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.

Day 10 – Voyage of St Brendan

What might be the prophet Amos drawing a whale, though I don't know why he would do that.

What might be the prophet Amos drawing a whale, though I don’t know why he would do that.

  1. We heard about Dorothy Kim’s recent talk at NYU about “Pleasure in the Digital Archive.” By way of introducing theArchive of Early Middle English, and some models for keeping a digital product open-ended and growing (as with, say, T-Pen), Kim argued that the digital presentations of manuscripts, for example, have chiefly focused on the visual, and that the best response to this would be to determine some other senses to appeal to, not in terms of “universal access,” but rather, more excitingly, in terms of responses to the particular sensory capabilities of various populations. For one model of a very exciting visual presentation, see here. Kim’s talk can be watched/listened to here.
  2. I recommended that folks examine essays from a recent issue of //Different Visions//, which has a nice set of materialist/theoretical readings of medieval objects from Kzoo 2012.
  3. I encouraged folks to send an abstract to a great ecology medieval/early modern conference coming up next October in Maryland.
  4. I pointed out the Met’s “Animals in Medieval Art” page, which is quite rich.
  5. I recommended people enjoy British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII, which is a great 13th-century bestiary, lavishly illustrated and fun.
  6. I recommended that people listen to recent “Rethinking the PhD Job Search” event, hosted by George Washington University Early Modernist Holly Dugan.
  7. And then I walked students through my own research/writing process for a paper I’ll be giving this Saturday. What started as a paper about fish and oysters, turned into just a paper about “fish” (why does Gerald’s Topographia speak of the “carnibus” of a fish? isn’t it interested thatcaro means both “flesh” and “meat” in Latin? how does he conceive of his own flesh in relation to the fish’s meat?) and the title of the work. Though the famous Penguin translation calls it the History and Topography of Ireland, Gerald himself calls it just the Topographia Hibernica (orHibernie). What is up with that word? Searches on, the MGH, and the amazing Corpus Corporum (highly useful for CUNY medievalists, since we don’t have access to the for-pay PL database, but rather only unsearchable PDFs) confirmed that the wordTopographia appears in Latin VERY rarely prior to Gerald (searches were for topogra*, since it might be spelled topografia): in Wipo’s Life of Conrad II, in Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis, and, notably, in Servius’s Aeneid commentary. From there, I developed a way of thinking of ecological writing (topos + graphein) that, in a Derridean mode, helps understand Gerald’s disanthropocentric time scale and his account of ecological movement and bridges the gap between the so-called linguistic and material turns. I’ll post a link to the paper here next week, along with links to some of the great sources I turned up.

To begin thinking about Benedeit’s Anglo-Norman version of the Brendan legend, we listened to some of it read aloud, we watched a bit of Valhalla Rising, and I had every intention of linking to a bunch of medieval Irish journey literature, but didn’t have a chance to. For your reading pleasure/edification: herehere, and here. For an edition of the text, see here.

Our presentation made an excellent argument for the relationships the story sets up between ecological unity or even sustainability and paradise. God provides, without our having to work, which brings us back to the time before the fall. And the voyaging monks learn not to treat the world as only a set of resources awaiting extraction. In this world, the sheep, left alone, grow large. We did wonder about the one sheep the monks kill, as well as the sea monster they eat. The first, however, is eaten on Easter, the great feast day of the Christian calendar (though my Francis anecdote was about Christmas, the other great feast day), and is therefore, also, a sacrificial lamb, brought within the Christian community in the way the lamb/Christ does best. And the sea monster may recall Jewish legends about the eschatological meal of Leviathan, who will be eaten by Jews when Messiah comes.

This led into several rich conversations, for example, about the nature of time in the voyage: is it perhaps like a Jewish calendar, with dates threaded through the “same” dates in the previous year? is the voyage circular to provide a kind of “God’s eye” view of time, at once static and moving?

