Two points: Digital Piers; Marsilius of Padua and the problem of “agency”

Ghada Amer at Cheim + Read

by KARL STEEL

Two quick points:

ONE. First, if you’re a medievalist, particularly a digital humanities medievalist, and you’re not reading Angie Bennett Segler’s Material Piers blog, you’re making a terrible mistake.


Piers Plowman doesn’t get a lot of love around these parts. I’m not sure any of us here have ever taught it. For that reason, alone, you should be reading Material Piers. You know, to expiate our guilt. Or at least my guilt.

Here’s a sample:

At present, it’s relatively established that the Vernon [manuscript] cannot possibly  be dated to prior to 1395. Good, fine. No problem. That’s the fourteenth century. BUT, and for me this is a big “but,” the Vernon is SO MASSIVE that it seems pretty much insane to me to date it to any year.  The majority of the manuscript, along with its almost as large sister the Simeon, was copied by a single scribe!! A.I. Doyle estimates that even moving at his fastest he couldn’t have completed the pair of them in under  FOUR YEARS, and it may well have taken up to eight. On top of that, there is the lavish decoration scheme with borders, initials, gilding and two full cycles of miniatures. The idea that the manuscript was both started and completed in the fourteenth century borders on preposterous.

That, frankly, is why I prefer dating V to “ca. 1400.” Because the “circa” itself implies a possible range of time. And in the case of the Vernon, that range is incredibly important. But more than that, it acknowledges the imprecision in dating manuscripts altogether. “Ca. 1400″ allows us to think about the slipperiness of dating things belonging that far in the past and about the time it takes to hand-make a material-textual object, to bring it into being one folio, one line, one letter, one stroke at a time. So, unless a manuscript is clearly and definitively datable to a certain decade, I prefer to leave it with its ambiguous date.

And here’s a chart. which you can understand if you click through to the blog!

Why am I demanding that you read this Material Piers post in particular? Because it offers you the chance to do a bit of digital humanities work yourself. Read the post; lend a hand; and join me in swimming in a Piers-and-everything-else manuscript. I’ll be doing that myself this afternoon.


TWO. The various so-called “new” materialisms tend to use the word “agency” a lot without doing much to figure out what the word actually means. My second Kalamazoo2014 paper, on spontaneous generation and “automatic” agency, tried to get directly at the problem by arguing, ultimately, that only a random break with mechanical causality can be recognized as truly agential. My solution has the posthuman advantage of moving questions of agency away from rationality and anthropomorphism, thereby avoiding the implicit humanizing at the center of many discussions of agency. It also has the dubious — and predictable — advantage of discovering an aporia at the agency’s heart.

All this is by way of setting up a passage from Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor Pacis:

This term “ownership” is used to refer to the human will or freedom in itself with its organic executive or motive power unimpeded. For it is through these that we are capable of certain acts and their opposites. It is for this reason too that man alone among the animals is said to have ownership or control of his acts; this control belongs to him by nature, it is not acquired through an act of will or choice. (II.12.16, p. 193)

Adhuc dicitur nomen dominii de humana voluntate seu libertate secundum se, cum ipsius executiva seu motiva organica potestate non impedita. Hiis enim possumus in actus aliquos et ipsorum oppositos. Propter quod eciam dicitur homo inter animalium cetera suorum actuum habere dominium; quod siquidem a natura inest homini, non voluntarie seu eleccione quesitum. (MGH 271)

The origin of human agency (“ownership of control of his acts”) isn’t human agency itself. Rather, it’s inherent to humans, unchosen. Agency itself therefore is free from human choice at its root. Still, it’s determined, somehow, by “nature.” If the power of choice is instinctual, then it’s hard to imagine that humans have “complete freedom” (“libertas,” I think). This problem of the origin of agency is a problem, especially, for Marsilius, as he’s well-known for arguing that “the supreme power resides in the body of the citizens [and not the Church], who make the laws, and choose the form of government, etc [and that t]he prince rules by the authority of the whole body of citizens“: what is the origin of the people’s will?

But the problem is also general to agency and to human agency especially, perhaps the paragon and model of agency in any discussion of the term. The problem of agency intersects with a host of other problems, of materialism, humanism, racism, and indeed the history of antisemitism.1 It’s a problem whether we’re talking about rats or stones or garbage or the tedious Pauline differentiation between Christian spiritual reading and Jewish literal reading or, for that matter, the whole spirit versus matter binary that’s inherent to all considerations of agency. For any of these, the power of agency simply doesn’t seem to be reducible to any first cause. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be agency but rather the beginning of another mechanical chain.

