Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Collective Identity

In chapter three, Blurton discusses the use of the “human body as a figure for the Christian community united in the body of Christ as the body of the church,” a metaphor that first appears in Paul’s writings. (63) I am very interested in the concept of collective identity visualized as a body (which always conjures for me the image of the Sampsa-Family-as-Bug in Kafka. Individuals define themselves against one another, looking outward to understand themselves better. This also occurs on the societal level. Certainly, the English identity was conceived as a unified body, but in order for this collective identity to be established, it needed another collective body against which to define its normality. I think that this notion, though raised in the chapter on the twelfth century, should recall for us the material of the previous chapter. If we were to browse through the Wonders, turning folio after folio, what we would find would be a conglomeration, an aggregation, a unified monstrous entity, stitched together by the binding of the manuscript.*

The collective nature of the Wonders is furthered by a few images that contain more than one of these eastern marvels. Two of the frames contain more than one wonder, including that which holds in the pepper-guarding serpent and the ass with oxen horns and later in the manuscript, the one containing both the lertice and the hostes (see the image for both). Others, frameless as they are, seem to spill into one another’s domain just as surely as the texts and images do (see Susan’s previous post). These images, along with the others, seem to serve to create out of the non-narrative collection of the Wonders a unified, monstrous identity against which the collective identity of the English might be established. This is as true for monsters in general as it is, I think, for cannibals in particular.

(*Note—I hope to use this concept as the basis for a chapter in the book Susan Kim and I are currently writing, so any thoughts on it would be appreciated.)

9 comments:

sylvia huot said...

I find all of this very interesting although I am an outside observor, not having seen the MS, nor do I know Old English. But in the free-wheeling spirit of this website, I wanted to ask about the depiction of 'monsters' in this particular MS or in other MSS. How often are they portrayed just 'standing there' and how often are they portrayed actually doing something? How often are they in some kind of actual landscape or urban setting or something, as opposed to just depicted against a coloured or decorative background? What I'm wondering is to what extent the manuscript illuminations portray these creatures simply as iconic images, ideas, symbols; and to what extent they portray them as beings who live in an environment, interact with it and with each other, and engage in actual 'behaviour'.

Karl Steel said...

Remembering the depictions of monsters recorded in my Friedman, I recall some monsters eating, some standing about, some conversing (see the Cynocephali on the Hereford mappamundi, which I reproduced here a month ago or so), and, once we get into the wildmen of the 15th century, some engaging in (hirsute) courtly entertainments. I can't think offhand of monsters in an urban setting except for the cranemen of Herzog Ernst, who live in a city with running water (the eponymous hero is surprised while taking a bath).

These images, along with the others, seem to serve to create out of the non-narrative collection of the Wonders a unified, monstrous identity against which the collective identity of the English might be established.

Interesting stuff, Asa (and can I say how pleased I am to have such a crowd of medievalists here? If only we could have 5+ permanent staff here all the time at the ITM Medieval Institute! (?)). Funny, because I've never thought of the monstrous outside as comprising unified bodies. I've always thought of it as a place of exorbitance and chaos, of, for example, the silva in Bernardus Silvestris's Cosmographia out of which matter was formed (see the discussion by Eugene Vance in From Topic to Tale; also known as the "hyle": see Gervase of Tilbury Otia, I.1..btw, I'm working from my database here). There's also this, from David Gordon White's Myths of the Dog-Man:
"In such a context [of the struggle of creation], the others existing outside of a centered sociopolitical system are generally condemned to a damned and meaningless existence in the chaotic space beyond the pale of civilization, a space haunted by exiled criminals, the insane, real and mythical beasts, and nearly all that has a negative valence in opposition to the positive values of 'good society'" (5)

I'm not saying this, by the way, to dispute your model! Rather, I'm wondering how we might play your model of the "unified monstrous entity" off against my model of the chaotic outside.

IndieFaith said...

