Irrational (Human) Objects of a Rational Law — More on Deer Carcasses and the Medieval English Forest

Bruce Nauman, Portland Art Museum, "Animal Pyramid," Picture by Alison Kinney

Bruce Nauman, Portland Art Museum, “Animal Pyramid,” Picture by Alison Kinney

Now I’m just posting my own NCS paper, which you might recall appeared a little more than a month ago before the Paris medieval animals conference. I revised that paper for Portland: cut the bits on penitentials, expanded the discussion of Bennett, gestured more towards the problem of objectial “agency,” and clarified the issues at stake. A lot of this is due to Susan Crane’s very welcome interventions in Paris and over email since then: I’m happy to take the blame for continuing slips in my thinking.

My carcass project’s going to lead, knock on wood, to two publications: the first in the inaugural issue of O-Zone, a journal of object-oriented studies, and then–in a more biopolitical vein–in an anthology on the medieval English forest law. So I need your comments and interventions; I so need your comments and interventions.

Responses from NCS include Laurie Finke’s hesitancy about both “strategic” anything and the word “intention”, Eileen’s promotion of “propulsion” via Bennett, and Liza Strakhov’s recommendation of Bleak House as a good model for the law as actor. My response to Finke’s question included an attempt to work through the problem of agency via Derrida’s “And Say the Animal Responded,” which does so much to lean on the opposition between “free response” and “compelled reaction.” Further very welcome interventions came from Alison Kinney, my wife, and Seamus Campbell, an old friend and one of my Portland hosts. Additional v.r.i. on deer carcasses arrived pseudonymously via Facebook; and several people–Peggy McCracken, Susan Crane, and an eavesdropping lawyer in downtown Portland–pointed me to sources on various local laws for the disposal of deer carcasses in twenty-first century America (for example).

More to come, especially once I’m back in Brooklyn and can get my hands on some reputable editions of medieval insular cookbooks, and an old Annales article on venison I remember encountering ages ago. Expect me to work out what my last paragraph’s “significant and forceful” means sometime in the next month.

Thanks very much to Randy Schiff for assembling the panel and for the ongoing discussion of biopolitics.

Away we go:

An English hunting law, enforced at least since 1238, requires that the carcass of deer found dead in the forest “should be sent to the nearest house of lepers, if there is one nearby in those parts, and this by the witness of the forester and the jury. If however there is no such house nearby, the flesh should be given to the sick and the poor. The head and skin should be given to the freemen of the nearest town; and the arrow, if one was found, should be given to the forester, and this should be recorded with his oath.”

To discourage poaching, it makes good sense not to let the neighboring folk or the forester have the meat. But it doesn’t make obvious sense to return it to the king’s control, and then to distribute it to people who would normally never have eaten venison. And despite some concessions for convenience—the nearest leper house or, failing that, some other nearby charitable institution—the law still required foresters to take on an onerous, annoying, and possibly repulsive duty.

Repulsive in several senses. The law makes no exemption for carcasses that are badly mangled or rotting. A late fourteenth-century English recipe book requires a multi-day sequence of covering, washing, hanging, salting, and boiling to keep venison from rotting, implying that unsupervised venison was thought to go off quickly. Furthermore, I’m told, the ideal temperature for curing a deer carcass is no warmer than 4 degree Celsius, or 40 degrees Fahrenheit, perhaps even cooler. Thirteenth-century England was a “warm epoch” compared to the following centuries: in this climate, carcasses would have bloated or putrefied quickly. Finally, the law required that the king’s agents come into proximity with diseased people thought to be especially disgusting and perhaps especially contagious. In short, there’s something seemingly irrational, even dangerous, in what the forest law imposed on the king and his agents.

The “seemingly” of “seemingly irrational” of course promises that I’ll reveal a reason at work: but this reason won’t be a human one. What the humans are doing is irrational, excessive, repulsive, for them: but humans aren’t the only actors at work in this system.

Such seemingly irrational human actions help us identify where humans are being made to operate by another, perhaps nonhuman actor: from an anthropocentric perspective, it doesn’t make sense to redistribute the carcasses of deer to socially inferior eaters, or even to keep deer at all; but all this might make good sense from the perspective of the forest law itself.

