Man is the Pasture of Being: Interlude on the Old Man Himself

Martin Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” (composed 1946) was his first published work after the Nazi defeat. He arranged his  emergence into postwar philosophy and rehabilitation by squabbling with Sartre, with existentialism, and, presumably, with Marxism, portrayed here at least implicitly as too tangled up with particular beings. With ecocritics, the particular fame of Heidegger’s “Letter” rests on its declaring twice that “man is the shepherd of being” [“Der Mensch ist der Hirt des Seins”]. First, in a passage on the “thrown” destiny of humans, a quality preceding their ability to choose their particular relation to beings (briefly: humans are da-sein, distinct from their world, because they know, unlike animals and rocks, that the world will go on without us: this relation to death loads us with a particular responsibility to being). Second, in a similar passage on the “dignity” of the shepherd, “consist[ing] in being called by being itself into the preservation of being’s truth,” Heidegger asserts that “man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of beings” [“Der Mensch ist nicht der Herr des Seienden. Der Mensch ist der Hirt des Seins”].

Here’s what I suspect is a not atypical ecocritical engagement:

humans’ speech [evidence of our “thrownness”] serves the greater process of unconcealment and thereby provides an inclusive forum to express the interests of those unable to do so. Thus we can point to an “ecologos,” or a grammar of inclusivity, in which humans’ compassionate actions toward animals become idioms that express the interests of nonhuman species and thereby form the cornerstone of a “transhuman ethic”… By upholding the humility that allows humans to speak, they can become the voice for those creatures whose suffering otherwise would go unheard. The voice, however, speaks in favor of showing compassion toward animals. (112; see also Garrard (2004 ed) 31-32)

I’m more inclined to find fault with Heidegger. I’m not alone on this: see Žižek (10), Wolfe (40), Morton (58), and especially Tom Tyler – with whom I recently spent a delightful afternoon — who neatly observes “Heidegger’s characterisation of beings has them dutifully running to heel when he (Heidegger, Man) points and calls them out (they are perhaps as much like the obedient sheep dog as the placid sheep). Though this is no small thing, the problem with “man is the shepherd of being” is not simply Heidegger’s disengagement from any actually existing beings in favor of a supposedly unmarked “whatever being.” We know any ostensibly prepolitical stance can only pretend to universalism, like any universalism, leaving most beings unshepherded, forced to fend for themselves or worse (and here I can point you to Ernst Bloch, who had Heidegger’s number long before the appearance of the Black Notebooks) (and of course I know there can be no defense of particular beings without some philosophy of being, but: ontoethics needs to respond to some particular being, eventually, which means needing an analysis of particular power relations: just musing in the clearing of being and thinking oneself free of master codes won’t ever be enough).

The other problem is the simplicity of Heidegger’s opposition between being “Herr” (lord) and “Hirt” (shepherd). From a historical perspective, we know the hirt works for the herr and that the herr has no lordship without the hirt. From an animal studies perspective, we know that the hirt isn’t herding only from the kindness of his heart: mutton may be eaten contemplatively, parchment can be scraped and enscribed gloomily, although this will be only cold comfort for the sheep. From a literary studies perspective, we know too that the hirt is the herr’s fantasy of leisure (as in the pastoral); as a schafhirtin (shepherdess) or perhaps schaferknabe (shepherd’s boy), the hirt is the herr’s fantasy of seduction or rape. At best, Heidegger’s opposition of (bad) herr to (good) hirt pretends to be wholly innocent of the whole tradition of pastoral, and of the fantasies of soil, place, and authenticity it sustains, not only in fascist Germany. He’s just not in control of his metaphor.

The other other problem is the absence of (at least) the third term. There are a lot of ways to care for things. One way to be a shepherd. The other is to be food. Allow me, then, to propose the following emendation, risking my elementary German in public: Der Mensch ist nicht der Herr des Seienden. Der Mensch ist der Hirt des Seins. Aber Der Mensch ist auch das Futter des Seins. Oder Seienden [Man is not the Lord of Beings. Man is the Shepherd of Being. But Man is also the Pasture of Being. Or Beings]. To be a shepherd is to be outside (ex-isting, we might say) other beings; it is to be singular, even heroic, among a crowd, the fortunate if often witless recipients of our protection. But a shepherd also is a body, and that body, like others, is mortal. We may be able to protect others, but our protection has its limits. We can give ourselves up willingly to be food; we can wait until we die; but – barring embalming and cremation – we are going to be the fodder of someone else, regardless. Who that imagined “we” is, of course, is a historical effect, and must be understood as such: more on that, and what the Middle Ages might say about it, in a later post.

As a teaser, for now, consider the long-term project of artist (and, we should say, practical ethicist) Elaine Tin Nyo to turn herself into sausage. See the Meat and Mortality site at MOMA for a brief introduction, which is not more than I can find, as of now, about this cuisinocentric artist (for more, briefly, here). Still more here:

“I’m going to make something that starts out like a baby book, and turns into a cookbook,” said Tin Nyo with a slight trace of amusement while she described her “This Little Piggy” project. Over the next decade, she plans on “adopting” five pigs from different “ham centric” countries and documenting each of their lives from birth to the abattoir.

Elaine tends to crave pork while working with pigs for “This Little Piggy,” but she says vegetarians and vegans understand her artwork because it values the lives of animals prior to being sold at the grocery store.

“What’s important to me is maximizing an immediate experience rather than a remote experience, and food is very good that way,” she said.

Her final project will be morbid a morbid one. “I also want to write a will where I become a sausage.”

Here’s a sometimes vegetarian who doesn’t think the pigs necessarily appreciate being the subject of her art/foodwork, but who fully supports the self-into-sausage project: if she has herself fed to pigs at the end, all the better. Certainly her work with pigs goes further than the tedious “bad boy” pig tattoo project of Wim Delvoye, which, coupled with his Cloacal factory, forgets the life cycle of pigs, of flesh, and of self. By contrast, Elaine Tin Nyo’s work is feminist, engaged, responsible, vulnerable, and present to beings in ways neither Delvoye nor Heidegger would ever allow.

(thanks to the great Karen Raber for turning me on to to Tin Nyo’s work)

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.

‘By chance’ or ‘in itself’: Automatos and The Problem of Material Agency

Coney Island Fireworks

Cross-posted to In the Middle: comment there or at the fb.

