass-and-muse-about-crap-all-day DNA. And it didn’t matter if no one liked what I was doing. I had no choice. So I got back to work and it went better the next time with The Inuitionist.”
During the Q&A with an enthusiastic audience of faculty and students, Whitehead described the writing process (which included regular TV watching and listening to music), his many literary influences, his engagement with critical theory, and his current fascination with pop culture. Although Whitehead remains culturally omnivorous, he only feels at home writing novels and essays. “I didn’t ever figure out how to write a short story,” he said. “I’ve written, like, two in the last twenty-five years. I’ll have a simple idea, and it gets bigger and bigger and becomes novel size.” Not surprisingly, he has received offers to work in other media, but, at least up to this point, he has not felt compelled to pursue them. He prefers the independence and solitude of fiction writing over working in television and film. “All those sort of non-fiction, non-novel things always seems attractive—‘oh, a piece of money’—but then I always get like ‘I’ll just write a novel,’” he said. “It’s so much easier than working with people.”
Join the V21 Collective for festive libations in Pittsburgh!
Thursday 12 May
(basement room reserved)
212 Oakland Ave, a few blocks from the Wyndham
Details and more at:
For more information about SNS 2016: http://novel.trinity.duke.edu/sns/2016-conference
The Novel Project at Duke in collaboration with the journal Novel: A Forum on Fiction, the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts, the English Department, the Center for International Studies/Global Cities, and the Department of African-American Studies would like to invite you to “An Evening with Colson Whitehead.” Please join us on April 19th at the Nasher Museum Auditorium, where award-winning novelist Colson Whitehead will speak about his latest work and the craft of fiction. Whitehead’s talk will begin at 5:30 PM to be followed by a Q&A with Duke Professors Mark Anthony Neal, Nancy Armstrong, and members of the audience.
The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Whitehead is the author of seven books: The Intuitionist, nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award; John Henry Days, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Colossus of New York, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN/Oakland Award; Sag Harbor, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award; Zone One, a New York Times bestseller; The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death; and the forthcoming novel The Underground Railroad.
Pre-Neo-Liberalisms and the Novel
The fourth annual symposium of NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction
Friday, April 8
Franklin Humanities Institute (Smith Warehouse, 114 S. Buchanan Blvd., Bay 4)
Our goal in planning this symposium was to convene a discussion among graduate students and faculty at Duke with invited speakers and roundtable participants from other universities in which consider how the novel takes and/or resists the turn from liberalism to neoliberalism. In the process, we hope to unearth an alternative genealogy of neoliberalism. Does the novel, in this respect, challenge established literary and political theoretical models that identify neo-liberalism as a late twentieth-century event? When does the novel register a shift from liberalism to neoliberalism? How if at all does the novel display tropes that prefigure neoliberalism? Where does neoliberalism take shape in the history of the novel? In what tangible ways are earlier liberalisms already contemporary? When read as a descriptive theory of liberalism, does the novel provide an alternate genealogy of neoliberalism?
The problem of liberalism is also the problem of empire: how democratic or exclusive can it be and still retain the characteristics of liberalism? To put it another way, in expanding its domain to incorporate new populations, at what point does liberalism “turn” and become something else? How do novels explain this tipping point and the emergence of some alternative form of community? We know that empire can exist without liberalism, but can liberalism exist without empire? How far back in history would one have to go to address this question, and how would doing so alter current histories of “the novel”?
The problem of liberalism, this suggests, is also the problem of nationalism. Contrary to canonical accounts that tie the rise of the novel with that of the nation, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities being only the best, we want to consider whether the community thus imagined has ever been only national. Or, does the novel ask us to think of the nation in terms of specific junction points or relay stations in what actually operates within the novel as much larger movements of people, goods, labor, services, and information on which “the nation” depends for its vitality? Is the nation better understood as a dynamic network than as a territorially bound population, culture, or economy?
As for what we mean by neoliberalism itself—a much overused term these days—can the novel help us to think our way through—and hopefully beyond—neoliberal models? Or is the novel too bound to the principle that the answer to the problem of liberalism is more or better liberalism? Did the novel always have an alternative community in mind, even when it seems most committed to the model of European liberalism?
