I’m glad I presented first, because every presentation from our class was a tough act to follow. The amount of thought, time, and effort each group put into their work was clearly evident, as was the importance of things in each presentation. Again and again we return to the idea that we open our eyes to objects as things when they fail to perform their expected functions. In class, those objects were the projector, speakers, and computers used in the electronic presentations. When the class computer failed to perform its expected role, the chain of events and order of presentations were disrupted, and only when its function was restored could some groups complete their goals. The very functionality of the equipment affected our perspective of the presentations, such as the low audio of John’s video. The speaker’s inability to provide us our desired audio level forced us to react, as our entire class shifted forward, bringing our desks with us in order to get closer to the sound. The video was influenced not only by the computer’s ability to translate to the projector, but the projector’s ability to replicate that image. Once translated, the projector sent out light that was influenced by dust particles in the air, and this sheet of light blended with the impure white screen in order to create the actual image which our eyes interpreted into what we saw. Before taking this class, I would have likely never considered the importance of something as seemingly insignificant as dust particles in the air in crafting a visual presentation. But in class they seemed impossible to ignore, as group after group blatantly stated the importance of even the smallest of things in our lives. To me, beyond the apparent skilled rhetoric and creativity of the projects, my awareness of the dust in the air signified the success of these presentations.
In studying object-oriented theory over the course of the semester, I feel like I have undergone a fundamental transformation in how I relate to the world around me. I pay attention to things more than I ever have before. Putting things or objects into separate categories has become something I question on a daily basis, which is remarkable considering how normalized a practice it was before these ideas were introduced to me.
In reference to an example from the beginning of class: a window is not simply a window, an opaque object which one looks through in order to view something on the other side. Now, I look at a window and I notice it for what it is, not what it is (or how it is supposed to function) in relation to me. As a human being, there will always be limitations to how I am going to perceive the world, especially in relation to myself, but this class has shown me how all things, human and nonhuman, actually work together.
No longer can I consciously and/or casually dismiss an object as insignificant, knowing that it has its place in a larger network or assemblage that might also, potentially, count me as one of its participants. Humans are neither the lowest nor the highest, nor can we consider ourselves in terms of inferiority or superiority. In this way, the “natural” order of things might not be so natural after all.
As much as I have struggled to wrap my brain around these concepts, I have also gradually integrated them into the most mundane corners of my life. For instance, simply walking down the street is a completely new experience. The street I’m walking on, the small animals in the trees, the grass that covers the ground, the door I eventually open—all of these are actants with equal agency and, perhaps even, equal vibrancy. Ultimately, the sights, sounds, and smells of everyday life take on new meaning when viewed through the lens of an object-oriented ontology.
In our discussion of Yonec the question was raised of why the zombie-king was executed after his change of heart. Personal journeys of spiritual redemption are commonplace in Marie’s works, yet the king’s redemption (he “never assaulted or abused [the lady]” after the knight’s death) is disregarded (456). Marie’s denial of the king’s redemption reflects a fundamental flaw in his change of heart- it is the ring that exerted its agency to change the king’s ways, overwhelming the agency of the king who would otherwise have preferred to be an abusive husband. In an assemblage, agency shifts between different actants within, and in the king’s network the ring shifted agency from the king’s will, rendering his redemptive actions as morally weightless as they were not backed by the king’s true will. Marie seems to be saying that virtue can only exist in a knightly world if it comes from the soul, something the zombie-king either lost to the ring or never possessed in the first place.
We just can’t get through a class discussion recently without mentioning alliances or networks, now can we? Alliances with objects are inescapable in the lais we’ve read, including “Emare,” whose plot is driven by letters, a ship, and a robe, among others. Emare’s “alliance” with the robe had its up and downs, as it both led to her love with her husband and led to her banishment by the mother. But in the end, as in all lais, the story ended with Emare on top, with the net result of her alliance leading to fortune and a happy life. Does this suggest that all alliances with things are for the best? Perhaps, but a happy ending is an essential quality of the British lai, and perhaps not all networks and alliances end for the better. Especially since I’ve entered into an alliance with a special “thing” this week, a virus.
