Jonathan Lamb (Vanderbilt University) and
Elizabeth Eger (King's College London)
Jonathan Lamb (Vanderbilt University)
The Implacability of Things
In her Observations on Experimental Philosophy (1666) Margaret Cavendish wrote, `Every part or particle of nature, as it is self-moving, so it is also self-knowing and perceptive; for matter, self-motion, knowledge, and perception, are all but one thing, and no more separable from each other, than body, place, magnitude, colour and figure.' In this summary of Lucretian materialism she explains how all individuals belong to the commonwealth of matter, a condition in which all differences are the fleeting product of sameness. Although she attempts to distinguish herself from this perpetual flux as a human individual, possessed of intelligence and a soul, she finds herself equivocally placed in the world: `I am both in it and out off it, a strang[e] inchantment.' As a creature of thought she forced to recognise thinking itself as the result of the motions and perceptions of matter. In the seventeenth century there were a variety of methods for denying either materialism or the consequences of its wilder postulates. In the 18th century these took two routes, both based on humanised versions of materialism, namely empiricism and the market. Either knowledge of the world was processed by the senses in such a way that matter was not printed directly on the sensorium, thus enfranchising the mind to the furthest reaches of reflective thought; or the world itself was composed of human atoms, coalescing into speculative, productive or opinionative groupings whose actions, while by no means predictable, were at least the result of exclusively human activity.
There were a number of ways that matter reasserted its fellowship with humanity, none of them all that pleasant because by now humanity measured its importance according to knowledge and wealth, accumulated and enjoyed on the assumption that matter is entirely subservient to human will, in the form of machines and property. Although the Baconian principle of learning was intended to marry the mind of humankind to the nature of things, the real aim of such intimacy has always been to wrest from nature the occult wisdom that deserted us at the Fall, including the secret of immortality, so Bacon believed. The market set such store by personal property that the idea of losing it was discomfitting, and the idea of losing it forever, intolerable. When Maynard Keynes reminded us last century that in the end we shall all be dead, he restored a Lucretian truth to economic life that is just as apt for the wonders of applied science. Woody Allen said, `I don't want to live on in the minds of my fellow citizens, I want to live on in my apartment.' Self-moving matter is not friendly to this kind of ambition. It makes it implacable, as Adorno says. I want to explore the range of this implacability.
Elizabeth Eger (King's College London)
Letters bear sentiment across time and space. They both record intimacy and construct it, negotiating the inevitable distance between self and other in order to form emotional, intellectual and spiritual networks out of the shared matter of experience. What do letters carry, in a literal and metaphorical sense? And how do they relate to other material forms of exchange, transaction and display?
This paper will consider the role of eighteenth-century letters in negotiating the relationship between things and thinking, exploring questions of enclosure and exposure, intimacy and distance, sympathy and alienation, ephemerality and posterity, collision and correspondence, embodiment and abstraction. Letters will be compared with more formal genres such as legal wills and poetic odes, in considering the human address to things.
Open to all. No registration required
Part of the Things: Early Modern Material Cultures Seminar series.
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