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

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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.

“Violence”

379952_2463771285988_1603420228_32505295_1460412144_nHorrified to wake up today to see that Bloomberg has ordered an overnight police raid on Occupy Wall Street. The 5,000 books in the OWS library: dumped. Destroyed [edit at 4:15pm Nov 15: actually, not destroyed. The City really screwed up in not making this information public as soon as possible edit again at 12:21 PM Nov 16, actually mostly destroyed]. Bloomberg gave (is giving?) a press conference, not so much to justify his decision (since, for the powerful, as we know from Marie’s fables, the act itself is the justification) as to offer the public the proper narrative. Here, he is saying, is how we must understand. Here is what we must know. Hail to/from the Chief!

He is saying this (which I learned about via here):

At one o’clock this morning, the New York City Police Department and the owners of Zuccotti Park notified protestors in the park that they had to immediately remove tents, sleeping bags and other belongings, and must follow the park rules if they wished to continue to use it to protest. Many protestors peacefully complied and left. At Brookfield’s request, members of the NYPD and Sanitation Department assisted in removing any remaining tents and sleeping bags. This action was taken at this time of day to reduce the risk of confrontation in the park, and to minimize disruption to the surrounding neighborhood.

To reduce the risk of confrontation. Shades of “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” no? I’m put in mind, too, of the appalling narrative offered by University of California Police Captain Margo Bennett, whose forces, acting with the at least implicit approval of UC Chancellor Birgeneau, assaulted students and professors. Captain Bennett (caput! yet another head!), had this to say for/to us: “I understand that many students may not think that, but linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.”

Right. On the question of confrontation and violence, here’s some material from my book, edited a bit:

Slavoj Žižek’s Violence: Six Sideways Reflections distinguishes between subjective, objective, and symbolic violence. Subjective violence, violence as it is typically understood, is committed by a “clearly identifiable agent” an individual murderer, an anthropophagous pig, a 70-year-old poet, and so forth whose act disturbs the supposedly peaceful relations of the status quo. Objective violence is the systemic and generally unacknowledged violence by which the status quo sustains itself, committed as a constitutive element of the “objective” status quo itself. Finally, symbolic violence is the violence of language, which distinguishes one subject from another (and thus renders a nonnarcissistic relation between subjects possible). My thinking with Žižek’s terms could, in fact, start with his own work. When he asserts that, because they possess language, “humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence,” he decides as confidently as any humanist that animals lack language, and, like any humanist, he sustains that difference by ranking human lives above animal lives: through the subjective violence of his own carnivorousness (exemplified by his notorious assertion that vegetarians are “degenerates . . . turn[ing] into monkeys”); through the objective violence of exercising the privilege of being human in a system that fundamentally values human life more than anything else; and finally through the symbolic violence by which he not only articulates a distinction between subject and world (a necessary activity for any thought capable of acknowledging others as others, for better or worse), but also posits an abyssal difference between animals and humans. All these violences work in concert to generate the human and the animal.

Later in the book, I consider Ratramnus of Corbie’s Letter on the Cynocephali (treated by me here some years ago). Ratramnus proves that the Cynocephali, the monsters with human bodies and dogheads, are human, because they domesticate animals. Though they wear hides, the flayed skins of their dead animals, and though “suisque cogant imperiis subjacere” (they compel them to submit to their rule), Ratramnus explains “At vero cenocephali, cum domesticorum animalium dicuntur habere multitudinem, eis minime convenit bestialis feritas, quorum animalia domestica lenitate mansuefiunt” (but since the cynocephali are said to keep a multitude of domestic animals, then animal fierceness does not fit them, because they tame their domestic animals gently).

Gentle Compulsion! Here’s what I said:

No matter how gently Ratramnus claims it is enforced, Ratramnus has not purged violence from the subjugation of animals: he has in fact preserved its aspects of mastery for his newly named humans, while attempting to displace the violence from the enactors onto the “fierce” victims. To recall Žižek’s distinction again, Ratramnus’s attention to the subjective violence of the domesticated animals masks the objective violence of cynocephalic—and, by extension, human—ascendancy. Typically, the mask is a symptom, in this case, of Ratramnus’s wish to elude his own knowledge of the impossibility of being human. The cynocephalic head, terrifying, carnivorous, yet in the place of reason, materializes the ineluctable and dehumanizing violence of the human condition. Like any human, the cynocephali must dominate animals; but to do so, and thus to claim reason for themselves and deny it to animals, requires violence; but to be violent means acting like a beast. Without “bestialis feritas” there is no claim to possess reason, and thus no claim to be human; but neither is there a human with it.

