Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Although Braidotti’s sense of the body’s materiality is informed by the techno-medical mediated bodies of the current culture of stem-cell research, cyborgs and genetic engineering, I kept thinking about her essay as I read Chretien de Troyes’s Yvain, The Knight with the Lion. Leaving behind medieval debates about the relation between the body and soul and the spirit’s relation to the matter of embodied existence, I find in Yvain something akin to Braidotti’s awe of the flesh, the corporeal “’self’ expressing the abject and simultaneously divine potency of life.” Corporeal existence is heterogeneous, is diverse and thick with a sort of chimerical materiality and beings that exceed the very categories within which they define themselves. A king is a man who eats and fucks and sleeps. A bestial peasant with “the eyes of an owl and the nose of a cat, jowls split like a wolf’s, with the sharp reddish teeth of a boar,” is also a man and “never anything else.” (2) Categories confound precisely because bodies always perform in excess of what is expected; flesh is always becoming.
Thus Yvain surrenders to the excesses of the flesh when he is abandoned by his wife and goes mad. Like many madmen of his literary tradition, Yvain sacrifices the trappings of culture that constitute the “human” and runs off to the woods to perform an animal existence. Naked as all other animals, Yvain hunts in the woods like a wild predator, consuming raw and bloody flesh, the flesh and blood that mark the similarity between species. On the one hand, Yvain evidences associations of madness with the animal – associations that work, in fact, not only to maintain humanity’s stable position at the pinnacle of an animal hierarchy, but to define precisely what kind of person belongs within the category of the “human” – associations still fiercely combatted by contemporary disability scholarship. Yet in a strikingly curious incident, the mad Yvain finds a lone hermit in the woods and trades his freshly caught prey for bread, water, and the hermit’s culinary preparation of the meat. Although one could read this as a scene that parallels the human domestication of the animal – consequently reinforcing the species hierarchy – Yvain’s preference for cooked food over raw meat reinforces his humanity. Yvain’s madness does not evidence a descent down a species hierarchy so much as it proves the instability of any system which seeks to reify notions of human exceptionalism.
Bodies are unstable and unpredictable, as matter cannot be hedged in by form. A lion participates in chivalric culture; Yvain’s leonine companion is a squire, a fighter, and something of a lover, attempting suicide after he thinks Yvain has died. When injured, the legendary animal of enormous proportions implausibly fits onto a shield and is carried like a cradled child. A giant emerges from the wilderness and lays waste to a town; he is a force of destruction incomprehensible to humanity. As Yvain rends the giant with a sword, the giant’s blood is compared to sauce, his flesh to meat for grilling. Suggesting the lion’s perspective, the text carves the giant into edible pieces. A giant is meat, prey for a lion, prey for the wild hunter dripping with the blood of his catch. The blood of consanguinity, the material excess of violent entanglements.
Blood and flesh mark what Tobias Menely and Margaret Ronda call a “red ecology” in their contribution to Prismatic Ecology. Red ecology attends to consanguinity – Yvain’s animality, a lion’s humanity, a giant’s nutritive potential – it is the first-hand encounter with the visceral, the fleshy materiality that evidences our shared condition of fragile corporeality with non-human beings. A red ecology illuminates the way to working under the sign of the red, to undertaking symbolic acts that uncover market forces that conceal the corporeal violence of labor and production. Under the sign of red, Yvain is able to challenge and overturn a proto-capitalist system in which young women are forced into wretched working conditions to manufacture clothing – yes, a medieval sweat shop. Yvain battles two demons – hybrids born of human mothers seduced by incubi – in order to release the tired hands and shine light upon the bruised bodies erased by the market value of textile commodities. Acts like Yvain’s which rupture seamless and invisible industries, even if only fleetingly, “draw attention to the commodification of nature continually underway.” (3)
Thus, the rich world of Yvain is one of complexity and heterogeneity, it is a viscous landscape redolent with corporeal excesses and unpredictable flows. The machinic beings of Yvain are mutating and unstable profusions of material exchanges, they are actors who constitute and are constituted by the ever-shifting nature of their relations. Yvain celebrates the exuberance of the body and the superabundance of corporeality that comprises every being while utterly rejecting any sort of species hierarchy. Like the Knight with the Lion, we must combat any attempt to conceal the abject and remain vigilantly aware of the consanguinity of the living – as well as the dead.
1. Rosi Braidotti, “The Politics of ‘Life Itself’ and New Ways of Dying,” in New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham: Duke UP 2010): 208.
2. Chretien de Troyes, “The Knight with the Lion (Yvain)” in Arthurian Romances, trans. William W. Kibler (New York: Penguin, 2004): 298-9.
3. Tobias Menely and Margaret Ronda, “Red” in Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013): 34.
Monday, February 24, 2014
In Margery Kempe’s “The Later Years” – also lovingly nicknamed by this graduate student as “M.K. does Deutschland,” but most commonly known as “Book II” – we find our time-tempered and ripened female mystic more sympathetic than the emotionally volatile woman of her youth (even her insufferable wailing is mentioned less frequently). This senior Margery seems more accessible, more human, as we share in her hesitations about her divine protector when she suffers treacherous seas, as we envision a grey-haired woman over 60 having discarded her maiden whites only to find herself too destitute for anything more than a potato sack dress, yet still too ashamed to discard her rugged wardrobe in front of her impoverished traveling companions in order to pick vermin from her flesh. Most of all, we empathize with Margery Kempe as widow and suffering mother who, without confiding in anyone, absconds to Germany with her daughter-in-law, both women having lost their spouses (and for Margery, her son), both women fleeing the site of their most human tragedies, united in grief and the willingness to face the uncertain and unfamiliar after so much death.
