Monday, March 31, 2014
Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot unveils the uncomfortable and often uncanny overlapping and intermingling of spaces.
No, let me start over: after admitting to a small group of medieval-and-early-modernists over dinner that I find muppets to be truly horrific, I began to think about the perversities of felt, which led me to Deleuze & Guattari on smooth and striated spaces, which led me to think about the patchwork rhythms of Chrétien’s Lancelot and, consequently, to this consideration of the various trajectories through competing, conflicting and overlapping spaces in and about which our hero, the knight of the cart, wanders. Thus, a grad student who is terrified of anthropomorphized felt wants to think about difficult spaces in Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot. Hold your mules.
Step back: last week, as a way into our discussion of Lancelot, the director of my independent study invited me to think about beds, to move from bed to bed with Lancelot, and to consider what beds might mean, what they might do, how Lancelot’s relations with the various beds he encounters might offer an object-oriented reading of the text. We spoke briefly about the sarcophagus-as-bed, and what it might mean to resist one’s messianic calling, but now I am thinking about the more temporary beds, what is on the beds, about the fabrics that get set aflame, the sheets stained with blood, the coverlets upon which rape narratives play out; in short, the various textiles and textures upon which Lancelot/Lancelot writes and is written. For Lancelot is a nomad, a wanderer following his quarry – Guinevere – across un-mappable spaces and resisting again and again the invitations to familiar places written on the sheets of the beds that orient his errant aventure.
Very early in Chrétien’s romance, a beautiful girl warns Lancelot NOT to sleep in a most luxurious bed that is close to her own; which is as good as telling him that he simply MUST crawl in beneath its fancy fur sheets (one might suspect the girl knew exactly what she was doing in giving Lancelot such a warning). In the middle of the night, a flaming lance pierces the bed which Lancelot has chosen and sets “fire to the coverlet, the sheets, and the entire bed,” and even grazes Lancelot’s side and removes a little skin. Flame writes a call to adventure as it ingests the flammable samite; Lancelot, however, subdues the fire and sleeps soundly through the night.
A little later in the tale, after Lancelot spares the life of an enemy knight at the request of a lady, the same lady offers her lusting body as a reward. Lancelot agrees to sleep with the fair woman, and sleep, once more, is all he desires. The lady stages a rape scene upon the bed that she and Lancelot will share: Lancelot sees her bare breasts, pressed against the skin of her assailant, and in the struggle to slay the “rapist” – how unfortunate the knight she cast for that role! – Lancelot’s own top garments are severed, his chest exposed. Two half-naked bodies, blood pumping from the thrill of battle, the bed inviting them to a battle of another sort. Yet, Lancelot abstains from sex and simply falls asleep; Lancelot prefers to envelop himself in the sheets and not in the stories others try to write for him.
Thus these beds are like texts upon which different invitations are written, yet Lancelot prefers to write his own slumbery stories from the words already burned into the bedframes. Or perhaps the space of the bed itself resists certain stories precisely as it engenders others. For what are beds, but comfort machines composed from bits of the animal and vegetal world, acts of carpentry, hewn and stitched together to provide solace and relief to the human. Yet something of the vegetal remains in a bed’s flammability, something of the animal obtains in its porosity; the bed invites an intimacy with the more-than-human world. To say that a bed can be a text is quite true, for sheets are as inscribable parchment, for beds succumb to flame’s appetites as swiftly as books. Might beds have their own stories to tell, stories of liminality, of the spaces between animal and vegetable, mobility and repose, the tactile workings of fabric on human flesh? Or are the beds in Lancelot merely sites for the re-inscription of (male) human narratives?
In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari describe smooth and striated spaces – nomadic trajectories and the sedentary political spaces of the State apparatus – by examining various fabrics. Striated space, the urban political center, the seat of sovereignty, is directional, centered, and closed. Striated space, then, is a woven blanket of vertical and horizontal paths, easily navigable, each point plotted and definite, the familiarity of genre, the locus of control, Camelot. The smooth space, on the other hand, is the patchwork quilt that stretches indefinitely with no fixed points, only nomadic wanderings – it is non-directional dimensionality, the fluid and heathen space of Gorre. Thus as Lancelot moves from bed to bed throughout the various spaces of his tale, he practices a sort of nomadic quilting; or, to put it another way, Lancelot is writing his own narrative with the materials at hand, each bed a patch on an amorphous quilt. A pattern emerges from his fabric, but Lancelot creates a rhythm of dissimilarity, a smooth space upon which trajectories can be traced but which has no overarching, organizing principle. “Patchwork, in conformity with migration, whose degree of affinity with nomadism it shares, is not only named after trajectories, but ‘represents’ trajectories, becomes inseparable from speed or movement in open space” (D&G, 477). Lancelot is a nomad, stitching together a patchwork quilt of resistance.
