“The Hunger,” or Precarious Self

3172529153_98325ef2c2How does the cliché go? “Being a blogger means never having to say you’re sorry”? Brooklyn College begins its semester today (and before your jealous hackles rise, know that it ends on May 20th), and I imagine many of my colleagues will complain about how quickly the break went, wondering what they could have done to make it better. These wistful words have been mine, too, but not this time. In the midst of various obligatory visits, I managed to exceed my own expectations, generating about 100 pages of [what I think of as] good solid bookdraft. What suffered? The blog, and, even if I don’t have to, I apologize.

What follows below is the conclusion to a chapter. It relies heavily on Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, a book whose title promised productive interchange with my own (titled, at this point, How to Make a Human: Violence and Animals in the Middle Ages). I’ve not been disappointed, but I’ve also experienced a sense of relief in reading it. G. W. Bush had not yet finished his first term when Butler published many of the pieces that comprise Precarious Life, and the conditions she analyzed and decried only worsened in the four years following the book’s first edition. She wrote against the conditions of Guantanamo, where the US held prisoners in a place outside the law [baring in mind edit, haha bearing in mind the complex relation to the outside Agamben analyzes in Homo Sacer and State of Exception], where the US held prisoners, we now know, for the sake of being held, held with no expectation of their ever being prosecuted of anything, held them, it seems, only to be tortured (see here: “the Bush administration’s focus on detention and interrogation made preparation of viable prosecutions a far lower priority”). With so much changing in the last week, not least of all, the condition of being of the Guantanamo prisoners, much of Butler’s book has become obsolete. Perhaps “obsolete” is not quite the right word, but it is certain that its relation to the present has changed utterly.

At the same time, Butler’s analysis will, for better or worse, be of continued utility. Its applicability–despite Butler’s persistent [albeit complicated] humanism–to critical animal theorists has already been insisted upon by Chloë Taylor when she writes, inter alia,

When exposed to the fragility of human bodies, to our own mortality, we say that we are sick like dogs, that we die like dogs, that, in the worst cases, we are slaughtered like sheep. Contra Butler, it would seem that vulnerability makes us animal, rather than specifically human. It is insofar as we are animal, embodied, that we are vulnerable. (66)

Inspired by Butler, in league with Taylor, and animated by more hope than I have felt in years, I wrote the following words, which I expect you to read, if at all, only in your leisure.


“Frank fed us human meat, and we got the hunger. That’s how you become a cannibal, Dee. You get one taste of delicious, delicious human meat, none of this stuff ever satisfies you ever again for the rest of your life.”

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia [thanks Mike Smith for turning me on to this clip]

Judith Butler has written about the exclusions that mark certain lives as “grievable” and exclude others from the community of concern. “Each of us,” she writes, “is constituted politically in part by virtue of the social vulnerability of our bodies.” Those not recognized as belonging to the community have no social vulnerability. They are not recognized as vulnerable insofar as they are not recognized as belonging to the community of those whose lives matter and thus who are understood as being fully alive. They, who “cannot be mourned because they are always already lost, or, rather, never ‘were,’” who possess only what Agamben terms “bare life,” a life outside the boundaries of a meaningful life or death, cannot be recognized as suffering violence, since no one feels any outrage or sense of shared suffering for what they suffer. Thus, “if violence is done against those who are unreal…from the perspective of violence, it fails [from the perspective of the dominant community] to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated.” This exclusion, which is, to cite Derrida’s phrase again, a “denegation of murder,” helps constitute the human, for, as Butler writes, “I am as much constituted by those I do grieve for as by those whose deaths I disavow.” She writes that therefore the obituary should be understood “as an act of nation-building,” but, as Chloë Taylor insisted in a recent reading of Butler, the obituary should also be understood as an act by which animals lives become forgotten. After all, no casualty list ever records massacres of beasts.

It bears repeating that in the dominant medieval intellectual and social traditions, animals do not belong to the community of the grievable; to recall Augustine, animals “are dissociated from us by their want of reason, and are therefore by the just appointment of the Creator subjected to us to kill or keep alive for our own uses.” Being that animals are given over to humans to be used, it would be absurd to mourn their deaths, to grant them some manner of obituary, to pray for the horse, as Bevis asks we do for Arondel (4613-19) In a popular medieval story, a greyhound overturns a cradle and bloodies itself defending its master’s infant son from a poisonous serpent. When its master is summoned home by news of his son’s death, he kills the greyhound, but, quickly realizing his error, he abandons himself entirely to grief. In one Middle English version, he “brake his sper in thre partiis, & put his wyf in preson, and yede him self to the holy londe”; in another, he enters his orchard “and for dule of hys hounde / he lepe in and sanke to gronde” (884-85), drowning himself; in another, he strips off all his armor:

And al barfote forth gan he ga,
Withowten leue of wife or childe.
He went into þe woddes wild,
And to þe forest fra al men,
þat nane sold of his sorow ken. (918-22)

In all three versions, he surrenders his entire social existence. He breaks his spear, forsakes his family, and leaves for the Holy Land; he drowns himself; he disappears into the woods, where no one would know of his sorrow. Each version has in common contempt for the advice of women, for the initial mistake of either his nurses or wife guides the knight to catastrophe. The misogyny, however, is not what the story is really about, but rather a screen around its incognizable content; as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, misogyny protects readers from a story that would have otherwise taken them into an abyss. Each of these stories of the knight and the greyhound is also a story in which choosing to grieve for a dog means abandoning the community of humans; each story is therefore one of realizing the structures of violence by which the human inessentially sustains itself. Once astonished by his recognition of his shared vulnerability with what should be recognized as a mere dog, the knight must exclude himself from a community that constitutes itself by knowing that humans should not die like animals. Humans who mourn dogs no longer have any place to be. For the knight to remain himself, animals must die like animals: unmourned, eaten or used up in labor, discarded and unmemorialized.

