On an Unhuman Earth

On an Unhuman Earth

Eugene Thacker
Technologies of the Picturesque
Ron Broglio
Bucknell University Press, 2008

“Why shouldn’t Wordsworth be read through Whitehead? Why shouldn’t the canon of Romantic poetry be read alongside the inscription
technologies of cartography or tour guides?” Eugene Thacker’s
challenge to the recent compartmentalization of academic literary studies is inspired by a reading of Ron Broglio’s book, Technologies of the Picturesque. For Thacker, as for Broglio, literary Romanticism and phenomenological reflection are not the only unifying forces against the dissolution of the technological subject.

Joseph Tabbi:

On the contention that works of literature need to be, defensively, cordoned off from the world (including the world of literary theory) see Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book, Technological
, reviewed in ebr by Anthony Enns.


It is often said that humanities departments in the States - and especially English literature departments - have turned away from theoretical reflection towards historical, sociological, and even archival research. Granted, after the heady days of literary and critical theory (of all flavors, e.g. Yale school deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, the “against theory” trend), there was a sense that, in the midst of it all, a little thing called “literature” was being forgotten. Now, everyone loves a good book (especially if it is also literature), and one would certainly bemoan its death or disappearance - which is nevertheless continually being reinvented, reproduced, and contested today via a range of new media. So the idea that a direct engagement with literature would necessitate a direct refusal of reflection on literature, or textuality, or poetics, is, to say the least, puzzling.

While panels at the MLA worry about the status of “literature” or “theory,” there are other scholars who simply focus on both. Why shouldn’t Wordsworth be read through Whitehead? Why shouldn’t the canon of Romantic poetry be read alongside the inscription technologies of cartography or tour guides? Why shouldn’t the modern reading of Romanticism - as the paradigmatic, even heroic case of the expressive interiority of the human subject - be thoroughly dismantled, in favor of a more “elemental” or even climatological understanding of self and world?

These are some of the questions implicitly raised in the work of Ron Broglio, who is rapidly becoming known for this work on animality and art. Trained as a specialist in British Romanticism, Broglio’s book - whose full title is Technologies of the Picturesque: British Art, Poetry, and Instruments 1750-1830 - details the ways in which different “inscription technologies” both enframe and produce a comprehensible object called “nature” - be it for the purposes of political economy (e.g. national ordinance maps, the British beef industry), for the purposes of entertainment and leisure (e.g. tourist guides of nature sites), or for the purposes of questioning and reconfiguring nature itself (e.g. the poetry of Wordsworth). As Broglio notes: “Focusing on particular objects of the picturesque - water, land, sky, and animals - I develop the tension between the ‘thingly’ quality of elements in nature and their status as objects inscribed by and into culture” (16).

In many ways Romanticism offers a strategic vantage point from which one can rethink the relation between nature, technics, and the human. The Romantic poets were far from simply being tree-huggers, and even farther from being invested in a robust, bullet-proof theory of the human subject - in Broglio’s reading, Romanticism works against these pillars of modernity, in effect foregrounding the question posed over a century later by Heidegger: how to allow things to reveal themselves in their thingness, without being immediately enframed by human technics? A difficult, perhaps impossible question to answer. But it would seem that in our contemporary era of global climate change, natural disasters, overdevelopment, and food rationing, the question raised by Wordsworth (and Heidegger) obtains a certain urgency.

Such an endeavor not only requires detailed close readings of literary texts, but it also requires a materialist understanding of other fields, be they maritime navigation or livestock breeding. Technologies of the Picturesque is broken up into four sections, each of which juxtaposes particular techniques for representing nature with their correlative in Romantic art and literature. The first section, “Water,” deals with the development of new techniques for calculating longitude at sea, which pitted the newer clock-based methods against the more traditional lunar and astrological methods, resulting in an “inward turn” from cosmology to the glance at the clock. This section is counterpoised by satirical works of the period, which poke fun at the burgeoning nature tourism and nature guide books. The second section, “Earth,” begins with the British National Ordinance Survey and its links to concerns of agriculture, land ownership, and new techniques of surveying. This section is counterbalanced by an impressive study of Wordsworth’s engagement with nature as both a thing-in-itself, and as an object of tourism, guided walks, and an ambivalent national landscape. The following section, “Sky,” deals with the mapping of a skyscape, the development of a language for classifying clouds, and its application is meteorology. The final section, “Animal,” turns to the figure of the cow (“bucolic beef”) as an emblem both of the natural world and of the British national beef industry. Picturesque representations of the cow as at once a part of nature and as an “improved,” engineered beast are undercut by the threat of disease and the use of cowpox in Jenner’s smallpox cure - here human and animal display something of an unnatural affinity, a hybridity manifested in the very life-blood of the living being.

