Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Waste Studies and Chaucer's Fecopoetics: A New Paradigm for Literary Analysis

Figure 1. Andres Serrano, "SHIT (Heroic Shit)"


Under the heading of "here's something from the SEMA conference," here and elsewhere [at wraetlic, Indirections, The Whim, etc.], we've had eros and the event, resurrected pigs, books pleasuring bodies, liturgical reading, jongleurs, weeping with Erkenwald, cosmic sorrow, and faces, so now, how about some shit? Susan Morrison has graciously agreed to allow us to post her SEMA paper, "Waste Studies: A New Paradigm for Literary Analysis as Applied to Chaucer's Fecopoetics." Some may recall that after last May's Kalamazoo Congress, Susan, and waste studies more broadly, were one of Charlotte Allen's chief objects of Allen's decrying of the damage cultural studies has wrought upon scholarship of the Middle Ages. Although it is not too difficult to parody or make fun of waste studies, for Morrison, waste studies are deeply ethical and also form one possible avenue toward a greater mindfulness of the Other whose excremental body we share. But I won't say more about what Morrison can say better than me:

Waste Studies: A New Paradigm for Literary Analysis as Applied to Chaucer's Fecopoetics

Susan S. Morrison

1) Waste Studies

In a world in which material prosperity and, arguably, life itself are inevitably linked to pollution and the production of waste and filth, how can we humans--ourselves sources of waste both bodily and in terms of how much we throw out--understand and cope with waste? Has waste always been viewed in the same way in Western culture or have views changed over time? From garbage-filled moats to overflowing landfills, waste has been and continues to be an enduring issue. The field of waste studies emerges out of a conversation increasingly focused on filth, rubbish, garbage, litter--even excrement. There is a veritable canon of anthropological, archeological, sociological, and theoretical works which address waste as a category, such as Zygmunt Bauman’s Wasted Lives, Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory, Allan Stoekl’s Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability, Gay Hawkins’ The Ethics of Waste, and John Scanlan’s On Garbage, all of which argue how, in varying ways, we have disciplined ourselves with regard to dirt. Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger: An analysis of concept of pollution and taboo, along with Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection and William Ian Miller in The Anatomy of Disgust, influentially set up the category of dirt and its relationship to order and boundaries, reading excrement as impurity and disorder. The figuring of excrement as shit — low, horrifying, disgusting — is a manifestation of the mind-body split. Reason is antithetical to excrement.

Excrement, filth, rubbish, garbage, and waste are central to how we see and treat the world and those in it. They touch myriad aspects of our lives. Waste has appeared as a humorous and horrifying element in literature, is key to property rights and legal boundaries in historical documents, has been of concern in philosophical disquisitions on between the mind and body, and has been a focus for anthropological and psychological research. Waste studies require a plural verb; they are rhizomatic, a network of critical discourses.

2) Chaucer’s Fecopoetics and Pilgrimage Literature

Excrement was literally of concern for pilgrims as we can see in an account by the Dominican Felix Fabri of Ulm, who traveled to the Holy Land in the early 1480s. He writes his account to help future pilgrims on their sojourns and describes the boat journey to Jerusalem where just being able to defecate was a trial:
A few words on the manner of urinating and shitting on a boat.

At sea it is easy to become constipated. Here is good advice for the pilgrim: go to the privies three or four times every day, even when there is no natural urge, in order to promote evacuation by discreet efforts; and do not lose hope if nothing comes on the third or fourth try. Go often, loosen your belt, untie all the knots of your clothes over chest and stomach, and evacuation will occur even if your intestines are filled with stones. [1]
References to excrement, the body’s product, are unusually frequent in fictional pilgrimage texts. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer often uses excrement for signaling illicit greed for money: the friar desirous of wealth in The Summoner's Tale befouled by the fart; greedy religious punished by the image of Satan’s anus; the avaricious pardoner insulted by a turd. Excess desire, greed, and lust are punished by excess in the form of shit. The body politic is controlled by insulting the human body, by using its own filth to cleanse homeopathically.
Additionally, excrement is an ingredient Chaucer uses to break open, explore, or question genres. Excrement functions as a kind of generic question mark, to criticize host desecration tales which demonize "others," to probe our supposed separation from animals in a beast tale, to point up the playful and animal lust at the heart of the "love story" between Damian and May. Filth does not just belong to the fabliau; it is everywhere human actors are present. Alison’s “hol,” punctuated by Nicholas’s fart, destroys Absolon’s courtly love fantasy. The Reeve attempts to control the danger or phantom of sexual assault through genre manipulation. The genre of the poignant dawn song spoken between Malyne and Aleyn interrupts the ostensible fabliau of The Reeve’s Tale, exposing this romantic encounter as rape. [2] By forcing a disjunction of genres, signaled through excrement (when Symken's wife goes to piss), Chaucer discomforts us. Chaucer allows the disjunction, this rupture of the fabliau, to alert the reader to the problem of functioning solely within a genre. We want to passively succumb to the genre; we desire the oppression genres wield through their own version of social control. But Chaucer does not let us wallow in our generic ease.

