Review: Our Dogs, Our Selves

Gelfand, Laura D., ed. Our Dogs, Our Selves: Dogs in Medieval and Early Modern Art, Literature, and Society. Art and Material Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe 6. Leiden: Brill 2016. Pp. xxxv, 446. €170,00 ISBN: 978-9-00426-916-3.

Reviewed by Karl Steel
Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York

[for The Medieval Review]

This fifteen-chapter anthology, originating in several sessions at Kalamazoo’s International Medieval Conference, is self-consciously a labor of love, its author biographies often furnished with photos, not of the writers, but of their dogs. Focused chiefly on the social and especially the art history of medieval and early modern Europe, each of its chapters, if read one after another, tend to be repetitive, as nearly all include a summary of the common features of medieval dog writing: we learn often about standard exegesis of the Bible’s dogs (predictably in bono and, especially on the matter of returning to their vomit, in malo), that dogs were praised especially for their loyalty, that large dogs tend to be coded masculine, small dogs as feminine, and that the status of dogs followed that of their owners. It is, then, the particular content of each chapter, as particular as dogs themselves, that saves the volume from repetitiveness: since so few animals, human or otherwise, can boast such extraordinary variety in size, purpose, and comportment, and since so few can belong so comfortably in so many environments, the possibilities for considering “dogs and x” in medieval cultures may well be inexhaustible. Every reader interested in dogs will therefore feel the absence of their favorites. I wanted considerations of Theodorich of St Trond’s eleventh-century poem for his Pitulus, a little dog praised for having no purpose but to play, or the equally charming dog of the Book of Tobit, the loyal companion of the Middle English Sir Tryamour, the whelp of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, or the tragedy of Guinefort, or, for that matter, the few headstones to pet dogs from the classical world, like the second-century grave stele for Helena at the Getty Museum (Object 71.AA.271) or a Greek example at the archaeological museum of Istanbul (Inv. 411 T), dedicated to Parthenope.[1] But the very fact that I missed all this, yet found so much that I otherwise would not have known to miss, is evidence enough of how much more work we can still do in dog studies.

The volume is sorted into five sections: Literal and Literary Dogs (ranging from Greek encomia, to the urban dogs of England and France, to those of Sufi literature); Signs, Symbols, and Dogs (the Bayeux Embroidery and Barocci’s counter-Reformation painting); Love and Dogs (further art history, with a lapdog in the Morgan Old Testament, Giotto’s dogs in the Scrovegni Chapel, and a set of hunting dogs in a late-medieval marriage allegory); Death and Dogs (three chapters on dogs in funerary monuments); and finally Good Dogs and Bad Dogs (ranging from a survey of nearly two thousand years of Japanese dog culture, to dogs as aristocratic accessories in late medieval Europe, to Walter S. Gibson’s study of the infernal dogs of late medieval Dutch writing and art).

For this reviewer, John Block Friedman’s contribution stands out. Far more wide ranging than its title suggests (“Dogs in the Identity Formation and Moral Teaching Offered in Some Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Miniatures”), its payoff here is less its several conclusions (for example, that the dog was “thought to be far more feudal than cats” and that the collared dog shows “rational control over the instinctual side of nature”) than the fact that it covers much of the same ground as several other chapters in this volume, but so much more thoroughly. As one would expect from Friedman, its footnotes are a treasure.

Alexa Sand provides a satisfying entry on the Morgan or Crusader Bible (Morgan Library, MS M.638), that, like Friedman’s chapter, could happily find its way onto a syllabus. Although this manuscript is typically read for its relationship to chivalric narrative and crusader concerns, Sand finds new opportunities by attending to the presence and absence of a little dog in the arms of Michal, daughter of King Saul and David’s first wife, a victim of dynastic politics. When they first meet, Michal carries a little dog; in her few subsequent appearances, after she has been forcibly reunited with David, the dog is absent. Sand quite rightly takes the dog in the first image as a sign of her courtliness, as, by the thirteenth century, small dogs were among the essential accouterments of noblewomen. However, by reading Michal’s gesture alongside similar gestures of the Virgin Mary holding her infant son, Sand extends the reading to account both for Michal’s childless and ultimately unhappy marriage to King David, and also, more tentatively, for a common plight of noblewomen during crusades, often bereft of their husbands for years on end. In this rich article, then, the dog functions as much a sign of courtier comforts as it does of neglect and sadness.

I was also impressed by the two chapters that mined urban records of dogs for Northern Europe, Emily Cockayne’s on medieval and early modern England, and Kathleen Ashley’s, much more specifically, on the Burgundian town of Beaune. The chapter on England discovered, for example, that whatever the legislative anxiety over the problems of stray dogs, particularly during time of plague, actual human deaths from dogs were quite rare. From police dogs to butchers’ dogs to nuisance dogs of all sorts, Cockayne’s wonderfully recreates the dog-rich environs of English cities. Ashley, by contrast, encounters a surprising paucity of dog records, especially in wills and urban documents, hinting at the need for more comparative work on the varying dog cultures of England and France.

Craig A. Gibson, Nathan Hofer, and Karen M. Gerhart all effectively presented material unfamiliar to a medievalist focused on Western Europe. Gibson summarizes several dog encomia from the ancient Greeks through to medieval Greek and late medieval Latin humanist writings, describing the standard features of an unfamiliar genre: hunting praise is common, but not universal, for example, and some paeans to dogs single out their barking as uniquely meaningful among animal noises. In the 1420s, Leon Battista Alberti even transforms his subject into an exemplar of the humanist itself, famous for its knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Etruscan. Hofer complicates the mistaken notion that Islam is hostile to dogs. After considering several positive references to dogs in the Qur’ān and its commentaries, and after pointing out that while dogs are ritually impure, so too is sleep, Hofer concentrates on Egyptian Sufi storytelling, in which the very degraded position of dogs allows mystics to engage with them as holy fools. Gerhart’s ambitious chapter covers the whole cultural history of dogs in premodern Japan, concentrating on their behavior in the handscrolls of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries: some are comfortable domestic animals; some creatures of the margins, like beggars and hinin (literally “nonhumans,” people who did impure jobs), living off or near the diseased, the dying, and corpses; and some are border figures, associated with figures of the spirit world (European medievalists might be reminded here of the dog of the Irish blacksmith Culann).

In general, I was less convinced by several of the art history chapters, particularly those that sought primarily to discover the “intention” of artists, since I am skeptical about any one-to-one-to-one mapping of artistic intention to symbolic meaning to reception history. Judith W. Mann demonstrates that the animals in Federico Barucci’s counter-Reformation paintings were not painted from life, but then argues that because Barucci was not a “true naturalist,” we might then be allowed to read its dogs symbolically to discover his “intentions,” which, in effect, requires assembling iconographic and doctrinal evidence, alongside currents in doctrinal debates during the counter-Reformation, to fix his canine images as symbols, for example, of unworthy participation in the Eucharist. I am convinced by Jane C. Long’s argument that the dogs of Giotto’s picture cycle of Joachim and Anna recall dramatic conventions, but not by her tendency to read the expressions of dogs and humans both rather straightforwardly as expressing some familiar emotion (“joyful greeting” for example); similarly, at once point, Donna L. Sadler proposes that the “unmistakable smile” of a pair of dogs on a tomb of St Denis “betray[s] [an] unassailable belief in the afterlife” (I liked her suggestion, however, that early modern pleurants may perform the same function as, and be understood as replacing, the dogs of medieval funerary art). Jane Carroll exhaustively treats a late medieval tapestry from Alsace, Die Jagd nach der Treue [The Hunt for Fidelity], in which a husband and wife ride together on a horse, amid a pack of hounds: to solve the problem of how to illustrate the ongoing devotion of married love rather than the successful consummation of courtship, this tapestry features a deer in flight, but not yet captured, by hunters that want only to chase it, so “encod[ing] a fitting summation of traditional marriage” as a balance of “dualities.” Janet Snyder identifies the dogs on Spanish tomb sculpture with contemporary Iberian breeds (the Galgo, Phalène, Alano, Burgos Pointer, Spanish Mastiff, and so on), and then describes the breed-specific traits of these represented dogs to unpack the sculptures’ symbolism: thus the Spanish rat terrier, bred to work in dark wine cellars, is a suitable dog for the tomb of Isabella of Portugal, “who was kept out of the public eye for the last four decades of her life.” I found this approach ingenious but unconvincing, its conclusions too neatly determined by its argumentative approach. I am much more convinced by Sophie Oosterwijk’s study of dogs on tomb monuments: towards the end of her chapter, she suggests that the dead had originally been shown trampling on animal representations of vices and infernal forces, like lions, serpents, and dragons, and that companion animals gradually crowded in on and nudged aside this meaningful symbolic code.

Oosterwijk, however, does not propose why personal dogs might have crowded into a space previously reserved for such a clearly coded piety. This reluctance to speculate a little is indicative of the volume’s larger tendency not to complicate the motives of medieval people or modern scholars, and, more generally, of its disinterest in telling a more ambitious story. For, as a whole, the volume does not aim to shift the way that we think about dogs, the function of animals in medieval or even art history, or, for that matter, what might happen to how we think about ourselves once we think about our companion animals historically. The overall argumentative aimlessness of the volume may stem its near-total disengagement from contemporary critical cultural studies in animals. Such work is mostly concentrated in Elizabeth Carson Paston’s chapter on the Bayeux Embroidery. We would search in vain elsewhere for references, for example, to Donna Haraway’s essential work on play with and the labor of dogs, to her complicated political histories of dogs in American colonialism, environmental activism, and gender (consideration of this work, for example, would counter Pastan’s claims about the Bayeux Embroidery representing King Harold’s preconquest “harmony with nature”). For that matter, Erica Fudge is also missing, despite her decades of scholarship in modeling how to do philosophically savvy studies of early modern animal/human cultures. A fortiori, less obvious but still essential names are missing: Carla Freccero and Colin Dayan on race, dogs, and violence, for example, or Kathy Rudy on the queerness of dog love (which might have offered an interesting counterweight to the marriage tapestry studied by Carroll).

My point in mentioning these scholars is not to ask that footnotes be swollen so that frequently cited scholars garner still more citations. Rather, it is because without critical animal study, and indeed other without critical fields (like affect studies, for example, or even psychoanalysis), the emotional core to many of these works, which are self-avowedly in love with their subjects, is left unanalyzed. This means that one of key thread for the anthology — the dog as alter ego — is often described but its mechanics never considered. Dogs represent loyalty, to the family, to the church, to the honor of the house. We learn of all this, but without much consideration about what it means for humans to identify with animals, or to perform their own preferred identities through this intimate, living property. We encounter the word “pampered” often to describe certain dogs, but no reflection on what this word might indicate: envy, perhaps, or disgust (I was reminded of James Herriot’s unpleasant musings about Tricki-Woo, the overfed, epistolary Pekingese of All Creatures Great and Small). On this point in particular, then, more critical attention would have been especially welcome, even apart from the work of critical animal studies. As alter egos, dogs can be our ideal selves, in their hunting prowess and loyalty, what we would like to be; or they could be our “natural” selves, devoid of custom and manners, the brute self we must overcome to become truly human; or in their “pure grief and devotion,” as Pastan characterizes some of the dogs on the Bayeux Embroidery, they represent “our best selves,” one that no human could ever hope to achieve. In packs, we might say that dogs invite us to “to go with the flow,” at least as they figure in Deleuze and Guattari’s outraged response to Freud’s misreading of his “Wolf Man” patient, an anti-identitarian consideration of dogs so well treated, in a medieval context, in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s reading of both cynocephali and the Middle English Sir Gowther.[2] Gelfand’s capacious anthology has so much material that we might use for further reconsideration of dogs and the self, to burrow further still into how dogs have domesticated us, how we might dream of getting undomesticated through them, and what we might owe the strays.


