Premodern New Materialisms
In recent decades, critical theory and scholarship have taken up the category of matter and the material in order to renew interrogations of categories such as the “self” and the “human.” But whereas mid-twentieth century scholarship’s Marxist-historicist turn focused on material circumstances of reading and its social and political effects, these more recent theoretical endeavors – loosely aggregated under the framework of “new materialism” – explore and expand the notion of matter itself: what, after all, is matter, and how does it affect society and its discursive practices? How does it have agency or force, and how does it relate to life, broadly understood? Woven through many of these critical efforts are attempts to conceive of more communal, just, and sustainable ways of life through social and environmental ecologies that account for the deep pasts and potential futures of objects.
For the most part, however, new materialist and related critical efforts have largely overlooked the historiographical capacities of matter as well as the ways that material agency itself has a history. This is especially true of new materialism’s encounter with the premodern, which has been almost entirely ignored in new materialism’s central theoretical texts by authors like Jane Bennett, Karen Barad, and others. The oversight of inquiry into agential matter in the premodern period is notable because of just how important materiality has been to medieval scholars. Since an emphatic turn to matter in the medieval feminist scholarship of Caroline Bynum and others, scholars of the premodern have traced conceptual histories of matter, for example, in relation to nature and the idea of the ‘natural’ (Rebecca Davis, Kellie Robertson), premodern animality and creaturely life (Karl Steele, Peggy McCracken, Joseph Campana, Erica Fudge), the child (J. Allan Mitchell), and the stone (J. J. Cohen). Yet, in examining how and why new materialism is so fundamentally presentist, and, in asking how premodern thinkers can offer an important corrective in thinking about how histories of agential matter are realized, much more work on remains to be undertaken.
We seek to propose a special forum on “Premodern New Materialisms” in Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Currently, we are accepting proposals for contributions that both draw from and challenge the commitments of contemporary thinking in the new materialism, using studies of premodern periods, texts, and artifacts to trace new questions and carve out new topics and approaches to new materialism and related fields, such as posthumanism and transhumanism. How, for example, have premodern theories of religious or sexual difference centered around matter contributed to modern hierarchies of race, gender, species, and more? How can premodern practices and relationships to objects and things put pressure on modern conceptions of the rational human self in ways that may help us conceptualize more just social and environmental ecologies? How might premodern notions of form and matter—and the agency of each—help us to reconsider the place of form in twentieth and twenty-first-century literary-theoretical frameworks?
We aim to include contributions spanning a range of geographies and time periods, from late antiquity through the seventeenth-century. If accepted, contributing essays would be short (likely between 2000-3500 words, depending on how many are included in the submission) in order to fit the forum format. Please send CV (to ensure equitable includion of scholarship across rank) as well as a title and abstract of 250-300 words to Adin Lears (email@example.com) and Tekla Bude (firstname.lastname@example.org) by January 15, 2021.