Day 11 – Marx, Material Agency, and Albina and Her Sisters

The big question for today was “agency.” How can nonhuman materials be said to have it, and how can humans be said to have it? When posthumanism gives agency to the former, it tends to leave it intact in humans; when it takes agency away from humans, it tends to believe that it’s “reducing” humans to the supposedly dull status of material.

To start, we spent perhaps an hour on a few pages from Marx’s German Ideology, observing how his purported materialism fell prey to his humanism, and, to a lesser extent, to his inability to rethink gender. Overall, Marx’s project is to enable humans to take control of the train of history, though it often seems that he’s merely enabling us to be aware of its destination. In such a case, where nothing really can be changed, what does awareness matter?

The passages in question were:

“Man can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals a soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their own material life.” (Man kann die Menschen durch das Bewußtsein, durch die Religion, durch was man sonst will, von den Tieren unterscheiden. Sie selbst fangen an, sich von den Tieren zu unterscheiden, sobald sie anfangen, ihre Lebensmittel zu produzieren, ein Schritt, der durch ihre körperliche Organisation bedingt ist. Indem die Menschen ihre Lebensmittel produzieren, produzieren sie indirekt ihr materielles Leben selbst.)

Marx might justly have added “and by extension, their mental life, only delusionally distinguishable from their material life.”

We observed that the “distinguish” changes its meaning from one sentence to the next: in the first, it’s arbitrary (“man can be distinguished”); in the second, it’s a self-distinguishing, which is either a conscious classification, or a fully material classification, whereby humans emerge as the one animal that produces “its own means of subsistence.” We immediately argued Marx into the ground on this point: what about bees? What about the animals in Kohn’s //How Forests Think//, which move about the Amazon rain forest as various trees fruit in sequence, followed in turn by their predators? And where does this leave room, if any, for consciousness? Marx seems to be in line with Gregory of Nyssa/William of St Thierry/Aquinas on the physical/material foundation of humanity (i.e., as they argue, if humans had no hands, they would become indistinguishable from any other animal).

We also looked at the beginning of human consciousness/society in relation to nature. At first, “it is mere herd-consciousness, and at this point man is only distinguished from sheep by the fact that with him consciousness takes the place of instinct or that his instinct is a conscious one. This sheep-like or tribal consciousness receives its further development and extension through increased productivity, the increase of needs, and, what is fundamental to both of these, the increase of population.” (Dieser Anfang ist so tierisch wie das gesellschaftliche Leben dieser Stufe selbst, er ist bloßes Herdenbewußtsein, und der Mensch unterscheidet sich hier vom Hammel nur dadurch, daß sein Bewußtsein ihm die Stelle des Instinkts vertritt, oder daß sein Instinkt ein bewußter ist. Dieses Hammel- oder Stammbewußtsein erhält seine weitere Entwicklung und Ausbildung durch die gesteigerte Produktivität, die Vermehrung der Bedürfnisse und die Beiden zum Grunde liegende Vermehrung der Bevölkerung.)

What is a “conscious instinct”? In what sense can this be called “conscious”? Is consciousness, we suggested, like the doubling back on material production that sees humans producing their own subsistence? That is, consciousness is the production of new or continued thought out of the material of sensation? Even so, how can Marx, if he can at all, distinguish consciousness from this material productivity? Then, of course, there’s theHammel- oder Stammbewußtsein (wether [rather than “sheep,” I think] or tribal consciousness).

Marx here is trying to find the beginning of humans, because he’s committed to tracking human history. This fundamental idealist position of humans, which causes him to single humans out among other species, is his fundamental error. It also leads him, interestingly, to keep offering new “real” beginnings of the human. This self-aware instinct, perhaps, or perhaps in the division of labor, which either follows from “the division of labor in the sexual act” (die ursprünglich nichts war als die Teilung der Arbeit im Geschlechtsakt), or from “that division of labor which then develops spontaneously or ‘naturally’ by virtue of natural predisposition (e.g., physical strength)” (dann Teilung der Arbeit, die sich vermöge der natürlichenAnlage (z.B. Körperkraft)…von selbst oder “naturwüchsig” macht), which then leads to the “true” division of labor “when a division of material and mental labor appears” (Die Teilung der Arbeit wird erst wirklich Teilung von dem Augenblicke an, wo eine Teilung der materiellen und geistigen Arbeit eintritt). But remember Marx’s key argument against the German Idealists: this division is only delusional.

In another sense, human difference is nothing but a delusion of consciousness’s independence of the material relations that produce it. At least on the basis of these passages, a thoroughgoing Marxism, far more thorough than his own, is a fully material nonhumanism. The only questions are how any kind of agency remains possible and whether, by extension, anything could be said to be autonomous.

