Wednesday, August 07, 2013

"But what does that have to do with us birds?"



First things: register now for the BABEL Working Group's 1-day symposium, to be held at The Graduate Center, CUNY on Sept 27.

Now, my CUNY colleague Brian Thill (Bronx Community College, CUNY) just published an extraordinary essay at The Atlantic called "Fake Birds on Film: The nature of unspecial effects, an Object Lesson." In any given Hollywood film, you're likely to spot computer-generated birds, and just as likely, you'll find that they're being used to set off the enormous scale of some enormous chunk of human or alien or wizard architecture. Why are they there, and why do we tend to see them at a distance? It's not just that putting them in the foreground would be more difficult or expensive (perhaps costing even "one million dollars"). It's also this:
Fake birds are important for their collective energy and motion, as objects meant to possess a vague kind of dynamic, living, animal presence, but they're entirely unimportant in any close-up or individualized sense. It's not the individual creature that has any standing or value, but the notion of the flock, of "Nature," as set-dressing in cackling, aggregate form: philosophically unimportant as fellow living things, but cinematically (aesthetically) essential in the frame, functioning in much the same way that filmed images of clouds and rolling waves are supposed to. They're shorthand for an emaciated natural world, a minor nature, beautifully and even lovingly rendered, but always subordinated to the comings and goings of man, the living object who matters.
Denatured birds are a perfect cinematic trope for an age that chiefly comprehends the non-human world as a site of throwaway resource extraction, while also romanticizing it with cheap spectacle. On one level, their background presence in the scene seems natural and lends the semblance of a casual authenticity or verisimilitude to the scene, without being obvious or intrusive about it (seriously, how many of us would ordinarily even register their presence, much less dwell on it?). But this presence is framed in an unthinking and reactionary way that reinforces an actual indifference toward and lack of interest in any genuine relationship with the non-human natural world. The world is ultimately just an inconvenient obstacle to stories of humankind's travails.
An aside before I go on: Thill also goes on to talk about birds striking windows. One easy way to prevent this: Collidescape window coating. You're welcome.

Thill's piece reminded me of a never-written paper I'd worked out years ago in conversation with Martin Foys. It was to be on the birds of the Bayeux "tapestry" (really an embroidery, an important correction for feminist, and not merely pedantic, reasons: see 86-87 here).

The "Tapestry" is thick with nonhuman animals. Several do what they do just for humans, either for practical or symbolic reasons. Very early on, we have a hunt; when warriors dine, they dine on meat; when they ride, they ride horses; and many of the animals in the upper and lower registers illustrate fables. Only sheer interpretative cussedness would let us say these animals don't figure anything.

But the many other marginal animals, human and otherwise, for example, here, shouldn't lead us so easily into the interpretative temptation.

Humanities academics tend assume that what we read has to make some kind of sense, which means it has to be for us in some way (for a brief treatment, see the discussion of what we could call the "promise of intelligibility" from here, 27). Following that assumption would give us the Embroidery's animals, to recall Thill, as "always subordinated to the comings and goings of man, the living object who matters."

And following similar assumptions, as medievalists in particular, would lead us just to historicize the animals, most of whom are birds. We might ask whether the birds were embroidered from living models or just copied from other art? We now know the answer, more or less, and we know something similar about the horses too. This is satisfying work. People like answers.

We can also look to relevant historiography for more birds. For example, from the Song of the Battle of Hastings (Carmen de Hastingae Proelio), dated to 1067:
O what uproar suddenly arose from that place, as seamen sought their oars and knights their weapons. Thence, sounding and resounding, a thousand trumpets blared different calls.  ... drums filled the air with the bellowings of bulls.  ... The earth shook, heaven quivered, and the stunned sea lay wonder-stricken. The beasts fled, and the birds and fish as well [Quadrupedes fugiunt, piscis auisque simul, l. 95], for indeed a hundred and fifty thousand conflicting voices struck the firmament. (translation quoted from here, 79, Richard Brilliant, "Making Sounds Visible in the Bayeux Tapestry)
Or, for more swarming birds, from Rollo's prophetic dream of political unity in the Deeds of the Dukes of Normandy (Gesta Normannorum Ducum), "While he was still on the top of the mountain, he also saw its foot surrounded by thousands of birds of different kinds and colours. Their left wings, however, were red all over, and they spread out so far and wide that his eyes, however clear and sharply focused, could not see the end of the flock" (translation quoted from here, 147, Dan Terkla, "From Hasting to Hastings and Beyond: Inexorable Inevitability on the Bayeux Tapestry").

