Our home at the University of Rochester is about ninety miles from Syracuse University, where Mike Goode is a member of the English Department. Since he’s a neighbor and he has a new book, Romantic Capabilities, coming out (October in the UK, December in the US), we asked if he’d like to chat. Many thanks to Mike for taking part. His replies have been edited ever so slightly for style.
Your undergraduate degree is in economics—how did you pivot to English? Has your background in economics helped and informed your work?
I followed the money. Ok, not really. What happened was that I took an amazing economics seminar my freshman year, Analyses of Capitalism, which was part philosophy, part mathematics, part politics, part literature, and all good. We read Locke, Ricardo, Smith, Marx, Veblen, but also Hard Times, Silas Marner, Player Piano. I thought, “College is amazing! I want my whole education to be like this!” I never found another economics course like it. What I took away from the major, I think, was that I needed to work in an intellectual field that did not like to presuppose human beings are usually rational actors. That, and that I’d rather teach Dickens than equations. My colleagues in the English Department at Syracuse do still find me useful, though, for calculating percentages and making graphs.
You’ve argued that Blake’s proverbial sayings as co-opted for various uses in our new media contexts (one that springs to mind is “No bird soars too high. if he soars with his own wings” to advertise a private jet service) can lead us to think about their original potential. Could you expand on this?
Proverbs are viral media, and they’re also forms of regulation. And they’re preposterously bad at regulating because their meanings are so unstable across situations. All of these things are especially true of Blake’s proverbs, and when I first recognized this through their circulation in contemporary media (mainly, on platforms that didn’t exist in Blake’s day), it got me thinking: did a comparable consciousness of the proverb form’s capabilities exist in Blake’s era? I found archival evidence that suggests it did. I expect we can all agree that Blake sought to undermine the myriad ways in which we mentally imprison ourselves. This is why appreciative Blake readers for so long have privileged the Blake who values special “geniuses” who can overcome their limitations, who can hear their “mind-forg’d manacles” rattling and then break them. But Blake’s attraction to the viral medium of the proverb points the way to another Blake, one that I think is more radical and more devious. He was an artist who sometimes experimented with media forms that instrumentalize the limitations of their individual readers to inject more heterogeneity and contrariness into the world. To the extent that we circulate his proverbs in weird and unpredictable ways—and, oh, do we ever!—we proliferate regulations to the point that the overall effect is deregulatory. In other words, Blake’s proverbs transform populations of individuals into media of differentiation. Sometimes this includes making an individual reader think it’d be just perfect to use a Blake proverb to promote a private jet service.
Likewise you observe that, despite the notion of Blake’s composite art, his text and images are quite good at breaking apart. When I like a Blake image and post it on Twitter, how is this making a point about Blake rather than being beside the point?
The logic is similar to what I just proposed about proverbs. If the experience of beauty translates into a kind of hegemonic self-regulation that you expect others will share in, then sharing a Blake image on Twitter may not be especially far off from offering a proverb to regulate a situation. Now, I’m not saying that’s how aesthetic experience actually does work in practice, all of the time, but Blake lived in a world where some of the most influential aesthetic philosophers did believe it worked this way. I have to take it seriously, then, when I see Blake engaging in modes of artistic experimentation and self-citation that would seem to invite—at times, even model for us—the readiness of his pictures to peel off from the textual contexts in which they were first embedded and to circulate virally as media packets.
Your new book covers Scott and Austen as well as Blake. What framework have you used to connect the three?
The book models a new critical methodology through three case studies. The methodology derives from the theory that the medial capabilities of texts sometimes only become apparent long after the fact, after new media or new media ecologies come into being that can actualize the capabilities. In Blake’s case, the capacity of his proverbs and pictures to operate successfully as viral media today can lead us back to the archives more attuned to recognizing how Blake was a kind of early political theorist of virality. The Scott portion of the book focuses, in turn, on how the Victorians’ various immersive media experiments involving sites made famous by Scott’s novels can help us rediscover how his novels were experiments in and theorizations of “immersion” all along. Finally, the Austen portion of the book examines Austen fanfiction as a design medium that ends up helping us discover how Austen’s novels were already treating the novel form as a design medium way back in the 1810s.
The publisher’s blurb teases content about software development kits and garden design. Please reveal more!
Both of these come up in the Austen part of the book. I propose that “realist” Austen fanfiction (fanfiction set in the canonical universes of Austen’s novels) treats its host texts almost as if they were an open-source media design kit, with canonical estates like Pemberley and Mansfield Park as key components of the kit. The estates are like deposited bits of code, capable of being reused, added onto, rewritten, redesigned. Thinking in these terms got me wondering if Austen fanfiction, as a design medium, might really be actualizing medial capabilities that already existed in Austen’s novels, based on how her novels inhabit and comment on medium. Spoiler alert: it is. My argument for how it is depends on uncovering significant philosophical overlap between Austenian realism and how late eighteenth-century landscape gardeners like Brown and Repton regarded the “capabilities” of English country estates’ grounds as already existing.