NASSR 2016 Rapid Response: Day One

Today’s Tweets about #NASSR2016 via Storify

Thanks to the intrepid new managing editor of the NGSC blog Caroline Winter, a new inititative started by the caucus with the NASSR conference at Berkeley will be the fast publication of rapid responses to each day’s events.
Over the course of the week, you’ll be hearing from Deven Parker, Cailey Hall, and Talia Vestri Croan. Though, for day 1, it’s me.
I experienced the start to NASSR2016 as equal parts intense and insightful. The problems of understanding issues of space and time relative to ethics, politics, and aesthetics were central to the sessions I attended. To my mind, nothing made this clearer than Rei Terada in her truly fabulous plenary. Reading Kant, and primarily the Critique of Practical Reason, at a moment I found especially exciting, Terada observed:

Justice itself is an intertemporal problem.

The domain of the just operates at a veritable nexus and conjunction of time, linking past, present, and future. And this was to my mind was the crux of the day: How does a rethinking of time and space contribute to a new way of understanding relations?

For me this delivered me back to the day’s first panel I attended, the Romantic Posthumanities session. It featured talks by Ron Broglio, Andrew Burkett, Elizabeth Effinger, and Roger Whitson. The panel was remarkable, both in ways I had anticipated, and in ways I had not. The papers coalesced to offer a galvanizing case for experimentation with the possibilities of moving beyond human-centered approaches to the interpretation of romantic-period culture. Broglio in “Why Pursue a Posthuman Romanticism,” with characteristic perception, precision, and an incisive take as ever (the project he presented is a component of his essays towards what he calls the “Animal Revolution”), mobilized Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology to push us beyond an either/or dichotomy of proximity and distance in theorizing communication. His opening salvo started with the rupture of inside/outside. And it’s this, Broglio insists that’s at the heart out dwelling. Broglio drew upon Merleau-Ponty’s sustained contradiction to point out that within “the thickness of the flesh of the world” that makes visible the distance between being is what allows communication, connection, and the collapse of seps ration same space that allows for differentiation. In this regard, space itself operates as the communicative medium. Within this field, Broglio went on to argue, a profound ecological ethics is made possible. Offering the insight in piercing hypothetical syllogistic form, Broglio concluded that “if all perception and awareness is a response to forces of nature,” then a responsibility emerges of us as humans “to comport ourselves in the thickness of flesh in the world.” The space that sustains the differentiated singularity of beings and being is thereby opened.
Andrew Burkett followed with a point of departure from the contemporary artist Kim Keever’s work Sunset 44d as a means of introducing his project engaging with romanticism and what he terms “radical mediation.” Keever creates epic landscape photographs by constructing environmental spaces in miniature, in a tank, and subsequently photographing them. In doing so, Burkett skillfully argued, Keever’s art delivers contemporary viewers to a subversive  understanding of the natural world relative to the simulacrum. It’s a copy, not the real. This ultimately exposes us to the fact that mediation is fundamental to our experience of the world.
From there, Liz Effinger presented a fantastic engagement with the presence of the animal in Blake’s “Lyca” poems. Laying down a veritable gauntlet suggesting that Blake’s work, here, operates within the “fable” tradition–against Blake’s own insistence elsewhere in his career that his production does not–she adeptly and impressively deployed Derrida’s reading of the beast and the sovereign to unpack what Blake allows us to see beyond. In Derrida’s reading, of course, the fable becomes a means within the cultural fabric through which sovereign power is maintained and circulated. Yet, in locating a vital resonance in Blake with respect to the positioning of the gaze of humans and animals, Effinger demonstrated that a hierarchy between the two becomes ruptured. The corresponding implication being that Blake’s fabular construction of human-animal relations shows a way to see past sovereign power. Brilliant.
Roger Whitson rounded out the panel, responding to the posthuman problematic in interpretation that comes out of his @autoblake project. In 2013, Whitson engineered an algorithm using the standard digitized Erdman Blake. The bot then combines and generates new Blakean phrases and meanings from the strings of the Blakean text. But in crafting the project, Whitson created new problems of interpretation of his own. The paper succeeded in grappling with and make sense of what significance can be gleaned from a machinic nonhuman Blake. What Whitson concluded, and as I thought  was very cool, was that there’s a sense in which the algorithmic Blake Twitterbot enacts a rupture against history, speaking Blake as a form of “other” writing that enables his poetry to assume a new kind of–I would call radical–contemporaneity. There’s an intertemporal moment that links and challenges human conceptions of historical progression in the machinic nonhuman Blake.
But as an art historian, at day’s end, I’m interested in the ways in which the actual circulation of politically-engaged materials at a specific moment affect dimensions of space-time. And as I made my way back home at evening’s end, I was still simmering on Effinger’s Blake. If the artist-poet, for instance, I thought,  is constructing parallels between humans and animals in his pictures in ways that subvert a sovereign relation where the former dominates the latter, what artists whose work was likely more widely available gave Blake the means to picture human-animal relations in the way he does? Does the temporality involved in the shared zone of artistic production not just Blake but other committed artists and poets in the London of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century create the conditions for such an artistic pursuit towards the ends of more equitable social relations? A challenge to sovereignty, a vision for non- or more-than human becoming? Does what we might call the intertextual dimension of romanticism affect the “intertemporal problem” of “justice,” to come back to Terada’s talk? More to think about over the week.

Many thanks also to Hannah Markley, who helped to think through the day’s events.