Gansworth, Latour, and the Agency of Objects: A Catalogue of Non-Human Actors in Apple: Skin to the Core
by Stacy Graber
--Bruno Latour (2007), Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory
I gradually discover myself as family historian/archaeologist.
--Eric Gansworth, Apple: Skin to the Core
In Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Bruno Latour (2007) upends sociology and conventional understanding of what constitutes interaction by proposing the potential force or agency of non-human actors. Moreover, Latour (2007) locates the origin of this idea in “semiotics or the various narrative sciences,” such as literary theory, and whimsically illustrates the point by pondering the force of a magic wand as an “actant” (p. 54) or object with the agency to exert an influence on human sociality. Further developing this claim, Latour (2007) proposes that things can be “treated as mediators and not as mere intermediaries” (p. 39), as “participants” (p. 71) involved in networks of relationships (historical, social, cultural, etc.), and that they are capable of initiating effects, the symbolic traces of which can be decoded and made manifest (pp. 80-81).
This idea is immediately recognizable in Apple: Skin to the Core, Eric Gansworth’s (2020) multimodal collage and rumination on an expansive catalogue of objects (e.g., musical recordings, toys and games, religious and cultural artifacts, films and televisions shows, print literature and graphica, food, clothing, household items, animals, stores, homes, and schools), that assert agency in the world and enable the poet/artist to cause an archaeology of relationships to materialize within his family, community, and the nation. Some of these material evocations are expressive of solidarity, creative sustenance, endurance, and continuity, whereas others sign to perverse hierarchies of power, mortal inequalities, fragmentation, and despair—all built into one complex, textured account.
For example, the reader is required to consider the slur the fruit of the apple represents, the insult it viciously hurls by proxy, which must daily, exhaustingly, be negotiated and refused. The pejorative embodied by the apple materializes everywhere in the poems, culminating in the apple as mortal missile when Gansworth (2020) enters into conversation with Kafka. In Kafka’s (1913/2008) famous shape-shifting account, The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa’s father lobs an apple that lodges agonizingly into the carapace of his son. It is a dagger representing the son’s abjection and dispossession and the weapon that initiates his demise. This is one illustration Gansworth (2020) conjures of an object as a lethal actor. At the same time, by invoking the image of the apple, Gansworth (2020) translates the violent experience of marginalization across time, language, and culture (p. 243).
As previously stated, the artifacts of popular culture resonate strongly throughout Gansworth’s (2020) text and offer a structural vehicle, especially sound recordings that comprise the psychic playlist of the poet’s life. Music serves as a way to narrate critical tensions, conflict, and aporia that would otherwise be inexpressible through the limits of language. So, the exformations of The Beatles and Bowie provide the shared medium through which it becomes possible to be understood. This same tendency emerges in the capability of television shows to express collective wish images and films—particularly horror texts—to communicate oneiric intensities of dread and unrelenting anxieties and to exorcize them for good.
But perhaps the most significant expression of the agency of objects in the collection of poems is found in the potency of places that act through the forces of love or rage, contingent on the space they inhabit in personal and public memory. On one end of the continuum, there is the beloved family home on Dog Street, which is the repository of spectral memory of cherished people now gone, intimate meals taken, and moments of uncanny solitude. On the opposite end of the continuum there is the sadistic Carlisle Indian Boarding School, the violent machine of acculturation that whispers its mechanics through hidden graveyards and grotesque before/after portraits rationalized as markers of “progress.” These places are more than geographic coordinates for Gansworth (2020)—they are testimonies. And, considered through Latour’s (2007) framework, they are hieroglyphics that require interpreters to express their latent histories (p. 79), which Latour indicates as the province of the artist (p. 82).
All of which is to say that things have a tremendous power to act within Gansworth’s (2020) poetry, and that this is no mere expression of Disneyfied anthropomorphism (as Giroux would say). Meaning, objects exert real force culminating in an array of effects that can be profoundly restorative or lethal.
In terms of the pedagogical implications of this discussion, Gansworth’s (2020) text makes a project proposal. He implicitly suggests that we engage secondary students in decoding the ethnography of objects, tracing their provenance, and reading the ways that these things have the power to shape and direct a life, and how a more sustaining vision of community and the future might be realized through objects of art.
Kafka, K. (2008), Metamorphosis. In Metamorphosis and other stories (pp. 85-146) (M. Hofmann, Trans.). Penguin Books. (Original work published in 1913)
Latour, B. (2007). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford University Press.