Saturday, June 29, 2013

Some Medieval Dogs to Haunt David Brooks and His Modern "Mutts"


Because Julia Carrie Wong has already destroyed David Brooks' "A Nation of Barrel Fish Mutts," my dog post can be nothing but a whisper in the ear of the moderns. With that caveat, here's the atrocity from Brooks:
we will no longer be an outpost of Europe, but a nation of mutts, a nation with hundreds of fluid ethnicities from around the world, intermarrying and intermingling. Americans of European descent are already a minority among 5-year-olds. European-Americans will be a minority over all in 30 years at the latest, and probably sooner.
and, in his last paragraph:
On the whole, this future is exciting. The challenge will be to create a global civilization that is, at the same time, distinctly American. Immigration reform or not, the nation of mutts is coming.
Brooks isn't exactly decrying the disappearance of a European-Americans. Like a good capitalist, Brooks doesn't want to be tied down to the old verities. He's looking forward to the new mobility, and especially to the new interracial dynamic upper class, smugly and self-deceptively "meritocratic" like any other, and--I sense--like a good right-winger, he's looking forward to the disappearance of protections of minorities in his new America ("We now have this bogus category, 'minority,' in which we lump the supposed rainbow coalition of immigrants and blacks.") (edit: and I just remembered the work of my Brooklyn College colleague Alan Aja, who's doing important work on the ways that ethnic categories of, say, Cuban immigrants to America gradually transform into the ethnic categories of America).

These are problems, but the big problem, at least in Wong's post and on twitter in general, is mutts. Again, see Wong's excellent post. And then read this twitter exchange.

Animal comparisons tend to be bad not because "people aren't dogs" because because people don't think much of most animals (and that's how they know they're "people" and not animals). You probably know this by-now hoary observation from Cary Wolfe:
so long as it is institutionally taken from granted that it is all right to systematically exploit and kill nonhuman animals simply because of their species, then the humanist discourse of species will always be available for use by some humans against other humans as well. (8)
Though dogs are dogs and not wolves or lions, I suspect dogs and their people wouldn't mind having dogs compared to wolves or lions. Or even jellyfish, if the dog is silly enough. The problem isn't bad classification in general but what happens to humans reclassified as "mere" animals. 

Sometimes, not much. It's really not always bad to compare people to dogs. Edward, Duke of York, via Gaston Phébus, and indeed via medieval animal lore as a whole, assures us that dogs are the noblest of beasts, the most kind, loyal, and brave. So far as Edward's concerned, it's not so bad to be a dog, since most dogs are probably better than most people. Better than most women, particularly, at least in the more misogynist circles of medieval (and modern) dog culture.

Again, the problem with Brooks isn't the dog but the "mutt" comparison, which relies on the paired notion of both purebred Europeans (and others, but especially Europeans) and purebred dogs. We probably have a hunch (see this tweet, reproduced above) how useful this comparison has been to people like Brooks. And having at least brushed by books by Goffart and Geary, and maybe having a hunch at how painful and partial assimilation into dominant America has been for Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants (for example), we of course know how historically and scientifically risible it is to talk about "European-Americans." 

But what about the dogs themselves? What about this word "mutt"? Here's something I should know about that I don't. I recommend you start with Harriet Ritvo and then, if you remember, get back to this post. 

Now, "regarding types of dogs," writes Kathleen Walker-Meikle, "we must remember that [in the Middle Ages] they were generally classified according to function, and breeds were considerably less closely defined that they are now" (Medieval Pets 6). Her primary cite here is John Caius's De canibus Britannicis, which we might supplement, if we're feeling a bit wacky, with Toy Dogs and Their Ancestors. To these, we can add the laws of the Salian Franks (perhaps as early as 6th century?), whose laws against dog rustling impose separate penalties for crimes against "trained hunting dog[s]," "tracking hound[s]," "dog[s] that [are] usually tied up," and, finally, "herd dog[s]" (70-71). Skipping ahead to the English Forest Law (12th - 14th centuries), we notice how dogs large enough to hunt should be mutilated if they live in or near a royal hunting preserve:
All dogs which were found that could not or would not be drawn through a strap of eighteen inches and a barleycorn in length and breadth were hombled. The further joints of the two middle claws were cut clean away, and the master or owner of the dog was amerced in three shillings and a penny.
It's clear, then, that Walker-Meikle's "function" means, for the most part, the serviceability of different shapes of dogs to different kinds of hunting. 

And now you know enough to laugh at the American Kennel Club's entry on Bloodhounds, which explains? imagines? the following: 
In the twelfth century, when even bishops rode to hounds, dignitaries of the church were among the foremost in fostering the development of the Bloodhound. A number of high ecclesiastics maintained packs, and the kennel was an important part of every monastery. To them goes a great deal of the credit for keeping the strain clean. In fact, so much care was taken in the breeding of this hound that it came to be called the 'blooded hound,' meaning aristocratic.
The Middle English Dictionary sort of hints at this, incorrectly I think, while the OED--shockingly--gets it right with "apparently so called from its use in tracking (wounded) game." It cites a Middle English Guy of Warwick, where it's clear that Tirri uses his "blod houndes þre" not because of their "clean strain" but because they do a different job than the hounds he used to first harry the boar.

In sum, medieval breeds don't have genealogies; they have purposes. Functions not aesthetics. Medieval people didn't really have pets in the way we silly moderns do. We alienated moderns have lost touch with the real stuff of existence. Whoever this "we" is. 

This division, at least, is the general sense of things. The general sense divides medieval practicality from modern frivolousness, medieval masculinity from modern femininity (think of Deleuze and Guattari's notorious contempt for the lapdogs of "elderly women"), the medieval foundation from its dispersal into modern heterogeneity, and so forth. Holding on to this temporal/cultural division keeps us in Brooks' territory and in fact in the territory of all conservatives who believe in the homogeneous thing that existed before the mutt.

