Railroad Poetics: Infrastructure, Stories, Worldmaking
Geoffrey Kyle Bucy
In Media Ecologies, Matthew Fuller argues that “all objects have a poetics: they make and take part in the world, and at the same time, synthesize, block, or make possible other worlds” (1). This causes problems for Humansitic inquiry, which has historically read the human capacity for poetics as evidence of exceptionalism. In this dissertation, I theorize and practice modes of literary and film interpretation based on the fundamental goal of what has come to be called The Nonhuman Turn: “decentering the human in favor of a turn toward and concern for the nonhuman” (Grusin vii). As I argue, cultivating interpretive attunement to the nonhuman affects, affordances and agencies that swirl through our most human of narratives challenges our implicit ontological schism between representation and reality. Rather, I attempt to increase the number of actors that shape our stories, and draw attention to the innumerable threads of translation, mediation, and interpretation that inextricably entangle our thoughts, perceptions, and stories with the nonhuman world.
More than any other technology, the railroad transformed the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. From standardized time zones and westward expansion to modernized warfare, early cinema, and the rise of finance capitalism, our world was undeniable “made” by trains. The railroad also holds a place of privilege in the history of literature, film, and culture. It was the symbol of progress and speed in the 19th century. Historically, trains are inextricably intertwined with the early history of cinema, from their starring roles in “actualities” and “phantom rides” to their use as an early film dollies. What better case study for developing this unorthodox approach to interpretation? In order to theorize “railroad poetics,” I bracket reductive truisms about the symbolization of modernity. Instead, I “follow the railroad actors” (to adapt the Latourian turn), in order to acknowledge the complex ways that embodied railroad components, such as compartments, cat-walks, tunnels, shovels, deep cuts, and graded causeways, become inextricably entangled with those quintessentially human poetic devices of metaphor, genre, structure, and narrative action.
The Nonhuman Turn adds refreshing tools to our interpretive tool-kit. In each chapter, I choreograph a dialogic interplay between trains, bodies, and stories that, I argue, lies at the heart of our “railroad stories.” In explicating this co-constitutive tripartite relationship, I hope to challenge not just our attention to nonhuman agencies as they swirl through our human stories, but also to he ways dynamic interaction with infrastructure shapes the pace and patterns of our own lives. If this is the case, our current modes of critique are woefully inadequate in a world we no longer recognize as they sole possession of humans. We need to be able to theorize the relationship between humans and nonhumans without falling into one-sided theories of social constructivism or technological determinism. This project is one experimental approach to doing just that. In changing the ways we interpret the literary and filmic railroad, I hope to challenge the prevalent tendency to treat textual objects as nothing but “representations” of their “real-life” counterparts or of an author’s intentions.