Friday, July 06, 2007

Cynocephali, Animal Savagery, and Terror

Don't miss the vibrant tools discussion below. Go there first if you haven't already, and then, if you like, enjoy this long post for/over the weekend.

Sometime before 865, Ratramnus of Corbie wrote his Epistola de Cynocephalis, a teratologic work remarkable for focusing on only a single type of creature and for eschewing moralization. In essence, its concern is whether Cynocephali merit evangelization, not whether they, for example, represent backbiting. Following the Augustinian criteria of City of God XVI.8, the letter asserts that the Cynocephali are descended from Adam and hence human, but it doesn't stop here. The rest of letter compiles a Cynocephalic ethnography, muses in an Isidoran fashion on portents, and, finally, demonstrates incontrovertibly that these creatures possess reason.

Understandably, Ratramnus first handles the Cynocephalic voice and form:
forma capitis et latratus canum non hominibus, sed bestiis similes ostendit. Hominum denique est rotundo vertice caelum conspicere, canum vero longo capite rostroque deducto terram intueri, et homines loquuntur, canes vero latrant. (155: 24-27)

the form of their heads and their canine barking shows that they are similar not to humans but to animals. In fact, the heads of humans are on top and round in order for them to see the heavens, while those of dogs are long and drawn out in a snout so that they can look at the ground. And humans speak, while dogs bark.
But he raises these points only to counter them with a list of behaviors that argue for Cynocephalic humanity. That the Cynocephali live together in towns and engage in agriculture, that they evidence modesty by wearing clothing, and that they live together under a law, “Haec enim omnia rationalem quodammodo testificari videntur eis inesse animam” (155: 34-35; all these things seem to demonstrate that some kind of rational soul is in them). Ratramnus also observes that, “Homo vero a bestiis ratione tantummodo discernitur. Quae quod videtur inesse his de quibus loquimur, homines potius quam bestiae deputandi videntur” (156: 13-14; humans can be distinguished from beasts only by reason. From these things, a rational soul would seem to be in those of which we speak; they would seem to be regarded as humans rather than beasts). Ratramnus asserts that anyone who doubts the link between these behaviors and reason must himself lack reason (156: 9).

Ratramnus can't seem, however, to convince himself. Uncertainty pervades his letter, perhaps most evidently in its frequent use of videri (to seem): “videntur eis inesse animam,” “videtur inesse his,” “homines...videntur.” At this stage of his letter all Ratramnus allows, and that tentatively, is the possibility of Cynocephalic humanity, but neither the behavior he has cited nor the teratologic traditions of Christopher and monstrous births to which he next refers provide him with any definitive conclusions. It is only with his final point that Ratramnus at last transforms the uncertain videri to the active, confident videre (to consider or to see):
Accedit ad haec, quod scripta vestra testantur, domesticorum omne genus animalium, quae nostris in regionibus habentur, apud illos haberi. Hoc vero fieri posse, si bestialem et non rationalem animam haberent, nequaquam video; siquidem homini animantia terrae fuisse divinitus subjecta Geneseos lectione cognoscimus. Ut vero bestiae alterius a se generis animantia, et maxime domestici generis, curent et eis diligentiam adhibeant suisque cogant imperiis subjacere et usibus parere, sicut nec auditum ita nec creditum cognoscitur. (157: 10-15, my emphasis)

It is added to these things to which your letter bears witness that all the kinds of domesticated animals that are managed in our regions are managed among them. I consider that this could not be if they had a bestial and not a rational soul, since the living things of the earth were subjected to men by heaven, as we know from having read Genesis. But it has never been heard or believed that animals of one kind can by themselves take care of other animals, especially those of a domestic kind, keep them, compel them to submit to their rule, and follow regular routines.
Ratramnus takes three steps to establish these creatures as human and thus worthy of a missionary effort or, at least, to make them signal the necessary breadth of missionary activity: he silently eliminates their anthropophagy (a usual trait in the teratologic tradition on Cynocephali); he gives them agriculture, shame, clothing, and other human cultural characteristics; above all, he makes them keepers of domestic animals. Ratramnus defines the subjugation of these animals with a clause, “suis cogant imperiis subjacere,” crammed with three synonyms for command. It is this total assurance that confers humanity upon its actors: humans must monopolize dominion over animals if they are to claim human identity through it. With such a reckoning, Ratramnus has no need to account for the partially animal bodies of Cynocephali or their barking: his determination of the Cynocephalic relationship to animals dissipates any counterargument.

Something nevertheless continues to trouble Ratramnus. He adds that, “At vero Cenocephali, cum domesticorum animalium dicuntur habere multitudinem, eis minime convenit bestialis feritas, quorum animalia domestica lenitate mansuefiunt” (157: 15-18; but since the Cynocephali are said to possess a multitude of domestic animals, then animal savagery does not fit them because they tame their domestic animals gently). In characterizing the violence in which the Cynocephali supposedly do not engage with two words meaning “beast,” Ratramnus evokes a moral tradition that associated ferocity with animals: for example, Ambrose’s Hexaemeron VI.3.10 cautions, “If you revel in ferocity, the dominant trait of savage beasts for which reason they are slain, see that you, too, may not become a victim of your own atrocious cruelty.” The moral context cannot, however, exhaust the significance of Cynocephalic gentleness. It must be recognized that bestiae are, in a way, only animalia that refuse the humiliation of domestication, and that domestication cannot be enacted without some kind of subjugation. Nor, given the evidence of Ratramnus’s letter, can the subjugation of the Cynocephali be readily understood as gentle: the Cynocephali wear hides (presumably animal), and the excessiveness of the clause “suis cogant imperiis subjacere” strongly suggests that the Cynocephali master their animals at least through a monopolization of violence. It may be said that they dominate their animals gently, but no animal could ever resist their gentle regime. Ratramnus has not, then, purged his Cynocephali of violence: he has preserved its aspects of mastery for his newly born humans while imperfectly displacing the violence away from its enactors and onto its victims.