In short, any clear claim to agency strikes me as unwarranted. And the same goes for any scorn of materialisms or posthumanisms because their “discovery” of agency in nonhuman objects.

It’s obviously ironic that I should end up so automatically in an identifiably deconstructive aporia. I’m very much back in Derrida’s critique of the “auto” of autobiography in, for example, The Animal that Therefore I am, where he does his Derridean thing with the “ipseity, indeed sui-referential egoity, auto-affection and automotion, autokinesis, [and] autonomy” (65) of the presumptive presence of the self-generated automatic I, and with the pretense of “auto-motricity, a spontaneity that is capable of movement, of organizing itself and affecting itself, marking, tracing, and affecting itself with traces of its self” (49). You can imagine what happens to agency when Derrida finishes with it.

Maybe commentators can suggest another way forward?



1 Or, for that matter, colonialism and its various justifications. See this new post from Corey Robin, on the dangers of presidential boredom, where he recalls Tocqueville’s enthusiasm for the Opium War: “So at last the mobility of Europe has come to grips with Chinese immobility!”

Finishing the Universe Halfway: On Reading Barad

by KARL STEEL

Last Winter, Michael O’Rourke asked me to contribute to a Rhizomes special issue on Karen Barad (list of contributors here). I hesitated for weeks, worried about whether I’d actually be able to do it well. Since my math peaked at pre-Calculus, anything I write about quantum physics is bound to be embarrassing, and the field attracts so many cranks. Given my training, how could I possibly not end up among them? Well, I did it, anyway, and beat the deadline by 24 hours by submitting the essay yesterday. I can only hope I don’t merit a spot on the crank bench next to the Time Cube.

I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the Quantum Medievalists and Sundry Associates, a group organized by Angie Bennett Segler, an NYU grad student doing really extraordinary Digital Humanities work on Piers Plowman. With regular members Shyama Rajendran, Ada Smailbegovic, Ashby Kinch, and especially Brandon Jones and Sandra Danilovic, we made our way, week-by-week, through the 500-odd pages of Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, meeting via a Google Hangout every Wednesday to work out and in our confusion, hesitation, and enthusiasm. There were charts; there was math; there were internet outages; but we endured and we read the whole thing. We finished today, with 3 participants in various locations in New York, 1 in Illinois (?), and another in sunny Macedonia, on a street full of ironic (?) neo-Classical architecture.

Here’s today’s result (and a complete set here, on Angie’s own page):

Though Barad remains undercited by the object-oriented ontologists, quantum mechanics is already being successfully colonized (?) engaged with (?) by the new materialists, especially by Stacy Alaimo’s Bodily Natures, Vicki Kirby’s Quantum Anthropologies, and most recently, by Timothy Morton. Žižek’s Less Than Nothing gets it on the action, too, with its own chapter devoted to Bohr and Barad.

It’s no wonder: any thoroughgoing disanthropocentric materialist has to rethink terms like nature, identity, cause, effect, representation, and agency, and the weird temporality of quantum mechanics offers ample rewards to narrative theorists, as we discuss in the video above.

At the same time, I titled my Rhizomes essay “Is a Quantum Mechanics Literary Studies Possible or Desirable?” I’m just not entirely convinced. It’s not that I doubt the truth of Barad or the Bohrian quantum mechanics she champions, but rather that I remain very cautious about its use to people like me. Let’s just say that postmedieval gave me some useful hesitation.

