Tuesday, June 28, 2011

whatnots, trifles, novelties, gewgaws, knickknacks and whathaveyous

by J J Cohen

Some scattered doohickeys, along with some gimcracks, doodads, thingamajigs and veeblefetzers.
  • Three days ago Katherine asked me the meaning of "whatnot." She's been keenly reading the "Little House on the Prairie" series, and occasionally comes across a word that has gone out of use that she'll ask any nearby adult to explain. I told her that whatnot is a placeholder term. It doesn't mean anything, really, it just gestures towards words that haven't yet arrived for the speaker. I then went on to give her a list of similar terms (see above). "Remind me to never ask you what a word means again," she stated, returning to her book.
  • I had so many of these terms close at hand because Cary Howie and I have been working on the introduction to our special issue of postmedieval, New Critical Modes. When we were brainstorming the contours of the issue, Cary had (unforgettably, for me) associated New Critical Modes with novelties and ice cream trucks. The word novelty and its relation to novel ("a small new thing," from Latin novellus) -- that is, to a term that means new as well as indicating a kind of writing -- seemed perfect for this project: seasonal, maybe; ephemeral, perhaps; inventive, we hope; sweet, I think; a time-knot, most certainly. So our introduction uses novelty a bit, as well as gewgaw and nugae (why not employ the Latin version of these terms? We are medievalists after all.) The whole thingamabob is almost ready to enter production.
  • KEC with the whatnot she wore to crazy hat day
  • Speaking of Katherine, she and I are making a quick trip to New York together next Friday to visit the Guggenheim. I am desperate to see this exhibit. She on the other hand is eager to go because the building plays a significant role in a film she just saw. We'll take the bus early in the morning and return the following afternoon.
  • With this sudden trip to New York, a looming second trip there in September (at least Myra Seaman found a cool hotel to stay in), a family trip to Bordeaux for Thanksgiving -- and most looming of all, a Big Trip to southern Australia in a few weeks --I've been doing a great deal of travel planning. My favorite discovery so far: the Aquila EcoLodges at Grampians National park, where we'll spend a few nights after we leave Melbourne. We'll also be visiting Tower Hill Reserve, located on an inactive volcano -- and staying for a night in a glass cottage built into the hillside. If we are not ambushed by marauding kangaroos while out in the wilds we will be sorely disappointed; Katherine has been teaching herself karate.
  • Speaking of Melbourne, here is a glimpse of what I will be doing there. All the Cohens are going, but only one of us has to give a lecture. Though I dread the flight itself, I've never so looked forward to a trip. Just have a pesky keynote to compose ...
  • Other than my second life as a travel agent, it's been a summer of meeting deadlines. My race essay is off to the editor. A late addition: an excellent and thorough two part essay by Geraldine Heng, "The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages" from Literature Compass (here and here). I've just finished a book review and will submit that tomorrow. The abecedarium is done, another book project I am working on is nearly finalized, etc.
  • Lastly, I am looking forward to Alex returning from camp in West Virginia this weekend. Every day brings a few pictures of him posted to the web, and he's written us some hilarious letters, but I miss the guy. The novelty of a quiet house I can do without.

CROWD REVIEW: Becoming-Media Issue [postmedieval]


Myra Seaman, Jen Boyle, Martin Foys, and I are thrilled to announce postmedieval's first experiment with CROWD REVIEW: this will be an open, weblog-based review of essays selected for our Becoming-Media issue, co-edited by Jen and Martin, to begin in about two weeks at our crowd review site HERE. As Jen and Martin write in their Vision Statement,
First and foremost, the system for Becoming-Media’s crowd review is “webby.” At a recent THATCamp “un-conference,” an open-format gathering of scholars, students, librarians, and public intellectuals invested in a thoughtful integration of the humanities and technology, the comment was made that some of the recent experiments in open peer review had perhaps inadvertently reproduced aspects of the insularity associated with traditional blind review. That is, some of the interfaces and online environments meant to facilitate a more open review process were structurally isolating: the pre-emptive granularity of paragraph-by-paragraph interfaces for commenting on individual essays; a general platform for the review process that structurally dictates the taxonomy of importance to various approaches to commenting on the texts.

What difference might a simpler interface make? What if scholarly crowd review had the look and feel of the webby blogs that academics and academic institutions have begun to become accustomed to? The interface for Becoming-Media’s crowd review is designed to work very much like a blog, and to allow commentators to generate emergent threads of commentary on parts of an essay, or even an entire essay, with emphasis and focus of their choosing.

The webby system has implications beyond the technical elements of the interface. In a recent PMLA forum, David Theo Goldberg contributes his thoughts on the larger implications of web-based environments in re-structuring intellectual, social, and religious affiliations (“Praise the Web,” PMLA, Vol. 126, No. 2, March 2011). Goldberg goes so far as to position the influence of the web as a force that re-distributes the “practices,” experiences,” and “processes” of communities of “truth” (drawing on Foucault’s earlier explorations of these terms) (448). While some might find Goldberg’s inclusion of “webbies” alongside the tags of “ancients” and “moderns” a bit hyperbolic or even reductive, he draws forward a significant and compelling re-focus that is at the center of both the technical experimentations and conceptual under-girding of this issue on Becoming-Media — temporalities.

As Goldberg points out, what draws together the long-standing academic quarrels over “ancient” and “modern” stances toward scholarly method (either referenced historically as the early modern debate over learning based in imitating the models of antiquity versus knowledge production that took up the challenges of contemporary political and cultural forces; or more recent invocations as a metaphor in contestations over the merits of the “old” and “new” humanities) is their reliance on the importance of a discrete “time” or “period” that signals change, that remediates what has come before. In the case of “webbies,” by contrast, there is an emphasis on a relational re-forming. This is not to say that such an emphasis is not historical; certainly, this issue is all about the “new” in new media being brought into contact with the deep textures of historical reading. But it is to say that the re-forming tendencies of “webbies” (webby nodes and interstices; their dispersal and distributedness) call forth formal events as “lines of connectivity” (past, present, and future) more so than as singular “time[s] of being” (452). In this sense, the crowd review for this issue is intricately inter-woven with the question of emergence. Rather than expending energies dictating structures that reassuringly mimic the features of traditional blind peer review, we offer an open “webby” in-time editorial process that we hope will lead to some interesting reflections on “webbies” as a historical, scholarly, editorial, intellectual, and social emergence.

Why not invite a crowd? The concepts and frames of webby/webbies are likely to produce some anxiety. The “web” has become somewhat of a pejorative among some professionals, evocative as it is of the crowd on the street and “average” Joes and Janes. The concept of the crowd to some might seem particularly inimical to academic institutions or professionalism. Crowds imply mobs. Crowds imply amateur opinion, cajoling, and yelling. But crowds also now connect with activities like “crowdsourcing,” an open call for collaboration among a large group of informed participants interested in exploring, creating, or solving. And crowds also change things. The crowd potentially embodies an exciting challenge to the isolation and insularity of traditional academic organizations, as an opportunity to experiment with the re-structuring of professional and disciplinary affiliation.

For our part, we offer this invitation to Becoming-Media’s crowd review in the spirit of experimentation rather than expectation.

