False Victims, Inwardly Ravening Rulers

23696853_9daa635c17In the most recent Nation Corey Robbin (BC-CUNY History Prof) reviews Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, the collection Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, and Jacob Heilbrunn’s They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons. On his way to arguing for the fundamentally reactionary nature of conservatism (and thus against the notion that Goldwater and his descendants have much to teach liberals about organizing), on his way to pointing out how much terminological ground the Conservatives have lost to liberals (for decades, at least, they have had to argue for “freedom” and “liberty” and “egalitarianism”), and on his way to kicking Heilbrunn down the stairs for what he diplomatically termed “sloppy…borrowed…derivative” writing (and what I might, less diplomatically, refer to our academic integrity office), Robin writes:

While John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville and David Hume are sometimes cited by the more genteel defenders of conservatism as the movement’s leading lights, their writings cannot account for what is truly bizarre about conservatism: a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood, arguably for the first time in history. Plato’s guardians were wise; Aquinas’s king was good; Hobbes’s sovereign was, well, sovereign. But the best defense of monarchy that Maistre could muster in Considerations on France (1797) was that his aspiring king had attended the “terrible school of misfortune” and suffered in the “hard school of adversity.”

Conservatives have asked us not to obey them but to feel sorry for them–or to obey them because we feel sorry for them.

And soon after he writes:

[Conservatives] are aggrieved and entitled–aggrieved because entitled–and already convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the inevitability of its triumph. They can play victim and victor with a conviction and dexterity the subaltern can only imagine, making them formidable claimants on our allegiance and affection. Whether we are rich or poor or somewhere in between, the conservative is, as Hugo Young said of Maggie Thatcher, one of us.

This point, in part because Robin expresses it so well, hardly requires the emphasis of proof, but I could offer our friend Charlotte Allen as a perfect example. And by that I of course mean she’s merely an example.

However, my point is not to promote Robin’s brilliant review, nor to herald the nobility of CUNY (and we are all fans here of Steve Kruger, Glenn Burger, and Valerie Allen, inter alia). Rather, my point, if I want to reduce it to this, is to trapdoor another Nation review, because of course we medievalists always salivate when anyone writes “arguably for the first time in history.”

(I thus defer responsibility for what I do here to my drives.) The dynamic of “a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood” predictably conjures up the clichéd Hegelian insight that any desire for a self-sustaining, idealized identity (for example, “the human”) is necessarily going to discover itself under threat, as this continuing failure is, after all, inherent to identity-as-fetish and is, in fact, what enables it: hence my use of the phrase “discover itself” to characterize this violent phenomenology.

Robin’s “ruling class…sense of victimhood” also conjures up the structure of Christianity itself, whose Savior is a victim whose Kingdom opens most easily to the poor, the sick, prisoners, and the scorned, or to those who ascetically take on the habitus, if not the class position, of such groups. A couple of centuries later, Christianity becomes the State religion. The cognitive dissonance necessary to adapt an outsider faith to a position of dominance infinitely fascinates me, perhaps nowhere near so much as in Eusebius’s record of the effects of Constantine’s conversion. In one sermon for this period, we hear how:

Benefactors of themselves and all men, and Christ they [emperors and the secular ruling class] acknowledge as Son of God and sovereign Lord of the universe, naming Him ‘Saviour’ on monuments, and inscribing in royal characters in the middle of the city that is queen of the cities on earth an indelible record of His triumphs and His victories over the wicked.
(G. A. Williamson trans., revised by Andrew Louth, in the 1989 Penguin edition of The History of the Church, 4.17, p. 309)

With this delight in Jesus honored by emperors as a emperor-god–that is, in the style to which Roman gods and emperors had grown accustomed–any earlier scorn of Rome, any wishes for its destruction and for a new eternal city, retroactively looks less like otherworldliness and more like ressentiment (and you will observe now, if you have not already, the hoariness of my “insights”).

