An Object-Oriented Ontology of Media through Don Juan

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This essay applies concepts from object-oriented ontology (OOO) to the study of communications media specifically with respect to Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819-1824). The essay’s primary contention is that OOO provides a conceptual stance well-suited to reveal some of the early media-ontological speculations performed in, around, and through Don Juan. This object-oriented ontology of media, rooted in Romantic-era texts, also provides us with tools for analyzing our current media ecology.

An Object-Oriented Ontology of Media through Don Juan

Brian Rejack
Illinois State University


Multi-Media Objects

1.        As I compose this paragraph on an Apple laptop projected through a 27-inch LED monitor, on my desk next to these objects sits a cardboard virtual reality viewer with a smartphone tucked inside it. On a shelf behind me lie boxes containing several antiquated gaming consoles, a smattering of game cartridges, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol required to clean decades of disuse off the connector pins and thereby coax the games back to life. Surely we mean items like these when we us the term “multi-media.” Why, then, am I arguing for a multi-media Romanticism through the case of Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819-1824)? Don Juan certainly enables engagement with the broader nineteenth-century media ecology, as others have demonstrated. [1]  In this essay, however, I develop a vocabulary for describing the multiplicity of a singular medium: print (even though to call it singular belies its assemblage-like nature and its capacity to remediate other objects into its regime). My broader aim is to demonstrate the complexity of thought around notions of media and mediation displayed by Romantic-era writers. It would be naïve to assert that nineteenth-century print matches our modern communications technologies when it comes to relative degrees of multiplicity and complexity of mediation. Even so, I adopt a speculative attitude in order to leave room for the possibility that we might not yet fully know a medium’s capacities; by attending to earlier interventions in media practice and theory, we might encounter new ones.

2.        So why Don Juan? Even though the Romantic era did not produce a fully developed notion of media theory, nor a clearly articulated definition of “medium” as a technological communicative apparatus, that does not preclude the possibility that those using, creating, and speculating on instantiations of different media were engaged in complex ways. [2]  The discourse around Don Juan, in particular, shows a wide range of that complexity. The poem’s forms of mediation accounted for as much of its reception as did its scandalous content. John Gibson Lockhart, in John Bull’s Letter to Lord Byron (1821), draws attention to this fact when describing the poem’s appearance and impact: “Every body poring over the wicked smiling face of Don Juan,—pirated duo-decimo competing it all over the island with furtive quarto” (83-4). Because John Murray would not acknowledge himself as the poem’s publisher, piracies flooded the market. [3]  What the piracies and the responses to those piracies reveal is an insight familiar to those conversant with bibliography: that the physical object conveys meaning in concert with the text it delivers. The significance of what Jerome McGann calls linguistic and bibliographic codes [4]  are clearly understood by the Quarterly reviewer (believed to be Robert Southey) who writes, “‘Don Juan’ in quarto and on hot-pressed paper would have been almost innocent—in a whity-brown duodecimo it was one of the worst of the mischievous publications that have made the press a snare” (“Cases” 128). Engagement with the complexity of nineteenth-century media is also one of Byron’s frequent moves in the poem. Its founding impulse emerges from Byron’s attention to the contingencies of paper. Don Juan begins with the poet seeking out a new hero in the pages of contemporary newsprint, and Byron frequently performs other self-reflexive tropes, as when he ends Canto I with the famous borrowing—and mockery—of Southey’s lines bidding the “‘little book’” (1.222.1769) to go out into the world in search of “gentle reader[s]! and / Still gentler purchaser[s]!” (1.221.1761-2). [5]  Indeed, that self-reflexivity is arguably the poem’s most consistent feature, particularly as it relates to the materiality of the media ecology from which it emerges and into which Byron serially casts it. Byron’s sense of mediation insists on the poem’s contingency, its uncertainty, and its correspondence with speculation. Paper—one readily identifiable medial substrate of the poem—exudes a lively variability, which contributes to the multiplicity of the poem’s mediation. As Byron repeatedly jokes about the fate of “uncertain paper” (1.218.1738), his poem, thanks in part to its wide availability in pirated form, could have easily found a second life lining a trunk (“the next time their servants tie on / Behind their carriages their new portmanteau, / Perhaps it may be lined with this my canto” [2.16.126-8]), as culinary wrapping paper (“What, must I go to the oblivious cooks? / Those Cornish plunderers of Parnassian wrecks?” [4.108.861-2]), or perhaps worse, as a “rare deposit” discovered “In digging the foundation of a closet” (3.89.807-8), a metonymic association which, we might say, in the paronomastic spirit of Don Juan, links literary posterity with the paper needs of the posterior.