Now, the “thingness” of viruses has been up to debate for a while now. In short, they are composed of organic matter, eat, and reproduce, yet they do not autonomously self-reproduce and are thus damned by the scientific community to the level of “thing,” as opposed to the vibrant level of organism. Yes, we have beaten to death the idea that all matter is on the same level of existence, as things (anything, really) are only judged by their ability to act as actants, to influence or redefine other things. And this virus certainly is an actant, which led to my absence yesterday and has directed my discussion towards its existence. Does that mean the virus has agency? It certainly changed my plans for this week, limiting my actions and “forcing” me to feel rather miserable. I’m really not sure how to answer that question at this point, but hopefully I’ll be able to when my body is done hosting this rude guest. Whether the virus “wants” to or not, it’s destroying my cells and making clones of itself. In fact, that is its very purpose- to inject its RNA and produce clones of itself. But calling this agency is the same as claiming that a river chooses to flow into the ocean. This is its natural predisposition, and consciousness may be far removed from the virus and its natural life choices.
Is my alliance with this actant going to be beneficial in the end? I’m full of questions today, and I’m afraid that this one in particular may be impossible to answer. Who knows, maybe missing class was for the best, and allowed me to avoid some tragic end the other day, maybe I’ll emerge from this sickness with a greater appreciation for life, and do great things because of it and change the world. Maybe my changes will lead to a post-apocalyptic dystopia far after I’ve passed away and become one with the grass. With lais or any writing, there is a clear ending point in the text. A last word, a final page. But in life, there is none, at least none that I can comprehend. The net result of my life, or actions I took while under the influence of an actant, are an eternal mystery that can only be judged at the end of time. But for now, I judge this actant as harmful to my alliance with things, yet I think it for helping me create these thoughts as I type in a feverish delirium.
The social sciences, according to Bruno Latour, seek to explain the “presence of something at once invisible yet tangible, taken for granted yet surprising, mundane but of baffling subtlety…” (Latour 21). We, as human beings, struggle to define our social interactions by labeling them. However, most of these interactions (especially involving non-human entities) are so complex as to preclude the need for strict categorization. In attempting to tame “the wild beast”, we forget that the beast resists our attempts to categorize it.
Other disciplines, like cartography, use abstract means of making sense of its findings. Latour says that (in reference to the community of social sciences), “we, too, should find our firm ground on shifting sands…” (Latour 24). Making sense of the world requires a theoretical standpoint, particularly when dealing with the social. A more abstract approach is the better way to tackle questions and/or problems of such enormous complexity, rather than preempting the reactions with a ready-made box to facilitate “organization.”
Latour defends ANT theory in conveying the overall message that the social sciences need to embrace change. Rather than rely on strict categories to define or order the social, sociologists should get used to the unpredictability inherent in trying to explain the interactions between the human and non-human. Also, recognizing that social forces are unpredictable puts more of the emphasis on the reactions, rather than the one observing the reactions (who most likely has a preconceived notion for what “category” something fits in anyway). In other words, “the task of defining and ordering the social should be left to the actors themselves, not taken up by the analyst” (Latour 23). Latour’s whole concept of “reassembling the social” centers on, first, changing what we perceive to belong in a certain category and, then, questioning the usefulness of those categories in and of themselves.
As we’ve been talking about assemblages in class, the whole concept seems a little vague to me. I think I understand, and correct me if I’m wrong here, that an assemblage is all the actants that combine one way or another to make something happen, to put it loosely. We looked at Guigemar and the events and actants that led up to his injury: his desire to hunt, his huntsmen, his arrow, his horse, the fact that the deer ran out at that precise moment, the strange female yet male quality of the deer, the deer’s curse etc. I understand this but it seems as though infinite things combine to produce one action or event. The list could go on infinitely to sum up the parts that got Guigemar wounded: that specific day, the strength he used to shoot the arrow, the horse’s speed, the deers speed, etc etc.