The last passage was on the question of nature of consciousness, unique to humans because of their relation to other humans through language, which is, however, nothing but one expression of practical material consciousness. Animals, he says, has no relations (because they have no language?? no need for language?): Für das Tier existiert sein Verhältnis zu andern nicht als Verhältnis (“For the animal, its relation to others does not exist as a relation”). This is pure nonsense, a difference without a difference except for its shaky position atop Marx’s unexamined humanism. It reads, as we observed, like Levinas’s unfortunate statements about Bobby the Dog, the “Last Kantean in Nazi Germany,” but unconscious for all that.
IsabelNrets
Then there’s the origin of consciousness, which is “from the very beginning a social product” or, wait, no, it is “at first, of course, merely consciousness concerning the immediate sensuous environment,” which is, AT THE SAME TIME, “consciousness of nature,” apprehended as “completely alien, all-powerful, and unassailable,” to which we relate (!) in a “purely animal” way, “overawed like beasts,” a “purely animal consciousness of nature (natural religion)” (Das Bewußtsein ist natürlich zuerst bloß Bewußtsein über die nächste sinnliche Umgebung und Bewußtsein des bornierten Zusammenhanges mit andern Personen und Dingen außer dem sich bewußt werdenden Individuum; es ist zu gleicher Zeit Bewußtsein der Natur, die den Menschen anfangs als eine durchaus fremde, allmächtige und unangreifbare Macht gegenübertritt, zu der sich die Menschen rein tierisch verhalten, von der sie sich imponieren lassen wie das Vieh; und also ein rein tierisches Bewußtsein der Natur (Naturreligion).)

This is of course absolute nonsense, pure symptomatic humanism, but still interesting because of its inherent materialism, present here almost despite Marx. It’s also interesting because of the multiple (false?) starts. I also advised my students to look for their wallets whenever they read “of course” or, for that matter, “complex” (and as one of them quipped, “see also ‘radical'”).

More tomorrow on Albina and Her Sisters, and also on Serpil Oppermann! have to run! If you’d like to read ahead, in French, start here; or, in English, here.

Jeffrey Cohen’s reading of Albina and her sisters is deservedly the standard one. To establish a normative origin for Britain, Brutus arrives to put down the disruptive and excessive energies of queer female rule. He literally overwrites Albina’s name: Albion becomes Britain, and the island’s proper history begins.

I’ve argued otherwise: not that the Albina story is so excessively unnormal, but rather that’s it’s PERFECTLY normative and somehow weirder for all that.
After all, Albina lays claim to the island, bestows her name on it, and declares that these actions will memorialize the sisters forever in Albion. Her speech is a charter identifying the land with a noble and self-perpetuating lineage…; nothing, barring of course the gender and gianthood of Albina and her children, is abnormal about eponymous identification with a land or claims that attempt to undercut other claims by declaring temporal priority. The sisters’ reproduction is also normative (or the normative in drag), because its outcome is a lineage, of sorts, one traceable directly to a founder and connected via that founder to a particular piece of land.
And we see that Jean de Wavrin intensifies this “monstrous normativity” of the Albina story by having not only Albina breed incestuously, but also her father, who produces Albina by marrying his first cousin. Here is this aristocratic desire to resist dilutive, exogamous pressures by keeping the lineage “in the family,” and here it is, undisguised and monstrous, when Albina and her sisters kill their husbands rather than let their preeminent nobility be corrupted by breeding with a lesser line. We can connect this, of course, to the various aristocratic stories of magical or animal origins for lineages (classically, the Lusignans and the Melusine and Swan Knight stories), which frees this line from having to be mingled with other, merely mundane families.

Of course, the Jean de Wavrin needs to be read and taught more because of its queer fantasy of an Amazonian empire, which I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered anywhere else. It does remind me, however, of Aelred of Rievaulx and Jean de Meun’s fantasies of what would happen if animals had reason, that is, we have in both cases the dominant group knowing that if it relaxed its dominance for a moment, it would be dead. In other words, It’s a recognition of what’s normally implicit, that normative gender is gender war.

But we also can work with the Albina story on the question of agency and materialism. After all, it’s MEAT that makes them lusty. And it’s perhaps Albina’s own large size that suits her — or compels her — to be such a leader. Or killer. And then we have a meditation on precisely this point in Jean de Wavrin, where Albina’s father explains that thought the stars might have influenced Albina to be a certain way, she could still resist it because she has “free will” (“vous possessez franche liberte“); and yet the father weeps forever at having lost nearly all his daughters. With affect like this, and with nobility seemingly rooted in the body, and with the body so medicalized, which is surely an ecocritical insight, where is the room for free will? The Albina story may offer no more room for free will than Marx.

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Day 9 – Gerald of Wales

gerald and the goat and lion

We spent a lot of time talking about //postmedieval// Ecomaterialism, where nearly everyone read Trigg and Cohen on fire, and many read Mentz on air, and also Siewers on Earth. I can say more here when I have time, but if people want to get more into this and summarize some of their key ideas, do, please!

We talked about vacuums, about what counts as a “material” (fire, maybe, glaciers, maybe not), about the earth as both existence itself and something distinct, in an analog to nature itself (both the thing that constitutes something and the thing outside). When I talked about Steve Mentz, “‘Making the green one red’: Dynamic Ecologies in Macbeth, Edward Barlow’s Journal, and Robinson Crusoe.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 13.3 (2013): 66-83, which I had read on the train to class, and about the sea being thought of as green in early modern thought, we got hung up, finally, on what classical Greek words for ‘blue’ might be, and the old debate about Homer’s Wine Dark Sea (for example).

For Gerald, I pointed out some other sources on the Irish and wonders well worth examining. Apart from Bishop Patrick of Dublin, there’s also material mentioned in the notes to the O’Meara translation, namely, the Irish translation of Nennius’s British history, 192-219, and the Irish wonder material in the Old Norse Kongs Skuggsjo, aka, the Speculum Regale (Meyer, Kuno. “The Irish Mirabilia in the Norse “Speculum Regale”.” Folklore 5.4 (1894): 299-316). The Meyer article argues from linguistic and orthographical evidence that the wonders can’t be from a written source, which suggests that the stories Gerald tells were circulating in Ireland more generally. That said, since the Kongs Skuggsjo postdates Gerald’s Topographia, it’s possible that Gerald may have been the ultimate source for these stories. You will want to read it for a number of reasons, chiefly, the werewolf lore, which differs quite a bit from Gerald’s story (and whose story of a vengeful saint recalls the origin story of the English tail), and for the men who go mad and flee into the woods (as in Merlin in the Vita Merliniand other, earlier sources) and there grow feathers (!! will need to check Meyer’s translation) and run along the trees as fast as squirrels (!).
I also pointed out two key manuscripts of Gerald’s Topographia, both of which are online, Dublin, National Library, MS 700 , and British Library,Royal MS 13.b.VIII, whose patterns of illustrations are basically the same, suggesting to some scholars that Gerald may be ultimately responsible in some way for the illustrations. We used Asa Mittman’s excellent early article on Gerald to observe how the Royal MS 13.b.VIII is particularly well-handled at the section about the woman who loved the goat (see above)

Our presentation of Gerald focused on Jeffrey Cohen’s work in his //Postcolonial Middle Ages// and his Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles. We heard about Gerald’s own attitudes towards his “marcher” identity, and his efforts to resolve his shared loyalties to Wales and the Angevin lords by demonizing the Irish and otherwise encouraging an invasion. We heard about how Gerald’s portrayal of Irish bestiality and Irish human/animal hybrids not only helps present the Irish as subhuman, but also helps Gerald think through his own conflicted Welsh/Norman loyalties. We developed some of Cohen’s points further: we wondered about the body as a spectacle for the public performance of truth, and how animals — nonlinguistic, sublinguistic, or otherly linguistic — function particularly well for this, both in Gerald and indeed in the fable tradition. We also wondered at the contradictions of the animal insult: though Gerald insults the Irish repeatedly through animal comparisons, he also tends to praise animals in general: so is being more natural, or more animal, a good thing or a bad thing?

I encouraged students to concentrate on Book I as much as possible. While the postcolonial readings of Gerald have been highly profitable (in the work of Cohen, Rhonda Knights, James Cain, and to a lesser degree Asa Mittman, for example), and while attention to Gerald’s wonders has, unsurprisingly, been especially popular, Book I has received very little critical love. An ecomaterialist approach, though, can correct that critical neglect. We were encouraged to look at how the presence of the land and climate already determines us to a large extent; we are always vulnerable, and existing at all, because of what is already there before us.

So, we read a few passages closely. We clarified that Gerald’s “East” is not “Eastern Ireland” but rather the “East,” as in Jerusalem and thereabouts. In this, he’s both discouraging Henry II from doing a crusade (notable, as our presenter observed, given that he would then go on a fundraising tour of Wales to raise money for a crusade, as recounted extensively in hisJourney through Wales and his Autobiogaphy), and also responding to the old traditions of writing about the Wonders of the East (as evidenced here) for example). You’ll also note that this map from Dublin, National Library, MS 700, 48r doesn’t go any further east than Sicily and Calabria (in the upper right-hand corner) and Theodosia (?) — Greece, anyway — in the upper left-hand corner. Gerald is, incidentally, part of an explosion of writing about the “Wonders of the West” that we see in the twelfth century: Gervase of Tilbury is but one of the several other writers who do this kind of thing.

