Medieval Muteness: Disability, Objects, and Animals

Sabbatical honesty, then – in the two weeks since the last post, I’ve given back revisions to articles for the Routledge Companion to Animal-Human History (“Animals and Violence: Medieval Humanism, ‘Medieval Brutality,’ and the Carnivorous Vegetarianism of Margery Kempe”), The Open Access Canterbury Tales (animals and the Friar’s Tale), and a revised talk for a chapter in The Body Unbound, a classics &c anthology (“Nothing to Lose: Logsex and Genital Injury in Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations“). I’m hoping to get back to the Book soon, as soon I get past doing my review of a book I’ll tell you about after I write my review.

What follows is a draft of a talk I’m giving in Madison, for the UW Madison Graduate Association of Medieval Studies on Friday, April 14. I’m sure to tweak this again in a few weeks, but just to get it out of my hair, and potentially into yours, here it is.

I’ve tried to do a little of everything in this, so my theory heads can gnaw on something, as can the ones who mainly want a bunch of neat medieval stories, as can the ones who want some hardcore medieval stuff to fight back against [and, to be honest, my competence in medieval grammar is minimal. At least for now]. 5,000 words is a lot to read! For you, and for me, but it’s a good 40-45 minutes, and: well! One hopes for the best.

Continue reading

No Soul, No Exit – Getting with/at the Body in the Disputation between the Body and the Worms

The 218-line “A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes” (hereafter Disputation) survives only in British Library, Additional 37049, a much studied mid-fifteenth-century miscellany likely produced for or in a Northern English charterhouse, that is, a Carthusian monastery.[1] Medieval debate poetry includes arguments between scholars and knights, water and wine, various birds, and many postmortem debates between body and soul;[2] but the Disputation is the only one of these latter type with a specifically female gendered body, and, to boot, certainly the only one featuring a body at odds, so to speak, with its own edibility.

The poem’s action is as follows: It opens with its narrator escaping a plague and entering a church to pray. There, he encounters a new, freshly painted tomb, personalized with coats of arms and a copper plate engraved with the image of a fashionable woman.[3] The narrator swoons—“rapt and rauesched from my selfe” (25; rapt and ravished from my self) and, in a vision, witnesses the disputation. In it, Body protests the loss of her former beauty under the violence of the “most vnkynde neghbours þat euer war wroght” (44; the most unnatural/improper neighbors that were ever made). The worms insist that they will not leave “while þat one of þi bones with oþer wil hange” (59; while one of your bones still adheres to another), because they want only to feast on flesh. When Body threatens the worms with the warriors she commanded in life, the worms mock her with a typical ubi sunt catalog of departed worthies—Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Arthur, Dido, and others—all of whom ended up as wormfood too. The worms remind Body that she always been food for vermin: parasites have gnawed on her since she came into existence. Finally accepting this lesson on the vanity of worldly glory, Body awaits the Last Judgment, when she will rise again and be glorified. Then the narrator awakes and briefly recounts the clerical imprimatur granted this vision and its subsequent versification.

The Disputation has been often and correctly numbered among a host of late medieval memento mori and contemptus mundi works, which instruct people to prepare for their eventual death and to abandon the mutable and temporary pleasures of this world for the permanent rewards of heaven.[4] These studies remain faithful both to the poem’s moral conclusion and to the first two, especially the second, of its five illustrations: the first shows the narrator kneeling before a gruesome crucifix, an image both of suffering flesh and, at least implicitly, of that flesh’s promised perfection. The gendering of corpse and visionary, one a woman, the other a man, allows for straightforward interpretation of the poem as a whole: obviously the Disputation abjects putrefaction onto the feminized body. As is well known, the late medieval culture of celibate male clerics—practiced with particular intensity in Carthusian environs like the one that produced the compilation in which this poem survives—is just one hot zone of the longstanding misogynist habit of male-identified people performing their disappointment with and superiority to the flux and interdependency of material existence by insulting women.[5] Women, particularly old or laboring women, were made to emblematize the failure of all corporeal delights, all that inevitably goes awry with costume, beauty, desire, sex. The few who went along with the program might be exempted, for instance, a few other women illustrated in this compilation: the Virgin Mary, or its handful of saints, like Mary of Egypt, pictured with a body concealed under her own cascade of thick hair.[6]

Most other women, though, were made to be not bodies but flesh: if the body is ordered, neatly bounded, suitable, for example, for political metaphors (the “head” of state, and so on), flesh here represents the disorganized, pullulating remainder.[7] One body, the male visionary’s, kneels; the other, the woman’s, rots, liquefying into flesh and from there to ash. Thus the poem’s Body is herself made to say that all should “avoyde fleschly temptacone” (189; avoid fleshly temptation), and that she too, even at this late stage, has to unlearn her own attachment to her flesh, just as the poem’s presumptively male-identified readers have to work up a horror for the fleshy existence they share with her.[8]

The poem’s grave and its horrid contents are therefore the interior of a cordon sanitaire into whose horrific interior these readers can clamber to safely explore the failures of their or any body. The poem’s narrator, the visionary, is their obvious stand-in. No stoic, his relationship to his own body, and the suffering bodies of others, is one of fear, horror, and, given the right body, honor: he arrives in the poem fleeing the plague, and then worships before a lurid image of the bleeding Christ. “Ravished” into a vision, he witnesses exactly what he should loathe, another incarnated form of the mortal delights of the world he had just fled. But if the vision is to do its work, the abjection needs to be minimally enacted, with the loathing for this corpse circling back to become self-loathing.

Elsewhere in this compilation, for example, an emperor has his pride tamed by being taken by his steward to his father’s grave. The emperor has the tomb opened, finds a stinking, worm-eaten body within, and then the emperor and his father’s corpse converse:

Þan sayd þe son, “Horrybil bestes restys with þe.” Þe voice sayd, “Thow sal cum and reste with me.” Þan sayd þe son, “Thy fayr flesche falls and fadys away.” “Son, so sal þine do, þat is now so gay.”[9]
[Then the son said, “Horrible beasts rest with you.” The voice said, “You shall come and rest with me.” Then the son said, “Your attractive flesh falls and fades away.” “Son, so shall yours do, which is now so elegant.]

With the son’s voice written in a column on the left, the father’s on the right, and the whole enclosed in a banderole, the conversation occurs in a frame that draws present flesh and future putrefaction into one field, not a conversational sequence but rather a completed admonition. So long as he identifies with his father—and he must, as the tomb’s carved figure of the dead emperor looks virtually identical to the body of the living one—the emperor will be made to know that his present is just the promise of an inevitable future. At minimum, the Disputation also requires identification like this. But only at minimum. Assuming what we can clumsily call a dominant heterosexuality,[10] the male-identified visionary is supposed less to want to be what the corpse was (an emperor, for example) than he is supposed to want the body itself. “Sex,” Masha Raskolnikov observes, “haunt[s] the rhetoric of all Body/Soul debates,”[11] but nowhere else in the tradition does this specter assume quite so material a form. Consider the famous encounter of the three living and three dead, but imagine in this case that the dead, with their statements of “what you are, I once was,” and so on, had once been sexually desirable to the living.

This is why the Dreamer must also be identified with the worms too, because they mark out a space of difference between the Dreamer and the (female) Body, so that desire can be enacted, but piously, which is to say, in this case, through loathing and punishment. By speaking the most orthodox lessons in ascetic disgust, the “phallic”[12] worms play the part of the wise men, the angel, or the other knowing figures in other such stories. As a man, the visionary can join this crowd of Big Others in lecturing this woman about the proper, disdainful relation to the flesh, hers and his—with full mouths. This in a Carthusian manuscript, a product of an order that was, by the fifteenth century, infamous for its fanatic vegetarianism![13] As if doubling down on the hypocrisy, the worms explain that they know how disgusting their meal is, even if they cannot feel the disgust: “If we, as bestes, had smellyng & tastynge, / Trows þou þat we wald towche þi caryone playne? / Nay, parde, we wald it voyde for certayne!” (69-71; if we, as beasts, had the capacities to smell or taste, do you think that we would touch your bare carrion? No, by God, we would certainly vomit it out!). This is not the compilation’s only overdetermined entanglement of flesh, self, authority, retribution, and asceticism. A short poem, set down a few pages before the Disputation, features a falconer who entices a restless bird to return by showing it a hunk of “rede flesche”;[14] so too, it explains, does Christ draw us back, where we can join him on the “cros of penaunce” through “discrete poneyschyng of thi body.” Jessica Brantley dryly remarks that “the poem sets up a number of complex equivalences”:[15] Christ is falconer, but also meat, while the reader is a falcon whose submission to Christ transforms him into both “meat and crucified savior.” What the Disputation has on this is sexual desire and gender transformation: the visionary has to want this woman, or someone like her, or he has at least to imagine himself superior to anyone who would have been taken in by her. He wants the ascetic lesson inflicted on her for what she and others like her make him want, but at the same time he has to know himself as her too, because unless he recognizes her body as like his own, this ouroboric lesson simply cannot take.

Of course, it matters that the male visionary gets the gift of humiliation by tarrying with a rotten woman. Put bluntly, the Disputation is about a man scared of death who draws solace and wisdom from watching a beautiful woman putrefy. In this system, she should be humiliated, because she is a woman; and if only he would understand himself correctly, he can choose to be humiliated too. The emperor of the parable comes to know that the mighty are finally brought low; the dreamer of this poem, that the attractive, but socially semi-subaltern (given Body’s nobility), are really to be scorned, but also that, when it comes to our bodies, he is not really so different from them. This lesson is meant for all, generated from her body and her comeuppance. But when poem ends with the dreamer telling both “Man & Woman…al lustes for to lefe” [215; men and women to leave all lusts], and indeed with Body intoning “What he salbe & also what is he / Be it he or sche, be þai neuer so fayr, bewar / Of pryde” (184-6; what he shall be, and also what he is, whether it be a he or she, no matter how attractive they are, beware of pride), these universal lessons, for men and women both, erase the distinction between lust for the other and lust for the self that drives the poem’s weird drama. In particular, it erases how this story of sanctimonious retribution draws its vocabulary, as Elizabeth Robertson observes, from the pastourelle poetry of rape.[16] Ecocritical writing on flows of identity and material immanence must always remember what bodies are made to be naturally suitable for their lessons:[17] I know of no medieval death vision of a woman looking, lips tightened with disgust, into the grave of a man

This is all true, but for most of the poem, the visionary is only implicitly present. He is watching, but he does not interact. This absence allows us to concentrate not just on the bizarre identifications the poem requires, but also the lesson of the grave, to identify the feature that distinguishes the Disputation from perhaps every other work in the vast and crowded genre of medieval death piety. This is its refusal to provide the immanent Body with an immaterial counterpart. Typical debate poetry of this sort tends to split body from soul, and sets each to arguing with the other over which should be blamed for the infernal or purgatorial plight the self has fallen into: “Nou is mon hol and soint” [Now is Man Whole and Sound] has soul blame the body for not fasting on Fridays, not giving alms on Saturday, and not attending church on Sundays; “In a þestri stude I stod” [In a Dark State I Stood] has soul begin with contemptuous “Wo worþe þi fleis, þi foule blod, wi liggest þou nou here” [woe betide your flesh, your foul blood, why do you lie here?], an anger that soul unrelentingly maintains until its final prophetic flourish, an eschatological sequence of the world’s terrifying last seven days that concludes with Christ’s return; “Als I lay in winteris nyt” [As I lay in Winter’s night], whose 624 lines give Body space to fight back against Soul’s pious sarcasm (here soul’s “þi foule blod” is met with body’s “3if þou hast schame & gret despite, / Al it is þine owhen gilt” [if you have shame and great disdain / it is entirely your own fault]).[18]

The compilation itself has its own Body versus Soul debate.[19] This four-page prose work, excerpted from the Pilgrimage of the Soul—itself translated from Guillaume de Deguileville’s fourteenth-century Le Pèlerinage de l’Âme—begins with the usual vituperation: “Art þou þere yon wretchyd body so horribilt and fowle stynkyng wormes mete and noreschyng of corrupcioun? Wher is now þi pryde and þi fers hert? What is þi lewd play cummen to”[20] [are you there wretched Body, so horrible and foul, stinking worms’ food and nourishment of corruption? Where is your pride and fierce heart now? What has your foolish conduct come to?]; it stops, with startling practicality, to consider the science of putrefaction (noble things, Soul explains, smell worse when they rot)[21]; and most of the debate tends to argue in favor of the actual unification of Body and Soul, implicitly resisting the very separation of aspects of the self that makes debate possible. Like so much else in the compilation, it is illustrated. The first three of its four images pair Body, brown and ghastly, stretched out in its shroud, with Soul clean, white, and presumably male (although its pubes, like the other souls of the compilation, are smooth and featureless). Body has itself become white in the last illustration, perhaps finally reduced to bones, as if, by the debate’s end, Body had finally finished rotting. The first and last illustrations also include a hovering angel, who, in the debate, has the last word, telling Body and Soul to leave off their squabbling, since they predestined to salvation anyway,[22] after which it addresses the audience with an allegorical story about two men, one blind, the other deaf, condemned for colluding in the theft of fruit from an orchard in which they had been set to work. By providing each disputant with a clear locus of speech (itself indicated so neatly with their gestures), by furnishing a hovering angel, there to quench the anger with a promise of salvation, and by repairing the self that both death and the debate had split apart, this text offers an end and an escape and a permanence of the self. Though the self does fight, it fights with itself, which will eventually be made whole and find its way, in this case, to heaven.

