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

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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.

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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):

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“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?”

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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

by KARL STEEL

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.

Valerie Hegarty Alternative Histories, at the Brooklyn Museum

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Valerie Hegarty’s Alternative Histories installation in the Brooklyn Museum’s period rooms are, as she says, a kind of return of the repressed.

This return is particularly true for the crows feasting on the table of the plantation house. Though you might be reminded of Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana or Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s La última cena (The Last Supper), you’re probably less likely to be reminded of Greta Alfaro’s In Ictu Oculi [“In the Blink of an Eye,” roughly], which I saw at the Conciergerie last year during their “Bêtes-off” show.

In Ictu Oculi, 2009 from Greta Alfaro on Vimeo.

Like Hegarty, Alfaro attacks the distinction between dining and scavenging, living off the fruits of one’s own labors and living off others, working and gleaning, host and parasite, and a host of other hierarchical binaries that support human and other differences. For more on this, see my essay “Everything is Food,” published here.

Apart from the obvious political points, Hegarty also attacks art’s presentation of surface as stable and fixed. Tables are shot through with holes. Paintings melt and droop. Crockery breaks. Animal eaters invade. The skin of the pieces will fall.

Anything that pretends to have a smooth surface is always coming to be and passing away. At some point, changes become wounds, and wounds become death, on whatever scale, at whatever speed.

Hegarty and Alfaro remind us of what we all will give the crows and vultures, and what they themselves are always giving to other eaters.

Matter is Information: On Gene Patents, cDNA, and Spontaneous Generation

by KARL STEEL

Like others, I’ve been trying to get my head around the recent Duns SCOTUS1 ruling on patentable genes. Here’s Tim Morton, and here’s me earlier today, where I observe that the “SCOTUS ruling on non-patentable genes relies on precritical distinction between matter and information.” I was led to this by the payoff paragraph in Jeff Guo article at The New Republic:

saying that cDNA is patentable but natural DNA isn’t misunderstands the central complaint about gene patents, which is that genes are basically information, and information can’t be patented. The body has its own code, it’s a natural code, and the body naturally manipuates [sic] that code, making copies, edits and deletions all on its own. Genetics is data. The provenance of the molecules that carry that data, whether they are DNA or RNA, whether the DNA version exists naturally or the RNA version exists naturally, is completely irrelevant.

My emphasis. As one says, read the whole thing. It won’t take long.

I’ve been stewing on the indistinction between structure and information on the level of RNA and DNA (for example) at least since April in Tuscaloosa. In some typical ways of thinking things, matter without spirit is inert; and matter needs spirit to inform it. Spirit is information, in other words. The informing makes you you, for example, distinguishing your mere stuff from my mere stuff. In genealogy, this informing is what’s passed down from one generation to the next. This is familial information, whether we call this the paternal name or the genetic code.

But if information can’t be distinguished from material structure, then we have the tools for a radically nonspiritual, nonpaternal, and nonvital conceptualization of objects in general, living things included. Individuation now isn’t something that happens through the application of spirit, or vitality, or writing, or code to matter. It happens with matter itself, through its organization within a roiling field of other matter, in which a perfect description of the information particularizing a particular piece of matter would be nothing less than an exact copy of that piece of matter, and possibly of the larger constantly shifting spatiotemporal order of matter that made that particularization possible.

This is all highly abstract. It could help if I share some of the material from my Tuscaloosa talk that never found its way onto the blog in this form.

Normal life proceeds by what medieval writers called generatio univoca, generation from a single source, cause, or even voice: an ultimately transcendent divine motion. What we call spontaneous generation the medievals tended to call generatio equivoca, generation from an ambiguous source, or without the hierarchy of some singular outside cause.

An example: Aristotle speaks of some insects “not derived from living parentage, but…generated spontaneously: some out of dew falling on leaves…others grow in decaying mud or dung; others in timber, green or dry; some in the hair of animals; some in the flesh of animals; some in excrements: and some from excrement after it has been voided, and some from excrement yet within the living animal.”

