The conference itself was a huge success, and its organizers, Deborah Madsen, Manuela Rossini, Kimberly Frohreich and Bryn Skibo-Birney, should be congratulated. The keynotes I was able to attend were stimulating, and left much to be digested long after their hour-long performances. I did take ill Friday and Saturday, and missed many of the actual panels, as well as the workshops, but I will say that my own panel generated fantastic queries and conversations during the Q&A, and I know that the rest of the conference was as flush with vibrant and challenging conversation. In order that the conversation need not end even if the conference itself has come to a close, I want to post here the content of my talk; this material is a first-step towards my dissertation project as well, so any additional questions or feedback are quite welcome. This will be an exceptionally long blog-post, so I appreciate your patience and willingness to spend some time with this investigation of the Premodern, cave-dwelling, Posthuman below:
Caverns of the Inhuman: Porous Bodies and Posthuman Subjects in Pre-modern Literary Representations of Caves
The sixth-century Etymologies of Isidore of Seville was the first and most enduring encyclopedia of the Middle Ages; within this great work, Isodore attempted to preserve classical knowledge by presuming that the truth of the natural world could be found by tracing words to their Greek and Latin roots. At first glance, the Etymologies provide a fairly unsurprising definition of a cave; Isidore tells us that the cave, or specus, is a “subterranean rift from which it is possible to ‘look out’” from the Latin term prospicere (1). Here Isidore makes sense of the world according to assumptions that we would today associate with humanist ideologies: he presumes a human subject that makes sense of the objective world somehow outside of itself, a human subject that comes to empirical knowledge through the privileging of visual information; truth is available to the human eye. The cave becomes the very platform for gazing upon the natural world, the place where we stand and prospicemus, the site which marks our privileged position at the pinnacle of the great chain of being. It is from such a definition of a cave that the human subject emerges, this definition produces the idea of the unique subjective experience of the human, and yet the cave itself seems to disappear from this very attempt to make sense of it by means of that technological apparatus we so often presume offers us direct access to our environment: language.
Fortunately, Isidore continues to define the cave, next exploring the term “cleft” or “hiatus.” Isidore argues the hiatus is a “deep break of the earth, as if the term were ‘a departure’” from the participial form of the Latin verb “ire,” the verb of motion (2). Here, then, and almost ironically, the cave is defined by its mobility, its activity, how it performs its own being-in-the-world. A cavern in the earth is no longer just a platform for human observation but is itself an actor in the world, a subject, in the grammatical sense, which can take an active verb. The definition gets more surprising: “Properly speaking, however,” and here I am quoting Isidore once more, “hiatus is the opening of the mouth of a human being, with the sense transferred from wild beasts, whose eagerness for something is shown through the opening of the mouth.” The cave, then, is a sort of affinity, a similitude that can be traced throughout the natural world, a feature that cuts across the animal/vegetable/mineral divides even as it attends to the differences between earth and human and “wild beasts.” Yet it is also an eagerness, a desire, a hunger, and appetite, or the gesture of the appetite, an outward sign of an internal condition, a craving shared by all matter as well as the mark within a semiotic system that suggests hunger. It is the openness towards the radically ahuman technology of communication, an openness shared here by organic and inorganic alike. This definition of the cave, then, which locates a hunger in various iterations of matter without privileging the sensory experience of the human, disseminates subjectivity widely throughout the non-human world while still attending to what Carey Wolfe would call the “specific materiality and multiplicity of the subject” (3).
What is it, then, about the cave that both produces and resists certain definitions of the human? Or, instead of believing that we can arrive at such an answer, or that an answer would offer us some sort of truth or certainty about the world, let’s follow Isidore’s lead and move across a number of caves, enter into three premodern representations of caves that challenge the kind of binaristic thinking and belief in human exceptionalism that inform Humanistic attempts to order the natural world. And as we transverse these subterranean spaces, let us think about what kinds of Posthuman subjectivities emerge when we take seriously the activity and agency of environ.
Let us begin, then, or continue, by thinking with that most famous of historical representations of the cave: Plato’s allegory. A brief refresher of the content of this story: human figures, immobilized by chains and staring only at a wall inside a dark cave, see shadows of themselves created by a fire behind them, as well as shadows cast by puppeteers behind a wall. One prisoner becomes free, and eventually comes to “see” the real world in the light of the sun, recognizing the shadows were only illusions and that there is a greater truth to reality that is separate from its material manifestations, a truth humans can access by means of proper education.
Thus, Plato’s cave is one of the originary sites in the Western metaphysical tradition for the emergence of binaristic thinking, for the division of the human subject and the knowable world “out there,” as well as the idea of human exceptionalism, that our unique capacity to reason provides access to some greater “truth.” Of course, Derrida has already taken us a long way towards thinking Plato’s cave differently, not as an allegory of the division between ideal forms and material simulacra, between truth and illusion, of the transcendence of human reason over the natural world, but as a site for thinking within the play of semiotic systems, for acknowledging the way binaries fold back upon themselves and redouble in meaning, where the aporia between signs and referents is the matter at hand. Plato’s cave is Derrida’s “hymen,” the entering into knowledge and the space between observer and observed, the moving towards, but never arriving at, truth. As Derrida remarks in the Double Session from Dissemination, the hymen “produces the effect of a medium…It is an operation that both sows confusion between opposites and stands between opposites ‘at once’” (4). He also calls the hymen a “tissue on which so many bodily metaphors are written,” observing its etymological function within so many terms that describe human and non-human animal, and vegetable, anatomy, as well as noting its textuality, its weaving of spiders’ webs and nets and songs (5). How much, then, like Isidore’s multiple definition of the cave, which is both the platform from which the human subject seeks knowledge, and the dissemination of a bodily metaphor, the hungry mouth, which confuses the observer by underscoring difference – between human and beast, organic and inorganic – even as it traces similitude across these polarizing divisions.
Of course, like Isidore, Plato and Derrida both forgo the materiality of the cave in their attempts to arrive at the truth, or non-truths, of Western metaphysics. Let us trouble this cave a little further, then, and shift crabwise from poststructuralism to Posthumanism, to a materialist and ecocritical approach that doesn’t privilege the human observer or obsess over questions of truth and knowledge, but instead recognizes the cave qua cave, as something at once unknowable in its entirety and yet fully present in its own subterranean way. I would like to take the textuality of Derrida’s concept of the hymen seriously, then, and think about the ecological impress of caves upon the texts into which they write themselves (6). To start, I read Plato’s cave a bit more literally; the shadows on the wall are not simply evidence of the inferiority of mimeticism compared against the real, nor are they just the endless play of signification in which meaning is only an illusion created by syntax and time, but they are the very performance, the textuality, of the cave. The cave here is the collective of its networked actors, each actor itself a storied being (7) : the cracked and craggy stone walls offer an historiography of the waters that eroded fragile soluble rock; fire speaks the combustion of reactive matter as well as the presence of oxygen; bound human bodies suggest punitive measures, deprivation and physical suffering, the puppeteers reveal the uneven distribution of power within a political state, and shadows mark not just an absence of light, but the presence of darkness, a darkness that communicates the porosity of stone, fire, air and human; shadows that engender an entire tradition of Western metaphysical philosophy as they flicker in and out of existence upon the face of a rock polished smooth enough by water or tectonic forces to stage such a dance of darkness; medium, motion, and material agency. And I offer this peculiar reading of Plato’s text only to show what happens when we resist the allegorical tradition which relies on the certainty that the natural world is reducible to signs, to metaphors which can be mobilized in the pursuit of some “greater truth” in spite of the material objects to which they refer. I read the cave in this way to illustrate that within the darkness of caverns the porosity, the intra-activity of all bodies, and not only human bodies, becomes evident, that what emerges from the darkness, the pressing and present darkness, of cavernous impress, is the relationality of all objects, the relationality that produces manifold subjectivities.
Next I would like to think with the 13th century Icelandic Saga of Grettir the Strong, or at least of a particular cave within the saga that allows us to think differently about that imaginary line that divides human from non-human animal. Grettir’s Saga recounts the life of its violence-loving but painfully unlucky titular character, moving from his bellicose youth to his eventual outlawry during which he meets with trolls, and possibly a god, and is eventually destroyed by a sorceress’s curse. Early in his text, he suffers a minor outlawry and takes up residence in Norway. He becomes the guest of a man of high standing called Thorkel, but is annoyed by another guest, Bjorn, who was quite possibly more arrogant and bellicose than Grettir. In the winter, a bear emerges from a cave on Thorkel’s lands and terrorizes his farms; Thorkel asks his men to find the bear, and they eventually arrive at the bear’s cave, a cavernous den overlooking a sheer cliff. Bjorn is determined to defeat this bear himself.
Bjorn, whose name, we must keep in mind, means bear, and therefore bares a trace of the non-human, nevertheless falls into a humanistic trap: in accepting a certain transparency in language, in presuming the sign is a direct link to the referent, and that through language the human came come to certain knowledge, Bjorn presumes himself the equal of the bear. “Now we’ll see, he said, how the game goes between me and my namesake” (8). And yet, trusting in the truth of language, he never forgets his human status, and assumes he will defeat the bear by means of his superior reason, that he can outwit the bear by following its roars in the night and hiding in the grass under his shield. Overconfident in his human senses and the information they return, Bjorn remains ignorant of a difference that makes a difference: the bear’s superior olfactory sense. The bear, sensing the musky Bjorn lurking in the grass, waits for the human to fall asleep and casts his shield over a cliff, severing man from technology. Bjorn flees in terror. Grettir, however, takes a different approach to dealing with the cave dweller, and enters the space in which animality flourishes not as human, but as cyborg. Unlike Bjorn who trusts that man-made technology will perform a certain way, Grettir takes his sax, his sword, and binds it to his arm, giving himself a bear-like claw, a becoming-bear that attends to difference instead of presuming equivalence. Aware of the mutability of bodies, of the body’s ability to “plug in” to various technologies, Grettir takes on a machinic-arm and, as cyborg, enters the darkness of the cavern.
Once inside the cave, the text narrates a battle between two porous bodies, and Grettir with his bear-like weapon, his cyborg arm, severs the claws of the bear, taking away one of the features that marks the bear’s animality, its non-human status. Within the darkness, these two figures, Grettir the cyborg-becoming-bear and the bear becoming-human with its clawless phalanges, wrestle, and the narrative shifts perspectives in a dizzying attempt to deny the privilege of perspective to either figure. First the bear attacks Grettir, then Grettir defends himself, here slicing off the bear’s paw, next the bear lunges at Grettir from a stump, but the stump is too short and the bear loses balance, falling into the arms of its offender; Grettir holds the bear by his ears to preserve his face from gnashing teeth, and together, entangled in each other’s limbs, they roll off the cliff just outside the cave as one. This constant shifting of perspectives invites us to consider the affinities that stretch across the categories of human and animal, categories that here fail to designate certain ontological distinctions between combatants. Within this rock-bound and adumbral ecology, the only differences that make a difference are not epistemological divides drawn by imaginary taxonomies, but only the material differences, a well-timed slice with a cyborgian arm, a clumsy misstep onto a stump misjudged in height, and, eventually, the bear’s greater weight which causes his bodily contribution to the Grettir-bear assemblage to crash into the rocks, preserving the life of the Grettir-fleshed half of these dueling figures.
This combat between Grettir and bear is like another combat that occurs in subterranean space, Grettir’s battling the undead for possession of the sax with which, as I just argued, he becomes something other than human. Another battle staged in cavernous space, here the narrative shifts between perspectives again, denying privilege to either point of view, but narrating as if the cave itself is witness to the coming together of two liminal figures: hero and monster. The sax seems to unite these two spaces, and it is no surprise that an inorganic but clearly agentic object moves from cave to cave, just as caves, recalling Isidore, perform their own sort of mobility. The text is calling attention to the agency of matter, to the excesses of materiality, to the irreduction of matter to defineable form, but as something always performing beyond the boundaries of the human imagination. The caves in Grettir’s Saga speak to the shared vitality and activity of matter, and not just a shared vulnerability (9). Thus, in caves, Grettir does not meet his combatants as equally vulnerable bodies, but as comparably immanent expressions of matter’s performativity, as iterations of matter that refuse to confine themselves to easily comprehensible categories of being. The text suggests that subjectivity is something that emerges, moment to moment, in relation to environment and other bodies, always networked, nomadic, moving. The caves engender what we might call Posthuman subjectivities, not the supposedly stable taxonomic categories “human” or “bear,” but the always multiple and mutable cyborgs and becomings.
One last subterranean narrative. Here I turn to the story of Hippocrates’ daughter and the cave in which she resides, a story made famous in the Premodern period by the late medieval travel narrative The Book of John Mandeville. According to the legend, Hippocrates’ young daughter was transformed into a dragon by the goddess Diana and must remain in her draconic form until a right and proper knight will plant a kiss on her monstrous visage. This kiss will not only release the maiden from her curse, but also grant the knight ownership of her islands and of her very body. If the legend itself is, sadly, unsurprising for its medieval misogynistic fantasies, the stories that accrue around this legend are somewhat unexpected.
