Chapter 3 – Food For Worms, Part I

IMG_0141What follows is, as the title promises, the beginning of what is, by my current count, Chapter 3 of my Book2 [the next bit is here, and I’m sure to revise this to give it some room to breath]. I’ve revised material that’s appeared in print before, in postmedieval’s “Ecomaterialism” special issue, itself a development of several blog posts from 2012 [here and here for example], but in this pass, apart from overhauling the introductory paragraphs entirely, I get to go at things without the space limitations of a journal article, and, moreover, without of the cruft of engagement with ooo, very au courant in 2012, but not so much now. I’d like to think of this is an improvement.

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory?” — 1 Corinthians 15:54-55

Into the “deepest pit” (Job 17:16), the dead, as one twelfth-century poem has it, “ceciderunt in profundum ut lapides” [“fall into the depth like stones”].[1] Death drops us into the Inferno, Sheol, Tartarus, or Hades, places all topographically or at least etymologically associated with caverns or holes. Once there, we sometimes pass through a gate, like Jonah from the whale’s gullet, to emerge into a better, undying life; or we miserably find ourselves in unending torment, whose wildest portrayal may be that of Raoul de Houdenc’s Songe d’Enfer [Dream of Hell], where “sinners are cooked in an endless array of dishes, pulverized, marinated, skewered, stuffed, larded, fried in butter and sauced with the traditional sauces of medieval cookery — green sauce, hot sauce, Parisian sauce, Poitevin sauce, and more often than not, garlic sauce” (17).[2] However many the roads to this gate, whatever might await us on its other side, in this tradition of the Pit, there is but the one maw, and one maw only.

A corner of Thomas de Quincey’s criticism offers a model for thinking about death far less singly, without the promise, or threat, of an exit. In a note to an extended discussion of Dryden, de Quincey counters an inept critic’s objection to Milton’s “and in the lowest deep a lower deep / still threatening to devour me opens wide.” [3] How, asks the critic, could the lowest deep have another deep beneath it? De Quincey explains: “in cases of deep imaginative feeling, no phenomenon is more natural than precisely this never-ended growth of one colossal grandeur chasing and surmounting another or of abysses that swallowed up abysses.” [4] For de Quincey, there is no one, last pit, as no swallowing abyss can escape the appetite of others. Devouring continues unceasingly. I would change only the implicit solemnity or grandeur of de Quincey’s image. The subject might think this abyss grand: abysses might well be as huge as hell, as dragons, as the sea, but they might be as minuscule as mitochondria, as the grave’s worms, as blowflies or anaerobic bacteria. They are everywhere, wherever things pass away or grow, wherever things feed other things. Everything is food, and death is at once an end and a flourishing of other appetites that will be consumed in turn.

Humans prefer to think of themselves as subjects in a world of objects rather than things like others, caught up universally in give and take. We prefer not to recognize that we, like anything else, are subjects for ourselves and objects for others. Of late, in Europe and most of its former American colonies, the practice has been for humans to have their remains immolated, or pickled with chemicals and sealed into coffins and stuffed underground. Practically speaking, inhumation saves humans from the stench of rotting corpses and the sight of their dissolution. But disposal like this also throws up a border between materials and us, degrading the one and elevating the other, so we can keep pretending that we live only for ourselves.

Medieval Christians buried their dead too, but, especially from the mid-thirteenth century on, they did not shrink from putrefaction. What is now morbid, aberrant, and smoothed out in the neo-Classical memorial clichés of contemporary Western cemetery architecture, was then a de rigueur, regular confrontation with disgust. This chapter proposes that material like this offers itself almost automatically to ecocriticism, because it so enthusiastically committed to humiliating our pretensions to worldly dominance and bodily integrity, and because it so insisted on the material facticity that our bodies share with others. Few artistic bodies may be so easy to explore with the equipment of Donna Haraway’s call for “a wormy pile” of “humusities rather than humanities” in which “truly nothing is sterile,”[5] or Alexis Shotwell’s, via Lisa Heldke, for an understanding of “the entangled features of our eating behaviors,”[6] for late medieval death work is startlingly interested in the human body as inevitable food, with death as a material event. It is not much concerned with death as unassimilable otherness, as a problem of identity and decision and “my irreplaceability…my singularity,” and therefore of my irreducible “responsibility”[7]—here Derrida, writing on Heidegger and Levinas, stands in for a whole body of anxious, post-Hegelian encounters with what is so often figured as the implacable Other of our nonexistence. Of course, in medieval textuality, death can be a problem of the subject, too—one thinks of the well-known morality play Everyman, about the desperate solitude of the subject in death, stripped of all his supports and allies, with nothing left to exchange but himself—but in the general body of late medieval death work, death need not be identical with non-being. In it, death is often instead a material process, putrefaction and the slow crumbling to bones and dust in the appetites of fleshy, mortal others.

Certainly, much of medieval death work is by-the-numbers reaffirmations of late medieval Christian asceticism, a humanism that, it hardly need be said, possesses its own ongoing force. Certainly most of this material aims to convince us to repudiate the flux of merely mortal existence by holding out the promise of bodies no longer subject to appetite, either our own or those of others. This material can still be read profanely, however, some of it more easily than others. My chapter does not aim to be comprehensive.[8] My interest will be in a work like this version of a famous and widespread short Middle English verse:

Erþe toc of erþe erþe wyþ woh,
Erþe oþer erþe to þe erþe droh,
Erþe leyde erþe in erþene þroh,
Þo heuede erþe of erþe ynoh.[9]

It is not easy to translate into modern English. Gillian Rudd renders it as:

Earth took earth from the earth with sadness.
Earth drew the other earth to the earth.
Earth laid the earth in an earthen tomb.
Then had earth of earth earth enough.[10]

Admitting that this rendition is “crude,” Rudd then opens up the moral content of the poem’s dense imagery, in which earth is human, flesh, and spouse, but then returns us to the quatrain’s bare materiality: “all these various readings persist in avoiding the word ‘erthe’ as simply that: earth.” For what we might call Rudd’s terranean reading—neither a surface or depth reading—the poem concerns the earth’s attitude towards “mankind, that jumped up bit of clay,” which the earth, in sorrow and frustration, “reclaims…re-absorbs and thus eradicates.”[11] I take this profane engagement as both authorization and model for what I will do in this chapter to an often-read late Middle English poem, ‘A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes’ (“The Disputation between the Body and the Worms,” hereafter Disputation), which gives voice both to dead flesh and its fleshy consumers. Because this poem shockingly lacks a soul—not being a debate between soul and body, as so many of these kinds of poems are—it is as immanent an account of death as “Erthe toc of erþe.” But to this immanence it adds a sexually charged, even sadistic interest in the flesh, a pack of talking worms, and an attempt to imagine an alliance between flesh and the worms that sprang from its own putrefaction. My chapter, then, will treat each of these elements singly: flesh; then worms, particularly the natural, antipaternal science of spontaneous generation; and then finally how this alliance between worms and flesh challenges the somber “unsubstitutable singularity” of what is by now a classic strain in critical animal theory.

A worldly engagement with this poetry thus requires interrupting its celestial message and concentrating on what it does with its bodies. I divide the presentations of the corpses into three categories: dry, dusty, and wet. This heuristic comes not from the medieval texts themselves,[12] and certainly not from late medieval medicine, which might offer a different, equally serviceable schema via its development of the Aristotelian notion that the body’s “radical moisture” gradually desiccated until death, at which point, the environment’s heat and moisture overwhelmed and consumed the now defenseless corpse.[13] Rather, I draw my approach, with some modifications, from two sources: Maurice Bloch’s anthropological observations of the social pollutions of the “wet” putrefactions of corpses, marked as especially feminine; and from the more fanciful anthropology of Georges Bataille, who seeks human limits in refusing to deny the horror of the “prodigality of life,” “the slimy menace of death,” and our anguish over “that nauseous, rank, and heaving matter, frightful to look upon, a ferment of life, teeming with worms, grubs, and eggs.”[14]

Bloch and Bataille unsurprisingly oppose dryness to wetness. Bataille calls dry bones “pacifi[ed],”[15] while Bloch describes how the male-dominated Merina of the Madagascar highlands reintegrate the bones of dead relatives into their community once the flesh has rotted off.[16] The subject of dry death has been briefly interrupted by dying, but then, after a time, it carries on in some fashion through its remains, a word that should be heard in both senses, as what is left over and as what persists. The bones once again have a place in the Merina community. Think here also of the skull in memento mori paintings, a reminder of death, but as much a reminder of the persistence of some kind of human, if anonymous, recognizability.

A dusty death, considered by neither Bloch nor Bataille, leaves no remainder. In essence, dusty death answers an ubi sunt—the “where are the former glories” poetry of lament—with “nowhere” rather than, for example, “stopping a bung hole.”[17] The Ash Wednesday service, for example, bypasses our foundational muddiness in Genesis 2:7, where we are made “de limo” [from the mud], to tell us, via Genesis 3:19, “memento homo quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris” [remember man, that you are dust, and that you will turn again to dust]. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies calls dust (pulvis) “separated earth,” “carried on the breath of the wind, neither resisting nor able to stay put.”[18] Unfertile and formless, used up and useless, this matter, nearly not matter at all, is the quiet nothingness to which humans will finally return. This is what a small poem in the late fourteenth-century Vernon manuscript, “This World Fares as a Fantasy,” tells us when it explains “Þus waxeth & wanteþ Mon, hors, & honed; / ffrom nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe”[19] [thus man, horse, and hound grow and fail, from nothing to nothing thus we go hence from here]. The Middle English Death and Liffe just as dustily characterizes death’s approach as the end of all vigor and motion:

the greene grasse in her gate shee grindeth all to powder;
trees tremble for ffeare and tipen to the ground;
leaues lighten downe lowe and leauen their might;
fowles faylen to fflee when the heard wapen,
and the ffishes in the fflood ffaylen to swimme.[20]

[in her walking, she grinds the green grass to powder; trees tremble for fear and fall to the ground; leaves fall down and lose their powder; birds fail to flee when they flap their wings vigorously, and the fishes in the water fail to swim.]

And, of course, dusty death’s modern locus classicus, the origin of the term, appears in Macbeth, in which life arrives fleetingly and then passes away, coming from and going to nothing. In a model both absolutely private and absolutely privative, dusty death concludes all strife, effort, and existence. Dusty death works as a model only for subjects that conceptualize themselves chiefly through pretensions to self-motivated agency. They believe the (presumptive) end of their thinking means the end, full stop. But of course their material continues. They will continue to be made useful to others, some human, but hardly all.

Recognizing this leads us to the wet model, which concentrates not on the disappearance of the subject, but on putrefaction and the appetites that proliferate in and around corpses. Late medieval death art loved to tell humans that they were “esca vermium” [food for worms].[21] The fourth-century theologian Ephraem of Syria directs his congregation to look into the grave to see “inde scatendem vermium colluviem” [“there a mass teeming with worms”].[22] The human subject may have ceased to be, but life goes on, intensely. A millennium after Caesarius, a fifteenth-century tale imagines a wicked young ruler reformed by peering into his father’s grave and seeing “wormes and snakes etyng opon hym”[23] [worms and snakes eating him]. Disgusted at what he once admired, now realizing that kings and pauper comes to the same, anonymous end, the ruler commissions a painting of the corpse, which he displays on his bedroom wall as a constant reminder to disdain all worldly glory. The Awyntyrs of Arthur, also from the fourteenth century, has Gawain meet the horrific ghost of Guinevere’s mother, whose skull a hungry toad bites and whose body is “serkeled wih serpents all about the sides”[24] [encircled with serpents all around]. Similar citations could be provided virtually without end, as could but here I will offer just one more, the Disputation. The body of this poem, far from finding rest in the grave, instead suffers the gustatory and moral harassment of an explosion of life dedicated, in all senses of the word, to reforming her. Just before winning the argument, the worms brag to the body about their hosts of allied vermin:

Þe cokkatrys, þe basilysk, & þe dragon,
Þe lyserd, þe tortoys, þe coluber,
Þe tode, þe mowdewarp, & þe scorpyon,
Þe vypera, þe snake, & þe eddyr,
Þe crawpaude, þe pyssemoure, & þe canker,
Þe spytterd, þe mawkes, þe evet of kynde,
Þe watyr leyche, & oþer ar not behynde.[25]

[The cockatrice, the basilisk, and the dragon, The lizard, the tortoise, and the snake, The toad, the mole, and the scorpion, The viper, the snake, and the adder, The toad, the ant, and the crab, The spider, the maggots, and the newt, The water leech, and the others are not far behind.]

The list’s bravura excessiveness insists on the endless utility of the material we thought ours. Consumed by so many mouths, the body abandons her efforts at self-possession. She knows herself to be helpless, food for a host of others, as she has been from the moment she took shape in this world. The process could stop with her reversion to dust, but to get to this arid and formless condition, one gullet after another must be finished with her and with each other in turn. The ashy end cannot arrive until everything is ashes, until, that is, all appetites cease.

[1] Quoted in Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 186.

[2] From the introduction to Raoul de Houdenc, The Songe d’Enfer, ed. Madelyn Timmel Mihm (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1984), 17.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.76-77.