Except, pace Brooks et al., we do have medieval breeds, sometimes described in ways familiar to our modern sense of breed as shape, color, and parentage, where the aesthetic can't be so easily distinguished from the functional. When Albertus Magnus details the body type for mastiffs and greyhounds (the latter should have "an elongated neck which flares laterally near its connection to the head; an enormous chest which tapers to a sharp edge along its inferior border" (81)), he doesn't always hold strictly to functional preferences. Greyhounds should have "upper lips which overhang the lower jaw very slightly," which perhaps has a practical use, though, to my unprofessional eye, it sounds as though Albert just wants himself a sloppy dog. More notably, he believes reddish dogs are easily trained to do tricks, though not so easily as a little fox (which may be a particular kind of dog, given that foxes don't train well). Furthermore, Albertus suggests that "genus canum ignobilius" (edit to correct translation: the most [more?] ignoble type of dogs) are suitable for guarding houses. When James Scanlan translates the phrase as "mongrel" (79), which is to say, "mutt," he may just be correct. For Albert, some dogs just look better than others. Some dogs just come from better families than others.

Finally, Edward, Duke of York, explains that "the goodness of running hounds, and of all other kinds of hounds, cometh of true courage and of the good nature of their good father and of their good mother." This is breeding, though we might observe, far too simply, that this is breeding for character rather than strictly for lineage. Edward also prefers tan running hounds, black-muzzled greyhounds, and alauntes that are "white with black spots about the ears." When he praises Spanish dogs for use in flushing game for hawks, Edward observes:
For a country draweth to two natures of men, of beasts, and of fowls, and as men call greyhounds of Scotland and of Britain, so the alauntes and the hounds for the hawk come out of Spain, and they take after the nature of the generation from which they come.
Edward's combination of human and animals in breeding may sound familiar (perhaps chillingly so) to modern readers (though to complicate your sense of medieval race, region, and climate, read Suzanne Conklin Akbari's Idols in the East : European representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450).

We do have medieval canine aesthetics, just as we have medieval notions of race whose differences from modern notions of race in categorization and "science" and imagined histories render the notion of a foundational European-American strain intellectual unsustainable except as an element in histories of identity.

The simple point, contra Brooks, is that we're all mutts; that the medieval isn't any simpler than the now; and that we all pretend to purity, simplicity, humanity, and merit when it suits us, sometimes for good, sometimes not. It's not that the past is another country but that the past had its own certainties, like we have ours, and that knowing them, and knowing enough to know how they've changed, may help us hesitate before we stupidly throw about words like mutt or stupidly pretend that American modernity and capitalist rationalism will finally and gently do away with the ongoing violence of naturalized hierarchies.

Thursday, June 27, 2013


by J J Cohen

Writing Lockdown has sometimes been a mixed bag, but for the most part it's been extremely productive. I missed joining my friends on Martha's Vineyard for BABEL conference planning. But my book is so much closer to completion, and so much better (I hope) for the sustained attention I have been able to bring to it over the past weeks. June is almost over, classes start in August, so every moment I can give Stories of Stone seems well spent at this point.

Some days I have loathed my writing and felt like no matter how much I revise that book will never be done, or will never want to be done. On others I make progress and learn again what I love about the project. Tuesday of this week was an especially bad day, in that I came to an impasse over terminology and could not see a way of making cohere a chapter I'd combined from two others -- a chapter that remained at 40K words even after significant chopping. I haven't solved that problem quite yet, but at least I have a road map that helps me to make sense of why my four key terms cannot be synthesized. That breakthrough (well, to me it feels like a breakthrough) occurred yesterday morning, when I complained on Facebook about not being able to find the term I needed to get my argument crystallize. Forty-four comments later I realized that non-coherence (the non-coincidence of stone with its descriptors) was what I was actually speaking about and theorizing in the chapter ... and suddenly I had a way into its structure that I didn't possess beforehand. Thanks, so much, to everyone who contributed to that thread. It proved for me once again the value of sharing work-in-process and the generosity of academics who use social media.

Below, a short excerpt from yesterday's writing.