The cynocephali? They’re just avoiding confrontation. If their animals try to keep their hides on, they’re the ones being violent. If one of their beasts fights back, they’re the ones being a ferox, ferocious, an animal.

Hail to the chief with a dog’s ravening head!

(image via here)

Briefly, on the Animal Sacer: Curse anyone who cares

4818609023_99127be9eeTake a red Cock that is not too olde, and beate him to death, and when he is dead, fley him and quarter him in small peeces, and bruse the bones everye one of them.

So says (notoriously) the late sixteenth-century Book of Cookyre, which elsewhere, just as (apparently) cruelly, calls for a pig to be whipped to death so that it might taste like wild boar. I had these and other such recipes in mind at the NCS during Bob Mills‘ excellent consideration, in his “Judicial Violence, Biopolitics, and the Bare Life of Animals, which engaged with–and apologies for my failing memory and poor notes and, why not, Jeffrey’s lost notebook–a scene from Havelock the Dane (2493-503) in which the wicked Godrich suffers flaying and hanging, about which the poem declares “Datheit hwo recke: he was fals!” (Curse anyone who cares [takes notice of, considers, for “recchen” encompasses both “noticing” and “caring”]! He was false!; 2511).
Curse anyone who cares. What happens when we care incorrectly? When the autoimmunity of community goes awry? When care [say, that of biopolitics] is indistinguishable from cruelty? (and here I think of Eileen’s paper on Breaking the Waves and The Clerk’s Tale–about which I’m sure we’ll hear more soon–as well as a great question on communities and autoimmune disorders by George Edmondson)

I won’t presume to elaborate on Mills’ argument, in large part because I don’t know which of my notes are his words and which are my own (who said: “extirmation [sic!] and protection part of the same structure in biopolitics”? me? Bob?). Instead, I’m taking this opportunity to present material I cut from my forthcoming Ohio State UP book, How to Make a Human: Violence and Animals in the Middle Ages (look for it next August!).

Did I announce I have a book coming out next year? It’s true. I do.

I cut the material below out of my uncertainty about Agamben, but I’m not too bashful to present this work on the blog. Its arguments will be more than familiar to those who have been reading In the Middle since I joined it. So be it: familiar, perhaps insufficiently thought out, let this work be immolated here rather than in print! Further context: this belonged to a larger discussion that violence requires recognition as violence, as cruelty, and so forth, to count as violence, that, in a critical sense, what the cock being beaten suffers is not violence, and that, finally, community formation as it typically operates founds itself on such inexclusions from consideration: this point I took a largely from Zizek but also from Judith Butler’s Precarious Life and Frames of War.

No further ado:

Domestic pigs were sometimes slaughtered only after being “baited,” that is, harassed by biting dogs, as in the paraphrase of Jesus’s parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 12:1-14; Luke 14:16-24) in the Middle English Cleanness, where the rich man proclaims “My boles and my bores arn bayted and slayne” (55; my bulls and my boars are baited and slain). All of these techniques suggest that humans are particularly interested in being violent against animals, that, in other words, the cruelty was itself the point, and thus that animal suffering was present in itself in the human system.

On the contrary: at least in these quotidian techniques, the violence the animals suffered was not understood as remarkable.[1] Notably, in Cleanness, boar-baiting is not a main event, or even, so to speak, an event at all; since the guests arrive only later, the baiting is, here at least, significantly not an entertainment, significantly insignificant. At the same time, it’s narrated, but narrated as if it did not deserve to narrated in itself [and see “datheit hwo recke,” above, which calls upon us on to read and, at the same time, not to pay heed to what we read]. This significant insignificance witnesses to the clearing of space for the animal sacer within the human structure, where, inasmuch as violence against animals is insignificant, the human exists.[2]