Here’s a draft of my paper for the New Chaucer Society, which I’ll be giving on Friday July 18th 11am session on “Ecomaterialism: Questions/Problems/Ideologies.” I have all of five minutes. Not 100% confident in what follows, but, here goes.

This paper, a shortened and somewhat rethought version of a paper I gave at Kalamazoo2014, implicitly responds to criticism of the “faith,” “mysticism,” and even “panpsychism” of the new materialisms. Now, that charge may be fair, depending on who we’re looking at or what we’re looking for. Here, for example, is William Connolly on “creativity” in The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism:

Creative processes flow through and over us, and reflexivity doubles the creative adventure. Actions are thus not entirely controlled by preexisting intentions; rather the creative dimension helps to compose and refine intentions as they become consolidated in action. To articulate the creative dimension of freedom, then, is to insert a fundamental qualification or hesitation into the ideas of both the masterful agent and agency as the activation of intentions already there. The creative element is located somewhere between active and passive agency. When creative freedom is under way in an unsettled context we may find ourselves allowing or encouraging a new thought, desire, or strategy to crystallize out of the confusion and nest of proto-thoughts that precede it. An agent, individual or collective, can help to open the portals of creativity, but it cannot will that which is creative to come into being by intending the result before it arrives. Real creativity is thus tinged with uncertainty and mystery. (75)

I’m sympathetic to this. I get it, because it describes, especially, how writing works for me, and probably for you. Outline all you like, something new is going to happen when you’re trying to assemble your actual words. It does feel mysterious, but still, the language of “mystery” or of a “tinge” smacks of mysticism, at least for those who are sniffing it out.

My own hesitation, however, would be with the “proto-thought,” since that, catnip to the humanists, strikes me as just as mysterious, obscuring as it does the question of the location of thought or, especially, its presumptive non-materiality.

That is my angle, then: in the background of this piece, you might hear me throwing the “mysticism” charge back against the accusers, whose certainty in the difference between thinking human subjects/nonhuman objects strikes me as both an act of faith and an unwarranted limitation of their attention only to familiar scales of time and size.

Another caution: the 20-minute version at Kalamazoo had a lot of room for Aquinas and also, especially, to give queer theory its due in assailing the paternalism of an absolute split between agent and object. This paper, like the new materialisms in general, wouldn’t have been possible without Butler and Irigaray.

Here we go:


The word “agency” gets a lot of use from New Materialists; Jane Bennett talks about “material agency,” and Karen Barad about the “agential object.” A 9am session tomorrow will ask “Should We Believe in the Agential Object?” And so on. One of the key purposes in using this word “agency,” I think, is to counter the faith that humans, or maybe some animals, are the only agential objects. For the new materialists, nonhuman objects aren’t only mechanical; they might surprise; they might respond; to use Derrida’s terminology, they might even have an excessive “responsibility,” rather than just a limited, predictable reactivity; in short, they—and us too—might exhibit some kind of choice and creativity.

“Some kind,” which is, admittedly, a bit hand-wavey, but deliberately so, to mark the way that the word “agency” acknowledges that actors without obvious political power, without much obvious choice, without obvious importance, and even without deliberation or subjectivity, can still resist, fight back, or make something new. Where they might do something in ways that the dominant agent couldn’t have accounted for. Where we can recognize actors that we would otherwise not notice, to “provincialize the human” and its scales of attention.

Given the conference, of course I’m going to argue that medieval thought has something to offer these discussions. Which of course you already know. I’ll focus on something small: the difficulties Aristotle’s word “automatos” gave some his medieval Latin translators.

Aristotle uses automatos, among other places, in Metaphysics VII.7, where it’s one of his three categories of causation: natural, artistic—the word is techne—and automaton. Techne is a familiar kind of agency to the humanist: the “active principle” is in the “soul” of the artist. “Natural comings to be,” on the other hand, “are the comings to be of those things which come to be by nature.” The tight mechanicity of this obvious, almost hilarious circular reasoning may be why Aristotle provided for the third category of automatic causation.

Automatic causation appears when things are produced “without seeds,” like insects, which come spontaneously from mud or dung, or when things happen without deliberation or by accident. So we have at least two meanings of automaton here, both of which reserve an agency outside both human or quasi-human deliberation and outside the circular causality of nature.

In one meaning, automatic agency seems to be self-generated, like “natural things…whose matter can be moved even by itself.” This agency seems to come from nowhere because it originates in the thing itself—think for example of the auto in autobiography—so that agent and patient are the same thing. Alternately, automatic agency may be a kind of non-agential activity, with only patients and no agents, as when—to use Aristotle’s example—a patient gets healthy regardless of what the physician does.

Unsurprisingly, automatos troubled some of Aristotle’s medieval translators: Michael Scot and Roger Bacon render it as “per se” (cited from here, 134) through or by itself, and William of Moerbecke, at times, as “a casu,” by chance (here and HA, 130). Self-generated causation is an action whose cause cannot be disentangled from its effect. One analogue might be Anselm’s attempt in Cur Deus Homo to save God from being compelled by a motive (see note 1 here). For Anselm, “God does nothing of necessity,” not even to avoid dishonor, “since nothing whatever can coerce or restrain him in his action.” Here cause and effect form a neat little knot, immanent to and closed on itself.

By contrast, random causation, “a casu,” is a kind of atheistic but also nonmechanistic, nonsolipsistic account of agency. It might be as random as something that’s simply senseless, a thing that just happens. Just as well, random causation might preserve space for a surprise, the hap, the adventure arriving from some unidentifiable elsewhere. This is an agency means interrupting predictable causality to bring something new into being. It’s the agency that frees an origin from some already known end, or it’s an agency that piggy-backs on some deliberate intention.

This excessive or random causality may be the one way short of a divine fiat that agency can bring something new into being. More simply, it may be the only way agency can actually happen.

Thank you!

The Middle English Disputation between a Christian and a Jew: Materiality, or not.

Eric Corriel at Lumen 2014

Cross posted to In the Middle, where you can comment; or find us on Facebook.