meta moment, courtesy of Angie Bennett Segler

This chapter seeks a word that humans have yet to invent, a term stone wants to convey its movement-effects. This impossible word would combine "allure" and "radiance" to express irreconcilable trajectories: enfolding and propulsion, attraction and outward impetus, lure and actuation, captivation and conveyance, seduction (mysterious, sensual, affective) and ekstasis (vertiginously standing outside the self). Impracticably, this word of dual vectors would also have to capture stone’s propensity for lapidary stillness and seismic movement at once, its ability to be utterly fixed, a point of stasis or arrest in a bustling world, as well as to be at the same time energetically, adamantly in motion. This unimaginable term would need to dance lithely between temporal and spatial scales, between ontological modes, capturing both weird simultaneity and dizzying shift.  Has there ever existed such a word?
A kinetic verb masquerading as a noun, wonder is one possibility. Old English wundrian designates irruption and eruption, outside coming in (to be struck by surprise) and inside moving out (to marvel). Wonder is an opening of the world in its strangeness.[i] Perspective realigns and matter queers.[ii] In the face of epistemological faltering, wonder entices curiosity and cognitive extension.[iii] It can also lead to a “broken knowledge” that inculcates respect for the indomitability of things: “wonder hopes to darken, to isolate, to insulate” (Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology 131). Astonishment is another possible term, the affective state that in Middle English was written astoned. This adjective derives from the Anglo-Norman French verb estoner, “to stun,” which in turn comes from Latin tonare, “to thunder.” A word of a sonorous etymology, astonish conveys the feeling of being outside oneself that arrives at a sudden thunderclap. For both medieval and modern Anglophone audiences the term accidentally carries lithic suggestiveness: a-stoned sounds like becoming petric.[iv] Those who are astonished routinely fall to the ground, and when the astoned regain their mammalian composure they are no longer quite the same. The world has come alive as a space in which “bodies, substances, goods, organisms, landscapes and energetic flows” burgeon with vitality, “the adventures of matter.”[v] Indeed the emergence of this effusive material power is what the genre of romance, the medieval equivalent of speculative fiction, calls aventure, transportive and perilous arrival, the root of our modern word adventure. Erupting as the world’s workings are revealed as fundamentally weird, aventure is hazardous, enchanting, oblique, inassimilable.[vi] Yet wonder, astonishment, and aventure better describe the effect of the lithic upon humans than what stone does outside of its anthropocentric relations.
The medieval noun-verb charm might be a better option, combining arousal and capture with materiality (a charm is a piece of jewelry or a magic object) and inherent dynamism (charm means spell, words come to life, and derives from Latin carmen, song). Charm emphasizes the ability of stone to enchant, intimately connecting medieval texts to newer materialisms. A neologism like allurance offers another alternative, a portmanteau capacious enough for varied lithic effects – but too deconstructionist, doomed to hapax legomenon. With its inbuilt push-pull magnetism is likely the best geological descriptor, and has the added bonus of being a sturdily medieval noun that remains familiar. Magnetism also underscores the perils of encounter with stone’s agency, its inhuman challenge to thinking the world from a perspective that assumes matter can be mastered and materiality is fully knowable. In his long alphabetical catalog of the powers of various stones, the thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian Albertus Magnus dwells mainly upon stone’s emissive abilities, its refulgence. His discussion of magnetes (magnetic stones) foregrounds a contrasting but coextensive trajectory, petric traction. The description begins in science and ends in horror:
Aristotle also says that there are many different kinds of magnets; for some attract gold, and others, different from these, attract silver, and some tin, and some iron, and some lead … and some attract human flesh: and it is said that a man attracted by such a magnet laughs, and remains where he is until he dies, if the stone is very large. (Book of Minerals 3.3.6)
Albertus takes this description from the so-called Lapidary of Aristotle, an Arabic work extant by the ninth century published under the Greek philosopher’s name and eventually translated into Latin.[vii] The Lapidary collates a variety of “stone that attracts” (“lapis qui trahit”). The rocks that draw humans are said to have been discovered by Aristotle’s pupil and correspondent, Alexander the Great. To behold them triggers astonishment: “all who looked upon them were stupefied and kept gazing open-mouthed as if they had lost their senses.” Alexander is savvy enough to steal some by draping them in cloth. He uses the stones to build a city, incorporating them within its lithic architecture, but over time sand erodes the protective layer placed to obscure their surface. Eventually a prince of Ninevah sends scouts into the city. Once they scale its wall these men are transfixed by the rocks and never reappear.[viii] Stones shimmer with beautiful and life-intensifying force. They also exert a corporeal and epistemological pull that brings humans, and the category “human,” to ruin. The prince’s messengers do not return with their report. The words never arrive to describe the actions of these stones that have captured their investigators, this substance with which they will be forever bound.
Despite combining attraction and propulsion, stillness and action, magnetism in both medieval and modern accounts mainly centers upon lithic gravity, on “lapis qui trahit” (rock that pulls). Seeking a word that has yet to be invented, stone can best be understood here in the failed return of the prince’s spies, who cannot communicate stone’s movement-effects because they have been caught by them; or here in these failed paragraphs, as I struggle to find words, as stone bluntly triggers linguistic failure, pushing investigation up against the hardest of walls, description faltering, the world escaping category. Here where humans become transfixed to a stony wall and words petrify rather than convey, especially here, stone does not cease to move.
This chapter continues the exploration of stone’s animating antimonies (crystalline solidity and magmatic flow, geologic and idiosyncratic scale, blunt factuality and invitation to reverie), but deepens these restless trajectories through an examination of how lapidary stillness and seismic motion have textual effects, how the emissive potency that is radiance and the sensual, aesthetic, and perilous force of allure interrupt human narratives and spur the genesis of a new genre, romance. 

[i] I am grateful to Dan Remein for his inspirational meditation on wonder posted in thecomments here.
[ii] On the queer and disorienting shifts of perspective see Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, esp. 170-72; on queer as “infinitely open to and responsible for others, to other spaces, other times, other worlds, to the other (than human), to new forms of being-in-the-world” – a space for “surprise, for wonder, for love, for happiness, for a world in which our very uncertainty about what it means to be human comes to be understood as definitive of the human condition” -- see Michale O’Rourke, “The Open” (quotations at xvii, xviii-xix).
[iii] For the ratiocination, mischievousness, amusement and dread that constitute the serious and “complex semantic field” of wonder in the Middle Ages, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity, esp. 56-75.
[iv] Thus Chaucer describes a dazed Pandarus, reeling from Troilus’s rebuke, as rock-like: “This Pandarus ... stant, astoned of thise causes tweye, / As stille as ston [This Pandarus stood astonished for these two reasons, as still as a stone]” (Troilus and Criseyde 5.1728-29).
[v] I am quoting from the beautiful description of the material turn in ecological theory by Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann in “Theorizing Material Ecocriticism” 450.
[vi] Frédéric Godefroy’s influential Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue française (1895) defined aventure as “ce qui arrive inopinément” (that which arrives unexpectedly). Godefroy aligned such unforeseen advent with hasard, accident, risque, péril and fortune. These definitions are standard and uncontroversial. Cf., e.g., the entry for aventure in Pierre Kunstmann’s in-progress Dictionnaire Électronique de Chrétien de Troyes.
[vii] See Lynn Thorndike, “The Latin Pseudo-Aristotle” 243.
[viii] See the excerpts from the Lapidary of Aristotle included by Dorothy Wyckoff in her edition of Albertus Magnus, Mineralia 2.3.6 (p. 149 n17).