To allow for this speculation, I need to situate this seemingly irrational activity within a larger system, itself just as seemingly irrational, the medieval forest. You know medieval English forests were for hunting, and mainly for hunting deer. Like other scholars, Simon Schama observes that “outside of war itself, [the hunt] was the most important blood ritual through which the hierarchy of status and honour around the king was ordered.” The conception of authority required aristocrats to keep hunting parks and to monopolize the legitimate killing of deer. And though forests were enormously expensive, they were the last good impoverished aristocrats would give up, because they were too important a theater of authority to be abandoned.

Deer were the cause of the forests’ enormous expense. Compared to other food animals, deer require a lot of land, don’t easily turn fodder into edible body mass, are prone to disease and theft and destructive of ground cover and crops, and require the expensive care of specialized professionals. Furthermore, deer were literally beyond price: they could not legally be sold. As such, deer can be counted among the “quasi-sacred” things enumerated in the 1230s in Bracton’s On the Laws and Customs of England. Bracton lists the crown, his “position of rule,” peace, justice, and salvage from the sea as among the things that “cannot be given or sold or transferred to another by the prince or reigning king” (see here, 2.57): the king can’t sell any of these without undoing his own kingly position. The king was, therefore, beholden to his own royalty and what materialized his own authority. These drove him to expend energy and wealth to maintain an animal seemingly designed to frustrate rationalist explanations.

Nonetheless, we can still come up with a few. To ensure forests make sense to a managerial mindset, we might claim that hunting was only an ancillary function, and that forests actually turned a profit. But S. A. Mileson’s recent Parks in Medieval England reemphasizes both the centrality of hunting to forests and enumerates how forests were far less profitable than comparable nonforested land. Another anthropocentric rationalization might claim that forests produced social capital: they were good for networking, for distinguishing aristocrats from their inferiors, for providing opportunities for largesse. Finally, we might pivot towards a derationalizing approach to the forest by taking its irrational obligations as symptoms of the Real, capital R, which always undoes our rationalist pretensions.

I propose, however, that the logic of the forest and indeed that of royal authority have their own reason, which puts humans to work for it. We don’t need to explain the logic by turning up a rational human benefit for the forest, in financial or social profit, as if human actions must only make good human sense. Nor must we give up on rational explanations too quickly, as if there’s only a positive human pretension to order, always inevitably undone by the irrationality of everything else. Thoroughgoing posthumanism requires us to seek out another, nonhuman reason, in, for, and through which the king and his agents operate.

I am drawing on Jane Bennett’s “theory of distributive agency” in her book Vibrant Matter. From her, I take the recognition that “human intentions [are] always in competition and confederation with many other strivings,” a “heterogeneous series of actants with partial, overlapping, and conflicting degrees of power and efficiency.” She illustrates her argument with the 2003 American blackout, for which no one element can be wholly responsible: storms and climate change, capitalism and deregulation, and flows of various kinds of electricity interact to produce results that can’t quite be predicted or reduced to a single reason. Through “a touch of anthropomorphism” (99), Bennett keeps open the possibility of various nonhuman agencies to “catalyze a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontologically distinct categories of beings (subjects and objects) but with variously composed materialities that form confederations” (99).

I also rely on Steven Shaviro (h/t Eileen Joy), who advocates for a “deflationary” description of intention via George Molnar’s concept of “physical intentionality” (see chapter 3, “Directedness,” in his Powers: A Study in Metaphysics), by which “physical powers, such as solubility or electrical charge, also have that direction toward something outside themselves that is typical of psychological attributes,” even if this intentionality has no “semantic or representational content.”

That intentionality makes objects agents for themselves and turns other agents into the objects by which these agents realize their intentions. It allows for nonhuman intention and direction without requiring something so grand as free choice. For my paper, the agents might be deer and maggots, the trees and soil, or, the forest law itself; here I draw on a recent Facebook comment by Levi Bryant, who observes that “people are fascinated with the question of whether there’s nonhuman intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. But we’ve already encountered it here on Earth. It goes by names like ‘corporation,’ ‘government,’ ‘institution,’ etc. The terrifying thing is that these beings have very different aims than our own.”

