Monday, March 28, 2011

Climate/Weather/Responsibility: Mandeville's Tartars

by KARL STEEL

Tonight, my grad class did 1/2 of Mandeville and 1/2 of Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter. Mandeville--drawing on John of Planto Carpini and Simon of Saint Quentin via Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum Historiale--has this to say about the Tartars:
[Tartary] is a most miserable land, sandy and not very fertile, for few goods grow there: not wheat, not wine grapes, not fruit, not peas, not beans. But there is a great abundance of animals. Therefore they eat only meat without bread, and sip the broth, and drink milk from all animals; and they eat dogs, foxes, wolves, cats, and all other animals, wild and tame, and both rats and mice. Also, they have no wood or little, and therefore they heat and cook their meat with the dung of horses and other animals [that has been] dried in the sun. And princes and others eat only once a day and less, and they are an extremely filthy people and of a wicked nature. In summer throughout all this country storms and lightning and thunder often happen, and many times they kill the people, and the animals too.

Translation from the excellent new one by Iain MacLeod Higgins, 80
As readers of this blog likely know, Vibrant Matter complicates any linear notion of causality and therefore any linear notion of responsibility. As much as Bennett would like to blame only "deregulation and corporate greed" (37) for the 2003 American blackout, she can't and remain intellectually honest.

Correspondingly, we can't blame ourselves only when we find ourselves having eaten an entire tube of Pringles, since "to eat chips is to enter in an assemblage in which the I is not necessarily the most decisive operator" (40). The students and I all agreed about this, and one added that the shape of certain foods--cherries, M&M's--lends itself well to this kind of vital mechanistic eating, while others--cantaloupe--does not. Much depends, she observed, on the size and shape of the human hand. And as much as Nietzsche's dietetics annoy, we who entrust our mental health and acuity to Omega-3 fatty acids must take seriously his argument that food interacts "in conferations with other bodies such as digestive liquids or microorganisms but also...with the intensities described as perception, belief, and memory" (45).

With all that in mind, how can Mandeville get away with calling the Tartars "an extremely filthy people...of a wicked nature"? Look at what they eat! Look at what they put up with!

I remembered someone being referred to as "like the weather, without shame." Likewise the Tartars. After some discussion, I declared: The Tartars are bad like the weather is bad. If I weren't a bit tired from just having finished a day's teaching, I might dilate on this; instead, here I'll just propose that traditional models of responsibility are like the weather, and that a properly materialist thinking understands responsibility as being like the climate. Perhaps there's something in this?

(image of Tartars from Otto von Diemeringen's German translation of Mandeville, via the Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland: St. Gallen, Stiftsarchiv, Cod. Fab. XVI, f. 46v, detail)

12 comments:

stantoro said...

The mention of deaths by lightning at the end would seem to bear out your idea. They eat a lot of meat, lightning kills a lot of them (and the animals too!), as is the natural order of things.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

You'll find more to chew on in Bennett's chapter "A Life of Metals," where she takes seriously the "it" in the expression "it rains" by looking at Deleuze's notion of a life.

That's a long way of saying that you are onto something here: the impersonality of life within a vibrant materialism.

Karl Steel said...

"stantoro" that + the "it rains" discussion in Bennett (which I read, absorbed--or adsorbed!--without recalling it), likely inspired my realization.

Let me explain a bit more what I mean about weather vs. climate as models for responsibility. Weather is the local thing; what we observe about our particular situation. It's pretty simple. It's raining. It's dry. It's 'caused' by winter or summer or mountains or whatever, and we think we know it. Climate on the other hand is VERY complicated. Climatologists can work on knowing what it will do; its long term trends and history (as there's no 'short term' climate, is there?); and its heterogeneous and sometimes excessive causes. We can adjust for climate, and we can affect it (so long as we believe in anthropogenic climate change) but climate is so much bigger than us. It's hard to pin down responsibility for climate or evade it. It's not a simple matter of putting on a raincoat, as we would for weather.

Does this distinction between climate and weather give us a model for thinking responsibility? And justice? And blame?

Not sure, but this is as far as my thinking will take me at the moment.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: your thoughts here are really provocative, but I also want some more elucidation from you. Are you saying that responsibility, similar to climate, is in some sense beyond being just about "us" [humans]? That ethical responsibility, then, gets hooked into "climate conditions," which, similar to Timothy Morton's hyper-objects, are already "out of the gate," as it were, and un-mappable? But isn't ethical responsibility, at the same time, always "local," regardless of contingent [and possibly vastly over-determined] circumstances?

stantoro said...

Makes total sense, Karl, and if there is a model to be gotten, these distinctions will be essential to it. Paul Dutton's work is great on this, and Jeffrey has very kindly accepted my proposal for a session on "Medieval Weather and the 'Natural' Order" for NCS 2012. Why isn't it summer 2012 now, dammit?

Karl Steel said...

Caveat: all that I say about climate and weather is said with only this knowledge: that climate concerns trends and weather local conditions. Climate is all around us; weather comes from somewhere (a rain cloud on the horizon; a warm front moving in; fog rolling up from the river). I need to read more (or at all) about this distinction, so important for understanding global climate change (and resisting the deniers who so often conflate climate and weather).

