At the tail end of this Europe trip and thinking about talking French. Many of you, me included, have had spoken language mastery for the entirety of our remembered lives. Many of you, me included, have this just in one language. For basic communication, for many of us, I suspect this one language tends to come almost without thinking. It’s no wonder that trying to get by in another language can be such a shock: to find oneself worrying about being at all comprehensible, at being met with an unexpected response when we produce our rehearsed phrase. The German grocery store where I was asked if I wanted promotional stamps! I might as well have been asked to lecture on topological mathematics.
by KARL STEEL
My (first) book came out in 2011, the product of a dissertation that took some 4 years to write. Time to degree was slower in those long ago days of the early oughts (at 1999-2007, I was average), but what I have proudly, certainly delusionally remembered, mainly, was that the book – a deeply revised version of my dissertation, with a creaky chapter on hunting swapped out for a new chapter (my favorite, in fact, on resurrection theology and anthropophagy) – saw print when I had only just slipped past halfway through my tenure clock. Fast. I thought this was normal.
|St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 30, c. 800, Ecclesiastes 12:12|
It’s now been 6 years since that other book, and much longer still since I first submitted the manuscript for review (2009!), and I’ve been worried. To be sure, I’ve banged out articles and reviews in the intervening years, and I’ve learned to write somewhat coherently without the constant intervention of dissertation supervisors and household writers far more able than I, but the book? Where is it? It may be stupid to say this in public, but not long ago, I sent two chapters to my favored press for an advance contract, and now it seems it’s being sent out for review. Depending on how the review goes, that may be good, but it feels slower than it should be.
Or not! Who’s your point of comparison? What’s normal? What’s acceptable? At a book party recently, which was for one author, two books, I told the writer that they wrote a book each time they rolled out of bed (and sometimes, I suppose, they roll out of bed twice, for exercise); they complained about one of their presses – the party wasn’t supposed to be for two books — then laughed at their slowness compared to a couple other colleagues. Joanna Ruocco has five books coming out next year. She writes fiction, but still. Then I think of Kathy Lavezzo, with 11 years between her first and second book; Carolyn Dinshaw, since 1989, one book about every ten years; I think too of a dinner companion at my big medieval conference, a great scholar, whose first book came out in 2010, and who’s still working away at their Book Two; another long conversation with another academic, much and deservedly admired, who started their job the same year I did, who came out with a book not long after I did, and who may be close to finishing their Book 2. All these people are great. And so on.
It’s perhaps possible to be Jeffrey Jerome Cohen or Adam Kotsko or Sara Ahmed, though they themselves also likely wonder if it’s possible to be them. Certainly none can be for themselves what they represent to others. The Big Other’s Always Barred: your idol is worried too. But it’s not necessary to be them, even the worried versions, to be a Worthy Writer.
It’s possible too that I worry about these things because my brain is sometimes addled – it moves fast, it likes to burrow, it often flitters chickadeelike from one short writing piece to another, it tends to wreck itself orthographically and solecistically – and because I worry about class: without the fancy or bourgeois childhood that I inaccurately, I’m sure, imagine most other academics to have enjoyed, a childhood of long conversations with their parents and schoolmates about Lucretius, in Latin; I’m certain that my scholarly life is a decades-long scramble to make up for what I missed by missing these first, necessary loquelae.
It’s possible that this is all Grade A foolishness, but I’m sharing this here in case I’m someone’s Big Other, and letting you know I’m worried, that I’m finding my way past it, and I hope you are too, and hoping, if possible, that we can get more enjoyment from this thing we love.
Martin Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” (composed 1946) was his first published work after the Nazi defeat. He arranged his emergence into postwar philosophy and rehabilitation by squabbling with Sartre, with existentialism, and, presumably, with Marxism, portrayed here at least implicitly as too tangled up with particular beings. With ecocritics, the particular fame of Heidegger’s “Letter” rests on its declaring twice that “man is the shepherd of being” [“Der Mensch ist der Hirt des Seins”]. First, in a passage on the “thrown” destiny of humans, a quality preceding their ability to choose their particular relation to beings (briefly: humans are da-sein, distinct from their world, because they know, unlike animals and rocks, that the world will go on without us: this relation to death loads us with a particular responsibility to being). Second, in a similar passage on the “dignity” of the shepherd, “consist[ing] in being called by being itself into the preservation of being’s truth,” Heidegger asserts that “man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of beings” [“Der Mensch ist nicht der Herr des Seienden. Der Mensch ist der Hirt des Seins”].