This issue features essays-in-progress by Seeta Chaganti, Eddie Christie, Arne Flaten, Julia Reinhard Lupton, Eugene Thacker, and Whitney Trettien, and it is my great hope that our readers here at In The Middle and elsewhere will participate in the crowd review of this issue. You are invited, furthermore, to participate in whatever manner suits you: commenting on just one or several of the papers or even on just one or several portions of a paper, and so on and so forth. To find out everything you need to know to participate with us in this experiment, go HERE.

Cheers to everyone.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Cruising in the Ruins: CALL FOR SESSIONS -- 2nd Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group

Figure 1. David Fried, Way of Words, No. 1 : “Lose your mind so you have something to find.”


32. Listen carefully. Every collaborator who enters into our orbit brings with him or her a world more strange and complex than any we could ever hope to imagine. By listening to the details and the subtlety of their needs, desires, or ambitions, we fold their world into our own. Neither party will ever be the same.

38. Explore the other edge. Great liberty exists when we avoid trying to run with the technological pack. We can't find the leading edge because it's trampled underfoot. Try using old-tech equipment made obsolete by an economic cycle but still rich with potential.

--Bruce Mau, "Incomplete Manifesto for Growth"

Myra Seaman and I are excited to share with everyone -- and with great thanks to Kathleen Kelly, Marina Leslie, Arthur Bahr, Julie Orlemanski, Erika Boeckler, Robert Stanton, Alexis Kellner Becker, and Diana Henderson -- that Northeastern University, M.I.T., and Boston College will be joining hands with BABEL to co-host the 2nd Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group in Boston, Massachusetts from 20-23 September 2012: "cruising in the ruins: the question of disciplinarity in the post/medieval university." The conference, as with our first meeting in Austin, Texas last November, is partly inspired by Bill Readings' book The University in Ruins, and his proposal there that, instead of abandoning or exchanging older disciplines for "a simply amorphous disciplinary space in the humanities," we should permanently "keep open the question of what it means to group knowledges in certain ways, and what it has meant that they have been so grouped in the past."

The university and the disciplines traversing it (and the disciplines traversed by the university as super-structure) are phenomena with medieval roots and uncertain futures. Medieval university studies were ostensibly contained by the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), but the meanings of, and divisions between, these subjects were under constant interrogation and revision, even as older, newer, and alternate designations (dialectic, philosophy, theology, natural science, forensic, polemic, etc.) continually remade, and eventually unmade, the traditional taxonomies. “cruising in the ruins” seeks to engage both the architectonics and mobility of knowledge; the cleavages between ways of knowing; the impurities of cross-contamination between disciplines and fields and temporalities; the threat/promise of post/humanism and the post/humanities; the shape(s) of disciplinary crisis today; the aesthetics of scholarship; discipline & pleasure (and pain); the secession or amputation or orphaning of the humanities; how to foment disciplinary glamour; DIY medievalist agitprop; the personifications of knowledge; intra-university affects; the reservoirs of metaphors in other people’s jargon; what the “uni-” in “university” and “universe” might mean; what the “after” in “after inter-disciplinarity” might portend; what misfit heterotopias might be possible in a new multiversity; what the “cruising” in “cruising in the ruins” might invite.

You can read the full CALL FOR SESSIONS below and also bookmark it HERE, and please, join us in Boston!

2nd Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group

cruising in the ruins: the question of disciplinarity in the post/medieval university

20-23 September 2012

Boston, Massachusetts

[co-organized by the BABEL Working Group, Boston College, Northeastern University, M.I.T., postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, and punctum books]

We all know what severe pressures the University is under today—economic, social, and cultural—pressures that have led to a certain amount of disciplinary hand-wringing and jockeying in relation to the practical “use-value” (or valuable non-practicality) of some disciplines and fields versus others. Some have argued that disciplinary security is best assured when disciplines merge with each other and form new, cross-disciplinary alliances. And while faculty both distance themselves from and ally with each other over these matters, university administrators and state legislatures are de-funding departments and programs, weakening general education curricula, and undermining faculty governance of the University’s mission and programs of study. In his book The University in Ruins, Bill Readings argued “the University’s ruins offer us an institution in which the incomplete and interminable nature of the pedagogic relation can remind us that ‘thinking together’ is a dissensual process; it belongs to dialogism rather than dialogue.” And what might be needed now is

not a generalized interdisciplinary space but a certain rhythm of disciplinary attachment and detachment, which is designed so as not to let the question of disciplinarity disappear, sink into routine. Rather, disciplinary structures would be forced to answer to the name of Thought, to imagine what kinds of thinking they make possible, and what kinds of thinking they exclude. (Readings, The University in Ruins, p.176)

So, let’s not be interdisciplinary for a moment, nor necessarily anti-disciplinary. Let’s re-sound our disciplinary wells, while also, inevitably, bumping into each other and occasionally hooking up, like Democritus’s atoms. Holding on to our disciplinary objects and methods and ways of knowing, while also keeping them open to futurity and the surprise of the stranger, let’s cruise each other. Let’s swerve, without steering, through the movement-filled “void” that is the university, cyberspace, society, the world. Atoms, monads, particles, singularities, seeds, souls, kernels, cells, events, appearances — gathering in molecules, crowds, assemblages, drifts, swarms, parliaments, strikes, clouds, hives, cascades, collisions, waves, one-night stands, spontaneous acts of metempsychosis, a fine spray of perfume through the atomizer, hanging in the night air. ATOM is from the Greek “atomos,” meaning “uncuttable” — don’t cut our budgets, don’t try to reduce us any further, to liquidate and consolidate what we do. We’re what’s irreducible in the university — so many modes and methods of being and acting, of chemical reaction, of natality, of swerve. As Lucretius tells us, the detritus of destroyed objects is the atomic dust that gives rise to all things. In 2010 we convened “after the end” of the post-catastrophe of everything. In 2012 we’re meeting in the post-post-catastrophe dust, to reassert the atomic weight of our respective fields, disciplines, and methods and, of course, to give rise to new things.

We are often tempted to demonstrate what the humanities can do for the sciences, and what the sciences can do for the humanities, but the 2012 Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group, “cruising in the ruins,” proposes that the question NOT be, “How can the sciences be more humanistic?” or, “How can the humanities be improved through science” (the “merger” or “inter-” approach). Rather, how can we reconstitute our atomized projects in new ways as we collectively rethink the stamp, the style, the value of distinct disciplinary approaches to common concerns and questions, while also cruising each other's “bodies” of knowledge?