Because the field’s so crowded, I’m reluctant to call the “Disputisoun bytwene a cristenmon and a jew” [Disputation between a Christian and a Jew, hereafter DCJ] one of the stranger Middle English poems; but it is a particularly weird one. Here’s a recent summary:

[DCJ tells] how an English and a Jewish theologian disputed in vain at Paris. The Christian argues the Virgin Birth and the redemption through Christ’s crucifixion and the Jew favors a God who has no son. In order to convince the Christian the Jew suggests he will prove the power of his religion by showing the Christian a vision of Christ on the cross. They travel to the Otherworld where the Christian proves the vision of the crucifixion to be a false one by confronting it with a consecrated host. The Jew admits the errors of his ways and converts to Christianity. At this point the Christian is identified as Sir Walter of Berwick, who was made a penitentiary by the pope.

Among these otherworld encounters are Arthur and his Round Table (!), a dinner with nuns, squires, and the recital of romances, and, finally, what turns out to be a fake crucifixion (a crucifiction?). [For another summary, see my comment to this 2008 blog post]

Luuk Houwen, whose summary I quote above, offers us one of the only articles on the DCJ, and, so far as I know, the only one published this century. I’m convinced by his argument, which is essentially an identification of its genre: the poem’s not a romance, but a religious vision, developed from one of the many exempla designed to prove the sanctity of the Eucharistic Host.

Houwen, however, doesn’t do much with the Jewishness of the disputant, and probably for good reason: Thomas of Cantimpré’s exemplum, a likely source, features a contest between a heretic and a Christian; in another analog, from a Life of St Wolfram, it’s pagans and a not-quite-yet Christian. The DCJ adds Arthur, the Nuns, and the other elements of what we might call a specifically British otherworld. But, apart from calling its figure of unbelief a Jew, it doesn’t explicitly add anything to the tradition that’s clearly about the Christian engagement with Judaism.

Still,some other differences from the analogs demand our attention. There’s the Jew’s similarity to Chaucer’s Clerk of Orleans, in the Franklin’s Tale, who similarly conjures up a chivalric entertainments:

he shewed hym, er he wente to sopeer,
Forestes, parkes ful of wilde deer;
Ther saugh he hertes with hir hornes hye,
The gretteste that evere were seyn with ye.
He saugh of hem an hondred slayn with houndes,
And somme with arwes blede of bittre woundes.
He saugh, whan voyded were thise wilde deer,
Thise fauconers upon a fair ryver,
That with hir haukes han the heron slayn.
tho saugh he knyghtes justyng in a playn;
And after this he dide hym swich plesaunce
That he hym shewed his lady on a daunce,
On which hymself he daunced, as hym thoughte.
And whan this maister that this magyk wroughte
Saugh it was tyme, he clapte his handes two,
And farewel! al oure revel was ago,
And yet remoeved they nevere out of the hous.

That’s certainly a connection worth developing, perhaps having to do with the relationship between preachers, sorcerers, and storytellers; here, though, I’ll just suggest that we put the poem in conversation with the medieval relationship between Jews and materiality, specifically, the way that medieval Christianity tended to insult Jews by associating them with materiality. For Christians, Jews were excessively literal, concerned only with brute facts and not with spiritual truths, stone-hearted, driven by instinct rather than choice, with bodies that were excessively corporeal: stinky, prone to bloody fluxes and–in the Siege of Jerusalem among others–dismemberment (see Steven Kruger’s The Spectral Jew and Suzanne Conklin Akbari’s Idols in the East).One of the goals of the new materialisms is, or should be, to drain the material insult of its force by, at once, recognizing the presumptively human/Christian/whatever as material too and the material as more agential or, at least, less foundational (“the ground of our discussion is” etc). More wobbly on the material side, less free on the human/etc side, with a serious reassessment of what we mean when we use the word “agency.” Things like that.

That’s important, but it’s harder to implement in this case. What’s strange in the DCJ is that the Jew isn’t obviously associated with materiality, but with illusion; it’s the Christian who wields the material object, the consecrated Host, that — like the clap of the Orleans’ Clerk–bursts the illusion apart, returning us to the world of dark, solid matter:

Whon he was schewed to the siht,
He barst þe Buyldynge so briht.
Bote was derk as the niht,
Heore sonne and heore mone.

If we just take the Jew as being made to stand in for the general unbeliever, that’s not a problem, except, of course, for the general fact of its prejudice. But if we take the Jew seriously as a Jew in a Christian poem then we need to work harder.

Host desecration stories with Jewish desecrators, like the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, which Houwen cites, or several exempla in British Library, Royal 18.B.23, feature a kind of profane belief in the material sanctity of the Host. The Jews obtain a Host, by theft or purchase or deception, and then mistreat it until the Host reveals its truth. A sample, since BL Royal 18.B.23 isn’t online. A Jew bets a Christian 20 pounds that his dog would eat a consecrated Host. The Christian accepts the bet, and then, by pretending to be sick, tricks a priest into slipping him the goods. When he extracts the uneaten Host from under his tongue and delivers it to the Jew, here’s what happens:

Þan [the Jew] toke þe Hoste, þat was in þe purs, and cast it a-fore þe dogge. And a-noon þe dogge fled and wold haue renne owte of þe hous. Þan þe Iewe cached hym a3eyn and chereshed hym, and euermore he drewe a-bake. Þan þe Iewe saw þat he wold not for no cherishynge take itt, þan he bette hym. And anone þe dogge fell downe on all iiij knees and did as he couthe reuerence to þe Sacramente. Þan þe Iewe was wode wrouthe and toke a staffe and bette þe dogge, and toke þe dogge in is armes and put hym þer-to. And þe dogge felte þat he wold haue mad hym to haue eten itt. And sothely he stirte vp to is þrote and voried hym.

Þan anoon þe Cristen man ranne to þe preeste þe wiche þat houseled hym, and told hym how it was and of þe dogge, suche an vnresonable beeste, how þat he did is dewe reuerence to Goddes bodie in þe forme of brede.

So be þis meracle þou may be stered to beleue þer-on in þat, þat an vnresonable beeste do dud, þat neuer had techynge of holychurche. (130)

This isn’t at all what happens in DCJ. Its Jew doesn’t have any particular belief either way in the Host. He doesn’t want to do things to it to prove that it’s mere material. He’s even, before its reveal, indifferent to it. Rather — and this proposal is probably where I’ll open discussion the next time I teach it — the Jew in the DCJ champions visible immateriality, and the Christian invisible materiality. The DCJ isn’t so much a dispute between materiality and its other (whether this is spirit, choice, free interpretation, immortal stability, &c) as it is between the falseness of visible things and the true materiality of invisible things. On the other side of (false) vision, we haven’t arrived exactly at the realm of spirit, but at the one, true materiality of the Real Presence.

