Book Chapter

What’s Really the Matter with Artifacts?

by Crystal B. Lake

Ready-to-hand, memorable things make the immaterial past materially present for our direct, sensory apprehension as well as our cognitive reasoning, but they are also very nearly thinking things themselves, full of memories that we do not and cannot have for ourselves.

As Ernst Kantorowicz explained in his now-classic study, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (1957), medieval political philosophy endowed the king with two bodies: a body natural and a body politic. Although the king’s natural body suffered and died like all human bodies, the body politic of the monarchy persisted as a transcendent spiritual entity vested with the divine right to rule. [10] Throughout the Middle Ages, objects conveyed this “political theology.” Coins, for example, featured the faces of individual monarchs on their obverse and symbols of their virtues and rights to rule on their reverse. Manuscripts depicted kings as doubled-figures, at once human and Christ-like. The weapons wielded by kings were not personal possessions, but rather implements of the state. Even when the king’s natural body had died and been buried, his body politic persisted as a “fiction of endless continuity” (Kantorowicz 291).

As long as antiquaries dug up old coins, manuscripts, weapons, and grave goods, they were inevitably going to dig up controversy. It was not just that the king’s two bodies symbolically inhered in these four types of artifacts. These were the artifacts through which revolutions wrenched the king’s two bodies asunder. Antiquarian activity throughout the period suggests that the extent of the monarch’s, parliament’s, and people’s rights were both established and contested through these four types of objects more than any other. Each artifact might verify a sovereign’s absolute right to rule. Each might also call into question the existence of such a right.

Coins, for example, were commonly given as tokens of the “royal touch,” thus serving as evidence of the king’s divinely ordained ability to cure diseases and, by extension, a king’s inherently benevolent relationship to his subjects. Coins could also, however, be exposed as counterfeit propaganda, or they could exemplify the perils of idolatry and the vanity of tyrannical des pots. Coins could validate a monarch’s authority to establish and guarantee the most basic aspects of a social system. Or they could epitomize the virtues of social systems left to run on their own, without the intervention of an in- dividual head of the state. Ordered chronologically, coins could authenticate hereditary lines of succession. Coins could also, however, show that succession had been disrupted, either rightly or wrongly. The other three types of artifacts were similarly vexed and vexing. Medieval manuscripts were used to establish the exclusive rights that England’s old sovereigns enjoyed. But they were also used to assert the rights of Parliament and the people to check those powers. Like coins, manuscripts could also be fakes and exposed as propaganda. Meanwhile, weapons were implicated in arguments over the states of nature. They could illustrate the necessity of subjecting to the power of an absolutist sovereign; or they could speak to the righteousness of resisting such arbitrary power. Finally, the bones of kings could perform wonders as secular relics, or they could putrefy and dissolve into dust like all mortal bodies.

The very matter of these artifacts—not just their shapes or their symbolic and historical functions—entangled them in the political melees of the seventeenth century. John Rogers’s The Matter of Revolution documents how disputes over England’s government in the seventeenth century were con- ducted by way of scientific and philosophical investigations into the nature of matter. [11] Rogers describes the years between 1649 and 1652 as an acute “Vitalist Moment” during which a wide range of writers and thinkers wondered whether matter was imbued with the “power of reason and self-motion” (1). The notion that matter might move on its own or think for itself was controversial, and not just because it brimmed with the unorthodox implication that God could be extracted from the equation of the universe’s logic. Debates about whether matter acted with free will were also debates about a sovereign’s power, a parliament’s prerogatives, and the rights of people. Theories about matter were theories about government.

