Unseasonal

For  MLA 2017 session: #208. Ecological Catastrophe: Past and Present: Friday, 6 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., 411-412.

1  Seasonality is that quality of being at the right time, of using the right amount, or even of being “pleasant,” as when one fifteenth-century letter blandly observes “the wedder waxeth seesonable.” Seasonality marks a good fit. It’s a kind of duty to the time, in which whatever happens happens properly when it responds correctly to what should already be happening. And when unseasonality erupts – as it will in this handful of examples I’m offering you today – we might find it unjust, but mostly we just don’t know what to do.

First: the medieval labors of the months, the most widespread representation of seasonal activation, where we do what we do because it’s suitable: Whan that Aprill &c, the birds stay up, and we go on pilgrimage. The standard calendrical figures coalesce from classical representations of the zodiac and seasonal religious holidays, eventually coming down to earth, not as gods, not as worshipers, exactly, but as workers, and, sometimes, as the rich and indolent, laboring or having fun as they should according to what each moment of the year demands.[i]

And from very early on, winter was for feeding, killing, and butchering pigs. Here I offer two examples, one from the ninth century, and another from the twelfth.

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And then I offer you this, from Texas, where 1.5 million feral pigs wander ineradicable through nearly the whole state, a symptom of colonial incursion and animals that refuse to stay put. As this manual explains, they are “unprotected, exotic, non-game animals. Therefore they may be taken by any means or methods at any time of the year.” In other words, there is no pig season. These animals belong to no one, belong to no time, and, so far as the Texan authorities are concerned, they have no end. They don’t come at the wrong time, because they don’t arrive at all. They are simply always there.

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Another example: the Middle English Sir Cleges, in which an overgenerous knight finds himself broke and depressed, kneeling under a tree in the dark after a Christmas midnight mass. He grasps a branch to drag himself up, and finds his hand full of leaves, and on that branch, fruit.[ii] “Dear God in Trinity,” he wonders: “What kind of berries may these be, that grow at this time of year?” His wife wisely suggests that the cherries are his ticket to Uther’s court, where, if he plays his cards right, he might save his family from penury.

Winter miracles like these are not unheard of in medieval writing. Celtic saints cure the lovesick by providing them the fresh berries they impossibly desire; a shepherd miraculously bestows a flowering cherry bough on the infant Jesus; and in “The Cherry-Bough Carol,” Mary herself receives a similar wintertime gift.[iii] The point here is that unseasonality has to mean something; it can’t just be happening. It has to be a message, even if we’re just meant to respond to it with a certain practical exploitation.

More recently, we have here cherry trees flowering in Heidelberg in December, just in time for Christmas eve. Elsewhere, Japanese records of Cherry Blossom festivals, which date, somewhat spottily, back to the 11th century, and, with steadier continuity, to 1401, attest to shifting start times for the festival, as global temperatures waxed and waned. Both in the countryside and in urban hot pockets, since the 1950s, the festival has shifted steadily towards the year’s beginning; by 2080, it might start an entire month earlier.[iv]

I imagine this as a shift compressing time in parts of the year, and opening it up where it did not exist before. This is a kind of temporal tectonics, in which a maw opens in the midst of summer, a desert in its mouth, swallowing any without the means or the historical luck to escape it. A new season emerges, unsuitable for most.

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Which of course leads to the world’s end. For this, I offer the medieval eschatological tradition of the Fifteen Signs of the Last Judgment.[v] The tradition appears in writing in the mid eleventh century, and diffuses over the rest of the Middle Ages into hundreds of examples in writing and the visual arts, appearing in places as well-respected as Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and The Golden Legend. Scholars divide the tradition into seven groups, which each vary the order of the final events slightly, but whatever the sequence, what remains is a sequence and the expectation of a future order of destruction: on the fifth day, pictured here on the right, from the Mirror of Human Salvation, the trees bleed, and the birds come together, but neither eat nor drink, for fear of the strict judge, des strengen Richters. On the eighth day, here from The Antichrist and the Fifteen Signs of the Last Judgement, we get an earthquake, “laying low man and beast.”