In the Disputation, however, there is no soul, nothing that could be identified as having any permanence. To be sure, Body does speak of the coming Resurrection, but we need not furnish it with an exit if it provides none,[23] just as we need not provide it with a soul.[24] Speaking objects are not uncommon in medieval debate poetry: water and wine, for example, go at each other, as do abstractions like Nature and Nurture (which argue over who has more claim to the gender indeterminate knight of the Roman de Silence), and animate but supposedly irrational animals, like the Owl and Nightingale of the poem of the same name. No modern reader of these works has argued that these entities must have souls, rational or otherwise, to be able to talk; no one has been troubled by their obvious fictionality, by how this form allows problems to be worked out in a dramatic, and open-ended form of a debate, whose superiority to typical philosophical texts lies in their having no illusion that their positions are anything but competing forms of situated knowledge. Speaking bodies are common enough in medieval writing of this period,[25] and, to put it baldly, in a Body and Soul debate, the position of the soul is obviously held by the Soul. That the debate is between the Body and the Worms, and named as such in the manuscript, should mean, quite simply, that it is a debate between exactly these two things. If some fifteenth-century “context” is needed to avoid furnishing the Disputation with a soul, the simplest explanation is that the lady had once had a soul, and that by the time the poem begins, it has already left, either to heaven, hell, or what is more expected in this period, purgatory, and that what we witness in this debate is what is left over, in the period between death and the soul’s return to a recreated body in the Last Judgment.

What remains is Body. As a named character with motives and a voice, Body has everything a literary work typically needs for a personality. With all this, and with its claims to ownership of flesh and bones, Body in effect plays the part of soul in this poem, with one crucial exception: Body is a body, and therefore immanent rather than transcendent. The place that would have been held, in other such works, by the voice of what could have escaped, is here held by a voice that just marks out the place where the self can be located for a while within always shifting materiality. If the soul is located in the function it plays in other poems in this tradition, as the voice of moral and doctrinal authority, then the worms may be the poem’s soul, with this crucial, obvious distinction: they are not the self, nor, as a crowd, even a self, and as nonhuman life, they are certainly, for better or worse, not destined for eternity.

We need not imagine that Body’s voice must emanate from some spiritual immateriality, some promise of transcendence, some separation of agential self from the objectified matter it inhabits and moves.  This is all to say, despite the tendency of even modern critics to persist in using metaphors of “vitality” and “animation” to describe the character of “agency,” this poem presents a disanimated, corporeal self, aware of itself as self, of course, but without any principle of separation that would rescue the self from being an object for others. What the soullessness of the Disputation presents, then, is an almost unimaginable immanent selfhood, something that suffers from a capacity often ignored in accounts of impersonal life, “composting,” and other ecocritical, posthumanist philosophy, namely, the capacity to die, which it gives voice to, impossibly, from the other side of death. This immanent self does not own its death; nothing can. Rather, it gets its voice only to complain that its claim to itself can only be temporary; for all that temporariness, this is a voice nonetheless, whose very intensity of complaint, and capacity to learn even, counteract the disdain for the body that the poem aims to summon. And as I will consider in my next section, the forces of dissolution that take its flesh are not alien to it but inherent to its and any material existence.

[1] For a brief treatment of the manuscript and its likely contexts, Emily Richards, “Writing and Silence: Transitions Between the Contemplative and the Active Life,” in Pieties in Translation: Religious Practices and Experiences C. 1400-1640, ed. Richard Lutton and Elisabeth Salter (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 168–70.

[2] Histories of this genre are easy to come by. One of the best is in Masha Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul: Gender and Sowlehele in Middle English Allegory (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009), 62–63, 71–72.

[3] At this point, the poem becomes garbled, with perhaps as much as two of its 7-line rhyme royal stanzas missing between the description of the tomb and the narrator’s ravishment; John W. Conlee, ed., Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1991), 53 n22-8.

[4] Jessica Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 221–27; Caroline Walker Bynum, “Material Continuity, Personal Survival, and the Resurrection of the Body: A Scholastic Discussion in Medieval and Modern Contexts,” in Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone, 1992), 203, 237; Kathleen Cohen, Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 29–30; Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 191–92; Marlene Villalobos Hennessy, “The Remains of the Royal Dead in an English Carthusian Manuscript, London, British Library, MS Additional 37049,” Viator 33 (2002): 310–354; Marjorie M. Malvern, “An Earnest ‘Monyscyon’ and ‘Þinge Delectabyll’ Realized Verbally and Visually in‘ A Disputacion Betwyx Þe Body and Wormes,’ A Middle English Poem Inspired by Tomb Art and Northern Spirituality,” Viator 13 (1982): 415–450; Philippa Tristram, Figures of Life and Death in Medieval English Literature (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 160–61; Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 328–30.

[5] The classic treatment is Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), eg, 15, “The abject shatters the wall of repression and its judgments. It takes the ego back to its source on the abominable limits from which, in order to be, the ego has broken away.” For a good summary of the tradition and feminist developments, Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul, 25–26. For the persistence of this notion, Midas Dekkers, The Way of All Flesh: A Celebration of Decay, trans. Sherry Marx-Macdonald (London: The Harvill Press, 2000), 103, “Generally, it’s easier to tell a group of Chinese people apart than it is a circle of little old ladies from Florida,” here remarking on cosmetics, among many such appalling assessments, fatally marring a book so eager to be a modern version of Thomas Browne’s Urne-Buriall.

[6] British Museum Additional 37049, 48v. See also a similarly hirsute Mary Magdalene, ascending to heaven on 50v. For the benefit of non-medievalists: manuscripts are typically numbered by the sheet, rather than by the side of the sheet. The 48r would indicate the “recto,” the top side of one sheet (of paper, parchment, etc), and 48v its “verso,” the back side.

[7] For the gendered complexities of body, flesh, and spirit, Suzannah Biernoff, Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 26–34, and, at length, Karma Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

[8] For other comments on the poem’s multi-gendered identifications, Elizabeth Robertson, “Kissing the Worm: Sex and Gender in the Afterlife and the Poetic Posthuman in the Late Middle English ‘A Disputation Betwyx the Body and Wormes,’” in From Beasts to Souls: Gender and Embodiment in Medieval Europe, ed. E. Jane Burns and Peggy McCracken (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 138 (“the dreamer is ravished and raped by his vision,” a submission to rape that anticipates what Robertson argues the Body suffers from the worms); Wendy A. Matlock, “The Feminine Flesh in the Disputacione Betwyx the Body and Wormes,” in Identity and Community in Medieval Culture, ed. Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Jill Ross (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 267 (“the initial image of the woman’s figure unites the anonymous narrator with the unknown woman”).

[9] Brant Lee Doty, “An Edition of British Museum Manuscript Additional 37049” (PhD Thesis, Michigan State University, 1969), 489, 87r. I have been unable to consult the other edition of the compilation, likewise available only in an unpublished dissertation; Barbara B Streeter, “British Museum Additional MS 37049: A Mirror of the Fifteenth-Century Contemplative Mind” (PhD Thesis, Rutgers University, 1971).

[10] James A. Schultz, “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 15, no. 1 (2006): 14, “If homosexuality was not a ‘recognized concept’ in the Middle Ages, then heterosexuality wasn’t either.”

[11] Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul, 62.

[12] Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 141–42.

[13] For a summary of fifteenth-century controversies about the Carthusian diet, Julia Fleming, “When ‘Meats Are like Medicines’: Vitoria and Lessius on the Role of Food in the Duty to Preserve Life,” Theological Studies 69, no. 1 (2008): 101–3.

[14] Doty, “Ed. BM Add 37049,” 184, 28r.

[15] Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness, 132.

[16] Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 141.

[17] Though the “we” in the following is true, I am wary of it: Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 97, “We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities. Philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist. Critters–human and not–become-with each other, compose and decompose each other, in every scale and register of time and stuff in sympoietic tangling, in ecological evolutionary developmental earthly worlding and unworlding.” See similar statements at 32, 55, and 101-2. As much as I embrace her ontology and politics, Haraway rather has her foot on the scale in her praise for sympoietic becomings and disdain for anthropocentric refusals to involute: the former tend to be represented by queer, anticolonialist, antiracist art, while the latter is represented, for example, by Eichmann himself (“who could not be a wayfarer, could not entangle,” 36).

[18] All three poems are edited in Conlee, Middle English Debate Poetry.

[19] Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness, 323, for the work, editions, and studies.

[20] Doty, “Ed. BM Add 37049,” 455.

[21] Ibid., 461.

[22] Ibid., 463.

[23] See also Matlock, “Feminine Flesh,” 264, “the poem ends inconclusively without an account of the body’s fate after resurrection.”; Wendy A. Matlock, “Vernacular Theology in the ‘Disputacione Betwyx the Body and Wormes,’” in Translatio: Or the Transmission of Culture in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Modes and Messages, ed. Laura Holden Hollengreen (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009), 123–27, on the poem’s irresolution on the question of whether the body will be saved or not.

[24] Compare Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 126, “the corpse that speaks is animated by a soul, of course, because it is a soul that allows it to speak.” Matlock, “Feminine Flesh,” 274, “The soul never appears,” which leads Matlock to conclude that the soul is present indistinguishably with Body. Also see Katherine H. Terrell, “Rethinking the ‘Corse in Clot’: Cleanness, Filth, and Bodily Decay in ‘Pearl,’” Studies in Philology 105, no. 4 (2008): 437 n14, “the soul appears to remain with the body [in the Disputation], awaiting a judgment.”

[25] By engaging with a soulless death poem, I am going further than Phillipa C. Maddern, “Murdering Souls and Killing Bodies: Understanding Spiritual and Physical Sin in Late-Medieval English Devotional Works,” in Conjunctions of Mind, Soul, and Body from Plato to the Enlightenment, ed. Danijela Kambaskovic (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2014), 25–45, which tracks how bodies and souls sometimes “swap essential characteristics” in late medieval writing.

Oysters, How We Begin

And here’s the introduction to my oyster chapter! If you’re VERY eager for 15,304 words on oysters, I’ve put the whole thing up, not on, because I’m not a chump, but here, on CUNY Academic Commons. If you’re VERY eager to leave a comment, do it there. It’s a good system.