The medieval body--unfinished, unbounded, and fragmentary; filthy and incomplete--is linked with pilgrimage. Pilgrimage, a ritual wedded to spiritual amendment and change, and excrement, which composts into fertilizer to be useful, both involve the process of material or spiritual metamorphosis. The body--the body of the pilgrimage poem and the physical body of the pilgrim--has no closure. The body of the literary pilgrimage text enacts fragmentation metatextually, as, for example, with the many tales in Chaucer’s poem and the multiple and conflicting versions of Langland’s Piers Plowman and DeGuilleville’s The Pilgrimage of Human Life. I was thinking of Jeffrey Cohen's plenary address yesterday concerning Mandeville's Travels as a multitext, how it is rhizomatic. Such narratives recognize that the self is not whole or finished but under constant revision. The poet must amend his poem, an analogue for body and soul. This ever-changing pilgrim body, exemplified in the production of excrement, is linked to the ever-changing narrative or text, which is continually revised, revisable, and unstable. Both bodies--the pilgrim body made of flesh, the pilgrimage texts made of words--continually undergo amendment and revision.

Imaginative pilgrimage literature recognizes the fantasy of the unified self. Pilgrims seek out shrines with relics, which typically are body parts of the dead. The pilgrim desires access to the saint’s fragmented body. In pilgrimage literature, the narrator is not a unified subject; hence the many tales, the non-cohesion, and multivocality. The fragmentary text gestures at complete meaning just as the relic is a metonymy for the saint’s body. Indeed, as Jay Ruud so brilliantly argued two days ago in the "Dead Bodies" session, the relic suggests the inviolable "resurrected body."

The concept of concomitance, in which Christ was fully present in every crumb of the eucharist, allowed for the idea of perfection being seen in the part, the whole is present in the fragment or relic. [3] Hence the fragmented pilgrimage texts, those works headed to the part, the relic, the fragment. We eat a work, chew the cud, and try to create some higher good from it; but chewing suggests at the same time the final product--excrement. Just as a saint’s relic, a dead piece of bone, can be understood to be healing, so too dead words can, alchemically, be transformed into “gold” and transform--amend--the reader-pilgrim. Rather than a grotesque body like that in the Bakhtinian model, where the reversal of up and down, though celebrated, retains the hierarchical binary, Chaucer’s poetry suggests a different understanding of the pilgrim body. Excrement functions as an ingredient in the alchemical stew of his writing, not just as a spice to "saffron" it, as Latin does the Pardoner's speech (VI.345), but as a vital ingredient, which punctures, deflates, and but also allows for hope. Chaucer's fecopoetics is representative of social commentary beyond mere gross humor. [4] The poet's use of scatological discourse acknowledges the porous boundaries of the contingent, to use Wendy Matlock's term, body.

Chaucer, like May, consigns his letters, his poetry, to the privy. But this is no act of the abject; rather, a means for May to express her agency [5] and for Chaucer to create a fecopoetics that grapples with issues with religious, gender, environmental, and poetic ramifications. The accident of Chaucer’s verse may lie in the realm of the exoteric with its fecal vocabulary, genres like host desecration tales, and a moral tale told by an immoral man, but their esoteric substance is redemption. The real magic is poetry, even poetry laden with filth.

3) Brown Methodology: Embodying Fecal Morality

Waste demands a moral attention that the current amalgam of theoretical positions is unable to provide; it demands a meaningful new set of critical tools. We need to consider the body by borrowing from those writing on the ethics of waste and garbage to understand a “new materialism.” If we take Waste Studies as a method, these are the kinds of things we look for:

We need to think about simultaneity, how excrement is both outside (food) turned inside and the inside turned outside when it is produced. It both is us and not us, or at least not "truly" us, as Aquinas would agree concerning the resurrection of the body. Anne Scott spoke about how Mary ate food fromt he angels; clearly this food would be uncorrupt so she would not excrete it. Currently, we see the excremental body as immoral, unethical, horrifying, unhealthful, distasteful. While scholars are expected to be detached, reasonable, and logical, we are "concrete, embodied human being[s]." [6] Toril Moi has eloquently argued for reclaiming Simone de Beauvoir's "concept of the body as a situation." [7] One undeniable aspect of our bodies' situation is the production of excrement. Bodies do not necessitate illogic; you can be embodied, attached, and still logical.

