Monday, June 8, 2015

Caverns of the Inhuman

I just returned from a week in Geneva, Switzerland, where I presented at the "Approaching Posthumanism and the Posthuman" conference at the University of Geneva. It was my first time overseas, and the experience was utterly remarkable. Geneva is a smallish city, to be sure, but rich in culture, Reformation-era history, and green-space, both manicured and wild. To be honest, I spent the majority of my time surrounded by the flora and fauna of the region, in part because I was curious about this land's biodiversity, and in part because, having traveled alone and unable to speak French, it was easiest to most enjoy my time around the kinds of life that did not demand my fluency within a particular system of human language. At the  Jardin Botanique I reveled in the recreation of the stony topography decorated by the mosses, ferns and wildflowers of the Alps, and meditated beneath the largest and oldest oak tree I have ever witnessed (it's possible that two leaves of this tree came home with me, pressed between the pages of Cary Wolfe's "What is Posthumanism?"). I took a cable car to the top of Mont-Salève, also known as the "Balcony of Geneva," where I captured the most stunning views of the city and its Jet d'Eau from outside a Tibetan Monastery at the peak (and met a most curious and colorful slug). I toured the immense archaeological dig beneath the Saint Pierre Cathedral, learning that the first iteration of this temple was a prehistoric pagan burial mound (the headless skeleton of this unknown figure still preserved and on view), and climbed the towers for another remarkable view of the city, although from such heights I suffered a bit of vertigo and feared I would not make it back down the narrow spiral staircases. I also explored a number of parks, rode the water taxi (free for visitors of Geneva, as with all local public transportation), and dined at the city's first strictly vegan restaurant.

The conference itself was a huge success, and its organizers, Deborah Madsen, Manuela Rossini, Kimberly Frohreich and Bryn Skibo-Birney, should be congratulated. The keynotes I was able to attend were stimulating, and left much to be digested long after their hour-long performances. I did take ill Friday and Saturday, and missed many of the actual panels, as well as the workshops, but I will say that my own panel generated fantastic queries and conversations during the Q&A, and I know that the rest of the conference was as flush with vibrant and challenging conversation. In order that the conversation need not end even if the conference itself has come to a close, I want to post here the content of my talk; this material is a first-step towards my dissertation project as well, so any additional questions or feedback are quite welcome. This will be an exceptionally long blog-post, so I appreciate your patience and willingness to spend some time with this investigation of the Premodern, cave-dwelling, Posthuman below:

Caverns of the Inhuman: Porous Bodies and Posthuman Subjects in Pre-modern Literary Representations of Caves

The sixth-century Etymologies of Isidore of Seville was the first and most enduring encyclopedia of the Middle Ages; within this great work, Isodore attempted to preserve classical knowledge by presuming that the truth of the natural world could be found by tracing words to their Greek and Latin roots. At first glance, the Etymologies provide a fairly unsurprising definition of a cave; Isidore tells us that the cave, or specus, is a “subterranean rift from which it is possible to ‘look out’” from the Latin term prospicere (1).  Here Isidore makes sense of the world according to assumptions that we would today associate with humanist ideologies: he presumes a human subject that makes sense of the objective world somehow outside of itself, a human subject that comes to empirical knowledge through the privileging of visual information; truth is available to the human eye. The cave becomes the very platform for gazing upon the natural world, the place where we stand and prospicemus, the site which marks our privileged position at the pinnacle of the great chain of being. It is from such a definition of a cave that the human subject emerges, this definition produces the idea of the unique subjective experience of the human, and yet the cave itself seems to disappear from this very attempt to make sense of it by means of that technological apparatus we so often presume offers us direct access to our environment: language.

Fortunately, Isidore continues to define the cave, next exploring the term “cleft” or “hiatus.” Isidore argues the hiatus is a “deep break of the earth, as if the term were ‘a departure’” from the participial form of the Latin verb “ire,” the verb of motion (2). Here, then, and almost ironically, the cave is defined by its mobility, its activity, how it performs its own being-in-the-world. A cavern in the earth is no longer just a platform for human observation but is itself an actor in the world, a subject, in the grammatical sense, which can take an active verb. The definition gets more surprising: “Properly speaking, however,” and here I am quoting Isidore once more, “hiatus is the opening of the mouth of a human being, with the sense transferred from wild beasts, whose eagerness for something is shown through the opening of the mouth.” The cave, then, is a sort of affinity, a similitude that can be traced throughout the natural world, a feature that cuts across the animal/vegetable/mineral divides even as it attends to the differences between earth and human and “wild beasts.” Yet it is also an eagerness, a desire, a hunger, and appetite, or the gesture of the appetite, an outward sign of an internal condition, a craving shared by all matter as well as the mark within a semiotic system that suggests hunger. It is the openness towards the radically ahuman technology of communication, an openness shared here by organic and inorganic alike. This definition of the cave, then, which locates a hunger in various iterations of matter without privileging the sensory experience of the human, disseminates subjectivity widely throughout the non-human world while still attending to what Carey Wolfe would call the “specific materiality and multiplicity of the subject” (3).

What is it, then, about the cave that both produces and resists certain definitions of the human? Or, instead of believing that we can arrive at such an answer, or that an answer would offer us some sort of truth or certainty about the world, let’s follow Isidore’s lead and move across a number of caves, enter into three premodern representations of caves that challenge the kind of binaristic thinking and belief in human exceptionalism that inform Humanistic attempts to order the natural world. And as we transverse these subterranean spaces, let us think about what kinds of Posthuman subjectivities emerge when we take seriously the activity and agency of environ.

Let us begin, then, or continue, by thinking with that most famous of historical representations of the cave: Plato’s allegory. A brief refresher of the content of this story: human figures, immobilized by chains and staring only at a wall inside a dark cave, see shadows of themselves created by a fire behind them, as well as shadows cast by puppeteers behind a wall. One prisoner becomes free, and eventually comes to “see” the real world in the light of the sun, recognizing the shadows were only illusions and that there is a greater truth to reality that is separate from its material manifestations, a truth humans can access by means of proper education.

