Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Notes Towards an Introduction (3/24/11)

*Notes (or what spewed forth from my mind after a shower) towards a possible introduction for the essay I hope to use as the writing sample for my grad school applications. This means I'm pretty sure I know now what I want to write about. Of course, Fortune's fickle wheel is always a-turning, I know things might not work out the way I'm hoping, but that's no reason to start planning an evacuation just yet.

**Oh, and I'm certain to change the one-line introductions to the main theorists who inform the critical perspective of this essay, I just like the way an early introduction like this allows me to juxtapose their works immediately so the reader already has a map of the journey ahead. And those little one-liners only really refer to a single work by each author which I'll cite.



A visit to the Smithsonian’s National Gem Collection is bound to fill one with wonder and awe and the radiating beauty and delicate intricacies of precious stones and crystals. A crowd always surrounds the Hope Diamond, as fantasies of limitless riches and deep time co-mingle into an experience of the sublime. Light bounces off the collections diamonds and gemstones in a splendid dance that captivates our imaginations. The stones in this room become vibrant, alive. Unfortunately, any awareness of material vibrancy is actually and only the result of a carefully choreographed theatrical experience; the sensations we feel are pre-determined by orchestrations that dictate what we see and how we respond. We enter the theater of the collection, and each stone and mineral is framed behind clear glass, is fore-grounded against matting that seems to disappear in its contrast to the gem, light dances because bulbs are positioned to create this effect, and placards are provided to give viewers appropriate contexts of luxury or deep time. We have become blind to vibrancy, to the affecting nature of objects, and curators cautiously craft a mise-en-scene that captivates and contextualizes material vibrancy by informing us that these precious stones and hard minerals exist and perform to serve us, whether their service is dazzling us in a controlled museum environment, or to represent and display our wealth, or, as many placards tell us, to help us craft our tools and build our machines. Always anthropocentric, we miss the calling of vibrant materials until we understand what they can do for us.

The past 300 or so years of philosophy has limited the scope of ontology and foregrounded epistemology as first philosophy; as a result, perception of life and the universe consistently asserts mankind as the dominant actant and observer. Objects become secondary, they perform as tools in the service of man, if they exist at all. Occasionally they are granted an ontic status, but often they are reduced to mere phenomena and often excluded from the brackets of our consciousness. Fortunately, contemporary Continental philosophy is re-introducing a return to ontology that focuses on the true power of objects as distinct and performative whether or not they are used for human ends. Bruno Latour reminds us that objects can be actants in a network whether or not humans are operating or even present in the assemblage. Graham Harman, by means of a surgically careful reading of Heidegger, argues that we must create an object-oriented ontology to become aware that objects not only exist but act completely independent of humanity and our awareness of them. Levi Bryant gives an outline for an object ontology by defining an Ontic Principle and offering a Principle of the Inhuman. And Jane Bennett reinvigorates things with a material vibrancy and proves that only by our awareness of thing-power can we align our political concerns with the ecological care we need to restore the health of the planet.

As this new-wave of philosophy and object-ontology pushes us forward and strives to construct a future of thing-awareness, it simultaneously creates a new reading of the past. Or perhaps the past offers new ways of reading the present. Either way, there is a growing assemblage of academics and scholars aware that the literature of the medieval and pre-modern is teeming and redolent with instances of and insights into the vitality of matter and the power of things. New journals like postmedieval and conferences like the "GW MEMSI: Animal Vegetable Mineral" are engaging medieval texts in light of contemporary object-ontology. This emerging criticism argues a medieval world aware of thing-power, an era that senses the vibrancy of materials and reproduces that vitalism in its literature. The inorganic of the pre-modern world is as alive and affecting as the organic and one form of matter that is particularly vibrant in medieval literature is stone.

1 comment:

Bacchanal in the Library said...

From Karl Steel:

Basic comments, happy to have disputed: first graph could be tightened up a bit if you scaled back a bit on the adjectives and adverbs. My saying this is a cliché, of course, and one that opens itself to charges of stylephobia (with all associated phobias), but... It's just that you might come at "radiating beauty and delicate intricacies of precious stones and crystals" in a way that gives a more concrete set of their qualities. In fact, there's a good argumentative reason to do so, as this personally aesthetic relation (i.e., YOU found them beautiful and delicate) perhaps obscures the interactive, intersomatic, interaesthetic beingness of the stones and crystals themselves. Could you describe them more concretely but in a way that recognizes the motion in the only apparently concrete? Give a sense of the TIME of the stone and crystal, for example, and their time together.

Second: what program are you applying to? That might help us direct our comments.

Third: is there a logic to the list in your second paragraph's move from ANT to tool-being-OOO to Bryant-OOO to Vibrant Matter (which, incidentally, is where Bennett moves after thing power, given that the "thing" for her is stable (xvii)? If there's a logic to the list, bring it out.

I admire this start, and would love to see how it develops.

You know Kellie Robertson's 2 essays on medieval things and materialism (Literature Compass 2008 and Exemplaria 2010)? She joins Cohen and joy as one of the leading lights of this 'new materialism' (if we want to call it that)