Thursday, April 24, 2014

How NOT to Make a Human: Lessons from the Medieval Archives

Some of the pleasant cows of Bréhat.
by KARL STEEL

OBVIOUSLY, read Eileen first, and donate to BABEL, please.

Nearly two years ago (!), I outlined a prospectus for my next book. You'll have noted, I hope, that book doesn't yet exist. So, here I am, two years later, solemnly swearing on everything that's holy to me (a tangle of worms, a bit of pottery, the ozone layer) that 2015 is the year of the book.

This means saying NO, no to all requests to contribute to special issues, no to all chapters in anthologies, no to book review essays, no to book reviews, no to anything not directly related to writing/assembling this second book. My apologies in advance? Or perhaps none necessary.

The latter would be worse, because everyone wants to be cared about enough to be able to disappoint someone. Also, impostor syndrome, the condition that justly and rightly afflicts us all (unless you're a total fake), is also a good way to eructate a yes where a no might be better. When you're asked, you know you exist, you know you're wanted, and you get what should be the quick hit of a publication. Writing when there's so many words already, when every new book catalog means reading about how many friends you'll fail, has a phatic quality, anyway: the underlying point may always be "Look, over here: here I am, with you."

It may be even more thoroughly phatic when, practically, there's no reason for me to write this book: I'm getting tenure/promotion (I presume!) on the basis of the one book, and, with a 21-credit load, with automatic annual salary increases (thanks union!), there's no monetary reason to write the second book, no reasonable local professional expectation. And not a lot of time. And yet.

The book is tentatively titled How Not to Make a Human: Lessons from the Medieval Archives. Is it a joke title? Does it set up an inevitable third book (How to Serve Man)?

It'll loosely be structured around food and eating. Food's a key site for thinking materialism: as we know from Bakhtin and Bynum, ingestion and digestion and nurturing have to do with care, boundaries, incorporation, violence, persistence, with the actual but temporary, vulnerable existence of things, and with the unequal exchange of any encounter. Food also of course has to do with gender (Bynum again, but also Bordo of course) and who provides food, who should be fed, whose needs are always secondary, and who is made to feed others.

It's possible too that not everything will be from the medieval archive: I should take on the temporal intermixture of REMEDIAEVAL. For more, read on:

Chapters, which are much the same as the initial proposal, again, from two freakin' years ago:

(1) Feeding Others and Pets, focusing on the prioress and the queer antisocial antifuturity of her pet feeding, and on the gender of dog women.

(2) Eating Others, and Feral Children, focusing on the wolf-child of Hesse, Bisclavret, and Melion. And perhaps Sawney Bean and story's afterlife? And perhaps Humanimal, a Project for Future Children?

(3) Not Eating, focusing on Alexander and the Brahmins, with Alexander and Gog/Magog as the pivot, thinking of the wretched, vegetable -- or oystery -- existence of these philosophers, perhaps with a conjoined study of Breatharianism. And perhaps some engagement with my vegan friends and gleaners, with some memories of my dumpster-diving days.

EXIT - Being Eaten, focusing on, of course, worms, sky burial?, and that flip side of the ethical injunction from Levinas, summarized by Derrida here:

the hostage is the one who is delivered to the other in the sacred openness of ethics, at the origin of sacredness itself. The subject is responsible for the other before being responsible for himself as 'me.' This responsibility to the other, for the other, comes to him, for example (but this is not just one example amog others) in the 'Thous shalt not kill.' Thous shalt not kill thy neighbor. Consequences follow upon one another, and must do so continuously: thou shalt not make him suffer, which is sometimes worse than death, thou shalt not do him harm, thou shalt not eat him, not even a little bit, and so forth.
Because, of course, we're all hostage to others in another way, that of being organic materials available to be eaten by other organic subjects, themselves available in turn, so long as there are organic materials to be had.

Any other must write about texts you want to see here? My secondary aim's a modest 70,000 words.

My primary aim, of course, is just to keep the promise of this blog post.

6 comments:

Unknown said...

right there with you--and cheering you on!! h

Unknown said...

right there with you--& cheering you on!! h

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Looks very promising indeed, Karl.

On "not eating," I have been thinking about the swan in Marie de France's Milun. As one of my students pointed out in a digital object curation she did for class, swans were an aristocratic delicacy. They did not necessarily taste as good as other fowl, but because they were prestige birds consuming them at feasts mattered as a public display. They were also bound up in noble identity through markings on their beaks that claimed them. All of this complicates Marie's story a bit, where the swan gets starved for twenty years and is never considered for consumption. Here is the web page my student set up:
http://medievalswans.blogspot.com/
Also the pun inherent in "cygne" as a messenger-body is irresistible.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

This does look very promising. Also: why does time go so quickly?

I wonder if you'fre thinking of engaging anything in Old English -- in particular, those oft-trod grounds of the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, Wonders of the East, Life of Saint Christopher, and the like. Part of what I'm wondering is -- with the focus forward, to modernity and beyond, what would it mean to simultaneously look back? Also I mostly just want to see what you do with them. And I can't wait to read this book.

(you may have addressed this in links) (I am presently giving an exam and didn't want to get too far into our own archives)(for fear of never getting back to grading)

Christene said...

I apologize for the rambling-like comment in advance, but the idea is marvelous and immediately got me thinking of the connection between food, punishment and reward, with a primary focus on the pilgrims who meet at a tavern and decide to use food as the reward at the end of a pilgrimage that would presumably be concerned with cleansing and therefore abstinence, especially in light of the Parson's semi-diatribe against gluttony to end the tales. Food for thought?

Karl Steel said...

Christene,

apologies for the late response! Great comment. There's actually a good article already on eating in the CT by Elizabeth Biebel, which came out in a medieval eating anthology in 1998. I'm not sure I have all that much to add to it, in terms of my writing, but in terms of my TEACHING, your comment will be very helpful. Thanks!