Atavism: Teaching notes on Beloved

I like to give me students something to beat up on, so I started class today with this sentence from Cliffs Notes:

In Cincinnati, far from the misshapen Mrs. Garner, the atavistic savagery of the “mossy teeth,” and schoolteacher’s sadism, Sethe sinks into the masochism of a fruitless emotional duel with her dead child’s ghost.

The question: what’s wrong with the word “atavistic”? How is this evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding of how TIME works in Beloved?

25 minutes later, one saucy student demanded: “where are you going with this ‘atavistic’ stuff?”

“Hold on. Just hold on.”

I’m at that stage in my career where I’m pretty sure I could have kept it going for another 30 minutes.

But if you’re looking for a lesson plan on Beloved from someone who read it for the first time last month — in other words, if you’re kind of a fool or a bit of an ambulance chaser — then by all means read on and click you on.

I discovered, first, that although this is an advanced literature course (“History and Lit”) very few — like maybe one — of my 16 students knew what “atavistic” even meant. So I gave them some evolutionary biology, first, and explained this is “atavistic” in its technical sense, while also reminding them that it’s just plain wrong to think that “atavistic” traits are more primitive. Evolution, I insisted, does not improve things in some abstract sense; it doesn’t make things better (“for what?”): it adapts, and adaptations can sometimes be simplifications (like blind cave fish, classically).

Then I showed them some 19th-century criminology:


I gave them some modern atavism in a racist context. And I finally asked why “atavistic” was a particularly lousy word to use to denigrate someone — even white people — in a novel written by an African American about the African American experience?

The students rightly observed that the story of Schoolteacher’s nephews assaulting Sethe did NOT take place in some primitive past but in the present of 1855, where cruel white behavior against black slaves was condoned and encouraged: there’s a whole modern system set in place to make these kinds of actions possible. Given that her assailants are literally stealing her milk from her breasts, we witness here, helplessly (like Halle in the hayloft), a violent assertion of the fact that, to the slaveowners, Sethe and other slave mothers were nothing but breeding stock.

I added, what else about “atavistic”? What about the charge that certain people are more primitive than others, more likely to be evolutionary throwbacks? What about the phrase “you black apes” (here, here, here, and here).

We got it. No surprise. I didn’t belabor the point. Atavistic is a pretty lousy, stupid word to use as an insult for describing characters in at least this book.

And what about the way time functions in Beloved anyhow?

Remember, I read it for the first time last month, and am, naturally, teaching it for the first time now. I’m sure this has been covered in the criticism.

Sethe’s relationship to the past is not one of a present day person trying to grow out of something primitive. For her, the past is at once too present and too lost: too present in that she’s pummeled with it whenever she remembers (quite literally when the ghost shows up), and too lost when we see what happens between her and her mother, her connection to Africa, to the antelope dance, and to the freedom stolen from them.

I have my past easily at hand, I told the students: on my mother’s side, I can trace my ancestry  back to the seventeenth century in this country (and farther back still if I extend it to Europe). Over here, in Virginia, we owned slaves; a great great (or so) uncle — James O. B. Racer — died from wounds received at Gettysburg, fighting, I pointed out, for the wrong side. My students — many of them immigrants or second-generation Americans, many of them descended from people fleeing pogroms or the Holocaust, many of them descended from slaves — don’t have this. “Atavism” isn’t their problem: it’s that their past is either too awful and too lost.

This is one of the problems Morrison explores in Beloved, where 1855 and 1873 shift into each other, without a sign or a break, where the past might slide into the present or vice versa, where Sethe and Paul D and so on scramble and dodge to try to re/member a usable past and to try to get past the past that haunts them. The past is not backwards, here, but rather a ghost, a danger, and an absence, and the impossible desired thing.

I stopped only because we had to talk about Lucy Delaney, who, you know, teaches like a dream.

Defaced: teaching notes on Imoinda’s beheading

Whitened Imoida

You probably know Behn’s Oroonoko better than I do. I’m reading/teaching (or that teaching/reading?) it for the first time.