[4] Thomas de Quincey, Note Book of an English Opium-Eater (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1855), 293.

[5] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 32 and 64.

[6] Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 122.

[7] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 41.

[8] Far more thorough and dedicated discussions can be found, for example, in Kenneth Rooney, Mortality and Imagination: The Life of the Dead in Medieval English Literature (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011); Ashby Kinch, Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[9] Linne R. Mooney et al., “Digital Index of Middle English Verse,” accessed April 4, 2017,,

[hereafter DIMEV], 6292. This version might be contrasted with the far more neatly moral and anthropocentric DIMEV 1166, in which “erth goyth vpon erth al glysteryng in gold…and yet must erth to erth soner than he wold.”

[10] Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Machester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 22.

[11] Ibid., 25.

[12] Danielle Westerhof, Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008), 15–17, 21–22, 28–29.

[13] Michael McVaugh, “The ‘Humidum Radicale’ in Thirteenth-Century Medicine,” Traditio 30 (1974): 259–283.

[14] Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), 59, 56. For a compact discussion of the political implications of Bataille and the abject, Sylvère Lotringer, The Miserables, trans. Ames Hodges (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 46–47, “The conclusion that [Robert] Antelme drew from the scene of the potato peelings [in a Nazi camp] was that ‘there was no limit to the rise of man, but he cannot fall below a certain level.’ For Bataille, it was just the reverse.”

[15] Bataille, Erotism, 47.

[16] Maurice Bloch and Jonathan P. Parry, eds., “Death, Women, and Power,” in Death and the Regeneration of Life (London: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 223–24.

[17] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson, 3rd ed. (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006), 5.1.194.

[18] Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), XVI.i, 317.

[19] Frederick James Furnivall, ed., The Minor Poems of the Vernon MS, vol. 2 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1901), 696.

[20] Joseph M. Donatelli, Death and Life (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1989), ll. 193-97.

[21] For the phrase’s vast popularity, see Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet, “Les Vers Comme Heritiers: Aspects de La Poétique Du Testament Aux XIVe et XVe Siècles,” Micrologus 7 (1999): 349 n3.

[22] Quoted in Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 400.

[23] Quoted in Gray, Medieval English Religious Lyric, 206–7.

[24] Thomas Hahn, ed., Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995), l. 120.

[25] John W. Conlee, ed., Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1991), ll. 107-13.

Medieval Muteness: Disability, Objects, and Animals

Sabbatical honesty, then – in the two weeks since the last post, I’ve given back revisions to articles for the Routledge Companion to Animal-Human History (“Animals and Violence: Medieval Humanism, ‘Medieval Brutality,’ and the Carnivorous Vegetarianism of Margery Kempe”), The Open Access Canterbury Tales (animals and the Friar’s Tale), and a revised talk for a chapter in The Body Unbound, a classics &c anthology (“Nothing to Lose: Logsex and Genital Injury in Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations“). I’m hoping to get back to the Book soon, as soon I get past doing my review of a book I’ll tell you about after I write my review.

What follows is a draft of a talk I’m giving in Madison, for the UW Madison Graduate Association of Medieval Studies on Friday, April 14. I’m sure to tweak this again in a few weeks, but just to get it out of my hair, and potentially into yours, here it is.

I’ve tried to do a little of everything in this, so my theory heads can gnaw on something, as can the ones who mainly want a bunch of neat medieval stories, as can the ones who want some hardcore medieval stuff to fight back against [and, to be honest, my competence in medieval grammar is minimal. At least for now]. 5,000 words is a lot to read! For you, and for me, but it’s a good 40-45 minutes, and: well! One hopes for the best.

Continue reading

No Soul, No Exit – Getting with/at the Body in the Disputation between the Body and the Worms

The 218-line “A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes” (hereafter Disputation) survives only in British Library, Additional 37049, a much studied mid-fifteenth-century miscellany likely produced for or in a Northern English charterhouse, that is, a Carthusian monastery.[1] Medieval debate poetry includes arguments between scholars and knights, water and wine, various birds, and many postmortem debates between body and soul;[2] but the Disputation is the only one of these latter type with a specifically female gendered body, and, to boot, certainly the only one featuring a body at odds, so to speak, with its own edibility.

The poem’s action is as follows: It opens with its narrator escaping a plague and entering a church to pray. There, he encounters a new, freshly painted tomb, personalized with coats of arms and a copper plate engraved with the image of a fashionable woman.[3] The narrator swoons—“rapt and rauesched from my selfe” (25; rapt and ravished from my self) and, in a vision, witnesses the disputation. In it, Body protests the loss of her former beauty under the violence of the “most vnkynde neghbours þat euer war wroght” (44; the most unnatural/improper neighbors that were ever made). The worms insist that they will not leave “while þat one of þi bones with oþer wil hange” (59; while one of your bones still adheres to another), because they want only to feast on flesh. When Body threatens the worms with the warriors she commanded in life, the worms mock her with a typical ubi sunt catalog of departed worthies—Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Arthur, Dido, and others—all of whom ended up as wormfood too. The worms remind Body that she always been food for vermin: parasites have gnawed on her since she came into existence. Finally accepting this lesson on the vanity of worldly glory, Body awaits the Last Judgment, when she will rise again and be glorified. Then the narrator awakes and briefly recounts the clerical imprimatur granted this vision and its subsequent versification.

The Disputation has been often and correctly numbered among a host of late medieval memento mori and contemptus mundi works, which instruct people to prepare for their eventual death and to abandon the mutable and temporary pleasures of this world for the permanent rewards of heaven.[4] These studies remain faithful both to the poem’s moral conclusion and to the first two, especially the second, of its five illustrations: the first shows the narrator kneeling before a gruesome crucifix, an image both of suffering flesh and, at least implicitly, of that flesh’s promised perfection. The gendering of corpse and visionary, one a woman, the other a man, allows for straightforward interpretation of the poem as a whole: obviously the Disputation abjects putrefaction onto the feminized body. As is well known, the late medieval culture of celibate male clerics—practiced with particular intensity in Carthusian environs like the one that produced the compilation in which this poem survives—is just one hot zone of the longstanding misogynist habit of male-identified people performing their disappointment with and superiority to the flux and interdependency of material existence by insulting women.[5] Women, particularly old or laboring women, were made to emblematize the failure of all corporeal delights, all that inevitably goes awry with costume, beauty, desire, sex. The few who went along with the program might be exempted, for instance, a few other women illustrated in this compilation: the Virgin Mary, or its handful of saints, like Mary of Egypt, pictured with a body concealed under her own cascade of thick hair.[6]

Most other women, though, were made to be not bodies but flesh: if the body is ordered, neatly bounded, suitable, for example, for political metaphors (the “head” of state, and so on), flesh here represents the disorganized, pullulating remainder.[7] One body, the male visionary’s, kneels; the other, the woman’s, rots, liquefying into flesh and from there to ash. Thus the poem’s Body is herself made to say that all should “avoyde fleschly temptacone” (189; avoid fleshly temptation), and that she too, even at this late stage, has to unlearn her own attachment to her flesh, just as the poem’s presumptively male-identified readers have to work up a horror for the fleshy existence they share with her.[8]

The poem’s grave and its horrid contents are therefore the interior of a cordon sanitaire into whose horrific interior these readers can clamber to safely explore the failures of their or any body. The poem’s narrator, the visionary, is their obvious stand-in. No stoic, his relationship to his own body, and the suffering bodies of others, is one of fear, horror, and, given the right body, honor: he arrives in the poem fleeing the plague, and then worships before a lurid image of the bleeding Christ. “Ravished” into a vision, he witnesses exactly what he should loathe, another incarnated form of the mortal delights of the world he had just fled. But if the vision is to do its work, the abjection needs to be minimally enacted, with the loathing for this corpse circling back to become self-loathing.

Elsewhere in this compilation, for example, an emperor has his pride tamed by being taken by his steward to his father’s grave. The emperor has the tomb opened, finds a stinking, worm-eaten body within, and then the emperor and his father’s corpse converse:

Þan sayd þe son, “Horrybil bestes restys with þe.” Þe voice sayd, “Thow sal cum and reste with me.” Þan sayd þe son, “Thy fayr flesche falls and fadys away.” “Son, so sal þine do, þat is now so gay.”[9]
[Then the son said, “Horrible beasts rest with you.” The voice said, “You shall come and rest with me.” Then the son said, “Your attractive flesh falls and fades away.” “Son, so shall yours do, which is now so elegant.]

With the son’s voice written in a column on the left, the father’s on the right, and the whole enclosed in a banderole, the conversation occurs in a frame that draws present flesh and future putrefaction into one field, not a conversational sequence but rather a completed admonition. So long as he identifies with his father—and he must, as the tomb’s carved figure of the dead emperor looks virtually identical to the body of the living one—the emperor will be made to know that his present is just the promise of an inevitable future. At minimum, the Disputation also requires identification like this. But only at minimum. Assuming what we can clumsily call a dominant heterosexuality,[10] the male-identified visionary is supposed less to want to be what the corpse was (an emperor, for example) than he is supposed to want the body itself. “Sex,” Masha Raskolnikov observes, “haunt[s] the rhetoric of all Body/Soul debates,”[11] but nowhere else in the tradition does this specter assume quite so material a form. Consider the famous encounter of the three living and three dead, but imagine in this case that the dead, with their statements of “what you are, I once was,” and so on, had once been sexually desirable to the living.

This is why the Dreamer must also be identified with the worms too, because they mark out a space of difference between the Dreamer and the (female) Body, so that desire can be enacted, but piously, which is to say, in this case, through loathing and punishment. By speaking the most orthodox lessons in ascetic disgust, the “phallic”[12] worms play the part of the wise men, the angel, or the other knowing figures in other such stories. As a man, the visionary can join this crowd of Big Others in lecturing this woman about the proper, disdainful relation to the flesh, hers and his—with full mouths. This in a Carthusian manuscript, a product of an order that was, by the fifteenth century, infamous for its fanatic vegetarianism![13] As if doubling down on the hypocrisy, the worms explain that they know how disgusting their meal is, even if they cannot feel the disgust: “If we, as bestes, had smellyng & tastynge, / Trows þou þat we wald towche þi caryone playne? / Nay, parde, we wald it voyde for certayne!” (69-71; if we, as beasts, had the capacities to smell or taste, do you think that we would touch your bare carrion? No, by God, we would certainly vomit it out!). This is not the compilation’s only overdetermined entanglement of flesh, self, authority, retribution, and asceticism. A short poem, set down a few pages before the Disputation, features a falconer who entices a restless bird to return by showing it a hunk of “rede flesche”;[14] so too, it explains, does Christ draw us back, where we can join him on the “cros of penaunce” through “discrete poneyschyng of thi body.” Jessica Brantley dryly remarks that “the poem sets up a number of complex equivalences”:[15] Christ is falconer, but also meat, while the reader is a falcon whose submission to Christ transforms him into both “meat and crucified savior.” What the Disputation has on this is sexual desire and gender transformation: the visionary has to want this woman, or someone like her, or he has at least to imagine himself superior to anyone who would have been taken in by her. He wants the ascetic lesson inflicted on her for what she and others like her make him want, but at the same time he has to know himself as her too, because unless he recognizes her body as like his own, this ouroboric lesson simply cannot take.