[1] Gutram Koch “Zum Grabrelief der Helena,” The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 12 (1984): 59-72
[2] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 120-41.

Medieval Muteness: Disability, Objects, and Animals

Sabbatical honesty, then – in the two weeks since the last post, I’ve given back revisions to articles for the Routledge Companion to Animal-Human History (“Animals and Violence: Medieval Humanism, ‘Medieval Brutality,’ and the Carnivorous Vegetarianism of Margery Kempe”), The Open Access Canterbury Tales (animals and the Friar’s Tale), and a revised talk for a chapter in The Body Unbound, a classics &c anthology (“Nothing to Lose: Logsex and Genital Injury in Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations“). I’m hoping to get back to the Book soon, as soon I get past doing my review of a book I’ll tell you about after I write my review.

What follows is a draft of a talk I’m giving in Madison, for the UW Madison Graduate Association of Medieval Studies on Friday, April 14. I’m sure to tweak this again in a few weeks, but just to get it out of my hair, and potentially into yours, here it is.

I’ve tried to do a little of everything in this, so my theory heads can gnaw on something, as can the ones who mainly want a bunch of neat medieval stories, as can the ones who want some hardcore medieval stuff to fight back against [and, to be honest, my competence in medieval grammar is minimal. At least for now]. 5,000 words is a lot to read! For you, and for me, but it’s a good 40-45 minutes, and: well! One hopes for the best.

Continue reading


This is the conclusion of the oyster chapter I am working on for Book 2. I haven’t shared the opening pages with you, but I have shared this bit [on minimal animals], this bit [on agency], and this bit [on the Anglo-Saxon Oyster riddle] with you, whoever you are. I’m just about done with this start-to-finish chapter draft, which means next working on — as I go backwards through the book — Chapter 3, ‘Esca Vermibus, Esca Avibus,’ on inhumation and sky burial and the ultimate edibility of human bodies.


L. M. Boyd’s column, Sept 2 1988

In 1549, another talking oyster appears, in Giovanni Battista Gelli’s La Circe, his adaptation of Plutarch’s fourth-century Gryllus, or “Grunter.” Plutarch’s work features Ulysses and one of his men, since transformed by the sorceress Circe into a pig, debating the respective advantages of humanity and porcinity. The pig wins. Plutarch’s work survives in just one, fragmentary manuscript, while Gelli’s work, lucky enough to have been produced near the dawn of the print era, was quickly translated from Italian into Latin and the major European languages, and perhaps even twice adapted for the stage.[1] It also surpasses Plutarch in its dedication to the conceit, for in Gelli, not just the one, but ten animals out-argue Ulysses, until at last he convinces an elephant, and only the elephant, to let itself once more become human. As the elephant had once been a philosopher, its final decision may mean that none but it is sufficiently ratiocinative to recognize the value of reclaiming its human privilege; furthermore, this conclusion, with the elephant presumably ranking as the most august of this beastly collective – which includes an oyster, mole, snake, hare, goat, doe, lion, horse, dog, and cow – may at least hint that the whole work follows a neo-Platonic trajectory, in which all-too-practical animality gradually ascends towards abstractive humanity. Alternately, if we recall that Gelli himself, despite his growing fame among Florentine philosophers, refused to abandon his own trade as a cobbler,[2] the conclusion may be read as a satire: the elephant’s susceptibility to the allures of logos may suggest that only a philosopher, and – given the doe’s earlier complaints about the wretched condition of human women – only a male philosopher at that, would be foolish enough to give up on a happier, animal existence. All the other animals outmaneuver the famously clever Ulysses, because the human world has no allurements for them.[3] Laurie Shannon rightly insists, then, that the text is not concerned with the animal possession of reason, nor even of the superiority of reason to irrationality, but rather with “whether a good life entails duly cherishing what is necessary or striving to attain what is not.”[4] The elephant may furnish the work’s final answer to this question, but it perhaps is not the conclusive one.

The first and presumably the lowest-ranking of Ulysses’s refusnik animals is, of course, an oyster, a former fishmonger that prefers its easy, littoral life to market drudgery and maritime dangers. The oyster argues that Nature has made them “better and more noble than”[5] humans. After all, she has given oysters their own home, which conveniently doubles as their clothing, and has so made them that food comes to them without any struggle. The oyster takes this practical approach not because of its unfamiliarity with maieutics: having eavesdropped on philosophers back when it sold fish in Athens, the oyster observes that if the end is nobler than the means, then–itself answering the implicit question–Ulysses must surely admit that the earth is nobler than humans, since the earth “at last devours you all.”[6] But the offhanded contempt with which it deploys this Socratic paradox suggests both that it recognizes that philosophy is a mere game—notably, it doesn’t extend this argument to its own material existence—and that it thinks the only argument really worth making is a simple description of the comforts of its own oystery life. Against all this, Ulysses can argue only that humans can do things, but has no answer to the oyster’s insistence that humans have to do things. For the oyster, as Shannon observes, “need and pleasure are not opposing modes of being”:[7] felicitous in being what it is, the oyster need not strive for satisfaction, nor for anything else, because it itself is exactly enough and needs nothing but to be.

Then the oyster declares the conversation over (“”I will shut up my little house and take my repose without a single thought”[8]) and the frustrated Ulysses seeks out his next opponent, an equally wily mole. However, just praising the oyster for its victory, or Gelli for his skills as a parodist, would miss the key element of this exchange, which is Gelli’s having the oyster argue as an oyster. It is not that the oyster is just happy, nor just that the “originary perfection” of the oyster lacks the lack that drives humans to mostly noble, sometimes pathetic, attempts to make themselves a better world,[9] nor just that oysters can be defined entirely by their immanent being, and so need not wander uncertain like humans, lost in their own definitional openness.[10] Of course, the contentment of Gelli’s animals in their animal condition is evidence enough of his participation in the long tradition that held all beasts to be innocently content. But before that argument arrives, Gelli first has the oyster speak from its own particular place, which means showing that whatever its happiness, it is subject to the inescapable vulnerability of anything that exists. For the oyster first agrees to speak only on the condition that Ulysses keep watch during the debate, so that “those confounded crabs shall not throw a stone between my two shells…[to] make a meal of me.”[11] This tidbit of natural history is virtually proverbial in early modern oyster writing. Here, for example, is a Nicholas Breton’s “Dream of an Oister and a Crab”:

Upon the shore neare to the Sea, an Oister gaping wide,
Lay looking for a little food to come in with the Tide:
But hard by lay a crauling Crab, who watcht his time before,
And threw a stone betweene the shels, that they could shut no more.
The Oister cride, Ho neighbours, theeues: but ere the neighbours came,
The Crab had murtherd the poore fish, and fed upon the same.
When wondering that such craft did live with creatures in the deepe,
With troubling of my braines withall, I wakt out of my sleepe.[12]

The crafty crab, or sometimes a crafty crow, always succeed against the oyster, as if the oyster’s shell is just an invitation to imagine any shelter’s ultimate inadequacy. Similarly, though the oyster of the Anglo-Saxon riddle talks, it does so mainly to protest about being plucked from the nurturing sea. In all these, as even with Lewis Carroll’s poem, the speaking oyster is less evidence of an (imitative) rational power than of their inescapable vulnerability. What all these works first or even mainly give voice to, then, is a normally unheard or unvoicable request not to be injured. If this is a recognition of the oyster’s “agency,” it is a recognition of an agency that speaks mainly to say that it is far less agential than it would prefer to be, that it is as much thwarted as enabled by its life.

This is probably the most sensible way to represent a talking oyster. Of course, no one who pays them any attention can deny that oysters do do things: they are prodigious cleaners of filthy water, and if New York City, for example, had still had its oyster beds, Hurricane Sandy wouldn’t have hit quite as hard. Nor are oysters entirely helpless: they have shells, and their shells give them some definition and protection even if crabs always manage to find some way in. But the main point of the speaking, plaintive oyster may be the recognition of what has to exist, first of all, if there is to be any agency at all: agency requires an existence distinct in time and space from other things – no action is possible otherwise, because action needs to act on some other thing and from somewhere – and therefore the agent must have a location and some particular when, which means that its agency is always accompanied by its limits, its inabilities, its termination. It all goes further than this, however, because the oyster’s only intention, if it can even be called that, is that of their sensus solus itself, which establishes the relation towards the self, combined with a helpless inability to choose to do anything about it. That is, the oyster makes it clear that to be at all, even if all that the thing does is be, means being constrained by and vulnerable to nonexistence. For a living thing, this means, especially, that death awaits, whether it knows it or not.

This unwitting helplessness is on the other side even of what Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I am called the “non-pouvoir au cœur du pouvoir” [“nonpower at the heart of power”].[13] Derrida arrived at this phrase after observing that, for Jeremy Bentham, the question of animal rights did not depend on whether they could use language or reason, but whether they could suffer. Derrida’s favored animal to think with in this essay was a cat; and cats demonstrably can suffer, so long as we are willing to admit that their cries are not simply the sound of clockwork breaking. However, oysters are not only mute, but also unaware, without any movement or sense of other things, without any ability, short of poetry, to make their distress known. To make vitality synonymous with agency and awareness is to forget this nonpower. It is also a mistake that threatens to grant protections only to those things that can do things, or react to things, or even to experience things, while forgetting that things also need protection because of what they cannot do, and may especially need protection against threats they themselves cannot recognize or even be aware that they are experiencing. For depending on which modern scientific studies of oysters and pain are embraced, the oyster may even lack the sensus solus prescientific natural history granted them. They may have nothing but their lives. If the social problem of pain is not knowing if others are really suffering,[14] then this problem is a subjective one, more like numbness than the problem of other minds. It is a problem that requires that the question of “what it is like to be,” for example, an octopus, tick, or oyster,[15] be answered not only with species specific phenomenology, but also with accounts of sensory incapacities, whether innate or temporary. In summarizing Jakob von Uexküll’s famous experiments on the environment [umwelt] of ticks, Agamben declares that if the tick’s sensory capacities are oriented exclusively to an awareness of mammalian blood, “the tick is this relationship,” living “only in it and for it.”[16] But surely it is a mistake to declare that the tick’s existence can be exhausted by what it believes itself to know (or, more accurately, what we can infer about what we believe it to know). Agamben’s declaration is too experiential. The tick’s unwittingness also has to matter: a complete phenomenological account of the tick means attending to all it does not experience. This is not a problem exclusive to invertebrates, of course. Cows too may be said to have this same impediment, particularly in slaughterhouses designed by Temple Grandin. By thinking like a cow, Temple Grandin “remove[s] the things that make [cows] stop moving forward: in a good facility cows walk toward slaughter as if toward a milking parlor.”[17] They advance fearlessly, not because they have become stoics, but because they don’t know what’s ahead. Surely this is a strange kind of “humane” slaughter: to remove only the fear and not the killing; to increase the ignorance, and call that a job well done. Surely there’s more worth protecting than just scared cows, and more than just the cow that has a moment to experience the pain of its own death. As one might expect, these insights can be taken even further. If death is inassimilable to the experience of the thing that dies—whether we call this experience “consciousness” or “sensus solus” or some term graced with even less grandeur—then the ultimate threat itself is always on the other side of our knowledge.[18] We can never get away from it, as we already know, but neither can we ever really know it. In sum, if we want to go further than suffering in looking for a paradoxical noncapacity that lies at the “heart of power,” we might seek it here, in the unexperiencable, uncognizable end, what we might call a non-awareness at the heart of existence.