Yesterday, we focused on this:

All that Love could say in such Cases, being ended, and all the intermitting Irresolutions being adjusted, the lovely, young and ador’d Victim lays herself down before the Sacrificer; while he, with a Hand resolved, and a Heart-breaking within, gave the fatal Stroke, first cutting her Throat, and then severing her yet smiling Face from that delicate Body, pregnant as it was with the Fruits of tenderest Love.

This is Oroonoko, the enslaved prince, killing Imoinda, his wife, to keep her from being “ravish’d by every Brute; expos’d first to their nasty Lusts, and then a shameful Death” after he revenges himself against the whites who wronged him. Behn, as I argued yesterday, faces an unsolvable problem: she has to have Oroonoko kill the pregnant Imoinda, and she has to have him do it out of love. She loads up the sentence with tender words — “lovely, young and ador’d,” “smiling,” “delicate,” and of course “tenderest” — and gives us an Oroonoko who is “adjusting” his “intermitting irresolutions” before he kills her. This is the act of a man of grace and honor, with none of the loathing, hatred, and bare desperation of Othello. As I told the class, while I thought Othello the greater work, and its emotions more frightening, I though Behn had done Shakespeare one better, on one key account, by politicizing the uxoricide: this is no private matter. This is political, a blow against the slavers, a call for abolition or, especially, a call by the Tory Behn to respect the rights of royals (for Oroonoko is, first of all, a prince).

And yet: “severing her yet smiling Face.” What is he doing here?

The students were as horrified as I was: was he actually carving Imoinda’s face from her head? Unlikely, I suggested; I think he cut her throat and then, perhaps to bring death fast, beheaded her. Behn can’t bring herself to say “beheaded,” though: maybe she’s remembering England’s regicide (which happened when she was 8 or 9) or maybe it’s just too ugly an act. So she solves the problem by giving us an image that’s, actually, far, far worse.

As I’ll suggest, this inadvertent “defacement” may be the truth of the matter: not just that Behn can’t find the right words to present the impossible: a husband killing his pregnant wife, but tenderly; and not just that she’s simultaneously preserved and destroyed as a person, dying as a tragic heroine but dying because she’s just a slave, just fungible, a body without a face of her own; but also that the murder really is an act compelled by the slavocracy of English Surinam. This act of horror is not his own. Sort of. He’s killing her to preserve his control over her body (his tender love vs. the nasty lusts) but he’s compelled to do this only because he’s bound to. Where is his agency here? Where is hers? Where is the face — the site of the human, of the individual — in all this?

[image from ArtStor: Illustration for Thomas SOUTHERNE’s dramatization of Aphra BEHN’s, Oroonoko , pl. I in Lowndes New English Theatre , vol. VI (London, 1776), p. 83: Mr. Savigny in the Character of Oroonoko]

[UPDATE – clearly this is all new to me. First correction: the spelling of Imoinda. Second: Here, I’ll stress that she does encourage Oronooko to kill her. For what that’s worth. THIRD and perhaps most importantly: an important and convincing strain of criticism reads this passage literally, as Oroonoko literally cutting his dead wife’s face off her body. It’s a memento, a cameo, a rendering of her body unfit for adultery (in the old, semi-legendary ‘punishment’ of the defacement of adulterous wives and mistresses), and preserving her for his in in absolute horror.]

Chaucer, Twice: the Prioress and Criseyde

I’ve just commented, with some befuddlement, on two classes of short papers on the Prioress’s Tale. I had introduced the Tale with, yes, a Trigger Warning that went something like this: “As this is a class on race and racism focused on medieval texts, many of the readings will, or at least should, horrify you. Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale is one of them. It’s antisemitic. For the last 50 years or so, the main debate has been whether Chaucer or the Prioress is to blame for its antisemitism. But there’s no way around it: it’s awful.”

Despite all that, about half the papers said something like “I think this story is antisemitic,” “it seems unfair to Jews,” “it seems to be trying to say Christians are good and Jews are evil,” “it tells us that antisemitism is really old,” or, the variant, “the antisemitism in the Prioress’s Tale is still around today.”

I warned them, but they’re still shocked. I’m befuddled but I’m also delighted, because the tale really is that horrible.

