Thursday, March 31, 2011

Narrowing my interest, or, HELP me find the right grad program!!!

This is sort of a response to Karl Steel, but this is also something I've been meaning to do for awhile.

I’ve been trying to isolate graduate programs I should apply to for months now and I’m still having a less than optimal success in narrowing down my options. The only schools I know with absolute certainty I will apply to are Cornell and GWU. Others I’m presently investigating are Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis (if only to work with Timothy Morton!), Harvard, and Yale. I know it is imperative I keep an open mind regarding location of the school, the education is more important by far than region, but I have to take into consideration my partner who is a public official in the Democratic political scene and would flounder in some of the very red environments in which many of the Ivys are, unfortunately, located. I can make exceptions if the school is exceptional AND I know I can perform strongly in the program, but I also need to consider schools in more diverse or more “blue” areas.

That being said, I should focus most on finding schools where I will be a good match with the faculty and will be able to select a special committee that will support my research interests. I also want to find a job after I graduate, so I am also looking at schools with a strong job placement record. But before I can figure out where I will fit best with the English faculty, I need to identify my interests within the discourse.

Thus, I will attempt to catalog just what I wish to study and what kind of research I want to conduct as a grad student. The following is a very facile rendering of my interests, just an attempt to try and understand why I want to become a medieval scholar. Clearly this does not resemble anything I would write for a statement of interest, it’s just a casual attempt to help me understand myself a little better.

 I am most interested in materialism, object-ontology and thing theory. I want to explore the relationship between medieval people and the objects around them, not just how objects were used, but to remove the anthropocentric focus and understand what agency and trajectories existed in the (representations of) objects themselves. I want to understand how humans perceived objects from a pre-Enlightment perspective, before the divide between man and object, before objects were foregrounded and philosophy shifted from a primarily ontological study to a primarily epistemological concern. I accept a vibrant materialism and I wish to study the way medieval literature reinforces the idea of the de-centering of the human and an awareness of the vitality of non-human things, how humans interact with other non-human actants within assemblages beyond a simple human/tool relationship.

 I am interested in animals, environments and ecocritical readings. I believe in Timothy Morton’s theory that the concept of Nature only preserves and reinforces the divide between man and the environment, and I find that in medieval literature the divide is hardly as substantial. I believe exploring transitions of how man perceived the natural world and his/her place within it during the middle ages can help our understanding of our present ideas about a (n)ature/(N)ature binary and how best to redact the present anthropocentric world view that prevents us from overcoming the current ecological crisis.

 I am interested in monsters and hybrids, queers and Others, in liminal spaces and non-linear trajectories. I am interested in ebbs and flows, fluid motions and horizontal worlds that oppose teleologies. I am interested in visionary literature when it opens to possibilities of queer relationships and subverts heteronormative hegemonies. I am interested in queer ecology as Timothy Morton has introduced it and I anticipate his continued research and publication as I believe it will support research into subversive non-human sexualities (human-object, human-animal, animal-animal, animal-object, human-plant, etc.) that continue to disrupt the (n)ature/(N)ature divide.

 I am interested in how cinema and other media construct contemporary medievalisms. How might contemporary representations of medieval monsters, non-human beings, spaces, and (n)ature effect our reading of medieval literature/culture? How can digital media be worked into pedagogy to engage students and re-ignite interest in the humanties?

 I am most interested in 12-16th centuries. Not sure yet where I might dilate within such a large span of time, but it may be that for the purposes of my graduate work/dissertation, I won’t need to scale that down. We shall see.

It feels good having written that down.

Perhaps now I can start narrowing down graduate programs. Unfortunately, without great access to scholarly work, I am often limited to looking at faculty CVs and lists of graduate courses to try and figure out which programs resonate best with me and where I might flourish. Thus, if you are reading this, perhaps you can offer advice as to where the person who wrote that jumbled mess above might find the graduate program he needs.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Notes Towards an Introduction (3/24/11)

*Notes (or what spewed forth from my mind after a shower) towards a possible introduction for the essay I hope to use as the writing sample for my grad school applications. This means I'm pretty sure I know now what I want to write about. Of course, Fortune's fickle wheel is always a-turning, I know things might not work out the way I'm hoping, but that's no reason to start planning an evacuation just yet.