Rogers finds that two competing theories of matter emerged in the seventeenth century that corresponded to two competing theories of government. On one side were the vitalists, who believed either that body and spirit were “inseperabl[e]” or that all matter was capable of moving and, perhaps, even thinking for itself (Rogers 1). The vitalists’ theory that matter could move or think for itself was “charged with the momentum of revolutionary fervor,” according to Rogers. Vitalism, in other words, established a “theoretical justification for the more collective mode of political agency and the more inclusive vision of political organization that were among the unquestionable products of the English Revolution” (Rogers 14). The mechanists opposed the vitalists. Mechanists “were more likely to embrace a vision of matter internally devoid of soul, cast about by external or immaterial spirits and overseen by a providential God” (Rogers 12). Mechanism tendered a “determinist” model of “agency and organization” (Rogers 5) that conveniently “offered scientific proof for the necessity and inevitability of a political process of conquest and domination” (Rogers 8). Mechanists, in other words, doubted that matter could move or think for itself. This meant that mechanists were usually royalists who sympathized with Charles I. [12] When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, he became a patron of the mechanists, who gathered under the auspices of the Royal Society.

Rogers concludes that the royalists’ mechanism would go on to win the day, dominating both the science and the political philosophy of eighteenth-century England. The Glorious Revolution in 1688 heralded that a compromise had been reached not only among kings, parliaments, and the people but also between the vitalists and the mechanists. Isaac Newton’s idea of a mechanical cosmos designed and put into motion by a deity vindicated hierarchical organizations of earthly governments. John Locke’s idea of reason as a governing principle of morality promised to keep the mechanism in working order. [13] On the one hand, then, the terms of the Glorious Revolution accommodated mechanists’ vision of matter by affirming that a sovereign deity had dele- gated control to a sovereign who existed as a veritable neutron in the atom of the nation-state. On the other hand, the terms of the Glorious Revolution accommodated the vitalists by implicitly acknowledging that the machine of government could break and that reasoning individuals were entitled to return the state to order and to enjoy the liberty it ensured. Newton’s science and Locke’s liberalism were therefore the means by which the problem of the king’s two bodies was finally put to rest. [14]

Such, at least, is the standard story we often tell about the beginning of the long eighteenth century and the English Enlightenment. [15] Yet the compromises of 1688 did not avert future violent clashes in or over England’s government. [16] The specters of power-hungry tyrants and bloodthirsty revolutionaries alike continued to darken the doorways of the salons and coffeehouses, where a newly polite and commercial public gathered to talk and shop in the 1700s. Coins, manuscripts, weapons, and grave goods kept England’s re- cent history of regicide, republicanism, restoration, and tenuous compromise close to the surface while they also dredged up its gothic, medieval, and pre-historic pasts. More generally, these artifacts exposed the ways in which the political allegiances, between the royalists and the mechanists on one side and the revolutionaries and vitalists on the other, were neither so dogmatic nor so quickly resolved as they appeared to be.

William Somner’s reflections in 1640 on his study of the antiquities of Canterbury illustrate how artifacts exposed instabilities in the links between theories of matter and the political doctrines that those theories were used to authorize. For Somner, studying objects from the past led him to ponder, as it did for Aubrey, the categories of the living and the dead. Somner begins his Antiquities of Canterbury (1640) with a discourse on immortality. “[S]ome ancient Philosophers,” he writes, have suggested “that all men, for the most part, have a naturall desire to [sic] Immortality” (Antiquities i). According to Somner, immortality has primarily been understood as genealogy since the time of the ancients and under the sway of their “divers [sic] good Arguments” (Antiquities i). As he explains it, the dead “in some sort may be thought yet alive” if their “Progeny is living” (Antiquities i). Somner here invokes what would become the vitalists’ and the mechanists’ favorite enigma: Is there something immaterial that somehow lives beyond matter or not? And if so, is it—or is it not—responsible for the actions that matter takes?