Looking far ahead, I slide into the exegesis of Psalms 79: 14, “exterminavit eam aper de silva, et singularis ferus depastus est eam” (The boar from the woods has banished her; and a singular wild beast hath devoured her), which interpretations passed down from Augustine and Cassiodorus understood as referencing the destruction and dispersal of the Palestinian Jews under Titus and Vespasian. In this exegesis, admiration for the power of Rome, and for the ability of Rome to do God’s will, was always polluted by a (feigned?) scorn for Rome itself; thus in his commentary on the Psalms Bruno the Carthusian impugns Titus and Vespasian with “ ‘aper de silva’ procedens, Vespasianus scilicet, qui ferus erat et immundus sordibus vitiorum, sicut aper ferum animal est et sordidum” (PL 152: 1066D; “a boar from the woods” appearing, namely Vespasian, who was savage and unclean with filthy vices, just as the boar is a savage beast and filthy). In a commentary on Habakkuk, Rupert of Deutz explains Habakkuk 2: 17 (“vastitas animalium deterrebit eos de sanguinibus hominum” (and the ravaging of beasts will terrify them because of the blood of men) through what must be a memory of Psalms 79:14: “Ut dictum, ita et factum est. Venerunt enim animalia de silva” (as it was said, so it happened. For animals came from the woods). These animals are, as usual, Titus and Vespasian, who justly destroy the Jews, “qua primi ex omnibus gentibus ausi fuerunt ad se missos prophetas et sapientes et Scribas occidere et crucifigere, flagellare in synagogis suis, et de civitate in civitatem persequi” (who had first among all peoples dared to kill the prophets, wise men, and scribes sent to them, and to crucify and beat them in their synagogues, and to pursue them from city to city). For all his desire to have such a people scorged, Rupert designates Rome as the “silva,” and characterizes the silva as a place “ubi erat multiplicitas errorum, et feri homines habitabant, sicut ferae in silva” (PL 168: 623B-C; where there were many errors, and bestial men lived, just as beasts do in the woods): this city, this center of civilization, this “queen of the cities,” is no city at all.

Monks of the eleventh and twelfth centuries upheld their social power in part by scorning the world, but they did this even as the world’s endowments swelled their estates, even as they became the financiers of Crusade (see Robert C. Stacey, “Crusades, Martyrdoms, and the Jews of Norman England, 1096-1190,” in Juden und Christen zur Zeit der Kreuzzüge, ed. A. Haverkamp. Sigmaringen, 1998, 240). Knowing this, is it enough to demystify monastic scorn of “Rome” and its emperor by pointing out the obvious, namely, that in their enjoyment of Titus and Vespasian and through their enabling of yet another destruction of Palestine, the monks are themselves the boars come from the woods? Is it enough to return to Eusebius to strip the feigned authenticity of victimhood from (certain) Christianities? Have I done enough in invoking ressentiment and Hegel? Is there enough in these gestures–to which I might add my 2005 Leeds paper on “The Christ Child and Pigs in the Oven”–to justify what I do here, to make all this something more than a precious insistence that Robin weigh down what’s already an enormous review with the detritus of my medievalist memory?

Lacking a proper conclusion, lacking even directed motion, all I can do is stop here for now.

(Creative Commons image from here.)


For ages now, I’ve wanted to write (or, rather, finish) a piece on shifting self-identification of regular clergy as sometimes poor and sometimes needing to dole out charity: I have in mind–perhaps not correctly–a sermon on the Dives et Pauper parable by the 12th-century regular canon Raoul Ardent. I’m sure that’s what underlies all my thinking in the post.

Nicola, I know we talked about this briefly just the other day, but I do want to thank you for this comment, and, at once to reassert that (of course) some situations can best be analyzed according to a victim/violator schema, and also to thank you for turning our attention to the question of the victim itself. I do wonder, however, whether the ‘reality’ is in fact “collective” responsibility. I do want to propose a slight nuance by suggesting distributed responsibility. The advantage derives from moving us past the binary and thus allowing for more complex, more adequate, and thus more helpful analysis, while still preserving the differing weights of responsibility that “collectivity” obscures. Although in our conversation I offered Reagan’s destruction of Carter’s environmental improvements to the White House (and thus Reagan’s repudiation of environmentalism and thus, given that the 80s might have been a “magic window” for halting global warming, his responsibility for lord knows how many tens or hundreds of millions of deaths in the next 15-30 years, probably including my own), Reagan’s repudiation would not have been possible, or politically efficacious, without, for example, structures of masculinity that consider environmentalism a kind of effeminacy. As an American male, I no doubt participate, or have participated to some degree, in that structure. But, again, the best analytical mode for this phenomenon and its effects is one that attends to power. Thus we must condemn Reagan, but we must also distribute responsibility. We need more guilt, not less; “distribution” should therefore not be understood as dilution. And we need that guilt to encourage us to make a space for those who can most authentically speak as victims. This goal may involve teaching people to recognize their own victimhood. – See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2008/06/false-victims-inwardly-ravening-rulers.html#sthash.3t5QeSyJ.dpuf