**Oh, and I'm certain to change the one-line introductions to the main theorists who inform the critical perspective of this essay, I just like the way an early introduction like this allows me to juxtapose their works immediately so the reader already has a map of the journey ahead. And those little one-liners only really refer to a single work by each author which I'll cite.

A visit to the Smithsonian’s National Gem Collection is bound to fill one with wonder and awe and the radiating beauty and delicate intricacies of precious stones and crystals. A crowd always surrounds the Hope Diamond, as fantasies of limitless riches and deep time co-mingle into an experience of the sublime. Light bounces off the collections diamonds and gemstones in a splendid dance that captivates our imaginations. The stones in this room become vibrant, alive. Unfortunately, any awareness of material vibrancy is actually and only the result of a carefully choreographed theatrical experience; the sensations we feel are pre-determined by orchestrations that dictate what we see and how we respond. We enter the theater of the collection, and each stone and mineral is framed behind clear glass, is fore-grounded against matting that seems to disappear in its contrast to the gem, light dances because bulbs are positioned to create this effect, and placards are provided to give viewers appropriate contexts of luxury or deep time. We have become blind to vibrancy, to the affecting nature of objects, and curators cautiously craft a mise-en-scene that captivates and contextualizes material vibrancy by informing us that these precious stones and hard minerals exist and perform to serve us, whether their service is dazzling us in a controlled museum environment, or to represent and display our wealth, or, as many placards tell us, to help us craft our tools and build our machines. Always anthropocentric, we miss the calling of vibrant materials until we understand what they can do for us.

The past 300 or so years of philosophy has limited the scope of ontology and foregrounded epistemology as first philosophy; as a result, perception of life and the universe consistently asserts mankind as the dominant actant and observer. Objects become secondary, they perform as tools in the service of man, if they exist at all. Occasionally they are granted an ontic status, but often they are reduced to mere phenomena and often excluded from the brackets of our consciousness. Fortunately, contemporary Continental philosophy is re-introducing a return to ontology that focuses on the true power of objects as distinct and performative whether or not they are used for human ends. Bruno Latour reminds us that objects can be actants in a network whether or not humans are operating or even present in the assemblage. Graham Harman, by means of a surgically careful reading of Heidegger, argues that we must create an object-oriented ontology to become aware that objects not only exist but act completely independent of humanity and our awareness of them. Levi Bryant gives an outline for an object ontology by defining an Ontic Principle and offering a Principle of the Inhuman. And Jane Bennett reinvigorates things with a material vibrancy and proves that only by our awareness of thing-power can we align our political concerns with the ecological care we need to restore the health of the planet.

As this new-wave of philosophy and object-ontology pushes us forward and strives to construct a future of thing-awareness, it simultaneously creates a new reading of the past. Or perhaps the past offers new ways of reading the present. Either way, there is a growing assemblage of academics and scholars aware that the literature of the medieval and pre-modern is teeming and redolent with instances of and insights into the vitality of matter and the power of things. New journals like postmedieval and conferences like the "GW MEMSI: Animal Vegetable Mineral" are engaging medieval texts in light of contemporary object-ontology. This emerging criticism argues a medieval world aware of thing-power, an era that senses the vibrancy of materials and reproduces that vitalism in its literature. The inorganic of the pre-modern world is as alive and affecting as the organic and one form of matter that is particularly vibrant in medieval literature is stone.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Catalogs as Assemblage-Making Devices

As I was reading Sir Gawain last night, I couldn't help but let my mind wander back to Jane Bennett every time the narrative dilated into a cataloging of events, and I realized that catalogs as a rhetorical technique allow the reader to assess objects as parts of a greater assemblage.