As I considered “The Later Years” alongside Carolyn Walker Bynum’s Christian Materiality, I discovered within it a real sense of materiality that is not as present in Book I. My discovery was surely in part because, just as Bynum evidences the majority of her investigations into relic cults, Eucharistic miracles, and sacramental worship by describing artistic traditions from the high and late medieval Germanic cultures, Margery Kempe encounters relics and Dauerwunder only here in her senior years in Germany (excepting, of course, that “staf of a Moyses yerde” she misplaces while in Leicestershire in Book I). In Book II, Margery is traveling through a region riddled with sacred objects at a time when theologians were embroiled in the paradoxical arguments defending iconography while simultaneously proclaiming their contemptus mundi. Margery continues to commune with the Godhead even as she frets about her material poverty – she is clothed in little better than rags – and fears rape and attack by highwaymen. Thus the more mature Margery jaunting around Germany reads a bit like a Frau Welt, a woman of the world at once solidly planted on this earth, haunted by the lust and pride of her youth and worrying about the sanctity of her body, while always signaling her desire to transcend the flesh that will rot and decay.
By Frau Welt I refer specifically to the medieval Germanic iconographic statuary (most notably the sculpture at Worms Cathedral) which depicts to the viewer oriented in front of the carving a gorgeous, voluptuous, and perhaps haughty woman, while the viewer who investigates the statue from behind finds a body bored into and eaten away by worms and frogs. Allegorically, the icon signifies the evils of the material world, that no matter how many pleasures the body offers, humanity should not be distracted from spiritual determinations by the lustful desires of a flesh that will inevitably putrefy and decay. Yet the image also celebrates the paradox of simultaneously rejecting and celebrating materiality, finding divinity in the aesthetic and affective power of the mineral world which invites our touch and stimulates the artist’s desire to shape stone into story, as well as signifying with that story the mutability and instability of the body. Only the spirit transcends death; only the material ignites and inspires conscious awareness of the divine. Thus Margery Kempe, like Frau Welt, invites ephemeral communion with the spirit by simultaneously rejecting and relishing in the very realness of her flesh.
I would love to explore the parallels between Margery Kempe and the Frau Welt tradition further (the literal vermin on Margery’s flesh, the paradox of an intransigent stone’s representing the mutability of the flesh, senior-citizen Margery’s continued hypersensitivity to her sexuality), but this is a blog, my blog, and I intend to focus on my personal reflections. Thus, as I journeyed across Germany with Margery and cataloged Christian material culture there with Bynum, I thought deeply about my ever-present anxiety an aspiring medievalist to engage continental literatures without the aid of a translator. I have long assumed I would inevitably undertake the study of French – a language I have never once attempted to learn – since the Francophone route is the way most travelled by scholars of medieval English lit; but as my mouth playfully shaped the rich acoustic syllables of words like “Dauerwunder” and Das Nonnenturnier, I recalled my two semesters of German-language study as an undergraduate so many moons ago and wondered if I could learn to read German instead. The trials of graduate school are already severe enough, so I hoped I could ease my burden by, at the very least, pursuing the study of a language for which I have already built a foundation, even if that foundation is obscured after years of neglect.
Unlike Margery, I discussed my desire to head into Germanic territory with my advisor, who gave me his blessing while smartly advising me of the challenges I will face. The study of medieval Germanic literature is typically left to German language departments or falls under the aegis of Anglo-Saxon/Old English scholarship, but I intend to maintain my focus on English literatures of the high and late medieval periods. Thus, I will forge ahead with fewer travel companions at my side – but if I learned anything from Margery’s early years, it is that the pack will often turn against its very own, so there might be some wisdom in travelling with few companions.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Then illness struck. For three-and-a-half days I writhed and moaned on the couch as my temperature skyrocketed and hovered around 101 degrees, sweating and shaking in a feverish nightmare. Perspiration poured from my veins, chills riddled my flesh and mucus fought aggressively to carry the infection from my body. In fact, my body did not feel like my own, hijacked as it was by a virulent virus. Thus it was in this vulnerable condition that I vigorously engaged with Margery and, not surprisingly, my illness afforded me a wealth of sympathy for the afflicted mystic. Suddenly, like Margery, I was a contagious body.
I do not wish to imply that Margery’s mystical experiences should be read as sickness, or I would be as guilty as the folk of her hometown of Lynn who too easily conflate her bouts of illness with her affective responses to her encounters with the divine:
Sum seyde that sche had the fallyng evyl, for sche wyth the crying wrestyd hir body turning from the o syde into the other and wex al blew and al blo as it had ben colowr of leed. And than folke spitted at hir for horrowr of the sekenes, and sum scornyd hir and seyd that sche howlyd as it had ben a dogge and bannyd hir and cursyd hir and seyd that sche dede meche harm among the pepyl (2473-8).
Some said that she had the falling evil, for as she cried she wrested her body, turning from one side to the other, and waxed all blue and gray as if she were the color of lead. And then folk spit at her in horror of her sickness, and some scorned her and said that she howled as if she were a dog and banned her and cursed her and said that she did much harm among the people.
To read Margery’s weeping as illness is a dehumanizing gesture which seeks to equate Margery with objects much lower on what Mel Y. Chen would call an animacy "reference cline" by marking her as leaden and canine; Chen writes, “When humans are blended with objects along this cline, they are effectively ‘dehumanized,’ and simultaneously de-subjectified and objectified” (Animacies, 40).
I also do not mean to suggest that such a hierarchy is ontologically manifest, that humans are somehow privileged and more agentic than metals or dogs. Like Chen, I am interested in slippages along this hierarchy, I hope to uncover moments when the verticality of such a subject-making system is toppled and objects are perceived along an animacy continuum. Therefore, what I do mean to acknowledge is that my illness illuminated the real material excesses of the very condition of embodied being, material excesses of which Margery is fully engaged and aware, and which her townsfolk and other peers are too obstinate to acknowledge. Margery’s metallic flesh and bestial howling disturb the epistemological structure which shapes the desire to marginalize and exclude the very matter of our existence.
Although Margery Kempe’s union with the Trinity is spiritual, her experience of the divine is emphatically material and sensorial. The text relishes in the sensory details of her encounters, in the perfumed aromas of visitations, in the harmonious arrivals of inspiration, and in the corporeal extension of the body in the world, her torso thrusting itself into positions simulating the crucifixion. Her “boystows” voice (its disruptive agency thoroughly investigated by Jeffrey Cohen in Medieval Identity Machines) is perhaps so offensive to her interlocutors, as well as her unwilling audiences, in part because it carries all the material weight that my own contagious breath, redolent with viral particles, injects into my surroundings. Even the divine fire in her heart is more than mere metaphor, but a visceral burning she felt “as verily as a man schuld felyn the material fyer yyf he put hys hand or hys finger therin” (2063-4…or, might I add, if he should have a fever!).
