Monday, March 11, 2013

Two Abstracts - Spontaneous Generation and Earthquakes

Stephen Ridgway CC Attribution 2.0 Generic 
by KARL STEEL

First keep adding to Jeffrey's syllabus below. If we can't all take his classes, at least we can be a part of it through our favorite works.

Ecomaterialism is almost upon us, and it will be on us again, in April 25-27, in Tuscaloosa, where Sharon O'Dair will be hosting the sequel, with nearly all the original cast, plus some new guest stars. Cary Wolfe, Lowell Duckert, Valerie Allen, Jeffrey, Julian Yates, Steve Mentz, Anne Harris, Chris Barrett, and Sharon, and this creature here will present on the four elements, some intact (Yates has water alone), and some mixed (Mentz has Air-Fire, which for him leads to Phlogiston). I'm told the assignments were made by picking elements from a hat.

I was given Earth and Air. Here's the abstract I first produced:

Eppur si muove: Seismic (Earth + Air)
Most ancient and medieval thinkers followed Aristotle in preferring to think of earth as the most stable of elements. Earth sought its proper place at the universe's exact center, and once there, would join with the rotating earth but otherwise not move. For this reason, earthquakes were an elemental scandal. If the earth exploded and shifted, if it gaped open, where could stability be found? Where was the order of things? These thinkers, from Aristotle's predecessors up at least to Gabriel Harvey's infamous 1580 letter on earthquakes, proposed a similar set of solutions. None thought the earth shook of its own accord. Variously, they proposed that water had hollowed out unstable caverns in the earth, or that ether or wind, trapped in the earth, sought an exit, violently so when it could find only a tiny egress. My paper will follow these efforts to absolve the earth from its own movement. It will finally discover what happens to thought when this greatest symbol of “ground,” “foundation,” or being itself (as in Heidegger) does not stay put, and what happens to an ecologically minded ethics when we recall that we sail atop terrestrial currents, slower but as unceasing as air or water, indifferent to our actions, unaffected by the lives we ecocritics wish to honor.
I like it, but you know who's done really good, thorough work in this line? Jeffrey. After reading the introduction to his Stories of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, I realized my earthquake paper would be a good footnote to his work, if that. Though Jeffrey assured me I would take things in new directions, I wanted to do something new. Something for me. Something...wormy. Because I'm not yet done with worms.

After a few weeks' reading, here's what I just produced, spontaneously.

“Creeping Things, Matter's Own Life” (Earth - Air)
In both of Genesis' creation stories, God attends to the creation of each kind of life. In the first, his voice causes life to form from water, air, and earth “iuxta genus suum,” after its kind, and in the second, he prepares the land with seeds, which flourish when a spring waters the whole earth. God then forms man from earth and his own breath. All life originates in God, and God either puts all life under human domination (Genesis 1:26, 1:28), or brings all life before Adam to be known and named by him.
This familiar story, good for humans and for God alike, is not quite complete. Note how Genesis 1:28 repeats 1:26 imperfectly: 1:26 ends by granting human dominion over “the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth” and 1:28 over “all living creatures that move upon the earth.” This is more general, or less particular. 1:28's repetition either covers omnes reptiles, all creeping things, or forgets and exempts them. The gap in the repetition gives creeping things their chance to slip away, from both human control and God's imprimatur.
Because these are the creatures that man does not quite dominate. Any doctrinal account of human difference and dominance praises humans for standing erect, facing the heavens, looking down on a world of cringing or servile beasts. But any account that pretends to completeness also has to remember the creeping things, living in darkness, living in us, biting and poisoning us, serving us, these accounts plead, by training us not to be so proud of our dominance.
And any good account of creation has to worry at the peculiar generation of creeping things. Worms and flies and toads, among others, come not quite from the generation “iuxta genus suum” but from material only analogically similar: mud or a horse's hair left in water births eels, the spines of human corpses produce snakes, and putrefying meat becomes flies. Since putrefaction comes only with the Fall, the hexamera, commentaries on the first six days of creation, had to wonder where such life originated. They assure us that it was potentially in all things, like death itself. Their worry suggests that they thought spontaneous generation to be the life of the earth itself, indifferent to the voice of God, meant to infuse all things and tie them to a divine will. Spontaneous generation interrupts the bond and refuses the hierarchy between earth and air, matter and voice, things and a divine, immaterial life from outside without which things would remain inertly themselves. Spontaneous generation is the earth undivinely giving voice to itself.
My study of spontaneous generation will treat the way that creeping things trouble a critical animal studies focused on the ethics of individuals; how the spontaneity of things (from spondeo, to bind oneself to another by own's decision) enriches thinking on autonomy and agency, matters of importance for object-oriented ontology and ethics alike; and will, finally, trace the idea of spontaneous generation from Aristotle through its defeat in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, only to arrive at its return in our era, in the certainty that all life must all ultimately have arisen abiotically.
Apart from the usual set of medieval primary sources (Aristotle, Augustine, Isidore, Aquinas, Bartholomew the Englishman, etc.), my reading so far has concentrated on early modern sources (thanks Lowell and Steve for recommendations): Mary Fissell on VerminRina Knoeff on toad-vomiting and other lovely things; Karen Raber and Edward J. Geisweidt and vermin and parasites in Ecocritical Shakespeare; Ian MacInnes on worms in The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature; and Enrica Ruaro's extraordinarily rich article on pseudo-Dionysus and worms. And Maaike van der Lugt's Le ver, le démon et la vierge : les théories médiévales de la génération extraordinaire: une étude sur les rapports entre théologie, philosophie naturelle et médecine, which will be my essential resource for medieval thought, has just arrived via Interlibrary Loan. Any other recommendations would be welcome. Tom Regan is already on the list.

4 comments:

Michael Sarabia said...

“The gap in the repetition gives creeping things their chance to slip away, from both human control and God's imprimatur.”

This close-reading is just brilliant, Karl, and poetically so. The figurative or abstract gap between the two verse iterations does double-duty as the earth-bound gaps and fissures that creeping things actually crawl through. This movement from abstract to earth-bound, immaterial to material, perhaps registers the seemingly inevitable flaws that ironically stem from an infallible creator—a glitch or error in the manufacturing process that allows “creeping things their chance to slip” out of the order of things as they had been planned.

As far as recommendations—my memory of comprehensive-exam preparations is hazy at the moment, but I am pretty sure worms get mention in the Malleus Maleficarum. A nice 15th century piece to put in the gap between your Medieval and Renaissance sources, perhaps.

Best,
Michael

Karl Steel said...

thanks Michael! Will track down, finally, the Malleus M., and worry at the commentary on the difference between those two verses, which I frankly had never noticed until I started to write this abstract.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I think I accidentally deleted this comment from "Unknown" when I meant to hit 'Publish":

I'll be curious to hear what you think of the _Le ver, le demon, et la vierge_ which I read a couple of years ago when I was thinking a lot about worms and poetic form for an essay that I occasionally flirt with but have never completed or sent anywhere (De/Composition: The Work of Worms and Words).

Karl Steel said...

thanks for catching that jeffrey.

I have Le ver &c sitting in my office right now. It's a beast of a book, so all I can tell you right now is that it's BIG. I've read a handful of other things by van der Lugt and I've always been VERY impressed by the thoroughness of her research and the perfect eye she has for an interesting archive.