Of course, it matters that the male visionary gets the gift of humiliation by tarrying with a rotten woman. Put bluntly, the Disputation is about a man scared of death who draws solace and wisdom from watching a beautiful woman putrefy. In this system, she should be humiliated, because she is a woman; and if only he would understand himself correctly, he can choose to be humiliated too. The emperor of the parable comes to know that the mighty are finally brought low; the dreamer of this poem, that the attractive, but socially semi-subaltern (given Body’s nobility), are really to be scorned, but also that, when it comes to our bodies, he is not really so different from them. This lesson is meant for all, generated from her body and her comeuppance. But when poem ends with the dreamer telling both “Man & Woman…al lustes for to lefe” [215; men and women to leave all lusts], and indeed with Body intoning “What he salbe & also what is he / Be it he or sche, be þai neuer so fayr, bewar / Of pryde” (184-6; what he shall be, and also what he is, whether it be a he or she, no matter how attractive they are, beware of pride), these universal lessons, for men and women both, erase the distinction between lust for the other and lust for the self that drives the poem’s weird drama. In particular, it erases how this story of sanctimonious retribution draws its vocabulary, as Elizabeth Robertson observes, from the pastourelle poetry of rape.[16] Ecocritical writing on flows of identity and material immanence must always remember what bodies are made to be naturally suitable for their lessons:[17] I know of no medieval death vision of a woman looking, lips tightened with disgust, into the grave of a man

This is all true, but for most of the poem, the visionary is only implicitly present. He is watching, but he does not interact. This absence allows us to concentrate not just on the bizarre identifications the poem requires, but also the lesson of the grave, to identify the feature that distinguishes the Disputation from perhaps every other work in the vast and crowded genre of medieval death piety. This is its refusal to provide the immanent Body with an immaterial counterpart. Typical debate poetry of this sort tends to split body from soul, and sets each to arguing with the other over which should be blamed for the infernal or purgatorial plight the self has fallen into: “Nou is mon hol and soint” [Now is Man Whole and Sound] has soul blame the body for not fasting on Fridays, not giving alms on Saturday, and not attending church on Sundays; “In a þestri stude I stod” [In a Dark State I Stood] has soul begin with contemptuous “Wo worþe þi fleis, þi foule blod, wi liggest þou nou here” [woe betide your flesh, your foul blood, why do you lie here?], an anger that soul unrelentingly maintains until its final prophetic flourish, an eschatological sequence of the world’s terrifying last seven days that concludes with Christ’s return; “Als I lay in winteris nyt” [As I lay in Winter’s night], whose 624 lines give Body space to fight back against Soul’s pious sarcasm (here soul’s “þi foule blod” is met with body’s “3if þou hast schame & gret despite, / Al it is þine owhen gilt” [if you have shame and great disdain / it is entirely your own fault]).[18]

The compilation itself has its own Body versus Soul debate.[19] This four-page prose work, excerpted from the Pilgrimage of the Soul—itself translated from Guillaume de Deguileville’s fourteenth-century Le Pèlerinage de l’Âme—begins with the usual vituperation: “Art þou þere yon wretchyd body so horribilt and fowle stynkyng wormes mete and noreschyng of corrupcioun? Wher is now þi pryde and þi fers hert? What is þi lewd play cummen to”[20] [are you there wretched Body, so horrible and foul, stinking worms’ food and nourishment of corruption? Where is your pride and fierce heart now? What has your foolish conduct come to?]; it stops, with startling practicality, to consider the science of putrefaction (noble things, Soul explains, smell worse when they rot)[21]; and most of the debate tends to argue in favor of the actual unification of Body and Soul, implicitly resisting the very separation of aspects of the self that makes debate possible. Like so much else in the compilation, it is illustrated. The first three of its four images pair Body, brown and ghastly, stretched out in its shroud, with Soul clean, white, and presumably male (although its pubes, like the other souls of the compilation, are smooth and featureless). Body has itself become white in the last illustration, perhaps finally reduced to bones, as if, by the debate’s end, Body had finally finished rotting. The first and last illustrations also include a hovering angel, who, in the debate, has the last word, telling Body and Soul to leave off their squabbling, since they predestined to salvation anyway,[22] after which it addresses the audience with an allegorical story about two men, one blind, the other deaf, condemned for colluding in the theft of fruit from an orchard in which they had been set to work. By providing each disputant with a clear locus of speech (itself indicated so neatly with their gestures), by furnishing a hovering angel, there to quench the anger with a promise of salvation, and by repairing the self that both death and the debate had split apart, this text offers an end and an escape and a permanence of the self. Though the self does fight, it fights with itself, which will eventually be made whole and find its way, in this case, to heaven.

In the Disputation, however, there is no soul, nothing that could be identified as having any permanence. To be sure, Body does speak of the coming Resurrection, but we need not furnish it with an exit if it provides none,[23] just as we need not provide it with a soul.[24] Speaking objects are not uncommon in medieval debate poetry: water and wine, for example, go at each other, as do abstractions like Nature and Nurture (which argue over who has more claim to the gender indeterminate knight of the Roman de Silence), and animate but supposedly irrational animals, like the Owl and Nightingale of the poem of the same name. No modern reader of these works has argued that these entities must have souls, rational or otherwise, to be able to talk; no one has been troubled by their obvious fictionality, by how this form allows problems to be worked out in a dramatic, and open-ended form of a debate, whose superiority to typical philosophical texts lies in their having no illusion that their positions are anything but competing forms of situated knowledge. Speaking bodies are common enough in medieval writing of this period,[25] and, to put it baldly, in a Body and Soul debate, the position of the soul is obviously held by the Soul. That the debate is between the Body and the Worms, and named as such in the manuscript, should mean, quite simply, that it is a debate between exactly these two things. If some fifteenth-century “context” is needed to avoid furnishing the Disputation with a soul, the simplest explanation is that the lady had once had a soul, and that by the time the poem begins, it has already left, either to heaven, hell, or what is more expected in this period, purgatory, and that what we witness in this debate is what is left over, in the period between death and the soul’s return to a recreated body in the Last Judgment.

What remains is Body. As a named character with motives and a voice, Body has everything a literary work typically needs for a personality. With all this, and with its claims to ownership of flesh and bones, Body in effect plays the part of soul in this poem, with one crucial exception: Body is a body, and therefore immanent rather than transcendent. The place that would have been held, in other such works, by the voice of what could have escaped, is here held by a voice that just marks out the place where the self can be located for a while within always shifting materiality. If the soul is located in the function it plays in other poems in this tradition, as the voice of moral and doctrinal authority, then the worms may be the poem’s soul, with this crucial, obvious distinction: they are not the self, nor, as a crowd, even a self, and as nonhuman life, they are certainly, for better or worse, not destined for eternity.

We need not imagine that Body’s voice must emanate from some spiritual immateriality, some promise of transcendence, some separation of agential self from the objectified matter it inhabits and moves.  This is all to say, despite the tendency of even modern critics to persist in using metaphors of “vitality” and “animation” to describe the character of “agency,” this poem presents a disanimated, corporeal self, aware of itself as self, of course, but without any principle of separation that would rescue the self from being an object for others. What the soullessness of the Disputation presents, then, is an almost unimaginable immanent selfhood, something that suffers from a capacity often ignored in accounts of impersonal life, “composting,” and other ecocritical, posthumanist philosophy, namely, the capacity to die, which it gives voice to, impossibly, from the other side of death. This immanent self does not own its death; nothing can. Rather, it gets its voice only to complain that its claim to itself can only be temporary; for all that temporariness, this is a voice nonetheless, whose very intensity of complaint, and capacity to learn even, counteract the disdain for the body that the poem aims to summon. And as I will consider in my next section, the forces of dissolution that take its flesh are not alien to it but inherent to its and any material existence.

[1] For a brief treatment of the manuscript and its likely contexts, Emily Richards, “Writing and Silence: Transitions Between the Contemplative and the Active Life,” in Pieties in Translation: Religious Practices and Experiences C. 1400-1640, ed. Richard Lutton and Elisabeth Salter (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 168–70.

[2] Histories of this genre are easy to come by. One of the best is in Masha Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul: Gender and Sowlehele in Middle English Allegory (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009), 62–63, 71–72.

[3] At this point, the poem becomes garbled, with perhaps as much as two of its 7-line rhyme royal stanzas missing between the description of the tomb and the narrator’s ravishment; John W. Conlee, ed., Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1991), 53 n22-8.

[4] Jessica Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 221–27; Caroline Walker Bynum, “Material Continuity, Personal Survival, and the Resurrection of the Body: A Scholastic Discussion in Medieval and Modern Contexts,” in Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone, 1992), 203, 237; Kathleen Cohen, Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 29–30; Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 191–92; Marlene Villalobos Hennessy, “The Remains of the Royal Dead in an English Carthusian Manuscript, London, British Library, MS Additional 37049,” Viator 33 (2002): 310–354; Marjorie M. Malvern, “An Earnest ‘Monyscyon’ and ‘Þinge Delectabyll’ Realized Verbally and Visually in‘ A Disputacion Betwyx Þe Body and Wormes,’ A Middle English Poem Inspired by Tomb Art and Northern Spirituality,” Viator 13 (1982): 415–450; Philippa Tristram, Figures of Life and Death in Medieval English Literature (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 160–61; Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 328–30.

[5] The classic treatment is Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), eg, 15, “The abject shatters the wall of repression and its judgments. It takes the ego back to its source on the abominable limits from which, in order to be, the ego has broken away.” For a good summary of the tradition and feminist developments, Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul, 25–26. For the persistence of this notion, Midas Dekkers, The Way of All Flesh: A Celebration of Decay, trans. Sherry Marx-Macdonald (London: The Harvill Press, 2000), 103, “Generally, it’s easier to tell a group of Chinese people apart than it is a circle of little old ladies from Florida,” here remarking on cosmetics, among many such appalling assessments, fatally marring a book so eager to be a modern version of Thomas Browne’s Urne-Buriall.

[6] British Museum Additional 37049, 48v. See also a similarly hirsute Mary Magdalene, ascending to heaven on 50v. For the benefit of non-medievalists: manuscripts are typically numbered by the sheet, rather than by the side of the sheet. The 48r would indicate the “recto,” the top side of one sheet (of paper, parchment, etc), and 48v its “verso,” the back side.

[7] For the gendered complexities of body, flesh, and spirit, Suzannah Biernoff, Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 26–34, and, at length, Karma Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

[8] For other comments on the poem’s multi-gendered identifications, Elizabeth Robertson, “Kissing the Worm: Sex and Gender in the Afterlife and the Poetic Posthuman in the Late Middle English ‘A Disputation Betwyx the Body and Wormes,’” in From Beasts to Souls: Gender and Embodiment in Medieval Europe, ed. E. Jane Burns and Peggy McCracken (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 138 (“the dreamer is ravished and raped by his vision,” a submission to rape that anticipates what Robertson argues the Body suffers from the worms); Wendy A. Matlock, “The Feminine Flesh in the Disputacione Betwyx the Body and Wormes,” in Identity and Community in Medieval Culture, ed. Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Jill Ross (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 267 (“the initial image of the woman’s figure unites the anonymous narrator with the unknown woman”).

[9] Brant Lee Doty, “An Edition of British Museum Manuscript Additional 37049” (PhD Thesis, Michigan State University, 1969), 489, 87r. I have been unable to consult the other edition of the compilation, likewise available only in an unpublished dissertation; Barbara B Streeter, “British Museum Additional MS 37049: A Mirror of the Fifteenth-Century Contemplative Mind” (PhD Thesis, Rutgers University, 1971).

[10] James A. Schultz, “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 15, no. 1 (2006): 14, “If homosexuality was not a ‘recognized concept’ in the Middle Ages, then heterosexuality wasn’t either.”

[11] Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul, 62.

[12] Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 141–42.

[13] For a summary of fifteenth-century controversies about the Carthusian diet, Julia Fleming, “When ‘Meats Are like Medicines’: Vitoria and Lessius on the Role of Food in the Duty to Preserve Life,” Theological Studies 69, no. 1 (2008): 101–3.

[14] Doty, “Ed. BM Add 37049,” 184, 28r.

[15] Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness, 132.

[16] Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 141.

[17] Though the “we” in the following is true, I am wary of it: Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 97, “We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities. Philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist. Critters–human and not–become-with each other, compose and decompose each other, in every scale and register of time and stuff in sympoietic tangling, in ecological evolutionary developmental earthly worlding and unworlding.” See similar statements at 32, 55, and 101-2. As much as I embrace her ontology and politics, Haraway rather has her foot on the scale in her praise for sympoietic becomings and disdain for anthropocentric refusals to involute: the former tend to be represented by queer, anticolonialist, antiracist art, while the latter is represented, for example, by Eichmann himself (“who could not be a wayfarer, could not entangle,” 36).

[18] All three poems are edited in Conlee, Middle English Debate Poetry.

[19] Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness, 323, for the work, editions, and studies.

[20] Doty, “Ed. BM Add 37049,” 455.

[21] Ibid., 461.

[22] Ibid., 463.

[23] See also Matlock, “Feminine Flesh,” 264, “the poem ends inconclusively without an account of the body’s fate after resurrection.”; Wendy A. Matlock, “Vernacular Theology in the ‘Disputacione Betwyx the Body and Wormes,’” in Translatio: Or the Transmission of Culture in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Modes and Messages, ed. Laura Holden Hollengreen (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009), 123–27, on the poem’s irresolution on the question of whether the body will be saved or not.

[24] Compare Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 126, “the corpse that speaks is animated by a soul, of course, because it is a soul that allows it to speak.” Matlock, “Feminine Flesh,” 274, “The soul never appears,” which leads Matlock to conclude that the soul is present indistinguishably with Body. Also see Katherine H. Terrell, “Rethinking the ‘Corse in Clot’: Cleanness, Filth, and Bodily Decay in ‘Pearl,’” Studies in Philology 105, no. 4 (2008): 437 n14, “the soul appears to remain with the body [in the Disputation], awaiting a judgment.”

[25] By engaging with a soulless death poem, I am going further than Phillipa C. Maddern, “Murdering Souls and Killing Bodies: Understanding Spiritual and Physical Sin in Late-Medieval English Devotional Works,” in Conjunctions of Mind, Soul, and Body from Plato to the Enlightenment, ed. Danijela Kambaskovic (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2014), 25–45, which tracks how bodies and souls sometimes “swap essential characteristics” in late medieval writing.


This is the conclusion of the oyster chapter I am working on for Book 2. I haven’t shared the opening pages with you, but I have shared this bit [on minimal animals], this bit [on agency], and this bit [on the Anglo-Saxon Oyster riddle] with you, whoever you are. I’m just about done with this start-to-finish chapter draft, which means next working on — as I go backwards through the book — Chapter 3, ‘Esca Vermibus, Esca Avibus,’ on inhumation and sky burial and the ultimate edibility of human bodies.