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Quick Takes -- Deep Time / Pseudo-Dionysius and a Pug's Bottom


First Quick Take:

We here love how "deep time" humiliates our human pretensions. From my own deep time archive, from my distant childhood, here's a video to watch alongside Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel and Heidi Wittlinger's "Das Rad."

Second Quick Take:
People have had their good laugh, or worked up a good dander, at the divine image on this dog's butt, which joins toast, tortillas, and a mishmash of other humble materials in attesting to god's catholic love for creation, or as a joke at the expense of the credulous. Here's a typical outraged response:
What do I think? I think blasphemy and a blatent disregard for things that are sacred to people is completely out of hand. I see the person who wrote this did not put their name on the article but shame on you and shame on [Huffington Post] for "printing" such garbage just to annoy good people.
I am not a Christian but I have all the respect and admiration for Jesus Christ who came to this world to teach love and peace and respect of fellow human beings. HP please grow up and try harder to help with peace, love and understand rather than upset good people.
If you're looking for more interesting ways to get upset, or seeking out ways to prove the relevance of medieval studies to skeptical deans and indifferent colleagues, by all means (please don't) take this chance, and direct the uncertain and uncurious to the negative theology of pseudo-Dionysius, Celestial Hierarchy II, 3 (141A-B):
Since the way of negation appears to be more suitable to the realm of the divine and since positive affirmations are always unfitting to the hiddenness of the inexpressible, a manifestation through dissimilar shapes is more correctly to be applied to the invisible. So it is that scriptural writings, far from demeaning the ranks of heaven, actually pay them honor by describing them with dissimilar shapes so completely at variance with what they really are that we come to discover how those ranks, so far removed from us, transcend all materiality. Furthermore, I doubt that anyone would refuse to acknowledge that incongruities are more suitable for lifting our minds up into the domain of the spiritual than similarities are. High-flown shapes could well mislead someone into thinking that the heavenly beings are golden or gleaming men, glamorous, wearing lustrous clothing clothing, giving off flames which cause no harm, or that they have other similar beauties with which the word of God has fashioned the heavenly mind....Indeed the sheer crassness of the signs is a goad so that even the materially inclined cannot accept that it could be permitted or true that the celestial and divine sights could be conveyed by such shameful things.
Obviously, pseudo-Dionysius doesn't go far enough in his persistent distinction between "similarities" and "incongruities," between, say, the grandeur of a 900-ft Jesus rap-rap-rapping on the United Nations, and the apparition of the selfsame savior in a dog's bottom. A more dedicated negative theology would abandon these merely human hierarchies and get far filthier. It would fall weeping on the pugend, finding in it as much mystery and holiness as any gleaming ceiling in Ravenna.

Confidentially to the befuddled: this is all a joke, kind of....except that mockery implicit in the dogbutt photo works best if both believer and blasphemer believe sclerotically, each committed to an anodyne and precious purity, anxious and easily sullied, each unwilling to trek into theology's weirder regions. The dogbutt Christ is funny, because to mere humans like us dogbutts are funny. But a better mystic, a better believer, and even a better materialist, antihumanist atheist, like me, should find something holy or wondrous in what we mistake as the most wretched things. To make belief stranger, and blasphemy far more difficult, we have to get dirtier.

And if this horrible event actually happened, I have to hope that a little more negative theological weirdness could have stopped it.

For further reading:
Bertrand, Daniel A. “Le Christ Comme Ver : à Propos Du Psaume 22(21),7,” in Le Psautier Chez Les Pères (Strasbourg: Centre d’Analyse et de Documentation Patristiques, 1994), 221–234.
Masciandaro, Nicola, "Wormsign."
Ruaro, Enrica. "God and the Worm: The Twofold Otherness in Pseudo-Dionysius's Theory of Dissimilar Images." American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 82.4 (2008): 581-592.

(update with a relevant clip from an excellent post by Steven Shaviro on Dylan Trigg, Object-Oriented Ontology, and Lévinas "The vague sentience of the slime mold (my favorite biological organism) is not in the least horrific for the slime mold." In short, the Lovecraftians may be going at things entirely wrong)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Matter is Information: On Gene Patents, cDNA, and Spontaneous Generation


Like others, I've been trying to get my head around the recent Duns SCOTUS1 ruling on patentable genes. Here's Tim Morton, and here's me earlier today, where I observe that the "SCOTUS ruling on non-patentable genes relies on precritical distinction between matter and information." I was led to this by the payoff paragraph in Jeff Guo article at The New Republic:
saying that cDNA is patentable but natural DNA isn't misunderstands the central complaint about gene patents, which is that genes are basically information, and information can't be patented. The body has its own code, it's a natural code, and the body naturally manipuates [sic] that code, making copies, edits and deletions all on its own. Genetics is data. The provenance of the molecules that carry that data, whether they are DNA or RNA, whether the DNA version exists naturally or the RNA version exists naturally, is completely irrelevant.
My emphasis. As one says, read the whole thing. It won't take long.

I've been stewing on the indistinction between structure and information on the level of RNA and DNA (for example) at least since April in Tuscaloosa. In some typical ways of thinking things, matter without spirit is inert; and matter needs spirit to inform it. Spirit is information, in other words. The informing makes you you, for example, distinguishing your mere stuff from my mere stuff. In genealogy, this informing is what's passed down from one generation to the next. This is familial information, whether we call this the paternal name or the genetic code.

