Thursday, February 02, 2006

Roger Caillois and medieval animals

While enjoying the clever ramblings at Acephalous, it struck me that medievalists don't have as much fun off the job as they used to. I'm thinking of Georges Bataille and his secret club Acephale. Where have all the Georges Batailles gone?

I share the following because it is about someone who refused (with good reason, I admit) to join Bataille's club: the surrealist biologist Roger Caillois. I became interested in Caillois's work through the appreciation shown him by Elizabeth Grosz, my favorite feminist reinterpreter of Lacan and Deleuze. Last year I was invited to present at a workshop hosted by Princeton exploring intersections between the medieval and the modern, especially in art. I used the opportunity to do some deeper reading in a theorist I had always wanted to get to know better. I doubt I'll ever publish the following, but it does suggest that Caillois is useful for thinking the animal from a non-anthropomorphic point of view. He was an odd person, devoting his life to exploring such mysteries as why stones are such phenomenal artists and why mimicry doesn't actually imitate anything. He never wanted to keep mystery in place (famously, he broke with the Surrealist group led by Andre Breton when Breton refused to cut open a Mexican jumping bean; Caillois thought it was stupid to argue that the bean's secret interior ought to be preserved), but he also insisted that the place for art was within science.


Theorizing the animal/human interface has proved an especially rich critical topic in the past decade, especially given the work of scholars like Steve Baker, Jacques Derrida, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, Alphonso Lingis, and Cary Wolfe. More importantly for the themes of this workshop, though, the catalyst for much of my analysis can be found in two essays composed by the eclectic French theorist Roger Caillois. Connected in complicated ways to Andre Breton's surrealism movement, Caillois had been introduced to Georges Bataille by Jacques Lacan. With Bataille and Michel Leiris he founded the influential College of Sociology in 1938. It has recently been suggested that when Bataille determined that a secret group he had formed (Acephale) needed to cement its membership around an act of human sacrifice, and when someone (possibly the perennially depressed Leiris) had volunteered himself as a victim, Bataille attempted to convince Caillois to be the executioner. Needless to say, the sacrifice did not take place: Roger Caillois was the kind of scholar who never really wanted to belong to any group that sought his membership. Indeed, this loneliness goes a long way towards explaining why his work remains relatively neglected while that of almost everyone who moved through his intellectual circle has proven influential in the anglophone world. There is something intransigent about Caillois, both as a person and as a writer.

Claudine Frank, Caillois's recent editor and translator, makes two statements about his early intellectual projects that I think well summarize his promise: that "he was always seeking out new monsters" ("Introduction," Edge of Surrealism 5) and that he was engaged in composing a kind of "reverie" that could engender a "subversive, revolutionary New Science" that interrogated rather than dismissed the imaginative (12). These projects involved the displacement of homo sapiens from his assumed centrality, discovering the alien within the unraveling contours of the human. "Man is a unique case only in his own eyes," Caillois observes in his provocative essay "The Praying Mantis: From Biology to Psychoanalysis" (c.1934). Here he takes as his starting point the eternal fascination men betray with the femme fatale of the insect world (the mantis beheads her partner as a prelude to mating). Caillois acknowledges that this recurring interest may derive simply from "some obscure sense of identification" elicited by the insect's "remarkably anthropomorphic form" (73). Yet he is not satisfied by a principle of simple projection, as if by detailing the function of the mantis within male fantasies the insect's uncanniness would then stand explained. There exists in the praying mantis, he writes, an innate lyricism (74, 78), an irreducible superfluity. The mantis offers no comfortable lessons about the anthropomorphism of insects, but rather suggests the entomonous residue infecting the human, breaching the barrier between Cartesian subject and nonhuman environment. The mantis becomes proof of what Caillois calls "the systematic overdetermination of the universe" – quite a burden for a small bug to bear. The praying mantis, moreover, restores danger to the object under scientific scrutiny, allowing that the act of contemplation immediately trespasses the distinction between observer and observed, rendering them inextricable.

Caillois develops this theme further in "Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia," an essay that likewise explores the intimacy of the insectal. Caillois's work here was instrumental for Lacan as he formed his notion of the Mirror Stage. Against those Darwinians who see in every attribute of an animal its evolutionary use value, Caillois develops an anti-utilitarian argument in which the spatial and the corporeal interpenetrate. Mimicry, the vertiginous displacement of environment onto body, is for Caillois not a survival strategy but an unnecessary surplus, a "dangerous luxury." Predators are seldom deceived, he observes, when their prey adopt attributes of the space they inhabit, such as when a butterfly imitates a twig or a beetle disguises itself as a pebble. Most animals hunt by smell, not sight: "numerous remains of mimetic insects are found in the stomach of predators." Many inedible creatures imitate their environments needlessly (96-97). Mimicry -- whether animals becoming their worlds, or humans imitating their surroundings magically or aesthetically – is a succumbing of body and subject to the "lure of space" (99). This "dispossession" of the privilege of being one's own center spells the death of the autonomous subject, as self is scattered across landscape and landscape intermixes with self. Caillois gives the literary example of Gustave Flaubert's description of the desert-dwelling Saint Antony. The hermit rapturously witnesses the "interpenetration of the three natural kingdoms" [vegetal, animal, geological] and "disperse[s] himself everywhere, to be within everything" (101). Elizabeth Grosz writes in summation that what Caillois has identified is "a certain structural, anatomical, or behavioral superabundance, perhaps it is the very superfluity of life over and above the survival needs of the organism."

Caillois is famous for his meditations on the sex life of the praying mantis, the misfires of mimicry among animals, the power of stones to pull the thinking subject into disruptive encounters with inertia and oblivion. His work clearly resonates with my own scholarly obsessions: the monstrous, the inexcluded, the exorbitant. Most important for my project today, Caillois offers new ways of approaching medieval animals, modes of analysis that move us beyond arguments based upon agricultural, cultural, or symbolic use value. Caillois proposes what might be called aninormality: an anti-utilitarian conception of the animal that moves us beyond its normalizing function into a realm where human and animal counterinfect, where both kinds of bodies lose the rigor of their boundaries and become anomalous. Unlike Bataille, Caillois never (so far as I know) addressed medieval materials. Yet his work helps us to see that animals in the Middle Ages suggest that we have never been human.


Karl Steel said...

It's a bit late, but I was listening to this song the other day ("Insect/Incest" by Milemarker), and it reminded me of this post. Go figure. Here are the lyrics (a bit of virtually meaningless symbolist poetry, but not a bad emo song once set to music):

You could bring home the pollen. I could be the queen bee. The way the mammals do it is inefficient and unsanitary. You've got to whisper to me. Make sure that I'm not dead. You've got to take your tweezers and pry apart my little legs. You ought to kick it to me and then bite off my head. That's the way the insects do it. Exosekeletons filled with fluid.I wish I could peel away your humid human skin. And attach you to me, parasitically.

J J Cohen said...

Love it! Not meaningless at all ... quite evocative in its fantasies of nonhuman sexuality within human terms.