Inhuman Actors: Tracing the Lives of Objects in Medieval Literature

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Eileen A. Joy

a. Brief Description of Project and Anticipated Outcome

“Inhuman Actors: Tracing the Lives of Objects in Medieval Literature” is conceptualized as a twelve-month collaborative project (June 2012 - June 2013) that will culminate in the publication of a book co-authored by Eileen A. Joy (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (George Washington University) intended for a wide, interdisciplinary audience. We are medievalists who in our individual scholarship have argued that medieval writers thought critically and imaginatively about the complexities of human identity and our ethical relations to the world that surrounds us. We have worked together in the past on ambitious scholarly projects: an award-winning academic studies weblog (In The Middle), a series of successful symposia and conferences, a new journal (postmedieval), edited essay collections, and a new humanities press (punctum books). Though our areas of scholarly expertise differ (Joy works on early English literature and cultural studies, Cohen on late medieval texts from the British archipelago), they have both published widely on how the Middle Ages can intervene into and illuminate areas of collective concern within the contemporary humanities, urging scholars towards more historically capacious and ambitious questions about selfhood, community, and creativity. They have pursued distinct philosophical and topical trajectories in relation to these fundamental questions. Prof. Cohen has approached texts through race studies and postcolonial approaches (including the historical study of anti-Semitism). He has also helped to initiate and lead the field of monster theory, which researches how monsters embody the fears and desires of the cultures that dream them. Joy has read texts through ethical philosophy and “presentist” lenses that lace into conversation, for instance, an Old English poem with a contemporary play by Tony Kushner or with the history of female suicide bombers in Chechnya, Russia. Joy has helped to develop and lead the field of premodern posthuman studies (that is, a reinvigorated study of the literature and culture of the medieval past within frames developed within contemporary identity and technology studies). Our scholarship offers unique openings for critical encounter and exchange, but has so far not converged in a singular collaborative project. We have separately been interested in issues of individual and collective identity, in the significance of that which is not human, and in crafting modes of thought that might pay better attention to the ways in which being “alive” involves us in a distributive and open-ended process of becoming (versus a supposedly static “Being”). Together we propose to research how humans and objects, the organic and the inorganic, the living and the seemingly inert, are inextricably and vibrantly enmeshed.

Our project is an immensely ambitious one, and calls for a collaborative approach. It builds upon research overlap and earlier joint work (including two symposia organized by Profs. Cohen and Joy on object-oriented studies and “speculative” philosophies held at George Washington University and The Graduate Center, CUNY in March and September, 2011, respectively), but brings this work in an important new direction. “Inhuman Actors” will examine the “inner lives” and surprising agency of natural and artificial things within medieval texts, and it will consider texts themselves as autopoetic “systems,” an idea inspired by neurobiology and system theory. Inspired also by recent work in philosophy and political science, we plan to conduct an interdisciplinary investigation into how even the most seemingly inanimate of objects possess a vitality that challenges us to re-conceptualize the world, past and present, in frames that are wider, less anthropocentric, and more ecological.

b. Project Description and Background

The French philosopher Michel Serres observes that when we read the myth of Sisyphus, doomed to force up a mountainside a boulder that will invariably roll back, “we never see anything but ourselves” (Statues). Sisyphus is a figure for a human drama, one in which the heavens conspire to make our labors futile. Serres argues, however, that the story is also about an overlooked, recalcitrant but far from passive stone. There’d be no Sisyphus myth without that stone’s movement. “What if, for once,” he asks, “we looked at the rock that is invariably present before our eyes, the stubborn object lying in front of us?” What if there are two actors in this performance, both of which possess compelling stories? What if this myth of frustrated industry that unfolds repeatedly on an infernal hill is also a narrative about an object in perpetual motion, one in which the stone has as much to say as the human protagonist?