This vibrant example from Bennett describes the obesity assemblage :

The problem of obesity would thus have to index not only the large humans and their economic-cultural prostheses (agribusiness, snack-food vending machines, insulin injections, bariatric surgery, serving sizes, systems of food marketing and distribution, microwave ovens) but also the strivings and trajectories of fats as they weaken or enhance the power of human wills, habits, and ideas.

Such a list reveals the obesity epidemic as a swarming array of people, objects, forces, directions, and processes that are in themselves parts of other assemblages.

Thus I was struck by the cataloging of the post-hunt spoils cleaning and carving scene in Sir Gawain (unfortunately I am using a modern English translation for my examples because it has proven too difficult to copy middle English into a Blogger/LiveJournal post):

(From stanza 53)
Next they slit the eslot, seized on the arber, / shaved it with a sharp knife and shore away the grease; / next ripped the four limbs and rent off the hide. Then they broke open the belly, the bowels they removed / (flinging them nimbly afar) and the flesh of the knot...Then they shore out the shoulders with their sharpened knives / (drawing the sinews through a small cut) the sides to keep whole

(From stanza 54)
Both the head and the neck they hew off after, / and next swiftly they sunder the sides from the chine, / and the bone for the crow they cast in the bows. / Then they thrust through both thick sides with a thong by the rib, / and then by the hocks of the legs they hang them both up; / all the folk earn the fees that fall to their lot. / Upon the fell of the fair beast they feed their hounds then / on the liver and the lights and the leather of the paunches / with bread bathed in blood blended amongst them. Boldly they blew the prise, amid the barking of dogs, / and then bearing up their venison bent their way homeward, / striking up strongly many a stout horn-call.

This catalog sews together actions, tools and trajectories just as it rends apart the flesh of the deer. The organs of the beast comingle with the knives of the hunters, bone becomes food, becomes an offering, meat is divided according to station, blood and bone and waste and animal are vibrant actants in a meat-making assemblage. And all this is presented in much the same way Bennett writes a fat-making assemblage.

Another catalog spoke to my animal interests, the hunting of the fox:

(From stanza 68)
The fox flits before them. They find him at once, and when they see him by sight they pursue him hotly, / decrying him full clearly with a clamour of wrath. He dodges and ever doubles through many a dense coppice, / and looping of the lurks and listens under fences. / At last at a little ditch he leaps o’er a thorn-hedge, sneaks out secretly by the side of a thicket, / weens he is out of the wood and away by his wiles from the hounds. Then he went unawares to a watch that was posted, / where fierce on him fell three foes at once / all grey. / He swerves then swift again, / and dauntless darts astray; / in grief and in great pain / to the wood he turns away.

A catalog constructed almost entirely of verbs. The fox is not an animal but a river of motion, a lurking, listening, leaping flow that sometimes pauses and sometimes rushes through the wild wood. The fox is each flitting moment of its movement, it is each obstacle in its path and each obstacle it overcomes, it is an unpredictable trajectory. Jane Bennett’s Derridean observation applies: “things in the world appear to us at all only because they tantalize and hold us in suspense, alluding to a fullness that is elsewhere, to a future that, apparently, is on its way.” The fox is unfulfilled promise and impossibility.

Of course, none of this is surprising if we read the fox hunt as parallel of the human seduction scene occurring back at the castle! But I’m really digging this flow of the vibrant animal assemblage as metaphor for sexual seduction.

And I can’t forget to mention another master of the catalog-as-assemblage-making-rhetorical-device: Ballard. Consider this collection of materials that represents the human animal/machine Karen Novtony in Travis’ schizophrenic world:

(1) Pad of pubic hair, (2) a latex face mask, (3) six detachable mouths, (4) a set of smiles, (5) a pair of breasts, (6) a set of non-chafe orifices, (7) photo cut-outs of a number of narrative situations – the girl doing this and that, (8) a list of dialogue samples, of inane chatter, (9) a set of noise levels, (10) descriptive techniques for a variety of sex acts, (11) a torn anal detrusor muscle, (12) a glossary of idioms and catch phrases, (13) an analysis of odour traces (from various vents), mostly purines, etc., (14) a chart of body temperatures (axillary, buccal, rectal), (15) slides of vaginal smears, chiefly Ortho-Gynol jelly, (16) a set of blood pressures, systolic 120, diastolic 70 rising to 200/150 at onset of orgasm.

