I read an interesting article today about South Carolina refusing to nominate “Green-Ribbon Schools under a new federal awards program.” Essentially, the nomination would fund, as well as “encourage schools to improve their energy efficiency” and “create healthy environments.” The state superintendent seemed to summarize South Carolina’s opposition to the nomination by saying the “initiative has too many “burdensome” requirements… a dollar spent ‘greening’ a school is a dollar not spent in the classroom improving educational outcomes for students.” I feel that this article provides an interesting example of the ways in which we divide the modern world into the natural and the human, which relates to Latour’s theories (I know my past few blog posts have all been about his theories, but I’m primarily using him in my paper so they have been on my mind).
It seems here that the two worlds are in opposition with each other. The human world is seen as distinctly different, which allows it to become much more important in the eyes of our state’s Superintendent. In his opinion, making sure that the students of our state get a quality education is more important than making sure our schools are environmentally friendly, and that the so called natural world is harmed as little as possible. I’m certainly not saying he should be condemned for his opinion, because this is a very complicated decision to make, but what if the two worlds were not seen as distinctly different, but in a common assemblage? What if one world was not seen as more “real,” or more “unstable,” or even more important, because the divide simply didn’t exist? Maybe then, our education system would be more aware of the detrimental effects that civilization currently has on the planet, which inadvertently has a detrimental effect on us as humans. Still, from a modern perspective that acknowledges a distinct social and political world, ‘greening’ our schools, and improving education systems are both great ways to distribute funds. However, it doesn’t seem that we are spending dollars “in the classroom improving educational outcomes for students” anyways.
When reading Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse for another literature class, I felt that there were some very interesting connections between the novel and some of Latour’s arguments that are presented in Graham Harmon’s essay “We Have Never Been Modern”.
One of the main themes of the novel is the destructive power of nature over human lives and art, and Woolf seems to consciously be aware of the interconnectedness of the human world and the natural world. Part of the second section of the novel titled “Time Passes,” depicts a summerhouse that has been abandoned for almost a decade, and the effect that nature has on it. Woolf personifies the wind from the sea entering the house and asking the objects there, “Will you fade? Will you perish?” and they answer, “we remain.” As the house begins to decay the books begin to get moldy and the garden becomes overgrown, and Woolf writes, “It was beyond one persons strength,” to repair the house. It seems to me that Woolf is depicting the natural world projecting its agency over the human world, and noting that when humans are not present action does not simply cease to exist, but nature still exerts its force. However, Woolf does not seem to be fully conscious of the fact that, “There are not two mutually isolated zones called ‘world’ and ‘human’ that need to be bridged by some sort of magical leap” (Harmon, 57). She seems to understand that the two worlds are connected, and that the human world, or culture, and the natural world are both simultaneously unstable. However, she does depict the two as opposing forces. The human life, as well as art, which are struggling to somehow be eternal, are opposed to the destructive forces of nature. As Harmon says, “there were never two opposed zones in the first place” (58). Considering Woolf was a modernist writer, this is a great example of modernism separating the human from the natural, although she does reveal that the two are in some ways connected, and both are constantly changing and unstable.
In yesterday’s discussion of Yonec, we decided that Yonec’s father’s humanity was not based on the form that he took, considering he appears as a hawk, a knight, and eventually takes the form of Yonec’s mother, but is based on his Christian faith. In order to make sure that her lover is “human,” Yonec’s mother has him prove that he believes in God, and the other forms that he takes seem to have nothing to do with this. I feel that this concept of humanity having little to do with the form one takes draws an interesting connection to Bisclarvet.
In Bisclarvet, as we know, he takes the form of a wolf. However, despite his form, he maintains his humanity, and when he becomes an acquaintance of the king he is more than a tame and loyal wolf, but more of a human being. This becomes most evident after Bisclarvet sees his former wife at the end of the poem and “ran toward her in a rage” and “tore the nose off her face” (233-35). After this, a “wise man” says to the king, “he has some grudge against” the woman, “and against her husband as well,” and suggests that they torture the woman and see what she knows (249-50). If a normal wolf, an animal with no humanity, had attacked the woman, no one would even consider that his attack was justified and would simply assume he was acting out of animal instinct. Here, however, it seems that Bisclarvet’s humanity still remains when he is in the form of a wolf, even though the human actors have no idea that he is a human in wolf form, which is why they believe his violence may be justified. It seems that in these two poems, what defines humanity is not outward form, but something inward.
When reading Marie de France’s Milun, I realized that it shared many characteristics with other lais that we have read, but most notably Le Fresne. Not only are the plots similar, but also the concept of unwanted children who are sent off to be raised by others, as well as leaving them with objects that ultimately become a major part of their identity.
