Horcruxes and Alfred Gell

Over at Religion Lived Kristi has been thinking about agency and by pure chance, a.k.a. the fact that we rant about theory together all the time, I have also been thinking about agency. I am working on a section of my dissertation that deals with recent anthropological theories of objects as historical agents, particularly the work of Alfred Gell in Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. I was excitedly telling The Engineer about some of the ideas I’ve been playing with over dinner last night and after looking puzzled for a while he exclaimed, “Oh! You mean like Horcruxes.” Bingo.

Alfred Gell’s work draws on anthropological studies of humans’ use of tools and objects in pre-modern societies and argues that material objects function as extensions of the creator/user’s agency. More radically, he applies these anthropological theories to art objects to argue that artworks function as honorary people and have the capacity to to act as agents within social networks. In his brilliant essay on Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533), Keith Moxey talks about the agency of artworks as their “presentational power” – their capacity not simply to represent, that is, to record and interpret an experience to trigger a memory, but their ability to create an entirely new experience, to create something “real,” a beguiling sense of presence.(1)

For the purposes of my own work, the most important aspect of these theories is the idea that people created objects – donor portraits, tomb effigies, coats of arms and so forth – that continued to exercise agency even after death. The commissioners of these works believed that their likeness could attend Mass, say prayers, beseech passers-by for mercy and generally act as surrogates for the deceased. These material objects did not merely represent the deceased, though their capacity to evoke a memory was central to their agency, they were understood to have presence.

Horcruxes are possibly my favorite idea in the Harry Potter series. Objects created by Voldemort that contained fragments of his soul and appear to be able to act in some sense as proxies for Voldemort – think of Tom Riddle’s diary compelling Ginny Weasley into the Chamber of Secrets, or Salazar Slytherin’s locket attempting to strangle Harry, and playing on Ron’s fears. They struck me on first reading as a creepy inversion of saint’s relics, particularly secondary relics – objects such as scraps of fabric that had touched a saint’s body and, imbued with the saint’s sanctity, had the capacity to perform actions like healing the sick.

On reading Gell and Moxey, it seems that J.K. Rowling has tapped into a fundamental aspect of human nature and of art objects generally – the tendency of humans, in Moxey’s words, to imbue objects with a life of their own. This is what makes Horcruxes so compelling as an idea. Rowling has taken an idea that resonates with a fundamental human tendency and twisted it into something ghastly, just as writers of great horror tap into primordial fears and give them form.

The idea that an object could have historical agency is a difficult one for the modern reader to wrap their head around, but, as The Engineer pointed out, Horcruxes serve as a neat illustration of the theory. It seems that the next time I have to teach undergraduates about the agency of art works and other material items, I have the perfect *ahem* object lesson.

(1) Keith Moxey, “Mimesis and Iconoclasm,” Art History, 32:1 (2009): 54.


~ by medievalness on August 5, 2011.

One Response to “Horcruxes and Alfred Gell”

  1. First, I must say that it’s nice to see an example of an Engineer who has interests beyond a) machines b) calculus c) himself.

    Second, I love the ‘horcrux’ analogy, but I still have trouble seeing an object as anything but a representation of human agency. That agency can case a wide net–from the creator of the object, to the original consumer, to the later parishioners who continue the memory of the consumer/creator by means of the object, to the later consumers who give the object new meaning, and so on.Perhaps this opinion comes from the fact that I do not study memory so much as memorialization, and what I mean by this word is that a memory comes from an active creation of that memory–an object cannot offer that meaning, only a human agent can.

    But I still am fascinated by this idea of the agency of objects–thanks for a great post!

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