‘Kynes Craft’: Animal Labor and Brute Rationality in Piers Plowman

Here’s my paper for the 2019 International Piers Plowman Society in Miami, Session 25, “Post-Humanist Langland,” organized by Adin Lears and Wan-Chuan Kao.


Welcome to my first time talking about Piers Plowman in public. As you all know, one of Langland’s chief additions to the C-text is Reason’s upbraiding of the dreamer for what Reason understands as his laziness. Today, I’m going to wonder just what Reason is, and wonder at what it is that Reason wants the dreamer to do.

What’s on offer today is the first public hint of what might be my third book project, whose necessarily tentative title is The Irrational Animal. It’ll track “animal irrationality” as a master trope for justifying subordination. As the word “animal” could simply mean any living thing, medieval writers often used some form of the phrase “irrational animal” to distinguish nonhuman from human animals. Most humans don’t benefit from that distinction, however. Dominant humans tend to judge subordinated groups — Jews, women, the mentally ill, for example — as wanting in reason, and therefore as more animal than human, with all that implied for their moral, political, and legal considerability.

Exploring the social danger of the claim to Reason thus requires a certain suspicion about claims to rationality. I’ve long been guided by Derrida’s question “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man, which means therefore to attribute to himself, what he refuses the animal”: key attributions include language, free response—contrasted with a merely instinctual reaction—and, of course, reason. A doctrinaire deconstructionist reaction would point out that all abstract concepts fail when subjected to a sufficiently rigorous investigation. So, perhaps predictably, I’m going to follow how claims to Reason collapse when we try to make them live up to their pretensions.

Back to the text at hand. Taxonomies of Reason abound in the classics of Piers Plowman criticism, and I’m going to assume you know them better than I do. In that material, the questions concern the distinct spheres of activity for Kynd Wit, Conscience, and Reason, key allegorical figures in Piers since at least its A text. I’m happy that critical tradition exists, and have no interest in correcting it; but neither do I have any interest in expanding it. Instead I’m going to try to open a new path. I wonder at bit at Derek Pearsall’s note in his C-Text edition, where he explains “Reason is the personification of the waking dreamer’s own rational self-analysis“: that’s slightly circular reasoning, yes? To get us out of the analytical circle we’re stuck in whenever we presume to know what reason is—in this case, Reason is Rational is Analytical is Admirable, because of course self-analysis is admirable —I’m going to lean harder on Reason itself, by not presuming that we humans have it, or that we know what it is, or that we know what its effects or demands or social force might be.

The particular Piers passage that’s going to lurk in the background of my paper is this:  the Dreamer has just finished a dream in which Reason finally establishes himself as the chief of the King’s advisers; he then awakes in Cornhill, a somewhat disreputable London locale, where he meets Conscience and Reason again, and Reason accosts him, because he sees the Dreamer as a good-for-nothing vagabond. Reason conducts a mean-spirited job placement interview: can you serve in a church? can you cook? load a cart? bail hay? can you stay out in a field all night, guarding grain against thieves? Can you “shep or kyne kepe” (C.17)? Do you have “eny othere kynes craft that to the comune nedeth” (C.20)?

I’m struck by a number of things here: the emphasis on field labor, about which more later, but as a hint: I’m hoping to do more work on the habitual animalization of farmworkers in late medieval literature. I’m also struck especially by the way that “kyne,” livestock, is echoed in “kynes,” kind of. Might we hear “kynes craft,” a kind of occupation or skill, as the shadow of a phrase we could also hear as animal labor? What is it actually that Reason is demanding the Dreamer do? What does “being Reasonable” actually look like? And does it look anything at all like thinking?

To explore these possibilities, I’m going put Langland’s Reason not in relation to Langland’s own complicated, precise psychological mapping, nor in relation to key doctrinal mappings of Reason — those of Aquinas, especially — but rather in relation to three things: the first is animality, then a sampling of the many other personifications of reason we find in medieval literature, and, before I bring this all together, a bit of Max Horkheimer.

Following and developing Aristotle’s model of the tripartite soul, medieval thinkers chiefly understood that nonhuman animals possess only the vegetative soul — that’s the principle of both growth and life itself —and sensible soul, which allows them to move and react to stimuli. Humans were the sole kind of mortal life that possessed both these first two souls as well as the rational soul. Humans therefore are the uniquely rational animals.

