Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"The Hunger," or Precarious Self

by KARL STEEL

How does the cliché go? "Being a blogger means never having to say you're sorry"? Brooklyn College begins its semester today (and before your jealous hackles rise, know that it ends on May 20th), and I imagine many of my colleagues will complain about how quickly the break went, wondering what they could have done to make it better. These wistful words have been mine, too, but not this time. In the midst of various obligatory visits, I managed to exceed my own expectations, generating about 100 pages of [what I think of as] good solid bookdraft. What suffered? The blog, and, even if I don't have to, I apologize.

What follows below is the conclusion to a chapter. It relies heavily on Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, a book whose title promised productive interchange with my own (titled, at this point, How to Make a Human: Violence and Animals in the Middle Ages). I've not been disappointed, but I've also experienced a sense of relief in reading it. G. W. Bush had not yet finished his first term when Butler published many of the pieces that comprise Precarious Life, and the conditions she analyzed and decried only worsened in the four years following the book's first edition. She wrote against the conditions of Guantanamo, where the US held prisoners in a place outside the law [baring in mind edit, haha bearing in mind the complex relation to the outside Agamben analyzes in Homo Sacer and State of Exception], where the US held prisoners, we now know, for the sake of being held, held with no expectation of their ever being prosecuted of anything, held them, it seems, only to be tortured (see here: "the Bush administration's focus on detention and interrogation made preparation of viable prosecutions a far lower priority"). With so much changing in the last week, not least of all, the condition of being of the Guantanamo prisoners, much of Butler's book has become obsolete. Perhaps "obsolete" is not quite the right word, but it is certain that its relation to the present has changed utterly.

At the same time, Butler's analysis will, for better or worse, be of continued utility. Its applicability--despite Butler's persistent [albeit complicated] humanism--to critical animal theorists has already been insisted upon by Chloë Taylor when she writes, inter alia,
When exposed to the fragility of human bodies, to our own mortality, we say that we are sick like dogs, that we die like dogs, that, in the worst cases, we are slaughtered like sheep. Contra Butler, it would seem that vulnerability makes us animal, rather than specifically human. It is insofar as we are animal, embodied, that we are vulnerable. (66)
Inspired by Butler, in league with Taylor, and animated by more hope than I have felt in years, I wrote the following words, which I expect you to read, if at all, only in your leisure.


"Frank fed us human meat, and we got the hunger. That's how you become a cannibal, Dee. You get one taste of delicious, delicious human meat, none of this stuff ever satisfies you ever again for the rest of your life."

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia [thanks Mike Smith for turning me on to this clip]

Judith Butler has written about the exclusions that mark certain lives as “grievable” and exclude others from the community of concern. “Each of us,” she writes, “is constituted politically in part by virtue of the social vulnerability of our bodies.” Those not recognized as belonging to the community have no social vulnerability. They are not recognized as vulnerable insofar as they are not recognized as belonging to the community of those whose lives matter and thus who are understood as being fully alive. They, who “cannot be mourned because they are always already lost, or, rather, never 'were,'” who possess only what Agamben terms “bare life,” a life outside the boundaries of a meaningful life or death, cannot be recognized as suffering violence, since no one feels any outrage or sense of shared suffering for what they suffer. Thus, “if violence is done against those who are unreal...from the perspective of violence, it fails [from the perspective of the dominant community] to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated.” This exclusion, which is, to cite Derrida's phrase again, a “denegation of murder,” helps constitute the human, for, as Butler writes, “I am as much constituted by those I do grieve for as by those whose deaths I disavow.” She writes that therefore the obituary should be understood “as an act of nation-building,” but, as Chloë Taylor insisted in a recent reading of Butler, the obituary should also be understood as an act by which animals lives become forgotten. After all, no casualty list ever records massacres of beasts.

