Here are a few snippets from Medieval Identity Machines, when I was wondering about wonder.
We write the best history when the specificity, the novelty, the awe-fulness, of what our sources render up bowls us over with its complexity and significance … Every view of things that is not wonderful is false.
-- Caroline Walker Bynum, "Wonder"
This intensive way of reading, in contact with what's outside the book, as a flow meeting other flows, one machine among others, as a series of experiments for each reader in the midst of events that have nothing to do with books, as tearing the book into pieces, getting it to interact with other things, absolutely anything … is reading with love.
-- Gilles Delueze, "Letter to a Harsh Critic" in Negotiations
We know its contours from biology textbooks, from the charts in the doctor's office and health reports, from Leonardo da Vinci's circumscription of its energetic form within the boundaries of a circle, from forensic outlines which trace the murdered dead. The human body consists, simply enough, of a torso to which are attached a head, two arms, and two legs. We have glimpsed this familiar body's insides through numerous technologies of visibility: anatomical diagrams, x-ray machines, magnetic resonance imaging, fiber optic scopes. We have viewed the organs in all their alien variety, synapses crackling their electrochemical language, architectural flourishes of bone, blood pulsing through tangled networks of arteries. We know the human body is divisible into semi-discreet systems (nervous, digestive, circulatory, excretory, reproductive), but that these structures nonetheless form a bounded whole, a singular organism. The human body is therefore described as a marvel of God or of evolution, a system so autonomous from its environment that it can dream theology and science in order to envision how it came to be the culminating creation in a world of similarly distinct bodies and objects.
Feminist critics have pointed out that the problem with this awestruck model of the body is that it elevates to universal status a fleshly form that presents itself as unmarked by sexual difference, but is in the end inherently and unthinkingly male. Queer theorists have demonstrated that this archetypal figure is synonymous with the heterosexual body, making it normalizing rather than normal. Postcolonial and critical race theory agree that the universal body universally carries the assumption of whiteness; only colored or ethnic bodies are inscribed with difference, which thereby becomes deviation. Scholars in the emerging discipline of disability studies have argued that this particular representation of the body is ablist. Not everyone has a body conforming to the dominating somatic ideal, and in contemporary culture the unhesitating response to that realization is often surgical, chemical, or institutional intervention.
This important line of feminist, queer, postcolonial, and disability studies criticism could be pushed even further. What if the body is more than its limbs, organs, and flesh as traced by an anatomical chart, as united into a finite whole? Microbiology, for example, describes the human body not as a self-sealed microcosm, but as a porous environment in which colonies of bacteria symbiotically enable digestion or poisonously invade wounds; in which tiny worm-like creatures contentedly inhabit the follicles of the eyebrows, oblivious to the emotions which traverse the face and animate their home; in which cells are semi-autonomous beings that communicate, labor, multiply, die. What if the body were conceived in other disciplines as likewise open and permeable? What if corporeality and subjectivity -- themselves inseparable -- potentially included both the social structures (kinship, nation, religion, race) and the phenomenal world (objects, gadgets, prostheses, animate and inanimate bodies of many kinds) across which human identity is spread? Suppose the wheelchair were not judged an enabling supplement to a defective form and instead hands, wheels, metal, plastic, and muscle were seen to form a loose, mutable, but powerful alliance which calls into being new possibilities for embodiment? Suppose the flesh were not some pregiven architecture, stubborn and inert, but were alive with flows of heat and cold, fluxes of phlegm and blood and choler which in their changing distributions connect the body to perturbations in the weather, the rising of the moon, the distant circuit of the stars? Donna Haraway propounded in her anti-technophobic "Cyborg Manifesto" that the body does not end at the culturally imposed limit of skin, but has seeped already into a diffuse material world. Contemporary theorists of identity tend to label this body "posthuman," implying that its challenge to the boundedness of the flesh is a possibility enabled only through a recent proliferation of technologies. As my conjunction of disabled, humoral and cybernetic bodies has already implied, however, medievalists have long known better.
