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Ajax and Other Objects: Vibrant Materialism in the Iliad

Alex Purves

This paper considers objects in the Iliad as an important but often overlooked category of the nonhuman, drawing on recent theoretical work in the field of New or Vibrant Materialism. Vibrant Materialism has stressed the autonomy and agency of the material world and seeks to demolish the binary of human agent vs. inert object in favor of a more co-operative and dynamic interaction between nonhuman and human. This approach is particularly appropriate to the Iliad because it refashions, in a sense, an old argument that has long been in play as to the agency and status of the Homeric human. Homeric studies has been marked by both an under-privileging and an over-privileging of the human. First, Snell’s notion of the Homeric hero as “prehuman” without a full sense of subjectivity and self; second, the strongly humanistic trend of reading the Iliad as the tragedy of Achilles’ or Hector’s qualities of being all-too-human, all-too-like us.

In this paper I attempt to move away from both of these viewpoints by considering the ways in which the Iliadic character exists in a continuum with the objects and environment that surround him. Following Jane Bennett’s work on the vibrancy of matter, Tim Ingold’s on the live environment, and Sara Ahmed’s on orienting objects, I seek to capture the life and agency of various objects and things in the Iliad, from armor and weapons to softer, less tangible substances such as wool, air, and honey. Homeric scenery and objects have long been recognized for their engagement with time, but that recognition has often been characterized by a displacement from the present context in which they occur. By drawing attention to the texture and vibrancy of the materials in the Homeric environment and by suggesting that the boundary between them and the Homeric character is permeable, I argue that the role of the nonhuman in affecting and shaping Homeric “humanness” deserves to be better noticed and understood.

The paper starts with a brief summary of the origins of the scholarly question concerning the status of the Homeric human (Whitman, Snell), and moves on from there to provide some examples of the vibrant materialism at play between bodies, matter, and landscapes in the second half of the Iliad. First I examine a small scene in book 16 (102-11) where Ajax holds a defensive position in battle, focusing on the vibrancy of metal (his armor and the missiles that strike it), and then move on to consider Il. 17.755-61 (more weapons, and the famously problematic “woolen cry” [Stanford]), Il. 18.107-10 (the admixture of honey and smoke in description of Achilles’ anger), and finally Il. 20.226-9 & 246-7 (Aeneas’ story of the twelve foals of Boreas who run along unbroken tips of wheat and the surf of the sea, juxtaposed with the hundred-bench boat that cannot uphold the weight of abusive words). Each of these passages is offered as an illustration of a different way of reading materiality in Homer, in the hope that this kind of rethinking of the position of Homeric man in relation to his environment will allow for a more dynamic and fluid, as well as more specifically ancient, notion of the line between human and nonhuman to emerge.

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The Ancient Non-Human

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