Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wormfood: Abysses Swallowing Abysses. Part I.


Below, Jeffrey introduced us to materials for his Ecomaterialism essay on Fire. I'm doing the same here. My job? "Abyss." Today I offer my essay's introduction (first draft!) with the hope of providing the next section tomorrow or Friday. The bulk of the rest of the essay will be a discussion of "A Disputacion Betwyx þe Body and Wormes" (IMEV ref.) (text and translation), largely, I think, through a close appreciation of the poem's three illustrations of the body's conversation with its worms.

What follows has its most immediate origin on Feb. 4th, when I posted the following to Facebook:
Feb. aim: Pervert medieval death/worms poetry by reading it amorally/ecologically. Not memento mori, but reminder that we're all food. 5k words and a March 1st deadline says I can do it. [next comment] My task is to write an essay on "abyss" for a special issue on ecomaterialisms. I'm thinking the word right now in terms of mise en abyme, in this case, appetites within appetites within appetites, not infinite--because nothing's infinite--but very large, and acentric, the closest thing absolute immanence offers by way of infinity. [next comment] Here's the cool thing about taking ABYSS as MISE EN ABYME: this is a DEPTHLESS ABYSS, not one that promises chthonic secrets or surging secrets from below but rather FLATNESS, ONTOLOGICAL EQUALITY.
And here it is!
Death is life for another. I don't mean that life will conquer death, that death will come to a stop, as in Paul's "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory?" (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). Rather, death means the flourishing of others, swallowers who are not an abstract victory but rather a material swarm of worms and other vermin, who will also be swallowed by certain birds, "wormes corrupcioun" as Chaucer's Parliament of Fowles puts it: a meshwork of appetite in which even the agents of corruption, the supposed ultimate eaters of the grave, will themselves be food in turn. If worms are food too, there is no one victory over death, but rather as many victories--and as many defeats--as there are appetites.

The editors tasked me with writing about "the abyss." I thought immediately of death, the "deepest pit" according to Job 17:16, where, as one twelfth-century poem has it, the dead "ceciderunt in profundum ut lapides" [fall into the depth like stones]. In this imagery, death is a deep hole, a channel leading perhaps to rebirth--as Jonah experienced when he emerged from the whale's gullet--or to hell's absolute darkness or hell's mouth, a site of constant eating and cooking, most notoriously, or hilariously, in Raoul de Houdenc's Songe d'Enfer, where "sinners are cooked in an endless array of dishes, pulverized, marinated, skewered, stuffed, larded, fried in butter and sauced with the traditional sauces of medieval cookery -- green sauce, hot sauce, Parisian sauce, Poitevin sauce, and more often than not, garlic sauce" (17). This is a singular abyss, one perhaps with many entrances or, if you like, many mouths, but still finally one, dreamed up to horrify humans, or dreamed up out the horror of individual humans at the loss of their own subjectivity or foundation. This abyss is the one great mouth that will swallow us all.

A corner of Thomas de Quincey's criticism opens up a less anthropocentric abyssal vision. In a note to an extended discussion of Dryden, de Quincey counters an inept critic's objection to Milton's "and in the lowest deep a lower deep / still threatening to devour me opens wide" (Paradise Lost IV.76-77). How, asked the critic, could the lowest deep have another deep beneath it? De Quincey explains:
in cases of deep imaginative feeling, no phenomenon is more natural than precisely this never-ending growth of one colossal grandeur chasing and surmounting another, or of abysses that swallowed up abysses.
I would change only the implicit solemnity or grandeur of de Quincey's formulation. From the perspective of the the subject being swallowed up an abyss, of course the abyss is grand; but the swallowing abyss may think little of what it consumes, and it may itself feel not so grand, so immeasurable, so abyssal. For it too will be swallowed up. Each abyss is subject to the appetites of other abysses. No abyss is final.

De Quincy's vision of abysses swallowing each other, without end, center, and certainly without reference to one final great abyss--death, Hell, or something even deeper--thus presents abyssal appetites as a kind of mise en abyme of appetite and vulnerability or even just availability. Here, mise en abyme, a term famously borrowed by Andre Gide from medieval heraldry, should not be understood as describing internal duplication (the "play within a play") or infinite iteration (as with an object placed between two mirrors); it should not be understood, in a postmodern, correlationist manner, as a trope of foundationlessness or the inaccessibility of any final guarantee of meaning. Here, as much inspired by the worms of death as by de Quincey, I mean mise en abyme in a materialist, nonanthropocentric, ateleological sense, as a way of acknowledging that no one appetite has final priority, and that nothing escapes the condition of vulnerability to others, a condition Derrida so usefully called the "nonpower at the heart of power," the "not be[ing] able" to elude being made use of by others.