When we examine the material world solely from a human perspective, we impoverish our endeavor. Recent humanities research shares with the natural sciences the conviction that the best analytical frames are the most capacious, enabling a global commonwealth or parliament among human and nonhuman agents: a lively network of microbes, artworks, animals, tectonic plates, air currents, plant life, mountains, boulders, roiling seas. These are the varied organisms, elements, and objects with which we co-inhabit the earth. This widening of analytical viewpoint entails the creation of interpretive frames that are inherently less anthropocentric. The human point of view is important, of course, but does not necessarily dominate, opening up new areas for ecological and ethical thought. Such perspective shifts would appear to be easier to achieve in the sciences than the humanities. Virologists naturally speak of the desires of the organisms they track; geologists work with temporal spans in which the 200,000-year existence of homo sapiens diminishes to temporal insignificance; botanists are perfectly comfortable speaking about the manifold adaptive strategies of plants. Given that texts are composed, read and bequeathed to history by human beings, it would seem that to understand the agency of the nonhuman through literature is an unlikely project. Yet a recent convergence of new philosophical movements called Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology lays the groundwork for such an endeavor. Their project is to investigate how to describe, imaginatively and rigorously, the strange lives and sentience of objects beyond our human access to them, as well as their roles as agents in the human realities of language, texts, and power. Inspired by these new critical and philosophical modes, we plan to similarly investigate, with some important differences, how certain works of medieval literature explore the animation and erratic lives of medieval objects apart from their cultural and historical uses.

Scholars too often assume that an interest in the power, vitality and autonomy of objects emerged only recently, in genres like science fiction and fantasy, as well as within their real-world counterparts in experimental science (nanotechnology, cybernetics, robotics, informatics, bioengineering). Yet writers in the Middle Ages were fascinated by the agency of the inanimate world, by the ability of what is not human to draw us into strange orbits and speculative realms, rendering us secondary characters in narratives where human and nonhuman actors touch and transform each other. Medieval texts contain many words for such object power: virtue (virtus), magnetism, adventure (aventure), strangeness, magic, wonder. These ubiquitous medieval words open provocative ways of thinking about objects outside of use-value and miracle, without predetermined answers in history and theology. Our project will map how medieval thinkers launched their own collaborative investigations into what we call the “living arrangements” of lively, nonhuman things: the ways in which they exceed merely human stories, possess a mysterious interiority and singularity not fully comprehensible to human observers, and alter the structures of the world -- and our ways of perceiving it. Medieval objects possess ineluctable powers with persisting and profoundly material effects.

“Inhuman Actors” examines two textual traditions that, in order to emphasize their experimental nature, we describe as laboratories. Each represents an important genre that embraced theologically unpredetermined speculation about nonhuman realms: the Breton lay (short, magic-filled romances often set in the realm of King Arthur, composed in English and French by both men and women) and the literature of wonders (the “Letter of Alexander to Aristotle,” detailing the marvels of distant “India,” and existing in over sixty manuscripts in over twenty different languages, and the catalogues of exotic landscapes and creatures known as the Wonders of the East). These traditions of fantastic texts span the long Middle Ages: lists of exotica and travelogues come early in the period, while the Breton lays appear several centuries later. Together they suggest that the medieval period possessed, over a long span, an innovative and deeply speculative philosophical tradition in which an unfolding of the inner lives of objects may be vividly glimpsed. Typically this unfolding proceeds through the invitation to wonder that magic and the (seemingly) foreign extend: a literary thought experiment in which a stone, for example, possesses the power to change its owner’s fortunes through its radiative abilities, or a grafted tree draws a human onlooker into a realm where time proceeds so slowly that the motion-filled lives of plants and minerals become visible. The best examples of such motility are ultimately the texts themselves, which constitute both singular objects and mutable phenomena transmitted through multiple incarnations in different yet related manuscript traditions. When viewed with historical precision as well as with speculative reasoning, as individual events as well as nodes of encounter within expansive autopoetic networks, texts appear to lead lives of their own, as self-constituting systems in which the reader is just one among many intermediaries in contact with each other.

In its most ambitious framing, the larger project of this book is to detail what happens when a literary text is approached not merely as an artifact or a historical symptom of the humans who produced it, but as an autonomous and persisting signaling system that opens an invaluable window upon the agency and life of objects that even when discursive are nevertheless also real: singular and collective, object and subject simultaneously. Our modern word “thing” derives from an ancient Germanic noun used to describe a meeting convened over matters of communal concern -- for example, the annual Althing held in medieval Iceland to decide upon laws and render judgments. The Latin word for thing, res, provides us with the word republic (literally, “the public thing”). A thing is a gathering and also a parliament, and our project aims to enable medieval things to add their voice to that commonwealth, creating a literary and philosophical collective in which humans and nonhumans have their say. In this way our project will hopefully demonstrate the value of premodern literary studies to the pioneering, multi-disciplinary field of object-oriented studies, and more pointedly, to the project of fashioning an ethics that does not assume humans are the world’s singular and sovereign meaning-makers. As medieval texts amply demonstrate, objects possess lives, agency, and desires. To an era that has too often impoverished the earth by regarding all that is nonhuman as an inert resource to be valued only for its human use, and that has seen in medieval history and literature only a record of human error, “Inhuman Actors” insists that other, less anthropocentric ways of understanding both the past and the future have always been possible and might open new avenues for creative aesthetic and ethical thought.