I’ve tried to push them towards more direct, more specific engagement, not only with the tale’s antisemitism, but also with the anxieties, concerns, and assumptions that antisemitism requires to have any force at all. When a student says “this shows that medieval Christians were antisemitic,” I, of course, say “the earliest written account of this kind of tale is the 1170s; they’re confined to northern Europe; so we have to get more specific”; but when a student just condemns the tale’s antisemitism in the broadest possible terms and walks away, then I have to lean on their good conscience. At the least, I have to teach them to close read. My main questions:

  • What’s the relationship between ignorance and holiness? In other versions of the tale, the boy’s 10 years old; here he’s 7, just before the age of responsibility, killed before he learns how to read. The nun herself wants to become like a child of 12 months old, unable to speak even. The Prioress herself snarks at the monk, and even the ‘holy abbot’ in the tale is, in a way, the one to kill the boy. And what does this suggest about the way that ‘simplicity’ and ‘goodness’ tend to be equated? Is there something sinister about this?
  • Similarly, why do you assume that the Prioress’s intense feeling for the Virgin has to be faked? Why do you assume that simplicity and simple expression are more authentic than fancy talk?
  • The central myth of Christianity is a martyred god who resurrects. This is the story Christianity needs to tell. While the tale blames the Jews, sort of, for killing the boy, Christianity, especially medieval Christianity, needs martyrs. The tale itself, I’ll remind you, is an antisemitic fiction. So, who killed the boy? Not the Jews. The tale did. And why was the tale told? Christianity. Or to get a free dinner. One or both of these, I’d argue, is what actually killed the little boy. Think of the way that detective shows chase after killers, but need to kill women, especially women, to start the story…
  • The tale blames Satan for inspiring the Jews to murder; or it thinks Satan makes his nest in Jews’ hearts. Are the Jews responsible or not? Unlike other versions of the tale, the Jews don’t murder the child out of a sense of religious duty. The Prioress’s Tale isn’t a Ritual Murder case, but rather a random, unthinking act of violence. Also: the tale has a pure little boy who — as a sign of his pureness — sings a song he barely understands and who tends towards intellectual neoteny. The Jews do what they do because they have to; the boy does what he does without understanding. They’re both machines, objects not agents, the one evil, the other good. Why does Chaucer strip agency from both Jews and boy?

In the next class, I’m also going to talk about this painting:

This painting, by or based on Edward Burne-Jones, appears regularly in my students’ presentations on the Prioress’s Tale. Probably yours too. No wonder: it illustrates the Wikipedia page on the Tale, and dominates the Google image search results. Though I’ve recommended ArtStor for images, the students go with what’s most readily at hand (probably yours too). I imagine, though, that even if they’d gone to ArtStor, they’d find much the same stuff (but as the Brooklyn College library website is shockingly down….).

I’m going to tell them this: the image, featuring a standard pre-Raphaelite pose for Virgin and clergeon, is itself antisemitic, and just a little more subtle than the images, just as popular in presentations, of hooked-nose Jews (there, usually, to show the continuing force of antisemitic stereotypes). I thank the St Louis Museum of Art (warning AUTOPLAY) for making some of this clear to me: the image invites us in, opening the gate to let us join the virgin and boy. The Jews and the murder are in the background, cut off absolutely from the virgin by the garden wall, barred from this innocent paradise. Now, the St Louis Museum seems perfectly fine with this, and perhaps my students too, though far more innocently. As I’ll argue next week, the painting is as antisemitic as the tale itself to the degree that it reproduces without condemning both the tale’s hatred of Jews and its saccharine logic of sanctity.

I’ll say the painting, in fact, aims to become like the Litel Clergeon. It pretends not to understand the tale. It just presents the encounter between boy and (virgin) mother — the virgin mother who can belong to the boy entirely precisely because she remains a virgin1 — as the tale’s actual content, while forgetting, as much as it can, how the tale proves the boy’s innocence by hating Jews and by murdering the boy. The painting pretends to be a holy fool and is all the worse for it.

For more on the painting, see Eileen A. Joy in 2007, who saw it in St Louis, and writes well about:

all the ways in which various anti-semitic discourses and even meta-anti-semitic discourses [whether in the form of apocryphal stories, reductively stereotypical tropes, satire, etc.] are made to kind of “disappear” in or move into the background of our “readings” of various texts.


