Session 5D: Blake and the Technological Text

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5D. Blake and the Technological Text

Kevin D. Hutchings (Western Ontario): "Illicit Prophecy: Blake's Antinomian Response to Newton"
Warren Cariou (British Columbia): "Blake and the Eucharistic Machine: Technology and Mimesis in The Four Zoas and Milton"
Arkady Plotnitsky (Purdue): "Materiality and Conceptuality in Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"

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"Materiality and Conceptuality in Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"
Arkady Plotnitsky

William Blake is justly seen as the main precursor and indeed the first practioner of the art form that we now call the artist's book. Using The Marriage and Heaven and Hell as its primary case, this paper will consider both Blake's illuminated manuscripts and the artist's book itself from a perspective different from those of recent investigations into the subject, namely from the perspective of the interconnections between conceptuality and materiality.

Most of these investigations have been centered on the question of materiality of the book and on the implications of this materiality for both the idea of the artist's book and the practice of the genre. This approach is not only legimate but is necessary, including in Blake's case. The aim of the proposed paper is to critically absorb and develop the ideas and results of this approach rather than to abandon it. Certainly, Blake's idea and design of his illuminated manuscripts, and the very process of their production, are fundamentally grounded in the materiality of the book, and we are far from having fully examined these material dimensions of his art. My starting point, however, is a perhaps more radical thesis that, while Blake's illuminated manuscripts remain examples of the genre of the artist's book and of its radical materiality, they also represent, arguably for the first time, what we now understand as conceptual art. As I shall explain in my paper, this argument is historically grounded, rather than anachronistic. More significantly, my joint thesis redefines the question of materiality and conceptuality (or phenomenality, to begin with) of both the artist's book (from the material side) and conceptual art (from the conceptual side), and of their conjunction both in Blake and in these two arts forms in general. That contemporary artists' books are often examples of conceptual art is hardly in question. The implication of this fact, including for the question of materiality (or conversely conceptuality or phenomenality) of the book, have been barely examined so far.

I shall consider specific textual and pictorial aspects of Blake's illuminated manuscripts, most particularly, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as well as germane historical circumstances of Blake's period. My theoretical analysis will utilize a number of traditional and contemporary ideas, most especially, the radical redefinition of the idea of the concept (and, correlatively philosophy itself) advanced by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their What is Philosophy?, along with related ideas developed by Deleuzein his Cinema books. In particular, I shall argue that Blake's concept of "minute particulars" of human-that is, for Blake, poetic-vision, designed to radically undermine the traditional idea of conceptualization (through abstraction from the particulars), is a precursor, and Blake's art is an enactment, of the conceptuality in Deleuze and Guattari's sense-the conceptually fundamentally based in (minute) particulars. The ultimate aim of this analysis is to argue that Blake's vision and especially work entail a radical reexamination of the relationships between the materiality and the conceptuality in the artist's book, the materiality and the conceptuality of the book, and of materiality and conceptuality as such.

Arkady Plotnitsky is an associate professor of English at Purdue University. He is currently a Visiting Associate Professor of Literature at Duke University. He has published several books and many articles on history of criticism and theory, the history of British and European Romanticism, modernism and postmodernism. continental philosophy, and the connections among literature, philosophy, and science. His books include In the Shadow of Hegel (University of Florida Press, 1993), Complementarity: Anti-Epistememology After Bohr and Derrida (Duke University Press, 1994), and a collection of essays, co-edited with Barbara H. Smith, "Mathematics, Science, and Postclassical Theory" (Duke University Press, 1997)

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Last updated May 31, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell