Monday, July 7, 2014

Performing with Non-Humans: Ceremonial Objects, Animal Imitation and the Penitential Acts of Sir Gowther

This past Saturday, having finally caught up with my quals reading and Greg off work for the first time in over a week, my partner and I felt the call to aventure. We responded by journeying out to Piscataway Park, just south of Fort Washington in Maryland (photos from my tour of Fort Washington, a place where each layer of its history is an almost tangible force affecting the present, can be found on my Facebook page, here). We arrived at a bridge, a boardwalk traversing a truly sublime splendor of swamp flora - marshgrasses and cattails, orange daylilies and trumpet flowers – and a motley pageant of fauna – deep-threated toads, buzzing, iridescent dragonflies, soaring hawks and painted turtles. In other words, we walked into an American Xanadu of white, middle-class, capital-N Nature. And yet, this excursion was only made possible by the interference of human carpentry, carpentry also responsible for an artificial driftwood-shelf that protects the biodiversity of the endangered swamp from the Potomac’s tide; and so, instead of lambasting the unnecessary intrusion of humans into this space in order to manifest a Romantic dream of the great outdoors, I celebrated the enmeshment of the human and non-human engendered by such manufactured structures.

Upon crossing the boardwalk, however, we unexpectedly found ourselves on the sacred territory of the Piscataway Tribe, a vast field that once supported the village of Moyaone and still holds the bones of its ancestors. A spokesperson and defender of the tribe, Turkey Tayak, was buried beneath a red cedar tree (also known as a juniper, juniperis virginiana) in the 70s, and a small shrine dedicated to his memory was erected before the arboreal monument. This shrine is a gathering of objects, a small circle of stones filled with totems and offerings of abundant diversity – from an owl statue and a plastic T-rex to an animal jaw bone (perhaps a fox), coins, an arrow and a petite wooden flute. Soon enough I was on the ground before this dedicatory assemblage of objects, thinking about Jane Bennett’s encounter with another peculiar gathering of things in a city storm grate (1). Although Bennett’s litany describes objects that perhaps found their own way to that grate, whereas the items before my eyes were intentionally left at this shrine, both collections of things vibrate with a similar allure.
Moreover, these objects, although likely selected for their symbolic resonances, because assembled for a certain ritual function, are left to perform their unique agencies regardless of the presence of intending humans. Gathered together in this way, these objects lose their for-human use value, their readiness-to-hand, and connect in a strange machinic collage, a poem of found objects, an ecology of the inanimate and non-human. They make a world as Levi Bryant describes, non-totalizing, dynamic and mutable, “fuzzy and without clearly fixed or defined boundaries and elements” (2). A world may be a stable and self-sustaining set of vectors and operations, yet just as it can survive the loss of an object transplanted out from its system, it is also open and accommodating to new objects, new machines that might make slight modifications within that world.

Thus the world of this material concatenation of Native American ritual objects invited me into its space and practice, to join in the dance and calibrate myself according to its flows and outputs. The allure of its objects compelled me to perform my own oblation, and so I left to Turkey Tayak a small golden bow I found upon the shore of the Potomac just minutes earlier. A dynamic world indeed! And its boundaries stretch well beyond the shrine, for that red cedar tree under which the meat and bones of Turkey Tayak decayed is itself another ritual object, decorated with sachets of tobacco, offerings to the ancestors, prayers to the dead. These red bags adorning the tree extend into the world of the shrine, although they are also engaged with their own network of billowing branches and breezes that mingle the spicy aroma of dried tobacco (and, according to the tradition, the prayers of their makers) with the musky fragrance of juniper berries into the sky. Not all worlds are disenchanted.

So what might any of this have to do with medieval literature, you ask? Of late I have been thinking quite seriously about the ways that performance theory and OOO/ANT might overlap, or at least engage in conversation with each other. Thus, the experience described above is brought to bear on my quals readings from this past week as I wonder about the nature of performance in the Middle English Breton lais and the way that non-human, and mostly magical, objects interact with human actors. This is, of course, a blog, so I will keep this relatively brief, but I would like to look at Sir Gowther, at the strange nature of his performances, his becoming-canine, and the function of the magical objects within the lai.

Richard Schechner famously defines performance as “twice-behaved behavior,” and includes ritual and religious rites amongst many of the standard and obvious examples of performance behaviors in everyday life. (3) Following Schechner, then, it is safe to suggest that Sir Gowther enacts a few performances with his titular lai, both through his acts of penance, and in the triad of combat sequences into which he bears (and is borne upon) a set of magical objects that appear only for the duration of the battles. Gowther, if you recall, is the spawn of an incubus (and of the same paternal ancestry as Merlin!), and the early part of his tale recounts his heinous terrorism of his own people, from an infancy gnawing nipples of nursemaids to a adolescence of arson, rape, murder, and other acts of sacrilegious mischief. The subject of a teleological romance narrative obsessed with piousness, Gowther eventually learns his demonic heritage, receives penance from the Pope, and redeems himself through acts of virtue and piety. I am acutely interested in the penitent practices and acts of redemption, not so much as acts that summon Gowther into the Christian hegemony of his era, but as performances that rely on non-human actors.

