Friday, June 24, 2016

Femfog at IMC Leeds 2016


[UPDATED with location info and thanks to organizers]

Wow, I'm in Düsseldorf for the MLA "Other Europes" Symposium and we are all reeling from the #Brexit vote (no doubt more on that soon).


The Chronicle of Higher Ed just published an article following up on the #femfog fallout and a festshrift for Frantzen. Read the PDF here.

On this note, there's a last-minute(ish) roundtable session at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds on "Embracing the #femfog" (date: Wednesday July 6 at 1pm; location: Michael Sadler Building: Rupert Beckett Theatre).

Title and abstract are also available at the IMC program link (since this is a last-minute addition to the schedule, you won't find this in the printed paper program).

Embracing the #femfog

Abstract: The misogynist invention 'of femfog' and the racist praise of medieval 'white men' had unintended positive consequences: an online surge of willingness to name and act against abuse and unethical behaviour in medieval studies, not just in Anglo-Saxon studies, not just against women. Continuing these discussions, we want to expose the structures that enabled and enable unethical behaviour in universities, and aim to make medieval studies more fully inclusive, collegial, and ethical. We want to explore ways of working against emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse, gate-keeping, exploitation, and bullying especially of students and younger scholars, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ablism, and misogyny in medieval studies, and affirm the openness, collegiality and inclusivity of our fields.

With David Bowe (Oxford), Liz Herbert McAvoy (Swansea University), Jonathan Hsy (George Washington University), Dorothy Kim (Vassar), Christina Lee (University of Nottingham), Robert Stanton (Boston College), Elaine Treharne (Stanford), and Helen Young (University of Sydney). Chaired by Diane Watt (University of Surrey).

THANKS to Bettina Bildhauer (St Andrews) for all her work organizing this session, and thanks to the IMC Programming Committee for finding a suitable venue for this event.

Monday, June 20, 2016

On Refuge and Welcome

World Refugee Day,
June 20, 2016

Buttons expressing support and inclusion: a button that has a map of Asia superimposed with the question “Where are you from from?”, buttons based on flags of various Latin American countries, and a rainbow-striped button reading QUEER PRIDE AT GW. From a recent event in memory of the victims in Orlando, sponsored by the LGBT Resource Center and Multicultural Student Services Center (among others) at George Washington University.
It’s been a rough week. Sunday: a massacre at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando on Latin night. Thursday: the assassination of Jo Cox (Labor MP who was a strong advocate for refugees and a multiethnic Britain). Friday: the one-year anniversary of the shooting that took nine lives in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the historic black church in Charleston. Cox’s assassination most directly draws attention to an ongoing backdrop of xenophobic #Brexit discourses (leading up to the referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EU) that have featured inflammatory symbolism and rhetoric capitalizing on fear of immigrants, refugees, and “others.”

Since today happens to be World Refugee Day, I find myself thinking a lot about spaces of refuge—whether it’s a support center for refugees or the community of a black church or a gay nightclub. In mainstream media, the Pulse massacre is repeatedly invoked as a violation of a safe space or more pointedly a refuge: not only for a gay community that has endured so much violence, but especially a space for queer latinx people who face exclusion from both gay and Latin communities concurrently.

The Pulse massacre was particularly heartbreaking for me as a queer person of color in the US and I’m not sure I could ever adequately craft words to give shape to the welter of unprocessed emotions I have experienced since. As previous posts on ITM have made clear (see Jeffrey's post here, the opening paragraph in Karl's post here and also here), recent events remind us to support each another—and to attend carefully to queer, latinx, Muslim, immigrant, and other minority communities who are deeply affected by all that has happened this week. No matter who you are or what background(s) you might claim, you can make a difference. I do hope that we (and I mean “we” in the broadest sense possible) can reflect and consider we can do in/for our various communities. Let’s make sure that violence—and the rhetoric that erupts as a result—does not further demonize those who are already most vulnerable.

