The contemporary landscape of performing arts becomes more and more populated by hybrid genres or “artistic installations” (Rebentisch) which fuse traditional artistic, theatrical and performance practices with scientific procedures, political activism and designing new technologies (e.g. bioart, technoart, digital art and site-specific performance). In this context, theatre texts can no longer be perceived as autopoietic means of solely artistic expression but become part of an assemblage of different discourses and practices. As contemporary assemblage theory contends (DeLanda), assemblages are relational entities which change dramatically depending on relations between its different human and nonhuman elements and various contexts in which they function.
Taking the contemporary installation art as a vantage point, this paper aims to analyse a Restoration comedy The Virtuoso (1676) by Thomas Shadwell in an assemblage of theatrical, scientific and political discourses and practices of Early Modern England. Staged in Dorset Gardens theatre in London, the play mobilised a plethora of discourses of science (the status of experimental philosophy institutionalized in 1660 as the Royal Society), politics (Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II) and gender (the infamous heac vir or effeminate man). Drawing on contemporary new materialism, the paper focuses predominantly on Shadwell’s use of the laboratory as a site of emerging assemblages rather than objective matters of fact. In this context, the play itself becomes an assemblage laboratory where new ways of thinking and being are being forged and constantly negotiated.
In recent science-fiction literature, we can witness a proliferation of new counterfactual narratives which take the 17th century as their point of departure. Unlike steampunk narratives, however, their aim is not to criticise the socio-political effects caused by contemporary technological development. Such authors as Neal Stephenson or Ian Tregillis, among others, are interested in revisiting the model of development in Western societies, routing around the logic of progress. Moreover, they demonstrate that modernity is but an effect of manifold contingent and indeterminate encounters of humans and nonhumans and their distinct temporalities. Even the slightest modification of their ways of being could have changed Western societies and cultures. Thus, they necessitate a rather non-anthropocentric model of counterfactuality which is not tantamount to the traditional alternative histories which depart from official narratives of the past.
By drawing on contemporary multispecies ethnography, I put forward a new understanding of counter-factuality which aims to reveal multiple entangled human and nonhuman stories already embedded in the seemingly unified history of the West. In this context, the concept of “polyphonic assemblage” (Lowenhaupt-Tsing) is employed to conceptualize the contingent and open-ended encounters of human and nonhuman historical actors which cut across different discourses and practices. I analyse Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle to show the entangled stories of humans and nonhumans in 17th century sciences, hardly present in traditional historiographies. In particular, Stephenson’s depiction of quicksilver and coffeehouse as nonhuman historical actors is scrutinized to show their vital role in the production of knowledge at the dawn of modernity.