Like Margery’s eruptions, then, illnesses are so abjected and abhorred precisely because they evidence a materiality beyond our control; our body seems not our own because it is not our own, but is instead an entangled network of organic tissues and fibers that we share with billions of bacteria, with the ephemera of other corporeal beings (see Caroline Walker Bynum for more in medieval fascination with and ingestion of sacred ephemera…or, if you live with a non-human animal, inspect your body for some fur or scales), and, occasionally, with viruses. Thus, the community that I forged with Margery over the past week was built from our shared engagement with matter and all its unpredictability. Our unwieldy and terribly strange bodies are always withdrawing from any understanding we might have of them. Margery’s keen attunement to her body offends precisely because it serves as an invitation to abandon ourselves to the superabundance of corporeal entanglements and to relish, even in illness, the excesses of the flesh.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
In the mock catacombs we encountered the enigmatic figure of St. Innocent, a child-saint sent to the monastery from Rome. Behind a glass box, low to the ground in a recessed wall, the figure of St. Innocent lay in death’s repose, immaculately concealed in pristine sartorial splendor, a death-mask of a child’s face frozen in a look that suggests an unimaginably peaceful slumber even as shriveled and blackened limbs sully the picture-perfect arrangement of the body. The juxtaposition of the sacred, unblemished relic with the gnarly evidence of the ravages of unholy time on human flesh is arresting; the imaginary is too polluted by the real. Also arresting, in a quite different sense, was our tour guide’s tale about this St. Innocent: an incorruptible (are you sure about that?), St. Innocent died as a child (no shit), and is now a patron saint of all (Christian) children. The end. Really, that was the most our tour guide was able to tell us about one of the only two actual corpses in their faux-catacombs, the other a relic with bone fragments from St. Benignus of Armagh, about whom our tour guide narrated ad nauseam.
As I spent the following week puzzling over, and then pretty much forgetting, the fragmented and incomplete – if not wholly fabricated – story of the mysterious St. Innocent, I was given the following as my first reading assignment for an independent study with my advisor: Saint Erkenwald. Oh, the uncanniness!! Oh, the dulcet resonance!! All the questions surrounding this ‘innocent’ child’s corpse appropriated by the Catholics and entombed in a Franciscan dungeo…excuse me, catacomb, rushed to the fore as I thought about what it meant for an early medieval bishop to pardon the soul of a “pagan” – read Welsh or British or, as Karl Steel might suggest, Jewish – judge. If the text is explicitly about fulfilling the desire to assimilate the past, it also worries about the violence that occurs when we touch the past, when humans make contact with and get caught in the maelstrom of the material flows of time.
Like the body of the cryptic St. Innocent, the pagan judge erupts into the narrative with an obscure story; after delving and digging “down deep into the earth" (45), miners hoping to re-establish the foundation of a cathedral built atop a pagan temple uncover a “wondrous fair tomb” (46).1 The earth gives up its treasure, an incorruptible human body, to these archeologists, these re-constructors of time and history, but it also conceals its occult story; the text hewn into the marble of the tomb is indecipherable. Unlike St. Innocent, however, the corpse itself is made to speak, is granted the opportunity to narrate its own history. The text is wonderfully mimetic in its description of corpse-speak, attending to the physical barriers that a well-preserved but nevertheless un-ensouled body might have in manifesting speech-acts: “Then he hemmed a little who lay there, and let his head roll, / And gave a great groan, and grieving he spoke” (281-2). The dead judge, buried for centuries, is as much an earthy elemental being as a human corpse; like Tolkein’s ents, beings of such enormous life spans that their temporal sensibilities are almost incomprehensible to the fast-paced and relatively short-lived hobbit and human audiences, the corpse is slow to speak, its joints stiff with immobility and its face groaning with age.
I do not mean to imply, however, that this body is ‘stuck in the past,’ that it is so sedimented in history that it is only an archaism, something to be excavated, studied, and assimilated. Clearly the anxiety of the text, its ambivalent temporalities (I dare you to determine precisely when it is set), the strange conditions of the pagan’s appropriation (accidental baptism?), the mixed responses of the crowd (mourning and celebrating), and the even stranger response of the body to Erkenwald’s touch and his embodied affective response (his tears, the very condition of the accidental baptism, catalyze the corpse’s rotting and turning to dust), ask us to make something more of this body, to let it continue to speak to us even after all that’s left are ashes. Although writing ostensibly about Beowulf and theory/criticism, Eileen Joy asks the following questions, quoted at length, that should be brought to bear on any conversation about the body and its relation to story and time:
Bodies (both dead and alive), history, and language, and all of the fiercely tangled relations between them – what do the dead want from us, what might we want from each other at any given moment, and how might we sufficiently record our past and present histories in order to lend some kind of meaning and ethical content to what some of us fear, deep down, is a kind of unscripted chaos? How, further, can the past inform our future in a way that is ethically and socially constructive? (LIII).2Like Beowulf – and perhaps the Gawain poet –, I conclude that the dead want to narrate their own stories, and not just stories of their past, but tales without finitude or tidy resolution; with incorrupt or eerily mummified hands, corpses continue to reach into each successive present moment and touch whatever bodies surround them. It is the responsibility of the touched to allow themselves to feel with the dead, and not only about them.
After considering Jules Michelet’s embodied affective responses to the historical events about which he writes, Carolyn Dinshaw concludes, “The historian manages thus, by writing, to ‘touch’ bodies across time. Resurrection is the aim of his history, unreached but nonetheless signaled” (47).3 I would add that the scholar and the lay person alike make contact with the past any time a reaction to story is corporeal, any time anyone “shudders to think about” or “trembles before” memory, recall, the historical event or, perhaps even more significantly, physical evidence. When one is confronted with a corpse, with the tangible, material evidence of a prior life, one struggles to forge a community with what was, to engender a story, whether fact or fiction – likely a mixture of the two – in order to sympathize, to feel with the imagined life that once animated the dead.