When Gowther receives his penance in Rome, the Pope directs his performance; Gowther is only to eat food he himself rends from the mouths of dogs and is not to speak until he receives a sign from God. He is evicted from the signifying order of hegemonic culture until, proving proper piety, he can be re-interpellated into medieval Christian society (or at least the imaginary monolithic Christian West). Yet, in order to prove his contrition, he must perform for an intended audience, an audience that can validate his fidelity to the Pope’s commands (of course, the proper audience is God alone, but the dictum that Gowther refrain from speech seems predicated upon the belief that Gowther will surely continue to seek human company). Surprisingly, however, Gowther’s first companion upon his leaving Rome is a greyhound, notorious friend to humankind, who brings food to the vagabond mute.

The brilliant folks over at In The Middle have commented on the curious way this scene interrupts the telos of redemption, since Gowther is required to wrest food from the dog’s mouth, not accept food as a gift from a canine companion. I would add, however, that this is also a scene of the actor-in-training, of Gowther’s learning an alternative mode of being in the world through an affective togetherness with a non-human; when Gowther reaches the Emperor’s court, he acts like a dog (hiding under a table, sleeping under a curtain), his penance becomes a mimetic performance – which is especially strange because he was ordered only to “yet no meyt bot that thu revus of howndus mothe,” but not to also behave like a hound (4). Thus, on the one hand, Gowther enacts a becoming-dog, for his performance emerges from his cohabiting a dog’s world, and he teases out concepts of loyalty and self-sacrifice just as he teases the food from their very mouths (cruel, perhaps, but the text says nothing of Gowther’s being bitten for his theft nor of any dogs starving, so I like to think that these hounds were quite capable of procuring another meal after losing their first). Yet Gowther also chooses to behave like the non-human companion that modeled compassion for him, an animal exemplum of the “Do unto others” injunction. Gowther begins his sojourn to reconciliation with God by straddling, and thereby blurring, the boundary between human and non-human animal (5).

Gowther’s next major performance is on the field of battle, for he thrice fights alongside the Emperor to keep at bay a Sultan who would have the Emperor’s mute daughter for wife (6). These battles are a part of Gowther’s penitence, and when the Emperor marches off to war, Gowther prays to God for the accoutrements that will allow him to participate. God, of course, delivers, for this salvific drama cannot unfold without its magical objects: Gowther receives armor, a shield, a spear and a horse, and altogether these objects form an ass-kicking warrior-machine. After each battle sequence and upon Gowther’s return to the castle, however, these objects disappear, only to re-appear just in time for the following military campaigns; these objects also shift colors, appearing first as black, then red, then finally white. The hues of these objects surely provide semiotic cues about the spiritual progress of Gowther, yet these things are more than human signs: they are the very things that engender the possibility of his penitential performance. Just as Gowther relies on the animal to learn moral behavior, he also depends upon inanimate things to practice righteous living; a thick mesh of object-agency, his world!

The repetition of this spiritual battle also creates a strange sense of time, an asynchronicity not unlike the queer time discussed by Carolyn Dinshaw (7). For the temporality within which Gowther practices his penitence is the uncanny time of ritual, of the performance that repeats and yet is never quite the same. Gowther enters into a shared temporal landscape with these ephemeral, magical objects, and performs as a warrior for the duration of the objects themselves, the weapons, armor and equestrian companion that disappear when the play has ended. This is the circular time of ritual, a ritual that adjusts to the aleatory nature of its unstable environment. It is the uncertain time of desire, desire to revive the violence of the past (Gowther still wields the falchion he crafted as a demonic youth), as well as to rescript that violence as a battle for his soul. It is the time of magical objects, for objects themselves “time,” manifest their own temporalities as they persist in the world and couple with other objects (8).

Objects make worlds within which humans participate and negotiate our place, but to which we are never outside or beyond. Just as I stumbled from one ahuman world into another, tangled in a web of marsh life and then invited to participate in a ceremony of object agency and thing-power, Gowther performs the tired tropes of Christian redemption narrative by negotiating canine culture and flowing with the rhythms of magical objects. So if the tidy conclusion of the lai is unsatisfying for its predictability and affirmation of a God-given, For-Human World, I take heart that at least Gowther’s journey was a messy enmeshment with unpredictable, inhuman worlds.

(1) Bennet, Vibrant Matter (Durham: Duke UP, 2010). I would quote at length, but any reading this blog is already familiar with the passage I reference above.
(2) See Bryant’s wonderful new book: Onto-cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014): 122.
(3) See “What is Performance?” in Performance Studies: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. (Routledge, 2013)
(4) “Sir Gowther,” in The Middle English Breton Lais, eds. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: TEAMS Middle English Texts, 2001): line 296.
(5) For more on animality, cohabitation and the medieval exemplum, see Joyce Salisbury, The Beast Within, 2nd ed.(Routledge, 2011), or Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: Penn Press, 2012).
(6) Had I more time, and were this not a blog, I would trace the problematic relationships the text establishes between disability, animality, and Orientalism.
(7) See How Soon is Now?: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Durham: Duke UP, 2012).
(8) See Timothy Morton, “Objects as Temporary Autonomous Zones,” continent 1.3 (2011).

1 comment:

Eve Salisbury said...

I enjoyed this posting. I hope you write more about Gowther. Thanks!