Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Summer 2021

Volume 47 Issue 4
    • 625David Alff
    • This essay investigates waymaking, the use of language to dedicate space to the traffic of animals, goods, fuel, waste, and people. It argues that the rhetorical creation of traversable clearances anticipates and services the formation of infrastructure. Through a close reading of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), I show how literary critics can analyze the words that create the emptiness that allows conduits to happen and claim this emptiness as an analytical object in itself. By tracing modern conceptions of infrastructure as assemblage, occasion, and patterning to the fray of early modern waymaking, I claim that criticism can supplement social-scientific research by casting as poetic event and autopoietic phenomenon the human practice of reserving space for utilities.

    • 644Anna Shechtman
    • On a June weekend in 1959, an elite group of sociologists, philosophers, editors, artists, and television producers gathered in the Poconos to discuss media. Their invitation was to “Mass Media in Modern Society,” an interdisciplinary conference hosted by the Tamiment Institute and Daedalus, the house organ of the Academy of Arts and Sciences. What constituted mass media in 1959—and who publicized ˆ, then a new concept in the vernacular, as a topic of mass concern—were the thirty-five celebrity panelists’ unresolved and obsessive themes. Turning to the minutes from the conference as well as its two afterlives in print, this essay disambiguatesthe nascent media concept’s ideological, technological, and environmental implications, five years before Marshall McLuhan’s breakthrough text, "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man." Within the panelists’ responses is not a coherent theory of media but a multitude of overdetermined media metaphors—and a model for understanding media as such, then and now. The mid-twentieth-century consolidation of the media concept is where most of its greatest theorists (from Raymond Williams to John Guillory) conclude their analyses, but it's where this study begins.

    • 675Lital Levy
    • This article charts a relational history of Palestinian and Israeli temporalities. Probing the interplay of political and cultural discourses, I show how while literature and film are indices of the temporal views that inform political action, they also work to expand those views. What are the key temporal concepts of Zionism and Palestinian thought, and how have they been negotiated in literary and cinematic works from the 1940s to the present? How have major political developments influenced temporal attitudes and cultural discourse? What emergent temporalities are at play in the current political climate? To address these questions, I bring insights from the social sciences into dialogue with close readings of Hebrew and Arabic works. After delineating what I call the syntagmatic model of Israeli and Palestinian temporalities, I discuss the fluid and nonlinear temporalities that are increasingly salient in Palestinian cultural production.

    • 699Bruno Latour
    • To become aware of the depth of the ecological mutation, one has to criticize the notion of abstract space. It turns out that, in many of his works, Carl Schmitt has found ways to politicize the production of neutral depoliticized space. This is especially true in “Dialogue on New Space.” The dialogue summarizes Schmitt’s earlier works, but it also tries to relate, audaciously, the character of being human with the different conceptions of space entertained by each protagonist of the dialogue. Especially important in the plot is the interpretation of the expression of “unencumbered technology” that Schmitt associates with the destiny of liberalism and the sort of spatial domination ad infinitum that it implies. The final point of the dialogue is that you cannot be really human in the wrong space. The article does not pretend to make Schmitt a thinker of ecology but to extract from his highly peculiar critique of space something that could be useful to help criticize a depoliticized notion of green space.

    • 719Theo Reeves-Evison
    • Contemporary art is brimming with images of a future shaped by environmental destruction, technological innovation, and new forms of sociality. This article looks beyond the content of such images in order to examine the infrastructures that underpin them. Paying attention to two key infrastructures in particular––the Cold War faith in prediction and the extraordinary explosion of scenario planning in the years that followed––the article explores the ways in which speculation was transformed into a tightly defined field of expertise straddling military, policy, and corporate worlds. No longer the preserve of prophets or mystics, the speculative infrastructures incubated within organizations such as the RAND corporation were underwritten by cybernetics, game theory, and systems analysis, all of which helped give prediction a veneer of scientific credibility. And yet, as the planning tools of the postwar era lost their predictive edge, new techniques came to exert influence in a world dominated by the uncertainties of looming environmental catastrophe. The future was no longer thought to emerge from the present in a linear fashion but unfold along a series of branch points that allowed decision makers to navigate through a landscape of uncertainty. Tracing the genealogy of forms of prediction and scenario planning from the mid-twentieth century to the present day, this article places futurological tools in the context of an expanded field of speculative practices that include works of art. Projects by the likes of Stephen Willats, Experiments in Art and Technology, the Harrisons, and others not only generate alternative images of the future, they also rework the infrastructures by which such images are conceptualized and produced.

    • 747Paul Michael Kurtz
    • Philology haunts the humanities, through both its defendants and its detractors. This article examines the construction of philology as the premier science of the long nineteenth century in Europe. It aims to bring the history of philology up to date by taking it seriously as a science and giving it the kind of treatment that has dominated the history of science for the last generation: to reveal how practices, instruments, and cooperation create illusions of timeless knowledge. This historical inquiry therefore asks how one modality of text interpretation could morph into an integrated complex of knowledge production, which ostensibly explained the whole human world. Ultimately, it advances a central argument: philology operated as a relational system, one that concealed diversity and disunity, projected unity and stability, and seemed to rise above the material conditions of its own making. The essay scrutinizes the composition of philology as a heterogeneous ensemble, the functioning of philology comparable to other sciences, whether human or natural, and the historical contingency in the consolidation of philology.

    • 777N. Katherine Hayles
    • With roots in Greek drama, mimesis has recently undergone expansion into an unexpected domain: microbial resistance to viruses. Research revealed that bacteria copy portions of the DNA of attacking viruses and incorporate them into their own DNA, where they serve as embodied memory. When a virus with that DNA attacks again, the bacteria generate matching RNA sequences that, together with the Cas9 protein, enable them to recognize the virus and cut its DNA, effectively killing it. This process satisfies the requisites for mimesis, for it re-presents and re-purposes something from nature. Microbiomimesis, as I call this process, is pervasive throughout the bacterial world. It exemplifies what I have elsewhere called nonconscious cognition, a capacity that all lifeforms possess to process and interpret information in contexts that connect it with meaning. In 2012 Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Carpentier coauthored a paper showing that the bacterial defense of RNA/Cas9 can be programmed to work as a gene editing tool. In addition to winning them the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry, the result was CRISPR-Cas9, a technology now routinely used to edit genes by detecting their precise location and cutting them. Already widely in use with plants and animals, CRISPR in humans has been used to cure sickle gene anemia, muscular dystrophy, and a variety of other single-gene inherited diseases. Never has mimesis been so controversial and laden with implications for our human futures and those of nonhuman lifeforms on the planet. One lesson it can teach us is to proceed with extreme caution, especially when editing the human germ line. Further, CRISPR invites us to reconsider the implications of mimesis, stretching it beyond its traditional role of catalyzing empathy for one’s species into a broader understanding of respect for all species, human and nonhuman.