Yet why do we feel the need to hunker down and dwell in an object’s history? Is not a corpse still a physical body animated by its own material flows, part of very present and very active networks? Why must we bury the corpse in frozen time and sediment its story in ‘the past’? Is a dead body no longer an agentic being in the world just because it no longer speaks? What if it can be made to speak, what then? If we dwell only on the body’s history than we are no better than an Erkenwald, appropriating its story to satisfy our presentist and perhaps nationalistic/religious/political needs. We should work instead to be like crowd of onlookers, looking with fresh eyes at the mystery of the body; just as “Much mourning and gladness were mingled together" (350) for the crowd, let us sympathize with the dead and celebrate the yet-untold stories of the corpse’s futurity.
1. All quotations from "Saint Erkenwald" taken from The Gawain Poet: Complete Works trans. Marie Borroff (New York: Norton, 2011): 167-183.
2. Joy, Eileen A., “Introduction: Liquid Beowulf” in The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook, ed. Eileen A. Joy and Mary K. Ramsey (Morgantown: West Virginia UP, 2006): XXIX-LXVII.
3. Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. (Durham: Duke UP, 1999).
Monday, April 8, 2013
I tried to stop thinking of time and distance, realizing, thanks to Valerie Allen, that these measurements of matter tell me nothing of the things in themselves, but are only human approximations of quotidian qualities better left un-pondered. I wondered instead about the space of a mountain to the mountain itself. How might a mountain perceive its own morphology (metaphorically, of course)? Does a peak sense its base, and how might we investigate that sensation? And how little does a mountain really care (if it would even give a damn) that its slow slouching and vast expanding informs humanity’s very ability to think the slowness of deep time and the vastness of geological heaving?
As we drove through the highways that slash right through these mountain’s peaks, I couldn’t help but wonder how the lithic, the arboreal and the organic beings that constitute such peaks resist and/or desire to being so hewn. What qualities of stone and soil lend themselves to being sliced, how do the curves and crevasses of cut stone, the textures and hardness of igneous and metamorphic rock, of basalt, marble and granite inform our willingness to engage these lithic beings in our ecological thinking? And what of the road, itself a lithic body whose shape is designed by human architects? When does stone stop being stone and become the for-human paved highway? Go ask Anne Harris.
Passing through the cuts in Negro Mountain (yes, that etymology of that nomenclature is as racially problematic as it sounds), I mused over Alfred Siewers presentation as we drove through a veritable graveyard of dead trees, its woodsy corpses still whispering of a once-thriving community of arboreal splendor. These sylvan skeletons communicate the introduction of the invasive Gypsy Moth from Europe, a ravenous insect whose defoliating of various trees and shrubs was likely responsible for this road-side necropolis. Is the Gypsy Moth a Nidhogg, devouring the life-giving and matter-structuring tree Yggdrasill? Humans are surely co-implicated in the spread of the Gyspy Moth, our tourism, industry and even wanderlust (forces responsible for the hewn mountains above) continuing to aggrandize the problem, yet how much more complex is the ecology which weighs down the world-tree?
Of course, so much of this tourism serves for the sake of human desires for recreation. Thanks to Lowell Duckert, I am now more aware of the postures of violence implicit in our modes of relaxation. To recreate is to re-create, to tear down and ravage untouched spaces in order to create (and copy and paste) human ideas of recreational space. As we stopped at a state park for a bit of lunch, parking in a lot in front of picnic tables and swing-sets, I thought about the clear cutting and construction required to create a space for recreation. Yet, is not our continued fascination with our forests what stimulates the compassion of those who work dedicatedly to preserve and repopulate these dying woodlands? Of course, this is a very human model of preservation, and we should avoid the ethical high-ground of always assuming our intervention is necessary; we weep over dead trees but barely bat an eye as we eagerly exterminate millions of moths.
Situated somewhere off the highway in Maryland or West Virginia sat a primitive steel structure simulating Noah’s Ark. An advertisement for a church and an admonition against Christian notions of “sin,” this terrestrial barge got me thinking about Steve Mentz’s shipwrecks and I wondered, at first, how different this planet might look if Noah had been a shit carpenter and if his ark had simply sank. Noah was always already in the midst of such a shipwreck, just as Sodom was always already doomed to its conflagration, just as we are already struggling to stay afloat in the polluted sea of our undoing. Yet, the ark itself would not likely perceive the rending and hewing of its disassembling as the cataclysmic overture we would surely fear it to be (of course, had the myth concluded this way there would be no “we” to ponder this alternative scenario), but merely a morphing and shifting of relations, a carnival game of dancing densities and displacement, and a repositioning of carbon and calcium, watery dissolving and decay.
One sees a great deal of decay and decomposition driving through the Appalachians, and I wondered whether Eileen Joy would find herself at home amidst such a jungle of abandoned post-industrial fissures and breaks being reclaimed by that capital “N” Nature. What kind of violence is this tumbling, crashing, rusting, shifting, breaking, colliding, devouring and entangling of spaces and structures abandoned by humans? Is this the sort of violence that would stimulate Eileen? Do we share in that same affinity? Is it possible to be inspired and enthralled by apocalyptic forces, to revel in the ways we bring about our own destruction, and still maintain an alignment with humanity? Faced with an impending ecological crisis, is it even responsible to preserve a human ethos?
And what of this flux, this interminable flow of material forces that engenders (imaginary) Biblical shipwrecks and the vicissitudes of time? Passing through communities built upon the shores of meandering waterways, I sorted through the debris of thoughts left behind by James Smith’s wonderful discussion of “Fluid,” and worried over the fluid networking of geography and human ingenuity that shaped these odd entanglements of plunging yards, narrow homes, erratic roads and broken piers. The flows of a river might offer fish to feed a population, then flood farms and residences, forcing migration. Do these river dwellers have a natural flexibility, an innate “go with the flow” mindset that enables them to risk residing along uncertain shores, or have the floods themselves fashioned more malleable humans?