We are now well-positioned to reconsider Descartes’ letter to the Marquess of Cavendish. This short letter only slowly gets to its conclusive denial of thought and soul to nonhuman animals. This assertion is itself a kind of mechanical reflex, an instance where Descartes’ proof of free thought follows a kind of instinctual groove of the belief in human superiority. The rest of the letter, however, is instead largely about the automatism of even most human life: it explains that somnambulant humans sometimes swim across rivers they could never cross while awake; for the most part, we need not think in order to be able to eat or walk; and if tried not to cover our face as we fell, we would fail.[19] All Descartes can say confidently is that, unlike animals, we ourselves can communicate things not relating to our passions, but, at least in this letter, he provides no sustained proof that the communication even of other humans is anything but mechanical repetition. That is, only irrational custom or an equally irrational sympathetic guesswork protects Descartes’ human fellows from being eaten, used, and vivisected. This guesswork overlays a more fundamental animal condition that is, for the most part, unconscious. Like other animals, we have our passions; like other animals, our passions have us, and our expressions — of hunger, of self-protection, of motion — are the voice not of our freedom but of our vulnerable bodily existence. To use Descartes’ image, we may not be clocks, not entirely, but we are mostly clocks.

This insight in turn requires rethinking the standard medieval hierarchy of being. The tradition is neatly expressed among other places by the fifteenth-century Middle English Mirror of St Edmund:

His wysdom may þou see if þou take kepe how he [God] hase gyffen to ylke a creature to be. Some he hase gyffen to be anely, with-owtten mare, als vn-to stanes. Till oþer to be & to lyffe, als to grysse and trees. Till oþer to be, to lyffe, to fele, als to bestes. Till oþer to be, to lyffe, to fele, and with resone to deme, als to mane and to angells. For stanes erre, bot þay ne hafe nogte lyffe, ne felys noghte, ne demes noghte. Trees are; þay lyffe, bot thay fele noghte. Men are; þay lyffe, þay fele, and þay deme, and þay erre with stanes, [þay] lyffe with trees, þay fele with bestes, and demys with angels.[20]

You may see God’s wisdom if you attend to what kind of being God to each creature. Some he has given to be only, without anything more, like stones. To others, to be and to live, like grass and trees. To others, to be, to live, and to feel, like beasts. To others, to be, to live, to feel, and to judge rationally, like men and angels. For stones are, but they have no life, nor any feelings or thought. Trees are; they live, but they do not feel. Men are: they live, they feel, and they think: they are, like stones; they live, like trees; they feel, like beasts; and they think, like angels.

Usually, the last, rational kind of being is thought to be the most important. With reason, we can separate ourselves from our immediate circumstances and from every other living thing; in mainstream medieval Christianity, we might live forever through our immortal rational soul rejoined with a perfected body, so escaping vulnerability altogether. But among created things, only angels escape being tethered to the previous kinds of being. For everything else, every kind of being is additive, supplementing rather than replacing the previous ones. We could therefore read this hierarchy of being as one in which the final rational addition is just one more layer an existence that is mostly animal-like, plant-like, or stonelike. Like angels, humans can reason, but they also have the same capacities—and accompanying vulnerabilities and needs—as beasts, plants, and rocks. The point is not that humans are really like rocks, but rather that they are also like rocks, and that concentrating exclusively on human reason, even if we grant it exclusively to humans among mortal life, means forgetting most of what we are.

Consider, finally, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, widely read and frequently translated from the fifth century through the Middle Ages (when King Alfred of England sponsored a translation) to the Early Modern period (when Queen Elizabeth translated it) through to the present day. Ultimately the Consolation seeks to prove the existence of free will, independent of circumstance or fortune, whether bad or good. Divine Foreknowledge is the impediment: if God is omnipotent, and therefore omniscient, surely all future action is known in advance, and therefore already preordained. Not so, argues Boethius: the objects of knowledge differ from the ways of knowledge. From our limited perspective, true for us, there is a difference between past, present, and future, which preserves free will.[21] To illustrate this point, Boethius talks about shellfish:

Many kinds of knowledge belong to different and diverse substances. For sense alone without any other kind of knowledge belongs to living things that do not move, such as sea shells [“conchae maris” [22]] and such other things clinging to rocks; but imagination belongs to beasts that move, which seem already to have in them some disposition to flee or seek out things. But reason belongs only to human kind, as intelligence only to the divine.[23]

At this point, Boethius seems to making a familiar argument about hierarchies of motion, and then about scales of being, running from the least motile animals, to mobile animals, to humans, and eventually to angels. But the argument is actually about epistemology, and, in particular, about how epistemological impediments preserve space for free will to be possible. The very limitation of human reason gives us the sense of temporal sequence necessary to our temporally local concept of free choice. Boethius thus locates our rational will not on the side of power, but on the side of ignorance. Since our ignorance is so very far from God’s infinite, extra-temporal knowledge, we more like oysters than any divine being.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that limitation is the root of what we are, nor that our unwittingness is somehow the “heart” of nonpower. The point is not that the “simple fact of being there” is more true than human reason, agency, or even sensation. All metaphors of depth reaffirm precritical hopes of getting at the final truth, whether this be located at the heart, the core, in something “profound,” or on a “deeper level,” all of which offer the fantasy of “revealing” the “ground” that would relieve us of having to think or make decisions. The point is rather that critical concentrations on reason, cognition, experience, and agency all go awry by concentrating on their subjects in their potential, not in their presence. That is, these concentrations wait for their subject to do something – to alter something else, to resist its circumstances in some way – not only as if the only “agency” worth noting is the agency of misbehavior or resistance, but also as if the subject becomes worth considering only when it seems to reach out beyond itself. The point of course is not that the thing is somehow truer before it engages in any of these activities. The point is rather that its being there also requires our attention, and that perhaps the best figure for recognizing what this subject of attention might be like is the premodern oyster.

For humans to catch a touch of oysterpomorphism is not to recognize that we cannot do anything, nor that agency is impossible, but to recognize that whatever our agency, we are still bodily, bounded by space and time. Whatever the alliances of always shifting networks that make agency possible, identifiable agency, like identifiable existence, requires definite location. Though we flatter ourselves by thinking that our freedom of choice is our defining characteristic, we still should ask, with Derrida, “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man…what he refuses the animal.”[24] We tend to attribute to ourselves the capacity of not being bound by our circumstances, on “unconcealing” existence, of immortality, of abstraction, of definitional openness, and so on. We think what we really are is the thing that escapes. But we still have to be somewhere. None of us, of course, chose to be born. We do not chose the conditions of our being here any more than an oyster does. Our much vaunted ability to willingly move, which we hold out over the oysters, still cannot untether us from having to live somewhere. Since, in this time of climate change, we know that our freedom to flee danger is limited by our confinement to this sweltering earth, we should, on a planetary scale, number ourselves among with the oysters, as “such other things as feed clinging to rocks.” So constrained, and so enabled too by this constraint, we might as well choose this, for a while, as our analytical starting place.

[1] One early translation, absolutely faithful in its treatment of the oyster episode, is Denis Sauvage, trans., La Circe de M. Giovan-Baptista Gello [sic] (Lyon: Guillaume Rouillé, 1550). The two dramatic adaptations may be based on Gelli, or more directly on Plutarch, via “Que les bestes brutes usent de la raison,” in Les Oeuvres morales et meslees, trans. Jacques Amyot, vol. 1, 2 vols. (Paris: Michel de Vascosan, 1572), 270–74, which first made this text generally available in Western Europe (note, however, that the final entry in Machiavelli’s eight-part satire of 1517, “L’asino” [The Donkey], is also an adaptation of “Gryllus”). The two French plays each omit the oyster: from 1661, Antoine-Jacob Montfleury, “Les Bestes raisonnables,” in Les Contemporains de Molière, ed. Victor Fournel, vol. 1, 3 vols. (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1863), 223–38, which features one scene in which a man, once a lion, shouts in rage (“Qui diable m’a rendu ma première figure!”) when returned for a while to its human form, and then in effect answers Wittgenstein’s observation (“If a lion could speak &c”) by railing at Ulysses about human cruelty and treachery. The next, from 1718, is Marc-Antoine Legrand and Louis Fuzelier, “Les Animaux raisonnables,” in Le Théâtre de La Foire, ed. Alain René Le Sage and Carolet d’Orneval, vol. 3, 10 vols. (Paris: Etienne Ganeau, 1721), 1–35. Though lacking a talking oyster, this play does have a singing dolphin, which claims to be happy to meet Ulysses once more after vainly searching for him among “deux cens Huîtres” (200 oysters). The lion of Jean de la Fontaine’s fable ‘Les Compagnons d’Ulysse’ is one of several animals, none oysters, that refuses to become human again (here I am a king, it says; were I a human, I would once more be but a simple soldier). For guidance in finding this material, George Boas, The Happy Beast in French Thought of the Seventeenth Century (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1933), 35–36., which is preceded by a detailed paraphrase of the Gelli; Derek Connon, “Animal Instincts: Homer, Plutarch, and La Fontaine Go to the Fair,” in French Seventeenth-Century Literature: Influences and Transformations: Essays in Honour of Christopher J. Gossip, ed. Jane Southwood and Bernard Bourque (Berne: Peter Lang, 2009), 75–90 (which traces the route from Plutarch to the French adaptations); and Marc Escola and Sophie Rabau, “Bibliothèque de Circé,” text, Fabula, Atelier littéraire (April 18, 2010) (particularly good on nineteenth- and twentieth-century reimaginings of Circe).

[2] Judith Yarnall, Transformations of Circe: The History of an Enchantress (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 110–11.

[3] For the deceit and storytelling of Circe and the animals, see especially the reading of Plutarch in Marina Warner, Monsters of Our Own Making: The Peculiar Pleasures of Fear (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998), 272–83.

[4] Laurie Shannon, The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 162.

