Modernist Poetics and the Question of the Thing Itself (Panel)


Geoffrey Bender (SUNY Cortland)

This panel seeks papers on American modernist poetry that address the current debate among new materialist and speculative realist scholars on the ontological status of the thing itself. Specifically, we seek studies that consider modernist poetry’s approach to a thing's multiplicity, its irreducibility to either/or propositions, so as to move the current debate forward.

We situate our conversation within the broader scholarly trajectory that has resisted the seemingly ubiquitous truism that the world as humans understand it is socially constructed. Theorists such as Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, and Jane Bennett, who are variously allied to the so-called nonhuman turn, have argued, instead, that the social constructionist frame of understanding, while it has no doubt done crucial work in the human realm, nevertheless relies on a problematic anthropocentrism. With the aim of decentering the human, these scholars and others have refocused intellectual attention on the vast array of objects that populate and inform human and nonhuman worlds alike.

Yet while many can agree that this intellectual move productively prods human beings beyond frameworks of exceptionalist privilege, the question of how objects—human and otherwise—can best be defined remains hotly debated. Speculative realists, like Harman and Morton, following Heidegger, have frequently suggested that objects essentially exist in isolation from one another and are themselves the key mystery to be explored. Others, like Bennett, following Latour, have argued that the existence of any object is dependent upon its relationality with other objects via networks, systems, or assemblages. The divide between these theoretical stances has, at times, seemed unbridgeable. Still, as recent work by Rochelle Rives, Christina Walter, and others has shown, this philosophical disagreement is one that modernist poetics, so adept at rendering objects in complex, contradictory ways, can illuminate significantly.

This panel invites proposals from American modernist scholars working in object studies and seeking to engage the discussions of Charles Altieri, Christina Walter, and others around questions of the ontology of the object and, more generally, of materiality in modernist poetics.