"the flows, the systems...the field of flesh": posthuman poetics, material assemblages, and networked cartographies in contemporay irish poetry

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

This presentation examines a selection of poems by contemporary Irish poets at the intersections of technology, ecology, and literary aesthetics. I argue that the discussed poems, published during the past 30 years, anticipate or comment on the emerging posthumanist paradigm, what Rosi Braidotti describes as a system of “discursive objects of exchange” within a community of “transversal ‘assemblages’ […] that involves non-human actors and technological media”. 

The work of poets described as “neo-modernists” has been, from the 1990s onwards in particular, closely attuned to changes in technology, environment, and the media. The work of Randolph Healy draws on his background in mathematical sciences. Trevor Joyce’s career as a Business Systems Analyst at Apple has informed his approach to language as structured, fragmented, and networked transmission of data.

Billy Mills’s writing is highly environmentally oriented, and often appropriates scientific texts to explore the materiality of language, organic life, and geological objects. Critics have similarly commented on the “scientific” quality of the poetry of Catherine Walsh, characterized by what Lucy Collins describes as “an absence of a clearly located self”. While scholars have repeatedly commented on these poets’ resistance to prevalent views on “Irish” poetry as arising from narratives of cultural identity, few have acknowledged how their writing anticipated the theoretical shift to a posthumanist and new materialist framework. Importantly, their poetry does not discard Ireland as a geographical, cultural, or sociopolitical location, but focuses on this location as situated at the intersection of technology and science, economic and colonial power, and environmental change.

The formally ambitious and experimental poetry of Healy, Joyce, Mills, and Walsh is particularly concerned with questions of signifying systems, and the materiality of technological and environmental processes. In the poems of Justin Quinn and Nick Laird, however, media technology, consumer capitalism, and globalization are approached through a more ethically, as well as aesthetically, informed poetics.

Both Quinn and Laird are attentive to phenomena and everyday environments of the web, digital interfaces, global supply chains, and the ecological crisis, as well as their connections to social injustice and political power. Both register the connection between everyday experience in the global North, and the reliance of consumer media technologies on what Anna Tsing has described as systems of “supply chain capitalism”. For Tsing, the concept provides “a model for understanding both the continent-crossing scale and the constitutive diversity of contemporary global capitalism”. 

Drawing on Tsing, Evelyn Wan has similarly highlighted digital media culture’s participation in these often exploitative supply chains. Finally, despite their differences, what all of the poets share is a highly critical approach to the idea of the “human” subject as represented by the lyric first person voice.

Each addresses human beings as material bodies, bone, tissue and flesh, alongside other material entities, whether technological, organic or non-organic. A literary aesthetics is employed to discard the category of the human as privileged identity in relation to the nonhuman world.

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Cecilie Klingenberg