About medievalkarl

Brooklyn College medievalist. Long time blogger in the stable of bloggers at In the Middle (www.inthemedievalmiddle.com). @karlsteel If you're curious how a brand-new blog has so much content, so quickly, I started "Medieval Karl" blog in June 2014 to compile my writing from around the web (goodreads, tumblr, wikispaces, blogger) in a venue that belonged to me.

Institutional Power, Sexual Harassment, and the Physician’s Tale

Hi gang,

What follows was my contribution to the 2018 Kalamazoo Medieval Congress’s session on “Mood,” organized by Dan Remein and Arthur Russell (185 in the program). Discussions of institutional power and the star system in academia in the wake of the Avital Ronell case make me feel that it’s a good time to share this piece for a wider public.

mood
First, a content note: I’m concentrating on the Physician’s Tale, which is one of Chaucer’s many tales about rape. It may seem at times as if I’m about to let the attempted rapist off the hook: I won’t. I also want to acknowledge my admiration for Carissa Harris’s public scholarship, in Vox and elsewhere, which is a model for all of us for thinking with medieval cultures to combat rape culture in the #metoo era. So:

We all know that the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales begins with the season and the weather that draws life from the earth, keeps birds awake for love, and sets pilgrims voyaging. Springtime is general, for all that lives; it catches us up too: so priketh hem nature in hir corages.

Springtime Christians don’t decide, not quite, to go on pilgrimage; they find themselves stirred up — by gratitude to the holy blissful martyr, by April’s suitability for travel, and also by the stirrings the season awakes in their hearts. As I routinely tell my students, that’s a lovely ecological observation. Ecocriticism habitually dislodges human supremacy by recognizing unintentional forms of agency, often nonhuman, operating as a network, a mesh, a mangle, chose your metaphor, irreducible to firmly defined subjects and objects. We can be happy with how well Chaucer responds to Jane Bennett’s model of an “agentic assemblage,” in which, to quote Bennett, the “efficacy or effectivity to which [the term agency] has traditionally referred becomes distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field, rather than being a capacity localized in a human body or in a collective produced (only) by human efforts.” Bennett’s example is the American Power Grid failure of 2003, and Chaucer’s, we might say, is springtime stirrings, for springtime Christian are agents, but they also the objects of other agencies.

Human agency may be rational, but only to a degree; it does what it does amid a host of other encouragements, guiding us according to the determinations that the weather and other systems deal us. But the redistribution of agency can get us into trouble if we start to look at more unpleasant effects. What happens to our ecological pieties when we examine a moment of distributed agency that we’d likely prefer to center on one, very bad man?

This is the judge, Apius, of the Canterbury tale generally ascribed to the Physician. The story ultimately comes from Livy, although Chaucer’s direct source was the Roman de la Rose. It concerns a girl, Virginia, her father, Virginius, and the judge, who decides to expose Virginia to his lust by falsely having her declared an escaped slave; Virginius solves the problem by killing his daughter. Livy’s original is a highly dramatic story about a suitable match shattered by an old man’s cruelty, as well as, crucially, a story of political resistance; Chaucer’s story is primarily about the fatal allures of beauty, or the equally fatal compulsions of masculinity and paternal authority, tied up with an unsettling final warning about one’s secret sin always finding one out.

But even though Chaucer probably had not read the Livy, he shares something with Livy that the Roman de la Rose omits, namely, the strangely impersonal motivation that leads Judge Apius into corruption. For Livy, he is “stuprandae libido cepit,” that is, the desire to defile her seizes him; and, later, he is “amore amens,” driven mad by love. And for Chaucer, as soon as Apius beholds Virginia wending her way to the temple with her mother, “anon his herte chaunged and his mood / so was he caught with beautee of this mayde.” The second line’s “caught” uncannily echoes Livy’s cepit; the first line gives us “mood,” the sessions’ theme. I’ll talk about that word in a bit. For now, let me just point out that we find similar descriptions of motive in Boccaccio’s Virginia story in his De mulieribus claris, where his Apius “ab eo amaretur perdite,” “falls desperately,” or even ruinously, “in love with her” — note the passive verb, amaretur — and in Gower’s Confessio amantis, where Apius is subject to “The blinde lustes of his wille” (7.5147). Lust—blind and mad—makes them do things that make no sense, perhaps not even to lust itself.

We can contrast these impersonal accounts of desire with Chaucer’s other rapists, attempted and otherwise. While Chaucer gives us access neither to the mental state of the Wife of Bath’s knight nor to the thief on Constance’s boat in the Man of Law’s Tale, we do witness the deliberations of the Reeve’s calculating clerks, and those of Tereus too, in the Legend of Good Women, who “caste his fyry herte upon” Philomena, and then acts, quite by his own volition. But Apius is his mood’s object, in the standard reading–again, “anon his herte chaunged and his mood”–and especially in one striking variant of the line, present, probably inter alia, in Trinity College R.3.15 and Caxton’s 1476 printing: “anon his hert chaunged alle his mode.”

I’m reminded of Palamon’s “A,” his cry as he spies Emelye through his prison bars, a human voice that gives sound to his desire’s irresistible force; or the “O mercy, God” of Troilus when he first spots Criseyde. These are the sounds not of a decision, but of something having been decided. The key element, for all of these, is that of being captured, driven mad, irredeemably altered, of one’s faculties fleeing, as the self affixes itself to what it sees in another.

The off-kilter agency of this scene demands that we approach it with something like an “agentic assemblage” in mind, because it’s not so easy to put the blame exclusively on Apius. That is, I’m suggesting that we worry about his consent too. I recognize that this is an appalling suggestion, so I’m just asking you to hold on with me for a bit. “Mood” is a good word for thinking of an other-than-rational agency, although it’s somewhat less good for this in Middle than it is in Modern English. Middle English did not yet have a meaning that, according to the OED, first appeared in 1902, that is, “The pervading atmosphere or tone of a particular place, event, or period.” Per the Brothers Grimm, the German stimmung, translated into the “mood” so well-known to Heideggarians, originates in a term for musical tone or tuning, and is first applied to human comportment only in the 1770s. And humeur, the French analogue to the modern English “mood” and German stimmung, has a strictly medical meaning in the Middle Ages, as it does in Chaucer’s works.

That said, by Chaucer’s day, the English “mood” had generally stopped referencing the “rational mind” or “spiritual self”—its primary meanings in Old English—and had instead come to mean “the emotional mind”: this I draw from Ágnes Kiricsi’s research. In the later fourteenth century, mood is a feeling; it isn’t deliberative. Much too is suggested by the Middle English “moody,” whose meanings encompass states of being like bravery and nobility, but also more negative states like arrogance, stubbornness, and lasciviousness. Then as now, to be moody can mean to be stuck in an unpleasant relation to things — to recall the German, to be somewhat poorly tuned. Mood can also mean a character or a disposition, in fact not unlike the French humeur. It’s not quite clear what changes when Apius’s mood changes, but the key thing is that what changed didn’t happen through deliberation. He has become an object to himself.

Christine Rose’s “Reading Chaucer Reading Rape” observes that “multiple agents are involved in raping Virginia in this tale”: to her human agents, I would add the inhuman force of Virginia’s beauty and virtue, which surely, in the cruel, misogynist logics of chastity discourse, may be the chief cause of her misfortune (here and here), and Apius’s too. Virginia’s deobjectifying mental interiority, when we finally glimpse it, is a resistance to tale’s logic of beauty – you’ll recall that she talks back to her father, one of Chaucer’s unique additions to the tale.  Apius’s interiority, however, is a kind of unthought assent to her beauty and tale both. In some sense, Harry Bailly may be right when he exclaims “Hire beautee was hire deth, I far wel sayn,” for, faced with such a powerful actant, what else could Apius do?

A horrifying suggestion, I know, one to which we have to respond by finding Apius guilty. But we have to do more. Distributed agency does not dispel responsibility; but it does make certainty much more difficult and only ever partial. Joanna Zerlinska’s Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene is a good model for how to do this: she recognizes that on a sufficiently long or brief scale — whether that of the universe itself, or the subatomic — human agency may seem not to matter. But in our little space of responsibility, we still have to take care. A little power is still power. And Apius, moved as he is, still has it.

Furthermore, a distributed model of agency also gives us better tools for fending off future dangers from the likes of Apius. The tale may suggest that a posthuman framework like that offered by Jane Bennett’s accounts of agency may be an effective analytical tool for fighting rape culture. Apius is guilty; but not only Apius is guilty, and the tale’s “surplus” guilt can’t be located in only individual human subjects. We can condemn Apius through more traditionally human frameworks of course: in 1981, Sheila Delany argued that Chaucer missed the real political force of Livy’s original condemnation of judicial tyranny, while Dan Kline has often read the tale as a critique of the murderous logics of the patriarchal family (here and here). But we can also ask what kind of power beauty has.  what kind of power desire. Do we need something more than a critique of rational, human actors to account for what Apius did?

We can go further with a posthuman engagement of the power of mood. Thus I can tentatively suggest, by way of conclusion, that what must be done with Apii is first to anticipate what moods a given social system will deliver to them, and then to disarm these moods in advance by destroying everything that gives them such power over women. In a larger sense, I’m trying to rescue the ecological and posthuman accounts of distributed agency by testing them against a limit case, and trying to imagine what grounds remain for justice in the face of very bad actors whose agency, like anyone’s, are not entirely their own. Psychoanalysis may be one way in; affect theory another; while today, for my purposes, in a very preliminary way, I’m wondering about ecocriticism and the new materialisms.