This discussion reminds of the work of structural anthropologist Mary Douglas (working largely from Levi-Strauss). Trying her hand at the priestly literature of the Old Testament she read Leviticus as a spatialization of the Tabernacle for those living in Exile (you really need to ban us non-medievalists). The text itself moved you through the various cleansing and sacrificing required for holiness.
What this reading included was the theological mapping of bodies. Bodies had appropriate boundaries and the breach of those boundaries required cultic action. A home or an animal or a relationship functioned analogously to the holy relationship between God and the cosmos. In this way we may be able understand their view of the body of a sacrificial animal. Appropriate relationships and sacred spaces were mapped onto various bodies. The opaque fatty tissue around certain organs was prohibited from being eaten because it displayed the incense burned around the Holy of Holies.
There are of course numerous reflections on how the Tabernacle displayed the fullness of the cosmos in its imagery and drew the worshiper into an Edenic place of relationship and restoration. And then further, how Eden carried maternal imagery in the birthing of humanity. Also in numerous passages early in Genesis (and then later alluded to) God's people emerge as a collective body for all humanity.
Paul had some rich resources to develop his notion of a social body.
Douglas' work is Leviticus as Literature. I don't have it handy or I would check the medieval sources she draws on in her reading.
And well, just to stay in the spirit of things read Deuteronomy 28:53ff for some cannibalism in Torah. :)

ASM said...

Karl --

Yes, I agree completely that the Outside is a place of frightening chaos and excess. But I think that, when viewed from a distance (how else could the East be viewed from England?), the chaos tends to cohere into a unified--though certainly monstrous--body which we might compare with the non-monstrous body politic of England. Just as an individual could compare his "normal" body to the chaotic bodies of the wonders, so too, on the macro scale, a "normal" society could compare its body to this collective of horrors.

I still have a lot of thinking and reading to do on this topic before I sort it out, but you are definitely correct that I have to grapple with the nature of this entity, which is as you describe it.

And, your database?? Details, please! I'd love to get a look at the Gervase...

sylvia huot said...

I can see ways that the 'monstrous outside' of civilisation could have a kind of unity or coherence--for starters, human writers can produce lists of the different kinds of monsters and categorise them according to their body types and habits. This isn't the same kind of integrated system as the way human society is imagined by those same writers, however, I would have thought.

This also brings me back to my question about the illustrations. In the Bodleian Marco Polo MS ('Merveilles du monde' or whatever it's called), monstrous critters are often portrayed specifically outside a city, whose walls appear in the miniature, and whose rooftops are visible, along with some armoured knights or other humans whose heads stick out over the walls. The 'monsters' are sort of hanging out in the landscape outside the city, sometimes three or four different kinds in one miniature, and they might vaguely be doing something such as eat or run after prey, but they aren't interacting in any organised way; they aren't arranging and shaping their environment; there is no sense of them having anything like a 'body politic'; in fact, the different varieties of 'monsters' may even be situated separately, each in its bit of landscape, and simply juxtaposed within the frame of the miniature. It's not clear that we're being invited to imagine a 'map' that would show us how the different kinds of monsters are situated in a unified topography, in areas that can be related to each other.

I know that sometimes you do find them living in organised societies or family groups, laying claim to the land and impacting upon it--there is the spectacular example of Herzog Ernst, as well as writings about pygmies warring with cranes, cynocephalics farming or living in towns, and of course giants who often live in family groups, build castles or forts of some sort, etc, but then giants are awfully close to being human. So often, these monstrous beings just seem to be isolated examples, a marvel that suddenly appears and then disappears after it's been described; a lone creature that looms up in order for a knight to kill it; an iconic image showing how the normally ordered body starts to come apart at the edges of the world. Alexander the Great fights wars, negotiates settlements, arranges marriages, makes political deals, admires opulent palaces, etc, with the various races of PEOPLE he encounters; when it comes to the 'monsters', they tend to be a series of marvelous encounters, each of which may even be contained within a single laisse, largely limited to seeing this creature or small band of creatures and either killing it or escaping it, and so on to the next one.

So I guess what I'm asking is how we could characterise these different kinds of 'unified bodies' as imagined by medieval writers and artists. The monstrous collectivity Out There may indeed have a kind of unity against which we define ourselves, but it seems to me it is a unity that is more like a list or a typology rather than an integrated social system; more like a set of body parts laid out in a row than it is like an actual working body.

Does this make sense, and if so, how would it apply to the Beowulf manuscript or the other Old English and other early medieval texts that you're all talking about?