I’m proposing that the deer, poachers, the king, the king’s royal power, the forest law, the obligation towards charity, people with leprosy, and appetite itself, all have their own reason within the forest system, all their own sense of the irrational, their own orders and perhaps their own anxieties. All interact more or less harmoniously with others; all enable, constrain, and channel the actions of others, making agents into their objects and being objectified in turn. Everything’s incompletely entangled in meshworks of intention and objectification, and none should be thought of as the center, or as the only center.

Let me stress: this doesn’t mean that the king and his agents have been reduced to being just the objects of nonhuman intentionality. We can preserve anthropocentric explanations—social capital and so forth—while supplementing them with others in the interests of richer description, a more supple understanding of intention, and an improved sense of responsibility. Bennett’s posthuman insights don’t eliminate human agency; they just democratize it, to use the metaphor from Levi Bryant’s Democracy of Objects.

And just as the king’s selfhood exceeds what the forest and royal authority make of him, so too with the other elements in the forest assemblage. Here, in my paper’s last section, I derive from object-oriented ontology the point that the constituent elements of an agential assemblage have their own intentions; they have their own umwelt—that is, their own limited, subjective mode of engagement with the other elements of the assemblage; and, finally, their participation in the assemblage does not exhaust what they are.

This particular quality of inexhaustibility is what object-oriented ontology calls the “withdrawn core” of any object. Levi Bryant argues that “objects are always in excess of any of their local manifestations”; or, Ian Bogost puts it in Alien Phenomenology, “The tire and chassis, the ice milk and cup, the buckshot and soil: things like these exist not just for us but also for themselves and for one another, in ways that might surprise and dismay us.” Human, animal, or material, anything that is, any assemblage, cannot be encountered or used fully by any other object.

This insight leads us to recognitions we wouldn’t have if we paid attention only to the symbolic use intellectuals and sovereigns make of those they dominate, or just to the vain efforts of dominant humans to manage the Real.

For example, as Julie Orlemanski has recently reminded us, people with leprosy have an existence inaccessible to narratives of devotion, disability, and disgust. The carrion law wants these people to serve as a disposal system for deer who died improperly. It wants them to function as elements in a charitable machine for turning assistance into prayers. But people with leprosy might not have needed or wanted this particular charity: leprosaria, as Carol Rawcliffe tells us, “often had fishing rights, and reared dairy cattle, [and] pigs and hens,” which ensured they had the right diet on hand for medicinal purposes. Game itself was a medically unsuitable meal for the sick. A mangled, perhaps rotten carcass, made of the wrong kind of meat, might have been an unwanted or unnecessary gift, and might have gone uneaten.

Similarly, the deer, whether alive or dead, is more than the king, the poacher, the forester, or the forest law can do with it. Deer have their own existence, their carcasses another, the microbes and insects and birds that break down the carcass yet another: and none is an inert plaything for human reason. Like other hunting laws, the carrion law aims to protect the aristocratic monopoly on legitimate violence in the forest. Records of the practice of the law, however, attest to the deer’s own life, independent of aristocratic control. Evidence survives of the law dealing with the carcass of a hart that had gone mad and died, and of another that died from injuries after fighting with one of its peers. The deers’ own bodies, behaviors, and vulnerabilities, and their own deadly erotic energy, testifies to a cervid existence inassimilable to the forest law and royal needs. Similarly, in what must be my last point, the thirteenth-century climate and the carcass’s susceptibility to putrefaction also witness to a stubborn liveliness outside of the operations of the forest law, or of the human desire to smoothly turn a living animal into meat.

My project is just getting out of its infancy, obviously, in that I haven’t yet described the actual intentions of the forest law, nor yet determined how to distinguish intentions from accidental effects. I know I need to read up in systems and legal theory, and I know I can’t just say that law does what it does because it wants to sustain itself. For now, I remain convinced that limiting significant intentionality to humans or indeed to living beings is unwarranted; that a keen ethical investigation must seek out the exclusions of anthropocentricism, or, for that matter, cervidocentrism; that products–textual, technological, legal, indeed anything that is–have a significant and forceful existence independent of their creators; and that efficacious political action requires recognizing that human intention isn’t the only game in town.