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)

Man is the Pasture of Being, Part 2: Sky Burial, Mostly Persian

This blog post is a preliminary sketch of what and when medieval Western Europe (hereafter, for simplicity’s sake, “medieval” or “medieval people”) would have known about funerary practices of exposing bodies to be eaten by dogs or birds (i.e., “sky burial”). I’m concentrating on classical and late antique texts, saving John Mandeville for the next post.

If you’ve been following along, this Friday continues last Friday’s treatment of the medieval legend of Evilmerodach (who, by late twelfth century, was known for having dismembered the corpse of his father, Nebuchadnezzar, and feeding it to birds). Like the Evilmerodach post, it is also a sketch for the second part of the “Creeping Things” chapter for my second book, currently titled How Not to Make a Human: Ecology, Ethics, and Vulnerable Animals in the Middle Ages (everything after the colon is up for grabs; suggestions from you are just short of obligatory). I will be aiming to explore the differences between being esca vermibus (food for worms) and esca avibus (food for birds) in medieval culture and, ultimately, in the contributions this contrast might make to contemporary ecocriticism.

Again, I’ll stress that embryonic character of this post, despite its great length: I have a hunch where thick footnotes are needed, and slightly dimmer hunches about where I might be wrong. If you’re at all in the vicinity of offering a “well, actually,” don’t hesitate.

If they could, medieval people tended to bury their dead, flesh still on bone, ideally near some a church, a shrine, or some other holy site. This habit of fleshy inhumation has a distant analog in ancient Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, where burial is needed to give the spirit rest, to provide continuing rites of care, especially for the sake of family or the larger community, which constituted itself by seeding the ground with its dead, suffusing a place with memory (Walton, 317, and of course Peter Brown). As in these ancient worlds, shrines, churches, and the blessed dead were the hearts of any medieval community worth a Fodor’s Guide.

That said, for a medieval Christian, practices like this could be, technically, unnecessary: Augustine of Hippo’s On the Care of the Dead (late fourth century) argues that the dead, as a rule, have no knowledge of goings-on in the mortal world, and, furthermore, that they (and their corpses) are past all harm or human benefit. Heartbreakingly, at least for those of us bereft of beloved parents, Augustine says that if the dead knew our world, then his mother would come and comfort him; but they don’t, so she doesn’t (16). For all this, Augustine allows that the dead, or at least their bodies, can be cared for: he reasons that care in burial and prayer at well-situated gravesites, though probably of no benefit to the dead themselves, still can witness to Christian belief in the bodily resurrection, encourage bodily training of piety (Althusser avant la lettre) and also comfort us, because we ourselves are also creatures of flesh. Measured and thoughtful care of the dead have some use.

Augustine’s cautious approach to funeral rites were clearly overshot in medieval Europe. There, elaborate inhumation, memorial rites, and a whole industry of pleading for intervention from the holy dead became nearly as common as human death itself.

In this culture, exposure was a horror. We all know about the “beasts of battle” of Germanic poetry, the eagles, ravens, and wolves that eat the unburied corpses of the dead. In the Song of Roland, as the Battle of Roncesvalles sours for the Christians, Turpin begs Roland to blow the horn and summon Charlemagne; while they’re all certain to die before rescue arrives, at least the Emperor can take their bodies away and bury them in churches, where “neither wolf nor pig nor dog will eat of us” (1750; “N’en mangerunt ne lu ne porc ne chen”; trans. from Gilbert). Petrarch’s Historia Griseldis, itself an adaptation from the last tale of Boccaccio’s Decameron, allows its heroine to register a complaint when she’s certain her children are being taken away to be killed: “I ask you one thing: take care that wild beasts or birds do not mutilate this little body, unless you are commanded to the contrary” (Unum queso: cura ne corpusculum [mark the anguish of that “little body”] hoc fere lacerent aut volucres, ita tamen nisi contrarium sit preceptum; trans and text from Sources and Analogues I.121; in the medieval French, “Je te prie, toutesfoiz…que tu gardes a ton povoir que les bestes sauvaiges ne devourent ou menguent le corps de cest enfant, se le contraire ne t’est enjoin”; in the English poet, ll. 567-72). And the Apocalypse of St John, last book of the Christian scriptures, features birds invited to “the great supper of God” [cenam magnam Dei], to feast upon the soldiers and horses of the army of the Beast: this is clearly a humiliation, at least for the dead (for the birds, it is something better: more on that in a later blog post). No one would willingly allow the corpse of anyone they loved to be exposed like this.