Thank you.

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Shakespeare Invented the Boring Animal

Part III of III of my chapter on Shakespeare and Animals: now present.

Part 1, “The Last Honest Beast: Timon of Athens,” is here.

Part 2, “On the Limits of Shakespeare’s Poetic Ethology,” is here.

And Part 3: below.


Shakespeare can feel contemporary to us because we are unlikely to find his animals surprising; his contemporaries, however, might have found them somewhat pedestrian. Shakespeare’s panthers are hunted (Titus Adronicus 1.i.502), spotty (The Tempest IV.1.284), and dangerous to deer (Troilus and Cressida III.iii.196), but they lure no prey to their dens with their sweet breath. His hyenas laugh (As You Like It IV.1.163), but never draw humans to their doom by counterfeiting their voices. While his bears do attack if they feel their young threatened (Merchant of Venice II.ii.30), Shakespeare has nothing to say about the bear mothers literally licking their newborn cubs into shape. His beavers are just parts of armor, not animals at all, and certainly not animals that castrate themselves to escape their hunters. His eagles are the steeds of Jupiter (Cymbeline V.iv.95), the insignia of Rome (Cymbeline V.v.566), far-sighted (Love’s Labor’s Lost, IV.iii.240 and Richard II III.iii.70), and noble, disdainful master predators (King John V.ii.128); one may be long-lived (Timon of Athens IV.iii.247), and another stare directly into the sun (Love’s Labor’s Lost IV.iii.246-8), but his never renew their youth by soaring far into the sky. It has been said, sometimes laughingly, that Shakespeare invented the human; but we might say instead, just as seriously, that he invented only the boring animal.

Drawn from classical writers like Pliny and Solinus, repeated and refined by great Latin medieval natural history compendia of Albert the Great (On Animals, and Questions Concerning Aristotle’s ‘On Animals’), Thomas of Cantimpré (On the Nature of Things), Vincent of Beauvais (The Mirror of Nature), and Bartholomew the Englishman (On the Properties of Things), or even from the Bible itself — Psalms 103:5 praises God renewing our youth, “like the eagle’s” — the old strains of animal lore would be repeated well into the seventeenth century, preserved, sometimes skeptically, in texts like Stephen Batman’s slightly updated version of John Trevisa’s late fourteenth-century English translation of the Bartholomew (1584), or in Edward Topsell’s widely reprinted Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (1607). Some old facts might be met with doubt: Topsell repudiates, for example, the shapelessness of cubs:

And whereas it hath been believed and received, that the whelps of Bears at their first littering are without all form and fashion, and nothing but a little congealed blood like a lump of flesh, which afterwards the old one frameth with her tongue to her own likeness, as Pliny, Solinus, Aelianus, Orus, Oppianus, and Ovid have reported, yet is the truth most evidently otherwise, as by the eye-witness of Joachimus Rhetious [or this], and other, is disproved: only it is littered blind without eyes, naked without hair, and the hinder legs not perfect, the fore-feet folded up like a fist, and other members deformed by reason of the immoderate humor or moystness in them.

He is just as certain, however, about the sweet breath of panthers. Some natural historians argued that panthers hunt by hiding in trees and changing the color of their spots, so camouflaging themselves into murderous invisibility. Topsell counters with a perhaps uncharacteristic conservativism, “there is no cause to draw the Beasts unto him, but the attractive power of his sweet savour.” Batman on beavers approvingly repeats the old belief about castration (“they geld themselues when they be ware of the hunter“); for his part, Topsell thinks this an outrageous error (“But this is most false“), akin to the credulousness that infected the old true Christianity with superstition (“his poyson hath also crept into and corrupted the whole body of Religion”). Topsell nonetheless endorses the belief — found, for example, in Gerald of Wales’ twelfth-century History and Topography of Ireland–about how aged beavers, their teeth too worn to gnaw through trees, remain useful to their fellows:

upon his belly lade [the fellow beavers] all their timber, which they so ingeniously work and fasten into the compasse of his legs that it may not fall, and so the residue by the tail, draw him to the water side, where these buildings are to be framed: and this the rather seemeth to be true, because there have been some such taken, that had no hair on their backs, but were pilled; which being espied by the hunters, in pity of their slavery, or bondage, they have let them go away free.

That pity for these living sleds is a striking moment of cross-species sympathy. Just as striking is the dynamic of doubt and credulousness, in which written authority wavers before eyewitness testimony, even if just second-hand. Topsell relies on hunters for parts of his beaver knowledge. One of his chief sources, the mid sixteenth-century Historiae animalium of Conrad Gessner, proudly relays a story from the astronomer Georg Joachim Rheticus about Polish hunters who had taken a bear with a tiny bear-shaped fetus still in its uterus. Old knowledge might be on their way out, but they could be preserved at least so long as someone could be provided to believe in it.

That is, belief can be a more complicated matter than a simple determination of truth or falsity. Sometimes simply knowing about something can be a record of a kind of belief. Scholars have broken themselves for centuries on the question of whether Shakespeare read Batman (150-53), but even if he never did, Shakespeare, like his fellow dramatists, would have certainly known something of traditional animal lore, because others outside the natural history compendia still repeated the old knowledge. Michael Drayton’s preface to a reprinting of his tragic poems on Robert of Normandy, Queen Matilda, and Piers Gaveston (1596) complains that sections had been released “contrary to my will,” full of mistakes, “left unformed and undigested, like a Bear whelpe before it is licke by the Dam“; after William Bullein’s Bulkwarke of Defense against Sickness (1562) praises bear fat for soothing the pains of footmen, it pauses to disprove “the common fable among the people, that….Beare hath a disformed Whelp in the time of deliverance, without Members“: as a poet and physician, Drayton and Bullein each has his own standards of truth. But even by disproving common knowledge, Bullein attested to its continued currency, even if just as a strawman of presumptive superstition that allowed him to present himself, a physician, as an authority. We can safely assume that Shakespeare, as well-read as he was, and as social as he was by profession, had at least a passing familiarity with the common wisdom of his era. And familiarity is enough for a poet to make an effective allusion.

We should therefore avoid two great mistakes of dealing with early modern natural history. We should not assume that classical and medieval writers were more credulous than the early moderns. Although the thirteenth-century Dominican Albert the Great, for example, is well-known for arguing that barnacle geese hatch not from shellfish, but from eggs, William Turner’s Avium praecipuarum, quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio est [1544; The Principle Birds mentioned by Pliny and Aristotle] repeats the belief: he doubts his main source, Gerald of Wales’ Topography, but then offers the testimony of an Irish theologian of his own era, who swore on the Gospels that he had seen and touched the barely formed chicks. The third volume of Conrad Gessner’s natural history, on birds, repeats a similar story from “not very truthworthy Normans” about geese hatched from rotting wood. And John Gerard’s Herball (1597) concludes “with one of the marvels of this land (we may say of the world)…certaine trees, whereon doe growe certaine shell fishes, of a white colour tending to russet; wherein are conteined little living creatures: which shels in time of maturitie doe open, and out of them grow those little living things; which falling into the water, doe become foules, whom we call Barnakles” (thanks to the Hoenigers and Anderson). Nor should we assume that the use of odd ethology for metaphor necessarily required that either the writer or their audience straightforwardly believed in the fact being metaphorized. The new science of the seventeenth century slowly relegated the old ethology to only antiquarian knowledge, but it did not erase the knowledge altogether. Responding to or recognizing a metaphor requires a kind of belief in it, albeit of a different form than scientific knowledge: we skeptical moderns still know what it means to talk about ostriches putting their heads in the sand. Likewise, for the sake of making a metaphor, John Marston need not have scientifically believed anything about the “Scotch barnacle, now a block, instantly a worm, and presently a great goose” (The Malcontent, 73). It was enough that he knew, and that he expected his audience, to know about it. And while Shakespeare did not draw on the old ethology for his animal metaphors, we should not assume because of this omission that he is somehow more modern or scientific than his contemporaries, or, for that matter, that he was a less fanciful poet; nor should we assume that he knew less than his fellows. It is just that, for whatever reason, many of his contemporaries drew on the resources of the old ethology, and Shakespeare did not.

Fully treating ethology and natural history in English drama from, say, the sixteenth through the mid seventeenth century — that is, up to the gravity of the scientific revolution began to generally deform and break apart the old beliefs — would be beyond the scope of my chapter. A sample suffices for identifying patterns. I draw from the TCP/EEBO project, and especially the VEP Core Drama corpus, comprising 554 plays, about 80 more than TCP/EEBO has, in which I searched for animal terms using DocFetcher, a simple desktop search engine providing easily and quickly readable results. Print indices compiled before widespread textual digitizations have also proved useful. I make no claims that the prevalence of terms or ideas in a corpus necessary indicates anything about their prevalence or influence in a larger culture. I follow the hesitations of Katherine Bode about “distant reading”: the frequency or paucity of any given term, phrase, or idea in a given corpus by no means reflects which texts were read or reread or neglected, how they were ignored or loved, or, for that matter, where they were read (87-89 especially).

