Worldly Acts and Sentient Things
The Persistence of Agency from Stein to DeLillo
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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Title Page, Copyright
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...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. A happy life and a finished book are typically ascribed to only a single agent, though neither could ever be ...
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IntroductionFrench Cathedrals andOther Forms of Life
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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, whose beguiling spirit he pursues gallantly across the country....
Part IAgents Within
Chapter 1Sense, Science, and Slight Contactswith Other People’s Minds
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...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 If Napoleon if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if Napoleon if ...
Chapter 2Embodiment and the Inside
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...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. As I suggested there, this (in Ulla Dydo’s term) “centripetal” aspect of Stein’s writing could be seen as shaping not only her works but also, to one extent or ...
Chapter 3The Prose of Persons
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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 phe-nomenology under the tutelage of Sartre and de Beauvoir, an immersion that would eventually shape his 1953 novel The Outsider. Bellow’s interests ...
Part IIAgents Without
Chapter 4Selves, Sentences, and theStyles of Holism
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...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 Kan-The life of the spirit may be fairly represented in diagram as a large acute-angled triangle divided horizontally into unequal parts with the narrowest segment uppermost. The lower the segment the greater it is ...
Chapter 5Embodiment and the Outside
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...following headline: “Report: U.S. May Have Been Abused During For-mative Years.” The report was issued, it said, by leading psychologists who claimed that the United States showed symptoms of childhood mistreat-ment: difficulty forming lasting relationships, deep paranoia, a penchant for intimidation in resolving disputes. Because of “trust issues” stemming from ...
Chapter 6The Culture and Its Loaded Words
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...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 “mani-festo” against contemporary fiction. After describing DeLillo as a novelist of limited gifts, full of spurious profundity, and downright silly, Myers selected ...
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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 —I’ve translated it myself. Nineteen languages. Only sixty-six more to go, not counting dialects. . . . It’s Celtic now. . . . It took me only eight ...
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Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2008