MS Bodley 602 34r

“But the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster” – David Hume, “On Suicide”

“He that does not perceive any higher degree of perfection in a man than in an oyster . . . hath not the reason or understanding of a man in him.” – Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe

“What is prematurely, or belatedly, called the ‘I’ is, at the outset, enthralled.” – Judith Butler, Precarious Life[1]

Oyster books love to talk about pearls and Chesapeake Bay’s oyster war; they love how oyster middens chart the passage not of cavemen but of ancient “covemen.”[2] These same writers happily accept the oyster’s fleshy invitation to aphrodisiacal excess. And when they look to New York City, they love to mourn the loss of its oyster beds, closed in 1927 by pollution and over-harvesting, once home to trillions of the creatures, a seedbed for nostalgia for the grittier appetites of New York’s presumably populist past.[3] At times they talk about how the oyster itself grants a chance of ecological salvation: “oystertecture” offers a possible fix to New York City’s hurricane problems; the oyster’s shell, made of calcium carbonate, helps offset the increasing acidification of the oceans;  and living oysters themselves prodigiously filter water, as what they ingest and don’t eat they eject as pseudofeces, mucous-coated matter that falls to the ocean floor to be processed and rendered safe by anoxic bacteria.[4]

None of this is unimportant, but even the ecological attention to the oyster as an object still thinks of it as there primarily for the use of others. The oyster itself still remains on the outside of our care, thoughtlessly exiled to where even Peter Singer had once left them, when he once notoriously declared that the line between ethically significant and ethically insignificant animals lies “somewhere between a shrimp and an oyster.”[5] Since the latter are no more likely to feel pain than plants do, Singer concluded that so long as they’re sustainably produced and gathered (what to call this activity – harvesting? hunting? – is itself worth noting), there is “no good reason” not to eat them. If there is, as yet, little behavioral or chemical evidence that oysters can feel pain,[6] and if pain, furthermore, is an adaptation suited for animals that can move, an oyster not only cannot feel pain, it also has no reason to, at least once it has passed its first, mobile larval stage, and affixed itself, for its life’s remainder, to some surface.[7] To put this as baldly as possible: a mature oyster feels no pain because there is no way for them to escape us. So long as we assume that the ethical neutrality of killing and eating things that do not know they’re being killed and eaten, then the only reason to grant any given oyster more ethical consideration than any generally edible plant would be because oysters are animals, and animals, categorically speaking, cannot be deliberately killed and eaten by anyone with good ethics.[8]

The great irony here is that Singer, at least here – as he has since decided that it is ethically safer not to eat oysters[9]—harmonizes in some small way with the philosopher whom we can safely call his arch-nemesis. For in November 1646, René Descartes penned a letter to William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle, that likewise offered the oyster, so helpless and so silent, as neatly exemplifying the point where we get to stop caring. Descartes’ chief difference from Singer is to extend this oystery example to all nonhumans. He finished this letter by arguing that if one believed that animals had thought, like us, then they must have an immortal soul, and that one would have to believe this of all animals, oysters or sponges included, which are “too imperfect for this to credible.”[10] This brief passage is a restatement of an argument he published nine years previously, in his Discourse on Method, that likewise ended by insisting that humans uniquely possessed immortal souls, because otherwise “we have nothing to fear or to hope for after this life any more than do flies and ants.”[11] Both these arguments make similarly strange leaps. In the letter to Cavendish, the preceding material is chiefly about the clockwork automatism of nonhumans; in the Discourse on Method, about the inability of nonhumans to produce rational speech, and to get to their respective ends, each argument first passes through the larger animals, so obviously – at least to the nonphilosopher – thrumming with life, intention, and interests: nightingales, parrots, monkeys, dogs, and, cats. And both finish with animals whose silence could hardly be exceeded. Despite being blamed for inaugurating the modern tyranny of instrumental reason over animals,[12] Descartes’ reasoning is essentially that of any Christian medieval scholar, at least insofar as he just assumes that nonhumans die and stay dead and that humans, by contrast, can at least spiritually persist.[13] What is more striking is the presence of the oyster in a proof about clockwork motion: what could be more still than an oyster? Had he not been so bound to prove his own human difference, he might have argued that, for example, oysters were incapable of rational speech or noninstinctual motion, and that other animals were not. The very absurdity of the final flourish of the oyster in an argument about monkeys and cats and nightingales demonstrates both a desire to enclose all nonhuman life, no matter its noisiness and motility, within the stolid shells of oystery immobility, and demonstrates another, even odder point, that when a writer wants to argue about the ethnical inconsiderability of animals, or to imagine animal life at its most minimal, or to determine the absolute limits of animal life, the animal that offers itself up more readily than any other is the oyster. This has been true, as I’ll observe below, since Plato, and remained true at least through to the eighteenth century.

We could respond by saving the dogs and cats from the briny clutches of this border creature, as some animal rights philosophers have sought to rescue the larger mammals from the ethical irrelevance of insects and other swarming invertebrates;[14] we could go still further and try to rescue the oysters themselves, and thereby liberate nonhuman life in general into the uncertain protection of humans of good conscience. Such generation of sensitivity for the apparently insensible has been the habit of all ecocritics as they seek to ethically outflank one another. On this point at least, I can assure the reader that there is nothing to worry about. My interest is in the rich opportunities oysters offer for rethinking standard approaches to posthumanism. Derrida’s otherwise monumental contribution to critical animal theory, for example, largely has no purchase on the shoals of indifferent, uncharismatic oysters, more like landscapes than collections of individuals: it is not only that they seem to lack the capacity for sentience so important to animal rights philosophy, that they cannot speak or suffer, and not only that they can hardly be thought of like, say, cats, as “unsubstitutable singularities,” not only that they simply cannot look back, so that arrogant philosophers might be “seen seen” in their gaze.[15] It is that in the archives I will describe below, oysters can barely be said to be alive, barely be said to be animals, and could hardly exhibit their “agency” or intention—those bywords of speculative realism—more faintly.

Ultimately, I intend to leave the oyster exactly where Descartes, and Singer, at least for a while, left them, but with this difference: I will propose that we crowd in with it, and that, for a while, we give up on our lonely claim to the other side, where Descartes and his unacknowledged medieval masters cleared a space for us to comfortably, and delusionally, pretend to live a life of free will and obvious moral significance. Singer’s understanding of the oyster as only barely animal, and essentially insensible of harm, accords well both with modern science and, especially, with the premodern archive, which, more than modern oyster writing, is particularly concerned with the helpless, mostly insensible umwelt of the oyster. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t widely known: cultural studies, gustatory tours, or eco-history tend not to do much with premodern writing about oysters.[16] This narrow historical perspective is a mistake. It’s not just that premodern writing often considers the oyster; it’s that fascination with the oyster as the border creature – in Singer, Descartes, and a host of other examples, classical and medieval chiefly – and the surprising tendency of one strain of oyster-thinking to compare humans to them, offers a route to recognizing that the oyster’s passivity and exposure to being injured are not alien to our human condition, but emblematic of it. Thinking with the oyster counters the certainty that the chief feature of humans is our agency. The oyster helps us recognize better own secondariness; our not fully conscious belatedness in relation to our own situation, the basic, inescapable vulnerability of existence, and helps us recognize that not only things that do things merit our consideration.

[1] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the Posthumous Essays, Of the Immortality of the Soul, and Of Suicide, from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding of Miracles, ed. Richard H. Popkin, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), 100; Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe: The First Part; Wherein, All the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism Is Confuted; and Its Impossibility Demonstrated (London: Richard Royston, 1678), 858; Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004), 45.

[2] See especially John R. Gillis, The Human Shore: Seacosts in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[3] The first such work may be a fourth-century poetic letter in praise of oysters in all their sybaritic variety, by Ausonius to Paulinus of Nola, in Ausonius, Volume II: Books 18-20. Paulinus Pellaeus: Eucharisticus, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Loeb Classical Library 115 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921), Letter V, 12–17. For a sampling of modern oyster books, see Summer Brennan, The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015); Mark Kurlansky, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (New York: Ballantine Books, 2006); Rebecca Stott, Oyster (London: Reaktion, 2004); Robb Walsh, Sex, Death, and Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover’s World Tour (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009); John R. Wennersten, The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay (Centreville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1981). For the libretto of comic opera about the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Wars, John F. Duncan, “Driven from the Seas, or The Pirate Dredger’s Doom,” 1880.

[4] For a sampling of oyster facts, see the following New York Times articles, which all appeared after Hurricane Sandy hit the city: Andrew C. Revkin, “Students Press the Case for Oysters as New York’s Surge Protector,” New York Times, November 12, 2012,; Alan Feuer, “Protecting New York City, Before Next Time,” The New York Times, November 3, 2012, sec. N.Y. / Region,; Douglas Quenqua, “Oyster Shells Are an Antacid to the Oceans,” The New York Times, May 20, 2013, See also “Living Breakwaters Design and Implementation,” SCAPE, accessed February 20, 2017,, flood abatement infrastructure for Tottenville, Staten Island, which will begin construction in 2018.

[5] For his oyster opinions, see Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (New York: Random House, 1975), 188; and Christopher Cox, “Consider the Oyster,” Slate, April 7, 2010,

[6] Robin Jean Crook and Edgar Walters, “Nociceptive Behavior and Physiology of Molluscs: Animal Welfare Implications,” ILAR Journal / National Research Council, Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources 52, no. 2 (2011): 188–89. Further study in molluscs and pain have tended to focus, understandably, on octopuses, squids, and sea slugs; for example, Lynne Sneddon, “Pain in Aquatic Animals,” The Journal of Experimental Biology 218 (2015): 971–73, but also see Gregory A. Lewbart and Conny Mosley, “Clinical Anesthesia and Analgesia in Invertebrates,” Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine 21, no. 1 (2012): 64, which summarizes research from the 1990s on using a 1% solution of Propylene Phenoxetol to relax oysters into opening their shells.

[7] For a treatment for the general public by an “ostrovegan” scientist (albeit an evolutionary psychologist, not a mollusc expert), Diana Fleischman, “The Ethical Case for Eating Oysters and Mussels,” Sentientist, May 20, 2013,

[8] For one version of this argument, Marc Bekoff, “Vegans and Oysters: If You Eat Oysters, You’re Not a Vegan, So Why the Question?,” in Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2013), 263–66.

[9] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 2nd ed. (New York: New York Review of Books, 1990), 174.

[10] René Descartes, Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. III: The Correspondence, trans. Robert Stoothoff (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 304; René Descartes, Oeuvres, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (Paris: Vrin, 1908), vol. iv, 576.

[11] René Descartes, Discourse on Method, trans. Donald A. Cress, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1998), 33; Descartes, Oeuvres, vol. vi, 59.

[12] For a particularly smart example, Laurie Shannon, The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[13] For example, “whan a beest is dead he hath no peyne; / but man after his deeth moost wepe and pleyne”; Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Dean Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987), Knight’s Tale, I.1319-20.

[14] Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[15] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 9, 13.

[16] This is true even for Stott, Oyster, the only literary/cultural theory volume on the oyster I know, which is otherwise quite good on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Anglophone writing.


This is the conclusion of the oyster chapter I am working on for Book 2. I haven’t shared the opening pages with you, but I have shared this bit [on minimal animals], this bit [on agency], and this bit [on the Anglo-Saxon Oyster riddle] with you, whoever you are. I’m just about done with this start-to-finish chapter draft, which means next working on — as I go backwards through the book — Chapter 3, ‘Esca Vermibus, Esca Avibus,’ on inhumation and sky burial and the ultimate edibility of human bodies.


L. M. Boyd’s column, Sept 2 1988

In 1549, another talking oyster appears, in Giovanni Battista Gelli’s La Circe, his adaptation of Plutarch’s fourth-century Gryllus, or “Grunter.” Plutarch’s work features Ulysses and one of his men, since transformed by the sorceress Circe into a pig, debating the respective advantages of humanity and porcinity. The pig wins. Plutarch’s work survives in just one, fragmentary manuscript, while Gelli’s work, lucky enough to have been produced near the dawn of the print era, was quickly translated from Italian into Latin and the major European languages, and perhaps even twice adapted for the stage.[1] It also surpasses Plutarch in its dedication to the conceit, for in Gelli, not just the one, but ten animals out-argue Ulysses, until at last he convinces an elephant, and only the elephant, to let itself once more become human. As the elephant had once been a philosopher, its final decision may mean that none but it is sufficiently ratiocinative to recognize the value of reclaiming its human privilege; furthermore, this conclusion, with the elephant presumably ranking as the most august of this beastly collective – which includes an oyster, mole, snake, hare, goat, doe, lion, horse, dog, and cow – may at least hint that the whole work follows a neo-Platonic trajectory, in which all-too-practical animality gradually ascends towards abstractive humanity. Alternately, if we recall that Gelli himself, despite his growing fame among Florentine philosophers, refused to abandon his own trade as a cobbler,[2] the conclusion may be read as a satire: the elephant’s susceptibility to the allures of logos may suggest that only a philosopher, and – given the doe’s earlier complaints about the wretched condition of human women – only a male philosopher at that, would be foolish enough to give up on a happier, animal existence. All the other animals outmaneuver the famously clever Ulysses, because the human world has no allurements for them.[3] Laurie Shannon rightly insists, then, that the text is not concerned with the animal possession of reason, nor even of the superiority of reason to irrationality, but rather with “whether a good life entails duly cherishing what is necessary or striving to attain what is not.”[4] The elephant may furnish the work’s final answer to this question, but it perhaps is not the conclusive one.