Today, I found myself reading Žižek in my study's hideous chair, where I ran across a passage that inspired me to repurpose more of my material on Cynocephali in what, I have to warn you, is going to be more of the same compounded by low-rent Žižekianism. In another discussion on "obscene enjoyment," this time in The Parallax View, Žižek characterizes the torture at Abu Ghraib as "a clash between anonymous brutal torture [i.e., that of S. Hussein's government] and torture as a mediatic spectacle in which the victims' bodies serve as the anonymous background for the stupidly smiling 'innocent American' faces of the torturers themselves" (372) through which the Iraqi victims become initiated into American culture in all its obscene excess; they simultaneously experienced American personal freedom and the outsourcing of torment that sustains it. Towards the end of the discussion, Žižek contrasts the Cold War to the War on Terror (and let's put aside whether his historical contrast works: I'm not so sure it does), where he observes, "The power which presents itself as being under threat all the time, living in mortal danger, and thus merely defending itself, is the most dangerous kind of power, the very model of Nietzchean ressentiment and moralistic hypocrisy" (373).

We have seen the response to the terrorist threat from enemies portrayed as religious fanatics, misogynists, and torturers; the appropriate response, at least so far as the Right is concerned, is to become religiously fanatic, misogynist, and to torture (a common point, available in many places, for example here; there's also Amanda Marcotte's observation that "When conservatives say, 'Freedom isn’t free,' they seem to mean that it exacts a price, but perhaps a more accurate translation would be, 'Freedom is slavery'). As you might expect me to do (and by anticipating your anticipation, I of course promise my secret possession of more thought on the matter than you see here: in other words, "as you might expect me to do" is a profoundly dishonest thing to say, and if I go any further, I won't get out)...okay, as you might expect me to do, I observe that the Cynocephali, despite Ratramnus's testimony, themselves must engage in animal savagery to keep their animals domesticated. They must, because animals are, now per Ratramnus's testimony, by their nature savage. One can hardly blame the Cynocephali, then, for what they must do (although Ratramnus implicitly blames them by declaring that they in fact don't do what we know they must do).

The low-rent Žižekianism follows. In this sense, then, the Cynocephalic body is the image of the constitutive excess of humanity, the 'bestial' acts--subjugation, carnivorousness--in which it must engage to distinguish itself from animals. Simply because of their bodies, the Cynocephali cannot help but act bestially; but they should not be thought other because of this. They are rather the desublimated form of the conflict internal to human identity. At least so long as it's a humanity defined by difference to animals (and I'm becoming increasingly uncertain that that's the only way to do it), there is no way to be human without being bestial.

I think I've hit the end of my tether, at least so long as I'm starting from where I do. I'm ready to try something different or, at least, to push Ratramnus and the Cynocephali to do something different (at least so long as we don't lose animality by reading them as disguised Saracens, which is the usual--and I should say productive--way to study Cynocephali): but I've no idea where to take it.


The letter, which survives in a single eleventh-century manuscript, is available in PL 121: 1153-56; Ernst Dümmler, ed., Epistolae variorum 12, Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Epistolae 6. (Berlin: 1925), 155-57 (quotations derive from, and are keyed to, this edition); and, in translation, in Paul Edward Dutton, ed., Carolingian Civilization: A Reader, 2nd ed., Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures 1 (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2004). My translations mostly follow Dutton.

Note that a few other writers, all Greek, also remark on Cynocephalic animal husbandry; see Claude Lecouteux, "Les Cynocéphales: Étude d'une tradition tératologique de l'Antiquité au XIIe s." Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 24 (1981): 117-29, at 118, for Cynocephalic husbandry in Ctesias of Cnidus (5th-4th century BCE) and Aelian (1st-2nd century CE); at greater length, see Lecouteux, Monstres dans la littérature allemande, 21, who translates (from Greek into French) a medieval witness to Ctesias in a letter of Photios, a late ninth-century Patriarch of Constantinople.

Cartoon from Momma, by Mell Lazarus, Oct 31 2006, discovered through Comics Curmudgeon, which I love.


Adam Roberts said...

A couple of things. Firstly, as to your study's "hideous chair". Perhaps it is hideous, perhaps not. It's not possible to say from that photo, since the chair is entirely covered by that splendid throw.

Secondly, I'm confused by your savagery/ civilisation premise. To summarise: the cynocephali are kinda human, but they're also kinda beast; and the mark of the beast is savagery; but the very signs of their civilisation (domesticated animals, say; clothing) are also actually, when you think about it, marks of savagery (because domesticating animals involves being violent to the animals; and wearing animal hides involves skinning animals, which is most unpleasant to the animals themselves. Apologies if this is a mis-summary of what you say, but I don't see how it separates out the cynocephalic violence from human violence. Doesn't the human wearing of animals hides, and the human domestication of other animals, also involve this savagery? I appreciate that you’re arguing that one aspect of the semiology of the cynocephali is that “there is no way to be human without being bestial”; but I don’t see why you can’t just as well put that sentence the other way around.

Your whole argument depends (doesn't it?) on the premise that 'humanity' is defined in a kind of block opposition to 'animality'. You know the medievals infinitely better than I, but is this really the case? It certainly reads oddly, with the slight whiff of anachronism, after your careful account of Ratramnus and Augustine for whom the salient is not animals/human, but 'raticinatio', thinking and speaking versus non-thinking and unspeaking. Doesn't the extensive medieval habit of taking animals as types of human qualities rather suggest that there wasn't a totalising 'animal' quality at work in their thought processes? So, a lynx might have very good eyesight; but if a person has very good eyesight and everybody calls him ‘lynx-eyed’ then that doesn't bestialise him ... does it? Does calling someone 'strong as an ox', 'swift as a horse', 'cunning as a fox' amount to describing them as beasts? Surely not. Arnold Strong may share strength with the ox, but he has a rational mind that the ox lacks; the addition of his ox-like strength to that rationality is all bonus. Isn’t it?

