Making Matter Matter meets the pre-1700 British Literature requirement of the old major and the Literature in History, pre-1700, requirement of the new major; as a result, it is primarily focused on the relationship between the literature being studied and the historical moment in which it was produced, a relationship that is mutually influential and constitutive.
Just as importantly, though, Making Matter Matter takes a particular theoretical and methodological approach to the medieval texts under investigation. We will be engaging with approaches borrowed from the disciplines of political science, science and technology studies, and philosophy that are currently offering much to literary scholars and other humanists, who are in turn making their own contributions to those approaches.
We will reorient our attention away from the human as a single, independent being and will instead see what happens when we think of humans as parts of a larger system of activity, of distributed agency (a concept we will engage in depth early in the semester). We will reconsider the longstanding focus on subjectivity as the central orientation of literary texts. To do so, we will investigate the cutting-edge theoretical approaches of vibrant materialism and actor-network theory as they help us generate alternative readings of short texts written in England in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries. We will, as a result, be producing original readings of these old texts that have, despite their being 700-900 years old, never before been generated.
Through the course of the semester, you will develop a deeper understanding of late Middle English and of late medieval English culture, with a focus especially on one particular genre, the Breton lai, a type of romance with roots in Brittany but with a vivid life in England (in both Middle English and Anglo-Norman writing). While we will be attuned to literary historical features of the romance genre, our main focus will be on considering through these narratives how medieval English audiences in their imaginative texts exhibit conceptions of and attitudes toward the nonhuman other.
We begin the semester working on student facility with Middle English, the variety of English in which the majority of the literary texts we’ll be reading were written. Alongside that, we will perform initial readings of one Anglo-Norman Breton lai by Marie de France (translated into Modern English) and of one Middle English Breton lai. These will be a touchstone for us as we develop our interpretive tools by reading some thing theory (as introduced a decade ago by Bill Brown), some vibrant materialism (as presented by Jane Bennett last year in her book Vibrant Matter, the first half of which we will read this semester), and some actor-network theory (as promoted by Bruno Latour, whose ideas we will approach in the second half of the semester). Simultaneously, we will be reading Middle English and Anglo-Norman Breton lais (most of them anonymous, other than those written by Marie). Midway through the class, just after Fall Break, we will be visited by Jeffrey Cohen, Professor of English at George Washington University, who has been a very active proponent of object-oriented approaches to medieval literature. He will come to our class one evening and the next will be presenting a public lecture on “Feeling Stone” as part of the English department’s Visiting Scholar series.
Before that, you will write one short essay, making a first stab at deploying some of the new approaches we’ve discussed to one of the literary texts you’ve read at that point. After a midterm exam, we will shift focus to the final research project. (You will also produce and share with/perform a creative project for the class at the end of the semester.) The last third of the semester will be full of many literary texts, having equipped ourselves by that point with a range of object-oriented approaches to apply to these texts.
|Jane Bennett. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. [ISBN: 978-0-8223-4633-3]||Middle English Breton Lays. Ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury. Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. [ISBN: 978-1879299621]AVAILABLE ONLINE for FREE!|
|Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. [ISBN: 978-0199256051]AVAILABLE PDF (full-book) for FREE!||Marie de France. The Lais of Marie de France. Trans. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante. Baker Books, 1995. [ISBN: 978-0801020315]|