In this tradition, though we dread the world’s end, we know how to recognize its coming. It will proceed in an orderly fashion, seasonably. As with the seasons themselves, there will be nothing we can do to stop it, but we can be certain too that someone is in charge.

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I offer this not to suggest that the medievals were comfortable with a sensible nature, and we are not, although, of course, it would be foolish not to argue that point at least a little. I’m suggesting instead another way to think about this event we’re in the midst of. I’m responding to the critical habit of presenting the present ecocollapse as undoing the conceptual rift between culture and nature.[vi] This critical habit says we now know again that there’s no real difference between nature and culture; it even argues that what used to be called nature should just be understood as a symptom or effect of human activity, or some subset of humans: androcene, anglocene, anthrobrocene, and so on.

For a good, richly historical complication of this narrative, see The Shock of the Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz; for what the narrative does, see Clare Colebrook’s “What is the Anthro-Political,” who observes that it at once gives us someone to blame, while simultaneously dividing some idealized subset of humans, the ones who should be saved, from the ones who shouldn’t be, for example, the bros.

I’m not sure this spatialization of time and responsibility is quite adequate to the present weirdness. I think we have to add unseasonality to the mix. Unseasonality marks a new uncertainty not so much about the future as about predictable time. Unseasonality, that is, marks our being in the midst of an event. It marks the emergence of the terror of an actual future. Think of Derrida’s distinction between l’avenir and le futur.[vii]

Because with seasons, things go on, and then they go on again. This cyclic futurity cancels out uncertainty. It gives us the thing that comes next that is, in fact, only the same old thing coming around again. Seasonality gets us off the hook for really making decisions. It gives us some ground for making plans, so that making plans makes sense because they are mostly a matter of doing the right thing at the right time. Seasons – including the season of the coming destruction – are therefore traditions of subordination, in which nothing new needs be done because we’re not in charge, and because we’re taken care of, anyway. It would be absurd to slaughter a pig in the summer, absurd to hope for a December cherry, absurd to expect anything but an earthquake on the eighth day of the countdown to the world’s end. That’s a kind of comfort: one of giving up, of going along, and of knowing how little we can do.

Unseasonality marks an uncertain relationship to everything that is supported by predictable time, chiefly, what we should be doing at any given moment, and whether we can expect a return on what we are doing. If the season determines both expectations and right action, if the season swaddles us and everything that is, if it takes care of us by meeting our expectations, getting unseasonable puts us in a position of no longer being certain that what we’re doing isn’t absurd.

I’m suggesting, then, that a richer sense of the conceptual weight of normative seasonality can help us realize the absurdity of our present. Thank you.

[i] Standard references: foundational; James Carson Webster, The Labors of the Months in Antique and Mediaeval Art (Evanston: University of Illinois, 1938); popular, Bridget Ann Henisch, The Medieval Calendar Year (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University, 1999).

[ii] Dates to c. 1370-1380 according to Ad Putter. Two copies survive, Scotland, Edinburgh Advocates 19.1.11, and Ashmole 61 (Oxford Bodleian 6922); Bodleian 6922 has been edited twice for the TEAMS series (Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, and also George Shuffelton). I am indebted to Putter’s contribution to Time in the Medieval World for the ‘staging’ of Cleges’s tree prayer in the dark.

[iii] See C Grant Loomis, “Sir Cleges and Unseasonable Growth in Hagiology,” Modern Language Notes 53.8 (1938): 591-94 (for Celtic hagiography) and Sherwyn T. Carr, “The Middle English Nativity Cherry Tree: The Dissemination of a Popular Motif,” Modern Language Quarterly 36.2 (1975): 133-147 (for 3 examples from Middle English drama, a carol, and Cleges).