For nothing illustrates more vividly the status of the “merely animal,” and thus the existence with it of the human–which always exists as a kind of echo of the category “animal”–than such unnarratable deaths. Animals suffer this “objective violence” as zōē, or rather, they suffer it to manufacture zōē as bare life distinct from what they also produce, through their unrecognizable suffering, as the particularly political life of bios. [3] Animals are life that can be killed without the death being classified as either sacrifice or murder. Understanding why the so-called “reduction” to mere life and the manufacture of the category animal should have such violent consequences, and understanding why “animalization” should be so terrible a fate, requires understanding why and how the human system makes what it calls animal available to itself, how, in brief, this “denegation of murder,” as Derrida termed it, is linked “to the violent institution of the ‘who’ [rather than an animal ‘that’] as subject” [Derrida, “Eating Well,” 283].

It also requires recognizing that the invisible violence against animals does not simply remove them from moral consideration, because its very invisibility is necessary to the formation of the human. Violence against animals therefore occupies the very heart of the human community as a constitutive exclusion through which the animal sacer, both structurally and in its necessity, operates within the human community as the homo sacer does within the political community.[4]

1. Note the comparison of baiting as cooking to baiting as entertainment remains, so far as I know, a desideratum: for entertainment, see among others, Lisa J. Kiser, “Animals in Medieval Sports, Entertainment, and Menageries,” in Resl, ed., A Cultural History of Animals, 103-26.

2. As an aside, I would have expected that “animal sacer” would have been picked up by the criticism by now. Not so. Ten minutes’ research gets me only an obscure Lacanian article by Alfredo Zenoni, which gestures, so far as I can tell from this brief quotation, at the lines between animal sacer and God and homo sacer and people, but not, as I do, at the lines between animal sacer and the human itself.

3.These irreducibly indistinct terms were indistinct from their very inception: see Derrida, Beast and the Sovereign, 315-17, 324-33]

4. See Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer, 7-11, and 85, which observes that the certain sanctioned killings, which are neither punishments nor sacrifice, constitute “the originary exception in which a human life is included in the political order in being exposed to an unconditional capacity to be killed,” and that this “originary exception” is foundational for the political order as such: for my purposes, for “political order” read “human order.”

(image by me from Siena Natural History Museum)

Quick and Dirty Reviews: Adriana Cavarero, Horrorism

3952010I honestly can’t remember who recommended Adriana Cavarero’s Horrorism to me, so, whoever or whatever you are, thanks for enriching my understanding of violence as I slog my way towards finishing my book. Review is below the fold.

“Today it is particularly senseless that the meaning of war and its horror–as well, obviously, as its terror–should still be entrusted to the perspective of the warrior….The civilian victims, of whom the numbers of dead have soared from the Second World War on, do not share the desire to kill, much less the desire to get killed” (65).

“the instant of time that blows the bodies of the ‘human bombs’ and their victims to pieces today annuls the dimension of time: time in which to face up to the reality of one’s own crime and to answer for it singularly. Closed in on itself, suicidal horrorism thus takes pride in the unappealability of its work in the service of an instantaneous and irresponsible violence. In this sense, it is no surprise that books on female suicide bombings written by women who are disposed to understand them, if not justify and sympathize with them, have a tendency to minimize the ethical responsibility of the bombers” (103)

I think other people are likely to to get a lot more out of this book than I did. Adriana Cavarero rightly demands that we should try to apprehend violence from the perspective not of the warrior (or ‘terrorist’) but from that of the victim. The victim, we should presume, does not care about whether or not he or she is being mutilated, tortured, or killed by a state actor, a criminal, or suicide bomber. Nor does the victim care about the motivation of the agent of violence: here she might have used one of Zizek’s favorite quotes, this from Deleuze: “si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre, vous êtes foutu!”, since these dreams of the other, dreams whether for ‘freedom and democracy’ or for the Caliphate or whatever, do not matter to the victim. What matters is the pain and death, especially when the victim, caught unawares, has been unable to defend him or herself from the violence. This latter point, too, is key to Cavarero, as she observes that what distinguishes modern warfare from Homeric violence (her paradigm) is the particular suffering of the defenseless. Not the battlefield, but the bombed out city, or marketplace, or supermarket, or the theater filled with corpses and poison gas, is the picture of modern mass violence. For those interested in a richer philosophy and politics of war, for those interested in engaging in further debates with Bataille (she’s against him), Arendt (largely for), suicide bombing (particularly when committed by women), and contemporary modes of violence, I imagine this book is indispensable. But it absolutely needs to be paired with Zizek’s Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, in large part because Cavarero never considers the systemic violence of global capitalism itself. To use Zizek’s terminology, she is so committed to studying subjective violence that–symptomatically–she does not see the system of violence that sustains her own way of life.

