Sunday, May 27, 2012

My Next Book: A Prospectus of a Prospectus

by KARL STEEL

First: do please look again at the Wee Plea, and, if you want to continue the conversation, please join the ongoing post on activism and the academy.

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How to Make a Human's epilogue explores a handful of works willing to risk all by abandoning humanism: the tradition of the15 Signs of the Last Days; a lost oxen story from Paulinus of Nola; a holy horse carcass from Folcuin of St. Bertin’s portion of the Deeds of the Abbots of Saint Bertin; and a middle bit from Sir Gowther.


My next book will pick up where the first left off by concentrating on medieval works that imagine what it might mean to give up on human dominance. None of the works I'll examine in Book Two salves a nervous human conscience; all offer a way out of humanism, but at the price, not of humiliation, precisely, but of something far riskier than humbleness.

Surely there are other texts I could look at. But I'm a medievalist, so I'm writing about medieval texts. If you were to suggest that I might learn to write about something else, I'd pack my ears loosely with garlic and flee. Less glibly, I'd say that I'm interested in the outliers to a textual climate almost universally committed to human supremacy. I'm interested in texts that at least propose to leave off human supremacy, even though so much—salvation, most notably—is at stake.

Here's an outline, like the whole project, tentatively proposed. Following the introduction (duh), there will be three chapters: on pets; on feral children; and on worms and corpses. The conclusion will possibly develop the essay on fish knights I wrote with Peggy McCracken (incidentally, Peggy M. and Sharon Kinoshita have just come out with a book on Marie de France: well worth using). I hope to do Book Two in 65-80K words, that is, about 50-65K fewer words than How to Make a Human. All three chapters will have been published in some form by the time the book appears, as 2,000 words (dead pets), 7500 (feral children), and 5600 (worms). The book will allow each chapter to be the length it wants to be, likely 15-20K each, with another 20-25K words available for the intro and conclusion.

In more detail, the DEAD PETS chapter will revisit Cary Wolfe and Jonathan Elmer's old notion of the “Logic of the Pet” to see what affect and habit can do. No surprise, Haraway will be important here, but I imagine I'm going to turn up a host of other pet research once I start digging; as for affect, I barely have any idea where to begin: Fradenburg? Bersani? The chapter will start with Yvain's lion, if only because everyone's always asking me about it; then (maybe?) look at Bevis of Hampton's horse, Arondel; and conclude with a Middle English version of the canis legend (you know, the story of the dog, the baby, the snake, and an impetuous knight) in which the knight, mad with grief and guilt, drowns himself. I'll be happy to talk about other animal companions, if you have any on hand. Next day edit: rather than talk about Arondel, I think I'll do a pocket history of medieval pets and pet love, to set up the dogs story: I have material already on hand on Chaucer's Prioress; likewise Tristan's dog; and I can build on large body of already existing work on medieval hunting dogs.

The FERAL CHILD chapter will, in effect, follow humans out into the wild, by starting with another version of the canis legend in which the grieving knight does just that. If you've already read AVMEO, you know some of what I'll do here: my primary text will be the story of the Wolf Child of Hesse, from the Chronicle of the Benedictine Monastery of Saint Peter of Erfurt, although I plan to provide a pocket history of medieval and early modern feral children. Where chapter one centered on affect (how we're remapped by feeling, even to the point of suicide), chapter two will center on feeding and, in a larger sense, action, as in: what can we do when we can't let humanism guide us anymore? What might it look to eat without the confidence of doing the right thing, without the protection of a good conscience? My philosophical guides will be the ethical quandaries raised by Derrida's meditations on eating, and especially those of object-oriented philosophy and other new materialisms, for example, Ian Bogost's section on metaphorism in Alien Phenomenology and, I suspect, Karen Barad's (gigantic!) Meeting the Universe Halfway. I might even be able to squeeze in an appreciation of the brilliant (Not) Tilda Swinton twitter account. Likely I'll have to look at wilder manifestos on ethical eating.

The WORMS chapter turns from eating to being eaten. Having started with affect, and moved on to behavior, I'll be finishing with matter, with the flux of things that goes on, indifferent to our feelings or actions. I'll start by discussing a famous column from the Abbey of St. Marie in Souillac (see image above: for the whole flickr set from my visit, see here). My primary texts, however, will be medieval death art, particularly the Disputation Between the Body and Worms and its illustrations, from that well-studied Carthusian miscellany, British Library Add. 37049. Perversely, maybe, my reading of this pious material will be profane, not so much indifferent to its proper spiritual context but rather open to a more expansive sense of context than usual. I'll be conceptualizing the flux of matter as eating, and my guiding philosophical points might be the 'consumptive' element in Graham Harman's key examples, namely, the cotton and the fire and sucking tubes.

The FISH KNIGHTS strike me as a good place to leave off, because this weird episode from the Roman de Perceforest raises all the questions the book will have posed by this point: what happens when we come to love and admire the nonhuman; what happens when we're not sure we're eating the right thing; and what happens when we're no longer so sure about divisions between life and nonlife and organic and inorganic. I'll likely finish with points inspired by Eileen's AVMEO essay, viz., that in a material world, self-effacement is not an option, even if we try to do without the comfort of self-justification. We have to be somewhere; and we've already had a decision made for us to take up someone else's place, even if that place we occupy is always enmeshed in a world of other shifting agents, each with its own agenda (readers of The Ecological Thought might hear a friendly argument brewing).

