Sunday, January 16, 2011

"Nature"; also Guigemar's Hermaphroditic Cervid

by KARL STEEL

1) Point the First: saw an excellent paper ("Lost Geographies and The Awntyrs off Arthure") by Kathleen Coyne Kelly at the MLA in the "Alliterative Romances" session, where something struck me: When did "nature" become a place? When did it become possible to go out into nature? When did nature cease to be, primarily, a synonym for "kynde," or a word meaning "all of creation"? The Middle English Dictionary, the OED, the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, and Glossa aren't helping me here.

2) Point the Second: On the topic of Nature: I recently read Timothy Morton's The Ecological Thought (for a hit-and-run review, see here). Enjoyed it enormously, not least of all for his take-down of heteronormative, hearty, unironic "nature." Morton says, for example:
Rugged, bleak, masculine Nature defines itself through extreme contrasts. It's outdoorsy, not 'shut in.' It's extraverted, not introverted. It's heterosexual, not homosexual. It's able-bodied--'disability' is nowhere to be seen, and physical 'wholeness' and 'coordination' are valued over the spontaneous body (81)....Masculine Nature is unrealistic. In the mesh, sexuality is all over the map. Our cells reproduce asexually, like their single-celled ancestors or the blastocyst that attaches to the uterus wall at the beginning of pregnancy. Plants and animals are hermaphrodites before they are bisexual and bisexual before they are heterosexual. Most plants and half of animals are either sequentially or simultaneously hermaphorditic; many live with constant transgender switching. A statistically significant proportion of white-tailed deer (10 percent plus) are intersex (84)....The ecological thought is also friendly to disability. There are plentiful maladaptions and functionless phenomena at the organism level (85)
Follow the link, the source for Morton's observation about the frequent intersexuality of white-tailed deer. If you're a medievalist, and this doesn't remind you of something, I recommend you reread my post's title.
En l'espeisse d'un grant buissun
vit une bisse od sun fo√ľn.
Tute fu blanche cele beste;
perches de cerf out en la teste (89-92)
In the densest part of a great thicket, he saw a doe and her fawn. this animal was completely white; it had a rack of antlers on its head. (5)
Morton, via Joan Roughgarden, talks of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), not native to Europe, and certainly unknown to Marie (but not unknown in their intersexed form to American hunters). But Roughgarden goes on to speak about several other species essential to the high-class hunting culture of twelfth-century Northern Europe:
a male morph in black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus) called cactus buck may be a form of intersex as well. Elk (Cervus elaphus, also called a red-tailed deer), swamp deer (Cervus duvauceli), Sika deer (Cervus nippon), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), and fallow deer (Dama dama), all have a male morph with velvet-covered antlers, called a peruke, that is described as nonreproductive. (36-37)
Now, Marie's white deer with a fawn doesn't quite correspond to the so-called male morphs of Elk or red-tailed, fallow, or roe deer; but the mixture of secondary sexual characteristics (at this point, would you please turn in your hymn-book to hymn #25, "All Sexual Characteristics are Secondary (Praise J. Butler)") in/on a cervid would not have been entirely unknown to Marie. It would not have been purely fantastic, nor purely symbolic. However, my sense from my dipping into Marie criticism is that this hermaphroditic deer's characteristics tend to be taken this way. If we take this as a known variant in cervid bodies (again, thanks, this time with the hymn book, "All Bodies Are Variants"), if we accept that what we tend to think of as "nature itself" "will not be pitched into binary assignations" (thanks Richard Maxwell, via Amy Hughes), then we, and Guigemar, ought not to take this critter as being as much a wonder, or monster, as we perhaps have been prone to do. Please do more with this if and as you like.

(image via the post "Something is missing on this 10-point 'buck,'" here)

12 comments:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I love this post, Karl, but it's intensely unfair: you're not allowed to marshal the evidence but back away from the verge of a conclusion like that! You are better equipped than any of us to ruminate: what difference does an actual, physical, historical, real ambisexual deer body make?