The trick, which I’ll leave to my students, and to you, is to make this frankly rather dull reading more interesting.

[for more on/in the Vernon Manuscript, see here; and for a full TOC, here]

Two points: Digital Piers; Marsilius of Padua and the problem of “agency”

Ghada Amer at Cheim + Read


Two quick points:

ONE. First, if you’re a medievalist, particularly a digital humanities medievalist, and you’re not reading Angie Bennett Segler’s Material Piers blog, you’re making a terrible mistake.

Piers Plowman doesn’t get a lot of love around these parts. I’m not sure any of us here have ever taught it. For that reason, alone, you should be reading Material Piers. You know, to expiate our guilt. Or at least my guilt.

Here’s a sample:

At present, it’s relatively established that the Vernon [manuscript] cannot possibly  be dated to prior to 1395. Good, fine. No problem. That’s the fourteenth century. BUT, and for me this is a big “but,” the Vernon is SO MASSIVE that it seems pretty much insane to me to date it to any year.  The majority of the manuscript, along with its almost as large sister the Simeon, was copied by a single scribe!! A.I. Doyle estimates that even moving at his fastest he couldn’t have completed the pair of them in under  FOUR YEARS, and it may well have taken up to eight. On top of that, there is the lavish decoration scheme with borders, initials, gilding and two full cycles of miniatures. The idea that the manuscript was both started and completed in the fourteenth century borders on preposterous.

That, frankly, is why I prefer dating V to “ca. 1400.” Because the “circa” itself implies a possible range of time. And in the case of the Vernon, that range is incredibly important. But more than that, it acknowledges the imprecision in dating manuscripts altogether. “Ca. 1400″ allows us to think about the slipperiness of dating things belonging that far in the past and about the time it takes to hand-make a material-textual object, to bring it into being one folio, one line, one letter, one stroke at a time. So, unless a manuscript is clearly and definitively datable to a certain decade, I prefer to leave it with its ambiguous date.

And here’s a chart. which you can understand if you click through to the blog!

Why am I demanding that you read this Material Piers post in particular? Because it offers you the chance to do a bit of digital humanities work yourself. Read the post; lend a hand; and join me in swimming in a Piers-and-everything-else manuscript. I’ll be doing that myself this afternoon.

TWO. The various so-called “new” materialisms tend to use the word “agency” a lot without doing much to figure out what the word actually means. My second Kalamazoo2014 paper, on spontaneous generation and “automatic” agency, tried to get directly at the problem by arguing, ultimately, that only a random break with mechanical causality can be recognized as truly agential. My solution has the posthuman advantage of moving questions of agency away from rationality and anthropomorphism, thereby avoiding the implicit humanizing at the center of many discussions of agency. It also has the dubious — and predictable — advantage of discovering an aporia at the agency’s heart.

All this is by way of setting up a passage from Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor Pacis:

This term “ownership” is used to refer to the human will or freedom in itself with its organic executive or motive power unimpeded. For it is through these that we are capable of certain acts and their opposites. It is for this reason too that man alone among the animals is said to have ownership or control of his acts; this control belongs to him by nature, it is not acquired through an act of will or choice. (II.12.16, p. 193)

Adhuc dicitur nomen dominii de humana voluntate seu libertate secundum se, cum ipsius executiva seu motiva organica potestate non impedita. Hiis enim possumus in actus aliquos et ipsorum oppositos. Propter quod eciam dicitur homo inter animalium cetera suorum actuum habere dominium; quod siquidem a natura inest homini, non voluntarie seu eleccione quesitum. (MGH 271)

The origin of human agency (“ownership of control of his acts”) isn’t human agency itself. Rather, it’s inherent to humans, unchosen. Agency itself therefore is free from human choice at its root. Still, it’s determined, somehow, by “nature.” If the power of choice is instinctual, then it’s hard to imagine that humans have “complete freedom” (“libertas,” I think). This problem of the origin of agency is a problem, especially, for Marsilius, as he’s well-known for arguing that “the supreme power resides in the body of the citizens [and not the Church], who make the laws, and choose the form of government, etc [and that t]he prince rules by the authority of the whole body of citizens“: what is the origin of the people’s will?

But the problem is also general to agency and to human agency especially, perhaps the paragon and model of agency in any discussion of the term. The problem of agency intersects with a host of other problems, of materialism, humanism, racism, and indeed the history of antisemitism.1 It’s a problem whether we’re talking about rats or stones or garbage or the tedious Pauline differentiation between Christian spiritual reading and Jewish literal reading or, for that matter, the whole spirit versus matter binary that’s inherent to all considerations of agency. For any of these, the power of agency simply doesn’t seem to be reducible to any first cause. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be agency but rather the beginning of another mechanical chain.

In short, any clear claim to agency strikes me as unwarranted. And the same goes for any scorn of materialisms or posthumanisms because their “discovery” of agency in nonhuman objects.

It’s obviously ironic that I should end up so automatically in an identifiably deconstructive aporia. I’m very much back in Derrida’s critique of the “auto” of autobiography in, for example, The Animal that Therefore I am, where he does his Derridean thing with the “ipseity, indeed sui-referential egoity, auto-affection and automotion, autokinesis, [and] autonomy” (65) of the presumptive presence of the self-generated automatic I, and with the pretense of “auto-motricity, a spontaneity that is capable of movement, of organizing itself and affecting itself, marking, tracing, and affecting itself with traces of its self” (49). You can imagine what happens to agency when Derrida finishes with it.

Maybe commentators can suggest another way forward?

1 Or, for that matter, colonialism and its various justifications. See this new post from Corey Robin, on the dangers of presidential boredom, where he recalls Tocqueville’s enthusiasm for the Opium War: “So at last the mobility of Europe has come to grips with Chinese immobility!”

Initial Thoughts on Graham Harman on Lovecraft


I’m told I’m 31% finished with Graham Harman’s Weird Realism. As a dabbler in speculative realism, and, especially, as an old-time Lovecraft fan forced by critical winds to revive his interest, I’m obligated to read it. But, as with any writing about Lovecraft, I suspect special pleading, and I cringe at the whiff of adolescent habits gone sour with the keeping.