3.         But I digress. In pointing toward the poem’s self-reflexivity about its material manifestations, I raise a familiar, fundamental issue for literary studies: the relation between text and physical object. In particular for literary critics engaging with book and media history, this question remains central. In nineteenth-century literary studies, we see such efforts in recent books by Andrew Piper and Leah Price, both of whom argue that to understand books as objects, we need to attend to how writers from the period imaginatively represent books and the interactions they afford. Byron in general, and Don Juan in particular, offer bountiful material for querying what it means for a poem and a book to exist in 1819. In what follows, I suggest that object-oriented ontology (OOO) provides a conceptual stance well-suited to reveal some of the early media-ontological speculations performed in, around, and through Don Juan. Following an overview of OOO and my reading of it in relation to media studies, I offer analyses of how Don Juan interrogates two media objects essential to its existence: paper and ink. In so doing, I suggest that despite its complicated relationship with materialism, OOO nonetheless equips us with tools for rethinking the materiality of media—a necessarily multiple materiality—in the Romantic era and beyond. [6] 

4.        But first, what is OOO? And how might it enhance our understanding of media in general and Romantic-period media in particular? [7]  OOO was christened by Graham Harman, who, along with Levi Bryant and Timothy Morton, forms the core group of OOO practitioners. OOO is a subset of the broader Speculative Realist movement, first dubbed as such at a workshop held in 2007 (titled simply, “Speculative Realism: A One-Day Workshop”), which featured talks by Harman, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Quentin Meillassoux. The loose grouping of Speculative Realists is held together by their shared rejection of what Meillassoux terms “correlationism,” the tendency in post-Kantian philosophy to investigate only the correlation between being and thought, never being itself. [8]  The OOO answer to correlationism is to affirm the existence of objects apart from relations and to insist on objects’ “withdrawal” (the term that Harman, in Tool-Being [2002], adapts from Heidegger’s tool analysis from Being and Time [1927]). OOO is speculative in that it affirms the being of objects but not their presence to us, to other objects, or to themselves. In a formulation similar to Meillassoux’s, Harman claims that “contrary to the dominant assumption of philosophy since Kant, the true chasm in ontology lies not between humans and the world, but between objects and relations” (Tool-Being 2). What emerges from this recognition, as Harman puts it in Guerilla Metaphysics (2005), is the centrality of withdrawal: “Object-oriented philosophy has a single basic tenet: the withdrawal of objects from all perceptual and causal relations” (20). Objects only ever enter into relations through some form of translation, which means that relation never exposes the essence of the object. And this truth applies to relations with humans (as when a human reads a poem by translating “a small drop of ink” into a “lasting link / Of ages” [3.88.793, 797-8]), and also to relations between non-human objects (as when an aeolian harp translates the wind into song).

5.        As suggested by the focus on causality in Morton’s Realist Magic (2013), OOO offers great insight on how objects come to interact with one another despite their mutual conditions of withdrawal. If objects ontologically withdraw from full presence, then the work of speculative philosophy means exploring how these “vacuum-sealed” entities (Harman, Guerilla Metaphysics 2) communicate, correspond, or otherwise enter into relation. That focus on relation ports smoothly into media studies, particularly to help think through the relation between the fraught terms, book and text—or, put another way, the relation between the mediating object and the object mediated. This has been and continues to be a pressing question for book and media history. For instance, in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004), William St Clair notes that “when we have reconstructed the production, access, sales, and readerships of the materiality of books [. . .] our best resource for understanding the impact of the reading of the literature of the romantic period may be the literature itself” (412). Or to pose the issue more succinctly via Andrew Piper, “Literature makes books as much as books make literature” (11). This claim applies especially to the Romantic era since books were still relatively fluid cultural objects. As Ina Ferris and Paul Keen note in their introduction to Bookish Histories (2009), “[print] remained visible as a medium, palpable [. . .]. Books were not the taken-for-granted objects they would soon become” (5). St Clair, Piper, and Ferris and Keen all demonstrate that how Romantic readers (and how we) understand a given book, or the book, connects intimately with how we understand the literary (or non-literary) objects that come into being through books. From an OOO perspective, a poem is an object, and it exists independently of its particular material instantiations. Of course, this notion is nothing new to literary scholars—one thinks of F. W. Bateson’s famous question, as paraphrased by James McLaverty: “If the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where are Hamlet and Lycidas?” (82). But OOO would also add that the gap between poem and its appearance to us in different mediated forms is not some trick of textuality but the condition of being itself. All objects withdraw, not just poems whose existence cannot be reduced to their bibliographic histories. An object-oriented media studies can therefore investigate object relations that extend into realms we might not typically see with a solely textual focus. [9]  To employ that claim in Byronic terms, such an approach enables our critical Muses to “treat[] all things, and ne’er retreat[] / From any thing” (16.3.17-8).