[5] Giovanni Battista Gelli, The Circe, trans. Thomas Brown and Robert Adams (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963), 13.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Shannon, The Accommodated Animal, 160.

[8] Gelli, Circe, 19–20.

[9] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 122, summarizing Lacan.

[10] Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 30, on Carl Linnaeus’ classification of humans as “manlike,” “constitutively nonhuman,” an “ironic” anthropological “machine” the preserves the fundamental human capacity to recreate itself as anything.

[11] Gelli, Circe, 12.

[12] From his 1622 Strange Newes out of Divers Countries, in Nicholas Breton, The Works in Verse and Prose of Nicholas Breton: Prose, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1879), 11.

[13] Jacques Derrida, “L’Animal que donc je suis (à suivre),” in L’Animal autobiographique: Autour de Jacques Derrida, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 1999), 278. Derrida, Animal That Therefore, 28.

[14] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[15] Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” The Philosophical Review 83, no. 4 (1974): 435–50.

[16] Agamben, The Open, 47. For Agamben’s source, Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, with a Theory of Meaning, trans. Joseph D. O’Neil (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 50–52.

[17] This is the summary of Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (New York: Scribner, 2005) from Erica Fudge, “Milking Other Men’s Beasts,” History and Theory 52 (2013): 19. Fudge’s essay, which attends to humans and disability, as well as the history of the size and treatment of livestock, is an exceptionally good phenomenological/social-historical engagement with animals.

[18] Cary Wolfe, “Exposures,” in Stanley Cavell et al., Philosophy & Animal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 21, “For Derrida…we never have an idea of what death is for us—indeed, death is precisely that which can never be for us—and if we did, then the ethical relation to the other would be immediately foreclosed.”

[19] René Descartes, Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. III: The Correspondence, trans. Robert Stoothoff (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 302–3.

[20] G. G. Perry, ed., Religious Pieces in Prose and Verse, EETS O. S. 26 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1913), 22.

[21] Marcia L. Colish, The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 287, “in the Consolation, the chief objective of his refutation of fatalism is not to make way for contingency in general but to establish the reality of free will.” See also Robert Sharples, “Fate, Prescience, and Free Will,” in The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, ed. John Marenbon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 216, on the “Iamblichus Principle,” in which “the nature of knowledge is determined by the nature of the knower rather than by the thing known.”

[22] Chaucer’s translation of the Consolation renders this as “oistres”; “Boece,” in Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Dean Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987), 465.

[23] Consolation, V, prose 5.

[24] Derrida, Animal That Therefore, 135.

Minimal Animals


Nightlife in Philadelphia (1811-c.1813), Attributed to John Lewis Krimmel

The second book of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon opens by considering the problem of “þe ordre of þe story.” To illustrate the principle of good structure, namely, that lesser things should serve the greater, Higden crafts a bio-eco-rhetorical analogy. For the human body as for the world itself, everything functions well if all is proportional, arranged well, and directed at its proper ends. Otherwise, “anon is grete distourbaunce i-made”[1]: earthquakes and thunder in the macrocosmos; in the human microcosmos, “ache, sicknesse, and sorwe”; and, presumably, although this is unexpressed, in Higden’s massive historical compendium, disarrangement. What his discussion requires is a base, a fundamental ordering principle to fix a distinction of lesser from greater and to hold each of these poles in place.

Naturally enough, Higden finds this sure foundation in oysters:

Also as it is in þe parties of þe grete world þat þey beeþ so i-ordeyned and i-sette þat þe ouermese of þe neþer kynde touche þe neþermeste of þe ouer kynde, as oistres and schelle fishe, þat beeþ as it were lowest in bestene kynde, passeþ but litel þe perfeccioun of lyf of treen and of herbes, for þey mowe not meue hem but as culpes of þe see waggeþ wiþ þe water, elles þey cleueþ to þe erthe and mowe noþer see ne hire, ne taste, ne smelle, but onliche fele when þey beeþ i-touched.[2]

The parts of the great world are so ordered and set that the highest point of the lower kind touches the lowest part of the kind above it, as oysters and shell fish do, that are, as it were, the lowest in animal kind, barely surpassing the perfection of the life of trees and of herbs [that is, they barely surpass the highest form of plant life], for oysters might not move themselves except in the way that kelp of the sea wags with the water, as otherwise they cling to the earth and cannot see nor hear nor taste nor smell; but they feel only when they are touched.

Higden gets his scaffolds from two sources: first, Aristotle’s tripartite, accretive division of the soul into the vegetable (which provides for nutrition, growth, and life itself); the animal (sense, motion, and reaction); and the intellective (everything belonging to the “nonfinite”[3] list of capacities thought to travel uniquely under the banner of human reason); and then the scale of being, a taxonomy that elaborates on this tripartite model by sequencing everything from the highest, spiritual beings to the lowest, soulless forms of existence. Though this model would hypothetically allow some fortunate animal species to be closest to intellective existence, in practice, no animal ever held this position consistently: dogs had it sometimes, for their loyalty; bears, because they mate as we are supposed to do, face to face; and pygmies, because of their shape—although even they could be barred from humanity, because legends about them held that they were heliotropes, like sunflowers, mechanistically moved by a sun they only appeared to worship.[4] But here, neither the upper limit nor any other rates Higden’s attention. He provides no other border creature: neither between plants and stones, nor animals and humans, nor humans and spiritual beings. He needs just the one line, and everything else neatly follows. Just before the oyster, Higden enumerates the proper mathematical proportions of a well-arranged human body; just after, the gradual senectitude of the world since its creation, repeated on a smaller scale with every human life as it declines towards its own death. Then he lists a vast array of human customs throughout the world. First stability, then the oyster, then a bit of human difference, but not so much that the human becomes unrecognizable as human, as if the oyster’s stolid reliability laid the foundation for a safe field of play.

To be sure, oysters are not the stars of premodern animal writing: they are not lions, not birds, certainly not pigs or dogs or horses. But when they do get attention, they get it as border creatures, classifiers without themselves being quite classifiable. For one, they are sexless. Thought not to reproduce “like from like,” but to generate spontaneously from the actions of celestial bodies on the water, the oyster could at least be praised for its chastity.[5] Without the miscues of mating practiced or malpracticed by what were called the more perfect animals, oysters were perfectly suited – according to one fifteenth-century civic record from Norwich – to signify the “sadnesse and abstinence of merth [that] shulde followe…an holy tyme.”[6] And the proverbial “immobility” of the oyster—a title bestowed on them by Boethius, Aquinas, and Higden, among others[7] – makes them, especially, what remains “after we strip life of all its recognizable features”[8]: this later identification is from Michael Marder, here talking not about oysters, but plants, which for him represent “life in its archaic bareness…life as survival.”[9] Plants, however, grow in an “ineluctable bi-directionality…striving at once towards light and towards darkness”[10]; in seeking out good land, or in breaking into stone or soil, plants evince some kind of desire, preference, or “non-conscious intentionality.”[11] Not oysters: only the rare oyster writer suggests they rise to meet the sun or shrink from touch; otherwise, they are overwhelmingly unintentional animals, without direction, aim, or any evidence of desire. This passivity, finally, let Pliny, at one point, declare that oysters have no sensation at all,[12] and let another, medieval writer go so far as to present them as more like stones than animals. This is Philippe de Thaon, in his early twelfth-century bestiary, which considers oysters towards its conclusion, among diamonds, beryls, and other gems. Pearls come from oysters opening themselves “de lur gré” [3036; at their own will] to the dew of the heavens, “cum fusënt vivës creatures”[13] [3039; as if they were living creatures]. The ambiguity – this mixture of having a will and not quite being alive – neatly encapsulates the oyster’s uncertain, even universal, form of existence, which traverses life and nonlife, desire and mere mechanicity. In all this, as the sexless, immobile, even lifeless thing, the oyster is not much more than a figure of pure difference, whose only identity is that of being dubiously alive.

The mere vitality of the oyster can be better understood by contrasting it with another extreme figure of life, Lacan’s mythic lamella. In the course of his lectures on the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, Lacan offers up the lamella as a correction to the fable of the origin of love told by Aristophanes in the Symposium. As he argues, sexual difference is not the origin of the drive; it’s nothing so organic and simple as that. Lacan imagines that after the gods split the first, unified people apart, something must have remained, an “immortal” drive, “the libido, qua pure life instinct,” unattached, deathless, and “irrepressible.”[14] It is thin and flexible: the “lamella” is the gold foil buried in Greek and Roman graves, engraved with passwords for the afterlife,[15] or even, tantalizingly, the “flesh forming the gills of bivalve molluscs, such as clams or oysters (in the class Lamellibranchia).”[16] Just a border, a site of contact, a screen on which stimulation plays, the lamella has no particular form of its own, nor any particular aim, and therefore no capacity to satisfied. Lacan asks his audience to imagine it “envelop[ing]” their faces at night as they quietly sleep.[17] Undoubtedly, this very creepiness makes the lamella so good to think with; as a “horrible palpitation of the ‘acephalic’ drive which persists beyond ordinary death,”[18] the lamella represents what is so often held to be repulsive truth of the Real, the irrepressible, Lovecraftian “creeping chaos” beyond the symbolic.[19] But the oyster, at another extreme of life, just does nothing. It has its own form, bounded by a shell. It has no desire. To extend Lacan’s myth, it is as if, with the first splitting of the conjoined humans, there were not just the one, but two things left over, the lamella, that pure form of desire, and also the life that simply wants nothing, and which is, for that reason, beneath even Lacan’s attention. Here lies something inert, undirected, less content than beyond caring, but still there and living for all that. If the lamella is a figure of “living death,” the oyster might therefore be called “deathly living” or “lifeless life,” without any of the dissatisfaction of social existence, without the motion that even a disorganized, lamellic drive demands. The oyster just sits there, wanting nothing, responding to nothing, aiming at nothing, a creature whose immobile uninterest might be recognized only retroactively as having been a form of life, only after it has been killed and reduced to a still lesser inertness.