The Karen Novotny sex-act-machine is presented much like the deer-corpse-becomes-food machine: processes and tools mingle with meat and organ, objects move between assemblages in a dissection-as-construction trajectory. Sex is the rending of animal flesh from bone, an offering to crows or a moment captured in a photograph. It is the blowing of horns and the screaming of orgasms. And much like a fox is a river of leaps and bounds, wiles and seductions, a Karen Novotny is an ocean of pumping blood and sexuality.

1. Ballard, J.G. The Atrocity Exhibition. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

2. Bennet, Jane. Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

3. Tolkein, J.R.R., trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. New York: Ballantine Books, 1980.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Medieval Stones and Morality

Can contemporary object-ontology breathe new perspectives of morality into medieval texts? Existing before the glass wall between man and nature (before Kant’s binary inside/outside, before the dominion of epistemology reified that binary), non-human objects existed in the same ontological plane as humans. Thus objects become a site for the question of morality. How do we read/respond to the threatening gestures of “rokkes black,” to Merlin’s preternatural sensitivity to the disruptive power of stones hiding dragons, or to scientific/magical properties of precious stones defined by lapidaries and depicted in Breton Lais and the Travels of Sir John Mandeville?


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A bit of Queer Ecology in the Vita Merlini

The Vita Merlini of Geoffrey of Monmouth explores the mad years of the famed Arthurian prophet as he seeks to escape the machinations of the human world after witnessing the deaths of three brothers during political strife in Wales. He retires to the Calidonian forests and becomes a sylvan man, a wild beast searching for answers in Nature. Although he is temporarily cured by music and returns to a human kingdom, his madness returns and he escapes once more to the woods (the forest is often the site of madness in medieval literature, and the word “wod” or “wode” to describe madness therefore signals the relationship between madness and an arboreal existence). He is finally cured by a magical spring at the end of the narrative, but chooses to remain with his friends and his sister in the woods to the end of his life.

While exploring the story for instances of thing-power, for vibrant objects and for medieval attitudes about rocks and stones, I found instead a possible instance of the sort of queer ecology described by Timothy Morton. Trying to understand the source of Merlin’s madness and its relation to his search for answers in Nature, I was reminded of these lines from Morton:

Do such suicidal young men think they are disappearing into Nature when they follow this script? They might think they’re escaping civilization and its discontents, but they actually act out its death instincts. They fantasize control and order: “I can make it on my own.” The “return to Nature” acts out the myth of the self-made man, editing out love, warmth, vulnerability, and ambiguity. Queer ecology must visualize the unbeautiful, the uncold, the “lame,” and the unsplendid.”

His specific example was the film Into the Wild, but the “script” of the return to Nature aptly applies to Merlin’s self-exile here as well. Unsettled and confused by death, by structures and political forces created by man that subsume the individual and seem to eradicate any kind of control, Merlin seeks to define his individualism by escaping into a Romanticized (N)ature in which the boundaries of inside-outside are more clearly defined (The idea of capital “N” Nature and lower-case “n” nature originates with Timothy Morton and I choose to put the “N” in ellipses to emphasize his point and to reinforce that the language here is not my own). His desire is for the rugged, organic wholeness of a truly extraverted (N)ature. And yet, confronted by winter and the death of all the vibrancy he thought could sustain him, he withers and becomes despondent. Death is omnipresent, it is another structure he cannot contain or overcome. He is still aware only of boundaries, of binaries, of Man vs. Nature, of Life vs. Death. He remains mad.