Zarena Aslami, Associate Professor of English, Michigan State University
Vaughn Rasberry, Assistant Professor of English, Stanford University
Dierdra Reber, Assistant Professor of Spanish, Emory University
9:30-10:00 Coffee and breakfast snacks
10:00-10:15 Introduction: Armstrong/Kellish
10:15-11:30 Zarena Aslami, “‘Submerged Under the Desert Sands of Capitalist Prose’: History, Neoliberalism, and Thackeray’s Novel of Things”
11:45-1:00 Vaughn Rasberry, “History’s Happy Ending”
1:00-2:00 Buffet lunch (FHI)
2:00-3:15 Dierdra Reber, “Hands off, and off with their heads! Toward an Epistemological Anatomy of Capitalism from Laissez-Faire to Neoliberalism”
3:15-3:30 Wine and snacks
3:30-5:00 Roundtable: Nancy Armstrong (Chair)
Anne Garreta (Duke)
Wahneema Lubiano (Duke)
John Marx (UC Davis)
Ellen Rooney (Brown)
Richard Rosa (Duke)
2240 Cranford Road
NOVEL and The Novel Project are excited to announce that Bruce Robbins from Columbia will be visiting Duke on March 3-4.
On Thursday, March 3rd at 5:30, he will give a talk titled “Atrocity and the Novel” in Allen 314.
On Friday, March 4th, 12:00-1:30, he will lead a seminar with graduate students in Allen 314. In advance, Robbins will provide new or in-progress work to discuss. Lunch will be provided, and participants will be capped at 20. Please email email@example.com to secure a space, a lunch, and copies of Robbins’s work. (Please let us know of any dietary requirements.)
Robbins’s work ranges from the Victorian to the contemporary periods, covering topics such as cosmopolitanism, inequality, violence, and the welfare state. His newest book is the forthcoming The Beneficiary: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Inequality, a follow-up to Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (2012). His other books include Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State, Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress, and The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below.
The Mellon Foundation Humanities Writ Large and Duke University Middle East Studies Center will host award-winning Syrian novelist, screenwriter, and poet Khaled Khalifa at Duke University from Feb. 10-12, 2016. All events are free and open to the public. For more information, see the schedule and/or flyer below for more information.
Feb. 10-Writing Fiction When Your Country Is Falling Apart
5:00 p.m., Ahmadieh Family Conference Hall, Franklin Center 240
Feb. 11-In Praise of Hatred: A Conversation With Khaled Khalifa
5:30 p.m., Breedlove Room, Rubenstein Library Floor 3 — West Campus
Feb. 12-Death Is Hard Work: Arabic Session
6:00 p.m., Thomas Room, Lilly Library — East Campus
This event is sponosored by AMES FastTRack; Duke University Middle East Studies Center; Mellon Foundation Humanities Writ Large; and The Novel Project at Duke.
Written By: Tavid Mulder and Michelle Rada
A vital and constantly shifting form, the novel is technological in distinctive ways. Thus, the novel can be approached as a site that enables us to think about what technology is and how it functions. At the same time, the explosion of interest in new technologies throws into relief previously unnoticed aspects of the novel. Novel Technologies engages current discussions regarding novel form through the lens of the technological. How, for example, might information models of “sending” and “receiving” transform our understanding of affect, identity, point of view, and narration as configured within and by the novel? Is the novel’s formal architecture comparable or assimilable to other technologies? To what extent can novelistic narrative forms be considered “adaptive” technologies? How are outdated or emerging technologies thought differently when read as emerging alongside, rather than in opposition to, the novel?
Novel Technologies aims to open up a conversation about how such questions might enable us to detach the novel from modes of analysis predicated on discourse. From reconsiderations of the dynamism of matter to alternative ontologies oriented towards objects; from the appearance of data-oriented critical approaches to investigations of posthumanism and the “anthropocene,” contemporary literary theory is turning away from discourse as an all-encompassing frame. While the insights and practices of deconstruction and poststructuralism are still present, recent theoretical currents are exploring new, non-discursive methods of reading and questioning. The symposium investigates the possibilities of disassociating the notion of form from its institutional ties to discourse, and considers what might be gained by reframing the question of literary form as a question of technology and apparatus.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel form functioned alongside industry as a mechanism for capturing and calculating life and its limits. To the Greeks, according to Heidegger, techne meant “to make something appear, within what is present, as this or that, in this way or that way.” From serialization to narrative developments such as stream of consciousness and free indirect style, formal features and their transformations might be read as technological innovations, extensions of and upgrades to the novel’s mode of “bringing forth.” This symposium approaches technology as both interlaced within and in tension with the novel form. How is literary studies itself changed when we consider form under the sign of techne or technology?