We looked especially at the goat woman. We remarked on the assessment of the goat’s hair and horns, tam pilositate prelonga quam cornuum elatione suo in genere conspicuum in the text of the first recension. Is this an assessment of livestock? Is it admiration of a wonder? Is it aesthetic? Is it erotic? Of course one wants a goat with long hair and high horns, but why? This says something about the kind of desire Gerald’s trying to stir up in Henry II for Ireland, but it also says something about the non-innocence of admiration. We also looked at the “abuse” passages: in O’Meara’s translation, “The wretched woman…even submitted herself to his abuse” and “He was…created not for abuse but for proper use” (“Cui miserrima…ab abusum supponebat” and “licet tamen non ad abusum sed ad usum creata”). That difference between use and abuse is hard to maintain, of course, especially given what Gerald’s trying to stir up in Ireland. I tried and failed to connect this to usufruct in some way.

We looked at the badger and beaver of Book I: Gerald wonders at their having a kind of “peasant” class, where one animal is obligated to be loaded with materials and dragged about by others. Though Gerald says this is “wonderful,” of course, his own, human society would have been mostly peasants of some sort. What gives? Well, typically human thinking about animals homogenizes individual species: lions are noble, boars angry, sheep mild, foxes crafty, and so forth. This is what allows both bestiaries and fables to work as genres. But what happens when a species has class, when it has a culture, inequality, and so on? This is a wonder, perhaps. It certainly does something to how we think of animals.

mapFinally, we thought about the problem of life, first during Gerald’s discussion of the poisons of the east. O’Meara’s translation of the first recension, I.29, ends with “or, rather, among so many deaths, what life can there be?,” in Latin, “Vel potius, inter tot mortes, que vita,” which is the same text as in the 2nd recension. This led us first into a strange story from the 2nd recension (which has, apparently, been translated! a surprise to all of us), about an English pilgrim in Jerusalem, bitten by a snake, whose body at once, with its flesh and bones, was resolved into a formless mass like pitch (“statimque totum corpus eius, cum carnibus et ossibus, in massam quandam informen et quasi piceam est resolutum“), a figure of horror that at once suggests the shapeless stuff of the Real (in Zizek’s sense) and also the horrific element of Bennett’s “vibrant matter.”

We concluded by looking at “hibernating” birds I.16 and their similarity to von Uexküll’s famous tick. You’ll recall that Gerald, since he doesn’t know about migration, assumes that birds hibernate, and “in the interval, neither dead nor alive, they seem to continue living in their vital spirit and at the same time to be seized up into a long ecstasy and some middle state between life and death,” and so on. It’s likely that Gerald develops this idea from ursine hibernation, which in turn suggests the way that a bear cub, in its shapelessness at birth, is kind of indeterminately alive. We will need to do more with this question of life!

Day 8 – Volsung Saga and Vita Merlini

stone3906We started with a recent NY Times editorial, “Why Nothing is Truly Alive.” Illustrating his point with Strandbeest, Ferris Jabr argues:

Not only is defining life futile, but it is also unnecessary to understanding how living things work. All observable matter is, at its most fundamental level, an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These associations range in complexity from something as simple as, say, a single molecule of water to something as astonishingly intricate as an ant colony. All the proposed features of life —
metabolism, reproduction, evolution — are in fact processes that appear at many different regions of this great spectrum of matter. There is no precise threshold.”

Now, it’s one thing to say that there’s no one precise definition of life, and it’s another to say that this lack of a precise definition means that it’s “all in our head” and “futile.” The former is obviously correct, while the later is the kind of mistake one makes only by assuming that concepts must be completely airtight to function at all. But, as pragmatism observes, no one actually lives their life that way. And all concepts, being of this world, are necessarily impure and shifting. So, while the life/nonlife distinction works a lot of different ways, so there’s no ONE boundary, it still works, necessarily in a variety of ways, as we’ll see in Gerald of Wales.

I also directed our attention to this excellent blog post on good conference behavior: the short version is be mutually supportive, but the longer post is well worth reading.

I pointed out some medieval Sigurd art: the Sigurd portal, and especially the Sigurd Runestone. This recent article mentions a fifteenth-century account that features Sigurd’s enormous sword as a relic at what might be Aachen. I also pointed out material that I had found mostly from Mary Gerstein’s “Germanic Warg: The Outlaw as Werwolf,” whose richness I can’t do justice to. Some observations are that Odin, being a god of frenzyand oath breaking (among other things), seems to be a version of Loki and Fenris, and that the wolf outlaw seems to be at its root a grave robber or cannibal, at least if we go by these early Germanic laws (onetwo). I have texts like these in mind, which use archaeology, philology, and comparative folklore to discover the deep roots in, say, the concept of the hanging god, or of the antlered woodgod, or of the dragon-fighting hero (present in seventh-century English box, and pictured on page 410 here, pdf), when I ask: how can we read these kinds of works? If animals are key to “early” or “prehistoric” mythology, if there’s a universal (?) tendency not to take much account of human/animal differences, then are works like the Volsung Saga and the Vita Merlini somehow representative of an earlier stage in human thinking? The simple answer is of course not, but the better answer complicates things further.

