Thursday, July 31, 2014

Should We Believe in the Agential Object? Magic Rocks.

Boyda Johnstone captured well the panel's intensity
by J J Cohen

[read Boyda Johnstone's great post on Twitter first]

In addition to the glacier hike / roundtables on Ice that I organized for New Chaucer Society Reykjavik, I participated in a vigorous session arranged and moderated by Susan Crane entitled "Should We Believe in the Agential Object?" The rubric for the panel was quite capacious, and we did not have the time to cover many of the possibilities raised:
In medieval cultures, certain things are said to have both material and inspirited components. Among these, the Eucharist has exceptional status, but relics, breastplate books, saints’ vitae, and talismans also commingle physical and spiritual properties, as do things inspirited by magic and other arcane practices. Medieval instances of inspirited materiality resonate fascinatingly with contemporary object oriented materialisms that accord agential and psychic properties to all things. Contemporary theory asks whether each and every thing (or object, unit, entity) may be inspirited or act agentially, providing us with revised environments in which humans are no longer dichotomous with and superior to everything else. Medieval arts and philosophies offer similar propositions although they do not tend to be “flat” (they do not accord the same ontological status to every object) nor “pan-psychic” (they do not assign psychic properties to every object). The goals of this session are double: to explore specific instances of medieval thought about the properties of things, and to inquire how contemporary object-oriented ontologies both coordinate with and differ from medieval thought. Focusing on books and representations of books but encompassing other things as well, this session’s topics could include oath-swearing on holy books and relics, the talking book of Piers Plowman, the talking birds of the Parliament of Foules, lapidaries, book curses and their histories, the responsive temple statues of the Knight’s Tale, the brass horse of the Squire’s Tale, Robert Mannyng’s cow-sucking bag, and books of “natural magic” such as those used by the Clerk of Orleans in the Franklin’s Tale.
The presenters included Andrew Cole of Princeton University on “The Object of Failure” (a detailed analysis of how Graham Harman, a founder of Object Oriented Ontology, gets some key elements of Kant wrong) and Shannon Gayk of Indiana University on “Agency and Instrumentality” (a smart recuperation of instrumentality that provided a salutary counterpoint to the way the term is too often disparaged and thereby left unthought in ecocriticism). Karma Lochrie was also supposed to present, but bad weather and overbooked planes conspired to prevent her attendance at the conference, much to our loss.

The session was standing room only, in part indicating a deep interest in the subject, in part because a rumor had been circulating that this would be a "cage fight" or a "smackdown" or some silly such -- just like in the olden days when D. W. Robertson and E. Talbot Donaldson had their infamous agon (an encounter more of legend than of fact, by the way). Don't get me wrong: I would have been very happy to have had a vigorous debate over the value of the new materialism and object studies, especially because both have been frequently misrepresented as a way of not taking seriously their insights. It was not especially easy to bring the three presentations together, however: I would not disagree with Andrew (I'm not convinced by the total system Harman articulates), and Shannon was right on target with her intervention. Perhaps Karma would have been more oppositional; I do not know her take on the subject. But I'm also very happy with how the session unfolded. Its intense audience participation yielded an opportunity to ruminate stakes and futures collectively. Kellie Robertson asked an especially useful question about the why of the current turn to ontology, for example, and Frank Grady posed an excellent query about what to do with the new materialism as a reading strategy for medieval texts.

I'll post my presentation below, with the caveat that it is a breezy conference talk rather than a properly footmoated and impressively crenellated scholarly edifice. I'll also add that we never discussed the anxiety that (to my mind) clusters around the use of the word belief in the session's title. My hunch is that the panel's query of "Should We Believe?" is a way of wondering if the nonhuman turn represents a new kind of mysticism or requires a troubling (because religion-like) act of of faith to accept. I'll say from the start that to me belief indicates not uncontemplated dogma but difficult process, a wrestling -- and I admit this might be a difference between a Jewish mode and a Christian one (Judaism tends towards orthopraxy, fostering a culture of argument; Christianity tends more towards orthodoxy, and so tends to align belief with doctrine rather than doing) (and yes I realize that I just made a vast generalization that is in its particulars wrong, but because I often feel like a token Jew at events where a shared Christianity is assumed, this framing of Jewish/Christian religious modes, taken from the scholarship of Marc Raphael, sometimes helps me to make sense of differences in expectations around practice and belief). More generally and outside of the theological, belief seems to me the foundation of all epistemology; we cannot do without it. Belief is related etymologically to the word love -- and as we all know, as necessary as love is, it can also screw you over and turn you round. Belief is indispensable to knowledge and to ethics, and therefore cannot be uncontemplated. For belief to be generative it must be somewhat provisional, must admit challenge.