But if information can't be distinguished from material structure, then we have the tools for a radically nonspiritual, nonpaternal, and nonvital conceptualization of objects in general, living things included. Individuation now isn't something that happens through the application of spirit, or vitality, or writing, or code to matter. It happens with matter itself, through its organization within a roiling field of other matter, in which a perfect description of the information particularizing a particular piece of matter would be nothing less than an exact copy of that piece of matter, and possibly of the larger constantly shifting spatiotemporal order of matter that made that particularization possible.

This is all highly abstract. It could help if I share some of the material from my Tuscaloosa talk that never found its way onto the blog in this form.
Normal life proceeds by what medieval writers called generatio univoca, generation from a single source, cause, or even voice: an ultimately transcendent divine motion. What we call spontaneous generation the medievals tended to call generatio equivoca, generation from an ambiguous source, or without the hierarchy of some singular outside cause.

An example: Aristotle speaks of some insects “not derived from living parentage, but...generated spontaneously: some out of dew falling on leaves...others grow in decaying mud or dung; others in timber, green or dry; some in the hair of animals; some in the flesh of animals; some in excrements: and some from excrement after it has been voided, and some from excrement yet within the living animal.”

This is unpaternal life, without, as Aquinas said, any “aspect of generation and sonship.” Paternal life transmits information. This information is its lineage or history, which, however inherent it may be to matter, can be separated or abstracted from it as a transmitted or chartable code. We might think of this code as the spiritual principle. Spontaneous generation by contrast springs into swarming life from itself, without any sexual intermediary, without parental transmission, without a singular cause or singular voice, without a quality that can be separated from its temporary affiliations. Its noise is its matter is its motion is its life, all together. This is a life without separable history, without the controlling line of fatherhood, without information or coding, without distinction from its momentary configurations, and without divisions of passive matter from an active principle that gives matter form, and thus outside Aristotelian gendered conceptions of feminine passivity2 and masculine activity.
And later on:
The campaign against [spontaneous generation] has to be understood as something other than that of a modern split from medieval habits, and something other than a war against the persistence of the medieval in the modern. Because we know that life at its origin is abiogenetic, unlife acting upon itself and springing into life. This point was one Darwin himself was making not long before Pasteur was celebrating his victory over Pouchet.

Thus, although we might think of modern origin of life research and the new materialisms as a kind of return of medieval fecund materiality, we should think things otherwise than a line between medieval and modern, superstition and science, not least of all because there’s no one medieval attitude about matter. We might draw the line better not between historical eras but between kinds of grammar, per Nietzsche's famous critique of “the metaphysics of language,” which, he argues, persists in differentiating between a “doer and doing” and asserting some “will as the cause,” or, more simply, classifying things into clear subjects and predicates, between a matter that needs something or someone to make it happen, and matter whose operations cannot be neatly sorted into effect and external cause, object and external subject.. You know how Nietzsche's famous critique ends: “I am afraid that we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”

Life, or matter, is in its origin ungrammatical, a point I insist on even as I accept some of triumphalist narratives of spontaneous generation's defeat. I'll emphasize that I don't want to obscure the differences between spontaneous generation and origin of life research. Insofar as this medievalist can know, I know that origin of life research (eg and also eg) provides hypothesizes about the development of a paired genetic continuity and openness to adaptation across generations; that it provides irreversible historical narratives of, say, the long rise of DNA out of an RNA world; and that it tends to insist that the time of abiogensis is long over. Spontaneous generation doesn't relegate its processes to the tremendously distant past—or the tremendous speed of chemical interactions. That may be its error. Yet in abiogenesis, in spontaneous generation, and the continued operations of DNA and RNA insofar as I understand them, we do have matter operating on itself to bring something new and surprising into being in ways that meets Jane Bennett's call “to dissipate the onto-theological binaries of life/matter, human/animal, will/determination, and organic/inorganic” (x). In other words, I'll suggest that the somewhat embarrassed response to spontaneous generation in some scholarship (eg) evidences a need to cling to subject/object binaries—evidences, in other words, that it hasn't yet got rid of God or the myth of an infusing spirit, or of the distinctiveness of information from matter—and that spontaneous generation offers a resource both to the still developing work of the new materialists and to critical animal thinkers like me.
Or, for that matter, to the Supreme Court of the United States.

1 Tip of the hat to Kári Driscoll for the medieval SCOTUS twist
2 Note that Isidore Etymologies IX.v.4 derives "materia" [matter] from "mater" [mother]!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Lithic Time

by J J Cohen

Writing lockdown continues (today is day seven). But I realize I could use some feedback on this portion of my "Time" chapter, which makes some claims I'm a little bit uncertain about. Let me know what you think.

