Thursday, June 14, 2012

Keats and Flat Ontology

            Voltaire, Alexander Pope, Socrates, Hazlitt, a cat, Junius Brutus Booth, lusty flowers, a knife, heifers, pipes, libations, mariners, an Enchanted Castle, Urganda the Unknown, doors, windows: in “To J.H. Reynolds, Esq,” Keats’ sleeping quarters at Devon teem with objects, the very profusion of which blur the lines between poem and referent, art and kitsch, fantasy and reality. Lulled into a suspension between wake and dream, it is as if the poet cannot keep separate that which full cognizance could easily, albeit falsely, demarcate – not only kitsch from art (a reproduction of Claude Gellée’s The Enchanted Castle from the original), but art from referent. While “To J.H. Reynolds”’s objects seemingly float in a poststructuralist fantasy of unending signifier chains without a signified, wherein nothing exists outside human signification and its self-recursion, a kitsch bust of Voltaire nevertheless is Voltaire, a print of Alexander Pope becomes the poet. But by what magic-like process does the sleepy poet’s gaze not only transubstantiate the objects around him but also open onto what he calls the “material sublime” (69)? If instead of reading Keats’ poem as a poststructural, correlationist celebration of decentered signification, can we see in Keats’ catalogue of the uncanny material sublime what Ian Bogost calls flat ontology?
            In “To J.H. Reynolds,” as in other poems, Keats plays Bogost’s ontographer avant la lettre. Ontography, Bogost claims, follows a two-step process: first, it suspends and isolates a field of units (or objects) within a catalogue; second, it accounts for the coupling and withdrawing of these autonomous units from each other (Alien Phenomenology 50). Ontography serves as the tool for sketching a given milieu’s mereology according to the premise of flat ontology, which “makes no distinction between the types of things that exist” and instead “treats all equally” (17). As a subset of Object-oriented Ontology, the flat ontology of Bogost and Levi Bryant takes an object’s facticity and its intentional qualities as equally real, much as Keats treats the bust of Voltaire, his perception of that bust, and Voltaire himself as equally and simultaneously real.
            What matters to understanding Keats as a flat ontologist is not simply that he treats all objects equally, but also the manner and end of such treatment. “To J.H. Reynolds” opens with a typical Keatsian gesture: supine, the poet confronts “shapes, and shadows, and remembrances” that arise as “[t]hings all disjointed” (3;5).  Inoperativity renders the poet open to a flood of disjointed and thought-teasing objects – busts, etchings, prints, reproduction paintings. For both poet and poem, objects seem under the spell of invisible hyphens, as if each object were both itself and not itself simultaneously: a witch grins with a cherub’s mouth, the Grecian Socrates appears in a nineteenth-century cravat, Hazlitt, hater of cats, plays with Maria Edgeworth’s cat. Similarly, such disjointedness serves to suspend each object from every other object in order to catalogue them within the poem. Irreducible to themselves and each other, the poem’s numerous units clank against one another, shift shapes, enter promiscuous couplings only to recede, in the end, beyond the poet and each other: “now ‘tis hidden all” (60).
Suspended from their external relations, the poem’s units are also irreducible to their parts. The poem’s central unit – the reproduction Enchanted Castle – is broken apart into constitutive units as if composed of so many nesting objects. Keats dissects the painting into rocks, trees, lake, and its central unit, the castle, whose own units are carefully catalogued: wings, juts, doors, windows, flashes of light, galley.
            However, Keats does not offer merely a list of kitsch objects; rather, he catalogues objects such that their relations to and experiences of other objects become graspable for the poet. Keats therein constructs something like what Bogost defines as an ontograph, which “involves cataloguing things, but also drawing attention to the couplings of and chasms between them” (50). For flat ontology – a democracy of ontologically equal units that are simultaneously isolated, enclosing a system, and enclosed within a system (25) – ontography serves as a “general inscription strategy” that “uncovers the repleteness of units and their interobjectivity” (38). Keats maps the interobjectivity of units through the profusion of metaphors, or, to follow Roman Jakobson, the relentless substitution of objects with other objects.
Take for example the sliding of reproduction kitsch not only into its original iteration (a Keatsian gesture most recognizable in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”’s conflation of the Portland vase and a Wedgwood imitation), but also from artwork into lived reality. For the supine poetic gaze, referents come to life through nearly inescapable “visitings” (13), a phenomenon whose generality (“Few are there who escape these visitings”) stresses not only the anthropocentricism of such ekphrastic object relations but also the primacy of such relations. Visiting is, therefore, something like what Bogost calls a unit operation – “a process, a logic, an algorithm is you want, by which a unit attempts to make sense of another” (28) – proper to the human-world correlate, albeit one that remains primarily hidden. The uncanniness of Keats’ ontography stems from poet’s openness to such visitations, a process that Keats’ theorizes as the “negative capability” “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Letter to George and John Keats, 21-27 December 1817). As the proper modality for the human-world correlate, negative capability is human ontography avant la lettre. It names, more simply, how the poet “poems” objects, a program resembling flat ontology’s metaphorism: how units “bask metaphorically in each other’s ‘notes’ by means of metaphor” (67).
            For Keats, the units composing the uncanny flat ontology opened by negative capability – the “material sublime” (69) – substitute each other in much the same manner that the poet relates to his milieu: if the substitution chain kitsch-art-referent pertains to the poet as its proper unit operation or metaphorism, the objects within a milieu like The Enchanted Castle likewise metaphorize each other as their proper unit operations. The castle castles the rock it sits upon, the rock rocks the lake it borders, the lake lakes the trees its surrounds (26-28) – all operations functioning as if “[f]rom some old magic-like Urganda’s sword” (29) much as for the poet it is  the metaphoric “Phoebus” who, in mediating the poet’s human-world correlate, animates “All which elsewhere [is] but half animate” (37). If negative capability is the unit operation proper to the poet, metaphorism names the general operation of object-relations that unit operation opens onto. What holds for Bogost also holds for Keats: “things render one another in infinite chains of weaker and weaker correlation, each altering and distorting the last such that its sense is rendered nonsense. It’s not turtles all the way down, but metaphors” (84).  

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