It bears repeating that in the dominant medieval intellectual and social traditions, animals do not belong to the community of the grievable; to recall Augustine, animals “are dissociated from us by their want of reason, and are therefore by the just appointment of the Creator subjected to us to kill or keep alive for our own uses.” Being that animals are given over to humans to be used, it would be absurd to mourn their deaths, to grant them some manner of obituary, to pray for the horse, as Bevis asks we do for Arondel (4613-19) In a popular medieval story, a greyhound overturns a cradle and bloodies itself defending its master's infant son from a poisonous serpent. When its master is summoned home by news of his son's death, he kills the greyhound, but, quickly realizing his error, he abandons himself entirely to grief. In one Middle English version, he “brake his sper in thre partiis, & put his wyf in preson, and yede him self to the holy londe”; in another, he enters his orchard “and for dule of hys hounde / he lepe in and sanke to gronde” (884-85), drowning himself; in another, he strips off all his armor:
And al barfote forth gan he ga,
Withowten leue of wife or childe.
He went into þe woddes wild,
And to þe forest fra al men,
þat nane sold of his sorow ken. (918-22)
In all three versions, he surrenders his entire social existence. He breaks his spear, forsakes his family, and leaves for the Holy Land; he drowns himself; he disappears into the woods, where no one would know of his sorrow. Each version has in common contempt for the advice of women, for the initial mistake of either his nurses or wife guides the knight to catastrophe. The misogyny, however, is not what the story is really about, but rather a screen around its incognizable content; as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, misogyny protects readers from a story that would have otherwise taken them into an abyss. Each of these stories of the knight and the greyhound is also a story in which choosing to grieve for a dog means abandoning the community of humans; each story is therefore one of realizing the structures of violence by which the human inessentially sustains itself. Once astonished by his recognition of his shared vulnerability with what should be recognized as a mere dog, the knight must exclude himself from a community that constitutes itself by knowing that humans should not die like animals. Humans who mourn dogs no longer have any place to be. For the knight to remain himself, animals must die like animals: unmourned, eaten or used up in labor, discarded and unmemorialized.

It would not do, for example, to wonder what became of the lions that ate Ignatius, or to wonder too much about what Ignatius himself ate before he met his grisly end. Since Ignatius disdains the Jewish law and sects that prohibit certain foods, it seems that his alimentary codes at least anticipate those of Augustine. Without objections to eating meat—or, perhaps better said, objecting to objections to eating meat—Ignatius likely broke bones and tore limbs, inflicting on animal bodies what he expects the lions will inflict on him. To be sure, this is a speculative reading. But because the lives of animals are so far outside the considerations of the Christianity exemplified by Ignatius, the disdain they suffered at the hands of the saint can be reconstructed only by compelling the silences in Ignatius's ouevre to speak. The community his writing helps constitute constitutes itself in part by excluding from consideration the significance of all violence except what humans suffer. The silence on all deaths but those of Ignatius and their co-believers is therefore a kind of evidence. Even as Ignatius harnessed the horror of his coming death for rhetorical force, he never considered that the deaths he silently countenanced, that he himself likely encouraged through his appetites, were just as horrific. Lions and other, less mighty animals, never having had life in the way that humans do, cannot be grieved unless humans recognize their shared vulnerability with them. But had Ignatius given voice to this shared vulnerability, he would have lost himself, for the indifference of Ignatius's ouevre to violence against animals, his almost complete silence about the food he ate before he himself was eaten, inscribes the boundaries by which Ignatius knows himself and his fellows as human.

The imagined deliciousness of human flesh functions in a manner akin to the human recognition of their social vulnerability amidst other humans, for it sets human life apart as special. The death of another human demands mourning, and also demands that each human remember that he or she will someday die as well: each recognized death is a memento mori. The remembrance is therefore also a remembrance of weakness. The fantasy of the deliciousness of one's own flesh, by contrast, is not a reaction to someone else's death but a fantasy of one's own death and one's own flesh that transforms human death from an occasion of grief into an occasion of triumph. The anthropophage commits violence against the human, and thus, by inspiring mourning in the human community, reminds humans of the vulnerability of their lives; yet its unshakeable fixation on human flesh simultaneously attests to the supremacy of human life. This is a violence akin to that suffered by the martyrs in hagiography, where every torment inflicted on them by some insatiable, compulsive tyrant bears witness not to the power of the tyrant but to the power of Christianity.