Here follows a preview of my essay’s conclusion:


The quantum phenomena Barad describes are virtually imperceptible on the scale at which a specifically literary scholarship operate and for the kinds of materials we investigate. Bohr observed that if the discontinuity of reality caused by Planck’s constant had been larger, humans would never have thought they lived in a “classical” world (MUH 457 n42). Planck’s constant is what it is though, and humanities scholars, for the most part, do not feel themselves to be moving instantaneously across the absolute minimum of gaps with quantum leaps. The same problem applies to relativity: at typical human speeds, we get along fine with believing space and time to be constants. The humanities can (at least) generally operate with a “good-enough” picture of reality, because modern physics’ precision far exceeds our needs. The best humanities teaching occurs at a relatively slow and imprecise level, pace the
claims of promoters of MOOCs, and the apparatuses of literary investigation do not isolate the materials of our investigation with sufficient precision to discern or determine quantum effects. As Barad herself writes:

quantum behavior is difficult to observe because of the difficulty of shielding an object, especially a relatively large object, from interactions with its “environment,” which continually fluctuates in an erratic fashion in such a way that a superposition is “randomized” into a mixture “for all practical purposes
(but not in principle)….one has to know how to identify an entanglement (e.g., where to look for correlations and how to measure them), and generally speaking, this is far from evident. (MUH 279)

It is extremely difficult, but increasingly not impossible, to observe quantum effects on a macroscopic scale (MUH 279; but see this), which is to say, on a more or less unassisted human sensory scale, or even just to observe multiple entangled particles, since every additional pair of entangled particles increases the complexity of the phenomena exponentially (for example, see here). It is hard to imagine these difficulties being overcome in a library, and even harder—though perhaps not impossible—to imagine the value of doing so.

In short, although I would prefer to be wrong about this, both the fundamental indeterminacy of reality and the generativity of knowledge will probably matter for literary criticism only either analogically, or to keep us from reductionist or relativistic errors, or will matter only by helping us develop more complex and correct accounts of agency, as Barad does in her analysis of the Calcuttan jute mill (MUH 24, 74, 44, and 94). Barad herself wrote an article whose noncontinuous structure, entangling Hamlet’s Denmark with the Denmark of Bohr and Heisenberg and with Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, aimed “to provide the reader with an opportunity to engage in an imaginative journey that is akin to how electrons experience the world” (244). Barad’s fascinating formal experiment sought to overturn the “overarching sense[s] of temporality, of continuity, in place” that would let us believe in our clear difference from what we study and our sense of historical progression that puts our objects of study only in the past and us in the present. The article’s structure is, however, a model or analog, inspired by quantum physics, but not an actual experience of entanglement or indeterminacy. To be still more specific: even if we were to isolate indeterminate complementary variables within the phenomena constituting book and scholar, our epistemological interaction with the literal material of a book will not do much to it that would affect our experience of the whole complex constituting it as book. And even if we did join ourselves with an apparatus capable of being marked by the literal material of some particular book in a way we could account for objectively, it would likely not matter much for our interpretation of its text.

That said, we could and should always extend our notion of the proper object of textual studies, and that said, when we make ontological claims, or claims about agency, or the character of time, as any scholar in the poshumanities must and as most humanities scholars do implicitly, we should have Barad in mind, at minimum to keep us from mistakes about the fundamental operations of reality. This is obviously no small matter. Having read the new materialists, we can no longer be sure about the fixity of the distinction between subject and object, with all the relations of dominion that implies, nor can we be sure that ethics requires self-awareness, whatever that is. We must abandon the world picture of classical physics, with its comforting assurances of our subjective separability from the world and our persistence in it (or even out of it!). We have arrived at this stage through Ian Bogost, Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton, and a thickening crowd of other thinkers, many included in this issue of Rhizomes. Barad needs to be read with the other new materialists, because her particular training gives ontologists “empirical support” for their systems, as Morton observes about quantum mechanics and object-oriented ontology,1 and, more importantly, because Barad gives us the best currently available description of reality.

The question is whether we can make any use of it. Literature scholars, and perhaps not only us,2 may be able to continue to get by without anything near the precision of quantum mechanics and still do our work as well as it could possibly be done. And, at the risk of reopening the rift between the sciences and the humanities, the kinds of accuracy required to describe the ongoing entanglement of matter in all its permutations may not have much to do with the kinds of accuracy we seek in the arts.


1. Timothy Morton, “OOO and Quantum Theory,” Ecology Without Nature, July 27, 2013. Also see Nature’s Queer Performativity,” 144, on “giv[ing] deconstruction empirical traction,” and Quantum Entanglements,” 260, on “empirical evidence for hauntology.”

2. Biologists, for example, though not able to take advantage of quantum mechanics in any obvious way, have started to use it to understand photosynthesis and avian navigation, among other biological processes: Philip Ball, Physics of Life: The Dawn of Quantum Biology,” Nature 474 (2011): 272–274.