L. M. Boyd’s column, Sept 2 1988

In 1549, another talking oyster appears, in Giovanni Battista Gelli’s La Circe, his adaptation of Plutarch’s fourth-century Gryllus, or “Grunter.” Plutarch’s work features Ulysses and one of his men, since transformed by the sorceress Circe into a pig, debating the respective advantages of humanity and porcinity. The pig wins. Plutarch’s work survives in just one, fragmentary manuscript, while Gelli’s work, lucky enough to have been produced near the dawn of the print era, was quickly translated from Italian into Latin and the major European languages, and perhaps even twice adapted for the stage.[1] It also surpasses Plutarch in its dedication to the conceit, for in Gelli, not just the one, but ten animals out-argue Ulysses, until at last he convinces an elephant, and only the elephant, to let itself once more become human. As the elephant had once been a philosopher, its final decision may mean that none but it is sufficiently ratiocinative to recognize the value of reclaiming its human privilege; furthermore, this conclusion, with the elephant presumably ranking as the most august of this beastly collective – which includes an oyster, mole, snake, hare, goat, doe, lion, horse, dog, and cow – may at least hint that the whole work follows a neo-Platonic trajectory, in which all-too-practical animality gradually ascends towards abstractive humanity. Alternately, if we recall that Gelli himself, despite his growing fame among Florentine philosophers, refused to abandon his own trade as a cobbler,[2] the conclusion may be read as a satire: the elephant’s susceptibility to the allures of logos may suggest that only a philosopher, and – given the doe’s earlier complaints about the wretched condition of human women – only a male philosopher at that, would be foolish enough to give up on a happier, animal existence. All the other animals outmaneuver the famously clever Ulysses, because the human world has no allurements for them.[3] Laurie Shannon rightly insists, then, that the text is not concerned with the animal possession of reason, nor even of the superiority of reason to irrationality, but rather with “whether a good life entails duly cherishing what is necessary or striving to attain what is not.”[4] The elephant may furnish the work’s final answer to this question, but it perhaps is not the conclusive one.

The first and presumably the lowest-ranking of Ulysses’s refusnik animals is, of course, an oyster, a former fishmonger that prefers its easy, littoral life to market drudgery and maritime dangers. The oyster argues that Nature has made them “better and more noble than”[5] humans. After all, she has given oysters their own home, which conveniently doubles as their clothing, and has so made them that food comes to them without any struggle. The oyster takes this practical approach not because of its unfamiliarity with maieutics: having eavesdropped on philosophers back when it sold fish in Athens, the oyster observes that if the end is nobler than the means, then–itself answering the implicit question–Ulysses must surely admit that the earth is nobler than humans, since the earth “at last devours you all.”[6] But the offhanded contempt with which it deploys this Socratic paradox suggests both that it recognizes that philosophy is a mere game—notably, it doesn’t extend this argument to its own material existence—and that it thinks the only argument really worth making is a simple description of the comforts of its own oystery life. Against all this, Ulysses can argue only that humans can do things, but has no answer to the oyster’s insistence that humans have to do things. For the oyster, as Shannon observes, “need and pleasure are not opposing modes of being”:[7] felicitous in being what it is, the oyster need not strive for satisfaction, nor for anything else, because it itself is exactly enough and needs nothing but to be.

Then the oyster declares the conversation over (“”I will shut up my little house and take my repose without a single thought”[8]) and the frustrated Ulysses seeks out his next opponent, an equally wily mole. However, just praising the oyster for its victory, or Gelli for his skills as a parodist, would miss the key element of this exchange, which is Gelli’s having the oyster argue as an oyster. It is not that the oyster is just happy, nor just that the “originary perfection” of the oyster lacks the lack that drives humans to mostly noble, sometimes pathetic, attempts to make themselves a better world,[9] nor just that oysters can be defined entirely by their immanent being, and so need not wander uncertain like humans, lost in their own definitional openness.[10] Of course, the contentment of Gelli’s animals in their animal condition is evidence enough of his participation in the long tradition that held all beasts to be innocently content. But before that argument arrives, Gelli first has the oyster speak from its own particular place, which means showing that whatever its happiness, it is subject to the inescapable vulnerability of anything that exists. For the oyster first agrees to speak only on the condition that Ulysses keep watch during the debate, so that “those confounded crabs shall not throw a stone between my two shells…[to] make a meal of me.”[11] This tidbit of natural history is virtually proverbial in early modern oyster writing. Here, for example, is a Nicholas Breton’s “Dream of an Oister and a Crab”:

Upon the shore neare to the Sea, an Oister gaping wide,
Lay looking for a little food to come in with the Tide:
But hard by lay a crauling Crab, who watcht his time before,
And threw a stone betweene the shels, that they could shut no more.
The Oister cride, Ho neighbours, theeues: but ere the neighbours came,
The Crab had murtherd the poore fish, and fed upon the same.
When wondering that such craft did live with creatures in the deepe,
With troubling of my braines withall, I wakt out of my sleepe.[12]

The crafty crab, or sometimes a crafty crow, always succeed against the oyster, as if the oyster’s shell is just an invitation to imagine any shelter’s ultimate inadequacy. Similarly, though the oyster of the Anglo-Saxon riddle talks, it does so mainly to protest about being plucked from the nurturing sea. In all these, as even with Lewis Carroll’s poem, the speaking oyster is less evidence of an (imitative) rational power than of their inescapable vulnerability. What all these works first or even mainly give voice to, then, is a normally unheard or unvoicable request not to be injured. If this is a recognition of the oyster’s “agency,” it is a recognition of an agency that speaks mainly to say that it is far less agential than it would prefer to be, that it is as much thwarted as enabled by its life.

This is probably the most sensible way to represent a talking oyster. Of course, no one who pays them any attention can deny that oysters do do things: they are prodigious cleaners of filthy water, and if New York City, for example, had still had its oyster beds, Hurricane Sandy wouldn’t have hit quite as hard. Nor are oysters entirely helpless: they have shells, and their shells give them some definition and protection even if crabs always manage to find some way in. But the main point of the speaking, plaintive oyster may be the recognition of what has to exist, first of all, if there is to be any agency at all: agency requires an existence distinct in time and space from other things – no action is possible otherwise, because action needs to act on some other thing and from somewhere – and therefore the agent must have a location and some particular when, which means that its agency is always accompanied by its limits, its inabilities, its termination. It all goes further than this, however, because the oyster’s only intention, if it can even be called that, is that of their sensus solus itself, which establishes the relation towards the self, combined with a helpless inability to choose to do anything about it. That is, the oyster makes it clear that to be at all, even if all that the thing does is be, means being constrained by and vulnerable to nonexistence. For a living thing, this means, especially, that death awaits, whether it knows it or not.

This unwitting helplessness is on the other side even of what Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I am called the “non-pouvoir au cœur du pouvoir” [“nonpower at the heart of power”].[13] Derrida arrived at this phrase after observing that, for Jeremy Bentham, the question of animal rights did not depend on whether they could use language or reason, but whether they could suffer. Derrida’s favored animal to think with in this essay was a cat; and cats demonstrably can suffer, so long as we are willing to admit that their cries are not simply the sound of clockwork breaking. However, oysters are not only mute, but also unaware, without any movement or sense of other things, without any ability, short of poetry, to make their distress known. To make vitality synonymous with agency and awareness is to forget this nonpower. It is also a mistake that threatens to grant protections only to those things that can do things, or react to things, or even to experience things, while forgetting that things also need protection because of what they cannot do, and may especially need protection against threats they themselves cannot recognize or even be aware that they are experiencing. For depending on which modern scientific studies of oysters and pain are embraced, the oyster may even lack the sensus solus prescientific natural history granted them. They may have nothing but their lives. If the social problem of pain is not knowing if others are really suffering,[14] then this problem is a subjective one, more like numbness than the problem of other minds. It is a problem that requires that the question of “what it is like to be,” for example, an octopus, tick, or oyster,[15] be answered not only with species specific phenomenology, but also with accounts of sensory incapacities, whether innate or temporary. In summarizing Jakob von Uexküll’s famous experiments on the environment [umwelt] of ticks, Agamben declares that if the tick’s sensory capacities are oriented exclusively to an awareness of mammalian blood, “the tick is this relationship,” living “only in it and for it.”[16] But surely it is a mistake to declare that the tick’s existence can be exhausted by what it believes itself to know (or, more accurately, what we can infer about what we believe it to know). Agamben’s declaration is too experiential. The tick’s unwittingness also has to matter: a complete phenomenological account of the tick means attending to all it does not experience. This is not a problem exclusive to invertebrates, of course. Cows too may be said to have this same impediment, particularly in slaughterhouses designed by Temple Grandin. By thinking like a cow, Temple Grandin “remove[s] the things that make [cows] stop moving forward: in a good facility cows walk toward slaughter as if toward a milking parlor.”[17] They advance fearlessly, not because they have become stoics, but because they don’t know what’s ahead. Surely this is a strange kind of “humane” slaughter: to remove only the fear and not the killing; to increase the ignorance, and call that a job well done. Surely there’s more worth protecting than just scared cows, and more than just the cow that has a moment to experience the pain of its own death. As one might expect, these insights can be taken even further. If death is inassimilable to the experience of the thing that dies—whether we call this experience “consciousness” or “sensus solus” or some term graced with even less grandeur—then the ultimate threat itself is always on the other side of our knowledge.[18] We can never get away from it, as we already know, but neither can we ever really know it. In sum, if we want to go further than suffering in looking for a paradoxical noncapacity that lies at the “heart of power,” we might seek it here, in the unexperiencable, uncognizable end, what we might call a non-awareness at the heart of existence.

We are now well-positioned to reconsider Descartes’ letter to the Marquess of Cavendish. This short letter only slowly gets to its conclusive denial of thought and soul to nonhuman animals. This assertion is itself a kind of mechanical reflex, an instance where Descartes’ proof of free thought follows a kind of instinctual groove of the belief in human superiority. The rest of the letter, however, is instead largely about the automatism of even most human life: it explains that somnambulant humans sometimes swim across rivers they could never cross while awake; for the most part, we need not think in order to be able to eat or walk; and if tried not to cover our face as we fell, we would fail.[19] All Descartes can say confidently is that, unlike animals, we ourselves can communicate things not relating to our passions, but, at least in this letter, he provides no sustained proof that the communication even of other humans is anything but mechanical repetition. That is, only irrational custom or an equally irrational sympathetic guesswork protects Descartes’ human fellows from being eaten, used, and vivisected. This guesswork overlays a more fundamental animal condition that is, for the most part, unconscious. Like other animals, we have our passions; like other animals, our passions have us, and our expressions — of hunger, of self-protection, of motion — are the voice not of our freedom but of our vulnerable bodily existence. To use Descartes’ image, we may not be clocks, not entirely, but we are mostly clocks.

This insight in turn requires rethinking the standard medieval hierarchy of being. The tradition is neatly expressed among other places by the fifteenth-century Middle English Mirror of St Edmund:

His wysdom may þou see if þou take kepe how he [God] hase gyffen to ylke a creature to be. Some he hase gyffen to be anely, with-owtten mare, als vn-to stanes. Till oþer to be & to lyffe, als to grysse and trees. Till oþer to be, to lyffe, to fele, als to bestes. Till oþer to be, to lyffe, to fele, and with resone to deme, als to mane and to angells. For stanes erre, bot þay ne hafe nogte lyffe, ne felys noghte, ne demes noghte. Trees are; þay lyffe, bot thay fele noghte. Men are; þay lyffe, þay fele, and þay deme, and þay erre with stanes, [þay] lyffe with trees, þay fele with bestes, and demys with angels.[20]

You may see God’s wisdom if you attend to what kind of being God to each creature. Some he has given to be only, without anything more, like stones. To others, to be and to live, like grass and trees. To others, to be, to live, and to feel, like beasts. To others, to be, to live, to feel, and to judge rationally, like men and angels. For stones are, but they have no life, nor any feelings or thought. Trees are; they live, but they do not feel. Men are: they live, they feel, and they think: they are, like stones; they live, like trees; they feel, like beasts; and they think, like angels.

Usually, the last, rational kind of being is thought to be the most important. With reason, we can separate ourselves from our immediate circumstances and from every other living thing; in mainstream medieval Christianity, we might live forever through our immortal rational soul rejoined with a perfected body, so escaping vulnerability altogether. But among created things, only angels escape being tethered to the previous kinds of being. For everything else, every kind of being is additive, supplementing rather than replacing the previous ones. We could therefore read this hierarchy of being as one in which the final rational addition is just one more layer an existence that is mostly animal-like, plant-like, or stonelike. Like angels, humans can reason, but they also have the same capacities—and accompanying vulnerabilities and needs—as beasts, plants, and rocks. The point is not that humans are really like rocks, but rather that they are also like rocks, and that concentrating exclusively on human reason, even if we grant it exclusively to humans among mortal life, means forgetting most of what we are.