Here’s another bit of recent Chaucer grumbling:

I’m thinking of a recent conversation with a very senior colleague, someone who’s been at my institution for a lifetime, mine, specifically. He was on his way out of the class; I was on my way in. As best I remember, here’s how it went:

“What are you teaching?”


“Matthew Arnold said that Chaucer lacked ‘high seriousness.'”

“Certainly not true for Troilus & Criseyde.”

“”Slydynge of corage’. I like that. Always on her way to the next man.”

“What choice did she have?”

He repeats: “‘Slydynge of corage.'”

“What else could she have done?”

A nasty nutshell. It’s a prefeminist, prepolitical way to teach the poem, preserved in amber, and no doubt preserved even in some of our younger teachers.

  1. The psychoanalytic readings come automatically, don’t they? The Jews, Satan, and even the Abbot are all men who want to interpose themselves between the boy and his mother, cutting him off. The boy, refusing to learn to read, doesn’t want to enter the Symbolic or doesn’t want to give up on the good object of his virgin mother. The Prioress wants to be a like a child of twelve months old or less. It’s basically fill in the blanks by this point, yeah? 

Class 14 – SGGK, Weird Reading, and Ecowrap up


What you see above is most of today. We started by talking about Kzoo; everyone’s encouraged to review the #kzoo2014 twitter hashtag, and to get a sense of the volume and connections of tweets from here. Then we talked about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, surely one of the most taught Middle English texts (for example, here’s the first page of my Borroff translation from 2 years ago; even more crowded now). We covered some of the key ways it’s often taught: pagan and Christian and ‘vernacular Christianities’, focusing on the green belt, Solomon’s pentangle, and invocations like “Cros Kryst me spede“; gender and genealogy, with the former concentrating on Morgan’s control of the narrative, and the latter on Morgan’s connections to both Arthur and Gawain and, eventually, Mordred; queer sexhostipitality, and feminist critiques of supposedly gender neutral discussions of hospitality (see McCracken here); and Aeneas’s treachery at Troy, with the ambiguity of “was tried for his tricherie, the trewest on erthe.”

But then we got ecocritical, with discussions of humeral and astrological theory, the horses and the ‘becoming horse’ of knights, the ‘desert’ that’s actually prolific with more life than can be handled (greener than you think!) and the ‘great outdoors’, and, of course, the butchering of the animals, with the move towards animals that are less and less receptive to ‘getting along with’ humans, concluding with the fox as the great outdoors of animals, vulnerable, useless, and clever.

And then the board happened! Above, our semester.

Day 13 – Plant Thought, Tree women, Surface, and Hospitality

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 2.00.28 PMWe started off looking at the phenomenon of non-human horror (continuing from our discussions of Thacker last week), noting a progression(?) from the plant horror of the 50’s (with summer reading recommendations of Ward Moore’s Greener Than You Think, available as a free ebook andaudiobook along with Aldiss’ Hothouse, and John Cristopher’s Death ofGrass). There seems to be a general shift in horror: Plants –> Giant animals –> vampires –> zombies –> robots (?).

We had a great presentation, which explored the question of subjective participation and objective distance, drawing connections between Ulysses’ famous participation-by-passivity in his being tied to the mast of the ship to hear the sirens. Without objective distance, there is death. This moved into Kohn’s How Forests Think, which seeks to expand the “anthropological” outside of the anthropos. Some kind of articulation of thought is generally the divisional line between human and non-human things, but humans are always thinking within their contexts…as do animals…and forests. And this connects into the flower maidens in the Alexander legend: they exist in a network, but most notably, a closed network, where the observer is also a violation. What does it mean that their production is regenerative? And carrying into Dindimus, what gives him the ability to separate himself enough to analyze his own culture and relate it to Alexander? How is this correspondence possible? Or any, for that matter, in the case of these colliding networks of enclosure/meaning?

There is a problem of representation and interrogation in the Alexander stories, in which all beings are rendered as signs which one must know, or, bring into one’s own system of meaning, a further appropriation that underscores that of the material appropriation of plants that Micheal Marder explicates in Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. But there’s a problem here in that we are understanding action as performative, and performativity as linguistic (There was a Barad reference here, that I’m unread on). But essentially, it seems that this problem boils down to interaction as performativity or object-orientation, the space in between which plants seem to lie.