I’ve long been interested in a passage in Augustine’s On the Free Choice of the Will where he takes pains to demonstrate that humans possess reason, because without reason, we have no free choice, and without free choice, no moral culpability, and without moral culpability, well, there’s no point to the whole economy of salvation. To prove we have reason, and thus to save the meaningfulness of Christ’s sacrifice, Augustine observes, naturally enough, that humans dominate animals routinely; sometimes they get the best of us, but in the long term, we’re in charge of them. He concludes, “something is not present in their souls (and so we tame them) that is present in ours, so that we are better than they are. Since it is apparent to anyone that this is neither insignificant nor trivial, what else shall I call it more rightly than ‘reason’?” Perhaps a decade later, in his Literal Commentary on Genesis, Augustine’s no more eager to nail down precisely what reason is: “man,” he writes, “was made to the image of God in that part of his nature wherein he surpasses the brute beasts. This is, of course, his reason or mind or intelligence, or whatever we wish to call it.” For Augustine, whatever reason might be, it is at least this fundamental enabler of human superiority.

The Piers Plowman critical tradition has devoted much attention to determining just what Langland means by “Reason.” Without devaluing that work, I’m just going to mark that for my present purposes, the key point in Langland, as with Augustine, is that Reason is top dog in the hierarchy of psychological qualities: a host of qualities crowd into the king’s court in Piers B and C Passus 4, but Reason’s ultimately left in charge. In the C Text, Passus 5, the Dreamer meets both Conscience and Reason, but Conscience drops out: it’s only Reason that rebukes him. Whatever the specific functions of Reason might be, we can simply mark its preeminence in these passus, while also recalling how it functions as a kind of placeholder or even a kind of encampment for human difference from nonhuman life. As in Augustine, Reason is a kind of principle of superiority.

First placeholder conclusion, then: in encountering Reason, if we assume that the dreamer is meeting a figure from what can call the spiritual tradition of Reason, then the dreamer is coming into contact with the essential element of his own humanity and the sine qua non of human worldly preëminence.

But I’m also going to quickly mark a medieval tradition of personified Reason, from Augustine and Isidore through the early fifteenth century, because however familiar Langland must have been with the psychological and spiritual tradition of Reason, he — or his readers at least — must also have had some familiarity with what we can loosely call the literary or personification tradition of Reason. In that tradition, in all its varieties, we can get a sense of what Reason is not according to its abstract functions, but according to what it tells us to do.

I’ve been surprised to discover that in this tradition Reason isn’t a figure of free will, or skepticism, or meta-analysis, or independence from tradition, nor even, or at least not very often, logical induction. As the inheritors or victims of the so-called “Age of Reason,” all our expectations of what Reason is are bound to be disappointed. Nor in this tradition is Reason clearly marked off from, say, Synderesis, that “spark of conscience” or “practical reason” or the habit of right action, whatever this important term in scholastic philosophy meant for determining just what Reason’s particular bailiwick might be among a set of equivalently powerful mental faculties. Instead, in the literary and personification tradition, Reason tends to be alone and in charge–just as Langland’s Reason also ends up singular and in charge–and tends to be a figure that essentially advises making peace with the prevailing circumstances: here Reason’s not a figure or function of resistance, nor of new thought, but rather of deliberate accommodation, where any analysis it offers always draws its interlocutor to a foreordained conclusion of just getting along with things as they are. In short, Reason just wants us to be reasonable.

The Reason of Augustine’s Soliloquies is probably the closest we get to familiar ground among these personified figures of Reason. This early dialogue sees Augustine talking to Reason to try to find a way to know God. He offers fascinating material on the truth and falsity of art — an actor’s truth, Reason and Augustine observe, lies precisely in his able feigning — and an insistence that nonhuman animals, fleas and bugs, have only animal life, but no life — that is, no rational life — worthy of being loved. Ultimately, what Augustine wants is as certain a knowledge of God as he has of abstract geometric truths, that is, a knowledge independent of the senses, and thus sure, steady, and unchanging, like God. Augustine turns to Reason because Reason’s capacity for abstraction can free Augustine from sensory limitations.

By contrast, the twelfth-century Anticlaudianus of Alan of Lille has its personified Reason know the the origins of material things, pure Form, independent of matter, and especially the constant motion of Form’s mingling with matter, which is always necessarily a degenerate imitation of Form’s supermaterial ideal. But Alan’s Reason has its limitations: its chariot falters as it tries to rise to knowledge of the divine, and only Theology — that’s with a capital T — can take things further.