It would not do, for example, to wonder what became of the lions that ate Ignatius, or to wonder too much about what Ignatius himself ate before he met his grisly end. Since Ignatius disdains the Jewish law and sects that prohibit certain foods, it seems that his alimentary codes at least anticipate those of Augustine. Without objections to eating meat—or, perhaps better said, objecting to objections to eating meat—Ignatius likely broke bones and tore limbs, inflicting on animal bodies what he expects the lions will inflict on him. To be sure, this is a speculative reading. But because the lives of animals are so far outside the considerations of the Christianity exemplified by Ignatius, the disdain they suffered at the hands of the saint can be reconstructed only by compelling the silences in Ignatius’s ouevre to speak. The community his writing helps constitute constitutes itself in part by excluding from consideration the significance of all violence except what humans suffer. The silence on all deaths but those of Ignatius and their co-believers is therefore a kind of evidence. Even as Ignatius harnessed the horror of his coming death for rhetorical force, he never considered that the deaths he silently countenanced, that he himself likely encouraged through his appetites, were just as horrific. Lions and other, less mighty animals, never having had life in the way that humans do, cannot be grieved unless humans recognize their shared vulnerability with them. But had Ignatius given voice to this shared vulnerability, he would have lost himself, for the indifference of Ignatius’s ouevre to violence against animals, his almost complete silence about the food he ate before he himself was eaten, inscribes the boundaries by which Ignatius knows himself and his fellows as human.

The imagined deliciousness of human flesh functions in a manner akin to the human recognition of their social vulnerability amidst other humans, for it sets human life apart as special. The death of another human demands mourning, and also demands that each human remember that he or she will someday die as well: each recognized death is a memento mori. The remembrance is therefore also a remembrance of weakness. The fantasy of the deliciousness of one’s own flesh, by contrast, is not a reaction to someone else’s death but a fantasy of one’s own death and one’s own flesh that transforms human death from an occasion of grief into an occasion of triumph. The anthropophage commits violence against the human, and thus, by inspiring mourning in the human community, reminds humans of the vulnerability of their lives; yet its unshakeable fixation on human flesh simultaneously attests to the supremacy of human life. This is a violence akin to that suffered by the martyrs in hagiography, where every torment inflicted on them by some insatiable, compulsive tyrant bears witness not to the power of the tyrant but to the power of Christianity.

It is therefore to the advantage of humans that the taste of their flesh encourages anthropophagy. In the widespread story of Nicholas and the Three Clerks, Nicholas, dissatisfied with the meat the butcher tries to sell him, demands the three clerks the butcher has slaughtered, butchered, and salted like pigs. One manuscript of The South English Legendary records Nicholas’s words before the counter:

ich wold ther of bigge. wel swythe gret won
of bacon that were fair and clene. fain ich wolden habbe
sel me so wel as thou wost.
I would buy from you a great deal of fair and clean bacon. I would gladly have this. Sell me as good meat as you know of.

In describing the clerks as “so wel as thou wost,” Nicholas elevates the dead clerks above the common run of meat. By coming to their assistance, as he would for no pig, he has mourned them or at least, through his actions, memorialized their deaths; when he resurrects them, he at once witnesses to and rectifies his grief over the violence they suffered. But even while the clerks are dead, even before the resurrection, Nicholas knows their flesh as human, because he knows it as far more desirable than the flesh of any pig. In that regard, the clerks have not been reduced to utter weakness by being slaughtered, for, inasmuch as they demand special attention, they still have an effect on this world greater than that of any animal.

The identification of readers with the clerks of the Nicholas story also allows them to identify with the clerks as the best meat and thus to identify with the clerks as not pigs. To the degree that they expect that Nicholas would have described them too as the best meat, they experience what Žižek terms interpassivity, “believing or enjoying through the other.” In this case, the belief is akin to the self-satisfaction felt in imagining being present at one’s own funeral. The fantasy is not one of grieving for one’s own self, but one of imagining the power that one will continue to have over others. The human imagines itself dead, and imagines its corpse an object of great alimentary delight; by inspiring delight greater than that caused by any other food, it knows itself to be the superior kind of life and therefore human. This fantasy is not, then, simply a passive experience, nor is it a fantasy of vulnerability. Although the corpse seems inert, it still acts by and through itself by driving others either to grief or delight. Even in death, the human retains its structural position of power; while in life, the human enjoys a similar kind of passive power by imagining that its living flesh would, if dead, be cause for celebration—and obsession—among anyone lucky enough to eat it. Whatever doubts humans may have about the specialness of their being, doubts that perhaps inhere most deeply in the apparent indistinguishability between human and animal flesh, the overwhelming desire of others for human flesh convinces them that humans matter more than any other living thing. In this dynamic, grievable and desirable lives are inextricable.

The fifteenth-century moral treatise Dives and Pauper proves that the verb “occidit” of the Sixth Commandment does not apply “boþyn to man & of beste,” but it still places limitations on the slaughter of animals: anyone who butchers an animal “for cruelte & vanite,” that is, anyone who enjoys killing the animal, has sinned. Humans, however, must possess something more than mere life; they must be creatures who cannot simply be put to use; the supremacy of human life requires the supremacy of human death. The slaughter of humans should not be simply a job, but a sin, an object of desire, a pleasure, a pleasure that coerces, a pleasure that infects eaters with “the hunger.”

[photo from a few weeks ago, at a diner that any Twin Peaks fan knows serves “damn good coffee, and hot”]

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