Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind invites us to speculate on memory’s permanence and importance. It also invites us to practice an object oriented reading (or viewing, I suppose). For those of you unfamiliar with it, the film tracks Joel and Clementine’s romantic history as it is actively erased from Joel’s mind. Midway through Dr. Mierzwiak’s “Lacuna” operation, Joel regrets his decision to erase Clementine and must navigate through his memories to preserve as much of her as he can.
Much of Dr. Mierzwiak’s success in eradicating Joel’s memories draws from his manipulation of the objects associated with those memories. Rather than having Joel simply recount his soon to be forsaken memories of Clementine, Dr. Mierzwiak presents him with the physical objects that Joel identifies with her. In the presence of these things (a hodge-podge of souvenirs) Joel’s recollections of Clementine are much more vivid and extensive, and easier for Dr. Mierzwiak to map. Dr. Mierzwiak tells Joel, “We’ll dispose of these mementos when we’re done here – that way you won’t be confused by their unexplainable presence in your home.” Dr. Mierzwiak’s reason, though, is likely two-fold. Yes, unexplainable pictures and purchases may cause confusion, but altogether they may work to provide answers. The objects that littered Joel’s house throughout his relationship with Clementine created the context in which he learned to love her, the assemblage that brought them together. Outside of this assemblage, Joel may never have fallen in love with Clementine. To return to this assemblage, though, would make a flood of loving memories, and possibilities, readily accessible to him.
As the assemblage is stripped down, Joel nearly falls out of love. His resistance, though, attests that true love can never truly be relinquished. I think Marie would approve.
I found Erin’s presentation, “The Writing’s on the Skin – The Medieval Agency of Animals” particularly provocative in light of the recent shift towards electronic texts. While Dr. Seaman and her fellow tech savvy Medievalists seem immune to it, many of us loyal print readers are feeling extreme anxiety over the shift. I agree with Erin’s assertion that when we engage in a text we also (if inadvertently) engage with the materials through which the text is communicated. Loosening binding, yellowing pages, even dog-eared corners add a sense of community to our reading of a text, an awareness of a shared experience (an assemblage, even). I imagine that engagement is even more intimate with paper as raw and organic as animal parchment, print as personal as handwriting.
I do not, though, quite feel that this gives the animal of the parchment, or even the scribe of the handwriting, much additional agency. For while they enrich the text with their own texture and style, they are ultimately tools for communicating the ideas of the text. Their most powerful influence over our reading (as I’m sure Bill Brown would agree) is the occasional disruptive, negative influence, the interference with our intentions for them. The parchment may rip or blot, the handwriting smudge. Otherwise, they seem to obey the command to communicate. While it’s a romantic notion that an animal’s agency transfers to its hide, I’m afraid it’s stripped and appropriated to suit the text. Erin presented our class with an interesting topic that we’re debating as a literary community today!
Jane Bennet redefines materiality in her book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Vibrant matter, she proposes, “is not the raw material for the creative activity of humans or God;” it has an existence of its own (xiii). Vibrant matter reclaims its materiality, and resists being objectified (defined in relation to a human subject). Shedding its objectivity, the new “thing” regains “a liveliness intrinsic to the materiality” (xvi). Bennett restores a material’s inherent agency – what she calls “thing power” (6). Agency, an ability to affect, is accompanied by “[a] capacity to be affected” (21). The power of materiality is not self contained, it participates in a “coexistence of mutual dependency with friction and violence between parts”: an assemblage (23). Bennett’s exciting concept of vibrant matter will guide my first reading of Sir Launfal. Tryamour, Sir Launfal’s fairy lover, is closely associated with lavish materiality. Whereas such an association seemingly objectifies her, I will use Bennett’s notion of thing-power to argue that materiality empowers her and secures her a position of power in a materialistic assemblage in which she has the most influence and allies.
