On resonance and strategic presentism
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Reading the V21 forum in the recent Victorian Studies and thinking about resonance. Or, rather, I’ve been thinking about resonance a lot lately, and saw it deployed as part of strategic presentism. That seems right, in part, but it doesn’t answer the question that Andrew Miller raises—in essence, why study the past at all if we’re so interested in the present? And I think that resonance can offer some answers, not for strategic presentism so much as for how we articulate our relationship to the past without becoming captured by our interests in the present.
To get at this point, we need to think about one of the potential problems with a theory of resonance, its physicality. As much as resonance suggests, it also threatens to overcode with an implicit Platonism that privileges presence. That a sound can extend beyond itself through the transmission of vibration and via either shared or complementary qualities in objects, is, of course, what makes resonance suggestive. It captures the sense of affective bloom, or affecting and being affected, in the transmission and feedback of vibration. Yet its attachment to the sense of hearing, which like touch, taste, and smell is physical, cannot help but conjure presence.
This is pressing because so much of the theory around resonance can be folded into contemporary work on affect, and, to a degree, the Latourian turn, and critics are thus likely to confront the same objections that deconstruction raised against Deleuze and Foucault forty years ago. That is, in essence, what about what doesn’t resonate? I think this can be more concretely easily understood as a question for Latour: what about what doesn’t register as an actor in a network? The answer is fairly simple: it isn’t part of the network. Here’s the rub, though. Latour’s argument is sociological. It doesn’t to render what doesn’t act ontologically null; instead, it means to trace how a system works—or at least how it thinks that it works. And, operating via another sociological imperative, an investigator moving from one network to another can begin to locate exclusions from networks. It’s hard to know what doesn’t register if one isn’t sure about what does. As Latour makes clear in Reassembling the Social, the politics of redressing exclusions needs to be separated from the methodological analysis of how networks function so that one can see what happens, and, by implication, what doesn’t.
In this sense, then, resonance’s saving grace may be that it suggests both sound fields that extend beyond the resonating objects, and the possibility of resonant failure, of silence, of difference. As scholars, as critics, as readers, we must enter into these fields of resonance and silence carefully. For this reason, we may also wish to consider resonance not just as a form of affects between objects but also as a form of auto-affection, of self-forming. This has the merit of creating another register, another network of operations. In terms of sound, one might think of an amplified chord from an electric guitar extended, shifted, or distorted through the uptake of the amplified sound by the instrument itself to create a new field. In this sense, then, resonance can suggest transversal relations that are not so much articulations of past and present but of durative affective fields. One might say that resonance, then, can offer a way to think through the articulations of past and present that we undertake as critics, not as teleological but rather as indeterminate within a text, and that it also allows us to consider divergent resonances, points of disjunction that may create silences or unexpected feedback loops between textual auto-affections and contrary lines of flight from the present.
Why study the present through the past? Why study the past at all? The answer, I would argue, lies in these baroque affective enfoldings, what can show us not only what resonates with the present but what escapes such resonances entirely.