The first and presumably the lowest-ranking of Ulysses’s refusnik animals is, of course, an oyster, a former fishmonger that prefers its easy, littoral life to market drudgery and maritime dangers. The oyster argues that Nature has made them “better and more noble than”[5] humans. After all, she has given oysters their own home, which conveniently doubles as their clothing, and has so made them that food comes to them without any struggle. The oyster takes this practical approach not because of its unfamiliarity with maieutics: having eavesdropped on philosophers back when it sold fish in Athens, the oyster observes that if the end is nobler than the means, then–itself answering the implicit question–Ulysses must surely admit that the earth is nobler than humans, since the earth “at last devours you all.”[6] But the offhanded contempt with which it deploys this Socratic paradox suggests both that it recognizes that philosophy is a mere game—notably, it doesn’t extend this argument to its own material existence—and that it thinks the only argument really worth making is a simple description of the comforts of its own oystery life. Against all this, Ulysses can argue only that humans can do things, but has no answer to the oyster’s insistence that humans have to do things. For the oyster, as Shannon observes, “need and pleasure are not opposing modes of being”:[7] felicitous in being what it is, the oyster need not strive for satisfaction, nor for anything else, because it itself is exactly enough and needs nothing but to be.

Then the oyster declares the conversation over (“”I will shut up my little house and take my repose without a single thought”[8]) and the frustrated Ulysses seeks out his next opponent, an equally wily mole. However, just praising the oyster for its victory, or Gelli for his skills as a parodist, would miss the key element of this exchange, which is Gelli’s having the oyster argue as an oyster. It is not that the oyster is just happy, nor just that the “originary perfection” of the oyster lacks the lack that drives humans to mostly noble, sometimes pathetic, attempts to make themselves a better world,[9] nor just that oysters can be defined entirely by their immanent being, and so need not wander uncertain like humans, lost in their own definitional openness.[10] Of course, the contentment of Gelli’s animals in their animal condition is evidence enough of his participation in the long tradition that held all beasts to be innocently content. But before that argument arrives, Gelli first has the oyster speak from its own particular place, which means showing that whatever its happiness, it is subject to the inescapable vulnerability of anything that exists. For the oyster first agrees to speak only on the condition that Ulysses keep watch during the debate, so that “those confounded crabs shall not throw a stone between my two shells…[to] make a meal of me.”[11] This tidbit of natural history is virtually proverbial in early modern oyster writing. Here, for example, is a Nicholas Breton’s “Dream of an Oister and a Crab”:

Upon the shore neare to the Sea, an Oister gaping wide,
Lay looking for a little food to come in with the Tide:
But hard by lay a crauling Crab, who watcht his time before,
And threw a stone betweene the shels, that they could shut no more.
The Oister cride, Ho neighbours, theeues: but ere the neighbours came,
The Crab had murtherd the poore fish, and fed upon the same.
When wondering that such craft did live with creatures in the deepe,
With troubling of my braines withall, I wakt out of my sleepe.[12]

The crafty crab, or sometimes a crafty crow, always succeed against the oyster, as if the oyster’s shell is just an invitation to imagine any shelter’s ultimate inadequacy. Similarly, though the oyster of the Anglo-Saxon riddle talks, it does so mainly to protest about being plucked from the nurturing sea. In all these, as even with Lewis Carroll’s poem, the speaking oyster is less evidence of an (imitative) rational power than of their inescapable vulnerability. What all these works first or even mainly give voice to, then, is a normally unheard or unvoicable request not to be injured. If this is a recognition of the oyster’s “agency,” it is a recognition of an agency that speaks mainly to say that it is far less agential than it would prefer to be, that it is as much thwarted as enabled by its life.

This is probably the most sensible way to represent a talking oyster. Of course, no one who pays them any attention can deny that oysters do do things: they are prodigious cleaners of filthy water, and if New York City, for example, had still had its oyster beds, Hurricane Sandy wouldn’t have hit quite as hard. Nor are oysters entirely helpless: they have shells, and their shells give them some definition and protection even if crabs always manage to find some way in. But the main point of the speaking, plaintive oyster may be the recognition of what has to exist, first of all, if there is to be any agency at all: agency requires an existence distinct in time and space from other things – no action is possible otherwise, because action needs to act on some other thing and from somewhere – and therefore the agent must have a location and some particular when, which means that its agency is always accompanied by its limits, its inabilities, its termination. It all goes further than this, however, because the oyster’s only intention, if it can even be called that, is that of their sensus solus itself, which establishes the relation towards the self, combined with a helpless inability to choose to do anything about it. That is, the oyster makes it clear that to be at all, even if all that the thing does is be, means being constrained by and vulnerable to nonexistence. For a living thing, this means, especially, that death awaits, whether it knows it or not.

This unwitting helplessness is on the other side even of what Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I am called the “non-pouvoir au cœur du pouvoir” [“nonpower at the heart of power”].[13] Derrida arrived at this phrase after observing that, for Jeremy Bentham, the question of animal rights did not depend on whether they could use language or reason, but whether they could suffer. Derrida’s favored animal to think with in this essay was a cat; and cats demonstrably can suffer, so long as we are willing to admit that their cries are not simply the sound of clockwork breaking. However, oysters are not only mute, but also unaware, without any movement or sense of other things, without any ability, short of poetry, to make their distress known. To make vitality synonymous with agency and awareness is to forget this nonpower. It is also a mistake that threatens to grant protections only to those things that can do things, or react to things, or even to experience things, while forgetting that things also need protection because of what they cannot do, and may especially need protection against threats they themselves cannot recognize or even be aware that they are experiencing. For depending on which modern scientific studies of oysters and pain are embraced, the oyster may even lack the sensus solus prescientific natural history granted them. They may have nothing but their lives. If the social problem of pain is not knowing if others are really suffering,[14] then this problem is a subjective one, more like numbness than the problem of other minds. It is a problem that requires that the question of “what it is like to be,” for example, an octopus, tick, or oyster,[15] be answered not only with species specific phenomenology, but also with accounts of sensory incapacities, whether innate or temporary. In summarizing Jakob von Uexküll’s famous experiments on the environment [umwelt] of ticks, Agamben declares that if the tick’s sensory capacities are oriented exclusively to an awareness of mammalian blood, “the tick is this relationship,” living “only in it and for it.”[16] But surely it is a mistake to declare that the tick’s existence can be exhausted by what it believes itself to know (or, more accurately, what we can infer about what we believe it to know). Agamben’s declaration is too experiential. The tick’s unwittingness also has to matter: a complete phenomenological account of the tick means attending to all it does not experience. This is not a problem exclusive to invertebrates, of course. Cows too may be said to have this same impediment, particularly in slaughterhouses designed by Temple Grandin. By thinking like a cow, Temple Grandin “remove[s] the things that make [cows] stop moving forward: in a good facility cows walk toward slaughter as if toward a milking parlor.”[17] They advance fearlessly, not because they have become stoics, but because they don’t know what’s ahead. Surely this is a strange kind of “humane” slaughter: to remove only the fear and not the killing; to increase the ignorance, and call that a job well done. Surely there’s more worth protecting than just scared cows, and more than just the cow that has a moment to experience the pain of its own death. As one might expect, these insights can be taken even further. If death is inassimilable to the experience of the thing that dies—whether we call this experience “consciousness” or “sensus solus” or some term graced with even less grandeur—then the ultimate threat itself is always on the other side of our knowledge.[18] We can never get away from it, as we already know, but neither can we ever really know it. In sum, if we want to go further than suffering in looking for a paradoxical noncapacity that lies at the “heart of power,” we might seek it here, in the unexperiencable, uncognizable end, what we might call a non-awareness at the heart of existence.

We are now well-positioned to reconsider Descartes’ letter to the Marquess of Cavendish. This short letter only slowly gets to its conclusive denial of thought and soul to nonhuman animals. This assertion is itself a kind of mechanical reflex, an instance where Descartes’ proof of free thought follows a kind of instinctual groove of the belief in human superiority. The rest of the letter, however, is instead largely about the automatism of even most human life: it explains that somnambulant humans sometimes swim across rivers they could never cross while awake; for the most part, we need not think in order to be able to eat or walk; and if tried not to cover our face as we fell, we would fail.[19] All Descartes can say confidently is that, unlike animals, we ourselves can communicate things not relating to our passions, but, at least in this letter, he provides no sustained proof that the communication even of other humans is anything but mechanical repetition. That is, only irrational custom or an equally irrational sympathetic guesswork protects Descartes’ human fellows from being eaten, used, and vivisected. This guesswork overlays a more fundamental animal condition that is, for the most part, unconscious. Like other animals, we have our passions; like other animals, our passions have us, and our expressions — of hunger, of self-protection, of motion — are the voice not of our freedom but of our vulnerable bodily existence. To use Descartes’ image, we may not be clocks, not entirely, but we are mostly clocks.

This insight in turn requires rethinking the standard medieval hierarchy of being. The tradition is neatly expressed among other places by the fifteenth-century Middle English Mirror of St Edmund:

His wysdom may þou see if þou take kepe how he [God] hase gyffen to ylke a creature to be. Some he hase gyffen to be anely, with-owtten mare, als vn-to stanes. Till oþer to be & to lyffe, als to grysse and trees. Till oþer to be, to lyffe, to fele, als to bestes. Till oþer to be, to lyffe, to fele, and with resone to deme, als to mane and to angells. For stanes erre, bot þay ne hafe nogte lyffe, ne felys noghte, ne demes noghte. Trees are; þay lyffe, bot thay fele noghte. Men are; þay lyffe, þay fele, and þay deme, and þay erre with stanes, [þay] lyffe with trees, þay fele with bestes, and demys with angels.[20]

You may see God’s wisdom if you attend to what kind of being God to each creature. Some he has given to be only, without anything more, like stones. To others, to be and to live, like grass and trees. To others, to be, to live, and to feel, like beasts. To others, to be, to live, to feel, and to judge rationally, like men and angels. For stones are, but they have no life, nor any feelings or thought. Trees are; they live, but they do not feel. Men are: they live, they feel, and they think: they are, like stones; they live, like trees; they feel, like beasts; and they think, like angels.

Usually, the last, rational kind of being is thought to be the most important. With reason, we can separate ourselves from our immediate circumstances and from every other living thing; in mainstream medieval Christianity, we might live forever through our immortal rational soul rejoined with a perfected body, so escaping vulnerability altogether. But among created things, only angels escape being tethered to the previous kinds of being. For everything else, every kind of being is additive, supplementing rather than replacing the previous ones. We could therefore read this hierarchy of being as one in which the final rational addition is just one more layer an existence that is mostly animal-like, plant-like, or stonelike. Like angels, humans can reason, but they also have the same capacities—and accompanying vulnerabilities and needs—as beasts, plants, and rocks. The point is not that humans are really like rocks, but rather that they are also like rocks, and that concentrating exclusively on human reason, even if we grant it exclusively to humans among mortal life, means forgetting most of what we are.

Consider, finally, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, widely read and frequently translated from the fifth century through the Middle Ages (when King Alfred of England sponsored a translation) to the Early Modern period (when Queen Elizabeth translated it) through to the present day. Ultimately the Consolation seeks to prove the existence of free will, independent of circumstance or fortune, whether bad or good. Divine Foreknowledge is the impediment: if God is omnipotent, and therefore omniscient, surely all future action is known in advance, and therefore already preordained. Not so, argues Boethius: the objects of knowledge differ from the ways of knowledge. From our limited perspective, true for us, there is a difference between past, present, and future, which preserves free will.[21] To illustrate this point, Boethius talks about shellfish:

Many kinds of knowledge belong to different and diverse substances. For sense alone without any other kind of knowledge belongs to living things that do not move, such as sea shells [“conchae maris” [22]] and such other things clinging to rocks; but imagination belongs to beasts that move, which seem already to have in them some disposition to flee or seek out things. But reason belongs only to human kind, as intelligence only to the divine.[23]

At this point, Boethius seems to making a familiar argument about hierarchies of motion, and then about scales of being, running from the least motile animals, to mobile animals, to humans, and eventually to angels. But the argument is actually about epistemology, and, in particular, about how epistemological impediments preserve space for free will to be possible. The very limitation of human reason gives us the sense of temporal sequence necessary to our temporally local concept of free choice. Boethius thus locates our rational will not on the side of power, but on the side of ignorance. Since our ignorance is so very far from God’s infinite, extra-temporal knowledge, we more like oysters than any divine being.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that limitation is the root of what we are, nor that our unwittingness is somehow the “heart” of nonpower. The point is not that the “simple fact of being there” is more true than human reason, agency, or even sensation. All metaphors of depth reaffirm precritical hopes of getting at the final truth, whether this be located at the heart, the core, in something “profound,” or on a “deeper level,” all of which offer the fantasy of “revealing” the “ground” that would relieve us of having to think or make decisions. The point is rather that critical concentrations on reason, cognition, experience, and agency all go awry by concentrating on their subjects in their potential, not in their presence. That is, these concentrations wait for their subject to do something – to alter something else, to resist its circumstances in some way – not only as if the only “agency” worth noting is the agency of misbehavior or resistance, but also as if the subject becomes worth considering only when it seems to reach out beyond itself. The point of course is not that the thing is somehow truer before it engages in any of these activities. The point is rather that its being there also requires our attention, and that perhaps the best figure for recognizing what this subject of attention might be like is the premodern oyster.