And I wonder: does the reality of the hermaphroditic deer matter so much because it is an organic body? That is, should an impossibly beautiful ship with a bed similar to the one that conveys Guigemar to his beloved be discovered, would we care so much?

Karl Steel said...

Great questions. I think what happens is that it puts the ambisexual deer back in the world. It breaches the boundaries of fairy, allowing us to discover the wondrous and weird having always been here among us rather than only over there, on the other side of the river/inside the barrow. Reality itself (a phrase I'm saying with all the appropriate provisos) is ALSO strange.

To expand: Marie's loaded the deer with some of the features common to fairy and Celtic wonder literature: it's white; it talks. That makes its strange, out there, it loads it with sacral or eerie detail. But its ambisexuality, rather than just being one more 'weird detail' 'out there' is a weird detail IN HERE, one familiar to hunters, perhaps, and perhaps not talked about.

And the NOT talking about it something perhaps worth tracking down in romance and in hunting literature more generally. If we can assume that ambisexuality is 1 in 10 or even 1 in 20 in farrow or roe deer, or in Elk, and IF these numbers were similar in the 12th-15th centuries, AND if the hunting literature of William Twiti, Gaston Phebus, etc., does NOT mention it, THEN we have a VERY interesting absence: a gap in the archives of what we know the hunters must have known.

As for the boat, I'll propose that one aspect of the beautiful ship IS here in 'our' world too, namely, that the boat wants to go somewhere. To ask a question much in line with your current grad seminar: what does a boat want? What does a beautiful boat want in a lai? To do what it does.

Eileen Joy said...

A few things:

is there such a thing as "dignity"? This has been much on my mind lately ever since Michael O'Rourke raised the term in his plenary address, "After," at BABEL's conference in Austin this past November, the full text of which we also published here on ITM:

http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2010/11/guest-post-michael-orourke-after.html

I ask because, frankly, I really did not like seeing the photograph of the dead/killed deer here, especially also because of the way the body is framed/splayed. I don't have the time right now to parse out all of the weird/psychological/pseudo-theological and/or so-called "logical" impetuses behind my reaction; I can only say for now that, as I am currently teaching a grad. seminar on "object-oriented ontology" that includes a segment on critical animal studies, that I found the image jarring and upsetting, both in its status as "object" [both for the hunter but also for us, as viewers of it] and also in its status as murdered, once-vital "life."

Does this deer have any "dignity"--should it, does it, and why might that matter [or not]? If you want us to consider the possibility of a "real" and not a "symbolic" hermaphroditic deer in Marie's fictional narrative, how does that "real deer" possibly "twist"/queer Marie's narrative [and maybe even double-twist/double-queer academic queer readings of that narrative, such as the one written by Bill Burgwinkle in his book "Sodomy, Masculinity and Medieval Law in Medieval Literature, 1050-1230"?] and also, maybe, this photograph?

I know you've responded to Jeffrey's similar query [at least, on the level of how a "real" ambisexuality, let's say, impinges on the figuration in the poem], but I think there's a larger question here [hewing closely to the themes of Timothy Morton's book, which I am also reading right now] having to do with collapsing the boundaries between the [false] idea of a Nature supposedly "Out There" somewhere and the interconnectedness of everything [human, deer, and otherwise], and between all of that and the themes of Marie's story [which is very much about a kind of shape-shifting of identity within the "interzone" of the "forest," which is never really a forest at all, but only an idea of one].

Karl Steel said...

I'm actually not *entirely* sure what Derrida's up to with that word 'dignity.' I get that it links up with Derrida's ethics and analysis of responsibility and temporality, but precisely what it means, I don't know: which may be sort of the point.

For what it's worth, I also find the image disquieting. And, for what it's worth, that disquietude is a way of being responsible to this image. We preserve the deer's dignity when its body has been displayed in such an undignified way precisely by being disquieted, even if we have to, or should, look away. That recuperation of dignity can occur both in looking (refusing to look away) and in not looking (granting the deer, even or especially in death, a body/self that can hide itself or display itself as it sees fit).