Queer Theory redefines and reclaims the term “queer” like Vibrant Materialism does matter. David Savran explains that Queer Theory operates on a definition of queer that “signifies less a fixed identity than a principle of polysemy” (57). Queer no longer refers to a specific sect of sexual deviance, that is, but to an entire spectrum of underrepresented cultures, races, genders, and sexual orientations. This is, indeed, quite a claim, and I will test the limits of “queering” (the act of illuminating the fluidity of this spectrum) in Sir Launfal. Gender instability is apparent in the almost authoritative influence that Guenevere and Tryamour have over Arthur and Launfal (suggesting a gender role reversal in each relationship). Class is also represented as a fluctuating station in life, as Launfal’s good service goes unpaid and he descends into poverty (emasculating him in the process), while Guenevere’s ignoble behavior goes completely unpunished. Launfal’s eventual class restoration and Guenevere’s final humiliation suggests, though, that such stations in life are ultimately destined and re-secured by a social code – hardly a queer message. Race and culture is ambiguously represented in both Launfal and Tryamour. As a foreigner in Arthur’s kingdom, Launfal is easily (and, presumably, understandably) ostracized by court decorum and law. Tryamour’s mythical ethnicity (she is a fairy) makes her, oddly enough, both vulnerable and threatening. Though she must conduct her love and gift giving in self-conscious secrecy, once exposed she expresses her entitlement to her love, wealth, and beauty. Though she is marginalized by Arthur’s court, it is because of her superiority to it, not inferiority. Each instance of straying from the norm can be considered an instance of “queering.” So whereas Guenevere does not quite explicitly accuse Launfal of being homosexual as she does in Lanval, she finds other ways of “queering” him that are just as demeaning (considering the medieval, premodern understanding of homosexuality).
Typically, objectification is a demeaning and disempowering practice. Object-oriented ontology, though, elevates and empowers objects, inverting the typical implications of objectification (perhaps even encouraging it). An object-oriented reading of Marie de France’s Yonec objectifies bodies in a peculiar way. It distinguishes them from the minds or souls that reside within them, while insisting that there should still be parallels (if not union) between the two.
The young lady uses this technique herself to deny her old husband a soul, referring to him as “this jealous man, / who married me to his body” (83-4). Demonizing and objectifying him, the lady rejects any spiritual tie to her husband, making their marriage a mere marriage of bodies. Her own body tainted by his, she lets its beauty go “as one does who cares nothing for it” (48). Divorcing herself from her body takes quite a toll on it, but hopefully preserves her soul.
She later learns, though, the value of the body (and beauty, for only beautiful bodies have value, it seems). Her newfound lover reminds her that the soul and body are ideally one, using his body (though her appearance) “to receive the body of our lord God” (162). The lord’s very body is sacred, and can be accessed through the body. Given this reminder that the body is meant to house the soul, “[h]er body had now become precious to her” (215). Re-embracing her body as her own, her home for Christ and romantic love, “she completely recovered her beauty” (216). The body cannot house the soul if they do not reflect each other. By this mutual dependency, the soul cannot be preserved by abandoning the body (as she tried with her marriage of bodies), any more than the body bloom without a soul.
Exposing subject and object’s “mutual dependency,” Jane Bennett levels the subject-object hierarchy (23). Similarly, Bruno Latour “dislocate[es]” cause-effect authority (58). Traditionally, “the second term is predicted by the first,” locating authority in the cause (58). Actor Network Theory, though, resists assigning a central cause and instead enumerates multiple actors. Bruno Latour explains that “[w]hen a force manipulates another, it does not mean that it is a cause generating effects,” for this kind of central causation implies a certain authority (someone/thing “giving” agency, to borrow from class). Instead, Latour considers a cause “an occasion for other things to start acting,” exercising the agency they already have (60). The cause as an “occasion” may inspire action, but it does not directly determine it.
Looking at three lays with an identical “cause” (or occasion) – the werewolf transformation – but different “effects” (or subsequent actions) attests to Latour’s rejection of singularity and determinacy and his support of multiplicity and variability. Circumstances certainly vary across Bisclavret, Melion, and Biclarel’s situations; their transformations, recuperations, and all that transpires in between. But what of the similarities? Doesn’t the werewolf consistently cause fear? Doesn’t betrayal consistently cause revenge? Though generalities, these actions/reactions re-occur in all three lays. Even if these are simply literary tropes, they stem from somewhere. Even an “occasion” to act is not an open invitation, it is an inspiration, which includes certain guiding implications.
