Climate/Weather/Responsibility: Mandeville’s Tartars

TartarsTonight, my grad class did 1/2 of Mandeville and 1/2 of Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter. Mandeville–drawing on John of Planto Carpini and Simon of Saint Quentin via Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum Historiale–has this to say about the Tartars:

[Tartary] is a most miserable land, sandy and not very fertile, for few goods grow there: not wheat, not wine grapes, not fruit, not peas, not beans. But there is a great abundance of animals. Therefore they eat only meat without bread, and sip the broth, and drink milk from all animals; and they eat dogs, foxes, wolves, cats, and all other animals, wild and tame, and both rats and mice. Also, they have no wood or little, and therefore they heat and cook their meat with the dung of horses and other animals [that has been] dried in the sun. And princes and others eat only once a day and less, and they are an extremely filthy people and of a wicked nature. In summer throughout all this country storms and lightning and thunder often happen, and many times they kill the people, and the animals too.

Translation from the excellent new one by Iain MacLeod Higgins, 80

As readers of this blog likely know, Vibrant Matter complicates any linear notion of causality and therefore any linear notion of responsibility. As much as Bennett would like to blame only “deregulation and corporate greed” (37) for the 2003 American blackout, she can’t and remain intellectually honest.

Correspondingly, we can’t blame ourselves only when we find ourselves having eaten an entire tube of Pringles, since “to eat chips is to enter in an assemblage in which the I is not necessarily the most decisive operator” (40). The students and I all agreed about this, and one added that the shape of certain foods–cherries, M&M’s–lends itself well to this kind of vital mechanistic eating, while others–cantaloupe–does not. Much depends, she observed, on the size and shape of the human hand. And as much as Nietzsche’s dietetics annoy, we who entrust our mental health and acuity to Omega-3 fatty acids must take seriously his argument that food interacts “in conferations with other bodies such as digestive liquids or microorganisms but also…with the intensities described as perception, belief, and memory” (45).

With all that in mind, how can Mandeville get away with calling the Tartars “an extremely filthy people…of a wicked nature”? Look at what they eat! Look at what they put up with!

I remembered someone being referred to as “like the weather, without shame.” Likewise the Tartars. After some discussion, I declared: The Tartars are bad like the weather is bad. If I weren’t a bit tired from just having finished a day’s teaching, I might dilate on this; instead, here I’ll just propose that traditional models of responsibility are like the weather, and that a properly materialist thinking understands responsibility as being like the climate. Perhaps there’s something in this?

(image of Tartars from Otto von Diemeringen’s German translation of Mandeville, via the Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland: St. Gallen, Stiftsarchiv, Cod. Fab. XVI, f. 46v, detail)