Thoughts on Vibrant Materiality: Finding Meaning in my Secular World

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.

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7 Responses to “Thoughts on Vibrant Materiality: Finding Meaning in my Secular World”

  1. Maggie Williams June 11, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

    This is such a brave and genuine piece, Nancy! I think we’ve all had childhood experiences with vibrant things, and I love the idea that we get to connect that incredibly human scenario with our scholarly work. As an only child, my relationship with things has always been rich (Heck, I even let my dollies win at poker sometimes…well, sometimes). Letting go of that intimacy with things often seems unnecessarily restrictive–especially for those of us who spend so much time with things in our scholarly practice.

    One idea that really struck me about your post was the interconnectedness of materiality, vibrancy, and transparency. I’m just really interested in surfaces that we can pass through versus those that resist us in some way, and I’m wondering about how medieval art can lead us to think more deeply about all of those interactions. Can transparency and vibrancy operate in time as well as space? Can objects be both transparent and resistant? Can we (as adult academics) recapture some of that childhood wonder and belief in vibrant things? I hope so.

  2. Nancy Thompson June 12, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    Thanks, Maggie! I think that our academic training (or at least mine in the 1990s) teaches us that things don’t have agency, or that meaning is all a human construct. This is one thing about thing-theory that I really like (which I learned about mostly in the Bennett book) that things have agency beyond the agency we ascribe to them and create for them. Kids (okay, at least mine!) don’t seem to think like that about things. And I think it can teach us a lot about medieval art, because I don’t think medieval people thought of the agency of things as a human construct (though I don’t mean in any way to suggest that medieval people were naive materialists!).

    I am trying to figure out exactly what you mean (or maybe it’s beautifully ambiguous, or maybe I am a little slow today) by things that resist us. Do you mean things whose meaning and/or purpose is difficult to understand? Maybe like the enigmatic (to us) Staffordshire Hoard?!

  3. Ben Tilghman June 12, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    I think our relationship with our objects of study as art historians (and perhaps specifically as American art historians) has been shaped in large part by our physical distance from those things. They’re always abstractions, they’re always images (keep an ear out, in lectures and discussions especially, for how often an art object is referred to as an “image” as opposed to “statue,” “book” or whatever), so we’ve tended to downplay the physical fact of them. In art museums, where you are very much aware of the physical nature of the objects, the legacy of connoisseurship and the pressure to appeal to the general public (and private and public funders) have generally discouraged this kind of more personal and speculative reflection (with some wonderful exceptions). What I’m saying is, it’s very hard for us as scholars to conceive of a level attachment to medieval things that historical beholders might have felt, one that might match the attachment we had as kids (and still have as adults: let’s not kid ourselves).

    Maggie, I’m also curious what you mean by “transparent things.” I mean, obviously you’re responding to the transparency of glass, but it seems you mean more. Towards what (or where?) would a transparent thing allow us to move? Why isn’t it enough for a thing to be the destination in of itself? Or are those two questions not necessarily in conflict?

  4. Asa Mittman June 13, 2012 at 6:02 pm #

    I think that Ben’s point about “image” is a good one — and I think it is also part of the iconographical emphasis of medieval art history that dominated for several decades of the 20th century. This encouraged “reading images” (the title of Suzanne Lewis’ wonderful book on Apocalypse MSS), which I think implicitly encourages treating them like texts — that is, reproducible without loss of context.

  5. Marian Bleeke June 14, 2012 at 7:16 am #

    I totally agree with Ben and Asa’s comments on art history (in particular American academic art history) turning everything into “images.”. I’ve been re-reading and re-thinking some medieval optics, trying to make the switch from visuality to materiality with that material, and am intrigued by the seal impression into wax as a model even for internal or mental process, the species making it’s impression in the literal stuff of the imagination.
    I’m reading Bennett now too, but I have to say I’m not having such a happy time with it. I keep thinking about death for some reason.

  6. Maggie Williams June 14, 2012 at 8:08 pm #

    That IS a really interesting point about images… As far as the transparency and resistance of things goes, I actually wasn’t thinking about glass, Ben. That’s certainly a material response to the kind of transparency that initially interested me (which is why I called on Nancy to join us in the first place!). What spoke to me about the original Nabokov quotation was the issue of seeing through an object into its history–not a literal transparency, but more of a hermeneutic one. Then there was the beauty of the word as it applies to gems, glass, theology, politics, what have you. I think it’s such a rich notion–something you can see through that can also be something completely obvious, not to mention honest and genuine.

    • Ben Tilghman June 15, 2012 at 9:44 am #

      It is an interesting idea, the hermeneutic transparency of an object, but I have to confess that I worry “transparency” is a misleading term. It implies to me a process that is too immediate, and unmediated. If we can peer through these things, it’s only by squinting, turning it around in our hands, hopping side to side, waiting for the light to change. And asking someone else what they see. And how do we know that what we aren’t looking at is a lens, or a mirror?

      OK, I’m very likely getting carried away with the metaphor here. But I think one of the wonderful things about Nancy’s post is how it emphasizes the way things act on us, showering us in light or simply just accompanying us as we go about our days (whether it’s a child’s toy or a grown-up’s keepsake watch). Maybe what Nancy’s talking about is another part of your great quote from Nabokov: “Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment.”

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