Last, to give some context, I will reproduce the definition of object oriented philosophy that Susan Crane offered as she opened the session. As you will see in my post, I disagree somewhat with this delimitation and rework some of its sentences:
This session examines a particular claim of many object oriented ontologies. Speculative realisms / object oriented ontologies are diverse, but a persistent claim is that all objects—from uranium to umbrellas to unicorns—are “agential”: they express themselves in specific resistances and alliances over time. The vital, vibrant materiality of things calls out to us, and can be heard by us. This is material agency, a quite different thing from the typical geography textbook’s version of agency, e.g.: “There are four main agents of erosion. Moving water, wind, gravity, and ice . . . break up rocks, sediments, and soil.”  In contrast, the material agency of object oriented ontologies expresses the heretofore inaccessible secret life of uranium, umbrella, and unicorn. Material agency lets us know “what it’s like to be a thing.” The papers in this session treat the ontological and epistemological grounds for material agency. Why should we believe that objects call out, do things, and express themselves? What do object oriented ontologies contribute to wider posthumanist projects of undoing human supremacy, valuing the non-human, and emphasizing creaturely interdependence?
That was a long preamble, but I think the context is necessary for the argument that follows. Please let me know what you think -- and if you were present at the session, please offer your own perspective on what unfolded, as the view from the front of the room is often very different.

Magic Rocks

Should we believe in the agentive object? Should we believe that the new materialism, object oriented philosophy, speculative realism, queer ecology, vibrant materialism, and actor network theory are onto something – something already apprehended by the medieval and early modern authors and philosophers whose work has sometimes catalyzed these varied modes of apprehending inhuman agency?

Long story short, yes. Thank you.

Should we believe in the agentive object? Long story slightly less abbreviated: if you believe in physics or the insights of ecological theory and material feminism, then yes, you kind of have to. Actions need not be intentional to be agentive. Much human agency accomplishes things we do not will, choose, perceive, or well comprehend, such as anthropogenic climate change. That’s also an insight of psychoanalysis: volition not required for agency to unfold. Consider that intention is literally a “tending towards” (in + tendere, to stretch, to incline), and this movement or inclination is typically discerned retroactively, effects before causes. Agency means acting (from agere, to do): it can denote resisting, accomplishing, enabling, thwarting, allying, companioning. The word derives from medieval Latin agentia, “doing” by way of late Middle English, and denotes “someone or something that produces an effect”: a clerk, a chemical, a canal, a codex. By using the adjective agentive rather than agential I stress agency as tendency as well as strategy. Agency is a word for small units as well as collectives and does not require autonomy. We never act alone but only with and through. Agens, the medieval Latin word for agent, means actor and representative (that is, a mediator).