It is therefore to the advantage of humans that the taste of their flesh encourages anthropophagy. In the widespread story of Nicholas and the Three Clerks, Nicholas, dissatisfied with the meat the butcher tries to sell him, demands the three clerks the butcher has slaughtered, butchered, and salted like pigs. One manuscript of The South English Legendary records Nicholas's words before the counter:
ich wold ther of bigge. wel swythe gret won
of bacon that were fair and clene. fain ich wolden habbe
sel me so wel as thou wost.
I would buy from you a great deal of fair and clean bacon. I would gladly have this. Sell me as good meat as you know of.
In describing the clerks as “so wel as thou wost,” Nicholas elevates the dead clerks above the common run of meat. By coming to their assistance, as he would for no pig, he has mourned them or at least, through his actions, memorialized their deaths; when he resurrects them, he at once witnesses to and rectifies his grief over the violence they suffered. But even while the clerks are dead, even before the resurrection, Nicholas knows their flesh as human, because he knows it as far more desirable than the flesh of any pig. In that regard, the clerks have not been reduced to utter weakness by being slaughtered, for, inasmuch as they demand special attention, they still have an effect on this world greater than that of any animal.

The identification of readers with the clerks of the Nicholas story also allows them to identify with the clerks as the best meat and thus to identify with the clerks as not pigs. To the degree that they expect that Nicholas would have described them too as the best meat, they experience what Žižek terms interpassivity, “believing or enjoying through the other.” In this case, the belief is akin to the self-satisfaction felt in imagining being present at one's own funeral. The fantasy is not one of grieving for one's own self, but one of imagining the power that one will continue to have over others. The human imagines itself dead, and imagines its corpse an object of great alimentary delight; by inspiring delight greater than that caused by any other food, it knows itself to be the superior kind of life and therefore human. This fantasy is not, then, simply a passive experience, nor is it a fantasy of vulnerability. Although the corpse seems inert, it still acts by and through itself by driving others either to grief or delight. Even in death, the human retains its structural position of power; while in life, the human enjoys a similar kind of passive power by imagining that its living flesh would, if dead, be cause for celebration—and obsession—among anyone lucky enough to eat it. Whatever doubts humans may have about the specialness of their being, doubts that perhaps inhere most deeply in the apparent indistinguishability between human and animal flesh, the overwhelming desire of others for human flesh convinces them that humans matter more than any other living thing. In this dynamic, grievable and desirable lives are inextricable.

The fifteenth-century moral treatise Dives and Pauper proves that the verb “occidit” of the Sixth Commandment does not apply “boþyn to man & of beste,” but it still places limitations on the slaughter of animals: anyone who butchers an animal “for cruelte & vanite,” that is, anyone who enjoys killing the animal, has sinned. Humans, however, must possess something more than mere life; they must be creatures who cannot simply be put to use; the supremacy of human life requires the supremacy of human death. The slaughter of humans should not be simply a job, but a sin, an object of desire, a pleasure, a pleasure that coerces, a pleasure that infects eaters with “the hunger.”

[photo from a few weeks ago, at a diner that any Twin Peaks fan knows serves "damn good coffee, and hot"]

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is great stuff, Karl - I look forward to reading your book. I particularly enjoyed your explication of cannibal fantasies as (contrary to abject appearances) a mode of human self-definition, particularly given that the regular reading of cannibal discourses (in the famous and continuing anthropological debates) is as a colonial mode of othering "savages" (which perhaps then reflects back on the metaphorically cannibalistic practices (capitalism, colonialism) of the Europeans). Of course as you say, it is only on the basis of (or in order to establish) a species humanism that cannibalism is distinguished from carnivory in general.

Matt C

Karl Steel said...

Matt, thanks VERY much for the comments and for the erudite refashioning and further deployments of the anthropophagy stuff!