Much of the old natural history lent itself readily to dramatic metaphor. Even seemingly inapposite material could be used, like barnacles and bear cubs and beavers and long-lived eagles. The Rebellion, a tragedy by the engraver Thomas Rawlins, performed in 1629-30, has its “Count Machvile” scheme like so:

Plot, plot, tumultious thoughts, incorporate;
Beget a lump how e’re deformed, that may at length
Like to a Cub licked by the careful Dam,
Become like to my wishes perfect vengeance. (I.i.91-95)

William Strode’s The Floating Island, a statescraft allegory performed in 1636, has its Iratus, an angry lord, speak of extracting himself from a plot with “Thus when the Beaver smells the Hunters aime, / He throwes away the price of his escape” (I.vii). Though the eagle’s keen sight was, as one would expect, a frequent source for metaphor, even its youth-restoring powers could be put to use: Ben Jonson’s Alchemist has Sir Epicure Mammon believe in an elixir that can “Restore his years, renew him, like an eagle, / To the fifth age” (II.i.55-56), while William Davenant’s The Just Italian (1629) has its crafty suitor Florello imagining that “The gentle Turtle shall direct us how / T’augment our loves; the Eagle to renew / Our youth.” The deadly deceits of panthers and hyenas unsurprisingly proved more popular, because of their obvious use for dramatic metaphors about speech, deception, and murder. John Lyly’s comedy Midas (1589) speaks of “the craftines of the fox, the cruelty of the tiger, the ravening of the woolfe, [and] the dissembling of Hyena” (IV.ii.31); John Marston resorts to hyena metaphors at least twice, in Eastward Ho (1605;”I am deaf still, I say. I will neither yield to the song of the siren nor the voice of the hyena“) and What You Will (1601;”He Is a Hyena, and with Ciuitt scent / Of perfumed words, draws to make a prey / For laughter of thy credit”), although in the later allusion, he confuses the hyena with the panther. Ben Johnson also slips, by mistaking the panther (“whose unnatural eyes / will strike thee dead,” The Poetaster, IV.vi.11-12) for the basilisk. Shakespeare’s pelicans, to be sure, still do what they had done since the classical writers; in Hamlet (IV.v.167), Richard II (III.iv.76), and King Lear (II.1.131), they pierce their breasts and feed their young with their own blood. But otherwise, readers looking for lost ethologies among the dramatists will have to search outside Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s animals are, for the most part, familiar. They are pedestrian, or, we might say, terrestrial. Constrained, they reflect our own prejudices about our emotional lives, and our own vulnerabilities. They are for us, there to be obediently eaten, to be pestiferous or dangerous or angry or noble, but only rarely will they challenge us to think of how the other ways we might live. They live as we do, but in a narrower way. For a richer world, one that better represents both the treasure of prescientific animal lore and the anticipates the new treasures of modern ethology and biology, we have to look elsewhere.

For the animals of the other early modern English dramatists do strange things: not strange, of course, to the traditional animal lore–they would have been familiar from storytelling, despite the tendency of the panther to be blurred with hyenas and basilisks — but strange to how we imagine life to operate. They live at different scales than us: occupying the sky, beyond our sight; possessed of senses and capacities that we could never imagine ourselves having; the bear mother is a female who provides form, challenging the Aristotelian model of conception in which only the male can shape matter into coherence; and trees might become birds. Modern ethology can sometimes still leave old prejudices unsloughed: Vinciane Despret’s What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions complains of the continued prevalence of a certainly that animals are motivated only by a “quasi-autonomous plumbing system” (38) of thoughtless natural selection. And many cultural conservatives profess believe in a natural two-gender model, despite the rarity of sexual reproduction among living things, and despite the 36,000 genders of some fungiColin Dickey’s review of Marah J. Hardt’s Sex and the Sea speaks of an undersea world “sovereign and strange,” whose world is not parallel and instructive to our own, but rather one that informs us “how alien our own behavior is to the vast range of life that we share the Earth with.” Such wonderful and various ways to be alive give us a nature that teaches us that nothing is normative except life’s ceaseless creativity. If a bear can lick a baby into shape, what foolishness it is to think there is only one way to be born!

On the Limits of Shakespeare’s Poetic Ethology

And here’s part II of my developing chapter on Shakespeare and Animals. For the first part, “The Last Honest Beast,” on Timon of Athens, see here. Or just wait for the Routledge Handbook to come out a couple years from now.

Part III will be coming early next week, I expect, and in it, I’ll get free from Shakespeare. Preview the argument here.


DP873550

Sick Lion, c. 1465, Ulm or Basel. Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access.

To be just, William Painter’s Timon chapter is of two minds about beasts. Despite repeating the old idea of beastly solitude (“how like a beast (in deede) he was”), the chapter’s first sentence imagines beasts as typically social: “all the beastes of the worlde do applye themselves to other beasts of theyre kind, Timon of Athens only excepted.” And while Shakespeare is generally hostile to beasts, he likewise observes that “nature teaches beasts to know their friends” (Coriolanus II.i.6). Beasts are furious, raging, destructive, except when they cluster sociably into their own kinds. The fantasy of beastly self-sorting attests both to a belief in a naturally communal quality to all life—not a “red in tooth and claw” war of all against all, but a massive set of what we might call homogeneous animal republics — and to a taxonomic imagination that atomized the homogenized mass of beasts into particular kinds, each having their own individual characteristics. Being a beast might just be awful, but what it means to be a particular kind of beast depends on the beast. Because a sheep is not a wolf is not a fox, there is no one form of dehumanization.

But the metaphorical use of animals might be said not to have all that much to do with animals themselves. In response to Apemantus’ “beastly ambition” (IV.iii.368) for a world denuded of humans, Timon imagines Apemantus becoming various animals: “if thou wert the lion, the fox would beguile thee. If thou wert the lamb, the fox would eat thee. If thou wert the fox, the lion would suspect thee when peradventure thou wert accused by the ass. If thou wert the ass, thy dullness would torment thee, and still thou lived’st but as a breakfast to the wolf” (IV.iii.370-75), and so on. Timon of course is not the only one in Shakespeare’s work to make such a speech. In King Lear, Edgar, during his feigned madness, bemoans a woman “false of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey” (III.iv.98-101). Comparisons like these do not actually imagine their humans targets transformed into animals; instead, the rich and varying lifeworld of an animal disappears into the one trait each is made to embody. The metaphorical lion is less a big hairy feline carnivore than just something “valiant” (Henry IV, Part 1, II.iv.286), “proud” (Macbeth IV.1.103), and possessed of a terrible roar (Henry VI, Part 2, III.1.19; King John II.1.306). Being compared to a fox implies nothing about furriness or pointed tails; instead, it is just that the fox, always “subtle” (Cymbeline III.iii.44), aptly illustrates treachery:

For treason is but trusted like the fox,
Who, never so tame, so cherished and locked up,
Will have a wild trick of his ancestors. (Henry IV Part 1, V.ii.11-13).

And likewise with the metaphorization of lambs and wolves and pigs. None of this should be surprising. Boethius’s sixth-century Consolation of Philosophy spells out the common wisdom neatly, with a long passage on the moral degradation of humans into various beasts: “the violent plunderer of others’ wealth burns with avarice: you would say he was like a wolf. The wild and reckless man exercises his tongue in disputes: you will compare him to a dog”; the fox is a “trickster,” the lion driven by ungovernable anger, the deer “timorous,” the donkey “stupid,” birds “fickle and inconstant,” and a sow “filthy” and “gripped by pleasure.” To put it simply, once again in the serve of naive redescription, none of the metaphors imagine their targets undergoing complete animal transformations. Each instead distills the animal into a single, predictable unitary trait expressing specific actions and moods: the fox is nothing but a beguiler; the lamb nothing but meek prey; the donkey nothing but a dullard; and the wolf nothing but a despoiler of other people’s property. Because the animal metaphor sloughs off nearly the whole of the animal life, affixing an adjective to an animal — a ravenous wolf, for example — is supernumerary, because in metaphor, to speak of the wolf is to speak of nothing but its appetite, and likewise, mutatis mutandis, with any of the other commonly metaphorized animals.

The animal is a distinct kind of natural metaphor, of course, different from a rock or a river, for example. Animals have faces, they move on their own, they want things, and they can die. But in metaphorical refinement of animal behavior to a singular trait — in what we might call a tradition of poetic ethology — makes animals have desires, motion, and vulnerabilities only in highly constrained, predictable ways, without any choice to be anything other than what they do. When metaphor applies animal singularity to humans, it briefly freezes human multiplicity into one neat quality. The animal metaphor does not achieve its effects from the yoking together of unlikelinesses; only the human is unlikely, because a human might be anything at any given moment, in any given circumstance; but the animal side never varies. If human emotional expression has a history — if we expect men to faint and cry in twelfth-century warrior tales, and to keep themselves stoic in the sixteenth and seventeenth, as with “Dispute it like a man” (Macbeth IV.iii.259) — the character of animals in metaphor functions as a transhistoric emotional resource, predictable stages on which the variations of human comportment might play. Metaphorical animals thus work in a state of suspended animation, without any surprises, for the animal rendered into metaphor is less the gradual spilling out of a life than a GIF, an off-the-rack flipbook of satisfyingly looping action.

