The Oecologies Speaker Series begins October 23, 2013 with J. Allan Mitchell’s “Household Habitats and the Medieval Ecological Imaginary.” The talk takes place 5-630pm in the Coach House at Green College, University of British Columbia, 6201 Cecil Green Park Road, Vancouver BC V6T 1Z1.
Summary: I am interested in how humanity was articulated and extended across a range of textual, visual, and artifactual assemblages in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Human identity issued from a dense material matrix that was barely human. Household texts and technologies (e.g., a handbook, kitchen utensil, child’s toy, trestle table) alone reveal the extent to which complicated ecologies underpin the tidiest cosmologies. My work focuses on sensitive moments of gestation and maturation that enable an exigent critique of individual mastery and self-sufficiency, nurturing something like a medieval ecological imaginary. My talk will be composed of vignettes drawn from domestic life and vernacular literature which expressed these worldly entanglements, covertly or overtly manifesting how persons became fleshed out in impersonal modes less anthropocentric than commonly assumed today. Along the way I hope to touch on practical questions regarding eco-historical scholarship. Where should we direct our attention? What sorts of help do we get from recent theoretical models (e.g., new materialism, speculative realism)? What are the possibilities of inhabiting premodern worlds? Our sense of the way the human creature articulates with a vast universe of organisms and objects has been reinvigorated by recent theory (e.g., “distributed agency,” “neural plasticity,” “somatic sociality,” and “meshworks”). Yet these understandings are not entirely novel. A longer historical perspective on contemporary ecologies is needed. Recovering venerable notions of animacy, infancy, virtuality and so on, we can begin to trace the inheritance of modern speculative and scientific concepts that are too often considered in isolation from the past.
Speaker information: Allan Mitchell is Associate Professor of English at the University of Victoria. He has written on medieval rhetoric, practical ethics, and human ecologies, and is the author of Becoming Human: An Essay on the Matter of the Child in the Later Middle Ages (forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in 2014). His other books are Ethics and Eventfulness in Middle English Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and Ethics and Exemplary Narrative in Chaucer and Gower (D.S. Brewer, 2004).