Wednesday, February 23, 2011

we fuse like a family

by J J Cohen

against secure knowledge
Because the last class did not end well, I began my Objects seminar with a version of the words I preached at its inauguration, my pedagogical credo.

I'm not interested in what you know, but in what we can't yet grasp. The seminar is not an arena for the performance of erudition, for reverent citation, for showboating: these actions convey us nowhere we have not previously been. We work at the edge of our ignorance. We take our texts apart not to rediscover what we already knew, but to see what we can do with them, especially as they puzzle us, challenge us, take us somewhere we did not expect to travel. We are companions: to each other at the table, to the books and essays and authors we read. Our seminar is a laboratory, a place of experimentation. We commit to making ourselves vulnerable, to asking naive questions, to interrogating how things work. We will fuck up. We will fail. We embrace that risk, because we will also sometimes flourish in ways we cannot foresee. The two statements I never accept: "I find nothing of value here" and "I am not competent to speak of this." These are twin methods of non-participation, both in the end rather lazy. Bruno Latour is our guiding spirit in this shared endeavor: we do not critique so much as discover together what we can compose with the materials we have gathered.

Someone brought clementines, and some of us ate the leftovers of Toni Morrison's birthday cake, which had been conveyed from the Library of Congress to the English Department lounge. We were ready to speak of strange fruit.

agentive drift
We started with Julian Yates on speaking oranges, escapes from prison, and the the cascade/noise/parasite that is not so much a system's background, but a gainful entryway into understanding how any open system works. Yates writes:
For [Michel Serres], the essence of what it means to be human is not to be free from error or to be undetermined by things, but on the contrary, it is to be dependent, to be an intermediary, a go-between, to be one thing among many, inhabiting a system in cascade. (50)
Sometimes this go-between will be a gaoler who conveys fruit to his prisoner, unaware that the juice is being used to compose secret letters that will prove both their salvation. Sometimes the mediator will be the orange itself, conducting its own business, leaving traces of its biological function in its no longer merely biological power to produce things ("the material characteristics of the orange are shifted into the world of social relations and discourse," engendering unexpected action, 57). Agency is hybrid, errant, a drifting, an act of transformative making, a trajectory replete with the random.

We then turned to "Sir Cleges," an unjustly neglected lai, a Christmas story finer than anything Charles Dickens ever composed. The knight Cleges is introduced as a spirit of generosity, his house open to all who are hungry. He reserves a special affection for the "squyres, that treveyled in lond of werre / And wer fallyn un poverte bare" (16-17): those upon whom the kingdom depends in order to further its national interests, and those whom it forgets when their utility is at its end. Cleges also cares for minstrels, who fill his halls with music. These artists will in the end enable his redemption.

After more than a decade of liberality Cleges slides into penury: his estates mortgaged and then sold, his goods dwindling almost to nothing, his household reduced to himself, his wife Clarys (a lady as generous as he), and their two children. Christmas Eve finds a melancholic Cleges, lost in memories of what has been and weeping over the profundity of his family's privation. Suddenly "sowne" -- music -- intrudes: trumpets, pipes, drums, harps, guitars, carols, everywhere the resonance of song. This eruption of the world in uncanny, joyous noise is lost to him, reminding only of what he no longer holds. He returns home heavy hearted, where Clarys instructs him in expunging sorrow from his thoughts and fixing himself in the present, not the past (128). They resolve to possess what cheer they can attain, and an extraordinarily touching scene follows:
When thei had ete, soth to sey,
With myrth thei drofe the dey awey
The best wey that they myght.
With the chylder pley thei dyde
An after evensong went to bed. (157-61)
To drive away the dark of night, to bring cheer in a time of peril, to create in what has become a bare existence a moment of contentment, a livable life, Clarys and Cleges play with their children, the best wey that they myght. The passage is as unnecessary as it is moving, and I cannot think of another scene in contemporary literature in which so simple and so comforting an act is recorded.

The next morning Cleges prays in his bare winter garden. In rising his hands clutch a tree bough green with leaves, red with fruit. He cannot resist popping one of these cherries into his mouth, "the best that ever he had sene" (212). Yet just as he misheard the glad tidings in the sudden music on Christmas eve, in the visual and gustatory beauty of the strange fruit, in their "nowylté," he perceives only a "tokenyng" of "grevans" to come. His wife, a better reader of the world's plenty than he, corrects him: "It is tokenyng / Off mour godness." She provides Cleges with a basket, then sends him to the king to present the cherries as the gift. Clarys conveys the knight to places that he as a solitary agent would never arrive. She is the mediator who links the cherries to the basket to the road to the king; she sets Cleges on the path to a destination he could not envision, and she will be the means through which the fruit becomes a gift, a pedagogy, a vehicle of transformation, a song, a prospect.

Misrecognized as poor shepherds, Cleges and his son are three times blocked in their advancement towards the monarch. The court's porter, usher and steward allow the knight to continue only after extorting from him a third of whatever Uther Pendragon yields as a reward. No surprise, then, that Cleges requests twelve blows as his boon, and distributes this violence with enthusiasm. The buffets are pedagogical, a gift sent to the future: they break the shoulders and the arm of the porter, but they also ensure that from that day forward he will not (as he did to Cleges) hurl abuse at the poor, will allow them uninhibited to pass. Not the merriest of Christmases for these three, but this lesson taught upon their bodies is what enables Cleges to be recognized by a harper, for his identity to be announced to Uther, and for his family to be restored to a wealth that enables them, once more, to distribute wealth and food.

The violence disturbs us (especially as the steward cries out "Stryke thou me no mour!" 456), but we understand how the story believes such an embodied pedagogy to be necessary. Still we prefer the cherries when they exist for themselves, or for private delectation on the tongue, or when they become the harper's music that concludes the lai, that becomes the lai iself. The cherries transformed into Christmas blows worried us, but also emphasized a network is not a utopia, that mediators can be seraphs or dark angels or most likely both at once. Actor Network Theory promises a more ethical mode of understanding the world; it is built upon the conviction that the political, the social, the natural need to be opened up, to become a democracy of people and things. Tracing a the vector that is a network should make us especially attentive to those who pay a price for such motility: sometimes the forgotten angels, sometimes the Jesuit tortured in the tower who is writing secret letters with orange juice, sometimes the impedimental points who are in fact people, whose cries for mercy -- "Stryke thou me no mour!"-- demand attention.

a botany of desire
We ended the class by tracing the glide among potions, plants, and love triangles in the lais of Marie de France. Les Deus Amanz, Chevrefoil, and Eliduc share a fascination with how the vegetal insinuates itself into human desires and enables our queerer conjoinings: Eliduc's most powerful moment of desire, after all, occurs when the wife sees the sleeping body of her husband's beloved, and knows suddenly the power of desire. She will use a flower snatched from a weasel to recall that woman to life. These two women end up together at the close of the lai, and the poem is rechristened with their names. A mediator pays the price for the conveyance that enables this configuration (Eliduc drowns the sailor who complains against transporting his lover to Brittany), but this violence is quickly forgotten as a triangle of relations expands the claustrophobia of the mere couple.

Tristan and Isolde embrace the intertwining of honeysuckle and hazel, just as once through the mediation of the maid Brenguein they imbibed a potion that triggered their explosive passion. The problem for the young man and woman of Deus Amanz is that, alas, they prefer the security of the world they inherit. Not drinking the potion means not embracing the strange fruit that has always already taken root within.


dtkline said...

Jeffrey, I apologize out front for not being able to articulate my concerns precisely at this point, but I'm taking your lovely pedagogical 'cri de couer' to heart myself and fighting my own sense of incompetence. This is where I'm struggling with ANT right now:

"Actor Network Theory promises a more ethical mode of understanding the world; it is built upon the conviction that the political, the social, the natural need to be opened up, to become a democracy of people and things."

I have no doubt that ANT opens up these arenas in exciting ways, and that the old dichotomies have to be uncorked into a new understanding of hybrid networks in which essentialist hierarchies (even contructionist-essentialist hierarchies!) have to be leveled through new conceptions of agency and mediation, but I'm not sure yet how these possibilities are opened by ANT per se, at least in my reading of Harman and Latour. The move toward networks from dichotomies and hierarchies is, I think, potentially though not necessarily ethical.

I guess I'm wondering what 'moves' or 'mediation' it takes to go from ANT to ethics? Is it Harman's 'aesthetics as first philosophy,' his 'allure,' 'vicarious causation,' and 'tool-being' for example?

I have to admit, though, that my reading is far from complete though I'm immensely excited by ANT's possibilities, particularly in regard to rethinking natality, infancy, and childhood - Andre Turmel's work is groundbreaking in that regard. (I'm making my way through Harman's reading of Levinas via Heidegger, 'natch, but I'm not sure Harman really gives Levinas's il y a its full resonance, which, I think, does not remain confined to the human though it does not level the human/object distinction as fully as Harman might like.) And I'm not sure in what way that leveling is also democratic, though it certainly brings to the fore much of what has remained hidden or unthought.

Wonderful stuff, though. The last time my head felt like this was when I first started reading Foucault all those years ago, and then Derrida. The neuropsych folks keep telling us the brain is plastic, though mine is melted these days, in the best ways.


BTW, 'the leftovers of Toni Morrison's birthday cake' moving from the Library of Congress? There's a book right there.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for that thoughtful question, Dan.

I am not comfortable with answering about ethics and Harman, yet; but then again I don't see ANT and Object Oriented Ontology as being the same thing. I have a much easier time speaking of Actor Network Theory and Bruno Latour, since that's a topic I've been working on more deeply and for quite some time. There comes a point in almost everything Latour has published when he lays out the stakes, and inevitably these involve bringing about a more just society, one in which the rights and interests of nonhumans are recognized, a democracy or parliament of things. Latour is a compositionist, not a constructivist: meaning that he doesn't trace how certain entities are culturally determined so much as show how they have been put together, and wonder if they might be better constructed. So much that is ethical rides on that "better."

This morning I've been reading a tremendously good essay on ethics and objects that Latour co-wrote with Émilie Hache: "MORALITY OR MORALISM? An Exercise in Sensitization" from the journal Common Knowledge. You can download it here (warning: PDF). This lucid little piece makes the ethical stakes of ANT very clear indeed.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Just wanted to add: this entry on my seminar is woefully incomplete, due mainly to being timed out in writing it on a very busy morning. That's why it ends so abruptly. As the accompanying picture suggests, we also did a unit on posthumanism, reading these essays from the inaugural postmedieval: Joy and Dionne; Allen; Harris; Yates; Steel. The last one stole the show and was the class favorite. It's a beautiful piece.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: thanks for the recent essay by Hache and Latour, which I plan to read tonight [in a few minutes, actually]. After reading Harman's description of Latour's thinking in "Prince of Networks" this past Monday [pp. 11-95] and also having read Julian Yates's essay on oranges and "agentive drift," my students were actually wondering if there was a specific ethical bent to Latour's ideas about ANT, and they didn't think so, and so I went home and thought some more about that. I actually think theorists such as Jane Bennett and Timothy Morton actually address that issue more directly, and I have not read Latour as much as you [and keep in mind that I don't necessarily expect an ethics from Latour], but everyone always throws out the fact that Latour opens up/gestures toward the idea of, or necessity for, a "parliament of things," and maybe he does, but from what I've read, he seems to operate more as a sociologist who is simply rendering better descriptions of the way the world work [and which, in many of his descriptions, seems to be a very "thick" rendering of various asymmetrical and non-centralized arrangements of force, resistance, and politics: of things, persons, institutions, etc. So, I see Latour more as a sociologist/philosopher of science than I see him as offering any sort of ethical philosophy. But maybe really good descriptions of the world are the real beginning of ethics, more so than prescriptions for dispositions and actions that are often founded on everything we supposedly *don't* know. Morton, for example, very obviously under the influence of Levinas [who we all know I also love, but ....], says repeatedly in "The Ecological Thought," that since there are certain things we can never know [like the exact dimensions of self-reflection in, say, an ant], we have to proceed as if we are always responsible for others with whom we are "enmeshed," regardless of their status, as determined in some sort of human-centered system of description, vis-a-vis quality of sentience, etc.

But now I'm going to sit down with that essay by Hache and Latour, anyway.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Eileen, I agree with you, Latour strives for "better descriptions of the way the world work": but he is not reticent to say WHY such a "better" description might be desirable: such composition is future directed.

I do get that in some of his writing Latour seems to be hovering above the fray, observing dispassionately the struggles of humans and things to form enduring networks and bring to life novel realities, but invariably towards the concluding moment a judgment arrives, always an ethical one. I'd point, too, to how deeply biblical many of Latour's metaphors and citations are (very unusual, in my opinion, among French writers). His Catholicism I think is a non-negligible component of his endeavors.

_Reassembling the Social_ does have many explicitly ethical moments. _Pandora's Hope_ and the "Compositionist Manifesto" as well...

Anonymous said...

“The knowing self is partial in all its guises, never finished, whole, simply there and original; it is always constructed and stitched together imperfectly and therefore able to join with another, to see together without claiming to be another.”
---Donna Haraway, ¨Situated Knowledges¨