Critical animal theorists are fond of quoting Walter Benjamin’s comments on the animals in Kafka (e.g., Driscoll and Hoffmann): that they are “repositories of the forgotten,” like Kafka’s tubercular cough, which he called “the animal,” and which Benjamin glossed as “the last outpost of the great herd” (132). There is a similar fondness for John Berger’s “if the first metaphor was animal, it was because the essential relation between man and animal was metaphoric.” Derrida finds philosophy wanting, for “thinking concerns the animal…derives from poetry,” and poetry “is what philosophy, essential, had to deprive itself of” to present itself as making sense. The “animetaphor,” as Akira Mizuta Lippit writes, “supplements the dream, language, and world systems, providing an external source of energy that changes the machine” (130). And to this list, we can add Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s observation in his “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” which I find myself quoting often, that medieval writers found in traditional natural history “an invitation to explore a spacious corporeality beyond the specious boundaries of the human.” For these writers, for the “becoming animal” of Deleuze and Guatarri too, the animal is something not quite captured by human limitations; it is a source of energy, surprise, of a lurking surplus in our pretensions of order; it is what gets free and disarranges. Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital demonstrates the failures of such fantasies: the animal as outsider or natural foundation requires an undialectical, ahistorical, even nostalgic faith in an incorrupted outside, a belief that sometimes supports a politics of liberation and resistance, but not inevitably. Even without needing to appeal to Shukin’s critique, we can simply mark the utter predictability of Shakespeare’s animal metaphors: if the “animetaphor” is a “fabulous machine,” Shakespeare’s animal metaphors are just the half of that, mechanical. There is no “cough” in them, nothing to unsettle their smooth operation. Certain and straightforward, they set nothing free, but instead, briefly bind the human to an already bound animal.

His metaphors work so reliably because he draws them from how animals function for humans. Foxes are sneaky, because they slyly steal our things; wolves are ravenous, because they eat our animals, and they frighten us; sheep are meek and helpless and edible, because we have bred them to be just that. His animal metaphors are therefore not quite so much animal metaphors as they are animals-for-us metaphors, already trapped in a human orbit even before the obviously anthropocentric work of his metaphor. Foxes and wolves and lions might do other things, out of our sensing, but we are unlikely to hear about such things from Shakespeare; and if his dogs and horses have a more unpredictable liveliness, this is because dogs and horses serve more functions for humans. More likely than foxes and wolves and even sheep to be familiar to urban poets, they cannot be so smelted into one pure quality. His metaphorical dogs might be mad (Anthony and Cleopatra IV.xv.93) and beaten (Coriolanus IV.v.56) but, like actual dogs, they also might also be our intimates (Henry IV Part 2 II.ii.105). And his horses tend to be just that, horses, not metaphors.

The habits of critical animal theory have encouraged us to try to set literary animals free from the strictures of anthropocentric symbolism by discovering the real animal vibrating in animal tropes. We would be expected to salvage Shakespeare by proposing, for example, that his animal metaphors nevertheless infect the human with animality, as no human can escape the touch of a metaphor unscathed. We could “blur the boundary” between human and animal by demonstrating how much of our emotional lives, for example, our rage and hunger and loyalty is really animal, at least to the poets; the belief that category mobility is equivalent to liberation would encourage us to such an interpretation.

Such interpretations are possible, even welcome, but not with Shakespeare. We have to recognize his limits. It may be that Shakespeare strikes so many as a modern because his animals are so familiar to us: they are constrained in ways we expect them to be constrained, as the fabulous qualities of animals of classical and medieval natural history gave way to the anthropocentric prejudices of certain strains of modern science. For metaphorized animals better suited for setting in motion the “specious boundaries of the human,” we must look to the poetic ethology of other early modern dramatists. Marston and Shirley and Jonson do things with animals, and thus with humans, that Shakespeare refused to imagine.

The Last Honest Beast: Timon of Athens

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Benjamin Phelps Gibbon (engraving after John Hayter), Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC 1.0

Draft of the first part of a chapter on Shakespeare and Animals for a Routledge companion on same. I’ve late on this (4 days so far), so: keeping myself honest by posting this here.

 


ALCIBIADES What art thou there? Speak.
TIMON: A beast, as thou art. The canker gnaw thy heart
For showing me again the eyes of man!
ALCIBIADES: What is thy name? Is man so hateful to thee
That art thyself a man?
TIMON: I am Misanthropos and hate mankind.
For thy part, I do wish thou wert a dog,
That I might love thee something.
(IV.iii.54-61)

In a wilderness, having abjured the false company of humankind, Timon of Athens once more suffers the company of the only person who lives down to his expectations, the philosophical churl Apemantus. Gnawing on roots, disdaining a trove of accidentally unburied gold, and competitively trading misanthropic insults, Timon demands to know what Apemantus would do with the world if he had absolute power: “Give it to the beasts, to be rid of the men” (IV.iii.366).

Speaking at least in a strictly quantitative sense, none of the plays ascribed to Shakespeare is as beast-ridden as Timon of Athens (Kane, Raber). The word and its variants appears in it 20 times, far more often than its closest rival, Hamlet, which has only eight uses (the other plays average at slightly more than three uses a piece). In Shakespeare’s hands, “beast” can sometimes be a neutral word, a mere description, as with the phrase “strange beasts,” which Shakespeare uses twice, when Trinculo tries to classify the sleeping Caliban (Tempest II.ii.31), and when Jacques mocks two rustic clowns (As You Like It V.iv.38). In general, however, to be a “beast” is to be something wretched and awful. A beast is life in its wretchedness: a human possessing no more than its natural needs would be as “cheap as beast’s” (King Lear II.iv.307); “beast” is a handy term of disapprobation: “O, you beast! / O faithless coward, O dishonest wretch” (Measure for Measure III.i.153-4). Finally, Richard III‘s “not to relent is beastly, savage, devilish” (I.iv.273) illustrates the word’s most potent meaning, that of being an enemy to all society, order, and peace (“contumelious, beastly, mad-brained war” (V.i.200)), of being nothing except as a certain force of “fury” (III.v.74) and “wicked[ness” (III.ii.46). The beast thus matches Timon’s “I am Misanthropos and hate mankind” (IV.iii.59), for a beast is life at its most antisocial, wanting no less than destruction for everyone and everything.

Saying that “beasts” are furious, terrifying, and anti-human may seem otiose, because everyone already knows beasts are bad. But one method of critical animal studies, and indeed any other form of cultural critique, is simply to redescribe the things that “go without saying,” but disloyally. Deliberately naive redescription estranges us from the familiar, and loosens long-sedimented ideas. Here I follow the call in Derrida’s groundbreaking work on animals in The Animal that Therefore I am for a “limitrophic” attention to distinctions between humans and that heterogeneous mass of living things humans call animals, an attention, that is, to the cultural work that nourishes (from the Greek verb trophein) the limit. As Derrida insists, the point is not to erase the difference between humans and animals, but to render that limit unfamiliar by attending to it as a problem, and by recognizing the difference as “foliated,” not a single line, but a shifting set of culturally variable differences. To put the immediate limitrophic problems simply: in Timon, what does it actually mean to be a beast, and what does that have to do with being human? And how does being a beast differ from, for example, being a wolf or a fox or a sheep? What are the various things that might happen to humans when they are animalized?

Redescription helps us understand that there is not just one form of dehumanization. In Shakespeare’s works, to be an “animal” is to be one kind of thing, to be a particular kind of animal another, and to be a beast quite something else. The word “animal” never appears in Timon, and only rarely elsewhere in Shakespeare; and as Laurie Shannon in particular has observed, the use of “animal” to mean nonhuman, nonplant living things was not yet common in English during Shakespeare’s life. “Animal” in Shakespeare generally refers to living things in their helplessness or limitations, the “wretched” or “bare forked” animals, or a character scorned as “only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts” (Love’s Labor’s Lost, IV.ii.29). Hamlet’s “paragon of animals” attests to human animality, since we are also living things (as “animal” derives from the Latin anima, soul, the immaterial extra quality that gives life to a body). A human called an “animal” might be dehumanized by being recognized not as a uniquely rational and linguistic creature, but as part of the common lot of dependent and mortal living things: such sympathetic attention to the vulnerability shared between humans and nonhumans would be alien to a play as bilious as Timon. A human called a “beast” is dehumanized in a radically different way. Timon becomes a beast, crucially not an animal, by fleeing everything. Abandoning his hangers-on and his debts (Bailey, Kolb), he sloughs off all communal ties and all obligations, ultimately becoming less a kind of thing than a mad, unclassifiable force that refuses the domestication of any certain order.

When Timon echoes Apemantus, by himself wishing that “beasts” would have “the world in empire” (IV.iii.438), he must therefore be hoping for an impossibility, because beastly ownership is as impossible as a beastly collective. Animals might be gregarious, but not beasts: so says a key source for Timon, William Painter’s widely read Palace of Pleasure, an English-language compendium of Italian stories that includes, for example, a chapter on Romeo and Juliet, and another that provided some of the material for As You Like It. Its chapter on Timon observes “how like a beast (in deede) [Timon] was: for he could not abide any other men, beinge not able to suffer the company of him, which was of like nature.” Its Timon persists in his refusal of human community even past his death, as he demands that his corpse be thrown into the ocean, refusing any change to his “beastly and churlish life” that would transform his carcass into a corpse (Shakespeare’s Timon, on the other hand, just dies offstage, leaving behind nothing but a tomb inscribed with an epitaph addressed to “some beast” (V.iii.4)). Wanting nothing but destruction for everyone, dwelling in a wilderness whose nature is to refuse everyone and everything a home, Timon and Apemantus at least pretend to want nothing but for the false world to be returned to chaos.

