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Compte rendu: Katherine Ibbett, 'Making Water Material'

posted 12 Feb 2015, 04:12 by Cambridge EMS
The river god inkstand selected by Katherine Ibbett as her object was a starting point in more ways than one. The water that trickled from his urn, the tentative beginnings of what would one day become a gushing river, was not just an initial example of ‘making water material’, but also an apt figure for Ibbett’s own embryonic riverey project, whose multiple potential pathways she sketched for the seminar audience.

She began by reflecting on her interest in reading the early modern period through its non-human objects, and on the high instance of inanimate 'things' that are made to speak in texts produced under absolutist monarchy. Early modern things are often made present to the future through appearing in written inventories, and the inkstand itself was a reminder of how writing itself is material, not only through its functional connection to the act of writing, but also because it served both a useful and a pleasurable purpose, in the way that writing so often sought to do in the period.

The rivers project born of this interest in the inanimate and its connection to the written will eventually span three centuries, stretching from the lyric poetry of the sixteenth century to the eighteenth-century colonisation of the Mississippi. In the second part of the talk, a whistle-stop journey through some of the contexts in which rivers (both literal and metaphorical) appear revealed the complexity of the figure across the period. From the river that delineates geographical boundaries to the metaphors of linguistic or genealogical purity that employ the vocabulary of source, confluence and convergence; from the river as conquering King to the river as a figure for literary style; from the river as an integral part of quotidian early modern life – a place for bathing, fishing, washing and industry, increasingly brought into the city through wells and canals – to the river as the home of mythical nymphs and gods, or the setting for grand royal diversions and spectacles.

Ibbett argued that all these factors required consideration if she was to take this watery metaphor seriously, restore its materiality, and understand the role of this non-human ‘thing’, itself simultaneously pleasurable and useful, both in the writing of the period, and the broader imaginary of early modern France.