Thursday, June 11, 2015

Posthuman Environs 2: Woof

by J J Cohen

["Tsupu," part one in this series is here]

Woof (A Posthuman Ecology Transcends No Violence)

Follow the noise of the dogs, their howls that reverberate into language, the warp and woof of shelter and story. To disgrace a neighbor who has given birth to twin sons, a noblewoman declares that no one becomes pregnant with two children without having had sex with two men. Not long thereafter the woman herself delivers twin girls. This is a story about telling stories, and the communities these narratives enable or taint. Her slander redounding upon her, the new mother contemplates infanticide. To preserve the new life her maid offers to bear an infant away before the household realizes the double birth. Departing at nightfall, the maid follows an unknown road through thick forest. At long last animal sounds announce the proximity of human settlement:
Then, far off to the right, she heard
dogs barking and cocks crowing [chiens abaier e coks chanter];
she knew she would be able to find a town over there.
Quickly she went in the direction
of the barking. [la noise des chiens] (“Le Fresne” 144-48)
Roosters and baying dogs lead the young woman and the child she is saving to the edge of a village. She sees a great ash tree before an abbey and places the infant within its protective boughs. A porter discovers the abandoned bundle the next day and delivers the baby to fostering by the abbey’s nuns, the community that planted the tree many years ago in the hope of future shade. In honor of the place of her discovery the girl is christened Fresne (“Ash”).

Thus the opening of a lay composed by the poet Marie de France in the twelfth-century. Fresne’s twin sister, raised in an aristocratic household, is named after a valued tree: cordre, the hazelnut. Unremarkable, uncultivated, yielding neither fruit nor nuts, the ash nonetheless generates the story that carries its name. “Le Fresne” bears nothing yet proves ceaselessly productive of shelter. The intertwining of the sylvan and the human (Fresne is like her namesake ceaselessly productive of shelter) underscores an ecology like the Ecuadorian rain forest described by Eduardo Kohn, always more than human. Dogs, roosters, silk, stories, households, twins and trees are the agents through which the plot unfolds. This enmeshment is foregrounded by the shared name of the poem, its heroine, and a tree that seems below regard. Like most words, fresne is not onomatopoeic, sounding nothing like what a tree does. Signification is arbitrary. But not wholly arbitrary, for in French and English the tree possesses an etymology that encodes larger relations: “ash” (Old English æsc) and “fresne” (Latin fraxinus) derive from unrelated words for spear, transporting a story about the shape of leaves and the making of weapons into these nouns. Against this martial etymology, the lay “Le Fresne” offers a counter-narrative of ecological tendering, a future forged in the midst of peril. The story enmeshes through the word fresne a woman nearly murdered as an infant who finds herself in danger of narrative obliteration later in the story (Fresne becomes mistress to a young count, her life nearly erased when he accedes to his household’s demand to marry Cordre and father legitimate heirs); a tree too much taken for granted that reveals itself as fecund in possibilities of sanctuary, altered trajectories, and compassionate conclusions; and the act of poetry making, the poesis that results in the lay itself. “Le Fresne” is a story about environmental webs, community making, and the altering of climates.

The mingling of dense forest, noisy dogs, stone for echoes and hearths, and a tree for refuge quietly opens a wide world that intermixes the organic and inorganic into soundscape and ecotone. In this poem that interleaves the lives of humans, trees, and animals, movement is aided by trans-species alliances. The maid who carries the unwanted infant through the woods knows that the baying dogs signal nearness of human settlement. Dogs, not wolves: intimates, creatures of settlement and habitation. Wouaf or voff or bow-wow bounce from buildings to announce a living together that is a general story of humans and hounds, community and commensality. Most languages have an onomatopoeic term for what a dog sounds like, capturing canine communication diversely: hau-hau (Arabic), haff-haff (Czech), voff-voff (Icelandic), amh-amh (Irish), wan-wan (Japanese), aw-aw (Tagalog). Some distinguish the noise of small dogs, or demarcate the purpose and tone of the growl, yelp, yip, grrrr, or howl. Every language hears dogs slightly differently, even if when aggregated these words hold some uncanny similarities. That woof may be passed along with such variation emphasizes the differences and heterogeneity with the same animal impress, and the inherent imperfection of sonic capture and retransmittal.

