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The Bodies of Things

  • Bill Brown
Chapter
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Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)

Abstract

Tertius Lydgate, the doctor who arrives in Middlemarch as an ambitious medical reformer, has been an obsessive reader of Rasselas as of Gulliver. Indeed, by the age of ten, the already precocious lad had read ‘Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea, which was neither milk for babes, nor any chalky mixture meant to pass for milk’.1 This is to say that he has read those adventures Wherein are Exhibited Views of Several Striking Scenes, with Curious and Interesting Anecdotes of the most Noted Persons in Every Rank of Life, whose Hands it Passed through, in America, England, Holland, Germany, and Portugal. The novel proved so popular that it was reprinted three times before Charles Johnstone expanded it into a four-volume edition in 1764, and so esteemed that it was collected in Ballantyne’s Novelists’ Library in 1822, just a decade before the events of Middlemarch (1872) take place. Though Jonathan Swift may buoyantly breach the human-nonhuman divide in Gulliver’s Travels, Johnstone’s guinea goes so far as to tell its own tale (and the tales of those humans through whose hands or pockets it travels), comfortably inhabiting a literary subgenre in which things become persons — or at least sound and behave rather like them. This is the subgenre of the object autobiography, popular in France as in England, and now widely designated the ‘it-narrative’, whose protagonists — shoes, quills, coats, cats, dogs, cork-screws, coaches, kites, canes, pins, and any number of coins, most famously the gold guinea Chrysal — assume not only authorship but considerable authority when it comes to assessing the lives of humans.2

Keywords

Inanimate Object Object Culture Animate Object Considerable Authority Secret Life 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. David Carroll (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 134.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, History of English Literature, trans. Henry Van Laun, 3 vols. (New York: Colonial Press, 1900), III, 189.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Jacques Rancière, ‘The Politics of Literature’, SubStance, 33 (2004), 18; Balzac quoted in Rancière, ‘The Politics of Literature’, 19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 6.
    Rancière, ‘Politics of Literature’, 19. See also Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliott (New York: Verso, 2007), pp. 11–17.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Of course, a less playful investment in animate matter precedes that eighteenth century — for instance in Mary Cavendish’s claim (from 1668) on behalf of the rationality and sensitivity of matter even down to its ‘smallest particles’. Cavendish quoted in Jonathan Kramnick, Actions and Objects from Hobbes to Richardson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 67.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    See Bill Brown, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 151, 177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 10.
    Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia, trans. Anthony A. Nassar (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 7. Further references are given parenthetically in the text.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), p. 92.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Theodor Adorno, ‘Lyric Poetry and Society’, trans. Bruce Mayo, in Critical Theory and Society, ed. Stephen Bronner and Douglas Kellner (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 158.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    Theodor Adorno, ‘The Handle, the Pot, and Early Experience’, in Notes to Literature, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), II, 211, 213. Simmel’s lectures in Berlin were extremely popular, and the subsequent work of many of those in attendance — Bloch, Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, and Heidegger — established considerable ground for thinking about object culture.Google Scholar
  11. 17.
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 353.Google Scholar
  12. 18.
    Jane Taylor, The Transplant Men (Aukland Park, South Africa: Jacana Media, 2009), p. 20.Google Scholar
  13. 21.
    Jane Taylor, ‘Introduction’, in Handspring Puppet Company, ed. Jane Taylor (Parkwood, South Africa: Krut Publishing, 2009), p. 19.Google Scholar
  14. 22.
    See John McCormick, The Victorian Marionette Theatre (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004).Google Scholar
  15. 23.
    A recent sample illustrating this disciplinary breadth might include Janet Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Matter of Ecology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009) from political science;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (Chicago: Open Court, 2005) from philosophy;Google Scholar
  17. Jennifer Roberts, Pictures in Transit: Matter, Memory, and Migration in Early American Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011) from art history. See also Things, ed. Bill Brown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).Google Scholar
  18. 24.
    Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 79;Google Scholar
  19. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 54.Google Scholar
  20. 25.
    Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 69, emphasis in original. Latour goes on to argue, in the subsequent sentence: ‘To limit the discussion to humans, their interests, their subjectivities, and their rights, will appear as strange a few years from now as having denied the right to vote of slaves, poor people, or women.’Google Scholar

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© Bill Brown 2012

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  • Bill Brown

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