We might save Cavarero’s analysis by imagining what a ‘horroristic’ study might make of the fancy widget-maker (fwm): does the fwm care whether or not she is making a fw for the international yuppie smart set? Would it be all the same to her if she were manufacturing, say, toilet plungers? I suspect so. Cavarero demands that warriors and terrorists alike try to understand the violence they commit from the perspective of the victim. What might happen to our (where our= “the international yuppie smart set”) love of our fw when we try to apprehend it from the perspective of the worker? Alternately, in my own work, I could demand that we try to understand nonhuman death from the perspective of the nonhuman. What does the cow care whether its meat is properly cooked? What does the sheep care whether its skin will be used for Chaucer or, god help it, Lydgate? Cavarero could ask such questions, but she is relentlessly and unthinkingly anthropocentric, a stance that is becoming increasingly unforgivable for any critical theorist, given the growing body of critical animal theory. However, when she writes, “Horror has to do precisely with the killing of uniqueness….it consists in an attack on the ontological material that, transforming unique beings into a mass of superfluous beings whose ‘murder is as impersonal as the squashing of a gnat’ [qting Arendt Origins of Totalitarianism:], also takes away from them their own death” (43), this surely applies as much to animals, medieval or modern, as it does to the human animal caught up in some totalitarian fantasy.

I have to confess to a perhaps petty annoyance with her typical litany of historical horrors: Stalinist Ukraine, Maoist China, Palestine and Israel, Iraq, Guernica, the Khmer Rouge, Chechnya, Rwanda, German and Japanese firebombed (& otherwise) cities, Nanking, the Holocaust, Armenia (with a few scattered references to Italian cases). There’s no evidence that she considered why this representative litany occurred to her and not, say, the Congo of King Leopold or the DR Congo of the twenty-first century: my sense is that consideration of these other African killing fields would require an analysis of her own complicity as a citizen of a wealthy European nation. I suffer an even pettier annoyance when she writes: “Any review of the refined arts of war developed over the course of the century would have to dedicate a separate chapter to the aerial bombardments inaugurated by German forces over Guernica and Coventry” (51). Why not Italian forces over Ethiopia the year before Guernica, or, arguably, RAF forces over Sulaymaniyah? (and while it’s tempting to suggest the Zeppelin raids of English, beginning in 1915, the difference between these and Sulaymaniyah, Ethiopia, or Guernica is that the English could defend themselves: the Kurds, Ethiopians, and Basques could not, and thus stand as better representatives of horrorism (unlike the inhabitants of Coventry)). And perhaps pettiest of all: her moments of sloppiness, e.g., “…in this massacre there are not even innocents anymore, given that, whoever they are, each one is as good as the next in the abstract role of example. Although called infidel or miscreant, the absolute enemy loses all quality and assumes the role of anyone at all, with respect to whom the eventual faith of every singular victim–who sometimes, and certainly in modern Iraq, believes in the same god as his murderers–is just an accident” (75). Good point on the purposeful randomness of the victims of modern mass violence, but, c’mon, this not only elides the religious differences between Sunni and Shia, it also elides the fact that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same God! Sheesh. Just like Catholics and Protestants, who have gotten along, as we know, famously well.

I Would Hurt a Fly

HC3x0By now, you’ve probably all seen Obama’s fly-killing prowess. You may have also heard about PETA’s much-mocked response:

But now People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calling it an “execution,” wants the commander-in-chief to show a little more compassion to even “the least sympathetic animals.”

“Believe it or not, we’ve actually been contacted by multiple media outlets wanting to know PETA’s official response to the executive insect execution,” a blog on the group’s website explained. “In a nutshell, our position is this: He isn’t the Buddha, he’s a human being, and human beings have a long way to go before they think before they act.”

The group has sent Obama a device that traps a fly so it can then be released outside.

