Monday, June 15, 2015

Posthuman Environs 3: Fnorteth

illustration taken from here
by J J Cohen

[Part one of this series is Tsupu. Part two is Woof. Below is the third and concluding post. And while you're here, don't miss by Lesley S. Curtis and Cord J. Whitaker on Game of Thrones].

3. Fnorteth (The Atmosphere is Heavy but the Climate Might Lift)

Trouble the boundaries and enmesh the cosmos, but even a posthuman ecology remains housebound. The walls shift but all things, even gendered human bodies, are likely still to be rendered commodities for equivalency and exchange, for the forced transport of messages not theirs. Humans differentiate themselves from world, from other animals, from other humans through ceaseless overpowering. You may think that a posthuman environs promises material intimacy and peaceful community, but then you are turning your eyes from what enduringly supports a fleeting equanimity. Utopian and full of futurity, posthuman environs also carry a heavy atmosphere, violences that cannot be disowned.

Another medieval tale, this one from Geoffrey Chaucer.[1] Aleyn and John, two clerks from the north of England studying in Cambridge, lay awake in strange lodgings. Tricked by an unscrupulous miller, the young men have paid to endure a night under his roof, in his very bedroom. They are assailed by sound. From their shared bed the clerks listen to the drunken family’s nocturnal “melodye,” a “rowtyng” from the miller’s wife and twenty year old daughter loud enough to be heard a quarter mile away (1.4166). For the two clerks rest is impossible during this sonic barrage. The resonant Middle English word “rowtyng” derives from Old English hrūtan, a verb that sounds like the action it conveys, snoring (a term likewise originating in onomatopoeia).[2] But it gets worse. The noise that thunders from the miller’s open mouth is so intense that only animal comparison can convey its force: “as an hors he fnorteth in his sleep” (“like a horse he snores in his sleep,” 1.4163). Within slumber and without precise language, humans sound pretty much the same as other large mammals. Fnorteth is reverberation oblivious to species difference, and a noise that travels with violence.

The Reeve’s Tale invites what Martin Foys has called a sensual philology, an attending to how “language serves as a gateway for a largely unmapped network of words, sounds, senses, bodies and media.”[3] Yet philology (literally, a love of words) here offers mostly a dark ecology. This fabliau is known for its grim ambience, the cloy of its air. Whereas the “Miller’s Tale” is full of hymns, love songs, and musical instruments, this story offers a narrative ecosystem resounding with dissonant, nonverbal signifying: the rowtyng and fnortyng of the sleeping family; the “wehee” of escaping stallions (a cry of freedom, transport and desire, since the horses have scented wild mares in the nearby fens); whistles and shouts (“Keep! Stand! Jossa!”) that the clerks use to call their mounts back, realizing they have been tricked into spending the night. Every word John and Aleyn speak at the beginning of the tale threatens to break from linguistic signification into mere sonority, so thick are their Northern accents (e.g. “Swa werkes ay the wanges in his heed,” 1.4030). Sound is a vibration that travels through the air and implants itself in the flesh. But its force ripples far beyond merely human environs. Sound saturates the atmosphere and renders air heavy with story. In the House of Fame Chaucer describes “soun” (“sound”) -- of which human speech is special type -- as “eyr ybroken” (“broken air,” 770), a reverberation that moves “with violence” (775), as when “thow / Throwe on water now a stoon” (“you toss a stone into water,” 788-89). Sonic vibrations ripple and intensify, saturating the atmosphere with “speche … or voys, or noys, or word, or soun” (“speech or voice or noise or word or sound” 818-19), a dense archive of story. With its snores, cries, shouts, pleas, poems and prayers, the Reeve’s Tale is reverberant, a material ecology that noisily foregrounds the penetrability and porousness of flesh within a surrounding and story-laden atmosphere.

The miller and his family snore because their bodies are humoral environments out of balance. Liquor makes evident corporeal liquidity. As Chaucer explains in the Squire’s Tale, excessive drinking engenders a superfluity of blood, which in turn triggers a profound need for restorative sleep. The slumber that follows inebriation is restless, though, since a drunken sleeper is filled with “fumositee” (5.358), with wine- or ale-induced fumes that burden the mind with meaningless signification. The intoxicated body well illustrates the trans-corporeality of medieval embodiment, both human and animal: the four humors do their work within skin that offers a permeable membrane rather than a barrier to the world.[4] The human body is revealed as a dynamic ecology easily thrown into crisis, a “conviviality of animate and inanimate matters” that makes clear “anthropocentrism has not always been an inevitable mode of self-understanding.”[5] The medieval equivalent to a posthuman ecology is this open, fleshly system that through the four humors materially enmeshes the gravity of the moon, the impress of place, the agency of matter, the density and humidity of atmosphere.[6] Such material entanglement holds as true of animals, plants and stones as of humans – and underscores that human embodiment is a specific (gendered, racialized) phenomena, rather than an abstract universal. Within this geohumoralism no space exists for a mind/body divide. Psychology and subjectivity are substantial, material, a tenuous system easily disrupted by wine or sunshine or snoring.[7] Geohumoralism insists that “human” is not a category separable from ecology or economy. Embodiment happens in place, propelled and then limned by specific and enduring violences.