Thus, Plato’s cave is one of the originary sites in the Western metaphysical tradition for the emergence of binaristic thinking, for the division of the human subject and the knowable world “out there,” as well as the idea of human exceptionalism, that our unique capacity to reason provides access to some greater “truth.” Of course, Derrida has already taken us a long way towards thinking Plato’s cave differently, not as an allegory of the division between ideal forms and material simulacra, between truth and illusion, of the transcendence of human reason over the natural world, but as a site for thinking within the play of semiotic systems, for acknowledging the way binaries fold back upon themselves and redouble in meaning, where the aporia between signs and referents is the matter at hand. Plato’s cave is Derrida’s “hymen,” the entering into knowledge and the space between observer and observed, the moving towards, but never arriving at, truth. As Derrida remarks in the Double Session from Dissemination, the hymen “produces the effect of a medium…It is an operation that both sows confusion between opposites and stands between opposites ‘at once’” (4).  He also calls the hymen a “tissue on which so many bodily metaphors are written,” observing its etymological function within so many terms that describe human and non-human animal, and vegetable, anatomy, as well as noting its textuality, its weaving of spiders’ webs and nets and songs (5). How much, then, like Isidore’s multiple definition of the cave, which is both the platform from which the human subject seeks knowledge, and the dissemination of a bodily metaphor, the hungry mouth, which confuses the observer by underscoring difference – between human and beast, organic and inorganic – even as it traces similitude across these polarizing divisions.

Of course, like Isidore, Plato and Derrida both forgo the materiality of the cave in their attempts to arrive at the truth, or non-truths, of Western metaphysics. Let us trouble this cave a little further, then, and shift crabwise from poststructuralism to Posthumanism, to a materialist and ecocritical approach that doesn’t privilege the human observer or obsess over questions of truth and knowledge, but instead recognizes the cave qua cave, as something at once unknowable in its entirety and yet fully present in its own subterranean way. I would like to take the textuality of Derrida’s concept of the hymen seriously, then, and think about the ecological impress of caves upon the texts into which they write themselves (6). To start, I read Plato’s cave a bit more literally; the shadows on the wall are not simply evidence of the inferiority of mimeticism compared against the real, nor are they just the endless play of signification in which meaning is only an illusion created by syntax and time, but they are the very performance, the textuality, of the cave. The cave here is the collective of its networked actors, each actor itself a storied being (7) : the cracked and craggy stone walls offer an historiography of the waters that eroded fragile soluble rock; fire speaks the combustion of reactive matter as well as the presence of oxygen; bound human bodies suggest punitive measures, deprivation and physical suffering, the puppeteers reveal the uneven distribution of power within a political state, and shadows mark not just an absence of light, but the presence of darkness, a darkness that communicates the porosity of stone, fire, air and human; shadows that engender an entire tradition of Western metaphysical philosophy as they flicker in and out of existence upon the face of a rock polished smooth enough by water or tectonic forces to stage such a dance of darkness; medium, motion, and material agency. And I offer this peculiar reading of Plato’s text only to show what happens when we resist the allegorical tradition which relies on the certainty that the natural world is reducible to signs, to metaphors which can be mobilized in the pursuit of some “greater truth” in spite of the material objects to which they refer. I read the cave in this way to illustrate that within the darkness of caverns the porosity, the intra-activity of all bodies, and not only human bodies, becomes evident, that what emerges from the darkness, the pressing and present darkness, of cavernous impress, is the relationality of all objects, the relationality that produces manifold subjectivities.

Next I would like to think with the 13th century Icelandic Saga of Grettir the Strong, or at least of a particular cave within the saga that allows us to think differently about that imaginary line that divides human from non-human animal. Grettir’s Saga recounts the life of its violence-loving but painfully unlucky titular character, moving from his bellicose youth to his eventual outlawry during which he meets with trolls, and possibly a god, and is eventually destroyed by a sorceress’s curse. Early in his text, he suffers a minor outlawry and takes up residence in Norway. He becomes the guest of a man of high standing called Thorkel, but is annoyed by another guest, Bjorn, who was quite possibly more arrogant and bellicose than Grettir. In the winter, a bear emerges from a cave on Thorkel’s lands and terrorizes his farms; Thorkel asks his men to find the bear, and they eventually arrive at the bear’s cave, a cavernous den overlooking a sheer cliff. Bjorn is determined to defeat this bear himself.

Bjorn, whose name, we must keep in mind, means bear, and therefore bares a trace of the non-human, nevertheless falls into a humanistic trap: in accepting a certain transparency in language, in presuming the sign is a direct link to the referent, and that through language the human came come to certain knowledge, Bjorn presumes himself the equal of the bear. “Now we’ll see, he said, how the game goes between me and my namesake” (8).  And yet, trusting in the truth of language, he never forgets his human status, and assumes he will defeat the bear by means of his superior reason, that he can outwit the bear by following its roars in the night and hiding in the grass under his shield. Overconfident in his human senses and the information they return, Bjorn remains ignorant of a difference that makes a difference: the bear’s superior olfactory sense. The bear, sensing the musky Bjorn lurking in the grass, waits for the human to fall asleep and casts his shield over a cliff, severing man from technology. Bjorn flees in terror. Grettir, however, takes a different approach to dealing with the cave dweller, and enters the space in which animality flourishes not as human, but as cyborg. Unlike Bjorn who trusts that man-made technology will perform a certain way, Grettir takes his sax, his sword, and binds it to his arm, giving himself a bear-like claw, a becoming-bear that attends to difference instead of presuming equivalence. Aware of the mutability of bodies, of the body’s ability to “plug in” to various technologies, Grettir takes on a machinic-arm and, as cyborg, enters the darkness of the cavern.

Once inside the cave, the text narrates a battle between two porous bodies, and Grettir with his bear-like weapon, his cyborg arm, severs the claws of the bear, taking away one of the features that marks the bear’s animality, its non-human status. Within the darkness, these two figures, Grettir the cyborg-becoming-bear and the bear becoming-human with its clawless phalanges, wrestle, and the narrative shifts perspectives in a dizzying attempt to deny the privilege of perspective to either figure. First the bear attacks Grettir, then Grettir defends himself, here slicing off the bear’s paw, next the bear lunges at Grettir from a stump, but the stump is too short and the bear loses balance, falling into the arms of its offender; Grettir holds the bear by his ears to preserve his face from gnashing teeth, and together, entangled in each other’s limbs, they roll off the cliff just outside the cave as one. This constant shifting of perspectives invites us to consider the affinities that stretch across the categories of human and animal, categories that here fail to designate certain ontological distinctions between combatants. Within this rock-bound and adumbral ecology, the only differences that make a difference are not epistemological divides drawn by imaginary taxonomies, but only the material differences, a well-timed slice with a cyborgian arm, a clumsy misstep onto a stump misjudged in height, and, eventually, the bear’s greater weight which causes his bodily contribution to the Grettir-bear assemblage to crash into the rocks, preserving the life of the Grettir-fleshed half of these dueling figures.