Nonetheless, at least from Herodotus (fifth century BCE), Europeans knew about still another funerary practice, which stretched from the Caspian Sea and Caucasus through Mesopotamia and perhaps even as far as the Indus, and, as I’ll write in next time, when I finally take on Heidegger, eventually up to Tibet.

They found this practice alternately repulsive, barbaric, antiquated, but also, in some instances, of most interest to me, another way to mourn, no less valid than fleshly inhumation. Knowledge of these practices not only connected medieval people to a wider cultural world, doing much to help themselves imagine themselves in light of another’s word; as I will argue in a later post, they also provided a way for medieval people to imagine themselves and their bodies differently, by recognizing that bodies could be given over as flesh to large carnivores, not just worms, but without abandoning mourning. Exposure need not be humiliation, and being consumed need not be done in secret, in the grave. Here, in this open consumption, was a place for medievals to recognize that our bodies could be material flesh and our bodies at the same time: as I will argue in an upcoming post, this was material recognition of the way all flesh, all bodies, belong to the world at large and ourselves at the same time. A material reduction (we are flesh) can continue to acknowledge our emotional connection to the particularity of our bodies and the bodies of our loved ones (we are beloved flesh).

This post, however, will mainly be devoted only to what the medievals could have known. Evilmerodach and Odoric of Pordenone (especially as transmitted by the Book of John Mandeville) were enormously popular in the later Middle Ages. But what about the earlier period?

The oldest potential references to “sky burial” may be those depicted in an obelisk carving at Göbekli Tepe (or Göbeklitepe) and paintings at Çatal Höyü (or Çatalhöyük), both in modern-day Turkey (thank you to Kathleen Kennedy for turning me on to these!), which each feature vultures soaring over or fluttering about headless human corpses. I make no claims that memories of these astonishingly ancient cultures reached to the Middle Ages or even to the classical world: each site was occupied for some 2000 years (itself no small time!), the former abandoned about 10,000 years ago, the latter 7,000, and therefore at the most recent more temporally distant from Herodotus (d. 425 BCE) than we are, now, from the invention of writing (c. 3500 BCE).

Testart p 35

Testart p 35

And what some think to be sky burial in fact may be only depictions of military victories, with the headless corpses of the vanquished left to be eaten by vultures, and the skulls taken as trophies, or so argues the, it must be said, appropriately named Alain Testart in “Des crânes et des vautours ou la guerre oubliée” (“On Skulls and Vultures, or, The Forgotten War”). We will let that rest, then, and return to what I suspect may be our most ancient, incontrovertible reference to sky burial, from Herodotus.

Our Greek historian writes:

But there are other matters concerning the dead which are secretly and obscurely told–how the dead bodies of Persians are not buried before they have been mangled [without my knowing Greek: ἑλκυσθῇ, to drag, draw, or tear in pieces] by bird or dog. That this is the way of the Magians I know for a certainty; for they do not conceal the practice. But this is certain, that before the Persians bury the body in earth they embalm it in wax (Godley trans, Loeb, Vol 1, I.140, p 179).

This account is more than a little confused (I’m not the only one who thinks so: one expert calls this account “desperate”): either the practice is secret, or it’s not; and corpses are left out to be dragged or torn, but not so much so that they can’t be embalmed and buried. Herodotus may be reflecting (and, if we’re feeling reckless, anticipating) the variety of Zoroastrian burial methods under the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanids: the famous exposure of bodies in free-standing dakhma, “towers of silence,” must be remembered alongside the cliffside and other tomb structures of ancient Iran. The towers may be but a (ninth-century?) refinement of a cultic practice of keeping the decomposing corpse free from contact with visible plant life and damp earth, which, we can observe, might be achieved just as well by swathing the corpse in wax, or letting dogs or birds consume the flesh of a corpse staked to dry, bare ground.

