Tuesday, August 14, 2012

That's So Raven!

I probably go to too many conferences. Conferences can be very productive - they put you on a deadline and compel you to find your argument. But whenever I have a presentation scheduled, it becomes an anxiety-ridden month of doom and gloom. Not the most pleasant experience, but I still go and I'm glad I do. Graduate school can be such a solitary existence. All the more reason to desire community. Graduate school seminar papers can get so caught up in minutiae. All the more reason to want to believe that what you do matters in larger sense. This July's New Chaucer Society conference had all that. The community was vivacious and supportive. The papers were genuinely inspirational.

I won't get into the papers I heard (not right now, anyway) (besides better accounts can be found here here here here here), but I will say how much I loved the conference format. The threaded format was brilliant. I felt like I was reading two or three edited collections-in-production over a week. I came away with oodles and oodles of notes and musings and questions that I know I'll be coming back to for years to come. I also loved how many of the papers really worked as Talks. That is, they weren't documents written to be read, but written to be presented. Alex Gillespie's virtuosic performance, the ambience of Jeffrey Cohen's prismatic Thames, and the stirring homily given by Cary Howie on illumination and the presence of the divine. Is this a particular skill of medievalists? At any rate, it's something I hope to emulate in my career.

Sincere thanks go out to the organizing committee for putting me on a wonder panel titled "Human/Nonhuman/Animal." It was just about the last session of the week - something I quite like. I like being able to absorb all of the other papers first, so I can figure out where my argument might differ and so I can anticipate difficult, knotty questions (and just who might ask them). My co-panelists were great - it's always exciting to see nonhumans engaged in such diverse ways.

As for my own paper, it was on the York Play of the Flood. The paper is a reflection of my recent interest in systems theory and complexity. Now that animal studies has successfully dismantled the human/animal binary, the work shifts toward understanding the differences that remain and constructing a politics that respects the different unique needs, capacities, and faculties of each species. Too often, I think, the posthumanist practitioners of animal studies still commit the same "sin against rigorous thinking" that plagued those they critique. If each animal is unique, how can we respond to each animal uniquely? How can we be hospitable to what each animal needs, desires, and deserves?

More on how this fits into my dissertation soon, I hope. It's been a busy year so far - studying for exams (I passed, thank heavens), co-chairing the department's biennial medieval-early modern conference, presenting at RSA and NCS, and going through draft after draft of the prospectus. But now that I'm free from course work and exam studying, I hope to use this blog more.

You can find my paper below - comments, criticisms, suggestions welcome.


On Refusing Noah As an Instrument of God's Will

Set three over the three days prior to a storm of biblical proportions, Wes Anderson’s recent film Moonrise Kingdom is about two animals who don’t want to get on the ark before the Flood. Sam -- with his signature coonskin cap, an orphan and the least popular boy in his Khaki Scout troop -- and Suzy -- the “emotionally disturbed” and painfully lonely raven – first meet during a local production of Benjamin Britten’s 1957 children’s opera, Noye’s Fludde, an adaptation of the Chester Noah Play. Sam wanders backstage, pushing past the children dressed as animals marching two-by-two in the other direction. When he reaches the dressing room, he finds six young girls putting the final touches on their avian costumes. “What kind of bird are you?” Sam asks. “I’m a sparrow, she’s a dove,” one girl responds, before Sam interrupts and clarifies. “No. I said, what kind of bird are you?”pointing at Suzy. Suzy blinks – not sure what to say, not sure whether to strike or recoil – before recognizing in Sam a kindred melancholy. After a penpal courtship, they decide to flee the confines of their stigmatization.

This paper is about such animals, like Sam's raccoon and, especially, Suzy’s raven, who want no part of Noah’s new covenant with God. They are the kind of animals characterized by Manuel De Landa in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History as “weeds,” victims of “organic chauvinism.” Biomass that is devalued in human society and its anthropocentric economy is separated out into categories of the unclean or pests. While Noah and his sons tend to the animals that will benefit human society, the animals that confirm humanity’s pride of place, the raven, the raccoon, and all the other castaways must instead build their own home in an inhospitable world.

The Noah Plays are, as Rosemary Woolf argues, part of the cycle’s great pattern of Jesus “summoning the sinner into the church.” Several studies have examined Noah’s wife as such a sinner who, fitting with the play’s theme of establishing right order, eventually submits to her husbands’ will. But Noah’s raven has received much less attention as a sinful animal. Unlike Uxor Noah, the raven does not submit, and thus provides a counternarrative to the progressive vision of the cleansed earth and the pattern of salvation. To my knowledge, literary scholarship has not examined the political theology of human-animal relationships in the Noah Plays. That is, the animals have not been examined as animals, as MPs in a Latourian Parliament of Things.

In the Noah story, God plans to flood the earth because creation has rebelled. The stops and false starts of the Book of Genesis are repeated attempts to craft order out of chaos, and make meaning out of the meaningless. But the nonlinear system dynamics – geological, biological, and cultural - of the earth and its inhabitants always run into disruption and further complexification. According to God’s decree, these nonlinear dynamics have to be corrected and reset to fulfill the obligations of the prescribed, teleological, linear hierarchy. And so, God declares in the York Building of the Ark: “Sythn hays men wroght so woefully / And synne is nowe reynand so ryffe, / That me repentys and rewys forthi / That ever I made outhir man or wiffe.”

The Chester Noah, like Britten’s opera, gives more attention to the other animals destroyed in the flood, and in that play God makes clear that it is not just humans who have disobeyed: “Man that I made I will destroye, / Beaste, worme, and fowle to flye; / For on eairth they me deny.” Humans thus have their lot tossed back in with the nonhumans as they are sentenced to drift together in the Flood.

But when the waters recede, God does not reinstate Paradise. Noah neither achieves the William Empson’s “pastoral trick” of a seemingly, but only seemingly, sustainable static Eden, nor is Noah able to reach “buoyancy,” to use Steve Mentz’s recent term, in the nonanthropocentric ecology of the Flood. Instead, human-animal relations run aground on the mountains of Ararat. As the ocean recedes and the earth materializes out of the primordial soup of the sea, Noah selects one of each of the clean fowl and clean beasts for sacrifice in honor of God’s grace. Noah and God’s new constitution for human-animal relationships is written in blood. This new constitution was dramatized, and celebrated, with the comedic Noah Plays performed in Hull and as part of the York, Chester, Newcastle, Towneley, N-Town cycles. Celebrated because human dominance of animals also structured the English economy. As Karl Steel argues in How to Make a Human, this systematic violence against animals enables the ideology of human exceptionalism.

It makes sense, then, that the political theology undergirding the economy would be recapitulated in the great English cycle plays sponsored by the same zooeconomic complex. The hierarchy of the biological regime is evident throughout the cycle plays. Humans continually renew their own humanity and ingratiate themselves to God through an often violent separation from the realm of animals. This makes the comedy of human salvation from animal rebellion and the animalistic behavior of the antediluvian humans a covenant worth celebrating.

The destigmatization of eating of animals provides a new foundation for the animal economy. By dramatizing the theological understanding of Genesis and its application to contemporary life, the Noah Plays model how ecological complexity or fluidity is reduced to the solid hierarchies of economic order. By commanding the construction of the ark, the Noah story quickly reasserts that animals are not only made for human use, but also that animals need humans to survive. Noah’s willingness to act as savior to the birds, the cattle, the wild beasts, and the creeping things having life puts them in his debt. But some “organic chauvinism” is demonstrated here as well. God tasks Noah with saving seven pairs of each clean animal, the animals with a greater perceived value to human society, but the animals who are not perceived to be matters of human concern, the unclean, the creeping things having life, were less worthy of human economic, ecological, and moral consideration, and so only one pair of each are saved.