This combat between Grettir and bear is like another combat that occurs in subterranean space, Grettir’s battling the undead for possession of the sax with which, as I just argued, he becomes something other than human. Another battle staged in cavernous space, here the narrative shifts between perspectives again, denying privilege to either point of view, but narrating as if the cave itself is witness to the coming together of two liminal figures: hero and monster. The sax seems to unite these two spaces, and it is no surprise that an inorganic but clearly agentic object moves from cave to cave, just as caves, recalling Isidore, perform their own sort of mobility. The text is calling attention to the agency of matter, to the excesses of materiality, to the irreduction of matter to defineable form, but as something always performing beyond the boundaries of the human imagination. The caves in Grettir’s Saga speak to the shared vitality and activity of matter, and not just a shared vulnerability (9). Thus, in caves, Grettir does not meet his combatants as equally vulnerable bodies, but as comparably immanent expressions of matter’s performativity, as iterations of matter that refuse to confine themselves to easily comprehensible categories of being. The text suggests that subjectivity is something that emerges, moment to moment, in relation to environment and other bodies, always networked, nomadic, moving. The caves engender what we might call Posthuman subjectivities, not the supposedly stable taxonomic categories “human” or “bear,” but the always multiple and mutable cyborgs and becomings.

One last subterranean narrative. Here I turn to the story of Hippocrates’ daughter and the cave in which she resides, a story made famous in the Premodern period by the late medieval travel narrative The Book of John Mandeville. According to the legend, Hippocrates’ young daughter was transformed into a dragon by the goddess Diana and must remain in her draconic form until a right and proper knight will plant a kiss on her monstrous visage. This kiss will not only release the maiden from her curse, but also grant the knight ownership of her islands and of her very body. If the legend itself is, sadly, unsurprising for its medieval misogynistic fantasies, the stories that accrue around this legend are somewhat unexpected.

After the Mandeville narrator tells of a knight too frightened by the princess’s beastly shape to release the maiden from her curse, we read of another figure, a regular Joe, so to speak, who encounters Hippocrates’ daughter in a human body. He finds her in a castle, whereas the dragon is said to reside in a cave, and this beautiful woman tells the man to become knighted and return to kiss what would appear then to be a hideous form in order to undo the magical curse and earn his reward. This man too fails the test, but what is curious is this metamorphosis between bodies, this character that is sometimes a dragon and sometimes something appearing to be human. Moreover, not only the maiden but also her cavernous home mutates as well, appearing to some as a cave and to others a castle. And unlike the maiden who seems to only appear as a dragon to the knights who would release her from the curse, the cave becomes castle becomes cave with no real consistency or reason. This cave resists classification; it is the “hiatus” of Isidore that communicates desire and moves across ideas of definite forms but, like the “hymen” of Derrida, also exists as an indeterminate space. As the text oscillates between calling the space a “cave” and a “castle,” what we witness is not an edifice magically transforming between two discrete types of space, but the system of language itself forced to make selections from a limited set of terms, neither of which is sufficient for summoning in the human mind the actual referent. Instead, by multiplying its terms, but substituting one selection for another, then re-substituting the first, the text denies our faith in the ontological divide between human home and creaturely habitus, and thus betrays the possibility of the very category “human.”

Thus we find a mutual impress between a shape-shifting maiden becoming-dragon and a cavern becoming-castle, each porous and liquid body informing the instability of the other. And if release from this “curse” offers only submission to male domination and entrapment within a definite body, might we read Hippocrates’ daughters’ mutability as something liberating? Might a Posthuman intervention in our interpretation of this story invite us to think about the excess of materiality in a way that celebrates the indeterminacy of both cave and human female? Elizabeth Grosz reads an ethics of freedom in Bergson, defining free acts as “those which both express us and which transform us, which express our transforming” (10).  For Grosz and Bergson, freedom is not a definite condition granted to particular subjects but the indeterminacy of matter itself and the ability of matter to choose its expression at any given moment. “Life,” writes Grosz, “is the continuous negotiation with matter that creates the conditions for its own expansion and the opening up of matter to its own virtualities” (11).  If Hippocrates’ daughter is trapped in a teleological narrative of a humanistic desire to return to a stable human body, her shape-shifting manifestation, the negotiation of her embodiment and the material conditions of her cave/castle, represent matter’s freedom from myths of certainty and truth, from definitive taxonomies and the oppression of patriarchal discourses.

Hippocrates’ daughter invites us, then, to reconsider our own desires, and to question whether we might find liberation from humanistic discourse by embracing our materiality, by accepting the indeterminacy of bodies we only “seem” to inhabit, by following Rosi Braidotti and choosing to celebrate the raw physicality of zoe over the discursive regimes of the bios, “an idea of life that exuberantly exceeds bios and supremely ignores logos” (12).  And thus the earth itself, the matter of these subterranean spaces that permit such boundary crossings, that encourage the instability of bodies, that cast their shadows upon our imaginary lines dividing species and drawing ladders of being, is a space we might celebrate, inhabit differently, take up as a thought project if we are to move away from a humanist mode of thinking that entails the inevitable destruction of this mutable world. We must encourage an accepting of the unknowable materiality of our beings, and cherish the uncertainty of life which arises in the caverns of the earth.

(1) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014): 300.
(2) Ibid.
(3)Arguing for a renewed attention to the animal, Wolfe writes, “…the point of thinking with renewed vigor about the animal is to disengage the question of a properly postmodern pluralism from the concept of the human with which progressive political and ethical agendas have traditionally been associated. And it is to do so, moreover, precisely by taking seriously pluralism’s call for attention to embodiment, to the specific materiality and multiplicity of the subject…”Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2003): 9.
 (4) Jacques Derrida, Dissemination trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1981): 212.
 (5) Ibid., 213.
(6) Here I am thinking of Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann’s “material narrativity,” which they define by arguing that “literary stories emerge from the intra-action of human creativity and the narrative agency of matter.” “Stories Come to Matter” in Material Ecocriticsim, eds. Iovinio and Oppermann (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014): 8
(7) “a material ecocriticism examines matter both in texts and as a text, trying to shed light on the way bodily natures and discursive forces express their interaction whether in representations or in their concrete reality.” Iovino and Oppermann, 2. 
(8) Grettir’s Saga, trans. Jesse Byock (New York: Oxford UP, 2009): 65. 
(9) Borrowing from the Spinozist Posthumanism of Rosi Braidotti in The Posthuman (Malden: Polity Press, 2013)
(10) Grosz, “Feminism, Materialism, and Freedom,” in New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, eds. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham: Duke UP, 2010): 146.
(11) Ibid., 151.
(12) Braidotti, ”The Politics of ‘Life Itself,’” in New Materialisms: 208. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Digital Compassion: Reflections on Disrupting DH #GWDH15