This is unpaternal life, without, as Aquinas said, any “aspect of generation and sonship.” Paternal life transmits information. This information is its lineage or history, which, however inherent it may be to matter, can be separated or abstracted from it as a transmitted or chartable code. We might think of this code as the spiritual principle. Spontaneous generation by contrast springs into swarming life from itself, without any sexual intermediary, without parental transmission, without a singular cause or singular voice, without a quality that can be separated from its temporary affiliations. Its noise is its matter is its motion is its life, all together. This is a life without separable history, without the controlling line of fatherhood, without information or coding, without distinction from its momentary configurations, and without divisions of passive matter from an active principle that gives matter form, and thus outside Aristotelian gendered conceptions of feminine passivity2 and masculine activity.

And later on:

The campaign against [spontaneous generation] has to be understood as something other than that of a modern split from medieval habits, and something other than a war against the persistence of the medieval in the modern. Because we know that life at its origin is abiogenetic, unlife acting upon itself and springing into life. This point was one Darwin himself was making not long before Pasteur was celebrating his victory over Pouchet.

Thus, although we might think of modern origin of life research and the new materialisms as a kind of return of medieval fecund materiality, we should think things otherwise than a line between medieval and modern, superstition and science, not least of all because there’s no one medieval attitude about matter. We might draw the line better not between historical eras but between kinds of grammar, per Nietzsche’s famous critique of “the metaphysics of language,” which, he argues, persists in differentiating between a “doer and doing” and asserting some “will as the cause,” or, more simply, classifying things into clear subjects and predicates, between a matter that needs something or someone to make it happen, and matter whose operations cannot be neatly sorted into effect and external cause, object and external subject.. You know how Nietzsche’s famous critique ends: “I am afraid that we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”

Life, or matter, is in its origin ungrammatical, a point I insist on even as I accept some of triumphalist narratives of spontaneous generation’s defeat. I’ll emphasize that I don’t want to obscure the differences between spontaneous generation and origin of life research. Insofar as this medievalist can know, I know that origin of life research (eg and also eg) provides hypothesizes about the development of a paired genetic continuity and openness to adaptation across generations; that it provides irreversible historical narratives of, say, the long rise of DNA out of an RNA world; and that it tends to insist that the time of abiogensis is long over. Spontaneous generation doesn’t relegate its processes to the tremendously distant past—or the tremendous speed of chemical interactions. That may be its error. Yet in abiogenesis, in spontaneous generation, and the continued operations of DNA and RNA insofar as I understand them, we do have matter operating on itself to bring something new and surprising into being in ways that meets Jane Bennett’s call “to dissipate the onto-theological binaries of life/matter, human/animal, will/determination, and organic/inorganic” (x). In other words, I’ll suggest that the somewhat embarrassed response to spontaneous generation in some scholarship (eg) evidences a need to cling to subject/object binaries—evidences, in other words, that it hasn’t yet got rid of God or the myth of an infusing spirit, or of the distinctiveness of information from matter—and that spontaneous generation offers a resource both to the still developing work of the new materialists and to critical animal thinkers like me.

Or, for that matter, to the Supreme Court of the United States.


1 Tip of the hat to Kári Driscoll for the medieval SCOTUS twist

2 Note that Isidore Etymologies IX.v.4 derives “materia” [matter] from “mater” [mother]!

Augustine, Humanist Rube

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“For the human mind, when judging visible things, can recognize that it itself is better than all visible things.”

From Augustine’s Answers to Miscellaneous Questions, “Against the Mathematicians.”

Such an innocent abroad! So provincial, with his confidence in the grandeur of the human mind, this mind as arrogant as the god it invented. Augustine’s like the cocksure tourist in Paris, “Oh, we got one of them in Texas too. Cheaper. And better parking.”