It seems to me that you're reading cynocephali the way some contemporary cultural theorists read werewolves and vampires; as a sort of imaginative wish-fulfilment by which we burst the bonds of Civilisation and its Discontents, allowing us, even if only in fantasy, to give free rein to our subconscious violent and sexual urges. But an alternative reading of the cynocephali suggests itself to me. As the lynx is far-sighted and the ox is strong so the dog is … what? Surely not ‘bestial’, not compared to, say, the bear, the hyena, the rat. Then what? I’d say the crucial thing about dogs is that they are cooperative and social animals, and that it is precisely because they are such that they integrate so well with human social cooperatives. We don’t generally domesticate bears, after all. Talking about dogheads who have domesticated animals sounds right because dogs and domestication already occupy the same semantic field. Man’s best friend, not man’s more bestial embodiment.

So your low-rent Zizeking

"the Cynocephalic body is the image of the constitutive excess of humanity, the 'bestial' acts--subjugation, carnivorousness--in which it must engage to distinguish itself from animals. Simply because of their bodies, the Cynocephali cannot help but act bestially; but they should not be thought other because of this. They are rather the desublimated form of the conflict internal to human identity"

…might just as well be phrased …

"the Cynocephalic body is an emblematisation of the notion that ‘humanising’ social negotiation and order is so central to God’s cosmos (expressing as it does his core commands to love one’s neighbour as oneself) that it extends beyond the strictly human and can be seen in the social determination of the these otherwise 'bestial' creatures—social living, cooperation, conversation. Like us (only more so), the Cynocephali are tethered to a fundamentally bestial body; but this only gives them the possibility of greater triumph in overcoming this bestiality. They are the phantasmic intensifications of a widespread medieval apperception; that in the words of the Katherine Hepburn character in The African Queen “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above”.

Apologies for the sprawly-long comment. I’ll revise it for a second draft and reduce the word limit substantially; maybe by cutting my first paragraph there and replacing it with: ‘Dude! Your chair sucks!”

Adam Roberts said...

Now I'm worrying that I've missed the point of your post, and done so in an unforgiveably prolix way.

I'll summarise: the impression I get is that you take the cynocephali to be creatures rather like the beast-men in Wells's Doctor Moreau ... but I'm really not sure that they are.

Adam Roberts said...

Oh, and one final thing: woof! woof-woof! woof!

sylvia huot said...

If the Cynocephalics are human, then they are descended from Adam, so they are marked by Original Sin, but also included in Salvation. Thus, like all those creatures who are included as 'humanity', they are capable of sin (indeed, probably incapable of not sinning) but also penance; they have access to Grace and Redemption but are also subject to eternal damnation. Presumably this capacity for sin and damnation is different from the kind of ferocity and bestiality that the Cynocephalics and all other rational creatures are (supposedly at least) separated from, since Christian theology (at least the Augustinian kind) surely does not imagine animals as going to either hell or heaven or as having immortal souls, or as needing missionaries to preach the Gospel to them. On the other hand, it is also my understanding that animals, along with the whole of Nature, actually are also affected by Original Sin. But surely not in the same way people are?

So my question is, how does all this fit together? Does the hardened sinner degenerate into animal ferocity, or is human sin always something entirely different? I'd guess that angelic sin is the worst (an angel--Lucifer--invented sin ex nihilo), human sin is the next worst (mimetic creatures that we are, we followed suit and corrupted the sublunar world with Original Sin), and animal bestiality is morally neutral (they're just the innocent victims of that chain of sin created by rational beings). I know Aquinas discusses this in his efforts to define sin as 'unnatural' because animals don't do it, while also acknowledging that the best things humans do, such as language and religious worship, are actually also 'unnatural' because animals don't do any of that, either. He finds a way to define the difference, but I can't remember now how he does it.

How then can we understand the role that this seems to define for animals? And what unacknowledged human anxieties are being assuaged by the reassuring belief that if there are creatures that distinguish themselves from the animals by their ability to 'dominate' them, then they must perforce be ethical beings, rational, in need of missionary care, because they are souls that can be saved--because they must ultimately be related to us?

Karl Steel said...

Now I'm worrying that I've missed the point of your post, and done so in an unforgiveably prolix way.

No, no, no. Hardly unforgivable! And I don't think you missed the point. There are multiple ways of conceptualizing the relationship of humans and animals available in medieval texts and practices, some of which even allowed for multiple ways of apprehending humans and for understanding animals according to their individual species characteristics. Knights are often described as strong as boars, brave as lions, and so forth. And the comparison generally (but not always: see the Knight's Tale) redounds to the benefit of the animal without animalizing (at least not in a negative way) the knight. Then there's also the way that animals, humans, and even inanimate objects interpenetrate one another to form various X-machines, most notably, the chivalry machine (for more on this deleuzoguattarian reading I direct you to Jeffrey's Medieval Identity Machines, Chapter 3 I think).

That said--and this is the centerpoint of my diss's argument--when push came to shove, humans always won out. And while reason matters a great deal, I argue that the human domination of animals had a great deal (and sometimes everything, when I'm feeling feisty), with the human claim to uniquely possess reason. One thing I've observed, for example, is that the proof of the human possession of reason, even for Augustine, often comes down to who dominates whom (Augustine does this in On Free Will almost as an aside).

Nonetheless, none of this makes your reading impossible! Or unforgivable! Or unwelcome! Quite the opposite (except for the forgiveness part, since that doesn't even enter into all this). I think I've been hyper reductive in my approach to animals, which causes all kinds of trouble with the lived experience of humans and animals. In part, that's the explanation of the end of my tether comment. I haven't yet (quite) defended my dissertation, and I already think its central argument is a bit shopworn....But it isn't always life or death (or is it?).

Now, I love the connection between dogs, cooperation, domestication, and Cynocephali. At the same time, I have to remember that Ratramnus's argument is quite peculiar, at least so far as the Cynocephali were concerned. More often than not, they were anthropophagous, and that complicates the whole domesticity reading!