Tocsin of an unbalanced ecology, fnorteth is a vibratory mechanism, the sound of a body transmitting meaning parasitically within language, as an event inhabiting a sound, a disorder conveyed by a word in motion. This vibration into language of sonorous realities demands the coining of words to capture and convey: ale to snores to action. The problem, though, is that the action that arises in the Reeve’s Tale is in the end all too human, all too masculine, and not at all humane: two acts of sexualized revenge, a message sent by the clerks to the miller through the bodies of his wife and daughter. Within this domestic economy horses, cakes, wheat, beds, sex, blows are exchanged with little regard for the lived consequences such equivalence and reduction entail. Economology: economy and ecology share an etymology in oikos, the house and its range, signaling the difficulty of movement beyond the inhumane. Interpenetrability is subject to constant economic recapture. The Reeve’s Tale is the story of a miller who fleeces his customers. John and Aleyn are forced to purchase from the miller a breakfast baked from the flour he stole from them. The clerks believe the proper payment for such abuse is to be made through the sexual enjoyment of the women in his household. Once they sleep with the wife and daughter, the tale becomes a disturbing account of what happens when all the world is reduced to an economy of sale, substitution, and revenge, wheat to pie to profits, every ecology transformed into an economy, all matter -- even virginity -- rendered vendible. No wonder the story ends with screams, blows, blood. The narrative economics of the Miller’s Tale renders even rape a clever trick, a joke. Women’s bodies are used by men to send messages to other men. That these women have their own stories is hinted at but never with much narrative attention explored. Fnorteth ties men to horses, animals that in the tale convey but also when unconstrained seek copulation. Thunderous snoring resounds with sexual violence as well as humoral ecologies and nonlinguistic noise.

I don’t think Marie de France would have much liked Geoffrey Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale. The world she envisions in poems like “Le Fresne” shares little with his heavy fabliau atmosphere. Whereas the wheat in the Reeve’s Tale exists only to be ground to flour and rendered a product that may be substituted for other commodities, in “Le Fresne” the immense ash tree is an anchoring and unsubstitutable presence that intensifies human relation. Marie foregrounds throughout the poem how gender is articulated within a system of entrenched social inequality, returning repeatedly to the unevenness and heterogeneity of what it means to be an emplaced, embodied human. Peril haunts the spaces across which female bodies pass, giving the poem an atmosphere of constant hazard that hovers without saturating. “Le Fresne” is a story of women and precarity: the slanderous mother, the good hearted maid (a familiar figure in Marie’s stories: the helper or intermediary who is the sine qua non, yet also forgotten, left behind), the endangered infant, the porter’s widowed daughter who breastfeeds the foundling, a nunnery built against a world that keeps finding its way within, sisters and mothers metaphorical as well as biological, a concubine, wives who when they do not realize their power as authors and agents cause lives to unravel. “Le Fresne” is about creating a world with more and better stories, tales that do not succumb to heavy ambience but instead embrace the shared precariousness of mundane life. “Le Fresne” burgeons with a Disanthropocene of barking dogs and the bark of trees, of woman who carry vegetal trace (cordre, fresne / hazelnut, ash), stories that enmesh the human and the nonhuman so that neither stands alone. But the lay also attends to the particularities of violence within the human, and warns us that when we attempt to transcend that category by declaring the Anthropocene we do so at the peril of specificities that require precise accounting. Ethics inheres in the choice not to universalize, not to ignore the differences that found the category human and that have not been left behind in the posthuman. In stories we have long been telling opens a more complicated space.

Tsupu, bay, fnorteth. In these onomatopoeic terms may be discerned inhuman resonance, posthuman environs. A wounded pig plunges into water and into word. A stone plunges into water and into word. Tsupu slips from stone and pig and water into Ecuadorian Quichua, from indigenous Amazonian mouths into an anthropologist's cognition, into book, into theory, into essay, into your own mouth. Stories of race, culture, colony, climate, taxonomy, and environment continue to resound with it. Dogs meanwhile howl the nearness of shelter, woof the story of how they enable human habitation. A tree entwines itself with the fostering of human life, with the creation of poetry. Violence and suffering are unevenly distributed. Within posthuman environs gender still matters. So do class and race. The human body is a machine of sonority, as ecological in its signaling as animals and stones. Human bodies are also plural phenomena, specific and universalized at peril. Drawing boundaries and declaring epochs may be necessary, but such systems are fragile, insufficient. They inevitably exclude. The Anthropocene is no doubt real, but so is the Disanthropocene, the impress of posthuman environs upon our very bodies, the resounding of environmental impress within our stories and our words.

[1] Quotations from Chaucer’s works are from The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).
[2] On the Middle English verb “rǒuten” and its derivation see its entry in the Middle English Dictionary. Chaucer loves these sound words: “Hayt!” (giddap!) in the Friar’s Tale (3.1542), “buf” (the sound of a burp) in the Summoner’s Tale (5.1934), “fneseth” for a drunken sneeze (9.62), “chuk” for the noise a rooster makes to call hens to grain (7.3172).
[3] Quotation from Martin Foys, “A Sensual Philology for Anglo-Saxon England,” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies (2014) 5, 456–472, at 457.
[4] On transcorporeality as a modern phenomena of dermal permeability and toxicity see Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010). For a thorough discussion of embodiment as a material process in the Middle Ages see Joan Cadden, The Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
[5] Quotations from J. Allan Mitchell, Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014) xix, xviii. Micthell well demonstrates something that I can only hint at here, that “complicated ecologies underpin even the tidiest of cosmologies” (175) and “it is in the very grain of ordinary life that we can find knotted multiplicities” (176).
[6] Suzanne Conklin Akbari explicates the place-bound environmentality of the body well in Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100–1450 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).
[7] On the materiality of premodern, humoral psychology see especially Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

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