“We believe that people, where they can be compassionate, should be, for all animals,” PETA spokesman Bruce Freidrich explained.

With all the necessary statements about my dubiousness about PETA’s methods, I wonder what structures of power this mockery of consideration for the fly serves to sustain? What if Obama hadn’t killed it, but had, rather, contained the fly and set it outside? What would he have been giving up? Would he have endured mockery for his compassion? And what has he gained by killing such a contemptible animal so skillfully in so public a way?

I’ve assembled a kind of florilegia to answer the question.

Wido of Spoleto is denied the Frankish throne in 888 because of his frugal eating:

And as [Wido of Spoleto] wanted to enter that part of France they call Roman, crossing the kingdom of the Burgundians, there met him messengers of the Franks telling him to go back because, worn out by the long wait, as they could not be without a king for a long time, they had elected Odo with all assenting. It is said, however, that the Franks actually did not take Wido as their king on account of this. For when he was coming to the city of Metz, which shines most powerful in the kingdom of Lothar, Wido sent ahead his servant who was to prepare food for him in the royal style. And the bishop of Metz received an answer like this from the servant, when he served him much food according to the custom of the Franks: “If you give me at least a horse, I will arrange things in such a way that King Wido will be satisfied with a third of all this after he has feasted.” When the bishop heard this, “it is not proper,” he said,” for such a king to rule over us, who prepares himself a cheap ten-coin meal.” And so it happened that they abandoned Wido and instead elected Odo. (Liudprand of Cremona, Historia Gestorum Regum et Imperatorum sive Antapodosis, I.16; in PL 136:0801A-B; translation from 58-59)

Guiborc in the Chanson de Guillaume encourages her husband to return to battle after watching him eat:

‘Par Deu de glorie, qui convertir me fist,
a qui renderai l’alme de ceste pecceriz,
quant ert le terme al jur de grant juis,
qui mangue un grant pain a tamis
et pur ço ne laisse les dous gasteals rostiz
et tut mangue un grant braun porcin
et en aproef un grant poun rosti
et a dous traiz beit un sester de vin,
ben dure guere deit rendre a sun veisin!
Ja trop vilment ne deit de champ fuir,
ne sun lignage par lui estre plus vil!” (1422-32)

‘By the God of Glory, who caused my conversion, to whom I shall deliver my sinner’s soul, anyone who can eat a great, fine white-loaf, and not leave because of that his two roast pasties and eats up a whole great pork brawn, and after that a great roast peacock, and drinks a gallon of wine at two draughts, will wage harsh war on his neighbor! He’ll not flee cravenly from the field, or bring shame on his family!”

The Middle English translation of the Alphabet of Tales describes the character and appearance of Charlemagne:

And he ete bod littyl brede, bod at ans he wolde ete a quarter of a weddur, or ij hennys, or a guse, or a swyne shulder, or a pacok, or a crane, or a hale hare.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt addresses Farm Groups, May 14, 1935:

I have always supposed, ever since I was able to play around, that the acknowledged destiny of a pig is sausage, or ham, or bacon or pork.

Derrida, “Eating Well, Or, The Calculation of the Subject”

The subject does not want just to master and possess nature actively. In our cultures, he accepts sacrifice and eats flesh. Since we haven’t much time or space here, and at the risk of provoking some kind of loud protests (we pretty much know from which quarter), I would ask you: in our countries, who would stand any chance of becoming a chef d’Etat (a head of State), and of thereby acceding ‘to the head,’ by publically, and therefore exemplarily, declaring him- or herself to be a vegetarian? The chef must be an eater of flesh….To say nothing of celibacy, of homosexuality, and even of femininity (which for the moment, and so rarely, is only admitted to the head of whatever it might be, especially the State, if it lets itself be translated into a virile and heroic schema. (281)

 

Groundlessness and Torture

227290620_344899bf8dHere I am again. In anticipation of Kzoo book shopping, I’ve carved out time in the last month to read through chunks of my library: can I justify getting more books this time if I haven’t yet read, say, last year’s Geoffrey of Auxerre Apocalypse Commentary? Unlikely, unless I seek justification somewhere else for buying books.