In honor of my dissertation’s final chapter, on pigs, here’s a set of piggy links. I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but you might still want to watch out for potentially anthropophagous pigs. The police say that there’s no proof the pigs ate human flesh; but they’re not entirely sure. While it wouldn’t have been entirely fair to the pigs, the police might have looked to the pseudo-Egbert penitential, which explains, “Si porcus, vel gallina vel cujuscunque generis animal de corpore hominis ederit, vel sanguinem ejus biberit, occidatur animal, et detur canibus” (if a pig, or a cock, or any other kind of animal has eaten from a human corpse, or drank its blood, let the animal be killed and given to the dogs). Alternately, if they were feeling more humane, the police could have consulted the Adomnan penitential: “Caro suilla morticinis crassa vel pinguis, ut morticinum quo pinguescit refutanda est. Cum vero decreverit et in pristinam maciem reversa, sumenda est” (The flesh of a swine grown fat from [eating] carrion should be rejected like the carrion on which the swine grew fat. However, when the swine has lost weight and returned to its former leanness, let it be accepted [for eating]).

Pigs were probably the most dangerous domestic animals of the Middle Ages. Don’t let down your guard: pigs do tend to gang up on people. In 1379, three sows rushed to help their piglets murder little Perrinot Muet; Mars sends pigs to “freten the child right in the cradel” (Chaucer CT I 2019) and perhaps he also inspired the pigs in a recent case in Norfolk in which a “51-year-old man was knocked over by a sow at a Norfolk farm, prompting the rest of the herd to attack him” or in another case in Serbia, in which “A farmer’s home in northern Serbia was destroyed in a blaze caused by three pigs that broke out of their pen, walked into the living room and knocked over the TV.”

The foundation of the common medieval punning alternation between porcus and corpus dates at the latest to Aristotle’s observation on the similarity between porcine and human anatomy. More recently, a poster for a torture horror film, Hostel II, has come under fire because of its bloody representation of flesh. No harm, explains the designer; it’s just a picture of wild boar meat. With that in mind, purchasers of meatballs made from human fat may want to check that they’re not being cheated.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for pork, you may want to look at this dubiously sourced article on zombie pigs or you may wish to look into a future stocked with meat tubes (here and here and also in Oryx and Crake) or, if you’re feeling more gentle, you may just want to satisfy your cravings with a pork-flavored postage stamp. If you’re feeling really gentle, you may want to become a hog breeder.

Breeding pigs commercially is an art. I talked to a man who had one of the most successful records for breeding sows out there and he told me things no one’s ever written in a book as far as I know. Each boar had his own little perversion the man had to do to get the boar turned on so he could collect the semen. Some of them were just things like the boar wanted to have his dandruff scratched while they were collecting him [locution sic]. (Pigs have big flaky dandruff all over their backs.) The other things the man had to do were a lot more intimate. He might have to hold the boar’s penis in exactly the right way that the boar liked, and he had to masturbate some of them in exactly the right way. There was one boar, he told me, who wanted to have his butt hole played with. “I have to stick my finger in his butt, he just really loves that,” he told me. Then he got all red in the face.

(from Animals in Translation, 103, a peculiar, chatty book that I might write about in the next few weeks)


RE: heritage pigs. Funny that, as the “heritage” here is the Western Pig, or, at least, the pig prior to the 18th century, which the Chinese Pig began to become the predominant domestic pig in Europe. Prior to that, domestic pigs in Europe are every bit as hairy and scary looking (long legs, arched back, etc.) as our usual imagining of wild pigs. Look at any calendar sequence in any book of hours for the Winter Months. The modern domestic pig, the sleek, short-legged, pink, enormous animals, is an import. With all that in mind, I wonder if calling the bristly pig a “heritage” pig is the best idea…. – See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2007/01/tiny-shriner-iii-pigs-edition.html#sthash.lyjzSrKC.dpuf

It doesn’t all taste like chicken

1b_1_bMichel Pastoureau observes that “for medieval society, in effect, the animal that was closest to man is not the bear (despite its outward appearance and its supposed similar method of coupling), even less so the monkey (an abominable figure of the devil), but in fact the pig.” The notable resemblance between human and pig, apparent in their shared cunning and omnivorousness, is perhaps at its most disquieting in the similarity between human and porcine anatomy, for this internal similarity is precisely what would be on display at Christian meals. If our Christian eaters had done their homework–and I don’t doubt that some of them did–they would have recalled medieval medical treatises, which often included an anagrammatic pun on corpus (body) and porcus (pig). More likely, by remembering the common disparagement of pigs in medieval moral treatises, they would have thought about the pig as a speculum of their own gluttony, but the medical pun might be recalled even in this context: Peter the Chanter’s On Virtues and Vices (aka Verbum abbreviatum), for example, points out that “the pig has much in common with humans in its body, as is shown from the arrangement of its internal organs (sicut ex anatomia et divisione ejus patet)” (PL 205:337D-338A). such observations have the support of modern science: see Wilson Pond and Harry J. Mersmann’s Biology of the Domestic Pig (New York, 2001), which observes that “the digestive similarity and nutrient requirements of the pig and human are remarkably similar.”