Consider, finally, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, widely read and frequently translated from the fifth century through the Middle Ages (when King Alfred of England sponsored a translation) to the Early Modern period (when Queen Elizabeth translated it) through to the present day. Ultimately the Consolation seeks to prove the existence of free will, independent of circumstance or fortune, whether bad or good. Divine Foreknowledge is the impediment: if God is omnipotent, and therefore omniscient, surely all future action is known in advance, and therefore already preordained. Not so, argues Boethius: the objects of knowledge differ from the ways of knowledge. From our limited perspective, true for us, there is a difference between past, present, and future, which preserves free will.[21] To illustrate this point, Boethius talks about shellfish:

Many kinds of knowledge belong to different and diverse substances. For sense alone without any other kind of knowledge belongs to living things that do not move, such as sea shells [“conchae maris” [22]] and such other things clinging to rocks; but imagination belongs to beasts that move, which seem already to have in them some disposition to flee or seek out things. But reason belongs only to human kind, as intelligence only to the divine.[23]

At this point, Boethius seems to making a familiar argument about hierarchies of motion, and then about scales of being, running from the least motile animals, to mobile animals, to humans, and eventually to angels. But the argument is actually about epistemology, and, in particular, about how epistemological impediments preserve space for free will to be possible. The very limitation of human reason gives us the sense of temporal sequence necessary to our temporally local concept of free choice. Boethius thus locates our rational will not on the side of power, but on the side of ignorance. Since our ignorance is so very far from God’s infinite, extra-temporal knowledge, we more like oysters than any divine being.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that limitation is the root of what we are, nor that our unwittingness is somehow the “heart” of nonpower. The point is not that the “simple fact of being there” is more true than human reason, agency, or even sensation. All metaphors of depth reaffirm precritical hopes of getting at the final truth, whether this be located at the heart, the core, in something “profound,” or on a “deeper level,” all of which offer the fantasy of “revealing” the “ground” that would relieve us of having to think or make decisions. The point is rather that critical concentrations on reason, cognition, experience, and agency all go awry by concentrating on their subjects in their potential, not in their presence. That is, these concentrations wait for their subject to do something – to alter something else, to resist its circumstances in some way – not only as if the only “agency” worth noting is the agency of misbehavior or resistance, but also as if the subject becomes worth considering only when it seems to reach out beyond itself. The point of course is not that the thing is somehow truer before it engages in any of these activities. The point is rather that its being there also requires our attention, and that perhaps the best figure for recognizing what this subject of attention might be like is the premodern oyster.

For humans to catch a touch of oysterpomorphism is not to recognize that we cannot do anything, nor that agency is impossible, but to recognize that whatever our agency, we are still bodily, bounded by space and time. Whatever the alliances of always shifting networks that make agency possible, identifiable agency, like identifiable existence, requires definite location. Though we flatter ourselves by thinking that our freedom of choice is our defining characteristic, we still should ask, with Derrida, “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man…what he refuses the animal.”[24] We tend to attribute to ourselves the capacity of not being bound by our circumstances, on “unconcealing” existence, of immortality, of abstraction, of definitional openness, and so on. We think what we really are is the thing that escapes. But we still have to be somewhere. None of us, of course, chose to be born. We do not chose the conditions of our being here any more than an oyster does. Our much vaunted ability to willingly move, which we hold out over the oysters, still cannot untether us from having to live somewhere. Since, in this time of climate change, we know that our freedom to flee danger is limited by our confinement to this sweltering earth, we should, on a planetary scale, number ourselves among with the oysters, as “such other things as feed clinging to rocks.” So constrained, and so enabled too by this constraint, we might as well choose this, for a while, as our analytical starting place.

[1] One early translation, absolutely faithful in its treatment of the oyster episode, is Denis Sauvage, trans., La Circe de M. Giovan-Baptista Gello [sic] (Lyon: Guillaume Rouillé, 1550). The two dramatic adaptations may be based on Gelli, or more directly on Plutarch, via “Que les bestes brutes usent de la raison,” in Les Oeuvres morales et meslees, trans. Jacques Amyot, vol. 1, 2 vols. (Paris: Michel de Vascosan, 1572), 270–74, which first made this text generally available in Western Europe (note, however, that the final entry in Machiavelli’s eight-part satire of 1517, “L’asino” [The Donkey], is also an adaptation of “Gryllus”). The two French plays each omit the oyster: from 1661, Antoine-Jacob Montfleury, “Les Bestes raisonnables,” in Les Contemporains de Molière, ed. Victor Fournel, vol. 1, 3 vols. (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1863), 223–38, which features one scene in which a man, once a lion, shouts in rage (“Qui diable m’a rendu ma première figure!”) when returned for a while to its human form, and then in effect answers Wittgenstein’s observation (“If a lion could speak &c”) by railing at Ulysses about human cruelty and treachery. The next, from 1718, is Marc-Antoine Legrand and Louis Fuzelier, “Les Animaux raisonnables,” in Le Théâtre de La Foire, ed. Alain René Le Sage and Carolet d’Orneval, vol. 3, 10 vols. (Paris: Etienne Ganeau, 1721), 1–35. Though lacking a talking oyster, this play does have a singing dolphin, which claims to be happy to meet Ulysses once more after vainly searching for him among “deux cens Huîtres” (200 oysters). The lion of Jean de la Fontaine’s fable ‘Les Compagnons d’Ulysse’ is one of several animals, none oysters, that refuses to become human again (here I am a king, it says; were I a human, I would once more be but a simple soldier). For guidance in finding this material, George Boas, The Happy Beast in French Thought of the Seventeenth Century (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1933), 35–36., which is preceded by a detailed paraphrase of the Gelli; Derek Connon, “Animal Instincts: Homer, Plutarch, and La Fontaine Go to the Fair,” in French Seventeenth-Century Literature: Influences and Transformations: Essays in Honour of Christopher J. Gossip, ed. Jane Southwood and Bernard Bourque (Berne: Peter Lang, 2009), 75–90 (which traces the route from Plutarch to the French adaptations); and Marc Escola and Sophie Rabau, “Bibliothèque de Circé,” text, Fabula, Atelier littéraire (April 18, 2010) (particularly good on nineteenth- and twentieth-century reimaginings of Circe).

[2] Judith Yarnall, Transformations of Circe: The History of an Enchantress (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 110–11.

[3] For the deceit and storytelling of Circe and the animals, see especially the reading of Plutarch in Marina Warner, Monsters of Our Own Making: The Peculiar Pleasures of Fear (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998), 272–83.

[4] Laurie Shannon, The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 162.

[5] Giovanni Battista Gelli, The Circe, trans. Thomas Brown and Robert Adams (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963), 13.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Shannon, The Accommodated Animal, 160.

[8] Gelli, Circe, 19–20.

[9] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 122, summarizing Lacan.

[10] Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 30, on Carl Linnaeus’ classification of humans as “manlike,” “constitutively nonhuman,” an “ironic” anthropological “machine” the preserves the fundamental human capacity to recreate itself as anything.

[11] Gelli, Circe, 12.

[12] From his 1622 Strange Newes out of Divers Countries, in Nicholas Breton, The Works in Verse and Prose of Nicholas Breton: Prose, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1879), 11.

[13] Jacques Derrida, “L’Animal que donc je suis (à suivre),” in L’Animal autobiographique: Autour de Jacques Derrida, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 1999), 278. Derrida, Animal That Therefore, 28.

[14] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[15] Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” The Philosophical Review 83, no. 4 (1974): 435–50.

[16] Agamben, The Open, 47. For Agamben’s source, Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, with a Theory of Meaning, trans. Joseph D. O’Neil (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 50–52.

[17] This is the summary of Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (New York: Scribner, 2005) from Erica Fudge, “Milking Other Men’s Beasts,” History and Theory 52 (2013): 19. Fudge’s essay, which attends to humans and disability, as well as the history of the size and treatment of livestock, is an exceptionally good phenomenological/social-historical engagement with animals.

[18] Cary Wolfe, “Exposures,” in Stanley Cavell et al., Philosophy & Animal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 21, “For Derrida…we never have an idea of what death is for us—indeed, death is precisely that which can never be for us—and if we did, then the ethical relation to the other would be immediately foreclosed.”

[19] René Descartes, Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. III: The Correspondence, trans. Robert Stoothoff (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 302–3.

[20] G. G. Perry, ed., Religious Pieces in Prose and Verse, EETS O. S. 26 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1913), 22.

[21] Marcia L. Colish, The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 287, “in the Consolation, the chief objective of his refutation of fatalism is not to make way for contingency in general but to establish the reality of free will.” See also Robert Sharples, “Fate, Prescience, and Free Will,” in The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, ed. John Marenbon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 216, on the “Iamblichus Principle,” in which “the nature of knowledge is determined by the nature of the knower rather than by the thing known.”

[22] Chaucer’s translation of the Consolation renders this as “oistres”; “Boece,” in Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Dean Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987), 465.

[23] Consolation, V, prose 5.

[24] Derrida, Animal That Therefore, 135.

Minimal Animals


Nightlife in Philadelphia (1811-c.1813), Attributed to John Lewis Krimmel

The second book of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon opens by considering the problem of “þe ordre of þe story.” To illustrate the principle of good structure, namely, that lesser things should serve the greater, Higden crafts a bio-eco-rhetorical analogy. For the human body as for the world itself, everything functions well if all is proportional, arranged well, and directed at its proper ends. Otherwise, “anon is grete distourbaunce i-made”[1]: earthquakes and thunder in the macrocosmos; in the human microcosmos, “ache, sicknesse, and sorwe”; and, presumably, although this is unexpressed, in Higden’s massive historical compendium, disarrangement. What his discussion requires is a base, a fundamental ordering principle to fix a distinction of lesser from greater and to hold each of these poles in place.

Naturally enough, Higden finds this sure foundation in oysters:

Also as it is in þe parties of þe grete world þat þey beeþ so i-ordeyned and i-sette þat þe ouermese of þe neþer kynde touche þe neþermeste of þe ouer kynde, as oistres and schelle fishe, þat beeþ as it were lowest in bestene kynde, passeþ but litel þe perfeccioun of lyf of treen and of herbes, for þey mowe not meue hem but as culpes of þe see waggeþ wiþ þe water, elles þey cleueþ to þe erthe and mowe noþer see ne hire, ne taste, ne smelle, but onliche fele when þey beeþ i-touched.[2]

The parts of the great world are so ordered and set that the highest point of the lower kind touches the lowest part of the kind above it, as oysters and shell fish do, that are, as it were, the lowest in animal kind, barely surpassing the perfection of the life of trees and of herbs [that is, they barely surpass the highest form of plant life], for oysters might not move themselves except in the way that kelp of the sea wags with the water, as otherwise they cling to the earth and cannot see nor hear nor taste nor smell; but they feel only when they are touched.

Higden gets his scaffolds from two sources: first, Aristotle’s tripartite, accretive division of the soul into the vegetable (which provides for nutrition, growth, and life itself); the animal (sense, motion, and reaction); and the intellective (everything belonging to the “nonfinite”[3] list of capacities thought to travel uniquely under the banner of human reason); and then the scale of being, a taxonomy that elaborates on this tripartite model by sequencing everything from the highest, spiritual beings to the lowest, soulless forms of existence. Though this model would hypothetically allow some fortunate animal species to be closest to intellective existence, in practice, no animal ever held this position consistently: dogs had it sometimes, for their loyalty; bears, because they mate as we are supposed to do, face to face; and pygmies, because of their shape—although even they could be barred from humanity, because legends about them held that they were heliotropes, like sunflowers, mechanistically moved by a sun they only appeared to worship.[4] But here, neither the upper limit nor any other rates Higden’s attention. He provides no other border creature: neither between plants and stones, nor animals and humans, nor humans and spiritual beings. He needs just the one line, and everything else neatly follows. Just before the oyster, Higden enumerates the proper mathematical proportions of a well-arranged human body; just after, the gradual senectitude of the world since its creation, repeated on a smaller scale with every human life as it declines towards its own death. Then he lists a vast array of human customs throughout the world. First stability, then the oyster, then a bit of human difference, but not so much that the human becomes unrecognizable as human, as if the oyster’s stolid reliability laid the foundation for a safe field of play.

To be sure, oysters are not the stars of premodern animal writing: they are not lions, not birds, certainly not pigs or dogs or horses. But when they do get attention, they get it as border creatures, classifiers without themselves being quite classifiable. For one, they are sexless. Thought not to reproduce “like from like,” but to generate spontaneously from the actions of celestial bodies on the water, the oyster could at least be praised for its chastity.[5] Without the miscues of mating practiced or malpracticed by what were called the more perfect animals, oysters were perfectly suited – according to one fifteenth-century civic record from Norwich – to signify the “sadnesse and abstinence of merth [that] shulde followe…an holy tyme.”[6] And the proverbial “immobility” of the oyster—a title bestowed on them by Boethius, Aquinas, and Higden, among others[7] – makes them, especially, what remains “after we strip life of all its recognizable features”[8]: this later identification is from Michael Marder, here talking not about oysters, but plants, which for him represent “life in its archaic bareness…life as survival.”[9] Plants, however, grow in an “ineluctable bi-directionality…striving at once towards light and towards darkness”[10]; in seeking out good land, or in breaking into stone or soil, plants evince some kind of desire, preference, or “non-conscious intentionality.”[11] Not oysters: only the rare oyster writer suggests they rise to meet the sun or shrink from touch; otherwise, they are overwhelmingly unintentional animals, without direction, aim, or any evidence of desire. This passivity, finally, let Pliny, at one point, declare that oysters have no sensation at all,[12] and let another, medieval writer go so far as to present them as more like stones than animals. This is Philippe de Thaon, in his early twelfth-century bestiary, which considers oysters towards its conclusion, among diamonds, beryls, and other gems. Pearls come from oysters opening themselves “de lur gré” [3036; at their own will] to the dew of the heavens, “cum fusënt vivës creatures”[13] [3039; as if they were living creatures]. The ambiguity – this mixture of having a will and not quite being alive – neatly encapsulates the oyster’s uncertain, even universal, form of existence, which traverses life and nonlife, desire and mere mechanicity. In all this, as the sexless, immobile, even lifeless thing, the oyster is not much more than a figure of pure difference, whose only identity is that of being dubiously alive.