But what about the lives who do not need or want to be saved? Can one really say that Noah saves the rats, the pigeons, the fleas, the lice, the parasites - all stowaways who mock the Noachian Covenant? Would these “weeds,” creatures resistant to human domination, have been left behind in any case or would they have found their way aboard the Ark regardless? These less visible animals are the ones who stalk the margins of the economy or lurk in the dark corners of the ecological mesh, those animals that feed off the waste of human society. This brings us to Noah’s raven.In the second half of this paper, I would like to consider this disobedient bird, who, like Noah’s wife, refuses to accept Noah as the instrument of God’s will. In the York Play of the Flood, after nine months at sea, Noah and his family emerge from the ark’s cabin and wait for ‘the worlde [to] waxe agayne.’ After testing the depth of the water, Noah decides to send forth a bird to scout the horizons:

“Therfore a fowle of flight
Full sone sall I forthe sende
To seke if he have sight
Som lande uppon to light;
Thanne may we witte full right
When oure mornyng sall mende.”

These lines hint at the damage that has been done to the human psyche and humanity’s assumed place of divine privilege during these months at sea. The sponsors of the York Play of the Flood, the Fishers, Fishmongers, and Mariners Guilds, would have understood the fragility of the human when faced with the immense power of the sea, teaming with sharks and leviathans threatening to swallow them whole. With Noah shut in the ark with the animals human exceptionalism is temporarily held in suspension, biding its time. Noah and his family, scan the horizon for mountaintops so they may find the surety in their humanity on the shore.

Noah’s choice for a scout is the raven, “The raven is wighte and wyse is hee” but also “full crabbed.” Bold and intelligent but ill-mannered and untamed, the raven takes off and does not return. Six lines later, Shem expresses concern that the bird has not come back: “Fadir, this foule is forthe full lange, / Uppon sum lande I trowe he lende, / His foode therfore to fynde and fange: / That makis hym be a fayland frende.”

Theologians have a tradition explaining the raven’s AWOL joyride: released into the world, the raven sank back into sin, by gluttonously feeding on the dead victims of the flood. The carrion-eating bird feasted on the waste produced by God’s plan and Noah’s salvation and thus freed himself from participation in Noah’s new world order.

A second bird is sent out, the faithful dove – not as intelligent, but dutiful. This time, of course, six lines later the dove does return bearing evidence of his completed mission. While the York play lacks the explicit stage directions of the Chester play, we might assume that, like its counterpart, the bird nestles in Noah’s arms, happy to confirm man as his master. As Noah takes the olive branch, he sees in the distance the hilltops of Hermony – that is, Armenia – where humans and other animals are meant to share a common, harmonious destiny.

Several scholars have argued that the Noah story as told in Genesis and in medieval English Noah Plays is, as one scholar puts it, a “recapitulation of [God’s] first Creation. Through Noah’s obedience, he and his family come to participate in this re-Creation as Adam and Eve had participated in the first.” But this is not exactly the case. The ark does not run aground on a land of peace, but on a ruined world, littered with the detritus of its ancestors. God’s Creation 2.0 is an Anti-Eden, with an economy based on dominance rather than benevolence, stewardship, or horticulture. It is an economy that maintains the right to human ascendancy through blood sacrifice and systematic violence.

Noah’s triumph would be total if not for the raven. The dove confirms the privilege God has assigned to humans, but the raven does not affirm the status of his designated master, and instead feeds on human corpses. While the Flood Plays celebrate as a comedy - the most violent thing to ever happen as a comedy! - Noah’s new beginning , the new covenant with God, and the edibility of flesh, the raven’s rebellion injects doubt into this newly reestablished anthropocentric world. Noah’s response to the raven’s defection is then to pass judgment, to curse the rebel creature:

“Sen he for all oure welthe gon wende,
Then be he for his werkis wrange
Evermore weried withowten ende.”

Noah is in a strange position to be cursing the raven’s wrong works, since at the time Noah remains holed up in the ark and the raven has achieved his own salvation, having found food and freedom. Meanwhile, as one of the clean fowl, this dove that has saved Noah and his family may be the very same that is scheduled to be sacrificed for the glory of God upon landfall. Shem accuses the raven of being a false friend, but the raven and the dove may have a very different perspective on the matter.

In closing, I would like to suggest that this curious notion of salvation for some, sacrifice for others bears on current debates about sustainability and the ecological crises of the 21st century. The most recent volume of PMLA features a cluster on the buzzword sustainability and its deployment in contemporary green discourse. The authors repeatedly ask the question, “what do we mean by sustainability,” “sustainability of what and for whom”?

The question applies to the animals on the ark – for whom are they being saved? On his own, the raven decides he is being saved for no one and flies in a different direction. As a result, he is cursed for not fulfilling the assignments of his human master.

But rather than curse the raven, we must, as Steve Mentz argues in his article in the Sustainability cluster, “learn to love disruption, including the disruption of human lives by nonhuman forces…. After sustainability, we need dynamic narrative about our relation to the biosphere.” As Timothy Morton and others have shown, ecological thinking does away with the outdated models of equilibrium, homeostasis, and covenants that too easily exceed human control.

Even as a new anthropocentric system comes into being after the flood, the conditions for the disruption of that system are also created. The Flood marks an increased effort to control the animals and animalistic human behavior, but it leaves in its wake an ocean full of carcasses. The Flood does not purify the earth; it creates the conditions for the disruption of the newly instituted anthropocentric system. Rather than curse the raven who flouts human control, humans would do better to understand how that desire for control, the desire for Edenic stasis, causes the disruptions in the system. If we accept the ecological principles of dynamic coexistence, we might then write a constitution of human-animal relationships rooted not in gratuitous violence, but humble hospitality.Image credit: Image 229 from the Holkham Bible, BL AddMss 47682, fol 8r

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Dark December, Bright January

As of January 3, I have finished coursework and I'm on to preparation for qualifying exams. Since I'm working with a wide range of material, I would like to use this space as a lab for synthesizing texts.

Eden seems like a good place to start. The story goes that humanity once existed in perfect harmony with Nature with a big N. But then came the discovery that my pleasure might equal your suffering. It was in Eden (the story goes) that humanity discovered the shame of eating - the shame that comes from knowing subjective experience does not equal objective reality, the shame of knowing one's self is divided from the world. Various bucolic literatures express a nostalgia for this lost harmony. But this nostalgia extends from a belief that the prelapsarian past was a perfected thing, rather than an eternally unfinished, always evolving, always violent, always replenishing, cycle of growth and decay. The harmony can't be recovered if it never existed.

As ecocritics (among others) have shown, the fantasy of a perfect Nature is the invention of a culture interested in maintaining hierarchy, absolute authority, bad faith social harmony, immaculate self-conception, and the unsullied exercise of power. Ecocriticism, having stripped away the ideological projection of humanity onto Nature, shatters the image of static nature and peers into the actual experience of ecological relationships in a nonhierarchical, chaotic, violent, and dirty universe. Human coexistence with the world is not about the recovery of perfection, but being unstable together.

Part of the psychic disruption caused by humanity's relationship to Nature is the turn of the seasons. The relationship of self to world changes with the angle of the sun. The calendar moves forward like a slow motion disaster, redeemed at the last moment, redeemed by the return of light variously known the names Christmas, Saturnalia, Yule, Hanukkah, Yalda, Hogmanay, Junkanoo, solstice, perihelion. But redeemed for what? Another trip around the sun. Another slow motion disaster.

One of the very best examples of edenic thinking in English letters are the 17th-century country house poems. In the hands of Jonson, Carew, and Herrick, this minor genre celebrates the potential for perfect symmetry between humanity and Nature. Er, not quite symmetry. Rather, I'd say concentricity. Humanity is not the mirror image of Nature, but at the very center of Nature: Nature's vital spark. A celebration of near perfect humanity that holds together with nature in near perfect, static harmony.

And yet, before Jonson supposedly inaugurated this genre in England with "To Penshurst" (c. 1611), Aemilia Lanyer had already cut it down in "The Description of Cookham" (c. 1609). Winter returns to Lanyer's Cookham with an unsettling eviction notice: even stasis suffers a mortal end. Lanyer imagines a nourishing relationship between her creative faculties, the land, and its presiding spirit, Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland. The presence of the genius loci enables the vegetable growth of literary production. However, the false pretenses of this poem expose the fragility of paradise. “The Description of Cookham” is a farewell to the old year as it is overtaken by the onset of a new life.