For humans to catch a touch of oysterpomorphism is not to recognize that we cannot do anything, nor that agency is impossible, but to recognize that whatever our agency, we are still bodily, bounded by space and time. Whatever the alliances of always shifting networks that make agency possible, identifiable agency, like identifiable existence, requires definite location. Though we flatter ourselves by thinking that our freedom of choice is our defining characteristic, we still should ask, with Derrida, “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man…what he refuses the animal.”[24] We tend to attribute to ourselves the capacity of not being bound by our circumstances, on “unconcealing” existence, of immortality, of abstraction, of definitional openness, and so on. We think what we really are is the thing that escapes. But we still have to be somewhere. None of us, of course, chose to be born. We do not chose the conditions of our being here any more than an oyster does. Our much vaunted ability to willingly move, which we hold out over the oysters, still cannot untether us from having to live somewhere. Since, in this time of climate change, we know that our freedom to flee danger is limited by our confinement to this sweltering earth, we should, on a planetary scale, number ourselves among with the oysters, as “such other things as feed clinging to rocks.” So constrained, and so enabled too by this constraint, we might as well choose this, for a while, as our analytical starting place.

[1] One early translation, absolutely faithful in its treatment of the oyster episode, is Denis Sauvage, trans., La Circe de M. Giovan-Baptista Gello [sic] (Lyon: Guillaume Rouillé, 1550). The two dramatic adaptations may be based on Gelli, or more directly on Plutarch, via “Que les bestes brutes usent de la raison,” in Les Oeuvres morales et meslees, trans. Jacques Amyot, vol. 1, 2 vols. (Paris: Michel de Vascosan, 1572), 270–74, which first made this text generally available in Western Europe (note, however, that the final entry in Machiavelli’s eight-part satire of 1517, “L’asino” [The Donkey], is also an adaptation of “Gryllus”). The two French plays each omit the oyster: from 1661, Antoine-Jacob Montfleury, “Les Bestes raisonnables,” in Les Contemporains de Molière, ed. Victor Fournel, vol. 1, 3 vols. (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1863), 223–38, which features one scene in which a man, once a lion, shouts in rage (“Qui diable m’a rendu ma première figure!”) when returned for a while to its human form, and then in effect answers Wittgenstein’s observation (“If a lion could speak &c”) by railing at Ulysses about human cruelty and treachery. The next, from 1718, is Marc-Antoine Legrand and Louis Fuzelier, “Les Animaux raisonnables,” in Le Théâtre de La Foire, ed. Alain René Le Sage and Carolet d’Orneval, vol. 3, 10 vols. (Paris: Etienne Ganeau, 1721), 1–35. Though lacking a talking oyster, this play does have a singing dolphin, which claims to be happy to meet Ulysses once more after vainly searching for him among “deux cens Huîtres” (200 oysters). The lion of Jean de la Fontaine’s fable ‘Les Compagnons d’Ulysse’ is one of several animals, none oysters, that refuses to become human again (here I am a king, it says; were I a human, I would once more be but a simple soldier). For guidance in finding this material, George Boas, The Happy Beast in French Thought of the Seventeenth Century (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1933), 35–36., which is preceded by a detailed paraphrase of the Gelli; Derek Connon, “Animal Instincts: Homer, Plutarch, and La Fontaine Go to the Fair,” in French Seventeenth-Century Literature: Influences and Transformations: Essays in Honour of Christopher J. Gossip, ed. Jane Southwood and Bernard Bourque (Berne: Peter Lang, 2009), 75–90 (which traces the route from Plutarch to the French adaptations); and Marc Escola and Sophie Rabau, “Bibliothèque de Circé,” text, Fabula, Atelier littéraire (April 18, 2010) (particularly good on nineteenth- and twentieth-century reimaginings of Circe).

[2] Judith Yarnall, Transformations of Circe: The History of an Enchantress (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 110–11.

[3] For the deceit and storytelling of Circe and the animals, see especially the reading of Plutarch in Marina Warner, Monsters of Our Own Making: The Peculiar Pleasures of Fear (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998), 272–83.

[4] Laurie Shannon, The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 162.

[5] Giovanni Battista Gelli, The Circe, trans. Thomas Brown and Robert Adams (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963), 13.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Shannon, The Accommodated Animal, 160.

[8] Gelli, Circe, 19–20.

[9] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 122, summarizing Lacan.

[10] Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 30, on Carl Linnaeus’ classification of humans as “manlike,” “constitutively nonhuman,” an “ironic” anthropological “machine” the preserves the fundamental human capacity to recreate itself as anything.

[11] Gelli, Circe, 12.

[12] From his 1622 Strange Newes out of Divers Countries, in Nicholas Breton, The Works in Verse and Prose of Nicholas Breton: Prose, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1879), 11.

[13] Jacques Derrida, “L’Animal que donc je suis (à suivre),” in L’Animal autobiographique: Autour de Jacques Derrida, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 1999), 278. Derrida, Animal That Therefore, 28.

[14] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[15] Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” The Philosophical Review 83, no. 4 (1974): 435–50.

[16] Agamben, The Open, 47. For Agamben’s source, Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, with a Theory of Meaning, trans. Joseph D. O’Neil (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 50–52.

[17] This is the summary of Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (New York: Scribner, 2005) from Erica Fudge, “Milking Other Men’s Beasts,” History and Theory 52 (2013): 19. Fudge’s essay, which attends to humans and disability, as well as the history of the size and treatment of livestock, is an exceptionally good phenomenological/social-historical engagement with animals.

[18] Cary Wolfe, “Exposures,” in Stanley Cavell et al., Philosophy & Animal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 21, “For Derrida…we never have an idea of what death is for us—indeed, death is precisely that which can never be for us—and if we did, then the ethical relation to the other would be immediately foreclosed.”

[19] René Descartes, Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. III: The Correspondence, trans. Robert Stoothoff (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 302–3.

[20] G. G. Perry, ed., Religious Pieces in Prose and Verse, EETS O. S. 26 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1913), 22.

[21] Marcia L. Colish, The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 287, “in the Consolation, the chief objective of his refutation of fatalism is not to make way for contingency in general but to establish the reality of free will.” See also Robert Sharples, “Fate, Prescience, and Free Will,” in The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, ed. John Marenbon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 216, on the “Iamblichus Principle,” in which “the nature of knowledge is determined by the nature of the knower rather than by the thing known.”

[22] Chaucer’s translation of the Consolation renders this as “oistres”; “Boece,” in Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Dean Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987), 465.

[23] Consolation, V, prose 5.

[24] Derrida, Animal That Therefore, 135.

Minimal Animals


Nightlife in Philadelphia (1811-c.1813), Attributed to John Lewis Krimmel

The second book of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon opens by considering the problem of “þe ordre of þe story.” To illustrate the principle of good structure, namely, that lesser things should serve the greater, Higden crafts a bio-eco-rhetorical analogy. For the human body as for the world itself, everything functions well if all is proportional, arranged well, and directed at its proper ends. Otherwise, “anon is grete distourbaunce i-made”[1]: earthquakes and thunder in the macrocosmos; in the human microcosmos, “ache, sicknesse, and sorwe”; and, presumably, although this is unexpressed, in Higden’s massive historical compendium, disarrangement. What his discussion requires is a base, a fundamental ordering principle to fix a distinction of lesser from greater and to hold each of these poles in place.

Naturally enough, Higden finds this sure foundation in oysters:

Also as it is in þe parties of þe grete world þat þey beeþ so i-ordeyned and i-sette þat þe ouermese of þe neþer kynde touche þe neþermeste of þe ouer kynde, as oistres and schelle fishe, þat beeþ as it were lowest in bestene kynde, passeþ but litel þe perfeccioun of lyf of treen and of herbes, for þey mowe not meue hem but as culpes of þe see waggeþ wiþ þe water, elles þey cleueþ to þe erthe and mowe noþer see ne hire, ne taste, ne smelle, but onliche fele when þey beeþ i-touched.[2]

The parts of the great world are so ordered and set that the highest point of the lower kind touches the lowest part of the kind above it, as oysters and shell fish do, that are, as it were, the lowest in animal kind, barely surpassing the perfection of the life of trees and of herbs [that is, they barely surpass the highest form of plant life], for oysters might not move themselves except in the way that kelp of the sea wags with the water, as otherwise they cling to the earth and cannot see nor hear nor taste nor smell; but they feel only when they are touched.

Higden gets his scaffolds from two sources: first, Aristotle’s tripartite, accretive division of the soul into the vegetable (which provides for nutrition, growth, and life itself); the animal (sense, motion, and reaction); and the intellective (everything belonging to the “nonfinite”[3] list of capacities thought to travel uniquely under the banner of human reason); and then the scale of being, a taxonomy that elaborates on this tripartite model by sequencing everything from the highest, spiritual beings to the lowest, soulless forms of existence. Though this model would hypothetically allow some fortunate animal species to be closest to intellective existence, in practice, no animal ever held this position consistently: dogs had it sometimes, for their loyalty; bears, because they mate as we are supposed to do, face to face; and pygmies, because of their shape—although even they could be barred from humanity, because legends about them held that they were heliotropes, like sunflowers, mechanistically moved by a sun they only appeared to worship.[4] But here, neither the upper limit nor any other rates Higden’s attention. He provides no other border creature: neither between plants and stones, nor animals and humans, nor humans and spiritual beings. He needs just the one line, and everything else neatly follows. Just before the oyster, Higden enumerates the proper mathematical proportions of a well-arranged human body; just after, the gradual senectitude of the world since its creation, repeated on a smaller scale with every human life as it declines towards its own death. Then he lists a vast array of human customs throughout the world. First stability, then the oyster, then a bit of human difference, but not so much that the human becomes unrecognizable as human, as if the oyster’s stolid reliability laid the foundation for a safe field of play.

To be sure, oysters are not the stars of premodern animal writing: they are not lions, not birds, certainly not pigs or dogs or horses. But when they do get attention, they get it as border creatures, classifiers without themselves being quite classifiable. For one, they are sexless. Thought not to reproduce “like from like,” but to generate spontaneously from the actions of celestial bodies on the water, the oyster could at least be praised for its chastity.[5] Without the miscues of mating practiced or malpracticed by what were called the more perfect animals, oysters were perfectly suited – according to one fifteenth-century civic record from Norwich – to signify the “sadnesse and abstinence of merth [that] shulde followe…an holy tyme.”[6] And the proverbial “immobility” of the oyster—a title bestowed on them by Boethius, Aquinas, and Higden, among others[7] – makes them, especially, what remains “after we strip life of all its recognizable features”[8]: this later identification is from Michael Marder, here talking not about oysters, but plants, which for him represent “life in its archaic bareness…life as survival.”[9] Plants, however, grow in an “ineluctable bi-directionality…striving at once towards light and towards darkness”[10]; in seeking out good land, or in breaking into stone or soil, plants evince some kind of desire, preference, or “non-conscious intentionality.”[11] Not oysters: only the rare oyster writer suggests they rise to meet the sun or shrink from touch; otherwise, they are overwhelmingly unintentional animals, without direction, aim, or any evidence of desire. This passivity, finally, let Pliny, at one point, declare that oysters have no sensation at all,[12] and let another, medieval writer go so far as to present them as more like stones than animals. This is Philippe de Thaon, in his early twelfth-century bestiary, which considers oysters towards its conclusion, among diamonds, beryls, and other gems. Pearls come from oysters opening themselves “de lur gré” [3036; at their own will] to the dew of the heavens, “cum fusënt vivës creatures”[13] [3039; as if they were living creatures]. The ambiguity – this mixture of having a will and not quite being alive – neatly encapsulates the oyster’s uncertain, even universal, form of existence, which traverses life and nonlife, desire and mere mechanicity. In all this, as the sexless, immobile, even lifeless thing, the oyster is not much more than a figure of pure difference, whose only identity is that of being dubiously alive.