All these historical birds are for humans. They might as well be flying around something CGI'd and majestic.

Almost as an aside, though, Gale R. Owen-Crocker's "Squawk talk: Commentary by birds in the Bayeux Tapestry?" offers us another way. She does all the expected interpretative stuff--and there's nothing wrong with that--but then balks, happily, when she considers the birds roosting on the roof of Westminster Abbey here (upper left hand corner):


"Birds of ill-omen?" suggests one writer (180). Or, as Owen-Crocker proposes:
The Abbey is the most splendid building in the Tapestry, blessed by the hand of God; but to birds it is merely a habitat. The birds’ irreverence for what humans hold most sacred is amusing....In this respect they are the most immediate audience of the main frame of the Tapestry. They variously express curiosity, horror, fear, admiration, imitation and indifference to achievements, and they sometimes diverge from the serious business with a witticism or an idiosyncratic reaction.
Indifference! I like that. The temptation now would be to don our gloomy robes of Heideggerian reverence, like this:
Just as it is a part of our unshieldedness that the familiar things fade away under the predominance of objectness, so also our nature's safety demands the rescue of things from mere objectness. The rescue consists in this, that things, within the widest orbit of the whole draft, can be at rest within themselves, which means that they can rest without restriction within one another. Indeed, it may well be that the turning of our unshieldedness into worldly existence within the world's inner space must begin with this, that we turn the transient and therefore preliminary character of object-things away from the inner and invisible region of the merely producing consciousness and toward the true interior of the heart's space, and there allow it to rise invisibly. ("What are Poets For," 127)
Do that, and we go slack before what we insist must be mystery. It's certainly better than assuming that all the animals are just decorative, and probably something to be remembered by anyone who's merrily solving interpretative puzzles.

But the world in all its fluctuating variety isn't a church. The mystery isn't that there's some invisible true interior, but rather that things are up to their own business, and they probably don't know what they do better than we do. After all, they, like us, comprise a lot of other things, all themselves up to their own business, and they probably don't know &c.

So, a fully secular world is one with many, many worlds. And some are only for the birds.

The birds, indifferent, do their avian thing on a wholly difference scale than ours, with a wholly different set of interests. So far as they're concerned, we and the stuff we build are for them. If they could thank us for the cathedral, they probably wouldn't. They're as ungrateful for us as we are for them.

If they serve any purpose at all, the many animals of the Tapestry that have nothing to do with its history function as a kind of memento vivere. They remind us of how much is going on here that has nothing to do with us. Again, if they have a purpose at all, it's to take down the central register's pretensions. It thinks it's showing us a world-shattering event. And it is, for people.

But if we get over ourselves a bit, we might hear cawed out, "Sure, William's now King of England. But what does that have to do with us?"


ASM said...

This is wonderful, Karl. I like both the shift in perspective, de-centering the human, and the pressing back against the certainty of meaning.

Jeb said...

When i started of studying strange creatures weird beasts and anything else that keeps me entertained, my introduction to the subject was through having to learn how to perform. When I started studying my introduction to the subject in academic thought years later it was reading papers in folklore at first. Here papers come with the word entertainment written large. its often the first point made "This material is above all..."

It allowed you to have one of those smug feel good moments when you think, these academics and their statements of the fucking obvious. 15 years down the line and having read far too many papers on the subject I understand why and would identify the emphasis somewhat differently as good teaching practice.

Anonymous said...

It's odd to use Isengard as an example of this trope, as birds are not only relevant, but integral to the plot of The Lord of the Rings, imbued with agency and allegiances of their own. Crows are spies for Saruman, eagles are enemies of the Orcs and friends to the Wizards, and a thrush and an ancient raven provide the means for the Dwarves to enter Smaug's lair, and ultimately aid in his defeat.

medievalkarl said...

Ah, good point, anon.