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Feeling It in Your Waters: Hugo, Humanity, and Hydrology
My paper innovatively reads Victor Hugo’s poetics through recent post-human reflections on water. So-called ‘new materialism’ has encouraged a reconsideration of humankind’s relationship with water in order to meet the social and ecological demands of 21st-century life. Bio-cultural approaches to the logic of water as more than metaphorical offer a pressing corrective to humanist subjectivity, especially its anthropocentrism and ‘reprosexual’ phallogocentrism. Drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of embodiment, Astrida Neimanis’s Bodies of Water (2017) builds on ideas she floated in her volume Thinking With Water (2013, co-edited with Cecilia Chen and Janine MacLeod) to negotiate figurations of aqueous corporeality. Neimanis departs from Zygmunt Bauman’s concepts of ‘liquid’ modernity by priming Luce Irigaray’s ‘mécanique des fluides’ to stress the materiality of what she calls a ‘planetary hydrocommons’, in which the human body is understood as a fundamental part of the natural world through the continuum between organic and environmental waters. In so doing, Neimanis echoes calls from Karen Barad (2007) and Elizabeth Grosz (2012) to seek an embodied feminist ethics that is responsive to how the world pre-exists the evolution of the human.
Such a desire to develop less subject-driven and more resolutely material paradigms of being mirrors Hugo’s view of the properties and effects of water as integral to a protean universe. In this vein, the ongoing alignment of the human and the non-human in the humanities and social sciences can be enhanced by the ways in which Hugo used the dynamics between the human and the hydrological to power Romantic sublimity. Focusing primarily on his novel Les Travailleurs de la mer (1866) and his claim that ‘l’homme veut être eau courante’, my paper suggests a fresh model for understanding the permeation of water not only in Hugo’s work, but by extension in that of his contemporaries, from Chateaubriand through Lamartine to Baudelaire. The well-known Romantic attraction to water can be lent new depths as a result.