The new year at ‘Things’ (now Early Modern Material Cultures) got off to a fascinating start as we try to make our sessions a little more conceptual by theming them around different attitudes to objects. First up was ‘Thinking Things’ with two members of our collaborative project with the ‘Material Cultures of Knowledge 1500-1830’ group at University of California Riverside that culminated in the ‘We need to talk about Things’ conference.
Professor Jonathan Lamb from Vanderbilt University opened by describing things for us as ‘Implacable.’ Through looking at a combination of literary and philosophical writing from the period, he argued that fundamental changes in attitudes to property and personhood led to an uneasy relationship with objects. The writings of Hobbes, Locke and Hume created a narrative of increasing concern over the moveability of both people and property as the eighteenth century progressed. Jonathan focused on the emergence of ‘It narratives’ in this period as a product of the same kind of concerns, where things gained their own voice and showed a hostile attitude to people. He emphasised how such literature does not seek reconciliation with the past owners of the central objects, in contrast to the owners who fought hard to retrieve their property from such contemporary figures as Jonathan Wild. From this Jonathan argued that things gain agency as humans lose it, focusing on narratives from Dickens to Maupassant to de Waal where objects out live and get the better of their owners. He ended by suggesting that the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects is erroneous in assuming that objects can speak for entire societies and time periods. For Lamb, emancipated things have no interest in human society, and men tend to stop speaking where things start.
Dr Elizabeth Eger from Kings College London followed Jonathan by arguing that we should think of things rather as ‘Intermediary.’ She focused on the epistolary archive of Elizabeth Montagu, eighteenth-century blue stocking, which is held at the Huntington Library in California, using the materiality and metaphorical contents of the letters to argue for their role in mediating relationships. She argued that humans invest both physically and psychologically in things, and that women’s letters in the eighteenth century are a particularly poignant example of this. Thus they emerge as helpful to women, not threatening as Jonathan argued, acting as a means of exchanging both ideas and objects, standing in for absent friends. Elizabeth emphasised that Montagu’s self-reflexive attitude to knowledge was born out of her material practice of that knowledge, and therefore that she is a good example of why intellectual history and material culture need to be brought closer together in our historical study. Montagu’s discussions of the physical interaction of her friends with the letters that she sent them showed a means of giving those letters agency in the exchange, both physical and friendly.
Dr Jason Scott-Warren from Cambridge’s Centre for Material Texts chaired the discussion for us where questions of things acting as witnesses, both in legal cases and in the stead of absent friends, emerged. We also considered whether a gendered relationship with things affected whether they were implacable or intermediary. We ended on the suggestion that sending a letter might be a risky business if things gain agency as they gain distance from people.