Tuesday, May 15, 2012


This past weekend I attended my first International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, MI, as part of the GW MEMSI panel “Ecologies.” While each and every paper presented by my fellow panelists was illuminating, if not absolutely brilliant, I was most captivated by Carolyn Dinshaw’s discussion of the ubiquitous image of the green man, that foliage enshrouded face, sometimes wearing, sometimes spewing vegetable matter, which decorates so many abbeys and cathedrals throughout Europe. The green man image has always interested me, primarily because it challenges and worries at the imagined boundary between human and non-human (in this case, vegetable) objects by illustrating a body shared equally, perhaps symbiotically, by human and plant. What I found most remarkable about her paper, however, was the anecdote about the interruption of her studying the green man by a vagabond, homeless-looking woman, a discretely human object that caught Carolyn’s attention while she was photographing the architectural ornaments. Here we are on a panel at the invitation to talk about that which is “utterly non-human,” and yet Carolyn pauses to dilate upon the meanderings of a very human thing, a pause which seems incongruous if not directly counter to the efforts of the panel. I was momentarily stunned.

Yet the title of the panel was “Ecologies,” and what is the promise of ecology if not an attempt to connect to, touch, relate, assemble with objects that are often left out of anthropocentric networks? And what is a homeless woman if not an object that is marginalized, abandoned, neglected, untouched, un-assembled, ejected from the most potent and puissant human networks? Thinking about this woman calls to mind Levi Bryant’s description of dim objects, “objects that only lightly manifest themselves in an assemblage of objects,” objects that only appear briefly and have no real political or social voices (1). Perhaps it is the duty of the ecologically minded to notice dim objects and shine a little light their way. Thus, amidst all of our work to invite non-human objects into our assemblages and to call attention to all the non-human objects that are always already at work within our networks, Carolyn reminds us that there are a great many human objects whose agency is often overlooked and who need to be enveloped and embraced by larger social bodies.

Perhaps I was so taken by this brief anecdote, this passing mention of the homeless woman, because I felt myself very much an example of a dim object at Kalamazoo. I arrived alone, an “Independent Scholar” with no relation to an institution; I spent hours wandering the WMU campus with no mæg, no mamaþþumgyfa, and no meoduhealle to call my own(2). Things relate, touch, connect, but as I walked through the various Goldworth Valley buildings searching for the registration table, as I squeezed through crowds and skirted by laughing, smiling, conversing storms of conference attendees, I felt utterly and absolutely withdrawn, like I had completely receded from view, and I wanted to scream “Would someone fucking touch me already?!” A hand on the shoulder, a brush of an elbow, a look in the eye; as focused on and interested in non-human relations as I am, I was surprised at how ravenous I was for a simple human connection.

Fortunately I had made the very wise decision to attend Thursday evening’s postmedieval roundtable discussion; Jeffrey J. Cohen, the person responsible for my being a lonely, dim object in Kalamazoo in the first place (the effusions of gratitude will come later in this post), was in the audience, and upon noticing my lone figure sitting in the back of the theater, he invited me to sit with his cadre of GWU graduate students and professional colleagues. I diffidently approached this motley coterie, doubting they would warmly receive a man of no mead-hall, and, to my deepest surprise, I was instantly enveloped by so much warmth and conviviality, I was so unwaveringly invited to join this little cabal, that I recognized my isolation had been primarily self-imposed. Inspired further by the theatrical performance of The Material Collective, which was delivered by various bodies scattered throughout the audience and complimented by free wine, and their message of the need for unity and strong relationships amongst those wanting to brave unconventional, theoretical, interdepartmental academic work, I determined to spend that night and the following day building as many relationships and connecting to as many medievalists as I could.

At a conference like Kzoo, things once assembled quickly disassemble, then re-assemble, never as the same assemblages they once were; micro-assemblages and swiftly shifting networks are the status quo, so keep up. I felt like alabaster, which is moist and malleable when first harvested, but swiftly loses its water molecules, hardening mere minutes after it is excavated. Yet hardened alabaster is still pliant, still soft, still supple; it is easily scratched and easily carved. Alabaster wants to be touched, it wants to connect with hands and tools and, never losing its chemical desire to recombine with water, it welcomes transition and transformation (3). Thus, like a raw chunk of alabaster, I left myself open to being touched and shaped and changed, and I fortunately fell into a crowd of eager hands: those involved with BABEL, postmedieval, and/or GW-MEMSI. These folk are all hands (curious hands, but not lecherous ones), they reached out to a chunk of rock eager to connect and, while respecting its qualities and chemistry, polished its rough edges and carved indelible marks into its surface.