During his second return to (N)ature, he learns to subsist during the cold seasons “on frozen moss, in the snow, in the rain, in the cruel blasts of the wind.” He finds life in death, but still the forces of (N)ature remain brutal, masculine, and Outside. Surviving the tortuous domain of (N)ature, “pleased him more than administering laws throughout his cities and ruling over fierce peoples.” He continues to act out the script of the “return to Nature,” and merely chooses one form of control over another: mastery of the self, the strengthening of the ego, instead of ruling over the larger social network. Little has changed. What he cannot find on the Outside, he now searches for on the Inside. The boundaries remain.

Then the text introduces Taliesin the philosopher, who teaches to Merlin a loosely Biblical creation myth that very blatantly and crucially omits the centrality and mastery granted man. Although guided by a divine hand, nature, as explicated by Taliesin, is an interwoven mesh in which all things flow, in which assemblages are formed temporarily, in which parts become whole, but then return to parts to perhaps form other assemblages with other parts. “He (God) added clouds to the sky so that they might furnish sudden showers to make the fruits of the trees and of the ground grow with their gentle sprinkling. With the help of the sun these are filled like water skins from the rivers by a hidden law, and then, rising through the upper air, they pour out the water they have taken up, driven by the force of winds.” During a cataloging of animals which would seem to reinforce boundaries between the beasts of the wild, Taliesin offers two instances of queer sexuality: “The vulture, thinking little of the commerce of the sexes, often conceives and bears (strange to say) without any seed of her spouse,” and “They say the muraenas, contrary to all laws, are all of the feminine sex, yet they copulate and reproduce and multiply their offspring from a different kind of seed. For often snakes come together along the shore where they are, and they make the sound of pleasing hissing and, calling out the muraenas, joining with them according to custom.” Heteronormative boundaries are exposed as false, and offered in their place are instances of asexuality and transpecies sexuality. For the muraenas and the snakes, sexuality is a performativity; the sexual display, the hissing of the snakes, determines the sexual behaviors, not some inviolate law of reproduction.

Eventually Merlin drinks from a magic spring and his reason is restored. The fluids “passed through the passages of bowels and stomach,” and "all his madness departed." By the queer lessons of Taliesin, Merlin has discovered the fluidity of reality, the finer workings of the mesh, (N)ature has been restored to (n)ature, and his madness is cured. The madness all along was the struggle to impose boundaries, to create an inside-outside dichotomy, to see the mesh of existence through the window of Nature; but Merlin is cured by drinking in the truth that nature is fluid and queer.

Morton, Timothy. "Queer Ecology." PMLA 125.2 (2010): 273-282.

Vibrant Wands

“First, a life is not only a negative recalcitrance but a positive, active virtuality: a quivering protoblob of creative elan. Second, a life draws attention not to a lifeworld of human designs or their accidental, accumulated effects, but to an interstitial field of non-personal, ahuman forces, flows, tendencies, and trajectories.” –Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter

Alright, with an introductory quote like that, one would expect I would apply it to a bit of scholarly material deserving of such a cerebral yet aesthetic dance of language. But that’s not going to happen. I just spent a solid week ill to the teeth from a sinus infection and a simultaneous flu. As badly as I desired to start perusing Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, read a few Breton Lai’s searching for instances of thing-power, and continue Mallory’s Morte Darthur, my head was a viscous cloud of pain and I could not give any of the most materials the attention they deserved. Thus, I finally read the final book in the Harry Potter series, a bit of light reading I knew I wouldn’t regret if I failed to read it with a critical eye.

Yet I did get something more than just entertainment value from Harry Potter, and although my diction and critical writing skills haven’t fully recovered from my week of illness, there is one thing I want to get written down before I move back into more scholarly literature (although I firmly believe there is scholastic merit in studying the relationship between medieval literature and contemporary medievalisms).

Thus, as a fledgling OOOist (is that right?), I couldn’t help noticing all the attention given to the vibrancy, the autonomous activity of inorganic objects in Harry Potter. The ubiquity of Tolkien’s influence on the fantasy genre involves the redolence of medievalisms in fantasy narratives, especially the appearance and frequency of objects that have power unto themselves. The bit of Harry Potter that most struck me refers to a particularly powerful magic-wand :

Its history is bloody, but that may be simply due to the fact that it is such a desirable object, and arouses such passions in wizards. Immensely powerful, dangerous in the wrong hands, and an object of incredible fascination to all of us who study the power of wands.

