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.
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!
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.
Throughout my initial reading of Sir Orfeo, I thought of Sir Orfeo’s quest as a testament to humility and pure love, as many of Sir Orfeo’s actions seemed to indicate such motivations. However, as we discussed in class, the allegory of death, mourning, and coping seem to be a far greater underlying theme throughout the piece. Not only does the idea of death play a major part in interpreting the king’s actions and the enigmatic fairy kingdom that steals the queen, but it also shows how death has an agency throughout the piece that affects the networks it touches.
For example, as the she earnestly begs the fairy king not to take her away, the king proclaims that she will “live with ous evermo,” and if she is to refuse they will “totore [tear] thine limes al /…And thei thou best so totorn, / Yete thou worst with ous y-born” (169, 171, 173-74). Such a statement on the part of the fairy’s —when seen as a calling of death— shows how powerful an agency like death possess. The force of this agency effects more than just the queen, it tears the king from his sanity and wreaks emotional havoc on his psyche. Despite the queen’s ultimate acquiesce and acceptance of the inevitable separation, the King cannot fathom such occurrences and merely drives himself into distress, thinking “[n]ever eft y nil no woman se / into wilderness ichil te / and live ther evermore,” which shows how the king refuses to bear the pain of emotional attachment (211-14).
In addition to his refusal to deal with human contact, the king’s drive to find his wife seems to manifest the type of agency death bestows on the assemblages throughout the poem —it transforms them. The idea that the king will get back his lost wife shows how he has gained a sense of hope or a faith in finding what may have been impossible to find. This type of response bring to mind a sense that the king will be able to defeat death, which is an utterly impossible feat, but nonetheless it seems to show how death’s agency can transform the logical mind of the mourner into one of self-destructive and unfounded hope. However, the story certainly does not end on such a dismal note, but in doing so the reader is left asking what this type of allegory has achieved. Perhaps the point of the narrative is that ending on a sad note is precisely what humans cannot understand and is why the story ends as such.
The protagonists in Equitan are characterised by a lack of understanding over how their agency will affect others, and what actions others will take in response. None of the characters can escape that they are part of an assemblage, with only partial power over their fate, and their denial of this fact is what destroys them.
This is clear in the title character’s behaviour, as he consistently disregards the consequences of his actions, or deliberately creates ridiculous ones he knows to be incorrect: “he certainly can’t hold her all by himself”. This is different from acknowledging what real reactions you may provoke through use of your agency, but deciding to accept these potentially negative consequences, because the reward is worth it. The king never examines the situation for actual outcomes; instead, he willingly allows his desires to lead him down a path, without properly checking whether the end point could be fatal. In contrast, the woman whom he pursues considers the matter carefully, asking for “some time to think”, and thus respects the different actants involved. However, she is persuaded by Equitan’s words, rather than his true sentiments, which leads her to falsely believe that he thinks their love is worth risking their lives for. In reality, he’s a coward who considers damaging effects only when they occur, as shown by his illogical, panic-stricken decision to dive into boiling water, rather than protect his lover. The seneschal is the only one of the love triangle who takes into account others’ potential reactions to his agency, which is reflected in his deep-set loyalty to his king.
In an assemblage, each actant must consider how their agency will affect others, and how, in turn, these reactions will affect them, before they use their thing-power. There is always a risk in enacting one’s agency, but Equitan shows that this risk is greatly increased when those involved fail to acknowledge how their agency might influence others.
This week while reading “Yonec” I was reminded a lot of “Guigemar” because of the same wife locked away in a room scenario. However, I liked that in “Yonec” the wife has more of a voice. In “Guigemar” we are given a description of the king that is very much like the description of the king in “Yonec.” he is “a very aged man who ha[s] a wife” (Guigemar 210). In “Yonec”, the king is “rich, old and ancient” (Yonec 12). So in “Guigemar” the king is characterized in terms of having a wife, and in “Yonec” the king is identified by his money. I don’t really see anything out of the ordinary here, but in “Yonec” we are provided with the wife’s perspective of her husband which I thought was just great. She calls him a “jealous old man” (71), and says that “when he should have been baptized / he was plunged instead in the river of hell; / his senews are hard, his veins are hard, / filled with living blood” (87-90). Whoa! I didn’t realize how much of a woman’s voice was lacking in the lais until this one finally spoke. I know women do speak occasionally in the lais, but this is the first time I really felt like I heard one with a voice.
Another exclamation of the wife’s that made me think is when she cries that she should have never been born, her fate is terrible, and that she is imprisoned until death (67-70). Most intriguingly she thinks, “What is this jealous old man afraid of / that he keeps me so imprisoned?” (71-2). If we place everything on a horizontal plane like Bennett suggests, I wonder how many other “things” like the wife are screaming inside to be allowed to be the director of their own agency instead of being forced to serve the agendas of others (humans). Going back to the wife’s earlier opinion of her husband: what if things could talk? What would they say about their “owners”?
