Review of Week 3 (Sept 5, 7) and Preview of Week 4 (Sept 12)
Review of Week 3 (by Autumn Bennett)
On Monday we began class with the Middle English Exercise 4 on grammar. We discussed inflection and word order on page two and the examples that demonstrate that regardless of word order the sentence means the same thing. We discussed that because of inflection the structure of the sentence was not as important. We then focused on the pronouns on page four, and the similarities and differences between Modern and Middle English pronouns. There are some inflectional differences in Middle English pronouns that we do not have in Modern English. “Thou,” which does not often appear in our vernacular though often thought to be formal, is actually used when addressing someone who is beneath you in social status. Then we read the sample passage from Chaucer on page one and discussed grammatical challenges. We discussed how the form of English that Chaucer is using allows for more room/play.
During the second half of class we shifted to “Thing Theory” by Bill Brown. On the board Dr. Seaman wrote the possible thesis statement: “Things have always been participants in human theories; we just haven’t acknowledged that we were using them. Thing theory makes that explicit and looks at how objects ‘asser[t] themselves as things’ and are in relation to and influence the subject.” We discussed what Bill Brown’s purpose in writing this essay was, and that perhaps thing theory brings “things” into the conversation acknowledging that they are participants instead of passive matter, and bringing to light the fact that have always been there. We discussed further how objects assert their thingness by doing not what we want them to do, especially if they break. We considered then what our relationship is to a thing when it no longer fulfills its purpose: it draws our attention to it as something other than what we thought it was, because it no longer works and thus no longer seems to have that familiar identity. Therefore it no longer fits our idea of what this thing is supposed to be doing. There is a changed relationship to the human subject when the thing is not behaving as we require it. As a result the things reveal a subjectivity of their own when they are then forcing us to think about them.
On Wednesday we began class with the final installment of the Middle English Exercise. The subject of this exercise is pronunciation and the biggest difference between Middle and Modern English is in vowels and the pronunciation of every sound/syllable in Middle English whereas in Modern English there are silent letters. Then, we practiced the pronunciation on the trapezoid found on page two, and talked about the physical differences of pronouncing each sound. The key is to think about how easily these sounds may be connected to one another. This is meant to demonstrate that the Great Vowel Shift was not a random change, but a gradual change of sounds/transformations that result in a pattern. Dr. Seaman pointed out the results of the Great Vowel Shift on page three, and then we did the exercise at the bottom of the page to observe the differences that the Great Vowel Shift explains.
During the second half of Wednesday’s class we switched to the Preface of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. We briefly compared Jane Bennett’s approach versus Bill Brown’s approach. Dr. Seaman asserted that Bennett has a “vision of making dramatic here and now kind of changes” whereas Brown discusses it in a more theoretical approach. In her preface, Bennett lets the reader know that she is going on a sort of journey whereas Brown is more focused on informing his reader that thing-theory is something that has been happening all along. Bennett also points out where in philosophy philosophers have had a move vibrant-matter-oriented viewpoint. We also talked about Bennett’s description of the actant, and that the definition of an actant really depends on the interpretation (viii). Bennett argues that we have usually read the definition as only going one way: humans acting on something else. We also discussed agency, and that we usually tend to understand agency as having a will or purpose. In this thing-theory it is not so much as having the will to do something but the ability or power to do it. We then used this definition to work through the phrase “distributive agency” (ix): agency is not just within the human subject, but in things as well. Power, here, is more distributed. Discussion concluded with the notion that “[f]or this task, demystification, that most popular of practices in critical theory, should be used with caution and sparingly, because demystification presumes that at the heart of any event or process lies a human agency that has illicitly been projected into things. This hermeneutics of suspicion calls for theorists to be on high alert for signs of the secret truth (a human will to power) below the false appearance of nonhuman agency” (xiv). This means demystification and “hermeneutics of suspicion” assumes that everywhere you look you will find human agency.
-In Middle English, “when you see something starting with a ‘y’ in the sentence it is often a verb in the past tense.” Dr. Seaman
-“Le sujet naît de l’objet.”-Michel Serres
-“From there, they might offer us dry ground above those swirling accounts of the subject, some place of origin unmediated by the sign, some stable alternative to the instabilities and uncertainties, the ambiguities and anxieties, forever fetishized by theory.” (Bill Brown 1)
-“But the very semantic reducibility of things to objects, coupled with the semantic irreducibility of things to objects, would seem to mark one way of recognizing how, although objects typically arrest a poet’s attention, and although the object was what was asked to join the dance in philosophy, things may still lurk in the shadows of the ballroom and continue to lurk there after the subject and object have done their thing, long after the party is over.” (Bill Brown 3)
-“In Byatt’s novel, the interruption of the habit of looking through windows as transparencies enables the protagonist to look at a window itself in its opacity.” (Bill Brown 4)
-“A thing, in contrast, can hardly function as a window. We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the window gets filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily.” (Bill Brown 4)
-“Released from the bond of being equipment, sustained outside the irreversibility of technological history, the object becomes something else […] and thus shows how inanimate objects organize the temporality of the animate world.” (Bill Brown 15-16)
-“This habit of parsing the world into dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us. beings) is a ‘partition of the sensible,’ to use Jacques Ranciere’s phrase. The quarantines of matter and life encourage us to ignore the vitality of matter and the lively powers of material formations, such as the way omega-3 fatty acids can alter human moods or the way our trash is not ‘away’ in landfills but generating lively streams of chemicals and volatile winds of methane as we speak” (Bennett vii).
-“Bennett sees humans as being qualitatively different” than objects or things. –Dr. Seaman
-“We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism—the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature—to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world” (Bennett xvi).
-“Why advocate the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within bodies” (Bennett ix)
-flat ontology: breaks down hierarchies of being/every object, including us, share the same position of being in terms of value/hierarchy
-estrangement: the moment when you can get far enough away from something to where it no longer has meaning in terms of its functionality to us and our usual sense of it
-anthropocentric: looking at everything from a narrowly and solely human perspective
-actant: “a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter course of event” (Bennett viii).
-agency: acting on, performing, effecting something
Preview of Week 3 (by Dr. Seaman)
We’ve had a week of 2 literary texts followed by a week of 2 theoretical texts, and now we’re spending our one class day this week on 2 versions of a medieval Breton lay—Marie’s version, Le Fresne, from the 12th century, and a later Middle English version, Lay le Freine.
Do be careful to keep the two texts as distinct as possible as you encounter them—but without seeing those differences as the only defining features of each. After last week, you’re now positioned to pay attention to the many actants within the narratives—human and inhuman; organic and inorganic; animate and inanimate; mobile and inert—and to begin to consider what kinds of networks they might be forming together. (This focus on the network—the alliances Bennett talks about—we haven’t addressed much yet in class, so we’ll work on seeing how these texts’ actants might provide us such opportunities.)
Wednesday I will be en route to New York City during our class (actually, on my way to the airport and going through security, etc.). On Thursday and Friday I will be participating in a series of events described here. They are directly related to the ideas we’re working with and through together in class (and what I’m working on in my own scholarship right now): Friday is a day-long conference called “Speculative Medievalisms” that includes some of the scholars whose work we’ll be reading: Julian Yates, Kellie Robertson, and Graham Harman; Thursday evening will include a discussion between Jane Bennett and Graham Harman, among others. I’m sure to come back with all sorts of ideas and, I expect, stories.