This cadre of medievalists reminds me of Bryan’s rogue objects: “These are objects that aren’t locked in any particular assemblage or constellation of objects, but which rather wander in and out of assemblages modifying these assemblages in a variety of ways”(4). I don’t mean to speak for the individual actors that constitute the BABEL/postmedieval family (especially if they would disagree with me here), but rogue object seems a perfect appellation for this group. Instead of shaking its fists at the institution, it passes through, wanders, engages, disrupts, jars, slices, shifts, mutates and upsets the rigid status quo of the capital “U” University by modifying it from the inside via brief, roguish acts of unconventional scholarship. And its members are very much a family, nurturing, supporting, embracing each other and welcomingly receiving new friends into the fold.

I would love to wax on about my too brief experience at Kzoo 2012, but I fear this blog post would just turn into some mawkish gushing about the remarkable people who made my first medieval conference such a valuable, validating and entirely unforgettable experience (assuming it already hasn’t). I do, however, want to express my utmost thanks to the two individuals who made my experience a true success: Jeffrey J. Cohen and Eileen Joy. Jeffrey’s unwavering confidence in me and his enthusiastic support for my work got me to Kzoo in the first place, and Eileen, well, Eileen is just a fucking rock star. Thank you both for teaching me that academia can be collaborative and not just competitive. Let the cut-throats cut each other, we have sweet music to make (yes, that is a somewhat veiled allusion to my “Ecologies” roundtable paper).

(1)Coffield, Kris. "Interview: Levi Bryant". Retrieved 14 May 2012.
(2)No kinsman, no treasure-giver, and no mead-hall, O.E. from The Wanderer…obviously.
(3)I am indebted to Anne Harris whose passion for alabaster is infectious.
(4)Coffield, Kris. "Interview: Levi Bryant". Retrieved 14 May 2012.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Next weekend I'll be losing my Kalamazoo virginity at the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies! So, I figure a little foreplay is desirable, no? Thus, I am posting the text of the 6-minute talk I will be giving as part of the George Washington University Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI) panel, "Ecologies." To briefly describe the panel, I will borrow directly from the e-mail invitation I received from Jeffrey Cohen: "By exploring how environment and the nonhuman (with an emphasis, perhaps, on that which seems utterly nonhuman) matter in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, we hope to map out new ways of thinking about bodies, elements, agency, and place." I decided that, instead of focusing exclusively on the "nonhuman," I would instead try to make the human itself seem nonhuman. Hopefully, I've succeeded. Enjoy, and PLEASE COMMENT so I can improve this baby before Kzoo!

One of the most unsettling, disanthropocentric acts we can attempt is to envision a more capacious definition of “human” by looking at ourselves from the perspective of non-human units. When we can acknowledge the shapes and features that we share with other objects, when we see ourselves through the literal or imaginary eyes of other things, we look utterly strange and alien. As Timothy Morton declares, “All organisms are monsters insofar as they are chimeras, made from pieces of other creatures. The strange stranger is strange to herself, or himself, or itself”(1). If we can see ourselves as monsters, chimeras, aliens, if we know our bodies are not human bodies, but composites of pieces that belong just as equally to other beings, we can de-locate the human from the singular position as subject of an impossible correlationist reality, the illusion of a Cartesian duality will fade and we can begin to see how utterly enmeshed we are with all other things in the universe.

Following the lead of Ian Bogost’s project to “see” the material world through the eyes of non-human units, as detailed in his recent work Alien Phenomenlogy, I propose that we investigate what other objects perceive when they interact with and engage humans. Although it is unarguably impossible to ever know the subjective experience of another being, to sense what an undulating wave senses or to perceive what a gamma ray perceives, these acts of sensation and perception are themselves unique objects that we can worry over and that tell us more about the unique experiences of objects. As Bogost states, “The experiences of things can be characterized only by tracing the exhaust of their effects on the surrounding world and speculating about the coupling between that black noise and the experience internal to an object” (2). By investigating the black noise produced by the relationship between non-human and human objects, we will begin to understand how other units interpret humans and, consequently, see ourselves as both more and less than the sum of our current self-awareness.

