Summer 2014

Wonders Taken for Signs: An Interview with Michael Witmore

Enter stage right: The Accident

Sina Najafi, Justin E. H. Smith, and Michael Witmore

A building collapses, and some of its occupants die; two people have a chance encounter at the marketplace; a woman gives birth to conjoined twins—in early modern England, unforeseen “accidents” such as these acquired a new significance in the philosophical and cultural imagination. Where accidents had once seemed of no intellectual value precisely because they were singular, they were now transformed into events that raised fundamental questions about the way the world was ordered. This transformation—which took place in religious life, dramatic practice, and experimental philosophy, among other spheres—is the subject of Michael Witmore’s book Culture of Accidents: Unexpected Knowledges in Early Modern England (Stanford University Press, 2001). Justin E. H. Smith and Sina Najafi spoke to Witmore by phone.

Cabinet: In your book, you discuss how during the early modern period, starting roughly around the beginning of the seventeenth century, the notion of the accident was transformed from a peripheral concept into a central motif in religion, philosophy, and theater. In the Aristotelian tradition leading up to that point, the accidental event was a one-off and thus could not be philosophized, and for Calvinism the notion of a providential God meant that nothing was ever an accident—accidents were a theological impossibility. Can you tell us how it is that the accident—apparently unthinkable and impossible—became such a central idea in this period?

Michael Witmore: What interests me about this moment is that in the Aristotelian tradition accidental events are a dead end epistemologically. That’s not to say that they are uninteresting, but that they have no unifying cause that precedes them. Here we’re leaving aside the question of Aristotelian substance ontology and his notion of accidental predicates—which qualities are essential to a thing and which are not. I’m interested in the accidents that Aristotle described in the Physics and the Metaphysics, which are events that unfold in time.

I think that up through the sixteenth century, the idea of an accident as an event was essentially the idea that two independent causal lines could meet in a given place at a given moment and produce something that could not have been foreseen by either of those causal agents. So Aristotle’s example would be: Two people go to the marketplace, one goes to buy olive oil, the other goes to buy grapes, and they meet accidentally in the marketplace and settle a debt on that occasion. Now, neither went to the marketplace intending to settle a debt; it is the accidental outcome of their preceding and independent desires to do something else in that place.

In the Aristotelian tradition, the fact that there is a plurality of independent substances—that could be a deliberating person, or it could be a piece of earth that desires to move towards the center of the universe—means that there is a space for accidents insofar as these agents are causally independent. What I think starts to happen in the late sixteenth century is that exactly this notion of the causal independence of different lines of action is transformed through the metaphor of the theater, and so when John Calvin says that all of creation is a spectacle designed to put us in awe of the creative power of God, he is saying that even though these lines seem to be independent, they are actually and specifically intended by God, who is paying particular attention to making those things happen.

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