But what if, despite my Latin saffroning, all this Karen Barad and Stacy Alaimo “predicacioun” about the agency of matter at all scales, and trans-corporeality at environment interstices, what if it just doesn’t apply to the Middle Ages? Should not the theocentric and anthropomorphic medieval universe preclude objects acting? They did things, but only because God or angels or demons or humans pulled the strings, right? Not so much. The Middle Ages were long and diverse. They possessed many, many ways to apprehend how matter betrays (in Caroline Walker Bynum’s description) a liveliness. Typically this vivacity was to be explicated within a theological frame. In Christian Materialism Bynum makes clear with characteristic sophistication that “insistent” and “problematic” holy matter orients “its viewers and users to something beyond” (20), but in complicated ways (18). Bynum argues that all medieval matter, holy and mundane, exhibited this animation, since matter is substance that changes. Although she places within the 15th and 16th centuries “a growing sense that material objects were not merely labile but alive” (25), I find these intimations to be a much earlier and often rather secular knowledge, especially in texts that explore enmeshment within astral and lunar pull, elemental jostling, and the innate qualities designated by virtus (in the lapidaries) or (in the romances and Breton lays) “magic” and “aventure” (FrankT 1508). To play with the definition with which Susan Crane introduced this session, these are medieval designations for material agency, quite intimate to what a medieval geological textbook would discern in the actions of water, wind, gravity, ice, rock, humans. The lapidaries, romances, and natural sciences (“magyk natural”) convey something of the obscure vivacity of stone, storm, and star. As in OOO, this material agency ensures we will never comprehend “what it’s like to be a thing.” But if (as Tim Morton argues) the aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension, we can guess. We can tell approximating stories. Isidore of Seville is on to something when insists that etymology is a materialist practice. He’s not always right, but his insight that the world leaves a tangible impress on language ought to at least make us hesitate before we assert that “matter acting” is only a series of lovely metaphors. Isidore makes clear that metaphor itself is the transport of matter into language: not humans taking passive substance into poetic fancies, but matter impressing itself into human thought. Thus he derives scruple, an ethical spur, from scrupulus, a small stone that presses at the body. Calculus comes from the stones we use for reckoning. This isn’t metaphor, it’s extended cognition, a network of human and inhuman alliances through which agency unfolds.

But since we’re at NCS, let’s pose the most pressing theological question of all: what about the Big Guy? Did Chaucer believe in the agentive object? Maybe not. Take stone (just to pull an example at random). To urge the pilgrims to community, Harry Bailey insists that “confort ne myrthe is noon / To ride by the weye doumb as a stoon” (1.773-74). In the opposition between spirited human and inert matter upon which the comparison relies, should the pilgrims not embrace the fellowship that shared story engenders, they would become lifeless objects, dumb rocks. Yet later in the Canterbury Tales stones prove heavy with narrative, heavy with work. As Dorigen contemplates her absent spouse in the Franklin’s Tale, she gazes at dark rocks jutting along the coast and is gripped by fears of their agency: “an hundred thousand bodyes of mankynde / Han rokkes slayn” [5.877-78]. Stones are actively perilous: they “destroyen” and “evere anoyen.” Dorigen understands that a divine providence orders the universe, and natural principles underlay even disorder. Yet despite that knowledge she can discern no purpose for such lethal lithic actants, and that incomprehensibility perturbs her. Their malevolence seems so great that she describes them with an infernal litany of adjectives, “grisly feendly rokkes blake” (868).

Perhaps, though, she may be forgiven her petrophobia, her “derke fantasye,” for we comprehend its source: anxiety over the safe return of her husband. Chaucer appears to have understood how the psychological mechanism of projection works, and so we know that brutal intent does not really belong to the rocks. In the absence of anthropomorphic ascriptions – when we regard them “bare and pleyn” (720), as the rhetoric-adverse Franklin would say -- they are mere geological substance, a bluntness upon which humans place meaning. To submerge their barbed contours and eradicate their peril requires nothing more than the consultation of “tables Tolletanes” (1273) and the calculation of the highest tides. The rocks will not move, but they will through lunar force or “illusiouns” seem to be “aweye” (1292, 1296) – at least until the water recedes. Dominion over the elements requires nothing more than a good library. Books impart knowledge so that humans can act. If these books sometimes speak (“The book seith thus” 813), don’t worry, it’s only personification, it’s only a rhetorical device of the kind the Franklin says he does not know how to deploy. Even if the “magyk natural” that unfolds in this Breton lay creates its most captivating moments, episodes of human and nonhuman possibility, eruptions of sudden dance, such science/enchantment/inhuman agency (the word “magyk” means all these things: it is at once science, art, craft, and allure), all these bookish eruptions are quickly abandoned for a mercantile world of money exchanged for transacted business. The agentive object vanishes once the story’s perspective switches from Dorigen to the masculine indebtedness of clerks and knight, from rocks and spell books to tide tables and ledgers of account. An expert in natural magic, the clerk of Orleans is called a “philosophre” (1585, 1607), but not to fret, he isn’t object oriented.

