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  • William Whyte (a1)


Beginning with a surprisingly exuberant response to the landscape recorded by a distinguished scholar, this paper explores the agency of things and places though time. It argues that the recent ‘material turn’ is part of a broader re-enchantment of the world: a re-enchantment that has parallels with a similar process at the turn of the nineteenth century. Tracing this history suggests that within the space of a single generation the material world can be enchanted or disenchanted, with things and places imbued with – or stripped of –agency. In other words, different periods possess what we might call different regimes of materiality. Any approach which assumes the existence of material agency throughout history, or which imports our assumptions into a period which did not share them, will necessarily fail. Before we look at the material world, therefore, we need to examine how the material world was looked at, how it was conceptualised and how it was experienced. We need to apprehend its regime of materiality.



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My sincere thanks to Jennifer Hillman, Tom Pickles and Katherine Wilson for the invitation to speak, and to the Royal Historical Society for its support. I have explored some of the ideas in this paper at conferences in Belfast, London and Oxford and am deeply grateful for the opportunity to develop them over a number of years. I must also thank Dan Hicks and Sim Koole for bibliographical suggestions, and – as always – acknowledge my debts to Zoë Waxman for her invaluable help and advice.



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1 Stephen Halliwell, ‘Dover, Sir Kenneth James (1920–2010), Greek Scholar and College Head’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,, accessed 13 Apr. 2018; see also Russell, D. A. and Halliwell, F. S., ‘Dover, Kenneth James, 1920–2010’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy, 11 (2012), 153–75.

2 Dover, Kenneth, Marginal Comment: A Memoir (1994), 114.

3 Human Sexuality: An Encyclopaedia, ed. Bullough, Vern and Bullough, Bonnie (New York and London, 2013), 54.

4 Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC, 2010), 61. In this, she follows the terminology coined by Mario Perniola.

5 Though it must be said his references to masturbation are somewhat reductive, see, e.g., Dover, Kenneth, Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge, MA, 1989), 148.

6 Lacqueur, Thomas, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (New York, 2003). On the silences surrounding the subject in history, see Stevenson, David, ‘Recording the Unspeakable: Masturbation in the Diary of William Drummond, 1657–1659’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 9 (2000), 223–39.

7 For a useful introduction, see Isenberg, Andrew C., ‘Introduction: A New Environmental History’, in The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History, ed. Isenberg, Andrew C. (Oxford, 2014), 122.

8 Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (Oxford, 2015), esp. 34, 47, 109–11. The sublimated sexuality of Burke's sublime is discussed in Sha, Richard C., Perverse Romanticism: Aesthetics and Sexuality in Britain, 1750–1832 (Baltimore, 2009), 166–71. The extent to which a ‘sexual element’ is always found in the sublime is briskly summarised in Paglia, Camille, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (New Haven and London, 2011), 269.

9 Koerner, Joseph Leo, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape (2009), 212–13.

10 Hofmann, Werner, Caspar David Friedrich, trans. Whitall, Mary (2005), 22, 25.

11 See especially Harvey, Graham, Animism: Respecting the Living World (2017), 213–30.

12 Ingold, Tim, ‘Rethinking the Animate, Reanimating Thought’, Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, 71 (2006) 920.

13 Mitchell, W. J. T., What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago and London, 2005).

14 Gosden, Chris, ‘What Do Objects Want?’, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 12 (2005), 193211, at 194.

15 Bennett, Jane, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton, 2011), 92.

16 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 20.

17 Ingold, Tim, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill (new edn, London and New York, 2011).

18 Landscape and Power, ed. Mitchell, W. J. T., 2nd edn (Chicago and London, 2002).

19 Quoted in Coole, Diana, ‘The Inertia of Matter and the Generality of Flesh’, in New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. Coole, Diana and Frost, Samantha (Durham, NC, and London, 2010), 92115, at 104. Compare this to the assertion on p. 20 of the introduction that this is a ‘posthumanist’ study.

20 Shroeder, Ralph, ‘Disenchantment and its Discontents: Weberian Perspectives on Science and Technology’, Sociological Review, 43 (1995), 227–50, at 228. See also Jenkins, Richard, ‘Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re–Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium’, Max Weber Studies, 1 (2000), 1132.

21 Chadwick, Owen, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1975).

22 Wilson, Bryan, Religion in Secular Society (Harmondsworth, 1969).

23 Thomas, Keith, Man and the Natural World (1983), 90.

24 Walsham, Alexandra, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity, and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Oxford, 2011), 567.

25 Hicks, Dan, ‘The Material Cultural Turn: Event and Effect’, in The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies, ed. Hicks, Dan and Beaudry, Mary (Oxford, 2010), 2599.

26 Esposito, Roberto, Persons and Things, trans. Hanafi, Zakiya (Cambridge, 2015), 9.

27 Byatt, A. S., The Biographer's Tale (2001), 12.

28 Casey, Edward S., Getting Back into Place: Towards a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World, 2nd edn (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2009); Christopher Y. Tilley, A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments (1994).

29 Tilley is, for example, cited in Walsham, Reformation of the Landscape, 6. Casey has proved influential in the work of historians like Gittos, Helen, Liturgy, Architecture, and Sacred Places in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, 2015), 277.

30 Serres, Michel, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, trans. Sankey, Margaret and Cowley, Peter (2016), 51.

31 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, ix.

32 Barad, Karen, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC, and London, 2007), 396.

33 The changing atmosphere is wonderfully summed up in the work of the sociologist Steve Bruce – from God is Dead: Secularization in the West (2002) to Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory (Oxford, 2011).