It’s clear that we’re not the first ones to think ecologically about this voyage. Indeed, as Jane Bennett helps us observe, the wind and the rocks and the water are all actors in this story, too. Human agency is but one agency in a voyage that’s less deliberative than it is a drifting from place to place, with occasional proddings in particular directions. Agency is often impersonal in this, like gravity perhaps, or like entelechy in Bennett’s account of Drietsch in Coole and Frost’s New Materialisms.

We were particularly interested in Judas (maltreated here in this recent bit of modern doctrine, and talked about in some early scholarship and also at length in this key study). Benedeit’s translation of the Latin amplifies its attention to Judas’s punishment greatly. In Benedeit, Judas suffers in six particular ways: he’s spun on a wheel, then crushed with rocks and pierced with lead, and then boiled in pitch, and finally deposited in a dark and cold place; and then he’s flayed and rolled in salt, and finally finally fed molten copper. I proposed these were elemental punishments: air (spinning); earth(rocks and lead); fire (boiling pitch); water (dark and cold and deep). Then he’s tortured on the outside (indeed, flaying makes someone entirelyoutside) and then on the inside. If Brendan models the path of ecological harmony, then Judas represents precisely the opposite.

We also spent a lot of time on Paul the Hermit’s hair clothing. Here’s Mackley’s translation:

They gaze with astonishment at him and his dress:
He has no clothing other than hair,
With which he is covered as if with a veil;
He had an angelic countenance,
And his whole body was celestial;
Snow is not so white or pure
As the hair of this brother.

We’re in some kind of aporia here that speaks to the whole work’s engagement with questions of time, humanity, and animality, and recalls to us Derrida’s discussion of nudity in “The Animal that Therefore I am.” He has no clothing but hair: clothing is a sign of our shame, designed to cover our own shame from others. His hair is a veil, which recalls the apostle Paul’s many befuddling pronouncements about veils (here and here, for example, or even here): veils hide our glory, not our shame, from the sight of others. His face is angelic — shining — and his body, hidden by clothing, or by a veil, is already celestial. Why is he covered? And what does this hairiness say about his relationship to animality? Does it suggest that Paul’s transcended or ignored any human/animal difference, or taken it someplace where it’s completely incomprehensible?

Day 9 – Gerald of Wales

gerald and the goat and lion

We spent a lot of time talking about //postmedieval// Ecomaterialism, where nearly everyone read Trigg and Cohen on fire, and many read Mentz on air, and also Siewers on Earth. I can say more here when I have time, but if people want to get more into this and summarize some of their key ideas, do, please!

We talked about vacuums, about what counts as a “material” (fire, maybe, glaciers, maybe not), about the earth as both existence itself and something distinct, in an analog to nature itself (both the thing that constitutes something and the thing outside). When I talked about Steve Mentz, “‘Making the green one red’: Dynamic Ecologies in Macbeth, Edward Barlow’s Journal, and Robinson Crusoe.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 13.3 (2013): 66-83, which I had read on the train to class, and about the sea being thought of as green in early modern thought, we got hung up, finally, on what classical Greek words for ‘blue’ might be, and the old debate about Homer’s Wine Dark Sea (for example).

For Gerald, I pointed out some other sources on the Irish and wonders well worth examining. Apart from Bishop Patrick of Dublin, there’s also material mentioned in the notes to the O’Meara translation, namely, the Irish translation of Nennius’s British history, 192-219, and the Irish wonder material in the Old Norse Kongs Skuggsjo, aka, the Speculum Regale (Meyer, Kuno. “The Irish Mirabilia in the Norse “Speculum Regale”.” Folklore 5.4 (1894): 299-316). The Meyer article argues from linguistic and orthographical evidence that the wonders can’t be from a written source, which suggests that the stories Gerald tells were circulating in Ireland more generally. That said, since the Kongs Skuggsjo postdates Gerald’s Topographia, it’s possible that Gerald may have been the ultimate source for these stories. You will want to read it for a number of reasons, chiefly, the werewolf lore, which differs quite a bit from Gerald’s story (and whose story of a vengeful saint recalls the origin story of the English tail), and for the men who go mad and flee into the woods (as in Merlin in the Vita Merliniand other, earlier sources) and there grow feathers (!! will need to check Meyer’s translation) and run along the trees as fast as squirrels (!).
I also pointed out two key manuscripts of Gerald’s Topographia, both of which are online, Dublin, National Library, MS 700 , and British Library,Royal MS 13.b.VIII, whose patterns of illustrations are basically the same, suggesting to some scholars that Gerald may be ultimately responsible in some way for the illustrations. We used Asa Mittman’s excellent early article on Gerald to observe how the Royal MS 13.b.VIII is particularly well-handled at the section about the woman who loved the goat (see above)

