ARTIFACTS: HOW WE THINK AND WRITE ABOUT FOUND OBJECTS by Crystal B. Lake, Reviewed by Jessica Roberson
 


ARTIFACTS: HOW WE THINK AND WRITE ABOUT FOUND OBJECTS
By Crystal B. Lake
(Johns Hopkins, 2020) ix +261 pp.
Reviewed by Jessica Roberson on 2020-08-08.

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Crystal B. Lake gets her hands dirty digging up the ways in which certain kinds of historical objects in the long eighteenth century were unreliable narrators and pot-stirrers. In the this engaging and wily book, Lake carefully delineates oft-forgotten "old, dirty, rusty, moldy, and broken" objects as a distinct category of "artifacts" whose indeterminate but suggestive materiality preserves and reignites old controversies, transmitting them into new periods of history. Because these objects are often imperfectly preserved, as well as removed from their original contexts and purposes, they necessarily tell imperfectly preserved stories about the past. The historical fictions embodied by this partial preservation also become, in Lake's capable reading, a transformative model for literary form (4). Objects are anything but objective -- and precisely because of this, artifacts can provocatively "register recursive, contradictory shifts in themes, tastes, genres, and styles in literary history" (14).

To define the middle ground they occupy between stolid materiality and sublimation into modern ideologies, Lake convincingly separates artifacts from other objects collected and presumed to speak from or about history in the eighteenth century: objects such as antiquities, wonders, curiosities and souvenirs. In On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1993), Susan Stewart defines the souvenir as an object to which we attach so much personal significance that the object itself becomes obscured (cited 9). Applying this definition, Lake deftly situates her selected objects within a set of sometimes competing disciplinary histories so as to reinforce her central argument. In highlighting the significance of the artifact, Lake aims to build on the work of "new materialists" such as Bruno Latour in his foundational We Have Never Been Modern (1993) and Jane Bennett in her influential Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010). Also, citing Rita Felski's description of the critic as a suspicious reader who acts as a metaphorical archaeologist (The Limits of Critique, 2015), Lake aims to enrich the history of suspicious reading and critique (45).

Sitting somewhere between fact and art, the artifact as Lake construes it invites or even demands a re-evaluation of how objects participate in, shape, and defer storytelling. This book follows a similar path, weaving in and out of disciplinary history, material culture, and political controversy as the author digs up old coins, crumbling manuscripts, dead kings, and literary texts of all kinds. True to the spirit of the artifact as unreliable narrator, however, she ultimately offers not a single, definitive story but a bubbling fountain of several stories.

Essentially, Lake argues that in the eighteenth century, artifacts were not honest witnesses of a recoverable past but rather partisan combatants--with no intent to finish the fights they started. Throughout the book, Lake demonstrates that artifacts not only radiate political implications but also inevitably reignite old political controversies rather than settling them. Moreover, Lake argues, when authors from Joseph Addison to Percy Shelley encountered these irascible objects, they recognized a particularly agile set of formal affordances, and adapted them to textual productions that would provoke suspicion and deep, continuing critical engagement from their readers. In Lake's words, her book largely "charts the anguish and frustration that many experienced when they realized artifacts -- be they material or textual -- failed to act as the reliable agents of their own meanings in the long eighteenth century. But artifacts also showed writers that there were benefits to be had if they could keep their readers not only digging for artifacts but also digging into texts" (46). What Lake calls "artifactual form" offers a model of deeply satisfying critical engagement for literary historians who want to think both about material culture -- including the material culture of the book -- and the benefits of formal approaches to literature and poetics.

Besides demonstrating a new way of thinking and writing about broken, incomplete, obscure objects, Lake reminds readers to be more broadly astute, cautious, and critical. Just as the eager consumers of narrative in the eighteenth century had to be wary about what they were being told and why, twenty-first century readers--as scholars investigating old texts and as citizens--must be critically alert.

