Prosthetic Worlds in the Twenty-First-Century Novel

12 Sep 2019 10.00 AM - 12.00 PM Alumni, Current Students, Industry Partners, Prospective Students, Public
Organised by:
Graham Matthews

The emergence of the anthropocene has caused the apparatuses by which we have pictured our world to malfunction. With the recognition that human activities shape the world in which they unfold has come a crisis in our understanding of the relationship between pictures of the world and the world pictured. Human representational activities no longer refer to the world, but are bound up in the industrial processes which fashion the world referred to.

This lecture explores this shift in the texture of representation, through a reading of the terms in which the contemporary novel represents artificial worlds. Focussing on novels by Margaret Atwood, J. M. Coetzee and Don DeLillo, it asks how the novel as a form can participate in the production of new epistemologies that climate change urgently requires of us. The late work of all three writers turns around the fashioning of worlds which have become avowedly artificial, worlds which are not given but prosthetically engineered. In demonstrating the processes by which such pictures of the world are made, under contemporary ecocritical conditions, I will argue that all three writers are thinking towards an emerging relation between the real and the artificial, a shifted relation between representation and reality, which harbours the outlines of a new mimesis. All three writers are inventing a mimetic practice which responds to a world historical situation which has outlasted the existing distinction between the natural and the artificial. In doing so, they are looking towards a new passage in the history of the novel, and in the history of our lifeworld.


Peter Boxall is Professor of English Literature at the University of Sussex. He is author of many books on the novel, including Don DeLillo: The Possibility of Fiction (2006), Since Beckett (2009), Twenty-First-Century Fiction (Cambridge, 2013), and The Value of the Novel (Cambridge, 2015). He is editor of the bestselling 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012), co-editor, with Byran Cheyette, of volume 7 of The Oxford History of the Novel (2016) and with Peter Nicholls of Thinking Poetry (2013). He is also editor, since 2009, of the journal Textual Practice, and editor of the Cambridge Companion to British Fiction: 1980-2018 (2019). His most recent book, The Prosthetic Imagination: A History of the Novel as Artificial Life, is forthcoming with Cambridge (2020).