Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods

11-12 March 2011

The George Washington University

Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI)

Washington, DC

*Go HERE for abstracts of featured plenary talks

BABEL Working Group and postmedieval panel:

Wondrous Cosmology: Physics, Poetics, Biology

Liza Blake (New York University) and Daniel C. Remein (New York University), Co-Organizers

Eileen Joy (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) and Myra Seaman (College of Charleston), Co-Presiders

Panel Description:

It was not in natural processes that the Greeks first experienced what physis is, but the other way around, on the basis of a fundamental experience of being in poetry in thought, what they had to call physis disclosed itself to them. --Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics

The above epigraph for this session is not meant as a doxa to be specifically proven, contested, or adhered to directly by any of the session’s papers, but as an attempt recall recent new materialisms and object-oriented philosophy to the question of physis as a question which ineluctably links concerns for what is sometimes called ‘matter’ with poetics. The session will thus attempt to think some of the concerns which an approach to cosmology from models considering physics, poetics, and biology share with the turn to vital, vibrant, or related materialisms and object-oriented philosophy. Specifically at issue will be the question of how the task of these supposedly different (poetics—productive/making, physics as descriptive science of what one already assumed is ‘there’) orientations to matter might coincide on the question of cosmology. Biology will be presented as a third concern to further complicate the arguments concerning physics and poetics, investigating how certain biological models might assist the attempt to return to physis and to link this turn to poetics. By offering perspectives on physics, poetics, and the biological as ways to think about cosmology, the panel will thus also take the measure of certain dominant assumptions about the above-mentioned materialisms and object-oriented thought as well as considering possible alternatives: particular concerns will include how to think differentiating procedures of cosmos as well as their phenomenological meaning and related implications for poetic production; how to think irreducible difference as well as change and motion within Cosmos, things, and even organisms; the significance of the history of physics and its attitude towards ‘matter’ to these new materialisms; a reevaluation of what is at stake in the particularly Husserlian interest in ‘objects’ rather than things along with Spinoza-influenced Monist assumptions of much of this new materialism (as well as what alternatives to monism might be found specifically in poetics); and whether Wonder might name an irreducible productive and perhaps ethical procedure at the points where physics, poetics, and biology overlap—not only for cosmological mapping and descriptive thought, but also for the production of particular kinds of relations to physis so re-conceived as the task equally given to physics and poetics.


Liza Blake, New York University (

Golding’s Metamorphic Physis and the Meaning of Matter

Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is prefaced with a dedicatory Epistle that announced Ovid’s work to be a work of physics: a “dark philosophy of turnèd shapes” or natural philosophy about substance. He then proceeds to lay out for the reader how Ovid’s natural and moral philosophy relate, channeling or perhaps folding them into one another. This paper will start from Golding’s text to investigate two questions: first, the investigation of why and how poetic and literary texts tend to rely on a physis, where physis is a kind of cosmology that often concerns itself with matter; and second, the investigation of the role of matter when it comes to physis. For many authors of physical texts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the specific philosophy on which their physical accounts relied was a philosophical account of matter. This does not mean that a “physical” text concerns itself only with material in the sense of tangible, however. This paper will argue that the matter of physics becomes filtered through some of the most important issues and topics of early modern physics: change, transformation, causality, motion, force, and attraction. It will conclude by reclaiming the questions of matter and materialism in the question of physics, as well as suggesting shifting the term of discussion from matter to physics.

Anna Klosowska, Miami University of Ohio (

Madeleine de l’Aubespine’s Baroque Metamorphoses after Post-Phenomenology

Madeleine de l’Aubespine’s poetry (1546-96) is a museum of avian metamorphoses (“wings of faith”), philosophical pants (dialogue on sex and death between breeches and vest), and other paraphernalia of Petrarchism, which relies on physics (ice and fire, hot and cold), alchemy, magic, love potions, and other transcendent technologies of desire. Her poems stage the yearning for a stable subject whose various tears/rifts are not so much healed and bridged, as they are exposed as irreducible and productive: the transgressive comets, not the staid planets, of subject-cosmology. Emblematically, in an epigram on her name (l’aubespine means ‘hawthorn’) she contrasts vegetal constancy and human inconstancy: ‘In the most savage deserts void of humanity,/ bereft of soul and feeling, faith by the hour grows/ But in the lovers’ hearts it can’t make its abode.’ What we might call cross-species and trans-human motifs may well define Petrarchist imagination, but I always feel complacent when I use the traditional labels (Petrarchist, Baroque) to describe them. By contrast, Graham Harman’s post-phenomenology offers a language that restores a vivid strangeness to l’Aubespine’s poems. Harman helps me to see the Petrarchist subject as a collection of often contradictory subject positions, a laminated multiplicity or a frayed assemblage, indeed not a subject but a collection of positions, fugitive, transhuman, recycled. The logic of multiplicities equally prevents the emergence of the premodern subject and Petrarchist poetic gestures as a given, as if we always already knew what ‘it’ was.

