English 738T, Spring 2015
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Author Archives: Kayla Harr

In our discussion on The Book of Urizen, I called attention to figures’ eyes and gazes in Blake’s images, which were represented differently in various copies of the work. Further to that discussion, I’ve continued thinking about perspective in Blake, both that of the figures illustrated and of the reader. In particular, I am interested in how the engravings in The Book of Urizen govern the reader’s experience of space through the relationship between text and image. In Blake’s illuminated works, the boundary between text and image on plates that contain both cannot be clearly defined. Insofar as the text is not only decorated with designs in margins and between lines but is itself represented artistically rather than uniformly, I believe we can view the text as an extension of the image, and that such a conclusion bears significant implications for the representation and analysis of space in Blake’s works.

As language, Blake’s text communicates with the reader beyond the image, but the lettering itself remains a visual component of the image as a whole, and can communicate through visual as well as linguistic means, as when words are split visually, adding an additional visual inflection to their meaning. One such manipulation occurs in the word “Reli-gion” on Plate 25, an example that not only splits the word, but reverses the momentum of the reader’s progress through the text by directing the eye up and to the left to complete the word. Such movement, I believe, is particularly significant in that it defies the practice of reading text and forces the reader to visually interact with the plate in a process more akin to that which is applied to an image, in which the details of the image dictate the movement of the eye, in contrast to the predetermined and consistent path a reader usually takes through lines of text.

See "Reli-gion" at the bottom of the left column.

Just as the text exists as part of the image, Blake’s illustrations govern readers’ experience of the text. The page is endowed with a sense of space that expands or contracts based on the integration of text and image. In Plate 9, for example, the image represents a figure that seems constricted by the edges of the plate and the swirling material surface that surrounds him, and the arms locked around the face emphasize a sense of enclosure and tension. Similarly, the text that appears at the top of the plate is bordered on all sides, with heavy ornamental lines creating a parallel constriction in the reader’s visual navigation of the text. Further, the lines that frame the text originate in the material that surrounds the figure in the image. At the bottom right of the text panel, it appears that the texture of the image background transforms into the lines that both form and frame the text. The shift in color and texture as the material background of the image becomes the line of the text occurs without a break in the line, emphasizing continuity between text and image. Additional crossings of the visual border between image and text occur in Plate 18, where there is no distinction between the background of the image and that of the text, such that the text simply seems to hang in the sky above the figure represented, and Plate 22, in which the lines that ornament and divide the text spiral beyond the text panel, leaking into the world of the image.

It is possible to examine any plate of The Book of Urizen and find image-text interactions that would contribute to this discussion. To close my current analysis and gesture toward greater conclusions about how the reader’s experience of space in The Book of Urizen is altered through the integration or mutual assimilation of text and image, I’ll turn to Plate 15. This plate bears a wealth of illustrations among its lines of texts, modeling the means by which Blake tells a story with language and image together, narrating through text in one moment and speaking through pictures in the next. In a mirroring of Blake’s practice of inserting images between lines of text, the plate as a whole represents two sets of text divided by an image, with the image not only complementing the text but contributing to the narrative and determining the reader’s experience of the plate and its contents, both visual and textual.

When I approach Plate 15, the illustrated lines guide me to understand that the text is split into two columns. However, because I assume the text’s dominance, I expect to first read the left column, moving from the top to the bottom of the plate, and then to resume at the top of the plate with the right column. Thus, I essentially ignore the image in the middle of the plate, relegating it to the role of a decoration that I will examine after experiencing the plate’s primary communicative material, which I assume to be the text. Instead, Blake treats the image as part of the ongoing narrative, not an element of the plate to be skimmed over but one that forms an integral part of the reader’s progression through the plate and directs that progression. Therefore, the columns of text are not continuous from top to bottom; the left column must be read up to the border of the image, then the right column to the same border. The image is encountered as a whole between the top and bottom panels of text before reading can resume with the bottom left column, such that the eye must travel diagonally across the breadth of the image before reaching the next section of text. While my assumptions as a reader may differ from others’, I believe the split between reader expectation and the reality of Blake’s plates that is observable in Plate 15 is indicative of the comprehensive reorientation of textual space that Blake achieves in The Book of Urizen. Blake’s readers may attempt to examine the textual and visual elements separately, but his representation ensures that the reader must encounter text and image as one, entering into a spatial experience that challenges definitions of the book, literature, narration, and art.

One section I would be interested in incorporating into our project is one that allows us to reflect critically on Patchwork Girl by putting its text in conversation with Frankenstein and perhaps other texts. I’m envisioning lexia that integrate the texts and additionally include our own reflections, a mode of meditating or dreaming about the texts (like a bit of a mix between the phrenology and crazy quilt in the original, perhaps — though I don’t presently have access to the hypertext to compare). I’m not sure if this would make sense as part of a graveyard or journal section, or somewhere else, but I am particularly interested in this form of commenting on and exploring the possibilities of the text. I also think that either in this potential section or elsewhere it is important that we somehow acknowledge the multiplicity of authorship in our text. Just as Jackson imagines a body in which multiple voices are active, we are creating a body of text that brings together several perspectives, critical interests, and authorial and editorial voices. Our text will be a literalization of a creature that has been stitched together out of multiple parts and sources.

