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…