Strangely enough, this week has given me unexpected clarity and a new sense of purpose to my seemingly disparate intellectual and professional activities this summer. I’ve come to realize how much I’ve been thinking about creating spaces of welcome and refuge in the field and beyond it. The Modern Language Association of America (MLA) Symposium in Düsseldorf, entitled Other Europes - Migrations, Translations, Transformations will be the first conference of the MLA to be held outside of North America (say what?). I’m very excited to be participating in a roundtable on what the medieval European past means to ethnic minority authors throughout North America, and the conference’s general aim to interrogate the contours of contemporary “Europe” through the lens of translation and migration could not be more timely. I’ll be really curious to discover how the results of the UK’s EU referendum will affect these conversations. At the “Women at Sea” Symposium in Swansea (one-day event organized by Rachel Moss, Roberta Magnani, and Kristi Castleberry), I’ll be part of a co-plenary conversation with Dorothy Kim; at this venue, we’ll be listening to refugee women and exploring belongings present and past. At the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, there are plans for a conversation considering the future(s) of medieval studies entitled "Embracing the #femfog." At the New Chaucer Society Congress in London, I’ll be attending sessions in the “Corporealities” thread (which I was kindly invited to co-organize with Katie Walter). I’m eager to attend the Global Chaucers roundtable and the poetry readings by Lavinia Greenlaw and also by Patience Agbabi (author of modern Chaucerian reboot Telling Tales and participant in the Refugee Tales Walk which brings attention to and supports refugees in the UK; she's also a contributor to its related Refguee Tales anthology).

I do hope, as I have in the past, to offer some of my thoughts on these various conferences throughout the summer. Not everyone has the means to travel and attend such things, and I increasingly recognize how blogging can offer some sense of what has transpired.

What now?

What can we do in our teaching, research, or everyday lives to create spaces of welcome?
  • Contribute. On this day especially, I’d like to encourage ITM readers to consider supporting efforts such as the Refugee Tales project. Check out what this group is doing and reflect on the political and artistic significance of this work; all profits from Refugee Tales book purchases will go to the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group and Kent Help for Refugees. If you're in the UK later this month, consider participating in some of the scheduled events. Alternatively, you might contribute to refugee-oriented charities promoted by the “Women at Sea” Symposium organizers or advance causes that Jo Cox supported.
  • Signal inclusive spaces: physical and virtual. If you’re an educator, it might be time to consider ways to signal that you welcome and support all students, no matter “where they come from” (in all senses of the phrase) or how “different” they are. It might be obvious to you that your classroom (or your office, or your online course) should be a space where a struggling student can find someone who is receptive and will not cast judgment, but such openness might not be readily apparent to a student who is vulnerable and seeking support. Check to see if your institution has a “safe space” training or program that addresses LGBTQIA+ and/or mental health concerns, and (if you have an office) put a “safe space” sign outside your door (or put a digital badge on your course website). A receptive person and a nudge to available resources can go a long way.
  • Reshape your syllabus. If you’re currently designing your fall courses, see if you can incorporate readings or other materials that might address some of the issues in this blog post. The #PulseOrlandoSyllabus and #CharlestonSyllabus are ongoing efforts to crowdsource relevant resources. Note also the comment thread after this previous ITM posting on medievalists and the global refugee crisis.

I hope that blog will continue to be a venue that can inform, provoke, create community, and connect far-flung people. Be well, ITM readers, and look out for one another—today and always.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Margery Kempe's Vegetarianism: Part II


Part I is here; Part II is here; and now, finally, in as good a state as I can get it now, Part III.

Last week, one of our medieval colleagues gently expressed some incredulity when I said I was trying to produce something publishable on Kempe after spending only a few days "mastering" (hahah) the secondary criticism. She's right! The only way I'm getting away with this, probably, is that I'm writing for a non-medieval audience. I aim to be as good an ambassador as I can be; I aim to get Kempe still more readers than she already has (though Anthony Bale's already doing quite well on this front); I hope to do her a little justice.

Writing on Kempe and flesh is a decades-long project by now (thanks Karma Lochrie!), and writing on women and/as the "body" is at least as long. What I'm bringing to this conversation, if anything, is an interest in posthumanisms, new materialisms, and critical animal theory. And of course I owe a debt to Lisa Kiser's fantastic article on Kempe and animals. In a longer version of this project (perhaps as part of the introduction my always developing second book?), I can see engaging with, say, Leo Bersani ('is the rectum a grave?') and Mel Y Chen: maybe for this Fall's "Problems in Posthumanism" seminar!

Flourish of horns.