What does Lancelot resist, whose narratives does he overwrite with his own errant trajectories? These beds are women’s spaces, the stories of female desires – perhaps locations dictated to Chrétien by his patroness, Marie de Champagne? Eventually we arrive at the romance’s ultimate bed, the sheets between which Lancelot and Guinevere achieve the long-awaited climax. Even here, however, Lancelot re-writes the story, scripting a new narrative in blood. Whereas blood on the sheets should signal a loss of female virginity, instead it is Lancelot who writes with in this sanguine script, whose bloodied hands leave an ineradicable trace on the white fabric. For this is not Guinevere’s story, but Lancelot’s; Lancelot the masochist, Lancelot who revels in the chance to rend his flesh for love. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen reminds us, S&M is not as equitable a pairing as its acronym implies; although the sadist – Guinevere – is in the sovereign position of authority, the masochist participates too enthusiastically in the system, exuberantly exceeds expectations, and thus rewrites the very laws the sovereign can only enforce (for more on Lancelot’s masochism, see JJC’s Medieval Identity Machines). Sadist and masochist, striated and smooth, “the two spaces do not communicate with each other in the same way” (D&G, 475). Smooth and striated spaces overlap, relating not equitably, but instead mixing dangerously; one space is always bleeding through into another. The masochist ruptures the sadist’s desiring apparatus with the spilling of his blood.
Telescope out into narrative space and we find more ruptures and resistances to women’s narratives. The tale opens with Chrétien’s admission that he is in service to a patroness, Marie de Champagne, and that he is only the pen for her story, that he is only writing in the bed that she has made. But might not these moments of Lancelot’s resistance, Lancelot’s recumbence and sanguine revisions of what has been scripted for him, mark the actual author’s own aberrancy? Is Chrétien creating a patchwork of smooth space in opposition to the striations dictated by his muse? Like Lancelot’s, Chrétien’s story is the quiet refusal to take up arms or fully erect lance and, instead, sink deeper beneath the sheets, to squirrel himself away and abandon invitation – which is also to regain control of one’s own narrative, to reposition oneself outside the story in order to regain authority, to sew the patchwork quilt that is always multiple.
Thus Chrétien builds a tower in the middle of his page, to which he runs to hide, to hide Lancelot, creating a striated space within the smoothness, a point emptied of time; yet the building is loosed from its architecture, it is only ever an echo of its blueprint, for we know that here, in the tower, Chrétien abandons his narrative, his hero, his patroness, and leaves the story to another: Godefroy de Lagny. The patchwork quilt, I say again, is multiple, and we know from Godefroy’s own mouth (pen) that he is only telling Chrétien’s story, with Chrétien’s approval. But wasn’t this Marie de Champagne’s story? Thus it seems by escaping from the woman’s woven tale, by moving to the smooth space outside his patroness’s authority, by walling himself away inside his tower, he achieved ultimate sovereignty through an act of ventriloquism.
Muppets bleeding through…
Sunday, March 23, 2014
Ocean is the New East: Contemporary Representations of Sea Life and Mandeville’s Monstrous Ecosystems
I found solace in the evidence that so many vast and heterogeneous lives can flourish without the intrusive light of the sun or human reason, and that such animacy is possible in the darkness, in a “world where the Copernican revolution is irrelevant.” (1) I attempted to think with and alongside such creatures, to make myself uncomfortable by imagining myself breathing without oxygen, thriving at thermal vents, manifesting light with my own body, an aqueous and somewhat amorphous body squeezed and strangled by the only just bearable pressures of the deep sea. I attempted a posthumanist thought project similar to what Stacy Alaimo describes in “Violet-Black,” her contribution to Prismatic Ecology, in which she insists that “Thinking with and through the electronic jellyfish, seeing through the prosthetic eye, playing open-ended, improvisational language games with deep-sea creatures, being transformed by astonishment and desire enact a posthumanist practice.” (2)
Responding to the highly-stylized illustrations in books from the Census of Marine Life, Alaimo finds in such affective imagery an invitation to new ways of thinking life, and consequently the possibility for the dethronement of terrestrial ideas of sovereignty. Each Smithsonian display, like each vibrantly hued illustration of marine life, defamiliarizes this planet and renders a world that simply will not surrender to humanity’s hubristic desire for authority. Each impossible way of being, now proven possible, works to dismantle what Mel Y. Chen calls the “animacy hierarchy” by begging us to reconsider just what the hell comprises an “animate” body anyway. (3) And yet, as I wandered from station to station examining these oceanic bodies summoned from the abysses of the sea, lifeless, entombed in glass jars and carefully arranged for an American viewing public, I could not forget the relation between observers and observed, nor that human science and politicking still fashion a sovereign/subject relation between humans and the myriad strangers that populate the seas.