I should let you know that I've recommended your Genesis/Derrida article to several students over the past year. It's enormously useful, at the VERY least, in clarifying various muddled ideas.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: I am grateful for this post for two reasons. First, since about November I have been struggling with revisions to an essay on the Old English "Andreas," in which I have been trying to think through the dynamics and symbolism of Mermedonian cannibalism in that poem, especially in relation to Christian conversion [and maybe also, nation-building], and just yesterday, I was re-reading parts of William Arens's "The Man-Eating Myth" and also the excellent collection "Cannibalism and the Colonial World." Second, I have been working on a review essay for GLQ on queer theory and the post/human that has included a re-reading of Butler's "Precraious Life," a book that has, in some ways, underwhelmed me, partly I think because everyone gives credit to Butler for linking vulnerability to "being human," which Bryan S. Turner wrote about long before her [I think this is one of those cases where philosophers and critical theorists don't read contemporary sociology, but given how much work has been done in "sociology of the body" over the past almost 20 years, it strikes me as a glaring omission; I was thinking about this also as I was also reading yesterday parts of Brian Massumi's latest book "Parables of the Virtual," but given all the calls recently to bring materialism into or contra abstract theory, your work seems really apt]. I don't have anything substantial to offer here, mainly just a "thanks" for sharing this. But as regards the idea that, with their deaths, and the memorials/grieving for those deaths, humans recall their mortal vulnerability [memento mori], I would say that these griefs, and the memorials that accompany them [funerals, cemeteries, headstones, etc.] are also hedges *against* death--the idea being that, following your argument, humans are so special that they have to outlive death, or at least exceed it, not only [if they are Christian] through resurrection later on, but also by being inscribed/etched, via their names, on other living bodies [through genealogy, family memory, patrinomy, etc.] and on material, nonhuman objects [such as stone, in books, etc.]. Grieving is then not just about recalling vulnerability [as a way, even, of drawing the so-called human community even closer together, as a kind of pack/pact], but is also about not letting go of the supposed superior significance of humans, their *meaningfulness*. A good book on this subject is Avashi Margalit's "The Ethics of Memory," which includes discussion of animals.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks very much, Eileen, for the bibliographic suggestions. Will certainly track them down. In re: Arens: I love his work (he published yet another restatement of his point here Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, ed. Jennifer Wallace and Sian Griffiths (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), 156-66), and I love especially the Peter Hulme introduction to Cannibalism and the Colonial World. The bad faith and bad tempers of Arens' enemies! Ouch! Such nastiness.

Where Butler seems most interesting to me is not the "linking vulnerability to 'being human,'" but the call to reimagine a politics based on a recognition and expansion of mutual vulnerability. This is Levinas in a way, but it's political and active in a way that (so far as I know, which isn't far), Levinas is not. Thus: "...does the insistence on the subject as a precondition of political agency not erase the more fundamental modes of dependency that do bind us and out of which emerge our thinking and affiliation, the basis of our vulnerability, affiliation, and collective resistence?" or her conclusion, "For if I am confounded by you, then you are already of me, and I am nowhere without you. I cannot muster the 'we' except by finding the way in which I am tied to 'you,' by trying to translate but finding that my own language must break up and yield if I am to know you. You are what I gain through this disorientation and loss. This is how the human comes into being, again and again, as that which we have yet to know."

Ultimately, this is what I'm taking away from the Butler. Now, NONE of this appears in this section of this chapter, but it will be FEATURED (along w/ the Derrida-of-l'avenir and Leonard Lawlor) in the conclusion to my epilogue. Can't wait to get there, but first I have to plow my way through Chapter 4.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Karl. I was only riffing from you. Re the paper, thanks also - I was convinced no-one had read it. I look forward to further chapters. Matt

Karl Steel said...