Add MS 37049 28r - "rede flesche"
Karma Lochrie argues that the "primary human conflict" for medieval Christianity was not body against soul, but "the life of the flesh against the life of the spirit" (19). The body was neutral and passive. It did nothing on its own. Flesh, not body, was the true enemy of our better self. Flesh was "heaving" "pervious" (4), and "heterogeneous -- neither body nor soul, but carnal and spiritual at the same time" (39), for it was both materiality and materiality's own disturbingly autonomous disorder. It was both desirable in itself and desire incarnated. Flesh tended towards things it should not. It drew us after it. And flesh was a woman: as Augustine explained, "your flesh is like your wife ... it lusts against you like your wife" (caro tanquam coniux est...Concupiscit adversus te, tanquam coniux tua; on Psalm 140,  PL 37: 1825; see Lochrie 19-20; also important for me: Suzannah Biernoff, eg, 34; also, minus the attention to gender, Ben Woodard)
Kempe's Book tends to use "body" to represent whole things: her body as a whole, or her husband's, or Christ’s, either hanging on the cross or in the form of the Eucharist. The body, neatly bordered, coherently designates an individual. "Flesh," the other hand, is material and willful, desirable and disgusting, human or animal, and whether dead or alive, always irrepressibly lively. Flesh is sex (as in "fleschly knowyng" [Chapter 9] or "fleschly comownyng" [Chapter 3]). It is the thing that draws us away from spirit ("fleschly affeccyon" [Chapter 28 and others]). Flesh is sometimes the edible body of Christ, sometimes the aspect of self that operates without our willing it. When Kempe awaits an Archbishop’s interrogation, she "stod stylle, tremelyng and whakyng ful sor in hir flesch wythowtyn ony erdly comfort" [Chapter 13], standing still and trembling at the same time, as if she were commingled with another, unquiet self. Flesh is human and animal flesh both, and also meat, because Middle English vocabulary, like Latin, did not distinguish between "meat" and "flesh" (the Middle English "mete" simply meant "food" in general). Kempe’s flesh therefore recalled the body all in its lustiness, its exposure, its vulnerability, its edibility, its irrational motivations, and its sublime Eucharistic incarnation, recreated every time Catholic priests performed a Mass.
She is a woman, a mother, separated from her husband, and an older person (in her 50s) and widow by the time she has the book last last written down (for discussion, especially on the Book's ambiguous dating of Kempe's widowhood, Tara Williams): her culture would have made her into a figure of flesh in its its danger, its filth, its concupiscence, its edibility, all that a masculinized order sought to render governable by abjecting it from itself (so that "your flesh...lusts against you, like your wife"). Widows were considered to be sexually knowing; older women were commonly portrayed as repulsive (SGGK; Wife of Bath's Tale; Niebrzydowski's work for nuance). Her contemporaries prefer that she either hew to these roles or be silent. Failing that, they prefer her to be a hypocrite, so she confirms the truth of what they really know her to be. They accuse her of pushing aside a red herring at one meal in favor of a tastier, more expensive pike [Chapter 9]; by calling her both a Lollard heretic [Chapters 13, 46, 52, 53 etc] and a Jew [Chapter 52], they accuse her of not sharing correctly in their enjoyment, particularly of Christ's Eucharistic flesh (still useful); they want to believe her chastity a fraud, that she and her husband regularly sneak off to "woodys, grovys, er [or] valeys usyn the lust of her bodiis" [Chapter 76]. They insist that she eat meat, stop weeping, and keep her conversation about holiness to herself [Chapter 27]. She carries on, inhabiting and inhabited by flesh in all its characteristics simultaneously, on terms that both enact prejudicial certainties and deny them, because she is living as woman, as wife, as animal, as food, as desire, as a particularly sublated desire at that, and as the body of Christ.
Additional 37049 33r
A short poem included in a fifteenth-century Middle English Carthusian devotional anthology helps illustrate the operations of this densely tangled node of signification. It imagines a falconer that entices a restless bird to return by showing it a hunk of "rede flesche" (Additional 37049 28r): so too, explains the poem, does Christ draw us back, so that we can join him on the "cros of penaunce" through "discrete poneyschyng of thi body." Jessica Brantley dryly remarks that "the poem sets up a number of complex equivalences" (132): Christ is falconer, but also meat, while the reader is a falcon who becomes both "meat and crucified savior" through penance, which for a Carthusian means the lifelong penance of vegetarianism, which preserves pleasure by penitentially subjugating it. All the Carthusian poem lacks is an explicit reference to gender. Elsewhere, the same Carthusian compilation imagines a once beautiful women beset in the grave by vermin, gradually made to come to terms with her putrefaction and edibility (meElizabeth Robertson). The debate's first page features an illustration of a cloaked man kneeling before a crucifix, decorated with nearly naked Christ figure whose white flesh bleeds redly from its every surface (33r). Flesh, especially suffering flesh, runs though this compilation in all its forms: edible, suffering, disdained, repulsive, feminized, and the stuff of redemption.