6.        As such, an object-oriented ontology of media enables us to see media from their side as well as from ours. In the case of books, it helps us to imagine, as Price does in her reading of it-narratives, “how accounts of print culture would look different if narrated from the point of view not of human readers and users, but of the book” (“From The History” 120). Book history’s fundamental premise, as D. F. McKenzie claims, is that “[i]t can, in short, show the human presence in any recorded text” (29). But in order to understand what it means to come into contact with a book, or with a human presence through a book, we need first to understand the object and the nature of its object relations. Though it may seem counterintuitive, I contend that we can better conceive of the human presence in books if we first attend to how they exist in their strange bookishness, how they enlist many non-human agents in order to exist. [10]  The human presence we encounter is never fully itself—it remains fundamentally withdrawn, only made present in the form of a translation through a medium and through each object’s mode of appearing in that medium. An object-oriented media studies thus affirms the existence of media objects and their irreducibility to their qualities or relations. The result is a greater capacity to account for qualities or relations of which we may be unaware but which may emerge through unforeseen contingencies. Typically in book history and media studies, analysis of book/media objects focuses on subject-object relations (e.g., between human subject and book/media object, as in H. J. Jackson’s study of Romantic-era marginalia), or on object-object relations (e.g., the relations between books and the other objects which make up the systems of print circulation, as in McKenzie’s “sociology of texts,” or Robert Darnton’s similar “communications circuit”). Eugene Thacker, in theorizing what he calls “dark media,” suggests that we shift away from those models and instead attend to object-thing relations. [11]  Such a method would interrogate media as paradoxical mixtures of intentional objects-for-us and things-in-themselves that resist full access from any other beings—human or otherwise. Dark media demonstrate more clearly what is true of all media: that they withdraw from full access even when hinting at their existence through particular qualities and appearances. When we theorize mediation, we must contend with the deeply inhuman core of those media objects to which we ascribe so much human presence. Media objects benefit from an object-oriented position precisely because it’s all too easy to locate their essences as mediums in the emergent properties of their uses for us. It may seem odd to imagine a book apart from the human actions that brought it into being, or the intentions humans had for it, or the uses to which humans put it. Yet, an object-oriented media studies calls for just that, and we can do so by entertaining Byron’s speculations on the non-human elements of mediation in Don Juan.

Paper Objects

7.        Paper is a speculative material. We speculate on it, with it, and through it. And it remains subject to ever more instances of speculation, or as Byron phrases it in Don Juan, it remains always “uncertain,” always poised between existing as communicative medium and as mere material object (“a rag like this” [3.88.799]). As such, paper brings to light the complex temporality inherent to any act of mediation, which can be posed in the form of Craig Dworkin’s question in No Medium (2013): “was the paper you are holding already a medium before it was brought together with the ink?” (29). To ponder the answer to that question is to pursue an ontology of media. Dworkin turns to a process-based answer when he asserts that “[media] are not things, but rather activities” (28). As I discussed above, OOO refutes process (or activity, flow, relation, etc.) as a ground for ontology. Following that refutation, we find in Byron’s Don Juan an approach to mediation which likewise insists on “things” over “activities.” In the next two sections, I’ll briefly read Byron’s engagements with mediation through the two objects mentioned in Dworkin’s question: paper and ink.

8.        While we tend to think of paper as an inert substance awaiting the variable accidents of new and true poetic attempts, Byron’s poem repeatedly poses paper as itself an agential object. He writes to Murray a month after the publication of Don Juan: “I have no plan—I had no plan—but I have or had materials” (Letters 207). Of course, Byron here means source materials or ideas, but this comment should nonetheless suggest to us that Byron’s poetics embraces the contingency of matter. Paper functions as an insistently material presence, though one with a vitality we tend not to associate with material objects like fused bits of cloth. [12]  From early in the poem, and throughout its development, Byron’s paper moves. Or in OOO terms, it withdraws, escaping full apprehension and only showing itself and its powers in partial, translated manners. Toward the end of Canto I, in one of Byron’s many digressions about the nature of fame, paper’s materiality first surfaces with “the end of fame” amounting to nothing more than a spatial concern: “’tis but to fill / A certain portion of uncertain paper” (1.218.1737-8). As he is “born for opposition” (15.22.176), it comes as no surprise that Byron employs “certain” in its two oppositional senses: the “certain portion” refers to an undetermined or unspecified amount (and thus, a not very certain portion after all), and then the “uncertain paper” calls to mind the opposite meaning (fixed, determined, stable), though here negated by the prefix. [13]  Fame, then, requires a certain—that is to say, an unknown—amount of material production, which resides in an object whose stability is likewise suspect. Paper must be acted upon by willful agents, but that control over paper is compromised by the material’s own particularities. In this case paper’s instability primarily results from change over time, but it possesses synchronic as well as diachronic uncertainty. Although the latter sense is more apparent, Byron at least gestures toward paper’s lively materiality with the rhyming words, “vapour” and “taper,” a trio employed three more times across the poem. The vapour appears in another metaphor for fame (that of walking up a hill “lost in vapour” [1.218.1740]), but the echoing of paper with a seemingly immaterial substance rhetorically heightens the changeability of the former. And the “taper,” which metonymically stands in for literary production (“bards burn[ing] what they call their ‘midnight taper’” [1.218.1742]), also reminds us that the paper medium requires additional material supports (such as light, ink, quill, etc.). Paper and taper are etymologically as well as sonically linked, both coming from “papyrus,” [14]  an earlier writing surface which, as it ceased to function materially, continued its legacy discursively by lending its name to other composite materials (such as cotton fibers) assembled for the purposes of writing and printing. Through the ottava rima form’s particular affordances, the linking of paper/vapour/taper encourages us to consider paper’s multiplicity and variability even as it exists in a single moment.