We need to think about process, fluidity, and transformation. [8] Waste studies deal with the consequences of the breakdown of binaries and allow us to understand that the body is not simply a bounded object out of which disgusting fluids and solids are ejected. The matter within us touches an exterior; our bodies, then, embrace a world beyond the envelope of our skin.

We need to think about mindfulness. Excrement is a way to acknowledge the body; and, with it, comes an awareness of the interconnectedness of one’s own body with those of others, enabling compassion for others. [9] There are dangers in ascribing weakness or disgust to defecation. We can lose our compassion for others when we sense they have lost their dignity. Mindfulness can enable a full, aware, nonjudgmental, and loving experience of our bodies, the bodies of others, and the world. [10]

We need to think about affinity, webs, connectivity. We coalesce not through identity, which leads only to fragmentation, but through affinity. [11] Excrement provides us with a reason for acknowledging affinity among all people, one we normally deny. Waste is the great leveller, linking us all through elective affinities. [12]

I shit, therefore I think. I, fully embodied, think; therefore I, fully embodied, act fully.

Waste studies offer ethical and moral frameworks for us to pay attention to, understand, and act on bodily and societal waste--material aspects of our world. The excremental body is the body each one of us possesses. Medieval excrement is not a sign of otherness, but of similarity that connects to us in the twenty-first century. The “civilizing process” [to use Norbert Elias's term] is just that--a process--never a finished state. Part of our civilizing process is to recognize the value of that which we deem uncivilized and to see ourselves in that threatening, filthy alterity.


[1] Georges Duby, A History of Private Life, Volume I, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium
From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 586.
[2] Susan Signe Morrison, "The Uses of Biography in Medieval Literary Criticism: The Case of Geoffrey Chaucer and Cecily Chaumpaigne," The Chaucer Review 34 (1999), p. 81 [69-86].
[3] Carolyn Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 314, 316.
[4] I am basing this term of Jonathan Bate’s “ecopoetics,” on, for instance, Song of the Earth, p. 266.
[5] Elizabeth Robertson, in a paper delivered at the "Revisiting Chaucer and Christianity Conference" (July 2003), titled: “I have…a Soule for to Kepe: Discerning the Female Subject in ‘The Merchant’s Tale.’"
[6] Toril Moi, What is a Woman? And Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 35.
[7] Moi, What is a Woman?, p. 43.
[8] See Adrienne Harris, Gender as Soft Assembly (Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 2005).
[9] Linda Holler, Erotic Morality: The Role of Touch in Moral Agency (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002), p. 171.
[10] See, for example, Daniel J. Siegel, The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being (New York, W.W. Norton and Company, 2007).
[11] See Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto," p. 155-6.
[12] Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto," p. 157. The phrase comes from Goethe's novel of that title, Die Wahlverwandtschaften.


Adam Roberts said...

This is very interesting, Eileen (and that's one remarkably aesthetic photograph of shit you've posted at the top there). There's also a good deal of stuff about this in Zizek, of course, particularly the second section of his On Belief book, titled 'Why You Should Give a Shit!' Not especially medieval, but interesting on the whole 'I shit therefore I am' angle.

Eileen Joy said...

Adam: thanks for the reference to the Zizek chapter, which I am sure Susan, especially, will appreciate. I have not read that book [am currently bogged down in "The Parallax View," actually]. And do you know hard it is to find just the right illustration of shit? Actually, at the SEMA conference, Susan brought with her the catalogue from Serrano's latest exhibit on, yes, shit. I thought "heroic shit" was appropriate for a medievalist blog.

Susan Morrison said...

I'm glad you brought up Zizek. Elsewhere he discusses how the separation of the useless [waste] from the useful is inherent in Western culture. God created order out of what was void and formless. See The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters. London: Verso, 1996, p. 33. Also, Serrano actually has a lovely photo in the same exhibit called "Medieval Shit." I asked about why he gave that particular title, and his liaison guessed it was because it was particularly "brutal" (thereby perpetuating stereotypes about the Middle Ages?).