Similarly dense identifications operate in Kempe’s fasting and identification with suffering. When Christ first orders Kempe to eat no flesh but that of his own body, he promises too that “you shall be eaten and gnawed at by the people of the world as much as any rat gnaws on the stockfish” (“Thow schalt ben etyn and knawyn of the pepul of the world as any raton knawyth the stokfysch” [Chapter 5]). Kempe twice compares herself to being meat chopped up for stew: “If it were your will Lord, I would for your love and for the magnifying of your name be chopped as small as meat for the pot” [Yyf it wer thy wille, Lord, I wolde for thi lofe and for magnyfying of thi name ben hewyn as smal as flesch to the potte" (Chapter 57, line 3358; see also Chapter 84, 4861)]. She goes without (animal) meat; she eats the (divine) meat of the Eucharist; she imagines herself as meat. The most insistently public form her piety takes, her writhing and wailing, even make her animal-like, as it cuts her off from the articulate voice that was among the definitive features of rational humankind: when she first receives her white garment, she emits her strongest wails yet, so that people “said that she howled as if she were a dog” [seyd that sche howlyd as it had ben a dogge” (Chapter 44, 2477).
When she sees animal suffering, she too suffers:
If she saw a man who had a wound or a beast of whatever sort, or if a man beat a child before her or smote a horse or another beast with a whip, if she might see it or hear it, she thought that she saw our Lord be beat or wounded in the same way that she saw the man or beast beat or wounded, whether in the field or in the town, whether alone by herself or among the people.
[yf sche sey a man had a wownde er a best wheþyr it wer, er ʒyf a man bett a childe be-for hir er smet an hors er an-oþer best wyth a whippe, ʒyf sche myth sen it er heryn it, hir thowt sche saw owyr Lord be betyn er wowndyd lyk as sche saw in þe man er in þe best, as wel in the feld as in þe town, & be hir-selfe [a]lone as wel as a-mong þe pepyl. (Chapter 28, line 1586 ff)]
In a superb study, Lisa Kiser enumerates several other comparisons between Christ’s and animal suffering in late medieval English religious writing; she points out how Kempe's comparison differs from the norm by beginning with animals and then moving to Christ. From this, Kiser proposes that in Kempe's weeping, we even witness a rare, even precocious instance of both "emotional fervor and moral disapproval" over the suffering of animals (for a brief treatment, also sympathetic, Katherine Wills Perto's Kinship and Killing). 
Kempe's compassion is not, however, for animals so much as it is for injuries in general, whether animals or human. More importantly, Kempe has no interest in preventing this suffering; rather, she passionately seeks out suffering, joins with it, and renders it,  whatever its form, an occasion for entanglement with the suffering of Christ. A typical scene from the Book has Kempe see Christ’s “precious tender body, rent and torn with scourges all over, more full of holes that "evyr was duffehows of holys" (Chapter 28, line 1618), whereupon she collapses and shouts wyth lowde voys, wondyrfully turnyng and wrestyng hir body on every syde, spredyng hir armys abrode as yyf sche schulde a deyd" (Chapter 28, line 1621), or as if she were herself hung on the cross.
This is empathic identification with suffering, but without any desire to end it. All the affective elements that we might think necessary for the development of animal rights, and even critical animal philosophy, are present, yet all they do is exacerbate the need to have suffering animals. I stress this, again, to argue against the notion that attention to or awareness of or even unease over animal suffering will be enough to activate a resistance to violence against animals. This is not to accuse Kempe of not being "good enough" from a modern animal rights perspective: that would be absurd. It is rather to keep open the chance to observe the real strangeness of Kempe's animal identifications and "carnivorous" vegetarianism. 
However much her religious ecstasies may normalized by contextualizing them with analogues in other late medieval mystics or contemplatives, her Book, at least, wants us always to know how much her identifications disturbed her contemporaries. Kempe performs this identification in and through her flesh, in public. Though she does rationally dispute with professional clergy to defend herself from charges of heresy, she expresses herself most characteristically through ecstatic weeping and howling, like a dog. More accurately, none of this is her performance or expression so much as it is performance, an expression, generated impersonally or through a mobile melding of persons through and in the flesh in all its qualities as desiring, vulnerable, edible, disdained, and profanely sacred. This performance is not wholly agential, not wholly human, often not linguistic, but through all this indelibly gendered.
If we return to Derrida's praise of the "nonpower at the heart of power," we can see both how she lives out this quality, and how she does Derrida one better. Derrida is a philosopher, and a male philosopher at that, granted through that professional status a certain bodily abstraction. Though his famous essay puts his own body on stage, briefly, to speak of his embarrassment over his embarrassment of stepping out of his shower to find his cat looking at his penis, Derrida is himself largely absent from it, except in the expected form of philosophical language. Though his attention to the "nonpower at the heart of power" aims to break down language's pretensions to autocratic, rational agency to enter into its subrational passivity and helplessness, he still does this through the medium of language, his language in particular. 
Kempe's "physical piety," her insistent fleshiness vividly expresses this "nonpower," without having to preserve any pretensions to autocratic ratonality. To put this bluntly: she lives what Derrida only talks about. She enacts what Derrida only thinks about. And by distinctly living out this "nonpower" through her own body, Kempe renders any generalized statement about suffering or "nonpower" impossible. Kempe is not operating with the homogeneous categories of "human" and "animal" that Derrida's text preserves, despite its efforts. I join with Myra Seaman in stressing that "Kempe's state is supposedly beyond human, yet it remains utterly human as well: embodied, and intensely physical" (258), which is to say, that it is also animal and divine and woman and mother and widow, and that the medium that makes all this possible is the flesh.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Margery Kempe's Vegetarianism: Part I