Complicates, I should say, but does not make impossible. In fact, that's maybe the direction we should take this thing, since Ratramnus certainly knew the praise of dogs in Isidore and Ambrose and possibly in his almost exact contemporary Rabanus Maurus.

As for the chair: oh, the throw, with its stars, moon, comets, and the murky orange that was so popular in the 70s, well, it just adds to the effect of its hideousness. But the chair doesn't suck! It's the most comfortable seat in the house; but we just have to hide it in the study because, you know, it frightens our guests. And my wife, mainly.

Karl Steel said...

Does the hardened sinner degenerate into animal ferocity, or is human sin always something entirely different?

Brief answer--which is all I have in me right now--is that, more's the pity, it's entirely different, since a human can never lose the immortal soul and so lose the possibility of suffering eternally. An animal after all comes to nothing regardless of how 'wicked' it has been (e.g., Helinand of Froidmont, Les Vers de la Mort, Stanza 35, "Mais certes, s’il n’est autre vie, / Entre ame a homme et ame a truie / N’a donques point de diference” (But certainly if there is no other life then there's no difference at all between the soul of a man and the soul of a sow). At best, an animal can receive a kind of Christian burial (there's Bevis's horse, and also, among other stories, the common one of a priest who bribes his superior to let him bury his dog in the church cemetery; the superior demurs until the priest produces money to show that the dog had provided for itself).

And what unacknowledged human anxieties are being assuaged by the reassuring belief that if there are creatures that distinguish themselves from the animals by their ability to 'dominate' them, then they must perforce be ethical beings, rational, in need of missionary care, because they are souls that can be saved--because they must ultimately be related to us?

An excellent question! I'll shoot for an answer tomorrow, but maybe someone else will be happy to handle it in the meanwhile?

Gavin Robinson said...

Where does war fit into this? Maybe someone's mentioned it before but I haven't had time to read all the animal threads. War is notoriously difficult to define, but it's generally thought to be uniquely human - something more than just violence. Does Ratramnus say whether Cynocephali have wars? How does that affect their claim to humanity?

Karl Steel said...

Where does war fit into this?

Also a good question. Ratramnus says nothing about Cynocephali and wars, but centuries later (or perhaps earlier, depending on his sources), the Cynocephali of John Mandeville are great warriors:

"After that isle men go by the sea ocean, by many isles, unto an isle that is clept Nacumera, that is a great isle and good and fair. And it is in compass about, more than a thousand mile. And all the men and women of that isle have hounds' heads, and they be clept Cynocephales. And they be full reasonable and of good understanding, save that they worship an ox for their God. And also every one of them beareth an ox of gold or of silver in his forehead, in token that they love well their God. And they go all naked save a little clout, that they cover with their knees and their members. They be great folk and well-fighting. And they have a great targe that covereth all the body, and a spear in their hand to fight with. And if they take any man in battle, anon they eat him.

The king of that isle is full rich and full mighty and right devout after his law. And he hath about his neck 300 pearls orient, good and great and knotted, as paternosters here of amber. And in manner as we say our PATER NOSTER and our AVE MARIA, counting the PATER NOSTERS, right so this king saith every day devoutly 300 prayers to his God, or that he eat. And he beareth also about his neck a ruby orient, noble and fine, that is a foot of length and five fingers large. And, when they choose their king, they take him that ruby to bear in his hand; and so they lead him, riding all about the city. And from thence-fromward they be all obeissant to him. And that ruby he shall bear always about his neck, for if he had not that ruby upon him men would not hold him for king. The great Chan of Cathay hath greatly coveted that ruby, but he might never have it for war, ne for no manner of goods. This king is so rightful and of equity in his dooms, that men may go sikerly throughout all his country and bear with them what them list; that no man shall be hardy to rob them, and if he were, the king would justified anon."

Now, another question here would be what counts as war. Monsters fight with people all the time, whether individually (dragons, unicorns, griffins, giants, Grendel), or in big groups (Alexander romance, passim or, my favorite, the various monsters in Herzog Ernst). Are these wars? Certainly in Ernst, but perhaps not always?

Some monsters--shall we say species in this case?--even play at war: the fish-knights in Perceforest harass a stranded knight by compelling him to tournament (can I verb that?) with them. Does this make them human? I don't think so...but I should say, too, that I don't think I can put that question to every work. In other words, while self-willed martial violence might be thought uniquely human, not every story is concerned with what makes a human. Some are just (just) interested in wonder. I can push at them to make them confess what they think humans are, and I rather enjoy that, but I don't want to do that to excess (fat chance!)....

And even if we think self-willed martial violence uniquely human, I wonder what we would do with this or its exegesis (which I don't know, but which you might, Gavin, with your work on cavalry charges...longshot, but perhaps you've checked it out?):

19 Wilt thou give strength to the horse, or clothe his neck with neighing? 20 Wilt thou lift him up like the locusts? the glory of his nostrils is terror. 21 He breaketh up the earth with his hoof, he pranceth boldly, he goeth forward to meet armed men. 22 He despiseth fear, he turneth not his back to the sword, 23 Above him shall the quiver rattle, the spear and shield shall glitter. 24 Chasing and raging he swalloweth the ground, neither doth he make account when the noise of the trumpet soundeth. 25 When he heareth the trumpet he saith: Ha, ha: he smelleth the battle afar off, the encouraging of the captains, and the shouting of the army.


Another approach to R's Cynocephali is through the Golden Age. I wonder if in describing the minimum boundary of humanity he's also setting the Cynocephali in the distant past.


Still don't have an answer to the 'ethical beings' question...


RE: my comment on Cynocephali and Saracens. When does frenetic anti-Saracenism (?) begin to show itself in the West (yes, I know: bear with me on the "West"). I think Adamar of Chabannes, who's writing around 1000, and the anti-hagiography of Embrico of Mainz (although he's 12th c.), and then the Song of Roland (with, according to the Wikipedia, Roland's defeat being "common knowledge" in the middle of the 9th century). What I'm getting at here: does Ratramnus represent another way of thinking about Cynocephali that was, er, choked out by discourses of anti-Saracenism?