Yet at the center of that chaos remain these two beastly truth-tellers, having abandoned everything but their sense of rightness. In their “sovereign autonomy,” Timon and Apemantus have much in common with what David Hershinow calls a “Diogenical” outsider, whose cynical railing against flatterers, contempt for all merely cultural comforts, and singular possession of the truth grants them a “sovereign autonomy,” mastery, that is, without the need for subjects (Hershinow, Manzella). The furious, irrational, and antisocial beast has become the one true philosopher. A 1598 English translation of Aristotle’s Politics has this philosopher observe that “he that cannot abide to live in company, or through sufficiency hath need of nothing, is not esteemed a part of member of a city, but is either a beast or a god,” or, we might say, both at once. We should tread carefully with such observations. Theoretically inflected literary criticism continues to be allured by the paradox. It delights in the pretense of any pure concept collapsing into its opposite: the host becomes the enemy (Derrida); our own body becomes indistinguishable from an intruder (Nancy); and beastly rage and philosophical detachment, unrestrained by custom or social obligation, are, in their lawless contempt for social constraints, ultimately indistinguishable. The last point point is essentially inspired by Giorgio Agamben’s thinking on the animal paradox of sovereignty, and suffers from the same limitations. As Agamben famously observes in his Homo Sacer, the sovereign approaches the condition of the wolf in his being outside the law: the sovereign decision relies on nothing but itself for its justification, originating therefore in an unappealable nullity; the wolf, likewise, does what it does without appeal to any law, simply taking what it wants.

But the paradox begins to falter once we observe whose violence is respected as sovereign and whose is scorned: the dispossessed are never allowed to exercise the violence of the sovereign without being condemned as beasts. In collapsing the distinction between sovereign and beast, Agamben obscures the distinction between the fantasy of self-willed action and the certainty that others do not understand why they do what they do. The sovereign cynic is a beast to others because he thinks himself the only rational one, while he believes others are beasts because they exercise nothing but their own appetites. Timon the beast wants Athens, now a “forest of beasts” (IV.iii.391), destroyed, because he alone knows the truth, because he alone is indifferent to the appetites he believes unthinkingly motivate others (but cf. Emig).

Only a few Athenians escape his scorn: Flavius, his loyal steward; Alcibiades, betrayed by Athens, and for that begrudgingly admired by Timon; and especially Apemantus, whose philosophy and demeanor Timon imitates. The two bestial philosophers hold nothing back, however, from the play’s few women: neither from the Amazons of Timon’s first, lavish banquet, costumed dancers, and scorned by Apemantus as a “sweep of vanity” (I.ii.136); nor from Alcibiades’ two concubines, the prostitutes Phrynia and Timandra, who receive from Timon both gold and unrelenting scorn. When Timon urges Alcibiades to destroy Athens, his hopes for merciless slaughter concentrate especially on women. His list of targets begins with an old man, then continues like so:

Strike me the counterfeit matron;
It is her habit only that is honest,
Herself’s a bawd. Let not the virgin’s cheek,
Make soft they trenchant sword, for those milk paps,
That through the window-bars bore at men’s eyes,
Are not within the leaf of pity writ,
But set them down horrible traitors. (IV.iii.124-33)

And Phrynia and Timandra, indistinguishably delivering their lines mostly together, are brought on stage just to be seen through: Timon is certain that Phrynia’s “cherubin look” (IV.iii.70) only masks the disease he is certain she carries, and when he heaps her and Timandra with gold, he hopes that their beauty might disfigure all Athens with syphilis. When they depart with Alcibiades, Timon next turns his scorn on the earth itself, that “common mother” (III.iii.203), so echoing his earlier scorn for his unburied gold as “damnèd earth, / thou common whore of mankind” (III.iii.46-47). In women, whether virgins, mothers, prostitutes, or old matrons — this list being his full taxonomy — Timon turns up the material form itself of “prostituted humanity” and thus the form of the irredeemably false social order his beastly philosophy aims to undo (Adelman, Kahn, Stanton). These woman, all women, are for Timon Athens as it really is.

We are all familiar with the cliché of the lonely man, the enemy of all fraud, and all too familiar with their habitual targeting of women. Timon is no exception. The beast is a misogynist, because the structure of independent, solitary, and contemptuous certainty is fundamentally misogynist. Beware the man who believes he is beyond desire.

Dehumanization strips away humanity, but not in any one way, because there is no one way for a human to be non-human. Timon bestializes the rest of the world, because he believes he knows what irredeemably drives them, and therefore why they must be destroyed. Timon’s acts also bestialize him, but in this case, bestialization removes him from the dependence, often feigned, but not always — recall Flavius — that knits others together. In the wilderness, Timon first misidentifies Flavius, because of his weeping, as a woman (IV.iii.541), and then proclaims him the “one honest man” (IV.iv.557): his last brief willingness to receive compassion, with its hint of a collapse of gender difference, and its willingness to acknowledge the good in others, might have been Timon’s escape from cynic philosophy, and a redemption for himself, for others, and for other life. But he at last drives Flavius away, and thus drives from himself, again, all common delights, all obligation. In feeling himself only scorned, Timon becomes a beast, and for that, everything else has to suffer his truth.

Key works:
Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, Hamlet to the Tempest. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Bailey, Amanda. Of Bondage: Debt, Property, and Personhood in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Derrida, Jacques. The Beast and the Sovereign, Vol II. Ed. Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet, and Ginette Michaud. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. [for wilderness fantasies of autonomy and solitude]

Emig, Rainer. “Renaissance Self-Unfashioning: Shakespeare’s Late Plays as Exercises in Unravelling the Human,” in Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus, Posthumanist Shakespeare. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 133-59.

Hershinow, David. “Diogenes the Cynic and Shakespeare’s Bitter Fool: The Politics and Aesthetics of Free Speech.” Criticism 56.4 (2014): 807-35.

Kane, Eilidh. “Shakespeare and Middleton’s Co-Authorship of Timon of Athens.” Journal of Early Modern Studies 5 (2016): 217-35.

Kahn, Coppélia. “‘Magic of Bounty’: Timon of Athens, Jacobean Patronage, and Maternal Power.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38.1 (1987): 45-57

Kolb, Laura. “Debt’s Poetry in Timon of Athens.” Studies in English Literature 58.2 (2018): 399-419

Manzella, David. The Making of Modern Cynicism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.

Raber, Karen. “Shakespeare and Animal Studies.” Literature Compass 12.6 (2015): 286-298

Shannon, Laurie. The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Stanton, Kay. Shakespeare’s ‘Whores’: Erotics, Politics, and Poetics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Book 2 – Acknowledgments

Medieval Nonhumanisms: Sympathy, Edibility, and Helplessness is just this side of being sent to its home at University of Minnesota. Look for it, I suppose, in 2019.

Last piece to write? The acknowledgments. Here they are:

The monograph is a legal fiction. It took years to realize that this was the book I was writing. That realization would have been impossible without the following people and their invitations, which compelled me to come up with something to speak about: Kellie Robertson and Rob Wakeman, for the Animals and Sympathy Symposium at the University of Maryland (the origin of the pets chapter); Anna Klosowska, for the Miami University Dijon Program (language isolation experiment); Kári Driscoll, for the Comparative Literature seminar at Utrecht University, and, later, at an essential point in the argument, Maryam Esperanza Razaz, at St Chad’s, Durham University (feral foundlings); Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, for the George Washington University Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute’s “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” conference (wolf children); Michael Bérubé, for the “Robot Weekend” at Penn State (worms and ecology); Sharon O’Dair, for the “Elemental Ecocriticism” Symposium at the University of Alabama (spontaneous generation); Arvind Thomas, for the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at UCLA (sky burial); and finally, Steve Mentz’s Oceanic New York event at Saint John’s University (oysters).

All my chapters benefited from additional workshopping in a variety of other venues: especially Brooklyn College’s Late Antique Medieval and Early Modern study group (LAMEM), led by Lauren Mancia; Brooklyn College English Department’s Works-in-Progress meetings, organized by Marty Elsky; Bob Viscusi and the Wolfe Institute at Brooklyn College for the chance to run seminars on critical animal studies and speculative realism; the CUNY Graduate Center’s English Department’s Friday Forum; and In the Middle, which Jeffrey Jerome Cohen invited me to join in 2006, and which, during the glorious days of blogs, before social networking monopolies swept in, provided such a generous venue for experimenting with ideas, readings, and experimental voices. The medieval conference at Kalamazoo was a frequent testing ground. Additional gratitude to the following: Megan Cavell at the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages at Birmingham, and Sunny Harrison and Caitlin Stobie at the Leeds Animal Studies Network, for letting me play out my book’s introduction during my manuscript’s final months as a manuscript; Eric Ensley and Gina Marie Hurley at Yale’s Medieval and LAE (Literature, Arts, and Environment) Colloquia, for workshopping the Pets chapter in its late stage, and the same for Erica Fudge and the British Animals Study Network for my work on spontaneous generation; and Cornell, George Washington University MEMSI (again!), UCLA, and the University of British Columbia for helping me realize I had so much more to say about oysters; and to Katherine Ibbett, then at University College London, for an early chance to talk about worms, cats, and Derrida. Thanks as well to Jay Gates for organizing a writing group with me, Susannah Crowder, and Kathleen Smith.

Successful grants were scarce for this book. But thank you nonetheless to my CUNY Union for winning Summer Salary grants, and thanks to the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation Fellowship for Outstanding Teaching in the Humanities, which gave me time off at book’s very beginning, so I could think about worms and cadavers in Paris.