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.
Reputation, Reputation, Reputation. Reputation is a huge theme in all the medieval Breton Lais it seems. Lanval’s reputation is slighted when he doesn’t receive a gift from his lord King Arthur. Again his reputation is sullied when Guinevere lies and says he tried to sleep with her. We see the importance of reputation in Eliduc, when he has given his word to his wife that he will be faithful. Reputation is huge in Milun because the girl has gotten pregnant without being married. Almost the entire first part of Milun, a love story, focuses on her reputation and the worry she has if anyone finds out about the baby. The love part of the story takes a backseat. In fact love takes a backseat to reputation more often then I would have guessed. Milun and Eliduc are two lais in which this happens so I wanted to explore the agency of reputation in some of the lais we’ve read.
First off reputation in the romantic court is quite possibly the most important aspect of a knight. Every deed, action, adventure a knight does is done for his reputation. The same can be said of the woman in the court; they can’t have their reputations sullied. The society of the time of these lais stress reputation beyond anything. Reputation travels throughout the land. In Eliduc and Milun the love interests hear of Eliduc and Milun before they have ever laid eyes on them. The reputation of the two knights is what draws the knights and woman to each other. I think I can say that the woman fall in love with the knights’ reputation.
Reputation drives the society. The livelihood of the knights is dependent on reputation. When Eliduc’s reputation is slighted by the lies told to the King, he is kicked out of the King’s service and goes over seas to find a lord. The power of reputation to me is above even the power of love. Reputation has a higher relevance than religion or God in these lais. Reputation, Reputation, Reputation.
What is the significance of the weasel scene in Marie de France’s Eliduc? Eliduc’s complicated love life comes to a head when his wife finds out about his affair with another woman. Surprisingly, her reaction is one of acceptance rather than anger. In fact, she goes so far as to bring his love back to life in an imitation of how the weasel brought his companion to life with the red flower.
It is significant that the weasels exemplify love’s power in this scene—its power to heal or destroy. In resituating its mate, the weasel also embodies the importance of loyalty or fidelity in the relationships between Eliduc and the two women. It is interesting that weasels would be used as the medium to express the ways in which love can overcome potential pettiness or jealousy and even death itself. The weasels’ love is not inferior; the love between the two weasels is analogous to the love between the two humans.
The wife’s reaction (i.e. to imitate their actions rather than dismiss them) shows how love transcends the divide between human and nonhuman. The exhibition of loving traits, even in the bodies of animals, does not alter the meaning of love itself but reaffirms the power of love to transcend body, space, and time. There are certainly different forms of love (and a ‘divine’ love may indeed be more important than an earthly one), but the fact remains: the weasels show how, in at least one respect, animal behavior mirrors its human counterparts.
The weasels may be important in and of themselves but, in renewing life through an act of love, they almost rise above the animal body itself—that kind of power is no respecter of artificial bodily boundaries. In portraying the scene as charming rather than ridiculous, the story illustrates the agency of love and the implied agency of the nonhuman actants as well.
For this week’s blog I would like to focus on the agency of love in Eliduc. The characters of Eliduc and Guilliadun seem kind of helpless to its powers don’t they? At one point, “love [even] sen[ds] [Guilliadun] a message, / commanding her to love [Eliduc] / that ma[kes] her go pale and sigh” (304-6). Love has a lot of agency in these lines. It commands Guilliadun to love Eliduc. Instead of recognizing herself that she has feelings for Eliduc that respond to his character, she instead attributes it all to love as if she has no part in it whatsoever. At first, the effects of this love sound pretty terrible: Guilliadun can’t sleep at night (331-2), her heart is “assaulted” (387), and she is “in grief” (391). The reader really gets the idea that if love does not get its way here Guilliadun is pretty much doomed and “never in [her] life shall [she] have any joy” (400).
The agency of love is pretty far-reaching because Eliduc feels it too. He begins to feel distress from the time he sees her (459), and has “no joy or pleasure / except when he th[inks] of her” (460-1). Though he wants to stay faithful to his wife he literally cannot “keep himself / from loving [Guilliadun]” (467-8). I would like to take the opportunity here to point out the vibrant materiality of love in this lai. Not all love is the same here. The love Eliduc feels for his wife is not the same love that he feels for Guilliadun. It is almost like it is two different forces just like no two hammers are exactly the same nor do they possess the same agency.
Then, there is the scene in the chapel with the weasels when an act of love brings the female weasel back to life (1038-53). Not only is love capable of destruction when it doesn’t get its way, it is also a lifesaver. It takes many different forms in this lai, but I don’t think that it is one love “thing” that is morphing to suit every character’s needs. I really imagine a few different “loves” each with their own agency and agenda just like there are different characters in the lai.