Devin Griffiths responds to Heidi Smith

Heidi Smith’s response to Seeming Human raises a crucial problem for any methodology: what does it highlight, and what does it make less visible? The drift of Ward’s account is toward the technicity of representation and of characterization. It reads the nineteenth-century novel through an ostensibly value-neutral account of cybernetic thinking. At the same time, it implicates the Victorian novel in a history of technology which is tacitly progressive – small “p” – in its development.

One effect, I’d suggest, is to put the book in the orbit of an optimistic politics of modernization. But what does this mean for other technological accounts of form, like that given by Caroline Levine? Levine’s own description of form’s technicity is explicitly political in bent; it understands form’s ready-to-hand quality as both a critical tool for political analysis and a potential weapon for political action. But does this commit formal analysis to a progressive account, yoking the history of form to developmental histories of technology? I don’t think so, if only because the kinds of forms Levine considers (wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, etc.) seem especially basic; simple tools rather than war machines.

Ultimately, a central gamble of Seeming Human is that it can exchange firm historical situation for transhistorical resonance. Heidi Smith points to the tendency of that gamble to strip away the question of the critical import, the political stakes of the literature. Perhaps what this suggests is that transhistorical scholarship doesn’t need less context, but rather, more – a committed account of what distinguishes these two historical moments, their politics, their concerns, and hence, what we can make of their analogy.

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