While contemporary understanding of the magic-wand treats it as a tool through which the operator directs his/her magical powers, in Harry Potter, the wand is written as having agency unto itself. Wands are actants, assemblages of manpower, wood, and objects, and as far as the human mind can describe them, they make decisions on their own, they control their own fates. Wands choose their operators, much like swords in medieval romances. Men write a place for wands in their own anthropocentric world, seeking dominance over a power that is outside the human realm, and the result is either violence or fascination. And even though wizards often believe they have mastery over their wands, the objects can still act independently of their operator. This is an obvious appropriation of the role of certain objects in medieval writing, and I welcome the way medievalisms in contemporary literature are able to resuscitate the pre-Humanist acceptance of thing-power.

Yes, a very brief observation, a mere glancing-over instead of a full surgical treatment, but in my defense, the brain operating the person writing this has not recovered as fully as the rest of the body.

Shells and Genres

“We talked at great length about the difference between deciding the contours of a genre beforehand, then slotting the texts into the scheme they had not created; and allowing a field of alliances to emerge from a grouping of texts that seem to be conversing with each other, as allies and queer families.”

J.J. Cohen, over at In The Middle, provided a summary today of a discussion in his Objects seminar at GWU about the genre of the Breton Lai and about the nature of genres on predetermining how a text is read. I admire his approach, especially with a genre that is terribly difficult to pin down, and I hope to keep this pedagogical perspective with me when I too am teaching university seminars (this, of course, is a reflection of my aspirations and is in no way a determined and inevitable future). He also brought up the question: “what if life (in the form of a life) is emergent rather than determined in advance?” What a fantastic vibrant materialism discussion starter!

Yet, as I was enjoying a steaming hot shower in this unending Ohio winter (wow, what an example of Timothy Morton’s ecomimesis), my mind kept returning to the beach (obviously I was associating the comfort of the shower water with the womb-like nurturing of the sights and sounds of a lapping sea-tide). Dr. Cohen’s perspective on genre reminded me of combing the beaches for seashells as a child. In my adolescent naiveté (distinct from my 20-something naiveté), on family vacations I would determinedly scour the beaches for seashells and sand dollars. And I would find seashells and sand dollars, or I wouldn’t. I consider this now to be fueled by a (proto)human gathering instinct as well as the desire to engage in an activity that is instantaneously gratifying, but that is neither here nor there.

Then came a day at some point along my undergraduate career in which I was on a mad hunt to experience the sublime. Watching the sun rise over the Gulf of Mexico, I was still missing it. I still hadn’t grasped Burke’s Romantic notions of the sublime as distinct from the beautiful. I also didn’t see a sunrise as sublime or beautiful, nocturnal creature that I am. And I recall turning my attention to the beach again, only my perception has shifted slightly and instead of looking for shells as I had become programmed to do, I just looked at the sand. I saw the violent intensity of abhorrent morning sunlight reflecting like the Texas heat off that sand. I saw dried and sun-bleached seaweed, and as I moved about I found feathers and Coke cans, dead fish and condom wrappers, beach glass and a deflated beach ball, I heard the shrill screaming of children and watched self-indulgent vacationing parents choose to ignore their children to the dismay of misanthropes who thought they could beat the throngs of people crowding the beaches by arriving at the break of dawn. I then realized that the beach wasn’t just the place where shells were found, hell, sometimes there weren’t even shells there, but the beach really was everything and anything that the beach was. It was everything beautiful and everything repellent I could see/hear/smell/feel on the beach; each screaming child and each rusting soda can was a part of the assemblage*. Things I once ignored as trash and irritants were no longer imperfections but were simply a part of what was. Jane Bennett would probably say it was the first time I noticed the vibrancy of matter. She would probably be right.

