Associating autonomy with art has long been viewed with suspicion, but autonomous signifying agency may be attributed to literary discourse without lapsing into decontextualized aestheticism or neoliberal conceptions of subjectivity. Through literary practices that “move” readers in a “singular” manner, a work becomes what Rita Felski, following Bruno Latour, calls a “nonhuman actor.” Such an actor, Felski observes, “modifies a state of affairs by making a difference,” participating “in chains of events” so as to “help shape outcomes and influence events” (2015, pp. 163–64). Autonomous signifying agency within works and literary discourse more broadly enables them to become actors within what Latour terms “networks of associations” through which “the social” is constantly “reassembled.” But literary works also act as interlocutors, in the sense Levinas gives the word (1996a, pp. 2–10). Though not full-fledged ethical others, they nonetheless, as interlocutors, are sufficiently invested with the attributes and agency of ethical others to be their extensions or ambassadors Nonhuman, interlocutory literary agency may be explored in iconic passages of ancient literature—Telemachus’ recognition that he is being visited by a god (Odyssey Book 1: ll. 319–24) and Judah’s recognition that Tamar is more “righteous” than he (Gen. 38: 26). In being authoritative but not authoritarian, literary discourse becomes a potently autonomous actor within the networks of associations in which it participates.
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