Jul
10

Update 3: Feminism! Agency! Fun!

I’m officially more than halfway through my ten weeks of summer research! I’ve mostly wrapped up the section of my summer reading plan covering classical sources and related criticism, and I’m moving into the section concerned with medieval and Renaissance texts involving Helen of Troy. This week, I’m reading Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and literary scholarship concerning the role of Helen in that work, but before I get into that, I want to cover one more subject that I’ve read about since my previous post.

As I read classical and early modern interpretations of the Troy story and Helen of Troy at the center of that narrative, I’m thinking about these works through the lens of agency. In order to better understand this term and get a working definition of it to apply to my research, I decided to incorporate some readings from the field of linguistic anthropology to illuminate the concept of “agency.” From those readings, I got a basic definition that I will continue to hone in on throughout my project: agency is the ability to speak or act of one’s own volition in the context of their society. In the words of linguistic anthropologist Laura Ahearn, this is the “socioculturally mediated capacity to act.” I find the idea of a cultural or social context mediating agency fascinating, especially in reading works like Homer’s, in which the roles of fate and the gods play such a large role that it causes me to wonder if there is a capacity for free will or agency at all in such a society.

I also wanted to delve deeper into the connection between agency and gender, so I read Gayle Rubin’s essay “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” If anyone is looking for a good read about the roots of female oppression in society, I would highly recommend this piece. Rubin went all the way back to anthropological theories about the origin of society that pose the idea that commodity exchange, or gift giving, is one of the fundamental things separating man and ape (the other is creative language). Then, she looked at how, in this system of exchange that fosters social relationships and thus community, women are the ultimate token of exchange– marital ties far surpass other types of links. Men did the exchanging and women were the objects of exchange, thus “men have rights in woman which women do not have in themselves” (Rubin 183). The concept of women as objects of commerce stands out in Rubin’s work as particularly relevant to my own as I want to look at Helen’s agency or lack thereof and her status as an object fought over and exchanged between two men. Further, Helen’s literary descendent Criseyde (of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, or Cressida in Shakespeare’s later version of the Troy story) functions even more overtly as an object of transaction with the benefits of men in mind.

Understanding agency in terms of sociocultural context, which in these stories encompasses a virulently patriarchal society, has helped me get a better grasp not only on Helen’s position, but even on how to go about defining that position. I’m looking forward to applying these more theoretical aspects of my research to the medieval readings this week and Renaissance ones after that!

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