9.        Given that the first instance of the paper/taper rhyme occurs just twenty stanzas earlier, as Julia composes her farewell letter to Juan, it’s worth linking the two passages and their approaches to paper as a medium. The narrator informs us that “This note was written upon gilt-edged paper / With a neat crow-quill.” As Julia uses a candle to seal the letter, “Her small white fingers scarce could reach the taper.” The seal itself, with its “white cornelian” and its motto reading “‘Elle vous suit partout,’” functions as another layering of mediation with text inscribed in wax sealing in text upon “gilt-edged paper” (1.198.1577-9, 1582-3). And Julia (or at least her letter) does indeed follow Juan everywhere for a time, as the paper (and Juan) travels to sea to begin Canto II. Byron undoes the sincerity of Julia’s composition with Juan’s nauseous response to his reading of it (helped along by the lurching of the ship). After Juan’s reading of the letter, it appears once more after the shipwreck but only for its material substrate: “At length the lots were torn up, and prepared, / But of materials that much shock the Muse— / Having no paper, for the want of better, / They took by force from Juan Julia’s letter” (2.74.589-92). Paper at first functions as the medium for Julia’s sincere outpouring of feeling, but even so its significance depends on the quality of the paper, the wax seal, and the motto. And then in its final form (as lots to decide which shipwrecked survivor will be eaten), the paper signifies a death sentence for “poor Pedrillo” (2.77.616)—there being essentially no distinction between the content and the medium. The paper in this final instance carries meaning only through its dimensions relative to other bits of rag. We might recall here the Quarterly Review distinguishing between a proper “‘Don Juan’ in quarto and on hot-pressed paper” and the smaller, lesser quality “whity-brown duodecimo,” which renders the poem so potentially dangerous. As Andrew Franta writes of the scene, the focus on the “materials that much shock the Muse” suggests that Byron “offers a proleptic acknowledgment of the reading public’s outraged response to the eating of Juan’s tutor, Pedrillo” (52). Moreover, the emphasis on “materials” points toward the physical media responsible for conveying the poem’s “shocking” content. Again, Byron demonstrates the potential of the paper medium to acquire agential force. Any attempt to account for the poem and its significance thus requires attention to the relations into which it enters via multiple modes of mediation. To return to the language of OOO, the poem exists, but it also withdraws from full presence, only ever showing glimmers of itself through the different material media that make it possible and which Byron figures into his poetics. Even though Byron claims in Don Juan to “rattle on exactly as I’d talk / With any body in a ride or walk” (15.19.151-2), his attention to the materiality of composition and printing demonstrates that his poetic process emerges from his acute awareness of the movement from speech to writing and from writing to print. And his poetic treatment of paper is crucial for understanding those processes.

Inky Objects

10.        As seen in the shipwreck episode or in the references to reused paper, the medium does not require written or printed content for it to matter significantly. But paper acquires particular powers when brought into contact with another object of interest to Byron: ink. In one of Byron’s most famous statements on the nature of literary fame, he begins with an optimistic notion of literary production and dissemination: “But words are things, and a small drop of ink, / Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces / That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think” (3.88.793-5). Byron supposes that an ostensibly minor material intervention (“a small drop of ink”) has the potential to influence greatly that which is known and thought. “Words are things” at least in part because of their material carriers. Ink is not merely subordinate to discourse but, rather, intimately connected (materially as well as sonically via the ink/think rhyme) with the mental activity we tend to view as the primary mover of cultural production. Writing and printing also appear superior to the more immaterial act of speech (working as it does through the evanescent mediums of “vapour” and air): “’Tis strange, the shortest letter which man uses / Instead of speech, may form a lasting link / Of ages” (3.88.796-8). Prefiguring a later passage in the poem which similarly pits the materials of literary production against human thought (“’Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle, / Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article” [11.60.79-80]), Byron begins to mourn the human reliance on the vagaries of matter. The stanza’s final lines intensify that feeling of regret, but they also offer potential consolation, as the poet turns from ink back to paper: “to what straits old Time reduces / Frail man, when paper—even a rag like this, / Survives himself, his tomb, and all that’s his” (3.88.798-800). The human body and paper share a common frailty, and yet the greater durability of the latter offers the potential to make up for the former’s rapid movement toward “dust” (3.89.801). But the “rag like this” reminds us again that paper is “uncertain,” that it involves change, and that it ultimately withdraws from any full presence to other objects. Paper is nothing but rag, but it is not only rag. The poem to which Byron refers exists apart from, even as it relies on, any single, stable paper substrate.