We seek medievalists, humanists of all stripes, scientists, social scientists, and artists to experiment with performing their respective methods in proximity to one another. This is a speculative practice because, despite being uncuttable or irreducible, we’re falling through space and time, falling into one another, and always in the process of swerving. What we do next is uncharted. So let’s not reduce disciplinary difference to one yawning crack between the humanities and the sciences. The divisions of disciplinary knowledge are legion and manifold, capillaried and filigreed. The idea is to have a conference in which disciplinary and field differences are sharpened as we converge on shared objects, subjects, terms, genres, tools, materials, concerns, methods, and approaches:

archive, body/embodiment, crux, gene, map, matter/hyle, memory, mind/mentality, museum, narrative, relic, trope, record, life, bios/zoê, surface/plane, autopoesis, geometry, encyclopedia, gender, trial, principle, disease, parasite, immanence, physics/physis, adaptation, speed, study, laboratory, element, animal, angel, posthuman, experiment, species, reproduction, genius, ledger, laboratory, classification, tool, semblance, earth/ground, recess, affect, demon, ontogeny, machine, deconstruction, ipseity, fold, frame, collective/assemblage, trans-, virus/viral, architecture, vein, geometry, depth, creature/creaturely, camera, set, ecology, dwarf, outside, exemplarity, network, cyborg, proof, book, time, immunity, web, surplus, logic, force, mesh, neighbor, environment, planet, contingency, psyche, liminal, digital, mineral, haeccity, architecture, ghost, word, page, pocket, artifice/artificial, humanism, dream, sovereignty, calculus, program, animate/inanimate, monster, residual/remainder, complexity, code, case study, plant, waste, anomaly, queer, being, speculum/mirror, form, intelligence, star, thing, self-organizing, space, dualism, history, abstract, image, person/homunculus, media, metaphysics, dynamism, tradition/history, organic/inorganic, vitalism, computer, prosthesis, wild/wilderness, perspective, velocity, avatar, chart, virtual, liquid, theorem, random, splicing, techne/technology, sex, chaos, etcetera.

The university and the disciplines traversing it (and the disciplines traversed by the university as super-structure) are phenomena with medieval roots and uncertain futures. Medieval university studies were ostensibly contained by the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), but the meanings of, and divisions between, these subjects were under constant interrogation and revision, even as older, newer, and alternate designations (dialectic, philosophy, theology, natural science, forensic, polemic, etc.) continually remade, and eventually unmade, the traditional taxonomies. “cruising in the ruins” seeks to engage both the architectonics and mobility of knowledge; the cleavages between ways of knowing; the impurities of cross-contamination between disciplines and fields and temporalities; the threat/promise of post/humanism and the post/humanities; the shape(s) of disciplinary crisis today; the aesthetics of scholarship; discipline & pleasure (and pain); the secession or amputation or orphaning of the humanities; how to foment disciplinary glamour; what the Situationists can tell us about pedagogy; DIY medievalist agitprop; the personifications of knowledge; intra-university affects; town and gown; the reservoirs of metaphors in other people’s jargon; what the “uni-” in “university” and “universe” might mean; what the “after” in “after inter-disciplinarity” might portend; what misfit heterotopias might be possible in a new multiversity; what the “cruising” in “cruising in the ruins” might invite.

Think about sessions as working groups, as demonstrations, speculations, drag shows, hypotheses, clinical trials, love letters, conservatories, plea bargains, theorems, performances, séances, salons, discographies, bills of sale, slams, manifestos, postcards, recording sessions, lab reports, embassies, mash-ups, and other experiments that aspire to make strange or re-estrange the chosen object of study via close-reading or any other techne currently practiced or yet-to-be-imagined: distance studies, the new materialism, materialist history, a demography of things, speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, deconstruction, networkologies, genome mapping, hermeneutics, discontinuist histories, hypothesis, post-historicism, carnal phenomenology, vibrant materialism, guerilla metaphysics, morphology, Latourian sociology, anachronism, case study, queer touching, taxonomies, machine reading, dark ecology, eliminative nihilism, erotohistoriography, the fine arts, philology, science-technology studies, rhetorical readings, codicology, thin and thick description, flat ontology, new scholasticism, ludology, etc. — and let’s not forget the nominalists. And when in doubt, consult Bruce Mau's Incomplete Manifesto for Growth.

Please send us e-proposals for sessions by 15 December 2011* to Kathleen Kelly and Eileen Joy at: babel.conference@gmail.com. Our goal is to offer a variety of presentation and performance formats—anything but the standard panel with 20-minute papers, please. Sessions of 4-5 papers at no more than 10 minutes apiece would be ideal, but we’re open to any number of configurations that can be imagined. In your proposal, provide a title, name(s) and contact information of organizer(s), and a 250-500-word description of the session's aims, objectives, and format.

*After December 15th, we'll advertise the finalized sessions, to which anyone can submit individual proposals, and we'll also accept random individual paper/performance/other proposals which, if approved, we will then assemble into additional sessions.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Henry David Thoreau and Me

by J J Cohen

I mentioned a while back that rereading Vibrant Matter as part of my spring graduate seminar had inspired me to pick up Walden as well. In a post summarizing an evening's work in the class I wrote the following (and please excuse my quoting so large a chunk, but it is the spur to what I am composing this morning):

We turned to Thoreau's Walden, since the work is among Bennett's favorite texts (Vibrant Matter is underwritten by American and British Romanticism as well as the philosophers it examines; there's as much Whitman and Coleridge in its underworkings as Spinoza and Deleuze in its citations). We looked at the beauty of this early passage, in which Thoreau pauses in the woods while constructing his cabin by Walden pond:

The ice in the pond was not yet dissolved, though there were some open spaces, and it was all dark-colored and saturated with water. There were some slight flurries of snow during the days that I worked there; but for the most part when I came out on to the railroad, on my way home, its yellow sand heap stretched away gleaming in the hazy atmosphere, and the rails shone in the spring sun, and I heard the lark and pewee and other birds already come to commence another year with us. They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man's discontent was thawing as well as the earth, and the life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself. One day, when my axe had come off and I had cut a green hickory for a wedge, driving it with a stone, and had placed the whole to soak in a pond-hole in order to swell the wood, I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I stayed there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state. It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life.
Great stuff, and almost irresistible, so stunning is the narration: just as the warming sun lifts the cold from the earth, lifts the snake into better communion with the woods that surround it, so Thoreau in his lucid solitude is lifted to empyrean life, to a perspective denied those men held by common society's chill torpor. Thoreau is proud of the retreat he constructs, and gives us every detail of its rising, even the total price. A bit later he informs us that the boards for his walls were purchased from an Irishman named James Collins, whose shanty he demolishes. Thoreau inspects Collins' house before taking possession, noting the scant but treasured possessions within -- a parasol, a gilded mirror, a coffee mill -- as well as a cat at the window and an infant "in the house where it was born." The next day he journeys to collect his purchased materials:

At six I passed him and his family on the road. One large bundle held their all -- bed, coffee-mill, looking-glass, hens -- all but the cat; she took to the woods and became a wild cat, and, as I learned afterward, trod in a trap set for woodchucks, and so became a dead cat at last.
It's an oddly dispassionate scene. We want Thoreau to have his experience of the Wild, want him to narrate to us the allure of serpents that bask in vernal sun and invite the mind to transcendence, but what about the Collins family? What about their cat? Does it matter that the material of his retreat arrives from the ruins of their life? That their pet comes to no good end? Or should we take the transaction for what it was, an economic exchange rather than a space for affect? Does Thoreau's discovery of his own vibrant materialism come at a cost, and should we hold him to account?

We returned to those questions throughout the term, but couldn't exactly solve them.