Literal noise graces the brutal narrative of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, in which a young Christian child is murdered by Jews for his singing of the Marian antiphon Alma redemptoris, and yet whose body continues to sing post-mortem. In Music, Body and Desire in Medieval Culture, Bruce Holsinger explores the material agency of music in the Prioress’s Tale as it is embodied and commits violence against human flesh through the medieval pedagogical tradition. He argues that, “the Prioress’s Tale exposes the horrific acts that music is capable of provoking, sustaining, and, perhaps most insidiously, aestheticizing for its medieval listeners and modern readers”(3). While his work is admirable for its validating the independent role of music as a Latourian actor in often brutal human narratives, his study never relinquishes the position of human-as-subject, always imbricating the agency of music within explicitly human networks (e.g. the pain of striking and beating a body to produce sound, or corporal punishment as a form of musical pedagogy). What happens if, instead of assuming music is inextricably linked with violence against the human body, we look instead from the perspective of music itself, if we look at the particular iteration of music, the Alma redemptoris hymn, as a subject that works to perpetuate its own existence regardless of what type of material within which it finds itself embodied?

Investigating the behavior of the Alma redemptoris is much like following the path of a virus (4); a song needs, a priori, a host from which to germinate, and the song enters the narrative as it erupts from the throats of school children, organic bodies who perform as instruments for the manifestation of the song. But a song will emerge stillborn from its sire if there is no other body to hear it; thus, like the song of a siren, the Alma redemptoris exerts its self-sustaining agency as it captivates the “litel clergeon” and draws him “ner and ner” (520)(5). The instant it graces his ears, the pathogen-like song infects the protagonist and ratchets itself so deep within his memory that he cannot forget the tune, even though “Noght wiste he what this Latyn was to seye” (523). The Prioress’ child becomes a captive of music’s indelible need to perpetuate its own being.

Once infected, the “litel clergeon” shares his physical body with the Alma redemptoris; “twies a day it passed thurgh his throte” (548). The Prioress’s boy is simultaneously an instrument for the production of music and a host from which the Alma redemptoris continues to replicate. Even after the human body is murdered and cast in a privy, the musical instrument that shares the very same parts, the very same space, continues to produce and spread the Alma redemptoris. The song is not so much “embodied” within a human frame, but completely enmeshed with the organs and relations that we so anthropocentrically call human. Thus, when the body “with throte ykorven lay upright, / He Alma redemptoris gan to synge / So loude that al the place gan to rynge” (611-3), it is only a palimpsest of a human while it simultaneously expresses its full being as a musical instrument and sonorous body. When we acknowledge the subjective experience of the song, we encounter the child’s body as a chimera, a creature at once part human and part music. It is, to humans, a corpse, but to the Marian hymn, it is an able and resonant instrument. Amidst the muddle of mourning and the miraculous, the anti-Semitism and divine intervention that conclude the Prioress’s Tale, the Alma redemptoris simply persists; it retains its host body and perpetuates its being, still germinating, still infecting its audience and imbricating even the readers in its pathogenic net.

Thus, from the perspective of the Alma redemptoris, the human drama collapses and we find ourselves instead floundering about only for some form, some object, some instrument from which to manifest our sound, anything capable of producing our melody, anything which resonates or reverberates, moving like a plague which hungers only for perpetuity and transmission. A song sees no difference between life and death; it does not care for boundaries between the animate and the inanimate, but situates itself comfortably in the liminal space between the two. A musical body can be living or dead, often both; what is a harp, to our eyes, but a sonorous Frankenstein-like corpse of harvested tree and gut string, or, as Holsinger has illustrated, the crucified body of Jesus, his ribs and sinews like reverberating strings? (6) But for music, the harp is a mother, a sire, a creator; music finds life in death, just as the Alma Redemptoris perpetuates itself in the “ycorven” throat of a child’s corpse in the Prioress’s Tale.

1. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010), 66.

2. Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or what it’s like to be a thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 100.

3. Bruce Holsinger, Music, Body and Desire in Medieval Culture: Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001), 291.

4. I defend my decision to use an extended metaphor by citing Bogost himself, who argues that “alien phenomenology accepts that the subjective character of experiences cannot be fully recuperated objectively…[thus] the only way to perform alien phenomenology is by analogy” (Alien Phenomenology, 64).

5. The Canterbury Tales, VII 520. All quotations from Prioress’s Tale are taken from Larry D. Benson, gen. ed., The Riverside Chaucer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

6. Holsinger, Music, Body and Desire. See Ch. 5, “The Musical Body in Pain: Passion, Percussion, and Melody in Thirteenth-Century Religious Practice.”

Friday, March 16, 2012

Surviving Elemental Relations

Yesterday I drove 142 miles to attend the JNT Dialogue at Eastern Michigan University, at which Eileen Joy, Jeffrey Cohen and Timothy Morton planned to speak on non-human ecologies. Although the subject itself is interesting enough to make the drive well worth the cost (in gas), my primary motivation was the opportunity to meet, face-to-face, three scholars who have not only constructed the foundation of the academic work I plan to pursue in graduate school, but who have also inspired me personally and, in the case of Jeffrey, in an almost mentor-like capacity. And while I would love to wax on about how marvelous, warm, inspirational, welcoming and downright fucking funny they are, I must forge ahead and talk about the most surprising guest to show up at the Non-Human Ecologies Dialogue: an F3 tornado.

Barely five minutes into Jeffrey’s talk about the agency of elemental forces and the paradoxical role of fire as a composer and destroyer of narratives the session was interrupted by news of a tornado warning and instructions to evacuate the room and seek shelter in stair wells or the auditorium in the center of the building. Flustered and dumbfounded, many of the group, myself included, wandered around directionless until eventually making our way to the auditorium, viscerally red and womb-like in its humidity, never quite certain what to make of the storm; and even with news reports airing on the auditorium’s film screen, it was never truly possible to ascertain just what type of threat we were facing. After nearly an hour-and-a-half of sitting in this sweltering uncertainty, we were finally permitted to return to the third-floor room and finish the Dialogue.

During and after the chaos of the storm, many remarks were made along the lines of, “talk about elemental relations, we’re having them right now!” It was difficult to ignore the overwhelming sense of the uncanny. As Jeffrey and Timothy gave abbreviated versions of their planned talks (Timothy, with permission from the audience, only abbreviating his breaths and the pauses between words in order to deliver the entire content of his paper with remarkable speed), both couldn’t help but acknowledge how frequently their papers made reference to storms and tornadoes. After about 20 minutes, both speakers finished, a lively Q&A followed, snacks were served and, by this point, the tornado was merely memory. However, during the Q&A, one question stood out for me above the others, primarily because the person who proffered it must have somehow remained oblivious to the events that had transpired over the past two hours. His concern, loosely paraphrased, was how an object-oriented ontology is relevant to more practical matters affecting social bodies constructed entirely of human members, how thinking about the agency of non-human objects has any real bearing on human politics and human ethics. Apparently he wasn’t present during the tornado.

From a staunchly anthropocentric perspective, the tornado was a jarring and unwelcome event that interrupted the human trajectory of the evening, an out-there distraction from the more pressing concerns of the entirely human social-body collected in room 310A that had gathered to discuss elemental relations. While its agency was apparent, the tornado's relationality to the social body was as an outsider, an intruder. And Jeffrey and Timothy both averred that anthropocentrism is inescapable; just as a plastic bottle cannot escape its plasticbottlecentric perspective, a human cannot ever really stop participating in the world from the subject position of a human. However, by increasing awareness of the roles of non-human bodies within social networks, humans can mediate their anthropocentric perspective and welcome more equitable relationships with non-human objects. Thus, from a more moderate and object-oriented vista, the tornado is perceived as an (uninvited) actor introducing its own vibrant materiality into the social body, affecting and altering that body but not necessarily interrupting any perceived trajectories. If we can think the tornado as vibrant matter, a wandering vagrant that enters into social networks with other human and non-human bodies (albeit more brutishly and vigorously than some other objects might), we can appreciate that we were treated to a first-hand narrative related by the very elements Jeffrey, Eileen and Timothy were giving voice to in their discussions.