Most recently, I read Suger’s Deeds of Louis the Fat, picked up, according to my jacket flap note, in 2001, and otherwise untouched until last week. The Deeds aims to tether the Abbey of St. Denis to the French Crown: this is its religion (from “ligare,” to tie, fasten). Suger thus cheers on Louis’s suppression of “tyrants,” who, in this case, are the intransigent lords surrounding Paris, reluctant to cede to the King their right to independent violence. As might be expected, the Deeds is full of interesting tidbits: Parisian Jews–per the notes, like the Roman Jews–present the new Pope with a covered Torah scroll; Louis’s great enemy Hugh of Crécy escapes by disguising himself at times as a jongleur and at times as a prostitute; Suger hates the barbaric Germans and admires the Norman Kings of England; a demonic pig kills Louis’s son Philip (for more see here); and, delightfully, Suger blanches when the monks of St. Denis elect him Abbot without consulting Louis: throughout the Deeds, Suger assails the Holy Roman Emperor for insisting on the Imperial right to clerical investiture, but only here, with his own election, does Suger have to confront the full implications of his ideals.

The Deeds‘ most striking feature is its violence. The troops of a rebellious lord surrender to Louis, who has their right hands chopped off and makes them return “carrying their fists in their fists.” Louis ravages the sections of Normandy held by the Kings of England. He hangs the chief conspirator in the murder of Charles the Good with a dog, which gnaws off the conspirator’s face and covers him in its shit (any connection?). Here’s a typical moment in the Deeds:

Attacking them with swords, they piously slaughtered the impious, mutilated the limbs of some, disemboweled others with great pleasure, and piled even greater cruelty upon them, considering it too kind. No one should doubt that the hand of God sped so swift a revenge when both the living and dead were thrown through the windows. Bristling with countless arrows like hedgehogs, their bodies stopped short in the air, vibrating on the sharp points of lances as if the ground itself rejected them [for this, see first hit here]. The French hit upon the following unusual revenge for William’s unusual deed. When alive he had lacked a brain, and now that he was dead he lacked a heart, for they ripped it from his entrails and impaled it on a stake, swollen as it was with fraud and evil.

My question concerns our response. Our benighted colleagues might think this an example of a particularly medieval violence. We might think in terms of the sociology of missile weapons, or the history of juridical violence, or of the body, or of the heart as the organ of the self; observing that Suger tells us nothing of the pain William and his men suffer, we might preserve this passage as a witness in the history of pain. Proper scholarly responses are uncountable.

It strikes me, however, that good scholarly responses stifle what we ought to do with Suger’s love of Louis’s violence: we should condemn it; we should be appalled, outraged; we should look at St. Denis and want to destroy it, to erect in its place a statue of Louis and Suger, enmeshed in damp viscera, a statue, if such a thing were possible, that induced nausea in any patriot. We can of course turn this horror again, to wonder, in a scholarly, yet corporeal, manner at the differing disingenuities of a scholarship that denies affect versus a scholarship that revels, “authentically,” in affect, as if emotion were “truer” than scholarship, as if scholarship without emotional investment were possible. We can study the history that makes “scholarly, yet corporeal” a likely and meaningful opposition.

We can also turn to wondering what grounds we have for condemning Suger. He’s a prelate and monk. We would prefer that he be otherworldly rather than a statesman. We would prefer that he love his enemies, that he forgive them and attempt to lead them to a good life through his patience, that he martyr himself in cherishing the souls of others, that he reserve judgment to God. Preferring this, we could accuse Suger of being a bad Christian, a hypocritical lover of the world, of the state and its violence. Being good scholars and good postmodernists, we would have to know, however, that the accusation of hypocrisy relies upon belief in the impossible, namely, the existence, somewhere, of “authentic speech” and “authentic belief,” identical with the self. Being good postmodernists and good scholars, we also would have to know that Suger’s Christianity, in all its violence and dedication to the Crown and its methods, is as true a Christianity as any.

What grounds do we have left to condemn Suger? A postmodern cliché: the ground will always give way, regardless of our strategy. There are, I know, postmodern ethics. We have ethics founded on surprise and wonder; on subjects called into being as hostages to the other; on enclosing and cherishing and touching another; on the ‘minimal violence’ of strategic naming to protect another. We have models for actions, for, if you like, ethical events, but no grounds. This point, I know, is hoary by now; but I can’t leave it alone.