Strabo’s Geography (before 23 CE) is more assured that Herodotus, though perhaps no more accurate. He writes that the Persians “smear the bodies of the dead with wax before they bury them, though they do not bury the Magi but leave their bodies to be eaten by birds,” adding what became a common charge that “these Magi, by ancestral custom, consort even with their mothers” (XV.iii.20). Elsewhere (XI.xi.8, V, p. 293 in Loeb trans), Strabo explains that the Caspians starve and expose those over 70 years old, abandoning them on (or strapping them to?) desert biers, watching from a distance, and considering them blessed if – and only if – these hapless elderly are attacked by wild dogs or birds. Very Mad Max. And, citing Onesicritus, a historian who embedded with Alexander the Great, Strabo imagines that the Bactrians keep dogs expressly to kill their aged and sick, adding a description that, in essence, imagines the Bactrian cities as necropoles:

While the land outside the walls of the metropolis of the Bactrians look clean, yet most of the land inside the walls is full of human bones (XI.xi.3, V, p. 282-83 in the Loeb).

To me at least, further examples are shockingly plentiful: in what might be chronological order, from 45 BCE to the third century CE, Persian sky burial shows up in Cicero’s stoic Tusculan Disputations (I.xlv); Plutarch’s Moralia (499, Vol VI p 371 in Loeb, where he says Hrycanians do it with dogs, Bactrians with birds); Sextus Empiricus’s skeptic Outlines of Pyrrhonism (III.227); Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus (XLI.iii); Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers (IX, on Pyrrho); and Porphyry’s On Abstinence from Killing Animals (IV.21). Christian examples, in a list that may be just as non-exhaustive, include the Book of the Law of the Countries, written by pupils of the Syriac gnostic Bardesanes (d. 222; in Syrian, Bar Dayṣān; one translation here: search for “In the whole of Media”); the Recognitions of pseudo-Clementine (IX.25); and Eusebius’s Preparation for the Gospel (I.iv, search for “And of the benefit which visibly proceeds”). And, finally, the source that first led me down this path, Jerome’s Against Jovinian (II.vii), where he writes:

The Tibareni crucify those whom they have loved before when they have grown old. The Hyrcani throw them out half alive to the birds and dogs: the Caspians leave them dead for the same beasts. The Scythians bury alive with the remains of the dead those who were beloved of the deceased. The Bactrians throw their old men to dogs which they rear for the very purpose, and when Stasanor, Alexander’s general, wished to correct the practice, he almost lost his province (a point Jerome gets from Porphyry).

Some writers (Herodotus and Justin) – or, I might say, some genres –present themselves as simply doing ethnography, only listing customs, as they might list geographical features. Strabo is horrified, at least by the Bactrians. Porphyry is horrified too, although his conclusions may surprise: yes, some people are meat-eaters, or parent-eaters, or parent-exposers, but at least we philosophers need not behave like this. And Eusebius anticipates the colonial missionaries of modernity, when he argues that the conversion to Christianity corrects these terrible practices (the pagans no longer “expose their dead kindred to dogs and birds….For these and numberless things akin to these were what of old made havoc of human life”), so that Christian conversion is, for any culture, and not only Jews (more frequently targeted as culturally anachronistic), an emergence out of a muddled past into a neat, correct, universal civilization.