Stopping for gas and listening to the whirring and clicking of the fans trying to cool the engine, I realized how little I actually thought about the car itself which was working so dedicatedly to traverse the highways and with which I was so thoroughly embroiled and engaged (I was the guilty Dasein). I know nothing of cars, of the intricacies and mechanics that assemble and relate beneath the hood, but I do know that cars need oil and gasoline, they hunger for petro-carbons, and that our shameful thirst for environmentally destructive fuels does not translate into an automobile-ethos. The parts and pistons that propel the car have an affinity for petroleum-based fluids that lubricate and catalyze their connections. How do we think ecology when the objects of the world do not share in our anthropocentric ethics, the same ethics that are requisite should we wish to continue our co-habitation with all the beings (organic, inorganic, bodied, incorporeal, impossibly vast, unmeasurably tiny) on this planet? I would like to thank Ian Bogost for bringing my mind back to this dilemma.
This gas station at which we had stopped seems to have engendered a small impoverished town, a community whose sole purpose is to facilitate travel and tourism. So that we might drive through the cuts we’ve made in mountains in order to ask the challenging questions of ethics and ecology, these fueling depots and rest stops must be staffed and served by folks as often unnoticed as the homeless ambler that incited Carolyn Dinshaw to think about our “shared vulnerability.” Although their mobile home communities remain hidden miles past the rest stops and gas stations themselves, these homesteads exist and it is our responsibility, even in the event of our recreations, or tourisms or even our shipwrecks, to attend to those who are so deeply entangled with the forces of materiality and often the first to suffer from our carelessness and lack of compassion/understanding of the non-hierarchical connectivity of being.
I hope I have not done a disservice to the brilliant presentations of the folks mentioned above by misrepresenting some of their arguments, but I merely mean to share the questions that manifested in my mind as I sat in the passenger seat of a silver Saturn Aura for almost 7 hours letting wonder happen. I must also express my most sincere gratitude to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen for assembling this creative congregation of eco-critical inquiry and for being the ever-gracious host and a devilishly fun companion.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
“The body is not mute, but it is inarticulate; it does not use speech, yet begets it” The Wounded Storyteller, Arthur Frank
The genesis of this project, I feel, was a simultaneous approach between Alan and me. While I sent the message first, offering another collaboration after the success of September meditation on the Screams (Alan) and Whispers (myself) of Sugar, immediately I received a reply affirming that he had been pondering the same thing and wondering if I would be interested in doing something on disability and materiality. As with many stories told from the circulation of objects, there is no one origin story and I like that. This needs to be messy.
So if we are going to get messy, throw ourselves into the dirt, it’s at least nice to know that we will have company. Between a depressive self-management and a perhaps reckless, living out of my gender dysmorphia, I would rather throw myself under the bus in a life-ditch effort to come out somewhere else than get pushed. And as Alan’s generous post kicks at me, there seems to be at any given time, far more friends under the bus than riding in it (how many of those are hostages, I wonder?). Given all the dangers not only for queers and crips, but any young scholar right now, it seems all the more worthwhile to be candid, generous, and loving of each other. If we are going down (or wherever), let’s make a life and a living out of it, and let’s do it together.
The academic body (and I here, and will continue to include those outside of formal university structures as well in this) is itself a dirty, messy, collaborative, crip-tastic thing. There are reservoirs of experience, critical modes, and I would even say, a transformative physics or meta-physics to be better unleashed in crip(l)ing-materiality. Materiality can be pitched as an abstract counter-part to materials, as theory against activism, but in general and specifically in terms of cripness, I would rather posit materiality as the way that materials speak to each other, and to themselves. Crip Materiality is simultaneously a thing and a call towards ways of thinging.
In so many ways, Alan’s post could stand alone as a beautiful and artistic articulation of these points—without the need for such manifesto-like statements or anecdotes which I can offer. If only to provide a sounding board to echo and share in the resonance of his music, I will begin. In doing so, I will try to maintain a stance of unknowing about myself. While I orbit words like gender-dysphoria and anxious-depressive status, which I hold to as useful but dangerous institutional language on my body, it is critical to note that even in their own clinical context the materiality of bodies that “look-like-mine” change over time and include a wide variety of divergent threads which once or currently meet in the node called “transgender/transsexual:”
“Lothstein, in his study of ten ageing transsexuals found that psychological testing helped to determine the extent of the patients’ pathology [sic]…[he] concluded that [transsexuals as a class] were depressed, isolated, withdrawn, schizoid individuals with profound dependency conflicts. Furthermore, they were immature, narcissistic, egocentric and potentially explosive, while their attempts to obtain [professional assistance] were demanding, manipulative, controlling, coercive, and paranoid” (Walter and Ross’s Transsexualism and Sex Reassignment).
Thus, I hope that the murmurs of my materials will mess-up in the best possible ways and escape their own internal materiality. If there is music in it, may it be an invitation to join in on the dirt.
“Here the surface of the artifact is not just of the particular material… But of the materiality itself as it confronts the human imagination” Materials against Materiality, Tim Ingold
“Don’t you just think we think too much about gender?” our family doctor asked me, his pen mindlessly clicking his clipboard. I sat across the room from him on the edge of a metal table, covered over in butcher paper; as a piece of meat, I thought.
When my mother scheduled this check-up, just to get a few booster shots while I was still under her healthcare insurance, she warned me that our doctor told her that he had some opinions about gender disorder (now classified as a dysphoria). As our meeting stretched on, longer than was needed to cover the details I was there to address, I realized I was going to be subject to a lecture.
“Don’t you think we think too much about gender?” he asked again, after mulling on his philosophy of medical-minimalism (the word “reductive” appeared in my mind). This time, it sounded more like a statement than a question. Responding to the content and not the premise of what he said, I told him about my image of gender as a kind of material flow, a node where people and things form logics of their own, but where currents can cut in and pull you elsewhere. He asked about my plans for surgery.