I will develop this idea in more detail below, but what must be done, first, is to argue against death being life's end....


Jeffrey Cohen said...

This is great stuff, and vibrantly composed, and I should wait until you post more, but am wondering: what is the materiality of the abyss itself? That is, are abysses an absence (of ground)? Are they the dirt walls or watery depths of descent? Are they filled with air? Or are they the movement downwards itself, and if so, can a descent be a materiality?

Karl Steel said...

Thanks Jeffrey, and thanks for these great questions.

I'm thinking abyss primarily through the trope of appetite and eating. And I'm thinking abyss as multiple; that is, there is no "the" abyss. There are as many abysses as there are appetites.

Some of these appetites look, well, like appetites. Many of us are an abyss for pigs, sheep, cows, fish, etc. For grass, sheep are an abyss. For humans, worms and the grave and putrefaction are an abyss, and for worms, fish [as in Hamlet on worms] and birds are an abyss.

But I really mean this word much more broadly. Some examples: for cotton, fire is an abyss; for stone, tides and eddies and rivers are an abyss; and so on. I'm thinking of the appetitive abyss as a trope of BEING MADE USE OF BY BEING SWALLOWED/EATEN/USED UP, of being made useful to the being or the growth of another entity. I'm thinking "abyss" is a useful way (I HOPE!) of thinking the constitutive vulnerability of being, in which everything that is is subject to being used--and used up!--by others.

The project is an outgrowth of my Wolf Child paper for AVMEO, where, as you know, I finish with:

With all this in mind, vertiginously shifting our attention and concern from one call to another, from one justice or injustice to another, with something or someone always slipping from our attention, always knowing—as Žižek demands—our attention to be anamorphic, we can speculatively think as trees, as the earth, as the forest law, as the pleasures of the court of Henry. They too have their thrivings; they have their interests in some polity; because each in its own way must eat, each needs its own limitrophic investigation. Each in its own way suffers the eating of others and thus has its own vulnerable meliorem partem. When we eat, as we must, we should at least eat as the Hesse story imagines the wolves do, unelevated, amid the eaters, not neglecting to remember that what we eat had its own best part that we have taken, perhaps irrevocably, and that we, not innocent, will be taken in turn. All bodies can only pretend to be upright; all are down here, constitutively interconnected and subject to an end; all must be immanently somewhere; all belong to others in ways they can hardly know; all subjects; all objects. All can only pretend to have a good conscience.

Steve Mentz said...

What a lively *Postmedeival* we shall all inhabit. At some point I'll share some air on my blog -- I'm thinking winds & global circulation, among other things. I like the focus here on eating/being eaten as material transformation, a process or set of actions that strains against both the integrity of individual objects as distinct from each other -- you're ideally situated, Karl, to do some deep ontological research on such things via the magic of French sauces -- and also the formless, not quite bodyless network of hard-core post-whateverism. Animals eat things and the eaten substance becomes part of the eating creature, partially and multiply.

Is the logical end point here the coprophilic scene in *Gravity's Rainbow*?

Nicola Masciandaro said...

One idea, via Eckhart, on the abyss ~ materiality question, is that the abyss is precisely the infinite wormy restlessness of matter itself, which I think is basically Karl's point re: hunger.

"Just as matter never rests till it is filled with every possible form, so too intellect never rests till it is filled to its capacity."

Nicola Masciandaro said...

p.s. I like how Aethelthryth does her body/worm debate before death (in the interest of demonstrating incorruptible cleanness) and sorta dies from it:

Jeb said...

"the Starres eat those falling Starres, as some call them, which are found on the earth in the form of a trembling gelly, are their excrement".

I wonder if there is a relationship between Thomas Pennant's attempt at rationalizing this substance as the vomit of birds and Chaucer? Not sure but it caught my eye as a possibility and I have been wondering if something older was going to rear it's head at some point.

Erasmus Darwin identifies the substance as birdlime but again that one has a history with body and soul.

Tangled relationship with these things. I like this subject.

Karl Steel said...