ASM said...

Fair enough. I would not argue that the monsters or marvels form anything like a coherent society, a body politic like that of the Anglo-Saxons. Indeed, that would largely invalidate their role as a point of sharp contrast. But just because a body is a hodgepodge, a heterogeneous mixture, does not mean that it cannot function as a body. Many of the wonders are, themselves, such composites, and they seem to bear functional bodies. Likewise, the composite of these composites might be envisioned as doing likewise.

I think that an answer to your original question is also pertinent, here. You ask "how often are they portrayed just 'standing there' and how often are they portrayed actually doing something?" Most of the wonders in the Wonders of the East are not shown engaged in an action, but by "just" standing there, they are doing something. Their function is largely summed up in their very existence. By simply standing there, the wonders call into question many of the most important conceptual categories of the period -- male/female, human/non-human, eater/eaten, civilized/uncivilized, and so on. The wonders need not lift a distorted finger in order to do their cultural work.

Surely, you are right that "This isn't the same kind of integrated system as the way human society is imagined," and yet, perhaps its imperfect unity might serve to prise apart the cracks in "English" society, which was itself a semi-successful hybrid, composed of a shifting arrangement between Britons, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Romans, Celts, Danes and others. If the individual wonders cause us to question the unity and coherence of our bodies (and I think that they do), so too, the unit they comprise would call us to question the coherence of our society.

Karl Steel said...

And here's where the database fails me: Asa mentions England as a semi-successful hybrid, composed of a shifting arrangement between Britons, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Romans, Celts, Danes and others and I'm remembering a late 19th-century French politician (?) historian (?) who spoke of "France" emerging only by forgetting the violence by which Burgundians &c. disappear in their particularity. Where did I see that? I'm almost positive I ran across it in S. Huot's Perceforest book. Ring a bell?

Indiefaith: Douglas is a fair cite. Her work on pollution, for example, is essential for my work on carrion, and her material on hybrid bodies and pollution in the alimentary laws of the Pentateuch would efficiently explain (and has no doubt efficiently explained, perhaps via Kristeva Powers of Horror) our discussions on monsters.

Q for S. Huot: I'm remembering an image, I think from a 15th-c. ms, of sheep with human heads. I don't suppose you're familiar with it?

(on the database, Asa: it's just all my notes since I started the diss., i.e., about 4 (3?) years of stuff. here's what it looks like now, in its latest version (using Zim, which finally answered my long search for a good manager for my info in Linux. In Windows, I had been using MS Onenote and MyBase, both of which are, compared to Zim, totally bloated and expensive (compared to Zim's freeness)).

Sorry not a more substantial comment. I'm in full-on class preparation panic at the moment, and for the next week or so.

Eileen Joy said...

I'm going to chime in here mainly to agree with Asa, with some clarifications, regarding the so-called "chaos" or "disorder" of the monstrous Outside, as depicted in medieval texts and illustrations [and here, my area of expertise is the 10th-century "Liber Monstrorum," as well as the texts and images of the Vitellius A.xv manuscript, Nowell codex [which includes "Beowulf," "Wonders of the East," and Alexander's "Letter"--I am also very familiar with the images of the Bodleian and Tiberius MS versions of "Wonders," although Asa is the better expert there]. Sylvia wrote here,

"So often, these monstrous beings just seem to be isolated examples, a marvel that suddenly appears and then disappears after it's been described; a lone creature that looms up in order for a knight to kill it; an iconic image showing how the normally ordered body starts to come apart at the edges of the world. Alexander the Great fights wars, negotiates settlements, arranges marriages, makes political deals, admires opulent palaces, etc, with the various races of PEOPLE he encounters; when it comes to the 'monsters', they tend to be a series of marvelous encounters, each of which may even be contained within a single laisse, largely limited to seeing this creature or small band of creatures and either killing it or escaping it, and so on to the next one."

To which, Asa responded,

"Surely, you are right that "This isn't the same kind of integrated system as the way human society is imagined," and yet, perhaps its imperfect unity might serve to prise apart the cracks in "English" society, which was itself a semi-successful hybrid, composed of a shifting arrangement between Britons, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Romans, Celts, Danes and others. If the individual wonders cause us to question the unity and coherence of our bodies (and I think that they do), so too, the unit they comprise would call us to question the coherence of our society."