When considered a finite object, the body tends to be analyzed only to discover a pregiven essence, a stability of being: how do its pieces fit together into a coherent whole? What are its secrets, its genetic destiny, its unchanging ontology? When bodies become sites of possibility, however, they are necessarily dispersed into something larger, something mutable and dynamic, a structure of alliance and becoming. Medieval Identity Machines takes its title in part from the opening salvo of the first collaborative work published by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, where through the neologism machines désirantes they envision just such a possible world. The Anti-Oedipus distributes bodiliness across a proliferation of "desiring-machines," decomposing the human and conjoining its fragments to particles organic and inorganic. I employ the admittedly odd conjunction of nouns "identity machine" to emphasize that the body, medieval and postmodern, becomes through these combinatory movements nonhuman, transformed via generative and boundary-breaking flux into unprecedented hybridities:
It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks … Everywhere it is machines -- real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections. An organ-machine is plugged into an energy-source machine: the one produces a flow that the other interrupts. The breast is a machine that produces milk, and the mouth a machine coupled to it … All the time, flows and interruptions. (Anti-Oedipus 1-2)
In this humming, pulsing, infinitely copulative vision, the body is a "schizo" and disharmonic concatenation of parts rather than a tidy collection of individuated systems and organs. Desiring-machines incessantly collide, combine, converge, combust, rendering bodies a perpetuum mobile of production and metamorphosis.
Fearing that the machines désirantes of The Anti-Oedipus had been taken to imply a reductively mechanistic conception of identity, Deleuze and Guattari deploy in that volume's sequel the synonym agencement ("assemblage"), emphasizing that their machines were always meant to be understood as nonteleological and non-functionalist, possessed of no foundational raison d'être and governed by no overarching principle of order (A Thousand Plateaus 4). I return to their discarded term machine in the hope that the noun is still capable of being haunted by its medieval ancestor, machina. As Mary Carruthers has made clear in her work on memory and cognition in the Middle Ages, whereas we moderns are likely to assume that "human" and "machine" are antonyms, self-sufficient categories laden with values irresolvably opposed, medieval culture possessed no such binarism: "their machines were fully human" (The Craft of Thought 22). The cosmos, the human body, knowledge and memorialization all consisted of machines. According to Gregory the Great the force of love (vis amoris) is a "machine of the mind" (machina mentis) capable of exalting the soul. Contemplation (contemplatio) and allegory (allegoria) are likewise machinae which propel identity out of somaticity. Whereas these Gregorian examples have faith in a singular selfhood that can be elevated and then lost to divine embrace, however, the identity machines detailed in this book fragment that same selfhood, scattering its particles across an intimate, animate, but inhuman world, frequently much to the surprise and against the best intentions of its medieval envisioner.
A first reading of Deleuze and Guattari's work is like walking into a room in which a lively conversation has been unfolding for quite some time. References seem obscure and partial, no one pauses long enough to bring the new arrival up to date. Yet the intensity of the speech engages, and after listening for a while patterns begin to emerge and concepts solidify. Charles Stivale has suggested that a reason Deleuze and Guattari's writing can seem so intimidating even in translation is that they frequently allude to authors, theorists, clinicians and philosophers not well known to North American audiences. Stivale explicates deleuzoguattarian thought by transposing its concepts onto a reading of Apocalypse Now, an innovative mapping which is nonetheless unlikely to make D&G seem any more relevant to the study of the Middle Ages. An immediate medieval analogue to Deleuze and Guattari's "machinic" or "rhizomatic" body is offered by humoral and astrological theory, both of which consider the human corpus to be aqueous, as susceptible to celestial pull as is the tempestuous sea. The moon radiates such penetrative force, writes Giraldus Cambrensis, that as its luminescence waxes, the oceans grow turgid, the marrow and brains of every living creature swell, arboreal sap rises in its flow (Topographia Hiberniae II.36). This pancosmic fluidity which mingles the human, animal, vegetal, and inorganic is strikingly visualized in the so-called "Zodiac Man" images common to fourteenth century medical treatises. As in contemporary medical charts, this obviously male body inscribes the supposedly ungendered category "human," but contrary to expectation