Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Consanguinity and Corporeal Excess in "The Knight with the Lion (Yvain)"

In her contribution to New Materialisms, “The Politics of ‘Life Itself’ and New Ways of Dying,” Rosi Braidotti investigates the shifting landscape of conversations about human subjectivity in light of our contemporary bio-political makeup, and finds in place of the formerly entrenched sense of the socially constructed human spirit (bios) a growing attention to the very real materiality of our corporeal existence (zoe). Braidotti celebrates the possibility that a new ethics can emerge which preserves not the hegemonic subject as much as the heterogeneity of subjectivities. Life is more than the span of a human’s political existence; life is also the relational encounters and strange mediations between lumps of animated matter. Thus Braidotti’s rhetorical questions linger like the viscous stuffs of existence: “Are we not baffled by this scandal, this wonder, this zoe, that is to say, by an idea of life that exuberantly exceeds bios and supremely ignores logos? Are we not in awe of this piece of flesh called our ‘body,’ of this aching meat called our ‘self’ expressing the abject and simultaneously divine potency of life?” (1)

Although Braidotti’s sense of the body’s materiality is informed by the techno-medical mediated bodies of the current culture of stem-cell research, cyborgs and genetic engineering, I kept thinking about her essay as I read Chretien de Troyes’s Yvain, The Knight with the Lion. Leaving behind medieval debates about the relation between the body and soul and the spirit’s relation to the matter of embodied existence, I find in Yvain something akin to Braidotti’s awe of the flesh, the corporeal “’self’ expressing the abject and simultaneously divine potency of life.” Corporeal existence is heterogeneous, is diverse and thick with a sort of chimerical materiality and beings that exceed the very categories within which they define themselves. A king is a man who eats and fucks and sleeps. A bestial peasant with “the eyes of an owl and the nose of a cat, jowls split like a wolf’s, with the sharp reddish teeth of a boar,” is also a man and “never anything else.” (2) Categories confound precisely because bodies always perform in excess of what is expected; flesh is always becoming.

Thus Yvain surrenders to the excesses of the flesh when he is abandoned by his wife and goes mad. Like many madmen of his literary tradition, Yvain sacrifices the trappings of culture that constitute the “human” and runs off to the woods to perform an animal existence. Naked as all other animals, Yvain hunts in the woods like a wild predator, consuming raw and bloody flesh, the flesh and blood that mark the similarity between species. On the one hand, Yvain evidences associations of madness with the animal – associations that work, in fact, not only to maintain humanity’s stable position at the pinnacle of an animal hierarchy, but to define precisely what kind of person belongs within the category of the “human” – associations still fiercely combatted by contemporary disability scholarship. Yet in a strikingly curious incident, the mad Yvain finds a lone hermit in the woods and trades his freshly caught prey for bread, water, and the hermit’s culinary preparation of the meat. Although one could read this as a scene that parallels the human domestication of the animal – consequently reinforcing the species hierarchy – Yvain’s preference for cooked food over raw meat reinforces his humanity. Yvain’s madness does not evidence a descent down a species hierarchy so much as it proves the instability of any system which seeks to reify notions of human exceptionalism.

Bodies are unstable and unpredictable, as matter cannot be hedged in by form. A lion participates in chivalric culture; Yvain’s leonine companion is a squire, a fighter, and something of a lover, attempting suicide after he thinks Yvain has died. When injured, the legendary animal of enormous proportions implausibly fits onto a shield and is carried like a cradled child. A giant emerges from the wilderness and lays waste to a town; he is a force of destruction incomprehensible to humanity. As Yvain rends the giant with a sword, the giant’s blood is compared to sauce, his flesh to meat for grilling. Suggesting the lion’s perspective, the text carves the giant into edible pieces. A giant is meat, prey for a lion, prey for the wild hunter dripping with the blood of his catch. The blood of consanguinity, the material excess of violent entanglements.

Blood and flesh mark what Tobias Menely and Margaret Ronda call a “red ecology” in their contribution to Prismatic Ecology. Red ecology attends to consanguinity – Yvain’s animality, a lion’s humanity, a giant’s nutritive potential – it is the first-hand encounter with the visceral, the fleshy materiality that evidences our shared condition of fragile corporeality with non-human beings. A red ecology illuminates the way to working under the sign of the red, to undertaking symbolic acts that uncover market forces that conceal the corporeal violence of labor and production. Under the sign of red, Yvain is able to challenge and overturn a proto-capitalist system in which young women are forced into wretched working conditions to manufacture clothing – yes, a medieval sweat shop. Yvain battles two demons – hybrids born of human mothers seduced by incubi – in order to release the tired hands and shine light upon the bruised bodies erased by the market value of textile commodities. Acts like Yvain’s which rupture seamless and invisible industries, even if only fleetingly, “draw attention to the commodification of nature continually underway.” (3)

Thus, the rich world of Yvain is one of complexity and heterogeneity, it is a viscous landscape redolent with corporeal excesses and unpredictable flows. The machinic beings of Yvain are mutating and unstable profusions of material exchanges, they are actors who constitute and are constituted by the ever-shifting nature of their relations. Yvain celebrates the exuberance of the body and the superabundance of corporeality that comprises every being while utterly rejecting any sort of species hierarchy. Like the Knight with the Lion, we must combat any attempt to conceal the abject and remain vigilantly aware of the consanguinity of the living – as well as the dead.

1. Rosi Braidotti, “The Politics of ‘Life Itself’ and New Ways of Dying,” in New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham: Duke UP 2010): 208.
2. Chretien de Troyes, “The Knight with the Lion (Yvain)” in Arthurian Romances, trans. William W. Kibler (New York: Penguin, 2004): 298-9.
3. Tobias Menely and Margaret Ronda, “Red” in Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013): 34.

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