Lithic Time
In his Latin poem Vox clamantis (“The Voice Crying Out”), the polyglot English poet John Gower states that Scripture veteris capiunt exempla futuri, “old writings contain examples for the future” (1.Prol.1). Two centuries later, when William Shakespeare brought the fourteenth-century poet back from the dead in the prologue to Pericles, he has “ancient Gower” declare Et bonum quo antiquius, eo melius, “The older a good thing, the better.” This chapter explores a space between these two Gowerian declarations, wondering how far back “old writings” might through stone’s storied matter extend; probing whether writing necessitates words, or if lithic architectures and other nonverbal petroglyphs (including the fossilized remains of various life forms) might convey messages across vast sweeps of time; and tracing the temporal knot formed whenever distant history is imagined, since to place the past into narrative forms addresses the present moment and calls into being possible futures. Neither abstract nor simply given, time is a challenge relentlessly posed by stone’s aeonic materiality, inviting a geologic contemplation of history, and extension of temporal scale far beyond human durations.[i] Thus the Parisian philosopher Jean Buridan wondered in the fourteenth century why through erosion every mountain had not yet been flattened, why engulfing water had not rendered the earth a smooth and aqueous sphere.[ii] His solution was to imagine that as rock diminishes on some parts of the earth mountains rise above the ocean on the other, an intricate global balancing of lithic weight that grants to stone its ceaseless motion. This world in its immense geographical and temporal frame Buridan does not imagine as existing for a human observer. It simply exists, and thereby triggers dynamic narrative.
For Christian writers like John Gower, ancient writings buttress the religious certainty of believers. Yet stone also opens alternate modalities, rocky paths along which the world unburdens itself from reduction into human contours. Whether its invitation is to contemplate a temporal extension of thousands or millions of years, eternity or infinity, the lithic offers a sharp reminder of the mundane heterogeneity that inhabits all segments of the temporal scale: brief humans and perdurable elements admixed. In mingling Genesis with petrogenesis, biblical with geological epochality, this chapter goes against an impressive critical literature arguing that the discovery of geological time in the eighteenth century engendered a decisive epistemological break, with modernity arriving on its nearer side. Thinking the earth in spans of millions to billions of years is utterly disorienting, and the difficulty of comprehending ecological activity over immense durations and spatial extensions is likely behind our severe troubles in discussing climate change and the arrival of the Anthropocene, the geological era in which human activity is readable in through the imprint its has made on stone. Yet the millennial spans into which medieval writers divided the past do not exactly hold comfort. Such eras are neither as securely apprehensible nor as tidily diminutive as has often been implied by those who argue for sharp historical periodizations, for a decisive entry into modernity propelled by recent geology. Medieval texts are just as capable of epochal foundering and the envisioning of lost worlds. Their stories of stone and time are not our own (our stones are composed of atoms not elements; divine eternity has been replaced by cosmological infinity), but their genre and structure have often been quietly absorbed into contemporary techniques of narrating the distant past.
For both medieval and modern thinkers, stone’s temporal extensiveness unsettles narration, stretching materiality inhumanly forwards and backwards, limning history with catastrophe. Because of its exceptional endurance stone is time’s most tangible, reliable, and elemental conveyor. Stone hurts, and not just because rocks so easily become hurled weapons. Geologic scale diminishes the human. Yet temporal expansiveness is paradoxically almost impossible to comprehend without arrangement along a human calendar: disanthropocentrism requires a measure of anthropomorphism. The Book of Genesis translates creation into the tidy progression of a seven day week. Carl Sagan famously condensed cosmic history into a solar year, with the Big Bang on the first day of January, the Milky Way arriving May 1, earth’s oldest rocks October 2, and dinosaurs thundering across the continents on Christmas Eve to depart four days later. Modern humans make their belated appearance on New Year’s Eve, with mere minutes separating the Crusades (all of them) from the first manned flight to the moon.[iii] To perceive time’s challenge requires the measurement of abyssal depths in familiar terms. We parcel eons into generation-like segments, as if nonhuman immensity could be expressed in the life-units of mere organisms. Science, religion and myth humanize time through reduction into accustomed spans. When the biblical Methuselah endures for an extraordinary 969 years, almost to the Flood against which his grandson builds an ark, he becomes a figure for impossible longevity, subsuming temporal extensiveness into a human frame. Yet Methuselah dies just short of the thousand year mark. Despite translation into myth and metaphor (techniques as central to the geologist's narration of the primordial as to medieval imaginings of the distant past), rendering the millennium a conceivable unit of measure is not all that easier than parceling geology’s million year spans into apprehensible units. Exceeding a human lifespan, centuries are difficult enough. Millennia are easier to grasp only in relation to the procession of epochs that form what geologists call deep time, “the unimaginable magnitudes of the prehuman or prehistoric time scale.”[iv] The Cambrian era is remarkable for its proliferation of multicellular creatures, but its watery lifefields did not contain anything like human beings, so we have trouble thinking of the period as distinguishable from the Permian, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. Painting a caveman into our portraits of dinosaurs is nearly irresistible, even though we know such creatures never coexisted. Although temporal extension is better measured through the lives of rocks than of animals, we yearn to insert a familiar observer to make their depths more intimate, to render time a persisting, living and knowable impingement rather than a distant and dissociated realm. We employ whatever conceptual tools we have at hand in this process of fashioning a convergence for human and inhuman scales, inevitably finding ourselves challenged by time’s profundity to the invention of new story, a frustrated but relentless geologic embrace.
To touch stone is to place a hand upon a substance alien to human duration. Medieval writers trained in the study of the bible knew this fact with the same certainty as contemporary scientists and philosophers. The thirteenth-century philosophical synthesizer of petric lore Albertus Magnus considered stones to be mortal, in that they could perish when viewed within their indigenous temporality. Because lithic time proceeds so much more slowly than that of living beings a great many years must pass before a human will realize a stone has lost its vitality:
For minerals in their own way suffer death just as animals do; but the loss of their essential being is not noticed unless the change is very great. For a ‘dead’ saphirus still retains its colour, transparency and shape just like a ‘live’ one … but after a long-draw-out change it grows dull and begins to disintegrate … And the same terms, ‘live’ and ‘dead, are applicable to gold, silver, and other minerals.[v]
