against secure knowledge
Because the last class did not end well, I began my Objects seminar with a version of the words I preached at its inauguration, my pedagogical credo.
I'm not interested in what you know, but in what we can't yet grasp. The seminar is not an arena for the performance of erudition, for reverent citation, for showboating: these actions convey us nowhere we have not previously been. We work at the edge of our ignorance. We take our texts apart not to rediscover what we already knew, but to see what we can do with them, especially as they puzzle us, challenge us, take us somewhere we did not expect to travel. We are companions: to each other at the table, to the books and essays and authors we read. Our seminar is a laboratory, a place of experimentation. We commit to making ourselves vulnerable, to asking naive questions, to interrogating how things work. We will fuck up. We will fail. We embrace that risk, because we will also sometimes flourish in ways we cannot foresee. The two statements I never accept: "I find nothing of value here" and "I am not competent to speak of this." These are twin methods of non-participation, both in the end rather lazy. Bruno Latour is our guiding spirit in this shared endeavor: we do not critique so much as discover together what we can compose with the materials we have gathered.
Someone brought clementines, and some of us ate the leftovers of Toni Morrison's birthday cake, which had been conveyed from the Library of Congress to the English Department lounge. We were ready to speak of strange fruit.
We started with Julian Yates on speaking oranges, escapes from prison, and the the cascade/noise/parasite that is not so much a system's background, but a gainful entryway into understanding how any open system works. Yates writes:
For [Michel Serres], the essence of what it means to be human is not to be free from error or to be undetermined by things, but on the contrary, it is to be dependent, to be an intermediary, a go-between, to be one thing among many, inhabiting a system in cascade. (50)Sometimes this go-between will be a gaoler who conveys fruit to his prisoner, unaware that the juice is being used to compose secret letters that will prove both their salvation. Sometimes the mediator will be the orange itself, conducting its own business, leaving traces of its biological function in its no longer merely biological power to produce things ("the material characteristics of the orange are shifted into the world of social relations and discourse," engendering unexpected action, 57). Agency is hybrid, errant, a drifting, an act of transformative making, a trajectory replete with the random.
We then turned to "Sir Cleges," an unjustly neglected lai, a Christmas story finer than anything Charles Dickens ever composed. The knight Cleges is introduced as a spirit of generosity, his house open to all who are hungry. He reserves a special affection for the "squyres, that treveyled in lond of werre / And wer fallyn un poverte bare" (16-17): those upon whom the kingdom depends in order to further its national interests, and those whom it forgets when their utility is at its end. Cleges also cares for minstrels, who fill his halls with music. These artists will in the end enable his redemption.
After more than a decade of liberality Cleges slides into penury: his estates mortgaged and then sold, his goods dwindling almost to nothing, his household reduced to himself, his wife Clarys (a lady as generous as he), and their two children. Christmas Eve finds a melancholic Cleges, lost in memories of what has been and weeping over the profundity of his family's privation. Suddenly "sowne" -- music -- intrudes: trumpets, pipes, drums, harps, guitars, carols, everywhere the resonance of song. This eruption of the world in uncanny, joyous noise is lost to him, reminding only of what he no longer holds. He returns home heavy hearted, where Clarys instructs him in expunging sorrow from his thoughts and fixing himself in the present, not the past (128). They resolve to possess what cheer they can attain, and an extraordinarily touching scene follows:
When thei had ete, soth to sey,To drive away the dark of night, to bring cheer in a time of peril, to create in what has become a bare existence a moment of contentment, a livable life, Clarys and Cleges play with their children, the best wey that they myght. The passage is as unnecessary as it is moving, and I cannot think of another scene in contemporary literature in which so simple and so comforting an act is recorded.
With myrth thei drofe the dey awey
The best wey that they myght.
With the chylder pley thei dyde
An after evensong went to bed. (157-61)
The next morning Cleges prays in his bare winter garden. In rising his hands clutch a tree bough green with leaves, red with fruit. He cannot resist popping one of these cherries into his mouth, "the best that ever he had sene" (212). Yet just as he misheard the glad tidings in the sudden music on Christmas eve, in the visual and gustatory beauty of the strange fruit, in their "nowylté," he perceives only a "tokenyng" of "grevans" to come. His wife, a better reader of the world's plenty than he, corrects him: "It is tokenyng / Off mour godness." She provides Cleges with a basket, then sends him to the king to present the cherries as the gift. Clarys conveys the knight to places that he as a solitary agent would never arrive. She is the mediator who links the cherries to the basket to the road to the king; she sets Cleges on the path to a destination he could not envision, and she will be the means through which the fruit becomes a gift, a pedagogy, a vehicle of transformation, a song, a prospect.
Misrecognized as poor shepherds, Cleges and his son are three times blocked in their advancement towards the monarch. The court's porter, usher and steward allow the knight to continue only after extorting from him a third of whatever Uther Pendragon yields as a reward. No surprise, then, that Cleges requests twelve blows as his boon, and distributes this violence with enthusiasm. The buffets are pedagogical, a gift sent to the future: they break the shoulders and the arm of the porter, but they also ensure that from that day forward he will not (as he did to Cleges) hurl abuse at the poor, will allow them uninhibited to pass. Not the merriest of Christmases for these three, but this lesson taught upon their bodies is what enables Cleges to be recognized by a harper, for his identity to be announced to Uther, and for his family to be restored to a wealth that enables them, once more, to distribute wealth and food.
The violence disturbs us (especially as the steward cries out "Stryke thou me no mour!" 456), but we understand how the story believes such an embodied pedagogy to be necessary. Still we prefer the cherries when they exist for themselves, or for private delectation on the tongue, or when they become the harper's music that concludes the lai, that becomes the lai iself. The cherries transformed into Christmas blows worried us, but also emphasized a network is not a utopia, that mediators can be seraphs or dark angels or most likely both at once. Actor Network Theory promises a more ethical mode of understanding the world; it is built upon the conviction that the political, the social, the natural need to be opened up, to become a democracy of people and things. Tracing a the vector that is a network should make us especially attentive to those who pay a price for such motility: sometimes the forgotten angels, sometimes the Jesuit tortured in the tower who is writing secret letters with orange juice, sometimes the impedimental points who are in fact people, whose cries for mercy -- "Stryke thou me no mour!"-- demand attention.
a botany of desire
We ended the class by tracing the glide among potions, plants, and love triangles in the lais of Marie de France. Les Deus Amanz, Chevrefoil, and Eliduc share a fascination with how the vegetal insinuates itself into human desires and enables our queerer conjoinings: Eliduc's most powerful moment of desire, after all, occurs when the wife sees the sleeping body of her husband's beloved, and knows suddenly the power of desire. She will use a flower snatched from a weasel to recall that woman to life. These two women end up together at the close of the lai, and the poem is rechristened with their names. A mediator pays the price for the conveyance that enables this configuration (Eliduc drowns the sailor who complains against transporting his lover to Brittany), but this violence is quickly forgotten as a triangle of relations expands the claustrophobia of the mere couple.
Tristan and Isolde embrace the intertwining of honeysuckle and hazel, just as once through the mediation of the maid Brenguein they imbibed a potion that triggered their explosive passion. The problem for the young man and woman of Deus Amanz is that, alas, they prefer the security of the world they inherit. Not drinking the potion means not embracing the strange fruit that has always already taken root within.