And then there’s this, “No other figure in world literature is able to make such outbursts work so effectively,” a sentence that can be understood only as meaning I’m very deep into a shared culture. And, you know, guys read Lovecraft, and especially guys of a certain type. So there’s that. See also Americans certain that their TV is the “best TV ever.” That their preferred sport culminates in something called “the world series.” That superhero comic books matter (or, heck, that medieval superhero ‘comic books’ matter too, if I want to turn this back on myself). This  point, then, isn’t about absolute quality, but about the intensity of our interests, or about how our interests eclipse other things, or, more grimly, about the parochial dangers of not getting out into the wilds where you don’t know enough to crown anything as the best thing ever.

That said, I’m getting a lot from his care in reading Heidegger and Husserl and Lovecraft together. What Harman knows how to do he does very well. Harman’s reading of Heidegger has always been perfectly clear, while Husserl is much, much harder to understand. So, thanks to Harman: I now get it when he points out that Heidegger gives us a model of space, and Husserl one of time. And I now have a better of sense of the sensual unity of, for example, the dog or the gibbering goat god, and the various qualities of the dog or ggg as it moves along through our perception.

And I love his exercise in literal writing to make things worse. It’s hilarious (and an important illustration of his point that reality is not made up of perfectly translatable, i.e., reducible propositions; but it’s also hilarious). For example, imagine someone summarizing Seamus Heaney’s “Bogland” as “Ireland’s wet and squishy.”

Here’s Harman’s first big example, on Nietzsche’s comment about Shakespeare, “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon!”, Harman imagines a boring literalizer who goes on,

“What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! For although we might expect the contents of Shakespeare’s writing to be a direct reflection of his personality, modern psychology teaches the contrary lesson. For in fact, what people write if often the opposite of what they are feeling inside. In Shakespeare’s case, the clowning in his comedies may actually be an effort to counterbalance painful personal experience with an outward show of good cheer.”

Then he adds: “Along with the bore just described, we can add other personae capable of leading Nietzsche’s remark into ruin:

  • The Simpleton: “How happy Shakespeare must have been that he played the buffoon so often!” (Here the twist of paradox is destroyed in favor of a facile correspondence between an author’s life and work.)
  • The Judgmental Resenter: “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! And I must say I find it a bit pathetic that Shakespeare is so needy and always clowns around to try to make us like him.” (Nietzsche’s cool distance and non-judgmental appreciation of human pathos is extinguished in a cesspool of private bitterness.)
  • The Waffler: “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! At least I’m pretty sure about that. The other possibility is that he was actually happy. I could go either way on this one.” (Here we lose Nietzsche’s gallant decisiveness.)
  • The Self-Absorbed: “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! But I’m not like that at all. Personally, I take a balanced approach to life and don’t feel the need to overcompensate.” (Nietzsche’s vigorous interest in the outer world gives way to petty Main Street narcissism.)
  • The Down-Home Cornball: “Whenever he has those comical scenes, I ain’t fooled. I know Ole Billy’s got something stickin’ in his craw!” (Here we completely lose the aristocratic elegance of Nietzsche’s style).
  • The Clutterer: “What people like Shakespeare, Molière, Aristophanes, Plautus, Menander, Juvenal, Rabelais, and Brecht must have suffered to have such need of being buffoons!” (No longer is Shakespeare addressed as one solitary figure by another. Instead, we have a confusing general proposition about a long list of comic authors.)
  • The Pedant: “Shakespeare’s plays exhibit instantiations of a ludic affect that, as it were, bespeak an inversion of his ‘true’ state of mind. Much work has been done in this area, but a full consideration lies beyond the scope of this essay. See Johnson 1994, Miner and Shaltgroverr et al., 1997.” (This character combines aspects of the Waffler and the original Literalizing Bore.)

Touché. Guaranteed, this exercise will appear this semester’s English Composition class.

Finally, for today, because DEADLINES: in his discussion of “The Call of Cthulhu,” Harman laughs about Lovecraft’s comic touches: a Providence scholar seeking out a “mineralogist of note” in, of all places, Paterson, New Jersey; the absolutely ludicrous stereotype of the “excitable Spaniard”; and how no one could honestly find “African voodoo” frightening in itself.

Here’s a sad case where we need a historical reading. It’s not just that Harman arbitrarily swings between what Lovecraft might have been intending (“Paterson, New Jersey, a fairly arbitrary choice of location that must have made Lovecraft chuckle”) and our own response (“Most of us do not live in fear of African voodoo circles, or think of them in anything more than anthropological terms”) depending on what interpretation he’s promoting at any given moment. It’s that Weird Tales published “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1928. To my knowledge, Paterson was a thriving industrial town in the 1920s, and seeking out practical, scientific help there would be no more silly than looking for it in Detroit in the 1950s. It would have made more sense, in fact, given Paterson’s important connections to New Jersey’s then thriving mineral industry (see also Franklin, NJ). Harman just didn’t bother to track things down.

The excitable Spaniard is of course a symptom of Lovecraft’s pretentious Anglophilia (which he sends up most effectively in my favorite Lovecraft, always a feature in my lit theory courses to illustrate Bhabha, viz., “He.”)

As for the fear of “African voodoo”: well, this is a late witness, and all the more effective a counterargument for that. I remember a Sunday evening debate about the dangers of rock and roll in my parents’ church back in the … well, let’s just say that I had tickets for Love and Rocket’s “Earth, Sun, Moon” show in Seattle, and I didn’t want to have that wrecked. One old man, though, was sure rock and roll was of the devil because of the African drums. I quote. So.

And Harman writes of Lovecraft’s line about “New York policemen…mobbed by hysterical Levantines on the night of March 22-23,” that “However blameworthy as a sample of Orientalism, Lovecraft’s reference to a mob of hysterical Levantines is genuinely frightening, presumably even for readers from present-day Lebanon and Syria.” Maybe. But I think “New York Levantines,” especially coming from Lovecraft, can only mean not “New York Syrians” or “Turks,” for example, but rather “New York Jews,” and while March 22-23 isn’t Purim in 1928, 27, or 26, it’s not far off, either. So, also: so.

There’s more to be said here about the dangers of a shared culture.

Surely no world philosophy is better suited to talk about this than object-oriented ontology.

Kobayashi’s Harakiri – the sword’s reason / the samurai’s irrationality


The last few nights’ film was Kobayashi’s Harakiri, and perhaps you shouldn’t read further (or click through to that Wikipedia link) if you don’t want spoilers.