PRESENTATIONS & RESPONSE
In his paper, “The Other Panopticon: Technology and Narrative Form in Enlightenment Britain,” Joseph Drury reminds us of the playful dimension of technology and the novel in the eighteenth-century. Foucault’s analysis of Bentham’s Panopticon has left us with an almost dystopian image of a century bent on meticulous control and discipline. But Bentham’s hypothetical construction was not the only Panopticon at the time. Indeed, Panopticons proliferated and linked in a variety of contexts with phantasmagorias, automata and scientific experiments. William Godwin, as Drury outlines, developed a similar theory of the novel, insisting on its radical, emancipatory potential as a technology. The eighteenth-century, in other words, presents an image not of the inescapable origin of modern technological domination of technology, but rather of alternative technologies that encourage play in specific contexts. Rather than Bentham’s Panopticon, therefore, the eighteenth-century novel seems to have more in common with the Panopticon created by the watchmaker and inventor Christopher Pinchbeck and his son John, an elaborate musical machine that provided amusing philosophical representations of the workings of nature, society, and the cosmos. Drury explores this aesthetic and political relationship through the theoretical insights of contemporary philosophers of technology, who acknowledge the contingency and variety of technology’s cultural meanings and effects, but who nonetheless find continuities in the way technology mediates human experience and behavior across different contexts. If the novel’s panoptic machinery was a contingent construction whose social and political effects depended not on any inherent technical qualities but on the context in which it was produced and used, then, according to Godwin and friends, it ought to be possible to transform it into an “engine of truth and reform.”
Laurel Harris’s paper, “A ‘Continuous Performance’: Recording Technologies and Memory in the Twentieth-Century Novel” argued for alternative methods for thinking about the modernist novel’s relationship to emerging technologies of its time, a topic often relegated to thematic analyses that pigeonhole the novel as having a merely symptomatic relation to this or that apparatus. Harris’s paper, on the other hand, seeks alternative forms for thinking about and through the entanglement between the novel and technology, so as not to explain away this complicated partnership through narratives of competition, analogy, or adaptation. Harris argues that representations of memory through representational media like film and the gramophone in the modernist novel do not easily fit concepts of remediation, rejection, or adaptation. Such representations of memory often appeal to the indexical tracing of the event transforming narrative form in the novel as a kindred time-based medium. Harris reads the extension of representational technologies, particularly film, into novel form within three texts—Dorothy Richardson’s long novel Pilgrimage (1915-1967), Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight (1939), and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962)—to show the intersections and productive contradictions in their representation of memory through these media. A consideration of this intersection reveals an intertwining of interior and exterior memory that changes representations of identity in the twentieth-century novel.
In “Novel Temporalities and the Beings of Fiction,” R. John Williams presents a challenging, thought-provoking suggestion: what if our most utopian dreams for literature—that literature could be not merely fictional but ontological—had already been realized, but in the hands of transnational corporations? For many years now, corporations have employed professional writers to create “scenarios,” detailed fictional accounts of future situations to which the company may have to adapt. What is most surprising about William’s fascinating example is the attitude corporations take toward these fictions. A scenario should not simply confirm the corporation’s already existing plans and direction; it should challenge the corporation’s assumptions, making it more flexible and open. Corporations, it turns out, take literature very seriously. The uncanny similarities between scenarios and the goals of humanist education may give us pause. If the novel is a technology, what does it do? To what ends can it be put?
In the spirit of academic discussion, Novel Technologies raised numerous questions. What kind of technology is the novel? Machinic? Industrial? Cybernetic? Is such a technology entrenched in oppressive power relations and thus bound to reproduce them? Or could the novel pose potentially emancipatory possibilities to structures of power and domination? Is the relationship between the novel and technology metaphorical, or metonymic? Can we pursue the comparison with technology without sacrificing the literary specificity of the novel? These questions suggest a productive line of inquiry that resonates with the current proliferation of technologies.
The comparison between the novel and technology allows for a different understanding of literature, but it may also contribute to a more nuanced picture of technology. If technology complicates the humanist assumptions underlying our normal conceptions of the novel, literature, in turn, may enable a more humanized notion of technology, wherein technology could appear, as Walter Benjamin proposed, not as second nature but as an intrinsic aspect of a politics that orchestrates playful encounters of humanity and nature.