The mere vitality of the oyster can be better understood by contrasting it with another extreme figure of life, Lacan’s mythic lamella. In the course of his lectures on the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, Lacan offers up the lamella as a correction to the fable of the origin of love told by Aristophanes in the Symposium. As he argues, sexual difference is not the origin of the drive; it’s nothing so organic and simple as that. Lacan imagines that after the gods split the first, unified people apart, something must have remained, an “immortal” drive, “the libido, qua pure life instinct,” unattached, deathless, and “irrepressible.”[14] It is thin and flexible: the “lamella” is the gold foil buried in Greek and Roman graves, engraved with passwords for the afterlife,[15] or even, tantalizingly, the “flesh forming the gills of bivalve molluscs, such as clams or oysters (in the class Lamellibranchia).”[16] Just a border, a site of contact, a screen on which stimulation plays, the lamella has no particular form of its own, nor any particular aim, and therefore no capacity to satisfied. Lacan asks his audience to imagine it “envelop[ing]” their faces at night as they quietly sleep.[17] Undoubtedly, this very creepiness makes the lamella so good to think with; as a “horrible palpitation of the ‘acephalic’ drive which persists beyond ordinary death,”[18] the lamella represents what is so often held to be repulsive truth of the Real, the irrepressible, Lovecraftian “creeping chaos” beyond the symbolic.[19] But the oyster, at another extreme of life, just does nothing. It has its own form, bounded by a shell. It has no desire. To extend Lacan’s myth, it is as if, with the first splitting of the conjoined humans, there were not just the one, but two things left over, the lamella, that pure form of desire, and also the life that simply wants nothing, and which is, for that reason, beneath even Lacan’s attention. Here lies something inert, undirected, less content than beyond caring, but still there and living for all that. If the lamella is a figure of “living death,” the oyster might therefore be called “deathly living” or “lifeless life,” without any of the dissatisfaction of social existence, without the motion that even a disorganized, lamellic drive demands. The oyster just sits there, wanting nothing, responding to nothing, aiming at nothing, a creature whose immobile uninterest might be recognized only retroactively as having been a form of life, only after it has been killed and reduced to a still lesser inertness.

None of this means, however, that the psychic state of the oyster cannot be represented. But what is represented, again, is a kind of border existence, an attempt to imagine the psychic life of a nullity. Efforts towards this end run from Plato all the way to the Enlightenment. Plato first describes this kind of life in his Gorgias, here imagining it not with the oyster, but rather with the charadrios, a “stonecurlew,”[20] whose infamous habit, per one sixth-century commentator, was eating and excreting almost simultaneously.[21] For Plato, this shore bird represented a being that functions as little more than a conduit. Because it lacks the capacity of self-mastery that would deliberately distinguish it from the rest of existence, it is helplessly, passively open, with no capacity but the unresistant, undeliberative capacity of receiving pleasure. Not incidentally, Plato’s other two examples in Gorgias include “leaky jars” and, more strikingly, kinaidos, catamites, subject to the pleasures of others, but without any of the shame or self-mastery requisite for any upstanding member of the polis.[22] By his Philebus, these examples of a life lived only “in enjoyment of the greatest pleasures” had been reduced to sea creatures, “a mollusk” or “jellyfish” and also “one of those creatures in shells that live in the sea.”[23] The Latin Middle Ages had access to very little of Plato’s corpus, and to the Gorgias and Philebus none at all;[24] further work on this oyster passage would have to await the middle of the fifteenth century, with Marsilio Ficino. His Philebus commentary freely translates, equating the life of unknowing pleasure to that of “jelly fish, or a stupid living thing” [insensati et stupidi animalis], “like that of the marine oyster.”[25] To advance his condemnation, Ficino concentrates on the jelly fish, which he characterizes as soft, delicate, easy to puncture, unable to move, with undifferentiated organs, typically found strewn on shorelines. Shaped like a lung (as the Greek pleumon or pneumon can mean both this and “jelly fish”[26]), their shape is just that of an open sack, “semper…aperitur et clauditur,” always being opened and closed. This ongoing, indifferent receptivity, Ficino says, is an image of “the life of pleasure without wisdom…the lowest form of life, the one closest to death,” for this pleasure, enjoyed without knowledge, would be “exactly as if it were not there.” Just this side of existence, or non-existence, Ficino’s oyster is at once stolid, insensible, and flexible, shapeless, and too mobile, not quite anything in itself, yet still there for all that.

The eighteenth-century Enlightenment Encyclopedia provides two last developments of this idea, in its entries on both “innate” and “pleasure.” Diderot’s entry on the former concept observes that all that is innate to us are the faculties of sensing and touching; everything else we know is acquired through the senses. Remove sight, he observes, and all the ideas that belong to sight vanish, and so on with each sense: smell, taste, hearing, touch. Without the higher senses, abstract thought becomes impossible. Contrarily, “suppose a shapeless but sensing mass”: this mass would have all the ideas pertaining to touch, and, to this, each additional sense could be added one by one. The modes of knowledge associated with each sense would necessarily follow, with abstract ideas arising at least with a full complement of senses. Thus, writes Diderot, “through this method and through the other, we can reduce a human to the state of an oyster, and elevate an oyster to the state of a human.”[27] Then, the entry on pleasure considers whether the pleasures of the soul surpass those of the senses. The former pleasures, alone, would give the delights of the liberal arts: history, geometry, fine letters, and an unalterable joy; the latter pleasures would, as it were, produce a being “encased in its shell,” with all its happiness resulting from the “blind” and sourd — “dull” or “deaf” — feelings of the moment. The entry bemoans humanity’s weakness. Few would prefer the former, philosophically heroic life; most would be content to experience the mere sensory “félicité” — “happiness,” or even “bliss” or “ecstasy” – “of an oyster.”[28]

All that is left is pure sensation, the “sensus solus” which is all that most commentators grant the oyster.[29] What this sensory power actually is, and how it has been read and misread in the millennia since Aristotle, has been studied most thoroughly in Daniel Heller-Roezen’s The Inner Touch. For Aristotle and his commentators, this fundamental “common sense” is that quality through which a sense perceives that it is sensing; his later disciples describe it as the hub to which all senses report, which establishes the possibility for communication between them, so that one and the same object might be identified simultaneously as white and sweet.[30] For the Stoics, on the other hand, so committed to the supremacy of human reason, this sense is the one through which all living things exercise care for themselves by feeling some self-ownership. Whatever it might be—and Heller-Roezen teases it out intricately—it is not “self-awareness” or “self-consciousness.”[31] The inner sense, this sensus solus, is more fundamental than this or any thought, because unlike thought, it cannot be removed or fully distinguished from the thing being sensed, even if it operates only by virtue of the slight gap between the sensed thing and the sensation.

With this sense, and not much else, the oyster is animal life that cannot be abstracted from its present condition. It is animal, but less mobile than a plant, since even the kelp that move in the water grow. It is alive, but seems more like a stone than an animal. Its sensitive life is bounded by a shell, which, in its helplessness, makes it most like a flapping jellyfish. Wanting nothing, it has nothing but a certain, virtually indefinable sensation. Here we have as bare a lump of life as could be imagined, with none of the vitality or striving that so often accompanies metaphors of “liveliness” or “vitality.” [32] What could be done with such a life, and what could possibly be owed it?

[for the beginning of an exploration of what to do about this]

[1] Ranulf Higden and John Trevisa, Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden with Trevisa’s Translation, ed. Joseph Rawson Lumby (London: Longman & Co., 1865), Vol. II, 179.

[2] Ibid., 181. For similar statements, see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. J. F. Anderson et al., 5 vols. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1955), II.68, “How an intellectual substance can be the form of the body,” and John Weemes, The Portraiture of the Image of God in Man (London: John Bellamie, 1632), 56–57.

[3] For “nonfinite,” see Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 5, “The list of ‘what is proper to man’ always forms a configuration, from the first moment. For that very reason, it can never be limited to a single trait and it is never closed; structurally speaking it can attract a nonfinite number of other concepts, beginning with the concept of a concept.”

[4] For pygmies, John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1981), 190–96; Joseph Koch, “Sind die Pygmäen Menschen? Ein Kapitel aus der philosophischen Anthropologie der mittelalterlichen Scholastik,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 40, no. 2 (1931): 209–13.

[5] For representative statements on the generation of oysters, Pliny the Elder, Natural History, ed. and trans. H. Rackham, 10 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940), IX.LXXIV, Vol. 3:273, and X.LXXXVII, Vol. 3:413. Robert Grosseteste, On the Six Days of Creation: A Translation of the Hexaëmeron, trans. C. F. J. Martin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 195 (for “like from like”); and Henry Buttes, Dyets Dry Dinner: Consisting of Severall Courses (London: Thomas Creede, 1599), 102; for chastity, as part of a debate in which bees, geese, flax, oysters, and other things argue over which provides more service to humans, Michael Maier, Lusus Serius: Or, Serious Passe-Time. A Philosophical Discourse Concerning the Superiority of Creatures under Man, trans. J. de la Salle [pseudonym of John Hall of Durham] (London: Humphrey Moseley, 1654), 35–36. The Latin original is Michael Maier, Lusus Serius (Oppenheim: Luke Jennis, 1619), 23.

[6] The quotation is from one account of the Lenten costume John Gladman supposedly wore for his January 25, 1443 revolt in Norwich; cited from Chris Humphrey, The Politics of Carnival: Festive Misrule in Medieval England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 66.

[7] For Aquinas, see n2, above. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, V, prose 5.

[8] Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 22.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 63.

[11] Ibid., 37.

[12] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, IX.71, Vol. 3:267, “nullum esse sensum, ut ostreis.”

[13] Sharron Hogan Cottin-Bizonne, “Une nouvelle édition du Bestiaire de Philippe de Thaon” (PhD Thesis, University of North Carolina, 2003). For a more easily accessible edition, Emmanuel Walberg, ed., Le Bestiaire de Philippe de Thaün (Lund: Möller, 1900). The edition in Thomas Wright, ed. and trans., Popular Treatises on Science Written during the Middle Ages (London: Y.R. and J.E. Taylor, 1841), should be avoided; Walberg observes that Wright “quelquefois mal lu,” which holds true for the section on pearls and oysters too. Cottin-Bizonne’s notes cite Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies and the Physiologus, but neither of these works include Philippe’s subjunctive assessment of the oyster’s vitality, nor anything about the oyster’s intentionality.

[14] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Karnac, 1977), 198.

[15] Darian Leader, “Lacan’s Myths,” in The Cambridge Companion to Lacan, ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 45–47.

[16] Oliver Harris, Lacan’s Return to Antiquity: Between Nature and the Gods (New York: Routledge, 2017), 75, quoting Richard Boothby’s 1991 Lacan commentary. Harris, 67-75, is a particularly thorough account of the mythographic character of this Lacanian image.

[17] Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 197.

[18] Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 118.

[19] For an exemplary championing of putrefaction, Ben Woodard, Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012).

[20] Donald J. Zeyl, trans., Gorgias, in Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, Associate Editor, D. S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 494b, 837.

[21] Olympiodorus the Younger of Alexandria, Commentary on Plato’s Gorgias, trans. Robin Jackson, Kimon Lycos, and Harold Tarrant (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 210. To the best of my knowledge, this habit is recorded nowhere else in ancient natural history. Other accounts of the charadrios—Hugh of Fouilloy, for example (De bestiis et aliis rebus, PL 177:77C) —speak instead of its diagnostic and curative potency: if it is brought to a sick person, and turns its head away, this is a certain sign that the person will die, but otherwise, it can suck out the sickness from the patient’s mouth and fly towards the sun to burn it up.

[22] Christina H. Tarnopolsky, Prudes, Perverts, and Tyrants: Plato’s Gorgias and the Politics of Shame (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 22.

[23] Dorothea Frede, trans., Philebus, in Plato, Complete Works. 21d, 409.

[24] Raymond Klibanksy, The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition during the Middle Ages: Outlines of a Corpus Platonicum Medii Aevi (Munich: Kraus, 1981). and the four volumes, overseen by Klibansky, of Plato Latinus, comprising translations of Meno, Phaedo, Parmenides, and Timaeus, by far the most widely read of these.

[25] Marsilio Ficino, The Philebus Commentary, trans. Michael J. B. Allen (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000), 316.

[26] Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Revised and Augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the Assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), s.v., “πλεύμων” and “πνεύμων,” Perseus Digital Library. (accessed Feb 13 2017).

[27] Diderot, Denis. “Innate.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Timothy Cleary. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2004. (accessed Feb 13, 2017). Originally published as “Inné,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 8:754 (Paris, 1765).