does not grant this universalized form any stability of being. In a typical illustration from a manuscript now held at the Bibliothèque Nationale (BN MS lat. 11229, fol. 45r), a man's body is drawn with arms and legs in motion, long hair flowing towards his sides. This energetic form is encircled by concentric rings tracing the eternal whirl of the planets, machina universalis. Each celestial body is materially connected via a thin line of ink to one of the internal organs visible beneath the man's skin. The wheel of planets is surrounded by another rotating circle, the zodiac, populated not with stars but with animals (ram, fish, bull, lion), human bodies (twins, virgin, archer), even objects (scales). Each zodiacal sign within this outer circuit is in turn connected by a vivid line to its related planet, and then attached by yet another to whatever organ it permeates with astral force. This asymmetrical geometry of radiation and connection pull the human outside of itself, breaking its self-contained organization to disaggregate the body into pieces more intimate with stars and planets than with each other. Scorpio, for example, beams a line of influence directly to the figure's penis, then -- following the line back to its origin -- bounces that force into the wandering orb of bellicose Mars. Human desire, human sexuality, become inextricable from sidereal desire, celestial sexuality. Michael Camille points out that such depictions were used by barber-surgeons to determine the proper time to bleed the various regions of the body ("The Image and the Self" 67), a use which exactly captures the dual trajectory of such illustrations: on the one hand they aim to fix the body and render it knowable; on the other, through sheer proliferation of lines and arcs in perpetual motion, they acknowledge that there is something more to human form than can ever be captured by anthropomorphic representation.
Dissolving corporeality into an infinite rotation of concentric but self-interested forces, the Zodiac Man is in turn uncannily similar to the perpetual motion machines imagined by Villard de Honnecourt in the thirteenth century, wheels propelled into eternal spin through uneven mallets and quicksilver. In precise and beautiful renderings, Villard envisioned devices to harness the boundless energy of the cosmos, intersections of human labor with flows of wind, a rush of waters, hydraulic energies. Not every medieval inscription of body and universe was so grand. Whereas Augustine wondered what kind of machina God had employed to create the cosmos (Confessions XI.v.7), a late medieval manuscript illustrator wondered who was keeping the empyrean mechanism in motion now that it was complete. In a deflationary analogue to the awesomely self-propelled machina aetherea, this Provençal manuscript of the fourteenth century attaches the celestial circuits to hand cranks. Two angels labor at the device to ensure that the sky properly rotates. Likewise, the ostentatious Zodiac Man dispersed within his machine of nested circles is elsewhere inscribed more humbly as a star-marked body with the constellation of the scorpion in the place of his genitalia: a beastly rendering of a vitalistic, eroticized cosmos and a painful destabilization of the integrity of the masculine corpus.
Removed from that system of judgment so intent on organizing its parts into a well managed and diminutive unity, the body unravels. Ceasing to exist as a bounded organism, it becomes what the mad poet Antonin Artaud called a "body without organs" (corps sans organes), a resonant phrase which Deleuze glosses as "an affective, intensive, anarchist body that consists solely of poles, zones, thresholds, and gradients … traversed by a powerful, nonorganic vitality." A medieval counterpart to Artaud was the mad cosmographer Opicinus de Canistris, who conceived of his "body without organs" in minutely detailed pen drawings. In these amalgams of flesh, history and desire, continents become bodies which open up to divulge other bodies. Opicinus reveals within himself Africa, a woman, copulating with Europe, a man. His own pubic hair he maps as a distribution of European vineyards, while his constipation or farting predicts perturbations in the worldly order. In his breathtaking analysis of this cosmological self-inscription, Michael Camille writes that Opicinus "does not recognize where he ends and the universe outside begins," for "the boundaries of the self have become bound up with his remembered schemata for hieratic religious figures, complex geometrical diagrams, medical illustrations and above all maps" ("The Image and the Self" 88). Having lost his hold on his individuated, social, historical body -- fragmenting his body to reveal continents in the heat of sexual desire, transforming his flesh into a painful and ever expanding world-machine -- Opicinus de Canistris is only the most literal, most extreme version of homo signorum, Zodiac Man. I share Camille's affection for "crazy" bodies like those illustrated by Opicinus. Medieval Identity Machines argues that the body is likewise a site of unraveling