After the Mandeville narrator tells of a knight too frightened by the princess’s beastly shape to release the maiden from her curse, we read of another figure, a regular Joe, so to speak, who encounters Hippocrates’ daughter in a human body. He finds her in a castle, whereas the dragon is said to reside in a cave, and this beautiful woman tells the man to become knighted and return to kiss what would appear then to be a hideous form in order to undo the magical curse and earn his reward. This man too fails the test, but what is curious is this metamorphosis between bodies, this character that is sometimes a dragon and sometimes something appearing to be human. Moreover, not only the maiden but also her cavernous home mutates as well, appearing to some as a cave and to others a castle. And unlike the maiden who seems to only appear as a dragon to the knights who would release her from the curse, the cave becomes castle becomes cave with no real consistency or reason. This cave resists classification; it is the “hiatus” of Isidore that communicates desire and moves across ideas of definite forms but, like the “hymen” of Derrida, also exists as an indeterminate space. As the text oscillates between calling the space a “cave” and a “castle,” what we witness is not an edifice magically transforming between two discrete types of space, but the system of language itself forced to make selections from a limited set of terms, neither of which is sufficient for summoning in the human mind the actual referent. Instead, by multiplying its terms, but substituting one selection for another, then re-substituting the first, the text denies our faith in the ontological divide between human home and creaturely habitus, and thus betrays the possibility of the very category “human.”
Thus we find a mutual impress between a shape-shifting maiden becoming-dragon and a cavern becoming-castle, each porous and liquid body informing the instability of the other. And if release from this “curse” offers only submission to male domination and entrapment within a definite body, might we read Hippocrates’ daughters’ mutability as something liberating? Might a Posthuman intervention in our interpretation of this story invite us to think about the excess of materiality in a way that celebrates the indeterminacy of both cave and human female? Elizabeth Grosz reads an ethics of freedom in Bergson, defining free acts as “those which both express us and which transform us, which express our transforming” (10). For Grosz and Bergson, freedom is not a definite condition granted to particular subjects but the indeterminacy of matter itself and the ability of matter to choose its expression at any given moment. “Life,” writes Grosz, “is the continuous negotiation with matter that creates the conditions for its own expansion and the opening up of matter to its own virtualities” (11). If Hippocrates’ daughter is trapped in a teleological narrative of a humanistic desire to return to a stable human body, her shape-shifting manifestation, the negotiation of her embodiment and the material conditions of her cave/castle, represent matter’s freedom from myths of certainty and truth, from definitive taxonomies and the oppression of patriarchal discourses.
Hippocrates’ daughter invites us, then, to reconsider our own desires, and to question whether we might find liberation from humanistic discourse by embracing our materiality, by accepting the indeterminacy of bodies we only “seem” to inhabit, by following Rosi Braidotti and choosing to celebrate the raw physicality of zoe over the discursive regimes of the bios, “an idea of life that exuberantly exceeds bios and supremely ignores logos” (12). And thus the earth itself, the matter of these subterranean spaces that permit such boundary crossings, that encourage the instability of bodies, that cast their shadows upon our imaginary lines dividing species and drawing ladders of being, is a space we might celebrate, inhabit differently, take up as a thought project if we are to move away from a humanist mode of thinking that entails the inevitable destruction of this mutable world. We must encourage an accepting of the unknowable materiality of our beings, and cherish the uncertainty of life which arises in the caverns of the earth.
(1) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014): 300.
(3)Arguing for a renewed attention to the animal, Wolfe writes, “…the point of thinking with renewed vigor about the animal is to disengage the question of a properly postmodern pluralism from the concept of the human with which progressive political and ethical agendas have traditionally been associated. And it is to do so, moreover, precisely by taking seriously pluralism’s call for attention to embodiment, to the specific materiality and multiplicity of the subject…”Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2003): 9.
(4) Jacques Derrida, Dissemination trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1981): 212.
(5) Ibid., 213.
(6) Here I am thinking of Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann’s “material narrativity,” which they define by arguing that “literary stories emerge from the intra-action of human creativity and the narrative agency of matter.” “Stories Come to Matter” in Material Ecocriticsim, eds. Iovinio and Oppermann (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014): 8
(7) “a material ecocriticism examines matter both in texts and as a text, trying to shed light on the way bodily natures and discursive forces express their interaction whether in representations or in their concrete reality.” Iovino and Oppermann, 2.
(8) Grettir’s Saga, trans. Jesse Byock (New York: Oxford UP, 2009): 65.
(9) Borrowing from the Spinozist Posthumanism of Rosi Braidotti in The Posthuman (Malden: Polity Press, 2013)
(10) Grosz, “Feminism, Materialism, and Freedom,” in New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, eds. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham: Duke UP, 2010): 146.
(11) Ibid., 151.
(12) Braidotti, ”The Politics of ‘Life Itself,’” in New Materialisms: 208.