What follows is my contribution to a roundtable on Donald Ault’s legacy for the 2021 UF Comics Conference.
In 2005, I spent about a year on an aborted draft of my first dissertation chapter for Donald Ault. In a response to my musings about Gilles Deleuze and William Blake, Don off-handedly said “There is No William Blake” — giggling in a maniacal way as I struggled to comprehend what he could mean. Don often made these proclamations that seemed to come out of nowhere, yet they were also just the thing we needed to hear to inspire us towards new directions in our research. I loved the provocation, and so I titled my first chapter “There is No William Blake,” and decided it would be my attempt to wrestle with what that phrase meant. I struggled for a year on that chapter, but I eventually gave up. Little did I know that this struggle would form the next seven years of my life and constitute the first part of my scholarly career. For me, the context of this idea came from my engagement with Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, particularly his understanding of a virtuality that is “opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual. Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: ‘Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract.’” William Blake only exists due to the works (editions, art, scholarship) that transmit knowledge of his life to us from the day of his death in 1827 to what we consider to be the present. But this existence is itself predicated, as Deleuze says, upon a whole field of differential relations that surround William Blake like ghosts of possibility.
I was particularly interested in exploring these differential relations in the context of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel From Hell. William Blake appears two or three times in the graphic novel: as a ghost that Moore and Campbell’s alter ego for Jack the Ripper William Gull sees soon before his death, as the memory of his sketch of the Ghost of a Flea that was included in John Varley’s book of Zodiacal Physiognomy, and as the tempura of the Ghost of the Flea itself. Varley’s book and the tempura of The Ghost of a Flea are both artifacts that we can see in museums. They aren’t fictional, but actually exist — and they transmit or repeat a life that would otherwise remain unknown and inaccessible to us. I could never write about William Blake if I’d never heard of him, and there are very real and material ways we gain knowledge of Blake: through documents, films, podcasts, graphic novels. Yet these repetitions exist in a field of differential relationships, constructed of politics, hierarchies, and claims to originality. For instance, the difference critics make between an “original” Blake print and printed or digital copies of his work often construct which artifacts are worthy of critical attention and which are not. J Hillis-Miller once rhapsodized: “[w]hen we see a Blake original we are seeing paper that he himself touched.” These differential relations constitute a field of virtuality that create the conditions for understanding how Blake appears to us. From the touch of his fingers to the printing of his illuminations in editions authorized by literary critics to digital images simulating the lines making up those same illuminations — what we consider the actual Blake is formed by communities of fans, scholars, and artists who continually remake him. As Deleuze says, “[T]he past, far from being a dimension of time, is the synthesis of all time of which the present and the future are only dimensions. We cannot say that it was. It no longer exists, it does not exist, but it insists, it consists, it is” (82). In this sense, William Blake is always made and unmade, actual and virtual: real but in a way that does not exist.
I revised this account quite thoroughly since my aborted attempt at a chapter during my dissertation. Before leaving UF, I completed a very different dissertation, focusing on images of death in Romantic afterlives from postmodern film and fiction. My elaborate theory of Blakean differentials became central to my first book, William Blake and the Digital Humanities, where Jason Whittaker and I articulated what we called the “virtual Blake”: “[i]t is Blake’s virtuality that calls to individual editors and demands creative attempts to revise and preserve the integrity of his work, or make him something different altogether.” In another publication, I designed a Blake twitterbot that ran on a Markov script that constructed Blakean tweets. These tweets rearranged Blake’s poetry — creating lines that Blake never wrote but which nevertheless “sounded” like him. I turned to Friedrich Kittler’s provocative essay (especially for me, considering my background) “There is No Software” to try to understand what I had done. Kittler looks at the material foundation of writing after the implementation of computer software, suggesting that what had once been written inscription now existed only as coding. Further, “[a]ll code operations […] come down to absolutely local string operations, that is, I am afraid, to signifiers of voltage differences” (149). At a material level, word processing software exists only to manipulate the voltage differences between different characters as they are typed by a keyboard. Matthew Kirschenbaum would, at least in his eyes, further refine this theory in his book Track Changes by saying that “[w]ord processing was thus the simulation and the suspension of writing — ‘writing’ and ‘not-writing’ — instantaneously manifest and yet potentially endlessly postponed.” Yet I couldn’t help but return to Ault’s own statement — that “There is No William Blake.” Given the ability of computers to easily track the internet pages we’ve visited, version the different revisions of our work, copy and paste code over and over again — it seemed that the difference between actual Blakes and virtual Blakes was much more muddled than I had ever considered.
I visited Don a few times in the years before his death. Ron Broglio, Laurie Taylor, Zach Whalen, Tof Eklund and I participated in a video conversation on “The Interdisciplinary Legacies of Donald Ault” for the journal Romantic Circles in which we discussed Ault’s teaching and how it informed our very different intellectual backgrounds. At one point, I couldn’t help but see how Ault’s comment about Blake seemed to also apply to him. In the very different ways we applied some of Ault’s lessons, we actualized a different part of Don’s own virtual differentiality. Don’s student Walton Wood generously conducted an audio interview about his teaching that we included. In the interview, Don paraphrases Alfred North Whitehead’s ideas about teaching by saying “[t]he only thing you can really teach is yourself. You teach who you are, where you are coming from, how your mind works, what kind of world you live in. This is what will stick with students. I ran into a student the other day who said to me, ‘I was in your class two years ago and I finally got what that class was all about.’” It was in the virtual differential space of not knowing what Donald Ault could mean that we each got to know him and become ourselves. There is no Donald Ault.