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.

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]!

Procreating like Worms: Ut essem in homine ultra homines

by KARL STEEL

In Aristotle, Isidore, and a host of medieval encyclopedias, we learn that many worms and reptiles (creeping things) generate spontaneously, mostly from filth. From Bartholomew the Englishman’s On the Property of Things, for example, the louse “is yngendered of most, corrupt ayer and vapours þat sweten oute bitwen þe felle and the fleissch by pores” (18.48, p. 1239; is birthed from moist, corrupt air and vapors that sweat out from between the skin and the flesh from pores); the snail “in lyme oþer of lyme and is þerfore alway foule and vnclene” (18.70, p. 1222; in lime or of lime, and is therefore always foul and unclean); butterflies lay eggs in fruit and “bredeþ þerinne wormes þat comeþ of here stynkynge filþe” (18.47, p. 1198, and breed therein worms that come of their stinking filth); fleas lay eggs without “medlyng [mixing] of male and female” (18.49, p. 1240); and, more generally:

A worme hatte vermis and is a beste þat ofte gendreþ of fleisse and of herbes and gendreþ ofte of caule, and somtyme of corrupcioun of humours, and somtyme of medlynge of male and femele, and somtyme of eyren, as it fareþ of scorpiouns, tortuses, and euetes. (Bk 18, Chapt 115, p. 1264)

A worm is called “vermis” and is a beast that often is birthed from flesh and plants and often birthed from cabbage, and sometimes from putrefaction of humors, and sometimes from mixing of male and female [i.e., sexual reproduction], and sometimes from eggs, as it occurs with scorpions, tortoises, and newts.

Worms are the stuff of putrefaction. They are putrefaction come to life. They are life itself. Thick, greasy life.  It’s so obvious how putrefaction reminds us of what our pretension to bodily order tries to forget, and so obvious, too, that when putrefaction is made to play the part of formlessness and excess and the real (in both the Lacanian and “getting real” senses), it only further upholds the pretense of bodily order. No doubt I should read Ben Woodard’s Slime Dynamics for more.

It’s just as obvious that through their formlessness, dampness, and fleshiness, the myth of bodily order thinks of worms and putrefaction in general as gendered female or as the uncovered truth of feminine filth. It’s no accident that the corpse in theDisputation Between the Body and the Worms is a beautiful, rich woman, gawked at from a distance by a dreaming man, finally suffering her comeuppance when she’s compelled to become what she has been all along.

To clarify, here is the character Leo the Jew from Odo of Tournai’s (d. 1113) Disputation With the Jew, Leo, Concerning the Advent of Christ, the Son of God:

In one thing especially we laugh at you and think that you are crazy. You say that God was conceived within his mother’s womb, surrounded by a vile fluid, and suffered enclosure within this foul prison for nine months when finally, in the tenth month, he emerged from her private parts (who is not embarrassed by such a scene! (95)

It is embarrassing, in fact, how easily this scene yields to a certain kind of psychoanalysis: disgust at the body, disgust at women, disgust at one’s own birth, disgust at one’s own foundational dependency, an unwelcome reminder in the airy purity of men explaining philosophy. And so on. And it’s not just textual Jews who are made to give voice to bodily disgust, nor just Jews who are made the bear the burden of the body, either through being called beasts (as Peter the Venerable did) or accused of being able to read scripture only for the literal, base, bodily meaning (see Guibert of Nogent, for example).

Because here’s the Prik of Conscience, working from Innocent III’s De miseria condicionis humane: 

There dwelled mon in a dongyon

In stede of foule fylth and corrupcyoun,

Where he had noon othur foode

Bot foule glet and lipered bloode

And stynke and fylthe as I seyde ore

Therwith was he norysshed thore. (84-89)

([in the womb] man dwelled in a dungeon , in a place of foul filth and corruption, where he had no other food except foul slime and clotted blood and stink and filth as I have already said, and with that was he nourished there)

The problem is a general one, common to all of us of women born. There’s a way out of putrefaction, though, not simply by abandoning the body and this wormy world but rather, shockingly, by becoming still more wormy.

Because Christ too is a worm. Daniel A. Bertrand has covered this best, in his “Le Christ comme ver: A Propos du Psaume 22 (21), 7” (Christ as Worm: Concerning Psalm 22 (21):7). Psalms 21:2 begins, familiarly, “O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me?”, which medieval exegetes took as an incipit and not a complete statement. In other words, Christ actually quoted the whole of Psalms 21 from the Cross, including 21:7, “But I am a worm, and no man: the reproach of men, and the outcast of the people.”