Somner sided with the royalists. After the regicide, he published an elegy for Charles I in which he briefly illustrates the links between his political allegiances and his philosophical convictions. In The Insecuritie of Princes (1648/1649), Somner imagines that kings are fixed, massy entities in a divinely ordered cosmos that tilts inexorably toward divinely ordained ends. He contrasts this vision with the republicans’ “sensual, Epicurean” theory of matter (Insecuritie 5). According to Somner, the republicans pursued the body of the state and the head of the king in the same way that they consumed other objects right in front of them: with a shortsighted gusto for the taste and touch of things. He depicts Cromwell’s men guzzling bowls of wine, stuffing “their bellies,” and luxuriating in “beds of down” (Insecuritie 5). Somner rejects their politics and their fervor for physicality when he concludes his elegy by taking comfort in a future state of “true hearts-ease” that only God can deliver after the regicide. Somner’s “hearts-ease” is produced by something immaterial, “Such as no eye hath seen, ear heard, nor can / Conceived be by heart of mortall man” (Insecuritie 6). Somner trusts that such a spirit will right the course of political history.

Somner also recognizes that the republicans had adopted for themselves a term that the royalists had previously used to characterize how matter func- tioned: “NECESSITIE” (Insecuritie 4). For the royalists, “necessity” described a world that was ordered and controlled: a world in which the actions that matter could take—and the effects it could produce—were constrained by either a divine force or the laws of nature. The republicans, however, used “necessity” to describe the actions that matter might take of its own accord and the effects that, they claimed, would inevitably ensue. Somner snorted: “Necessity? O Heaven’s! curs’d be that need” (Insecuritie 4). Noting that the revolutionaries’ political and philosophical dissent resulted in a murderous regicide, Somner quips that their “bad beginnings to worse ends are ty’d [sic]” (Insecuritie 3). If the republicans would describe their theory of matter using the royalists’ mechanistic idea of “necessity,” then so be it. Somner shows that while the royalists used mechanism to position the king as an absolute authority in a wind-up universe, the revolutionaries used it to justify revolu- tion as an inevitability. The turn Somner takes toward an immaterial spirit likewise suggests that the royalists had appropriated the revolutionaries’ vitalism, using it to imagine the king’s body as a unique entity and one thereby entitled to rule with absolute authority.

As Somner indicates, vitalists and mechanists not only argued with one an- other; they also argued among themselves. Vitalists disagreed about whether matter’s capacity for self-movement or thought was a tangible property of matter itself or evidence that something more ineffable and immaterial, like spirit, directed matter’s motions. They likewise debated if such a spirit might exist within matter, might somehow be produced by matter’s internal operations or superadded to matter by an entity outside of matter itself. Meanwhile, the mechanists disagreed about how matter’s courses of motion were established: Did an external force set matter into a predetermined sequence of motion only once and once upon a time, or did it intervene constantly to control how matter behaved? Some mechanists imagined that this external force was a deity; others maintained that it was simply nature.

When it came to understanding the matter of antiquities eight years before the execution of Charles I, Somner’s faith in an immaterial spirit that controlled matter’s actions over time wavered. He appears to have been less convinced that a spirit or deity could be perfectly conceived of as something that existed outside of matter itself and counted upon to constrain matter’s actions. Somner’s faith wavered because he could not align his belief in an immaterial spirit that set objects into motion or constantly directed their movements with his way of imagining antiquities as material objects that conveyed history into the present. In the presence of antiquities, Somner disagrees with the ancients, despite their “divers, good Arguments.” Immortality is not best understood genealogically as the transfer of spirit from parents to their living descendants. Instead, he argues that true immortality is a quality of mind and not the biological body because it depends upon the “Remembrance of things past, and Foresight of things to come” (Somner, Antiquities ii). The minds of mere mortals cannot remember a past that came before their bodies; nor can our eyes see beyond the grave. For Somner, then, “things past” can only be known by past things.