11.        Of course, even if paper lasts long enough to secure some semblance of fame for the person responsible for sending that rag out into the world, fame may not persist in a true form (as with “some dull MS” Byron imagines being recovered from “oblivion” in the next stanza [3.89.805]). Byron explores this concern repeatedly while discussing newspapers’ lists of soldiers killed in combat. Newspapers, of course, are defined by their ephemerality. They must present that which is new, and they must do so serially (whether daily, weekly, etc.). “[M]odern fame” moves at such speed that “ere the ink be dry,” the newspapers move on to the next story (13.51.402, 405). Byron thus pits the “poet’s page” (1.5.36) against the gazettes with their lists of the dead, which are at best well-intentioned but flawed. As Daniel Hitchens suggests about Byron’s attitudes toward misprints, Byron takes seriously the notion that “poets should feel as great a responsibility as they would if they were at war,” and they thus “ought to be wary of hastiness, of textual mistakes, omissions, misprints” (139). What matters for Byron, according to Hitchens, is “the weight of detail, digression, anecdote and inconsistency” (140) in contrast with history, which “can only take things in the gross” (8.3.17). Hitchens connects that use of “gross” with Byron’s couplet about the soldier “whose loss / Was printed Grove, although his name was Grose” (8.18.143-4). Nothing but “a small drop of ink” separates Grove from Grose. Byron’s poem, with its embrace of contradiction, change, digression, and detail strives to correct such inky mistakes, but it also opens itself up to other inevitable new ones, particularly since the poem appeared in so many guises with varied levels of stability and authenticity. The fluidity of ink means that it is rooted in and leads to further change. Poets are similarly fluid with their feeling, as “they are such liars, / And take all colours—like the hands of dyers” (3.87.791-2). Instead of rejecting or condemning that fluidity, however, Byron accepts contradiction and opposition: “But if a writer should be quite consistent, / How could he possibly show things existent?” (15.87.695-6). Ink matters for poetry precisely because it dwells both in (withdrawn) existence and in inconsistency (variable processes).

12.        If, as Siegfried Zielinski writes, “Media are spaces of action for constructed attempts to connect what is separated” (5), then the meeting of paper and ink is one space where such attempts seek to connect a variety of separated things. But as Alexander Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark argue in Excommunication (2013), “non-media always lurk at the threshold of media” (11). Rag and paper, drops of ink and words—the objects through which we attempt to connect what is separated also contain within themselves a fundamental alterity, which insists that no separation is ever entirely overcome. We’ve known at least since Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) that the meeting of inked type and paper (the essential process of the print medium) is not always entirely as it appears. What looks to unaided human eyes as a circular full stop featuring stable rounded edges appears with the help of a microscope as ragged and irregular, like “smutty daubings” or “a great splatch of London dirt” (3). When ink meets paper, the two objects enter into a fluid aesthetic dance—one in which ink bleeds into paper, and paper receives ink, in unpredictable ways. The two objects enter into relation, but they do so only through their particular mechanisms of translating one another. We see the objects not for what they are but for how they affect and allude to one another. Mediation, by definition an attempt to overcome separation, only ever alludes to those separated things. Mediation is predicated on absence, but that does not mean mediation accomplishes nothing. Byron clearly recognizes the potential for paper, ink, and humans to interact with and affect other existing objects. But his approach to mediation in Don Juan continually recognizes the reality of contingency and the necessary agency of non-human objects.

13.        So that I might “end at least with the beginning” (13.73.584), I’ll turn for a moment to Beppo: A Venetian Story (1818), which is where Don Juan arguably has its beginning. In addition to the former poem supplying the latter with its stanzaic form, both poems share a focus on the materiality of media. In Beppo Byron speaks of hating “an author that’s all author, fellows / In foolscap uniforms turned up with ink” (75.593-4), a formulation which merges the body of the human author with the non-human objects (paper and ink) responsible for making authors. Earlier in the poem he offers another connection between clothing and the cloth so crucial to the print medium, when he compares Laura’s beauty to an image from a “frontispiece of a new Magazine, [. . .] / Coloured, and silver paper leav’d between / That and the title-page, for fear the press / Should soil with parts of speech the parts of dress” (57.452, 454-6). As is true of the simplest printed mark in Hooke’s Micrographia, ink here bleeds into paper of its own accord. Writers, publishers, and readers can merely and futilely attempt to maintain the separation of language and materiality. We might put this truth in more positive terms by connecting it to Byron’s desire to capture truth and reality in his poem, which he poses in contrast to the “cant” that he saw characterizing the spirit of the age. For Byron, poetic truth emerges out of an approach to materiality which leaves behind the illusion of total discursive control. The reference to “parts of speech” and “parts of dress” subtly reminds readers that when they encounter speech translated into writing or print, such language is conveyed on the parts of dress (i.e., rags turned into paper). But dress is not mere brute materiality: it involves arrangement, form, and shape. Dress is aesthetic. It requires discourse and materiality as well as the productive tensions emerging from their collision. Beppo ends not so much when the discursive gives up on making material interventions, as when the material refuses to accommodate the discursive any longer: “My pen is at the bottom of a page, / Which being finished, here the story ends; / ’Tis to be wished it had been sooner done, / But stories somehow lengthen when begun” (99.789-92). The story “slips for ever through [the poet’s] fingers” (63.498), lengthening with a desire of its own by entering into relation with other material objects. The discursive can never leave behind the material, nor can it ever fully exhaust it. An object-oriented ontology of media applies this logic specifically to communications media in order to refocus our critical vision on media’s material resistance to discourse, culture, or pure formalism. Byron’s attention to the instability of inky marks on paper translates the material reality of mediation—presenting an unknowable absence—into aesthetic, discursive, and often comic forms of signification. Ultimately it’s that probing of the relation between the material and the discursive that an object-oriented ontology of media can assist us in performing and which Byron’s poetics continue to instigate as we (“Why, I’m Posterity—and so are you” [12.19.145]) take up his materials anew.