None of this means, however, that the psychic state of the oyster cannot be represented. But what is represented, again, is a kind of border existence, an attempt to imagine the psychic life of a nullity. Efforts towards this end run from Plato all the way to the Enlightenment. Plato first describes this kind of life in his Gorgias, here imagining it not with the oyster, but rather with the charadrios, a “stonecurlew,”[20] whose infamous habit, per one sixth-century commentator, was eating and excreting almost simultaneously.[21] For Plato, this shore bird represented a being that functions as little more than a conduit. Because it lacks the capacity of self-mastery that would deliberately distinguish it from the rest of existence, it is helplessly, passively open, with no capacity but the unresistant, undeliberative capacity of receiving pleasure. Not incidentally, Plato’s other two examples in Gorgias include “leaky jars” and, more strikingly, kinaidos, catamites, subject to the pleasures of others, but without any of the shame or self-mastery requisite for any upstanding member of the polis.[22] By his Philebus, these examples of a life lived only “in enjoyment of the greatest pleasures” had been reduced to sea creatures, “a mollusk” or “jellyfish” and also “one of those creatures in shells that live in the sea.”[23] The Latin Middle Ages had access to very little of Plato’s corpus, and to the Gorgias and Philebus none at all;[24] further work on this oyster passage would have to await the middle of the fifteenth century, with Marsilio Ficino. His Philebus commentary freely translates, equating the life of unknowing pleasure to that of “jelly fish, or a stupid living thing” [insensati et stupidi animalis], “like that of the marine oyster.”[25] To advance his condemnation, Ficino concentrates on the jelly fish, which he characterizes as soft, delicate, easy to puncture, unable to move, with undifferentiated organs, typically found strewn on shorelines. Shaped like a lung (as the Greek pleumon or pneumon can mean both this and “jelly fish”[26]), their shape is just that of an open sack, “semper…aperitur et clauditur,” always being opened and closed. This ongoing, indifferent receptivity, Ficino says, is an image of “the life of pleasure without wisdom…the lowest form of life, the one closest to death,” for this pleasure, enjoyed without knowledge, would be “exactly as if it were not there.” Just this side of existence, or non-existence, Ficino’s oyster is at once stolid, insensible, and flexible, shapeless, and too mobile, not quite anything in itself, yet still there for all that.

The eighteenth-century Enlightenment Encyclopedia provides two last developments of this idea, in its entries on both “innate” and “pleasure.” Diderot’s entry on the former concept observes that all that is innate to us are the faculties of sensing and touching; everything else we know is acquired through the senses. Remove sight, he observes, and all the ideas that belong to sight vanish, and so on with each sense: smell, taste, hearing, touch. Without the higher senses, abstract thought becomes impossible. Contrarily, “suppose a shapeless but sensing mass”: this mass would have all the ideas pertaining to touch, and, to this, each additional sense could be added one by one. The modes of knowledge associated with each sense would necessarily follow, with abstract ideas arising at least with a full complement of senses. Thus, writes Diderot, “through this method and through the other, we can reduce a human to the state of an oyster, and elevate an oyster to the state of a human.”[27] Then, the entry on pleasure considers whether the pleasures of the soul surpass those of the senses. The former pleasures, alone, would give the delights of the liberal arts: history, geometry, fine letters, and an unalterable joy; the latter pleasures would, as it were, produce a being “encased in its shell,” with all its happiness resulting from the “blind” and sourd — “dull” or “deaf” — feelings of the moment. The entry bemoans humanity’s weakness. Few would prefer the former, philosophically heroic life; most would be content to experience the mere sensory “félicité” — “happiness,” or even “bliss” or “ecstasy” – “of an oyster.”[28]

All that is left is pure sensation, the “sensus solus” which is all that most commentators grant the oyster.[29] What this sensory power actually is, and how it has been read and misread in the millennia since Aristotle, has been studied most thoroughly in Daniel Heller-Roezen’s The Inner Touch. For Aristotle and his commentators, this fundamental “common sense” is that quality through which a sense perceives that it is sensing; his later disciples describe it as the hub to which all senses report, which establishes the possibility for communication between them, so that one and the same object might be identified simultaneously as white and sweet.[30] For the Stoics, on the other hand, so committed to the supremacy of human reason, this sense is the one through which all living things exercise care for themselves by feeling some self-ownership. Whatever it might be—and Heller-Roezen teases it out intricately—it is not “self-awareness” or “self-consciousness.”[31] The inner sense, this sensus solus, is more fundamental than this or any thought, because unlike thought, it cannot be removed or fully distinguished from the thing being sensed, even if it operates only by virtue of the slight gap between the sensed thing and the sensation.

With this sense, and not much else, the oyster is animal life that cannot be abstracted from its present condition. It is animal, but less mobile than a plant, since even the kelp that move in the water grow. It is alive, but seems more like a stone than an animal. Its sensitive life is bounded by a shell, which, in its helplessness, makes it most like a flapping jellyfish. Wanting nothing, it has nothing but a certain, virtually indefinable sensation. Here we have as bare a lump of life as could be imagined, with none of the vitality or striving that so often accompanies metaphors of “liveliness” or “vitality.” [32] What could be done with such a life, and what could possibly be owed it?

[for the beginning of an exploration of what to do about this]

[1] Ranulf Higden and John Trevisa, Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden with Trevisa’s Translation, ed. Joseph Rawson Lumby (London: Longman & Co., 1865), Vol. II, 179.

[2] Ibid., 181. For similar statements, see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. J. F. Anderson et al., 5 vols. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1955), II.68, “How an intellectual substance can be the form of the body,” and John Weemes, The Portraiture of the Image of God in Man (London: John Bellamie, 1632), 56–57.

[3] For “nonfinite,” see Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 5, “The list of ‘what is proper to man’ always forms a configuration, from the first moment. For that very reason, it can never be limited to a single trait and it is never closed; structurally speaking it can attract a nonfinite number of other concepts, beginning with the concept of a concept.”

[4] For pygmies, John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1981), 190–96; Joseph Koch, “Sind die Pygmäen Menschen? Ein Kapitel aus der philosophischen Anthropologie der mittelalterlichen Scholastik,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 40, no. 2 (1931): 209–13.

[5] For representative statements on the generation of oysters, Pliny the Elder, Natural History, ed. and trans. H. Rackham, 10 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940), IX.LXXIV, Vol. 3:273, and X.LXXXVII, Vol. 3:413. Robert Grosseteste, On the Six Days of Creation: A Translation of the Hexaëmeron, trans. C. F. J. Martin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 195 (for “like from like”); and Henry Buttes, Dyets Dry Dinner: Consisting of Severall Courses (London: Thomas Creede, 1599), 102; for chastity, as part of a debate in which bees, geese, flax, oysters, and other things argue over which provides more service to humans, Michael Maier, Lusus Serius: Or, Serious Passe-Time. A Philosophical Discourse Concerning the Superiority of Creatures under Man, trans. J. de la Salle [pseudonym of John Hall of Durham] (London: Humphrey Moseley, 1654), 35–36. The Latin original is Michael Maier, Lusus Serius (Oppenheim: Luke Jennis, 1619), 23.

[6] The quotation is from one account of the Lenten costume John Gladman supposedly wore for his January 25, 1443 revolt in Norwich; cited from Chris Humphrey, The Politics of Carnival: Festive Misrule in Medieval England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 66.

[7] For Aquinas, see n2, above. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, V, prose 5.

[8] Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 22.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 63.

[11] Ibid., 37.

[12] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, IX.71, Vol. 3:267, “nullum esse sensum, ut ostreis.”

[13] Sharron Hogan Cottin-Bizonne, “Une nouvelle édition du Bestiaire de Philippe de Thaon” (PhD Thesis, University of North Carolina, 2003). For a more easily accessible edition, Emmanuel Walberg, ed., Le Bestiaire de Philippe de Thaün (Lund: Möller, 1900). The edition in Thomas Wright, ed. and trans., Popular Treatises on Science Written during the Middle Ages (London: Y.R. and J.E. Taylor, 1841), should be avoided; Walberg observes that Wright “quelquefois mal lu,” which holds true for the section on pearls and oysters too. Cottin-Bizonne’s notes cite Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies and the Physiologus, but neither of these works include Philippe’s subjunctive assessment of the oyster’s vitality, nor anything about the oyster’s intentionality.

[14] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Karnac, 1977), 198.

[15] Darian Leader, “Lacan’s Myths,” in The Cambridge Companion to Lacan, ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 45–47.

[16] Oliver Harris, Lacan’s Return to Antiquity: Between Nature and the Gods (New York: Routledge, 2017), 75, quoting Richard Boothby’s 1991 Lacan commentary. Harris, 67-75, is a particularly thorough account of the mythographic character of this Lacanian image.

[17] Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 197.

[18] Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 118.

[19] For an exemplary championing of putrefaction, Ben Woodard, Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012).

[20] Donald J. Zeyl, trans., Gorgias, in Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, Associate Editor, D. S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 494b, 837.

[21] Olympiodorus the Younger of Alexandria, Commentary on Plato’s Gorgias, trans. Robin Jackson, Kimon Lycos, and Harold Tarrant (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 210. To the best of my knowledge, this habit is recorded nowhere else in ancient natural history. Other accounts of the charadrios—Hugh of Fouilloy, for example (De bestiis et aliis rebus, PL 177:77C) —speak instead of its diagnostic and curative potency: if it is brought to a sick person, and turns its head away, this is a certain sign that the person will die, but otherwise, it can suck out the sickness from the patient’s mouth and fly towards the sun to burn it up.

[22] Christina H. Tarnopolsky, Prudes, Perverts, and Tyrants: Plato’s Gorgias and the Politics of Shame (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 22.

[23] Dorothea Frede, trans., Philebus, in Plato, Complete Works. 21d, 409.

[24] Raymond Klibanksy, The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition during the Middle Ages: Outlines of a Corpus Platonicum Medii Aevi (Munich: Kraus, 1981). and the four volumes, overseen by Klibansky, of Plato Latinus, comprising translations of Meno, Phaedo, Parmenides, and Timaeus, by far the most widely read of these.

[25] Marsilio Ficino, The Philebus Commentary, trans. Michael J. B. Allen (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000), 316.

[26] Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Revised and Augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the Assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), s.v., “πλεύμων” and “πνεύμων,” Perseus Digital Library. (accessed Feb 13 2017).

[27] Diderot, Denis. “Innate.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Timothy Cleary. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2004. (accessed Feb 13, 2017). Originally published as “Inné,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 8:754 (Paris, 1765).

[28] “Pleasure,” Ibid. Translated by Robert H. Ketchum, 2007. (accessed Feb 13, 2017). Originally published as “Plaisir,” Ibid., 12:691 (Paris, 1765).

[29] Boethius, Consolation, V, prose 5, 417, in Loeb Classical Library 74.

[30] For this last point, for example, The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation (New York: Zone Books, 2009), 36, 45, and 120.

[31] Ibid., 40, 62.

[32] For an exemplary discussion of resistance and unpredictability as a key feature of “life,” see Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 32.

Deviant Bodies and Animalized Humans

Nearly two years ago, I announced:

For several years I’ve wanted to write an essay on the way that ‘mute beasts’ communicate through gesture in a host of medieval texts (famous examples include the ravens in Bede’s Life of Cuthbert and the lion in Yvain), with some consideration of the way that some monks complained that the use of monastic sign language reduced them to animality. So, a chapter on disability and animals, in terms of muteness, interspecies communication, sign language, and signs, maybe with a strong gesture towards the use of CS Peirce in HOW FORESTS THINK, would be a lot of fun to write.

And now it’s basically done. I’ve submitted it to the medieval disability anthology, and then revised it a bit and submitted it again, and then revised it a lot more, because I’m sharing it at the University of Pennsylvania Medieval-Renaissance seminar this September 7. For the interested, here’s the first part opening of my paper, my first real attempt to do disability studies.