So I'm revising the statement that the Tartars are bad like the weather is bad. They might also be bad like the climate is bad. Or like the climate is. Period.

The weather model of responsibility allows us--commands us--to do something definite (and note that I'm not using the word 'responsibility' freighted as Derrida freighted it). We don't want to be the chickens too stupid to come in out of the rain, who drown looking at the sky. The weather has us do something. Responding to the bad weather of the Tartars, we can rescue the cats and dogs. We can rescue ourselves from them if they grow anthropophagously restive. We are, so to speak, putting on a raincoat, or wearing sandals.

Karl Steel said...

Climate is more complicated, more global, operating at a different time. In a climatic model, the Tartars are bad like the climate is bad. What can we do about it? What should we do about it, where "it" means the very nearly unmappable character of climate and Tartarian badness? To push at this maybe: to respond adequately to the climate, we have to change our time; we have to change ourselves, abandoning our culture perhaps (our populations, our mobility, our food, ourselves?). It may not be possible to respond to the climate and remain, at all. This may not be sufficient, and it may look monstrous. A response that is an act of terror.

Again, this is all incipient, part of a way of thinking for my Wolf paper that I have until August to figure out. The take away from now is that I think it may be impossible to imagine a non-local ethics. I've suggested here and twitter and elsewhere (my AVMEO talk for example) that all ethics is parochial. For better or worse. One of my tasks this Summer will be to figure this out, by reading more deeply in Latour &c.

A related thing, inspired by my rereading your AVMEO talk this morning: ethical discussions often (do they?) call for us to slow things down.

If we slow things down enough, and look to our heterogeneous polyselves, we'll find something like what Auden did in his 1969 "A New Year Greeting," which starts:

On this day tradition allots
to taking stock of our lives,
my greetings to all of you, Yeasts,
Bacteria, Viruses,
Aerobics and Anaerobics:
A Very Happy New Year
to all for whom my ectoderm
is as Middle-Earth to me.

Happy New Year bacteria! What can I do for you?

But why not speed things up?

I'm saying this relatively cognizant that it sounds like the cliché of all tyrants: "history will judge us." I'm not however suggesting that we "speed things up" to rush to meet a foundation waiting for us somewhere in the future, where "history" stands for the absolute. I'm instead suggesting that speeding up in another way to get inhuman; that we need to try to think ethics from an inhuman vantage; that we need to recognize that our time, as Justin Bieber says, "when viewed within the context of the geologic timescale, wherein chronological development is measured by evolutionary and stratigraphic events over countless eons rather than transitory human experience," does not "truly matter." Or, as he should have said, think of the other, inhuman matterings there are when we speed things up: to what are we the briefly living bacteria? What ethical obligations or openings do we present to them once they slow themselves down for us?

At certain thresholds of slowness or fastness, an ethics of and for humans gives way altogether. Ethics will not have been lost, but we will be, rendered nothing more than an afternoon's flurry in the larger, open system of climate.

Karl Steel said...

...does this sound totally nuts?

Jonathan Jarrett said...

It sounds, well, not nuts but a bit like this:

It is well known that stone can think, because the whole of electronics is based on that fact, but in some universes men spend ages looking for other intelligences in the sky without once looking under their feet. That is because they’ve got the time-span all wrong. From stone’s point of view the universe is hardly created and mountain ranges are bouncing up and down like organ-stops while continents zip backwards and forwards in general high spirits, crashing into each other from the sheer joy of momentum and getting their rocks off. It is going to be quite some time before stone notices its disfiguring little skin disease and starts to scratch, which is just as well.

Which is Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites, p. 136 in the UK Gollancz paperback.

Steve Mentz said...

Climate is good for thinking big, but there's much still to be done with weather as a physical & intimate experience, our most tangible contact with change, as Andrew Ross wrote some time ago in a book *Strange Weather* the title of which I shamelessly stole for an essay on *Lear* (Shakespeare 6:2 [2010]). Some modern & early modern biblio there too.

I also wonder if it's possible to come in out of the rain, in any final way. Surely that's a non-ecological thought, to borrow a phrase?

Ruben Reuben Rubin said...

Hi Karl,
Confession: I'm far too literal-minded to totally know what's going on here. But as I read, it seemed to me that in your initial post here, maybe you were digging in the direction of a philosopher who writes on moral responsibility, and (in his view) the lack thereof. The last few chapters of his book attempt to mull over how we should respond to the fact (if it is a fact) that we have no free will, and aren't genuinely responsible for our actions. If it interests you, here it is:
http://tinyurl.com/65yuug4

The book is pretty analytic though, so I don't know if that style of writing works for you. (I don't mean that to be insulting; I speak as one who has attempted to read Of Grammatology two or three times, but gave up each time after the first few pages had me totally lost.)

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: you do know that the self-doubt--

"is this totally nuts?"

--is always a sign you're onto something interesting?

The commentary here is SO rich and I want to respond further, BUT: I have a sabbatical report to write this morning and then have to teach and then prepare for a trip to NYC tomorrow--yay!

More soon!