My essay, “Debunking Traditional Chivalric Acts in the Medieval Court’s of Bisclavret and The Greene Knight”, in response to prompt A will use Brown’s “Thing Theory” along with some of Jane Bennett’s ideas about Thing-power and assemblages found in the first two chapters of Vibrant Matter to conclude what the untraditional examples of a challenge, mercy, shame, and violence found in Bisclavret and The Greene Knight say about the act itself and the ones performing it. I intend to investigate each act separately and make individual conclusions about the thingness of each and how it reflects on the protagonist. Both lais are medieval texts whose knightly protagonists must overcome the traditional knightly tests of allegiance to the king, keeping one’s word, mercy, and honor. In both Bisclavret and The Greene Knight, the knights either act in a way that is untraditional in the courtly practice of knighthood. I intend use two of Bill Brown’s key ideas in his theory to challenge the conventional modes of chivalry addressed in many of the critical literary texts I read. Continue reading
Latour wants us to do some major changing as humans when it comes to looking at innate things and for that matter so does Jane Bennett. The idea of granting power to where it seems to be coming from was exceptionally foreign to me before this class. While Jane Bennett’s motives for granting power are ethically driven, the motives of this class seem to focus more on creating a novel way of reading literature. It amazes me that we have the ability to take a fairly new and steadily emerging theory and apply it to texts that are 100s of years old.
Latour and Bennett both point out the heterogeneous nature of assemblages and the necessity of disentangling them in order to be able to see the agency of everything involved. I feel like this is one of the most important concepts in the entire class because without it I felt somewhat lost. The agency of things seems so much more comprehensible when you take into account the array of actants affecting the final outcome. It seems impossible to look at one particular thing and give it all the agency and power but people tend to do this all the time by giving all the power to humanity.
The rocks in The Franklin’s Tale were revisited during Monday’s class and I think they are a perfect example of the power of assemblages. The rocks never actually hurt anyone but the assemblage that they possibly unknowingly participated in caused a great deal of turmoil. The wife in this tale did not recognize the assemblage and placed all the power on the rocks claiming that they killed people and brought her great troubles. The rocks alone did not do these things. They worked within an assemblage of things such as the ocean, the boats, the men, and even the wife’s blame that caused them to be a burden. It’s interesting to think that if the wife had of never involved them in the relationship between her and her immoral suitor she may have never been faced with the obligation to betray her husband.
The power that the wife gave the rocks seem to be very much like the power that both Latour and Bennett are encouraging society not to give humans. The recognition of assemblages seems to be vastly important to successful thing theory readings of texts, social matters, and ethical matters.
In accordance with Thing Theory, Marie de France’s Le Fresne features mere “objects” with the potential to assert themselves as “things.” Fresne’s tokens, “locked…in a chest” as they are for the majority of the lay, keep a certain static objectivity (304). In isolation, their material existence is not interrupted, nor is it disruptive. Revealed in a social context, though, they suddenly assert their symbolic existence and cause quite a stir. This assertion is transformative, transforming the significance of the tokens and Fresne herself. The mother’s examination of the ring best captures this instantaneous transformation: “She recognized it very well, / and the silk cloth too. / No doubt about it, now she knew – / this was her own daughter!” (445-8). The ring and silk cloth may understandably signify nobility – not a far stretch considering their material value. But that they too so easily prove Fresne’s nobility and legitimacy (when she was previously considered a “concubine”) seems quite a stretch (323).
Granted, Fresne’s nobility is supposedly inherent in her character. All of Brittany recognizes that “she was noble and cultivated / in appearance and speech” (249-40). In this respect, Brittan society recognizes nobility as being distinct from (or at least not entirely constituted by) material wealth. Noble esteem, though, is not equalent to noble status, at least as far as the Gurun’s vassals are concerned. The vassals demand a lady of objective, indisputable nobility. “Things” like virtue and decorum are still rivaled by objects like coins and jewels. Yet again, it seems that it’s those “things” of both material and symbolic value that prevail. For Fresne’s tokens, while largely symbolic (they’re not official documents, after all), provide a material basis to which to attribute her nobility. Material and symbolic value should coincide. Fresne’s rich and noble tokens reveal her rich and noble character, just as the nestling ash tree’s boughs reveal Fresne’s nestling domesticity.
Today I re-read Le Fresne, and tried to pick out an object and analyze it using thing theory and also actor-network theory. However, after trying to do so, I became very confused about what exactly the difference is between the two theories.