The mere vitality of the oyster can be better understood by contrasting it with another extreme figure of life, Lacan’s mythic lamella. In the course of his lectures on the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, Lacan offers up the lamella as a correction to the fable of the origin of love told by Aristophanes in the Symposium. As he argues, sexual difference is not the origin of the drive; it’s nothing so organic and simple as that. Lacan imagines that after the gods split the first, unified people apart, something must have remained, an “immortal” drive, “the libido, qua pure life instinct,” unattached, deathless, and “irrepressible.”[14] It is thin and flexible: the “lamella” is the gold foil buried in Greek and Roman graves, engraved with passwords for the afterlife,[15] or even, tantalizingly, the “flesh forming the gills of bivalve molluscs, such as clams or oysters (in the class Lamellibranchia).”[16] Just a border, a site of contact, a screen on which stimulation plays, the lamella has no particular form of its own, nor any particular aim, and therefore no capacity to satisfied. Lacan asks his audience to imagine it “envelop[ing]” their faces at night as they quietly sleep.[17] Undoubtedly, this very creepiness makes the lamella so good to think with; as a “horrible palpitation of the ‘acephalic’ drive which persists beyond ordinary death,”[18] the lamella represents what is so often held to be repulsive truth of the Real, the irrepressible, Lovecraftian “creeping chaos” beyond the symbolic.[19] But the oyster, at another extreme of life, just does nothing. It has its own form, bounded by a shell. It has no desire. To extend Lacan’s myth, it is as if, with the first splitting of the conjoined humans, there were not just the one, but two things left over, the lamella, that pure form of desire, and also the life that simply wants nothing, and which is, for that reason, beneath even Lacan’s attention. Here lies something inert, undirected, less content than beyond caring, but still there and living for all that. If the lamella is a figure of “living death,” the oyster might therefore be called “deathly living” or “lifeless life,” without any of the dissatisfaction of social existence, without the motion that even a disorganized, lamellic drive demands. The oyster just sits there, wanting nothing, responding to nothing, aiming at nothing, a creature whose immobile uninterest might be recognized only retroactively as having been a form of life, only after it has been killed and reduced to a still lesser inertness.

None of this means, however, that the psychic state of the oyster cannot be represented. But what is represented, again, is a kind of border existence, an attempt to imagine the psychic life of a nullity. Efforts towards this end run from Plato all the way to the Enlightenment. Plato first describes this kind of life in his Gorgias, here imagining it not with the oyster, but rather with the charadrios, a “stonecurlew,”[20] whose infamous habit, per one sixth-century commentator, was eating and excreting almost simultaneously.[21] For Plato, this shore bird represented a being that functions as little more than a conduit. Because it lacks the capacity of self-mastery that would deliberately distinguish it from the rest of existence, it is helplessly, passively open, with no capacity but the unresistant, undeliberative capacity of receiving pleasure. Not incidentally, Plato’s other two examples in Gorgias include “leaky jars” and, more strikingly, kinaidos, catamites, subject to the pleasures of others, but without any of the shame or self-mastery requisite for any upstanding member of the polis.[22] By his Philebus, these examples of a life lived only “in enjoyment of the greatest pleasures” had been reduced to sea creatures, “a mollusk” or “jellyfish” and also “one of those creatures in shells that live in the sea.”[23] The Latin Middle Ages had access to very little of Plato’s corpus, and to the Gorgias and Philebus none at all;[24] further work on this oyster passage would have to await the middle of the fifteenth century, with Marsilio Ficino. His Philebus commentary freely translates, equating the life of unknowing pleasure to that of “jelly fish, or a stupid living thing” [insensati et stupidi animalis], “like that of the marine oyster.”[25] To advance his condemnation, Ficino concentrates on the jelly fish, which he characterizes as soft, delicate, easy to puncture, unable to move, with undifferentiated organs, typically found strewn on shorelines. Shaped like a lung (as the Greek pleumon or pneumon can mean both this and “jelly fish”[26]), their shape is just that of an open sack, “semper…aperitur et clauditur,” always being opened and closed. This ongoing, indifferent receptivity, Ficino says, is an image of “the life of pleasure without wisdom…the lowest form of life, the one closest to death,” for this pleasure, enjoyed without knowledge, would be “exactly as if it were not there.” Just this side of existence, or non-existence, Ficino’s oyster is at once stolid, insensible, and flexible, shapeless, and too mobile, not quite anything in itself, yet still there for all that.

The eighteenth-century Enlightenment Encyclopedia provides two last developments of this idea, in its entries on both “innate” and “pleasure.” Diderot’s entry on the former concept observes that all that is innate to us are the faculties of sensing and touching; everything else we know is acquired through the senses. Remove sight, he observes, and all the ideas that belong to sight vanish, and so on with each sense: smell, taste, hearing, touch. Without the higher senses, abstract thought becomes impossible. Contrarily, “suppose a shapeless but sensing mass”: this mass would have all the ideas pertaining to touch, and, to this, each additional sense could be added one by one. The modes of knowledge associated with each sense would necessarily follow, with abstract ideas arising at least with a full complement of senses. Thus, writes Diderot, “through this method and through the other, we can reduce a human to the state of an oyster, and elevate an oyster to the state of a human.”[27] Then, the entry on pleasure considers whether the pleasures of the soul surpass those of the senses. The former pleasures, alone, would give the delights of the liberal arts: history, geometry, fine letters, and an unalterable joy; the latter pleasures would, as it were, produce a being “encased in its shell,” with all its happiness resulting from the “blind” and sourd — “dull” or “deaf” — feelings of the moment. The entry bemoans humanity’s weakness. Few would prefer the former, philosophically heroic life; most would be content to experience the mere sensory “félicité” — “happiness,” or even “bliss” or “ecstasy” – “of an oyster.”[28]

All that is left is pure sensation, the “sensus solus” which is all that most commentators grant the oyster.[29] What this sensory power actually is, and how it has been read and misread in the millennia since Aristotle, has been studied most thoroughly in Daniel Heller-Roezen’s The Inner Touch. For Aristotle and his commentators, this fundamental “common sense” is that quality through which a sense perceives that it is sensing; his later disciples describe it as the hub to which all senses report, which establishes the possibility for communication between them, so that one and the same object might be identified simultaneously as white and sweet.[30] For the Stoics, on the other hand, so committed to the supremacy of human reason, this sense is the one through which all living things exercise care for themselves by feeling some self-ownership. Whatever it might be—and Heller-Roezen teases it out intricately—it is not “self-awareness” or “self-consciousness.”[31] The inner sense, this sensus solus, is more fundamental than this or any thought, because unlike thought, it cannot be removed or fully distinguished from the thing being sensed, even if it operates only by virtue of the slight gap between the sensed thing and the sensation.

With this sense, and not much else, the oyster is animal life that cannot be abstracted from its present condition. It is animal, but less mobile than a plant, since even the kelp that move in the water grow. It is alive, but seems more like a stone than an animal. Its sensitive life is bounded by a shell, which, in its helplessness, makes it most like a flapping jellyfish. Wanting nothing, it has nothing but a certain, virtually indefinable sensation. Here we have as bare a lump of life as could be imagined, with none of the vitality or striving that so often accompanies metaphors of “liveliness” or “vitality.” [32] What could be done with such a life, and what could possibly be owed it?

[for the beginning of an exploration of what to do about this]

[1] Ranulf Higden and John Trevisa, Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden with Trevisa’s Translation, ed. Joseph Rawson Lumby (London: Longman & Co., 1865), Vol. II, 179.

[2] Ibid., 181. For similar statements, see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. J. F. Anderson et al., 5 vols. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1955), II.68, “How an intellectual substance can be the form of the body,” and John Weemes, The Portraiture of the Image of God in Man (London: John Bellamie, 1632), 56–57.

[3] For “nonfinite,” see Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 5, “The list of ‘what is proper to man’ always forms a configuration, from the first moment. For that very reason, it can never be limited to a single trait and it is never closed; structurally speaking it can attract a nonfinite number of other concepts, beginning with the concept of a concept.”

[4] For pygmies, John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1981), 190–96; Joseph Koch, “Sind die Pygmäen Menschen? Ein Kapitel aus der philosophischen Anthropologie der mittelalterlichen Scholastik,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 40, no. 2 (1931): 209–13.

[5] For representative statements on the generation of oysters, Pliny the Elder, Natural History, ed. and trans. H. Rackham, 10 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940), IX.LXXIV, Vol. 3:273, and X.LXXXVII, Vol. 3:413. Robert Grosseteste, On the Six Days of Creation: A Translation of the Hexaëmeron, trans. C. F. J. Martin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 195 (for “like from like”); and Henry Buttes, Dyets Dry Dinner: Consisting of Severall Courses (London: Thomas Creede, 1599), 102; for chastity, as part of a debate in which bees, geese, flax, oysters, and other things argue over which provides more service to humans, Michael Maier, Lusus Serius: Or, Serious Passe-Time. A Philosophical Discourse Concerning the Superiority of Creatures under Man, trans. J. de la Salle [pseudonym of John Hall of Durham] (London: Humphrey Moseley, 1654), 35–36. The Latin original is Michael Maier, Lusus Serius (Oppenheim: Luke Jennis, 1619), 23.

[6] The quotation is from one account of the Lenten costume John Gladman supposedly wore for his January 25, 1443 revolt in Norwich; cited from Chris Humphrey, The Politics of Carnival: Festive Misrule in Medieval England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 66.

[7] For Aquinas, see n2, above. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, V, prose 5.

[8] Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 22.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 63.

[11] Ibid., 37.

[12] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, IX.71, Vol. 3:267, “nullum esse sensum, ut ostreis.”

[13] Sharron Hogan Cottin-Bizonne, “Une nouvelle édition du Bestiaire de Philippe de Thaon” (PhD Thesis, University of North Carolina, 2003). For a more easily accessible edition, Emmanuel Walberg, ed., Le Bestiaire de Philippe de Thaün (Lund: Möller, 1900). The edition in Thomas Wright, ed. and trans., Popular Treatises on Science Written during the Middle Ages (London: Y.R. and J.E. Taylor, 1841), should be avoided; Walberg observes that Wright “quelquefois mal lu,” which holds true for the section on pearls and oysters too. Cottin-Bizonne’s notes cite Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies and the Physiologus, but neither of these works include Philippe’s subjunctive assessment of the oyster’s vitality, nor anything about the oyster’s intentionality.

[14] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Karnac, 1977), 198.

[15] Darian Leader, “Lacan’s Myths,” in The Cambridge Companion to Lacan, ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 45–47.

[16] Oliver Harris, Lacan’s Return to Antiquity: Between Nature and the Gods (New York: Routledge, 2017), 75, quoting Richard Boothby’s 1991 Lacan commentary. Harris, 67-75, is a particularly thorough account of the mythographic character of this Lacanian image.

[17] Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 197.

[18] Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 118.

[19] For an exemplary championing of putrefaction, Ben Woodard, Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012).

[20] Donald J. Zeyl, trans., Gorgias, in Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, Associate Editor, D. S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 494b, 837.

[21] Olympiodorus the Younger of Alexandria, Commentary on Plato’s Gorgias, trans. Robin Jackson, Kimon Lycos, and Harold Tarrant (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 210. To the best of my knowledge, this habit is recorded nowhere else in ancient natural history. Other accounts of the charadrios—Hugh of Fouilloy, for example (De bestiis et aliis rebus, PL 177:77C) —speak instead of its diagnostic and curative potency: if it is brought to a sick person, and turns its head away, this is a certain sign that the person will die, but otherwise, it can suck out the sickness from the patient’s mouth and fly towards the sun to burn it up.

[22] Christina H. Tarnopolsky, Prudes, Perverts, and Tyrants: Plato’s Gorgias and the Politics of Shame (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 22.

[23] Dorothea Frede, trans., Philebus, in Plato, Complete Works. 21d, 409.