Friends, colleagues, and a former spouse (and former friends!) were necessary and hugely helpful inspirations at various points in this project: in addition to some of the people listed above, Alison Kinney merits first place here: she taught me how to write, and god knows it wasn’t easy; Eileen Joy was a model trouble-maker, and I know I wouldn’t have taken the risks I do in my writing without her; Ben Armintor, Nicole Antebi, Colin Dickey, Rob Fellman, Karen Gregory, Ana Harrison, Matthew Harrison, Tricia Matthew, and Vimala Pasupathi were my New York life savers; Aaron Gorseth too, for always telling me the truth; Jesús Rodriguez Velasco and Aurélie Vialette offered up their home so often, at such crucial points, and earned my eternal gratitude; Maya H. Weimer did me a lot of good as the project came to a close; and thanks of course to my research assistants at the Graduate Center, Brad Fox (for agency and Plato) and Ja Young (for pets). Along the way, I delighted in the support and work of Jane Bennett, Angie Bennett, Susan Crane, Lowell Duckert, Irina Dumitrescu, Sarah Kay, Peggy McCracken, Robert Mills, Allan Mitchell, Masha Raskolnikov, Julie Orlemanski, Dan Remein, Arthur Russell, Myra Seaman, Robert Stanton, and Cary Wolfe, and thrilled to the advocacy and power of Seeta Chaganti, Jonathan Hsy, Dorothy Kim, and Sierra Lomuto: support whatever they do.

Thanks to all who are read this. Who knows what comes next?

A brief talk on animal lives

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British Library Add MS 11390, 18vDer naturen bloeme.

Just wrote this thing, for the “Channeling Relations” medieval conference at the Graduate Center, May 4, 2018. The program looks fantastic, and I’m proud to be part of it.


The hand of the Lord was upon me, and brought me forth in the spirit of the Lord: and set me down in the midst of a plain that was full of bones. And he led me about through them on every side: now they were very many upon the face of the plain, and they were exceeding dry. And he said to me: Son of man, dost thou think these bones shall live?

In part, my goal in doing medieval animal studies has been to try to give flesh and life back to animals. Of course, medievalists do that with people too, but the tendency for decades of medievalist writing about animals had been to take animals as medieval symbolic schemes took them: chiefly as textual. The old method is effectively an extension of the medieval genre of the bestiary, whose various entries on animals, and sometimes stones, and sometimes humans themselves, begin with a compendium of natural history – what we might call the ‘real’ of the animal – before swinging into Christian moralization. That is, the older method of reading medieval animals had been to concentrate on animals as if they had a final cause, namely, what they meant symbolically for us, as if understanding that was sufficient for giving us something like the truth, because a symbolic truth produced with a clerical imprimatur, that is, with the approval of trained intellectual, would have been presented as the truth.

Giving life back to animals means working with less certain materials, with a mind not just to the final cause, but also to the material, formal, and efficient ones, as well as the ongoing cause of the thing itself, distinct from whatever end it ends up as. Sometimes attention to this rich range of truths requires working with the history of interest, an attention to the way that animals drew culture makers — writers, visual artists, and so on — to dwell with them as something more than mere opportunities for thought. It wasn’t the symbolic use that first drew them on: the symbolic use feels very much like an arbitrary schoolroom exercise, sometimes quite calcified with centuries of hermeneutic habits — the eagle’s ability to look directly at the sun is predictably a model for the life of a holy person — and sometimes quite arbitrary, with no particular or necessary attachment to the animal on hand.

What drew culture makers to dwell with the particular animals was not only the desire to make symbols, but also, and perhaps even but also primarily the body and ways of the animals themselves. More than a decade ago, in his “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen observed that the various nonhuman lifeworlds of animals – the gender complexity of hyenas, the fact that bears literally lick their cubs into shape after they’re born, and so on — offered humans a chance to imagine other ways of life, not so predictably bound to being merely human.[1] In some sense, material like medieval natural science – a man will lose his power to speak if a wolf sees him before he sees the wolf, but he can regain his voice if he takes off all his clothes – is something like medieval science fiction, an imagination of what else the human might be, to the extent of losing human difference altogether. Many of you here will of course be thinking of “Bisclavret.”

And yet that’s still about what the animals can do for us. A more animal-focused approach might be inclined to want the data provided us by archaeology. On Monday, in Leeds, a graduate student offhandedly told me about work she’s read about evidence of dietary differences between working dogs in the country and companion dogs that lived mostly indoors: I’ve yet to be able to track down the article, but I thought I’d mention it here on the off chance that one of you knows about it. And just yesterday, I found an article on a dog skeleton discovered in Southwestern France; it had been buried, quite deliberately, during the 11th or 12th centuries. Of average size, the dog had suffered broken bones on at least three separate occasions, but there is no evidence of its carcass having been abused, or its having been skinned for its fur, or butchered for its meat.[2] A victim of abuse, it was also cared for in death. We can put flesh on the dog by imagining its grim life, its being beaten by what Chaucerians know as yerdes smerte, and by wondering whether the person who buried the dog was the one who beat it, or the one who loved it, or both.

We can give animals more life by not just attending to how we dream new lives for ourselves through their exotic bodies and capacities, and not just by relying on so-called “brute matter” offered us by archaeology–—the brute matter metaphor, incidentally, may date, in English anyway, to Robert Boyle, in 1686, on God as divine clockmaker[3].  The material of brute matter calls out to us in the voice of truth, which they seem to have because it exists whether or not we’re there to take notice of it. But of course life is a truth too, as are shared lifeworlds, which means we have to attend to narrative, to the way the animal unfolds itself through its own time and space, sometimes with us, and sometimes for reasons that are not for us at all. As I’m nearly out of time, let me just point you to the Life of Cuthbert, to remind you of the story of the horse that gnaws on a thatched roof, dislodging a loaf of bread: the horse’s appetite feeds the saint, who, in gratitude, and to preserve his fast, gives half the loaf to the horse.[4]

Thank you.

[1] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” in Engaging With Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Barbara A. Hanawalt and Lisa J. Kiser (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2008), 39–62.

[2] Annelise Binois et al., “A Dog’s Life: Multiple Trauma and Potential Abuse in a Medieval Dog from Guimps (Charente, France),” International Journal of Paleopathology 3, no. 1 (2013): 39–47, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpp.2013.02.001. For butchery of dogs, see, for example, Eileen M. Murphy, “Medieval and Post-Medieval Butchered Dogs from Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland,” Environmental Archaeology 6, no. 1 (June 1, 2001): 13–22, https://doi.org/10.1179/env.2001.6.1.13.

[3] Timothy Shanahan, “God and Nature in the Thought of Robert Boyle,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 26 (1988): 558. He develops his example by pointing to the clock at Strasbourg.

[4] Many versions of this story survive; for one, J. T Fowler, ed., The Life of St. Cuthbert in English Verse (Durham: Surtees Society, 1891), ll. 1278-1306.

Glasgow Spontaneous Generation Talk

If you’d like to follow along this way….

Thank you so much to Erica Fudge and the British Animal Studies network for the invitation to speak to you today. It’s a great honor. What follows is based on a chapter from what will be my second book, Medieval Nonhumanisms, which will be coming out with the University of Minnesota Press. As there’s still time to entertain comments, corrections, or generative ideas for it, I’m looking forward to hearing from you. If you’d like a copy of the paper, or you’d like to read along as I present, I’ve posted a copy of my talk to my personal website, medievalkarl.com.


Despite what you may have been led to expect by the conference’s title, my talk is not in fact about “sex,” but rather about reproduction—or, rather, generation, but of a sexless sort. I’ll be focusing on the Middle Ages, in part because that’s what I do, but also as a kind of ambassador for my scholarly field:  nonmedievalists sometimes mistake my period as a kind of dead zone for thought, or as sloughed off or disconnected from our present except as an embarrassing remainder: recall the pleonastic insult “medieval brutality” and so on. I’d like to try to change that.

So, here’s a picture of the way we generally expect reproduction to work, from Basil, fourth-century bishop of Caesarea, a city located in what is now Turkey. He observed that

nature, once put in motion by the Divine command, traverses creation with an equal step, through birth and death, and keeps up the succession of kinds through resemblance, to the last. Nature always makes a horse succeed to a horse, a lion to a lion, an eagle to an eagle, and preserving each animal by these uninterrupted successions she transmits it to the end of all things. Animals do not see their peculiarities destroyed or effaced by any length of time; their nature, as though it had been just constituted, follows the course of ages, for ever young.

Even here, you might notice that something is not quite right: Aristotle’s On the Generation of Animals remarks that although “anyone who does not take after his parents is really in a way a monstrosity,” “the first beginning of this deviation is when a female is formed instead of a male, though this indeed is a necessity required by Nature,” which is to say, the first interruption of “uninterrupted succession” occurs with binary heterosexual reproduction itself. All boy children are “really in a way” monstrosities. Sexual reproduction is imperfect as reproduction, then, because it requires unlikeness: it’s generation, but not straightforwardly reproduction.

But there’s yet another strange form of generation that concerns me today, namely, “spontaneous generation.” My talk will aim, in some way, to recuperate this now discredited idea. “Spontaneous generation” is not quite the medieval term. The medieval terminological distinctions were rather between generatio univoca and generatio equivoca, that is, on the one hand, generation from a single source, cause, or even voice–as voca comes from the Latin vox, voice–and, on the other, generation from an ambiguous source. In generatio univoca, a horse produces a horse produces a horse, a human produces a human produces a human, and so on back to the primordial pairs, with the voice of God as the ultimate, paternal creative principle, whatever the gender difference that materializes the operations of univocal generation; in generatio equivoca, for vermin and crawling things of all sorts, the cause is not a certain voice, and certainly not sex either, binary or otherwise, but rather a process indistinguishable from rejected, disordered, and shapeless materials—dust, filth, putrefaction, and slime—or from the general restlessness of the earth itself. For in medieval Christian thought, the earth was not solid, dull stuff. Instead, it was, as Caroline Walker Bynum’s Christian Materialism points out, “fertile, maternal, labile, percolating, forever tossing up grass, wood, horses, bees, sand, or metal.” Although I’ll vacillate indifferently between the two terms over the course of my paper, “equivocal” happily suits my purposes much better as a term for this kind of generation than “spontaneous” does: the latter carries some hint of a thing happening automatically through its own efforts, a “self-starter” if you will, whereas “equivocal”  suggests indetermination, uncertainty, a resistance to being known completely, perhaps acting on its own, but perhaps being enacted in a way that could never be reduced to a singular cause.

