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.

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