Still, whether in philosophic or many of these religious texts, the most frequent reason for these ancient writers to cite sky burial (and its associated practice that we might call “sky euthanasia”) is to pose as cosmopolitan admirers of the great variety of human culture. Plutarch lists these and other practices (sati, for example) to argue that virtue can resist chance’s worst harms: Central Asians positively love to have their bodies exposed to beasts! Bardesanes’s students and pseudo-Clementine alike use worldwide cultural heterogeneity to argue for human freedom and against the compulsion of the stars. If stars had so much power, human culture would be more easily classifiable, more homogeneous. But, says Book of the Law of the Countries, “the truth is, that in all countries, every day, and at all hours, men are born under Nativities diverse from one another, and the laws of men prevail over the decree of the stars, and they are governed by their customs.”

In the hands of other writers – Diogenes Laertius, Sextus Empiricus, and even Jerome – we have something similar to Pomponius Mela’s first-century Chorographia (II.8), namely – a curious appreciation of human difference in what we might call (and no doubt has been called) the “cultural variation topos.” Diogenes does it with admirable force:

The same thing is regard by some as just and by others as unjust, or as good by some and bad by others. Persians think it not unnatural for a man to marry his daughter; to Greeks it is unlawful. The Massagetae…have their wives in common; the Greeks have not. The Cilicians used to delight in piracy; not so the Greeks. Different people believe in different gods; some in providence, others not. In burying their dead, the Egyptians embalm them; the Romans burn them; the Paeonians throw them into lakes.

Cicero Tusculan Disputations also merits citation at length:

But why should I notice the beliefs of individuals, since we may observe the varied deceptions under which the races of mankind labour? The Egyptians embalm their dead and keep them in the house; the Persians even smear them with wax before burial, that the bodies may last for as long a time as possible; it is the custom of the Magi not to bury the bodies of their dead unless they have been first mangled by wild beasts [nisi a feris sint ante laniata]; in Hyrcania [no surprise] the populace support dogs for the benefit of the community, while the nobles keep them for family use: it is as we know a famous breed [nobile…genus] of dogs, but in spite of the cost, each householder procures them [translation modified] in proportion to his means, to mangle him [lanietur], and that they consider the best mode of burial (Loeb, King translation, p. 291, I.XLV).

I’m as yet uncertain about the medieval afterlife of these points. To take two examples: Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies accuses Persians only of being fire-worshippers (XIV.iii.10), led to this error by “the giant Nebroth,” and its several references to the ferocious Hyrcanians and neighboring Scythians says nothing about the exposure of the elderly or the dead to possible animal mangling or excarnation. Gregory of Tours, writing a generation before Isidore, likewise calls the Persians only fire-worshippers (History of the Franks, I.v), blaming this, more correctly, on “Zoroastra.” Note also his annoyance (X.26) at the appointment of a Syrian merchant, Eusebius, as bishop of Paris in 591, who stuffed the household with other Syrians: some of them, I expect, might have had more than passing knowledge of the customs of the Sassanids: and yet no word from Gregory. Nor am I entirely sure, yet, about the survival of many of my texts into the Middle Ages. Chaucerians know the afterlife of the more misogynist passages of Jerome’s Against Jovinian, and I know the text as a whole survived, as we see from this twelfth-century copy.

But quick searches of the Patrologia Latina and the Monumenta Germaniae Historica suggest that Jerome’s ethnographic musings may not have been much talked about.

More research is needed! The next post – here perhaps before next Friday – will be on Mandeville, and, if there’s room, against Heidegger and on the ecocritical and affective implications of all this. Hang out, hang on!

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.

Whale Not Watching

IMG_8335Cross-posted to ITM.

I’m in Iceland for the New Chaucer Society Conference. Today’s papers concluded with a whale watch, expressly framed by the excursion group as a strike against Iceland’s commercial whaling. Currently only 4 other countries commercially whale: Iceland, Norway, Japan, and the Faroe Islands. As we heard, whaling is not some ancient Icelandic tradition, but rather dates only to the introduction of the harpoon gun, by a Norwegian, and the expansion of Norwegian and English whalers into Icelandic waters. After a ban in the early 20th century, whaling resumes in earnest shortly after WWII, and now, only some 3% of Icelanders eat whale regularly; the whale meat of Iceland, rather, serves Japan and tourists, who eat it, thinking that they’re participating in heritage, like others, dripping with blood. We were encouraged to seek out restaurants displaying a BLUE WHALE STICKER, as these are explicitly whale friendly. I extend the same encouragement to you.