[28] “Pleasure,” Ibid. Translated by Robert H. Ketchum, 2007. (accessed Feb 13, 2017). Originally published as “Plaisir,” Ibid., 12:691 (Paris, 1765).

[29] Boethius, Consolation, V, prose 5, 417, in Loeb Classical Library 74.

[30] For this last point, for example, The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation (New York: Zone Books, 2009), 36, 45, and 120.

[31] Ibid., 40, 62.

[32] For an exemplary discussion of resistance and unpredictability as a key feature of “life,” see Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 32.

Does the Oyster Need “Agency”?

This week in oyster thinking, a chunk of a chapter for Book2.

In Descartes, Plato, Boethius, Ficino, in the whole of this tradition, the oyster occupies the zero point of animal existence. A life without motion, sentience, gender differentiation, without social relations, even to itself, a life indifferent to any sovereign incursion or biopolitical intervention, this is a living being far barer than any Agamben ever described. We might have called this way of existence a “threshhold of indistinction,” or a “zone” of “indifference” or “indetermination” or “undecidability,” “in which the words ‘life’ and ‘death’ had lost their meaning,”[1] were there a juridical exclusion, political danger, or trauma that could be described or recognized in oysterdom without insulting the dignity of Agamben’s own somber catalog of examples: Franciscans, Jesus, Auschwitz, and so on. But the oyster is not in any danger that it could attend to or worry about: it is just indifferent, to us, to itself, to anything, with only enough difference to give it the basic spatially and temporally bounded persistence that we call existence itself, which, of course, means a clearing bounded inescapably by its own nonexistence. This oystery “bare life” produces a version of the concept that we need not worry about, one that requires none of the counterhegemonic, paradoxic textual analysis or Messianic hopes that Agamben’s category demands, because oysters are naturally, inescapably “bare life,” and could never be otherwise. Amid the obvious ecological benefits of fostering shoals of oysters, what moral impediment could there be, then, to taking one or a dozen oystery lives out of these billions and swallowing them down?

The problem is in the preservation of the category of “bare life” itself, even with a being that suits the category so perfectly, because so long as this category is preserved, a space has been left open for innocent killing. The subpolitical, supposedly “natural” ostreum sacrum describes a zone that will inevitably encompass the homo sacer, any form of human and other life that is held to be relatively insensible to pain, stolid, unthinking, unreflective, nonindividual, swarming, and so on. This alone is sufficient reason for catalyzing what is by now a typical ecocritical, posthuman response of investing oysters and others with the qualities they would require for their protection. With some groups, people most obviously, this investment has the character of justice; with others, like oysters, it can just look silly. But in either case, working against the exclusive possession of “agency” requires recognizing that the distribution of the recognition of “agency” is a political problem. Limit cases might help us recognize this better than more “natural” agential groups, because limit cases require not simply applying, but rethinking, fundamental assumptions.

Twenty-first century critical theory has witnessed a systematic upending of what Freud identified as the progress of civilization, and, given the homologies he drew between so-called “primitive” cultures and childhood, the progress of adulthood itself. His essay on the Unconscious observes that we — by which he means adult, well-functioning humans, neither children nor primitives nor neurotics —once had extended the recognition of consciousness “to other human beings, to animals, plants, inanimate objects, and to the world at large”; today, in this case, meaning 1915 and its European geotemporal environs, “our critical judgment is already in doubt on the question of consciousness in animals; we refuse to admit in animals, and we regard the assumption of its existence in inanimate matter as mysticism.”[2] A hundred years later, we might say that the process is almost exactly reversed. In a representative essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Michael Marder rightly observes that “for scientists … the superiority of human intelligence over other primates is a mere hypothesis to be tested and subsequently verified or declined”;[3] even with their short lives, even with their asociality in relation to other members of their species, some octopuses express preferences for certain individuals and show a real knack for improvisational solutions to unfamiliar problems;[4] furthermore, as might be expected from the author of Plant-Thinking, Marder argues that tests for “problem solving, collaboration, and adaptation would need to be indexed to the appropriate environments and needs of each kind of organism, be it an underground labyrinth of mineral resources and moisture in the case of a tree or a complex network of social interactions holding the promise of positive reinforcement in the case of a human child.” The name of his article? “Smart as an Oak.” If apes and octopuses and oaks are not merely prey to ongoing and aimless chains of cause and effect, but also actors in their own right, then oysters might as well be also granted subjecthood, to rescue them too from the thoughtless good conscience of instrumental reason.

This gift of recognition, development of a new critical sensitivity, or misanthropocist mystification—depending on one’s own theoretical habits—would come to know that oysters and other supposedly “passive and inert”[5] things possess vibrancy, animacy, and “hidden volcanic depths.”[6] This faith, delusion, or attentiveness might be enough at least to make us hesitate before we put things to use. Some exemplary moments: Vinciane Despret’s What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions repeatedly recognizes that not instinct, but play, disappointment, and other “excessive” motives drive nonhuman behavior.[7] Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things speaks of the “liveliness of objects,” Latourian actants with “their own powers, their own innate tendencies.”[8] Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway observes that “it takes a radical rethinking of agency to appreciate how lively even ‘dead matter’ can be.”[9] Medieval literary studies has joined in: like Susan Signe Morrison’s Literature of Waste begins its discussion of Beowulf by observing that “the dynamic agency of objects litters the literary canon, a repository of stuff and matter”[10]; J. Allan Mitchell’s Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child, speaks of a “miniature medieval horseman [that] possesses agency and autonomy no matter the environment in which it is placed”[11]; and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, shoves aside the unthinking pleonasm of “human agency” with conjunctions like “material agency” or “inhuman agency.”[12] All of this meets Jane Bennett’s call in Vibrant Matter for a “touch of anthropomorphism”[13] or what Steven Shaviro suggests as “a certain cautious anthropomorphism”[14] that would recognize the “creative agency” of earthworms, power grids, metals, garbage, and so on.

Shaviro rightly insists that this kind of work is ultimately needed not to extend anthropomorphism, but “to avoid” it. The development of critical sensitivity to agency in unexpected places must be recognized not as a delusion, but as a strategic decision made within an already existing assumption that things that are lively, vibrant, animated, and agential— things most like the abstract concept of “the human”—deserve protections and forms of political and moral recognition that mere objects do not possess. This is not enough, however. The point of “granting” things “agency” (and other associated qualities) is not to give these things this quality and then call it a day, but rather to break apart anthropomorphism from the inside. Designations and discoveries of “nonhuman agency” thus first, strategically endorse assumptions like those laid out in George Ripley’s fifteenth-century Compend of Alchemy, which explains that “Thinges ther be no mo / But kinde withe kynde in nomber two, / Male and female, agent and pacient,”[15] so that they can “rescue” objects from the disdained side of being a female, patient, object. But then they make these binaries strange, and, like any good posthumanist critique, dissolve our sedimented human certainties. When a speaker from the 2015 meeting of the American Historical Association observes “whenever I hear a student say that objects have agency, I say that I have a bridge that wants to sell itself to them,”[16] some might be emboldened to insist again on human difference, while others, through a “touch of anthropomorphism,” might draw the bridge into a circle of agency that nonetheless remains locked into a stubbornly anthropocentric orbit. Some might be led to wonder, however, whether we can in fact cordon human agency off so readily from the patently absurd “agency” of a bridge. Definitions of “agency” that explain it as belonging to beings “that can…direct [their] own activities”[17] and are “not purely governed by instinct”[18]; that are not “purposeless objects”;[19] that are “responsible for what they do”[20] obviously do nothing but exclude oysters, so immobile and so blameless; but they should make us wonder whether any act can be arrived at so neatly through self-governance. Not that this elaboration could have been handled in a tweet, but surely the supposedly agential anyone selling a bridge must do so with dead generations weighing on their brains like an incubus (wie ein Alp).[21] And Freud’s elaboration of the world-historical trajectory of critical knowledge in his essay on the Unconscious ends not with a lonely human clarity, in which we are the only conscious things, but rather, of course, with an uncovering of multiple agencies at work in us, which he admits could be understood at least partly as “a further expansion of…primitive animism.”[22] Once infected by the skepticism that attends any concerted attempt to explain any concept that otherwise goes without saying, “anthropomorphism” seems to have less to do with granting things “agency” and more to do with entangling a wider class of beings within our own uncertainties and suspicions.

For if true agency requires self-direction, and straightforward responsibility freed in some respect from instinct, then it requires something like a miracle. It ultimately requires an unmoved mover, or the surprise of something emerging ex nihilo, which is much the same thing. The eleventh-century Cur Deus Homo of Anselm of Canterbury provides one such picture of ultimate, pure agency when it asserts that “God does nothing of necessity, since nothing whatever can coerce or restrain him in his actions,” where, since even God’s necessity of avoiding dishonor comes “from himself and not from another,” it is “improper to call it necessity.”[23] That’s a high bar to clear. Another, more sublunary picture of agency, which likewise springs free of at least all apparent necessity, has the character what Badiou calls an “event,” because its “aleatory dimension” and “pure contingency” breaks the mechanistic progression of things to open a space for something truly new to emerge.[24] The event comes at or out of us through what William Connolly characterized as the “creative dimension of freedom,” in which improvisation surprises the performer, which makes agency possible by dividing it from the causal determinations of mere intention.[25] A real “agency,” if it must be free of causal chains, must therefore have an “automatic” character, in the densely meaningful sense of this Greek word as it was translated, with difficulty, by Latin medieval philosophers. Automatic entered Latin in the twelfth century, primarily through Aristotle’s efforts in his Metaphyics and Physics to distinguish between three kinds of causation: natural, artistic—the Greek is techne—and automaton. When it was not simply transliterated, it was rendered either “a casu”[26] [by chance], “per se vano”[27] [by itself, without purpose], “per se frustra”[28] [for no purpose in itself], or “per se”[29] [through itself], that is, in excess of the control of some external force. Read as a whole, automatic agency is unrecognizable, unconnected, unmotivated, useless, which is much the same as saying self-motivated, or up to its own, mysterious use. Since the irreducibly automatic character of authentic agency always slips its bonds to other actions, other things, other desires, who or what could have agency as such? Since no particular being could seem to possess it, in itself, “weaker” or nonsubjective notions of agency can be more readily defended, if much less easily identified, than those that rely on divisions between subject and object, cause and effect, self-motivated acts and those that are merely instinctual.

These are the concepts of agency that emerge out of feminist critique, in which agency is a kind of middle status of responsibility and possibility that must always be understood as operating in heterogeneous, not fully predictable fields of force.[30] Kathryn Abrams built on years of feminist work, particularly black feminism, to argue that the fantasy of the autonomous liberal humanist subject does anything but liberate women. The feminist struggle requires collective action. It requires abandoning the dream of going it alone, a dream that, at any rate, has always sustained itself by forgetting the “background labor” that fosters the self. It knows that the very sense of autonomy is itself a roadblock, since the autonomous self is a fetish to the degree that it believes its wants to be entirely its own. Feminist struggle requires not autonomy, but agency, which, without allowing women “to transcend…socially conditioned versions of self,” nonetheless allows them “greater room in which to affirm, reinterpret, resist, or partially replace them.”[31] In this formulation, “agency” is not opposed to passivity, but rather elbows out some wiggle room within a field of limited action and dependence to acknowledge how actors without obvious political power, without much obvious choice, without obvious importance, and even without deliberation or subjectivity, can still resist, fight back, or make something new. Here, “agency” recognizes that things happen mostly not through breaks, but through nudges, where self-consciousness is never untangled from social consciousness and its constraining productivities; here, what counts as an effective subject can only be determined after the fact, to single out what amid a bounded phenomena swerved the neat line of causality. To all this, we can add Butler’s feminist critique of the presumption that doer must lie behind a deed, and Irigaray’s characterization of a feminine sexuality as a “ceaseless exchange of herself with the other without any possibility of identifying either,”[32] or we can return to the or the “agential realism” of Barad, in which “agency is not held, it is not a property of persons or things; rather, agency is an enactment, a matter of possibilities for reconfiguring entanglements.”[33] If, as Despret argues, “there is no agency that is not interagency,”[34] then there is no way to recognize the agency of the oyster without accounting for the field within which the agency operates, including the field of recognition itself.

Rather than gifting oysters with a “touch of anthropomorphism,” we ourselves might instead catch a “touch of oystermorphism” by recognizing how much we have in common with their haplessness. We will get a more thoroughgoing posthumanism, one less invested in pride in our human capacity, if we put helplessness rather than agency at the heart of our analysis. If we start here, we will also do a better job of escaping the persistent liberal humanism underlying the assumptions that good political analysis, and even the identification of ethically relevant beings, requires “giving back” agency to those who lost it, and that recognizing this “agency” requires recognizing how these beings resist or otherwise break free of their circumstances.[35] Derrida questioned “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man…what he refuses the animal, and whether he can ever possess the pure, rigorous, indivisible concept, as such, of that attribution.”[36] Agency and its associated qualities surely numbers among these shaky attributions. We can recall Kleist’s “On the Marionette Theater,” which imagines that as the self-consciousness of the best artists fades, their art reemerges in “a purity that has either no consciousness or consciousness without limit: either the jointed doll or the god,”[37] or, just as well, we might remember Tolstoy’s evacuation of agency in his account of Napoleon’s Russian campaign in his War and Peace: this is not a war of generals only, and certainly not of generals primarily, but of assemblages of terrain, appetites, masses of soldiers, and the flammability of a great wooden city in winter, where plans are always after the fact, and “everything is the result of numberless collisions of various wills.”[38] With all this in mind, we can attend better to our own secondariness; our not fully conscious belatedness in relation to our own situation; to the basic, inescapable vulnerability of existence. Ultimately, then, we may not need a touch of oysterpomorphism if we understand our own humanity correctly. A “touch of anthropomorphism” for oysters could just as well recognize their helplessness, their compulsions, their need to be somewhere, a need no mobility can elude. For whatever our pride in our freedom, all this is human too.