The hunter's treating the deer-object/carcass/corpse in a quasi-scientific fashion: come here and look if you don't believe me. That's not all of course. He's holding the antlers, sign of this being a buck, yet he's displaying the absence (the title of the article is, after all, "Something's Missing on this 10-Point 'Buck'"). The temptation to psychoanalysis is irresistible: we can read the deer's absent penis conjoined with the legible masculine antlers (bound to be displayed, maybe, by this hunter, who will carry with him, maybe secretly, the knowledge that the antlers point not to a penis but to nothing where he expected something). Disappointment and surprise are there in this highly sexualized splaying. And violence too, not least of all because the deer's been shot, but also because of the all too obvious way the splaying makes the deer available for pornography or even--given the blood etc--rape.

Behind the deer, we have the hunter's own posture, practical, of course, but also demonstrative, since his own light underpatch, his jeans, the analog of the deer's belly, compels us to look at his crotch. We have to imagine that something's there, but we might imagine, just as well, that we are looking at TWO absences, doubled, the deer's and his, hidden yet displayed.

I'm still thinking through how this 'real' wonder should shock symbolic readings of the ambisexual deer of Guigemar. It undoes divisions between wonder and the supposedly normal,fictional world, interconnecting everything everywhere. Guigemar and others have thought they were looking out there, past their own mundane lives, but, armed with the real possibility of ambisexual deer, aware that our structures of knowing have a long way to go before they catch up with what science knows, we should now know that the disquieting strangeness, the 'strange stranger', is right here, and always has been.

Something like that. I'm not quite sure yet how to connect the violence of this image to Marie.

Karl Steel said...

I tried to figure out another way to go at this picture and Guigemar, and something occurred to me about Morton's book and perhaps about OOO more generally (inasmuch as I've read in it, which isn't very far): whatever its various versions, OOO at heart calls for us to remember the things themselves. But the ontological arguments (variously about the relationships between sensual objects and withdrawn real objects; about the mesh; about particular actors, like the power network in Bennett) lead to the same conclusions: it's all connected; or it's not ALL connected (think of the likelihood of multiple universes), but self-same objects as we've typically understood them need to be reunderstood; and the epistemological loneliness of the Kantian revolution took us as far it could go.

But: maybe I'm being obtuse, but how do we distinguish between various kinds of lively objects? What's the difference in the way we think about the dead deer, the absent penis (as an idea, also a lively object), the hunter, his pants, and perhaps even the object formed of the aesthetic balance between the hunter's light-blue pants and the deer's white belly? How do we think of them in particular in contrast to Harmon's tree?

I'm thinking here of the weakest part of Bennett's book, p. 104, "Since I have challenged the uniqueness of humanity in several ways, why not conclude that we and they are equally entitled? Because I have not eliminated all differences between us but examined instead the affinities across these differences, affinities that enable the very assemblages explored in the present book. To put it bluntly, my conatus will not let me 'horizontalize' the world completely. I also identify with members of my species, insofar as they are bodies most similar to mine. I so identify even as I seek to extend awareness of our interinvolvements and interdependencies. The political goal of a vital materialism is not the perfect equality of actants, but a polity with more channels of communication between members" (104). As a side note, it goes without saying that "perfect equality" can't be a goal: on what transcendental plane would we compare things to determine equality? in what sense are objects even equal to themselves? Of course that can't be a political goal.

To my point here, however, Bennett throws in her lot with humans on the ethically weak grounds of familiarity. What she does here is indefensible.

But it's also laudable because at least she raised the point. At the Barnard Animals conference, Laurynn Lowe asked me about the relationship between ethics and ontology. How do we get, say, from Harmon to an ethics? How do we attend to the particular thrivings (or whatever) of particular lively objects (which, of course, means a particular mesh)? Once we have a basic new ontology of--Harmon again, because I'm reading more--sensual and withdrawn real objects, do we just have a tool for analyzing anything (and for recognizing all relationships, including those between nonhumans, as analysis) but no map for singling anything out for ethical care, nor even any map for talking about this particular world (of past deer and present corpse, of hunter, of pornography)? It's easy to talk about chairs and trees and even viruses and the milky way: these are nice neutral objects. But what do we do when we get to the photo I shared on this post?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

That's a provocative comment Karl. last night, spurred by the inimitable Liza Blake, my seminar was puzzling over ontology v. epistemology, and esp. the paradox that you can't really get to essences once your narrativize them, since that already moves you into ways of knowing rather than substantialities (and their potentially emergent causalities).