As the tour company itself reports, the whale watch wasn’t a straightforward success. We saw a number of animals. From their list: Atlantic Puffin, Northern Fulmar, Northern Gannet, Storm Petrel, Kittiwake, Common Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Eider Duck, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Manx Shearwater., Arctic skua, Great skua [terrible birds that live by theft!], and a couple pods of White-Beaked Dolphins. No cetaceans bigger than a dolphin, though: no Minke Whales and certainly no Orcas.

But, again, as the tour company explained, we were watching whales do what whales do, which sometimes  means not showing up for us at all. We knew the whales were out there; and we knew they were whales, for themselves, and not whales for us, when they didn’t show themselves for us. This, then, was a whale watch better than most, because it forced us to a better, truer engagement with whales than the bay-as-menagerie or reservation.

Attendees at the ecomaterialism session earlier in the day agonized a bit over the withdrawn object of some strains of speculative materialism. Well, here’s one model of the withdrawn object, present to us only in its absence, antipathy, or avoidance, but not removed from our ethical concern for all that. Because we should know that the whales are out there, even if not simply available to us, and, if we’re doing things right, we should defend their right to keep themselves hidden from us, who are, so often, especially in Iceland, their destroyers.

(h/t Asa Mittman for the title)


Day 13 – Plant Thought, Tree women, Surface, and Hospitality

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 2.00.28 PMWe started off looking at the phenomenon of non-human horror (continuing from our discussions of Thacker last week), noting a progression(?) from the plant horror of the 50’s (with summer reading recommendations of Ward Moore’s Greener Than You Think, available as a free ebook andaudiobook along with Aldiss’ Hothouse, and John Cristopher’s Death ofGrass). There seems to be a general shift in horror: Plants –> Giant animals –> vampires –> zombies –> robots (?).

We had a great presentation, which explored the question of subjective participation and objective distance, drawing connections between Ulysses’ famous participation-by-passivity in his being tied to the mast of the ship to hear the sirens. Without objective distance, there is death. This moved into Kohn’s How Forests Think, which seeks to expand the “anthropological” outside of the anthropos. Some kind of articulation of thought is generally the divisional line between human and non-human things, but humans are always thinking within their contexts…as do animals…and forests. And this connects into the flower maidens in the Alexander legend: they exist in a network, but most notably, a closed network, where the observer is also a violation. What does it mean that their production is regenerative? And carrying into Dindimus, what gives him the ability to separate himself enough to analyze his own culture and relate it to Alexander? How is this correspondence possible? Or any, for that matter, in the case of these colliding networks of enclosure/meaning?

There is a problem of representation and interrogation in the Alexander stories, in which all beings are rendered as signs which one must know, or, bring into one’s own system of meaning, a further appropriation that underscores that of the material appropriation of plants that Micheal Marder explicates in Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. But there’s a problem here in that we are understanding action as performative, and performativity as linguistic (There was a Barad reference here, that I’m unread on). But essentially, it seems that this problem boils down to interaction as performativity or object-orientation, the space in between which plants seem to lie.

We started talking about challenging Harman’s withdrawal (dark, deep, cavernous, whatever) to a withdrawal that is withdrawal because of its surface-ness. McCracken’s reading of the flower-women, which can be downloaded here, leaves off (or adds, thus leaving off) something important in its translation of the Middle French, which adds that the women have the “form of a [human] body.” But no, actually, they have “des cors la figure,” that is, of the body a figure, or the figure of a body, which is even weirder, a body purely made out of its figuration, out of its surface.