We started talking about challenging Harman’s withdrawal (dark, deep, cavernous, whatever) to a withdrawal that is withdrawal because of its surface-ness. McCracken’s reading of the flower-women, which can be downloaded here, leaves off (or adds, thus leaving off) something important in its translation of the Middle French, which adds that the women have the “form of a [human] body.” But no, actually, they have “des cors la figure,” that is, of the body a figure, or the figure of a body, which is even weirder, a body purely made out of its figuration, out of its surface.

And then the discussion of Alexander and Dindimus, in which Dindimus acts in the mode of standard medieval asceticism, withdrawal from the world, but is here doing so because he is rendering himself as part of the world. Hereis the question of what constitutes the human: Dindimus is more human because he is with and in the world, and Alexander defends his humanity on the basis of his ownership and “cultivation” of it. But Dindimus isn’t actually one with the world–what he wants is total distance from it, to be in the anthropological “outside,” inhabiting objective distance from the world and a distance from obligation. And also the problems of representing a king, as in MS. Bodl. 264 fol. 215r

Day 12 – Tundale, Disputation Body and Worms, and Thacker


  1. I also provided links to some guidance on conference going: here is a good guide on how to write abstracts, how to identify conferences, and how to fund your conference travel and here’s one on the expectations for presentations in the humanities; I also forgot to share guidance on the length of the average dissertation.
  2. here’s a “storified” Twitter record of a materialism session from the Shakespeare Association of America, to give you a sense of the fun of conferences.
  3. links
    1. photo series of depressing zoo architecture, where the landscapes painted to satisfy the human viewers. Obviously, this can be critiqued as an example of the fantasy of the wild, but we can turn that same critique back around on the photos themselves, which are obviously framed to make us believe the animals are depressed.
    2. animal architecture, with an example of an Australian Bird with a keen eye for color and arrangement. The bird in this case is trying to attract a mate, but we of course are also delighted by the color. Desire and courtship are working across species lines, then, a point that would work well for papers looking to Chaucer’s Parliament.
    3. A Roman-Age mint has been turned up in England, complete with dog prints: here’s a bit of the world-without-us, Thacker’s third category of world. World-for-us is our world; world-in-itself is the world with humans subtracted; and the world-without-us is the world that’s still here with us but somehow impersonally so, as it’s not for us. Thacker takes this as horrific (setting up the Haraway vs. Thacker throwndown that would erupt later in our discussion), but we might also just take it as these dog prints and the stone, a whimsical element of surprise crosses into our world without becoming fully ours.
    4. For summer reading, I recommended [[[type|link[postId|1566575923[asin|022605750X[authorId|1203060269|this book on the oldest living things]]: here’s another example of a World-without-Us, but perhaps without Thacker’s horror. The issue of timescale and life of course intersects nicely with our Purgatorial Poetry.
    5. Bad Dogs, here, with the question of nonhuman responsibility. we connected this to a recent article in the NY Times Magazine on chimps suing their owners, which led to the less attractive flip side, which is that a chimp that can sue should also be a chimp that canbe sued
    6. Parrots, among other animals, seem to have names: now, whatever else the name is, it’s also, as Derrida reminds us often, a promise of death. The name can potentially outlive us, marking the place where we once were. Anyone who reflects on their own name and its use by others must know this. This depressing realization is also a way to overturn Heidegger’s distinction between human death and animal “perishing,” since the name also ‘grants’ (some) animals the same extrinsic relation to world that humans have: parrots and humans both, perhaps, are aware that the world will move on without them.
    7. I recommended people enjoy the Middle English Romance Database

After showing images from British Museum MS Add. 37049 and the Getty Tondale, we moved into 3 great presentations and also one sneak-preview of one of my Kzoo papers.

But I’ll have to write tomorrow at length about what we talked about: cows in Hell, worms and their character, the peculiar character of the ‘tomb verses’ in the “Disputation,” and the horrific lack of concordance between punishment/reward and the human world. Especially thrilling: imagining how Haraway would handle Thacker’s material, or, why does this all have to be so horrific? Why can’t we make friends with our worms, anyhow?

