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13.09.35, Cohen, ed., Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

13.09.35, Cohen, ed., Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

This collection of essays, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, casts the light of premodern inquiry onto the theoretical field broadly defined as new materialisms. Following Jane Bennett's work in Vibrant Matter, these essays set out to overturn the subject/object dichotomy that traditionally frames humanist inquiry into the material world. Bennett argues that the nonhuman exerts its own form of agency and that objects impose an ethical obligation to consider that potential for agency, even subjectivity, as they interact with each other and with the human. As Cohen puts it in his Introduction to the volume, "things, especially things that appear to hold themselves in silence, must possess a power indifferent to language, something that comes from themselves, not via human allowance. Silent things must be able to speak, exert agency, propel narrative" (6). Such an approach offers considerable opportunity to rethink and reframe our conventional terms of analysis, and Animal, Vegetable, Mineral offers compelling evidence of the advantages to be gained. At the same time, it showcases scholars of the premodern world engaging creatively and productively with an important theoretical trend, and this, too, has real advantages.

The collection has excellent contributions on each of the three key terms, such as the opening essay by Karl Steel, a study of medieval accounts of feral children in the Erfurt Chronicle. In these accounts, Steel reads feral children as neither human nor animal, but as "a pliable substance"; their very existence "refuses the dominant humanist traditions of the Middle Ages, in which someone gets to be the human subject and something has to be the animal object, there to be dominated..." (16, 25). The feral children reveal the boundary between human and animal to be fluid and porous and, unsurprisingly, the human community is unable to accept such ambiguous identities. A similar troubling of boundaries, this time between human and vegetable, is the focus of Peggy McCracken's contribution on the floral virgins of the Anglo-Norman Alexander romances. These women, whose virginity is restored each night by the forest in which they live no matter how many lovers they take, delight Alexander and his men for obvious reasons, and the episode "imagines a nature untouched by human intervention, but responsive to human needs, desires, and values" (75). Yet the floral virgins are also the only people who prove resistant to conquest: to remove them from their forest is to destroy them, and so Alexander is forced to leave them behind. Finally, Kellie Robertson explores the shifting boundary between humans and rocks across the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. She begins with the lapidaries that attributed healing agency and prophetic powers to different kinds of stones, endowing them with something very like a soul and embedding them in a relationship of mutual influence with humans. "In a physical world where the rock and the human differ more by degree than by kind," she writes, "the reciprocity of moral lessons was written by an ontological connection manifest in the scala naturae" (100). This mutuality fades into the early modern period, however, and Robertson uses "Chaucer's Pebble" to illustrate how, by the eighteenth century, rocks had become mere reflections of human agency and meaning in the scholarly imagination.

As Julia Reinhard Lupton shows, however, historical objects can still have agency, whether or not that agency is recognized by the humans who use them, and her essay stands out as a stellar engagement with both ethics and objects. She takes as her focus the Renaissance joint stool, the ubiquitous three-legged contraption at the center of what she calls the "res publica of furniture." Emphasizing the res, Lupton shows how furniture literally supports human social institutions by structuring domestic and public spaces; as she puts it, "one res publica (the furniture system) mirrors and supports the other (the body politic) in its biopolitical and political-theological handling of limbs, spines, and butts" (214). Relations among and between things and people shape the dynamics of society; furniture can move from place to place and from person to person, rezoning spaces and imposing obligations of care. Attention to the dynamics of furniture can also, as Lupton demonstrates, shape our understanding of literary and historical texts. In her examples from Shakespeare, the stool and the throne body forth radically different kinds of subjects in both comedic and tragic modes, implicating performers in a carefully choreographed dance of meaning among humans, animals, objects, and language. Her essay is an outstanding example of what can be gained by establishing a dialogue between contemporary methodologies and premodern texts.

The rest of the collection ranges from studies of representational practices to philosophical reflections on the ethical engagements of object-oriented study. Sharon Kinoshita explores the exchange of rare and exotic animals between Christendom and the Islamic world as a mutually-understood marker of cultural and imperial superiority, even in the time of the crusades. Valerie Allen shows Albertus Magnus conceiving of "mineral virtue" as akin to human virtus in his De Mineralibus, even writing about minerals in reproductive terms. Julian Yates writes from a contact zone between human and animal, reorienting himself to the landscape by tracing the tracks of sheep and "interpreting" the "writing" they have left behind. Jane Bennett writes about being hailed (in the Althusserian sense) by objects and working through ethical responses to that call both professionally and personally; "what happens--to our writing, our bodies, our research, our consumption practices, our sympathies--if this 'call' from things is taken seriously" (240)? Eileen Joy sketches an answer to Bennett's question in the four-step plan of her "manifesto": to be attentive to the nonhuman, to effect mutuality, to be open to change, and to keep writing about it. The collection closes with three brief response essays, by Lowell Duckert, Nedda Mehdizadeh, and Jonathan Gil Harris, which summarize and reflect upon the preceding contributions.

As with most essay collections, readers are likely to find some essays more engaging than others. Those by Yates, Bennett, and Joy, for example, are reflective rather than productive, and they don't teach us anything new about premodernity. Still, we find many points of contact among the different writers. This is no great surprise in a volume that had its genesis in a conference at the George Washington University in 2011, and the public nature of that discourse carries over into the distribution of the volume, which is available as an open-source e-text as well as an affordable paperback. In all, the volume is a welcome contribution to ongoing discussions about the relationship between medieval studies and contemporary critical discourse.