Reflection by Adam Fales
In a V21 “think piece” and again in the introduction to her new book Seeming Human, Megan Ward advocates for what she calls “the historical middle.” This approach, which “allows us to reorient the temporal axis of literary study beyond context to explore fictional techniques as anticipating and illuminated by technological forms,” guides her understanding of the way that Victorian realist character resembles twentieth-century developments in artificial intelligence (AI) (8). Not just relating the nineteenth century to the twenty-first century, Ward also considers twentieth-century instances of AI as theoretical interlocutors that figure Victorian characters as “proleptic cop[ies] of the machine” (6). Ward’s historical middle sits at the nexus of debates around presentism and Victorian Studies. For example, Ward likens her approach to Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s formulation of “nineteenthcentricity,” which she modifies as “arguing that literature is not only shaped by [nineteenth-century] technology but readable through [that] technology’s forms” (4).
In reorienting the temporal axis of literary study, as Ward figures it, I wonder exactly how it is reoriented. In what direction does history move for Ward? It is not a dialectical march forward, from Victorians to AI scientists to us, nor does it “flit by” Benjamin-like ephemerally reforming the past in our critical gaze. Remembering that Walter Benjamin begins “Theses on the Philosophy of History” with the image of a false “automaton,” a fake AI that figures historical materialism, I think an image taken from Ward’s own repertoire of AI might illuminate the way she reorients criticism’s relationship to history. Differing from Benjamin’s messianic approach to history, Ward’s AI provides an example of criticism that understands how past voices might be viable interlocutors in present debates. In her book’s first chapter, Ward analyzes the cybernetic feedback loop to understand the development of characters in domestic fiction. Pairing the theories of scientists like Norbert Wiener with novels by Charlotte Yonge, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Margaret Oliphant, Ward claims that to understand these novels we need to move past our “much more developed techniques for reading singulative moments,” instead “reading iteration” (19). This reading of iteration finds its model in the cybernetic feedback loop, which “takes in external information, then responds internally to that information […]. This model becomes a loop when the machine again takes in information, determines the impact of its action, and again responds internally” (22). The feedback loop responds not only to exterior information but also to its interior response to that exterior information. While this provides an apt model of Victorian character development, it also remarkably resembles the kind of criticism that occurs in Ward’s modeling of the historical middle, and Buurma and Heffernan’s “nineteenthcentricity” being “historicist in two ways” (“Interpretation,” 616). Citing a nineteenth- or twentieth-century instance that is “exterior” to criticism’s toolkit, literary critics “determine the impact” of both that exterior information and their reiteration of it and respond to both.
By feeding literary criticism back into itself, Ward’s historical middle troubles notions of who guides literary history. Resembling how character development becomes a “non-human” feedback loop, Ward’s reorientation of criticism’s temporal axis lends nineteenth- and twentieth- century voices an agency in shaping twenty-first-century criticism. While gesturing to centuries makes this feedback loop incredibly diffuse, plotting Ward’s myriad examples––which feed 1853, 1856, 1863, 1866, and 1871 through 1948, 1950, 1954, 1957, and 2002 and back into 2018––presents an intricate interplay between the diverse agents shaping present methodologies. Following “Victorians’ own sense of technology and culture as intertwined,” I would suggest that we might take this a step further, understanding how technology and culture—as well as our citation of them—are intertwined in a feedback loop that brings history to bear on criticism as well as the other way around.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Chris Gortmaker, who listened to too many rambling
conversations about this response and directed my attention to the importance of iteration for