First, thank you Jeffrey for yesterday's post ("For Friends.") If you haven't yet, I would ask that you read this article by Mariella Mosthof, this one by Justin Torres, this one by Najva Sol, and I join Alison Kinney is asking that you keep reading work by queers of color, particularly Muslim and Latinx queers (one more, so harrowing, by Jesus Valles). If you think it would help you, absorb this data on gun violence, just to know how comparatively easy US gun policies, and its profiteers, make it for men - and it is mostly men - to kill en masse. If you'd like to argue about these points, there are many places on the internet for you to argue, and I encourage you to go there and use them.

So. This is what I've been working on. I don't know if there's ever a good time to post it, so I'm posting it now.

It's a follow up to my post from last week ("No Filter: Suffering, Finitude, and other Supposed Truths about Animals"), and the first of what I hope are two parts on Margery Kempe. I am writing this as the central section of my chapter on "Animals and Violence" for the Routledge Handbook for Human-Animal History, and it's already 13 days late, because I decided to scrap plan a (cobble together a bunch of existing stuff) in favor of plan b (do something new that I actually care about). Good and bad.

This meant following out a hunch that hit me on May 28, and writing about someone I haven't given any thought about since doing my oral exams some 14 years ago. If my Kempe research seems shallow, mea culpa! I've been writing my way towards her, and really only got to her last week (ahem and ahem). If my medieval material seems obvious, it may be! But I'm writing for a non-medieval audience, who may never read any other medieval scholarship, and who may be prejudiced against the period already. Not to throw myself on the mercy of the court, but I'm doing what I can.

