MLA 2009: The Metaphysics of Objects in Early Modern English Literature

A special session

Modern Language Association 2009 Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, PA

Tuesday, 29 December 2009, 1:45–3:00 p.m., Philadelphia Marriot

Panel Organizer: Justin Kolb, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison

Presiding: Henry S. Turner, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick

Speakers: Jonathan Gil Harris, George Washington Univ.; Justin Kolb, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison; Natasha E. Korda, Wesleyan Univ.; Julian D. Yates, Univ. of Delaware, Newark


Early modern scholarship has, for the past few decades, predominantly used historicist and cultural-materialist frameworks to consider the ‘object’ in its economic, religious, and social contexts. However, the critical conversation is shifting, with some early modernists expanding our conception of the thing beyond strict materialism. Innovative new scholarship is paying closer attention to the ontological and cosmological systems early modern minds used to theorize the material world.  As the Aristotelian cosmology of the middle ages gave way to the new science, the cosmos was populated by stones that desired union with the earth, humours pulled through the channels of the body by the influence of potions and planets, the ontologically dubious inhabitants of the stage, and the mysterious and increasingly powerful movements of capital. This moment of metaphysical transition contained objects and substances with desires and agency, linked to each other by powerful networks of attraction, repulsion, influence, and transformation. Literary projects needed to reckon with these networks, and create, adapt, or elide metaphysical models of human and inhuman action in their texts.

The participants in this panel have played a major role in this critical turn, developing innovative new approaches to material culture in a number of influential recent publications. Together with session organizer Justin Kolb, they intend to use the tools of materialist criticism, and new critical models like Actor-Network Theory, to study the complex and hybrid nature of objects found in early modern texts and prompt a wider conversation about new approaches to the things we handle in our research. To promote discussion, our four presenters will be strictly limited to 10 minute “object lessons,” in which they will examine a particular thing and the complementary, antagonistic, or ambiguous metaphysical networks in which it is implicated. These brief presentations will be followed by an extended conversation among the roundtable participants and the audience. Henry Turner will preside and play an active role in the discussion period.

 Jonathan Gil Harris will open with the mammet, i.e. a doll, puppet, or mechanical homunculus. A reworking of “Mahomet,” the term “mammet” was used in medieval England to refer not just to the Prophet of Islam, but to any false god or idol.  The early modern theater often employed Muslim-coded mammets; Philip Henslowe lists one in his 1597 inventory of stage properties.  Using Derrida’s argument about the untimely properties of the proper name, Harris argues that while early modern plays sometimes used the mammet to suggest the non-futurity of Islam, on other occasions it is granted an untimely power to suggest new futures for life and love, and thus to dissent from the Christian divisions of subject and object, human and inhuman, agentic and compulsive, progressive and backward that continue to structure supposedly secular Western understandings of both materiality and Islam.

Applying a different theoretical model, Julian Yates will examine how repetition was guaranteed, produced, and valued in a society which worried at its inability even to judge, let alone manage, the unstable category of things called “corruptible.” Focusing on bread, the daily bread that the authorities of London worked so hard to maintain, Yates offers a description of the networks of actors which kept “bread” regularly appearing at the bakers. The ultimate goal of the talk, however, is an experiment in what sociologist Bruno Latour has recently called “speculative metaphysics,” that is in understanding how the metaphysical life of entities maps against the networks that generated their material conditions. Yates asks how the daily life of yeast relates to the life of that most contested of Renaissance “things,” the Eucharist?” How did the everyday transubstantiations at the bakers signify against the transubstantiations that did (and did not) take place at religious services? These questions play out via a yeasty sermon by John Donne and a memoir by Jesuit John Gerard.

Justin Kolb will discuss a scene from the anonymous Elizabethan play Arden of Feversham, in which a painter proposes an “impoisoned” portrait of the namesake’s wife which will make her husband “with the beams that issue from his sight / Suck venom to his breast and slay himself.” The painting, existing only in a proposed conspiracy between a few fictional characters, is an object that has no material form, yet has the power to kill by translating murderous desires into a fatal gaze held between character and representation. The relationship described here requires a definition of the thing, and a model of agency, that goes beyond straight materialism or subject-object relations. I intend to use this painting to test the relational model of ontology offered by Latour’s Actor-Network Theory and suggest that extending agency to conspiracies of inhuman, quasi-human, and immaterial actors can enrich our understanding of the early modern era and material culture in general.