Here’s what I suspect is a not atypical ecocritical engagement:
humans’ speech [evidence of our “thrownness”] serves the greater process of unconcealment and thereby provides an inclusive forum to express the interests of those unable to do so. Thus we can point to an “ecologos,” or a grammar of inclusivity, in which humans’ compassionate actions toward animals become idioms that express the interests of nonhuman species and thereby form the cornerstone of a “transhuman ethic”… By upholding the humility that allows humans to speak, they can become the voice for those creatures whose suffering otherwise would go unheard. The voice, however, speaks in favor of showing compassion toward animals. (112; see also Garrard (2004 ed) 31-32)
I’m more inclined to find fault with Heidegger. I’m not alone on this: see Žižek (10), Wolfe (40), Morton (58), and especially Tom Tyler – with whom I recently spent a delightful afternoon — who neatly observes “Heidegger’s characterisation of beings has them dutifully running to heel when he (Heidegger, Man) points and calls them out (they are perhaps as much like the obedient sheep dog as the placid sheep). Though this is no small thing, the problem with “man is the shepherd of being” is not simply Heidegger’s disengagement from any actually existing beings in favor of a supposedly unmarked “whatever being.” We know any ostensibly prepolitical stance can only pretend to universalism, like any universalism, leaving most beings unshepherded, forced to fend for themselves or worse (and here I can point you to Ernst Bloch, who had Heidegger’s number long before the appearance of the Black Notebooks) (and of course I know there can be no defense of particular beings without some philosophy of being, but: ontoethics needs to respond to some particular being, eventually, which means needing an analysis of particular power relations: just musing in the clearing of being and thinking oneself free of master codes won’t ever be enough).
The other problem is the simplicity of Heidegger’s opposition between being “Herr” (lord) and “Hirt” (shepherd). From a historical perspective, we know the hirt works for the herr and that the herr has no lordship without the hirt. From an animal studies perspective, we know that the hirt isn’t herding only from the kindness of his heart: mutton may be eaten contemplatively, parchment can be scraped and enscribed gloomily, although this will be only cold comfort for the sheep. From a literary studies perspective, we know too that the hirt is the herr’s fantasy of leisure (as in the pastoral); as a schafhirtin (shepherdess) or perhaps schaferknabe (shepherd’s boy), the hirt is the herr’s fantasy of seduction or rape. At best, Heidegger’s opposition of (bad) herr to (good) hirt pretends to be wholly innocent of the whole tradition of pastoral, and of the fantasies of soil, place, and authenticity it sustains, not only in fascist Germany. He’s just not in control of his metaphor.
The other other problem is the absence of (at least) the third term. There are a lot of ways to care for things. One way to be a shepherd. The other is to be food. Allow me, then, to propose the following emendation, risking my elementary German in public: Der Mensch ist nicht der Herr des Seienden. Der Mensch ist der Hirt des Seins. Aber Der Mensch ist auch das Futter des Seins. Oder Seienden [Man is not the Lord of Beings. Man is the Shepherd of Being. But Man is also the Pasture of Being. Or Beings]. To be a shepherd is to be outside (ex-isting, we might say) other beings; it is to be singular, even heroic, among a crowd, the fortunate if often witless recipients of our protection. But a shepherd also is a body, and that body, like others, is mortal. We may be able to protect others, but our protection has its limits. We can give ourselves up willingly to be food; we can wait until we die; but – barring embalming and cremation – we are going to be the fodder of someone else, regardless. Who that imagined “we” is, of course, is a historical effect, and must be understood as such: more on that, and what the Middle Ages might say about it, in a later post.