Consider an entry in Isidore of Seville’s foundational medieval encyclopedia, his seventh-century Etymologies, which explains that worms “are generated in putrid meat, the mothworm in clothing, the cankerworm in vegetables, the wood-worm in wood, and the tarmus,” whatever that is, “in fat.” Generated by what? By whom? Certainly not by sex. Something has gone awry. Sexual reproduction goes awry because of the very need for sexual difference; asexual reproduction goes awry, we might say, because something happens where it ought not to, because life crawls from disorder, a living something whose swarming, verminous character can hardly be distinguished at all from the disorder that produced it. What happens in and through this disorder happens because of multicausal, indifferent material processes themselves, irreducible to any binary of agent and object, to any hierarchy of form and matter, untraceable to any principle of paternity or maternity. The resonances with contemporary ecocriticism may strike you as obvious.

From the ancients through at least the end of the seventeenth century, equivocal generation was simply a known fact, but generally a known fact about only a specific subset of life, often termed “imperfect,” but which I’ll call crawling or swarming life. Aristotle’s natural science was the key resource, as when he spoke of

some insects not derived from living parentage, but . . . generated spontaneously: some out of dew falling on leaves . . . others grow in decaying mud or dung; others in timber, green or dry; some in the hair of animals; some in the flesh of animals; some in excrements: and some from excrement after it has been voided, and some from excrement yet within the living animal.

Albert the Great’s thirteenth-century commentary on Aristotle’s work on animals makes exactly the same point: “One must respond that some animals are generated from propagation, and some from putrefaction. In those generated from putrefaction there are no members designated for generation, because they are not generated from semen.” Bartholomew the Englishman’s fourteenth-century encyclopedia of natural history explains that the louse is “birthed from moist, corrupt air and vapors that sweat out from between the skin and the flesh from pores”; the snail in “lime or of lime, and is therefore always foul and unclean”; butterflies lay eggs in fruit and “breed therein worms that come of their stinking filth”; and that fleas lay eggs without “mixing of male and female.”

No one seems to have found the science anything but common sense. Basil the Great remarks that on hot rainy days in Thebes, hordes of field mice swarm from the earth and the “mud alone produce[s] eels; they do not proceed from an egg, nor in any other manner; it is the earth alone which gives them birth.” Isidore’s Etymologies just as blandly observes that “many people know from experience that bees are born from the carcasses of oxen,” hornets from horses, “drones from mules, and wasps from asses.” And without any expectation of disagreement, Augustine explains that Noah had no need to coax equivocally generated lifeforms into his ark, because God specifically commanded him to gather only male and female animals, in other words, those generated through sexual reproduction, and anyway vermin would have infested the ark, as they do any house, “not in any determinate numbers.”

The problem was not the natural science itself but rather how equivocal generation challenged God’s monopoly on creation. If equivocal life comes from putrefaction, and if the created world was perfect before Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, then creeping things may have emerged only after God has finished making the world. Though creeping life, reptiles in Latin, is created twice in the Bible’s first creation story, in Genesis 1:20 and 1:24, it is notably almost entirely absent from medieval artistic depictions of creation, in which the absence perhaps acknowledges that such a form of life had yet to emerge in the earth’s first, uncorrupt days. No doubt the absence is partly due to technical constraints. Creeping things would be too small to illustrate easily, particularly on the sixth day of creation, crowded as that day was with the creation of quadrupeds and humans. However, even when artists had ample space, as in carvings on cathedrals, they still tended to omit the creation of vermin. Who or what could be responsible for them?

Medieval Christian thinkers offered a range of solutions, more or less convincing, to preserve a divine or at least a celestial cause for swarming life. For example, Robert Grosseteste, thirteenth-century Bishop of Lincoln, felt compelled to defend God’s sole responsibility for the ongoing production of oysters, here presumably standing in as a paradigmatic “equivocal” critter. According to Grosseteste, since oysters evidently generate from the water itself, God’s “increase and multiply” has to apply to oysters in some specific way particular to them, not “by the propagation of things brought forth one from other” but rather “through a multiplication of individuals that are begotten from water.” Other writers, using Aristotle, concocted better explanations by following a more logical, less haphazard system, in which the earth is cold, and life requires warmth from some source or other. Thus for Duns Scotus, stellar heat operated on a cow’s corpse, inscribing the matter in such a way that it might produce bees; a work ascribed to Albert the Great similarly explains that when the sun heats rotting matter, trapped heat causes vibrations within the matter, which produce spirit, and thus life. The actual Albert the Great insists that animals sprung from putrefaction require “a superior power and an inferior power. The inferior power disposes the matter for putrefaction, into which, once it has been disposed, the celestial power is introduced, operating on the matter just as sperm operates on the menses.” Albert’s solution suggests an effort to keep God ultimately responsible, in this case through a deputized virtus caelestis, a heavenly patriarchal force, working, like God, on merely receptive, feminine sublunary matter.

The Middle Age’s most widely respected resolution to the problem belongs to Augustine’s On the Trinity. In the course of examining the competing serpent-creating miracles between Moses and the magicians of Pharaoh’s court, told in Exodus 7:9-12, Augustine explains that demons have no power to create matter, and neither, in fact, does anything else but God. Rather, during Creation God had “interwoven” a “natural seminal power” in all life from which they produced particular kinds of seemingly new things, like serpents. Elsewhere, in a Genesis commentary, he suggests that these seeds might have been implanted on Creation’s third day, along with the seeds of plants. Although putrefaction had not yet happened at the time of Creation, seemingly “spontaneous” life has already been provided for by God’s foresight. All these explanations sought to keep God ultimately responsible, and, through that, to preserve hierarchies between object and agent, matter and spirit, and the host of other inequitable distinctions these divisions attach themselves to, like paternal form and feminine matter. And all the explanations themselves, through these strange, extrabiblical interventions, attest to some worry over whether all life is a life enabled by spirit.

The stakes of the problem become even clearer in the waning days of spontaneous generation, from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. The typical story is one that culminates in Louis Pasteur’s conclusive demonstration that a sufficiently sterile environment would prevent even the smallest microbes from arising, and with that, a conclusive demonstration that things in themselves have no power to bring forth something new. The counternarrative is perhaps equally familiar: some thirty years ago, the story of the death of spontaneous generation became a key site for the social history of knowledge, in which the victory of Pasteur over Felix Archimede Pouchet could be understood not simply as the rise and triumph of experimental science over ancient superstition but instead, or at least also, as a victory of Pasteur’s Catholicism and Imperial sympathies over Pouchet’s Protestant Republicanism, differences that themselves correspond to two distinct understandings of what matter can do.

In 1864, Louis Pasteur denounced spontaneous generation as an ally of atheism: “what a triumph, gentlemen, it would be for materialism if it could affirm that it rests on the established fact of matter organizing itself, taking on life of itself.” In the same year, Pasteur again argued that

If we also granted matter this other force we call life, life in all its many manifestations, varying as it does according to the conditions under which it is encountered, what would be more natural but to deify it? What could then be gained from recourse to the notion of an original creation, to whose mystery we must defer? What use the idea of a divine Creator?

What use indeed. Roughly 180 years earlier, Ralph Cudsworth’s massive True Intellectual System of the Universe had made exactly the same point without feeling compelled to don scientific costume: “to assert . . . that all the effects of nature come to pass by material and mechanical necessity, or the mere fortuitous motion of matter, without any guidance or direction, is a thing no less irrational than it is impious and atheistical.” To preserve reason, which, for both Pasteur and Cudsworth, is much the same thing as preserving God, matter and motion and life must all be dependent, ultimately, on some divine or quasi-divine monopoly on a final creative power. Pasteur, the modern scientist, has more than a little in common with his medieval predecessors.

And the defense of divine powers was, unexpectedly, also a defense of human particularity. Cudsworth’s late seventeenth-century contemporaries Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Jan Swammerdam provide a surprising example of such a motivation in response to their microscopic examinations of insects. In this little world they discovered an astonishing richness of detail, especially in insect wings. They were astonished because of traditions inherited from Aristotle and Albert the Great that held that the more perfect an animal, the more differentiated its parts. Insects should have been minimally detailed, unglorious, uncomplicated, and ugly. But if such beauty could arise from merely material processes, by the work of filth upon itself, then by extension other complex creatures–humans, in particular–could ultimately arise in just the same way. Leeuwenhoek and Swammerdam had to find some cause of insect reproduction more aligned to what they believed to be the typical, sexual modes of animal reproduction. Recognizing the centrality of human dignity to their research helps explain why these and other seventeenth-century Natural scientists were so dedicated to defending the doctrine of bodily resurrection as well, for if human life, like swarming life, could just arise from natural processes, then what spirit could persist after our bodies returned to the swarming earth? Resurrection promises a release from mundane flux; a spontaneously generated soul forces us to recognize that there’s no escape from this or any other earth.