So I came again to Thoreau's Walden in part because Jane Bennett makes such good use of the book in her work. But I also wanted to overcome, at last, some of my lingering ambivalence that clings to all things historical having to do with the Boston area, my natal geography. As I mentioned in this post, growing up in Massachusetts as the United States was celebrating its bicentennial (yes I am that old) so drenched me in colonial history that I became a medievalist out of spite. Boston, Cambridge, Lexington and Concord were places I could ride my bike through (here was one of my favorite destinations), lived landscapes rather than domains for historical reverence. All the flag waving at spaces that seemed to me ordinary was tedious. I didn't get it.

Thoreau lived and died long after the Revolutionary War, of course, but he paid a price for my childish turn against American history. He may as well have written in 1776, because the pond was a place to swim, not a sacred grove for history-driven nature worship. Walden was an easy drive from my family's house, so my mom or aunt would often pack the Cohen children into the car and take us for a dip and a picnic. Walden isn't a large body of water. Though a state park, it's hardly pristine. I remember quick boredom at the place because it was always crowded. The water was too warm and too still. I love the ocean, its briny tang and its ceaseless churn, the suggestion of danger that a pond can't bode. I am sure that as a child I was a joy to be near. Eventually at the urging of whoever had brought me to Walden I'd hike the rim of the pond. Wandering that dirt trail made it easy to be lost in thought. Sometimes there was no one else around, and it'd be surprising to come to the railroad tracks that cut through the landscape -- the very tracks that Thoreau describes in Walden. I believe that even when I was a child a replica of his cabin had been erected somewhere near the pond, but if so I always avoided it.

I read Walden in high school, as part of an American Literature course. I don't remember the book making any special impression on me, other than its describing a place bearing little relation to the pond of childhood swimming and picnics. I vividly recall, though, that my teacher admitted how when he'd read Walden in college he had decided to simplify his life. He lived without any technology (easier to do back then), and discarded most of his possessions. He confessed that he now wished he hadn't jettisoned so much. He'd like to still own his yearbook, childhood photos, objects that meant more to him than he realized in his ardor for austerity. He warned us to be open to literature's invitations, but not to allow texts to ruin our lives.

Rereading Walden a few months ago, I was struck by Thoreau's restless mind and unstoppable curiosity. We see him inhabiting the minds of ants; boating across the water to plumb its depths; speculating on India and Greece. The pond becomes an actor in the narrative: a source of mystery and inspiration, always changing (crystalline in summer, in winter an immobile and yet kinetic block of ice), ever alive with birds, mammals, and human wanderers. There is nothing lonely about his cabin. Thoreau's self-righteousness annoyed me, as did his mythicization of Native Americans and his inability to feel sufficient sympathy for the impoverished Irish and African Americans with whom he shares his "wild" space. But I don't think I quite got the complexity what was going on in the book (it seemed lovely if semi-oblivious nature writing) until I came across Lawrence Buell's account of Thoreau's vulnerability:
Even Thoreau's Walden, the most canonical text in all US environmental literary nonfiction, might be rethought in terms of an uneasy mediation between the prideful standoffishness of the author's voluntary simplicity experiment and his inability to ignore the genuinely impoverished, extruded Irish and black denizens of the Concord outback ... He cannot help also acknowledging his interdependence with these outcasts. They are a mocking echo, impossible to romanticize in the way he romanticizes Native Americans elsewhere in Walden, of his own half-confessed, half-suppressed inability to balance his own accounts and his awareness of being thought a failure, driven to a state of dependent squatterdom in the eyes of many in his community ... struggling with concerns of poverty, downward mobility, and chagrin at being socially reduced to the equivalent of an ethnic other. (The Future of Environmental Criticism 122)
Buell's reading doesn't quite get Thoreau off the hook. Henry David still fails to feel anything for those whom he is most like, and lives his simplified life at the edges of their ruined ones. Yet Buell's point that Walden is "a more searching ecocultural inquiry" than the "voluntary simplicity literature" it inspired is a good one. Buell reminds me of the limits of my own sympathy, of my own childhood propensity to be a sourpuss. A way of not thinking, a way of closing roads of inquiry down. Buell's reading reminds me of the wider world (historical, geographical, philosophical) that we must never cease working to envision if our writing and our criticism is to be as kinetic and as restless as Walden might be when freed from the constraints of memory and the injustice of predetermination.

Monday, June 20, 2011

An Abecedarium for the Elements (draft)

by J J Cohen

Here the draft of my piece for New Critical Modes, the next issue of postmedieval. Some background here. Why this form remains to me a mystery, but remember: it is Chaucerian. For all that matters.

An Abecederium for the Elements


Following the four elements in their movements suggests a method of thinking about the world that is atheological and unpredetermined, a secular and speculative vitalism in which life is possessed by the nonbiological. The essay is structured around an abecedarium, or alphabetic list, a mnemonic device with a long history.

A is for aerial, the gods’ domain.

We sense its presence at every lift of leaves, in tempests that gather, in the tremble of a transatlantic flight. We might pray when these movements perturb. Yet we also suspect that gusts, drafts and mistrals might be the world’s agency rather than divine breath, that the elements might be artists rather than emissaries.
Olympus, Asgard, the celestial vault almost touched by clay bricks at Babel: deities dwell in lofty mansions to imitate their native element and remain unseen. So long as the world’s motion is guided its tragedies are intended. Gods rule the remote earth and make heaven mundane. Theology might insist upon the inhumanity of the divine, but celestial dwelling places are unfailingly anthropomorphic, comfortable homes. But what if no aerial gods abide? This abecedarium charts a world enlivened by elements, a perturbed expanse in which humans are one actor among many. A quadrivium of earth, air, water and flame mingle to offer an invitation to nonanthropocentric worldedness, a secular mode of thought not necessarily anchored in realms where divine and aerial conflate.
Air is at last neither celestial nor invisible.

B for the brilliance of cloud, earth and rain

To each element belongs movement, intensity, vector, affect and duration, as well as ardors to combine and pull apart.

Whirling above tectonic earth but beneath swift and sidereal fire, air and water are elements of moderate duration. Yet despite bolts and rumblings, a propensity to glide disdainful above sea and land, a cloud is not so heavenly. Cumulus is heap or gathering: vapor, lightning, sky and dirt, four elements in turbid and volatile suspension, and a figure for the life of each. Clud is the Old English word for a mass of earth or rock, a clot. Though we consider earth dull, stone is a heaving and metamorphic element that inhabits a span so slow humans miss its undulations. To glimpse the elements in their proper temporalities is to see fire as slow consuming, water as ice and rift and ram. To behold earth as cloud. Rock is a restless matter, a billow of airborne shapes that having brushed heaven fall to rise again.
Cloud is a coruscation or churn of dusty water; cumuli that nuzzle the ground as fog; fire that flashes when the world is wettest; all the elements in one, an Empedoclean or Boethian tumult of love with strife.