Or is he? What if Dorigen is right when she looks seaward at black stone and beholds intention (that is, inclination, or what Chaucer calls in the House of Fame “kyndely enclynyng” 734), effect-producing action? What if these supposedly “passive objects of the human gaze” reveal that – through what Thomas Aquinas called a “species” or ‘intentional object’ -- “rocks have the capacity to organize the humans who look at them” (as Kellie Robertson puts it – a formulation that for me recalls the etymology of object in medieval Latin objectum, “that which presents itself to mind,” from a verb meaning “to throw in the way of”: medieval people knew that objects startle us, impede us, that objects object)?[1] What if the stones of the Franklin’s Tale harbor, as the lapidaries attested that they did, virtus, a radiative efficacy that in humans would be called will? What if stone, so often thought uncommunicative in its material density, can also be affect-laden, garrulous, animated? In a becoming-petric of her own Dorigen is “longe graven” by her friends’ consolatory “emprentyng” (8301-31), as if she were marble being engraved. Chaucer’s metaphor conveys the unhurried tempo of stone, an affinity with which Dorigen demonstrates as she slowly emerges from melancholy through the impress of friends. Incising of comfort is borne of human hands, but it opens Dorigen immediately to more troubling inscription, this time directly by objects: at this moment she beholds the “grisly rokkes blake” and realizes peril. Four times in ten lines she calls these stones “werks”: they are works because they do work, just like texts (which are also works that work). What if we like Dorigen can be worked upon by the lithic, inscribed by its strange tales, its nonhuman scale, rather than perpetually rebuffed by its density? Stone’s reticence is tied intimately to its stillness – but these rocks do not stay still long. They (like the names Aurelius and Arveragus, and even the word magyk) encode a memory of another story, one in which stone offers what Geoffrey of Monmouth called an opus (work) as well as chorea gigantum, a song of giants or a giants’ dance. [2] As Kathryn Lynch has shown, the Franklin’s Tale is, after all, an act of cultural pillage, Chaucer’s rendering into English a story from Welsh patrimony. Those rocks on the Breton shore are thereby also Stonehenge, the stones of which heal bodies and do not rest (they move from Africa to Ireland before Merlin relocates them for Aurelius to Salisbury Plain).

Before the agency of the material world is abandoned, before books of natural magic are traded for tides, tallies and accounts and willful objects become mere commodities, a space opens in which inhuman action can be glimpsed, an aleatory agency not wholly reducible to the divine or the mercantile. Stones radiate power in medieval lapidaries, travel narratives and romances: virtus and magic, agency within a network or ecological mesh. Even a text can be an agent, conjuring a world that overlaps the mundane and thereby altering its fabric. This mode of inquiry does not make political reading impossible; quite the contrary. By detailing the power of things it helps to illuminate why they might be such essential partners in processes of cultural transformation. If stone trips us up, challenges, intensifies, remediates and thwarts, if stone demands certain genres and figures of speech and modes of narrative approach, if stone materially defeats the separation of tenor from vehicle that propels metaphor, then these effects derive from its evident force, its epochal agency.

The Franklin ends his tale by asking which of his characters “was the mooste fre” (1622). It’s a rather circumscribed question, because the Franklin includes within it only three characters. What about Dorigen? What about the stones? In closing I’d like to suggest that we take his query seriously but expansively. “Free” means “noble” “independent” “not captive” – as well as “generous,” and that puts me in mind of Jane Bennett’s smart gloss for the agentive object evident in enchantment: an “affective force” that might “propel ethical generosity,” a way of thinking that contests dreary and destructive modes of reducing matter to raw material, or diminishing objects to their uses (Enchantment of Modern Life). The Franklin’s Tale is a prolonged meditation on human and inhuman agency, on the limits of what we can compel others to do, what we can compel nature to do, what nature can compel us to do. Enchantment is estrangement and secular enmeshment, sudden sighting of the world’s dynamism and autonomy, the advent of queered relation. “Fre” will is an inclination towards generosity, generativity, multiplication of agency. Free means enlarging the world to include its nonhumans: attending and intending towards sympathy, towards the possible, towards the agentive.