He names the things from the past “memorable things” and defines them as physical objects: “undoubted Records and Monuments” (Somner, Antiquities ii–iii). These objects remember for us that which we cannot remember for ourselves. Specifically, they preserve “historicall events,” which Somner further glosses as the “series of chances and alterations” that produced “the present times and places” from “such or such a beginning” (Antiquities iii, emphasis added). By examining “memorable things” or “undoubted Records and Monuments,” an individual “may probably foresee what will happen in time to come” based on what the objects remembered about what had happened before (Antiquities iii, emphasis added). This, Somner concludes, is the nature of “true immortality.” Ready-to-hand, memorable things make the immaterial past materially present for our direct, sensory apprehension as well as our cognitive reasoning, but they are also very nearly thinking things themselves, full of memories that we do not and cannot have for ourselves. [17]

Somner’s “memorable things” are poised to accommodate both mechanistic and vitalist theories of matter. On the one hand, the objects preserved a history of “alterations”: changes wrought by something outside of the object itself. On the other hand, they also preserved a history of “chances”: unusual, unexpected swerves in the cosmic system, perhaps even swerves produced by the objects themselves. By arguing that “memorable things” revealed the a priori causes of present effects and thus could be used to predict future events, Somner seems to imagine antiquities as mechanistic entities. But he also says that an individual “may probably” predict the future based on the study of antiquities. Such hesitancy constrains the objects’ ostensibly mechanical functions. Somner’s use of “may probably” also throws into relief his use of “such or such” to characterize the causal origin of the past preserved by antiquities, too. The conjunction “or” in “such or such,” accommodates the viability of two contradictory chains of events (rather than the more definitive “such and such”).

Somner knew that theories of matter were political not only because they belied philosophical convictions about how government should be organized in the abstract but also because they were used to establish the present organization of the English government as the necessary effect of how government had previously been organized. Somner himself, for example, justifies his research on the antiquities of Canterbury by first explaining that he was from Canterbury himself: physically proximate to his objects of study. He moves quickly, however, to point out that Canterbury was one of England’s “ancientest [sic] cities” (Antiquities iii). Likewise, Somner describes Canterbury as a site where the conquering Romans had left the original Britons to “enjoy their ancient Laws, Liberties, and Form of Government, as though they had not been conquered” (Antiquities iii). Somner imagines antiquities as waypoints for accessing a more original because more temporally distant political history.

Both royalists and republicans vindicated their arguments for how the English government should be structured in the present by insisting that historical precedents functioned, or ought to function, causally. Either the current structures of state had been legitimately determined by earlier forms of government, or the current structures were anomalies that needed to be brought back into alignment with historical forms of government. As waypoints to the past, coins, manuscripts, weapons, and grave goods were key objects for substantiating claims about how the state had once been organized; older and then still older specimens of these artifacts were hotly sought after, accordingly. However, when embedded in moments of genesis or plotted alongside earlier and earlier formations of the state, artifacts also made manifest the need for the political histories that theories of matter inspired to reckon with chronology: to account for not only where but when causality occurred, and to name which causes produced which effects and in what order. [18] As a consequence of the need to impose structures of causality onto the “Historical events” that “memorable things” preserved and presaged, it becomes increasingly difficult for Somner to maintain that memorable things were “undoubted Records and Monuments.” Instead, they only “probably” offered to the present a history of “such or such a beginning.” [19]

As objects that preserved a history of chances as well as alterations, artifacts proved to be available equally to those royalists and those revolutionaries who were eager to reconstruct the origins of government and its aftereffects in the service of their present cause. The history of the Society of Antiquaries that Richard Gough prepared in 1770 hints at how competing political factions used artifacts in support of their arguments about the past and present organization of the state. According to Gough, a group of like-minded antiquaries began collaborating shortly after Henry VIII’s dissolution of England’s monasteries in order to rescue the manuscripts and other antiquities that were being dispersed. Despite their efforts, the antiquaries’ petition to Elizabeth I for a charter and a public place to meet went nowhere. Gough never explains why Elizabeth I refused the antiquaries’ petition, but he suggests that they continued to meet happily as a society that was formal in spirit if not in name—that is, until 1603, when James I ascended the throne and “thought fit to dissolve” their fledgling club. In Gough’s words, James I dissolved the antiquaries’ informal society because he was “alarmed for the arcana of his Government” (“Introduction” xv).