“I don’t see the point in top surgery,” he responded. “Breasts are just bags of fat, after all.” Once again, I felt the twinge of minimalism and reductivism meeting. That’s what they are made of, I thought, not what they are. Like his other questions/statements about gender I wondered first, if he was not a straight white male if he would still feel like gender talk was an inconvenience, and second, if we were not coming to my body and my materiality from very different world-views.
Little did I need to reveal the materials of my body, he saw many of them: my padded bra folded on top of my dress, the meat and fat in my chest that yearned from transformation; as well as things he did not: the blood that surged with conflicting hormones and the nervous-neurological systems that give me the internal-mapping of a woman, trapped like a phantom in bits of flesh coded with masculinity. Other materials, like the silicone I left at home or the coming edge of a surgeon’s knife, were nonetheless a critical part of my body, and not invisible but at a distance.
Yet as his comments made clear, it was not my materials that he was wholly ignorant about, the things he called “just” things, or raw things, but he knew even less about my materiality. For him, as far as he shared, the materiality of my body was a code, a map of organs and tissues that he could name and order on a diagram in med-school. The word “just” told me how little he thought of breasts or gender as more than abstract colored shapes with names attached; data he needed to do his job and pass exams.
The Materials and Materiality of Dysphoria are not so easy to distinguish for me. When I close my eyes, and the body I see disappears (the empirical fact medical science privileges), I feel my body in space; I have breasts, wider hips, and a narrower pelvis. Moving my hands towards my chest, I can feel five or six inches from my ribs, a presence of this body: warmth and pressure.
My nervous system sees and reacts to a womanhood that cannot be so easily seen from the outside, yet. Laying in bed with my lovers, I see myself transformed in their eyes as their fingers outline a body coming-to-be, but already before them. Getting dress among my sisters, our bra-straps mark an alliance, as we start a day in a male world.
“Don’t you think we think too much about gender?” he repeated as I got ready to leave. My materials answered him as I got dressed; the object(ion)s of trans-carpentry answering medical materialism.
“For fresisshly brought it to my remembraunce That stableness in this world is ther noon. There is nothing but change and variaunce” My Complainte, Thomas Hocclave
Blood smeared across my hand in flecks of red and brown. Feeling it between my fingers I looked down at the door-handle to my freshman dorm. Memory. Prediction. Panic. Time speeds ups with a multiplicity and rapidity that I cannot process everything that arrives at once:
Two days prior my room-mate had attempted suicide while I was down stairs trying to be social. On most nights I would have been there reading when he got home. Instead, I had taken an invitation from the guys on the first floor, so when my room-mate came home, full of various toxins (I never asked which) fresh from breaking up with his boyfriend, he was alone.
At the last, he panicked and opened the door, passing out in the hallway. I saw the ambulance lights from down-stairs and when I tried to get back to the room I was stopped. “Who are you?” asked a cop. “The room-mate.” They took my name and told me I had to find somewhere else to sleep that night. I got some information from those that found him, but it was over a week before I found out what happened in more detail, how his body responded, if he had lived.
Anxiety is related etymologically to death. Sometimes I can see the connection directly in experience. “Panic attacks feel like you are dying, but you’re not” I’ve often told in the midst of an attack; information I find more comforting when I am not experiencing it. Data helps anxiety, not panic. Panic feels so much worse than the thought of death, because it contains so many multiplicities that I cannot distinguish one story from another, one scenario from another, one life from another, one death from another. The materiality of panic is as a part without a whole.
Unmoored from the position of carpenter, I become a passive production within my own ontological sphere. Describing my materiality to myself does feel nice in a moment of heightened excitement or anxiety (my physiology cannot distinguish between high levels of “positive” or “negative” stress). Anxious senses and analytic thoughts process hotter than a normate body. Information floods my brain from the events around me, the proximity and demeanor of people, their clothes and level of manicure, routes in and out of a position.
This is followed by a rapid running of odds: What if X happens? What if he says Y? If I move here, what scenarios can I predict? That’s part of why I don’t like crowds: too many contingent factors, makes calculation difficult, the process of analysis which keeps me in the realm of anxiety and away from panic. In many ways it feels like I’m playing a game with death, full of enjoyment and fear. Too much data however and my processor overheats and systems reset.
For several days after my room-mate permanently moved out, I had a long quiet. No one asked me a question about it since the cop asked my name. During that time I read in the library. Come the weekend, my mum came up to see me with a care-package: sweets, a DVD and a sketchbook.
Drawing is a calming mechanism. While running odds and scenarios manages my anxiety, drawing does what sitting with a limited view of a crowd does, what writing does: focuses everything to a point. Rather than running multi-functions, I take on one. Over time my heart-rate slows. The danger here is the opposite extreme: depression, a mental and emotional singularity which holds on to me like a black-hole. Rather than seeing 3 steps ahead in multiple directions, I look further and further down this one line, 3 steps, 9 steps, 81 steps, more and more until I see a view which floods my vision.
After my mom leaves, distracting me with rhythmic conversation, I turn on the DVD: Happy Feet. It’s the first time I really give penguins (dancing or otherwise) any thought; or rather discover how they thwart my thought. No calculations, only interruptions. It is data without content, without futurity, without alternative. Anti-data. I watched this DVD many times over the next month. As the people came and left, the penguins & my books stayed up with me
“I don’t feel strange, more like haunted” the Forgotten, Green Day
$4,000 (or so, depending on the location, quality, and painlessness of the service) gets transferred out of my bank account; perhaps less if my insurance company changes their position on trans-healthcare. In that unlikely case, the money comes with the exchange of time: 1-2 years of clinical surveillance until a doctor tells the state &insurance company that I qualify for help.
Taking off my clothes in the doctor’s office, I put on a paper dress. I’m starving, my stomach emptied of food or water for at least twelve hours. The room is empty of my friends and family as I change. Then a nurse comes in and suggests I lay down on a rolling bed.