While both Bennett’s “assemblages” and Latour’s “associations” easily (almost identically) apply, Julian Yates’s “agentive drift” seems most appropriate in an ANT reading of Bisclavret. It is perhaps just a matter of diction – the draw of the word “drift.” For agentive drift has agency “dispersed or distributed” among actants – though not necessarily equally or permanently in place (it drifts from actant to actant) (48). Pivotal moments in Bisclavret are precipitated (or prevented, or at least forestalled) by different actants as different actants assume agentive priority.
At the start of the lay, Bisclavret forfeits his agency to his clothes. He is supposedly in command of himself and his humanity while dressed (“behave[ing] nobly” as he does) (18). After shedding his clothes, though, he admits “I’d be helpless / until I got them back” (76-7). He acknowledges and accommodates the clothes’s acquired agency, taking the proper precautions to ensure that they don’t act against him (by securing them in his secret place, an effort to reinstate his control). When Bisclavret’s clothes fail to comply and disappear, he is indeed rendered helpless…for a time.
Over the course of the lay, Bisclavret finds a certain empowerment in his “helpless” condition. He is able to aggressively assault those who wrong him, and serve excellently and affectionately he who loves him – acts he could not achieve before (after all, some deficiency in their marriage must have led his wife to adultery…and some timidity or passivity must have allowed it to persist). Now presented with the clothes, “he didn’t even seem to notice them” (280). The clothes’s agency drifts right away, as Bisclavret resists them to impress the King with his modesty. In an interesting turn of events (or agency), Bisclavret regains authority over his clothes.
Having already established the agency inherent in all matter, the next move in Actor-Network Theory (a la Bennett, Latour, and Yates) seems to be to embrace its fluidity. How, though, does one embrace something fluid? Hold on to something uncontainable? Latour begins his “Introduction to Part I” with a series of such unresolvable paradoxes. He proceeds, though, to devise a method that will in fact resolve them (by introducing a paradox in itself, of course). “Relativism” in Latour’s “sociology of associations” (his custom word for ANT)makes it “possible to trace more sturdy relations and discover more revealing patterns by finding a way to register the links between unstable and shifting references rather than by trying to keep the frame stable” (24). “Relatively” recognizing the shifting instability and changing locality of agency within a society, network, assemblage, (take your pick), is a sturdier approach than permanently erecting fixed, stable frames and categories. Tracing and linking agents in an event is much less damaging than dissecting, disordering, and categorizing them.
Similarly, Julian Yates’ concept of “agentive drift” is “a way of representing agency as a dispersed or distributed process in which we participate rather than which we are said to own” (48). Yeats does not try to locate agency definitively within any particular group, action, object, or fact (those uncertainties that Latour grapples with), but concedes that it “drifts” amongst them, just as Latour feels it “shifts.” Distributing agency, as Bennett insists in her parallel discussion of assemblages, does not dissolve accountability. Yates’ ANTy retelling of Arden and Garret’s 1597 prison break “maximizes the number of actors,” but does not dismiss a single one of them. If anything, it maximizes the scope of the event, revealing that while it appeared to be an individual incident, it was a community effort of combined agency.
Championing “The Force of Things” as she did in chapter one, I felt that Jane Bennett underrated the force of objects. She congratulated those “things” which had “exceed[ed] their status as objects,” reviving the “liveliness intrinsic to the materiality of the thing formerly known as an object” (xvi). She characterized the object/thing distinction (or transformation) as some kind of reclamation or retribution. Furthermore, by encouraging an object’s “independence from the words, images, and feelings they provoke in us,” she seemed to discourage even symbolism (xvi)! Her description of symbolism as an act of human agency, an infliction only a passive object could endure, neglected the agency that symbolism infuses in the symbol (for sentimental symbols move us in ways that foreign things can’t). If the object/thing distinction entails stripping symbolic significance, I thought, does it really have a place in literature, a fictional (and therefore entirely symbolic) framework?