Collating animal sounds also possesses a long history, suggesting the enduring human fascination with communication across species. The Latin genre of voces variae animantium (“Voices of Various Animated Things”) stretches far back into manuscript history, with one of the most famous lists having been composed at St Gall between 760-797. This Latin compilation collates animal noises (“the sheep bleats, the dog barks”) with the gurgling of brooks and the crackling of fire. Jonathan Hsy describes such lists as offering a “human/animal interface” that offers a mode of trans-species translation or bilingualism. Whether the baying of the dog is caught in Latin, English or French, though, the sound become word is never exact, never wholly successful, unmediated, or completely transparent. Yet something of the animal (or the water or the fire) resonates within the onomatopoeic term. Linguistic devices of capture and conveyance vary, just as there is no singular of “the animal,” only differences collected into insufficient category. Derrida’s animal-word (l’animot) emphasizes a plurality that resists totalization or synthesis. But what all these renderings of the noise dogs make as they howl their stories have in common is sonic communion embedded in a linguistic archive between dogs and humans, an inscription at the level of word that conveys shared environmentality.

Marie uses the verb abaier to capture this canine resonance. Intimate to our modern word bay, the Old French verb is mimetic, an attempt like tsupu to transmit a sonic event from the nonhuman world by making it vibrate anew. A dog bays and an unwanted child finds sanctuary. It’s almost a medieval version of Lassie: follow the sound of the agitated hound and know dedication to human community. Or know, perhaps, that inhabitance comes about at least in part through human-canine relation. As Donna Haraway has pointed out, domestication has been a cross-species affair. The dogs that bark in the night must therefore not be rendered symbols (they do not exist for the maid, or the baby), but acknowledged as fully embodied creatures, even when they bay their way into a fictive narrative. Canines are companion species and mess mates, animals without which we could not have become ourselves. Haraway writes:
Dogs, in their historical complexity, matter here. Dogs are not an alibi for other themes; dogs are fleshly material semiotic presences ... Dogs are not surrogates for theory; they are not just here to think with. They are here to live with. (Companion Species Manifesto)
And, as Marie de France makes clear, they are animals here to follow. But not everywhere the animal leads is human, or humane. As poets have long known, onomatopoeia is an invitation to play. As hunters have long known, onomatopoeia can also be a trap, a lure, a weapon. Susan Crane has built upon the work of Haraway and Derrida to elaborate the trans-corporeal communication and cooperation upon which hunting in the Middle Ages depended. The aristocratic hunt is a “human-hound partnership” that contains no room for “egalitarian thinking about cross-species relations” (Animal Encounters). The hunt declares and consolidates human dominion over other animals. Dogs are scolded and whipped into submission just like servants, so that maintaining social and species difference are revealed as analogues of the same disciplinary system, a hierarchy enforced through blows. The aristocratic hunt unites dogs and humans into a machine of violence. Hunting is intimacy and companionship in the dispensing of bloody death: tsupu is after all in Kohn’s example the noise a wounded peccary makes.

The hunting assemblage as call to cross-species alliance within forceful domination is vividly materialized in a book now held in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, an edition of George Gascoigne’s Noble Arte of Venerie or Hunting. In the nineteenth century the manual’s owner rebound the book in stag fur and affixed decorative metal bucks with large antlers. The book is now clasped by the skin of the creature that its text instructs readers how to pursue, trap, and dismember. Depending on how you feel about hunting, the Folger’s edition of Gascoigne’s Noble Arte of Venerie will seem repulsive or beautiful (or, most likely, both). Hidebound in the product of its practice, the volume is anything but inert. When placed in front of you its cover offers rough brown fur impossible not to stroke – a summons to material encounter, a call to touch that arrives too late after the call to still. The book is dead plant matter (paper and ink) bound in dead animal matter (stag skin and leather), ornamented with inert metals. The language it holds is also dead, or at least moribund: Early Modern English is no doubt going the way of Old English and Middle English, receding from swift contemporary comprehension and becoming a specialty subject for the well-trained specialist. Dead matter, dead language, dead binding: in the face of all this lifelessness, it is entirely possible that the desire to touch the book, like the desire to read its contents, is a wholly individual and eccentric experience that has nothing to do with its insistent materiality. Perhaps we have entered a realm where only psychology and human subjectivity hold explanatory force.

