Fragment of an eighteenth-century plaster cast of a Roman marble copy of a Hellenistic statue of Antiochus the Great. © Shane Butler

Fragment of an eighteenth-century plaster cast of a Roman marble copy of a Hellenistic statue of Antiochus the Great. © Shane Butler

The last century devoted considerable critical attention to questions of how language relates to the world and reached pessimistic views in both directions, concluding that language cannot make the world present but that we still know no other world other than the one language constructs for us. Shane Butler’s work comes at these problems from a different angle, asking instead about how language, as sonic matter rather than as a representational system, participates in the world and resonates in and with it, to the ears of human and nonhuman listeners alike. He calls this “the real of the symbolic” (or “the word in the world”) and explores its role in human life and art throughout history. Current targets of this investigation include the letters of Cicero, Late Antique poems about birds, the fantastic machines imagined by Renaissance humanists, and the music and poetry of a nineteenth century increasingly filled with photographic and phonographic technologies.