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A Midsummer Night’s Vibrancy

by on April 25, 2013

Vibrant Matter  brought to my mind the imagery of Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play teeming and brimming over with intertwining vivacity. A good example is Titania the fairy queen’s monologue in Act 2, scene 2:

And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

You know, I was only looking for a small passage to demonstrate Shakespeare’s imagery, but it seems right to include the entirety of this monologue. And not only because it’s simply fantastic poetry, but because Titania is describing something like Bennett’s disavowal of “strong responsibility” (37). Sure, the fairy queen eventually ascribes the continuum disturbance of her assemblage to herself and Oberon, but the subjectivity of the characters themselves is thrown into question by Shakespeare’s vivacious intermingling throughout the play. Of course, I shouldn’t get too carried away making ties between this monologue and Vibrant Matter. Although Shakespeare strains the nature / culture divide to the tearing point in this monologue and elsewhere, he  does not seem (to my memory) to bring non-organic life into his assemblages. There is food, nature, and abstractions, but no rocks or boots. Nonetheless, I think that A Midsummer Night’s Dream could be an untapped (well, lightly tapped, by me, before it was cool) goldmine for the coming (?) wave of object-oriented literary criticism.

My overall reaction to this book is that it seems to reiterate many ideas that we’ve already read before (although in fairness to Bennett, this book is older than much of our other reading). It seems to lay down the main ideas and the stakes of OOO/SR very well and clearly, if more simply than in Morton, Bryant, or others. I bet that a lot of people will find her rejection of ‘strong responsibility’ problematic, but I agree with her to a degree. Blame is certainly complicated and difficult to place. Where do you draw the line on personal responsibility? You can’t chalk everything up to a vast assemblage. Moral philosophy is not an area that I’m too keen on, but here’s how I tend to resolve this sort of dilemma: I hold people responsible for their actions when they are aware of a negative situation or possible negative outcome, have the means to prevent it or investigate it and become able to prevent it, and choose not to. In that case, I think, we can play the “full blame game”. People are often operators – potentially very strong elements in assemblages. So they should bear responsibility according to their acting power. I think that Bennett opens a whole can of worms with this section of the book, and seems to gloss over it too lightly.

I am much more comfortable with Bennett’s vibrant matter than I am with Harman’s withdrawn objects. I am still unable to accept the latter’s vacuous Lovecraftian universe of lonely wolves and armies. Bennett – finally – articulated something like the view that I’ve held since the beginning of the semester, namely that objects are ‘slowed down’ processes of becoming that only appear as objects to humans because of our sensory apparatus. They are actually in a state of perpetual flux. But I don’t agree with Bennett all the way here. I don’t think that “to live, humans need to interpret the world reductively as a series of fixed objects” (58). Bennett is still holding up a strong subject / object divide, as if humans were placed into a foreign universe that we need to navigate, bewildered but potentially masterful over our surroundings, freshly fallen East of Eden. People don’t look out and perceive the universe; people are the universe. We do interpret the world but so does everything else. By whose standard then is that interpretation “reductive”?

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