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Of Atoms, Oaks, and Cannibals; or, More Things That Talk

Laura Dassow Walls
Isis
Vol. 101, No. 3 (September 2010), pp. 590-598
DOI: 10.1086/655796
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/655796
Page Count: 9
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Of Atoms, Oaks, and Cannibals; or, More Things That Talk
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Abstract

ABSTRACT While literary works are often treated as museum pieces, an alternative Romantic/Pragmatic aesthetic emphasizes instead the rootedness of all texts in lived experience. This suggests that both literary and scientific texts may be approached as performances that weave together discursive and material elements, giving language to matter, both making, and becoming, “things that talk.” Three authors are contrasted: Emerson uses natural objects as metaphors to complete his thought; Thoreau uses natural objects as mediators who enroll him to speak for them in the name of a wider ecology; Humboldt attempts to enroll nonhumans, namely cannibals, into the global civil community by asking them to speak for themselves. The resulting quandary unsettles the Cartesian boundary between human and nonhuman, subject and object; as scholars divided by this boundary, we must multiply our own relations, the better to understand the ties that bind us into the common project of building the Cosmos.

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