Although I'm far from knowledgeable on this, I'm going to suggest that I'm off base...we're in the middle of the 9th century, so we're roughly 140 years before the first (?) great anti-Saracen screed in

Karl Steel said...

Although I'm far from knowledgeable on this, I'm going to suggest that I'm off base...we're in the middle of the 9th century, so we're roughly 140 years before the first (?) great anti-Saracen screed in

Er, ignore the vestigial paragraph.

Adam: you want prolix? I'll give you prolix.

Adam Roberts said...

"Adam: you want prolix? I'll give you prolix."

Hey! We could have a prolix-off, decide on a champion once and for all ...

Eileen Joy said...

A few random & scattered thoughts in response to various points raised in Karl's original post and this thread:

1. as regards low-rent Zizek or any Zizek at all, I think I am starting to be weary [and wary] of . . . Zizek, especially after reading his contribution to "The Neighbor: Three Essays in Political Theology" and also "The Parallex View," which I have just been reading in fits and starts since about March or so [although, *okay*, I did love his thoughts on Cuaron's "Children of Men" and "Welcome to the Desert of the Real!" is one of my favorite books]. I'm not sure I want to know Zizek's opinion, though, on the U.S. torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib [and other locations], perhaps because, in the Abu Ghraib case at least, I don't think Susan Sontag's essay, "Regarding the Torture of Others," can be bested. To whit:

"Looking at these photographs, you ask yourself, How can someone grin at the sufferings and humiliation of another human being? Set guard dogs at the genitals and legs of cowering naked prisoners? Force shackled, hooded prisoners to masturbate or simulate oral sex with one another? And you feel naive for asking, since the answer is, self-evidently, People do these things to other people. Rape and pain inflicted on the genitals are among the most common forms of torture. Not just in Nazi concentration camps and in Abu Ghraib when it was run by Saddam Hussein. Americans, too, have done and do them when they are told, or made to feel, that those over whom they have absolute power deserve to be humiliated, tormented. They do them when they are led to believe that the people they are torturing belong to an inferior race or religion. For the meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators apparently had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show.

Even more appalling, since the pictures were meant to be circulated and seen by many people: it was all fun. And this idea of fun is, alas, more and more - contrary to what President Bush is telling the world - part of "the true nature and heart of America." It is hard to measure the increasing acceptance of brutality in American life, but its evidence is everywhere, starting with the video games of killing that are a principal entertainment of boys - can the video game "Interrogating the Terrorists" really be far behind? - and on to the violence that has become endemic in the group rites of youth on an exuberant kick. Violent crime is down, yet the easy delight taken in violence seems to have grown. From the harsh torments inflicted on incoming students in many American suburban high schools - depicted in Richard Linklater's 1993 film, "Dazed and Confused" - to the hazing rituals of physical brutality and sexual humiliation in college fraternities and on sports teams, America has become a country in which the fantasies and the practice of violence are seen as good entertainment, fun."

There is also the idea that, at Abu Ghraib, as Sontag writes, "The events are in part designed to be photographed. The grin is a grin for the camera. There would be something missing if, after stacking the naked men, you couldn't take a picture of them."

So, when Zizek writes that the victims of abuse at Abu Ghraib "simultaneously experienced American personal freedom and the outsourcing of torment that sustains it," I don't quite understand him: how does the outsourcing of torture "sustain" our personal freedom? There is no correlation whatsoever; rather, the torture itself is simply one more obscene act in what has become the obscene global performance of American "personal freedom" [in this sense, it participates in a kind of mannerist decadence that has become de rigeur in American culture while it is also simultaneously "allowed" by those forces of justice that normally should be expected to constrain such obscene cruelty: the US Dept. of Justice, Supreme Court, etc.], and what is distinctly "American" about Abu Ghraib was already described by Daniel Boorstin in the 1970s: the unphotographed/undocumented life is not worth living. The outsourcing of torture does not *sustain* my "way of life"-if anything, it undermines it and makes it more vulnerable to attack, to a darker ressentiment.

Having said all that, I'm also not comfortable with drawing a parallel between the *real* torturers at Abu Ghraib and the fictional Cynocephali of medieval literature. Although I myself am a shameless presentist, I just don't think this analogy is appropriate if we are interested in better understanding the so-called "bestiality" that limns so-called "human" nature. Although, yes, I would agree that, as Karl puts it, "subjugation" and "carnivorousness" have, historically, played critical roles in the long-term project of defining the human against the non-human, but there are also many, many discourses that, historically, have sought to define the human by completely different and less violent, less death-haunted, less selfish, less "human self"-centered routes. And I think we should also pause to reflect how certain animal species have *also* defined themselves through subjugation and carnivorousness, which brings me to:

2. Gavin Robinson's question about war possibly being uniquely human. Indeed, it is not [although manufacturing guns and tanks for the facilitation of war might be]. Look no further than Richard Wrangham's classic study, "Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence" [Boston, 1996], in which he describes some pretty well-organized "wars" between chimpanzee tribes in Uganda. Look also to Konrad Lorenz's "On Aggression" for delightful stories about intra-species violence in rats, pigeons and even fish.

3. As to Sylvia H.'s question,

"And what unacknowledged human anxieties are being assuaged by the reassuring belief that if there are creatures that distinguish themselves from the animals by their ability to 'dominate' them, then they must perforce be ethical beings, rational, in need of missionary care, because they are souls that can be saved--because they must ultimately be related to us?"

I guess I would go back to Augustine and "De civitate dei," where he writes in Book XII, that unlike all of the other creatures and animals, God chose to create man from one individual, “not certainly, that he might be a solitary bereft of society, but that by this means the unity of society and the bond of concord might be more effectually commended to him, men being bound together not only by similarity of nature, but by family affection."