Our presentation of Gerald focused on Jeffrey Cohen’s work in his //Postcolonial Middle Ages// and his Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles. We heard about Gerald’s own attitudes towards his “marcher” identity, and his efforts to resolve his shared loyalties to Wales and the Angevin lords by demonizing the Irish and otherwise encouraging an invasion. We heard about how Gerald’s portrayal of Irish bestiality and Irish human/animal hybrids not only helps present the Irish as subhuman, but also helps Gerald think through his own conflicted Welsh/Norman loyalties. We developed some of Cohen’s points further: we wondered about the body as a spectacle for the public performance of truth, and how animals — nonlinguistic, sublinguistic, or otherly linguistic — function particularly well for this, both in Gerald and indeed in the fable tradition. We also wondered at the contradictions of the animal insult: though Gerald insults the Irish repeatedly through animal comparisons, he also tends to praise animals in general: so is being more natural, or more animal, a good thing or a bad thing?

I encouraged students to concentrate on Book I as much as possible. While the postcolonial readings of Gerald have been highly profitable (in the work of Cohen, Rhonda Knights, James Cain, and to a lesser degree Asa Mittman, for example), and while attention to Gerald’s wonders has, unsurprisingly, been especially popular, Book I has received very little critical love. An ecomaterialist approach, though, can correct that critical neglect. We were encouraged to look at how the presence of the land and climate already determines us to a large extent; we are always vulnerable, and existing at all, because of what is already there before us.

So, we read a few passages closely. We clarified that Gerald’s “East” is not “Eastern Ireland” but rather the “East,” as in Jerusalem and thereabouts. In this, he’s both discouraging Henry II from doing a crusade (notable, as our presenter observed, given that he would then go on a fundraising tour of Wales to raise money for a crusade, as recounted extensively in hisJourney through Wales and his Autobiogaphy), and also responding to the old traditions of writing about the Wonders of the East (as evidenced here) for example). You’ll also note that this map from Dublin, National Library, MS 700, 48r doesn’t go any further east than Sicily and Calabria (in the upper right-hand corner) and Theodosia (?) — Greece, anyway — in the upper left-hand corner. Gerald is, incidentally, part of an explosion of writing about the “Wonders of the West” that we see in the twelfth century: Gervase of Tilbury is but one of the several other writers who do this kind of thing.

We looked especially at the goat woman. We remarked on the assessment of the goat’s hair and horns, tam pilositate prelonga quam cornuum elatione suo in genere conspicuum in the text of the first recension. Is this an assessment of livestock? Is it admiration of a wonder? Is it aesthetic? Is it erotic? Of course one wants a goat with long hair and high horns, but why? This says something about the kind of desire Gerald’s trying to stir up in Henry II for Ireland, but it also says something about the non-innocence of admiration. We also looked at the “abuse” passages: in O’Meara’s translation, “The wretched woman…even submitted herself to his abuse” and “He was…created not for abuse but for proper use” (“Cui miserrima…ab abusum supponebat” and “licet tamen non ad abusum sed ad usum creata”). That difference between use and abuse is hard to maintain, of course, especially given what Gerald’s trying to stir up in Ireland. I tried and failed to connect this to usufruct in some way.

We looked at the badger and beaver of Book I: Gerald wonders at their having a kind of “peasant” class, where one animal is obligated to be loaded with materials and dragged about by others. Though Gerald says this is “wonderful,” of course, his own, human society would have been mostly peasants of some sort. What gives? Well, typically human thinking about animals homogenizes individual species: lions are noble, boars angry, sheep mild, foxes crafty, and so forth. This is what allows both bestiaries and fables to work as genres. But what happens when a species has class, when it has a culture, inequality, and so on? This is a wonder, perhaps. It certainly does something to how we think of animals.

mapFinally, we thought about the problem of life, first during Gerald’s discussion of the poisons of the east. O’Meara’s translation of the first recension, I.29, ends with “or, rather, among so many deaths, what life can there be?,” in Latin, “Vel potius, inter tot mortes, que vita,” which is the same text as in the 2nd recension. This led us first into a strange story from the 2nd recension (which has, apparently, been translated! a surprise to all of us), about an English pilgrim in Jerusalem, bitten by a snake, whose body at once, with its flesh and bones, was resolved into a formless mass like pitch (“statimque totum corpus eius, cum carnibus et ossibus, in massam quandam informen et quasi piceam est resolutum“), a figure of horror that at once suggests the shapeless stuff of the Real (in Zizek’s sense) and also the horrific element of Bennett’s “vibrant matter.”

We concluded by looking at “hibernating” birds I.16 and their similarity to von Uexküll’s famous tick. You’ll recall that Gerald, since he doesn’t know about migration, assumes that birds hibernate, and “in the interval, neither dead nor alive, they seem to continue living in their vital spirit and at the same time to be seized up into a long ecstasy and some middle state between life and death,” and so on. It’s likely that Gerald develops this idea from ursine hibernation, which in turn suggests the way that a bear cub, in its shapelessness at birth, is kind of indeterminately alive. We will need to do more with this question of life!

Day 8 – Volsung Saga and Vita Merlini

stone3906We started with a recent NY Times editorial, “Why Nothing is Truly Alive.” Illustrating his point with Strandbeest, Ferris Jabr argues:

Not only is defining life futile, but it is also unnecessary to understanding how living things work. All observable matter is, at its most fundamental level, an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These associations range in complexity from something as simple as, say, a single molecule of water to something as astonishingly intricate as an ant colony. All the proposed features of life —
metabolism, reproduction, evolution — are in fact processes that appear at many different regions of this great spectrum of matter. There is no precise threshold.”

Now, it’s one thing to say that there’s no one precise definition of life, and it’s another to say that this lack of a precise definition means that it’s “all in our head” and “futile.” The former is obviously correct, while the later is the kind of mistake one makes only by assuming that concepts must be completely airtight to function at all. But, as pragmatism observes, no one actually lives their life that way. And all concepts, being of this world, are necessarily impure and shifting. So, while the life/nonlife distinction works a lot of different ways, so there’s no ONE boundary, it still works, necessarily in a variety of ways, as we’ll see in Gerald of Wales.

I also directed our attention to this excellent blog post on good conference behavior: the short version is be mutually supportive, but the longer post is well worth reading.

I pointed out some medieval Sigurd art: the Sigurd portal, and especially the Sigurd Runestone. This recent article mentions a fifteenth-century account that features Sigurd’s enormous sword as a relic at what might be Aachen. I also pointed out material that I had found mostly from Mary Gerstein’s “Germanic Warg: The Outlaw as Werwolf,” whose richness I can’t do justice to. Some observations are that Odin, being a god of frenzyand oath breaking (among other things), seems to be a version of Loki and Fenris, and that the wolf outlaw seems to be at its root a grave robber or cannibal, at least if we go by these early Germanic laws (onetwo). I have texts like these in mind, which use archaeology, philology, and comparative folklore to discover the deep roots in, say, the concept of the hanging god, or of the antlered woodgod, or of the dragon-fighting hero (present in seventh-century English box, and pictured on page 410 here, pdf), when I ask: how can we read these kinds of works? If animals are key to “early” or “prehistoric” mythology, if there’s a universal (?) tendency not to take much account of human/animal differences, then are works like the Volsung Saga and the Vita Merlini somehow representative of an earlier stage in human thinking? The simple answer is of course not, but the better answer complicates things further.