For this example, I chose to look at the garments and the ring that Fresne’s mother gives her before her servant takes her to the abbey and leaves her in the ash tree. To me, these objects most obviously play a role in the story, so much that they are arguably just as important as the characters themselves. These objects represent more than just physical items. They, like we discussed in class, almost represent Fresne’s identity. They are also symbols of nobility and wealth, allowing those who know nothing about Fresne to at least know that she comes from a good family. Therefore, these objects clearly work as actors, considering without them, Fresne’s mother would most likely have never known that this was her daughter and the entire story would unraveled in a completely different way and consequently had a whole new set of morals, if any, in the end. I think it is fair to say that these objects “bend space around” themselves, but how is this different than thing theory? I’ve had the thought that the difference is that thing theory incorporates ideas and unpredictable actions as well as objects, but couldn’t an idea or an action not be an actor too? When trying to project these theories onto the garments in Le Fresne, I had a great deal of trouble differentiating the two, and, because they seem to have so many similarities to me, they sort of just combined themselves into one theory. I’m probably missing some very important and blatant point that would solve all of my problems, but for now I’m having trouble distinguishing the theories.
The issues brought up in the readings this week are strange, baffling, and overall very interesting. Our readings of the introduction to “thing theory” in Ben Brown’s essay and the possible practical and political imports of these ideas, were difficult but after the discussions in class I defiantly have a better handle on what is going on. I think though that the “What is Actor-Network Theory?”(ANT) article is the one that gave me a more vivid understanding of the ideas in the other readings and specifically the last excerpt from Sidorova & Sarker.
Sidorova & Sarker break down all of the different aspects of the network and what each of these components can be. As I understand it, the actor network is an accumulation of any number of objects, ideas, people, anything really, that are working toward the same interest. Anything that is in a person’s environment that helps them to do something. In Reijo Miettinen’s section the example is given that “the work of science consists of the enrollment and juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements-rats, test tubes, colleagues, journal articles, funders, grants, papers at scientific conferences, and so on…” This gives a rather clear image of how different actors, organic and inorganic, must function in order for any sort of work to be done. I can’t help but think that if this computer I am writing on were to malfunction or the blog were to not publish my post that I would be unable to complete this assignment for the week on time. This way of think has started to deepen my appreciation of the things that I need in order to function on a day to day basis and without which I would be unable to function. Things like dishes and clothes that- if they are dirty for example- can present a drastic obstacle into my everyday comings and goings.
….So as a p.s. to this post, the bit about the blog not publishing this post happened. This is the second time it has happened and I had to find somebody in my network who knew what was wrong. Shouldn’t be anymore problems, sorry for the inconvenience Professor Seaman.
After musing on the problematic “specific unspecificity that ‘thing’ denotes,” Bill Brown in fact applies Thing Theory to a specific “thing,” Claes Oldenburg’s Typewriter Eraser, and reveals its underlying unspecificity in the process (3). Taking what was once “iconic” and is now “anachronistic,”Oldenburg showcases a “thing” that is simultaneously an “objective” and “material” presence (14-5). Harking back to subjectivity, we recall that an object exists only in relation to its subject. A material, it stands to reason, constitutes its own existence. Are the two not mutually exclusive? Oldenburg’s Typewriter Eraser seems to suggest that a true “thing” can transcend the binary and exist as both.
Those spectators who have themselves been the subject to a typewriter eraser identify Oldenburg’s statue as an iconic representation. From this perspective,Oldenburg’s Typewriter Eraser is hardly any different from his other “oversized and understuffed everyday objects” (except for maybe the understuffed part) (14). With these works of pop art, Oldenburg appropriates a form and assigns it iconic, symbolic (and, though it sounds contradictory, objective) value. Value that the form certainly never intended (as if it had intentions – anthropomorphizing, I know).
Those unfamiliar with the typewriter eraser, though, cannot so easily identify Oldenburg’s statue in relation to themselves. This “material presence” exists in and of itself (Because does anyone really know where they stand in relation to granite, cement, or plastic until it’s been made into something functional and recognizable?). Brown explains that “Released from the bond of being equipment…the object becomes something else” (15). Stripped of its subject-specified function, the form momentarily breaks from the subject-object relationship. It now exists not as the object, but as the “other.”
Are these the only conditions under which a “thing” can exist, object or “other?” For even this binary still defines the “thing” in relation to the subject. I salute you, Jane Bennett, because I can’t even pretend not to be anthropocentric.
When Dr. Seaman asked whether Brown and Bennett were in the “same room” with their respective ideas I immediately said no. (Being in the same room as in talking about similar subjects). I thought they had some similarities, but on the whole I thought they were having different discussions and were in different “rooms.” However, we talked about it some in class and I could see that yeah, maybe they are in the same room and I shouldn’t have been so quick to say no.
I have continued to think about the two readings and although I am not comfortable with the readings and their contents I do feel as though I see more similarities then I did at first. At the beginning of class we said that Brown is the theoretical and Bennett is the applicable. Both Brown’s “Thing Theory” and Bennett’s Vibrant Matter touch on the fact that we as humans look at the world in terms of humans and everything else. Bennett’s first paragraph is pretty much saying that and she uses the term “anthropocentric” multiple times in the Preface. Brown does not use anthropocentric, but he does state that we (humans) have always used things in theory, but we have never acknowledged them. So here they are definitely in the same room and even within a couple of feet of each other. Brown says we never consider a thing an object until that thing stops working as it should and he gives the example of a drill tip, or the window example. So if Brown is saying that we don’t acknowledge the thing, Bennett is agreeing and stressing that there is a vibrancy to matter and to things humans ignore. When humans ignore something or do not acknowledge it we miss out on the opportunity to see how it affects other parts of life. So in this instance Bennett takes what Brown says a step further, not only do we not acknowledge things, but also we completely miss out on another perspective.