British Library, Add MS 61823 78v: "Cap. 66," and, in a red box, "fleyshe"
Thinking about animals and violence and the middle ages tends to follow one of two routes. The first holds that medieval people were more "brutal” -- the animal metaphor is telling -- because they lacked the "humane" delicacy of modern civilization. The other route holds that medieval people were not more animal than us but rather just more "closely connected" to them, because big, working beasts were so much a part of their daily lives, because animals were driven "on the hoof" into the very heart of cities to be butchered, and because virtually no book could be produced without killing animals for their skin. If reducing cruelty to animals requires getting closer to what "really" happens to them when we have them butchered, then animals may well require that we "get medieval" for them.
That may strike you as self-evidently silly as it does me, but in a purely quantitative sense, animals did have it far better in the Middle Ages than they do now. On occasion there were mass killings, to provision military expeditions, or, for example, to make up the parchment for the eighth-century Codex Amiatinus and its two matching volumes. But the 1500 calves this extraordinary project required hardly register in comparison to the figures of annual cattle slaughter in the United States (in this century, generally well above 32,000,000 individuals per year). In the twelfth century, Walter Map furnished what looks like a more typical portrait of premodern animal intimacy: each evening, a rich man entered his barn “and approached each oxen in turn, shook up their fodder, running his hand along the backbone of each, approvingly and fondly, instructing each by name to eat” (515-16). They worked for him; they would end their lives of labor by being slaughtered and eaten; but at least he knew them individually, and, inasmuch as he could, he treated them with kindness; and, as the story concludes, should a deer hide itself from hunters among his herd, the rich man, even in darkness, would immediately identify it, eject it, and have it put to death.  
What follows restores to the Middle Ages some of the cultural complexity often denied it by a modern self-satisfaction that makes the middle ages little more than either a barbaric anticipation of modernity or its less decadent origin, or both, simultaneously. My subject is the fifteenth-century bourgeoise, contemplative, preacher, mother, troublemaker, and pilgrim, the author, through her amanuenses, of the first English-language autobiography, the extraordinary Margery Kempe. To use terms not often used to describe her: Kempe was a vegetarian who wept sorely at the sight of animal suffering. This makes her sound as if she would be a troublesome crank, or worse, for omnivores, and a founding hero for modern vegetarianisms. But most modern vegetarianisms want to end animal suffering: not Kempe. Hers was a carnivorous vegetarianism, whose practice was founded on a sublated preservation of desire for the suffering and death of animals (I am distinguishing my approach sharply from several excellent published articles on food and Kempe, by Cristina Mazzoni, Melissa Raine, and animals and Kempe, by Lisa Kiser; see also this seminar paper by Elizabeth Knight, whose development is certainly worth watching). This at least was perfectly in line with contemporary Christian piety. What distinguished her was less her diet than her gender, age, and life experience as a mother, all of which generated a particularity potent sanctity, established through identification with a suffering, pleasurable flesh that was at once animal, female, and divine.
Around the year 1409, Christ granted Margery Kempe his first long visionary visitation, in which he commands her to "forsake that which you love best in this world, and that is eating of flesh. And instead of that flesh, you shall eat my flesh and my blood, which is the true body of Christ in the sacrament of the altar” [forsake that thou lovyst best in this world, and that is etyng of flesch. And instede of that flesch thow schalt etyn my flesch and my blod, that is the very body of Crist in the sacrament of the awter” (Chapter 5, line 379 ff)]. Despite the exertions of pilgrimage, and despite bullying from her fellow travelers, she keep the vow for years, begrudgingly having some meat when he confessor insists, but for no more than “a lytyl whyle” (Chapter 26, line 1404). It is not until Christ himself intervenes, years later, that she fully “resort[s] ageyn to flesch mete,” and that only because he wants her to build up her strength for another pilgrimage. Obedient on both occasions to her divine lord, she – in Sarah Salih’s words – gets “to have her fast and eat it” too.
In her fifteenth-century England, Kempe’s decision to forgo meat for years on end would have been unusual for a secular woman, but was otherwise perfectly orthodox. Kempe could have gone much further and still remained within the church: the twelfth-century mystic Alpais of Cudot, for example, is said to have subsisted on nothing but Eucharistic hosts. Meat would not necessarily have been rare in the diet; late fourteenth-century harvest workers in eastern and southern England would have received nearly a pound of it daily during the laboring season (28). Baseline Christian dietary practice thus really did require some care: for Kempe's Christianity would have required that she, like any other layperson, abstain from meat for nearly a third of the year, mostly during the fasting season of Lent. Monks tended to do still more, and Carthusian monks, whose practice Kempe's most closely resembled, did the most of all, by requiring that their adherents keep to an entirely meatless diet.
Early medieval monastic rules tended to forbid all but the sick from eating quadrupeds and sometimes even birds; later monks developed loopholes by distinguishing forbidden carnes (fresh-cooked meat recently cut from the joint) from licit carnea (pre-cooked, pre-salted meat) (40), so much so that a monk like the twelfth-century Samson, abbot of Bury St Edmunds, earned high praise for eating neither (40). Carthusians would have none of this. After centuries of debate, even the chancellor of the University of Paris weighed in. Jean Gerson's 1401 De non esu carnium Carthusienses admitted that while abstinence from meat was bad for the health, so too were mercantile voyages and nearly all other human endeavors, so there was nothing inherently wrong with Carthusians damaging their health for God, and therefore no reason for their critics to charge them, as they often did, with homicide (101-103). Carthusian attitudes towards meat-eating found themselves promulgated outside the cloister in works like the enormously popular Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, a meditative guide that explains that Christ ate meat only once, at the Last Supper, where Christ's typological role as the sacrificial, sacramental Paschal lamb made eating symbolically useful (51, 377). Carthusian approval for Kempe's ascetic diet is suggested by the so-called "red ink annotator," an early sixteenth-century monastic reader of the sole extant manuscript of Kempe's Book. Willing at times to delete or even rewrite passages to suit his doctrinal preferences, he leaves the margin blank when Kempe first stops eating meat (9r), but when she takes it up again, he writes "fleysche" near the passage, and draws a box around it: it may be too much to suggest that he was disturbed by this change in Kempe’s religious practices, but he certainly found her new difference from his own vowed commitments remarkable.
In Kempe’s England, the common heresy was not one of not eating meat, but of eating it at the wrong times, and without due regard for its special importance. Peter of Bruys provides a spectacular twelfth-century continental example: he dined on meat that he had roasted in front of a church, on Good Friday, on a pyre of disarticulated crucifixes (PL 189:771C-D). According to records produced in the last decade of Kempe's life, the heretics of Norwich – a town some 40 miles from Kempe’s own King’s Lynn, one which she visited frequently – broke with the church with far less fanfare, by saving leftover meat to eat on fast days (Margery Baxter, 46), or by declaring that anyone on whatever day “can eat fish or flesh indifferently, according to the desire of their appetite” (potest indifferenter edere pisses vel carnes secundum sui appetitus desiderium). This studied carelessness was punished with a temporary diet of bread and water, or, in one case, bread and ale, simultaneously depriving these heretics of meat and returning them to the cycle of penitential eating that was supposed to be common to all of the faith.
The heretics who had worried the church the most were the s0-called Cathars, who “shun all flesh...but not for the same reason as monks and others living spiritually abstain from it” (PL 195:14C), according to Eckbert of Shönau’s complaint in his 1163 sermon in praise of meat-eating. Eckbert explains that the Cathars believe that since some vast prince of shadows (“quemdam immanem principem tenebrarum”) created the material world, they should not eat meat, the most material of foods. Eckbert then sarcastically regrets that there had been no Cathar present to whisper his doctrine in Noah’s ear after the flood, when God first authorized this new diet of flesh. It is in memory of beliefs like these that one late medieval defender of the Carthusian vegetarianism explains “unlike certain heretics, [we] hold like other Christians that all God's creatures are good,” which is to say, inherently good for food.
While medieval ethnographers were willing to imagine fully vegetarian, entirely peaceful ascetics, and to let them voice disdain for those who “made their bellies a tomb," they deposited these ascetics safely in the far east, or the distant past of the classical “Golden Age,” before humans turned to meat, warfare, and commerce. Good Christians, even Carthusians, were supposed to want to kill and eat animals, and to recognize that God had given them animals for exactly this purpose. They were encouraged to refuse this pleasure, but they were supposed to refuse it as a pleasure, so that the Christian year, even for laypeople, may be understood as a elaborate management, and refinement, of the pleasurable satisfactions of denying oneself the pleasures of eating meat. This is how Kempe fasts: the orthodoxy of her abstinence is marked by what Christ says to her: leave off eating what “thou lovyst best."
Since orthodoxy requires that she never give up this desire, her fasting must therefore be distinguished from her celibacy: the two asceticisms differ. Quite early in the book, after waking up to celestial song, she suddenly loses all sexual desire for her husband (Chapter 3); and she dolefully recollects, as she cares for him in his incontinent dotage, that she had once desired him (Chapter 76): but now, she thinks sex "abhominabyl," a sin, a distraction, certainly fleshy, but only repulsive. Meat, on the other hand, she has given up without giving up desire for it. The preservation of this pleasure preserves the desire for this substance, flesh, that was the material sign of human supremacy over animals, the particularly feminine unruliness and pleasures of the body (in particular see), and the very substance of the incarnated Christ himself. It was all these that she presented, denied, identified with, and performed, troubling nearly all who came in contact with her with the noisy insistence of her fleshy and suffering piety.
(to be continued)

