"Grew, shivered, and passed away": Comments for Genre / Scale Roundtable, Society for Novel Studies 2018
The below text is adapted from a short talk I gave at a seminar on "Genre / Scale" at the 2018 meeting of the Society for Novel Studies (SNS), in Ithaca, NY. I thank Jed Esty and Paul Saint-Amour for their leadership in framing the discussion, and my fellow panelists, Rachel Sagner Buurma (Swarthmore), Jennifer Fleissner (Indiana), and Yumi Dineen Shiroma (Rutgers), for their brilliant remarks and sharp conversation. The audience was great too.
“I drew a breath, set my teeth, gripped the starting lever with both hands, and went off with a thud.”
When the Time Traveler punches the gas on his machine in HG Wells’ 1895 novel, he describes what we could call the phenomenology of scale shift: as days become minutes and time begins to blur, the Traveler experiences what he calls the “peculiar sensations” that flow from a widening mismatch between the observer’s protocols for viewing and the world he views. “[E]very minute mark[ed] a day,” he says: “I saw trees growing and changing life puffs of vapour, now brown, now green; they grew, shivered, and passed away. …. The whole surface of the earth seemed changed——melting and flowing under my eyes” (25). Weird feelings follow. That’s because here, perceptual capacities fitted to one scale or speed of analysis –attuned to and comfortable in, for example, a human-scaled lifeworld, are made now to address an entirely different, geological one, where seasons pass like dreams and days stretch to the “thousands of millions” (106). For the Traveler, this caesura in phenomenological experience is “excessively unpleasant”: it causes “sickness and confusion,” a “hysterical exhilaration” (25).
Burning half of my time on Wells is its own scalar miscue, but I risk opening with this famous moment because it helps me point to what has come to interest me about the topics of scale and genre, which is how they come undone, or mismatch. Both of our title terms today name domains of more or less stable cognitive operation or perceptual fitness. If we follow John Frow to see genre as a set of socially enforced conventions that enable and constrain the production of meaning (10), then we know that genre constitutes a loose contract between reader and text and secures in that encounter a common ontological structure or world: an “implicit realit[y],” in Frow’s words, “which [a] genr[e] form[s] as a pre-given reference” (19). “To speak of genre,” he goes on, “is to speak of what need not be said because it is already so forcefully presupposed” (93). Scale, meanwhile, is “an aesthetic phenomenon,” in Julie Orlemanski’s words, one that “refers us to our specific capacities for attention, cognition, perception, and feeling”. It is, she says, “irreducibly a concept of relation” (218). Scale, like genre, conjures and then presumes a world and legislates our (embodied) place in it.
Genre constitutes a loose contract between reader and text and secures ... a common ontological structure or world
The ideological consequences for this are obvious, as readers like Amitav Ghosh and Nancy Armstrong, to pick just two, have noted: an artifact like a novel, scaled to human size and revolving around the inner life of a bourgeois subject, reproduces worlds in ways whose political limitations have long been obvious. But the diagnostic and exhumatory reading practices that would make these background states visible again, turning ground back into figure——these would need to be supplemented by the creative labor of making new forms from old ones: to show, for example, where the extant genres of bourgeois modernity stretch, fail, and go haywire, and to locate in those generative failures the possibility for new thought, new worlds. In my new project this commitment to the productive, thinking power of literary structures has led me to wonder what happens when stable lifeworlds start to fall apart.
What happens when the right-sized worlds of genre start to fracture from within?
By focusing on moments of generative collapse within generic and scalar systems, I’ve been trying to ask what happens when the right-sized worlds of genre start to fracture from within. It is just such a perceptual breakdown that makes the Time traveler nearly puke, of course, and it’s probably no accident that Wells felt he had to drum up a new genre term —scientific romance— to name his experiment, even if the presence of Weena, the “little doll of a creature,” tips us off to the fact (1) that any seemingly new genre is but a Frankensteined combination of past elements (they’re always unevenly historical); but also (2) that any form then bears within it the newly reorganized social logics of its own hybridized aesthetic infrastructure. (Here the misogynist marriage plot.) A footnote to this is that the real work of genre is properly unseeable from within the maximalizing and binaristic perceptual capacities of machine reading. That’s because what we’re looking for is not a series of examples that do or don’t fit a category but internal discord or works-against-themselves, literary performances that, like any member of a set, belong without belonging, as Derrida says memorably in "The Law of Genre."