The second part of the book diligently tracks the political mischief done by artifacts in four distinct categories popular during the eighteenth century: coins, manuscripts, weapons, and grave goods. Stressing the political implications of antiquarianism, Lake treats contested artifacts from a variety of perspectives. Along the way, she also shows how the suggestive materiality of those artifacts caught the eye of authors. Beginning with coins and commemorative medallions, she argues that their undeniable role as political propaganda helps to explain their popularity with collectors of the day. Coins, Lake explains, might have seemed at first "mnemonic[s] for history"(88), durable relics objectively recording the political players of previous ages. But as Lake shows, coins and medallions inspired narratives in various eighteenth-century texts such as Dryden's poem The Medall (1682), it-narratives like Charles Johnstone's Chrysal (1760), and numismatic texts by both antiquaries and social commentators like Addison. But instead of serving as reliable narrators, Lake argues, coins became monuments to -- and models of - historical fiction.

Turning from coins to other partial, attenuated, musty, and fossilized objects, Lake considers the narrative forms inspired by their vibrancy (a term Lake borrows from Bennett). In Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), Lake finds, manuscripts furnish a key to its politics. According to Lake, Otranto's "allusions to Sicilian history, to contemporary events in Corsica, and especially, to medieval English history should be read as coded defenses of the kinds of anti-monarchial sentiments symbolized by the Magna Carta and its various [manuscript] incarnations," including those held by Walpole in his own antiquarian manuscript collection (129).

Rather than mining scholarship on manuscript culture by book historians, however, Lake situates her nevertheless convincing argument about Walpole within literary contexts: the development of the novel and narrative realism. Also, by examining Walpole's use of a found manuscript as a narrative framing device, Lake shows how artifacts work: through the historical fictions perpetuated by their incomplete materiality, they lend themselves to looking back in time for political valiancy. Walpole, Lake asserts, prompts us to be suspicious rather than credulous when encountering odd artifacts in the archive because we do not know what kinds of tales they might be spinning. One of the pleasures of Lake's argument in this chapter is the satisfying way in which she demonstrates the slippage between material artifact and narrative form that makes reading them alongside one another so productive.

The last two chapters examine, respectively, the frequent display of antique weapons and the startling popularity of royal exhumations that took place in the long eighteenth century and led to the circulation of several types of grave goods. Following the pattern established already, each chapter moves from a serious accounting of the antiquarian historiography to a sustained close reading. In the first of these final studies, Lake shows how the artifact's incomplete materiality, which tempts the viewer to fill in the gaps, intrigued satirical writers like Jonathan Swift and Tobias Smollett, who regarded the pen as also a sword -- for better or for worse. In this sense, the artifact's form allows writers to question textual agency as well. In Lake's formulation, objects, texts, authors, and readers of the eighteenth century are all entangled and complicit storytellers.

Throughout the book, Lake's attentiveness to the relationship between material and metaphor in her own prose reminds us that much scholarly satisfaction comes from painstakingly digging out and dusting off meaning. This argument reaches its natural conclusion in the last chapter, which dovetails with her emphasis on authors who recognized the potential of the artifact for textual narratives. After explaining how the exhumation of several early kings in order to settle political disputes only managed to revive the monarchs, vampire-like, she ties the exhumation narratives to two Romantic poems about tyranny: Lord Byron's "Windsor Poetics" (1813) and Percy Byshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" (1818). The latter poem, she finds, shows not only how the artifact mediates between fact and fiction but also how it turns into literary form. "Recognizing," she writes, "that such scenes of dispersal," of the bodies real or symbolic, of ancient kings, "may still threaten to be vital vestiges of the sovereign body, Shelley adopts a strategy in which the artifact becomes the agent not of history, but of poetry" (191).

In her full title of her Afterword, Lake names the kind of thing exemplified by Shelley's poem: "The Artifactual Form." "By simultaneously requiring that speculations be provided to fill in the object's gaps while grounding those speculations in the observable matter that still endured in the object," Lake says, "artifacts were adept at getting people interested in interpreting them" (200). It is this same arrested development, she argues, that makes for a literary form which also inspires in its readers a desire to complete and interpret, exercising the hermeneutics of suspicion with which this form begs to be read. Artifactual texts push their readers to think about the relationships between fact and fiction, material and metaphor, precisely because their own relationship to objective fact is observably fractured or incomplete. Thus, we repeatedly return to these texts, continually excavating new meaning. Lake's book will likely engender a similar return, yielding up new perspectives on the historical fictions perpetuated by things upon each perusal.

Jessica Roberson is Assistant Professor of English at Mount Saint Mary's University, Los Angeles.


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