Geologists tell us that stone was the earth’s first solid, the planet’s most venerable denizen – but none of that primordial rock remains, having met its death through forces like subduction, the drowning of stone in sea and fire as the earth’s plates grind over each other. In the Hebrew bible dry earth appears on the third day of creation, humans arrive on the sixth. After their expulsion from perfect Eden, these ambulatory latecomers will take some time to overspread their new terrain. They are compelled to begin their colonization anew after the purging Flood.[vi] The story is ancient: history is allied with the restless, noisy and often ruinous flux of water and fire. Stone, however, is the only material that sometimes endures: not indifferent to cataclysm but marked by its force, carrying narrative through perilous spans of time.[vii] Recent volcanic creations aside, stone’s origins stretch back hundreds of millions of years according to cosmological reckoning. An origin date of 4004 BCE for the earth is the most famous calculation based on the Genesis narrative, but this was the number derived by James Ussher in the seventeenth century. The biblical literalism associated with Protestant fundamentalism is not a widespread medieval technique for interpreting scripture; most medieval exegetes stressed the symbolic, the allegorical, and the typological. Medieval reckonings of the earth’s age therefore varied widely. The fourteenth century poem Piers Plowman has creation take place “seuene thousand” years ago, while the Middle English Gospel of Nicodemus places the span at 5500 years. Bede calculated the time between Adam and Jesus as 3852 years; Eusebius and Jerome placed the number at 5198. Nor was it necessarily the case that the seven days of creation were interpreted as human days, especially because three of these days preceded the creation of the sun, and divine time was unlikely to coincide with mortal reckonings. Though Genesis was the primary narrative through which the writers of the Middle Ages understood their earliest history, a coexisting tradition deriving from Hesiod and Boethius described a Golden or Former Age. Like Eden, it was both better than the current era and irremediably lost. Some Aristotelians like Jean Buridan in the fourteenth century conceptualized the earth, like heaven, as eternal rather than finite.[viii]
Scholarship on deep time and geohistory takes as a founding assumption that the nineteenth-century discovery of the vast prehuman periods that were to be measured in stone rather than flesh marks a “time revolution.”[ix] On one side of this chasm stand those whose relation to prehistory is comfortably mediated by myth. On the other are the moderns whose awareness of temporal extension alienates them from history, troubles their relationship to the world they inhabit, and activates their imaginations. Thus Martin J. S. Rudwick, the foremost historian of the mapping of deep time, stresses that in the discovery of geohistory science and religion were complicated partners. Yet he provides as his illustration for life before geological time’s challenge to human self-assurance a moment in the seventeenth century when Thomas Browne nonchalantly declares that “’Time we may comprehend, ‘tis but five days elder than ourselves.’” Rudwick contrasts Browne’s glib assertion of time’s brevity to a prehistory that we now know stretches almost infinitely backwards. Our imaginations are strained as we are called upon to envision remote epochs filled with extinct monsters, the vagrancy of continents, and an oxygen-deprived world in which “comets or asteroids crashed catastrophically into our planet” (Bursting the Limits of Time 2). Although Rudwick does not observe this, science cannot describe the deep past without a narrative structure and a vocabulary derived from biblical myth and, as we shall see, medieval romance. Yet science also seems confident that everything changed once the truth of fossils was revealed as dinosaurs, once secular facts explosively replaced biblical dreams. Though irresistibly quotable, Thomas Browne’s incurious flippancy is unusual and cannot stand for preceding history. Contrary to any “rupture narrative” (as Kellie Robertson labels overly enthusiastic and impossibly tidy historical periodizations), medieval conceptions of prehistory were never so casual, never so unperturbed.[x] Temporal frames may have stretched back thousands of years rather than eons, but the primeval was envisioned through rich and multiplex narratives filled with lively, often startling content. Time’s vastness was capable of taxing the medieval imagination in ways anxious, innovative, and uncannily familiar. Every historical period works with the conceptual tools it inherits but is never bound by that heritage to mere replication of that which is already known. Living before the scientific and social revolutions Rudwick details, medieval people did not populate their prehistory with pterosaurs and mammoths, but they knew well through these creatures’ bones the archaic lives of dragons and giants. The author of the Book of John Mandeville writes of the port of Jaffa in the Holy Land:
And ye shal understonde that hit [it] is the yldest toun [oldest town] of the worlde, for hit was makyd byfore Noeis floode [made before Noah’s flood]. And ther beth [are] bones of gyauntes [giants] sides that ben [are] fourty foot long.[xi]
Medieval authors may not have imagined extinction by asteroid-propelled fire, but they were enraptured by the watery cataclysm of the Deluge and an apocalypse of flame to come. Noah’s flood was still readable in the fossil record, replete with the bones of those giants that Genesis asserted had walked the early earth.[xii] Even the universalizing and supposedly short chronological framework of the Genesis story has its textual strata, fossils, provocations to dreaming the inhuman, and unexpected depths.[xiii]
Geology and Genesis differ profoundly in their historical scales. They do not offer two versions of the same story, even though the former has absorbed much of its narrative structure from the latter. One is cut from restless infinity, the other bounded by eternity’s stillness. Both, however, share deep affinities, including inassimilable temporal vastness and arrangement around punctuated catastrophe. Both convey the primordiality of stone and its astonishing perseverance. Something potentially combustive therefore unfolds within both frames at the moment of contact between mortal flesh and lithic materiality: the advent of a disorienting realization, no matter how inchoate or dimly perceived, that stone’s time is not ours, that the world is not for us. We grasp the antediluvian, figuratively or literally, and realize that we are fleeting, that this place supposed to be a home is too ancient and enduring for comfortable domestication. The earthly residence of many stones extends, according to geologists, to billions of years. Medieval writers, too, saw in lithic depths a glimpse of the earliest moments of creation. Albertus Magnus writes that “stones are not far removed from the elements” and their materiality has “very little altered” (Books of Minerals 1.1.5). To palm a rock is to press flesh against the first moments of time. Albert therefore associates the production of stones with cold, and espies in their primeval purity a frozen elementality. In a simple gem is condensed inestimable temporal protraction. For a medieval author, a ruby or emerald might compact a history that stretches to Eden. The Sloane Lapidary describes emerald with the sentence “It is greene & it cometh from the Streame of Paridis” (English Mediaeval Lapidaries 121). For most readers of this book, diamonds and amethysts compress an epochality that demands the imagination of prodigious monsters and migratory continents indifferent to apes to come. Biblically derived and geologic temporalities share an inhuman immensity of scale.
As solitary years accrete into eras, the still earth becomes vibrant, inhabited by impressive materialities that are also forces that move and create. That which was static springs into life. Rock slides, seeps, grinds, infiltrates, engulfs, transforms. Rising as mountains, gliding as continents, stone accrues into aeonic strata, tumbles with glaciers, plunges deep under the sea in sheets and ascends later as peaks veined with marine souvenirs. Mineralizing what had been organic life, compressing traces of multiple times into heterogeneous aggregates or metamorphic novelties, rock also bends like plastic so that ephemeral humans may sculpt a lithic whorl or devise a temple of a thousand years’ duration. Such durable building projects are possible only through human-lithic alliance, which intensify the architectures that geological forces fashion on their own. The baleful Green Chapel of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may or may not be the work of human hands. Perhaps a decrepit church or ruined shrine, its description also suggests a pre-Christian holy place, possibly Thor’s Cave, a limestone cavern in Staffordshire used in the late Neolithic for burials, or Lud’s Church, a mossy gorge that also possesses a long human history.[xiv] In a way it does not matter if human builders or geology fabricated the haunting structure since humans and rocks have a habit of imitating each others' work, of creating homologous and shared spaces. All stonework is a collaboration between human hands and inhuman forces. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem obsessed with landscapes, animals, and other manifestations of the nonhuman. No wonder then that the Green Chapel is at once a dire mound or hillock where the grinding of a lethal axe echoes, a crag or cave where red blood trickles onto white snow, and the climactic locale where terror at the prospect of impending death yields to an invitation to celebration and the affirmation of humane connection. “Make merry in my house!” Bertilak declares once Gawain has completed his testing (2468), and the verdant half-giant reveals himself also to be an ordinary man.