Our presentations on Tundale, Thacker, and the “Disputation Between the Body and Worms” covered some of the following:
Tundale and the World-without-us: purgatorial poems tend to feature catalogs, of punishments, of sinners, of places. Here’s an abundance that alienates, surely a concretized version of the cosmic horror of Thacker’s world-without-us. See also the total lack of correspondence between punishment and sinner: certainly, the punishment has an analogical relationship, but it always seems excessive in relationship to the actual, mortal sin, which is a much smaller thing than eternity. We also considered Satan, the “big bad” here as in Dante, but, as in Dante, also immobilized, fixed at the bottom, and thus a superhuman figure that is, in his way, as trapped as any human. Somehow this is quite the opposite of comforting.

While Thacker concentrates on a set of “weird” literature, his schema can also help unpack the Volsung saga. We have three varieties of Black Metal, with the one simply a heretical, Satanic inversion, the second a mythological pagan multiplicity, and the third something far more inhuman. In the Volsung saga, we see the theological give way immediately to the mythological which then, in turn, gives way to a kind of cosmic pessimism. We also played with the nonrepresentational quality of music, something that Thacker oddly didn’t exploit in his discussion of Black Metal (which instead concentrated on the lyrical content). Conversation turned to the way that humanity works, granted from outside as a kind of ‘reverse’ exorcism, with humanity just as much a possession as its demonic reversal. Finally, we pushed back briefly on Thacker’s reading of Inferno, as his typology of demons moves, oddly, and without acknowledgement, backwards through Dante, starting with Satan, then the masses of demons, and then the ‘climatic’ demons of the lustful.

Finally, on the Disputation, a didactic debate poem, instruction for novices, which swings between horror of death and the promise of wiping the slate clean. We reviewed the cultural history of worms, ranging from the renewable Phoenix and its worm-like larval stage to Christ as worm to the worms of our own bodies, spontaneously generated from flesh we thought our own. Apparently some medieval people wore worms as a cure for the plague. Now, the worms, in this erotic assault, refashion the human body in its own image, by making the soft and shifting body into a hard set of bones, without any vanity or decoration.

Conversation after the presentations turned on Thacker vs. Haraway (whose When Species Meet we had read in part earlier in the semester): what does Haraway’s political optimism and feminism do with Thacker’s (unmarked) masculine pessimism? What happens if we don’t start by assuming that the human has separate boundaries from its “environment,” as Thacker does? How does Haraway help us understand what it means — as in the “Disputation” — to make “friends” with one’s worms, given that this friendship must be temporary (the worms are there only so long as the body has flesh to eat, the body is there only until the resurrection takes its bones, which means the worms will leave first).

And what happens to the “Disputation” if we read this poem in the long tradition of Lady Philosophers disputing with men? Where’s the “Lady Philosophy” here?

We returned, at last, to the question of the cow in “Tundale,” which its TEAMS editor thinks is just hilarious. But no.

“When he on the brygge was,
The cow wold not forthur pas.
He saw the bestys in the lake
Draw nerre the brygge her pray to take.
That cow had ner fall over that tyde
And Tundale on that todur syde.”

We noted the cow’s terror, and how the cow just disappears after Tundale’s down his penance. Has the cow been punished for having been stolen? Is the cow a demon in the form of a cow? What do we do with the pure terror, unredeemable, of the cow, completely outside the economy of purgatory?

Day 11 – Marx, Material Agency, and Albina and Her Sisters

The big question for today was “agency.” How can nonhuman materials be said to have it, and how can humans be said to have it? When posthumanism gives agency to the former, it tends to leave it intact in humans; when it takes agency away from humans, it tends to believe that it’s “reducing” humans to the supposedly dull status of material.

To start, we spent perhaps an hour on a few pages from Marx’s German Ideology, observing how his purported materialism fell prey to his humanism, and, to a lesser extent, to his inability to rethink gender. Overall, Marx’s project is to enable humans to take control of the train of history, though it often seems that he’s merely enabling us to be aware of its destination. In such a case, where nothing really can be changed, what does awareness matter?

The passages in question were:

“Man can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals a soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their own material life.” (Man kann die Menschen durch das Bewußtsein, durch die Religion, durch was man sonst will, von den Tieren unterscheiden. Sie selbst fangen an, sich von den Tieren zu unterscheiden, sobald sie anfangen, ihre Lebensmittel zu produzieren, ein Schritt, der durch ihre körperliche Organisation bedingt ist. Indem die Menschen ihre Lebensmittel produzieren, produzieren sie indirekt ihr materielles Leben selbst.)