Yet I am not convinced the volume’s invitation to touch can be fully captured through humanizing reference to fantasy and a frustrated desire to possess. I have seen the volume in action too many times, and have witnessed the community of contact its presence repeatedly triggers. The book makes tangible the violence against animals that is its subject matter, and refuses to disentangle its allure from its love of domination. Jesse Oak Taylor has argued that hunting is frequently dismissed as an “exercise in hyper-masculine domination and sadism in ways that gloss over the affective complexity, and even trauma, of killing.” The stories that reside in hunting are often entwined in difficult tales of conservation that resist domesticating animals into the cute and cuddly, resist extinguishing “something much darker, fraught with terror,” resist the impulse to disregard violence or tame wildness. As an object the book materially manifests a brutal-beautiful entwining of deer and hunter, not just as trophy but as complicated narrative. It also offers the possibility of animal communication beyond animal death. The regal buck that adorns its cover and the floral buttons that pin the fur in place announce in lasting silver the possibility (no matter how unlikely) of endurance and memorialization over ephemeral consumption and final endings. The book wants something more than filing away in the Folger Library vault, wants to be read and stroked, wants to reactivate the historical contexts from which it has become divorced, to touch with its stories and its matter, its worlds and lives now lost, an effusive ecology of affect and force and blood. Enclosed in an animal become art that remains all the same an animal, the book proffers a hazard, a chance, insistent because of the violence it materializes. Perhaps the book wants to kill again. But maybe the object also activates an alternative story, a tale without so lethal or so final a denouement.

Gascoigne’s hunting manual closes with two leaves containing musical notation for bugle calls. By transmitting set sounds in precise sequences, the bugle instructs a baying pack on their next course of action. Similar treatises, medieval and early modern, also contain hunting cries, like this one for assisting hounds who have gone off track to realize that another dog in the pack has picked up the proper scent: “Ta ça ta ça ta ho ta ho!” Words break into reverberating syllables, sonic particles that communicate through shape and force. Aristocratic hunting is a cross-ontological alliance that unites dogs, humans, horses, knives, whips, bugles, books, landscape, and sonic emissions into a fatal machine. Through horn blasts, the baying of dogs, and the transformation of language into intensities of sound this assemblage opens a temporary space of interpenetration and admixture, a hazardous intermezzo of enmeshed agency and interspecies alliance that contrasts starkly with its bloody culmination.

Not every story that unfolds within posthumanism environs ends well. Yet as Marie de France insists, violence that unfolds within more-than-human ecosystems deserves the same scrutiny as the happy endings that sometimes occur. Perhaps narratives are best read as if they were open ended, without regard to their endings, since closure is always provisional, a shifting of attention rather than true cessation of story. The aristocratic hunt both a space of duress and the precipitation of what Susan Crane calls “persistent, intimate contact” with animals that demands critical attending (Animal Encounters 119). That the interminglings of the hunt in action should be limned by and culminate in animal brutality underscores that human identity is typically asserted at the expense of other creatures, even when they are companions. Karl Steel writes that “human domination of what it calls animal” is sustained through the exertion of force the separation of these fragile categories. Yet domination seldom fully silences. Tobias Menely has recently focused on sensibility as way to move discussion of animal presence away from linguistic constructivism and the symbolic order, focusing instead on “an unintegrated origin and never fully actualized surplus of meaning” conveyed by the “impassioned voice” of human or animal, a voice that resonates even when “vocal and bodily expression” finds itself captured into text, story, print. This creaturely community, Menely argues, is best captured by poetry, which imbues the experience of mortality, suffering and loss with “collective meaning” and creates “a common world out of the shared experience of corporeal finiteness" (Animal Claim).

Menely’s work is a needed corrective to a long critical tendency to equate communication and meaning-making with linguistic signification: animals and humans alike are responsible to the signs and voices of others. Describing children’s books that connect animals to their “signature vocalizations” (woof, meow, moo), however, Menely observes that such “echolalia” ushers young audiences into the symbolic order, “the domain of customary meanings” (The Animal Claim 19). An animal voice that can sound with “creaturely affinity” is to be sought elsewhere, in “vocal and gestural expressions” that address the world but do not function linguistically. I wonder, though, if the spoken word of the human and the “creaturely voice” are not already cohabitating in resonant juvenilia. Do not onomatopoeic terms like meow, neigh, baa, cocorico, cackle, kerplunk, caw, boom, whippoorwill, trill, chitter, tweet, and bay resound with such affinity while enlarging what we might group within the category “creaturely”?

Posthumanism possesses a deeply utopian bent. Its practitioners sometimes proceed as if the breaching of ontological categories were in itself affirmative or transcendent. Yet violence is omnipresent, part of the world’s fabric, the provenance of plants, animals and materiality itself. Storied matter possesses many genres, including horror. Ethics resides in the choice not to be resigned to this violence, in the choice not to make another copy of the stag-fur bound hunting manual by Gascoigne – and in the choice not to consign that brutal-beautiful volume to the flame or to the vault. The book binds together matter that solicits lingering. Perhaps in one of its tales the baying of the hounds leads somewhere other than to the flaying of the deer. Posthumanism must not be blind to terror and tumult, to the blood that flows when some cyborgs and assemblages are composed. Wildness is not always affirmative, and nature really can be red in tooth, in claw, in unwanted enmeshments. Yet posthuman environs also offer those proximities that may shelter possibilities for a more complicated world, for a future at once less human and less natural (what could be more natural than hunting and eating?), for a refusal of denouements generated through an excess of suffering and death.

Animal capture is noisy conveyance into story, and a sonic disruption of the human that no incorporation into language or identity can still. Follow the noise of the dogs, their howls that reverberate into language, follow too the bugle that blasts and the voice made instrument of sound not words: warp and woof of shelter and story, even when difficult to hear above the violence of its din. Bugle blasts and hunting cries are haptic modes of interspecies communication, mimetic and multisensory. To co-inhabit a dog’s world means heightening the senses of smell and sound, allowing meager human olfaction and hearing to be overwhelmed, reoriented. In an essay on medieval compilations of animal sounds – lists that stage a kind of “animal-human bilingualism” -- Jonathan Hsy notes that “much interspecies communication is non-verbal and also non-sonic – facial expressions, somatic mimicry, physical contact (aggressive or playful), biting, motion (e.g. blocking one’s path), sniffing (and emitting pheromones), leaving excrement or other internal fluids.” The world is wide, and to a canine nose its smells are precise messages. To the proper eyes the vibrancy of its colors overwhelms, as does the radiance of objects at night. To attentive ears a dog announcing community may be discerned in abaier, wouaf, bay. Maybe now we should also notice that it is not just the howling hounds that signaled in Marie de France’s lay the approach to a place of communal dwelling. Roosters were singing [chanter] to announce the nearing day: a song of animal communication, avian response, territorialization, co-dwelling, and rising sun. A posthuman ecology is an interpenetrative cacophony – and not every sound the human mouth emits amounts to language. Not every human body from which such sounds escape is equally marked, valued, legible. The violence of the hunt: whip and words are deployed to discipline dogs and servants. “Human” is false universal, a category that punishes and excludes.

A noisy tale inheres here as well.


[Next post is the conclusion, "Fnorteth."]

1 comment:

wordhoard said...

So fabulous to see your thoughts on the Gascoigne hunting manual! That has been my favorite strange material encounter at the Folger yet...