Toward a Speculative Realist Literary Criticism
Facilitated by Eileen Joy
September 15, 2011
Van Alen Books, 30 West 22nd Street, New York

This class was co-produced by the Public School New York and BABEL Working Group.

Download the audio file, here.

Relative to the current debate over “close” versus “symptomatic” (New Historicist + psychoanalytic) reading strategies, I’d like to outline a series of leading questions relative to what an inhuman or post/human “close reading” might look like, especially under the cross-disciplinary influence of the movements known as “speculative realism,” “object-oriented ontology,” “dark ecology,” “weird realism,” and “vibrant materialism” (as mainly typified in the work and thought of Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Timothy Morton, and Jane Bennett). This will also serve as a springboard to collectively explore what Michael Witmore, in his essay “We Have Never Not Been Inhuman” (published in the inaugural issue of postmedieval on the post/human), suggested with respect to the inhuman characteristics of literary narrative:

Mathematics and diagrams have often been associated with an anti- or inhuman reduction of complexity into ‘graphs and numbers’, a reduction that we associate with the rise of experimentalism in the seventeenth century. Why should this be so? Are there not, on the one hand, ways in which narrative itself is—particularly in terms of plot—designed to implement a strategic reduction in complexity among the social and physical sources of change and transformation in the world?

And further,

Our work with narratives puts us in touch with forms of reduction or compression that are every bit as diagrammatic and so (potentially) inhuman as those who study the compression algorithms of physics or planetary biology. The key for us is the way in which narratives of human action introduce counterfactual ideals—impossible, limiting, but also operative and effectual—that are immanent in the objects we study, not simply projections of the creators or interpreters of those objects. The issue here is where one locates the absence of the human, just as a century ago, it was where one located its essence.

This class will work to open up new questions relative to the possibilities and problematics of what might be called close, inhuman reading—an “inhuman” reading, moreover, that does not dispense with “humanist” reading ethics, per se, but rather, fortifies them through non-human-centric lenses and concerns.

Eileen A. Joy teaches at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and has published various articles and book chapters on Old English literature, cultural studies, embodied affectivities, violence, ethics, and the post/human. She is the founder and co-editor of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, the Lead Ingenitor of the BABEL Working Group, and co-director of punctum books: spontaneous acts of scholarly combustion. She is also the co-editor of The Postmodern Beowulf (West Virginia University Press, 2007) and Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages (Palgrave, 2007).

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