This book is the unlikely continuation of a project that began as a study of the illuminated books of the English romantic visual artist and poet William Blake. However, what started as an art-historical study on the artist and poet's "radical ecology," with respect to Blake's examination of the roots of environmental destruction on the threshold of industrial modernity, on the one hand, in order to make an argument for "the ecological Blake," with respect to an art created to give visual and poetic expression to the interrelationships between living organisms, the envirionment, and everything in between, on the other evolved into the more prismatically-constellated and theoretically-oriented experiment in visual culture before you now. Indeed, the path of Blake Studies is, ipso facto, the journey to Critical Theory. Developmental vectors for the literary criticism of archetypes, visual culture, and animal studies all converge with an engagement with Blake's work as a point of departure. There was, of course, a different moment in academia at which time one had the greater benefit of pursuing dissertation research and writing that would lead to a Ph.D., the eventual professional security of a tenure-track appointment, time, space, and sabbaticals to turn that dissertation into a monograph, thereafter granting one tenure. With it, one had the years necessary to conceive, research, develop, write, and produce the work that comprises one's more definitive and, often, more conceptually-significant interventions.
That sense of intellectual time and possibility, I am convinced, in large part no longer exists. However, far from believing this to be a cause for despair, I believe that the present condition to be one overflowing with the promise of a new critical dispensation: Kierkegaard's hovering hope as "the hope of eternity which fills the moment to the brim;" Nietzsche's "revaluation of all values." When one has no assurance of tomorrow, the pursuit of insight today becomes all the more vital.
There's an ecological urgency to such a critical epicureanism. Writing in the third century, the Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius observed, regarding Epicurus, that the classical philosopher upheld pleasure as the "first good" from birth to be progressively and repeatedly mobilized against "suffering." With few decades, if not years, remaining before climate disruption upends much of the relative social and economic stability institutionalized intellectual labor requires to proceed, now is truly the time to embrace the certain pleasures of the present as a rampart raised against the possible sufferings of the future. Which is to say one should write what one wishes to write, paint what one wishes to paint, compose what one wishes to compose. This is my attempt to do so, developing my own critical theory of "seeing ecology" in the process.
In my pursuit of such an end, I take the interdisciplinary field of visual culture as my primary point of departure. My intent is to intervene within the domain of "visuality," the visualization of (eco-)history, in order to help necessarily expand its boundaries, push its borders, and increase its permeabilities. My intuition is that issues of ecology might generatively extend critical elasticitities of the image, in all of its complexity. My key point is that our age's categorical imperative is, to recall John Berger, imagine what he called "ways of seeing" in new ways specific to ecology, "establishing as he argued on behalf of his capacious critical method, "our place in the surrounding world." Following Berger, that is to say, we ought to create and adopt modes of envisioning relations that cross and combine diverse and varied thresholds of media: visual images, to be sure, but also literary texts and musical sounds in equal, critical, and meaningful measure.
My guiding premise is that the methods of Art History may serve as the means of supporting post-disciplinary futures, even as the ideas of Panofsky, Berger, Pollock, and others might be mobilized and applied to the interpretation of media far and away different than these theorists initially imagined. In this way, we need a criticism capable of supporting a sustainable, if possible, or at least more resilient, as will surely be necessary, intellectual environment. Consequently, this study might at best as a whole be regarded as an iconology relative to the study of ecological images across the media.
It is structured according to three image movements. The first grapples with the visual arts. The second engages literature. The third studies sound. My belief is, ultimately, that in re-orienting what it means to "see" diverse ecologies as inflected both through a medium that requires eyesight and those that do not, we might arrive a mode of envisioning a more inclusive play of relationality that might otherwise be possible. In this way, a visually-impaired person experiences a visual cultures of the natural world no less than someone who is sighted. Thus, I believe a corollary of my argument, therefore, is that through the media of ecology, Art History might open itself further along the lines of access and disability.
Tracing the migration of the ecological image from visual-artistic media into the domains of literature and sound likewise, drawing on the means, mechanisms, and practices of the digital humanities, necessitated the migration of this dissertation into a form capable of best presenting sound and film alongside static image and literary text. Just as the urgency to produce this project's intellectual content now arose from social transformations attendant to long-term scholarly production, its shape, structure, and content represents an apposite experiment in academic publishing. Just as with my optimism that committing oneself to do the thinking and writing one wants to do now will produce the best scholarship that might do the most good to the greatest number, I am committed to the idea that innovative formats of publication that put critical text in dynamic and integral forms of conversation with the media being engaged would be a welcome development.