An anesthesiologist comes in and gives me two options: a gas mask or a needle. In the case of a mask: a machine that looks like a plastic propane tank attached to a bunch of tubes, dials, and making a clicking noise is brought over. As the clear plastic muzzle is strapped around my head, I feel the strange alien lung breath into me: pumping a mixture of air through the tank, a liquid reservoir of volatile desflurine, isoflurine, or sevoflourine is mixed with nitrous oxide. At first it feels like I’m breathing in steam, until the tingling in my chest becomes a sparkle in my spine and beyond my eyes, then my eyes become heavy.
Or in the case of a needle, a bladder hanging from a metal stand out of sight is brought behind me so I can’t see it. The nurse talks to me (a distraction) while a sterilized needle punctures the skin around my wrist, joining with a clip to hold it in place. Propofol (C12H18; called “milk of amnesia,” a molecule that looks like a bull’s head), Edomidate (C14H16N2O2 ; a molecule that looks like a log), Methohexital (C14H18N2O2; a molecule that looks like the big dipper) or one of a few other strange, haunting, forgotten fluids dance through the vein & into the blood stream.
Chemicals ripped from their homes in plants, rocks & pools in Israel, India, China to stay with me for a few hours to hold my hand through my material transition. Running through my circular system, the chemicals bond to proteins, particularly in my brain, and a quiet loss of feeling and care suggests that I close my eyes.
While I’m asleep, my bed is lowered into a flat position; any one of my loved ones that had ventured back into the room to stay with me through this moment of physical panic meeting chemical peace look on as I am wheeled into the room down the hall where men and women in blue masks and gowns are waiting for me. The blue garments are there to shield their clothes and skin for the blood that will escape from my chest. It is potentially dangerous for my (unfiltered) blood to mix with theirs: I contain enough dysphoric materials to unsettle their materiality.
The hands of the doctors, nurses and aids work mechanically, from years of rote training (part of what I am now paying for), and arrange my body amidst tables of shiny instruments. The anesthetic holds my consciousness down as the surgeon’s stainless chromium steel blade (formed by Swiss machines) cuts into my skin (under the arm, the breast, or nipple). The incision is slight but enough to allow the sanitized and covered finger of the surgeon to push into my body, pull at my skin like elastic, so the opening can be positioned to allow them to begin the insertion process.
A pocket of space is created either under the muscle in the chest (more stretching) or else above it and below the skin. Into that is placed a shell of silicone rubber (where the silicon and oxygen become long chains of Silicon-Oxygen-Silicon that will clump together or unravel, allowing for elasticity). Within the shell are either a sterilized saline solution (salt and water) or silicone gel (more fluid and mobile chains of silicon- oxygen, forming around a carbon-hydrogen chain).
Joining with my muscle, tissue, and blood, the silicon (one of the most common materials on earthy, after carbon, mostly found in sand, quartz and a rosy kind of geode; my breasts will literally be two beautiful squishy sand-bags and water balloons) all come together to form the basis of my transformed breast. A needle, thread, and bandages seals me up. I’m cleaned as I’m wheeled back into a room where others are waiting for the sleep to wear off. As I wake up, this dream ends and I’m in my bed at home, still a year (or so) away from this particular operation.
“Thu schuldist not plesyn me so wel as thu dost whan thu art in silens And sufferyst me to speke in thy sowle.” The Book of Margery Kempe
“I don’t like answers” a priest friend told me once, “answers get people killed.” Answers bore me and when I get bored, I tend to get depressed. Logic can produce perfect circles, Chesterton reminds me, but incredibly small ones. Materiality which follows a single stance through to infinity (as my anxiety can sometimes push it towards) has the ability to shrink the circle until it becomes a loop of emotional bondage, a suffocating point. Elsewhere I’ve described it as a tense grey that has forgotten color and dimension in its perfection of shades, light, and dark.
When the weight of the whole universe is brought down on a single point, things seem to collapse into themselves. Same folds into same and the answer becomes a hollow deterministic end. Answers kill.
And yet on the borderlands of this event horizon is a brilliant, vibrant darkness. Absence dwells there and sings to us of things departed. Beings sit there in their solitude, watching the little becomings play and relate like stars in the distance. Old gods and humble daemons lean back on the relics of the universe, bringing materials and materiality so close that the distance between them hardly needs to exceed a whisper.
Walking alone at night with an iPod drained and useless, I feel a wave of melancholy wash over my body and for a moment I am quiet and still. Something has changed, something has died, and because there is no void, the beginnings of something else are creeping in to take its place. Without death, without depression, transformation would be impossible and without transition to mark a passing, without commas and periods to punctuate its murmuring, materials could not speak of the experience nor have the openness of mind to listen.
MW Bychowski is pursuing a doctorate in philosophy in Medieval and Early Modern Literature at the George Washington University, concentrating on non-modern theories of transformation; particularly those concerned with ecology, disability and gender. In addition to her research, she directs MATCH a working group for critical theory; maintains Transliterature, a blog on philosophy and cultural studies; as well as consults for campaigns in Maryland and DC on issues concerning healthcare, women’s rights and trans/queer politics.
Friday, March 1, 2013
The titular character of Marie de France’s 12th century lai, Yonec, is hardly the hero or primary protagonist of the tale. Engendered midway through the narrative, Yonec has just one real function in the story: to carry out the revenge plot conceived coeval with his own conception. If the lai has a hero at all, it is the unnamed shape-shifting figure who rescues the story’s damsel in distress, it is the magical being whose significations transverse the organic and the inorganic, a becoming-hawk, becoming-desire, becoming-seed, becoming-blood, becoming-ring, becoming-sword. A preponderance of evidence signals his association with Breton lai fairy cultures (animal-being, city through a hill, towers of precious metal, magical weapons and accessories); however, as the text does not explicitly define the unnamed character as “fairy,” the hero becomes that which escapes definition, something that exceeds boundaries, a series of intensities, a rhizomatic figure, a body without organs.