Even the attempts to preserve a responsible celestial power for apparently spontaneously generated life could end up imagining a human self entirely immanent to the ongoing flux of mortal existence. To remind you: many thinkers held the sun or even every celestial body responsible for equivocal generation, explaining that when rotting matter was heated with the right kind of heat, a membrane formed that trapped the heat, which, in seeking to escape, vibrated the matter, which vibrations forced a soul to generate, and with that, life. From this, it could be but a short intellectual step to propose a fully material concept of the soul, distinguishable in function from matter, but not quite a separable, independent principle of identity. A completely immanent concept of life, that is. One astonishing speculative thinker along these lines was Blaise of Parma, whose dates, roughly speaking, were 1347 to 1416. Alternately known as Blasius, Biagio Pelacini da Parma, or, to his enemies, as the “Doctor Diabolicus,” his present fame, such as it is, rests largely on his work on optics and weights. His optical theories led him to argue that intellection was a form of sense perception, and since sense perception requires a distinct object, but available to perception, so too did the intellect; and since the objects of the sense are material, so too are the objects of intellection, that is, thought. The conclusion about the materiality of thought led him on to this astonishing last point:

the final conclusion: that the human intellection comes from the potentiality of matter, generable and corruptible.

I’ll repeat that: “human intellection comes from the potentiality of matter, generable and corruptible.” Human reason here is an effect of ongoing, imperfect material processes. Blaise reached similar conclusions in considering the problem of equivocal generation. Agreeing with Avincenna rather than Aristotle, Blaise argued that not just gnats, bees, mice, toads, and the like, could emerge equivocally, but that all life could, including human life, for “nothing prevents this matter, so prepared by natural causes, from receiving a form which has the capacity to discern, to reason, and so on, which is commonly called the “intellective power.”

Some of you might know Avicenna’s influence on another work, the Hayy ibn Yaqzan, that is, Alive Son of Awake, written by the twelfth-century Iberian Muslim scholar ibn Tufail, translated into Latin in the later seventeenth century as Philosophus Autodidactus. Tufai’s philosophical novel is a kind of theological experiment that tries to demonstrate that the highest, divine truths can be arrived at simply through human reason—thus Tufail needed to imagine a human free of any influence from written revelation or inherited tradition. He solved the problem by imagining an island at the equator, uncommonly hot, and thus not unlikely to just produce the highest kind of terrestrial soul, a rational one, spontaneously. We don’t know if ibn Tufail ever had defend himself, but Blaise was eventually forced to recant his views, which also included an argument that the story of the Ark was just a myth, an unnecessary solution to a false problem, given that the postdiluvian world would have given rise again to all the life that had once inhabited it. In Blaise and Tufail and a couple other medieval thinkers, all life, vermin, human, and otherwise, could be produced naturally, through a nonmiraculous interaction between a mobile earth and a mobile sky. Life for them is not something added to matter, but just one of the things matter does.

And looking ahead from Leeuwenhoek and Swammerdam, into modern science, we now must recognize that all generation is spontaneous if tracked back far enough. Darwin himself made the admission in a letter written not long before Pasteur was celebrating his victory over Pouchet, when he recognized that life must be at its origin abiogenetic. To put all this another way: at the very moment spontaneous generation was giving way to modern life science, abiogenesis returned, with a recognition that life is had been aimlessly generated the impersonal, restless creativity of nonlife. Of course, the differences between spontaneous generation and origin of life research should not be obscured or dashed past. Origin of life research hypothesizes about the development of a paired genetic continuity and openness to adaptation across generations; it provides irreversible historical narratives, with key transitional points, of the long rise of DNA out of an RNA world; and it tends to insist that the time of abiogensis is long over, at least on Earth. Life requires at least a combination of both genetic continuity and an openness to the environment that allows for adaptation, which is to say, life requires cross-generational genetic continuity and discontinuity. Spontaneous generation by contrast is discontinuous, as much a closed loop in its own way as pre-Darwinian assertions that like always produces like: filth produces flies, the flies die and return to filth, and so on. And spontaneous generation may be inscrutable but it does not relegate its processes to the great temporal distances of the hundred-million-year rise of DNA out of RNA or to the great speed of chemical reactions occurring in a millionth of a second. Spontaneous generation by contrast happens right before us, though, of course, it does not actually happen, as we now know. Yet over the long time of life, matter still swarms, in mundane, perhaps inevitable ways that require no transcendent divine catalyst, or any supposedly atheological equivalent, to get going.

The campaign against spontaneous generation and various incongruent, profane materialisms must therefore be understood as something other than that of a modern split from medieval habits. We should therefore not draw a line between medieval superstition and modern science but rather between acceptances of material immanence and a faith in immaterial transcendence, and, by extension, a faith in the existence of clear lines between decisive agents and mere objects. The border between immanence and transcendence must be understood as grammatical, per Nietzsche’s famous critique in Twilight of the Idols of “the metaphysics of language,” which, he argues, persists in differentiating between a “doer and doing” and asserting some “will as the cause,” or, more simply, classifying things into clear subjects and predicates, between a matter that needs something or someone to make it happen, and matter whose operations cannot be neatly sorted into effect and external cause, object and external subject. The end of Nietzsche’s critique is well known: “I am afraid that we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” In short, spontaneous generation is godless, because it is ungrammatical.

In these equivocal operations, there is nothing of what Thomas Aquinas called an “aspect of generation and sonship,” where paternal life transmits information, a word here freighted with all its etymological weight of giving form. The information of supposedly normal paternal life is matter’s informing spirit, potentially separable from any particular materialization so long as it can be transmitted and received properly by other matter, so long, that is, as it can continue to establish a lineage. By these criteria, spontaneous generation fails. The signal meant to be transmitted by God’s first creative command has been cut off or has reconstituted itself on its own terms.

Two last asides as I make my way to my conclusion:

First: Spontaneous generated life tends to be creeping life: worms, maggots, insects, snakes, eels, things many of us find more than a little repulsive. But we need not be so shaken up by that. There is no need to go along with Georges Bataille, whose exploration of human limits delighted in the “prodigality of life,” “the slimy menace of death,” and our anguish over “that nauseous, rank, and heaving matter, frightful to look upon, a ferment of life, teeming with worms, grubs, and eggs.” To apprehend the heaving stuff of worms and body as repulsive is to view things only as ourselves and our own imagined order. It is to see things from the side of God or of masculine certainties about the perfect body. It is to place ourselves and our counterparts on the side of life with politics and a face, as if we, at least, are echoes of God’s primordial commandment, preserving the proper paternal traditions of Creation through our well-ordered but threatened bodies, and to relegate everything else to the side of mere being. We can try abandoning that hope for a beautiful singular Creator beautifully concerned chiefly with our coming beautiful perfection. Down here on earth, creeping things happen through the inscrutable, acentric operations of matter, without any transcendent pretensions of a cause disentangled from an effect.

Second, as many of you know, sexual reproduction is, statistically speaking, an aberration, as most species don’t reproduce sexually. John Launer repeats a common observation along these lines in his recent essay “Do We Even Need Men?,”

There are asexual variants among all sorts of creatures, including jellyfish, dandelions, lichens and lizards. Of the creatures who do reproduce sexually, some species have two sexes, but others have three, or thirteen, or ten thousand, if you are a fungus.

Against this, we have works like George Ripley’s fifteenth-century Compend of Alchemy, which explains that “Things there be no more / except kind within kind in number two / male and female, agent and patient.” Once again, binary gender and binary gendered notions of sexual reproduction support a host of other binary systems, but in comparison to what we know about reproduction now, or indeed what the medieval believed they knew about spontaneous generation, nothing could be more simplistic.

So: Vermin swarm from and in matter without any sexual intermediary, without parental transmission, without a singular cause or singular voice, without a quality separable from their temporary affiliations. Vermin then return to earth, possibly to arise again at some point if conditions are right, but possibly not. What returns has no distinct informational line that could possibly be traced from parent to child. If this stuff is life, it must be life completely immanent to its temporary ordering of stuff, without any of the informational, transcendent, and spiritual implications that “life” carries, and without any split between its particular manifestation and a transcendent “life principle.” That is, the equivocally generated life ultimately offers us what we might call a disanimated, corporeal model of life, barely distinct from the matter from which it temporarily emerges and to which it will return.

If information is not distinguished from material structure, then we have the tools for a radically nonspiritual, nonpaternal, and nonvital conceptualization of objects in general, living things included. If this stuff is body, it is not body as origin or ground or the prediscursive repressed matter underneath social and gender codes. Individuation now need not be something that happens through the application of spirit, or vitality, or writing, or code to matter. It can be understood to happen with matter itself, through its inseparable organization within a roiling field of other matter.

We could do better, then, by recognizing the following: fundamental disorder is not a problem particular to vermin but rather one general to all that is; to call it disorder rather than, for example, “endless generativity” is to continue to think too highly of ourselves; we ourselves and our worldly counterparts are also immanent to material vibrancy or constantly erupting disorder; we are therefore not alive so long as “being alive” means having some escape from presumptively inert, “dead,” or uncreative materiality; that the opposition of life/death, with fertility on the side of life and sterility on that of death, is insupportable; and vibrancy will always swarm forth from the putrefaction, exhaustion, failure, or, for that matter, the ineluctable instability of matter, to try to sustain its own new, temporary order, and it will continue to do so long past anything we can imagine is past the point of caring.

And that’s my manifesto, and my argument, for the benefits for starting our thinking with equivocal generation.

Thank you.