Saxon Mirror, Mscr.Dresd.M.32 6r

For several medieval writers, differences in mental capability are partly an effect of particular kinds of bodies or environments.[1] For example, an eighth-century medical treatise by Qusta ibn Luqa (in Latin, Costa ben Luca), translated into Latin in the twelfth century, and listed as a Parisian university text in the thirteenth, holds that women, those too close to the sun, like “Ethiopians,” and also those too far from it all have souls that are “imperfectiores et debiliores” [more imperfect and weaker] than those of people whose internal heat and cold are in “perfectione aequalitatis” [perfect equilibrium].[2] Shape and size could matter as well as internal or external ecologies: Aristotle’s On the Parts of Animals held that since birds, fish, quadrupeds, and children were all “dwarflike,” their intelligence was inferior to that of upright humans. Michael Scot’s early thirteenth-century translation follows its ninth-century Christian Arabic source by omitting this specific comparison, but repeats logic, drawn from elsewhere in Aristotle’s treatise, that holds that “animalia sunt minoris intellectus quam homo” [animals are less intelligent than man], because they have more flesh in the front part of their bodies than humans do.[3] The thirteenth-century natural history of Thomas of Cantimpré begins its chapter on “The Monstrous Humans of the East” by proposing that although satyrs and onocentaurs lacked rational souls, they nonetheless could exhibit behaviors that seemed rational to the degree that that their bodies resembled those of humans.[4] And the discussion of the human worldly superiority in Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon observes that well-proportioned limbs signify (“denotatur”) a good mind, and then adds that “inde sentatiavit Plato quod qualis animalis effigiem gestat homo, talis animalis sequitur mores et affectus,” rendered by one translator as “wherefore Plato 3afe sentence that man folowethe the maneres and affectes of that beste, of whome he hath similitude.”[5]

The possession of speech was a key concern. A thought experiment, repeated through the Middle Ages from Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century) to William of Saint Thierry (twelfth) to Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth), held that if humans had no hands, they would be quadrupeds, and therefore be forced to grasp food with their mouths, and as a result would lose the flexibility of lips and tongue that allowed for the production of rational speech.[6] A handless body, being unable to express its rationality, would be functionally irrational. Like an animal or stone, it would be mute. This word, mutum (to choose a declension at random), appears 469 times in the Patrilogia Latine, and accompanies the word “animal” 43 times: not more often than it accompanies surdum [deaf; 160 times], but often enough to attest to a widespread association of nonhumans and muteness across scholarly cultures. This association is not because animals were thought silent, but because what sound they made was understood as mere noise. Habakkuk 2:18 is just one of several scriptural mockeries of those who believe that the “simulacra muta” [mute idols] they themselves created possess divine power.[7] Augustine’s commentary on Psalms 144:10 applies the same adjective to stones and nonhumans alike when it insists that no one should “think that the mute stone or mute animal [mutus lapis aut mutum animal] has reason wherewith to comprehend God.”[8] The condition of muteness thus traversed those of human impairment, animal inability, and material inertness. It slid from irrationality into inanimacy, from a life whose noise could not be understood to one that has no life, no voice, and no agency.

Law reinforced this division. The Justinian code ruled that humans who were permanently “mutus et surdus” (mute and deaf) could not legally draw up contracts, as they had no more capacity for judgment than young children, the insane, and even the chronically ill.[9] This legal voicelessness could also be applied to humans who bodies were marked as deviant. The thirteenth-century Saxon Mirror (which survives in more than 400 manuscripts) begins its discussion of inheritance law by likening kinship to a human body, so that, for example, “the children of legitimate brothers are located at the level where the arm connects to the shoulders,” with more distant relations located further out on this imagined body; it concludes this discussion by decreeing that property cannot “devolve upon the feebleminded, dwarfs, and cripples.” With one stroke, it cuts such people off from the legal, genealogical body and subjects them to legal conditions elsewhere applied to people unable to express their rationality in socially normative ways.[10] To be sure, Henry de Bracton’s thirteenth-century compendium of English laws nuanced the Justinian code by allowing the entirely deaf to validate contracts by means of “signs and a nod.”[11] But even this modification still preserved the fundamental notion, namely, that certain impairments reduced people to a functional status of stones or nonhuman animals, without legally recognizable agency of their own.

In effect, since the Latin word “animal” could simply mean a “living” or “ensouled” thing,[12] common medieval references to “irrational animals” could functionally encompass several groups: nonhuman animals, humans with mental or intellectual impairment, and, less often, humans with deviant bodies. The phrase “mute animal” could similarly encompass both nonhumans and some humans. Although no widespread medieval law collapsed the distinction between these groups, rhetorical comparisons between nonhumans and impaired humans were frequent. They appear in work by, for example, Augustine (“they differ little from the beasts of the field”), Henry of Ghent (without “intellect…they remain only an animal”), Aquinas (“so long as man has not the use of reason, he differs not from an irrational animal”), and Henry de Bracton, who declares that the insane “are not far removed from brute beasts which lack reason.”[13] Proverbs did similar work: in Middle English, one could be “deaf as an adder,” “mad as a goose” and blind “as a bear,” “as Bayard,” a common horse’s name, or “as a beetle,” a word that denoted either an insect or a hammer.[14] This logic at least implicitly asserted that nonhuman animals were impaired by their own natural capacities, while impaired humans were not quite human.

A humanist disability rights perspective would at least hesitate before these comparisons, because they disable impaired humans by reducing them to a condition of being animals or even objects.[15] It might argue that deviations from the normative human body should be understood only as deviations within the range of human possibility, not as animal degradation. Without denying the fact that humans can suffer deprivations to which humans are uniquely vulnerable (for example, an awareness of legal exclusion), and therefore without declaring, for example, that “humans and animals are really the same,” my work in critical animal studies and posthumanism encourages me to linger with these comparisons instead of simply decrying them. Of course I am not the first to argue in this way. Sunuara Taylor begins an essay about her own impairment, animal metaphors, and animal rights by listing animal insults used against her impairment and those of others; but she admits that when she walks, she really does “resemble a monkey,” in particular, a chimpanzee. These comparisons need not “be negative.”[16] Rather, Taylor argues that they offer an opportunity to rethink embodiment, dependence, and autonomy so that nonhumans might be included in what might be called a vegan community of impairment. With this work, we can recognize that the paired accusations of impairment against nonhumans and certain humans alike call not for a reassertion of precritical humanism and its hierarchies of significant vulnerability, but rather for a reevaluation of the social and ethical functions of impairment, disability, and agency. Mel Y. Chen’s Animancies carries out this work thoroughly. In case studies ranging from lead paint and burst oil wells, to furniture, to the insidious feline genius of Fu Manchu, to semi-domesticated chimpanzees and other nonhuman animals, Chen tracks how certain groups and forms of life—particularly impaired people, racialized immigrants, and the sexually heterodox—are culturally invested with varying degrees of liveliness, agency, responsibility, and animalization. Chen prefers not to shift excluded people up the “animancy hierarchies” of “Western ontologies,”[17] however politically advantageous this reaffirmation would seem to be such groups. Rather, as with other feminist reevalations of materialism, agency, vulnerability, and autonomy, Chen prefers to “reside in this…negative zone”[18] to jostle aside the centrality of claims to agency and animancy in arguments for rights, justice, and care.[19]

Taylor and Chen’s work happily stymy one possible, straightforward argument about animalized metaphors of disability and the social animalization of impaired humans. This would be the assertion that nonhumans, being variously suited to each of their particular environments, are not in fact impaired, and that any supposedly natural animal impairment should be understood instead as representing multiple sensory and bodily norms, rendered “abnormal” and disabled only as an effect of environments and cultures built for other norms. Such a reading would effectively “deanimalize” animals by both freeing them of their negative cultural associations; it would invest them with the agency that uncritical humanism assumes them to lack; and it would simultaneously perform an analogous function for impaired people. Against these critical mistakes, I can also offer Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s “misfit” model of disability, which, by emphasizing material conditions fitted for certain bodies and capacities, deemphasizes the supposed personal bodily inadequacies of the disabled subject, so that “vulnerability is in the fit, not in the body.” Garland-Thomson argues that “fitting” requires a “generic body” in a “generic world,”[20] while I would push this point perhaps past the point of utility by arguing that any no fit can ever be perfect, because there is no perfectly generic world and certainly no perfectly adequate fit. The ineradicable vulnerability and ongoing unbalanced homeostasis of any entity means that no body, even those that belong to the community of “uniform, standard, majority bodies,”[21] can ever be perfectly fitted to its environment.

The remainder of this chapter will concentrate on an encounter that foregrounds and preserves such misfit moments. This is the meeting of Saint Cuthbert and the penitent ravens, which I offer as an experiment in the utility of considering disability studies, critical animal studies, and ecocriticism together, for both historical cultural studies and perhaps even more present-minded cultural studies. The encounter is notable for the gestural communication used by these “mute” beasts to effect a community; for the fact that the birds are not made to talk, although birds, particularly corvids, were a paradigmatic talking animal; and finally for where it takes place (the island of Farne, rendered hospitable to both saint and birds by continuous effort). This encounter does not affirm any bodily or environmental norms. It instead emphasizes the work communication and community require in an environment perilously inhabited by vulnerable bodies that can never be quite at home in it.

[1] Like all cultural studies that unsettle categories that “go without saying,” terminology is a central issue in disability studies. For useful recent surveys of terminological debates from a medievalist perspective, see Joshua R. Eyler, “Introduction: Breaking Boundaries, Building Bridges,” Joshua R. Eyler, ed., Disability in the Middle Ages: Reconsiderations and Reverberations (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2010), 1–11, and Richard Godden and Jonathan Hsy, “Analytical Survey: Encountering Disability in the Middle Ages,” New Medieval Literatures 15 (2013): 313–39. My chapter uses the social model of disability, in which “impairment” indicates the subjective experience or condition of discomfort, incapacity, illness, and so on, while disablement/disability occurs because of physical or social expectations and architectures that reduce or deny cultural participation to people with impairments (stairs rather than ramps are the classic example). This division between impairment and disability is analogous to the sex/gender division and vulnerable to the same critiques.

[2] Carl Sigmund Barach, ed., Excerpta e libro Afredi Anglici De motu cordis item Costa-ben-Lucae De differentia animae et spiritus liber translatus a Johanne Hispalensi (Innsbruck: Wagner’schen University Press, 1878), 138-39. Barach’s edition, which has the nonsensical “solari” living far from the sun, requires supplementing with other copies of the work; Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer 10, 245r, for example, reads “ut sclavi et mauri” [like Slavs and Moors], which respectively stand for those “longe distare a sole uel uicinare” [a long ways or close to the sun].

[3] Aristotle, On the Parts of Animals, trans. James J. Lennox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 686b23-9; the Greek is “νανῶδες.” Michael Scot, De animalibus: Michael Scot’s Arabic-Latin translation. Part Two, Books XI-XIV: Parts of Animals, ed. Aafke M. I. van Oppenraaij (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 187–88. Michael Scot’s source may be drawing on discussions of body mass in Aristotle Parts of Animals 689a25.

[4] Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de Natura Rerum: Editio Princeps Secundum Codices Manuscriptos, ed. Helmut Boese (Berlin: W. De Gruyter, 1973), 97.

[5] Ranulf Higden and John Trevisa, Polychronicon, ed. Joseph Rawson Lumby, 9 vols. (London: Longman & Co., 1865), Vol 2, 180-81, anonymous English translation from British Library, Harley 2261. Trevisa himself says nothing about nonhuman animals, but instead says only “þerfore Plato 3af his doom, and seide suche ordenaunce, disposicioun, and schap as a man haþ in his kyndeliche membres and lymes, suche kyndeliche maneres þey foloweþ in dedes.” For several medieval assertions of the independence of body and mind, see chapter four in Irina Metzler, Fools and Idiots: Intellectual Disability in the Middle Ages (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016).

[6] For sources, and a longer discussion, see my How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011), 47–50.

[7] Scriptural translations are the Latin vulgate and, for the English, the Douay Rheims.

[8] Enarrationes in Psalmos, in Jacques Paul Migne, ed., Patrilogiae Cursus Completus: Series Latina, 217 vols. (Paris, 1844) (hereafter PL), 37:1877. For a book-length discussion of the animancy of stones, see Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[9] Paul Krueger, ed., Justinian’s Institutes, trans. Peter Birks and Grant McLoed (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), II.12.13. Also see Alan Watson, trans., The Digest of Justinian (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011),, 166.

[10] Eike von Repgow, The Saxon Mirror: A ‘Sachsenspiegel’ of the Fourteenth Century, trans. Maria Dobozy (Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 69-70. For more on legal history, see Christian Laes, “Silent Witnesses: Deaf-Mutes in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” Classical World 104.4 (2011): 451–73; Irina Metzler, “Reflections on Disability in Medieval Legal Texts:  Exclusion – Protection – Compensation,” in Disability and Medieval Law: History, Literature, Society, ed. Cory James Rushton (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 19–53; and Wendy J. Turner, Care and Custody of the Mentally Ill, Incompetent, and Disabled in Medieval England (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013).

[11] Henry de Bracton, On the Laws and Customs of England, ed. George E Woodbine, trans. Samuel E Thorne, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), Vol. II.286. For evidence of the persistence of this law, see Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, in Four Books, 12th ed., vol. 4 (London: A. Strahan and W. Woodfall, 1793), Vol. I, 304, “A man is not an idiot, if he hath any glimmering of reason, so that he can tell his parents, his age, or the like common matters. But a man who is born deaf, dumb, and blind, is looked upon by the law as in the same state with an idiot; he being supposed incapable of any understanding, as wanting all those senses which furnish the human mind with ideas.”

[12] For an example of the word’s range of meanings, see Alan of Lille, Distinctiones dictionum theologicalium, PL 210:701A–B.

[13] I draw all these examples from Metzler, Fools and Idiots, 108, 114, 120, and 154.

[14] Middle English Dictionary online (hereafter MED; accessed 8 August 2016), s.v. “bitil” and “betel.”

[15] For an admirable example of this kind of work, see Licia Carlson, The Faces of Intellectual Disability: Philosophical Reflections (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 160-61.

[16] Sunaura Taylor, “Beasts of Burden: Disability Studies and Animal Rights,” Qui Parle 19.2 (2011): 192 and 196 [191–222]; see also Sue Walsh, “The Recuperated Materiality of Disability and Animal Studies,” in Rethinking Disability Theory and Practice: Challenging Essentialism, ed. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 20–36.

[17] Mel Y Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). The first phrase (sometimes under the form “animate hierarchies”) appears 33 times in Chen’s book; although the latter phrase is from page 127, references to “Western” thought abound in her book. Medieval studies help challenge sedimented, homogenized notions of what constitutes “Western” thought.

[18] Ibid., 17; for one sample of feminist approaches to these issues, see Bronwyn Davies, “The Concept of Agency: A Feminist Poststructuralist Analysis,” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 30 (1991): 42–53.

[19] For further work in this line, see Eunjung Kim, who, in writing about the artist Marina Abramović, asks “in what way can an embodiment of immobility and speechlessness challenge ableism, which is firmly grounded on the criterion to control one’s body to determine whether one qualifies as human?”; “Unbecoming Human: An Ethics of Objects,” GLQ 21.2-3(2015): 230.

[20] “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept,” Hypatia 26.3 (2011): 600 and 594.

[21] “Misfits,” 595. For homeostasis and systems theory, see the first several chapters of Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

Thursday, February 18, 2016 Purity is a Proud Toad’s Game, a Fable from Jacques de Vitry

While doing some philological noodling with the word “fabulous” (because what else does one do on sabbatical?), I found, in this entry in the Middle English dictionary, a citation from a Middle English translation of Jacques de Vitry’s Life of Marie of Oignies:


“I telle a fabil not fabulos and sey fals not falsly.”

I was hooked. Yesterday, I responded to copy edits for my entry on “Beast Fables” for the Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain, where I write:

The obvious fictionality of fables, as well as the youth of their first audience, inspired debates over their utility: Seneca thought them frivolous and William of Conches meaningless, and Conrad of Hirsau and Boccaccio thought them suitable for teaching only rustics and children. While the word “fable” itself comes simply from the Latin fabulor, “to talk” (which eventually provides, for example, the French parler and the Spanish hablar), it also came to stand in for fiction as a whole or even, with the sense of moral condemnation, as a false story, a use that appears even in fable collections themselves.

“A fabil not fabulos”! What treasures awaited me in Marie? What had I (dammit) omitted from my encyclopedia entry? Read on. My translation from Carl Horstmann’s edition with some help from the Latin (because I don’t have Brown’s on hand: lo how lapsed copyright preserves old scholarship!): the story of a monk first led to anhedonia, then depression, and then, for a monk, the worst sin of all, disobedience. If only the monk had been a happy toad, content in its batrachoidal squalor.

It happened that Cistercian monk had such a great zeal and love of innocence and purity, but not of wisdom, that he strove with a fervent spirit come to the same state as the first father, Adam.

And when after much vain effort, tormenting himself in fasting, vigils, and prayers he could not recover the first state of innocence, he fell first into a heaviness and sloth (that is, he became depressed). For he would eat his food, but would feel no sensible delight; he devoted himself not only to refraining from, but also from fully quenching the first stirrings of sensuality and bodily feeling; and so he devoted himself to keeping his life in perfect purity without any venial sin.

And so by the temptation of the noonday demon, he aspired to impossible things, but no matter how much he had labored, he could not in any way have what he wanted: at last in sorrow he slid into the ditch of despair, so much so that he expected he could not be saved at all in the state of corruption that he was in, as he counted venial sins as deadly — and venial sins cannot be avoided in this life. Therefore he would not take the Eucharist on those days his order ordained for this. Behold to how much misfortune and how much and what manner of wretched ruin that ancient enemy dragged a simple soul under the color of the good [Ecce ad quantum infortunium, ad quantam & quam miserabilem ruinam, sub specie boni hostis ille antiquus simplicem illam traxerat animam], so that the sick one fled salvation, and he who had once forsook his own will, took off the yoke of obedience.

And about that I tell a fable that is not fabulous, and say something fictional but not false [Ut autem fabulam non fabulose referam, nec falsa non fallaciter interseram {such a nice metaphor for tale-telling!}]:

This monk who tried to come to the same state of the first father, he is like a toad that in seeing a handsome and strong ox, wanted to become like that very ox; she tried with great force to stretch and to inflate herself; but in vain, for even if she had burst, she might not have taken on the quality of that ox.

And so that brother, while he would have enhanced himself above himself, fell wretchedly into despair under himself [the Latin’s sharper: Frater autem ille dum se supra se extollere voluit, infra se miserabiliter per desperationem corruit]

[Hit happenyd þat a monke of Cisteus ordyr hadde so grete 3ele and loue of Innocens and clennesse, þof not after sciens, þat hee enforced and bisyed hym wiþ feruour of spirite to come as to þe euenlik state of the firste fadir Adam.

And whan longe wiþ ful myche laboure, but veyne, turmentynge hym-selfe in fastynge, wakynges and prayers hee myghte not recuuir þe firste state of Innocens, he felle firste into an henynesse and slouþe. For hee woldde ete his mete, but he wolde not fele no sensible delite, while he eet; hee studyed not oonly to refreyne, but to qwenche fully þe firste stirynges of sensualite 7 bodily felynge; he studyed als to kepe his lyfe in parfite clannes wiþ-outen any venyalle synne.

And so by entisynge of þe myddaye fende, while he desyred impossibil, nor, how so mykelle he hadde labored, he myghte on no manere haue hadde þat hee wolde: atte laste for sorowe hee slode in to þe dyche of dispaire, in so myche þat hee hopyd to gete saluacyone no-wyse in þe state of corrupcyone þat hee was in, as he þat countid deedly synnes þoos þat are venyalle — þe whiche wee maye not wante in þis lyfe. Wherefore hee wolde not receyue Crystes body any-maner, not þoos dayes þat were ordayned þere-to in þe ordyr. Lo, to how grete unhappe and to how mikel and how myserabil fal under þe coloure of gode þat olde enmye drowe a symple soule, þat was sieke and fledde salue, 7 þat onys hadde forsaken his owne wille, putte aweye from hym þe 3ok of obedyens.

And, atte I telle a fabil not fabulous and sey fals not falsly, 

þis monke þat assyed to come to þe euenlike state of þe firste fadir, to whome is hee like but vnto a paddoke, þat seynge an ox of grete strengthe and fayre quantite, wolde haue comen to þe gretnnesse of hym and hane be like to þe same ox; þen she bygan wiþ grete enfors to streke hir and blowe hir-selfe abrode; but in veyne: for þos she hadde brosten, she myghte not haue taken þe quantite of þe ox.

And so þat broþer, while hee wolde haue enhaunced hym-selfe aboue hymselfe, felle wrecchidly be dispeyre vndir hym-selfe.]

The lesson of the fable is as conservative as usual (from Caxton’s version, “The poure ought not to compare hym self to hym which is ryche and myghty”).

I’m struck less by the strangeness of comparing an overfastidious monk to a toad than I am by the greater lesson: this life here demands not purity but a reasonable accommodation with corruption. Impurity can only be managed.

Maybe it’s just because I’m an ecocritical crank, but with Jacques de Vitry, and with a good awareness of enmeshment in this Naufragocene (more on Steve Mentz’s great new book, later), I think the lesson of the toad and ox fable, secularized, could be: “The corruptible ought not to compare hym self to hym which is incorruptible.”

The conservative lesson of the fables, so seemingly poisonous from a gender, Marxist, or sexuality studies perspective, is, from an ecological perspective, the key lesson: you must make do, but don’t expect miracles. Don’t expect an escape. As our friend Steve writes:

Shipwreck is not something to prepare for, something that is about to happen. It is happening. Now. We are inside it,  not waiting for it. Castaways, that name belongs to our present and our future both. (163)

So, hello fellow toads! Let’s do what we toads can.

Folcuin’s Horse and the Dog’s Gowther, Beyond Care

Hi gang!