So, while God chose to create animals one species at a time, in pairs [such that each "tribe" of animals is distinct from every other "tribe" of animals and also possesses, I guess, divergent genetic possibilities], humans have a special status and also, we can suppose, bear a special debt to each other out of "familial" affection. So, in Augustine's view, anyway, animals are *not* "related to us," but by virtue of having been created by God, possess a special status of some sort [are blessed in some respect, perhaps also capable of grace?]. Just a thought.

4. Ultimately, Karl, I'm afraid "savagery" isn't going to work for me as a descriptor for "sorting out" the human-animal conundrum. Certainly, the "human" has historically defined itself against the "animal" while also appropriating a violence often believed to be "bestial" in order to gird itself against encroachment. But in this respect, the "human" is like the "boar" or the "lion" [etc.]--by whatever means necessary, it will claim and defend a certain territory for itself, especially when it comes to sex, food, property, and certain familial alignments. If the human is anything "special" [and of course it is] it has merely devised the most sophisticated means possible to do so.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for your comment EJ.

I should look at the Sontag essay, but I have to say I'm dubious about statements like this, America has become a country in which the fantasies and the practice of violence are seen as good entertainment, fun. Too cheery a picture of the past, I should say. Yes, kids in the past didn't have sanguinous video games, but lord knows narratives of violence have never not been popular. And given the public spectacle of lynching or right wing (even mainstream) enthusiasm for Reagan busting heads at Berkeley, well, I don't want to see Abu Ghraib as a break. It's a continuation.

My problem with Zizek's reading of Abu Ghraib is, rather, his faulty research. TPV is upstairs and I don't feel like getting it right now, but I do have the Desert Book here, where he makes a similar argument, namely, "Nazi discourse operated on two levels, that the level of explicit statements was supplemented by an obscene unacknowledged underside" (106). For Zizek, Abu Ghraib is like this because, as he assumes, there was no actual order to torture; the obscene supplement is what is done, what must be done, but which cannot/must not be documented (and you, if you want to play Slavoj, can extend the metaphor to all manner of psychological structures). Except that Rumsfeld did issue written authorization for torture.

So, when Zizek writes that the victims of abuse at Abu Ghraib "simultaneously experienced American personal freedom and the outsourcing of torment that sustains it,"

That's not SZ; that's me, paraphrasing. If you have the book on hand, you may want to check my paraphrase, as SZ makes for rather a slippery place to stand when making a paraphrase. In terms of how "the outsourcing of torture "sustain" our personal freedom," I'm thinking in terms of the 'American way of life' being sustained by violence, horrific injustice, &c, of the American prison system, the extraction of resources from the 'Global South' (which I should stress is also internal to the US, given migrant labor), and all that stuff that I don't need to summarize. The point is, I suppose according to the central argument of TPV, that this violence is not a kink that needs to be ironed out of American freedom, but rather that its a constitutive feature. In a sense, standing in Abu Ghraib shifts the view on America, shall we say anamorphically (borrowing a word from S. Huot). We can't at once see our freedoms and Abu Ghraib, but one nonetheless means the other.

Do I believe that it has to be this way? Not sure. I suppose that's part of the reason that I'm trying to figure out some of the many, many discourses that, historically, have sought to define the human by completely different and less violent, less death-haunted, less selfish, less "human self"-centered routes. But I do believe that the shifting of the violence of domestiation on to the beasts themselves is structurally analogous to what SZ observes about Abu Ghraib. And I do agree with you here, that so long as the human defines itself against the homogeneous 'animal,' then the humna has merely devised the most sophisticated means possible to do so.

I know this isn't satisfactory, not yet, but I'm just about to take a long walk to the movies to watch the Edith Piaf movie and probably cry my wee little eyes out. Her music kills me. So I have to stop here until tomorrow.

Karl Steel said...

How about this: is this just a low-rent version of Benjamin's 'There is no cultural document that is not at the same time a record of barbarism'...but I have to remember that even Benjamin loved his library.

Gavin Robinson said...

Karl: I hadn't seen that quote because I'm embarrassingly ignorant about the bible, but it looks really interesting. It adds a bit more support to my hypothesis (which might not be original) that war horses were imagined as active participants in combat rather than as tools to be used by humans.

Eileen: like I said, war is notoriously difficult to define. Violence isn't unique to humans, and neither is organised group violence. The only definite thing I can say about "war" is that it's an arbitrary concept invented by humans. By some definitions, animal behaviour can meet the criteria for war, and by other definitions war is implicitly something only humans can do. Therefore there can't be any definite answer to the question "do animals have war?" but people's answers to that question might tell us something about their attitude to the relationship between the human and the non-human. These days it seems that many (most?) people believe that war is uniquely human, but was that always the case?

Anthropocentric thought tends to emphasise the ways that humans are supposedly better than animals (language, rationality, religion etc) but war arguably makes humans worse than animals.

I'd also take issue with Susan Sontag over her lazy and ignorant comments about computer games. This is just the sort of prejudice that us people who know about and like gaming have to put up with from people who don't know about it/don't like it. It's a major fallacy that gaming is only for boys, and qualifying that by saying violent games are only for boys isn't much better. In most contexts she wouldn't get away with that kind of crude gender stereotyping, but it still seems to be acceptable when you're talking about gaming.

As Karl said, violence in American (or any other) culture is nothing new. We should be suspicious of conservatives who use computer games as a scapegoat and give us the myth of some former golden age when there was no crime.

sylvia huot said...

Karl said: "I should look at the Sontag essay, but I have to say I'm dubious about statements like this, America has become a country in which the fantasies and the practice of violence are seen as good entertainment, fun. Too cheery a picture of the past, I should say."

I agree. Who are we kidding? America is a country that was born and built up out of slavery, genocide, and other forms of violence that were always very public and very well known to all.

It's intriguing to think of Abu Ghraib (and all the rest) in anamorphic relation to 'liberty and justice for all'.

If you accept the idea that the Iraq war was about getting cheap oil (not that it's worked out that way so far) and ensuring American hegemony (ditto, perhaps?) then the abuses at Abu Ghraib ARE part of what sustains that American way of life back home. That's not to say that all Americans want it to be that way; far from it. But just as we read Jane Austen's novels against the backdrop of British global imperialism, so with modern America.