Matt, FIRST thanks again for your productive riffing, and, second, nope, I read it and liked it and I love emailing the pdf to students. But I DO know the feeling of feeling like I just published into nothingness....know, however, that there's at least a small set of students in Brooklyn who know your work.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Karl, I am coming to this late, and without a lot to say other than: although much of this material is familiar to me from your previous posts at ITM, never have your strands cohered so well as they do here. What clarity: this is such a good articulation of your project.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

From Sara Ahmed, riffing on Freud, these lines remind me of part of what you are doing in your project:

"groups are formed through their shared orientation toward an object" (Queer Phenomenology 73)

"it is not that the 'object' causes desire, but in desiring vertain object other things follow" (100)

I think that her obsession with (empty) tables might be worth thinking about considering your obsession in your book with what can be placed upon and consumed at tables: I feel like much of what you do illuminates what is left mainly undiscussed in Ahmed's book.

Karl Steel said...

JJC, first, thanks for the compliment, and thanks also for the suggestion on the Ahmed. I've read only an article or so by her, on of them a 2006 GLQ article "Toward a Queer Phenomenology." I'll make a point, though, of reading the book itself in the next few months and letting it take me where it likes.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

A more than fashionably late comment, but I was thinking about your post, Karl (having been talking about animals quite a bit in the past few days) and I was curious about something. I know relatively little about all this (and my only work on cannibalism had to do with OE and the Andreas). But what I was noticing, Karl, is that a lot of what you talk about -- grief, memorial -- also has to do with writing and narratives, those bids against mortality and being forgotten that Eileen notes above.

I was wondering if -- without allegorizing, and without *losing* the human and animal bodies that populate the textual landscapes you've showed here -- there's a dimension in which these narratives also suggest a kind of question of the fragmentation of the human and the human body specifically via narrative acts? I'm doing my usual "interested in language/narrative more than bodies" thing, but I couldn't help wondering if part of the problem here is the degree to which texts are asked to stand in for bodies, facilitate grief for human bodies -- which on earth bear the same fate as the animal bodies from which the narratives are trying to distinguish them?

Fascinating work. Congrats on getting so much done!

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Ack, didn't finish the thoughtline of my question there:

I wonder if part of what you're suggesting is that these tensions and problems arise because the text can't adequately make the distinction in the first place?

...now that I type that, it sounds really po-mo. I need to get on reading L'animal que donc je suis one of these days......

Karl Steel said...

Mary Kate,

thanks for reading this, and thanks for the comment. In re: critical animal theory, if you're going to start w/ this stuff, I'd suggest starting w/ Matthew Calarco's excellent survey Zoographies.

Now, in terms of this: there's a dimension in which these narratives also suggest a kind of question of the fragmentation of the human and the human body specifically via narrative acts: I like the Anglo-Saxonist spin you're giving to some [as you point out] poststructuralist approaches, with this sense of ruin and memorial and the text as simultaneously a bulwark and an agent of further fragmentation. Having been trained, haphazardly, in psychoanalytic and poststructuralist critique, I think of the body as already fragmented, at least from the vantagepoint of someone who believes the body should be a stable unity, and that textual efforts to 'correct' this fragmentation only exacerbate or more clearly display the 'problem.'

If I were thinking like Mary Kate, I might want to lean on the Ignatius of Antioch material and think about his self-memorialization, how he's speaking both in advance of his martyrdom AND from beyond the grave. He is the author of his own passio! How strange is that? THAT strikes me as very much in line with some of the things you think about...granted, he's writing in the 2nd century, very early, and thus [probably?] before the hagiographic genres had gelled, but his martyrdom continues to be read, and rewritten, in the centuries following: here I wonder at the efforts [say, in the Golden Legend] to squeeze Ignatius into a proper [not self-authored] passio, but also at how much the peculiarity of this work is nonetheless preserved into the high and late Middle Ages. Hypothesis: among the many hagiographies set in the ancient past, there's this one, but it would ACTUALLY be, in its strangeness, much more 'of the past' than the ones flattened out into contemporary and familiar forms.

That said, for the sense of my sanity and just getting this thing done, I'm probably not going to follow out your suggestions! Just yet, anyhow...