Sunday, June 12, 2016

For Friends

The tiny but fierce unicorn of Bodley MS Douce 6, offered today for anyone in need of some comfort. #TinyUnicorn #🦄

by J J Cohen

I wrote this on Facebook but I am placing it here because I wrote it for you, as well.

The worst mass shooting in American history looks to have been triggered by homophobia. The Republican politicians who fought against gay marriage, who still work to undermine what limited equality is afforded LGBQT Americans, and who take far more interest in regulating toilet use than the availability of army-grade weapons now offer "thoughts and prayers" rather than apologies for their own practice of mundane acts of violence. The GOP will blame the deaths on radical Islam and fail once again to recognize their own "Christian" complicity in a culture rapidly descending into everyday vitriol and increasing brutality. Trickle down economics has gone hand in hand with trickle down hate.

I am so sorry for the lives taken in Orlando this morning. I am so sorry for everyone experiencing loss in the massacre's aftermath. I am sorry many who would like to donate blood to help out are prevented from doing so because of who they have had sex with. I am sorry that safety is fleeting and that body counts keep rising and that so many people feel endangered every day (because they are endangered. Every day.)

And I am thankful. Without queer friends I am not sure I would have made it through childhood. Without queer friends I am fully certain I would not have made it through college, through graduate school, through much of my career or life. I know those sentiments can easily come across wrong; I hope they do not. What I really want to say on this day when so much hate -- hate that we all knew was there already -- has turned extraordinarily lethal is simply to say, to so many of you here, that I love you. You make the world better. Your friendship means everything to me. I wish there was more I could do when you feel endangered, and when you hurt. But I will do whatever I can.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

NO FILTER: Suffering, Finitude, and other supposed truths about animals


Three times (!) in the last week, I've had people raise their eyebrows at me when I said I recently missed a deadline. Let me assure you that this isn't my first time at the tardy rodeo. This one (June 1) I missed  because - I'm claiming - I've been so hard at work, and because I found myself writing things I shouldn't. My essay on "Animals and Violence" for the Routledge Handbook for Animal-Human History has transmuted from a rather dull Frankenstein's monster of old blog posts and précis of previously published stuff into an overambitious reconsideration of the problem of the "medieval" in accounts of violence and animality. Of course I want to share a bit with you, but perversely, I'm not giving you part I (on animality, the medieval, and the politics of time), nor the next part of part II (on Margery Kempe's vegetarianism), but rather this not very medieval bit, which ultimately breaks up a little with a bit of Derrida that I've long loved. Boohoo.

