Histories of Agency: Matter and Being

Bradley D. Ryner, "The Cosmopolitical Economy of The Merchant of Venice"
Michael A. Tueller, "Mind and Voice among the Ancient Greeks"

Bradley D. Ryner, Assistant Professor, English Department
The Cosmopolitical Economy of The Merchant of Venice

Economic readings of Renaissance English plays such as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice have been attentive to the concerns traditionally grouped under the sign of “political economy,” the dynamics of production and consumption within and between nations. This talk proposes a mode of reading that is more attentive to the ontological and agentive instability of economic actants by treating English Renaissance theater as a device for facilitating what Bruno Latour, Isabelle Stengers, and others call “cosmopolitics,” the collective determination of the constitution of our shared world. The Merchant of Venice stages a range of potential economic actants, both human (merchants, luxury consumers, judges, lawyers) and non-human (bullion, money, bonds, laws), and shows not only their agency but also their ontological status to be ambiguously constituted in a network of material and social interactions.

Michael A. Tueller, Associate Professor, School of International Letters and Cultures
Mind and Voice among the Ancient Greeks

The ancient Greeks located agency in the nous, or mind; the default mode by which the mind expressed itself was the voice. But the practice of writing rendered problematic the assumed link between voice and mind. Inscribed objects possessed an “engineered voice,” and used it, among other things, to lay claim to first-person discourse. Equipped with these marks of personhood, what difference was there between inscribed objects and a performer reciting Homer or a poet singing her own composition? Were they all to be considered equally endowed with a mind?

In his Phaedrus, Plato (4th century BCE) pointed out that the written “voice” is different from a live speaker, in that it does not discriminate between audiences and cannot formulate meaningful responses to questions. By tracing Plato’s ancient predecessors, who were often more willing to think of objects as agents than we would expect, and also those who responded to Plato, especially Callimachus (3rd century BCE), whose speaking objects admit Plato’s criticisms, indicates more reliable evidence that they possess a mind after all. Using ancient evidence, we can better answer the modern question of how to understand the assumed link between mind and voice.

Watch the video of this lecture

Monday, November 18, 2013 - 12:00pm
Social Sciences Building, Room 109