And then the discussion of Alexander and Dindimus, in which Dindimus acts in the mode of standard medieval asceticism, withdrawal from the world, but is here doing so because he is rendering himself as part of the world. Hereis the question of what constitutes the human: Dindimus is more human because he is with and in the world, and Alexander defends his humanity on the basis of his ownership and “cultivation” of it. But Dindimus isn’t actually one with the world–what he wants is total distance from it, to be in the anthropological “outside,” inhabiting objective distance from the world and a distance from obligation. And also the problems of representing a king, as in MS. Bodl. 264 fol. 215r

Day 12 – Tundale, Disputation Body and Worms, and Thacker


  1. I also provided links to some guidance on conference going: here is a good guide on how to write abstracts, how to identify conferences, and how to fund your conference travel and here’s one on the expectations for presentations in the humanities; I also forgot to share guidance on the length of the average dissertation.
  2. here’s a “storified” Twitter record of a materialism session from the Shakespeare Association of America, to give you a sense of the fun of conferences.
  3. links
    1. photo series of depressing zoo architecture, where the landscapes painted to satisfy the human viewers. Obviously, this can be critiqued as an example of the fantasy of the wild, but we can turn that same critique back around on the photos themselves, which are obviously framed to make us believe the animals are depressed.
    2. animal architecture, with an example of an Australian Bird with a keen eye for color and arrangement. The bird in this case is trying to attract a mate, but we of course are also delighted by the color. Desire and courtship are working across species lines, then, a point that would work well for papers looking to Chaucer’s Parliament.
    3. A Roman-Age mint has been turned up in England, complete with dog prints: here’s a bit of the world-without-us, Thacker’s third category of world. World-for-us is our world; world-in-itself is the world with humans subtracted; and the world-without-us is the world that’s still here with us but somehow impersonally so, as it’s not for us. Thacker takes this as horrific (setting up the Haraway vs. Thacker throwndown that would erupt later in our discussion), but we might also just take it as these dog prints and the stone, a whimsical element of surprise crosses into our world without becoming fully ours.
    4. For summer reading, I recommended [[[type|link[postId|1566575923[asin|022605750X[authorId|1203060269|this book on the oldest living things]]: here’s another example of a World-without-Us, but perhaps without Thacker’s horror. The issue of timescale and life of course intersects nicely with our Purgatorial Poetry.
    5. Bad Dogs, here, with the question of nonhuman responsibility. we connected this to a recent article in the NY Times Magazine on chimps suing their owners, which led to the less attractive flip side, which is that a chimp that can sue should also be a chimp that canbe sued
    6. Parrots, among other animals, seem to have names: now, whatever else the name is, it’s also, as Derrida reminds us often, a promise of death. The name can potentially outlive us, marking the place where we once were. Anyone who reflects on their own name and its use by others must know this. This depressing realization is also a way to overturn Heidegger’s distinction between human death and animal “perishing,” since the name also ‘grants’ (some) animals the same extrinsic relation to world that humans have: parrots and humans both, perhaps, are aware that the world will move on without them.
    7. I recommended people enjoy the Middle English Romance Database

After showing images from British Museum MS Add. 37049 and the Getty Tondale, we moved into 3 great presentations and also one sneak-preview of one of my Kzoo papers.

But I’ll have to write tomorrow at length about what we talked about: cows in Hell, worms and their character, the peculiar character of the ‘tomb verses’ in the “Disputation,” and the horrific lack of concordance between punishment/reward and the human world. Especially thrilling: imagining how Haraway would handle Thacker’s material, or, why does this all have to be so horrific? Why can’t we make friends with our worms, anyhow?

Our presentations on Tundale, Thacker, and the “Disputation Between the Body and Worms” covered some of the following:
Tundale and the World-without-us: purgatorial poems tend to feature catalogs, of punishments, of sinners, of places. Here’s an abundance that alienates, surely a concretized version of the cosmic horror of Thacker’s world-without-us. See also the total lack of correspondence between punishment and sinner: certainly, the punishment has an analogical relationship, but it always seems excessive in relationship to the actual, mortal sin, which is a much smaller thing than eternity. We also considered Satan, the “big bad” here as in Dante, but, as in Dante, also immobilized, fixed at the bottom, and thus a superhuman figure that is, in his way, as trapped as any human. Somehow this is quite the opposite of comforting.

