Monday, January 03, 2011

Agency, Objects, and the Constitution of Life

by J J Cohen

Shifting suddenly from the languor of holiday break to the frenetic pace of another term beginning ... here is the draft of my spring semester graduate seminar syllabus. Comments and suggestions welcome. The books have been ordered, but nothing is set too firmly in pedagogical cement yet.

English 6220  
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 and Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods." We will survey contemporary ways of rethinking materiality and causality such as actor network theory (Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Manuel De Landa, Michel Serres), object-oriented ontology (Graham Harman), psychoanalysis (Slavoj Zizek), vibrant materialism (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.

Learning Objectives
By the end of this course you will:
  1. be able to translate Middle English into a contemporary idiom
  2. identify key critical concepts and apply them to medieval and early modern texts
  3. be able to apply techniques of critical reading within an appropriate historical frame
  4. understand contemporary approaches to literary and cultural studies
  5. compose a carefully researched and substantial work of original scholarship

Attendance and participation; research presentation; seminar paper. You are also expected to attend the GW MEMSI conference “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods,” March 11-12, and to write a short (5-6 page) account of the keynote and any two panels. These assessments will count towards the total of your grade in these proportions:
    Participation            20
    Conference write-up        10
    Presentation            5
    Seminar Paper            65
Policy on lateness and extensions: Plan carefully. Except for a documented medical reason, late work is not accepted. You may not take an incomplete for this course.

Academic dishonesty: Academic dishonesty of any kind will be treated as a serious offense. In most cases you will fail the course. According to the GW Code of Academic Integrity, “Academic dishonesty is defined as cheating of any kind, including misrepresenting one's own work, taking credit for the work of others without crediting them and without appropriate authorization, and the fabrication of information.” You can find more on the Code of Academic Integrity at

Disability statement: If you require accommodations based on disability, contact me. Disability Support Services (Marvin Center 242, 994 8250, is available to assist you as well.

Pub Nights A few times during the semester we will informally continue class away from the seminar room over drinks (beer, wine, coffee, water, whatever). You are not required to come along, and should never feel obligated – but of course, I hope you will come. These events are meant simply to extend community beyond the classroom for those who wish to participate. Likely dates are 1/25, 3/1, and 4/12.

The following books are available at the GW Bookstore. All other class readings are available via Blackboard.

  • Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Laskaya and Salisbury [also available electronically:]
  • Four Middle English Romances, ed. Hudson [also available electronically:]
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain
  • Marie de France, Lais
  • Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter
  • Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social

Schedule of Readings
[Readings marked with an *asterisk are available via Blackboard.]

January 11
Objects, Actants and Vital Matters

  • Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter chapters 1 & 2 (The Force of Things, The Agency of Assemblages)
  • *Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Redistribution)

January 18

  • Sir Degaré and Lay le Freine (Middle English Breton Lais)
  • “Le Fresne” (in Marie de France, Lais)
  • Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter chapters 3, 5, 6, 8 (Edible Matter, Neither Vitalism nor Mechanism, Stem Cells and the Culture of Life, Vitality and Self-Interest)

January 25
Queer Ecologies

  • Sir Orfeo (Middle English Breton Lais)
  • “Guigemar” and “Equitan” (in Marie de France, Lais)
  • Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter chapter 7 (Political Ecologies)
  • *Timothy Morton, “Queer Ecology”

February 1

  • Octavian and Sir Tryamour (Four Middle English Romances)
  • *Steve Mentz, At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (Preface, Fathoming, Warm Water Epilogue)
  • *Manuel De Landa, 1000 Years of Nonlinear History (Introduction, Biological History, Conclusions and Speculations)

February 8
Becoming Wolves

  • “Bisclavret” (in Marie de France, Lais)
  • *“Melion” and “Biclarel”: Two Old French Werwolf Lais
  • *Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (“Introduction: Rhizome” “One or Several Wolves?”)

February 15
Angels, Monsters, Networks

  • Emaré (Middle English Breton Lais)
  • “Chaitivel” “Milun” and “Laüstic” (in Marie de France, Lais)
  • Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social
  • Suggested: *Graham Harman, Prince of Networks 11-95 (“The Metaphysics of Latour”)

February 22
Strange Fruit

  • Sir Cleges (Middle English Breton Lais)
  • “Les Deus Amanz” “Chevrefoil” and “Eliduc” (in Marie de France, Lais)
  • Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social
  • *Julian Yates, “Towards a Theory of Agentive Drift

March 1
Inorganic Vitality

  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain
  • *Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art ("Sensation, the Earth, a People, Art")

March 8

  • Geoffrey Chaucer, “Franklin’s Tale” (secure your own copy)
  • Kellie Robertson, “Medieval Things: Materiality, Historicism, and the Premodern Object”
  • Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter chapter 4 (“A Life of Metal”)

March 11 & 12  AVMEO Conference

March 15 Spring Break

March 22
Temporally Explosive Objects

  • “Launfal” and “Yonec” (in Marie de France, Lais)
  • Sir Launfal (Middle English Breton Lais)
  • *Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (Palimpsested Time, The Writing on the Wall, Disorientations)
  • suggested: *from Alf Siewers, Strange Beauty (Archipelago and Otherworld; Reading the Otherworld Environmentally)

March 29
The Vibrant Sublime

  • Sir Gowther (Middle English Breton Lais)
  • *Slavoj Zizek, Sublime Object of Ideology

April 5
The Secret Lives of Objects

  • Erle of Tolous (Middle English Breton Lais)
  • *Graham Harman, “Vicarious Causation”
  • *Graham Harman, “Asymetrical Causation”
  • suggested: *Graham Harman, Prince of Networks (Object-Oriented Philosophy)

April 12

April 19  Passover (no class; work on seminar paper)

May 5  Seminar Paper due by noon


Eileen Joy said...

I love the idea of pub nights, and plan to steal that! I'm just finishing up my own syllabus now on the same subject matter, but theory paired with contemporary sci-fi rather than with medieval texts. Will post it soon. Thanks, also, for providing some good prods regarding how to thematize different weeks--I've been struggling with that. Also, my course, being one in theory, at the M.A. level, is already kind of sub-divided between: objects, animals, and the posthuman, with some hope that the three can be seen as productively relating all the time.

Karl Steel said...

Pub nights! Doesn't work for a commuter school like mine, I'm afraid, but I like the idea a lot.

And Eileen! Cont sci-fi! Really looking forward to what you come up with, and hoping to use your primary texts as a reading list (I read Dune for the first time a month or so ago, and whatever its faults, it got me excited about science fiction. Is Oryx and Crake going on your syllabus?). Is the order that you're working with objects, animals, adn the posthuman? Curious about the development there.

Give me a few weeks, and I should have some decent syllabi available too.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating how courses drawing on philosophy are always more interesting than philosophy courses as such. Great class!

(One note it is Jane Bennett and not Judith which could be a problem when students go looking for the book)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I need to proofread better!! Thanks, Paul: I've made the correction.

Liza Blake said...

That's a lot of Bennett! Looks like a real pleasure.

Danica said...

You aren't considering recording/youtubing/skyping any of your seminars for this course are you? It covers exactly my area of interest, but sadly nothing like it is offered in my school.