[i] Jonathan Gil Harris gets at the provocation posed by time as active force and matter as agential when he observes “relations between matter and temporality have been largely occluded in recent scholarship on objects, which has tended to transform the ‘material’ of material culture into a synonym for ‘physical’ – thereby freezing not just the object in time but also time in the object” (Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare 7).
[ii] On Buridan and his Aristotelian bent (enabling him to think about the world and infinity together), see Joel Kaye, “The (Re)Balance of Nature” (95). Robert Bartlett examines the problem a spherical earth composed of four elements of differing weights caused for some other writers, who likewise had to struggle with the possibility of globe covered by water as the earth’s natural state in The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages 44-50.
[iii] This “Cosmic Calendar” was famously calculated by Carl Sagan in his book The Dragons of Eden, 13-16.
[iv] Martin J. S. Rudwick takes the phrase “deep time” from John McPhee’s Basin and Range, remarking upon its analogy to astronomical deep space (Scenes from Deep Time 255). He also employs the earth science term geohistory, “the immensely long and complex history of the earth, including the life on its surface (biohistory), as distinct from the extremely brief recent history that can be based on human records, or even the somewhat longer preliterate ‘prehistory’ of our species” (Bursting the Limits of Time 2).
[v] Albertus Magnus, Meteora 4.4.7, as quoted in Mineralia trans. Dorothy Wyckoff 2.1.4 n7.
[vi] The best recent account of the work of the Flood myth in the Middle Ages is Daniel Anlezark, Water and Fire. Anlezark empathizes the intimacy of mythic modes to dreaming prehistory and their adaptability over time. He argues that the Flood serves as an “archetype of the human experience of catastrophe,” mixing a hope of human endurance with “the fear of collective extinction” (7). Anlezark also demonstrates the parallels among and ultimate medieval convergence of classical, early Germanic and biblical flood stories.
[vii] For a contemporary version of water and fire conveying time’s restless, garrulous multiplicity while stone endures in silence, see Michel Serres’s provocative account of elemental, auditory fury and the challenges posed by such sensuous disorder in his book Genesis.
[viii] See Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain 22; Stephen A. Barney, The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman volume 5, p. 69; Martin J. S. Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time 116-17; Joel Kaye, “The (Re)Balance of Nature” 95.
[ix] “Time revolution” is the phrase used by Shryock and Smail in Deep History to describe the abandonment during the 1860s of a biblical “short chronology … in which history and geology are coeval” (Deep History 5-6).
[x] Kellie Robertson, “Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto” 108. Robertson is speaking specifically of the chasm that is supposed to separate the Middle Ages from the early modern period, but her rich essay is generalizable beyond this specific focus. See also the work of Daniel Lord Smail, who traces how the Middle Ages and the Paleolithic are both put to work to maintain such unnecessary gaps.
[xi] Ed. Kohanski and Benson, 32. Most versions of the “Defective” text contain a paradoxical assertion that Joppa is antediluvian and yet founded by Japheth, a son of Noah. The giants’ bones are no doubt to be associated with the Flood itself.
[xii] Not that medieval authors alone found stories of the flood in the fossilized remains of giants: see David R. Montgomery, The Rocks Don’t Lie 82-88.
[xiii] As Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail point out, these short chronologies are also not true to the bible itself, which does not contain calendar dates. Later interpreters “retroactively imposed” such a frame to harness the narrative to differently organized contemporary chronicles, giving the Genesis story a “brittle precision” that snapped in the nineteenth century (“Introduction,” Deep History 6).
[xiv] See Ralph Elliott, “Landscape and Geography” 116. Elliott writes that the cave was once called Thurse Cave, “the giant’s cave.” The poem does not locate its action precisely, however, suggesting that the location is a composite of several architectures and landscapes.