Each of the chapters of Technologies of the Picturesque take the reader through the stages of the nonhuman and introduce the challenge posed by Heidegger: how to let things reveal their thingness. On one level inscription technologies allow for an abstraction to take place, a kind of subtractive production whereby an object called “nature” is articulated, most often in relation to an activity that would deploy that abstraction (e.g. land surveying for agriculture, nature guidebooks, or livestock breeding): “Inscriptions such as writings, drawings, paintings, maps, and figures change the ‘stuff’ found in nature into simple, distinct objects with characteristics that humans can comprehend. The move from things (with their opaque materiality) to objects (as intelligible and abstract sums) brings nature into culture and imbues elements of nature with halo of social meaning” (15).

Alongside this strata of inscription technologies is another strata, another technics, that Broglio often describes in terms of “surfaces,” “assemblages,” and “contact zones.” It is here that the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty enters the picture (as it were), offering a counterpoint to the de-corporealized, optical subject of cartography and surveying: “Phenomenology provides a way of thinking about how the artist, poet, or tourist remains embedded in nature rather than imagining a static scene visually captured at a distance” (18). Romantic poets such as Wordsworth are not simply more in touch with nature; rather, they develop a sort of counter-technics whereby they highlight the role of embodiment in any technics - be it for land surveying or for poetic reflection. “I have characterized this Romantic innovation in art as a phenomenological engagement with the land by which the artist uses his bodily being and his physical movement within nature to collapse the distance and abstraction forged by technological representations. If technology, obscures the thingness of things by transforming elements of nature into cultural objects, then perhaps phenomenology can draw us near” (20).

But towards what, exactly, does this phenomenology draw us? In his juxtaposition of Romantic poetry and art with the scientific and technological developments of navigation, cartography, and breeding, Broglio shows how the former draws out the inherent tensions in the latter. In his reading of British Romantic poets (which includes a tour-de-force reading of Wordsworth’s Prelude via Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty), Broglio shows how the counter-technics of embodiment in the world (rather than the disembodied subject against the world) necessarily entails the dissolving of the subject altogether - as part of the world itself. Here is Broglio’s description of Wordsworth’s poem: “Objects take on their own agency, and human subjectivity gets defined not as a unique essence from within itself but by what assemblages and connections it maintains with the surroundings. Rather than springing from the privileged interiority of the human subject, meaning emerges from surfaces, contact zones, and associations” (24).

Far from any nostalgic understanding of Romanticism’s relationship to nature, Broglio’s reading of the tensions in Romantic poetry ultimately points to the question of the nonhuman - a very Heideggerian question, to be sure (but also a Latourian one as well). To what degree can there be a subject at all once that subject has been phenomenologically de-privileged and dissolved into the world, as part of the world? This is the radical question that Technologies of the Picturesque poses. “If thought is no longer within the self but rather distributed among a variety of objects and people, then the subject, including its interiority, is merely a part of a larger matrix. The interior functions as part of a larger exterior networks of thinking and consequently loses its privileged status and mastery of a landscape. The Romantic subject become part of a large environment - both a informational-technological environment and a physical landscape” (28).

Heidegger’s notion of the “fourfold” is transformed in Broglio’s hands into a technics of the fourfold, revealed in the book’s four sections: “Water,” “Earth,” “Sky,” and “Animals.” Broglio both frames his study in Heidegger’s somewhat nostalgic terms but also shows how, ironically, Romanticism pushes against them. Heidegger, in his lectures given the title The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, makes a distinction between humans, animals, and non-living things based on their mode of being-in-the-world: whereas the rock is simply brute existence, “without world,” the animal has a limited capacity for action and reaction, and is “poor-in-world,” while the conscious, reflective human being acts upon and alters its surroundings, and is “world-forming” or “world-building.” Broglio’s reading of Romanticism as counter-technics works against the instrumental notion of the human as world-building and offers a phenomenological alternative in which the human is always embodied in and part of the world. What this leads to, then, is a tension at the heart of the Romantic counter-technics that Broglio insightfully reveals: the subject embodied and embedded is also a dissolved subject, a non-subject for which there is no privileged site of interiority, individual expressiveness, a non-subject for whom thought is not internal, possessed, and proprietary. This understanding of Romanticism - as at once critical and yet presenting new problems, new tensions - is also at the heart of contemporary debates in ecocriticism and environmentalism (be they of a Heideggerian or Buddhist strand…).

If technologies of inscription de-corporealize the subject, and if any counter-technics would have to take up the embodiedness of the subject, then this would seem to invite a critique of several fundamental categories of thought… including “thought” itself. In other words, humans are really nonhumans, and if human-intentional thought is really a form of “distributed cognition,” then one of the most pressing questions is how one can think thought outside of the human, all-too-human framework of inscription, representation, world-building, and so on. Let us be clear, however - this is not a question of whether trees “think” - which would simply reify and universalize the anthropomorphic tendency (at which point the earth is a giant brain, rather than the brain being a small earth). At its limit, Brogio’s book raises some profound questions that go far beyond the disciplinary specialization of Romanticism, and points to a possible phenomenology of exteriority. In a sense, Technologies of the Picturesque suggests that what we call “nature” is precisely this horizon for thought itself.