While the range of topics explored by the presenters at the GW Disrupting Digital Humanities Symposium (#GWDH15) was vast, Eileen Joy’s call for compassion in the humanities really underscored what emerged as the – rather unexpected – unifying force behind all of the papers: a commitment to care. If thinking DH is thinking networks and digital archives, thinking projects of passion, what sustains these assemblages, then, is the compassion of their myriad communities. For Joy – and I imagine many of the other participants would agree – scholars of the humanities should invest themselves not in preserving the legitimacy and authority of an institution from which knowledge (hypothetically) trickles down like capital in Reaganomics, but in creating new venues of care and curatorship for unbound, nomadic knowledge, for thought projects unrestrained by the regulations of the University. The Humanities, imagined as a multiplicity of compassionate networks, should function not as a filter for public knowledge, but as a space for curating the experimental and playful knowledge that emerges when the potentialities of every possible platform for scholarly productions are harnessed. And these platforms are built not by individuals (though individual labor should be recognized) but communities, collectives that include the para-alt-non-academics whose work deserves to be preserved.

However, as Angie Bennett Segler’s and Dorothy Kim’s projects similarly illustrate, many of these communities remain invisible – especially when the many digital archives that enable our scholastic projects are created by women and persons of color. Kim brought to our attention the labor of the “Turkers,” the underpaid women and non-white employees of major corporations like Google and Amazon who actually do the work of digitization, but who are made to remain invisible by corporate policies that force these employees to work at night and in remote buildings. The disruptive potential of projects like Bennett Segler’s Digital Piers and Kim’s archive of early Middle English texts is the visibility of the female labor responsible for the work. If the authority of the archive, which Bennett Segler reminds us is born from the power of the institutions in which our legible things are collected (colligere) to regulate access, digital projects disrupt these isolated and male-controlled loci of power by distributing information via new technologies AND making apparent the bodies that are building these new infrastructures.

Sadly, Suey Park’s personal narrative illustrates the dangers that inhere in performing this kind of cultural work in the digital realm. An activist for women of color, particularly Asian American women, Suey Park has been not only harried and trolled on Twitter, but she has received rape and death threats, been doxed (which I only just learned means having her personal information hacked and distributed), and even been targeted unjustly by an investigation which caused her to leave her state of residence until she could safely return home. If the internet provides a space for previously unheard voices and opinions, it also engenders new forms of harassment and violence. Her story stresses the urgency with which we need to create networks of compassion so that activists like Suey Park can use these democratic spheres to advocate for women of color. Our complacency creates the risk that these voices will be silenced and that internet communities will be gentrified in much the same way physical urban spaces are so frequently appropriated by the white upper middle class.

Although I had to miss the presentations by Jesse Stommel and Roopika Risam, it was a pleasure to see Stommel lead the collective of speakers out of their chairs during the roundtable discussion and onto the edge of the stage, thereby breaking the fourth wall that marked their bodies as authoritative and their space as exclusive. This act evidenced a real commitment to the democratization of information that each of the speakers desires, as well as the group’s willingness to relinquish the power granted them by the Academy – at least temporarily. Sure, the act was rather symbolic, but it was a risk nonetheless, and one which underscores the precariousness of our field and the digital humanities as a sub-discipline. And taking risks is an essential part of developing the compassion that will not only sustain the Humanities, but help our field thrive as a collective of heterogeneous interpretive networks instead of a homogeneous and authoritative discipline. Compassion as disruption.

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).

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bridging Life and Death in Parzival

I have a special fondness for bridges. Walking bridges, in particular. I do not care where they might take me; it’s not the promise of futurity, it’s not the desire for the other side, but the hovering in the middle that really delights. Bridges are records of the past, marked by traces of every foot, wheel, or paw that has crossed, as well as the invitation to step, amble, run, roll or crawl towards the unseen; yet the bridge itself lingers in the present as a pause and a duration. Bridges mark a liminal space, a middle, an amorphous potentiality of after before and not yet then, they offer the thrill of stopping somewhere in between. If bridges are the infrastructure of the State that enable the transportation of goods to the very markets that erase the labor of the crossing and the matter of the making, if the motility engendered by a bridge is movement within the Big Bad Capitalist Machine, then pausing to look over the side and wondering at the life forms and plastic bottles and monstrous thieves that make under the bridge their home are acts of resistance, practices of everyday life (1), errant wanderings away from the neoliberal subject-making machine that siphons the agency and autonomy from living (and non-living) beings.

Thus, just the other day my partner, aware that I was feeling particularly enervated, took me to a bridge in the hopes of putting a little courage back into my self-abasing animus. Together we practiced a bit of healing magic as we travelled back and forth across the bridge (pictured above), stopping and stopping and stopping to examine the peeling paint, the budding trees, the pools of tadpoles and timid painted turtles. As the weight of the past few days lifted from my chest, I suddenly felt myself transported to another bridge, the draw-bridge before Munsalvaesch in Wolfram von Eschebach’s Parzival, a bridge I had been, until that moment, unsure how to cross. Because, for all my talk of stasis and sitting in the middle, “bridge” is a verb as well as a noun, and eventually one makes his or her way to the other side. And in order to cross the bridge and approach “The Gral” offering its cornucopia of excess within the castle at Munsalvaesch, I needed to translate yet another bridge, one between a 13th century piece of Germanic Arthuriana and contemporary approaches to disability theory that take into consideration material agency and the neoliberal subject.

It’s certainly not an achievement (and it hardly takes a bridge) to locate and access a disability narrative within the Fisher King myth. King Anfortas, the appointed keeper of the grail (spelled “gral” in the German Parzival, but for the sake of conformity, I’ll maintain the traditional English spelling), suffers from a lance-wound to the groin and, consequently, cannot walk or even stand. Parzival first spots the king fishing on a lake, but comes to find out that the act of fishing is really a chance for Anfortas to let his festering wound take some air (and likely offer some olfactory respite to a court that applies inefficacious healing unguents and herbs primarily to cover the reek of bodily decay). This associative link between fish and the wounded king also gestures to the flaccid nature of the king’s (in)fertility organ, as well as positioning him with the animals in a medieval animacy hierarchy that subjects the lower order of beasts to mankind’s sovereignty (2). Thus the ichthyic Anfortas, king in name but sub-human in body, is subject to the authority of his court, of his caretakers, and of the Templars that police his every move. Anfortas even wishes to die, to release himself and his kingdom from plight, but “he was made to live against his will and not die (392).” (1) If traditional readings of the Fisher King myth insist that the king’s infertility plagues the kingdom, I argue that, in Wolfram’s Parzival, at least, Anfortas as enfeebled and piscine human is made to suffer by the will of the able-bodied kingdom.