If the prose-poem Nature and essay "Self-Reliance" constituted two texts that, as Walt Whitman observed, moved his critical imagination from a state of "simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil" to compose Leaves of Grass, it was the event of the SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus pandemic as the cause of the COVID-19 respiratory and neurological disease that catalyzed the volta in thought that led to the composition of this text. The importance of a means of seeing ecology became abundantly clear in response to the first large-scale pandemic resulting from globally-dispersed social conditions endemic to contemporary capitalism correspondingly integral to climate change. Indeed, the relentless growth of expansion of global agriculture, particularly to support livestock farming and meat production, certainly acts as an accelerant for diverse zoonotic pathogens to pass from non-human animals to human subjects, infecting and circulating across international cities and transportation networks. It strikes me that now more than ever we need a critical theory capable of mobilizing visual culture as (at least an intellectual) barricade against the circuits and shock of dis/ease in our rapidily warming world of which COVID-19 is likely to be first of many.
It may certainly be argued that using an Art History dissertation as a vehicle to think across a constellation of the arts that includes literature and music as equally appropriate domains of inquiry represents an impossibility in scope, at best, and illegitimate transgression of disciplinary boundaries. "Good fences," this argument might go, "make good neighbors." My retort might call to mind the brilliant beginnings of the study of visual culture in the first place. One of the best parts of both iconology and visual culture has been the emergence of what W.J.T. Mitchell has characterized as an "'interdiscipline,' a site of convergence and conversation across disciplinary lines which I still believe is helpfully and generatively defined by an "anarchist" moment that might still continue with respect to the "great virtue of visual culture as a concept is that it is "indisciplinary" with the corresponding implication that the most effective means of navigating is "to get by with a little help from my friends."
And so I am tremendously pleased to acknowledge the support, intellectually and personally, of those who have made it possible for me to complete this work. My appreciation first and foremost goes to my partner, in life as well as art history, Tamar Kharatishvili, whose kindness and generosity has made everything possible. My foremost gratitude is also due to my mother Terri Leveton and sister Natalie Leveton for their unremitting encouragement and support. My father Jeff Leveton motivated me to be a scholar through his important work in epidemiology and passionate work ethic. While he was there to see this project’s beginning, he wasn’t to see its conclusion. For these reasons, I am proud to dedicate this dissertation to him.
I’m deeply grateful to Stephen Eisenman, who galvanized me equally as an educator, activist, critic, collector, and vegan. Without his insightful engagement with my work and consistent advice and friendship, it is unlikely I could have reached the point of completing the Ph.D. I am also profoundly appreciative to my committee members: Hannah Feldman, who first encouraged me to think about Blake and the Anthropocene in terms of an “ecological history of modernism” and catalyzed my renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm for pursuing envirionmental humanities work a a field of particular criticality in the present moment and the decades to come. Rob Linrothe set my track into the field of critical theory alongside art history in an extraordinary proseminar. It was as a listless undergraduate at a community college with curiosity that could only be chanelled into academics through the combined study of literature and art history that I, perhaps improbably, first discovered W.J.T. Mitchell's books in the Scottsdale Community College library. His abiding example of open-minded exploration, building and sustaining community, and intellectual generosity has made it possible to see myself in this world and to create and multiply space and time for myself and others to follow the paths according to which the ideas lead. I am likewise tremendously grateful to Jay A. Clark whose curatorial mentorship and insight with respect to this dissertation across the arc of a year at the Art Institute of Chicago has been a equal parts astonishing, affirming, and amazing.
Beyond my committee, I am pleased to acknowledge the brilliant inspiration I've had the opportunity to enjoy for eight years running in the Northwestern Department of Art History. Holly Clayson took me to France for the first time and made all of my engagement with the world of French critical theory possible. My art history cohort members Aisha Motlani and Scott Miller were incomparable sources of insight and humor. Faculty members Christina Kiaer and David Van Zanten were brilliant and supportive interlocutors across duties extending from leading our qualifying paper seminar to the dissertation prospectus seminar in Spring 2015. As a constant interlocutor, Claudia Swan has been a consistent supportive presence and afforded me important space to work out ideas at the nexus of ecology and the contemporary with respect to a guest lecture on documenta14 for a wonderful Introduction to European Art course in the Spring of 2017. Likewise, Rebecca Zorach has proven to be a stalwart interlocutor to whom I am immensely grateful with respect to guidance, advice, and help, both with respect to the diverse subjects and agents a proper ecological art history ought to include and to expand my engagements beyond the walls of the academy and into the city of Chicago. Huey Copeland introduced me to a number of the contemporary practitioners that have come increasingly to inform my visual culture group, and I am especially grateful for his work in convening the fabulous 2013 Black Collectivities conference on campus leading to the sections of this dissertation devoted to The Otolith Group's film, The Radiant, which was screened as part of the event at the Block Museum of Art. Jesús Escobar taught me all I know about departmental and institutional leadership and engagement, and I especially and tremendsouly appreciative for his appointing me as a representative to the department. Ann Gunter consistently provided kind encouragement to sustain efforts on the Ancient Greek front, traces of which are scattered everywhere in this text. Ayala Levin has been a remarkable colleague and, during a research assistantship in the summer of 2019, fostered critical collections-based research at the Library of Congress and the Bibliothèque National de France at the nexus of Ango- and Francophone West Africa bringing the Global South squarely into the project's purview. Christina Normore demonstrated for me, perhaps greater than anyone, what intellectual care and comraderie in the academy might be, in addition to providing brilliant insights surrounding the medieval form of mirrored writing as a basis of Blake's iconographies at the scale of epic.