It would seem that then everything existing is part of an assemblage or the effect of an assemblage and it would be impossible to try to pinpoint all the parts of an assemblage because there are really infinite. I mean no offense to Jane Bennett but I just really don’t understand how realizing that each action, event etc is made up of many causes is beneficial except for simply recognizing that everything is made up of so many other parts so appreciation, blame, confusion, etc can be dispersed instead of centered on one, not entirely at fault being.
I guess what I am getting at is how looking at assemblages will helpful in studying pre-1700 texts besides what I just mentioned?
I had a good deal of difficulty picturing abstract actants such as a power grid’s “profit motives” in the medieval texts we’ve read thus far (Bennett 25). But after today’s discussion in lecture, I went back to “Guigemar” and couldn’t help seeing them in every passage. One of the most interesting intangible actants I found had the most apparent power when Guigemar first encounters the lady. When he arrives on the ship, the lady believes him to be dead, a corpse, an object. Guigemar is unconscious and has no control over his body, yet he’s still able to affect her as she falls in love with him. How is that? She’s captured by his beauty, “lamenting his beauty and fine body” (Marie 296). His beauty itself behaved as an actant, redefining him and his relationships without the need of Guigemar’s will. Guigemar’s body/beauty was necessary for the plot’s progression, and had power over his destiny even when Guigemar himself was on the brink of death and had no power for himself.
The lord’s niece affirms the power of beauty, claiming that this shared quality between Guigemar and the lady was sufficient in establishing a lifelong alliance between the two; “This love would be suitable . . . / you’re handsome and she’s beautiful” (Marie 451-3). The ability of qualities of a person to act independently of one’s will seems pretty frightening to me, as it draws into the question just how much “free will” we actually have. Beauty/Physical appearance is one of the most grounded qualities one has, but any quality, one’s sense of humor, intelligence, empathy, may behave as an actant, changing one’s course in life regardless of our will or intentions. Does this make sense?
The tale of “Sir Degare” is rife with symbolism and a complex web of social interaction. Throughout much of the story it appears as though the protagonists struggles are merely the result of chance —and at times, unorganized chaos. However, when the ‘objects’ and tokens of the story are analyzed, the makings of a, subtle but crucial, network emerge, which ultimately appears to setup the structure of Sir Degare’s quest. Although a great deal of important objects appear, the weapons Sir Degare acquires are what seem to work as actants and ultimately lead him to critical moments in the story. In other words, the weapons appear to lay out a roadmap that indicate each of Sir Degare’s quests, which ultimately lead to encounters.
During the part of the story, and after hearing of his true past, Sir Degare is equipped with his first item of battle: a solid, wooden “bat” (SD, 374) In itself, the club exhibits characteristics that transcend the normal boundaries of what a typical club —as a human ‘object’— would be expected to posses, but in the hands of Sir Degare, it has the capacity and conative drive to work as a weapon that appears to exceed all human expectations of strength, and ultimately bring down a creature that could withstand blows from hardened steel blades. Furthermore, the fortitude of this seemingly innocuous and weak ‘thing’ (wooden club) lead Sir Degare into good fortune, since he acquires the favor of the Earl whom he saved. Therefore, it also seems as though the bat is an operator, because, as Jane Bennett would say, it is by “virtue of its particular location in an assemblage and fortuity of being in the right place at the right time,” able to work as “the decisive force catalyzing an event” (Bennett 9).
Although Sir Degare acquires many more weapons throughout his quest, it appears as though the entire series of quests and battles begins with one simple item: a wooden club. In addition to its affect as an actant, the club seems to manifest Bennett’s concept of “vital materiality,” since its influence is what causes the protagonist to acquire suitable armaments and prove himself as a noble warrior. In other words, the violence inflicted by the club seems to have an, almost, ripple effect throughout the story.