Thus as I wandered the Sant Ocean Hall, I thought about what it means to “wander,” who gets the privilege of wandering (Americans, human knowledge-seekers), and what remains the stationary object of scrutiny (the nonhuman body, the foreign object, the subject of scientific knowledge). These marvelous displays are discrete islands of monstrous creatures that underscore humanity’s desire to safely navigate strange waters. I chose the adjective “marvelous” very carefully, for my wandering about the various exhibits reminded me of a medieval journey to the marvels of the East and, more specifically, of Mandeville’s travels around the monstrous islands just past the Holy Lands and off the coasts of Africa and India. For the ocean, it seems, is the new East, compared against the way the medieval Western hegemony represented the East in its travel literature. The inhabitants of Earth’s oceans are put on display to be navigated, plundered, studied and represented by the sovereign powers of Western thought. Like Mandeville’s tale of fish that deliver themselves to the shore for human consumption, we expect the seas to divulge their mysteries for our ravenous desire to control by means of knowledge-making.
In Chapter 13 of the Defective Version of The Book of John Mandeville (ed. Kohanski and Benson), the narrator announces that, having completed his tour of the Holy Lands, he intends to “telle of yles and diverse peple and bestes” (1380). This rather lengthy chapter is rich in peculiarity and marvel, a veritable encyclopedia of the monstrous. An allegory-generating female spirit grants riches and doles out commensurate consequences for her supplicants’ greed. Gendered diamonds mate and spawn resplendent children, challenging notions about the inertness of lithic objects. Nudists, cannibals, blood drinkers, as well as pygmies, dog-headed creatures and headless bodies with ocular and oral orifices on their chests and shoulders roam these foreign shores. Mandeville fulfills the European desire to believe the East is wholly Other, a monstrous and invitingly dangerous land abundant in resources and passively awaiting representation by the Western imagination.
Yet, although his descriptions of the diverse beings of the East are certainly mythical, Mandeville also lends a certain scientific explanation for the monstrous by repeatedly attending to the extreme heat of this region; Mandeville offers a climatological cause for the wonders he claims to encounter. Ethiopians hide from the sun under feet large enough to shield their bodies; men on the isle of Ermes suffer their “ballockys hongeth doun to her shankes” (1557). In such intolerable climates precious stones spill from river banks, reptiles grow to enormous proportions and, as I mentioned above, fish are so “plenteuous” that they offer themselves up for consumption. Heat is generative, and the corporeal peculiarities of the deserts as well as the fecundity of the tropical East are, in Mandeville, responses to extreme climate - much like the extremophiles surviving sulfuric blasts of scorching heat from deep sea vents. Each coastal country and island in The Book of John Mandeville is a unique ecology, an oikos or home to the various and varying creatures that inhabit these spaces, and like contemporary scientific attempts to understand the porosity between bodies and ecosystems once thought uninhabitable, Mandeville offered something like a medieval ecological justification for the diversity of beings he describes.
Thus I wonder if we can assume that the imaginative spaces – and the marvelous creatures inhabiting those spaces – drawn by medieval travel literature generated new ways of thinking about an environmentally and ecologically complex world. Can we not find in such texts an anxiety and ambivalence about an earth more vast and verdant than God’s rubric allowed? Although giants erupt from Biblical origins, and blood drinkers, flesh eaters and necrophiliacs may mark anxieties about their obvious Catholic analogues– remember, Christians believe a man came back from the dead, a man whose actual body and blood Catholics consume at every Mass – what of the other strange strangers that emerge from the pages of Mandeville, the Cynocephales and headless figures with sensory organs in their chest? Are these curious beings the imagined consequences of thinking through previously un-thought ecosystems? Although fictitious, these tropical creatures seems to signal the disorienting encounter with evidence that the Earth and its beings are more heterogeneous than previously believed.
There is something disanthropocentric, then, to Mandeville’s imagining the wondrous creatures of the East, just as Alaimo insists that encountering the enchantingly strange creatures of the ocean’s depths is a sort of posthumanist practice. The Smithsonian’s website might argue that “It’s hard to imagine a more forbidding place than the icy cold, pitch black, crushing environment of the deep sea ocean. It’s even hard to imagine anything living there,” (4) yet, like Mandeville, we MUST imagine new possibilities of living on this Earth, we must see through the eyes of the abyssal aliens, feel the torturous heat with medieval monsters, if we are ever to dethrone Humanity from the heights of ecological sovereignty.
(1)Stacy Alaimo, “Violet-Black,” in Prismatic Ecology, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis: U of Minn Press, 2013): 245.
(3)See Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, Duke UP, 2012)
(4)“The Deep Sea,” The Smithsonian Ocean Portal website: http://ocean.si.edu/deep-sea
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.