I also have a couple other random ideas: I think it would be interesting to consider using excised parts of Frankenstein in our text given Patchwork Girl’s emphasis on embracing refuse and that which is unwanted (see the lexia titled “beauty”). Thinking about the Frankenstein manuscript and how it might relate to our project also made me wonder about imagining Victor interacting with Patchwork Girl, or even Percy Shelley editing the hypertext. Based on his editing of Frankenstein, how do we think he might change Patchwork Girl? How might Jackson — or her text, or her creature — respond?

For me, reading Leon Wieseltier’s “Among the Disrupted” was a series of alternating encounters with the familiar, comforting arguments I’ve used myself to defend the humanities and the study of literature and less comforting glimpses into a mirror that reflects more of the unspoken reasoning lurking behind those arguments than a literature student might like to see (1). Wieseltier’s exaggerated claims about the negative consequences of technology, his refusal to grant artistic possibility or philosophical value to anything that processes data or thinks without flesh, and his tendency to collapse the boundaries between some terms while placing others, such as culture and commerce, in opposition are all mistakes, regardless of whether one agrees with his argument.

Rather than responding argumentatively to or analyzing Wieseltier’s article as a whole, however, I’d like to reflect on what appeared to me as the least generous and most grievous of his omissions. Though Wieseltier considers the progress of technology and emphasizes its power, he does not consider the potential positive effects of technology, even to refute them or claim that they are outweighed by other faults. Most of all, he is unwilling to entertain the possibility that technology could augment, rather than exclude, the human substance that he is so eager to preserve. His argument that technology will change us may be sound, but the basis for his claim that the change will be negative seems grounded in an assumption that one way of knowing, experiencing, and being human is inherently superior, not only to other known methods, but also to any possible methods that might emerge in the future. The crux of this argument rests most unfortunately on a weak association of duration with value, in which Wieseltier writes, “The persistence of humanism through the centuries, in the face of formidable intellectual and social obstacles, has been owed to the truth of its representations of our complexly beating hearts, and to the guidance that it has offered, in its variegated and conflicting versions, for a soulful and sensitive existence.”

I want to agree with Wieseltier’s ideas about the value of the humanities and the lessons that can be learned through study of the arts, but not at the expense of rejecting the imaginative possibilities of technology. When Wieseltier laments that “the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions,” I agree with him that there is a complexity of interior experience that material explanations seem unequal to — as those explanations are presently figured and accessed. I do not agree that we cannot revitalize our understanding of physical meaning through the advances of technology, nor that such advances cannot produce experience of the same beauty and spiritual sophistication that Wieseltier associates with a humanistic interpretation of life. More probably, in fact, such experiences are already existent, and I (and perhaps Wieseltier as well) lack sufficient understanding of the processes disparaged in this article to recognize the revelations and relations contemporary technology might offer toward a “soulful and sensitive existence.”

Most notably, I was struck by Wieseltier’s use of the word “tyranny” to describe technology’s role in human experience. Thinking about Wieseltier’s tyranny of technology immediately led me to recall the phrase thing theorist Bill Brown used to describe modern America’s fascination with objects as shapers, markers, and vessels of human identity: the tyranny of things. I found the comparison apt as Brown’s account of things becoming more human and human thought becoming “more thing-like” in A Sense of Things illustrates well the constructive possibilities of “being possessed by possessions” (2). We are fixated on and to an extent ruled by our things, Brown acknowledges, but it seems to me that his work also demonstrates quite clearly that we are extended through them, our identities conforming to objective limits but also reaching frontiers of meaning that, while outside the human, are certainly not insignificant to our understanding of ourselves. As with the earlier technology of things that Brown describes, so might today’s technology offer expansive possibilities beyond Wieseltier’s notion of “theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject.” While Wieseltier advocates for limiting our understanding of humanity to the organic resources of humans, it seems foolish to impose such restrictions, particularly given that the technology he rejects is as natural a product of human actions as language, things, or books.

Though Wieseltier makes claims about the significance of the humanities that I do agree with, I find his exclusions too sharp and poorly meditated to feel allied with the author in support of traditional methods of human contemplation, however fond I may be of such methods. Wieseltier’s distaste for technology and his moral prioritization of the humanities over technology, embedded in his assertion, “The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers,” is hardly constructive. As a humanities-based scholar and thinker, I believe wholeheartedly in the power of our work to illuminate inward truths and make meaning most compellingly, but I am also excited by the potential for technology to teach us its own, assuredly different (and thus all the more valuable), lessons about ourselves. If technology offers access to meaning distinct from or in conversation with that of the humanities, I see little reason to fear that meaning as Wieseltier seems to. In his insistence that technology lacks substance and his attempt to differentiate technological knowledge as unnatural or unwholesome in comparison to that of humanism, Wieseltier repeats the singularly human error of fearing that which we do not (yet) understand.

  1. Wieseltier, Leon. “Among the Disrupted.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Jan. 2015. Web. 04 Feb. 2015.
  2. Brown, Bill. A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature. (Chicago: U of Chicago, 2003), 5.