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  • Aetna and Aetnaism:Schiller, Vibrant Matter, and the Phenomenal Regimes of Ancient Poetry
  • Mark Payne (bio)

The past decade or so has seen a transformation of the landscape of speculative theory by various forms of new materialism which have sought to overturn the object relations of Kantian "correlationism," according to which we know neither things nor thinking in themselves, but only the relation between them.1 Among the cognitive projects of speculative realism, object oriented ontology, and vibrant materialism, it is the latter that, in its advocacy of a fine grained attention to the agency of objects with which human beings share their life world, would seem to afford a new opportunity for the practice of literary scholarship. One may cleave closely to a Kantian epistemology or be indifferent to it one way or another, and yet be willing to admit that the objects of ancient poetry are livelier than we have been accustomed to acknowledge, and that there has been insufficient attention to the ways in which they constitute the field of agency in the poems in which they appear.

Alex Purves (2015) takes the vibrant materialism of Jane Bennett and Sara Ahmed as her point of departure for a reexamination of Ajax and his weapons, and the ways in which they constitute a single field of activity and resistance in the Iliad which is not yet constituted as soul, body, and its prostheses, but is still an aggregate of separate, self-moving parts actuated by their participation in material assemblages: the hand in action is one with the shield, for example, and does not belong more primordially to a body that is, as yet, still notional. Indeed, as Purves argues, new materialism might even be understood as a rediscovery of the pre-human being in the world of the Homeric hero, as it was controversially characterized by Bruno Snell—a project for investigation in the present that awaits its own chronicles of thick description.2 One way in which we have never been modern is that we have not separated ourselves any more decisively than the Homeric heroes from the array of material presences among which we find ourselves. in this paper I respond to the possibility of a renewed attention to the material regimes of ancient poetry in three ways. First, I show how Snell's characterization of the object world of Homeric poetry has its [End Page 89] roots in Schiller's account of the modalities of subjectification in his Letters on Aesthetic Education. Second, I demonstrate how a material regime with abortive subjectivity as its outcome, which Schiller calls "the empire of the Titans," is continuously, if intermittently, explored in the tradition of classical poetry devoted to the representation of Etna and culminating in the first century Latin hexameter poem Aetna. And third, I suggest that the failure of a human observer to reduce its phenomenal experience to the terms of its own knowledge—the signature experience of the Etna tradition that I here call phenomenalization—exceeds the possibility of its recuperation by vibrant materialism, or other contemporary ontologies, precisely because it so dramatically privileges phenomenalization over ontology. The very vibrancy of the object world in this tradition points to a crucial weakness of new materialism in its project of recuperating phenomenal experience for theoretical understanding; indeed, it is the impossibility of any such project that animates the material regime of poetry in the Etna tradition.


in The Discovery of the Mind, Bruno Snell claimed that the work of objectification, fundamental to the self-understanding of the human being as subject, could be observed in the Homeric poems as an activity of the human being in distantiating itself from its surroundings which is still in progress. For example, in Homer's comparison of the front rank of an army to a rock that endures the winds and waves, he suggests that it is not quite correct to say that the rock is viewed anthropomorphically, "unless we add that our understanding of the rock is anthropomorphic for the same reason that we are able to look at ourselves petromorphically," since "the act of regarding the rock in human terms furnishes us with a means of...


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