Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Future Otherness (The Anthropocene Needs Medievalists)

by J J Cohen

The International Congress of Medieval Studies (#kzoo2016) was a busy one, as Jonathan has well documented. I co-organized two sessions and presented in a roundtable ... and thought I'd share my brief remarks here. Sponsored by the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds as a prelude to their 2017 theme, the session was entitled "Considering (An)Other: Core Elements and Future Directions in the Interdisciplinary Study of Otherness in the Medieval Period" and was organized by Marta Cobb and presided over by Axel E. W. Müller (both of the Institute for Medieval Studies, Univ. of Leeds). My fellow panelists included Bert Beynen, Oren Falk, Catherine E. Karkov, Nancy McLoughlin, and Rebecca Searby. The roundtable was in the dreaded 7 PM slot, which meant the audience was on the small side ... but then again, that also meant it was quite dedicated. The discussion was lively. Let me know what you think.

Early in my career I explored otherness through the monster. With a host of collaborators I tried to articulate “monster theory,” an analysis of culture through the aberrant, feared and desired creatures that limn every culture’s imaginative horizons  -- and yet also inhabit that culture’s center, its very heart. In the twenty plus years since I published seven theses about the work of monstrosity as a vehicle for apprehending Otherness, I have tried to think through how monstrous difference becomes attached to living, breathing people – and thereby enables humans to be rendered displaceable, killable, and not grievable. The people who were in time to become known as the Welsh, the Irish, and the Scots were represented as bestial so that the people who were in time to become known as the English could seize their lands, assimilate and subjugate.

I was intrigued as well at how Jews immigrating into western Europe came to function within the Christian imaginary as the most perilous of Others, even as their ability to act in any capacity was being severely constrained, their lives increasingly subjected to strangling regulation. Monsterization only increased as their power and presence was diminished. I was most interested in glimpses of stories thatcounter familiar narratives, “on the ground” glimpses of alternative stories to the ones we always tell. In the very same texts in which Jews feature as Christianicidal monsters, murdering young boys in bloody rituals, we also see brief moments of Christian-Jewish neighboring: children of both faiths playing together, moving across the thresholds of each other’s homes. If the monsters live next door to you, can you not possibly befriend them? Haven’t humans always been that complicated?

Although my research has attempted an exploration of Otherness in its many forms, it strikes me that I keep coming back to two sets of opposite movements that always coexist: Otherness mixes fear and desire, the margins and limits with the interior, the center, the heart. Otherness thrives in what should be contradiction, demonstrating the problem is that our supposed binaries don’t exist on a two dimensional grid (where they would be impossibly distant from each other) but within a knotted topology, a torus, maybe even a Moebius strip.

Recently I have come to see thatOtherness is a story that cannot feature only humans as protagonists. Medieval writers knew this – and not just from theology. Think of fables and romance. Or debate poems. “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools” (from Ashmole 61) is spoken by a belt, a mallet, an axe, an augur, a drill, a straight-edge and various other implements. They argue over which is best among them, but also why their owner is such a loser. These tools want to be used; they want to make. They therefore bewail the carpenter, drunken and indolent. What I love about this story is that it reverses the way that such philosophical stories are usually narrated: instead of the hammer failing the user, the human fails the tool. Object failure reveals that humans interface with the world through nonhuman agencies, through prostheses. Human failure reveals that objects rely on us as those prostheses to accomplish their own desires. “The Debate of the Carpenter and His Tools” reveals an object oriented point of view. Though offered to expand human cognitive horizons, the poem also thinks seriously about how to inhabit a nonhuman perspective, to imagine the world as encountered and even built by the things without which our humanity would be ineffectual indeed. When the Other speaks, it need not be possessed of biological life.

The logical extension of thinking this nonhuman Otherness is the ecological turn within medieval studies, especially as that movement takes such energy from the new materialism. Keeping environmentality in mind, let me close by offering what the future of the study of Otherness might hold: well, it holds the future itself, or at least future looped round and back into the past, so that they generate and sustain each other. Remember the knotted topology, the Moebius strip? That’s why an investigation of nonhuman Otherness can bring us to ecological intimacy. This modern era during which we have so disrupted the environment that our human presence is readable in the geological record has been labeled the Anthropocene. A medieval text like “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools” suggests that human-centered stories are always partial. The Anthropocene needs a narration from a nonhuman point of view. The Anthropocene needs medievalists.

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