c. Intellectual Significance

Over the past ten years an intense interest has burgeoned in the agency of supposedly inanimate things. This focus has occurred across and sometimes at a convergence of disciplines: anthropology, art history, political theory, sociology, philosophy, physics, robotics, cybernetics, and literary and historical studies, among others. Humanities scholars as well as scientists have explored the ways in which human life does not so much stand at the center of the universe producing things (like tools or culture) as human life itself is produced within rich networks and alliances of objects and forces. For Jane Bennett and others who work in the inter-disciplinary field sometimes known as “new materialisms” or “object-oriented studies,” what we often assume to be inert things like rubbish heaps or power grids are actually vibrant actants that have the capacity, as Bennett puts it, “not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (Vibrant Matter).

The idea of objects as “actants” -- that is, as entities that have the capability to affect outcomes, to make things happen a certain way -- is partly indebted to the philosopher of science Bruno Latour. He uses the term “actant” to describe a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman, and that has the ability to do things and to alter the course of events. For Latour and other Actor-Network theorists, agency is always distributed along a meshwork of human and nonhuman actors. Agency is therefore always compound and complex, emergent rather than simply exerted. Similarly, the cognitive philosopher Andy Clark has coined the terms “extended mind” and “natural born cyborgs” to describe how human cognition is always supported by and works in conjunction with various technological infrastructures (whether a quill or a cell phone) and is also embedded in other “adaptive cognitive systems” (like computer software, DNA and inscribed parchment). Cognition and agency are always, in this line of thinking, collective affairs, always part of a distributed system that intermixes the human and the objectal.

Some of the most radical work on the vitality of objects has been undertaken recently in philosophy within what has become known as “Speculative Realism” (a term coined at a symposium held a Goldsmiths College, University of London, in 2007) and “Object Oriented Ontology” (a term coined by the philosopher Graham Harman and known as “OOO” for short). Ontology is the philosophical study of existence (traditionally figured as human existence), and OOO puts inhuman actors at the center of that study. Harman, a leading thinker in this new field, argues that, historically, objects have only interested us insofar as they tell us something about human access to them. “By contrast,” he writes, “object-oriented philosophy holds that the relation of humans to pollen, oxygen, eagles, or windmills is no different in kind from the interactions of these objects with each other” (Guerrilla Metaphysics). Harman’s work explores how objects retain a certain life of their own that can never be fully penetrated (in his formulation, objects withdraw). The term “speculative” is essential here, because objects possess an interiority that we cannot fully see, encounter, or detail. For speculative materialists, although the world contains much that is cut off from human access, this withdrawal nonetheless must be rigorously explored, if we are to understand what might be called the life of the nonhuman world.

As scholars who work in premodern literary studies, the question becomes, for us: What might the premodern literary arts be able to reveal about the material substance of things, as well as our enmeshment with those things in turbulent identity networks? What new aesthetics and ethics might we formulate in order to begin to repair the ways in which, historically, the category of the human has emerged (and been institutionalized) at the expense of the nonhuman forces and objects to which we are so intimately bound? Currently, the question is completely wide open regarding the ways in which the premodern humanities study might contribute to the already vigorous interdisciplinary explorations of the “lives,” agency, action, and force of objects apart from overly human-centered conceptions of Being, history and world. Our project is therefore concerned to provide an important chapter in the “long” intellectual-aesthetic history of object-oriented and actor-network thinking. We believe that medieval literary texts in particular create a uniquely affective realm within which to speculate on the rich relationships between the human and the nonhuman. Though composed centuries ago, these textual laboratories envision the “living arrangements” of objects and things with a vivacity that seems wholly contemporary. They offer to scholars who work in modern materials an invitation to rethink the linear progress narratives that underwrite their endeavors, and to engage productively with their colleagues who work in earlier times: times, we would aver, that -- like the objects we study -- are never fully left behind, and continue to act.

d. Chapter Outline

[under construction]