Pond and Mersmann don’t talk about similarity of flesh, but if they’re ever so inclined, they might ask a Japanese robot to write a chapter in their textbook’s next edition:

At the end of the robot’s left arm is an infrared spectrometer. When objects are placed up against the sensor, the robot fires off a beam of infrared light. The reflected light is then analyzed in real time to determine the object’s chemical composition.

“All foods have a unique fingerprint,” Shimazu said. “The robot uses that data to identify what it is inspecting right there on the spot.”

When it has identified a wine, the robot speaks up in a childlike voice. It names the brand and adds a comment or two on the taste, such as whether it is a buttery chardonnay or a full-bodied shiraz, and what kind of foods might go well on the side…
When a reporter’s hand was placed against the robot’s taste sensor, it was identified as prosciutto. A cameraman was mistaken for bacon.

All I have to say right now is: no kidding.


(hat-tip: Majikthise) (thanks to this ebay auction for the image. You’ve a day left if you want to own it yourself)

Claudine Fabre-Vassas The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig (trans. Carol Volk, New York, 1997) is essential. Michel Pastoureau’s several discussions of pigs can be found in: “Quel est le roi des animaux?” in Le monde animal et ses représentations au Moyen-Age (XIe-XVe siècles) (Toulouse, 1985); “L’homme et le porc: une histoire symbolique,” in Couleurs, images, symboles: études d’histoire et d’anthropologie (Paris: Léopard d’Or, 1989); “Histoire d’une mort infâme: le fils du roi de France tué par un cochon (1131),” Bulletin de la société nationale des antiquaires de France (1992): 174-76; “L’animal et l’historian du Moyen Âge.” in L’animal exemplaire au Moyen Âge (Ve – Xve Siècle), ed Jacques Berlioz and Marie Anne Polo de Beaulieu (Rennes, 1999), 13-28; “La chasse au sanglier: histoire d’une dévalorisation (IVe-XIV siècle),” in La chasse au Moyen Age: société, traités, symboles, ed. Agostino Paravicini Bagliani and Baudouin van den Abeele, (Florence, 2000), 7-23; and “Une justice exemplaire: les procès intentés aux animaux (XIIe – XVIe s.),” Cahiers du Léopard d’or 9 (2000), 173-200. He reprints some of the above material in Les animaux célèbres, (Paris: Bonneton, 2001) and Une histoire symbolique du moyen âge occidental,(Paris: Seuil, 2004).

“They only call them pigs when they’re alive.”

157576295_abb58da0ffOne of the works I encountered the course of writing my dissertation is the Testamentum Porcelli (the Will of the Little Pig), a short prose work of the fourth century that, as Jerome complained, schoolchildren preferred to Plato’s Timaeus. The Testamentum takes the form of a dictated will—“since I cannot write with my hand”—in which a pig named Grunnius Corocotta Porcellus (translated by one critic, a certain “G. Anderson,” as “Grunter Boarman-Roastpig, Esq.”) bequeaths grain and other foodstuff to his porcine survivors and portions of his body to sectors of human society: his bristles to shoemakers, his intestines to sausage makers, and more fancifully, his tongue to lawyers and “to the verbose” and “cinaedis musculos” (muscles to sodomites), until he reaches the end of his own body.