[1] Citations, respectively, from Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 222; Use of Bodies, 22; Use of Bodies, 28; The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 26; Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 164.

[2] Sigmund Freud, The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989), 575.

[3] Michael Marder, “Smart as an Oak?,” Los Angeles Review of Books: The Philosophical Salon, September 21, 2005,

[4] For a brief statement on the “scandal of the cephalopods,” Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 71; two recent books on this “scandal”: Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (New York: Atria Books, 2016), and Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).

[5] Steven Shaviro, The Universe of Things (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 48.

[6] “Animacy” is the focus of Mel Y Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). Volcanic depths is a favored metaphor of Graham Harman: see, inter alia, Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures (Winchester UK: Zero Books, 2010).

[7] Vinciane Despret, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?, trans. Brett Buchanan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016); for an exemplary moment, 38–44.

[8] Shaviro, Universe of Things, 48.

[9] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 419 n27.

[10] Susan Signe Morrison, The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 125.

[11] J. Allan Mitchell, Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 62.

[12] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[13] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 99.

[14] Shaviro, Universe of Things, 61.

[15] Cited in Hans Kurath and Sherman M. Kuhn, ““pācient(e” 2d.” Middle English Dictionary, Jan 31, 2017,

[16] Ethan Kleinberg, “#AHA2015 #s214 BK: ‘whenever I Hear a Student Say That Objects Have Agency I Say That I Have a Bridge Who Wants to Sell Itself to Them.,’”, @ekleinberg, (January 4, 2015),

[17] Helen Steward, “Animal Agency,” Inquiry 52, no. 3 (2009): 226.

[18] Chris Pearson, “Dogs, History, and Agency,” History and Theory 52 (2013): 135.

[19] Ibid., 129.

[20] Ralf Stoeker, quoted in Chris Pearson, “History and Animal Agencies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies, ed. Linda Kalof (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 247.

[21] “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1978), 595; translation modified slightly.

[22] Freud, The Freud Reader, 577.

[23] “Why God became Man,” II.v, in Eugene Rathbone Fairweather, ed., A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), 150.

[24] Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 4.

[25] William E. Connolly, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 75.

[26] Gudrun Vuillemin-Diem, ed., Metaphysica, Lib. I-XIV. Recensio et Translatio Guillelmi de Moerbeka, 2 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1995), VII.

[27] Metaphysics commentary Book VII, Lesson 6; Latin available online through the Dominican House of Studies: Priory of the Immaculate Conception,

[28] Physics commentary, Book II, Lesson 9. Latin available online the Dominican House of Studies: Priory of the Immaculate Conception,

[29] Cited in Maaike van der Lugt, Le ver, le démon et la Vierge: Les théories médiévales de la génération extraordinaire. Une étude sur les rapports entre théologie, philosophie naturelle et médecine (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2004), 134.

[30] Catriona Mackenzie and Natalie Stoljar, eds., Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), and, further back, Bronwyn Davies, “The Concept of Agency: A Feminist Poststructuralist Analysis,” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 30 (1991): 42–53, both cited hundreds of times, although rarely or never by speculative realists.

[31] Kathryn Abrams, “From Autonomy to Agency: Feminist Perspectives on Self-Direction,” William & Mary Law Review 40, no. 3 (1999): 825.

[32] Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter, with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 31.

[33] Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, “Interview with Karen Barad,” in New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012), 54.

[34] Vinciane Despret, “From Secret Agents to Interagency,” History and Theory 52 (2013): 44.

[35] Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37, no. 1 (2003): 113–24; see also his reaffirmation of these ideas in “To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice,” Boston Review, October 26, 2016,

[36] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 135.

[37] Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Marionette Theater,” trans. Thomas G. Neumiller, The Drama Review 16, no. 3 (1972): 22–26. [nb – REQUIRE CORRECT TRANSLATION or DO IT YOURSELF]: “Reinsten…der entweder gar keins, oder ein unendliches Bewußtsein hat, d. h. in dem Gliedermann, oder in dem Gott.”

[38] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 709.

NO FILTER: Suffering, Finitude, and other supposed truths about animals


Sauprellen, anon c. 1720, detail; from the Jagdschloss Grunewald (see also)

It is not uncommonly said that habitats generated by internal combustion engines and electronics lack the crowds of animals common to what are often called “premodern,” “preindustrial,” or “developing” habitats. It is supposed that medieval people were therefore “more in touch with” animals than their modern counterparts. The standard argument continues in this way: because medieval people relied on animal labor, traveled on animals, and because they could not have misunderstood where meat came from, they did not need to compensate for their “unnatural” separation from animals by surrounding themselves, for example, with overbred, useless pets. Their relationship to animal life was truer than ours, where “ours” equals that group of people most likely to be reading this chapter.

The faults of the argument stem first from its implicit narrative of a fall and decadence, as if the real came first, followed by a long slide towards our antiseptic present. This nostalgia for the origin and its attendant belief in the truth of first things can and has been traced from, for example, Plato and his Ideal Forms to present-day postapocalyptic literature (with its survivalist belief in the final return to the “underlying” – a favored spatial metaphor — reality of nature). The idea that people have a primary connection to animals as a whole (say, as children), that socialization as such is the culprit, that subrational “lived experience” is distinct from and more authentic than cultural practice, that getting before “modern civilization” is somehow going to save us and others, and so on, belongs to the precritical fantasy of origins and the fantasy of the superiority of an imagined unmediated contact.

In an animal rights context, the argument has been that industrialized production of meat somehow separates us from our “real” engagement with its real source in animal life and animal death. Supermarket culture is particularly to blame for shielding meat-eaters from the violence that feeds them. The shock of butchery, of getting past the hypocrisies of industrialized carnivorousness, is key to Sue Coe’s slaughterhouse art, or in the grand reveal, not without sexual violence, of the [I recommend not clicking on the link] industrial, cannibalistic dismemberment of female clones in Cloud Atlas. This argument follows the standard logic of ideology critique, insofar as it claims that only by coming face-to-face with the “reality” of the modes of production can we finally surmount the cruelty of our polyannish relationship to work and consumption. As has been demonstrated repeatedly in a variety of contexts, such claims are overblown: there may be some value in revealing what goes on in industrial farming – the very reluctance of these operations to open their doors to scrutiny is evidence enough of that – but what may be far more difficult to change is the consumer’s certainty that, in the end, their needs are worth it all, regardless.

Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning lambastes the “Messianic approach to art-making,” which holds that being “ambushed” by with the “truth” is an essential or even desirable goal of art. Nelson argues that truth, good action, knowledge, and least of all good art may not require revelation, surprise, horror, or destruction. Revelations of cruelty may be little more than revelings in cruelty. They might produce nothing but sensations of disgust, alienation, self-loathing, and guilt, or the self-aggrandizement of feeling that one feels more intensely or just more honestly than others, or that one has been exiled from bourgeois comforts (or that one has discovered some new way to épate them for their supposed hypocrisy). Revelations of cruelty might lead to still worse, titillation and enjoyment and from there to the desire for more cruelty, not because cruelty treats others as things, but because it recognizes that others can suffer in ways that things cannot.

Dominic Lacapra’s History and its Limits arrives at similar ends through its assault on conjunctions of the sublime, the transcendent, and sacralized violence, and on generalized, antihistorical obsessions with wretchedness, particularly as practiced in the work of Agamben, Bataille, and Žižek. When Lacapra turns his attention to one of Coetzee’s fictional creations, the animal rights activist and writer Elizabeth Costello, he joins Nelson in arguing against the notion that identification necessarily leads to empathy, and empathy necessarily to kindness. Coetzee’s Costello analogizes the death of animals to the Holocaust, accusing those who kill animals of being like the camp guards, whose fault, she insists, was that “the killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims.” Lacapra observes that while this may be so, Costello’s argument that this cruelty can be blamed on a failure of identification can hardly account for sadomasochistic projection: no doubt, some killers and other villains can and do perceive their victims as like themselves, vulnerable and dependent, and therefore, for those very reasons, suitable targets of cruelty.

With all this in mind, we are now in a position to reconsider one of the most philosophically challenging, influential demands for an identification with nonhuman suffering. This is Derrida’s statement on the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. As Derrida observes in his The Animal that therefore I am (L’animal que donc je suis), when Bentham proposes that the important question about nonhuman animals is not whether they can speak or have reason, but whether they can suffer, this “changes everything” [change tout]. To a large degree, Derrida is correct. Where philosophers have traditionally excluded or included nonhumans within the human community of rights on the basis of positive capacities – for example, the capacity to make tools, form family relations, exhibit a theory of mind, or various forms of “lack” in Lacan, Heidegger, and their epigones – Derrida focuses on a shared non-capacity, what he calls a “nonpower at the heart of power,” the ineluctable, general exposure of animals and humans alike to discomfort, injury, and death. If thinking about animals and humans begins not with abilities, language in particular, but with a shared vulnerability, certainties about agency and freedom all happily collapse.

Derrida’s recentering of the animal question on suffering still has two problems: the first is that it raises the possibility that animals may be killed ethically so long as their suffering is eliminated. This would be “humane killing,” which comes as such a surprise that an animal has no time to experience fear or pain: this is the goal of the slaughterhouse design championed by Temple Grandin, developed through her identification with nonhuman sensory worlds. The second issue is that identification with the “nonpower at the heart of power” need not necessarily result in less cruelty or more kindness. An awareness of suffering need not necessarily result in the desire to end it.

These objections are perhaps too practical. Derrida’s concern is less with animal welfare than with philosophy. He is led to his logical endpoint by his approach to language, in which having language, this supposed distinguishing capacity of humans, is itself not a capacity, but an entanglement in an always shifting, preexisting, limitless network. At the furthest end of this “nonpower” lies the figure of the animal, preserved in Derrida’s analytic, despite his attempts to do otherwise, as a homogeneous figuration of abyssal mystery.

More to the point for my analysis is that Derrida arrives at this problem by aiming at “the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life” [la façon la plus radicale de penser la finitude que nous partageons avec les animaux, la mortalité qui appartient à la finitude même de la vie]. The truth of things may be an aporia, and therefore necessarily, anti/foundationally unreachable, but what it is not is in the middle of things. One has to follow things through to their end to find this truth of absence. Toril Moi’s championing of ordinary language philosophy identifies many of the problems in this, not least of all the fact that “Derrida’s deconstructive concepts at once enact and deconstruct such ideality,” thus requiring that concepts meet the demands of a presumably philosophical purity so that deconstructive analysis has something to disprove.

The purity in its most intense form, as an absence, Derrida discovers in death, suffering, and inability, all of which lie on the other side, at the before (the radical, from the Latin radix, root) and at the after (the finitude, from the Latin finis, a close or conclusion). The “nonpower at the heart of power” locates truth, even if that truth is a void, in suffering, vulnerability, violence, death, across borders, and at least implicitly across temporal limits. Whatever its dedication to upsetting pretensions to unmediated experience, nostalgia for origin, and all other myths of purity, it also needs these myths in order to preserve the grounds for deconstructive analysis.

All this is not to demand that human and animal difference should be conceptualized around differences in ability. I welcome a focus on nonpower, among other things, even if, as Dominic Lacapra observes, this focus goes rather “too far in acknowledging human disempowerment” in relation to nonhumans. It is rather to question both the centrality of suffering in Derrida’s analysis and the accompanying centrality of finitude, and the presentation of all of all of this as authenticity: Herbert Marcuse’s “Ideology of Death” should make us suspicious about any elevation of “a brute biological fact..into an existential privilege” (for introducing me to this essay, thank you to Aranye Fradenburg’s superb Sacrifice Your Love).

Nor am I denying the actual practice of cruelty. Animals can and do suffer, generally not just like people, but nonetheless in their own ways. Recognizing this suffering is no small matter. Furthermore, to say that revelations of cruelty may not necessarily lead to an end to cruelty is not to say that such revelations are valueless: possible results may range from individual kindness to wholesale assaults on an otherwise indifferent or worse social order. Or they may lead to anti-Semitic and Islamophobic assaults on (certain forms) of animal slaughter: good for some animals, bad for some people. I am challenging notions that center right action on the discovery of suffering, especially when this discovery of suffering is elevated into being a central truth – as it can be, strangely enough, for thinkers as antithetical as Bataille and Derrida — and on those that insist that the route to that truth is through the discovery of cruelty where it was otherwise unsuspected or unfelt.