and invention in medieval texts of numerous genres. The Middle Ages was fascinated by composite monsters like centaurs and griffins, as well as by corporal transformations like the Irish werewolves which intrigued Giraldus Cambrensis, the princess imprisoned in dragon's flesh described by Mandeville, the snake-woman Mélusine in the romance Huon de Bordeux. Such metamorphoses find inspiration in Ovid, the Roman poet of mutability who was obsessed by what might be called possible bodies, bodies whose seeming solidity melts, flows, resubstantiates into unexpected configurations that violate the sacred integrity of human somatic form. Yet the identity machines which possible bodies construct are not reserved to fantastic creatures and humans transformed into estranging flesh. Fabliaux grant the body an astonishing autonomy of organs. Le Débat du con et du cul stages a lively conversation between a vagina and its neighbor, the anus, while in Les Quatre sohais Saint Martin, pricks (vits) and cunts (cons) proliferate, transforming every inch of the dermis into an obscenely erogenous zone. There is something not quite human about these bodies, with their refusal to respect the boundaries that are supposed to limit their form and to emplace agency within a controlling and singular subjectivity, a soul. Even more surprising, however, is that this inhuman body can as easily be found in chansons de geste, romance, manuals of chivalry, hagiography, mystical revelation, scientific texts, crusading propaganda, history. The bodies which populate these medieval texts are discursively constructed in ways which are inescapably specific to histories behind their production and dissemination, serving particular and often readily identifiable cultural needs. This historical construction, however, never fully captures the flesh in all its possibility, especially as that body escapes the confines of somber individuality and connects itself via some "circuit of intensity" with other bodies, other worlds...
Medieval Identity Machines is a book of possible bodies. Its pages are populated by a warband of demons, who in their shared corporeality tempt a solitary saint to abandon his hermit's subjectivity; a perturbing flow of voice which separates itself from a woman's mouth to reverberate through churches and books, to join itself to thunderstorms, to catalyze new possibilities of community; the composite body formed by the passionate union of a knight with his horse; Saracens who wear masks in order to resemble themselves; masochists whose sexual perversion is not their self-abnegation but their passion for history. Although mainly concerned with England and its borders (and especially with how those borders were maintained), this book examines materials derived from a span of almost eight hundred years, journeying from the inner struggles of eighth century Mercia to the violence between Christians and Muslims over the Levant, from the literary explosion at the twelfth court of Champagne to a "boystows" cry arising from the mercantile port of Bishop's Lynn. What unites the disparate medieval bodies which Medieval Identity Machines collects is an insistence that subjectivity is always enfleshed; that human identity is -- despite the best efforts of those who possess it to assert otherwise -- unstable, contingent, hybrid, discontinuous; that the work of creating a human body is never finished; that gender, race, sexuality, and nation are essential but not sufficiently definitive components of this production; that sometimes the most fruitful approach to a body or a text is to stop asking "What is it?" and to start following Deleuze and Guattari's injunction to map what a body does ...
Medieval Identity Machines is, admittedly, a rather strange book. It prefaces an exploration of the queer mingling of man and animal in chivalry with a discussion of a renowned Anglo-Saxonist enjoying a naked nighttime swing. Chrétien de Troyes, putative first promulgator of courtly love, finds himself introduced by a happily married husband whose sexual performance depends upon a vividly imagined fantasy of castration by the biblical god Moloch. Margery Kempe, love-object extraordinaire of recent medieval studies, is analyzed not to discover her repressed voice but because that voice is thunder, a storm, the sound of a Hebrew God. The Middle Ages is read as a period no longer innocent of race. Celibacy becomes a kind of colonialism. A fascination with monsters and perversity, and bodily fluids recurs throughout. I cannot argue that these chapters provide a truer Middle Ages, since I do not think we can ever really know -- and that we do a reductive violence in trying to formulate -- what the truth of such a vast geography and time period might be. Yet I do believe that these pages offer a more copious Middle Ages than some previous accounts, one that grants an irreducible complexity to the cultural moments which it explores, as well as one that, I hope, conveys some of the enjoyment I have felt in applying Caroline Walker Bynum's dictum "Every view of things that is not wonderful is false."