The timelessness of the Golden Age in Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst" or the country house as a bulwark against the dark as in Thomas Carew's "To Saxham" is nowhere evident in Lanyer, whose Cookham is a broken dream:

Never shall my sad eyes again behold
Those pleasures which my thoughts did then unfold:
Yet you (great Lady) Mistress of that Place,
From whose desires did spring this work of Grace;
Vouchsafe to think upon those pleasures past,
As fleeting worldly Joys that could not last.(ll. 9-14)

As winter returns to Cookham, Lanyer tearfully admits that the idealization of the country house is a mere poetic shadow of the image of heaven: “as dim shadows of celestial pleasures, / Which are desir’d above all earthly treasures” (ll. 15-16). Lanyer sets up a comparison between idealized past fading into memory and present reality breaking through.

Standing in the cold and saying her goodbyes, Lanyer remembers the “ornaments” (l. 19) of Cookham and how its “Walks put on their summer Liveries, / And all things else did hold like similes” (ll. 21-22). Much the same as other landscapes examined throughout, Cookham is a clothed nature, enhanced by human adornment. The tree as a veil screens the creep of the real and allows a perception of a more perfect landscape where the noble blood of Margaret Clifford is indistinguishably “interlac’d with brooks and crystal springs” on the estate (l. 71). The graceful lineage of the family (ll. 93-96) is the very mortar of the meaningful landscape. The landscape honors Clifford, just as Penshurst and Saxham incline to their respective genii loci:

The little Birds in chirping notes did sing,
To entertain both You and that sweet Spring,
And Philomela with her sundry lays,
Both You and that delightful Place did praise. (ll. 29-32)

But rather than show the plants and animals honoring Clifford in the definite present tense, Lanyer hints at the untrustworthiness of her memory by moving this idealization to the past tense of memory:

Oh how me thought each plant, each flower, each tree
Set forth their beauties then to welcome thee:
The very Hills right humbly did descend,
When you to tread upon them did intend. (ll. 33-36)

But when Lanyer says things “hold like similes” the reader is told to keep some distance. The comparison holds from afar, but like any simile close inspection ruins the identification. In each of these twelve poems discussed in this calendar, the presiding spirit creates and sustains a meaningful semioscape through the power of simile. The power of representation maps the subjective experience of the semiosphere onto the objective reality of the biosphere. Humanity relates to nature across time and space through this system of signification.

Once removed from humanity, Cookham reverts to a disinterested state. The second half of the poem is an exposé on the conceit of the first half of the poem, as Lanyer calls all that idealization into question:

But whither am I carried in conceit?
My Wit too weak to conster of the great.
Why not? although we are but born of earth,
We may behold the Heavens, despising death;
And loving heaven that is so far above,
May in the end vouchsafe us entire love. (ll. 111-16)

Explaining human motivations for the idealization of nature as part of our dream of deathless life, Lanyer goes on to say that by enacting this dream we fill our lives with a warm pleasure: “Therefore sweet Memory do thou retain / Those pleasures past, which will not turn again” (ll. 117-18). When the poem turns back to the present in Line 125, Lanyer begins to grieve for the fading image, half-memory, half-dream.
Lanyer mourns with the landscape as her spirit and creative faculty wither with the departure of the Cliffords:

The trees that were so glorious in our view,
Forsook both flo’rs and fruit, when once they knew
Of your depart, their very leaves did wither,
Changing their colors as they grew together.
But when they saw this had no power to stay you,
They often wept, though speechless, could not pray you;
Letting their tears in your fair blossoms fall,
As if they said, Why will ye leave us all. (ll. 133-140)

Lanyer makes similes again to deflect her own failures, but this cannot cover up the fact that, of course, the trees cannot pray. The excuse of the trees speechlessness necessitates the simile in Line 140. When winter comes to Cookham, the trees’ “frozen tops, like Age’s hoary hairs, / Shows their disasters, languishing in fears” (ll. 143-44).

Anchoring the landscape, as is so often the case in bucolic literature, is a tree, “That Oak that did in height his fellows pass, / As much as lofty trees, low growing grass: / Much like a comely Cedar straight and tall, / Whose beauteous stature far exceeded all” (ll. 55-58). But this tree has an imagined relationship to Clifford, rather than real: it, too, merely seems:

how often did you visit this fair tree
Which seeming joyful in receiving thee,
Would like a Palm tree spread his arms abroad,
Desirous that you there should make abode:
Whose fair green leaves much like a comely vail,
Defended Phoebus, when he would assail. (ll. 59-64)

Caught between idealism and realism, timelessness and time, between the memory of summer and the present winter, the stability of the tree is a totem between the imaginary and the real, Lanyer’s attention to a dormant deciduous tree, (even though likened to the seemingly immortal cedar), instead of an evergreen is significant here: “A swarthy riveld rine all overspread, / Their dying bodies half alive, half dead” (ll. 145-146).

Finally, even the tree must be made to realize “that nothing’s free from Fortune’s scorn” (l. 176). As Lanyer embraces the tree, meaning vanishes. The tree cannot return the kiss or the embrace. The relationship between Lanyer and the tree is a deceit (l. 171) to which Lanyer is bound. The image of good Nature has all been a performance:

This last farewell to Cookham here I give,
When I am dead thy name in this may live,
Wherein I have perform’d her noble hest,
Whose virtues lodge in my unworthy breast,
And ever shall, so long as life remains,
Tying my heart to her by those rich chains. (ll. 205-10)

As Timothy Morton theorizes, all sentient life instinctually projects itself into the world: "identity as such is already a simulation – a performative display. Might this not imply that virtuality is hardwired into living substance? … Nothing is self-identical” (Morton 82). The pathetic fallacy of anthropomorphic description is not so much a fallacy as it is a way – the only way – of expressing the deep (or, in Morton's terms, the depthless dark) connections humans have with the world. Only a god figure can be said to be playing with a full deck of cards. The rest of us are just filling in the gaps with dreams and desires, projections and false memories. “Psychoanalysis asserts that melancholia bonds us inextricably to the mother’s body.” Morton asks, “Are we similarly bonded to Earth itself? Is the dark experience of separatenesss from Earth a place where we can experience ecological awareness? Is loneliness a sign of deep connection?” (Morton 16). What I believe to be more than a desire but a very human need to represent the deep connection of humanity to the world extends from the world. As Robert Watson argues in a very similar vein, “Representation is a symptom, not a cure, of otherness" (Watson 91).

I would wager all but the most obsequious bucolic literature (pastoral, georgic, country house poems, etc.) feels the distance between self and world; the poets and playwrights know the dark ecological connection is there, but cannot exactly put their finger on it. If, as Morton puts it in the introduction to The Ecological Thought, all existence is coexistence, I would argue that all existence is parasitic too. Lanyer depends on the image of ideal Nature as nourishment for the soul. She needs the ideal, even though the ideal does not exist or cannot be enacted on earth or can never be recovered from the lost Golden Age or Eden. These poets know it doesn’t exist, yet they believe it is absolutely vital lest they descend into the nihilism of a Lear or Leontes.

Raymond Williams accuses the pastoral poets of being “pretenders to simplicity” (20). At first blush we might apply the same to the other petty gods of bucolic literature: country house lords, woodmen, hunters, lovers, and revelers. But, perhaps reluctantly, most of the poets discussed do finally pull back the veil of Nature and reveal the dark side of ecology. Morton suggests an alternative, an alternative that Surrey, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Lanyer, Marvell, and Milton (and many others besides and long before them) had already discovered. Turn to the void, toward Death, the promise of decay that links all organic matter on earth.

