“Haunting” Performance of Nonhumans. A Case of Electricity in the Polish History of Literature

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

The well-defined focus in the last year on tracing back the performance of nonhumans in many fields of knowledge is often led by the somehow troublesome consciousness of the entanglement of humanity in the technological spectrum. I use the term ‘spectrum’ deliberately, because in my view it brings to mind the scope of critical possibilities of posthumanism.

In my presentation, I would like to pick up on that issue by discussing the “haunting” performance of nonhumans that is revealed when we install a posthumanist lens to investigate the historical accounts on literature. Starting with my current research into the reciprocal designation of the fields of literature and science in the nineteenth century, I will try to define the broad agency of electricity as an agent and a metaphor. Its ontological status cannot be determined.

Brought from scientific discourse (that is never culturally and socially ‘pure’), it served as a matrix of ascending modern, techno-scientific communities in the beginning of the nineteenth century, that started to explain their experiences in reference to scientific theories, models, and terms. Reference to electricity had circulated throughout both dramatic and poetic literature as well as philosophical works up to the point when the metaphor of ‘electricity as spiritual endeavor’ started to become naturalized, and as such, ceased to be separated from the discourse on literature.

I will show then that electricity “invaded” the texts of critics, who, paradoxically, tried to establish a strict border between the science and the literature, and believed that every “trespasser” would be immediately observed and defined. Such a call for control, that aims to be a methodological panopticon, yields in the unaffected hybridization of terms. It exposes the insufficiency of modern critics, just as Bruno Latour pictured this in We Have Never Been Modern (1991).

Following the criticism on modernism given by this French sociologist and philosopher, we can see the interconnectedness of the process of translation (hybridization) of actors and purification of the objects from ‘impure’ inputs (i.e. the performance of nonhumans in establishing the knowledge). What is this disturbing, haunting performance of words-objects? By presenting the abovementioned problems while conducting the research on literature according to the posthumanist view, I would like to name few answers on that issue.

The invasion of electric metaphors into modern discourse should be interpreted as a “haunting” performance according to what Jacques Derrida wrote about specters in Specters of Marx (1993) and Archive Fever (1995). Electricity – the agent and origin of metaphors – works in a larger time span as a specter that reiterates, performs (while not seen), and continually “becomes”. Its “haunting” performance should be referred to by its early interpretation in scientific discourse – as “soul of the world”. By evoking the Derrida’s theory, then I would like to describe this all-important process where electricity – being named a “ghost”, behaves like one of them. In my opinion, this guarantees the opportunity to reconsider the critical potentiality of installing the posthumanist approach that influences not only single study cases but also the discipline of literature history and criticism as a whole.

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Cecilie Klingenberg