C is causality that vertu confuses

Vertu is the most inhumanly powerful word in medieval English and French, its meanings ranging from energy, might and vitality to potential, magic, and force. Vertu does not descend from heaven (God sends miracles; vertu resides already in the substance of the world), nor rise from hell (it is a real possession of materiality and form, not the trick of a demon). Stones and leaves radiate vertu as easily as knights, horses and clerics. Humans may ally themselves with the vertu of gems or herbs to accomplish through mineral and vegetal friendship feats otherwise impossible. Vertu is life force: reproduction and vitality, affect and intellect and health, that which moves the flesh. The term can be theologized, so that sacramental efficacy and probity are among its polysemous yields. Anthropomorphized vertu also includes legal authority and chivalric valor. But vertu is at last as nonhuman as it is profane, and therefore the term that best describes the elements in their solitary powers, moving the world whether humans or gods desire. Of which vertu engendred is the flour, of which vertu engendered is the soul, even the souls of cloud-like stones.

D the desire the elemental diffuses

Ta panta rhei, everything flows. Presocratic philosophers discerned in matter an endless percolation, a combinatory mutability within inexorable flux. Sometimes, as for Heraclitus, this unrelenting current left little space for endurance. For others, though, some principle of union could bring into being objects that persist, not for eternity, but for a durable space, a pause before the creation of new objects, a space during which objects might live, might connect, might withdraw.

Quadricameral Empedocles is therefore the patron saint of this abecedarium. A minor philosopher, perhaps, and known in the Middle Ages mainly though Aristotle, this master of divided elements broke the world into four particular and autonomous movements, then recomposed the stuff of life from substance-causes that would not stay chaste. Love and strife were for Empedocles both cosmic glue and guarantors of change: desires inbuilt within materiality itself, a particle physics. Fire, water, earth, water, love, strife become six divinities to intermingle and leave a part of themselves in every material thing, ensuring intrinsic heterogeneity, becoming over being. A poet for the physical sciences, Empedocles knew that the world is larger than insentient atoms but smaller than omniscient gods.

E is an elephant, herbivore chaste

The elephant is an abstinent beast. According to the bestiaries, this lustless animal would not possess the desire necessary for copulation were it not for the agency of a root. By ingesting mandrake, the vegetal pander that enables animal union, the elephant ensures endurance of the species. Except when under the influence of an earthbound root, elephants do not desire each other’s flesh; yet they do crave a future greater than their allotted span.

Though this piece of animal lore might seems odd, elephants are not so different from iconic medieval lovers. Herbal go-betweens recur. Tristan and Isolde might never have loved without ocean thirst and a potion to bind them in flame. Marie de France writes in her lai “Les Deus Amanz” of a doctor in Salerno who knows herbes e racines (herbs and roots). When distilled into mescine, these plants can enable a would-be paramour to support an otherwise unbearable weight, that of the conjugal couple. The inamarato in question dies, though, because he will not ally his flesh with botanical potency. When the unused potion is spilled across the mountain he was attempting to ascend, the inclement slope becomes a perpetual flowerbed. A lover’s trust in human sufficiency is lethal. Desire is a hybrid thing, mixing the vegetal with the animal, the sterile durability of earth with the fertile potency of water to create a kind of fire. Elephants have long known this fact.

F for the fire that burns in the waste

According to a scurrilous legend that circulated after his death, Empedocles sensed his nearing demise and leapt into fiery Etna. He hoped to convince those left behind that he had been rendered a god. His famous bronze sandal was discovered at the crater’s edge, however, and this unintended remnant declared his mortality. The philosopher would remain terrestrial.

Empedocles argued that each of us may be a celestial daimôn in earthly exile. Fire was therefore his favorite element: most empyrean, most catalytic, the principle of life itself. Though he may have left his shoe upon the stone when he jumped, he knew what he embraced: not divinity so much as an element that combines the others and lifts them skyward, even as it sears. Although nothing itself, mere aftermath, fire is an element irresistible to allegory: alive as it consumes, extinguished only to arise elsewhere, radiant, vibrant, warm. Fire possesses everything we who dwell at the volcano’s fringe do not, our little lives bounded by blazing dreams.

G the indignity of being god

    Prospero’s mistake is to believe himself a deity of vengeance. Every detail of the play he has scripted for his island is precisely arranged. Arial, spirit of air and fire, performs the magic this dramaturge envisions, rendering words scenes. Yet Prospero forgets that air and fire are not The Tempest’s elements. This is not a drama of messengers and mechanical gods. How wrong that nuptial pageant goes, and how thankful we must be for the strange and hollow sound to scatter its staging. The Tempest is earth and ocean, a deluge to sink its occupants below the waterline, into that mucky ooze where bones are gems. When Prospero drowns his books and abdicates his magic, he walks away from his own divinity and recedes into quiet life, removed from the transformations he once loved. Full fathom five is only thirty feet. As Steve Mentz (2009, 9) observes, a good swimmer can touch that bottom.

    Chaucer thought he knew better, if we believe the clerk of Orleans. This magician in the Franklin’s Tale fills his study with a forest, deer with great horns, hounds and high falcons, dancers who invite onlookers to companionship. Like Prospero’s magic these scenes arrive from books. They are as easily dismissed: “he clapte his handes two / And farewel! Al oure revel was ago” (5.1203-4). The marvelous visions were always immured within the study “ther as his bookes be” (1207). No transport, no transformation. A clap of the hands and the filing away of the volumes and it is time for dinner and business. Magic is a mere transaction, a thousand pounds for some black rocks vanishing. Consult another book, some tables that determine tides, and those stones are underwater. But not deep enough, not even fathoms five.

The Franklin’s Tale ends generously, as men free each other from bonds. Yet any reader attentive to the narrative will hear in Dorigen’s plea against the rocks a prayer for a world where stone and water are equally metamorphic. The story was ruined when the clerk left his study. A true magician would have taken from his shelf the Book of Earth and Water. He’d discover no comfortable narrative. He’d find himself washed somewhere distant, some cloudy place of stone and sea. The clerk of Orleans and Prospero learn the indignity of being a god. Inscribe the scripts and spells in whatever books you like. Roar out directions to your players or force them into covenants that extract too high a price. You’ll sink your books that way, or you’ll shut your study door and think dinner and business preferable to blank pages and open ends. No wonder when the fable closes you are revealed a fragile thing, the one who declares he never knew you (“Ne nevere er now ne haddest knowen me”), the one whose charms are all overthrown.

H for the humors for Galen to prod

The impress of place upon body is elemental. According to the encyclopedist Bartholomaeus Anglicus, “the sonne abideth long over the Affers, men of Affrica, and brennen and wasten humours and maken ham short of body, blacke of face, with crispe here.” The fire of the south inscribes itself on bodily size, skin color, and humoral balance, leaving austral dwellers prone to cowardice. Northerners, on the other hand, are cooled to whiteness and valor. They carry place within (brave spirits due to favorable balance of the bodily humors) and without (pleasing body shape, pale skin). Bartholomaeus and his translator were, of course, boreal.

For humans and for animals the four elements that generate climate are linked intimately to the four humors that sustain bodily form, mental faculties, and spirit. In the garden of Eden all humans began as clay, but their destinies came to be shaped by air, water and fire.

Iudaizare, a small becoming

The western Middle Ages were a Christian space. That statement obscures the vastness and the heterogeneity that Christianitas contains, and yet a medieval studies that does not anchor its answers in Christian theology is not easy to envision. The temptation is to work in the ghetto, in a space that did not exist during much of the Middle Ages: to find an enclosed space in which secluded inquiries might be conducted.