From its inception, Yonec records the desiring-production of its own generic tradition. The lord of Caerwent locks his wife in a tower, à la persecuted maiden motif, as an act of jealousy, of worry she will go astray. Is it not his own desire that will go astray if she is two-become one, if the marriage union is completed in love and trust? The tower defers and displaces desire in order to maintain that which he cannot have, just as the narrative must continuously defer our desire for resolution in order to justify the plot, the middle, the plateau. The narrative records and produces desire by disconnecting the wife-machine from the social order. The wife-machine withers, disconnected from other machines, from other flights and flows. The wife-machine desires to reconnect to a body without organs, a hero, a hawk, a reader.
The unnamed rhizomatic hawk-man-machine (given the kaleidoscopic performance of this character within the text, I deploy various appellations throughout essay to designate the ineffable protagonist) does not initially rescue the confined damsel (that would consummate and thus eliminate the desire that nourishes the plot), but instead repeatedly visits the wife-machine to plug into her (the text is fairly explicit about the frequency with which sexual intercourse is engaged). “Desire constantly couples continuous flows and partial objects that are by nature fragmentary and fragmented. Desire causes the current to flow, itself flows in turn, and breaks the flows” (Anti-Oedipus, 5). Excesses produced by desiring-machines flow into other desiring-machines, and the spilling over of intensities from the hero-machine force a coupling with the partial object of the disconnected wife-machine, engendering further desire and extending the narrative of production.
The result of this excessive coupling and flowing is the restoration of the wife-machine’s beauty which had initially faded as a result of her being disconnected from all other social flows in her isolation. The spilling forth of the lust-hawk-machine into the wife-machine, like the oiling of a rusty motor, produces discernible changes and thus spoils the flow by introducing new intensities into the narrative; their passions are discovered and the hawk-man who has been parasiting the lord of Caerwent’s wife (in an act of metaphoric substitution by which the lord’s desire is being consummated by the hero-machine and thus rendering the lord impotent) is mortally wounded by a spike left in the window by the lord.
This violence, this interruption of the hero’s flows, introduces new desire into the narrative: desiring-revenge. The retributive desire is only possible because the means of its execution has already been produced: Yonec. After receiving his mortal wound from the spike, the hero-machine tells the wife-machine that she is carrying his child and that “[s]he was to call him Yonec, and he would avenge both of them and kill his enemy” (Lais of Marie de France, 90). Yonec is being already spilled forth from the hawkman, he is a surplus of information, a recording/production. Sperm is a flow, “produced by partial objects and constantly cut off by other partial objects, which in turn produce other flows, interrupted by other partial objects” (Anti-Oedipus, 6). The lust-flow from the hero-machine produces the retribution-machine in the form of Yonec, who in turn produces desiring-revenge which will be interrupted by the consummation of that desire and the resolution of the narrative.
At this point the narrative further develops the multiplicities and bodily excesses of the hero-machine. The mortally wounded knight, the desiring-sex-machine (a seemingly cancerous body without organs, sedimented in a strata of sex and rivalry; see A Thousand Plateaus, “How Do You Make Yourself A Body Without Organs?” 163) is made becoming-map, is a cartographic machine which leaves a trail of blood, a sanguine flow which produces a new desires in the wife-machine: the desire for death, in the figure of the bleeding hero-machine, and the desire for freedom from the boundedness of being-human. “The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification” (A Thousand Plateaus, “Introduction: Rhizome,” 12). A wounded hawk is a bleeding man is a trail to freedom is a desiring-escape. Blood is a flow, a spilling forth of intensities; it is deferral of desire, a reversal of fortune and a new channel through the narrative. It is a path to becoming-fae, a change in valence, an abandoning human discourse (again, although it is not explicitly stated in the narrative, the text does associate the knight with many of the motifs of the medieval fairy). Although a path signals a trajectory, a definable wholeness, it is merely a single tracing on the hero-map-machine. “Is it not the essence of the map to be traceable?” (A Thousand Plateaus, 13). If his hero-machine-being is the map, is cartography itself, his blood is one path, one trace, one iteration (from Latin iter, itineris: journey, road, route); it is a guide to otherness, to an Other’s symbolic realm, the valence where fairy logic transposes and disrupts anthropocentric discourse and cultivates the desire for annihilation.
The rhizomatic nature of the hero-machine is developed further when the wife-machine locates his bed chamber and receives two magical objects from him: a ring of forgetfulness and a sword of vengeance. “The knight…gave her a ring, and told her that as long as she kept it her husband would remember nothing that had happened and would not keep her in custody. He gave and commended to her his sword, then enjoined her to prevent any man from ever taking possession of it, but to keep it for the use of her son” (Lais, 91). The objects are valences, flows, traces on the cartographic machine. The knight-as-desire-deferred is becoming-ring and becoming-sword, and the ring and sword are becoming-knight, becoming-desire-deferred. The objects connect, conspire, engage, assemble, all to produce desire, to compel the narrative forward by enabling the inevitable reprisal that will eradicate desire and conclude the plot. (Although this reading of objects seems anthropocentric, an orientation I vehemently shun, I argue that although the ring and sword are purposive and ready-to-hand for human consumption, it is only one valence of their machinic-being by which they lend their agencies to the wife-machine, hero-machine and reader-machines of the tale, evidencing a lack in the human characters, a need for object-relations.)
The knight is a rhizome; each division of himself is still the same machinic identity, wholly indivisible yet multiplicative beyond a parts-to-whole relationship. He is an ever reaching and endlessly connected assemblage of hawk, man, fairy, ring, sword, blood and semen. Thus, Yorec, the excess and flow of the hero-machine, who is himself an excess and flow of animal (human and non-human) and inorganic objects, is simultaneously a new machine, a desiring-production retribution-machine, and a trace, a valence, an iteration of the coupling of the rhizomatic knight and the wife-become-mother-machine. The flows of vengeance, the desires of the readers and the trajectory of the narrative have been indelibly recorded in Yonec, the retribution-machine. When the mother-machine inevitably discloses to Yonec the truth of his parentage and the cruelty of the lord of Caerwent, Yonec slays the lord with his father’s sword, manifesting the desires of the hero-machine, the wife-machine, and the narrative itself. Thus, with vengeance enacted and order restored, the flows of desire which sustained the plateau of the text are extinguished and the lai reaches an end; there is nothing more to be desired.