The two are definitely in the same room, but I still don’t think they are talking to each other. I think they are standing next to each other have conversations with other people… but in the same room.
I hope I wasn’t the only one who was puzzled by the first assignment for this class. To “bring to class an object” for discussion seemed easy enough, but I hadn’t brought many objects that I thought were worth discussing. New books, pens, and toiletries seemed so mundane, and I had no interest in discussing such “things” in class. I finally decided to bring an empty box, the most mundane object I could find, and explain that I had nothing quirky in my suite.
When Dr. Seaman explained that we were the objects that would aid in the day’s discussion, I was initially confused. Me? An object? Sure, narcissists may view others as tools or lumps of meat, but I’d never viewed my own body as such. Before this class began I would have said “I lost a part of myself” if I’d lost an arm rather than “I lost a part of my body.” But after last class’s discussion and our readings for this week, I’m starting to side with that philosophy. Someone mentioned a quote from C.S. Lewis that I believe may be instrumental in Bennett’s view of things: “You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.” To Bennett, the body can be a thing that can “make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events” (vii). So can a book or pen or empty box for that matter, yet (correct me if I’m wrong- I may be delirious from my fever) she seems to draw a distinct line between things and humans.
My question is why? Does she believe that human beings are innately special? Does her theory rely on a theory of intelligent design which places humans above all things, and on the existence of a greater power? Is the difference between objects (such as the body) and humans a Soul? I may be taking things too far here, but I’d like to hear what you all think.
Studying Bill Brown’s essay “Thing Theory” and Bennett’s preface to Vibrant Matter, I couldn’t help but think of the many Disney cartoons (or just cartoons in general) that give life to inanimate objects. Animals, because they are animate and we tend to attach meaning to them more readily, are used often in animation as substitutes for human experience. We have more or less come to accept this as a normal practice. What is fascinating to me, in light of the readings, was how we also do not find it unusual to see inanimate objects in action.
In Beauty and the Beast, for instance, Lumiere and Cogsworth are two humans that have been transformed into a candelabra and a clock respectively. Their roles, regardless of their temporary existence as objects, are central in advancing the mostly human-driven plot of the movie. Furthermore, there are talking gargoyles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and equally animate household appliances in The Brave Little Toaster. When things are given human characteristics, we inevitably begin to think of them differently. Objects suddenly become not only useful, but vital because they fit more easily into our anthropocentric way of viewing the world. Why do we enjoy seeing objects and/or things act like humans anyway? Is that the only way we can identify with objects? We cannot seem to comprehend that an object, in and of itself, is worthy of consideration beyond its inherent function or purpose.
It’s undeniably strange that we discard objects in real life, but experience (in some cases) an emotional attachment to them in animated form. It’s as if we really do want to think of objects in that way but cannot bring ourselves to in a real-world setting. The interest in seeing talking animals I can understand well enough, considering we have acknowledged higher-class animals as possessing value. However, we have not even begun, as human beings, to reach the same point when it comes to inanimate objects. Objects seem to only have meaning in various animated fantasy worlds, but perhaps we might grow to think of them in the future as not merely things (with no conscious thought, and therefore no right of being thought of as “agents”), but entities worthy of being considered beyond how they relate to human beings.
For this blog post, I feel that it is appropriate to reflect on my last post, considering in the past week we have gone over a lot of material that will be very important and effective for the rest of the semester, such as the importance of things and objects, and how they, if perceived in the right way, are not merely inanimate but actually play a very active role. We also, in our last two Middle English exercises, made a lot of progress in understanding the language, and especially understanding why the changes in grammar occurred and what differences have resulted.
Thing theory and the importance of objects in certain contexts was very difficult for me to understand, probably because I had never thought about it before and it was so foreign to me. I’m not saying that I currently have a complete grasp on it, but I’m in much better shape than I was before class on Monday. I think Jane Bennett’s depiction of how trash, which we usually apply no meaning to and once it leaves our homes becomes non existent to us, remains an active force despite our unawareness by polluting our planet and affecting us in a negative way, really helped me develop a better understanding as to how we will “make matter matter” this semester. Also, our last Middle English exercise, which we did in class on Wednesday, was very helpful in terms of understanding the specific changes that our language went through. Actually pronouncing the letters and trying to figure out how to pronounce the words seemed to be very helpful to me. Therefore, in response to my last blog post, as I predicted, I feel that I am already on track to developing a sort of reference point that should be very helpful in understanding what we read and discuss for the rest of the semester.