material culture, evangelicalism, thing theory, American Tract Society, new materialism, posthumanism, material texts, history of reading, reception, bookbinding, reform, book history, daguerrotype photography, Jane Bennett, David Brainerd
In his 2001 article “Thing Theory,” the literary critic Bill Brown posed a distinction between objects and things. Objects are prisoners in our familiar dialectic between subjects and objects. As the subordinate term, objects are pliant to the subject’s concerns and intentions. Subjects objectify objects. Things, according to Brown, are another matter. Unlike an object, a thing may surprise us, refusing to follow the subject’s script as it pursues its own agenda. Brown’s definition of things prefigured a theoretical development in the humanities today, one that poses a set of provocations for scholars of early American material texts. These ideas are variant and wide-ranging but, for our purposes, may be summarized as forms of “new materialism.” New materialists share with Brown the premise that material things wield an agency, of a kind, that shapes human practice and culture. This point is intuitive at some level. The present sequence of words, for instance, is altered by the substance of caffeine that my body metabolizes as it writes. Meanwhile, my eyes are lured toward the glowing screen, which affords forms of thinking and writing different from the imposed linearity of the typewriter. This is not to claim that all things have the same type or level of agency. My computer does not have intentions and it cannot pour my coffee. But if we can accept that coffee and screens can do certain things, however subtle, to scholars today, might we also ask: What did books do to early Americans?1 [End Page 792]
The question may feel quite retro for scholars of material texts. Decades ago, Elizabeth Eisenstein touched off a debate regarding material agency with the publication of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979). Eisenstein argued that print technology triggered cultural transformations that defined modernity, but her detractors countered that print’s material arrival must be contextualized within preexisting cultures. On their view, cultural meanings mattered more than their post hoc physical expressions in words—whether those words were printed, manuscript, or spoken. In the wake of the larger cultural turn across the disciplines in the 1980s and 1990s, consensus turned against Eisenstein, and “material determinism” and “material agency” accrued pejorative connotations.2
For altogether different reasons, the use of agency as a term applied to material things may also sit uneasily with scholars of early American studies. With his article “On Agency” (2003), Walter Johnson set in motion early American studies’ version of the agency debate. Johnson upbraided historians, especially white historians, as overeager to attribute “agency” to enslaved people. Among his critiques, Johnson argued that championing their agency risked minimizing the oppressions endured under the objective conditions of the slave system. In the hands of some historians, moreover, attempts to recover agency had turned up evidence so thin as to be meaningless, making agency equivalent to something like “humanity.” Given withering critiques of the concept, scholars of early America might wonder, eyebrows raised: If we should no longer use this category to describe people, then why should we apply it to mere things?3 [End Page 793]
My purpose is not to induce déjà vu by drudging up timeworn debates, but to draw on new materialist philosophy to pose the problem of material agency differently from how it has been articulated, either in material texts or in early American studies. The challenge of new materialism is to think outside the logic that assumes that objects (and objective conditions) and subjects can be conceptually separated, and that agency may reside with only one or the other: in our terms, either with printing technologies (for Eisenstein) and institutions and structures (as Johnson might put it) or with human intentions and meanings. New materialists urge scholars to approach agency as something distributed across assemblages of subjects and objects, human and nonhuman actors. On this view, it is not I who writes. It’s a group effort: my brain and my fingers and the computer and the chair and the coffee write. Things...