More on this topic, I am sure, will be appearing here at ITM as the semester unfolds -- especially because you, me and Eileen seem to be teaching seminars in dialogue with each other.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I love the question you raise right off the bat here Karl (the rest of the post too, obviously, but I'm so far behind on my reading for anything that *isn't* in my dissertation that I can't speak to much of what you're saying here except to nod in fascinated agreement).

When did "nature" become a place? When did it become possible to go out into nature? When did nature cease to be, primarily, a synonym for "kynde," or a word meaning "all of creation"? The Middle English Dictionary, the OED, the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, and Glossa aren't helping me here.

In the writing course I taught a few years back, we had a segment on "wilderness" and its multiple meanings -- based on Cronon's "The Trouble with Wilderness" we can blame the nineteenth century for making it possible to go out into nature (or the wilderness) as something one can do. I have access to the texts from that segment, if you want them...

As for the actual word, I have nothing on the etymology. The OE was "gecynd," and I don't think there was a synonym (though I'd be grateful for the correction if there was).

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: you have posed some amazing questions here, worthy of another post, really. I am halfway through reading Bennett's book with my students, and I have quite a few notions to share in relation to your questions here, and I actually think Harman's thinking on the ultimate "withdrawn-ness" of objects provides one route for approaching the singular thing aside from its enmeshment with other things. But what I just want to say now is: thank you for these rich questions, and after I talk about Bennett with my students next Monday, I will return to them in a new post.

Karl Steel said...

x that you can't really get to essences once your narrativize them

Word. See Harman's There is an absolute gulf between Heidegger's readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand. No real passage between them is possible, since the tool as a brutal subterranean energy and as a shining tangible surface are utterly incommensurable. Stated differently, the as-structure is incapable of variation or improvement. No matter how many facets of the engine we eventually unveil or catalog for ourselves, we cannot possible draw any closer to the tool in its being than we already were.

MKH: cool. "gecynd": this will show my appalling ignorance when it comes to OE, but could this be read as a verbal noun? Is nature naturing? (natura naturans)? I hope so.

EJ: can't wait! Agree w/ your point Harman and withdrawal, but I wonder if the withdrawal analysis allows us to privilege any particular weird object for ethical attention. That's my BIG question, and so far in my reading, so much as I remember, Harman doesn't address it.

Liza Blake said...

Hi all. Just catching up on this conversation and its comments, but: JJC, did I say that you can't really get to essences once your narrativize them? Or were you saying that was where conversation went? Because I'd have to think whether I agreed with that statement ...

Karl: on nature (from natura), kynd (from gecynd), and physics (from physis) you can't beat C.S.Lewis's chapter tracing meaning and etymology in the “Nature” chapter in C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words. I think I've got a pdf of it somewhere if you want me to send it. It might not answer your question entirely, but it would be a place to start.

Jacques told me today that (based on my first chapter) he thought my dissertation was writing a new genealogy of nature. Not sure how I feel about that, but it does at least make me want to do some more nature reading so I know what I'm up against ... (in case you have any good bibliography to hand, hint hint).

Karl Steel said...

Liza, DOOD, I *own* that book and have owned it for the better part of 20 years (my roommate in the early or mid 90s altered the cover to read 'Studies in Turds' after I left it on the toilet). And it's probably been that long since I read it: THANKS THANKS for the reminder.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

The suggestion that narrative (as a meaning-making system) is inherently epistemological and will never enable access to a pure ontology was mine. I don't know how firmly I believe it, but it's something I'd like to think about for a while.