Marx might justly have added “and by extension, their mental life, only delusionally distinguishable from their material life.”

We observed that the “distinguish” changes its meaning from one sentence to the next: in the first, it’s arbitrary (“man can be distinguished”); in the second, it’s a self-distinguishing, which is either a conscious classification, or a fully material classification, whereby humans emerge as the one animal that produces “its own means of subsistence.” We immediately argued Marx into the ground on this point: what about bees? What about the animals in Kohn’s //How Forests Think//, which move about the Amazon rain forest as various trees fruit in sequence, followed in turn by their predators? And where does this leave room, if any, for consciousness? Marx seems to be in line with Gregory of Nyssa/William of St Thierry/Aquinas on the physical/material foundation of humanity (i.e., as they argue, if humans had no hands, they would become indistinguishable from any other animal).

We also looked at the beginning of human consciousness/society in relation to nature. At first, “it is mere herd-consciousness, and at this point man is only distinguished from sheep by the fact that with him consciousness takes the place of instinct or that his instinct is a conscious one. This sheep-like or tribal consciousness receives its further development and extension through increased productivity, the increase of needs, and, what is fundamental to both of these, the increase of population.” (Dieser Anfang ist so tierisch wie das gesellschaftliche Leben dieser Stufe selbst, er ist bloßes Herdenbewußtsein, und der Mensch unterscheidet sich hier vom Hammel nur dadurch, daß sein Bewußtsein ihm die Stelle des Instinkts vertritt, oder daß sein Instinkt ein bewußter ist. Dieses Hammel- oder Stammbewußtsein erhält seine weitere Entwicklung und Ausbildung durch die gesteigerte Produktivität, die Vermehrung der Bedürfnisse und die Beiden zum Grunde liegende Vermehrung der Bevölkerung.)

What is a “conscious instinct”? In what sense can this be called “conscious”? Is consciousness, we suggested, like the doubling back on material production that sees humans producing their own subsistence? That is, consciousness is the production of new or continued thought out of the material of sensation? Even so, how can Marx, if he can at all, distinguish consciousness from this material productivity? Then, of course, there’s theHammel- oder Stammbewußtsein (wether [rather than “sheep,” I think] or tribal consciousness).

Marx here is trying to find the beginning of humans, because he’s committed to tracking human history. This fundamental idealist position of humans, which causes him to single humans out among other species, is his fundamental error. It also leads him, interestingly, to keep offering new “real” beginnings of the human. This self-aware instinct, perhaps, or perhaps in the division of labor, which either follows from “the division of labor in the sexual act” (die ursprünglich nichts war als die Teilung der Arbeit im Geschlechtsakt), or from “that division of labor which then develops spontaneously or ‘naturally’ by virtue of natural predisposition (e.g., physical strength)” (dann Teilung der Arbeit, die sich vermöge der natürlichenAnlage (z.B. Körperkraft)…von selbst oder “naturwüchsig” macht), which then leads to the “true” division of labor “when a division of material and mental labor appears” (Die Teilung der Arbeit wird erst wirklich Teilung von dem Augenblicke an, wo eine Teilung der materiellen und geistigen Arbeit eintritt). But remember Marx’s key argument against the German Idealists: this division is only delusional.

In another sense, human difference is nothing but a delusion of consciousness’s independence of the material relations that produce it. At least on the basis of these passages, a thoroughgoing Marxism, far more thorough than his own, is a fully material nonhumanism. The only questions are how any kind of agency remains possible and whether, by extension, anything could be said to be autonomous.