While I am aware that the delay imposed upon the Dialogue by the precautionary measures the university staff employed during the storm was justifiably frustrating for the speakers (as well as the students eager to get their credit for attendance and jettison the talk as quickly as they could), by accepting the natural state of anarchy in which all objects operate, I was able to focus instead on the types of relationships that formed because of the presence of the storm, not in spite of it. As the members from social body 310A packed into the auditorium, it merged with other social bodies, a collection of young poets, a children’s program, a study group, and became a temporary zone for establishing relationships that would not have likely occurred without the presence of the storm. Huddled together, anxious and uncertain in that steamy, garishly red sauna, some of the children merged with a study group to play a game of duck-duck-goose on the stage, the poets temporarily had an entire auditorium as an audience for some improvisation, and nearly everyone was using this time to call family, text friends and tweet about the excitement. The uncertainty and impatience shared by every member of that temporary social body was as tangible as the sweat dripping down all our faces, an almost physical anxiety irreducible to the individual persons filling that auditorium, an anxiety that belonged to the social body as a whole, an anxiety that would not have manifested had we all not collected in such heat amidst such a storm of uncertainty in such a red, red room.

And in such a state of heightened emotion, in a room full of so much material vibrancy you could literally see it steaming off the bodies of humans like a noisome odor (and there was plenty of that too), new bonds of friendship were forged and sealed with sweat as personal “bubbles” were burst and we all became closer and warmer in fear of, what, exactly? I drove those 142 miles primarily for the opportunity to meet Jeffrey Cohen and Eileen Joy, hoping for little more than a handshake and a chance to put a face with a name. Instead, in that state of anarchy (that only seems so anarchic until we realize that it is just the natural state of all objects) I was able to set the foundations of what I hope will become lasting friendships with Jeffrey and Eileen. When humans are no longer capable of ignoring the state of anarchy, their appearances begin to drop and that rift between essence and appearance begins to rise to the surface; and what occurs when you see someone’s ‘rift’ is much like what occurs when you see someone’s naked body: a certain threshold of familiarity and honesty is established and the moment is unforgettable and likely to remain a thick stew from which to siphon good memories and, hopefully, laughs. Therefore, I have nothing but gratitude for the unexpected, uncanny, tempestuous arrival of that strange tornado on that strange evening in that too red room.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What Sir Gowther Ate

For at least a week now, Sir Gowther’s mouth has been plaguing my thoughts, spontaneously interrupting my morning cup of coffee, the tranquility of my showers and that ephemeral, reflective period right before I drift into slumber. I can say I am being ‘haunted’ by that mouth, if one can be haunted by such an orifice. Of course, one can be haunted by a poorly digested meal, “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese,” (Dickens, A Christmas Carol) a past that refuses to stop acting on the present (as if any such ‘past’ could stop acting on any such ‘present’), so perhaps I am haunted less by the mouth of Sir Gowther than by his meals. I am having trouble digesting an excess of breast milk, a masticated nipple; I can’t seem to swallow this wine from the dog’s mouth.

The haunting may have started even before reading Sir Gowther; in fact, I’m sure it started when I first encountered a grisly essay Karl Steele was kind enough to share with readers at In The Middle, a work scattered across 4 blog posts that deals, in part, with food, food and death. Please read HERE (and be sure to follow the work to its conclusion). These notions of infinite abysses, of the eater being eaten, of humans as food, colored my reading of Sir Gowther and likely inspired my heightened attention to the the dietary habits of the lay’s titular hero (I wouldn't dare assume that this bit of writing even approaches the complexity and genius of Steele's work; I just mean to acknowledge my influences). The “how” and the “what” of his eating, the ways in which he uses his mouth and the role of that which he consumes in the creation and reception of his identity, these are the questions that now haunt me, and this blog post is, hopefully, an exorcism.

