Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Agency, Objects, and the Constitution of Life

by J J Cohen
photo by author

During my first semester as chair of English at GW, I attempted something foolish: running a rather large department and teaching an ambitious graduate seminar on medieval race (you may access the syllabus here). A good seminar takes me two solid days of prep work, and I didn't possess that much time any more. I ended up losing a major portion of each weekend, and was also a bit more on edge for this class than I should have been. So I've taken three years off from teaching graduate seminars as a result. This spring I return, and I am looking forward to it: there is an intensity to graduate-level teaching that I love.

Below is my description for the course I'll teach this coming spring. The primary texts have been more or less chosen: crazy narratives like Sir Orfeo, Gowther, Cleges, Launfal, Emare, Octavian, the Franklin's Tale, Guigemar, Bisclavret, Milun. And Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. I'm still working on the theory list, but will append the draft below the course description. Any and all suggestions for primary and secondary texts will be welcomed.

Seminar in Medieval and Early Modern Studies: 
Agency, Objects, and the Constitution of Life

This seminar explores the topics foregrounded by the March GW MEMSI conference "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects." We will survey contemporary ways of rethinking materiality and causality such as actor network theory (Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Manuel de Landa), object-oriented ontology (Graham Harman), psychoanalysis (Slavoj Zizek), vibrant materialisms (Jane Bennett), and queer ecocritical approaches (Timothy Morton), among others. We will in tandem investigate a body of work that constitutes a kind of minor literature for early Britain, wonder-filled "Breton lais" (short romances) that unfold -- or, better, explode --  in oceanic, geographic, cultural and temporal interspaces. Middle English works will be read in their original; French in translation. Time permitting, we will trace these durable narratives of possibility to their early modern forms.

Guiding aphorism: "Herein, perhaps, lies the secret: to bring into existence and not to judge." 
(Gilles Deleuze, "To Have Done with Judgment")

List of possible secondary texts:
  • Graham Harman, Prince of Networks
  • Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (maybe "One or Several Wolves?" or "How Do You make Yourself a Body without Organs?")
  • Bruno Latour (Aramis, or The Love of Technology; The Pasteurization of France; Conversations on Science, Culture and Time; Pandora's Hope; OR Reassembling the Social. I am having a very hard time choosing because what I'd really like to do is teach a seminar on Latour!)
  • Manuel de Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History
  • Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art
  • Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare
  • Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What?
  • Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology
  • Steve Mentz, At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean
  • Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology
  • Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature; "Queer Ecology"
  • Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter
  • postmedieval 1.1 "when did we become post/human?"
  • Queering the Non/Human, ed. Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird
That's already more than a semester's worth of reading, so I should be working on slenderizing the list ... but I'm curious to hear if anyone has suggestions for books or essays that they would have included. I'm also trying to compile a bibliography of provocative work already accomplished in this area by medievalists and early modernists -- e.g. not historicist "thing studies" but essays like Kellie Robertson's "Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto."


Holly Crocker said...

Since it is election day, I vote for Ian Hacking. A favorite living philosopher...that book's a keeper.

Eileen Joy said...

You might also consider Graham Harman's "Circus Philosiphocus" [or some portion thereof], which is a mere $10 from Zero Books:


In the spring semester, I am teaching a very similar course, but within the parameters of our required 2-semester theory course [501/501] for MA students, so it won't have a medieval focus, per se. It will mainly be readings in theory/philosophy with a few literary texts thrown in [some medieval shape-shifting narratives, but also science fiction by Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard and the films of David Cronenberg. I realize now that my course description is way too ambitious, but here it is, for whatever its worth:

ENG502 Modern Literary Theory: Objects, Actants, Networks, and the New Materialism

This course continues the study of modern literary theory begun in English 501, and using that course as a launching pad, plunges you into an intensive immersion in one or more "currents" of contemporary theory. For this section of 502, we are going to engage with what some have called the "new materialism" and what others refer to as "object-oriented ontology." In short, this course will focus on a variety of "turns" in contemporary theory that all share an interest in things, objects, and the non- or anti-human: critical animal studies,
post/human studies, queer and intersex studies, networkologies and assemblages, distant/machine reading, cybernetics, geophilosophy, nomadic ethology,
ecological criticism, and the turn in continental philosophy toward "speculative realism." We will study works of literature and films, from the medieval through
modern periods, that take up the subjects and genres of the supernatural, metamorphosis (from human to animal to plant to machine and every hybrid in between), science fiction, and the speculative. We will also read widely in theorists such as Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, Jeffrey Cohen, Cary Wolfe, Bill Brown, Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Eva Hayward, Manuel De Landa, Andy Clark, Julian Yates, Katherine Hayles, and Elizabeth Grosz, among others.

The only actual books students will be asked to buy will be Bennett's "Vibrant Matter" and Harman's "Circus Philosophicus," along with some science fiction books, and then there will be a lot of individual readings on electronic course reserves [culled from many of the texts you cite here, in addition to others]. I was going to go with Latour's "Reassembling the Social," but I was also wondering, is "Aramis" the sort of text that can be usefully excerpted in any way?

Anonymous said...

A practitioner of "newish materialism" in medieval and early modern contexts is Elisabeth Salter (English, Aberystwyth)


most evident in her recent conference papers it is growing in her published work too.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks everyone for the suggestions; please keep them coming!

Eileen, Aramis would be difficult but not impossible to excerpt. There's a nice arc about two thirds of the way through that culminates in Aramis itself speaking (with the voice of Frankenstein's creature); if I excerpt the book that is the segment I'll use.

dan remein said...

I really think Harman's "On Vicarious Causation" is the best of anything from him actually. And, being personally less turned on by Latour than Heidegger and Husserl, perhaps this is why--as I'd say to look at Tool Being or Guerilla Metaphysics instead at the book-level (if they weren't so damn hard to get ahold of!). I might even say that Heidegger in his essay on 'the thing' on "Building, Dwelling, Thinking" might underpin or deepen the discussion of everything to come. MH opens all the posthumanist doors.

Otherwise, some of the OE riddles in translation might be _great_ and you did yourself once work with the Old English...nothing like talking non-human things that are difficult to identify!

EllenGrendel said...

Deleuze and Guattari's "Becoming-animal" also seems like a natural pairing for your class, given the slippage between man, animal, and "something else" in many of these texts. Sounds like fun!