Here’s our early 17th-century ronin, Tsugumo Hanshirō, and behind him, the body of his son-in-law, Chijiiwa Motome. Desperate to raise money to get a doctor for his wife and infant son, Motome had asked a feudal lord for permission to commit harakiri in his courtyard, hoping the lord would instead have paid him just to go away. No such luck: pour encourager les autres, the lord insists Motome go through with it, even after discovering that Motome has nothing left to kill himself with but a pair of bamboo swords. He dies horribly (imagine disemboweling yourself with a chopstick), and a fever will kill his wife and child a few days later.

In the gif, Hanshirō’s wishing he had sold his own swords. He had never imagined it could be possible. Why?

Not because of his merely human limitations, and not because he had lost his humanity and his freedom. That’s too easy. Instead:

With any system, any seemingly irrational action can point us, not towards the fundamental irrationality of everything, whether human motivation or the extra-human world, but rather towards another reason for which humans–for example–are being made to act. We have tended to be, as Levi Bryant observes:
“fascinated with the question of whether there’s nonhuman intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. But we’ve already encountered it here on Earth. It goes by names like ‘corporation,’ ‘government,’ ‘institution,’ etc. The terrifying thing is that these beings have very different aims than our own.”
Even if the aims are only not quite harmonious with ours, we should feel, if not terror, than at least disequilibrium, a loosening of the certainties that would either defend the lonely uniqueness of human agency or reduce everything to mechanical effects. At least, through “a touch of anthropomorphism” (99), we can recognize that there are other reasons that use us, themselves shot through with unreason, and, through this recognition abandon the arrogance of assuming that we are the only rational game in town, or that if we are irrational, the nothing else is.

I take this from an essay that will appear in the first, giant issue of Ozone.

Now, the humanist temptation would be to take Hanshirō’s swords as just a Lacanian quilting point holding a human system together.

Ideological space is made of non-bound, non-tied elements, ‘floating signifiers’, whose very identity is ‘open’, overdetermined by their articulation in a chain with other elements – that is, their ‘literal’ signification depends on their metaphorical surplus-signification. Ecologism, for example: its connection with other ideological elements is not determined in advance; one can be a state-orientated ecologist (if one believes that only the intervention of a strong state can save us from catastrophe), a socialist ecologist (if one locates the source of merciless exploitation of nature in the capitalist system), a conservative ecologist [if one preaches that man must again become deeply rooted in his native soil), and so on; feminism can be socialist, apolitical; even racism could be elitist or populist… The ‘quilting’ performs the totalization by means of which this free floating of ideological elements is halted, fixed — that is to say by means of which they become parts of the structured network of meaning. (95-96)

The quilting point, the sword, is the “honor” or “soul” (terms the film itself uses) that holds together the whole samurai system, even while the film attacks the system as a “farce” (its term). Like any quilting point, the sword means nothing in itself. It’s an empty signifier, and all-powerful because of this emptiness.

The question is who put it there? And who can pull it out? Not humans, not alone.

The system of this certain machine will end up looking like this because of system’s own logic. Having a sword means having honor, which means inventing a soul and calling it honor. It means knowing the sword as at once materialized effect of that honor and yourself as incarnated effect (and even incarnated affect) of that sword.

Anyone who’s seen the film knows how it ends, and what the looming suit of Red Armor means in this logic. Its reason is horrendous, anxious, desperate to sustain itself, and full of love for those who defend it. Like any other reason. And by existing at all, though empty, it produces a world of its own making through its human tools. As he dies, Hanshirō is exactly right to attack the armor: he knows what the true enemy is.

For more on this, then, think of the inevitability of the NSA’s reach (to defend our liberty! with the constitution as the empty master signifier), or how owning a gun compels its use, on whatever target. Think of the logical failure of any film in which hackers destroy a surveillance state, because we have to know that the tools will make the same surveillance world again. Or, more obviously, think of any heroic gunslinger hunting the bad guys to end their (gun) violence.

In all of this, there’s a reason at work, originated by us perhaps, but far bigger than we could ever be. These systems are our cathedrals, existing on a scale of time and space we could hardly have imagined when we first built them, we thought, for our use.

“But what does that have to do with us birds?”


My CUNY colleague Brian Thill (Bronx Community College, CUNY) just published an extraordinary essay at The Atlantic called “Fake Birds on Film: The nature of unspecial effects, an Object Lesson.” In any given Hollywood film, you’re likely to spot computer-generated birds, and just as likely, you’ll find that they’re being used to set off the enormous scale of some enormous chunk of human or alien or wizard architecture. Why are they there, and why do we tend to see them at a distance? It’s not just that putting them in the foreground would be more difficult or expensive (perhaps costing even “one million dollars“). It’s also this:

Fake birds are important for their collective energy and motion, as objects meant to possess a vague kind of dynamic, living, animal presence, but they’re entirely unimportant in any close-up or individualized sense. It’s not the individual creature that has any standing or value, but the notion of the flock, of “Nature,” as set-dressing in cackling, aggregate form: philosophically unimportant as fellow living things, but cinematically (aesthetically) essential in the frame, functioning in much the same way that filmed images of clouds and rolling waves are supposed to. They’re shorthand for an emaciated natural world, a minor nature, beautifully and even lovingly rendered, but always subordinated to the comings and goings of man, the living object who matters.

Denatured birds are a perfect cinematic trope for an age that chiefly comprehends the non-human world as a site of throwaway resource extraction, while also romanticizing it with cheap spectacle. On one level, their background presence in the scene seems natural and lends the semblance of a casual authenticity or verisimilitude to the scene, without being obvious or intrusive about it (seriously, how many of us would ordinarily even register their presence, much less dwell on it?). But this presence is framed in an unthinking and reactionary way that reinforces an actual indifference toward and lack of interest in any genuine relationship with the non-human natural world. The world is ultimately just an inconvenient obstacle to stories of humankind’s travails.

An aside before I go on: Thill also goes on to talk about birds striking windows. One easy way to prevent this: Collidescape window coating. You’re welcome.

Thill’s piece reminded me of a never-written paper I’d worked out years ago in conversation with Martin Foys. It was to be on the birds of the Bayeux “tapestry” (really an embroidery, an important correction for feminist, and not merely pedantic, reasons: see 86-87 here).

The “Tapestry” is thick with nonhuman animals. Several do what they do just for humans, either for practical or symbolic reasons. Very early on, we have a hunt; when warriors dine, they dine on meat; when they ride, they ride horses; and many of the animals in the upper and lower registers illustrate fables. Only sheer interpretative cussedness would let us say these animals don’t figure anything.

