Reflection by Heidi Smith
Megan Ward’s Seeming Human is a welcome intervention in studies of realist character. It pushes against the centrality of “progressive interiority” as the measure of realistic characterization, favoring instead those who evince “mechanicity, predictability, flatness, [and] automation” (6). This mode of interpretation is one in which “the measure of truth-to-life inheres” in seeing character as “a proleptic copy of the machine” (6). For Ward, not privileging internal thought makes space for characters which are “inter-subjective, communal, or embodied in ways that we propose humans or ought to be” but rarely find in realist characters (12). Ward sees resistance to automaticity as more a twentieth and twenty-first century reaction to the effects of industrialization and clock time, citing the work of Adorno and E.P. Thompson as examples (19). While I agree that twentieth and twenty-first century concerns with machinic rhythms and automaticity ought to be more nuanced, Ward takes up cybernetics and AI as neutral forms. In doing so she obscures the ways in which nineteenth century novels posited some forms of routine and automaticity as better than others.
While Ward occasionally acknowledges that the novels she takes up might have a hostile relationship to the characters she interprets and the situations they are placed in, she is more concerned with the lens made available to her by cybernetics than with the implications of this. This becomes somewhat troubling in her reading of Tess. Ward notes that “Tess dwells on states of reverie and dissociation as a necessary and perhaps even desirable state of being” (114). Not all states of reverie in Tess are equivalent, however. Tess famously dissociates when raped (can we call it rape yet?) by Alec. Ward states that “thought cannot be articulated in these moments, not only because Tess has been so severely wounded but also because Hardy stresses the extent to which consciousness may be comprised of automated sensations beyond our own understanding” (115). Tess, variously exhausted, hopeful, or having committed murder, is described as in a state of “reverie.” At Talbothays Dairy communal life is inseparable from agricultural work and time and impressions dilate. While milking a cow, she sees a future for herself: “the conviction bred serenity, her pulse slowed, and she was able to look about her” (108). Hardy seems less concerned with “representing the numbness and unbidden automation of perception” in general than with the capacity for thought in disparate material contexts (Ward 115). When Tess is working at the factory-like thresher, by contrast, she dissociates again, “thrown [into] a stupefied reverie [ . . . ] She hardly knew where she was” (333). Both scenes I quote from “captur[e] the automaticity that is an essential part of selfhood,” but one contains a seed for flourishing, and the other leads to ruin (Ward 116).
By using cybernetics as a theoretical framework Ward is insufficiently attentive to the notion that these modes of simulating the human are only those that can be quantified: it can register what matches, but seems less able to account for variances in meaning. She states that Ferdinand Lopez in Trollope’s The Prime Minister, interpreted through the lens of the Turing test, “offers us a different mode of writing character in an era of financial speculation, one that it may revile but which nonetheless constitutes the force of the novel” (93 italics mine). That The Prime Minister may resist a flatness Ward finds equivalent to the self-branding rampant in social media, or that the import of Tess’s states of dissociation very much depend on material and social contexts, seem to raise important questions about methodology. Under Ward’s rubric, these forms of mimesis become legible but also indistinguishable.