The last passage was on the question of nature of consciousness, unique to humans because of their relation to other humans through language, which is, however, nothing but one expression of practical material consciousness. Animals, he says, has no relations (because they have no language?? no need for language?): Für das Tier existiert sein Verhältnis zu andern nicht als Verhältnis (“For the animal, its relation to others does not exist as a relation”). This is pure nonsense, a difference without a difference except for its shaky position atop Marx’s unexamined humanism. It reads, as we observed, like Levinas’s unfortunate statements about Bobby the Dog, the “Last Kantean in Nazi Germany,” but unconscious for all that.
Then there’s the origin of consciousness, which is “from the very beginning a social product” or, wait, no, it is “at first, of course, merely consciousness concerning the immediate sensuous environment,” which is, AT THE SAME TIME, “consciousness of nature,” apprehended as “completely alien, all-powerful, and unassailable,” to which we relate (!) in a “purely animal” way, “overawed like beasts,” a “purely animal consciousness of nature (natural religion)” (Das Bewußtsein ist natürlich zuerst bloß Bewußtsein über die nächste sinnliche Umgebung und Bewußtsein des bornierten Zusammenhanges mit andern Personen und Dingen außer dem sich bewußt werdenden Individuum; es ist zu gleicher Zeit Bewußtsein der Natur, die den Menschen anfangs als eine durchaus fremde, allmächtige und unangreifbare Macht gegenübertritt, zu der sich die Menschen rein tierisch verhalten, von der sie sich imponieren lassen wie das Vieh; und also ein rein tierisches Bewußtsein der Natur (Naturreligion).)

This is of course absolute nonsense, pure symptomatic humanism, but still interesting because of its inherent materialism, present here almost despite Marx. It’s also interesting because of the multiple (false?) starts. I also advised my students to look for their wallets whenever they read “of course” or, for that matter, “complex” (and as one of them quipped, “see also ‘radical'”).

More tomorrow on Albina and Her Sisters, and also on Serpil Oppermann! have to run! If you’d like to read ahead, in French, start here; or, in English, here.

Jeffrey Cohen’s reading of Albina and her sisters is deservedly the standard one. To establish a normative origin for Britain, Brutus arrives to put down the disruptive and excessive energies of queer female rule. He literally overwrites Albina’s name: Albion becomes Britain, and the island’s proper history begins.

I’ve argued otherwise: not that the Albina story is so excessively unnormal, but rather that’s it’s PERFECTLY normative and somehow weirder for all that.
After all, Albina lays claim to the island, bestows her name on it, and declares that these actions will memorialize the sisters forever in Albion. Her speech is a charter identifying the land with a noble and self-perpetuating lineage…; nothing, barring of course the gender and gianthood of Albina and her children, is abnormal about eponymous identification with a land or claims that attempt to undercut other claims by declaring temporal priority. The sisters’ reproduction is also normative (or the normative in drag), because its outcome is a lineage, of sorts, one traceable directly to a founder and connected via that founder to a particular piece of land.
And we see that Jean de Wavrin intensifies this “monstrous normativity” of the Albina story by having not only Albina breed incestuously, but also her father, who produces Albina by marrying his first cousin. Here is this aristocratic desire to resist dilutive, exogamous pressures by keeping the lineage “in the family,” and here it is, undisguised and monstrous, when Albina and her sisters kill their husbands rather than let their preeminent nobility be corrupted by breeding with a lesser line. We can connect this, of course, to the various aristocratic stories of magical or animal origins for lineages (classically, the Lusignans and the Melusine and Swan Knight stories), which frees this line from having to be mingled with other, merely mundane families.

Of course, the Jean de Wavrin needs to be read and taught more because of its queer fantasy of an Amazonian empire, which I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered anywhere else. It does remind me, however, of Aelred of Rievaulx and Jean de Meun’s fantasies of what would happen if animals had reason, that is, we have in both cases the dominant group knowing that if it relaxed its dominance for a moment, it would be dead. In other words, It’s a recognition of what’s normally implicit, that normative gender is gender war.

But we also can work with the Albina story on the question of agency and materialism. After all, it’s MEAT that makes them lusty. And it’s perhaps Albina’s own large size that suits her — or compels her — to be such a leader. Or killer. And then we have a meditation on precisely this point in Jean de Wavrin, where Albina’s father explains that thought the stars might have influenced Albina to be a certain way, she could still resist it because she has “free will” (“vous possessez franche liberte“); and yet the father weeps forever at having lost nearly all his daughters. With affect like this, and with nobility seemingly rooted in the body, and with the body so medicalized, which is surely an ecocritical insight, where is the room for free will? The Albina story may offer no more room for free will than Marx.