My tasks are as follows: to read more deeply in ecocriticism, particularly in its more misanthropic veins. I'll want, as well, to read more versions of the canis legend (I've done 22 so far, and have about another 100 to go); to determine if more manuscripts of the Erfurt chronicle have turned up since the MGH published its edition 113 years ago; and, especially, I'll want somehow to avoid my own work's universalizing tendencies.

I'd especially like to try to pay more than lip service to gender. The canis legend tends to be terrifically misogynist; and the Disputation smugly inflicts putrefaction on a beautiful woman with as mean a spirit as we see in, say, The Testament of Cresseid. I need to do something with this, but right now I'm not seeing how to get this done in a project with such a posthuman trajectory. Even Stacy Alaimo's Bodily Natures --a great book for showing us how to do a feminist materialist criticism--mostly concerns humans, even if she conceptualizes the human in a way radically different from the traditionally bounded, denatured (neo)liberal humanist subject.

Wish me luck! And please give me suggestions or warnings. I'm not the fastest writer in our world, so there's still time for you to intervene.

If you're nice, in comments, I'll tell you want Book #3 will be about.

5 comments:

Anne said...

Thank you for this inspiration to summer thinking and writing, Karl! I read this after reading your Bisclavret piece and had ethics in mind the whole time. I wonder if within the canis legends there'll be room for Guinefort, the Holy Greyhound, and Schmitt's longue durĂ©e analysis (which, to me, opposed a Christian ethic to a folk ethic). My students last fall were sympathetic to the folk legends of Guinefort, but then horrified right along with Stephen of Bourbon at the mothers who would leave their children alone in the dark between two trees to heal them. Discussion turned to medical ethics then. I'm also completely taken with your Souillac images - they are _glorious_! Camille has a great short piece on the somatic invitation of the trumeau: “Mouths and Meanings: Towards an Anti-Iconography of Medieval Art,” in _Iconography at the Crossroads_. ed. Brendan Cassidy. Princeton University Press, 1993: 43-58. Looking forward to this book already, as your first continues to rock my syllabi.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks Anne! The Guinefort legend is, in fact, one of the 120-odd versions of the canis legend. That's one of the things I love about it. That 'leaving their children alone' thing is something we see in some other medieval French folk medicine (or whatever the term is): leaving kids of roofs, for example, a practice, I believe, condemned in the Corrector of Burchard of Worms. For more see ""Pratiques Superstitieuses au debut du Xle siecle d'apres le "Corrector sive Medicus" de Burchard, eveque de Worms (965-1025)" by Cyrille Vogel. I think.

Thanks! Full disclosure: some of the Souillac images are by my colleague Scott Dexter, and some by my wife's steady hand. Asa Mittman sent the Camille along to me last month I think: no surprise, I'm blown away by it. So smart. I need to do some digging on what folks have said more recently.

And SO GLAD TO HEAR that the first book has a home in your syllabi! If you'd like to skype or google video chat me in to a class to chat with your students next semester, I'm more than happy to do it.

Karl Steel said...

More clearly, I mean that YES Guinefort's going to have to be featured. Iirc, one of the odd bits about that legend is God's blighting of the knight's land. It's a real outlier in how the story normally works, where the knight normally just breaks his sword and spear, cuts the top of his shoes to turn them into sandals, and then exiles himself to the Holy Land.

Nic D'Alessio said...

Hi Karl,

Thanks for sharing the details about a project that sounds really interesting. I especially like how you describe your interest as one focused on the "outliers of a textual climate."

I just thought I'd chime in regarding your chapter on affect, and throw out some theoretical sources in which you might be interested (or have probably already encountered). In mentioning Bersani and Fradenberg, you're obviously keying into a certain strand of queerly inflected psychoanalytic thinking. I'd also toss in Sarah Ahmed's earlier work on affect and emotions, as well as Lauren Berlant (I'm just finishing, finally, "Cruel Optimism"), Kathy Stewart (who was briefly one of my UT Austin profs), Ann Cvetkovich (also someone I worked with at UT, and who works with Stewart and Berlant on the "public feelings" project: see esp., her forthcoming book on depression but also her edited collection, "Political Emotions"), Brian Massumi (he's got a new book out too), and, of course, Sedgwick and Deleuze. I think the "Affect Theory Reader" is good court of first appeal, too.

Hope these references might be of interest/use; apologies for repeating information of which you might (probably) already aware.

Nic

Karl Steel said...

Nic, thanks a million for your comment. I'm a HUGE fan of Ahmed's Promise of Happiness, and I feel I ought to read Berlant's C.O., though the blurb led me to believe it's primarily about our modern socio/political/economic climate? But you think it'd be relevant to my project? I'll happily dig through the rest of what you recommend: I have some big plans for my 'affect' and dead pets chapter that, knock on wood, I'll have time to realize.