James I couldn’t exactly “dissolve” a society that wasn’t official, but the antiquaries decided to stop meeting together in public because, according to Gough, they “fear[ed] being prosecuted as a treasonable cabal” (“Introduction” xv). Gough needs us to read between the lines, but the implication is clear: James I believed that antiquaries’ research endangered his claim to the throne as well as the terms on which he planned to rule. [20] Hearne published some of the research that these early antiquaries had compiled in an anthology titled A Collection of Curious Discourses (1720). A cursory look into these “curious discourses” shows that the early antiquaries overwhelmingly discoursed about the “Origin of the Laws of England” (Hearne, Curious iii). Gough goes on to describe the antiquaries’ activities during the second half of the seventeenth century with guarded brevity, reporting simply that they continued to meet privately “through all the impediments and horrors of civil war,” doing what they could to stop the “sweeping havock [sic]” that the iconoclasms of the crisis wreaked on England’s ancient “Monuments” and “Records” (“Introduction” xxii). Gough’s institutional history here is intentionally understated. Throughout the seventeenth century, research on antiquities reached new controversial heights as original sources were found and used to counter the arguments of John Cowell, Thomas Hobbes, and Robert Filmer, on the one side, and Edward Coke, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke, on the other. [21]

The satires also register the political power that artifacts wielded. Earle casts doubt on antiquaries’ loyalties when he points out that they neglect to collect the portraits of their own sovereigns in favor of idolizing images of Caesar. Ward’s description of the antiquary who “is ready to hang himself” every time he looks upon the “Thirty-pence” of Judas in his collection associates antiquarianism with seditious treason. [22] Hearne made an easy target for Pope because he was well known as a Jacobite non-juror. By foregrounding images of waste, putrefaction, dust, and rust, the satires signal the artifacts’ relationships to the categories of the microscopic and the chemical, thereby implicating them in the polemics of the philosophical debates about matter that were ongoing throughout the seventeenth century. With their facility for mysterious regeneration and transformation, the worms or maggots that crawl over the artifacts invoke the question of matter’s capacity for autonomous action. [23] Shadwell’s antiquaries give their “inanimate things” a “Tongue.” Ward’s antiquary has a “Tooth-picker of Epicurus” and a nail that floats like a feather. As Foote’s antiquaries quickly demonstrate, however, it was hard to know which side the antiquaries and their artifacts were on. In The Nabob, the very same artifact—that “toe of the slipper of Cardinal Pandulpho, with which he kick’d the breech of King John at Swinstead Abbey”—inspires one antiquary to swoon in a reverie as he declares it to be “a most noble remain,” while another antiquary scoffs that it “proves the Pontiff ’s insolent abuse of his power” (Foote, Nabob 42).

Physically fragmented and rife with gaps in what could be known about their origins or histories, artifacts could speak to vitalists as well as mechanists and supply republicans as well as royalists with historical evidence. [24] The difficulties that artifacts introduced into both political philosophy and history did not, however, discourage people from looking for or continuing to interpret artifacts. Such difficulties, in fact, appear to have heightened the appeal of artifacts. [25] Whether one concluded that matter moved according to its own will, was moved by an immaterial spirit, or was set into motion by an external entity, artifacts still appeared to function as causal agents themselves when encountered in the immediate present. Vitalist and mechanistic theories of matter alike imbued artifacts with the power to act—by granting them the ability to affect the minds and senses of the people with whom they came into contact and to relay the past, however imperfectly, into the present— even if one speculated that such power was the effect of spirit or something prior and external to the object itself. Similarly, royalists and republicans both imbued artifacts with the power to convey England’s history of political conflict into the Enlightened present. [26] Returning to Aubrey’s Miscellanies, we might ask how we should understand the matter of the artifacts that knocked about during the seventeenth-century crises of state. Were they vital or mechanical? And did they teeter and break in the service of kings or revolutionaries? What was equally intriguing and frustrating, therefore, about artifacts that could supposedly speak and give evidence for themselves was that they would talk to anyone and give evidence for almost anything.