Further, the very means by which Anfortas can be forced into prolonged existence, forced to survive without the chance to flourish, is the efficacy of the grail, for “however ill a mortal may be, from the day on which he sees the Stone he cannot die for that week” (239). Thus the members of Anfortas’s court drag him against his will before the stone, forcing their king to continue an agonizing existence he would just as soon abandon. In Wolfram’s Parzival, the grail is a precious stone, a virtuous gem that operates like a cornucopia, manifesting viands and libations, as well as life, for every body that comes before it. If the grail was delivered to earth by angels, there is nothing terribly sacred in its power to fuel gluttony, to give more, and more and more until the desire for more becomes the only possible desire of the grail’s subjects. Whereas the other agentic objects that inhabit the world of Parzival, from pain-inducing planets to magical healing herbs, evidence a trans-corporeal environment of things working through each other in richly material ways (4), the agency of the grail is more insidious as it becomes a machine that overwrites the desires of its subjects, just as the writing on the grail hails the next grail-king. Thus the wounded Anfortas, scripted as king by the grail and thus excepted from the polis by the very nature of political sovereignty (here summoning Agamben (5)), is reduced to a state of bare life when the hegemonic bloc of the grail-court preserve the king’s body in a powerless existence of impairment and decay.

The grail, then, produces a state of dis-ease that I find analogous to Lauren Berlant’s idea of slow death: “The phrase slow death refers to the physical wearing out of a population in a way that points to its deterioration as a defining condition of its experience and historical existence” (6). Of course, Berlant refers to a condition of late-stage capitalism in which unhealthy practices like overeating and drinking become episodic escapes from the exhausting production of consumer-subjectivities within an imaginary state of individual sovereignty, and it would be entirely irresponsible and ahistorical to read Parzival as a pure example of this condition of slow death. Yet the grail’s intra-action through the bodies of Munsalvaesch engenders an entire culture of sickness eerily similar to our contemporary condition in which all bodies seem to be failing the gold standard of the State apparatus in some way. For, although (as Foucault reminds us) the medieval body was sacred and not subject to biopolitical control, for although the pre-Modern market had not yet shaped the consuming body’s desire for ‘stuff’ somehow erased of its meaning and the labor of its creation, there is nevertheless something uncomfortably modern and proto-capitalistic about this tale in which a man is forced by the public to suffer his wounded existence despite his desire to die, and in which an object creates an endless supply of food and drink, creates the desire for an endless supply of food and drink, a supply that has no visible means of production. No, I do not wish to map a contemporary sociopolitical plight onto a medieval text, but the conditions of life within the castle that houses the grail in this 13th century text resonate quite audibly with the notion of a slow death culture of subordination to a capitalist hegemony. Of course, the bodies in Munsalvaesch never actually die, so perhaps un-death culture is more apropos.

What of the bodies outside this un-death kingdom of perpetual disability, what of the world of bodies that are permitted to die of their own accord? Moving back across the bridge away from Munsalvaesch, we find a crypt, a house of the dead juxtaposed against the castle of too much life. Within this crypt lies the body of a knight and the corpse of poor Sigune, a wretched, if beautiful, maiden whose life had been riddled with sorrow and loss. First encountered by the blithe young Parzival very early in the tale, she is found grieving over the body of her recently departed lover, Schionatulander, a prince unjustly slain by Orilus. Although Sigune and her dead prince are eventually avenged by Parzival, she nevertheless takes maidenhood and mourning as her vocation and builds a tomb for Schionatulander in the woods near the castle Munsalvaesch, where “above his tomb she led a life of pain” (223). The condition of her life is a perpetual state of mourning and suffering, a soul-deep despair that deprives her of any ability to flourish. Sigune wears the hair-cloth of mourning, her skin is moribund-grey, and “Her lover was Great Sorrow, who laid her Gaiety down and roused many sighs from her heart” (224). While lamentation and repentance were common practices of medieval female mystics, and although Sigune has taken up a life of prayer, her sorrow is surely not spiritual practice, and her utmost desire is for reunion with her mortal lover, not her divine maker. Thus, when we last encounter Sigune as a corpse interred in the same mausoleum she had constructed for her prince, we imagine she has found peace in death, that she is at last free from her suffering. Barred from ever crossing the bridge into Munsalvaesch, excluded from the Grail’s narrative of ceaseless vitality, Sigune has had the privilege of dying.

And death does seem a privilege in the world of Parzival. For even if the romance concludes with the restoration of Anfortas to health and beauty, with Parzival’s ascent to the throne of the grail kingdom, might we step softly on that bridge to futurity and wonder what is to come for our hero? What if Parzival should need to defend his queen and become wounded in battle (the Grail-king becomes vulnerable when distracted by love), will he be cursed as well with too much life, forced against his will to look upon the Grail and despair? The text only suggests that his son is next to take the throne, and such ambiguity invites the reader to consider what conditions might obviate the passing of the crown and begs us to imagine a grey-haired and frail Parzival, crippled by a festering wound, perpetually agonizing and begging for release. For in the Grail culture of un-death, just as in the contemporary world of slow death, might actual death be a gift, one last truly autonomous gesture, the privilege of leaping over the bridge when one is no longer willing or able to cross?

(1)Like the spatial practice of perambulating through urban spaces; see Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, esp. Chapter VII, “Walking in the City”
(2)Mel Y. Chen, in Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, argues that when beings are ordered according to hierarchies of animacy, linkages between human and lower-ordered bodies work to mark certain humans as non-normative and inferior, especially when racialized bodies are metaphorically compared with non-human animals and minerals.
(3) All quotations from Parzival are taken from the A. T. Hatto translation, Penguin 2004
(4)See Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures...but anyone reading this blog already knows this.
(5) See Georgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Heller-Roazen – although Agamben is primarily concerned with political sovereignty and the authority to kill, the right to force a body to live is constructed along similar acts of inclusion/exclusion from the biopolitical power structure and shifting definition of “life.”
(6) Cruel Optimism, 95

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Black and the Grey: Haunted by the Inevitable in "Arrow-Odd"

For days I have been struggling to think not through but with and alongside the troubling Viking romance Arrow-Odd. It is a story that haunts, that hovers like an ephemeral ghost just out of reach, and the deeper one stretches into the story for some sort of answer, the more the tale withdraws into the darkness. Even now, this reader finds himself frozen and ensnared in its shadows. For Arrow-Odd is not a story to be dissected like an onion, peeled back like some fruit concealing grains of knowledge, however multi-valent and layered its narrative might be. It is not a story for thinking, but being, for entangling oneself in the is-ness of things, for hovering between objects like a ghost and finding one’s oikos in the rocky crags, the violent seas, and the wilds and wildernesses that don’t give a fuck about humanity. It is a story that demands its reader discard anthropocentric perspective and allow himself to be swept along the complex networks of living and dying as man, bear, giant, god, stone, tree or wind.

