UW-Madison Center for the Humanities

Center for the Humanities

Past Faculty Development Seminars
Spring 2016: New Materialities

Spring 2016: New Materialities: Things, Objects, and Agency

Led by Florence Bernault (History)
and Frédéric Neyrat (Comparative Literature)

Seminar Description
This seminar will examine how thing theory has pushed the humanities and social sciences to revise some of their research agendas and analytical apparatuses. Thing theory (and its particular strands, such as object-oriented ontology) inverts human-object interactions: instead of asking how people make tools, it speculates on how tools make people. Ultimately, thing theory seeks to understand non-human agents as social entities having a form of subjectivity and agency of their own. Although this debate was long restrained to philosophers and cultural critics, it has now started to refract in a large array of disciplines, prompting new intellectual bridgework between archaeology, anthropology, economy, history, art studies, environmental humanities, political science, and literary criticism.

Readings and discussion will consider recent thing theory from the standpoint of a broader material turn in the humanities and social sciences.  We will reflect on how attention to new materialities can renew existing methodologies and empirical enquiries in humanistic disciplines. We will ask how thing theory has blurred the line between art and artifact, materiality and immateriality, commodity and the fetish, authenticity and replica, subjectivity and reality, human and non-human. We will also question the limits of this new materialism: to what extent can we compare “thing agency” and human agency? What are the political consequences of the erasure between the human and the non-human? Should we also think about New Immaterialities?

The seminar will be ten sessions long, with approximately fifty pages of reading per session (please see “Readings” below). The coordinators (Bernault and Neyrat) will bring additional excerpts, images, and short videos to prompt various engagements with the readings and the issues posed by the seminar.

The seminar is open only to accepted participants. The seminar meets Thursdays, 3:00 pm - 5:00 pm, in University Club Room 212.


Week 1 (January 28): What is OOO? Thinged Objects and Materialities

Week 2 (February 4): Value and Commodity Exchange in the Shadow of Capitalism

Week 3 (February 11): Hyper Objects and Hyper Subjects in the Anthropocene

*Note the seminar will not meet Thursday, February 18.

Week 4 (February 25): Theorizing Transitional Objects and the Mirror Stage

  • Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage.” In Écrits—A Selection. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977 (1949). 1-7.
  • Winnicott, D. W. “Transitional Objects (1971).” Published in the International ]ournal of Psycho-Analysis. Vol. 34. Part 2 (1953); and in D. W Winnicott. Collected Papers: Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis (1958a). London: Tavistock Publications.

Week 5 (March 3): Becoming Objects, Becoming Subjects: Transfers in Reification

Week 6 (March 10): Affective Economies

Week 7 (March 17): Faking It: Masks, Fetishes, and Spectacles

*Note the seminar will not meet Thursday, March 24, which falls during UW-Madison's spring break.

Week 8 (March 31): Among Networks

Week 9 (April 7): Technologies of the Post-Human

Week 10 (April 14): Critiquing OOO

Program Description
With major support from the Office of the Dean of the College of Letters & Science, the Center for the Humanities and the Institute for Research in the Humanities jointly sponsor and administer the Faculty Development Seminars in the Humanities, which enable an individual tenured faculty member or a team of two tenured faculty members to lead a seminar on a topic of broad interest across the humanities. Seminar leaders receive a one-course release for directing a seminar of other faculty members who meet ten times during a semester in two-hour sessions, and their departments receive funds for a replacement lecturer. The Faculty Development Seminar program provides research funds of $500 to ten faculty members to participate in the seminar.