Digging Up Suspicion and Critique

In her recent Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett listens, like Aubrey once did, to the call of things. Vibrant Matter begins with Bennett stumbling upon a “large men’s black plastic work glove,” a “dense mat of oak pollen,” an “unblemished dead rat,” a “white plastic bottle cap,” and a “smooth stick of wood” stuck in a stormdrain grate outside of a coffee shop in Baltimore: a modern-day scene of shipwreck that Bacon and Aubrey might have also found intriguing (4). As Bennett stops to look at the wreck, the objects seem to “shimmer and spark” (5). What she first took for “dead stuff ” transforms into “live presence” (5). Bennett describes feeling “provoked,” “repelled,” and “struck” by the objects that “call” out to her, although she can’t “quite understand what [they are] saying” (4).

This scene introduces Vibrant Matter’s overall argument, which is both philosophical and political. We are accustomed to the idea that we are alive whereas objects are dead, and that living is defined by our ability to feel,  to think, and consciously to choose how we act. Vibrant Matter challenges this presumption by exploring objects’ “vibrancy”: the ability of all material bodies, not just those we would describe as organic or conscious, to act on their own. As Bennett explains, “artifacts, metals, berries, electricity, stem cells, and worms” have power (n.2, 123, emphasis added). They can not only “block the will of humans”; they can also “act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (viii).

Bennett hopes that by convincing her readers to think of matter, all matter, as vibrant, she will also inspire them to engage more thoughtfully and empathetically—and therefore more sustainably—with the world around them. Although Bennett frames her project primarily as an ecological one, she remains acutely aware of “vibrant” matter’s implications for a politics of equality, broadly conceived. “[A]n animal, plant, mineral, or artifact,” she writes, has the power “to catalyze a public” (107). Once we recognize that, “we might then see how to devise more effective (experimental) tactics for enhancing or weakening that public” (107). In other words, Bennett believes that appreciating matter’s vibrancy will lead us to discover new means for resisting abuses of political power and inspire us to more equally distribute political rights to a range of human as well as nonhuman entities. [27]


[10] See, for example, Bill Browns influential “Thing Theory.”

[11] I discuss the period's materialisms at length in chapter 1, but the account of the debates over matter that occurred throughout the long eighteenth century is especially indebted to Toulmin and Goodfield, The Architecture of Matter, 173-306; Yolton, Thinking Matter; Rogers, The Matter of Revolution; Thomson, Bodies of Thought, 201-228; and Mitchell, Experimental Life.

[12] As exemplified by O’Gormans The Long Eighteenth Century, “the long eighteenth century” denotes the years between, roughly, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Reform Act of 1832. I share O’Gormans interest in the confluence of the cultural and the political signaled by the phrase as well as his wariness of histories that render the period as a “great patriotic drama, or as a continuing story of national success” (6).

[13] See, especially, Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law; Fussner, The Historical Revolution; Kramnick, Bolingbroke and His Circle; and Smith, The Gothic Bequest.

[14] Consider Hayden White's famous claim that “the historian speaks for [facts], speaks on their behalf, and fashions the fragments of the past into a whole” (Tropics 125).

[15] The scholarship on fragmentation has tended to focus on the importance of fragments for the Romantics and on that which is missing from the fragments themselves. See, for example, Levinson, The Romantic Fragment Poem; Harries, The Unfinished Manner; Regier, Fracture and Fragmentation in British Romanticism.

[16] This way of graphing the artifact adapts George Kubler’s insights about the “shape of time” that typifies the life cycles of art objects. Kubler positions art objects on a timescale in between that of tools and fashions. According to Kubler, tools “have extremely long durations,” and fashions occur in quick bursts (38-39). The long duration of tools and the short durations of fashions make it almost impossible to document changes in both types of objects. In contrast, Kubler identifies the life cycle of an art object as one characterized by “principal inventions”—the creation of an “important work of art”—and an “entire system of replicas, reproductions, copies, reductions, transfers, and derivations” that follows in its wake (39). As Kubler examines how art objects transform over time, he pauses to ask “whether artifacts do not possess a specific sort of duration, occupying time differently” (83). The representations of artifacts that proliferated in England during the long eighteenth century suggests that they do.