Irrational (Human) Objects of a Rational Law — More on Deer Carcasses and the Medieval English Forest

Bruce Nauman, Portland Art Museum, "Animal Pyramid," Picture by Alison Kinney

Bruce Nauman, Portland Art Museum, “Animal Pyramid,” Picture by Alison Kinney

Now I’m just posting my own NCS paper, which you might recall appeared a little more than a month ago before the Paris medieval animals conference. I revised that paper for Portland: cut the bits on penitentials, expanded the discussion of Bennett, gestured more towards the problem of objectial “agency,” and clarified the issues at stake. A lot of this is due to Susan Crane’s very welcome interventions in Paris and over email since then: I’m happy to take the blame for continuing slips in my thinking.

My carcass project’s going to lead, knock on wood, to two publications: the first in the inaugural issue of O-Zone, a journal of object-oriented studies, and then–in a more biopolitical vein–in an anthology on the medieval English forest law. So I need your comments and interventions; I so need your comments and interventions.

Responses from NCS include Laurie Finke’s hesitancy about both “strategic” anything and the word “intention”, Eileen’s promotion of “propulsion” via Bennett, and Liza Strakhov’s recommendation of Bleak House as a good model for the law as actor. My response to Finke’s question included an attempt to work through the problem of agency via Derrida’s “And Say the Animal Responded,” which does so much to lean on the opposition between “free response” and “compelled reaction.” Further very welcome interventions came from Alison Kinney, my wife, and Seamus Campbell, an old friend and one of my Portland hosts. Additional v.r.i. on deer carcasses arrived pseudonymously via Facebook; and several people–Peggy McCracken, Susan Crane, and an eavesdropping lawyer in downtown Portland–pointed me to sources on various local laws for the disposal of deer carcasses in twenty-first century America (for example).

More to come, especially once I’m back in Brooklyn and can get my hands on some reputable editions of medieval insular cookbooks, and an old Annales article on venison I remember encountering ages ago. Expect me to work out what my last paragraph’s “significant and forceful” means sometime in the next month.

Thanks very much to Randy Schiff for assembling the panel and for the ongoing discussion of biopolitics.

Away we go:

An English hunting law, enforced at least since 1238, requires that the carcass of deer found dead in the forest “should be sent to the nearest house of lepers, if there is one nearby in those parts, and this by the witness of the forester and the jury. If however there is no such house nearby, the flesh should be given to the sick and the poor. The head and skin should be given to the freemen of the nearest town; and the arrow, if one was found, should be given to the forester, and this should be recorded with his oath.”

To discourage poaching, it makes good sense not to let the neighboring folk or the forester have the meat. But it doesn’t make obvious sense to return it to the king’s control, and then to distribute it to people who would normally never have eaten venison. And despite some concessions for convenience—the nearest leper house or, failing that, some other nearby charitable institution—the law still required foresters to take on an onerous, annoying, and possibly repulsive duty.

Repulsive in several senses. The law makes no exemption for carcasses that are badly mangled or rotting. A late fourteenth-century English recipe book requires a multi-day sequence of covering, washing, hanging, salting, and boiling to keep venison from rotting, implying that unsupervised venison was thought to go off quickly. Furthermore, I’m told, the ideal temperature for curing a deer carcass is no warmer than 4 degree Celsius, or 40 degrees Fahrenheit, perhaps even cooler. Thirteenth-century England was a “warm epoch” compared to the following centuries: in this climate, carcasses would have bloated or putrefied quickly. Finally, the law required that the king’s agents come into proximity with diseased people thought to be especially disgusting and perhaps especially contagious. In short, there’s something seemingly irrational, even dangerous, in what the forest law imposed on the king and his agents.

The “seemingly” of “seemingly irrational” of course promises that I’ll reveal a reason at work: but this reason won’t be a human one. What the humans are doing is irrational, excessive, repulsive, for them: but humans aren’t the only actors at work in this system.

Such seemingly irrational human actions help us identify where humans are being made to operate by another, perhaps nonhuman actor: from an anthropocentric perspective, it doesn’t make sense to redistribute the carcasses of deer to socially inferior eaters, or even to keep deer at all; but all this might make good sense from the perspective of the forest law itself.