Because when (astonishingly) Shep Smith, a Fox News Talking Head, shouts “we are America! We do not fucking torture!, I applaud (and am, also, horrified that this even has to be said, has to keep being said), but, then, like a good postmodern, I remind myself, smirkingly, of the precritical metaphysical conceit of Smith’s distinction between what America has done and what America is. When one of the legal architects of torture is reported to have whinged about his memos being taken too far, I want to immolate him as a hypocrite while, again smirkingly, realizing that Bybee’s whinging is as sincere as speech can be. When the Christian Right approves and applauds torture, I want to compel them to live up to their own beliefs (e.g., here), before remembering that Ashcroft’s Christianity is as true as any other.

Responding like a scholar to Suger and Yoo alike, I wonder, as so many others have wondered, if my dedication to critique means, finally, that I cannot actually say anything.

(a useful resource) (image from here via a Creative Commons license)

Theseus is no fraud, or, Thank You Paul Auster!

There was a pattern in my students’ papers on The Knight’s Tale. Those who had read the Mark Sherman chapter, “Chivalry,” in the Oxford Chaucer Guide accused the whole chivalric class of fraud. Pretending to be the embodiments of high culture, pretending to be motivated by love, they were instead only bloodthirsty warriors; the Temple of Mars and the malignance of Saturn are the truth of knighthood; and so forth. I’m sympathetic to this view, and, because of my teaching, even responsible: my tribe, being suspicious of political power, is necessarily suspicious of Theseus, and loves to call him out as much for his mistaken reverence for the ineffectual Jupiter (I.2442) as for the tyranny of an Athenian parliament (I.2970) where Theseus does all the talking. I try, perhaps not very well, to tell them that my criticism is a phase, like any other phase, and that they may want to dip in other critical waters, or–to extend the metaphor–open a new canel. Perhaps it is time for we beautiful souls (plural of “yafeh nefesh” please?) to subject Theseus to a Chávezista or neocon interpretation, one suitable for our decade?

I’ve said only a bit of this in class; instead, I argued for the inextricability of chivalric culture from chivalric violence, and I thought, secretly (but perhaps not so secretly now), that the accusations of cultural fraud against knights is simultaneously cynical–“oh, those knights. they were really just stinky, illiterate, nasty types” (I think I have the right Pinkwater here)–and deeply sentimental (“true culture is elsewhere, with us beautiful souls, who don’t kill anyone”). I’d like to push matters a little bit further, so, with that in mind, tomorrow night, I will distribute to them a photocopy of Paul Auster’s stunning new translation of Bertran de Born’s most famous poem, which appears in the March 9, 2009 issue of The Nation. If you subscribe, great! But since the entire poem is accessible only to subscribers, I think I’d be violating something by quoting it in full. Our nonsubscribing academic readers, however, should have online access to it through their libraries; as for the others, my apologies: perhaps write to Auster directly. Here’s what The Nation provides for free:

I love the jubilance of springtime
When leaves and flowers burgeon forth,
And I exult in the mirth of bird songs
Resounding through the woods;
And I relish seeing the meadows
Adorned with tents and pavilions;
And great is my happiness
When the fields are packed
With armored knights and horses.And I thrill at the sight of scouts
Forcing men and women to flee with their belongings;
And gladness fills me when they are chased
By a dense throng of armed men;
And my heart soars
When I behold mighty castles under siege
As their ramparts crumble and collapse
With troops massed at the edge of the moat
And strong, solid barriers
Hemming in the target on all sides.

And, skipping a big chunk, here are the last two stanzas:

I tell you that eating, drinking, and sleeping
Give me less pleasure than hearing the shout
Of “Charge!” from both sides, and hearing
Cries of “Help! Help!,” and seeing
The great and the ungreat fall together
On the grass and in the ditches, and seeing
Corpses with the tips of broken, streamered lances
Jutting from their sides.Barons, better to pawn
Your castles, towns, and cities
Than to give up making war.

Now, this whole post is essentially an excuse to direct your attention to what strikes me as a supurb, timely translation. For my students, I trust they’ll understand, after reading this, that chivalric culture is–for better or worse–no fraud.