It may or may not be the case that only humans understand or care whether or not the world goes on without humans. Ironically, perhaps this knowledge is what ultimately saves humanity from the abyss of nihilism. Regarding decay, Watson asks, “Is vermiculation nature’s way of loving us back – that is, pursuing an appetite for our bodies that constitutes a critique of men’s claims to love women or nature in any more benign and sophisticated way?” (Watson 79). Like all other matter, humans decay and are reborn as soil to allow other life to continue. And so, perhaps death is not as dark as it first seems: “Living and nonliving beings become the medium in which other beings exist. ‘Struggle for existence’ doesn’t necessarily translate into dog-eat-dog. It means the simple dependence of one being on another, like a desert plant depending on moisture” (Morton 61). Redeemed at the last moment by the return of light, December’s darkness promises a brighter January for someone else.

Works Cited

Lanyer, Aemilia. “The Description of Cookham.” Major Women Writers of Seventeenth-Century England. Eds., James Fitzmaurice, Josephine A. Roberts, Carol L. Barash, Eugene R. Cunnar, and Nancy A. Gutierrez. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. 38-43.
Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Watson, Robert N. Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Image Credit: Jonathan Billinger

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Invention of the Nonhuman

My officemate and I are finishing up coursework this semester and we both figured we'd like to do something that would prep us for our exams in the spring. During my time at Maryland there hasn't been an early modern poetry seminar. Since both of our lists are going to be replete with the lyric poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, why not study it together? So, we designed an independent study examining poetry and promises and perils of humanism, the role of the poet in sounding the limits of human knowledge, virtue, free will, and capacity for justice and good governance.

Harold Bloom’s thesis regarding “the invention of the human” in the Age of Shakespeare is famously problematic, but it insistently, even belligerently continues to bear on discussions of humanist thought and literature in early modern England. The development of modern subjectivity crosses with Renaissance humanism by locating “the dignity of man,” “the outstandingness of human nature” specifically in the powers of the mind common to all humanity. While the flowering of the human mind led to great advancements in egalitarian thought, it had the simultaneous effect of transforming the body into mere potting soil for the mental faculties. This line of thought drives a wedge between human and animal, subject and object, eventually crystallizing in the mind/body dualism of Cartesian philosophy. Humanism’s influence on the development of the New Science corresponded with the disenchantment of the magical properties of things and the totemic power of animals. The early modern subject increasingly became set above the world as an intercessor between God and the rest of God’s creation. Thus, in any discussion of “the invention of the human,” we must necessarily also consider the parallel invention of the nonhuman: the invention of the indignity of the nonhuman, the baseness of the less-than-human.

In defining the relationship between the emergent early modern subject and early modern objects, humanists were obsessed with the question of good governance. From Castiglione to Vives, from More to Bacon, from conduct manuals to husbandry manuals, from dietaries to political treatises, humanist thought was deeply interested in the pursuit of an ordered, well-defined social grammar which defined the proper relation of subject to object, mind to body, king to citizen, and human to nonhuman. Like many philosophers and theologians before him, Pico’s hierarchical worldview regarding the dignity of life places the human in a state of privilege. Man, by virtue of his mental capacity, is invested with both power and responsibility, the potential for oppression and compassion. Having transcended the basic animal needs on the Maslowian hierarchy, the early modern subject freely reorders the world either through love or through violence. The result may be a war between man and nature, as is the case for Sir Tophas in John Lyly’s Endymion, or it may be a nature in perfect harmony with human society, as is the case for Ben Jonson in “To Penshurst.”

I'm not yet sure how well this idea holds together but it's something I'm going to be working with a lot this semester. Hopefullly, by December I'll have a marginally better understanding of how pastoral poetry conceives of the proper social, political, and ecological relationship between human and nonhuman. I'm hoping to explore this in a lecture I'm giving on The Winter's Tale later this semester as well. The Shakespeare lecture I'm TAing this semester is unabashedly Bloomian, so I hope that'll be a nice counterpoint, an opportunity to examine the drama of human identity from the perspective of the nonhuman. Any suggestions appreciated!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

6 months until exams

“Why sholdestow my realtee oppresse? / The see may ebbe and flowen more or less; / The welkne hath might to shyne, reyne, or hayle; / Right so mot I kythen my brotelnesse. / In general, this reule may nat fayle” – Geoffrey Chaucer, “Fortune”

I'm finishing up course work this fall and plan to take my qualifying exams early next spring, so I've spent a lot of time this summer putting together my exam list. At Maryland, the examinees have the pleasure of putting together their own exam list (100-150 works with an emphasis on a period of literature and a secondary emphasis on a particular theme or genre). It's a terrific exercise and it's proving to be a very productive way of expanding my thinking.

My examination list centers on literary representations of the flow of energy from farm to fork through the foodways and foodsheds of late medieval and early modern England. I'm following the metamorphosis of farmed animals from livestock to meat to cooked meals to waste products, a process which weaves together natural and social systems to create complex landscapes of meaning. Literary conceptions of the foodshed in every genre transform an ecological concept into a social network heavily tilted toward the interests of anthropocentric institutions. How and where humans position themselves in relation to the natural world is of paramount interest in medieval and early modern literature and remains a profound concern today.

At the center of this discussion is the tension between the biosphere and the semiosphere. Like a larger nonhuman version of the foodshed, the biosphere is a network of energy which ebbs and flows with the forces of growth and decay. Although humans often perceive the existence of decay, suffering, and mutability as proof of a vindictive universe, the biosphere, like Chaucer’s Boethian Fortune, is entirely indifferent to humanity.

In contrast, the fundamental forces of human society (compassion, oppression, money, magic, language, politics, etc.) represent the specific interests of individuals and institutions as they attempt to harness the wild energy of the natural world. In the late medieval and early modern periods, diverse cognitive modalities such as poetry, philosophy, economics, and theology all position the human at the center the center of foodshed, suggesting all food energy is self-possessed as it flows instinctually ever-upward into our dining rooms.

During my time as an MA and PhD student, four plays have been central to my thinking about how foodsheds were depicted on the English stage: the Shepherds’ Plays and the Noah Plays of medieval drama, Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. Each of these plays takes up a different vantage point in the foodway to present its vision of the ecological network of human, nonhuman, and more-than-human. Each play begins with what could be called a “food problem” which must be resolved; the foodshed is in some form of disarray, but by the end of the play proper order is restored. These comedies are also unified by the attention they draw to the continuity of flesh found among farmed animals, laborers, and women.

Building on John Berger’s hypothesis that animals were our first metaphor, I wish to examine animal husbandry as what may be our first instance of organized ideological thinking. The bonds of domestication may have grown out of ecological relationships, but eventually, at some point in prehistory, the entire human landscape was reconfigured under the guise of a new, imaginary, largely anthropocentric vision of “nature.” This act of domestication, the restriction of what J.M. Coetzee’s avatar Elizabeth Costello calls “fullness of being,” is the substructure of many, if not all, ideologies of oppression.

Because the language of animality is so widespread, an examination of how this idea works its way into the literature of the late medieval and early modern will require focus. Beyond drama, my list emphasizes 1) the biblical, classical, and humanist texts which provide the basis for thinking about the foodshed in the late medieval and early modern period, 2) select contemporary writings about human relationships to food, animals, and agriculture found in manuals, satire, and pastoral literature, and 3) literature which is troubled by and attempts to resolve the problem of humanity’s own animality. My hope is that this course of study will produce a nuanced critique of the social grammar of subject-object/human-animal relations.

Rather than a fanciful call to return to an irrecoverable, utopian “Nature” of the past, this project looks forward to a posthumanist future. By embracing what Giorgio Agamben calls “the suspension of the suspension” between human and animal, posthumanism undercuts all systems of oppression and all ideological restrictions placed on “fullness of being.” We might then begin rehabilitating our ecological relationships within the biosphere and building a food system based on principles of justice for both human and nonhuman.

So what do I have on the list so far? I'm glad you asked! (And if you have suggestions ... by all means, share!)