Christ is a worm, said our exegetes, in his being a rebuke to humanity (the so-called worm of conscience). But he is also a worm in having been born miraculously, without sex. Here’s Augustine, from his commentary on the Psalms: “But I am a worm, and no man” (ver. 6). But I, speaking now not in the person of Adam, but I in My own person, Jesus Christ, was born without human generation in the flesh, that I might be as man beyond men” (“ego autem sum vermis, et non homo: ego autem jam non ex persona Adam loquens, sed ego proprie Jesus Christus sine semine in carne natus sum (or, in some mss, “sine semine incarnatus sum”), ut essem in homine ultra homines” (PL 36: 168))

Worms just happen. There’s no one to blame. No locatable desire. No primal scene, because there is no congress, no origin, no loss, and no chance of failure. Worms have no father, no mother, no sin, nothing but their being, a field of filth. The only excess is the excess of stuff itself, which always want to generate still more.

This is not a hope that dies with the Middle Ages. Here’s one source, perhaps. And still another, which I learned about from Marjorie Swann’s “’Procreate like Trees’: Generation and Society in Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici,” in Barbara Hanawalt and Lisa Kiser’s superb anthology Engaging With Nature (see my review here). Here is Browne’s hope, in 1643, to do without the filth and embarrassment and loss of commingling:

I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this trivial and vulgar way of coition: it is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life, nor is there any thing that will more deject his cooled imagination, when he shall consider what an odd and unworthy piece of folly he hath committed. (106-7)

Browne goes on to aver his love of beauty: he could spend a day admiring even a picture of a horse, and best of all, he loves the clean, pure motion of the spheres, whose order, proportion, and harmony have nothing of the ridiculous, earthly, or moist about them. Procreate like trees, he wishes, but he might have said “like worms,” though, as a man of his age, perhaps he knew that Swammerdam would be coming soon to bar him from that fantasy.

For now, I leave you with a plea to help me remember–was it on twitter?–where I stumbled across the obvious point about the obvious misogyny underlying the clichéd hatred of the words panties and moist.

The Forest Law and the Deer’s Lively Carcass

Laurent Millet, "L'herbier"

Laurent Millet, “L’herbier”

This week I’ll be participating in the International Medieval Society – Paris’s annual symposium, whose topic is animals. On Saturday, I’ll be presenting a paper on forest law about which I wrote here long ago. In that post, most of which my dissertation swallowed up, I thought of the forest law only in terms of human interests and human anxieties, though I thought I was doing a lot to unsettle human pretensions to natural superiority. What Levi Bryant wrote in Democracy of Objects certainly applied to me: “while anti-humanisms rescue philosophy from its focus on individual minds, allowing us to discern the sway of far more impersonal and anonymous patterns and structures at work in the heart of thought and social relations, it by no means follows that anti-humanism has escaped anthropocentrism” (39).

This Saturday, and in what I know will be a thoroughly revised version in July at the New Chaucer Society, I’m going to think of the systems of the human and of the royal forest as nonhuman assemblages in which humans act and are acted upon, compelled to do irrational things, so far as they’re concerned, to uphold the reason of the larger assemblage; and I’m going to remark on how irrational inconvenience some elements in an assemblage experience alerts us to the “withdrawn core” of the assemblage’s constituent elements, in this case, people with leprosy and the deer. I could expand this insight to look at the forester and the sovereign as well.

Or I could if I had time. Because I have only 20 minutes, I don’t really have space to do all I should do. So for that excuse, among others, what I’m sharing with you isn’t anywhere near as accomplished as Jeffrey’s extraordinary grey ecology paper. But it’s good to share, and good for you, if you have time or interest, to share your comments with me. I might not have time to respond to them by Saturday, but I certainly will by July. Thanks for what insight you provide.

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An English hunting law, enforced at least since 1238, concerns the problem of deer whose death violates the smooth operations of the forest. It runs as follows:

If any dead or wounded wild animal should be found and it does not belong to a herdsman. First, there should be an inquiry in the four closest towns, which should be recorded; and the finder should be put by six pledges; the flesh however 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.

Today I’m primarily concerned with the apparently charitable distribution of the deer’s carcass. The law mandates that the carcass be confiscated or, more accurately, that it be returned to the king’s control. The skin and head go to the nearest freemen, and ultimately from there, as G.J. Turner suggested long ago, to the crown, while the meat go to people with leprosy or, failing that, to the sick and the poor. In other words, the meat must be used; the law offers no exemption for carcasses that are badly mangled or rotting. Regardless of their condition, they cannot just be discarded.

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

Repulsive in at least two senses: first, thirteenth-century England was a “warm epoch” compared to the following centuries, and, 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. A carcass left in thirteenth-century English woods wouldn’t have taken long to putrefy. Second, the law required that the king’s agents come into proximity with diseased people thought to be especially disgusting and perhaps especially contagious. In sum, there’s something seemingly irrational, even dangerous, in what the forest law is compelling the king and his agents to do.