I haven't read the Zizek book, however, so my comments aren't directed towards either supporting or attacking him.

This does feed back into all the questions about humanity vs. animality. No one could claim that the thing that makes us human is that we don't commit acts of violence or inflict pain on others or take advantage of them. What makes us human is the different way that we do all that and the different way that it impacts back upon us. I think that would be true both in a modern context and in a medieval one, though differently construed, of course.

Eileen Joy said...

In case I would be misconstrued on this, I don't agree with Sontag's commentary on violent "gaming," anymore than I ever agree with any commentators who point to violent video games as somehow symptomatic of something "new" regarding personal behavior or morality or asociality or what-have-you, gendered or otherwise [although, in all honesty, I do have *some* qualms about video gaming--let's leave that for another day]. I wish I had excised that bit because that wasn't the part of the Sontag excerpt that interests me or that I thought was apropos to Karl's original post. What I *was* mainly interested in highlighting vis-a-vis Sontag regarding Abu Ghraib were two things:

1. what happened at Abu Ghraib [the links between sex and torture and "fun and games"] is not "new"


2. if Abu Ghraib *is* uniquely American, it has something to do with the fact that the torturers photographed their exploits and also assembled those photographs on CDs with other, pornographic images, etc.

Although, I have to say, the desire to document, on still and moving film, various acts of cruelty, torture, and murder, is not really new, and maybe not uniquely American. Here, I am thinking of the photos of lynchings in the 1920s in the U.S. but also of the scads of photos taken by R.U.F. soldiers in Sierra Leone, the most memorable for me, as a "Beowulf" scholar, being one of a group of about five rebels grinning as they held aloft the severed head and hand of a schoolteacher they had tortured and killed, and then there was the Nazi's love of their own pageantry on film as high art, and so on and so forth, and there you have it. Do we have, I wonder, examples of this in medieval art and literature?

But what's really still bothering me a bit is this idea, again, that the violence at Abu Ghraib somehow sustains, or underwrites, the so-called American way of life. What sustains the so-called American way of life is money, and increasingly, much of it in transnational, lightweight, and impersonal exchange. Government, at this point, is mainly theater. I know this is an extreme view on my point, but it is one that I really believe to be true [and scary, even]. Let's go back to Edgerton [the British historian I wrote about in the "Tools" post who devotes himself to studying what might be called the "efficiency" of various military technologies] and ask ourselves: how efficient is torture at producing any kind of tangible "product" that might be said to keep the wheels of America turning? The answer is none. It's mainly just part of a very sad end-game of a system of American governance that can be argued to no longer matter very much, at least as regards the development and force of various national and more global economies. The Iraq War has been devastating and many many people have suffered horribly and that country will never be the same--don't get me wrong--in this sense, the actions of the U.S. government have had a huge [negative and wholly destructive] impact, but not here at home, where things continue much the same as usual. With or without the Iraq War, nothing here "at home" would be any different than it is now, except maybe certain aspects of our collective and individual psychologies [our fears, our hatreds].

So, I just have to disagree, strenuously, with this idea that the Iraq War, and all of its attendant catastrophes and malevolence and human rights abuses, "sustains" anything. In the past, *absolutely* violence, especially in the form of wars, unlawful incarcerations, witch-hunting, enslavement, etc., aided in the "purchase" and the "maintenance" of this country. But those are now "technologies" of the past, I would argue--too cumbersome for the lighter and more liquid new world orders [which nevertheless often exist side-by-side with more clunky, old world wars and economies]. Even the idea that the Iraq War is about oil is sadly laughable--it is, of course, about that; I'm not stupid, but by being "about oil," it is sadly already a lost cause, already stuck in a world order [an oil-based economy] that cannot last. It's a last gasp effort at the end of an era, and that is why the most tragic aspect of this War is that it is about nothing that will really matter as far as the furture is concerned, while at the same time, it will radically alter [and already has radically altered], for the worse, the lives--the souls and minds--of tens of thousands of persons. In other words, it has foreclosed the future for some and has placed our own country in the untenable position of "monster." But do not say that this War sustains our way of life. It is, ultimately, about nothing at all except to those who claim it is about something [freedom, safety, democracy, oil, what-have-you]. We are, most of us, hardly even bothered by it, and will never need to be if we simply don't think about it. And that, my friends, is the American way of life, which is sustained by money, powerful technologies of insularity, and willful, selfish ignorance.

Karl Steel said...

Great comment EJ. And I'm commenting here as a placeholder or promise, since I'm going to do my best to minimize my Internet time for the rest of the day...

sylvia huot said...

I'm not sure how this thread has taken this turn, but I'm fascinated at how people are reacting to the idea of the American way of life being sustained by its global military adventuring. To me, the fact that so many Americans are ignorant of this, uninterested, or even downright isolationist in their thinking is beside the point. The fact is that America (like various other countries, but maybe even more so than most) has both the will and the power to wreak havoc (though possibly not to accomplish anything other than that) absolutely anywhere on the planet. There are many countries that would not actually be capable of starting a war on the other side of the world even if they wanted to. America, however, both can and does. To me this is vital to what America is and how it manipulates the rest of the world to pursue its interests. When someday (inevitably) it loses that power, and can't wreak havoc much beyond its own borders, the American way of life will surely no longer be what it is today. And the American self-image won't be what it is today, either.

As for the desire to document acts of violence and its existence in the Middle Ages... What do Arthur's knights do when they get back to court after a period out fighting and killing bad things? Isn't their first act that of reporting it all to the court chronicler? Wasn't Roland eager to make his army fight to the death, and then bring Charlemagne's army back after everyone was already dead, precisely so that the whole thing could be witnessed, remembered, recorded, sung about? Where did we get the idea that Crusaders engaged in acts of cannibalism? Not from claims filed by outraged Arabs, but from accounts produced by and for the Crusading cultures themselves.