That’s one tradition of personified Reason, then, which has to do with knowledge. There’s another that has to do with Consolation. Isidore of Seville’s Synonyms is the key early text in this tradition; Middle English scholars perhaps know this work from Hoccleve’s fifteenth-century paraphrase of it in the first of his Series, when he turns to it to make sense of his period of mental illness: drawing on the shorter version of Isidore’s text, Hoccleve doesn’t focus on the section where Isidore has Reason spell out an appropriate way of life for virtuous men according to their professions, but rather on the section where Reason helps the unconsoled penitent understand more generally that his sorrow is a divine gift of punishment, so the more he sorrows, the closer he comes to God.

One last one, for now: Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose continuation has its personified Reason advise the Lover to leave off his erotic goals and, by extension, all his attachment to all the temporary gifts of Fortune. Here Reason has much in common with Boethius’s Lady Philosophy, that giant of consolation literature, especially when Reason insists that a life of perfect rational virtue can be found in Socrates, “whose expression, whatever befell him, always stayed the same, and was found unchanged even by those who killed him with hemlock.” Reason here is not analytical; it is not mobile; it does not move the spirit upwards towards God, as it does in Alan of Lille, nor does it use knowledge of unchanging, abstract things as a helpful analog for knowledge of the divine: instead, it demands imperturbability, an absolute indifference, total fixity,  a steady face whose living expression is, one imagines, indistinguishable from the face in death. The Consolation offered by Stoic Reason is that of simply not caring what happens, or, to put this another way, of making peace with things as they are.

Which brings me, inevitably, to Max Horkheimer, especially his Eclipse of Reason, lectures he delivered at Columbia University in 1944, as he anticipated both the Nazi defeat and the dangers industrial rationality would continue to pose to free thought and free action in postwar democracies. Without getting into the dialectical history of Reason Horkheimer offers — the death of objective reason, the rise of subjective reason, and the negation of reason itself by the latter — I’m interested in his critique of how “in the view of formalized reason, an activity is reasonable only if it serves another purpose, e.g. health or relaxation, which helps to replenish his working power.” Reasonable action, reasonable thought, is made to have purpose; that purpose is neither thought nor critique, but rather just the preservation and renewal of the subject for socially useful practice. “Pragmatism” is a word Horkheimer can scarcely say without spitting.

Personified reason, then, sometimes thinks—Augustine, Isidore to a degree, and Alan of Lille—and often not: Jean de Meun, and the sclerotic forms of instrumental reason Horkheimer identified. The consolation Hoccleve temporarily finds in Reason is one of learning to endure his suffering by convincing himself that God has sent it, that, in other words, of convincing himself that someone else must be doing the thinking. And, to that particular angle of the personified Reason tradition, I can add, finally, Piers, and the two lines I started with: can you “shep or kyne kepe” (C.17)? Do you have “eny othere kynes craft that to the comune nedeth” (C.20)?

Everyone here surely knows Anne Middleton’s analysis of C-5 in the context of the September 1388 Cambridge Parliament’s legislation on beggars and vagabonds. That Reason wants the Dreamer, primarily, to take up some kind of agricultural labor is, no doubt, due to the 1388 statute’s effort to regulate precisely that: it wasn’t concerned with guildspeople. But, as Middleton also observed, the 1388 Statute also tended to make all other occupations seem to be built on the base of agrarianism, so that, I would add, it tends to make all labor servile: people needed to know their place, to be put in it, and to remain in it, which is precisely what the Dreamer apologia ends up agitating for.

Second, and final placeholder conclusion: in C-5, as in a major strain of the personified reason tradition, Reason is not a principle of thinking, but of social quiescence. To behave “reasonably” is to be made productive for the existing order. And in his encounter with Reason, that fundamental quality of being human, the Dreamer loses the flexibility–what we might call the capacity for vagabond thought–that we think of as essential to human freedom. And if the prevailing social order is understood as fundamentally agricultural, then living reasonably means being made to live productively, which means being made to feed the system in a quite particular way. And that particularity is where I hear, without much straining, the echo of “kyne” in “kynes craft,” of cattle in work. For what Reason demands of the Dreamer, and thus in a larger sense of everyone it addresses, is a brute rationality, of making oneself useful. Like a cow is made to be useful. This is a Reason that, as always, animalizes most people; it’s just that in this case, to the degree that we let ourselves be hailed by its demand for rational activity, that is, by its demand for productive labor, we are agreeing to precisely that bovine animalization.

Thank you.

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