14.        What, then, are we to make of a renewed meeting of media studies and literary criticism as a path to a multi-media Romanticism? Thanks to many scholars working in nineteenth-century studies, [15]  as well as others more firmly rooted in media studies, [16]  the binary qualifiers “new” and “old” have been productively rethought over the last fifteen years. At this point, a foundational question is being revisited: what are media? We see this question probed in several recent media studies projects which, in different ways, tend to emphasize media as processes or activities rather than as things or objects. [17]  For instance, as Craig Dworkin argues, “No single medium can be apprehended in isolation [. . .][;] media (always necessarily multiple) only become legible in social contexts because they are not things, but rather activities” (28). While process ontologies, such as Dworkin’s, productively illuminate the variability of media, they also risk eliminating distinctions between things. If all is process, then any media object can be processed into any other, like discrete bits of cow flesh rendered into pink slime. In borrowing from OOO, media studies can make room for both the simultaneous plenitude of distinct objects and their strange, processual variability by reversing Dworkin’s claim: media are things, not activities. Media of course involve activities, but activities are not the same as, and should not take priority over, the media objects themselves. A book is not the poem printed within it, nor is it the means and mechanisms of its circulation, use, and storage that welcome it into the twenty-first century in a variety of forms (in a Rare Books room, in the stacks, in digital databases, in a trash heap, etc.). As I’ve discussed, Don Juan is particularly receptive to an object-oriented ontology of media since it exploits the extent to which the existence of a media object is always multiple—not because its existence is predicated upon a variety of activities, but because objects (such as poems and paper and ink) withdraw from access.

15.        The stakes undergirding my argument are the political effects that emerge from our media ontologies. I share with Alexander Galloway the urgency of asking, “What should we do so that thinking does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism?” (“Poverty” 364). But I disagree with his contention that “recent realist philosophy mimics the infrastructure of contemporary capitalism” (“Poverty” 348). In its resistance to reductionism, OOO counters the logic of neoliberal techno-utopianism, the dominant ideology of the information economy against which Galloway writes. [18]  Contemporary capitalism translates all into code. It thereby seeks to control social and economic flows with greater efficiency, to monetize any and all forms of interaction, and to eliminate any variations that would upset the algorithmic machinery. As William Blake wrestled with the machines of church and state, we now face media as the gardens of love in which our joys and desires are bound in the briars of algorithmic reduction. The rhetoric of process—which implies that activities (like data manipulation) are all that matter—risks capitulating to such restriction. If we abandon the notion of the irreducible existence of media and of other objects, if we focus instead on pure flows and endless process as the things to which objects are reduced, and if we accept that all objects and all media exist merely as different data configurations of the same inert substance, then we embrace twenty-first-century global capitalism and its fantasies of immaterial production. Even though a philosophy centered on objects may seem to imply a dull, static materialism, OOO actually reveals the plenitude at the core of all objects. In applying this logic to media, I do not claim that older media are somehow more real or more physical than electronic media. The latter too have equal claims on reality and materiality. [19]  But I resist the notion that we can ignore or transcend materiality (an attitude often expressed with respect to computational media), and the reductionism of process-based ontologies risks leading us down that path. If we go that route we’ll find nothing more than the endless procession of the same dull round, to which we can only reply as one: . An object-oriented ontology of media shows us that, as in Don Juan—whose narrator claims, “my tale is / ‘De rebus cunctis et quibûsdam aliis’” (“Of everything that is and a few other things besides” [16.3.23-4])—we benefit from speculating beyond the everything that is.

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Notes

[1] For instance, Colette Colligan analyzes Don Juan’s (1819-1824) “unruly copies” circulating through the underground radical press and its correlative pornographic print industry (and particularly the connection between Don Juan’s harem cantos and pornographic representations of the harem in visual culture). Both Tom Mole and Ghislaine McDayter demonstrate the crucial role of visual culture (and of the broader media ecology of the Romantic era) to Byron’s status as and negotiation of celebrity. Many others have also examined Byron’s place in the specifically literary print arena. To name only a few: Jerome Christensen recognizes Byron’s strength as the ability to resist, while participating in, the commercial print market; Nicholas Mason demonstrates the pivotal role of advertising in creating the brand of Byron that Christensen characterizes; Mark Schoenfield examines Byron’s career-long preoccupation with doing battle in the trenches of periodical magazines and reviews; and William St Clair tracks Byron’s cultural impact as viewed through publication histories (“The Impact of Byron’s Writings”). BACK

[2] See John Guillory’s “Genesis of the Media Concept” for a thorough treatment of the pre-history of modern media philosophy and theory. BACK

[3] See Hugh J. Luke, Jr.’s “The Publishing of Byron’s Don Juan” for details on the Don Juan piracies as well as on Murray’s various editions. Murray’s reluctance to acknowledge himself as the publisher stemmed from his concern that the poem would be deemed blasphemous or seditious, which would render him liable for prosecution and strip him of any copyright protections. BACK

