Research Spotlight: Jamison Kantor

January 7, 2019

Research Spotlight: Jamison Kantor

Black, white and red illustration

Each month, the Communications Team reaches out to members of the Department of English faculty and asks them to elaborate on a current research or creative project they are working on or have recently completed. For this month, we asked Professor Jamison Kantor about his project exploring automatic materiality.


Jamison Kantor

In your own words, as the expert that you are, can you explain the overview of your project?

My current project addresses the idea of automation—or, more specifically, “automatic materiality”—in the literature, art and philosophy of the British Romantic period. Right now, automation is a pretty hot topic among politicians, economists and journalists, many of whom are responding to a pervasive anxiety about automated technology replacing jobs or, more dramatically, reshaping the entire structure of the economy. This research, however, tries to find a broader, theoretical basis for automation—as well as the fears and hopes it inspires—in the cultural representations that came out of the first industrial period, around 1750-1850. So, while I address classic early examples of automation in literature—such as the “automatic scholarship engine” in Gulliver’s Travels or the way that the new rotary printing press may have inspired Keats’s poetry—I also look at phenomena like viruses (or, self-proliferating biological matter) in Mary Shelley, finance capital (money that creates more money automatically) in Horace Walpole and a theory of early technocracy (or, the “automating” of thought through rote processes) in Wordsworth. One of my larger claims is that the Romantics focused on the concept of the automatic as a metonym for larger projections about the future, whether those futures were proto-socialist utopias where machines do all the hard work, or capitalist hegemonies, where those who already have wealth can increase and horde it without the need for human labor.

Now, could you shorten this description into one sentence that uses accessible language?

My new project addresses the idea of automation in British Romantic literature and proposes that the Romantics articulated a variety of different futures based on their relationship with “automated” matter, technology and practices.

In what ways is your research significant?

While automation has been a hot topic in the broader public sphere, matter (or materiality, new approaches to ontology, etc.) has been a major preoccupation of literature scholars for at least the past decade. In fact, there is a whole subfield of scholarship dubbed “The New Materialism” that cuts across disciplines and scholarly interests. My new work is, in part, an attempt to reckon with this turn to matter and materialism in literary criticism. In some of this criticism I see a tendency to valorize encounters with matter as licensing a new, beneficial mutuality between objects and subjects (if I can use these somewhat dated terms). One of my goals in this new book is to show the utterly alienating force of matter—especially a matter that proliferates without our intervention—as well as its liberating potential. If my approach tends to repeat a cliché about the Romantics, that they were skeptical about all forms of mechanization and routine, so be it!

Are you working with any colleagues or collaborators (e.g. grad students)?

I don’t have any collaborators who are working with me directly on the project. But there are many people who have helped me shape the project thus far. Those people include readers from EC:TI and PMLA, the two journals that have published excerpts from the manuscript, curatorial assistants at the London Science Museum, and, of course, my fantastic colleagues in English. Jake Risinger and I have had an ongoing conversation about my chapter on Mary Shelley and the “virus” of history and I’m looking forward to chatting more with Jill Galvan about automatic writing and its interaction with nineteenth-century media technology, which I believe she touches on in her first book.

Where do you see this project going in the future?

I would like this manuscript to be my second book. I’m also looking forward to presenting more of its ideas at conferences and talks. In the interest of expanding the public relevance and interdisciplinary scope of scholarship in English literature, I hope that some of these forums are outside of the humanities. The book may center on authors you are liable to see in your lit course syllabi—Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley, John Keats—but I’m also trying to make a case for the wider promises and anxieties that imbue all sorts of automated matter, biological, technological or otherwise.

What's next for you?

I’m still in the process of drafting the proposal for my first book, so this second project is—like its argument implies—a kind of future endeavor! But, beyond that, I have a very nascent idea about the cinematic concept of “aspect ratio,” or the panoramic width of the screen in film and T.V. I think there’s something to be said for the premonition of this concept in early gothic literature. As always, I’m sure my colleagues and students interested in these media will be very helpful here!

News Filters: