Worldly Acts and Sentient Things: The Persistence of Agency from Stein to DeLillo
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Ants, ghosts, cultures, thunderstorms, stock markets, robots, computers: this is just a partial list of the sentient things that have filled American literature over the last century. From modernism forward, writers have given life and voice to both the human and the nonhuman, and in the process addressed the motives, behaviors, and historical pressures that define lives―or things―both everyday and extraordinary.
In Worldly Acts and Sentient Things, Robert Chodat exposes a major shortcoming in recent accounts of twentieth-century discourse. What is often seen as the "death" of agency is better described as the displacement of agency onto new and varied entities. Writers as diverse as Gertrude Stein, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Don DeLillo are preoccupied with a cluster of related questions. Which entities are capable of believing something, saying something, desiring, hoping, hating, or doing? Which things, in turn, do we treat as worthy of our care, respect, and worship?
Drawing on a philosophical tradition exemplified by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Wilfrid Sellars, Chodat shows that the death of the Cartesian ego need not entail the elimination of purposeful action altogether. Agents do not dissolve or die away in modern thought and literature; they proliferate―some in human forms, some not. Chodat distinguishes two ideas of agency in particular. One locates purposes in embodied beings, "persons," the other in disembodied entities, "presences." Worldly Acts and Sentient Things is a an engaging blend of philosophy and literary theory for anyone interested in modern and contemporary literature, narrative studies, psychology, ethics, and cognitive science.
run blindly, human beings run blindly, without individual responsibility for their minds and bodies. The study of “organic mechanism,” by contrast, admits the existence of molecules, but examines them—Whitehead’s words—“according to the general organic plans of the situations in which they find themselves.” The principles of nature, in other words, cannot be reduced to mere causality. They also include “the concepts of life, organism, function, instantaneous reality, interaction,” and the “order
of hope share some common essence, and yet they are all equally good cases of it. Moreover—and this is the point here—all these shades of hope are recognized only in the context of broader narratives. Within these narratives, the nuances of past and present experiences bleed into one another in innumerable distinct ways, much in the way that, to borrow an image from Garry Hagberg, the studio microphone of one instrument always faintly picks up the sound of other instruments, making no sound in a
identify with) what the narrator has just uttered, and who could comprehend (and perhaps endorse) the routes of interest and feeling that he has just described over the course of several hundred pages. The indexicality of the sentence is crucial: who counts as “you” will shift from context to context, depending upon the reader and the circumstances. In asking if he “speaks for you,” the narrator is asking not whether we share his opinions, but whether we understand his words, not whether we agree
that Ellison tended to describe the political import of his work as indefinite rather than immediate and direct. One could argue that he sometimes took this indefiniteness too seriously, that, in public at least, he tended to fetishize aesthetic uses of language at the expense of other uses. But his stance cannot be dismissed by simple reference to a cultural system out of which he and his novel were straightforwardly produced, or in which they fit as well-defined pistons or axels. Ellison’s
English-language thought.22 I’ve already indicated why the mutual shunning that characterizes the literary and philosophical segments See the preamble to “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” http://www.unhchr.ch/udhr/ lang/eng.htm (accessed June 14, 2007). For a reading of “person” sensitive to the various uses noted here, see Pietz, “Person,” 191–92. 19 Citing this sentence out of context as I’ve done is misleading, since Quine seems to imply that meanings are built on one-to-one