For me lately, a good example has been Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, since Carroll's novel flips binaristically between one set of relatively stable, internally consistent ordering codes and another, above ground and below ground, and famously thinks this as a problem of scale. In a foray into book history fanaticism, I’ve so far catalogued 85 different versions of the asterisks that denote Alice’s moments of embodied transition between what we could call these two stable states. Those nonverbal graphic marks do not represent so much as perform or enact the unthinkable switchpoint or conversion moment between mutually exclusive generic registers, scalar regimes, or phenomenological states ——internally coherent worlds, I mean, where scale feels right and expectations match outcomes in a way you can bank on. To sit in the interval between such established worlds, to live in a boundary event, for example, as we do now, would be to exist between codes or genres, distended and ungrounded, “half-expecting,” as Alice does, that anything might happen at any time, or never. “What a curious feeling,” she says (14).
If the novel theory will have anything to say about our curious new present, it will need I think to adopt forms of thinking genre and scale that see individual works not as exemplars or symptoms, but as themselves containing theories, coded as an unwinding of generic structure, of what it feels like to experience collapsing lifeworlds. For in a present characterized by equally by political unwinding and ecological ruin, maybe we can learn again from Alice, who “sat down with her face in her hands, wondering if anything would ever happen in a natural way again.”
Philip and I are thrilled to say that the cover for Ecological Form is now finalized! And this seems like a good opportunity to share the table of contents for this collaborative project. The book, forthcoming in Fall 2018 from Fordham University Press, grew out of linked panels Philip and I organized for NAVSA 2015, in Honolulu, Hawaii, in which we hoped to convene Victorianists to think about the histories of dispossession and injury long studied as part of the story of Victorian empire in light of the ecological devastation that so often happened alongside it. The challenge in other words was to coordinate "the ecological" and "the imperial" so as to see these two stories as one: the results, we think, can help us think through the extent to which the nineteenth century has set the conditions for our present -- but also suggested avenues for contesting it. The cover image, which we like a lot, is "Polypodium Robertianum [The limestone polypod]," from Thomas Moore and John Lindley, The Ferns of Greater Britain and Ireland (London: Bradbury and Evans), 1847.
We're so grateful to the book's amazing contributors for their incredible labor and even more incredible patience; we're honored to appear with them in these pages. Stay tuned for details about publication dates, etc.
Ecological Form : Abstract
Victorian England was both the world’s first industrial society and its most powerful global empire. Ecological Form coordinates those facts to show how one version of the Anthropocene first emerged into visibility in the nineteenth century. Many of that era’s most sophisticated observers recognized that the systemic interconnections and global scale of both empire and ecology posed challenges best examined through aesthetic form. Using “ecological formalism” to open new dimensions to our understanding of the Age of Coal, contributors reconsider Victorian literary structures in light of environmental catastrophe; coordinate “natural” questions with social ones; and underscore the category of form—as built structure, internal organizing logic, and generic code—as a means for generating environmental and therefore political knowledge. Together these essays show how Victorian thinkers deployed an array of literary forms, from the elegy and the industrial novel to the utopian romance and the scientific treatise, to think interconnection at world scale. They also renovate our understanding of major writers like Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, John Ruskin, and Joseph Conrad, even while demonstrating the centrality of less celebrated figures, including Dinabandhu Mitra, Samuel Butler, and Joseph Dalton Hooker, to contemporary debates about the humanities and climate change. As the essays survey the circuits of dispossession linking Britain to the Atlantic World, Bengal, New Zealand, and elsewhere—and connecting the Victorian era to our own—they advance the most pressing argument of Ecological Form, which is that past thought can be a resource for reimagining the present.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction. Ecological Formalism; or, Love among the Ruins
Nathan K. Hensley and Philip Steer
Part 1: Method
Chapter 1. Drama, Ecology, and the Ground of Empire: The Play of Indigo
Chapter 2. Let the Ape and Tiger Die? Reading In Memoriam in the Age of Extinction
Jesse Oak Taylor
Chapter 3. Signatures of the Carboniferous: The Literary Forms of Coal
Nathan K. Hensley and Philip Steer
Part 2: Form
Chapter 4. Fixed Capital and the Flow: Water Power, Steam Power, and The Mill on the Floss
Elizabeth Carolyn Miller
Chapter 5. “Form Against Force”: Sustainability and Organicism in the Work of John Ruskin
Deanna K. Kreisel
Chapter 6. Mapping the “Invisible Region, Far Away” in Dombey and Son
Part 3: Scale
Chapter 7. How We Might Live: Utopian Ecology in William Morris and Samuel Butler
Chapter 8. From Specimen to System: Botanical Scale and the Environmental Sublime in Joseph Dalton Hooker’s Himalayas
Chapter 9. “Infinitesimal Lives”: Thomas Hardy’s Scale Effects
Part 4: Futures
Chapter 10. Delany’s Fetish: Atlantic Relational Materialisms
Chapter 11. Satire’s Ecology
Afterword: “They Would Have Ended by Burning Their Own Globe”