[4] See Jerome McGann’s The Textual Condition (1991) (13-16). BACK

[5] All citations from Don Juan (indicated parenthetically with canto, stanza, and line numbers) are to volume five of McGann’s Complete Poetical Works. The citations from Beppo (1818) are to volume four of the same edition (with stanza and line numbers indicated in the parenthetical citations). BACK

[6] For instance, see Timothy Morton’s Realist Magic (2013), in which he argues that materialism is merely a form of correlationism, the stance against which OOO argues (61-2). Graham Harman insists throughout his work on his adherence to realism in opposition to materialism. Levi Bryant, however, has begun to distance himself from the OOO label, calling his most recent work “machine-oriented ontology” (Onto-Cartography 15), and in the process he has advocated for a revival of materialism. BACK

[7] Several scholars have in recent years brought Speculative Realism and/or OOO to bear on Romanticism (and the other way around as well). I’m indebted to them for the many insights I’ve gleaned from their conference papers, published arguments, and from the conversations shared with them at conferences and other events as I’ve developed my own thinking on the topic as presented here. Among these are: Greg Ellermann, with recent articles in Studies in Romanticism (“Late Coleridge and the Life of Idealism”) and SubStance (“Speculative Romanticism”); Evan Gottlieb, who recently published an essay titled, “Seeing into the Life of Things: Re-Viewing Early Wordsworth through Object-Oriented Philosophy,” and whose monograph titled, Romantic Realities: British Romanticism and Speculative Realism, has just been published in the Speculative Realism series from Edinburgh University Press (unfortunately the book’s release came too late for me to consult it for this essay); Anne McCarthy, who has a forthcoming essay in Studies in Romanticism which reads “Mont Blanc” through the work of Quentin Meillassoux; Aaron Ottinger, whose essay on Wordsworth, affect, and geometry situates the poet’s thinking in relation to the current “speculative turn”; Michele Speitz, who brilliantly combines a new formalist method with strains of new materialist thinking in “Catastrophe and Form; or, an Experiment in Formal Historicism”; and Chris Washington, who has offered compelling readings of Speculative Realism in two recent articles, “Byron’s Speculative Turn: Visions of Posthuman Life in Cain,” and “Romanticism and Speculative Realism.” This meeting of contemporary continental philosophy and Romantic studies, particularly in recent scholarly work, represents an exciting direction for the future of the field. BACK

[8] See Meillassoux’s After Finitude (2008) (4-9). BACK

[9] Jussi Parikka’s A Geology of Media (2015) provides one such example. He refers to his approach as “a media history of matter: the different components, minerals, metals, chemicals, and other things involved in media are considered as essential to media history and archaeology” (25). Parikka’s focus rests primarily on contemporary computational media, and although I do not develop such an approach at length here, I do suggest that an object-oriented ontology of media offers the potential to perform such explorations with respect to older forms of mediation as well. BACK

[10] Bryant uses this formulation in describing all objects as a “crowd”: “Every object is populated by other objects that it enlists in maintaining its own existence” (Democracy of Objects 217). BACK

[11] In OOO terms, Eugene Thacker’s object-thing distinction could map onto Harman’s sensual-real distinction, Bryant’s local manifestations and virtual proper being, and Morton’s more concise (and Aristotelian) appearance and essence. I recognize the critique of OOO made by Nathan Brown and others: that it amounts to nothing more than verbal and stylistic window-dressing on the firmer foundations of other, more fully consistent philosophical systems. Not being a philosopher, I have no stake in defending or attacking the viability of OOO as a philosophy. But, as Don Juan teaches us, “words are things” (3.88.793), and the value of developing and employing new conceptual vocabularies should not be overlooked, especially since as scholars and teachers, interventions in the materiality of language are our last and best hopes for effecting changes that matter. BACK

[12] I borrow here the language of Christopher Breu’s The Insistence of the Material (2014), in which he argues for renewed attention to the intransigence of matter in order to counter contemporary culture’s overriding “fantasy of the transcendence of the material” (23). In referring to paper’s “vitality,” I have in mind something akin to Jane Bennett’s account in Vibrant Matter (2010) of the agency of things outside of human control. BACK

[13] Byron employs this same punning sensibility with certain/uncertain in Beppo, where he writes that Laura “was not old, nor young, nor at the years / Which certain people call a ‘certain age,’ / Which yet the most uncertain age appears” (22.169-71). A similar joke recurs in Don Juan: “A lady of a ‘certain age,’ which means / Certainly aged” (6.69.546-7). BACK

[14] The Oxford English Dictionary notes that from “taper” likely comes the practice of making candle wicks from the pith of papyrus; “paper” is a much clearer lexical descendant, via Latin, of “papyrus.” BACK

