MEMSI Conference Afterthoughts: “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral”

A packed crowd listens to Jane Bennett’s keynote address at the recent GW MEMSI conference.

GW MEMSI hosted an extraordinary conference March 11-12. “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in Early Modern and Medieval Periods” drew an amazing array of speakers to campus for lively discussion. Here is a wrap-up of the event by English Ph.D. student Nedda Mehdizadeh (cross-posted from the GW MEMSI website):

One large black work glove, one unblemished dead rat, and one smooth stick of wood. In this motley assortment of nonhuman “things” gathered near a storm drain in Baltimore, Jane Bennett found the inspiration for her provocative book Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things – a response to different theorizations of matter (Kant, Spinoza, etc) as well as a “reply to a call from things.” For GWMEMSI, it was the springboard for a series of conversations that culminated in the spring conference, “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in Early Modern and Medieval Periods.” The exchange Bennett experienced with these nonhuman objects left her with an enticing question: “What if the items really did – in some underdetermined sense – hail me?” As a result, her book attempts to contend with thing-power, with the agency of the object, the thing, the nonhuman entity, and its desires, its stories. The conference, likewise, attempted to contend with the same ideas, calling on a variety of scholars, including Valerie Allen, Eileen Joy, Sharon Kinoshita, Julia Reinhard Lupton, Peggy McCracken, Carla Nappi, Kellie Robertson, Karl Steel, and Julian Yates, not to mention many other scholars from across the continent sharing works-in-progress (or even thoughts-in-progress), to make sense of human and nonhuman interactions. What we came up with were …. well … more questions à la Jonathan Gil Harris’s concluding remarks, but also perhaps a better idea of which questions to ask and a closer understanding of how we might share the world with our nonhuman cohabitants. What are these nonhuman “things” telling us? What are the ethics behind ventriloquizing their stories? In what ways do these interactions shape our approach to cultural studies?
For me, the nonhuman “things” that began our story, as well as other nonhuman “things” discussed during our two days of conferencing, were guides to unexpected places. As a graduate student working on Anglo-Persian encounter in the early modern period, objects have played but a bit part in my work, getting eclipsed by human interactions between Persian kings and English travelers. The truth is that I began thinking about my dissertation topic through objects. During the spring semester of 2007, my dissertation director, Gil Harris, introduced me to seventeenth-century travel writer Sir Thomas Herbert, and I was taken with his obsession with the ruins of Persepolis. Over the years, I have visited and revisited this moment  in his narrative without ever reaching a satisfying conclusion about what to make of the fragments that captivate Herbert – and, me. Or to use Bennett’s words, the objects of Persia’s ancient, fallen past have been calling to me. But their call has been largely ignored, or met with exasperation, like an exhausted mother without an idea of how to pacify her child who incessantly repeats “Mom. Mommy. Mama.:
Recently, however, I started thinking more critically about the structure of Persepolis, and what its fragments are doing. For Herbert, it is a portal to ancient Persia where the palace still stands in all its splendor and is still very much alive. For me, they are a bridge to many temporalities – ancient Persia, early modern Persia, modern day Iran. And I didn’t have to stray too far from home to begin making sense of this moment and its objects, turning, as I often do, to my professors and mentors: Jeffrey Cohen, in his article, “Stories of Stone,” from the inaugural edition of Postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies and Gil Harris’s chapter on Othello/Desdemona’s handkerchief in his Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare. During the AVMEO conference, I found myself transported to Herbert’s encounter over and over again, often by a nonhuman agent introduced by one of our fascinating speakers.
The animals of Sharon Kinoshita’s talk, “Animals and the Medieval Culture of Empire,” were facilitators of exchange between the Christian and Islamic worlds, often associated with a variety of movements brought upon by gifting or bartering. But as the question/answer period following her talk indicated, these same movements occur with stone; as Kinoshita reminds us, the materials that make up the palace of Persepolis come from different locals, producing one structure made up of fragments from different places. Or the “Flower Girls” of Peggy McCracken’s paper which focuses on “a garden of plentitude” encountered by Alexander in Roman d’Alexandre whose forest can restore virginity. The filles de fleur are in many ways one with the forest and its virgin-(re)making properties after encounters with visitors – such as Alexander and his men – in what is perhaps a metaphor for the plentitude of virgin land that will offer itself to Alexander’s desire for empire-building. Or Valerie Allen’s “handout” – mine, a periwinkle gemstone with clouds of white – that fascinated me with its curves, dent, and coloring, giving me a tangible way to wonder at the “virtue” of an object. Or Carla Nappi’s Chinese words that translated and transliterated Persian script, underscoring the practices of “making sameness” and the importance of considering systems of identification in order to understand the early modern object that is, in many ways, foreign to us now. Each of these moments, brought about because of a nonhuman “thing,” made me think more about what is at stake in thinking about objects, particularly those from the many Persias I encounter in my work.
Something that I am realizing is that I might have been asking the wrong question about Herbert’s Persepolis all along. Maybe there is no stable, singular answer that will ever satisfy me because maybe that is not the point. Herbert, in each edition of his narrative (1634, 1638, 1664, 1677), goes back to Persepolis, reimagines the space, and rewrites it. It is his way of going back to that moment of history. To the moment of Persia’s splendor. To the moment that fascinates him most: Alexander’s destruction of the palace. Maybe it is the “going back” that matters here. Or at least, maybe it is the “going back” that matters to me. Persepolis takes me back. To my roots. To memories of stories told by my family about our past. To my first visit to Iran when I was a nine-year-old walking through the ruins, not fully understanding its importance or the stories the stones were telling, but knowing the profundity of the experience. To the stories it anticipates about Iran today. To the possibilities of what Iran might look like in the future. Eileen Joy, in her inspiring plenary entitled “You Are Here: A Manifesto,” discusses in part three “A Text Is A Sentient Being…” the ways in which texts are themselves vibrant matter. She says, “we might say that literary narratives, although they are, in one sense, completely unreal, or sur-real, and inhuman, pitch themselves at the real world and also create space (underground passageways, shelters, hiding places, root cellars), for that which cannot be brought into being, or cared for, anywhere else.” Returning to Persepolis – to a place that allows me to visit all of the versions of Persia/Iran – brings what is gone, what is left, what is meant to be into that space Joy talks about. Sifting through the ruins of Persepolis is, perhaps, my “reply to a call from things.”

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