I’ve been reading Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and I am completely taken with the idea of vibrant materiality. It speaks to me not just on an intellectual level, but also on a visceral level. I am discovering that the concept brings together what I’ve thought to be disparate aspects of my life, from my experiences as a child, as a mother, as a teacher and art historian.
I certainly experienced what Bennett calls naïve materialism. When I was a child, things were active. They were both comforting and threatening. They had feelings, about me and about their environments. The grown-up world certainly encouraged this thinking in me as a child, but as I grew up, everything around me told me that my stuffed animals did not care where they slept. They currently sleep in a box in my basement and have narrowly escaped my husband’s attempt to throw them in the landfill.
More than three decades later, the inanimate world has come to life again in my son’s books. Edward Tulane, the china rabbit who at first cares only about his fine silk pants and his gold pocketwatch, experiences his first emotion while trapped in a huge garbage heap. The Giving Tree misses the boy and feels sad until the boy returns. Because of the beauty of the ideas in these books, I hesitate sometimes to make clear distinctions for my son between what is alive and what might not be. I can assuredly tell him that the ants on our peonies (and in our kitchen) are alive and will die if he pokes them with a stick. But for some reason, I want to tell him that there will be similar consequences if his toy knight spears his stuffed wolf toy.
Until quite recently I’ve perceived my personal ideas and experiences, some of which I describe above, to be disconnected from my work as a professor and researcher. That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed teaching and research. Distinguishing a twelfth- from thirteenth-century stained glass window, figuring out how to best contextualize a medieval decorative program, or unmasking the white capitalist patriarchy in anything and everything; these are all worthwhile intellectual endeavors. But it wasn’t until I read Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species while teaching in my college’s two-year history of western thought program (St. Olaf’s Great Conversation) that the material I was teaching spoke to me on a deeper, more personal level.
While reading the Origin, I complained vigorously to my colleagues and students that Darwin’s detailed descriptions of the various physical traits of pigeons and the domestication of strawberries bored me to tears. But when I discovered that Darwin’s questions arose in part from the death of his 10-year old daughter, I nearly lost it. I imagined that Darwin, with his own health failing, wanted to make sense of her death. He wanted to see what her life meant in earthly terms, rather than in the heavenly terms with which most people in his world viewed cycles of life and death.
And one could conclude, as a student in my course did with great sorrow, that Darwin’s daughter’s life and all of our lives mean very little in the larger scheme of things. The Origin of the Species had the opposite affect on me; I felt roots grow from my fingers to connect me to all the things around me. The trees started to breathe. And the lithic imagination that Jeffrey Cohen describes now makes perfect and beautiful sense. Our lives are active, fleeting and at times urgent compared to the peaceful longevity of stone. But as I’ve learned from a book I bought for my son (to counter the God story he got from his lovely Lutheran preschool), the matter that forms both the stones and my body is older than the stars. We’ve all evolved from the same place.
It is with this heightened sense of connection to the things around me that I hope to approach my current work on medieval stained glass. I presented a paper at the first BABEL meeting in 2010 for Maggie Williams’ session “Transparent Things” describing how seeing colored light streaming from a medieval stained-glass window onto my arm made me wonder what a medieval viewer, a thirteenth-century Franciscan friar in this case, thought when he saw the same light shine onto his own body. Could my secular awe of medieval stained glass in any way parallel the experience of a medieval Franciscan?
When these kinds of questions came to mind when I was a graduate student, I forced myself to dismiss them as naïve and romantic. But now I realize the importance of my physical experiences of stained glass. As my dear friend Anne Harris pointed out to me, the light appears immaterial, but the glass itself has distinct physical properties. Composed of silica, potash, lime, metallic oxides, and years of gunk accumulated on its surface from burning wax (on its inside) and burning fossil fuels (on its outside), the glass itself is cold to the touch. But when light shines through this cold conglomeration of elements, it magically transforms the interior space and the bodies that inhabit it.
Spurred on by my sense that I and a medieval Franciscan might share a reverence for the materiality of stained glass, I wrote a more formal academic paper, which I presented at Kalamazoo in 2011, analyzing the relationship between St. Bonaventure’s ideas about light, explored in his sermons and in his spiritual guide The Journey of the Mind to God (a text I also read with students in the Great Conversation) and the use of stained glass in medieval Franciscan churches. Bonaventure, I found, conceived of light as an “actant” in the Latour (as analyzed by Bennett) kind of way. Bonaventure believed that the light around us—the light that shines through stained-glass windows—contains divine light and thereby makes the divine physical and apparent to human perception. Light, according to Bonaventure, activates the color in stained glass and shines it onto the bodies and walls inside the church. Through contemplation of the colored light, Bonaventure hoped that the minds of his fellow friars would be carried up to a potential, ecstatic union with the Divine. So then, what a powerful and active thing stained glass is in a church interior! While glass is not as long-lived as stone or other elements in the natural world, my physical experience of stained-glass windows, with their vibrant materiality, allowed a connection across several centuries (a instant, of course, to a stone) between me and my imagined medieval Franciscans.
Bennett’s book and the concept of vibrant materiality have brought a new significance to my life and work. They have allowed me to make connections between my interior life as a child, my own child’s interior life, and my work in dark church interiors. And ultimately, I know it will make me a better caretaker of the earth because I am learning to trust my sense of connection to the matter around me and to understand more fully the effects that my actions have on the collective whole.