While Thacker concentrates on a set of “weird” literature, his schema can also help unpack the Volsung saga. We have three varieties of Black Metal, with the one simply a heretical, Satanic inversion, the second a mythological pagan multiplicity, and the third something far more inhuman. In the Volsung saga, we see the theological give way immediately to the mythological which then, in turn, gives way to a kind of cosmic pessimism. We also played with the nonrepresentational quality of music, something that Thacker oddly didn’t exploit in his discussion of Black Metal (which instead concentrated on the lyrical content). Conversation turned to the way that humanity works, granted from outside as a kind of ‘reverse’ exorcism, with humanity just as much a possession as its demonic reversal. Finally, we pushed back briefly on Thacker’s reading of Inferno, as his typology of demons moves, oddly, and without acknowledgement, backwards through Dante, starting with Satan, then the masses of demons, and then the ‘climatic’ demons of the lustful.

Finally, on the Disputation, a didactic debate poem, instruction for novices, which swings between horror of death and the promise of wiping the slate clean. We reviewed the cultural history of worms, ranging from the renewable Phoenix and its worm-like larval stage to Christ as worm to the worms of our own bodies, spontaneously generated from flesh we thought our own. Apparently some medieval people wore worms as a cure for the plague. Now, the worms, in this erotic assault, refashion the human body in its own image, by making the soft and shifting body into a hard set of bones, without any vanity or decoration.

Conversation after the presentations turned on Thacker vs. Haraway (whose When Species Meet we had read in part earlier in the semester): what does Haraway’s political optimism and feminism do with Thacker’s (unmarked) masculine pessimism? What happens if we don’t start by assuming that the human has separate boundaries from its “environment,” as Thacker does? How does Haraway help us understand what it means — as in the “Disputation” — to make “friends” with one’s worms, given that this friendship must be temporary (the worms are there only so long as the body has flesh to eat, the body is there only until the resurrection takes its bones, which means the worms will leave first).

And what happens to the “Disputation” if we read this poem in the long tradition of Lady Philosophers disputing with men? Where’s the “Lady Philosophy” here?

We returned, at last, to the question of the cow in “Tundale,” which its TEAMS editor thinks is just hilarious. But no.

“When he on the brygge was,
The cow wold not forthur pas.
He saw the bestys in the lake
Draw nerre the brygge her pray to take.
That cow had ner fall over that tyde
And Tundale on that todur syde.”

We noted the cow’s terror, and how the cow just disappears after Tundale’s down his penance. Has the cow been punished for having been stolen? Is the cow a demon in the form of a cow? What do we do with the pure terror, unredeemable, of the cow, completely outside the economy of purgatory?

Blaise of Parma (c. 1347-1416), the Doctor Diabolicus, a posthuman, materialist resource


Doctor Devil. From Prize Comics #22.

Through Maaike van der Lugt’s wonderful Le ver, le démon, et la vierge : les théories médiévales de la génération extraordinaire [the worm, the demon, and the virgin: medieval theories of extraordinary generation], whose only failing is utter indifference to the humble oyster, I’ve just discovered a late Italian thinker, Blaise of Parma (c. 1347-1416), who should become a key resource for posthuman materialist medievalists.

Judging by the Wikipedia and other encyclopedia entries, Blaise, aka, Blasius of Parma, Biagio Pelacini da Parma, Biagio Pelacini, or Blaise de Parma, is chiefly discussed for his work on optics and weights (for example, from Brian Lawn, or this article), which, to be fair, is where most of his fame rests. None however mentions what van der Lugt does, that his contemporaries called him the DOCTOR DIABOLICUS.

His first diabolic act? To befuddle strong advocates for periodizationThe Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy anoints him as “the first Renaissance psychologist,” while Lawn, endorsing Vescovini’s 1945 Studi sulla Prospettiva Medievale, rather calls Blaise “one of the most mature thinkers in philosophy of the middle ages.” Given that the supposed renaissance break with medieval philosophy may be overstated (per this abstract), we can just suspend the question of whose thinker Blaise is.