As a teaser, for now, consider the long-term project of artist (and, we should say, practical ethicist) Elaine Tin Nyo to turn herself into sausage. See the Meat and Mortality site at MOMA for a brief introduction, which is not more than I can find, as of now, about this cuisinocentric artist (for more, briefly, here). Still more here:
“I’m going to make something that starts out like a baby book, and turns into a cookbook,” said Tin Nyo with a slight trace of amusement while she described her “This Little Piggy” project. Over the next decade, she plans on “adopting” five pigs from different “ham centric” countries and documenting each of their lives from birth to the abattoir.
Elaine tends to crave pork while working with pigs for “This Little Piggy,” but she says vegetarians and vegans understand her artwork because it values the lives of animals prior to being sold at the grocery store.
“What’s important to me is maximizing an immediate experience rather than a remote experience, and food is very good that way,” she said.
Her final project will be morbid a morbid one. “I also want to write a will where I become a sausage.”
Here’s a sometimes vegetarian who doesn’t think the pigs necessarily appreciate being the subject of her art/foodwork, but who fully supports the self-into-sausage project: if she has herself fed to pigs at the end, all the better. Certainly her work with pigs goes further than the tedious “bad boy” pig tattoo project of Wim Delvoye, which, coupled with his Cloacal factory, forgets the life cycle of pigs, of flesh, and of self. By contrast, Elaine Tin Nyo’s work is feminist, engaged, responsible, vulnerable, and present to beings in ways neither Delvoye nor Heidegger would ever allow.
(thanks to the great Karen Raber for turning me on to to Tin Nyo’s work)
She was so charitable and so pitous
She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous
Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde
With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed.
But soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte;
And al was conscience and tendre herte.
With torment and with shameful deeth echon,
This provost dooth thise Jewes for to sterve
That of this mordre wiste, and that anon.
He nolde no swich cursednesse observe.
” Yvele shal have that yvele wol deserve ” ;
Therfore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,
And after that he heng hem by the lawe.
From Attendance List for a Funeral (in German, Lebensläufe, 1962; trans in 1966, McGraw Hill; retranslated as Case Histories for Portico in Holmes & Meier, 1988).
And here’s the context for the F. and H.:
On a whim, I decided to join my wife by getting an eye appointment.
I told the optometrist, “well, no, I’ve never had glasses. Last eye exam was….23…years ago, but I’m in my mid 40s, and everyone in my family starts wearing glasses about this age.”
“Everyone does. It’s not just your family.”
Soon she’ll tell me that we’re not the only mortal family, either. Everybody Poops; Everybody’s Eyesight gets a Bit Worse; Everybody Dies.
Then, a miracle: she fitted me with a temporary contraption (like me!) of screws, lenses, and arms and had me look across the street. Fine, I can read it. “Now, take them off and read it again.” The dry cleaner’s awning went a bit blurry, and so did my mind. I repeated the operation four or five times, quickly, each time just about shouting, “My goodness. Oh my goodness. I’m astonished! My! Goodness!”
We did the same thing, with a different set of lenses, with the copyright text in Drew Daniel’s The Melancholy Assemblage, which, I am astonished to report, is printed as tightly and clearly as you could please.
I thought: this is what it must be like to be a god. Everyday, you perform what people believe are miracles. Everyday people shout “My Goodness! My! Golly! Blow! Me! Down!” Everyday people sacrifice, and the god — divinely indifferent, sure it’s just the way things go — looks down, befuddled.
For me, from my sadly mortal perspective, a miracle. For her, a job.
Here’s my new face. May it strike you like a miracle.
Being poorly read, I feel no shame at having never heard of the great Louis Bromfield, whose novels were the thing some 80 years back, and who seems to be known chiefly, now, for his ground…breaking agrarian experiments.
Spare a thought, if you will, for Lily Shane, Hattie Tolliver, Olivia Pentland, Mrs. Callendar, and Sabine Cane. I wish all my writing friends Bromfield’s success and their own immortality. May your works live forever, but not before they’ve had a chance to feed your mouth!
Now I’m wondering just who the English Galsworthy was. In the meantime, read this for me, will you?