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.”