I guess that's part of being human--not just violence or even organised group violence, which other species obviously do engage in, but violence as a spectacle, a kind of performing art; and as a form of pleasure, one that can be shared later with others.

Eileen Joy said...

Sylvia--thanks for your excellent comments, none of which I disagree with, and you kind of said more succinctly what I was trying to get at: yes, America can sure wreak some havoc, and that certainly has *something* to do what what "we is," although maybe less to do with how everyone here is currently going about their day-to-day affairs. I don't mean to minimize the impact of the U.S.'s actions overseas, but was only trying to get us away a little bit from constructing overly facile one-to-one relationships between the Iraq War and the so-called "American way of life," just as I would like, going back to Karl's original point re: the Cynocephali of Ratramnus's account, to try to finesse a way of thinking about how we have, historically, constructed ourselves as "human" that doesn't always devolve to "because we aren't animals [even though we are]." In other words, I think "the human" has been constructed in all sorts of ways--many of which have to do, of course, with human-"animal" hierarchies, subjugation, "meat" and murder, as Karl has elucidated here and in his dissertation beautifully numerous times--but there are also important counter-currents of thought [I hope] that might move us beyond what Adam R. describes as an argument in which "'humanity' is defined in a kind of block opposition to 'animality'."

Thanks for those examples, too, from medieval literature for self-documentation of barbarity: I just finished teaching "The Song of Roland" in a summer course, and each time I teach it, it starts to appear to me to be more and more "camp." I can't quite explian it, but its hyperbole is so over the top, I often wonder, could anyone in the Middle Ages have read this and not, at some point, have laughed out loud?

Karl Steel said...

Let's go back to Edgerton [the British historian I wrote about in the "Tools" post who devotes himself to studying what might be called the "efficiency" of various military technologies] and ask ourselves: how efficient is torture at producing any kind of tangible "product" that might be said to keep the wheels of America turning? The answer is none.

I don't think I can write the response I want to write just yet.

I do think it's useful to think of torture as a technology, one out of step with its time (however it is we want to read this present time or however many times we want to find in this present time). But there are other ways to do it, as you of course know.

Now, it's becoming standard, isn't it?, to profess one's weariness with Zizek, and me too, I'm a bit weary, because of his sometimes bad research, because of the incoherence of some of what he says. One might say that his incoherence is meant to foreclose a facile reduction of his words to a homogeneous harmonious argument. But I don't think so.

That said, what I can't do without is his insistence on constitutive excess and his insistence on the irreducibility of conflict. Keeping that in mind transforms/unearths/what have you the relationship between torture, instrumentality, and production. I think it's a mistake (or rather, to preserve the possi/probability that I'm misreading, "it would be a mistake") to declare torture inefficient or outmoded because of its unproductivity. We can do that, especially because a concentration on torture can obscure the other ways power moves nowadays. At the same time, I think it's also useful to try to think through the simultaneous usefulness and uselessness of torture in regards to American supremacy or even supremacy in general, where torture functions as constitutive excess. That is, I think there is a constitutive relation between 'America' and Abu Ghraib.

And it's that point I'm trying to get at, I suppose, with my link between Zizek on Abu Ghraib and Ratramnus on the disavowed/deferred/relocated violence of animal husbandry, which, in his case especially, is husbandry by and over animals. It now seems to be not much of a point, but there it is, at least as I conceive it now.

And I'm very inexpert on these matters, so all this is offered very tentatively. I'm no Elaine Scary or Jodie Dean....

Eileen Joy said...

Karl--thanks much for your further comments and for returning us to Zizek's idea of constitutive excess: this is where I can get on board with you, for sure. I, also, am no "expert" on the subject of torture, the war in Iraq, etc., but since a good chunk of BABEL's Palgrave book, "Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages," *does* deal with judicial torture, the war in Iraq, the Bush White House legal memos on torture, the premodern history of torture, etc., I guess I feel very invested in and passionate about this type of discussion, and I want us to try to grapple with what are really becoming terrifyingly ideologically-loaded and materialist historico-political issues in ways that are as sensitive as possible to what I will call, for lack of a better term, "reality on the ground," as well as to various philosophical methodologies that would help us to "think through" all of the causes and effects of the so-called "reality on the ground."

Increasingly, in all of my work, especially of a medieval studies historicist nature, I find myself wanting to take better account of all the ways in which certain supposedly obvious "connections" are not so easy to always make. For example, it may not be true, a la Foucault, that all events are, to one extent or another, "effects" of various forms of power. It may not always be true, a la Benjamin, that history is always written by the victors. It may not always be true that for every act of oppression or subjugation that there is a clear-cut and straightforward ideology attached to a specific political power that is primarily to blame. History is as chaotic and inconsequential and random as it is often also purposeful and organized and directed to a specific end for specific reasons. which may be better or worse reasons depending on where one stands when making judgments. And so on and so forth. It's almost too easy, isn't it, to, let's say, blame the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib on the specific directive of a specific branch, or branches, of the government, who gave said directive on the basis of an idea, or philosophy, or belief, rooted in a notion of American "democracy" or "empire building" or "economic interests" or "hegemony." Much harder is to ask ourselves: what, and who else, for reasons or non-reasons, for specific purposes or because of a lack of purposes, participated meaningfully and with material effect in--not the "chain"--but the constellated "array" of events that led to the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib? Which of those actors or actions contributed to flows of physical energies that might have existed completely outside any streams of "American" this or "American" that, outside, further, of any "chain of command" and the purposes behind it, but nevertheless contributed some particle of direction, without which the torture might not have happened, or happened differently?

Cruelty is not possible without license. Indeed, it seems to thrive on the witness of a type of suffering that is greater in direct proportion to a keen awareness of the obscene act of permission that allows it. It is not enough to make a decision to inflict cruel and unusual punishment against those who are defenseless: it must be allowed. An order may come from the highest office, but many people, at different stages, must give their consent, and the understanding of their reasons for doing so is, I believe, the true subject of history. Every other analysis is too easy.