Biblical sources: Genesis, Leviticus, the Pauline Letters

Classical sources: Aristotle, De Animalibus; Columella, De Agricultura; Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras; Juvenal, Sixteen Satires; Ovid, selections from Metarmorphoses, Fasti, and the erotic poems; Petronius, Satyricon; Theocritus, Idylls; Virgil, Eclogues and Georgics.

Medieval Drama: The Noah Plays; the Cain and Abel Plays; the Shepherds Plays; the Offering of the Magi Plays; the Last Supper Plays; Mankind; the Digby Mary Magdalene; the Croxton Play of the Sacrament; "Robin Hood and the Friar" and "Robin Hood and the Potter"

Medieval anonymous political poetry, satire, lyrics, ballads: Wynnere and Wastoure, Man in the Moon; Song of the Husbandmen; Mum and the Sothsegger; King Edward and the Shepherd; John the Reeve; Tournament of Tottenham; The Hunttyng of the Hare; Parlement of the Thre Ages; Dives and Pauper; The Harley Lyrics

All the theologians whose name begins with "A" who wrote about animals: Albertus Magnus, Ambrose, Aquinas, Augustine.

Chaucer, Tales from the Miller, Reeve, Wife of Bath, Summoner, Clerk, Merchant, Shipman, Franklin, Nun's Priest, and Manciple. (Oh why don't I just go ahead and say all of them.) The Parliament of Fowls and "The Complaint of Mars," "To Rosemounde," "The Former Age," and "Fortune" too.

John Gower, Vox Clamantis and selections from Confessio Amantis; Robert Henryson, Sheep and Dog; the Jack Upland poems; William Langland, Piers Plowman; Lydgate's The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man and St. Edmund.

The Lais of Marie de France; the Pearl Poet's Sir Gawain, Cleanness, and Patience; selections from saints lives, the asceticism of the saints, and encounters with holy animals; John Skeltton's "Mannerly Margery, Milk and Ale" and "Philip Sparrow."

Early Modern Drama: Gammer Gurton's Needle; Arden of Faversham; Chapman et al, Eastward Ho; Thomas Dekker, The Shoemakers Holiday; John Fletcher, The Faithful Shepherdess; John Ford, Tis a Pity She's a Whore; Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay; Ben Jonson, Every Man In His Humour, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair, and Volpone; John Lyly, Endymion; Philip Massinger, A New Way to Pay Old Debts; John Middleton, A Mad World, My Masters, The Bloody Banquet, and Michaelmas Term; William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, As You Like It, Coriolanus, King Lear, 1 Henry IV, Twelfth Night, The Winter's Tale, Two Gentleman of Verona

And other assorted early modern literature: William Baldwin, Beware the Cat; Giordano Bruno, Heroic Frenzies; Margaret Cavendish, Blazing World and Sociable Letters; Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method; Master Fitzherbert, The Boke of Husbandry; George Gascoigne, The Noble Arte of Venerie; Aemelia Lanyer, "Description of Cookham" (and other country house poems).

John Milton, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Lycidas; Thomas Moffett, Health's Improvement; Michel de Montaigne, Essais; Thomas More, Utopia; Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel; Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender, Complaints, Mutability Cantos; Isabella Whitney, A Sweet Nosegay and Will and Testament; Thomas Wyatt.

And lastly, the theory: Carol Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat; Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer and The Open Atterton and Calarco's Animal Philosophy; Steve Baker, Picturing the Beast; John Berger, "Why Look at Animals?"; Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste; Matthew Calarco, Zoographies; Jacques Derrida "Eating Well" and The Animal That Therefore I Am; Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents; Erica Fudge, Perceiving Animals; Donna Haraway, When Species Meet; Claude Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked; Louis Marin, Food for Thought; Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought; Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World; Cary Wolfe, Animal Rites; Raymond Williams, The Country and the City.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The shepherd's place on the economic food chain: carnivore, herbivore, or ascetic?

Image: Taddeo Gaddi, "Adoration of the Shepherds," c. 1330-1335.

If we run our fingers through the wolly textures of the Chester Shepherds’ Play, we are likely to be caught by a few matted snarls. Landscape, hunger, animality, agriculture, economy, and religion: these threads combine to create a thickly interwoven cloth of meaning. It is a play that is deeply embedded in scenery of Cheshire, Lancashire, and the Welsh marches and deeply connected to the social relations of the sixteenth century; the relationship of text and context is indivisible. As with the best comedies among the Cycle plays, the Chester Shepherds’ Play is enlivened by a beastly energy, but we should remember that this same fleshliness also underpins the play’s contexts. The aim of this paper is to consider how the Chester Shepherds’ Play participates in a discourse that Latour would say “is not a world unto itself but a population of actants that mix with things as well as with societies, uphold the former and latter alike, and hold on to them both.” The play invokes the enclosure movement to dramatize the fraught relationship between the religious and economic institutions that framed Chester’s performance spaces. The very actants at the center of the play’s critique – the animals, the food, the bodies of laborers – sustain the livelihood of the rural producers and sustains the bodies of performer, commons, and countryman alike, demonstrating how all are bound in an ecological relationship. Whether harmony can be found will be considered in the conclusion.

The drastic reconfiguration of the pastoral landscape in sixteenth-century England can be described in terms of the shifting network of animal energy: livestock and laborers, food producers and consumers all of which circulated through the markets that served as the play’s performance spaces. Positioned at the intersection of urban and rural life, the market reminded all consumers and producers that while civic and ecclesiastic authority can be compartmentalized into counties and bishoprics, the food economy bound everyone and everything together. The market was both city hall and cathedral for the entire foodshed and all of its inhabitants. Even without the occasional performance of plays or civic ceremonies, markets were already ritualized performance spaces that spoke to broad audiences. As Jean-Christophe Agnew argues, the market’s “customary location … near places of worship, the seasonal cycle of festive celebration, and the eventual development of religious processional ... are all testimonial to the importance of ceremonial and redistributive gestures to the legitimation of class power and authority.” Markets were and are still sites of confluence; with each market bell, cultural forces and economic factors ran together as the basic material concerns of the community were negotiated, perhaps resolved. The marketplace made for a readymade stage to communicate to rural and urban audiences alike.

We should remember that the privatization of agriculture was coupled with the secularization of the land. The Kentish ballad “Now A Dayes” calls attention to this conversion and the coeval spiritual and economic unrest of the early sixteenth-century: “The townes go down, the land decayes; / Off cornefeyleds, playne layes; / Gret men makithe now a days / A shepecott in the church. / The places that we Right holy call, / Ordeyned ffor christyan buriall / Off them to make an ox stall / thes men be wonders wyse. / Commons to close and kepe; / Poor folk for bred [to] cry & wepe; / Towns pulled downe to pastur shepe: / this ys the new gyse!” The new economic structures convert the land from spiritual space to economic space, transforming graveyards into agricultural buildings. Church land is enclosed not for anchorites but for sheep.

The Shepherds’ Play reclaims the secular spaces and reendows them with spiritual purpose. By invoking the anchoritic profession in its closing lines, the play asked its sixteenth-century audience to think on the relationship between the new connotations of land enclosure as they related to the connotations of spiritual enclosure. Where church institutions had been an integral part of the rural landscape and a critical managing partner in the agricultural economy, new large-scale producers had taken over and further segmented the foodshed. The Shepherds’ Play as performed to popular acclaim in the Beast Market and the Corn Market is the city of Chester’s protest against the shifting market forces by attempting to bridge the widening maw between market and church. As the wagons passed through sites of economic and religious significance, the performance route traced an itinerary for an interlaced economic and spiritual development: as the town clerk, William Newhall, wrote in 1531-32, Chester performed the Whitsun Plays “not only for the augmentation and increase of the holy and catholick faith of our savior Jesu Christe and to exort the mindes of comon people to good devotion and holsome doctrine therof, but also for the comon welth and prosperity of this citty.”