[24] Raymond Klibanksy, The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition during the Middle Ages: Outlines of a Corpus Platonicum Medii Aevi (Munich: Kraus, 1981). and the four volumes, overseen by Klibansky, of Plato Latinus, comprising translations of Meno, Phaedo, Parmenides, and Timaeus, by far the most widely read of these.

[25] Marsilio Ficino, The Philebus Commentary, trans. Michael J. B. Allen (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000), 316.

[26] Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Revised and Augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the Assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), s.v., “πλεύμων” and “πνεύμων,” Perseus Digital Library. (accessed Feb 13 2017).

[27] Diderot, Denis. “Innate.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Timothy Cleary. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2004. (accessed Feb 13, 2017). Originally published as “Inné,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 8:754 (Paris, 1765).

[28] “Pleasure,” Ibid. Translated by Robert H. Ketchum, 2007. (accessed Feb 13, 2017). Originally published as “Plaisir,” Ibid., 12:691 (Paris, 1765).

[29] Boethius, Consolation, V, prose 5, 417, in Loeb Classical Library 74.

[30] For this last point, for example, The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation (New York: Zone Books, 2009), 36, 45, and 120.

[31] Ibid., 40, 62.

[32] For an exemplary discussion of resistance and unpredictability as a key feature of “life,” see Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 32.

Does the Oyster Need “Agency”?

This week in oyster thinking, a chunk of a chapter for Book2.

In Descartes, Plato, Boethius, Ficino, in the whole of this tradition, the oyster occupies the zero point of animal existence. A life without motion, sentience, gender differentiation, without social relations, even to itself, a life indifferent to any sovereign incursion or biopolitical intervention, this is a living being far barer than any Agamben ever described. We might have called this way of existence a “threshhold of indistinction,” or a “zone” of “indifference” or “indetermination” or “undecidability,” “in which the words ‘life’ and ‘death’ had lost their meaning,”[1] were there a juridical exclusion, political danger, or trauma that could be described or recognized in oysterdom without insulting the dignity of Agamben’s own somber catalog of examples: Franciscans, Jesus, Auschwitz, and so on. But the oyster is not in any danger that it could attend to or worry about: it is just indifferent, to us, to itself, to anything, with only enough difference to give it the basic spatially and temporally bounded persistence that we call existence itself, which, of course, means a clearing bounded inescapably by its own nonexistence. This oystery “bare life” produces a version of the concept that we need not worry about, one that requires none of the counterhegemonic, paradoxic textual analysis or Messianic hopes that Agamben’s category demands, because oysters are naturally, inescapably “bare life,” and could never be otherwise. Amid the obvious ecological benefits of fostering shoals of oysters, what moral impediment could there be, then, to taking one or a dozen oystery lives out of these billions and swallowing them down?

The problem is in the preservation of the category of “bare life” itself, even with a being that suits the category so perfectly, because so long as this category is preserved, a space has been left open for innocent killing. The subpolitical, supposedly “natural” ostreum sacrum describes a zone that will inevitably encompass the homo sacer, any form of human and other life that is held to be relatively insensible to pain, stolid, unthinking, unreflective, nonindividual, swarming, and so on. This alone is sufficient reason for catalyzing what is by now a typical ecocritical, posthuman response of investing oysters and others with the qualities they would require for their protection. With some groups, people most obviously, this investment has the character of justice; with others, like oysters, it can just look silly. But in either case, working against the exclusive possession of “agency” requires recognizing that the distribution of the recognition of “agency” is a political problem. Limit cases might help us recognize this better than more “natural” agential groups, because limit cases require not simply applying, but rethinking, fundamental assumptions.

Twenty-first century critical theory has witnessed a systematic upending of what Freud identified as the progress of civilization, and, given the homologies he drew between so-called “primitive” cultures and childhood, the progress of adulthood itself. His essay on the Unconscious observes that we — by which he means adult, well-functioning humans, neither children nor primitives nor neurotics —once had extended the recognition of consciousness “to other human beings, to animals, plants, inanimate objects, and to the world at large”; today, in this case, meaning 1915 and its European geotemporal environs, “our critical judgment is already in doubt on the question of consciousness in animals; we refuse to admit in animals, and we regard the assumption of its existence in inanimate matter as mysticism.”[2] A hundred years later, we might say that the process is almost exactly reversed. In a representative essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Michael Marder rightly observes that “for scientists … the superiority of human intelligence over other primates is a mere hypothesis to be tested and subsequently verified or declined”;[3] even with their short lives, even with their asociality in relation to other members of their species, some octopuses express preferences for certain individuals and show a real knack for improvisational solutions to unfamiliar problems;[4] furthermore, as might be expected from the author of Plant-Thinking, Marder argues that tests for “problem solving, collaboration, and adaptation would need to be indexed to the appropriate environments and needs of each kind of organism, be it an underground labyrinth of mineral resources and moisture in the case of a tree or a complex network of social interactions holding the promise of positive reinforcement in the case of a human child.” The name of his article? “Smart as an Oak.” If apes and octopuses and oaks are not merely prey to ongoing and aimless chains of cause and effect, but also actors in their own right, then oysters might as well be also granted subjecthood, to rescue them too from the thoughtless good conscience of instrumental reason.

This gift of recognition, development of a new critical sensitivity, or misanthropocist mystification—depending on one’s own theoretical habits—would come to know that oysters and other supposedly “passive and inert”[5] things possess vibrancy, animacy, and “hidden volcanic depths.”[6] This faith, delusion, or attentiveness might be enough at least to make us hesitate before we put things to use. Some exemplary moments: Vinciane Despret’s What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions repeatedly recognizes that not instinct, but play, disappointment, and other “excessive” motives drive nonhuman behavior.[7] Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things speaks of the “liveliness of objects,” Latourian actants with “their own powers, their own innate tendencies.”[8] Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway observes that “it takes a radical rethinking of agency to appreciate how lively even ‘dead matter’ can be.”[9] Medieval literary studies has joined in: like Susan Signe Morrison’s Literature of Waste begins its discussion of Beowulf by observing that “the dynamic agency of objects litters the literary canon, a repository of stuff and matter”[10]; J. Allan Mitchell’s Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child, speaks of a “miniature medieval horseman [that] possesses agency and autonomy no matter the environment in which it is placed”[11]; and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, shoves aside the unthinking pleonasm of “human agency” with conjunctions like “material agency” or “inhuman agency.”[12] All of this meets Jane Bennett’s call in Vibrant Matter for a “touch of anthropomorphism”[13] or what Steven Shaviro suggests as “a certain cautious anthropomorphism”[14] that would recognize the “creative agency” of earthworms, power grids, metals, garbage, and so on.

Shaviro rightly insists that this kind of work is ultimately needed not to extend anthropomorphism, but “to avoid” it. The development of critical sensitivity to agency in unexpected places must be recognized not as a delusion, but as a strategic decision made within an already existing assumption that things that are lively, vibrant, animated, and agential— things most like the abstract concept of “the human”—deserve protections and forms of political and moral recognition that mere objects do not possess. This is not enough, however. The point of “granting” things “agency” (and other associated qualities) is not to give these things this quality and then call it a day, but rather to break apart anthropomorphism from the inside. Designations and discoveries of “nonhuman agency” thus first, strategically endorse assumptions like those laid out in George Ripley’s fifteenth-century Compend of Alchemy, which explains that “Thinges ther be no mo / But kinde withe kynde in nomber two, / Male and female, agent and pacient,”[15] so that they can “rescue” objects from the disdained side of being a female, patient, object. But then they make these binaries strange, and, like any good posthumanist critique, dissolve our sedimented human certainties. When a speaker from the 2015 meeting of the American Historical Association observes “whenever I hear a student say that objects have agency, I say that I have a bridge that wants to sell itself to them,”[16] some might be emboldened to insist again on human difference, while others, through a “touch of anthropomorphism,” might draw the bridge into a circle of agency that nonetheless remains locked into a stubbornly anthropocentric orbit. Some might be led to wonder, however, whether we can in fact cordon human agency off so readily from the patently absurd “agency” of a bridge. Definitions of “agency” that explain it as belonging to beings “that can…direct [their] own activities”[17] and are “not purely governed by instinct”[18]; that are not “purposeless objects”;[19] that are “responsible for what they do”[20] obviously do nothing but exclude oysters, so immobile and so blameless; but they should make us wonder whether any act can be arrived at so neatly through self-governance. Not that this elaboration could have been handled in a tweet, but surely the supposedly agential anyone selling a bridge must do so with dead generations weighing on their brains like an incubus (wie ein Alp).[21] And Freud’s elaboration of the world-historical trajectory of critical knowledge in his essay on the Unconscious ends not with a lonely human clarity, in which we are the only conscious things, but rather, of course, with an uncovering of multiple agencies at work in us, which he admits could be understood at least partly as “a further expansion of…primitive animism.”[22] Once infected by the skepticism that attends any concerted attempt to explain any concept that otherwise goes without saying, “anthropomorphism” seems to have less to do with granting things “agency” and more to do with entangling a wider class of beings within our own uncertainties and suspicions.

For if true agency requires self-direction, and straightforward responsibility freed in some respect from instinct, then it requires something like a miracle. It ultimately requires an unmoved mover, or the surprise of something emerging ex nihilo, which is much the same thing. The eleventh-century Cur Deus Homo of Anselm of Canterbury provides one such picture of ultimate, pure agency when it asserts that “God does nothing of necessity, since nothing whatever can coerce or restrain him in his actions,” where, since even God’s necessity of avoiding dishonor comes “from himself and not from another,” it is “improper to call it necessity.”[23] That’s a high bar to clear. Another, more sublunary picture of agency, which likewise springs free of at least all apparent necessity, has the character what Badiou calls an “event,” because its “aleatory dimension” and “pure contingency” breaks the mechanistic progression of things to open a space for something truly new to emerge.[24] The event comes at or out of us through what William Connolly characterized as the “creative dimension of freedom,” in which improvisation surprises the performer, which makes agency possible by dividing it from the causal determinations of mere intention.[25] A real “agency,” if it must be free of causal chains, must therefore have an “automatic” character, in the densely meaningful sense of this Greek word as it was translated, with difficulty, by Latin medieval philosophers. Automatic entered Latin in the twelfth century, primarily through Aristotle’s efforts in his Metaphyics and Physics to distinguish between three kinds of causation: natural, artistic—the Greek is techne—and automaton. When it was not simply transliterated, it was rendered either “a casu”[26] [by chance], “per se vano”[27] [by itself, without purpose], “per se frustra”[28] [for no purpose in itself], or “per se”[29] [through itself], that is, in excess of the control of some external force. Read as a whole, automatic agency is unrecognizable, unconnected, unmotivated, useless, which is much the same as saying self-motivated, or up to its own, mysterious use. Since the irreducibly automatic character of authentic agency always slips its bonds to other actions, other things, other desires, who or what could have agency as such? Since no particular being could seem to possess it, in itself, “weaker” or nonsubjective notions of agency can be more readily defended, if much less easily identified, than those that rely on divisions between subject and object, cause and effect, self-motivated acts and those that are merely instinctual.

These are the concepts of agency that emerge out of feminist critique, in which agency is a kind of middle status of responsibility and possibility that must always be understood as operating in heterogeneous, not fully predictable fields of force.[30] Kathryn Abrams built on years of feminist work, particularly black feminism, to argue that the fantasy of the autonomous liberal humanist subject does anything but liberate women. The feminist struggle requires collective action. It requires abandoning the dream of going it alone, a dream that, at any rate, has always sustained itself by forgetting the “background labor” that fosters the self. It knows that the very sense of autonomy is itself a roadblock, since the autonomous self is a fetish to the degree that it believes its wants to be entirely its own. Feminist struggle requires not autonomy, but agency, which, without allowing women “to transcend…socially conditioned versions of self,” nonetheless allows them “greater room in which to affirm, reinterpret, resist, or partially replace them.”[31] In this formulation, “agency” is not opposed to passivity, but rather elbows out some wiggle room within a field of limited action and dependence to acknowledge how actors without obvious political power, without much obvious choice, without obvious importance, and even without deliberation or subjectivity, can still resist, fight back, or make something new. Here, “agency” recognizes that things happen mostly not through breaks, but through nudges, where self-consciousness is never untangled from social consciousness and its constraining productivities; here, what counts as an effective subject can only be determined after the fact, to single out what amid a bounded phenomena swerved the neat line of causality. To all this, we can add Butler’s feminist critique of the presumption that doer must lie behind a deed, and Irigaray’s characterization of a feminine sexuality as a “ceaseless exchange of herself with the other without any possibility of identifying either,”[32] or we can return to the or the “agential realism” of Barad, in which “agency is not held, it is not a property of persons or things; rather, agency is an enactment, a matter of possibilities for reconfiguring entanglements.”[33] If, as Despret argues, “there is no agency that is not interagency,”[34] then there is no way to recognize the agency of the oyster without accounting for the field within which the agency operates, including the field of recognition itself.