34 See, for instance, Fergusson, James, Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt (Berkeley, 1999). I explore some of these themes in Whyte, William, ‘Modernism, Modernisation, and Europeanisation in West African Architecture, 1944–1994’, in Europeanization in the Twentieth Century: Historical Approaches, ed. Conway, Martin and Patel, Kiran Klaus (Basingstoke, 2010), 210–28.

35 Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton and Oxford, 2000), 240–3.

36 Latour, Bruno, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (Durham, NC, 2010), 61.

37 Latour, Bruno, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Porter, Catherine (Cambridge, MA, 1993); idem, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, trans. Porter, Catherine (Cambridge, 2017).

38 See especially Casey, Edward, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (Berkeley, 1997). For Kant, for instance, the sublime and sexual experience detailed by Kenneth Dover would be simply the consequence of a – somewhat disordered – mental process. ‘Sublimity’, he observes, ‘does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind’: Kant, Immanual, The Critique of Judgement, trans. Meredith, James Creed (Oxford, 1952), 114.

39 Shaw, Jane, Miracles in Enlightenment England (New Haven and London, 2006); Iliffe, Rob, Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton (Oxford, 2017).

40 Monod, Paul Kléber, Solomon's Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven and London, 2013), 227.

41 Jay, Martin, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley, 1994), 105.

42 Quoted in Crook, J. Mordaunt, The Dilemma of Style: Architectural Ideas from the Picturesque to the Post-Modern (1987), 21.

43 See also Crary, Jonathan, ‘Modernizing Vision’, in Vision and Visuality, ed. Foster, Hal (Seattle, 1988), 2950, at 33.

44 Shields, Conal, ‘Introduction’, to Landscape in Britain, c. 1750–1850, ed. Parris, Leslie (Exhibition Catalogue, London, 1973), 913, at 9.

45 Daniels, Stephen, Humphry Repton: Landscape Gardening and the Geography of Georgian England (New Haven and London, 1999), 48.

46 Quoted in David Watkin, The English Vision: The Picturesque in Architecture, Landscape, and Garden Design (1982), viii.

47 Quoted in Crook, Dilemma of Style, 31.

48 Ibid., 26.

49 Kieckhefer, Richard, Theology in Stone: Church Architecture from Byzantium to Berkeley (New York, 2004).

50 Carruthers, Mary, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200 (Cambridge, 1999), 263.

51 Upton, Dell, Holy Things and Profane: Anglican Parish Churches in Colonial Virginia (New Haven and London, 1997), 228–9.

52 Nelson, Louis P., The Beauty of Holiness: Anglicanism and Architecture in Colonial South Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC, 2008).

53 Harvey, John, Image of the Invisible: The Visualization of Religion in the Welsh Nonconformist Tradition (Cardiff, 1999).

54 See Whyte, William, Unlocking the Church: The Lost Secrets of Victorian Sacred Space (Oxford, 2017). For a shorter essay with a broader perspective, see Whyte, William, ‘Architecture’, in The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century Christian Thought, ed. Rasmussen, Joel, Wolfe, Judith and Zachhuber, Johannes (Oxford, 2017), 471–84.

55 Toews, John, Becoming Historical: Cultural Reformation and Public Memory in Early Nineteenth-Century Berlin (Cambridge, 2004), 129.

56 See also Hersey, G. L., High Victorian Gothic: A Study in Associationism (Baltimore, 1972).

57 Thring, Edward, quoted in Whyte, William, ‘Building a Public School Community, 1860–1910’, History of Education, 32 (2003), 601–26, at 619.

58 I explore this further in William Whyte, ‘Architecture’, in Carolyn White, A Cultural History of Objects in the Age of Industry (forthcoming).

59 Joyce, Patrick, The State of Freedom: A Social History of the British State since 1800 (Cambridge, 2013), esp. ch. 7.

60 The following sentences draw heavily on Whyte, William, ‘Octavia Hill: The Practice of Sympathy and the Art of Housing’, in ‘Nobler Imaginings and Mightier Struggles’: Octavia Hill and the Remaking of British Society, ed. Baigent, Elizabeth and Cowell, Ben (2016), 4764.

61 Livesey, R., ‘Women Rent Collectors and the Rewriting of Space, Class, and Gender in East London, 1870–1900’, in Women and the Making of Built Space, ed. Darling, Elizabeth and Whitworth, Lesley (Aldershot, 2007), 87106, at 94.

62 Maurice, C. Edmund, The Life of Octavia Hill as Told in her Letters (1913), 193. Quoted in Whyte, ‘Octavia Hill’.

63 Hicks, ‘The Material Cultural Turn’, 96.

64 Otter, Chris, ‘The Technosphere: A New Concept for Urban Studies’, Urban History, 44 (2017), 145–54, at 147.

65 Ingold, Tim, Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art, and Architecture (New York and London, 2013).

66 Hodder, Ian, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things (Chichester, 2012).

67 Ibid., 29.

68 For a rather more enthusiastic account of phenomenology – when combined with documentary research – see Whyte, Nicola, ‘Senses of Place, Senses of Time: Landscape History from a British Perspective’, Landscape Research, 40 (2015), 925–38.

69 Gosden, ‘What Do Objects Want?’, 209.

70 Miller, Daniel, The Comfort of Things (Cambridge, 2008).

71 Reddy, William M., The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge, 2001).

72 W. J. T. Mitchell, ‘Introduction’, to Landscape and Power, ed. Mitchell, 1–4, at 1.

My sincere thanks to Jennifer Hillman, Tom Pickles and Katherine Wilson for the invitation to speak, and to the Royal Historical Society for its support. I have explored some of the ideas in this paper at conferences in Belfast, London and Oxford and am deeply grateful for the opportunity to develop them over a number of years. I must also thank Dan Hicks and Sim Koole for bibliographical suggestions, and – as always – acknowledge my debts to Zoë Waxman for her invaluable help and advice.


  • William Whyte (a1)


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