[1] Kellie Robertson’s treatment of the activity of the stones in “The Franklin’s Tale” is excellent: see “Exemplary Rocks” (quotation at p. 106). She writes that the moral of the tale is that “sometimes inanimate objects organize human communities (rather than the other way around) and that abstract notions of ‘trouthe’ are meaningless unless grounded in the matter of the natural world” (106).

[2] In making such a statement I do not mean to ignore the political machinations behind the appropriation of Arthurian mythology or to displace that process into a purely aesthetic realm. Here, though, I am following what other stories objects hold and generate alongside ideological and anthropocentric narratives. Arthurian history posed a profound challenge to English insular hegemony and this difficulty was neutralized through translation and Anglicization (see the work of R. R. Davies, Patricia Ingham, Rhonda Knight, and Michelle Warren, among many others).


Karl Steel said...

and not only that Harman gets key aspects of Kant wrong; as I recall, Cole also argued that Kant (and German Idealist philosophy in general) anticipated the key insights of ooo.

The payoff he might have been aiming at could be that we should all be reading more Idealist philosophy?

Karl Steel said...

also a quick comment on this:

"I often feel like a token Jew at events where a shared Christianity is assumed"

I don't think medieval studies has done enough to alienate itself from its identifications with European culture narratives, narratives that tend to read Europe as Christian. This is evident, for example, in the Cambridge History of Lit Crit volume on the Middle Ages, which gives no or virtually no attention to Jewish writing or literary self-consciousness from the middle ages, and evident in a host of papers that continue to read Augustinian calls for conversion or preservation as someone worthy of our modern 'tolerant' admiration. The centrality of antisemitism to medieval Christianity and therefore to what's generally known as "medieval Europe" has not yet been adequately dealt with by the community of medieval scholars.

Karl Steel said...

*somehow worthy, rather. A bit jetlegged.

Karl Steel said...

IN FACT, one last comment --

I'm probably anticipating a key argument of your stone book, Jeffrey, or just quoting something you've said before, but:

Medieval Christians often accused Jews of being merely literally, stupidly bestial, and having 'hearts of stone'. These interrelated accusations belong to that order of accusations that divides groups into those having free choice and those without it: some groups are rational, not hidebound by tradition, open to the future, and others -- women, animals, Jews, and, yes, stones -- are not. The usual response has been to free the accused from the accusation: women are not animals (de Beauvoir, eg). So, in this case, the argument would be that Jews are not in fact stonelike.

What I love about your project, and what I think this session needed to understand better, is that you're flipping the accusation on its head: what if we rescue stones from the accusation? At the least, this would vitiate the stony insult!

See also Cary Wolfe's point about the animal insult in animal rites.

Tom White said...

Really glad you discussed the use of 'believe' in the panel's title in your preamble. This was something I was trying to formulate a question on during the q&a, specifically in relation to how the 'what if...?' construction you used in discussing the 'rokkes blake' of the franklin's tale might itself be thought of as opening some kind of space where such an 'act of of faith' might take place. This seemed especially interesting in relation to Andrew Cole's critiques not only of the content of ooo, but also its style/tone as well.

James Mitchell said...

Speaking strictly as a newbie, the problem for me is what exactly this modern up-working of the traditional anthropological construct of animism, that things have spirit and therefore agency, really brings to the table of theory? Is the underlying question whether the inherent, latently potent, spiritual essence of things can influence human behavior? Can things therefore be regarded as subjects?

The Algonquian Indians of New England treasured the bright shiny objects brought by the English colonists because they possessed more manitou than those found in their own world. The first stone circle at Stonehenge consisted of powerful blue stones brought from 160 miles away. Amber, to those uncognizant of its provenance, was thought of as a stone, magical because it burns at a certain temperature. And uranium is notoriously radioactive.

On the other hand, when I walk barefoot over a pile of sharp rocks at the beech, I may well decide I have tread upon some “grisly feendly rokkes blake.” And if I do so, am I not attributing agency to their alleged malevolence?

Do we come to such a discussion because atmospherically speaking we want to rescue the environment from those we regard as its detractors, and can we really do so without addressing the age-old, enormously complicated philosophical problem of the meaning of Nature in human perception?