I’m deliberately ascribing agency to the legal space of the forest. Towards the end of my paper, I will discuss the more obvious agencies of people with leprosy of the deer themselves, but mostly today I’ll be presenting the legal system of the forest as itself possessing an agency in excess of human efforts and desires. Throughout my paper, implicitly and explicitly, I will be understanding all of these human, animal, and systemic efforts, obligations, and resistances through a posthuman understanding of agency inspired by the new materialisms, a body of work encompassing, more or less harmoniously, actor-network theory, vital materialism, object-oriented ontology, and so on. Thinking with this body of work helps me understand how humans are not the only significant actors in this situation of the deer’s carcass; and it helps me be aware, as well, of the independent existence of the deer and forest law and, as well, people with leprosy. In a larger sense, I’m using this body of work to complicate and enrich our understandings of both responsibility and ethics.

What the king and his representative, the forester, must do is as inconvenient and possibly repulsive and dangerous as it is necessary. That necessity doesn’t derive in any direct way from the king’s own choices, but rather from the logic of royal authority itself, which encompasses the operations of the king, forester, poachers, freemen, and people with leprosy, deer and less-valued beasts, the forest as place and the forest as a legal space. Thus when I call the law’s requirements “seemingly irrational,” I mean that they look irrational when judged from an exclusively anthropocentric perspective; from other perspectives,ones not necessarily human, the law makes perfect sense. In other words, we don’t need to declare the law simply irrational, nor need we turn up a rational human benefit—say, in hygiene—for this food law, as scholars have done with so many others. Instead, we can work out how there’s another, nonhuman reason at work, which puts humans to work for it.

The first of these is the system of the human itself, which operations we can discover by looking at analogous food requirements in the penitentials. The penitential’s carrion laws proscribed humans from eating the meat of any animal they did not intend to kill. Moreover, some penitentials, particularly the earlier ones, demanded that the meat be distributed to pigs, dogs or, significantly, to homines bestiales, bestial men, humans in what Rob Meens identified as the outer circle of the human community.

To be sure, the penitentials may be irrelevant for an early thirteenth-century law: by this point, penitentials were a moribund genre, already being supplanted by more elaborate tools of spiritual guidance. Certainly, some evidence survives for the continued practice of the carrion laws in later medieval England, for example, in William of Canterbury’s late-twelfth-century Life and Miracles of Thomas Becket, where a sheep injures itself, and its owner stabs it in the threat to kill it himself “lest it become carrion.”

But I don’t think I need to demonstrate the continuing vitality of earlier carrion laws to read the penitentials with this forest law. Rather, I’m pointing out these earlier handbooks only to call attention to a similar logic at work in both. The confiscation of the carcass and its redistribution to dogs, or, in
later periods, people with leprosy or the poor, repairs what the law
demands be understood as an assault, depending on the law, on human or
royal control over life and death in the forest.

The paired action marked some animal deaths as illicit; it enshrines human agency or the agency of dominant humans as legitimate, even while constraining or channelling that agency by turning humans into tools of the human system; it returned control over the dead animal and its flesh to the humans or dominant humans, even as it required humans to go without food to defend their own pretence at agential particularity; and it showed the scorn for the flesh and for anyone who would, in effect, share a meal with those not authorized to kill animals legitimately, or, put another way, for those not constrained to follow the dictates of the human or forest system.

In both the penitentials and the forest law, humans are made to
refuse to eat certain meats, even if the meat might have been perfectly
edible and desperately needed, and they were compelled to distribute
this meat to eaters that were disdained, despised, or pitied. They’re acting in the service of a larger system.

By the same logic, the distribution of carrion to people with leprosy should not be understood only as a freely chosen act of charity. The loss of enforested deer to violence seriously damaged the crown. Again, a seeming irrationality, this one of the forest system, helps us understand what humans are being made to do. Recently, S. A. Mileson’s Parks in Medieval England has reasserted the centrality of hunting to the purpose and function of the forest, and Simon Schama, like other scholars, has observed 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 king needed the forest, as lesser nobles needed their parks and chases, and they fed that need despite their considerable expense.

Forests might generate some money, through forges and tanneries, through the extraction of turf and stone and wood, through fees for pannage rights and fines imposed for violating the forest law. But enforested land turned a much smaller profit than comparable nonforested land, and these meagre forest profits seem to have been cycled back into forest maintenance. Despite this, hunting parks were the last good that an impoverished aristocrat would give up. Instead of going without, they would dedicate themselves to these money pits, even at the cost of their own line’s well-being.