Now, I should say, Jeffrey, that I'm not 100% sure my abyss trope works. Hoping to figure this out a bit more by March 1st. What I'm struck by, though, is the constitutive vulnerability of things. If we suspend the life/nonlife distinction, or the organic/inorganic distinction--and we have to, at least if we're demanding rigorously pure concepts (a big if! see the recentish Toril Moi re-engagement with Derrida)--then we have to expand our attentiveness to vulnerability to all things. Of course, Latour is already doing this, what with his attention to the ozone layer; and ecocriticism is already doing this, with its attention to vulnerable systems like the Amazonian rain forest etc. That's the first stab, then, at generalizing vulnerability.

The first danger is, I think, the movement away from Derrida/Bentham's 'can they suffer' to 'can they be damaged/be used up'? Can I move from, say, suffering flesh to cotton being burned up by fire? To the shore being ground away by waves? To rivers silted up and choked by their own action of wearing away their banks? What's the ethical imperative here? And what, in a larger sense, happens to suffering in this larger attentiveness?

I think I want to suspend attention to suffering however, at least for a bit, in part because I'm fascinated, well, not only by the proliferation of other appetites that surround corpses (and indeed corpses during life, i.e., living bodies: bacteria, mites, ticks, etc.), but also by G. Harman's favored trope of fire burning cotton. This is an image of destruction [of the cotton], of feeding [one 'feeds' a fire, after all]. So. We'll see where this takes us!

Steve: and not only animals! Looking forward to your airy thoughts. Ashamed (?) to say that the only Pynchon I've read are some short stories and Crying of Lot 49: will track down coprophilia in GR (but will NOT track down Human Centipede!).

Nicola: I've just reminded myself that you write on worms here: is this published anywhere else in another form? Will be rereading the blog version. The Eckhart doesn't QUITE work for me because of the possibility of resting: the "never rests" is exactly what I want; the "until" gives it a theological spin that's not to my liking. The Aethelthryth is going to be EXACTLY what I want, I think: not for this essay (only have 5K words, and will be focusing on 14-15th c. texts), but Aethelthryth will show up in the long version I have in mind for Book #2.

Jeb: brilliant stuff. thanks for the connection. have in my mind's attic, now, a sense of the history of excrement and cooking as a favored trope for metamorphosis and production...

Paolo Galloni said...

Dear Karl, You make me thnk also to the Abyss as ultiamte knowledge as suggested in the Prologue to the so called Bible of Charles the Bald. In the Prologue, maybe written by master scribe Ingobertus (or Ingobardus) the reading of the Holy Texts is compared to the listening of a waterfall "where the abyss calls the abyss". This is a powerful image I always found both very apt and compelling.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Karl, I look forward to seeing how it *turns* out. The WormSign essay will be published in the Melancology volume, which Scott Wilson is editing for Zero. Will send you improved version.



Karl Steel said...

Paolo, thanks much for that!

Nicola, reread your Whim WORMs material and will be liberally ripping it off to suit my purposes, with suitable and frequent acknowledgment!

Jeb said...

I find I use the word consumption a lot; the consumption of form etc. I like its relationship with sickness decay and destruction/ transformation when it comes to identity. Neatly wraps up a lot of thought for me in a simple way.

Abyss does seem useful here.
You can wrap up appetite and consumption within it.

Look forward to reading more on this.

Karl Steel said...

Jeb, look no further!

Michael Sarabia said...

I love this, Karl! In thinking about abysses in mise-en-abyme, I couldn’t help but connect it to this really neat web application that visualizes the scale of the universe; it does so precisely through mise en abyme imagery that gives a breathtaking sense of endless depths that resulted, for me anyway, in a kind of recognition that we’re all equally large and small, that we frame a seemingly endless number of objects and matter and are still, on the other hand, framed by an equally endless number of objects. The presentation of this application is nicely punctuated by worm imagery throughout – from the earthworms of soil to the wormholes of quantum foam – and thus seems to be cognizant in a way of the death-as-appetite notion you speak of here. Yet it is a death endlessly circumscribed by larger and larger (and smaller and smaller) scales of matter and energy. This might veer from your nuanced reimagining of the term mise en abyme, and return to a more traditional notion of internal duplication. I think something of your idea is to be found in it, though, especially when you get to descriptions of the Eridanus supervoid (perhaps a spot in the universe where ours is entangled with a parallel universe—where they both consume one another in a way so as to create an enormous swath of space void of the usual space-time objects). In any case, it’s a fun application and I recommend it to anyone.

Just a quick thought.