Sunday, October 10, 2010

"Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects" Plenary Session Abstracts

Our speakers' topics for the "AVMEO" conference next March are:


"With the World, or Bound to Face the Sky: The Postures of the Wolf Child of Hesse"

"Hic deprehensus lignis circumligatis erectus ire ad humanam similitudinem cogebatur"
(When he was captured, he was bound with wood and compelled to go upright in the manner of a human)

My paper follows a Hessian boy into the woods to witness a temporary posthuman alliance of human, lupine, and sylvan subject/objects. A fourteenth-century entry in the Chronicle of St Peter of Erfurt tell the story of the child, captured and raised by wolves, then captured again several years later, this time by humans, who displayed him at a noble court as a spectacle. The wolves had cherished the child, giving him the best food, excavating a den for him, sheltering him with their bodies in the winter, and teaching him to run on all fours and to jump; his human captors, scandalized by the child's posture, affixed wooded braces to him to compel him to walk upright. As the captured child himself tells it, he much preferred his time with the wolves.

Per medieval humanist interpretations of posture, the child had gone from being with the world and its mutability to looking upright, toward the sky and its eternal truths. One posture has child among the woods and the wolves, who learn from him too, the whole of them forming a sylvan network to offer a lived rethinking of facile oppositions between wolf and human and between sentient subject and worldly object; another, corrective posture dreams of an isolated body released from mutability, in which the child would be one of a set of sealed-off human subjects. Given over to the court, captured and disconnected, bound to a future that looks up and not around, it is no wonder that the child longs to be sylvan again.

"Animals and the Medieval Culture of Empire"

Most Animal Studies approaches to the Middle Ages have in some degree been concerned with the ways medieval texts put the category of “animal” in conversation with the category of “the human,” as in the case of the morphing protagonists of “Bisclavret” and “Yonec” in the Lais of Marie de France. My talk shifts the focus to animals as objects of exchange in the medieval culture of empire, considering historical examples and literary representations of how centrally animals such as camels or falcons figured in the construction of a courtly culture that, in the midst of the age of crusades, cut across political and confessional boundaries in the Mediterranean and beyond.


"Exemplary Rocks"

Rocks were good to think with in the later Middle Ages. They were regularly used as examples in scholastic philosophy for analyzing the limit conditions of cognition. The motion of rocks was often cited as evidence for the charisma of place in medieval physics, a doctrine that allowed inanimate objects the luxury of quasi-animate properties. In these ways, rocks played an exemplary role in helping to generate the epistemological systems that underwrote much scholastic thought about the material world. This paper charts a wandering itinerary between the rocks of natural philosophy and the hard places of late medieval poetry. Stops on this itinerary will (most likely) include Dorigen’s meditation on the “grisly black rocks” of the Franklin’s Tale and the climactic metaphor in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that compares Gawain himself to a rock. In exploring how the “exemplary rock” came to be seen as emblematic of relations between the material and immaterial worlds for both poets and natural philosophers, I’ll argue for a shared epistemology between late medieval fiction-writing and physics, one that, unlike post-Enlightenment systems of knowledge, did not of necessity cordon off the human from the natural nor see the human as the centripetal center around which the non-sentient converged. Such a historical imaginary does not see the rock-human assemblage as a nostalgic, narcissistic closeness to nature but rather suggests that a particular historical understanding can be recuperated through the transformative potential of feminist ecological thinking, a historical inquiry conditioned by “locational possibilities” (in the words of critic Lorraine Code) that allow us to follow the epistemic possibilities precipitating out of medieval rocks.

"Mineral Virtue"

When we speak of the virtues of a gemstone or mineral we use the word in an archaic sense drawn from vitalist thought, and mean something different from the current ethical usage of doing the right thing. We seem to stretch the language of moral philosophy too far to imply that inorganic matter can act, yet scholastic philosophy moves without changing register between discussions of the powers of stones and of souls. Drawing from scholastic philosophy on the one hand and late-medieval testamentary bequests on the other, I consider the “virtues” of medieval stones, amulets, and inscribed objects, asking how they participate in the daily acts of ordinary folk, devout and unlearned. In what ways do such objects participate in the ethical life of their medieval owners?


"You Don’t Mess With The Yohan: Cotton, Objects, and Becoming Vegetal in Early Modern China"

As living objects go, plants seem relatively unproblematic: they tend to stay put, they seem easy to identify, and we create histories that trace their roles through vast cuts of time. Trees, fruits, herbs, and vegetables were the primary components of most medicinal drugs in early modern China, and the historical and literary work on Chinese food and medicine is lush with plant life.