In her chapter two discussion of “The Agency of Assemblages,” however, Bennett acknowledges that “the power of a body to affect other bodies includes a ‘corresponding and inseparable’ capacity to be affected” (21). With this principle in mind, there is no need to sever subject-object ties, for subject and object share an equal and indistinguishable agency. The subject-object hierarchy pertains only to speech and grammar; actual matter (subject, object, or “thing”) interacts with an equal and indiscriminate “conatus” (22). Who is subject and who is object is all but irrelevant, for the overarching relationship between the two is more of a “coexistence of mutual dependency with friction and violence between parts”: an assemblage (23). An autonomous thing is perhaps a more fictional notion than a host of symbols. Symbols and their subjects exhibit this “mutual dependency.” “Friction and violence” between them precipitates plot twists the way assemblages precipitate natural/technological phenomenon like black-outs. “Things” must exist in a non-existent vacuum, stranger than fiction.
Jane Bennett is careful to distinguish her notion of “thing-power” from Hent de Vries’s “the absolute” (3). She acknowledges their apparent similarity (both concern liberating things from objectivity), but insists that “thing-power” departs from “the absolute” in a fundamental way: it does not privilege “intelligibility” (3). “The absolute” is a rare liberation from objectivity that depends on the limits of intelligence (the thing’s being beyond the confinement of subject’s intelligent grasp). De Vries’s notion of “the absolute” triumphs the occasional thing, but consistently “give[s] priority to humans as knowing bodies” (for their intelligence, or perhaps its limits, decides who escapes objectivity) (3). Bennett’s particular word choice, “priority,” suggests the hierarchal order of human and non-human, intelligent and unintelligent, things.
This hierarchy, or its criterion, was a source of contention just a few weeks ago in Michael Berube’s lecture at the College of Charleston, “Life as Jamie Knows It.” Berube voiced his discontent with cognitive intelligence as the criterion for value judgments. He cited the tactics of the early animal rights movement, which used such standards (if only for demonstrative purposes) to value gifted animals over mentally disabled humans. Such a maneuver just tantalizes anthropocentrics (Humans must always reign superior! But what makes them superior, if not their intelligence?). Bennett’s “thing-power” discourages such hierarchies by using a different criterion for value judgments: “conatus” (the indiscriminate empowerment of being). The universality of Bennett’s criterion ensures that “the status of the shared materiality of all things is elevated” (13). Could it be that materialists “distribute value more generously” than humanists (13)?
In accordance with Thing Theory, Marie de France’s Le Fresne features mere “objects” with the potential to assert themselves as “things.” Fresne’s tokens, “locked…in a chest” as they are for the majority of the lay, keep a certain static objectivity (304). In isolation, their material existence is not interrupted, nor is it disruptive. Revealed in a social context, though, they suddenly assert their symbolic existence and cause quite a stir. This assertion is transformative, transforming the significance of the tokens and Fresne herself. The mother’s examination of the ring best captures this instantaneous transformation: “She recognized it very well, / and the silk cloth too. / No doubt about it, now she knew – / this was her own daughter!” (445-8). The ring and silk cloth may understandably signify nobility – not a far stretch considering their material value. But that they too so easily prove Fresne’s nobility and legitimacy (when she was previously considered a “concubine”) seems quite a stretch (323).
Granted, Fresne’s nobility is supposedly inherent in her character. All of Brittany recognizes that “she was noble and cultivated / in appearance and speech” (249-40). In this respect, Brittan society recognizes nobility as being distinct from (or at least not entirely constituted by) material wealth. Noble esteem, though, is not equalent to noble status, at least as far as the Gurun’s vassals are concerned. The vassals demand a lady of objective, indisputable nobility. “Things” like virtue and decorum are still rivaled by objects like coins and jewels. Yet again, it seems that it’s those “things” of both material and symbolic value that prevail. For Fresne’s tokens, while largely symbolic (they’re not official documents, after all), provide a material basis to which to attribute her nobility. Material and symbolic value should coincide. Fresne’s rich and noble tokens reveal her rich and noble character, just as the nestling ash tree’s boughs reveal Fresne’s nestling domesticity.