Now when I go to a beach, I still find myself desiring to gather bits of debris, but instead of hunting for shells alone, I simply walk about and find whatever the hell I find! Because I no longer see the beach as “the place where shells are found,” because I no longer claim to understand the genre before I have read the material, I have a gorgeous collection of violet beach glass, awkwardly shaped feathers, fossils, and a piece of drift wood that resembles the liquid grace of a ballerina, torso to toe (I hate to anthropomorphize a piece of wood, but if one has EVER seen a ballerina, one would have a seriously difficult time denying the resemblance). Only after I’ve visited a beach can I know what is to be found there, and only after visiting many beaches with an open mind have I started to make conclusions about what truly belongs to the beach genre: litter, screaming children, overweight men in speedos, sharp feathers one regrets stepping on with bare feet, and yes, seashells.

*There is still too much ego in that sentiment, of course the beach was/is more than only what "I" could perceive, but of course, I was so much younger all those six years ago...

*I'm still suffering from a serious sinus infection, so I'll use that as my excuse for why (I'm almost certain) this thing shifts tense so much.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Object-Horror, "The Franklin's Tale" and Monmouth

I’ve been considering for awhile now crafting a new writing sample to use for my graduate school applications, one that better reflects my present interests in the field. I’ve had a life-long infatuation with stone, with rocks and pebbles, gemstones and crystals, and with my growing passion for OOO, I realized I could fuse those interests together and search for the agency of stones in medieval literature (which lends itself nicely to the sort of post-humanism of OOO and the dark ecology of Timothy Morton, considering the middle ages existed before Kant). I have since been dismayed to discover that one of my favorite contributors to the blog In The Middle, Dr. J. J. Cohen, is also interested in the role of stones in medieval literature and has already ready been writing about the topic. He has even received the funding to finish a book on the matter this summer. Yet, I confronted my dismay and realized a couple of things: 1) I should be proud that an idea my lowly pre-grad-school self came up with on my own is actually being taken seriously by a scholar I admire, 2) I am distinct from Dr. Cohen and thus there is no reason to believe my observations and arguments will be too similar to his own, 3) I can shamelessly scour his bibliographies for resources I may otherwise miss (and I will of course note my indebtedness to any contributions his work has made to my research), and 4) As a pre-grad-student, nothing I write will hold a candle to his brilliant prose and I should therefore not worry this much about the fact that a much sharper and better trained mind than mine is working with similar materials. My only remaining fear is that I plan on applying to GWU because I would like to study with Dr. Cohen, and I don’t want my application essay to be read as a pale imitation of his work.

That being said, here is a bit of writing I did to work out some ideas I have about The Franklin’s Tale and The History of the Kings of Britain, and to give a shot at trying to figure out this notion I have about object-horror, or what I argue can be found the moment a character/person first recognizes that objects must be taken on their own terms, that they have a thing-power outside of human control. It is poorly executed, I now, but the birthing process is always messy.

Some Notes on Object Horror and Vibrant Matter in "The Franklin’s Tale" and Historia Regum Brittanniae

While Chaucer’s "Franklin’s Tale" is concerned primarily with the relationship between “trouthe,” “gentilesse,” and “freedom,” it is worth noting the presence and force that rocks play in the development of the narrative. When the loyal and doting wife Dorigen is left years and miles apart from her noble husband and knight Averagus, she is overcome with abject grief expressed similarly to the tropes of unrequited courtly love. Staring out unto the sea in her self-imposed isolation, she is suddenly overcome with terror upon noticing “grisly rokkes blake” near the shore. She questions why God would create something that callously destroys human life: “But Lord, thise grisly feendly rokkes blake, / That seemen rather a foul confusioun / Of werk, than any fair creacioun / Of swich a parfit wis God and a stable, / Why han ye wrought this werk unresonable?” She adds, “An hundred thousand bodies of mankind / Han rokkes slain,” and more, that “Thise rokkes slain myn herte for the fere.”