To allow for this speculation, I need to situate this seemingly irrational activity within a larger system, itself just as seemingly irrational, the medieval forest. You know medieval English forests were for hunting, and mainly for hunting deer. Like other scholars, Simon Schama observes that “outside of war itself, [the hunt] was the most important blood ritual through which the hierarchy of status and honour around the king was ordered.” The conception of authority required aristocrats to keep hunting parks and to monopolize the legitimate killing of deer. And though forests were enormously expensive, they were the last good impoverished aristocrats would give up, because they were too important a theater of authority to be abandoned.

Deer were the cause of the forests’ enormous expense. Compared to other food animals, deer require a lot of land, don’t easily turn fodder into edible body mass, are prone to disease and theft and destructive of ground cover and crops, and require the expensive care of specialized professionals. Furthermore, deer were literally beyond price: they could not legally be sold. As such, deer can be counted among the “quasi-sacred” things enumerated in the 1230s in Bracton’s On the Laws and Customs of England. Bracton lists the crown, his “position of rule,” peace, justice, and salvage from the sea as among the things that “cannot be given or sold or transferred to another by the prince or reigning king” (see here, 2.57): the king can’t sell any of these without undoing his own kingly position. The king was, therefore, beholden to his own royalty and what materialized his own authority. These drove him to expend energy and wealth to maintain an animal seemingly designed to frustrate rationalist explanations.

Nonetheless, we can still come up with a few. To ensure forests make sense to a managerial mindset, we might claim that hunting was only an ancillary function, and that forests actually turned a profit. But S. A. Mileson’s recent Parks in Medieval England reemphasizes both the centrality of hunting to forests and enumerates how forests were far less profitable than comparable nonforested land. Another anthropocentric rationalization might claim that forests produced social capital: they were good for networking, for distinguishing aristocrats from their inferiors, for providing opportunities for largesse. Finally, we might pivot towards a derationalizing approach to the forest by taking its irrational obligations as symptoms of the Real, capital R, which always undoes our rationalist pretensions.

I propose, however, that the logic of the forest and indeed that of royal authority have their own reason, which puts humans to work for it. We don’t need to explain the logic by turning up a rational human benefit for the forest, in financial or social profit, as if human actions must only make good human sense. Nor must we give up on rational explanations too quickly, as if there’s only a positive human pretension to order, always inevitably undone by the irrationality of everything else. Thoroughgoing posthumanism requires us to seek out another, nonhuman reason, in, for, and through which the king and his agents operate.

I am drawing on Jane Bennett’s “theory of distributive agency” in her book Vibrant Matter. From her, I take the recognition that “human intentions [are] always in competition and confederation with many other strivings,” a “heterogeneous series of actants with partial, overlapping, and conflicting degrees of power and efficiency.” She illustrates her argument with the 2003 American blackout, for which no one element can be wholly responsible: storms and climate change, capitalism and deregulation, and flows of various kinds of electricity interact to produce results that can’t quite be predicted or reduced to a single reason. Through “a touch of anthropomorphism” (99), Bennett keeps open the possibility of various nonhuman agencies to “catalyze a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontologically distinct categories of beings (subjects and objects) but with variously composed materialities that form confederations” (99).

I also rely on Steven Shaviro (h/t Eileen Joy), who advocates for a “deflationary” description of intention via George Molnar’s concept of “physical intentionality” (see chapter 3, “Directedness,” in his Powers: A Study in Metaphysics), by which “physical powers, such as solubility or electrical charge, also have that direction toward something outside themselves that is typical of psychological attributes,” even if this intentionality has no “semantic or representational content.”

That intentionality makes objects agents for themselves and turns other agents into the objects by which these agents realize their intentions. It allows for nonhuman intention and direction without requiring something so grand as free choice. For my paper, the agents might be deer and maggots, the trees and soil, or, the forest law itself; here I draw on a recent Facebook comment by Levi Bryant, who observes that “people are 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.”