[15] As should be apparent to readers of this Romantic Circles Praxis volume, Romanticist scholars in recent years have shown a surge of interest in rethinking media, particularly junior scholars like those of us gathered together in this volume. James Brooke-Smith and Andrew Burkett have both recently published articles on the topic, the former finding William Wordsworth and Charles Babbage engaged in a nascent “media theory in the absence of a technological media concept” (2), and the latter reading Frankenstein (1818, 1831) as a novel wrestling with the fraught connection between embodiment and information (a connection that Burkett links to N. Katherine Hayles’ work on the history of cybernetics, but one that has been less visible in studies of the long eighteenth century [584]). Like my colleagues also featured in this volume, I have found significant theoretical, methodological, and historical grounding in the following work: Miranda Burgess’s work on affect and the significance of mediation to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century models of sympathy; Kevis Goodman’s Georgic Modernity (2004), in which she approaches “the early history of contemporary media in relation to print culture” (10) by reading the georgic as the primary mode of mediating the affects of history in the long eighteenth century; Celeste Langan’s reading of Sir Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), and how in that poem “the medium of print becomes recognizable as a medium” (70); Langan and Maureen McLane’s contention that “Romantic poetry might even serve as a synonym for what we mean by multimedia” (239); and Andrew Piper’s Dreaming in Books (2009), which demonstrates “how the history of books, and romantic books in particular, can help us contextualize our understanding of digital or new media today” (8). Many Romanticists are also making innovative digital work, not the least of which are The Blake Archive and NINES, two longstanding digital humanities projects which have spread their influence far beyond the purview of nineteenth-century studies. I also have in mind work like Paul Youngquist’s playful and incisive “Techno-Prosthetic Romantic Futurism,” an essay in the shape of hypertext fiction, in which he suggests that we might imagine “criticism of Romanticism as a field of digital possibility,” a realm where the hacker is the hero of “digital resistance,” analogous to the Romantics hacking textuality in the nineteenth century. Andrew Stauffer has especially broadened one area of digital possibility (digitization) with his call to arms for humanists to play a larger role in reckoning with the massive commercial digitization projects that have unfolded in the last decade. He insists that, in the digitizing and archiving of nineteenth-century texts, we ought to “use the digital environment not to supplant the paper record, but to develop a more nuanced critical method for understanding the physical forms and features of the papers that the Romantics left behind” (17), an insistence that Stauffer has supported with his recent “Book Traces” project. In A New Republic of Letters (2014), Jerome McGann presents a compelling argument and model for how such future scholarly work will reckon with the reality that “the whole of our cultural inheritance has to be recurated and reedited in digital forms and institutional structures” (1). BACK

[16] At this point, it almost goes without saying that the “new” of new media is problematic. As Alexander Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark write in Excommunication (2013), with obvious fatigue from having made the point many times already, “So let’s have no more talk about ‘new media’—as if we already knew everything about old media” (2). That caveat aside, it behooves me to recognize some of the specific ways in which scholars have resisted the uncritical deployment of the “new” in new media. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin argue that the “logics of remediation have a long history,” the opposite poles of hypermediacy and immediacy characterizing different aesthetic modes “from the Renaissance to the present day” in their analysis (21). Two anthologies, New Media, 1740–1915 (2003) and New Media, Old Media; A History and Theory Reader (2006), demonstrate that already in the early 2000s there was significant desire to “[shift] from ‘what is new’ to what work the new does” (Chun 3). Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New (2006) is rooted in that shift. She argues that “the introduction of new media [. . .] is never entirely revolutionary: new media are less points of epistemic rupture than they are socially embedded sites for the ongoing negotiation of meaning as such” (6). Gitelman acknowledges in her approach a debt to media archaeology, a field that has surfaced in several recent literary-focused studies of media. A primary aim of the media archaeological approach, as Siegfried Zielinksi poses it, is to “not seek the old in the new, but find something new in the old” (3). Following that impulse, Lori Emerson pursues the task of “wield[ing] media archaeology as a conceptual knife that cuts into the present and the near future, not just [. . .] into the past” (2), one she accomplishes by tracing an aesthetic of the interface from Emily Dickinson, to mid-twentieth-century typewriter poetry, to various instances of contemporary new media art. Yohei Igarashi’s recent article in Studies in Romanticism represents another merging of literary studies and media archaeology, although as he notes, his adoption of the method is tentative, recognizing the potential pitfalls of anachronism inherent to it (177-8). BACK

[17] See Craig Dworkin’s No Medium (2013); Galloway’s The Interface Effect (2013); the collaborative volume, Excommunication, by Galloway, Thacker, and Wark; and Gitelman’s Always Already New and Paper Knowledge (2014). BACK

[18] Galloway describes post-Fordism as such:

The economy today is not only driven by software (symbolic machines); in many cases the economy is software, in that it consists of the extraction of value based on the encoding and processing of mathematical information. Monsanto, Equifax, or Google—they are all software companies at some basic level. As one of the leading industrial giants, Google uses the pure math of graph theory for monetary valorization. Monsanto translates living organisms into bioinformatic gene sequences, thereby subjecting them to information processing. Equifax, in the sphere of consumer credit, leverages complex algorithms to extract value from databases. (“Poverty” 358)
BACK

[19] Matthew Kirschenbaum shows in dazzling fashion how one might consider the materiality of digital media with his analysis of the hard drive in Mechanisms (2008). BACK

Author

Published @ RC

November 2016