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

Ghada Amer at Cheim + Read

by KARL STEEL

Two quick points:

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


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

Here’s a sample:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe commentators can suggest another way forward?



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

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#occupythemiddleages “God Spede the Plough”

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I couldn’t have done better on purpose. Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I set out to join a couple ten thousand of our Union allies to march on Wall Street. Earlier that day, in my medieval senior seminar on eating, I taught Chaucer’s Plowman portrait, Piers Plowman B.6 (the “Hunger” passus), and “God Spede the Plough”. I told the students I’d be starting my office hours early so I could get out for the protest, gave a bit of CUNY-specific context about my going (I pointed to the blackboard and said, this one here, it’s ok, but you know it’s about the only decent blackboard on this floor), and then stymied an incipient discussion about contemporary politics.

Not that that did much good. What ensued was necessarily political. Everything(?) is, anyhow (always historicize! says the one; always de-correlationize says the other; sometimes they speak together), and it can’t help but be when we’re reading medieval texts about peasants. For Chaucer’s Plowman portrait, for example, I asked the students why Chaucer had the Plowman work for free; why he omitted the coercions of the landowners; and why the second line of the portrait links him with “donge”: here, I said, is an image that’s at once one of production and disgust, delight in food (which the peasant brings) and disgust at our reliance on the body and the labor of peasants (remember, I said, who would have been reading this text: not the 99%).

Then “God Spede the Plough.” Here’s the first stanza translated:

As I walked myself over wide fields

When men began to plow (“ere”) and sow,

I saw how quickly farmers hastened

with their beasts and plow all in a row.

I stood and saw the beasts well yoked/used

To plow the land that was so tough;

Then to a farmer I said this saying,

“I pray to God, may the plow prosper.”

First I suggested that the last line, repeated at the end of each of the poem’s 12 stanzas, might be operating like Shakespeare’s “Brutus is an honorable man.” Watch, I said, how the context changes the meaning of this only apparently innocuous line.

Then: who is this I and why do we need him? Why does the voice of the farmer require an intermediary? Spivak proved to be useful here: I proposed that the text thematizes the impossibility of hearing peasant voices directly. As in “French” feminism, the peasant cannot speak in this system and be heard as a peasant. Notably, the last stanza (ll. 89-96) shows this witnessing “I” completely missing the point of what he had heard. From the third to the eleventh stanzas, the farmer complains that peasants work, and work, and work, and one after another the rich show up to demand their cut. The land may be tough, but what’s worse are the rich. Yet the final stanza, missing the entire point of the complaint, offers nothing better than be of good cheer. The event has not happened.

I focused on this stanza:

“To paye the fiftene ayenst our ease,

Beside the lordys rente of our londe —

Thus be we shepe shorne, we may not chese,

And yet it is full lytell understonde.

Than bayllys and bedellis woll put to their hande

In enquestis to doo us sorwe inough,

But yf we quite right wele the londe;

‘I praye to God, spede wele the plough.'”

And yet it is full lytell understonde: the line teaches itself, yes?

I led them through two translations of the last 4 lines. The obvious reading: “Then bailiffs and beadles will take hold of us in inquests to do us sorrow unless we do right by the land: ‘I pray to God, may the plow prosper.'” In a classic damned if you do/don’t sentiment, the farmer says they’ll be fleeced either way: if they prosper, the priest and friars and nobles will reduce them to penury; if they don’t prosper, they’ll be arrested for not paying their rents.

Another translation, with slightly different punctuation: “Then bailiffs and beadles will take hold of us in inquests to do us sorrow; but if we totally abandon the land, I pray to God, may the plow prosper.” The complaint’s now a threat: do wrong by us, haul us off to jail, and you will all starve. You need us. We are many; you are few.

Then I returned to Monday’s class, when I taught Wynnere and Wastoure (translation here). Here’s a closed argument between a miserly and spendthrift noble about who better serves the kingdom and their own souls. What their debate leaves out are are the workers whose efforts–not Winner’s–stuff the granges to the bursting point. For this debate, workers are only subjects of charity, there to get by as best they can on the leftovers of Waster’s excess.

If we read Wynnere and Wastoure from the anamorphic perspective of “God Spede the Plough,” we see the truth of the matter: both these nobles are wasters. Both sponge off the labor of others. In sum: class means class war. À bas the 1%!

And then, not having taught a political class at all, I went to the protest.

294508_2344980178503_1069963695_2689308_915535336_n(here I am with my colleague Samir Chopra: some of you may want to read his most recent book, A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents)

(and a big tip of the hat to “Vellum” for the twitter tag #occupythemiddleages)