Natasha Korda offers a closing lesson, arguing that, in early modern markets, it was often objects rather than subjects that were praised as virtuous or punished as vicious. The ritual destruction of “evil” or “unworkmanlike” objects, often coded as feminine, alien, or foreign, was part of an ongoing contest over the cultural value of London’s consumer goods, and over rights to produce and profit from them. This contestation also played out on the stage; to London’s civic and religious authorities, players themselves were the very antithesis of virtuous, civic masculinity. Korda will touch on Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613) and Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614) as plays written at the height of the controversy over the policing of informal commerce, and at a tense moment for the legitimacy of playing as a profession. In staging the contestation over false wares Jonson and Middleton sought to forge a new definition of civic masculinity to which the professional players themselves might lay claim.

These brief presentations will be followed by an open, and hopefully lively, discussion among the panelists and the audience.


Contributor Information

Panelist Jonathan Gil Harris, Professor of English at George Washington University, is the author of Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic: Discourses of Social Pathology in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1998), Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare’s England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), and Shakespeare and Literary Theory (Oxford, forthcoming 2010).  He has published extensively on early modern understandings of globalization and the foreign, and how these have helped shape our knowledge and experiences of bodies, disease, commerce, travel, religious difference, material culture, and temporality. He is also the co-editor of Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama (Cambridge, 2002) and the associate editor of Shakespeare Quarterly.

Session organizer and panelist Justin Kolb is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation, "Spongy Natures: Ben Jonson in the City of Things," examines Jonson's city comedies and masques, and the characters in them, as products of a sustained co-evolution with networks of material circulation and transformation in London. His essay “‘To me comes a creature’: Recognition, agency, and the properties of character in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale” appears in The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature (forthcoming from Ashgate, 2010). An article on English romance and the portrayal of the Muslim other, "Pagan Knights: Romance and Anachronism East of England in Book V of The Faerie Queene and Tamburlaine," appears in the December 2009 issue of Early Theatre. His research has been supported by a University of Wisconsin College of Letters and Sciences Dissertation Fellowship and a grant from the UW Center for the Humanities.

Panelist Natasha Korda, Associate Professor of English at Wesleyan University, is the author of Shakespeare’s Domestic Economies: Gender and Property in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002) and the co-editor of Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Her work has been supported by grants from Wesleyan and Johns Hopkins Universities, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Huntington Library, and a Charles Singleton Research Fellowship. She has published widely on early modern gender, material culture, commerce, and labor in Shakespeare Quarterly, Early Modern Culture, Theatre Journal, and numerous anthologies. She is currently at work on her next book, Labors Lost: Women’s Work and the Early Modern English Stage, and editing the anthology Working Subjects in Early Modern English Drama (under consideration at Palgrave Macmillan).

Session presider Henry Turner, Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, is the author of The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical Spatial Arts, 1580-1630 (Oxford, 2006), Shakespeare's Double Helix (Continuum, 2007), and the editor of The Culture of Capital: Property, Cities, and Knowledge in Early Modern England (Routledge, 2002). His work appears in The Norton Anthology of Drama (forthcoming 2009), The History of Cartography, Vol. III: Cartography in the European Renaissance (Chicago, 2007), Writing Robert Greene: New Essays on England’s First Professional Writer (Ashgate, 2007), and many journals. He is series co-editor with Mary Thomas Crane of Scientific and Literary Cultures of Early Modernity (Ashgate) and book review editor of The Upstart Crow: A Shakespeare Journal. He is currently at work on The Corporate Commonwealth, a book-length study of the concept of the "corporation," including early modern philosophies of industry, technology, and economy and their relationship to notions of political community and political subjectivity.

Panelist Julian Yates is Associate Professor of English and Material Culture Studies at University of Delaware. His first book, Error, Misuse, Failure: Object Lessons from the English Renaissance (University of Minnesota Press, 2003) was a finalist for the MLA Best First Book Prize in 2003.  His recent work focuses on adapting the critical language of material culture studies to deal with “things” that were once alive (plants, animals, fungi) and is evolving into a book with the working title “Strange Tables: Ingredients for Post-humanist Table Talk.” This project has been supported by a long-term NEH fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC (2006-2007), a Francis Bacon Foundation award at the Huntington Library in San Marino CA (2007), and a Franklin Research Award from the American Philosophical Society (2007).

 Justin Kolb's Homepage



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