I remain nothing if not a romanticist, and the particular orientation of the field towards sustaining community means a significant number of contributions to making this dissertation possible must be acknowledged. Mark Lussier introduced me to the wonders of Blake and Romantic Studies at Arizona State University and has continued to serve as a staunch ally throughout my career. His work at the (literal) nexus of romantic poetics and quantum mechanics first demonstrated for me what Lacan called the jouissance of interdisciplinary thought, and that as Blake himself said "what is now prov'd, was first only imagin'd. Ron Broglio's fabulously fortunate arrival at ASU came the summer after my graduation. And yet, his constant inspiration to think at theshold of thought, with and beyond romanticism and contemporary art, and balance serious engagement across disciplines was (and remains) everything.
As a member of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR), I have been fortunate to benefit from the unflinching entergetic assertion of genius and the critical imaginations of so many. To the Colorado Romanticism Collective, I am deeply appreciative for what in many respects proved a second institutional home, always in mind, often in body, in Boulder. Thora Brylowe's brilliance, galvanizing friendship, and committed engagement to pushing (or dragging) the study of the sister arts into critical domain of labor relations has proven a constant reminder of what the criticism of image and text can do. Jeffrey N. Cox's research on (and creation of) politically-engaged and creatively-oriented intellectual community taught me everything I know about what it means to be a leader among equals. Jill Heydt-Stevenson has been a crucial mentor over the years and her connecting England and France, words and things, problems and possibilities has been critical. Paul Youngquist's friendship, musicianship, and connecting departure in Blake studies and scholarship on Sun Ra's sounds catalyzed this project's important turn to examine iconologies of sound. Kurtis Hessel has been there from the time we rented two rooms for a dozen graduate students in Tempe for the International Conference on Romanticism in November 2012 ; and if that isn't a commitment to the cause, I don't know what would. More importantly, his research at the nexus of elements, chemistry, science, and poetics provided me with the crucial example of how to trace circuits by which art can lead science, and not the other way around. Deven Parker's enduring camaraderie, commitment to epicurean romanticism, and unimaginably fantastic scholarship taking a background in archaeology to prove the centrality of infrastructure to romantic-period media has served as a touchstone example of illuminating intellectual production and holds out the hope of delivering the field to a new critical materialist position. Grace Rexroth's critical insight, capacious imagination, and ability to take the conceptual frames of photographing the globe as a basis for a new romantic criticism rigorously tooled to interrogate the intricacies and technologies of memory in the nineteenth century comprises a key matrix of thought and research that will impact scholarship for years to come. Rebecca Schneider's consistent support and brilliant work to reposition romanticism towards the Global South relative to Black Romanticism in the Caribbean has been an important means to tilt with and beyond the normative ways of doing criticism of Romanticism and Post-Romanticism alike. Moreover, Rebecca's influence as a cyclist and outdoors enthusiast went a great distance towards making my own process of writing not only doable but also happy. I was so very fortunate to meet Hannah Markley at a particular fine NASSR conference in Berkeley, and the deconstructive, Derridian, and shared beagle-inspired friendship that resulted has been key at all points after. I am grateful to Orrin Wang for appointing me to the editorial board of Romantic Circles and for a particularly inspiring meeting in Washington D.C. on a hot summer day in 2019. Likewise, I am deeply appreciative of Theresa M. Kelley who has has been a relentlessly supportive ally, brilliant interlocutor, and fabulous collaborator across all efforts relating to the Romantic Circles Gallery Project
I am also grateful to those with whom I had the pleasure of steering the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus (NGSC). Arden Hegele's collaborative spirit and commitment to the study of literature, via Wordsworth, as itself as a form of medicine was a persistent point of motivation. Caroline Winter's orientation towards building new community at the convergence of literary studies and the digital humanities has been vital. Writers for the NGSC during my editorship likewise merit special mention: Renee Harris has been an incomparable source of inspiration in Keats, affect studies, and the history of medicine, as well as a fellow runner whose "kudos" given on Strava have been vital. Kent Linthicum's friendship and scholarship has enabled many new ways of thinking ontologies and ecologies of the social. Nicole Geary's geologically-oriented and post-romantic printmaking practice has been a field for thought to which I have often returned.