Just kidding: he’s medieval. Definitely, totally medieval.

And even as a medieval thinker, he stands out. Here’s the Cambridge History paraphrasing one of Blaise’s key ideas:

If one analyses the process of intellection as analogous to sense-perception, it becomes clear that the soul requires an object, which is simultaneously present and appropriately distanced. Distance, however, implies extension, and extension, matter, so that the object of intellectual is necessarily a material one. But since this applies to both external and internal objects, which may be recalled, any concept of intellect has to be represented in matter. Consequently, there is no intellectual operation which is not also a natural process through which matter is formed according to its specific potentiality, the only specificity being that the natural process of intellectual is followed by the assent or dissent of the soul, in which truth or error consists. From this materialistic theory of knowledge Blasius infers a necessarily materialistic concept of the soul, according to which the entire soul, including the intellect, is just a particular form, drawn out of the potentiality of matter and passing away with the dissolution of the body. (487, emphasis mine)

Here’s the Latin: “ultima conclusio: quod anima intellectiva hominis sit educta de potentia materiae generabilis et corruptibilis, habet quilibet de plano concedere,” from the 1974 edition of his Quaestiones de anima.

In 1396, Blaise had to recant these and several other beliefs, but somehow lived a full life, and without, it seems, his bones being disinterred and burnt (like Pietro d’Abano; van der Lugt, 181). Apart from these materialist arguments on the soul, per van der Lugt, Blaise also argued, in his 1385 treatise on the soul, that the Flood was just an old wives’ tale, as all animals just reemerged after the flood receded, spontaneously, as — unlike Aristotle, but like Avicenna — he did not maintain any boundary that would reserve spontaneous generation only to the “imperfect” animals like gnats, bees, mice, eels, toads, and so forth; from this point, he argued as well that both humans and the rational soul could emerge spontaneously (and that therefore virgin births may be a natural rather than supernatural reality); and that — contra Avicenna even — there was no master creator in charge of things, as all forms emerge from the middle region of the air. While he finally endorses key Christian doctrine, he still does so reluctantly, observing that only doctrine and not reason lead him to orthodoxy.

Some key passages, then: “Nothing prevents this matter, so prepared by natural causes, from receiving a form which has the capacity to discern, to reason, which is commonly called the “intellective power” (nihil ergo prohibet quin materia illa, sic praeparata ex puris naturalibus, non recipiat formam quae habebit virtutem discernendi, sillogizandi etc., quae a vulgaribus intellectiva nominatur, qtd van der Lugt, 178 n206, trans based on van der Lugt’s french trans.); or, from van der Lugt, “Pour Avicenne, toutes les formes existent selon un état séparé dans les intelligences pour être ensuite imprimées dans la matière ; Blaise de Parme soutient au contraire qu’aucune forme ne vient du dehors…Au lieu d’envisager la naissance d’animaux dans la boue, sur la viande putréfiée ou dans l’eau, Blaise la localise in media regione, c’est-à-dire dans la zone intermédiare de l’air” (179; “For Avicenna, all the forms exist according to a separate state in the intelligence to be then imprinted in matter; Blaise of Parma maintains, on the contrary, that no form comes from outside [a perfectly Aristotelian viewpoint against Avicenna’s neoplatonism, as van der Lugt observes, but just wait] .. in place of envisioning the birth of animals in the mud, in rotting meat, or in the water, Blaise localizes the birth in the “middle region,” that is, in the intermediary zone of air”).

Van der Lugt says that his work remains mostly unedited (most importantly, his Questions on the Physics, at least per Joël Biard’s 2009 article), and the one manuscript of his works that she cites is from the Vatican, so, at present unavailable online; but when/if his full body of work is completely edited, I think we’ll discover –to put this very modestly–that he’s a particularly useful thinker for materialists, medievalist and otherwise.