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Worldly Acts and Sentient Things

The Persistence of Agency from Stein to DeLillo

Robert Chodat

Publication Year: 2008

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.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 3-6


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

An argument running throughout this book is that our culture is marked by a widespread uncertainty about what kinds of things should be treated as sentient and sapient, as doers and thinkers, and hence as responsible beings. A version of this uncertainty has been felt throughout my own years of writing. ...


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pp. xi-xii

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Introduction: French Cathedrals and Other Forms of Life

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pp. 1-22

How do you seduce a heap of chiseled stones? One person who tried, at least for a while, was Henry Adams. In the “Vis Nova” chapter of The Education of Henry Adams, Adams describes traveling around France at the turn of the last century, and he depicts himself as a lover infatuated with the facades and stained glass of the country’s medieval cathedrals, ...

Part I. Agents Within

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Chapter 1. Sense, Science, and Slight Contacts with Other People’s Minds

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pp. 25-55

Pablo Picasso made an impression on virtually everyone he encountered, and Gertrude Stein was no exception. Included in Stein’s 1934 collection Portraits and Prayers is “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso,” which was written eleven years earlier and opens as follows: ...

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Chapter 2. Embodiment and the Inside

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pp. 56-88

The end of chapter 1 approached a conceptual crossroads. Through most of the chapter we traced a path that led to a model of agency as an internal disembodied presence, “the inside,” which according to Gertrude Stein and many of her readers generates the words of her works. ...

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Chapter 3. The Prose of Persons

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pp. 89-120

Living in Paris after the Second World War, Saul Bellow occasionally ran into Richard Wright, who had arrived a couple years earlier to the kind of warm welcome the French pay to persecuted foreign writers and intellectuals. Wright was immersing himself in phenomenology under the tutelage of Sartre and de Beauvoir, ...

Part II. Agents Without

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Chapter 4. Selves, Sentences, and the Styles of Holism

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pp. 123-155

How does one become “avant-garde”? The term migrated from the military to the cultural arena with Saint-Simon in the nineteenth century, but a classic image for it was given by Wassily Kandinsky at the start of the twentieth: ...

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Chapter 5. Embodiment and the Outside

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pp. 156-195

The weekly newspaper The Onion once ran the following headline: “Report: U.S. May Have Been Abused During Formative Years.” The report was issued, it said, by leading psychologists who claimed that the United States showed symptoms of childhood mistreatment: difficulty forming lasting relationships, deep paranoia, a penchant for intimidation in resolving disputes. ...

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Chapter 6. The Culture and Its Loaded Words

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pp. 196-232

In interviews Don DeLillo has insisted that the dialogues in his novels display speech as it actually falls from the lips of people, but readers haven’t always agreed. Perhaps the most hostile, or at least well-publicized, disagreement was voiced by B. R. Myers in his 2001 “manifesto” against contemporary fiction. ...

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Conclusion: Person and Presence, Stories and Theories

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pp. 233-246

At one of the many bustling parties depicted in William Gaddis’s massive mid-century novel The Recognitions (1955), Esther, one of the main characters in the book, is introduced by someone named Buster Brown to someone named Mr. Crotcher, who describes himself as a writer. ...


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pp. 247-254

E-ISBN-13: 9780801462474
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801446788

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 732957134
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Worldly Acts and Sentient Things

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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Agent (Philosophy) in literature.
  • Consciousness in literature.
  • Subjectivity in literature.
  • Philosophy, Modern, in literature.
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