Daniel C. Remein, New York University (

Towards a Poetics of Ornamentality and Wonder: Things and Physis in the Old English Riddles at the Crux of Empiricism and Phenomenology

The Old English Exeter Book riddles offer themselves as an important site for thing-theory and the history of human-thing relations. The ‘solutions’ to the Riddles often consist of ‘objects’ ranging in scope from material altered by human art for costly ornamental purpose to everyday items, livestock, as well as seemingly unremarkable ‘non-sentient’ material unaltered by human art. Such objects are frequently referred to or made to speak in these poems as a ‘wrætlic wiht.’ Although this term is often translated as ‘wondrous/curious creature,’ this paper will take its point of departure from etymological work which construes the ‘wrætlic wiht’ alternately as ‘ornament-like being’ and then will consider the poetics of this term in the Exeter Book in relation to the term cynd (translated as ‘nature’ or ‘qualities’ or ‘kind’) in the same manuscript. Reading these two terms together will delineate a poetics as an ethics of human-thing relations in which the philological reading of Old English offers a relatively unconventional frame for recent thing theory, here framed with reference to a phenomenological tradition including Gumbrecht’s recent insistence on the substantiality of Being. The paper tracks how the Riddles operate a vocabulary of wonder and ornament in a mode that registers at once as a descriptive ‘empirical/ atomist’ mode and a naming/metaphorical ‘phenomenological/Monist’ mode and thus provokes multiple solutions which nonetheless share the same ontological space in their mode of ornamentality. I name this space that of wonder: a sharing of ontological space at the vertiginous crux of empirical constancy and phenomenological objectivity. In such poetics the term ‘cynd’ does not appear as yet another variation of what Heidegger considered the Latinate mistranslation of physis as nature, but as an innovation in the history of western metaphysics: a medieval alternative to the Monist and Husserlian tendencies of some current materialist- and thing-theory. In this medieval poetics of wonder, Being has substance (ousia) and physis names the appearance of Being, but neither are ‘One’; contra the Monist doxa, essents can be both ‘the Same’ and ‘Different’ such that kinesis (change and motion) can again be considered possible. A poetics of wonder constructs a space where authentic and ethical relations to and between things consist of the ontological ornamentality by which the substantiality of the Being of each essent adorns the Being of each and every essent.

Ada Smailbegovic, New York University (

Soft Architectures: Material Instantiations of Affect in Poetics

“To experience change, we submit ourselves to the affective potential of the surface. [...] When we stumble against limits we blush. Color, like a hormone, acts across, embarrasses, seduces,” writes Canadian poet Lisa Robertson in Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. This paper is invested in theorizing affect as a phenomenon that hinges on the properties of matter, and in particular the coutaneous boundaries and surfaces that act as affect-inducing mechanisms by generating inflection points or impediments to flow, and through their textural properties constraining the transductive movement of affect from one material to another. Within such a model, for instance, surface ornamentation or elaboration may act as an affect amplification mechanism by increasing the surface area available for excitation, while the “lively variability” of surfaces or the proliferation of their textural qualities may be correlated with the differentiation of affects. As an initial point of departure I am invested in Gertrude Stein’s methodology in The Making of Americans through which she comes to understands affect as arising out of differential bioactive properties of matter. Within Stein’s affective classification system different kinds of sensitivity emerge, so that matter composing some is “solid and sensitive all through it to stimulation, in some [it is] almost wooden, in some muddy and engulfing, in some thin almost like gruel, [...] in some with holes like air-holes in it, in some hardened and cracked all through it,” and so on. I am interested in investigating how the descriptions of these histological landscapes of affect in The Making of Americans open a vantage point onto poetics from which, as Lisa Robertson suggests, “words [become] fleshy ducts” which can “juice up or pinken the clean lines of the possible.”