I chose the verb “haunts” above because Arrow-Odd is fraught with the hovering shadows and ghostly-relations born of violent forces and visceral intensities. The violence of Arrow-Odd is like the violence Deleuze reads in the paintings of Francis Bacon, it is the “violence of a sensation (and not of representation), a static or potential violence, a violence of reaction and expression” (Francis Bacon, xxix). It is the potential violence of the fate that hangs over Odd like a cloud, for after a witch foretells Odd’s supernaturally long life, his heroic fortunes, and his death by the skull of a horse, Odd coldly executes the horse – thereby securing his inevitable demise – and journeys throughout the entire imagined world, conquering and pillaging as he establishes and defends his reputation. This reputation, like his fate, is an invisible force which engenders so much of the tale’s carnage, for Odd’s earliest deeds of violence in Permia, a land of sorcery, results in the Permians’ training a magical anti-hero, Ogmund, to seek vengeance upon Odd. Odd’s reputation, fully embodied, is the parasitic enemy always at his heels, feeding on his accomplishments, weakening his resolve precisely as it engenders his story, a story always entangled with Ogmund’s. Ogmund becomes an irrepressible force of nature, a manifestation of fire and sea, blood and bone, the brutality of contact with the more-than-human world, a world that demands suffering and loss. The violence of Arrow-Odd is the violence of co-existence, of suffering with a fully sensate environment.

The sensations of suffering, painted in splashes of blood and swathes of fire, follow Odd as the brutal Viking hero navigates a world comprising improbable scales of time, space and size. Living beyond the life-expectancy of the human, Odd is ever-haunted by the impermanence of life as his friends, blood-brothers and children die off, leaving him frustratingly alive. In Arrow-Odd, time has not a winged-chariot, but a sluggish clubbed foot, and the impossibly slow crawl of time nudges Odd about impossibly vast stretches of space. Three-hundred years of adventure lead our hero from Ireland to Russia, Sweden to Greece, through heathen lands and Christendom, across oceans and into the lairs of giants. Odd even engenders a child upon a giantess, a giantess who perceives Odd to be an infant himself; this shift in perspective invites the reader to acknowledge that, from a monster’s point of view, the human is puny and vulnerable. Even the improbably long-lived and unimaginably well-traveled is nevertheless incredibly miniscule to something, because this is a tale (and a world) in which the improbable becomes the most-likely, in which stone ships bob afloat rivers, silks resist arrows, seas swell with ravenous leviathans, and gods whisper valuable advice but refuse to take up arms. Scale shifts and sways in Arrow-Odd because the world is not for human consumption, it is not an inert backdrop but an active, engaged actor comprising objects inexhaustible in their potentialities.

For Arrow-Odd illustrates the deep ecological entanglement of being, what Levi Bryant calls a “black ecology,” in which “things are characterized by a sort of mysteriousness harboring hidden powers that hold themselves in reserve, waiting to erupt under the right circumstances when they enter into the appropriate interactions with other things” (Prismatic Ecology, 292-3). Although, I would add that Arrow-Odd also explores the eruptions that result from inappropriate interactions, because networks are messy things, rarely stable, often comprising actors unable or unwilling to find accord with one another. Thus, not only Byrant’s black ecology but a “grey ecology” as well, the grey of “exhaustion, even obliteration,” that “also reminds that death is a burgeoning of life by other means” (Jeffrey Cohen, Prismatic Ecology, 270). Objects are flayed and mutilated to become new objects with new possibilities and intensities; a bear-skin becomes a magical weapon, trees are regularly hewn to become clubs, and after his face is torn off by Odd, Ogmund is born into a new identity, King Quillanus, and is inscribed with a political identity and reconciled with his life-sworn enemy. The messiness of porosity and the fragility of precarious relations erupt from a background – which was never only a background – that nourishes as it decomposes. And thus Odd, at the story’s end, returns home and digs up the skull of the horse prophesied to end his days. Beneath the skull, a poisonous serpent lies coiled and injects Odd with his fated demise. The ground, the earth, our oikos is as toxic as it is nurturing, for life and death carouse in a grey debauchery beneath the soil, in a ceaseless danse macabre that hails all and spares none.

“Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?”
(“Lobster Quadrille,” Alice in Wonderland)

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Patchwork Lancelot: Nomadic Spaces and Masculine Quilting in The Knight of the Cart

Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot unveils the uncomfortable and often uncanny overlapping and intermingling of spaces.

No, let me start over: after admitting to a small group of medieval-and-early-modernists over dinner that I find muppets to be truly horrific, I began to think about the perversities of felt, which led me to Deleuze & Guattari on smooth and striated spaces, which led me to think about the patchwork rhythms of Chrétien’s Lancelot and, consequently, to this consideration of the various trajectories through competing, conflicting and overlapping spaces in and about which our hero, the knight of the cart, wanders. Thus, a grad student who is terrified of anthropomorphized felt wants to think about difficult spaces in Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot. Hold your mules.

Step back: last week, as a way into our discussion of Lancelot, the director of my independent study invited me to think about beds, to move from bed to bed with Lancelot, and to consider what beds might mean, what they might do, how Lancelot’s relations with the various beds he encounters might offer an object-oriented reading of the text. We spoke briefly about the sarcophagus-as-bed, and what it might mean to resist one’s messianic calling, but now I am thinking about the more temporary beds, what is on the beds, about the fabrics that get set aflame, the sheets stained with blood, the coverlets upon which rape narratives play out; in short, the various textiles and textures upon which Lancelot/Lancelot writes and is written. For Lancelot is a nomad, a wanderer following his quarry – Guinevere – across un-mappable spaces and resisting again and again the invitations to familiar places written on the sheets of the beds that orient his errant aventure.