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I am dying to spend some time with this, because it is so rich, so fertile (like manure ... ugh the puns will keep on coming) but for the time being I will ask a question from memory, mostly, so pardon me if I get the quotes wrong:

(1) Is a fart something of a different order than shit, and not amenable to a fecopoetics in the same way? I ask this because in Chaucer farts are almost characters, with a life of their own ... and Peter Travis and Valerie Allen have so well explored the resonance of the fart in ways that seem so different from your fecopoetics.

(2) Does Chaucer talk shit? I know, there is the turd that the Pardoner's balls will be enshrined in, as you cite and the Host threatens. There is the smear of fundement that is upon the Pardoner's breeches, according to the Host. There is the "drasty" (feculent) rhyming that Chaucer offers as Chaucer-the-pilgrim in Thopas. There is the Parson, who is shitless (not "A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep). I guess what I'm asking is, can you say more about the materiality of Chaucerian excrement, over and against the fart, which has no such substance?

ken tompkins said...

Susan Morrison’s observation at the end of her paper

We need to think about affinity, webs, connectivity. We coalesce not through identity, which leads only to fragmentation, but through affinity. Excrement provides us with a reason for acknowledging affinity among all people, one we normally deny. Waste is the great leveller, linking us all through elective affinities.

reminds me of the section in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych where the servant Gerasim lovingly cares for Illych. The passage is introduced with Ivan needing help to stand after using the commode:

For his excretions also special arrangements had to be made, and this was a torment to him every time -- a torment from the uncleanliness, the unseemliness, and the smell, and from knowing that another person had to take part in it.

But just through his most unpleasant matter, Ivan Ilych obtained comfort. Gerasim, the butler's young assistant, always came in to carry the things out. Gerasim was a clean, fresh peasant lad, grown stout on town food and always cheerful and bright. At first the sight of him, in his clean Russian peasant costume, engaged on that disgusting task embarrassed Ivan Ilych.

Illych and Gerasim couldn’t be more separate; their relationship is controlled by class, age, health, education, wealth and status. In responding to Illych’s “excretions”, however, they become equal, even loving (Morrison’s “leveler”)

At the end of the incident, Tolstoy links them as equals in time. What is done today for Illych will be done tomorrow for Gerasim:

Only Gerasim recognized it and pitied him. And so Ivan Ilych felt at ease only with him. He felt comforted when Gerasim supported his legs (sometimes all night long) and refused to go to bed, saying: "Don't you worry, Ivan Ilych. I'll get sleep enough later on," or when he suddenly became familiar and exclaimed: "If you weren't sick it would be another matter, but as it is, why should I grudge a little trouble?" Gerasim alone did not lie; everything showed that he alone understood the facts of the case and did not consider it necessary to disguise them, but simply felt sorry for his emaciated and enfeebled master. Once when Ivan Ilych was sending him away he even said straight out:
"We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?" -- expressing the fact that he did not think his work burdensome, because he was doing it for a dying man and hoped someone would do the same for him when his time came.

Susan Morrison said...

I do think a fart is something other than shit. It isn't material for one, despite it flying "As greet as it had been a thonder-dent,/ That with the strook [absolon] was almoost yblent" (I.3807-8). It is, after all, only a simile of something material but is not material in itself. Chaucer DOES talk "shit," Jeffrey, as you say. There IS materiality in the excrement the little clergeon is dumped into and the privy into which May puts her letter. A fart is only an echo of this materiality.

As I envision it, waste studies does not deal with signs or signifieds; it deals with materiality and the outcomes of that materiality. Shit is the opposite of no real consequences; it is real.

There is an ethical dimension to defecating; waste studies calls our attention to ecological matters. Reflecting on the parallel between the way we view nature and the way we view society, culture, and human beings, Michael Bell has suggested that “[O]ur repudiation of the grotesque [Bakhtin’s lower bodily stratum] may be one of the most powerful cultural forces behind the ecological degradation of the planet.” Bell goes on to suggest that ecological decline is linked to distinctions elites feel compelled to set up with inferiors, creating boundaries and privatizing their selves from the material world. The demonization and privitization of excrement can limit us and harm our planet. It is very simple: we should deal with our own shit, both figuratively and literally. That is the only ethical, moral, and, indeed, logical course.

And that's where those amazing passages you cite, Ken, come in: yes, I couldn't agree more. Gerasim is being "loving" by tending to Illych.

Which brings us back to the fart. I remember when I taught English in Japan for a year, our yoga teacher told us that is was perfectly natural to fart while posing since you relax. It was a lesson, now that I look back on it, on affinity. A compassionate insight. So that's how I see the fart and shit being linked, as a sign of our "elective affinities." But the material of shit puts it into a different league.