The work is a joke whose humor relies upon the disjuncture between its solemn legalities and its characters, one a cook, usually a low-class comic figure in classical literature, and the other an ambiguous animal. The Testamentum could be comfortably funny only because animal rights or animal consciousness should be inherently ridiculous; a gecko selling insurance is usually much funnier than the human salesman, Ralph, from Perth Amboy. Usually. But the effectiveness of the Testamentum’s joke requires that its violence not stay comfortably put, that the animal not remain merely an animal. Freud argues that jokes “evade restrictions and open sources of pleasure that have become inaccessible.” The words of smut, Freud’s paradigmatic example of course, compel the person subjected to it “to imagine the part of the body or the procedure in question and shows her that the assailant is himself imagining it.” The pleasures that the Testamentum opens are pleasures of eating, imagined pleasures of cannibalism in fact; they are pleasures of butchery that need not limit itself to animals; they are pleasures of the hidden, unacknowledgable truth about the carnal companionship of animals with humans. What has been exposed by the “smut” of this joke is the human disassembled in, by, or along with a pig temporarily become a person, a joke in which both teller and hearer are victims who participate most fully only by imagining themselves as edible flesh, as human corpus that finds itself in porcus. It is no wonder, then, that the poem tries a little too hard to keep its joke under control by hanging a patronizing diminutive, porcellus, on an animal whose proximity to the human is what makes the joke worth telling in the first place.

Ambiguity 1. The pig possesses something few animals do, an individual, even familial name, yet this name is little more than a concatenation of pigs’ stereotypical traits, a bestiary in miniature. In contrast, the pig’s animal lack of hand joins him to the human. Although pigs have no hands or any other limb they could use to write, nothing prevents Grunnius from drafting a written document formed in accordance with the law; even most fourth-century humans—of whom most were neither professional scribes nor literate—dictated their wills. Thus the first joke, “quoniam manu mea scribere non potui,” hardly separates Grunnius from humans: he cannot write, but neither could most of his supposed superiors.

Ambiguity 2. The pig’s ambiguity necessarily infects his killer. The cook’s initial words belong to a juridical register: “Come here, homewreaker, garden destroyer, fugitive piglet; today I interrupt your life.” The pig should be subject only to the law of human appetite; a cook or butcher’s ideal indifference to their professional killing depends on the irrelevance of morality to animals. They should be only means, not ends; they should be unsubjectable within thanatopolitics—although this point certainly merits more consideration: maybe there is a porcus sacer? Grunnius nevertheless is subject to criminal, that is, human law, and execution administered by the cook: first, because the cook has deemed him a criminal, a bandit even; second, because the cook characterizes the killing as punishment; third, because the cook allows the pig to make a will, which, even by the nature of the word—testamentum derives from testor (to testify/bear witness)—requires acknowledgement of the pig’s subjecthood; and fourth, by recognizing that the goods to be distributed are in fact the pig’s own to distribute, that is, that the pig has a right to property, even if the property is only food for pigs and his own body, food for us. For all these reasons, the cook blurs the classifications dividing his animal victim from humans. And if he colludes with the pig to flout the animal/human boundary, he also flouts the boundary between executioner and butcher, trades both encompassed in the word “carnifex.”

After the pig asks leave to dictate his will, the cook summons a servant, “come here, boy, bring me my knife from the kitchen that I might make this piglet bloody,” apparently restoring both pig and himself to their proper categories. But rather than immediately using the knife, the butcher pauses to allow the pig to make a will. The hesitation catches pig and cook up inextricably in two disharmonious practices: one in which even to execute a pig is to treat it to a legal procedure to which an animal whose sole function is alimentary should not be entitled, and one in which a legally recognized criminal is to be unceremoniously butchered and then consumed. By failing to resolve this tension, in fact by combining these two practices, the Testamentum defamiliarizes both law and appetite: if the cook simultaneously punishes and slaughters, the law becomes little more than the codification of the pleasures of appetite—or the pleasures of appetite become ennobled by expression through the disinterested rigor of law. In the Testamentum the boundary between butcher and executioner swallows criminal and pig, human and animal. All that finally draws or rather cuts the boundary between butcher and pig is not morality, not the law, not species, but who holds the knife and who—or what—suffers it.

d’Ors, Alvaro. “Testamentum Porcelli: Introduccion, Texto, Traduccion y Notas.” Supplementos de ‘Estudios Classicos’: Serie de Textos 3 (1953): 74-83. (thanks to Martha Bayless for pointing me to this edition)
Anderson, G. “The Cognomen of M. Grunnius Corocotta: A dissertantiuncula on Roast Pig.” American Journal of Philology 101 (1980): 57-58
Baldwin, Barry. “The Testamentum Porcelli.Studies on Late Roman and Byzantine History, Literature, and Language. Brill, 1985. 137-148
Braund, D. C. “Coracottas: bandit and hyena.” Liverpool Classical Monthly 5.1 (1980): 13-14
Champlin, Edward. “The Testament of the Piglet.” Phoenix (1987): 174-83
Daube, David. Roman Law: Linguistic, Social, and Philosophical Aspects. Edinburgh, 1969. 78-81