As Jane Bennet writes in Vibrant Matter, “in the eating encounter, all bodies are shown to be but temporary congealments of a materiality that is a process of becoming, is hustle and flow punctuated by sedimentation and substance” (49). That which eats and that which is to be eaten are both changed by the encounter; neither the consumer nor the consumed is the primary actant; instead, eating is an assemblage in which all parties express their unique agencies and influence each other member of the eating-machine. When talking about a human’s diet, this way of thinking serves to de-anthropocentrize perceptions about the process of eating; it reminds us that to eat is not to dominate, but to subject oneself to the agency of that which is eaten. Of course, if all members of the eating-machine are humans, if humans are both that which eats and that which is being eaten, any notion of anthropocentrism is further displaced. Acts of cannibalism are perhaps so taboo because, during such an eating encounter, even the most staunchly human-centric perspective must compensate for a seeming paradox as the all-consuming human-subject is digested in the bowels of another all-consuming human-subject, as glorious Man becomes sediment and substance in the intestines of another. What, then, of breast milk, of our species’ first meals that flow directly from the bodies of our human mothers? It is certainly not an act of cannibalism, but recognizing our need to nurse from the nutrients of another human’s body works nearly as well to shatter the notion that during the eating encounter humans are always the ones doing the eating.

Sir Gowther, then, further shifts humans out of the driver’s seat of the eating-machine when he turns breast-feeding into an act of cannibalism. After his father provides the insatiable infant with the best wet nurses in the land, “He sowkyd hom so thei lost ther lyvys, / Sone had he sleyne three!” (113-4; He sucked them such that they lost their lives, soon he had slain three). He manages to consume the spirit straight from the breasts of his nurses; more than just nutrients, Sir Gowther sucks the very vitality from his human meal. The text refers to these wet nurses as “melche wemen" (110; milk women), further displacing their agency as human subjects and reinforcing the idea of human-as-food. As food objects, the vital forces of these wet nurses cause the young Gowther to grow fast, and not just in size, but also in ill-repute (grieving the recent loss of their wives, a confederation of recent widowers begged the king to stop offering up nurses to the ravenous infant).

Sir Gowther also consumes the fleshy part of humans when, nursing from his mother’s own nipple, “He snaffulld to hit soo / He rofe tho hed fro the brest” (129-30; He suckled to it so that he ripped the nipple from the breast). Not only is the spirit of humans edible, but the very flesh of his mother’s body becomes meat (O.E. mete- food, item of food), the materiality of humans is also ripe for consumption. Thus the role of humans within the eating-machine shifts and congeals and erases itself as one human eats another; the eating encounter becomes an equation with like variables that cancel each other out and leave only raw, faceless material as a remainder. We have seen that such a diet directly correlates to a rapid rate of growth for the child, but, after such a meal, we are also left with spare bits of material that direct us towards the identity of Sir Gowther. By consuming body and spirit, Sir Gowther has consumed that which is human about himself; everything that is identifiably human has been eaten and yet something remains: his fiendish heritage. That these acts of cannibalism also occur in the text so near to the revelation of Sir Gowther’s paternity serves to reinforce his identity as half-demon. By presenting this paradox of human as simultaneously the diner and the meal, we are left to focus on that which is non-human about Gowther. Thus, food not only transforms the material of the body, but its identity as well.

To be continued…

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Le Morte; or, a withdrawn temporal part of objects.

Since having read this recent post by Levi Bryant about the 4-dimensionality of things, I’ve been thinking about death as a temporal part of objects. The notion of the withdrawal of objects from other objects and from themselves is still perplexing to me, but thinking about temporal parts of objects makes such an idea more palatable and comprehensible. If moments past, memories, changes, shifts, and actions that have already occurred are literally parts of objects and not just processes, then those parts are always withdrawn from the objects themselves. Object-ontology proposes that time is a property of objects, but the events of objects, though they have influenced the present status of an object, and, though they may be recalled by objects with memories, are forever inaccessible to the object because they have always already occurred. Here I am merely rephrasing most of what has already been said by Bryant.