[iv] Uran Chung, Liz Mack, Jin I. Yun, Soo-Hyung Kim, “Predicting the Timing of Cherry Blossoms in Washington, DC and Mid-Atlantic States in Response to Climate Change,” PLoS ONE 6.11 (2011): e27439. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027439 (consulted 15 December 2016); Richard Primack and Hiroyoshi Higuchi, “Climate Change and Cherry Tree Blossom Festivals in Japan,” Arnoldia, 65.2 (2007): 14-22; Jenica M. Allen et al., “Modeling Daily Flowering Probabilities: Expected impact of Climate Change on Japanese Cherry Phenology,” Global Change Biology 20.4 (2014): 1251–1263, DOI: 10.1111/gcb.12364

[v] William Watts Heist, The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday (East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1952) has not been superseded; Concetta Giliberto, “The Fifteen Signs of Doomsday of the First Riustring Manuscript,” in Advances in Old Frisian Philology, ed. Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr., Stephen Laker, and Oebele Vries (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), 129–52, is a good recent treatment.

[vi] Eg, “Recognition of the Anthropocene, therefore, involves acknowledgment that the refusal of premoderns to split nature from culture was wise, and that after a mechanistic interlude of five hundred years the ‘age of humans’ brings ‘natural’ and ‘human’ history back together again (Chakrabarty 2009).” Also see Michael Northcott, “Eschatology in the Anthropocene: From the Chronos of Deep Time to the Kairos of the Age of Humans.” Or Latour.

[vii] From the Derrida documentary – “In general, I try and distinguish between what one calls the Future and “l’avenir” [the ‘to come]. The future is that which – tomorrow, later, next century – will be. There is a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival. So if there is a real future, beyond the other known future, it is l’avenir in that it is the coming of the Other when I am completely unable to foresee their arrival.”

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A Fourteenth-Century Ecology: Chaucer’s “The Former Age”

MS Douce 195

“The question of ecological morality is always approached as if it were a matter of authorizing or prohibiting an extension of the moral quality to new beings (animals, rivers, glaciers, or oceans), whereas exactly the opposite is the case. What we should find amazing are the strange operations whereby we have constantly restricted the list of beings to whose appeal we should have been able to respond.”

Émilie Hache and Bruno Latour, “Morality or Moralism: An Exercise in Sensitization.”

Five weeks ago, I had hoped to put Chaucer’s “The Former Age” in conversation with the Alexander and Dindimus tradition and with fourteenth-century reactions to the European encounter with the Canary Islanders. 6000 words (my utmost limit) is not enough, and I had to drop the Canary Islands. No worries! Soon I hope to have something to say here about The Canarien, a bizarre early fifteenth-century chronicle of an attempted conquest (briefly: it gilds a vulgar chain of squabbles, failures, and slaving with the glory of chivalry and faith: the effect is grotesque and grimly hilarious, like a drunk senior research analyst in a disheveled clown suit). Meanwhile, here’s a portion of the argument that, knock on wood (but gently, gently), will see print sometime next year.

If you don’t know “The Former Age,” it’s structurally and thematically based on Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy Book II, Meter 5 and a handful of other works. It describes a time when people were free of commerce, agriculture, or technology: they do not harvest grain, for example, but rather rub the kernels between their hands (l. 11). They’re vegetarian communists who refuse to harm anyone or anything: not each other, not animals, not the earth or the sea, not wounded by the plow (l. 9) or carved by the prow (l. 21).

Criticism of “The Former Age” typically does souce or historical studies, the latter tending to see the poem’s pessimism as a symptom of the politics of the late 1380s or early 1390s. That’s fine. However, I’m reading the poem as a critique not only of human institutions but of the human itself. In sum, I read it as an antihumanist manifesto in the vein of Émilie Hache and Bruno Latour’s wonderful “Morality or Moralism.” I do this by attending, especially, to the former agers’ unlimited moral sensitivity but also to Chaucer’s additions to his sources, and its affinities with a thematically related set of texts, the British witnesses to the encounter between Alexander the Great and the ascetic philosophers of India, the Gymnosophists and Dindimus and the Brahmans. I plan to talk about this Dindimus material in another post.