Vitally important as an ingredient in pharmacy, an object of tribute and trade, a raw material for manufacture, and a curiosity of natural history, cotton has been identified and threaded through Chinese natural history from early accounts of vegetable lambs, to lists of tribute plants and fabrics in bilingual dictionaries, to early modern agricultural accounts, and through references to yohan and kubun armor in Manchu sources. My paper uses this case study to explore what it means to write with and of plants in early modern history. Addressing the challenges of writing a materially-informed diachronic narrative from a collection of names, descriptions, stories, texts, and materials that have been pieced together in different ways (and in multiple languages) over time, I will argue that the history of the vegetal is itself a process of objectification, creating the very concept that it purports to study. The paper will conclude by suggesting that we consider the early modern vegetable in terms of a history of sameness and identification, historicizing the notions of interchangeability and replaceability as manifest in plant knowledge in multilingual China.

“Flower girls”

This paper will focus on the Roman d’Alexandre (Alexandre de Paris version) and the stunning episode in which Alexander and his men enter a garden of plenitude and encounter the women who live there as flowers. Or as women who metamorphose into flowers. Or as women who are part flower and part human. Or as part-flower women who eagerly invite sex with Alexandre’s men and then become virgins (again?), since one of the virtues of the garden is to restore virginity. The difficulty of describing exactly what these beings are will be my starting point, and I will situate this human-vegetal being (but is that what it is?) in relation to the automata that guard the entrance to the garden, the conquerer who enters the garden, and the virtues of the plants in the garden in order to ask how embodiment matters in this episode, what kind of embodiment matters, and why.


"The Middle Voice, Vicarious Causation, and Natality: A Manifesto"

Drawing upon Jane Bennett's Birbeck Humanities Center lecture, "Walt Whitman's Solar Judgment," as well as Thomas Carlson's The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and the Creation of the Human (Chicago, 2008), Claude Romano's "evential hermeneutics," and Graham Harman's "guerrilla metaphysics," my talk will attempt to address the ethical (or, poethical) role of the human in navigating and traveling along what Bennett has termed the "charged pathways" between the vibrant materiality of things and the materiality of emotional (and human) responsivity to these things. If, as Jeffrey Cohen has argued, following Bennett, that matter "possesses aesthetic, affective and practical agencies," and that the world "unfolds through our alliances with a lively materialism, where we are one actant among many within a turbulent identity network," then what sorts of ethical considerations might now come into play that do not assume the human as sovereign within this network, nor this network as orderly, fixed, or providentially designed? Further, what might be the role of aesthetic agency, or poetics (human and non/human), in crafting alliances across the synapses of this network in order to give better "voice" to what Bennett has called the "messily reciprocal coalescences of heterogeneous forces"? Finally, what might still be "special" about the human in this network, and why does that ultimately matter when the times comes, as Julian Yates has written, to determine the "nature" of the "call" of the post/human, especially when, as premodernists, we are "disseminating stories about the textual traces named past." My touchstone medieval text for my remarks will be the Old English Letter of Alexander to Aristotle.

"Sheep Auras: On Counting, Theft, and a Kine/Aesthetics that is not one"

This paper proceeds on the assumption that any engagement with questions of matter / materiality / or the lives of animals / plants / fungi / things ought to prove so unsettling that it will tend to jeopardize our ability to produce vendible narratives about past and present. For me the question of matter figures as one of discursive exposure and narrative risk, that will tend to play out as a re-grounding in questions of the archive, of genre, and rhetoric understood now as technologies for rendering things mobile. I read the turn to biography (Appadurai, Kopytoff) as the default genre for studies of things (and their social lives) and the assumption of life and its codes as the constitutive “as if” that enables analysis as the symptom of a retro-humanist impulse that renders matter infinitely malleable in human hands. I am concerned also, however, by the salvific lure (crypto-theology?) that the assimilation of actor network theory, speculative metaphysics, and the turn to “things” in literary and historical study more generally seems to offer (I’d dearly love to be wrong), modeling the world under the rubric of a figural human extinction that detonates issues of witness / testimony. This paper aims to slow things down and consider the genre and media-specificity of our engagements and to do so by investigating what the inventory (counting sheep) and theft (sheep – stealing), as genres whose orientation to a multiplicity (a life that is always many irreducible and incompatible lives) might have to offer us.


"Of Chairs, Stools and Trestle Tables: Scenes from the Renaissance Res Publica of Things"

In this paper, I will examine the social arrangements that obtained among Renaissance home furnishings. Why were chairs rare and stools common? How was the political theology of chairs challenged by new forms of artisanal production? Why were some tables called “dormant” (and what was required to wake them up)? Why and how was animal life mapped onto the design and social organization of furniture? In what sense were stools, chairs and tables “actants” on the scene of Renaissance housing, especially in the socio-religious scripts of hospitality, holiday and that daily drama called dinner? And what does the Renaissance menagerie of furniture have to teach us today about the way we live with things? My readings of Renaissance furniture will draw on affordance theory, as developed in environmental psychology (James J. Gibson, Harry Heft, Timothy Ingold) and repurposed in design research (Donald Norman, Janet Suri, Brenda Laurel). Using a variety of materials, including paintings and plays, I will distinguish between the inventory (the concrete poetry of the object list) and the taskscape (the micro-drama of affordances in action) in order to draw out the secret constitutions governing the res publica of things in Renaissance domestic and theatrical space.