What Bryant's post does not touch on, however, is the future of objects, everything that eventually will happen to an object, and, should we talk about living objects (to keep things simple, by ‘living’ I only refer to things that fit a rigid biological conception of a carbon-based life-form), death is almost always an inevitable moment in the future and, thus, a temporal part of living objects. However, death is always withdrawn from the object, because, although it may be inevitable, it is impossible to predict or foresee the circumstances and details that describe, manifest, surround, influence, and color an object's death. In the case of an anthro-object (my neologism for ‘human’), it cannot know whether it will be hit by a car, die in its sleep, or, as it most likely for any anthro-object born in the 20th century, die from some form of cancer (a spatial/temporal part of an anthro-object or a distinct object itself? Or both?). The anthro-object also cannot know what will occur to it post-mortem; will it be incinerated and cast to the winds, pumped full of chemicals and buried, or mixed with cement and dropped to the bottom of a gulf to build an artificial reef? That moment, although expected, is forever withdrawn from the object until its moment arrives, and even then it remains inaccessible because the object is, well, dead.

In Le Morte Darthur, the titular protagonist is forewarned by Merlin of the conditions of his death, is given details about his murderer*, and tries yet to subvert his fate, in similar fashion of King Herod (at least according to the Gospel of Matthew) by infanticide, by setting to sea all children born on May Day. He tries to preclude a future that is withdrawn even if it is foreseeable. Like all anthro-objects, Arthur knows his death is an inevitable part of his being, a temporal part that will manifest itself at some unknowable moment, but also like all anthro-objects, he struggles to obviate the inevitable. Death is always just out of arms reach.

Thus, the text reminds us that death cannot be averted and we learn that Arthur’s son Mordred survives the calamitous trip to sea and eventually becomes a traitorous, weapon-wielding warrior. After Arthur is struck a seemingly mortal blow “upon the syde of the hede” (686:9) with Mordred’s sword, his dying body is put aboard a boat sailing towards the ephemeral isle of Avalon. Approaching the death itself, the event remains withdrawn, literally, from the figures upon the shore and the readers of the text, for the last image of Arthur is of his as-yet-living body sailing away upon its barge seen through the eyes of Sir Bedwere. Arthur himself speaks, just before sailing away, “For I [wyl] into the vale of Avylyon to hele me of my grevous wounde-and if thou here nevermore of me, pray for my soule” (688: 14-16). Even as his body makes its symbolic journey to its post-life, the death itself remains as withdrawn from Arthur as from the cast upon the shore, as he is unable to admit or acknowledge to moment of passing itself and that temporal part of his being is still withdrawn, still intangible and un-manifested. The reader is further distanced from the death event by the coyness and uncertainty of the narrator, and by the esoteric and ambiguous statement that, “here in thys worlde he chaunged hys lyff.” Arthur remains an anthro-object, still present as a being within the text, whether alive or not, but that temporal part of Arthur, his death, remains elusive and withdrawn.

*“for Merlyon tolde Kyng Arthure that he that sholde destroy hym and all the londe sholde be borne on May Day.” Sir Thomas Mallory , Le Morte Darthur, ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd (New York: Norton, 2004), 39: 21-23.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

We should not ask whether the maiden in the mor is a Marian allegory or a Germanic river nymph, but instead ask how the figure of the maiden is informed by water and flower. Is she distinguishable from the mor? Or is there no clear boundary between the maiden and the mor, is she fully enmeshed with the mor and its flora, an assemblage and an entirely new object? She is an anthro-object indistinguishable from water and plant; just as anthro-objects are themselves nearly 70% water, the maiden in the mor is engulfed in the water of a marsh for a full 7 nights..and a day.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Anthro-Instrument / Soriah + Ashkelon Sain music vid

Throat singing blurs the already hazy boundary between anthro-objects and musical instruments, the voice hardly recognizable as being ‘human’ and sounding much more like a didgeridoo. The anthro-object is itself the tool for evoking what, from the perspective of the anthro-objects themselves, is “music.” Music is omnipresent, empyrean, the divine harmony that regulates the universe (according to medieval Christian theology/philsophy, at least). Music becomes embodied within the anthro-objects (see Holsinger, Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture, 2001), thus making the anthro-object nearly indistinguishable from music. Even if they are withdrawn from each other, they are so thoroughly “enmeshed” (see Morton, The Ecological Thought, 2010), that music informs any attempt to define the anthro-object. Soriah, the throat singer in this video, uses costume to conceal his humanness, and the music of Ashkelon Sain creates an ambience, a framework within which Soriah’s singing is even less identifiable as human.