[17] In addition to Daston and Parks study of wonders, see also Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions; Burns, An Age of Wonders; and Kareem, Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder.

[18] By the middle of the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson would notably define both curiosity and wonder as states of mind before defining them as objects. Curiosity is first and foremost “inquisitiveness; inclination to enquiry” (1.542); wonder is first and foremost “admiration; astonishment; amazement” (2.1183). For more on curiosities, see n. 7 (above); Swann, Curiosities and Texts; MacGregor, Curiosity and the Enlightenment.

[19] Walpole was writing to Lady Ossory, who was then in Northamptonshire, from his home on Arlington Street in London: a distance of around eighty miles.

[20] See also Kareem’s discussion of wondering at versus wondering about—which she describes as the “interplay between” the “marvel and the curiosity”—in her Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder, 8-9.

[21] See also Heringman and Lake, “Introduction: Romantic Antiquarianism”; Lake, “Antiquarianism as a Vital Historiography for the Twenty-First Century.” Silver in Metaphors of Mind and Heringman in Sciences of Antiquity also find Latour’s methodology to be provocative for similar reasons—but Heringman also finds Latour’s conceptualization of agency to be problematic (6).

[22] I share Steven Pincuss conviction that Whiggish accounts of the Enlightenments political history overstate the periods peaceable civility. See Pincuss 1688.

[23] See Bennett's Vibrant Matter.

[24] Bill Brown established that objects are items that we examine in order to discover what they “disclose about history, society, nature, or culture—above all, what they disclose about us,” but things are entities that we can only “glimpse” and that have distinct lives of their own (4).

[25] For more on neoclassicism and ancient antiquities, see Hicks, Neoclassical History and English Culture; Barkan, Unearthing the Past; Coltman, Fabricating the Antique; Redford, Dilettanti; Kelly, The Society of Dilettanti; Bignamini, Digging and Dealing in Eighteenth-Century Rome; Sachs, Romantic Antiquity.

[26] See, especially, Coole and Frosts “Introduction,” in New Materialisms. Recent theoretical work on objects falls under the aegis of “the new materialism,” “thing theory,” “speculative realism,” and “object-oriented ontology.” I go on to describe this work primarily as “new materialist” throughout this volume in order to emphasize the ways in which the theorists working in all these fields foreground their departure from the “old materialisms” of Enlightenment philosophy. Manuel DeLanda and Rosi Braidotti are both credited with inventing the terms “neo-” and “new materialism.” See Dolphijn and van der Tuin, eds., New Materialism, 13-18, for a history of the term and its implications.

[27] See Festa; Park; Lamb, The Things Things Say; Blackwell, ed.; and Wall. Additionally, see Deutsch, “Oranges, Anecdote and the Nature of Things”; Macpherson, Harms Way; Kramnick, Actions and Objects from Hobbes to Richardson; Cale and Craciun, “The Disorder of Things”; Lupton, Knowing Books; Pasanek, Metaphors of Mind; Silver, The Mind Is a Collection; Zuroski and Yonan, “A Dialogue as Introduction.” My ideas about artifacts’ materiality are especially indebted to Lupton’s, Pasanek’s, and Silvers studies. For a recent and extended consideration of how Latour’s findings do and do not apply to the eighteenth century, specifically, see Lupton, Silver, and Sneed, “Introduction: Latour and Eighteenth-Century Studies,” and the other essays in the special issue on Latour and eighteenth-century studies that their essay introduces.


Join the Colloquy

Thing Theory in Literary Studies

Sarah Wasserman, Patrick Moran
Book Chapter
Book Chapter
Book Chapter
Book Chapter