I’m proposing that the deer, poachers, the king, the king’s royal power, the forest law, the obligation towards charity, people with leprosy, and appetite itself, all have their own reason within the forest system, all their own sense of the irrational, their own orders and perhaps their own anxieties. All interact more or less harmoniously with others; all enable, constrain, and channel the actions of others, making agents into their objects and being objectified in turn. Everything’s incompletely entangled in meshworks of intention and objectification, and none should be thought of as the center, or as the only center.

Let me stress: this doesn’t mean that the king and his agents have been reduced to being just the objects of nonhuman intentionality. We can preserve anthropocentric explanations—social capital and so forth—while supplementing them with others in the interests of richer description, a more supple understanding of intention, and an improved sense of responsibility. Bennett’s posthuman insights don’t eliminate human agency; they just democratize it, to use the metaphor from Levi Bryant’s Democracy of Objects.

And just as the king’s selfhood exceeds what the forest and royal authority make of him, so too with the other elements in the forest assemblage. Here, in my paper’s last section, I derive from object-oriented ontology the point that the constituent elements of an agential assemblage have their own intentions; they have their own umwelt—that is, their own limited, subjective mode of engagement with the other elements of the assemblage; and, finally, their participation in the assemblage does not exhaust what they are.

This particular quality of inexhaustibility is what object-oriented ontology calls the “withdrawn core” of any object. Levi Bryant argues that “objects are always in excess of any of their local manifestations”; or, Ian Bogost puts it in Alien Phenomenology, “The tire and chassis, the ice milk and cup, the buckshot and soil: things like these exist not just for us but also for themselves and for one another, in ways that might surprise and dismay us.” Human, animal, or material, anything that is, any assemblage, cannot be encountered or used fully by any other object.

This insight leads us to recognitions we wouldn’t have if we paid attention only to the symbolic use intellectuals and sovereigns make of those they dominate, or just to the vain efforts of dominant humans to manage the Real.

For example, as Julie Orlemanski has recently reminded us, people with leprosy have an existence inaccessible to narratives of devotion, disability, and disgust. The carrion law wants these people to serve as a disposal system for deer who died improperly. It wants them to function as elements in a charitable machine for turning assistance into prayers. But people with leprosy might not have needed or wanted this particular charity: leprosaria, as Carol Rawcliffe tells us, “often had fishing rights, and reared dairy cattle, [and] pigs and hens,” which ensured they had the right diet on hand for medicinal purposes. Game itself was a medically unsuitable meal for the sick. A mangled, perhaps rotten carcass, made of the wrong kind of meat, might have been an unwanted or unnecessary gift, and might have gone uneaten.

Similarly, the deer, whether alive or dead, is more than the king, the poacher, the forester, or the forest law can do with it. Deer have their own existence, their carcasses another, the microbes and insects and birds that break down the carcass yet another: and none is an inert plaything for human reason. Like other hunting laws, the carrion law aims to protect the aristocratic monopoly on legitimate violence in the forest. Records of the practice of the law, however, attest to the deer’s own life, independent of aristocratic control. Evidence survives of the law dealing with the carcass of a hart that had gone mad and died, and of another that died from injuries after fighting with one of its peers. The deers’ own bodies, behaviors, and vulnerabilities, and their own deadly erotic energy, testifies to a cervid existence inassimilable to the forest law and royal needs. Similarly, in what must be my last point, the thirteenth-century climate and the carcass’s susceptibility to putrefaction also witness to a stubborn liveliness outside of the operations of the forest law, or of the human desire to smoothly turn a living animal into meat.

My project is just getting out of its infancy, obviously, in that I haven’t yet described the actual intentions of the forest law, nor yet determined how to distinguish intentions from accidental effects. I know I need to read up in systems and legal theory, and I know I can’t just say that law does what it does because it wants to sustain itself. For now, I remain convinced that limiting significant intentionality to humans or indeed to living beings is unwarranted; that a keen ethical investigation must seek out the exclusions of anthropocentricism, or, for that matter, cervidocentrism; that products–textual, technological, legal, indeed anything that is–have a significant and forceful existence independent of their creators; and that efficacious political action requires recognizing that human intention isn’t the only game in town.