I agree with Asa, and then some! Although, on the surface, I think Sylvia H. is absolutely right that medieval monsters are often more typological [if supposedly dis-organized] than they possess a fuller, let's say, social and/or human-like "being"--in this respect and in some instances, catalogs or books of marvels could, perhaps, have been read as exemplums regarding monstrous behavior, sin, lawlessness, anti-social behavior, bad politics, what-have-you. But at least as far as the texts in the Nowell codex are concerned, especially in the "Wonders," the texts would seem to work against any typological or exemplum-type reading: for not only are the "bodies" invoked within "disorderly," but the text itself lacks any kind of framing device [the original epistolary format has been stripped away] or progression of "wonders" and "places" that would lend any kind of ordering pattern or interpretive aid to the work as a whole [Asa, Susan Kim, and Mary Campbell have all pointed this out in their published writing on this text]. I have argued in my own work that the text functions much the same way Susan Stewart [in her book "On Longing"] describes a cabinet of curiosities or "collection," which

"seeks a form of self-enclosure which is possible because of its ahistoricism. The collection replaces history with classification, with order beyond the realm of temporality." [p. 152]

The "Wonders" text, then, also seemingly disordered and un-narrative-like, creates its own idiodyncratic and even ahistorical "order," which I really believe invited its Anglo-Saxon readers to explore in idiosyncratic ways the "marvels" on display who could, quite literally, be "wondered" at without censure or condemnation [there are exceptions, such as when Alexander shows up in two instances in the text, both to condemn/exterminate and to praise two separate groups of Others: the giant hybrid animal-human "women" with "unworthy bodies" and the benevolent kings who give women to visitors, respectively--also, some groups, such as the "Hostes" and "Donestre" have obviously threatening and asocial behavior]. The text is properly "fabulist" in the terms of its geographic mis-directions [which Asa has well illustrated for us in a previous post] and in terms of its "peoples" and magic nature [burning mountains, giant trees, etc.] such that belief [even moral beliefs] can be suspended, and other than some leftover "monuments" of Alexander [indicating his past presence in these "landscapes"] and two mentions of Alexander's past physical presence/interactions, there is no orderly civitas [in the form of enclosed cities or otherwise], as it were, that resides in the background of this text's images to provide the "relief" of a different societas [that "relief" would perhaps have been provided by the quiet study of the reader's library situated in "civilization"].

I guess what I'm trying to get at here is that the OE "Wonders" is a really cool and unusual text that has received so little attention by scholars precisely because [I really believe] it is so difficult to "slot in" to already accepted [often allegorical/Augustinian/medieval Christian] methods of "reading" medieval texts on monsters. Also, I think it is a mistake to assume that, because of the placement of monsters on the Outside [whether the wild woods close by the castle or the East or Africa or the margins of the world-map], that medieval readers would have always recognized these monsters as "types" of social or moral or political disorder, for almost all of these monsters almost always possess either human parts or human faculties [like language or "polite" and "upright" gesture/mobility] that point to, not the disorder *without* but the essential volatility *within* both the biological body and the body politic. To view and consider these monsters would be, not to engage in with parable about the potential of the human world to be decadent, but to witness its already existing decadence, its transgressive capacities, it always passable borders and so-called "limits," its endless and unstoppable tansmogrifications. Most frightening of all, monsters have ego and thereby, in Kristeva's words, they take

"the [human] ego back to its source on the abominable limits from which, in order to be, the ego has broken away.”

They point out, further, the inescapable fragility of, again in Kristeva's words, the subject's "own and clean self." ["Powers of Horror," pp. 15 and 53]

sylvia huot said...

The quote Karl Steel wanted about the importance of forgetting past violence for nation-building is from Ernest Renan's speech 'Qu'est-ce qu'une nation'. I quoted it in the 'Postcolonial Fictions in the Roman de Perceforest' and I am pretty sure that Bhabha quotes it in 'The Location of Culture'.

I've not seen sheep with human heads, but they sound intriguing.

Everyone else's comments very interesting but I don't have time to reply right now to something that involved. But I enjoyed reading them.