The Jewry was a mixed urban area, Christians and Jews living side by side. Stone and wood houses, gardens with medicinal herbs, shared air and from time to time shared meals. Seditious or amicable neighboring and linguae francae seem to me preferable to Latin and Hebrew solitudes. Combinations, not stillness; corners, not cathedrals; history’s dreams.

L for Langho, a dragon’s undoing

According to the Book of John Mandeville, not far from Crete reside two islands ruled by Hippocrates’s daughter. She dwells in dragon’s flesh and awaits the knight brave enough to kiss her monster’s mouth. She is a solitary being, glimpsed sometimes in her maiden’s form as she regards a mirror, seeking perhaps to know her true self. Once a knight from Rhodes attempted the caress, but his horse conveyed him to death by rocks and water. Once a youth from nowhere in particular discovered her castle, agreed to be knighted to attain her beauty, but fled in fear upon beholding her draconian form. He had been warned. What did he dread? Leaving the trajectory of his small life? Living a narrative to transformative culmination? The story of Hippocrates’ daughter is a parable of the insufficiency of love. The princess yearns for escape from her monstrous form, yet can never persuasively convey to her suitors that even our bodies are constant in their change: sublime one day, terrifying the next, objects of a universe where all things withdraw, leaving us to cry for companionship at whatever shore where we’ve been abandoned.

    The rocks and lethal water in this story are not for conveyance, not for change. They are terminal, a reminder that elements are blunt, composing forlorn islands as easily as utopia.

M is magnetism, the pull to the air

1:28 and sleep gone. Coat and gloves and a keen ice night. A moment and I have it, white circle in bare trees. A crescent of darkness slides its edge.

I am thinking of oceans, lunar roil on my tongue: Mare Undarum, Mare Spumans, Mare Imbrium, Mare Ingenii, Mare Nubium, Mare Insularum, Mare Frigoris, seas of waves of foam of showers of cleverness of clouds of islands of cold. But the moon is stone not water. The Oceanus Procellarum is ceaseless storms, but consult the atlas: frigid, arid, gray dust, dead. Encyclopedic Isidore tells us that lunar light is lent.
Before I knew Latin I knew the wet life of the moon, its tidal pull on our waves, on the water in our skin. Why shouldn't it have troubled rollers of its own? Maria lunae. Rhythm of words that pace with me. I romanticize that cold thing. Panpsychism, anthropomorphism, animism. The satellite is frozen and dry.
Lunar indifference cannot hold. Winter's early mornings draw me, companion me, even when their coldness hurts. Some clouds drift the low brightness, but it is good to see it round again. The shadow of the earth has passed. I run my circuit, alone but not solitary, thinking about Mandeville and the English star and wandering, a childhood haunted by oceans, the assurance of storm and tempest and elements that churn, the promise of the moon.

N dreams of Adam, the loss of nowhere

In Luminous Debris Gustaf Sobin finds Eden in prehistory. During this golden age humans subsisted upon the gifts of the land, no need to steal domain or resources. In this community none felt individualism’s ache. Stones, rings, megaliths, pictographs, monuments are luminous in that these vestiges of lost history blaze connections whereby past and present momentarily conjoin. In this ephemeral glow we realize our diminution into cold, sterile and reclusive modernity.

For Sobin the past is truly lost: labor over every map, attempt to read the rocks and topography, but you’ll never securely know where Hannibal crossed the Rhone. The river moves. We will never discover the location of vanished Aeria, "City of the Air," resonant locution without stable location. The Greek geographer Strabo described the polis as "altogether aerial, constructed on a raised promontory of its own" and indicated proximity to Orange and Avignon. Preserving Aeria as a nowhere allows its drift into poetry:
For Aeria seems to exist free of the very floors and crypts and quarried vaults in which it was once rooted. In an age of reductive analysis and infallible detection, it continues to resist any classification whatsoever ... There's safety, we can't help thinking, in its indeterminate status ... Buoyant, suspended, eminently diffuse, the vocable alone, in eluding us, justifies our fascination. Escaping our own stultifying structures, it gives the imagination a late place in which to muse, meditate, linger, if for no more -- indeed -- than a passing moment (2000, 172-73)
Luminous Debris is filled with moments like this reverie of ethereal habitation, gorgeous passages that inhabit the locales they vanish. We turn to ancient detritus to discover some weight there, something to anchor our drifting, nonviable now. Yet Sobin is also full of quiet hope: unlocatable fords and passes, lost portals and unmappable cities of the sky offer an invitation to escape. The questions matter more than "the mean trickle of 'verifiable fact'": "Might we even begin constituting, indeed, a collection, an entire library of questions? A whole, inexhaustible archive devoted exclusively to wonder, to query, to the unlimited breadth of human speculation?" (54-55).

O is for objects and orbits they make

Little interest exists in Luminous Debris in imagining a world in which the rocks that form a fire’s ancient windbreak might have designs other than the architectural ones into which they have been arranged. Human meaning overwrites any agency objects might possess outside of the hands that fashioned them into edifice and later touch their vestige. Whereas Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter describes a lively materiality that coexists with human allies, Luminous Debris traces the sad or heroic peregrinations of homo faber, the artist who leaves ineradicable traces upon stones and landscapes, letters to future humans about how impoverished their lives will have become. In Sobin's account environment is a history book’s page on which is recorded elemental forces: water once coursing an aqueduct, a persistent winter wind, stones that linger long after arrangers vanish, traces of prehistoric flames. But landscape and humans are only fortunate and occasional allies. Earth, air, fire and water are materials that await a shaping, not amorous actants or discordant gods.

P is for purity, solitary and fake

Empedocles underreached. His cosmos in four pieces and two movements reduced compounds to singularities. Air, earth, fire, water -- four nouns that align like an incantation -- are not even themselves. Air is a war of objects, a turbulence of rising water, gliding gulls, sand in storm. Earth holds moles, worms, volcanoes, rivers of blind fish. Fire rages in sea crevices, sulfur for the abyss. Water carries acids, protozoa, skin cells, stone tablets on which are inscribed the history we lost during the flood. Though the world is larger than atoms and smaller than small gods, the elements are a brief resting point, objects for making other objects, not an end.

Q queries quondam, requests if it's queer

Graham Harman is known for his work in Object Oriented Ontology, or OOO. He is philosophically precise, full of rigid Heideggerian phrase: "a quartet of time, space, essence, and eidos, all resulting from the tension between a specific asymmetrical pair of object and quality" (2004, 104). No poet wrote that line. Yet Harman’s work swells with kinetic metaphors that quietly labor aesthetically and performatively while the analysis does its louder business. Harman envisions "a world packed full of ghostly real objects, signaling to each other from inscrutable depths, unable to touch one another fully" (2007, 187).Vicarious causation is not, he insists, "some autistic moonbeam entering the window of an asylum" (2007, 187). With its intermixing of the gravitational and the overly solid, the liberty of lunar gleam with the carceral solidity of walls, the metaphor is both elemental and unfathomable, and that is perhaps why it is so compelling. In the wake of such images, after the impossible possibility of a self enraptured lunar ray, who would want to be on the side of those dry philosophers who invoke the "dull realism of mindless atoms and billiard balls"?