Very early in Chrétien’s romance, a beautiful girl warns Lancelot NOT to sleep in a most luxurious bed that is close to her own; which is as good as telling him that he simply MUST crawl in beneath its fancy fur sheets (one might suspect the girl knew exactly what she was doing in giving Lancelot such a warning). In the middle of the night, a flaming lance pierces the bed which Lancelot has chosen and sets “fire to the coverlet, the sheets, and the entire bed,” and even grazes Lancelot’s side and removes a little skin. Flame writes a call to adventure as it ingests the flammable samite; Lancelot, however, subdues the fire and sleeps soundly through the night.

A little later in the tale, after Lancelot spares the life of an enemy knight at the request of a lady, the same lady offers her lusting body as a reward. Lancelot agrees to sleep with the fair woman, and sleep, once more, is all he desires. The lady stages a rape scene upon the bed that she and Lancelot will share: Lancelot sees her bare breasts, pressed against the skin of her assailant, and in the struggle to slay the “rapist” – how unfortunate the knight she cast for that role! – Lancelot’s own top garments are severed, his chest exposed. Two half-naked bodies, blood pumping from the thrill of battle, the bed inviting them to a battle of another sort. Yet, Lancelot abstains from sex and simply falls asleep; Lancelot prefers to envelop himself in the sheets and not in the stories others try to write for him.

Thus these beds are like texts upon which different invitations are written, yet Lancelot prefers to write his own slumbery stories from the words already burned into the bedframes. Or perhaps the space of the bed itself resists certain stories precisely as it engenders others. For what are beds, but comfort machines composed from bits of the animal and vegetal world, acts of carpentry, hewn and stitched together to provide solace and relief to the human. Yet something of the vegetal remains in a bed’s flammability, something of the animal obtains in its porosity; the bed invites an intimacy with the more-than-human world. To say that a bed can be a text is quite true, for sheets are as inscribable parchment, for beds succumb to flame’s appetites as swiftly as books. Might beds have their own stories to tell, stories of liminality, of the spaces between animal and vegetable, mobility and repose, the tactile workings of fabric on human flesh? Or are the beds in Lancelot merely sites for the re-inscription of (male) human narratives?

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari describe smooth and striated spaces – nomadic trajectories and the sedentary political spaces of the State apparatus – by examining various fabrics. Striated space, the urban political center, the seat of sovereignty, is directional, centered, and closed. Striated space, then, is a woven blanket of vertical and horizontal paths, easily navigable, each point plotted and definite, the familiarity of genre, the locus of control, Camelot. The smooth space, on the other hand, is the patchwork quilt that stretches indefinitely with no fixed points, only nomadic wanderings – it is non-directional dimensionality, the fluid and heathen space of Gorre. Thus as Lancelot moves from bed to bed throughout the various spaces of his tale, he practices a sort of nomadic quilting; or, to put it another way, Lancelot is writing his own narrative with the materials at hand, each bed a patch on an amorphous quilt. A pattern emerges from his fabric, but Lancelot creates a rhythm of dissimilarity, a smooth space upon which trajectories can be traced but which has no overarching, organizing principle. “Patchwork, in conformity with migration, whose degree of affinity with nomadism it shares, is not only named after trajectories, but ‘represents’ trajectories, becomes inseparable from speed or movement in open space” (D&G, 477). Lancelot is a nomad, stitching together a patchwork quilt of resistance.

What does Lancelot resist, whose narratives does he overwrite with his own errant trajectories? These beds are women’s spaces, the stories of female desires – perhaps locations dictated to Chrétien by his patroness, Marie de Champagne? Eventually we arrive at the romance’s ultimate bed, the sheets between which Lancelot and Guinevere achieve the long-awaited climax. Even here, however, Lancelot re-writes the story, scripting a new narrative in blood. Whereas blood on the sheets should signal a loss of female virginity, instead it is Lancelot who writes with in this sanguine script, whose bloodied hands leave an ineradicable trace on the white fabric. For this is not Guinevere’s story, but Lancelot’s; Lancelot the masochist, Lancelot who revels in the chance to rend his flesh for love. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen reminds us, S&M is not as equitable a pairing as its acronym implies; although the sadist – Guinevere – is in the sovereign position of authority, the masochist participates too enthusiastically in the system, exuberantly exceeds expectations, and thus rewrites the very laws the sovereign can only enforce (for more on Lancelot’s masochism, see JJC’s Medieval Identity Machines). Sadist and masochist, striated and smooth, “the two spaces do not communicate with each other in the same way” (D&G, 475). Smooth and striated spaces overlap, relating not equitably, but instead mixing dangerously; one space is always bleeding through into another. The masochist ruptures the sadist’s desiring apparatus with the spilling of his blood.

Telescope out into narrative space and we find more ruptures and resistances to women’s narratives. The tale opens with Chrétien’s admission that he is in service to a patroness, Marie de Champagne, and that he is only the pen for her story, that he is only writing in the bed that she has made. But might not these moments of Lancelot’s resistance, Lancelot’s recumbence and sanguine revisions of what has been scripted for him, mark the actual author’s own aberrancy? Is Chrétien creating a patchwork of smooth space in opposition to the striations dictated by his muse? Like Lancelot’s, Chrétien’s story is the quiet refusal to take up arms or fully erect lance and, instead, sink deeper beneath the sheets, to squirrel himself away and abandon invitation – which is also to regain control of one’s own narrative, to reposition oneself outside the story in order to regain authority, to sew the patchwork quilt that is always multiple.

Thus Chrétien builds a tower in the middle of his page, to which he runs to hide, to hide Lancelot, creating a striated space within the smoothness, a point emptied of time; yet the building is loosed from its architecture, it is only ever an echo of its blueprint, for we know that here, in the tower, Chrétien abandons his narrative, his hero, his patroness, and leaves the story to another: Godefroy de Lagny. The patchwork quilt, I say again, is multiple, and we know from Godefroy’s own mouth (pen) that he is only telling Chrétien’s story, with Chrétien’s approval. But wasn’t this Marie de Champagne’s story? Thus it seems by escaping from the woman’s woven tale, by moving to the smooth space outside his patroness’s authority, by walling himself away inside his tower, he achieved ultimate sovereignty through an act of ventriloquism.

Muppets bleeding through…

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ocean is the New East: Contemporary Representations of Sea Life and Mandeville’s Monstrous Ecosystems

Spring Break was, well, hardly a break at all, but I celebrated its conclusion with some friends from Ohio who were visiting for the weekend. We dined, we drank, we danced and we toured a few of the MUST SEE sights of DC. Our last stop was the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where I reveled in the gorgeous new exhibit: The Sant Ocean Hall. The only one of our cadre enamored of oceanic discoveries, I hurried from display to display, basking in bioluminescent beings, awe-struck at extremophiles and trembling before the model of Phoenix, the North Atlantic right whale. Deeply affected by these strange strangers, I stretched my imagination towards the inconceivable and wondered at the sheer breadth of possibilities for ways of living in these still-occult abyssopelagic regions.