IMG_1762Years back, I submitted a Frankenstein’s monster of a couple conference papers for a collection to be called Fragments toward a History of a Vanishing Humanism. 6 or 7 years ago, in fact. In the way these things go, with overextended editors making huge life changes, the collection died — or hibernated, as it turns out, because it’s now going to press, which means all this stuff — most of which I rewrote for How to Make a Human — could be rewritten again.

Which I just did, over the past few days, as I anticipate next week’s start of the CUNY semester. What I’ve done is a bit of LIFE THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING — sorry! — but it’s also in essence a wholesale rewriting of my book’s conclusion with an eye towards Book #2.

Background, if you’re a sadsack who never finished HtMaH:A&VitMA, are the pairings/readings of 2 stories: the tale of Folcuin’s horse, buried like a human, and Sir Gowther‘s brief encounter with a greyhound on his way to fulfill his penance. Here’s the new stuff:

The temptation would be to praise the stories of Folcuin’s horse and Gowther and the dog as examples of a more fluid, conjoined selfhood, indifferent to rigid binaries, firm boundaries, and hierarchies, all of which serve as the opponents – or strawmen –for critical animal studies, ecocriticism, and a host of other well-meaning modes of critique. Certainly, all of these have the advantage of eliminating any natural foundation for a decision. The “deterritorialized” wasp of Deleuze and Guattari, whose “molecular” becoming cannot be distinguished from the orchid it pollinates, nor finally from the “animals, plants, microorganisms, mad particles, a whole galaxy” with which we are all dependently enmeshed;[1] Haraway’s dog, whose co-training with her is a “naturalcultural practice” that redoes them both “molecule by molecule,” allows “something unexpected” comes into being, “something new and free, something outside the rules of function and calculation, something not ruled by the logic of the reproduction of the same”[2]; or, a less frequently cited example, Ralph Acampora’s Corporal Compassion, whose phenomenological notion of “symphysis” recalls us to our fundamental participation with other bodied beings—notably, not embodied, not minds in bodies – which is a matter of “becoming sensitive to an already constituted ‘inter-zone’ of somaesthetic conviviality”[3]: all of these ontologies describe the actual, mobile, intraactive productivity of things in which the self-other relations that make ethics necessary must be continually renegotiated. However, the danger is in thinking that this recognition is in itself sufficient, as if fluid metaphors were enough to save us, and everything else, from human supremacy. But, as Nicole Shukin reminds us, capitalism loves rhizomes too; it loves to blur boundaries; it loves motion, stirring up trouble, multiplying desire, and giving us new things to cherish.[4]

The key is to know all this and still make a decision, and still know that we will have always made a decision, however inadequate it will always be. The trope of the “blurred boundary” should be understood as just a call to be aware of decision-making. The key to any minimally decent “postdisenchanted”[5] approach to the human and animal is to recognize, for example, the rhizomatic ontologies of Deleuze and Guattari, while still remembering “the very real torment of suffering individuals,”[6] that in an assemblage of human and animal, only one is protected by laws forbidding murder, and that therefore nonhuman animals may have to be minimally singled out in assemblages as objects of care.[7] At the same time, we must also remember, with Donna Haraway’s account of training with her dog, that animals are not only passive victims that need to be rescued or let alone, and that our engagement with animals changes us as it changes them. Inspired by Haraway, we will throw open the doors of the philosopher’s study. In the case of Derrida and his now famous encounter with the fathomless, singular mystery of his cat, we should account for the individual and species history that placed this cat in this particular house fed by some particular meat by this particular world-class philosopher. One of the advantages of Haraway over Derrida is just this attention to the more-than-philosophical, material history of domesticated animals, especially in her Companion Species Manifesto.

In the case of Gowther, for example, we should also recognize that while the particular encounter between knight and dog may break open the circle of penitential exchange “so as to defy reciprocity or symmetry, the common measure, and so as to turn aside the return in view of the no-return,”[8] violence still makes this encounter possible. In this brief, beautiful moment, Gowther and the dog are literal companions (with bread). The gift of bread is the gift of food; it is nourishment, life, and an invitation to this demonic nonhuman to seek out a companionship outside a lonely human conviviality. And this mundane, material attention to Gowther’s hunger interrupts his journey to satisfy his spiritual needs, with their hope of a final, celestial escape from responsibility for himself and for vulnerable others. Still, the exchanged object is bread. Jared Diamond famously observed that grains are the particular foodstuff of settled, urban, highly stratified civilizations, like those of Western Europe.[9] The gift of bread – and even more so for a gift of meat – should remind us of a system that bound most people to the land, as farmers, as slaves, as overseers, as owners, and as children made to tie one landowning family to another, and of the cultivation of larger and larger oxen and horses for labor, and to the elimination of competing animals and humans as “pests.” The dog bestows a gift on Gowther; the dog steals from others, reminding us, with this gift, that the dog’s victims are bound to a life of laboring for others. There is no way to get it perfectly right.

At a sufficiently large or sufficiently small scale, what Gowther and the dog experience does not matter. Nothing does. There is no possible perspective at which everything can matter. The scale at which Gowther and dog are both recognizable is nonetheless the scale where their existence matters, where they need to be fed, protected, and acculturated; it is the scale we might notice, if we slow down the poem’s push towards its saintly conclusion. However, everything else is also significant, including the fields of “background” violence that temporarily fulfill the needs of dog and knight. Ultimately, amid the always shifting field of stuff, oriented towards the preservation of a self that this very orientation is always transforming, decisions have to be made about who or what to cherish.

Joanna Zylinksa’s Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene is a recent, good attempt to deal with this nearly impossible demand. Synthesizing work on ontology and ethics by Henri Bergon, Emmanuel Levinas, Karen Barad, and Rosi Braidotti, Zylinska calls for a non-systemic ethics, without fixed answers, without stable goals, in which these singular beings we call humans do what they can do responsibly, engaging in “pragmatic temporary stabilizations of time and matter,” [10] while also aware of the scales of the very large and very small, the very slow and very fast, that will always escape our notice. She requires local decision-making that disturbs an always lurking universality, whose irrepressible presence undoes our satisfaction and smugness at believing ourselves to have done things right. Zylinska does not give us a posthumanism: she challenges human supremacy, as any ecological thinker must, but her attention to particularity means she abandons neither human singularity nor her own human position. Others may have agency; others may be subject to responsibility; others may come after us who do what we love best better than we do, if only we were to get out of the way. All of this may be true, but none of this saves us from the requirement for “the human to take responsibility for the differentiating cuts into the flow of life s/he is herself making with his/her tongue, language, or tools,” [11] without knowing in advance whether others are doing it better, or what we should protect, or why or if we are doing it wrong.

I will conclude by returning to Derrida’s naked encounter with his cat, surely an ur-moment for critical animal studies. [12] The cat comes across Derrida just as he’s emerged from the shower. From here, we get Derrida feeling ashamed, and a bit ashamed of his shame; we get a sketch of philosophical distinctions between self-aware nudity and unwitting nakedness, and from there, of course, another of Derrida’s dismantling of the pretensions of the humanist tradition. To suspend or refuse human domination, to break with what he calls carnophallogocentrism, Derrida lets himself be “seen seen” by his cat. He allows himself the uneasiness of being caught in his own cat’s eyes; he lets himself stay uncertain; and he opposes those who take “no account of the fact that what they call ‘animal’ can look at them, and address them from down there.” Derrida’s insistence that his cat is this particular being removes or preserves her from the undifferentiated, humiliated mass of creatures shunted into animality. This is a moment of wonder, of uncertainty, of an insistence on the individual, but even a bit of a threat, since the cat, with its fangs, looks curiously at Derrida’s penis. Though Derrida’s cat is a female cat, he often refers to her in the masculine as chat: had he consistently called it a chatte, it might have been more obviously a vagina dentata, since une chatte can be, as in English, a “pussy.” But that is a point to be explored elsewhere: needless to say, this little mixup at least multiples the singular cat into a growing and happily disreputable crowd.[13]

Derrida moves on from here, infesting the category of the “animal” until it bursts apart. Had he stayed longer with the cat and longer in his study, he might have undomesticated both, opening both to the larger – or smaller – world and to other animal possibilities. What if the cat were a worm or a hoard of worms? What possibility for an ethics of the singular could there be were Derrida faced with a faceless hoard, hungry and existing for all that? What if the cat were larger, and could, actually, have eaten the philosopher? Finally, what if the cat could have done this, and simply didn’t care to, or didn’t realize it might have? This possibility of the philosopher not being “seen seen” but being ignored by an indifferent animal offers another model for the groundless ground for our necessary decisions. We must suspend ourselves between two impossibilities: the unjustifiable need to defend ourselves from the appetite of others, and the dizzying fact of temporary mattering, our own and others, within a near universal indifference, where we must make cuts to care, even if what we protect takes no notice of us at all. Knowing all that we know, knowing what little good it might do, what harm it might do, and just how little it will do on any scale, we still have to care.

[1]    Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 262, 293, and 250.

[2]    Haraway, When Species Meet, 228 and 223.

[3]    Ralph R. Acampora, Corporal Compassion: Animal Ethics and Philosophy of Body (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), 84.

[4]    Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (Minneapolis: Minnesota, 2011), 31-32.

[5]    I borrow this term from Carolyn Dinshaw, who used it in a roundtable discussion led and edited by Elizabeth Freeman, “Theorizing Queer Temporalities,” GLQ 13 (2007): 185.

[6]    I quote from the appraisal of Deleuze and Guattari in Elizabeth A. Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 163, whose work in imagining a “psychical corporeality” (and whose cautious use of Deleuze and Guattari) I have found inspiring.

[7]    For a rich elaboration of this idea, to which I am much indebted, see Leonard Lawlor, This is Not Sufficient: An Essay on Animality in Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 71-114. See also Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 84-86.

[8]    See Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 7.

[9]    Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discover Magazine (May 1987): 64-66.

[10]  Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2014), 31.

[11] Ibid., 87.

[12] But also see Susan Fraiman, “Pussy Panic versus Liking Animals: Tracking Gender in Animal Studies,” Critical Inquiry 39.1 (2012): 89-115.

[13] For the French, compare, for example, Jacques Derrida, L’animal autobiographique: Autour de Jacques Derrida, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 1999), 253, “devant un chat qui vous regarde sans bouger” [before a male cat who looks as you without moving], 255-56, “le chat qui me regarde nu…ce chat dont je parle, qui est aussi une chatte” [the male cat who looks at me naked, the male cat about whom I speak, who is also a female cat], and 257, “la chatte qui me regarde nu, celle-là et nulle autre, celle dont je parle ici” [the female cat who looks at me naked, that female one there and no other, the female one about whom I am speaking here]. For recent good appreciations of gender and Derrida, with special attention to cats, see Carla Freccero, “Chercher la chatte: Derrida’s Queer Feminine Animality,” in French Thinking about Animals, ed. Louisa Mackenzie and Stephanie Posthumus (Ann Arbor: Michigan State University Press, 2015), 105-20, and Jessica Polish, “After Alice After Cats in Derrida’s L’animal que donc je suis,” Derrida Today 7.2 (2014): 180-96.