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).