I found solace in the evidence that so many vast and heterogeneous lives can flourish without the intrusive light of the sun or human reason, and that such animacy is possible in the darkness, in a “world where the Copernican revolution is irrelevant.” (1) I attempted to think with and alongside such creatures, to make myself uncomfortable by imagining myself breathing without oxygen, thriving at thermal vents, manifesting light with my own body, an aqueous and somewhat amorphous body squeezed and strangled by the only just bearable pressures of the deep sea. I attempted a posthumanist thought project similar to what Stacy Alaimo describes in “Violet-Black,” her contribution to Prismatic Ecology, in which she insists that “Thinking with and through the electronic jellyfish, seeing through the prosthetic eye, playing open-ended, improvisational language games with deep-sea creatures, being transformed by astonishment and desire enact a posthumanist practice.” (2)

Responding to the highly-stylized illustrations in books from the Census of Marine Life, Alaimo finds in such affective imagery an invitation to new ways of thinking life, and consequently the possibility for the dethronement of terrestrial ideas of sovereignty. Each Smithsonian display, like each vibrantly hued illustration of marine life, defamiliarizes this planet and renders a world that simply will not surrender to humanity’s hubristic desire for authority. Each impossible way of being, now proven possible, works to dismantle what Mel Y. Chen calls the “animacy hierarchy” by begging us to reconsider just what the hell comprises an “animate” body anyway. (3) And yet, as I wandered from station to station examining these oceanic bodies summoned from the abysses of the sea, lifeless, entombed in glass jars and carefully arranged for an American viewing public, I could not forget the relation between observers and observed, nor that human science and politicking still fashion a sovereign/subject relation between humans and the myriad strangers that populate the seas.

Thus as I wandered the Sant Ocean Hall, I thought about what it means to “wander,” who gets the privilege of wandering (Americans, human knowledge-seekers), and what remains the stationary object of scrutiny (the nonhuman body, the foreign object, the subject of scientific knowledge). These marvelous displays are discrete islands of monstrous creatures that underscore humanity’s desire to safely navigate strange waters. I chose the adjective “marvelous” very carefully, for my wandering about the various exhibits reminded me of a medieval journey to the marvels of the East and, more specifically, of Mandeville’s travels around the monstrous islands just past the Holy Lands and off the coasts of Africa and India. For the ocean, it seems, is the new East, compared against the way the medieval Western hegemony represented the East in its travel literature. The inhabitants of Earth’s oceans are put on display to be navigated, plundered, studied and represented by the sovereign powers of Western thought. Like Mandeville’s tale of fish that deliver themselves to the shore for human consumption, we expect the seas to divulge their mysteries for our ravenous desire to control by means of knowledge-making.

In Chapter 13 of the Defective Version of The Book of John Mandeville (ed. Kohanski and Benson), the narrator announces that, having completed his tour of the Holy Lands, he intends to “telle of yles and diverse peple and bestes” (1380). This rather lengthy chapter is rich in peculiarity and marvel, a veritable encyclopedia of the monstrous. An allegory-generating female spirit grants riches and doles out commensurate consequences for her supplicants’ greed. Gendered diamonds mate and spawn resplendent children, challenging notions about the inertness of lithic objects. Nudists, cannibals, blood drinkers, as well as pygmies, dog-headed creatures and headless bodies with ocular and oral orifices on their chests and shoulders roam these foreign shores. Mandeville fulfills the European desire to believe the East is wholly Other, a monstrous and invitingly dangerous land abundant in resources and passively awaiting representation by the Western imagination.

Yet, although his descriptions of the diverse beings of the East are certainly mythical, Mandeville also lends a certain scientific explanation for the monstrous by repeatedly attending to the extreme heat of this region; Mandeville offers a climatological cause for the wonders he claims to encounter. Ethiopians hide from the sun under feet large enough to shield their bodies; men on the isle of Ermes suffer their “ballockys hongeth doun to her shankes” (1557). In such intolerable climates precious stones spill from river banks, reptiles grow to enormous proportions and, as I mentioned above, fish are so “plenteuous” that they offer themselves up for consumption. Heat is generative, and the corporeal peculiarities of the deserts as well as the fecundity of the tropical East are, in Mandeville, responses to extreme climate - much like the extremophiles surviving sulfuric blasts of scorching heat from deep sea vents. Each coastal country and island in The Book of John Mandeville is a unique ecology, an oikos or home to the various and varying creatures that inhabit these spaces, and like contemporary scientific attempts to understand the porosity between bodies and ecosystems once thought uninhabitable, Mandeville offered something like a medieval ecological justification for the diversity of beings he describes.

Thus I wonder if we can assume that the imaginative spaces – and the marvelous creatures inhabiting those spaces – drawn by medieval travel literature generated new ways of thinking about an environmentally and ecologically complex world. Can we not find in such texts an anxiety and ambivalence about an earth more vast and verdant than God’s rubric allowed? Although giants erupt from Biblical origins, and blood drinkers, flesh eaters and necrophiliacs may mark anxieties about their obvious Catholic analogues– remember, Christians believe a man came back from the dead, a man whose actual body and blood Catholics consume at every Mass – what of the other strange strangers that emerge from the pages of Mandeville, the Cynocephales and headless figures with sensory organs in their chest? Are these curious beings the imagined consequences of thinking through previously un-thought ecosystems? Although fictitious, these tropical creatures seems to signal the disorienting encounter with evidence that the Earth and its beings are more heterogeneous than previously believed.

There is something disanthropocentric, then, to Mandeville’s imagining the wondrous creatures of the East, just as Alaimo insists that encountering the enchantingly strange creatures of the ocean’s depths is a sort of posthumanist practice. The Smithsonian’s website might argue that “It’s hard to imagine a more forbidding place than the icy cold, pitch black, crushing environment of the deep sea ocean. It’s even hard to imagine anything living there,” (4) yet, like Mandeville, we MUST imagine new possibilities of living on this Earth, we must see through the eyes of the abyssal aliens, feel the torturous heat with medieval monsters, if we are ever to dethrone Humanity from the heights of ecological sovereignty.

(1)Stacy Alaimo, “Violet-Black,” in Prismatic Ecology, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis: U of Minn Press, 2013): 245.
(2)Ibid, 247.
(3)See Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, Duke UP, 2012)
(4)“The Deep Sea,” The Smithsonian Ocean Portal website: