Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Playing with Fire

by J J Cohen

The picture you behold to your left features my Fire Friendship Bracelet, fashioned for me this morning by my daughter Katherine because she knows I have been writing about the element. The bracelet is supposed to give me inspiration. Like nearly all the magic objects I have encountered in my life, this bracelet really works.

I have been taking a short break from writing about stone (it's tiring work, incising all those tablets) to think for a while about this sibling element. Among other things, I'm co-writing an essay on flame with Stephanie Trigg. The piece will appear in a special issue of postmedieval on "Ecomaterialism" that I'm co-editing with Lowell Duckert. Check out the table of contents: we're rather proud of the diversity of contributors as well as the "elements and their interstices" arrangement. Jane Bennett is composing the response essay, and Vin Nardizzi is doing the book review. A preview of the issue will be given at the BABEL conference in September, where many of the essay writers will present their work on a panel dedicated to the issue.

I'll give an excerpt of my piece of the "Fire" essay at the Exemplaria symposium in Austin in a few days, under the title of "Ethics, Objects, Networks." I am thinking that a longer version of this piece will be my presentation for the Journal of Narrative Theory Dialogue at which Tim Morton and I will present on March 15. It's funny: as an editor of the postmedieval 'Ecomaterialism" issue I was resigned to taking whatever element or interstice no one else wanted, and dreaded being left with fire, the one topic on which I thought I had nothing to say. But after working so long with stone's slow heaviness, thinking about something so lively, combustive, and quick has been a pleasure. The research has also been strangely nostalgic. I decided to use Grettir's saga as my main text. I often teach the narrative and love it, but haven't been working with Old Icelandic since my graduate school days (when, because I was seriously contemplating doing my work in Old English rather than later materials, I took three courses in Old Norse). My language skills are rusty but I feel them slowly coming back, like muscles that complain about long disuse but return to action all the same. Some discoveries (or maybe they are things I once knew and forgot): the Icelandic word for fire (eldr) is the same as the past participle of the verb for having grown old, while eldi is the term for procreation and birth; eldr is used in designations for dawn as well as lightning; a hall or its sitting room is eldhús (fire-house); eldibrandr is firewood, eldsuppkváma a volcano's eruption, and eldtinna is flint. There are in fact so many beautiful compounds made with eldr that I could read Old Icelandic dictionaries for months and never write the essay.

I won't share the paper itself yet, though you can be certain it will appear here in time. In the meanwhile, though, here are the passages from my Austin handout. As you can guess, I'll be speaking about a moment of perspectivism in the saga when Grettir is both a warrior trying to help some merchants stay alive and a monster who bursts into a hall and murders its occupants. This proliferation of prospects occurs with and through fire. Using some recent work by ́Emilie Hache and Bruno Latour (with a little bit of Michel Serres and Graham Harman), I attempt to unpack a possible environmental ethics based upon hesitation and point of view from the rich episode.


“Ethics, Objects, Networks”

1. Grettis saga (c. 1300)
Chapter 39: Grettir swims for fire [eldr]

The sons [of Thorir of Gard] arrived in a harbour just to the south of Stad, where they stayed for several nights. They had a good supply of food and drink, and remained inside while outside a storm raged.

Now we can tell what happened to Grettir and the men with whom he was travelling. They set off north along the coast, but it was the start of winter, and they ran into difficult weather. Just as they were trying to make their way north of Stad, the weather turned unusually rough … and they were forced to take shelter along the coast … They were unable to make a fire, and it seemed to them that their health and even their lives were at stake… As the night wore on, they saw a large fire on the other side of the channel from which they had landed. [The merchants beg Grettir to swim for fire; he reluctantly agrees, believing the act will turn out badly for him. He strips to his woolen tunic and pants, takes hold of a wooden tub, and swims across the harbor.]

He saw a house and heard the sounds of people enjoying themselves inside. Grettir turned and went there. Now we can tell about those who were inside. Here were the sons of Thorir, the ones mentioned earlier. They had remained ashore many nights at Stad, awaiting a change in the weather before continuing north. They sat drinking, twelve all together, and were staying in the main harbour in a house built as a way-station for sailors travelling up the coast. Much straw had been carried into the building, and there was a large fire burning on the floor.

Grettir now burst into the house, having no idea who was inside. His tunic had frozen solid when he climbed up on to land, and he looked horribly huge, as though he were a troll. Those inside were completely startled, thinking it was some monster. They hit him with everything they could lay hands on. In the noise and confusion, Grettir ducked behind the protection of his arms. Some hit him with sticks from the fire, and the fire now spread all through the house. In the middle of this Grettir just managed to get out of the house, and, taking some fire, he returned to his companions. They praised him highly …

The night now passed and the merchants thought themselves fortunate that they’d been able to get a fire … They agreed they ought to meet the people who had given them fire and find out who they were. So they unmoored the ship and went across the channel. They could not locate the hall, but they saw a huge pile of ashes, and in the ashes were many human bones.

Trans. Jess Byock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Old Icelandic edition ed. Örnólfur Thorrson (Reykjavik: Mál og menning, 1994)

2. Michel Serres, Statues (Flammarion, 1989)

But interpretations of myth (including my own) and scholarly calculation speak only of the scene and the hero Sisyphus, guilty, unhappy, become a slave. We never see anything but ourselves; human language discusses nothing but crime and punishment. Still, the myth itself, the stubborn myth, contrives the rock’s perpetual fall … From the depths of the ages, from the pit of hell, from an abyss of suffering, the tale repeats: the thing returns! -- and we Narcissuses speak only of him who rolls it away … What if, for once, we looked at the rock that is invariably present before our eyes, the stubborn object lying in front of us?

3. Émilie Hache and Bruno Latour, “Morality or Moralism? An Exercise in Sensitization,” Common Knowledge 16 (2010): 311-30.

Serres’s text aims – textually- to make us feel what the myth says of the rock. The reader watches the myth compel Serres to become the eyes and voice of a rock that our attention to Sisyphus has obscured. Serres’s text “rises in moral intensity,” because he is not satisfied with seeing the rock as a prop in Sisyphus’s life story. For Serres, the falling rock is active, repulsed but each time returning; whereas the rest of us see a man with a rock that does nothing, that is passively displaced, and that falls by itself without reason … Serres thus invents a kind of writing that shows how, if a rock ultimately has meaning (or value), it is not in spite of what the sciences say about it but thanks to scientific knowledge. Serres’s Statues shows how the sciences teach that rocks are linked to us through an extremely complex history —-a “pragmatogony” - in which human subjects and the objects of their world are reciprocally constituted and in which all the interesting realities are situated between those two poles.

4. Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto,” New Literary History 41 (2010): 471-90

To be sure, critique did a wonderful job of debunking prejudices, enlightening nations, and prodding minds, but, as I have argued elsewhere, it “ran out of steam” because it was predicated on the discovery of a true world of realities lying behind a veil of appearances. But it also had the immense drawback of creating a massive gap between what was felt and what was real. Ironically, given the Nietzschean fervor of so many iconoclasts, critique relies on a rear world of the beyond, that is, on a transcendence that is no less transcendent for being fully secular. With critique, you may debunk, reveal, unveil, but only as long as you establish, through this process of creative destruction, a privileged access to the world of reality behind the veils of appearances. Critique, in other words, has all the limits of utopia: it relies on the certainty of the world beyond this world. By contrast, for compositionism, there is no world of beyond. It is all about immanence.

The difference is not moot, because what performs a critique cannot also compose. It is really a mundane question of having the right tools for the right job. With a hammer (or a sledge hammer) in hand you can do a lot of things: break down walls, destroy idols, ridicule prejudices, but you cannot repair, take care, assemble, reassemble, stitch together. It is no more possible to compose with the paraphernalia of critique than it is to cook with a seesaw. Its limitations are greater still, for the hammer of critique can only prevail if, behind the slowly dismantled wall of appearances, is finally revealed the netherworld of reality. But when there is nothing real to be seen behind this destroyed wall, critique suddenly looks like another call to nihilism. What is the use of poking holes in delusions, if nothing more true is revealed beneath?


Julie Orlemanski said...

Looking forward to hearing this!! I cite the same NLH Latour essay :)

dan remein said...

Be very careful with magic objects. I'm pretty super secular, and yet reading this creeped me out, thinking about Skaldic verses and objects after thinking about a poem I was revisiting this morning.

Jack Spicer's poem 'Magic from his 'Homage to Creeley' in _The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether_ rings a bit like a mix of weird numerological anglo-latin riddles, Ansax charms, and a bit like skaldic verse--about and enacting magic of physics and language in contiguity, and so might inspire or terrify you in writing this bit. Here is it:

Strange, I had words for dinner
Stranger, I had words for dinner
Stranger, strange, do you believe me?

Honestly, I had your heart for supper
Honesty has had your heart for supper
Honesty honestly are your pain.

I burned the bones of it
And the letters of it
And the numbers of it
That go 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
And so far.

Stranger, I had bones for dinner
Stranger, I had bones for dinner
Stranger, stranger, strange, did you believe me?

(_My Vocabulary Did This to Me, ed. Peter Gizzi, Wesleyan, p.264).

dan remein said...

From the Latour: "critique did a wonderful job of debunking prejudices, enlightening nations, and prodding minds, but, as I have argued elsewhere, it “ran out of steam” because it was predicated on the discovery of a true world of realities lying behind a veil of appearances"

This is why I'm still consistently less thrilled with Latour than say Harman. Or, someone we seem to keep forgetting in all this, Grosz.

JJC, I know you like like Latour and, so do you, Julie, and that you aren't thrilled with Grosz on account of her interest in 'life' in such a way that stones say, don't fall under her purview. But here, for Latour, his sense of the history of thinking about perception and its intersections with hermeneutics (that is what I think this comment harbors) seems to be missing something. That is, critique didn't necessarily think it was getting at the reality behind a veil--it was constantly oscillating between a Heideggerian mode of uncovering as the event of truth and a Husserlian-Merleau-ontian sense of facticity, things as they appear, as the truth (the fascination with surface as such etc). Or, it denied reality altogether.

Now, I guess I'm just saying, I don't think we can just jump to some kind of access of the real in our critical language--without critique our language will stay in its little anthropocentric house. We need critique to bore holes through human language into that language--that set of physical relations and rhythms--that is cosmos itself.

Not trying to be 'negative' here in my critique. I like these materials, this project, immensely. Just not sure that to do it one has to 'reject' postructuralist critique OR language-theory as the basis of our readings.