But the many other marginal animals, human and otherwise, for example, here, shouldn’t lead us so easily into the interpretative temptation.


Humanities academics tend assume that what we read has to make some kind of sense, which means it has to be for us in some way (for a brief treatment, see the discussion of what we could call the “promise of intelligibility” from here, 27). Following that assumption would give us the Embroidery’s animals, to recall Thill, as “always subordinated to the comings and goings of man, the living object who matters.”

And following similar assumptions, as medievalists in particular, would lead us just to historicize the animals, most of whom are birds. We might ask whether the birds were embroidered from living models or just copied from other art? We now know the answer, more or less, and we know something similar about the horses too. This is satisfying work. People like answers.

We can also look to relevant historiography for more birds. For example, from the Song of the Battle of Hastings (Carmen de Hastingae Proelio), dated to 1067:

O what uproar suddenly arose from that place, as seamen sought their oars and knights their weapons. Thence, sounding and resounding, a thousand trumpets blared different calls.  … drums filled the air with the bellowings of bulls.  … The earth shook, heaven quivered, and the stunned sea lay wonder-stricken. The beasts fled, and the birds and fish as well [Quadrupedes fugiunt, piscis auisque simul, l. 95], for indeed a hundred and fifty thousand conflicting voices struck the firmament. (translation quoted from here, 79, Richard Brilliant, “Making Sounds Visible in the Bayeux Tapestry)

Or, for more swarming birds, from Rollo’s prophetic dream of political unity in the Deeds of the Dukes of Normandy (Gesta Normannorum Ducum), “While he was still on the top of the mountain, he also saw its foot surrounded by thousands of birds of different kinds and colours. Their left wings, however, were red all over, and they spread out so far and wide that his eyes, however clear and sharply focused, could not see the end of the flock” (translation quoted from here, 147, Dan Terkla, “From Hasting to Hastings and Beyond: Inexorable Inevitability on the Bayeux Tapestry”).

All these historical birds are for humans. They might as well be flying around something CGI’d and majestic.

But almost as an aside, Gale R. Owen-Crocker’s “Squawk talk: Commentary by birds in the Bayeux Tapestry?” offers us another way. She does all the expected interpretative stuff–and there’s nothing wrong with that–but then balks, happily, when she considers the birds roosting on the roof of Westminster Abbey here (upper left hand corner):


“Birds of ill-omen?” suggests one writer (180). Or, as Owen-Crocker proposes:

The Abbey is the most splendid building in the Tapestry, blessed by the hand of God; but to birds it is merely a habitat. The birds’ irreverence for what humans hold most sacred is amusing….In this respect they are the most immediate audience of the main frame of the Tapestry. They variously express curiosity, horror, fear, admiration, imitation and indifference to achievements, and they sometimes diverge from the serious business with a witticism or an idiosyncratic reaction.

Indifference! I like that. The temptation now would be to don our gloomy robes of Heideggerian reverence, like this:

Just as it is a part of our unshieldedness that the familiar things fade away under the predominance of objectness, so also our nature’s safety demands the rescue of things from mere objectness. The rescue consists in this, that things, within the widest orbit of the whole draft, can be at rest within themselves, which means that they can rest without restriction within one another. Indeed, it may well be that the turning of our unshieldedness into worldly existence within the world’s inner space must begin with this, that we turn the transient and therefore preliminary character of object-things away from the inner and invisible region of the merely producing consciousness and toward the true interior of the heart’s space, and there allow it to rise invisibly. (“What are Poets For,” 127)

Do that, and we go slack before what we insist must be mystery. It’s certainly better than assuming that all the animals are just decorative, and probably something to be remembered by anyone who’s merrily solving interpretative puzzles.

But the world in all its fluctuating variety isn’t a church. The mystery isn’t that there’s some invisible true interior, but rather that things are up to their own business. and they probably don’t know what they do better than we do. After all, they, like us, comprise a lot of other things, all themselves up to their own business, and they probably don’t know &c.

So, a fully secular world is one with many, many worlds. And some are only for the birds.

The birds, indifferent, do their avian thing on a wholly difference scale than ours, with a wholly different set of interests. So far as they’re concerned, we and the stuff we build are for them. If they could thank us for the cathedral, they probably wouldn’t. They’re as ungrateful for us as we are for them.

If they serve any purpose at all, the many animals of the Tapestry that have nothing to do with its history function as a kind of memento vivere. They remind us of how much is going on here that has nothing to do with us. Again, if they have a purpose at all, it’s to take down the central register’s pretensions. It thinks it’s showing us a world-shattering event. And it is, for people.

But if we get over ourselves a bit, we might hear cawed out, “Sure, William’s now King of England. But what does that have to do with us?”

Agency and the Nonhuman, or, How we Teach Literature

Realized just now: students love to talk about character motivation (“I bet Palemon was really happy that Arcite died. I know I would have been.”) or, once they learn a bit more, authorial intent (“Chaucer must have been a subversive, going after Theseus like that”). I always tell them: don’t worry about motivation, and if you worry about authorial intent, consider that just one of many intentions driving the text. If you do want to talk character and motivation and intent, talk about what the text wants. Read it carefully. Stick close to it. And then talk about the text as character, the text as motivated, the text’s intentions. And then talk about how they go awry.

This is just basic college literature teaching, and has been for ages now. Which means that college literature teaching has implicitly preferred a nonhuman account of agency since long before the new materialists took over.

Everything old is new again.

Finishing the Universe Halfway: On Reading Barad


Last Winter, Michael O’Rourke asked me to contribute to a Rhizomes special issue on Karen Barad (list of contributors here). I hesitated for weeks, worried about whether I’d actually be able to do it well. Since my math peaked at pre-Calculus, anything I write about quantum physics is bound to be embarrassing, and the field attracts so many cranks. Given my training, how could I possibly not end up among them? Well, I did it, anyway, and beat the deadline by 24 hours by submitting the essay yesterday. I can only hope I don’t merit a spot on the crank bench next to the Time Cube.