Rather than gifting oysters with a “touch of anthropomorphism,” we ourselves might instead catch a “touch of oystermorphism” by recognizing how much we have in common with their haplessness. We will get a more thoroughgoing posthumanism, one less invested in pride in our human capacity, if we put helplessness rather than agency at the heart of our analysis. If we start here, we will also do a better job of escaping the persistent liberal humanism underlying the assumptions that good political analysis, and even the identification of ethically relevant beings, requires “giving back” agency to those who lost it, and that recognizing this “agency” requires recognizing how these beings resist or otherwise break free of their circumstances.[35] Derrida questioned “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man…what he refuses the animal, and whether he can ever possess the pure, rigorous, indivisible concept, as such, of that attribution.”[36] Agency and its associated qualities surely numbers among these shaky attributions. We can recall Kleist’s “On the Marionette Theater,” which imagines that as the self-consciousness of the best artists fades, their art reemerges in “a purity that has either no consciousness or consciousness without limit: either the jointed doll or the god,”[37] or, just as well, we might remember Tolstoy’s evacuation of agency in his account of Napoleon’s Russian campaign in his War and Peace: this is not a war of generals only, and certainly not of generals primarily, but of assemblages of terrain, appetites, masses of soldiers, and the flammability of a great wooden city in winter, where plans are always after the fact, and “everything is the result of numberless collisions of various wills.”[38] With all this in mind, we can attend better to our own secondariness; our not fully conscious belatedness in relation to our own situation; to the basic, inescapable vulnerability of existence. Ultimately, then, we may not need a touch of oysterpomorphism if we understand our own humanity correctly. A “touch of anthropomorphism” for oysters could just as well recognize their helplessness, their compulsions, their need to be somewhere, a need no mobility can elude. For whatever our pride in our freedom, all this is human too.

[1] Citations, respectively, from Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 222; Use of Bodies, 22; Use of Bodies, 28; The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 26; Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 164.

[2] Sigmund Freud, The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989), 575.

[3] Michael Marder, “Smart as an Oak?,” Los Angeles Review of Books: The Philosophical Salon, September 21, 2005,

[4] For a brief statement on the “scandal of the cephalopods,” Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 71; two recent books on this “scandal”: Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (New York: Atria Books, 2016), and Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).

[5] Steven Shaviro, The Universe of Things (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 48.

[6] “Animacy” is the focus of Mel Y Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). Volcanic depths is a favored metaphor of Graham Harman: see, inter alia, Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures (Winchester UK: Zero Books, 2010).

[7] Vinciane Despret, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?, trans. Brett Buchanan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016); for an exemplary moment, 38–44.

[8] Shaviro, Universe of Things, 48.

[9] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 419 n27.

[10] Susan Signe Morrison, The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 125.

[11] J. Allan Mitchell, Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 62.

[12] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[13] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 99.

[14] Shaviro, Universe of Things, 61.

[15] Cited in Hans Kurath and Sherman M. Kuhn, ““pācient(e” 2d.” Middle English Dictionary, Jan 31, 2017,

[16] Ethan Kleinberg, “#AHA2015 #s214 BK: ‘whenever I Hear a Student Say That Objects Have Agency I Say That I Have a Bridge Who Wants to Sell Itself to Them.,’”, @ekleinberg, (January 4, 2015),

[17] Helen Steward, “Animal Agency,” Inquiry 52, no. 3 (2009): 226.

[18] Chris Pearson, “Dogs, History, and Agency,” History and Theory 52 (2013): 135.

[19] Ibid., 129.

[20] Ralf Stoeker, quoted in Chris Pearson, “History and Animal Agencies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies, ed. Linda Kalof (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 247.

[21] “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1978), 595; translation modified slightly.

[22] Freud, The Freud Reader, 577.

[23] “Why God became Man,” II.v, in Eugene Rathbone Fairweather, ed., A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), 150.

[24] Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 4.

[25] William E. Connolly, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 75.

[26] Gudrun Vuillemin-Diem, ed., Metaphysica, Lib. I-XIV. Recensio et Translatio Guillelmi de Moerbeka, 2 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1995), VII.

[27] Metaphysics commentary Book VII, Lesson 6; Latin available online through the Dominican House of Studies: Priory of the Immaculate Conception,

[28] Physics commentary, Book II, Lesson 9. Latin available online the Dominican House of Studies: Priory of the Immaculate Conception,

[29] Cited in Maaike van der Lugt, Le ver, le démon et la Vierge: Les théories médiévales de la génération extraordinaire. Une étude sur les rapports entre théologie, philosophie naturelle et médecine (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2004), 134.

[30] Catriona Mackenzie and Natalie Stoljar, eds., Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), and, further back, Bronwyn Davies, “The Concept of Agency: A Feminist Poststructuralist Analysis,” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 30 (1991): 42–53, both cited hundreds of times, although rarely or never by speculative realists.

[31] Kathryn Abrams, “From Autonomy to Agency: Feminist Perspectives on Self-Direction,” William & Mary Law Review 40, no. 3 (1999): 825.

[32] Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter, with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 31.

[33] Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, “Interview with Karen Barad,” in New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012), 54.

[34] Vinciane Despret, “From Secret Agents to Interagency,” History and Theory 52 (2013): 44.

[35] Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37, no. 1 (2003): 113–24; see also his reaffirmation of these ideas in “To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice,” Boston Review, October 26, 2016,

[36] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 135.

[37] Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Marionette Theater,” trans. Thomas G. Neumiller, The Drama Review 16, no. 3 (1972): 22–26. [nb – REQUIRE CORRECT TRANSLATION or DO IT YOURSELF]: “Reinsten…der entweder gar keins, oder ein unendliches Bewußtsein hat, d. h. in dem Gliedermann, oder in dem Gott.”

[38] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 709.

Exeter Riddle 77: The Oyster

Sae mec feede,    sundhelm þeahte,
Ond mec yþa wrugon   eorþan getenge,
feþelease;   oft ic flode ongean
muð ontynde. [1]

[ The sea fed me; the water-helm was over me, and waves covered me, [close to the ground]. I was footless. Often toward the sea I opened my mouth.][2]

The answer is going to be oyster. But that answer will arrive only when the oyster dies. Prior to that, we get a whole world. In imagining the oyster amid all this, sea and water and earth and mouth, the Anglo-Saxon riddle fulfills Stacy Alaimo’s demand, in her study of the deep sea, not to represent its denizens as isolated in a “clean aesthetic” against a featureless background, as they so often are in photobooks, but as enmeshed in a “dynamic liquid materiality” comprising a “soupy mix of particles and tiny creatures” in which no one single perspective predominates.[3] With the sea as its helmet, with the waves covering or hiding it, with the earth close against it (“getenge”), the shell or the boundary of the oyster is not its lonely enclosure, but its world, its caregiver, its outside, and interior self. They feed me, and they shelter me, the oyster says, with the object pronoun mec coming twice before the ic in the third line’s second half. But even this belated subject pronoun just marks an opening to the sea, an invitation to be filled again: “Often toward the sea I [ic] opened my mouth.” That is, the oyster speaks only enough of an I for there to be space for the ocean to flow into it, to give purchase to this flow of giving and feeding. For an oyster’s open mouth is its whole body opened. Luce Irigaray’s vaginal environmental writing here suggests itself, as in her Elemental Passions’ “there is nothing to create a wall. Leaves, and trees, and birds, and sky, and grass, all cross and brush each other continuously: a supple and mobile dwelling.”[4] So does, inevitably, Francis Ponge’s prose poem on the oyster, in whose interior one finds a whole world, sky, earth, and flowing sea. Then, almost halfway through, with the “muð ontynde,” the opened mouth, it is as if the riddle reaches back to its first line, “sae mec feede,” the sea fed me, closing the loop on the opening to circulate the sea again and again through the oyster’s cavernous body. In the loop we have distinction without antagonism, difference disentangled from the struggle for recognition. Then this happens:

 Nu wile monna sum
min flæsc fretan;    felles ne recceð
siþþan he me of sidan   seaxes orde
hyd arypeð,    […]ec hr[.] þe siþþan
iteð unsodene ea […..…..…..…….]d.

[Now will some man devour my flesh. He does not want my skin, when he rips off my hide with the point of a knife, and then quickly eats me uncooked….]

Ontological and temporal distinction from this sheltering and shared self comes only in the “nu,” the now, when a man snatches out the oyster to give it the cut of mortality. Note the strange presentation of its shell here: not the expected “scille,” shell – which admittedly would not fit the alliterative form – but fellen, a leathery word,[5] suggesting less rigidity, clear boundaries, or protection than a flexible, inadequate border, or a transformation of the oyster into just any other kind of animal, available for indifferent slaughter. Almost as soon as it arrives, this border is discarded, and what had been a sheltering flow becomes silence. The riddle — because it is a riddle, but especially because it is this riddle — thus offers itself up almost programmatically to what is by now the ecocritical mode that treats any conceptual isolation as a misapprehension, reification, or still worse. After all, we are invited to solve the riddle, and thereby fix the oyster as oyster, only after it disappears unboiled and unhappy down a human gullet to its final silence and death.[6] What had been “fretan,” which like the German freßen, distinguishes animal feeding from human, cultural eating, becomes “iteð” only in the last line, only at the point when the human can enwrap the oyster in its own preferred understand of its appetite. The oyster has been allowed to speak only long enough to witness to its own helplessness, witness to a human eater that swallows it thoughtlessly, and to hint back to the world where it once belonged, where it once had only enough form to be enwrapped and protected and fed. And then only enough to be available to being killed.

[1] Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the “Exeter Book” (Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 1977), 110. The damage to the manuscript offers several possible reconstructions of the riddle’s final lines; compare Williamson to, for example, Frederick Tupper, ed., The Riddles of the Exeter Book (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1910), 52–53, “ iteð unsodene ea…” Recent extended treatments of the riddles as a whole include Dieter Bitterli, Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009) and Patrick J. Murphy, Unriddling the Exeter Riddles (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011): neither has much to say about this particular poem. For a brief and lively treatment of the Exeter Book, and its medieval career, among other things, as a cutting board and occasional table, Craig Williamson, trans., The Complete Old English Poems (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 299–302.

[2] Translation primarily from W. S. Mackie, ed. and trans., The Exeter Book, Part 2: Poems 9-32, Early English Texts Society, O. S. 194 (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), 215, modified with reference to Paull F. Baum, trans., Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1963), 27. Generally, critics have thought the oyster either ridiculous or have rescued into some sober human moral or historical meaning: see Mercedes Salvador, “The Oyster and the Crab: A Riddle Duo (Nos. 77 and 78) in the Exeter Book,” Modern Philology 101, no. 3 (2004): 400–419 (a critique of gluttony during a period of Benedictine dietary reform);  Brian McFadden, “Raiding, Reform, and Reaction: Wondrous Creatures in the Exeter Book Riddles,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 50, no. 4 (2008): 329–51 (brief reference amid a historicist interpretation on violence and anxiety);  Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, Dire Straits: The Perils of Writing the Early Modern English Coastline from Leland to Milton (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 16 (the oyster is “comically buffeted”). The only treatment that considers the oyster as an oyster belongs to Heide Estes, Old English Literary Landscapes: Ecotheory and the Anglo-Saxon Environmental Imagination (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017).

[3] “Violet-Black,” in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ed., Prismatic Ecology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 241–42.

[4] Luce Irigaray, Elemental Passions, trans. Joanne Collie and Judith Still (New York: Routledge, 1992), 69.

[5] See Megan Cavell, Weaving Words and Binding Bodies: The Poetics of Human Experience in Old English Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 87.

[6] Those seeking an origin of this ecological insight elsewhere than, in particular, Heidegger might look instead to Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), 11, “In truth, all concepts, even the philosophical ones, refer to nonceptualities, because concepts on their part are moments of the reality that require their formation, primarily for the control of nature.” Irigaray is of course also relevant.