In Le Fresne, Fresne is born with a twin sister, and the mother, believing that having twins will ruin her reputation and she will be thought of as an adulterer, sends Fresne to a monastery to be raised by a nun, and keeps one of the children. This is very similar to Milun, as he gets his lover pregnant, but because they are not married, she decides to send the baby to her sister to be raised because having a child out of wedlock would ultimately ruin her reputation. So, in both stories, children are not only sent off, but their mother’s reputations become more important than keeping their children, probably reflecting just how important one’s reputation was in a given medieval society. Also, in Le Fresne, Fresne is given a number of fine garments by her mother when she is given away. The garments become a major asset of her identity, and ultimately they define her when her mother sees them towards the end of the story and realizes that this is her daughter. In Milun, the child is given a ring, and once this is seen by his father, he goes from wanting to “put him to shame,” for having a reputation that is as strong as his, to being so happy that he kisses him. In both cases, these objects are not only crucial to the plot, but define their owner’s identities. There are also key differences between Milun and Degare. Degare is too born illegitimately, and is given a broken sword that he keeps throughout his lifetime. In the end, like in Milun, he is fighting his father, who notices the sword, and the two are happily united.
Throughout the semester I have had a somewhat difficult time understanding how an object obtains, possesses, exhibits, or is given agency. It seems to me that when humans do not impose the agency of an object, which typically makes its superficial agency obvious, it is hard to grasp. This is most likely because, not only in English classes do we typically avoid analyzing non-human factors, or non-human interpretations, but also in day-to-day life we are not trained to value or place importance on objects. I think Rachel’s post brings up a good point. If no human actors are around to experience the agency of an object, does it exist? At this point in the semester, my answer is most obviously yes. At the beginning of the semester I probably still would have thought yes, however, I also would not have thought an object could possibly contain any meaningful or effective agency if it isn’t interacting or affecting the human world.
I sometimes still have trouble seeing an objects agency as not simply being imposed by humans. For example, we have had a number of discussions on the cherries in Sir Cleges. It is troublesome to me to think that the cherries gain their agency from a divine source. In the text, unlike maybe a biblical story, we don’t hear or see God create the cherries, and their divinity, to me, is only present because the humans in the story grant it to them. Once the human actors accept this belief, the cherries do obtain a certain power and agency that would make them more potent than other cherries, but this power is only present because the humans impose it upon the cherries, and then accept it. I’m not denying that the role of the divine is an actor, or that the cherries agency is not simply imposed by humans. I’m just having trouble seeing it that way.
Today in class we discussed the power of relics, and how the belief in their power are what makes them subjects and gives them agency. We have also discussed, on a number of occasions, how ghosts once had many allies and thus were given subjectivity and agency, but now have much less than in the past because most people do not believe in them. However, I believe that ghosts and the supernatural still hold a lingering agency. For example, when one watches a horror film involving supernatural elements, most people don’t consciously believe that what is taking place would ever actually happen in reality, but, if it wasn’t on some level relatable, or some part of you didn’t actually think it could happen, then it wouldn’t legitimately scare you and you wouldn’t think much of it. I believe that the same idea of lingering agency can be applied to fortune cookies.
I know this sounds ridiculous, but for a number of reasons, I believe that most people don’t fully believe that fortune cookies hold no truth, and therefore have no agency or subjectivity. This is not to say that most people believe that they are actually predictors of the future, and that if they do project any agency it is not completely gone within minutes of them being read, but on some level I think everyone believes in the possibility, like in horror movies, that they may have some power. First of all, I don’t think anyone would actually read fortune cookies if they didn’t at least slightly believe it was possible that they may predict their future. And secondly, anyone who reads a fortune cookie, to a certain extent, hopes that the fortune they receive is a good one. No one ever reads a fortune cookie and hopes that it predicts something bad to happen. Because of this it seems to me that, like the relics and the ghosts, because some sort of belief in the power of fortune cookies, however slight, is applied to them, there exists an agency in them that makes them subjects.
I feel like our discussion of the symbol of the nightingale in Laustic was very interesting and can apply to some of the texts we have read so far, especially the garments that define Fresne’s nobility in Le Fresne. In Laustic, the humans seem to misapply meaning to the object, or force their own intentions upon its agency.
As noted in class, the love between the adulterous night and maiden does not seem to be as grand as they believe it to be, especially noted when Marie says, “she loved him more than anything/ as much for the good that she heard of him/ as because he was close by” (26-28). In other stories that we have read by Marie, peoples great reputations spread across lands and are known by a number of people, but here his good is known because he lives next door, possibly hinting that their love is superficial. In the end, the dead nightingale that is dressed up nicely is seen by the two “lovers” as a symbol of their love, but in reality, it is a symbol of a love that really didn’t amount to anything, or of jealously, vengeance, and loneliness felt by the maiden’s husband, or possibly it is just a dead bird. It seems that these characters are misapplying agency to the dead nightingale because they are forcing human beliefs or possibly delusions upon it. In Le Fresne, the garments are what make her of noble class to the individuals who surround her, but throughout the entire story, before her noble heritage is revealed through the garments, she is of noble character, and everyone who comes to know her realizes this. Therefore what made her truly noble was the way that she interacted with and treated other people, and not the garments, but the characters in the story misapply a meaning of nobility to the garments, or force their human perspectives upon them, and turn them into something that they really aren’t.
As discussed in class, I feel that chapter three of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter was much more concrete, understandable and straight forward than the preface, chapter one, and chapter two. It seems to me that using the example of food to reveal the agency of non-human objects and assemblages is much more relatable than electrical blackouts, dead rats, and the theories of Foucault and Deleuze, which is most likely because they are, or were, very unfamiliar. Her arguments also feel much more relative, at least to my life, because I do a lot more eating than studying the theories of philosophers and sociologists on most days. I think that her most interesting argument in chapter three is the way in which fats have “the ability to make a qualitative as well as a quantitative difference” (Bennett, 41). We usually think of fats as only changing a person physically, but not mentally or emotionally. The fact that omega-3 fatty acids have the ability to calm down prisoners, cause significant improvement in children’s learning and behavior, and even help to improve both positive and negative effects of schizophrenia clearly says that humans have an often unacknowledged and intimate relationship with food that can make us very much different people socially. I also thought that the process of digestion was a great way to explain assemblages, considering the human has to digest the food, just as the food has to be digestible. It seems strange to me that Bennett waits until chapter three to make such concrete and relatable arguments. Why does she begin by analyzing Odradek’s Nonorganic life and then in chapter three analyze eating a bag of potato chips? I know that when Bennett wrote Vibrant Matter I was in no way her target audience, but I feel like using very relatable concepts to begin with would have helped me ease into such complex theories.
Today I re-read Le Fresne, and tried to pick out an object and analyze it using thing theory and also actor-network theory. However, after trying to do so, I became very confused about what exactly the difference is between the two theories.
For this example, I chose to look at the garments and the ring that Fresne’s mother gives her before her servant takes her to the abbey and leaves her in the ash tree. To me, these objects most obviously play a role in the story, so much that they are arguably just as important as the characters themselves. These objects represent more than just physical items. They, like we discussed in class, almost represent Fresne’s identity. They are also symbols of nobility and wealth, allowing those who know nothing about Fresne to at least know that she comes from a good family. Therefore, these objects clearly work as actors, considering without them, Fresne’s mother would most likely have never known that this was her daughter and the entire story would unraveled in a completely different way and consequently had a whole new set of morals, if any, in the end. I think it is fair to say that these objects “bend space around” themselves, but how is this different than thing theory? I’ve had the thought that the difference is that thing theory incorporates ideas and unpredictable actions as well as objects, but couldn’t an idea or an action not be an actor too? When trying to project these theories onto the garments in Le Fresne, I had a great deal of trouble differentiating the two, and, because they seem to have so many similarities to me, they sort of just combined themselves into one theory. I’m probably missing some very important and blatant point that would solve all of my problems, but for now I’m having trouble distinguishing the theories.
For this blog post, I feel that it is appropriate to reflect on my last post, considering in the past week we have gone over a lot of material that will be very important and effective for the rest of the semester, such as the importance of things and objects, and how they, if perceived in the right way, are not merely inanimate but actually play a very active role. We also, in our last two Middle English exercises, made a lot of progress in understanding the language, and especially understanding why the changes in grammar occurred and what differences have resulted.
Thing theory and the importance of objects in certain contexts was very difficult for me to understand, probably because I had never thought about it before and it was so foreign to me. I’m not saying that I currently have a complete grasp on it, but I’m in much better shape than I was before class on Monday. I think Jane Bennett’s depiction of how trash, which we usually apply no meaning to and once it leaves our homes becomes non existent to us, remains an active force despite our unawareness by polluting our planet and affecting us in a negative way, really helped me develop a better understanding as to how we will “make matter matter” this semester. Also, our last Middle English exercise, which we did in class on Wednesday, was very helpful in terms of understanding the specific changes that our language went through. Actually pronouncing the letters and trying to figure out how to pronounce the words seemed to be very helpful to me. Therefore, in response to my last blog post, as I predicted, I feel that I am already on track to developing a sort of reference point that should be very helpful in understanding what we read and discuss for the rest of the semester.