The center of this drain was the deer itself, the focus on aristocratic violence for which the forests existed. Deer were great wastes of money, inefficient at converting their food to body mass, prone to disease and theft, destructive of ground cover and crops, needing the particular and expensive skills of parkers. Furthermore, as historians of medieval English hunting often observe, 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, and justice themselves, along with 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 sell none of these without undoing his own position as king. The king was, therefore, beholden to his own royalty and the things that materialized his own authority—the deer and the forest system most notably—which drove him to expend energy and wealth on the maintenance of an animal almost by design resistant to any reductively rational explanation.

I’m not saying that the king would be a free actor were it not for the constraint of the dull, unthinking drag of the forest/royal system. It’s not a matter, for example, of just taking the human as unbalanced by the inhuman and irrepressibly chaotic forces of the Real, whose energies remind us that no structure can live up to its pretences to rationality. It’s a matter of recognizing something perhaps more terrifying, namely, that there’s another reason at work in whose service the king is operating. I think we can strike a kind of compromise between these positions, however. The king’s not just the object of another’s agency. He’s an actor in this forest system; he’s choosing to engage in charity and to defend his rights; but he’s also acting for others, who are making their choices, all of them imperfectly enmeshed in a forest assemblage that has them acting for it. The king’s agency, like any agency, is shared in meshworks of agency and constraint, communication and miscommunication, in which what’s irrational or unfair to one member might make perfect sense for another.

From Jane Bennett’s “theory of distributive agency” in her book Vibrant Matter, 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.” The deer, poachers, the king, the king’s royal power, the forest law, the obligation towards charity, people with leprosy, appetite itself, and perhaps, although this is hard to imagine, the thirteenth-century climate: within the forest system, all these have their own reason and own sense of the irrational, their own orders and anxieties. All are interconnected more or less harmoniously with others, all enabling and constraining or channelling the actions of others, making agents into their objects and being objectified in turn. Humans are a part of these meshworks of agency and objectification, and they shouldn’t be thought of as the center, or as the only center. The king’s at once acting to defend his royal position and being compelled to order behavior that may seem inconvenient to him and his servants. He’s making a choice, and also having a choice made for him, and so too with everything in the assemblage of this forest law.

That some elements of a system feel themselves irrationally constrained indicates that these elements have an existence in excess of the operations of the system. Here, in my paper’s final portion, I’m turning our attention to another insight from the new materialisms, specifically as developed by object-oriented ontology. The constituent elements of an agential assemblage have their own motivations; that they have their own umwelt (see Democracy of Objects 63)—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 is what object-oriented ontology, as practiced, for example, by Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, calls the “withdrawn core” of any object, in which, as Bryant writes, “objects are always in excess of any of their local manifestations.” Any object, which can be human, animal, or material, anything that is, any assemblage, whether briefly existing or seemingly perpetual, is inaccessible in its fullness to what any other unit does with it.

This insight leads us to recognitions that we wouldn’t get if we pay attention only to the symbolic use intellectuals and sovereigns make of those they dominate, or if we paid attention only to the irrational inconveniences and anxious compensations of dominant human existence. People with leprosy, for example, have an existence inaccessible to narratives of devotion, disability, and disgust, as Julie Orlemanski reminds us in a recent article. The forest law treats these people as the objects of charity, as a kind of machine for turning assistance into prayers. But lepers themselves 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, but which also, I speculate, might make them potentially independent of further charitable donations. Though hailed as objects of charity, the leprous subject might not have needed or wanted a more or less intact or edible deer carcass that the forest law demanded they take. They might not have needed or wanted to serve as a disposal system for the forest system’s failures.

Furthermore, recalling the existence of any unit’s withdrawn core means we must recall that the deer has its own particular existence, that the deer’s carcass has another, and that neither is an inert plaything for human reason. Whether alive or dead, the deer is more than the king, the poacher, the forester, or the forest law can do with it. If the thirteenth-century climate and the carcass’s susceptibility to putrefaction witness to a stubborn liveliness, as well, outside of the operations of the forest law, or the human desire to smoothly turn a living animal into meat.

Like other hunting laws, the law aims to control human behavior, in this case, serving as yet another injunction against poaching. Records of the practice of the law, however, witness to the deer’s resistant bodies and activities, which the law can only hope to control after the fact. Evidence survives of the law dealing with the carcass of a hart that had gone mad and died, and of a hart that had come out the loser in mortal combat with one of its peers. Here we have death and violence that, through their indifference to the king, frustrates sovereign mastery of the forests. The deers’ own bodies, behaviors, and vulnerabilities, and their own murderous erotic energy, testifies to a cervid existence inassimilable to the forest law and royal needs. For more on this point, which will have to be my final one, I advise you to look forward to Cary Wolfe’s forthcoming Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame, whose thoughts on the resistant bodies of factory-farmed livestock inspired my thinking here.