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Material Agency Mediated? Studying Objects in Greek Literature

Friday 9 November 2018
Material Agency Forum
National Museum of Antiquities
Rapenburg 28
2311 EW Leiden
Leemanszaal (begane grond)

What, or where, or when, is agency? These questions pervade the New Materialisms, and arguably the most important impact of New Materialism is its dislodging of the idea of agency from a human subject. However, such questions evade consensus. There can be no agreement because agency is something that changes depending on context and perspective—and that can be altered drastically by a mediating force.

In this paper I present some key methodological considerations that shaped my book Women and Objects in Homeric Epic: Objects, Gender, Agency (OUP 2018). I relate the non- or post-Cartesian approaches of the New Materialisms to Homeric epic, raising the question of boundaries: to what extent does the Materialist slogan ‘Things are us!’ apply to Homer? Drawing on the work of Alfred Gell and Bill Brown in particular, I argue that mediation through literature makes a substantial difference to how we approach the relationship between people and things, and the agency of the nonhuman.

In this paper I set out the parameters of material agency as we find it in Homer, and offer a gendered reading. I present some examples of Homer curbing material agency—and, conversely, hints at material forces that cannot be curtailed. Finally, I offer some preliminary thoughts from a new project on Theocritus and Material Ecocriticism, exploring the agentic stony environs of Idyll 23.

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