Although supernatural elements appear in "The Franklin’s Tale," it is a fear of the natural that grips Dorigen so fiercely. While on the one hand she is certainly projecting her fears of being abandoned by her lover, that while away he may suffer some harm or even death and thus never return to her, she also fully believes that the rocks mean or intend to do harm. She distances the rocks from the divine and thus familiar framework, and sees them as objects removed from any human control or understanding. They are things, distinct and self-willed, they have a “thing-power” that terrifies her precisely because the rocks are that-which-cannot-be-controlled. Her inability to fully conceptualize the stones, their distance from an anthropocentric reality, is the real root of her terror. In this medieval and pre-humanistic story, things unquestionably have agency, they are what Bruno Latour would call actants, and her primal reaction at that first moment of realizing the autonomy of things, that objects perform and exist outside the sphere of human perception or control, is horror.

The squire Aurelius, who dotes upon and is deeply in love with Dorigen, also suffers from an object horror. After professing his love to Dorigen, he is offered what is thought to be an impossible promise: if he can rid the coast of the black rocks, Dorigen will love him better than any man. The very fact that she finds this task so impossible gives credence to her belief in thing-power. The rocks, possessed of their own will and vibrancy, follow their own course, which is their remaining in position to pose a threat to sailors. Believing as well as Dorigen the impossibility of accomplishing this task, Aurelius falls into deep despair. The real horror of his situation, however, is not that love between he and Dorigen is impossible. She has made a promise, a vow, she has given him her “trouthe” that if the task can be completed, she will give herself to him in love. The possibility of love between them is extant, therefore it is not unrequited love that is driving his madness, but the impossibility of the task, the inability to control the rocks. The absence of control is the unifying element of horror that enables the blackness of the story (contrasted against its generally light and airy tone), much as the blackness of the rocks, to manifest as woe, the woe of the human-animal’s insignificant place in a web of things he/she/it has no power over.

An attempt is made, however, to gain control over the rocks, if only a superficial and illusory control. A magician is set to the task of ridding the sea coast of its black rocks, but for all the supernaturalism employed, the magician still has no real contest against thing-power, only the ability to seem in control. “For with an appearance a clerk may make / To mannes sighte that alle the rokkes blake / Of Britaine were yvoided everichoon,” it is in appearance only, a misperception, that the rocks can be controlled; it is only by the power of the magician over other men that he can accomplish this feat. Anthropocentrism underlies the magic of the tale, and illusion is the only tool sorcery can conjure.

A similar scenario occurs in Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittanniae, when Vortigern, fearing a coup against his person by the very Saxons who pretend to be protecting him, wishes to build a tower upon Mount Erith. The rocks, however, repeatedly swallow up these attempts to build this phallic structure and Vortigern turns to magicians to explicate and alleviate this problem. In their uncertainty and incomprehension of the thing-power of this stone foundation, they propose a visceral and horrific solution: “They told him that he should look for a lad without a father, and that, when he had found one, he should kill him, so that the mortar and stones could be sprinkled with the lad’s blood” . Like animists seeking some anthropomorphic spirit in N/nature, they are misinterpreting their relationship to the inorganic object and trying to offer it a blood sacrifice as if it were a sapient thing. Hubristically trying to control that which they cannot, the magicians proposed solution is doomed to failure.

The fatherless boy in question here is Merlin, spawned of an incubus’ seed and an earthly mother, more praeternatural than supernatural, and it is not his death that will appease the rocks but his knowledge of thing-power. Merlin is the architect, the reader and mover of stones; he knows the language of rocks, understands the agency of the inanimate stones, and is able to work within an assemblage via the language of architecture. He comprehends thing-power and thus is able to tune into the vibrancy of the mineral world and, instead of shouting at it in a language of human blood it cannot or will not understand, listens to it and learns what is causing the stones’ violence. Thus he orders the earth to be dug which reveals a pool, at the bottom of which are two hollow stones housing dragons. In sharing his knowledge of the assemblage of stone and water and dragon, Merlin spares his own life and astounds and appeases Vortigern.

Well, my footnotes didn't copy over from Word, but here are the works cited:

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Franklin's Tale." In The Riverside Chaucer. Edited by Larry D. Benson. Boston: 1987.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin, 1966.