Chaucer’s few additions include a few animal comparisons and his despairing final stanza, which bemoans that the world is now full of lust, deceit, and murder, with no way out. Lines 7 and 37 in effect say that these people eat like pigs: “They eten mast, hawes, and swich pounage”; “noght but mast or apples is therinne.” Golden Age people eat acorns: this is a cliché, mocked from Cicero to Petrarch, and sneered at by Lucretius, who says that primordial people traded acorns for sex. The pig-comparison’s unusual, though, at least in the Golden Age tradition. In my book, I read this as a humiliating contrapasso against people who don’t eat pigs: eat pork or be treated like pork. In medieval Christian texts, this happens to Jews, Muslims, and now to these vegetarians, who, like pigs, eat “mast, hawes, and swich pounage” in the woods rather than enjoying the products of the grange.

The other animal comparison comes in line 50, where Chaucer calls these people lambish. Perhaps not alarming, until you remember that for a dozen years Chaucer oversaw the wool custom and wool subsidy for the Port of London. In this time, few English were more involved in the sheep trade: worthy is the lamb &c. Note too that one of the witnesses of “The Former Age” traveled with Lydgate’s “Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep,” a poem that the ram wins by arguing, in effect, that English industry commercializes every bit of the sheep, its fleece, meat, horn, hooves, and skin (here I think of Upton Sinclair’s “they use everything of the pig except the squeal”).

And then there’s the despair of the last stanza, Chaucer’s longest addition. Taken as a whole, “The Former Age” imagines a time without human domination, a time whose people recognize the constitutive vulnerability of everything as morally significant (see Derrida on the “nonpower at the heart of power” in The Animal that Therefore I am); a time whose people saw the face (in a Levinasian sense) everywhere and acted accordingly. “The Former Age” imagines this time, and admires these people, sure, but it also chooses to think of them as animals, there to be used and traded; and it chooses to imagine this time as irrevocably lost.

But Chaucer’s other so-called Boethian poems (“Truth,” “Lak of Stedfastnesse,” and “Gentilesse”) hope for something better. Why not this poem too? I read it as written in a voice unequal to its subject, a voice that cannot give up on human privileges (Nicola Masciandaro and Gillian Rudd have also read the poem’s voice suspiciously). I see the failure of the poem’s voice as indirectly asking us to do better, to try harder to get past the despair and sad domination of being human. Unlike the poetic voice, we readers, hoping better, can use this supposedly lost past to get at another future (infinite citations here, but Piotr Gwiazda’s Former Age article, which uses Ernst Bloch, is more than good enough).

Yet there’s another lesson. What would a life without human privileges look like? Without clear distinctions between subject and object, human and animal, nature and culture, vulnerability and breakability? One that took, say, the lessons of Vibrant Matter much further than Jane Bennett was willing to go, that allowed itself to know how enmeshed we are in everything (think Morton), that responded with the utmost sensivity to anything, as Hache and Latour might have us do?

Frankly, it would be kind of awful. These people don’t eat half enough (l. 11); their food is scarce and thin (l. 36); and “no doun of fetheres ne no bleched shete / was kid to hem, but in seurtee they slepte” (ll. 45-6): the but sets their safety against their discomfort. Choose one or the other. Here we see what it may mean to open moral consideration to all, to attempt to live without harm, without the certainty of any distinction between subject and object, human and animal, nature and culture, flesh and the earth. It is a world of hungry and vulnerable people, intermeshed with and sympathetic to all. There is a kind of hope here, then, but—or and—it may be a hope that erases the human altogether.(image from Bodleian Library, MS Douce 195, 59v, via here)