I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the Quantum Medievalists and Sundry Associates, a group organized by Angie Bennett Segler, an NYU grad student doing really extraordinary Digital Humanities work on Piers Plowman. With regular members Shyama Rajendran, Ada Smailbegovic, Ashby Kinch, and especially Brandon Jones and Sandra Danilovic, we made our way, week-by-week, through the 500-odd pages of Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, meeting via a Google Hangout every Wednesday to work out and in our confusion, hesitation, and enthusiasm. There were charts; there was math; there were internet outages; but we endured and we read the whole thing. We finished today, with 3 participants in various locations in New York, 1 in Illinois (?), and another in sunny Macedonia, on a street full of ironic (?) neo-Classical architecture.

Here’s today’s result (and a complete set here, on Angie’s own page):

Though Barad remains undercited by the object-oriented ontologists, quantum mechanics is already being successfully colonized (?) engaged with (?) by the new materialists, especially by Stacy Alaimo’s Bodily Natures, Vicki Kirby’s Quantum Anthropologies, and most recently, by Timothy Morton. Žižek’s Less Than Nothing gets it on the action, too, with its own chapter devoted to Bohr and Barad.

It’s no wonder: any thoroughgoing disanthropocentric materialist has to rethink terms like nature, identity, cause, effect, representation, and agency, and the weird temporality of quantum mechanics offers ample rewards to narrative theorists, as we discuss in the video above.

At the same time, I titled my Rhizomes essay “Is a Quantum Mechanics Literary Studies Possible or Desirable?” I’m just not entirely convinced. It’s not that I doubt the truth of Barad or the Bohrian quantum mechanics she champions, but rather that I remain very cautious about its use to people like me. Let’s just say that postmedieval gave me some useful hesitation.

Here follows a preview of my essay’s conclusion:

The quantum phenomena Barad describes are virtually imperceptible on the scale at which a specifically literary scholarship operate and for the kinds of materials we investigate. Bohr observed that if the discontinuity of reality caused by Planck’s constant had been larger, humans would never have thought they lived in a “classical” world (MUH 457 n42). Planck’s constant is what it is though, and humanities scholars, for the most part, do not feel themselves to be moving instantaneously across the absolute minimum of gaps with quantum leaps. The same problem applies to relativity: at typical human speeds, we get along fine with believing space and time to be constants. The humanities can (at least) generally operate with a “good-enough” picture of reality, because modern physics’ precision far exceeds our needs. The best humanities teaching occurs at a relatively slow and imprecise level, pace the
claims of promoters of MOOCs, and the apparatuses of literary investigation do not isolate the materials of our investigation with sufficient precision to discern or determine quantum effects. As Barad herself writes:

quantum behavior is difficult to observe because of the difficulty of shielding an object, especially a relatively large object, from interactions with its “environment,” which continually fluctuates in an erratic fashion in such a way that a superposition is “randomized” into a mixture “for all practical purposes
(but not in principle)….one has to know how to identify an entanglement (e.g., where to look for correlations and how to measure them), and generally speaking, this is far from evident. (MUH 279)

It is extremely difficult, but increasingly not impossible, to observe quantum effects on a macroscopic scale (MUH 279; but see this), which is to say, on a more or less unassisted human sensory scale, or even just to observe multiple entangled particles, since every additional pair of entangled particles increases the complexity of the phenomena exponentially (for example, see here). It is hard to imagine these difficulties being overcome in a library, and even harder—though perhaps not impossible—to imagine the value of doing so.

In short, although I would prefer to be wrong about this, both the fundamental indeterminacy of reality and the generativity of knowledge will probably matter for literary criticism only either analogically, or to keep us from reductionist or relativistic errors, or will matter only by helping us develop more complex and correct accounts of agency, as Barad does in her analysis of the Calcuttan jute mill (MUH 24, 74, 44, and 94). Barad herself wrote an article whose noncontinuous structure, entangling Hamlet’s Denmark with the Denmark of Bohr and Heisenberg and with Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, aimed “to provide the reader with an opportunity to engage in an imaginative journey that is akin to how electrons experience the world” (244). Barad’s fascinating formal experiment sought to overturn the “overarching sense[s] of temporality, of continuity, in place” that would let us believe in our clear difference from what we study and our sense of historical progression that puts our objects of study only in the past and us in the present. The article’s structure is, however, a model or analog, inspired by quantum physics, but not an actual experience of entanglement or indeterminacy. To be still more specific: even if we were to isolate indeterminate complementary variables within the phenomena constituting book and scholar, our epistemological interaction with the literal material of a book will not do much to it that would affect our experience of the whole complex constituting it as book. And even if we did join ourselves with an apparatus capable of being marked by the literal material of some particular book in a way we could account for objectively, it would likely not matter much for our interpretation of its text.

That said, we could and should always extend our notion of the proper object of textual studies, and that said, when we make ontological claims, or claims about agency, or the character of time, as any scholar in the poshumanities must and as most humanities scholars do implicitly, we should have Barad in mind, at minimum to keep us from mistakes about the fundamental operations of reality. This is obviously no small matter. Having read the new materialists, we can no longer be sure about the fixity of the distinction between subject and object, with all the relations of dominion that implies, nor can we be sure that ethics requires self-awareness, whatever that is. We must abandon the world picture of classical physics, with its comforting assurances of our subjective separability from the world and our persistence in it (or even out of it!). We have arrived at this stage through Ian Bogost, Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton, and a thickening crowd of other thinkers, many included in this issue of Rhizomes. Barad needs to be read with the other new materialists, because her particular training gives ontologists “empirical support” for their systems, as Morton observes about quantum mechanics and object-oriented ontology,1 and, more importantly, because Barad gives us the best currently available description of reality.

The question is whether we can make any use of it. Literature scholars, and perhaps not only us,2 may be able to continue to get by without anything near the precision of quantum mechanics and still do our work as well as it could possibly be done. And, at the risk of reopening the rift between the sciences and the humanities, the kinds of accuracy required to describe the ongoing entanglement of matter in all its permutations may not have much to do with the kinds of accuracy we seek in the arts.

1. Timothy Morton, “OOO and Quantum Theory,” Ecology Without Nature, July 27, 2013. Also see Nature’s Queer Performativity,” 144, on “giv[ing] deconstruction empirical traction,” and Quantum Entanglements,” 260, on “empirical evidence for hauntology.”

2. Biologists, for example, though not able to take advantage of quantum mechanics in any obvious way, have started to use it to understand photosynthesis and avian navigation, among other biological processes: Philip Ball, Physics of Life: The Dawn of Quantum Biology,” Nature 474 (2011): 272–274.