Maybe better to view all this in Buddhist terms, whose only two metaphysical tenets are the impermanence and the interconnectedness (dependent co-arising) of all phenomena?

Eileen Joy said...

For me, the best part of this presentation was the question at the end relative to Chaucer's "Franklin's Tale" [along with "The Clerk's Tale," my favorite Chaucer work]: in asking who was most "fre" [noble, but also generous], why did the narrator not include Dorigen [the wife] long with the black "rokes" [alongside the clerk/magician, lovesick knight, and husband]? Because here we see the convergence between what is often left out in the humanist hermeneutic model: women, and non-human actors. And for me, just because objects in the Middle Ages [and in the texts of the Middle Ages] may have been delimited, in terms of their agency [and the interpretation of their agency], within theocentric frames [animated by God, the Devil, or some sort of pagan magic], does not mean that we in the present cannot glimpse alternative and more secular agential tendencies and trajectories. Even saying that there is not secularism at all in the Middle Ages strikes me as weird, as if the entire period possessed only one, monolithic mentality, especially when we consider that any culture's imaginative literature is also a reservoir and archive of its more subversive forms of thought [Sarah McNamer's recent work on doubt in the mystery plays is a great example of this].

As to Andrew Cole's intervention, there is real value in delineating some of the ways in which Harman professes an exceptionalism for his object-oriented ontology [framed as a radical-yet-sympathetic break from thinkers like Kant, Heidegger, etc.] that does not bear up under a certain closer scrutiny of those earlier thinkers' writings. At the same time, let's keep in mind that there is no *one* single way to read/interpret Kant or any other philosopher. If there were, we would not need philosophy departments.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Great points, Karl. Thanks for making them. Kathleen Biddick has attempted to take medieval studies to task for its unfinished and unthought business when it comes to antisemitism, and has been slammed for doing so in various ways. And I do have a chapter in my stone book about how petrification tropes (of Jews but also the Stone Aging of any aboriginal population, like the Welsh) can through alliance with the lithic give an unexpected vitality to the culture being pushed into pastness.

Tom, I was surprised we never spoke of the panel's key term so I wanted to at least gesture towards it here. So much ambivalence clusters around the word, but it isn't dispensable.

James, I would to distinguish material agency (which is the action of things) from animism (which is typically nonhuman, cosmic forces acting through things but not necessarily the things themselves doing something). They are not always separable of course and animism does likely betray an insight (or what often gets called an indigenous knowledge) we have lost.

And, Eileen, thanks for your emphasis on secularism (that is, worldliness) in the Middle Ages, as well as the nontotality of thought systems. Yes.

James Mitchell said...

Jeffrey, thanks for clarifying. I realize that perhaps conference calls shouldn't be taken so seriously, but this one mobilizes a whole philosophical project extending, even just in literary terms, far outside the Chaucerian tent. Things have agency everywhere in world literatures, just look at Psalm 19 in the Hebrew Bible.
Somewhere around my 13th LSD trip, it became clear to me that matter is indeed alive and "vibrant" (Jane Bennett), an experience I've wished everyone could have, and which has haunted me now for decades. The question I ask is: what would be the ethical (political) stance demanded from the insight that matter is not inert and lifeless, but in fact dynamic and animate? What do we do if those whirling backgrounds in Van Gogh’s paintings are really there?
Many agree that ecocriticism has as a meta-principle the desire to nurture and protect the environment, and to explore it with new eyes: therefore, as the subject of your conference richly demonstrates, my question has academic relevance. The heady notion of a "new materialism" is surely inseparable from ethical decisions in relation to the environment. We tune our guitars before we play because WE CARE.
My thought is that pre-dating medieval Christian and Jewish divergences by centuries, a better solution is found in the Buddhist construct of pratītyasamutpāda. The idea of "interconnectedness" is much more sophisticated than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may suspect. If no phenomenon exists autonomously, then an injury to any single object is an injury to its environment, because universal co-dependence.
What's nifty about this idea is that it establishes a priori an ethical response to a dynamic environment, a kind of environmental categorical imperative, without having to inquire about material agencies, the interplay of cosmic forces, modified theologies, and Heaven knows what else.

My $0.02!