Central to the play’s critique are the wares of the market stalls. The feast scene of the Shepherds’ Play is heavily invested in the local food economy: the shepherds bring “butter that bought was in Blacon,’ “ale of Halton,” and a “jannock of Lancastershyre” (7.115, 117, 120): the geography of the play represents the sizable foodshed that fed Chester’s markets. This should be seen in light of the development of the macroeconomic forces that replaced the close-circuited nucleated economies of manorial farms with an increasingly stratified market economy. The variety and quantity of food that the shepherds consume gives some hint of the number of food producers on whom the people depend. The shepherds’ feast does not suggest self-containment, as some critics have alleged, but the vast interconnectedness of the Cestrian food economy. With the growth of monoculture and product specialization, the distribution of foodstuff had to be accomplished at the marketplace. The marketplace coordinated the foodshed’s network of producers and consumers (parties that are never mutually exclusive), even as it created space for competition. As Christopher Dyer shows, cattle fattened on the Cheshire heath were sold for higher prices in London than in Chester. Cheshire cheese became internationally famous. But the national demand for Cheshire foodstuffs meant that farms were not raising corn and wheat for the local market. At issue, then, is the commercial drama between rural producer and urban consumer replayed each and every week.

The Whitsun plays’ pertinence to this dual audience is made explicit in the post-Reformation Banns that would announce a performance of the plays: “By Craftes men and meane men these Pageanntes are playde / And to Commons & Countrymen accustomablye before.” These Banns do not suggest a neat symmetry between city and play, but triangulate the asymmetric economic relationship between performers, city residents, and residents of the countryside. The performance of the Chester cycle was part and parcel of the exchange between Chester’s urban consumers and the agricultural producers of Cheshire and environs that already was occurring in the city’s marketplaces. It is this context for the English Shepherds’ Plays which I think have been underappreciated. Although the social and religious transgressions of the Chester feast scene (as well as the Towneley Prima Pastorum’s feast) have received much critical attention, the play’s relationship to the Tudor enclosure movement has largely been ignored. The setting on the secular, contemporary heath represents a desacralized, commercial environment populated by shepherds pitted against each other for food, wages, and self-respect. As the play unfolds, the shepherds ultimately denounce their own lifestyle as unsustainable and call for a resacralization of the pastoral economy.

Agricultural manuals and anti-enclosure pamphlets moralize the division between consumer and producer. The demand for profits was supplanting the traditional, idealized role of the farmer in the foodshed – to provide for family and community. Like Thomas More’s sheep in Utopia, Chester’s shepherds have become carnivorous. Beginning the meal, Hankeyn declares: “My sotchell to shake out / to sheppardes am I not ashamed. / And this tonge pared rownd aboute / with my teeth yt shalbe atamed” (7.133-136). This sudden appetite for flesh violates the proper hierarchy of the economic food chain: producers are also becoming consumers, precipitating both a moral and an economic crisis. The new modus operandum of the agrarian economy, the pamphlets allege, is to satisfy the self first, without regard for equity, fairness, and commensality. The agricultural producers are no longer “meek and tame,” but as More says, they have developed a hunger for the food (or the profit) they produce. It is unnatural for the sheep to take from rather than give to their community. Hankeyn’s ravenous appetite resembles that of the Towneley Prima Pastorum’s Gyb who eats his own sheep after they have died of rot under his care: “Both befe, and moton / Of an ewe that was roton / (Good mete for a glotton); / Ete of this store” (12:318-321). The shepherds of Chester and Towneley have resolved not to till the soil and provide for the community, but to consume produce at a voracious pace.

The comedic depiction of “Shepperde[s] poore of base and lowe degree,” as they are referred to the post-Reformation Banns, correlates with these contemporary urban attitudes regarding rural farming populations. It is worth noting that in the pre-Reformation Banns, the shepherds are not called “poore of base and lowe degree,” but are presented with “full good cheer” and with “right good wyll.” This suggests either the content of the play changed over time to emphasize the shepherds’ newly sordid character or negative attitudes toward the shepherds and shepherding developed as the enclosure movement progressed.

Using the shepherds to depict the destabilization of the local foodshed, the play castigates the market forces driving rural poverty. The shepherds feast while their servant boy, Trowle, labors out of their view among the animals in the fields, insisting they are not “ashamed” of their voracious appetites even as they knowingly partake in idleness and sensual pleasure (7.80, 7.134). Trowle reacts against this self-interested behavior. While on the hill above him the three shepherds enjoy a feast alienated from the labor that produced the meat, Trowle commiserates with the animals below: in the darkness of the countryside he feels the continuity of blood and bone with his sheep and his chief companion, his dog Dottynoll. The play asks its audience to think of the producers and animal products that arrive in the city markets each week not as abstract concepts but as animated bodies participating in the network of social relations.

At a time when the problems of enclosure and engrossment were compromising the economic health of cities like Chester, the Shepherds’ Play reflects on the local region's changing economic conditions. For all that Chester consumers depended on foodstuffs and other animal products from the countryside, the city markets maintained an uneasy relationship with local producers. Product specialization led to price inflation of underclass staples and increased reliance on markets for foodstuffs. That the shepherds, participants in the new economic structure, enjoy a gluttonous meal while local food prices remained high, would have made the feast seem even more egregious to its audience. The food, the shepherds believe, elevates them above their station: Tudd terms the meal “a noble supper” and Hankeyn describes his meal as proper “meate for a knight” (7.124, 239). The shepherds are feigning wealth here; their nobility is either imagined or aspirational. Hence their transgressions of class boundaries is an example of what Norma Kroll calls, in the context of the Towneley Second Shepherds’ Play, a “hierarchical fantasy.”

Trowle separates himself from the other shepherds with an opening monologue laden with references to the hierarchies of agricultural economics. Entrenched on his own plot of land, he refuses to do the work assigned by his slothful masters, linking them to the nobility: “For kinge ne duke, by this daye, / ryse I will not – but take my rest here” (7.186-187). Trowle's belligerence gestures toward the Tudor enclosure movement. Trowle's plight resembles the situation of tenant farmers under threat of displacement or eviction by enclosure. Hankeyn, Harvye, and Tudd’s separation from labor also alienates them from the “blood and bonne” of the sheep they are consuming, embodying a growing division between consumer and producer.

A wrestling match ensues in which Trowle shames Hankeyn, Harvye, and Tudd and reinstates social order. Trowle joins the moralists of the pamphlet debate in rebuking the immoral appetites of shepherds and agricultural producers large and small. They all discover together that “true” solace is not found in caloric intake, but in spiritual joy. It is at this moment that the angel appears. Although at first they mistake they mistake the angel for a sheep-rustler or a rival landlord threatening engrossment (telling comments in of themselves) the angel instead summons them away from Chester and toward Bethlehem. There they continue to take their newfound pleasure in anti-materiality, or rather in a spiritualized flesh that suggests a sacred alternative to the secular continuity of blood and bone. Unlike the anti-communion of eating sheep that drives the shepherds apart in the first half of the play, the shepherds’ take communion upon coming into contact with Christ’s body: the shepherds’ role as witnesses is essential as it reestablishes the unity of their boys’ club and disperses all prior concerns regarding wives, work, wages, and wethers. In contrast with the divisiveness of pulling apart animal bodies, sharing the common image of Christ’s body brings the shepherds together. They are moved from a desire to consume to a desire to love. Rather than taming flesh with their teeth, the mouth becomes an organ for love and humility. For Trowle, the emphasis has shifted from material solace that fills the stomach to spiritual solace that fills his heart: “Solace nowe to see this / byldes in my brest blys: / never after to do amys, / thinge that him loth ys” (7.492-95). Thus, Trowle also renounces sin and pledges to be on his best behavior. This oath sets an example for the shepherds in the play and, perhaps, sets the standard for the resacralization of pastoral husbandry. The (re)discovery of spiritual solace seems especially transformative for the shepherds, given their relationship with animals. Where the shepherds would expect to find animals (in the “cratch,” that is, a “rack or crib to hold fodder for horses and cattle in a stable or cowshed” [OED]) they instead find Christ. Neither Dottynoll the dog nor the sheep who played prominent roles in the first half of the play are transported to Bethlehem. All animals disappear from the text once Christ arrives on stage. The nativity offers an alternative to the unnatural deviance of More’s carnivorous sheep. Instead of becoming devourers, the shepherds might once again be relegated to the lowest ladder of the food chain.

