Agency and the Nonhuman, or, How we Teach Literature

Realized just now: students love to talk about character motivation (“I bet Palemon was really happy that Arcite died. I know I would have been.”) or, once they learn a bit more, authorial intent (“Chaucer must have been a subversive, going after Theseus like that”). I always tell them: don’t worry about motivation, and if you worry about authorial intent, consider that just one of many intentions driving the text. If you do want to talk character and motivation and intent, talk about what the text wants. Read it carefully. Stick close to it. And then talk about the text as character, the text as motivated, the text’s intentions. And then talk about how they go awry.

This is just basic college literature teaching, and has been for ages now. Which means that college literature teaching has implicitly preferred a nonhuman account of agency since long before the new materialists took over.

Everything old is new again.

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