"Hic deprehensus lignis circumligatis erectus ire ad humanam similitudinem cogebatur"
(When he was captured, he was bound with wood and compelled to go upright in the manner of a human)
My paper follows a Hessian boy into the woods to witness a temporary posthuman alliance of human, lupine, and sylvan subject/objects. A fourteenth-century entry in the Chronicle of St Peter of Erfurt tell the story of the child, captured and raised by wolves, then captured again several years later, this time by humans, who displayed him at a noble court as a spectacle. The wolves had cherished the child, giving him the best food, excavating a den for him, sheltering him with their bodies in the winter, and teaching him to run on all fours and to jump; his human captors, scandalized by the child's posture, affixed wooded braces to him to compel him to walk upright. As the captured child himself tells it, he much preferred his time with the wolves.
Per medieval humanist interpretations of posture, the child had gone from being with the world and its mutability to looking upright, toward the sky and its eternal truths. One posture has child among the woods and the wolves, who learn from him too, the whole of them forming a sylvan network to offer a lived rethinking of facile oppositions between wolf and human and between sentient subject and worldly object; another, corrective posture dreams of an isolated body released from mutability, in which the child would be one of a set of sealed-off human subjects. Given over to the court, captured and disconnected, bound to a future that looks up and not around, it is no wonder that the child longs to be sylvan again.
Rocks were good to think with in the later Middle Ages. They were regularly used as examples in scholastic philosophy for analyzing the limit conditions of cognition. The motion of rocks was often cited as evidence for the charisma of place in medieval physics, a doctrine that allowed inanimate objects the luxury of quasi-animate properties. In these ways, rocks played an exemplary role in helping to generate the epistemological systems that underwrote much scholastic thought about the material world. This paper charts a wandering itinerary between the rocks of natural philosophy and the hard places of late medieval poetry. Stops on this itinerary will (most likely) include Dorigen’s meditation on the “grisly black rocks” of the Franklin’s Tale and the climactic metaphor in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that compares Gawain himself to a rock. In exploring how the “exemplary rock” came to be seen as emblematic of relations between the material and immaterial worlds for both poets and natural philosophers, I’ll argue for a shared epistemology between late medieval fiction-writing and physics, one that, unlike post-Enlightenment systems of knowledge, did not of necessity cordon off the human from the natural nor see the human as the centripetal center around which the non-sentient converged. Such a historical imaginary does not see the rock-human assemblage as a nostalgic, narcissistic closeness to nature but rather suggests that a particular historical understanding can be recuperated through the transformative potential of feminist ecological thinking, a historical inquiry conditioned by “locational possibilities” (in the words of critic Lorraine Code) that allow us to follow the epistemic possibilities precipitating out of medieval rocks.
Vitally important as an ingredient in pharmacy, an object of tribute and trade, a raw material for manufacture, and a curiosity of natural history, cotton has been identified and threaded through Chinese natural history from early accounts of vegetable lambs, to lists of tribute plants and fabrics in bilingual dictionaries, to early modern agricultural accounts, and through references to yohan and kubun armor in Manchu sources. My paper uses this case study to explore what it means to write with and of plants in early modern history. Addressing the challenges of writing a materially-informed diachronic narrative from a collection of names, descriptions, stories, texts, and materials that have been pieced together in different ways (and in multiple languages) over time, I will argue that the history of the vegetal is itself a process of objectification, creating the very concept that it purports to study. The paper will conclude by suggesting that we consider the early modern vegetable in terms of a history of sameness and identification, historicizing the notions of interchangeability and replaceability as manifest in plant knowledge in multilingual China.
This paper proceeds on the assumption that any engagement with questions of matter / materiality / or the lives of animals / plants / fungi / things ought to prove so unsettling that it will tend to jeopardize our ability to produce vendible narratives about past and present. For me the question of matter figures as one of discursive exposure and narrative risk, that will tend to play out as a re-grounding in questions of the archive, of genre, and rhetoric understood now as technologies for rendering things mobile. I read the turn to biography (Appadurai, Kopytoff) as the default genre for studies of things (and their social lives) and the assumption of life and its codes as the constitutive “as if” that enables analysis as the symptom of a retro-humanist impulse that renders matter infinitely malleable in human hands. I am concerned also, however, by the salvific lure (crypto-theology?) that the assimilation of actor network theory, speculative metaphysics, and the turn to “things” in literary and historical study more generally seems to offer (I’d dearly love to be wrong), modeling the world under the rubric of a figural human extinction that detonates issues of witness / testimony. This paper aims to slow things down and consider the genre and media-specificity of our engagements and to do so by investigating what the inventory (counting sheep) and theft (sheep – stealing), as genres whose orientation to a multiplicity (a life that is always many irreducible and incompatible lives) might have to offer us.
"Of Chairs, Stools and Trestle Tables: Scenes from the Renaissance Res Publica of Things"
In this paper, I will examine the social arrangements that obtained among Renaissance home furnishings. Why were chairs rare and stools common? How was the political theology of chairs challenged by new forms of artisanal production? Why were some tables called “dormant” (and what was required to wake them up)? Why and how was animal life mapped onto the design and social organization of furniture? In what sense were stools, chairs and tables “actants” on the scene of Renaissance housing, especially in the socio-religious scripts of hospitality, holiday and that daily drama called dinner? And what does the Renaissance menagerie of furniture have to teach us today about the way we live with things? My readings of Renaissance furniture will draw on affordance theory, as developed in environmental psychology (James J. Gibson, Harry Heft, Timothy Ingold) and repurposed in design research (Donald Norman, Janet Suri, Brenda Laurel). Using a variety of materials, including paintings and plays, I will distinguish between the inventory (the concrete poetry of the object list) and the taskscape (the micro-drama of affordances in action) in order to draw out the secret constitutions governing the res publica of things in Renaissance domestic and theatrical space.