Sunday, October 20, 2013

Myra Seaman (College of Charleston)
“Animal Control: Cultivating Virtue in the "Children's Corner" of a Middle English Household Book”

Friday November 1, 2013
7.30 p.m.

English Studies Conference Room of the Graduate Center, CUNY (room 4406)
A wine and cheese reception will follow the presentation and question time.

My talk offers an object-oriented reading of a late 15th-century Middle English household book that includes 41 verse texts, collected and extensively adapted by a single scribe who marks the anthology heavily with his name (in half of the colophons) and with a recurring fish-and-flower motif that draws attention to the nonhuman inhabitants of the texts that fill its pages. My approach considers fictional representations to be real phenomena with effects in space and time and finds, in this manuscript, fictional organic and inorganic agents of instruction (operating as Latourian mediators) in the affective ecology of an anthology whose primary orientation is toward modeling patterns of forgiveness. My reading combines manuscript study, book history, and close reading with insights offered by affect theory, object-oriented studies, and the history of emotion, seeking texts’ historically situated affective impacts rather than meanings. This hermeneutic assembly reveals how the collection’s texts encourage (human) audiences to understand their own agentive potential as just one element in a conglomeration of inhuman and human affective agentive potency. The “Children’s Corner” is the modern name for the first eight items in the manuscript, among them a romance (Sir Isumbras), a saint’s life (St. Eustace), and six conduct texts (two of them by Lydgate), which may have been aimed at a particular subset of the household. Focusing on this portion of the manuscript shows that one’s social virtue depends on acknowledging and cooperating with human and nonhuman associates in the household ecology. Within the “Children’s Corner,” the imaginative narratives instruct through animals and other nonhuman figures, while the direct-address conduct texts (spoken by a father, a mother, and “Dame Curtasy”) teach pragmatically—and yet an object-oriented reading of the collection and of the “Corner” in particular reveals a de-centering of the human, and a social inclusion of objects, that encourages us to read even conduct texts obliquely rather than in direct accord with their overt performative instructions. My talk will demonstrate the important effects of premodern conceptualizations of the physical world on reading, on interpretation then and now, and on our understanding of and engagement with the Middle Ages.

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