Earth is Harman’s element, but as a lively substance in which its siblings also dwell. There's no transcendence in this subsurface system, "not even distance." We are "moles tunneling through wind, water and ideas no less than through speech-acts, wonder and dirt" (2007, 210). We reside in an infinite subterranean milieu, "numberless underground cavities," but it's a place of neither finitude nor negativity. And those sparks from that distant satellite do penetrate from time to time, calling us to a wide sublunary world:
an archipelago of oracles or bombs that explode from concealment only to generate new sequestered temples. The language here is metaphorical because it must be. While analytical philosophy takes pride in never suggesting more than it explicitly states, this procedure does no justice to a world where objects are always more than they literally state. Those who care to only generate arguments almost never generate objects. New objects, however, are the sole and sacred fruit of writers, thinkers, politicians, travellers, lovers, and inventors (2007, 212)
This generation or poesis happens most frequently through the conveyance that is metaphor, which might also be called allure (215). That which is transportive, wonder inducing, and prolific constitutes an ethical aesthetics, beautiful and good. That is why each element so quickly becomes an allegory, a transport device that intermixes material with conceptual objects. Allure is fashioned of earth, fire, air and water in their shared pull.

R is for refuse’s radiance clear

Jane Bennett instigates Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things with a catalogue poem in which the rubbish on a Baltimore street radiates philosophopoetic insight:

one large men's plastic work glove
one dense mat of oak pollen
one unblemished dead rat
one white plastic bottle cap
one smooth stick of wood
This detritus clinging to a storm drain could offer a dark ecology, the task of which is "to love the disgusting, inert and meaningless" (Morton 2009, 195). Yet there is nothing still or repellent in Bennett's shimmering debris. The repugnant possibilities of a rat’s corpse are counteracted by its being “unblemished.” Bennett's poem renders the dross of the world alluring, lively, saturated with significance -- a poetics for re-enchantment, a Nicene creed for the secular:

I believe in one matter-energy, the maker of things seen and unseen. I believe that this pluriverse is traversed by heterogeneities that are continually doing things. I believe it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces, and forms, and that a careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my comprehensive grasp. I believe that encounters with lively matter can chasten my fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common materiality of all that is, expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests. (122)
Amen. No substance is inert, no materiality uninhabited by vitality. When humans are but one force in an unbounded network, everyday elements no longer seem so quotidian. Power grids, waterways, dense metals and windstorms become enchanted: vibrant matter, radiant matter, webs of objects with agency. If this effectivity is at times aleatory, it is seldom negligible and always a challenge to anthropocentricism. Vital materialism is a kind of spiritualism without gods, a way of restoring sacrality to elemental worldliness.

S offers anima, the souls lives hold

In Reassembling the Social Bruno Latour describes actor-network theory (ANT) as a slow and patient mode of inquiry that traces the associations through which agency emerges. Through such hybridizing networks action is dislocated: "borrowed, distributed, suggested, influenced, dominated, betrayed, translated" (2005, 46). As the catch of a storm drain becomes for Bennett a catalog poem, so for Latour a failed subway system, or microbes, or a science experiment, or a rain forest are revealed as works of science and art. Reassembling the Social reads like an instructional manual, but like everything Latour composes is full of literary reference, from Frankenstein and Rimbaud to the Bible and Hamlet. Latour describes texts as laboratories (2005, 139): they deploy actors and networks, they do not critique them. Texts, like the best classrooms, are experimental spaces. They do not explain so much as enact. Such vitality renders objectivity difficult, because it prohibits simplification and reduction of the world.

Latour innovates critical modes. The middle of Reassembling the Social contains an imagined dialogue, "On the Difficulty of Being an ANT," a sort of play-within-the textbook. Aramis, or the Love of Technology erupts with a beautiful sequence in which a personal transport system intended for Paris is abandoned by its engineers ... and Aramis (as the system was christened) begins to speak, accusing its imaginers of insufficient love. Aramis adapts the words of Victor Frankentein's Creature to form his rebuke, culminating his complaint with "Burdened with my prostheses, hated, abandoned, innocent, accused, a filthy beast, a thing full of men, men full of things, I lie before you. Eloï, eloï, Lama, lama sabachthani" (1995, 158). Not exactly subtle, but if the elemental and the inhuman is ever to possess a resounding voice, hesitant utterance will not do.

T is for great tempests, tide’s force twofold

Isidore of Seville believed that the world (mundus) takes its name from innate and perpetual movement: “The world is so named, because it is always in motion (motus), for no rest is granted to any of its elements” (Etymologies 3.29). The oceans, the lands, the stars themselves are caught in an unceasing tempest of their own creation: “The sphere of heaven is said to run with a swiftness [celeritas] so great that if the stars did not run against headlong course to delay it, it would make a ruin of the universe” (3.35). The elements as an unnumbered multitude of Hermes, swiftly moving to give the earth its nature. The universe as a velocity machine that, should the stars take their rest, would spin us to oblivion.

V is velocity, speed of the spheres

Too swift? This abecedarium is the labor of a wandering year. Composed and recomposed, written down and written with, its contents bear the impress of place: Berlin, Chicago, Barcelona, Buffalo, York and New York, Cambridge. Some lines were born on a boat. Others arrived in flight (I remember the dark, the tranquil sleepers, a thought of the stormy Atlantic). Most came in a study or quiet room, the siblings of books. A few, like these, in a café. Its writing was slow.

Yet at each reading the piece moves more quickly, from a Middle Ages watched over by God to a plurality of smaller gods in love and strife to a mundane space in which the elements give to some a vocabulary for secular intellectualism. I don’t think that invitation was ever so boldly offered or accepted as this swift reading might imply. Yet to imagine the agency of matter loosed from divine motivation, to think mundane objects apart from the interests of heaven-dwelling gods: surely these are not our privilege alone. Even if in the end they return to God or gods, carry out some divine mission that they cannot know, the elements in their entelechy push somewhere indifferent to a world diminished by divine love.

Water holds W: oceans and tears

The romance Octavian opens with the promise of fire: a dream of a burning dragon, a miscarriage of justice that consigns a new mother and her twin progeny to flames. The romance quickly becomes, however, a story of flows: saturated with brine (the transportive waves of the "Grekes se," the body of water across which the characters are perpetually conveyed by ships or gryphons; the flood from every human eye in this text of endless tears); soaked by a fresh water spring that offers respite for lions and gryphons, death to thirsty sailors, reunion for sundered families; drenched with blood that soaks the bed of marriage and childbirth as well as the battle field; alive with the breast milk from a lioness who feeds a royal child when she loses her own whelps, or from a nameless nurse secured in Jerusalem when a bourgeois merchant purchases a baby there for reasons never explained; swept by the curve of the Seine, a river that only seems to separate Christians from Saracens, while blurring the difference between sandy Jerusalem and drenched Paris; saturated by the passions that course through animal, human, and perhaps inorganic bodies; soused by a circulation of capital, merchandise, florins, pounds. Manuel De Landa, poet-philosopher of matter on the move, writes that:

reality is a single matter-energy undergoing phase transitions of various kinds ... Rocks and winds, germs and words, are all different manifestations of this same dynamic material reality ... Our organic bodies are, in this sense, nothing but temporary coagulations in these flows: we capture in our bodies a certain portion of the flow at birth, then release it again when we die and microorganisms transform us into a new batch of raw materials (1997, 21, 104).
Steve Mentz finds a similarly nonanthropocentric, nonanthropomorphic and liquid restlessness in the ocean, "a sharp tang of nonhuman immensity.”  This inhospitable and unfathomable vastness is not a metaphor (even if we cannot resist aestheticizing its surge), but a materiality that disorders, transforms, remakes the human (2009). Sopping wet Octavian seems the medieval version of these philosophies of flow: the text that sometimes stops moving (young Florent in the marketplace is enraptured by his sight of a falcon and then a steed, animals that transport him out of his middle class identity into the timelessness of chivalric belonging), and yet even these moments of arrest are components of a larger movement, towards the reunion of the broken imperial family with which the narrative began. The story ends when the Emperor is reunited with the wife he wrongly banished, with the two sons who have grown to adulthood far from Rome.

And yet, the ending of the tale is unsatisfying. The characters with whom we are intimate have been bound in iron, rendered immobile, and a person we barely know (Octavian Jr., of whom the story has told us very little) saves the day, miles ex machina. The conclusion has the family return to Rome together ... but to what future? With what promise? The book does not say. Everything flows, but the elements do not lose their integrity, do not reduce themselves to actors for a human drama’s happy but premature ending.

X is ex nihilo, nothing that is not.

Nothing comes of nothing.
For a stone to rain from the heavens is not the same as to say that a rock arrives from void. The Peterborough Lapidary speaks of a projectile that might be a meteorite. Or it might be the elemental act of creation itself:
Coparius is a stone þat is bred in þe eyre & some callen it fouldre; & he falleþ with tempest to þe erþe when gret tempest of þondres and ly3tnyng fallen, & it falleþ in to þe erþe ix fote, & þe erþe reboundeþ a3ene by vertu of þe stone. (81)
The stone hides itself for nine days, and then those who seek it may earn discovery. The one who possesses coparius will be protected from lechery, storms and mysauentur (misadventure, mis-comings). Lithic child of the air, its arrival heralded by thunderclaps and bolts of lightning, this stone that plummets and rebounds and lends its virtu to its fortunate companion shows how even clouds refuse chastity, birthing rocks that rebound upon the storm-swept earth.

Y is the ympe-tree that fairies sought

The Breton lai Sir Orfeo populates the court of the Fairy King with bodies in pieces, alive in their perpetual dying. How can the kidnapped queen Heurodis slumber so peacefully beneath an "ympe-tree" while the dismembered, the mad, the strangled, the drowned, the burnt neighbor her dreams? These fellow sleepers have also been seized from the ordinary world. They seem to exist in a somnolence removed from time, preserved in the agony of their capture. Could the peacefulness of Heurodis arrive because she did not resist the advent of her taking? The Fairy King warned her that should she not appear at the appointed time at the ympe-tree in the courtly world, "thou worst y-fet / And totore thine limes al / That nothing help the no schall" (170-2). By surrendering to adventure, to the thing that arrives unwilled and sometimes undesired, she is transported out of time but not out of body. A future opens that otherwise could not have arrived.

She is in this way like her husband. Once Heurodis is taken by the fairies, Orfeo dons a pilgrim's cloak but seeks nothing. He wanders the wilds in a bare existence, a barren space of "snewe and frese." Nothing pleases ("seth he nothing that him liketh"). Whereas Thoreau discovered in the sunbathing of a serpent the appearance of "thing-power," the invitation that the world's materiality offers to "be surprised by what we see" (Bennett 2010, 5), Orfeo discerns only "wilde wormes," unsatisfying roots to eat, and "berien but gode lite" (berries of little worth). No radiant materiality here. Yet through the music of his harp he allies himself with "weder ... clere and bright," with a forest yearning for resonance, with birds and wild beasts hungry for "gle" and "melody." The moment of being-together that he creates through his music seems to call forth the King of Fairy, who wanders the woods with his retinue on a hunt in which nothing is pursued. Orfeo, ten years in the forest and transformed now into an arboreal semblance ("He is y-clongen also a tre!" exclaim his subjects upon his return), has given himself over to adventure: an advent or coming that like the Fairy King's hunt moves without telos, without objective. Adventure is surrender to a world in which the self is a non-autonomous part, an embrace of an elemental cosmos larger than the dream-prison of the singular.

Z is Zephirus, enlivening the land.

According to Chaucer, the west wind’s breath is fecund. Watery April inseminates the arid passivity of March with his licour. This germinal fluid brims with a vertu through which “engendred is the flour” (General Prologue 3-4). The earth swells with blossoms, birds randy with song, pilgrims seeking saints. The changing of the seasons inscribes in miniature the normative relations between the human sexes. Even during times of vernal excess, the world is not so wide. Yet the young sun, weeks past the equinox, also witnesses “sundry londes” animated by more than anthropocentrism. If the longing “to goon on pilgrimages” (13) and the desire to seek “straunge strondes” (14) are particular manifestations of a universal impulsion that also includes the surge of flowers into fields, the swell of avian heartbeats and melodies, the reaching heavenward of shoots and new grasses, the lush vertu of rainwater, and the swirling of celestial bodies, then what we behold for a moment is not a small world organized into human-centered harmony for the eye of God, but an unbounded expanse that teems with lifeforce possessed by humans, animals, plants, unearthly objects. Vertu is elemental. It engenders more than flowers. What it offers at the beginning of the Canterbury Tales is a vision of a world in motion, its elemental dynamism the art of no particular divinity, presented to no observer beside a poet addicted to the conjunctive possibilities of an eighteen line opening sentence.

A starts us over, the infinite And.

Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, trans. John Trevisa, John Trevisa’s Translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus, ed. M. C. Seymour, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975-78)
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed., gen. ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).
Curley, Michael J, ed. and trans. Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979)
Harman, Graham. “On Vicarious Causation,” Collapse 2 (2007): 187-221.
----------. “Asymmetrical Causation: Influence without Recompense,” Parallax 16 (2010): 96-109. URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13534640903478833
Hassig, Debra. Medieval Bestiaries: Text, Image, Ideology (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1995)
Isidore of Seville. The Etymolgies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, Oliver Berghof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Landa, Manuel De. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 1997).
Latour, Bruno. Aramis, or the Love of Technology, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1995).
----------. Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004)
-----------. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
Marie de France, Lais. Ed. Alfred Ewert (London: Bristol Classic Press, 1995).
Mentz, Steve. At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean (London: Continuum International Publishing, 2009).
Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).
“Octavian,” Four Middle English Romances, ed. Harriet Hudson (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997; Second Edition, 2006).
“Peterborough Lapidary” in English Medieval Lapidaries, ed. Joan Evans and Mary S. Serjeantson (London: Oxford University Press 1933).
“Sir Orfeo,” The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995)
Sobin, Gustaf. Luminous Debris Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
“Vertu” in Middle English Dictionary (University of Michigan, 2001), http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med/