Kissing the talismanic body of baby Jesus wipes away all of the shepherds’ vices. Set on the path to righteousness, Harvye even surrenders his drinking flask and his spoon, renouncing intoxication and gluttony: “Loe, sonne, I bringe thee a flackett. / Therby hanges a spoone / for to eat thy pottage with at noone, / as I myselfe full oftetymes have donne” (7.571-74). Harvye’s offering could be seen not as an act of generosity, but as a recognition of his own moral failings. By giving up his spoon, Harvye implies that his hunger has also disappeared, that from now on he has no need of an eating utensil. The other shepherds' offerings to Christ are so laughably simple that their poverty becomes humorous; all Trowle has to give is “payre of [his] wyves ould hose” (7.591). The humor indemnifies poverty as a quality of rural producers: the play argues that shepherds should not be status-seekers, they should not pursue material wealth, they should be, as More would have it, poor, meek, and tame. The willingness of the shepherds to make an offering to Christ, even though they do not really have anything to give, promotes a false harmony among haves and have-nots. The adoration of the shepherds depends on an ideology of deference to the social hierarchy and self-sacrifice even when stricken by poverty.

By the end of the Chester Shepherds’ Play, the four shepherds have shed their material concerns and have been reconciled with each other. They give up herding sheep and become evangelists: Although still poor and now jobless, the shepherds resolve to become anchorites and hermits, rather than give in to illicit behavior: The shepherds have moved from a covetousness of material things that divided them to a physical embrace that unites them. As hermits and anchorites, they would also be adopting a diet that was chiefly vegetarian, reestablishing the proper place of rural laborers in the foodshed. Having disavowed carnivorous agribusiness the Shepherds’ Play rejects secular enclosure in favor of sacred enclosure. And yet this spiritual growth is an imaginary resolution of a real problem. In a play dominated by material concerns, the shepherds cannot arrive at an economic solution and so they embark on spiritual careers outmoded by the Henrician reformation. This imagining attempts to narrate a swirling and irresolvable problem: as the markets, the sheep, the land are being pulled into the future, the play attempts to pull the audience back in time, toward Bethlehem and a sacred pastoral economy that never truly existed or only ever existed in discourse. The pessimist in me might say that the play only provides an opiatic answer to the structural problems of Chester's market economy since the shepherds' new careers are as untenable as their old ones. Post-Reformation spiritual enclosure does not safeguard anchors and hermits, just as Chester's markets do not attend to the needs of agricultural laborers. But the play does give its audience pause, allowing the audience to consider the place of the two institutions to either side of the wagon stage and their role in the newly emergent social relations and their role in shaping the future of the city.

1 Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), P. 91

2 Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 26.

3 Quoted in David Mills, “‘None had the like nor the like darste set out’: the City of Chester and its Mystery cycle,” in Staging the Chester Cycle, ed., David Mills (Leeds: The University of Leeds School of English, Moxon Press, 1985), pp. 1-16, 4.

4 REED: Cheshire, 2 vols., eds., Elizabeth Baldwin, Lawrence M. Clopper, and David Mills (Toronto, ON: The British Library and University of Toronto Press, 2007), ll. 21-22.

5 REED: Cheshire, p. 336, ll. 17.

6 Cited in R.M. Lumiansky and David Mills, The Chester Mystery Cycle: Essays and Documents (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1983), p. 279.

7 Norma Kroll, “The Towneley and Chester Plays of the Shepherds: The Dynamic Interweaving of Power, Conflict, and Destiny,” Studies in Philology 100.3 (2003): 315-345, 333.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Unhome and Hearth: Food and Cultural Hybridity in Mary Rowlandson's The Sovereignty and Goodness of God

This blog is written by one of our distinguished guest writers, Sonya Parrish, a doctoral candidate whose work spans the transatlantic long eighteenth century. In more than a few conversations--all of which I prize highly--Sonya has convinced me, with deftness and verve, of the hilarity and epic-ness of Rowlandson's food issues. Stealing food from a baby has been a particularly wonderful image for us to ponder. I am honored and proud to present her excellent blurb here, "Unhome and Hearth." Thanks Sonya!

Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, published in 1682, is at face value an account of one colonial American woman’s captivity among American Indians during King Philip’s War.  However, as a literary work it has come to be known as the preeminent text classified as an Indian captivity narrative.  As a prime example for all captivity narratives after it, Rowlandson’s text worked to formulate the genre as a whole.  Seeped in religious iconography, racial assumptions, and the formation of lived traumatic experiences as testimony, the Indian captivity narrative genre which Rowlandson helped solidify enabled the Puritan community as a whole, and the captive in specific, to form a solidified European cultural identity based widely on differentiation between the captive/Puritan English and the captor/Indian Other. Or so some scholars would have us continually believe.
More recent scholarship from people such as Christopher Castiglia and Michelle Burnham have taken another look at Rowlandson’s account of captivity in light of new feminist and postcolonial theories.  In this vein, I propose we begin to consider Rowlandson the captive in connection with the cultural hybridity she came to represent in the very text Puritans used to uphold English superiority in the brave, new world of the American colonies.  As home is believed to be where the heart is, and the kitchen is commended as the heart of any home, it seems only fitting that food itself serves as the crux for Rowlandson’s realization of cultural change stemming from her captive experience.
From the beginning of her captivity, food is one of Rowlandson’s main concerns.  It could even be classified as an obsession within the text.  In detail, Rowlandson continually chronicles her quest for food, what food she had or was denied, and her constant worries about food.  While she at first resists the temptation of American Indian cuisine, hunger does get the better of Rowlandson’s palate eventually, and her cultural change through food is represented fully during her fifth remove:
The first week of my being among them, I hardly ate any thing; the second week, I found my stomach grow very faint for want of something; and yet it was very hard to get down their filthy trash: but the third week, though I could think how formerly my stomach would turn against this or that, and I could starve and die before I could eat such things, yet they were sweet and savory to my taste. (79)
This is the first, but not the last, instance in the text where Rowlandson highlights her changing taste toward food.  Presented here in survivalist terms, this change from disgust with American Indian food to delight in its taste is a very specific example of the cultural hybridity that Rowlandson undergoes while in captivity.  One can view this passage as a simple statement on hunger; however it must be remembered that cultural identification and cultural consumption are often united. Taste and dietary consumption are closely tied to cultural identification, and this has been the case historically, supported by the fact that a culture can be identified by other cultures or degraded by other cultures according to the food they consume. 
With this in mind, it is interesting to note that Rowlandson does not simply state that she forced herself to eat American Indian food, but rather that she grew to enjoy it.  The food became “sweet and savory to [her] taste” in such a way that she begins to identify herself with what she consumes throughout her captivity.  This change is even more apparent during her seventh remove when she gives an account of her consumption of horse liver:
There came an Indian to them at that time, with a basket of Horse-liver.  I asked him to give me a piece: What says he can you eat Horse-liver? I told him, I would try, if he would give a piece, which he did, and I laid it on the coals to roast; but before it was half ready they got half of it away from me, so that I was fain to take the rest and eat it as it was, with the blood about my mouth, and yet a savory bit it was to me. (81).
The American Indian man with the Horse-liver questions Rowlandson’s ability to eat the meat presumably because she is English and as an Englishwoman it would be assumed that she would not  stoop to eat the liver of a horse.  Rowlandson herself not only consumes the liver, but consumes it raw as was the way with the rest of the tribe surrounding her.  With “blood about [her] mouth” she describes herself in terms much like she described the Indians who attacked the English garrison at the beginning of her text, the “bloody Heathen[s]” (69) who first took her captive.  Her entrance into American Indian culture through food was achieved because she associated herself with a savage display of blood she aligned with Indians earlier in the narrative.
During the remainder of the text, Rowlandson continues to identify herself and her condition through the food she consumes.  In the end, however, Rowlandson is bartered back to her husband and returns to her home, only to be faced with new and different worries about food and consumption. Upon returning to English society, Rowlandson states:
I can remember the time, when I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts, and whole nights together, but now it is other ways with me. When all are fast about me, and no eye open, but his who ever waketh, my thoughts are upon things past, upon the awfull dispensation of the Lord towards us; upon his wonderful power and might, in carrying of us through so many difficulties, in returning us in safety, and suffering none to hurt us.  I remember in the night season, how the other day I was in the midst of thousands of enemies, & nothing but death before me: It is then hard to work to persuade myself, that ever I should be satisfied with bread again.  But now we are fed with the finest of Wheat, and, as I may say, with honey out of the rock. Instead of the Husk, we have the fatted Calf. (111)
Keeping Rowlandson’s obsession with food in mind, it is no mere coincidence that a food metaphor should appear to describe the disquieting and different feelings she has when she is returned to her home. 
Homi Bhabha’s idea of unhomeliness, as presented in his introduction to Locations of Culture, sheds some light on the cultural crisis Rowlandson undergoes by the end of her narrative.  Specifically, unhomeliness, or the idea of feeling displaced between two cultures especially in regard to the domestic or private sphere, gives us a perspective into Rowlandson’s change, as much of it deals with food, eating, and her feelings after returning to her home.  Bhabha describes unhomeliness as “the estranging sense of the home and the world – the unhomeliness – that is the extra-territorial and cross-cultural initiations” (1137) and this is exactly what we see occurring with Rowlandson at her homecoming.  Her identification with Indian culture through food is further explored as she seems hesitant to say she will ever be comfortable with eating English food or “bread” again.  Within this domestic space of home, where she was once restful, she now feels a restlessness that can never be erased, and she describes this restlessness and uncertainty by using food, the cultural product that most aligned her with Indian life throughout her narrative.  Her identification with Indian culture in the form of food consumption makes her a cultural hybrid, an unhomed individual, a new entity entirely within this domestic Puritan space that is something completely different than her old notion of selfhood. Her obsession with food throughout her narrative, and her use of food metaphors upon her return to English society, highlight the ways in which Rowlandson’s cultural identity and comfort changes through contact with Indians while in captivity.  She is neither entirely Puritan nor entirely Indian, but she is something new and unhomed, changed presumably through her identification with food in two very different cultures. She may uphold certain Puritan ideologies in regard to religious discourse, racial assumptions, or assertions of English superiority, but the convenient binaries seemingly established by this narrative break down when one begins to consider what she ate, how she ate, and what she thought about eating during and after her captivity.
Sonya Lawson Parrish received her B.A. in Literature from Lindsey Wilson College and her M.A. in English Studies from the University of Louisville. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Literature program at Miami University where she has also earned a graduate certificate in Women and Gender Studies.  She is completing work on her dissertation which focuses on representations of female captivity, political agency and speech act theory in the transatlantic long eighteenth century. Other areas of scholarly interest include feminist theory, postcolonial theory, and pop culture studies in the long eighteenth century and today. She has been previously published in MP: An Online Feminist Journal and The Pennsylvania Literary Journal. When not diligently working on her scholarship, Sonya enjoys playing with her cats, cooking good Southern comfort food, and reading comic books.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. 1994. London: Routledge, 2004.
Burnham, Michelle. Captivity & Sentiment: Cultural Exchange in American Literature, 1682-1861. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth UP, 1997.
Castiglia, Christopher. Bound and Determined: Captivity, Culture-Crossing, and White Womanhood from Mary Rowlandson to Patty Hearst. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1996.
Rowlandson, Mary White. The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. (1682). Neal Salisbury, ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
This guest blog was moderated by Rachel

Saturday, March 19, 2011

My guts they yawl, crawl, and all my belly rumbleth

HODGE: Daintrels, Diccon? Gog’s soul, man, save this piece of dry horse-bread,
Cha’ bit no bit this livelong day, no crumb come in my head.
My guts they yawl, crawl, and all my belly rumbleth,
The puddings cannot lie still, each one over other tumbleth.
By gog’s heart, cham so vexed, an in my belly penned,
Chwould one piece were at the spitalhouse, another at castle’s end! (Gammer Gurton’s Needle II.i.17-22)

Why food now? Because it's vital. What we put into our bodies is as significant to the formation of identity as are the technologies of gender, race, nation, class, sexual orientation. Food constitutes our bodies; food provides texture for life; food enriches life with meaning. We see this everywhere food is deployed as metaphor in literature.

The past decade has seen plenty of interesting work in this nascent field as it relates to early modern studies (Timothy Morton, Ken Albala, Robert Appelbaum, Julian Yates, Bruce Boehrer, to name a few; seminal works from scholars such as Caroline Walker Bynum have also recently attracted new attention). But by and large food has escaped sustained critical attention. How can this be given how essential food is to the structure of daily experience? My initial hypothesis (one that I am sure I will be revising many times through the lifespan of this blog and my dissertation) is that contemporary society has made food too ordinary. As if it is something that magically materializes ex nihilo in our fridges or in the freezer aisles at the supermarket. As we become increasingly distanced from the processes of food production and as food becomes increasingly plentiful, we de-vitalize and disenchant food.

The gourmand James Beard claimed that “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” Following Beard, the recent popularization of farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, and food co-operatives speaks to the ongoing centrality of food as a method of defining and forming community. Against this over-idealization of food, however, I will attempt to trace in this blog an examinationn of the alienating and exclusionary processes of food production in late medieval and early modern foodways. I hope to use this blog as a forum for exploring ideas about how late medieval and early modern literature conceptualized foodways and foodsheds.

By developing a literary history of local English foodways, I seek to show that the supposed “common ground” of food habits conceals a series of oppositional binaries between producer and consumer, urban and rural, and, perhaps most starkly, between human and animal. Just as enclosures demarcate boundaries between human and animal, we might also remember that food is necessarily place-based, creating cuisines that define and divide regions, ethnicities, and nationalities. A whole terroir of signification lies beneath cultural ideas and representations of food.

Recent efforts in critical food studies identify culinary traditions as positive unifiers of culture and community. For food historians and anthropologists, culinary habits constitute a text signifying the dietary and ethical values of a culture. For example, the dietaries analyzed by Ken Albala in his recent book, Eating Right in the Renaissance (UC Press, 2002), speak vividly about the aspirational goals of nutritional science and the developing practices of healthy eating.

These dietaries, however, only refer to food on the dining room table, forgetting the animals, marketplaces, and labor that precede the finished product. Early modern dietaries direct their audiences to whole health by promoting an idea of food, food as an abstraction. The realm of literature, drama, and poetry provides an alternate perspective on food as a site of conflict, as the difference between haves and have nots, between the wheat and the chaff, between cow and beef, sheep and mutton. As the character Hodge says in the Tudor comedy Gammer Gurton’s Needle, the deep-seated class difference in the cultures of food are loudly proclaimed in between the desperations of the spitalhouse and the aspirations of the castle.

Investigations into food and rural agricultural economies in the late medieval and early modern period frequently reveal conflated images of animals and underclass labor. For example, Hodge and Gyb the Cat must compete for the same meal. Food, then, is not a universal human experience, but common to all animals. The permeability of the human/animal divide becomes apparent in the portrayals of provincial labor and domesticated animals in comedic drama. Food economies depend upon a naturalization of this labor, creating an unstable and uncomfortable relationship of human and animal that is buried by ideology.

An investigation into the literary history of early modern foodways will prove wide-ranging. It will take us from the deer parks of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the pastures of English Shepherds' Plays, the markets of Bartholomew Fair, and elsewhere. My hope is that this project will prove surprising - for both you and me. Like Hodge, my guts yawl, crawl, and all my belly rumbleth in anticipation of the table we are setting on this blog.