Thanks to all the contributors to my Facebook thread asking for bibliography on violence, thanks to John Protevi for some behind-the-scenes discussion, thanks to Steven Bruso for sending me his bibliography on the same, and thanks to Jared Rodríguez for some last-minute, very welcome PDF help. Enormously helpful.

And here's the chapter section:

Sauprellen, anon c. 1720, detail; from the Jagdschloss Grunewald (see also)
It is not uncommonly said that habitats generated by internal combustion engines and electronics lack the crowds of animals common to what are often called “premodern,” “preindustrial,” or “developing” habitats. It is supposed that medieval people were therefore “more in touch with” animals than their modern counterparts. The standard argument continues in this way: because medieval people relied on animal labor, traveled on animals, and because they could not have misunderstood where meat came from, they did not need to compensate for their “unnatural” separation from animals by surrounding themselves, for example, with overbred, useless pets. Their relationship to animal life was truer than ours, where "ours" equals that group of people most likely to be reading this chapter.
The faults of the argument stem first from its implicit narrative of a fall and decadence, as if the real came first, followed by a long slide towards our antiseptic present. This nostalgia for the origin and its attendant belief in the truth of first things can and has been traced from, for example, Plato and his Ideal Forms to present-day postapocalyptic literature (with its survivalist belief in the final return to the “underlying” – a favored spatial metaphor -- reality of nature). The idea that people have a primary connection to animals as a whole (say, as children), that socialization as such is the culprit, that subrational “lived experience” is distinct from and more authentic than cultural practice, that getting before "modern civilization" is somehow going to save us and others, and so on, belongs to the precritical fantasy of origins and the fantasy of the superiority of an imagined unmediated contact.
In an animal rights context, the argument has been that industrialized production of meat somehow separates us from our "real" engagement with its real source in animal life and animal death. Supermarket culture is particularly to blame for shielding meat-eaters from the violence that feeds them. The shock of butchery, of getting past the hypocrisies of industrialized carnivorousness, is key to Sue Coe’s slaughterhouse art, or in the grand reveal, not without sexual violence, of the [I recommend not clicking on the link] industrial, cannibalistic dismemberment of female clones in Cloud Atlas. This argument follows the standard logic of ideology critique, insofar as it claims that only by coming face-to-face with the "reality" of the modes of production can we finally surmount the cruelty of our polyannish relationship to work and consumption. As has been demonstrated repeatedly in a variety of contexts, such claims are overblown: there may be some value in revealing what goes on in industrial farming - the very reluctance of these operations to open their doors to scrutiny is evidence enough of that - but what may be far more difficult to change is the consumer’s certainty that, in the end, their needs are worth it all, regardless.
Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning lambastes the “Messianic approach to art-making,” which holds that being “ambushed” by with the “truth” is an essential or even desirable goal of art. Nelson argues that truth, good action, knowledge, and least of all good art may not require revelation, surprise, horror, or destruction. Revelations of cruelty may be little more than revelings in cruelty. They might produce nothing but sensations of disgust, alienation, self-loathing, and guilt, or the self-aggrandizement of feeling that one feels more intensely or just more honestly than others, or that one has been exiled from bourgeois comforts (or that one has discovered some new way to épate them for their supposed hypocrisy). Revelations of cruelty might lead to still worse, titillation and enjoyment and from there to the desire for more cruelty, not because cruelty treats others as things, but because it recognizes that others can suffer in ways that things cannot.
Dominick LaCapra’s History and its Limits arrives at similar ends through its assault on conjunctions of the sublime, the transcendent, and sacralized violence, and on generalized, antihistorical obsessions with wretchedness, particularly as practiced in the work of Agamben, Bataille, and Žižek. When Lacapra turns his attention to one of Coetzee’s fictional creations, the animal rights activist and writer Elizabeth Costello, he joins Nelson in arguing against the notion that identification necessarily leads to empathy, and empathy necessarily to kindness. Coetzee’s Costello analogizes the death of animals to the Holocaust, accusing those who kill animals of being like the camp guards, whose fault, she insists, was that "the killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims." Lacapra observes that while this may be so, Costello's argument that this cruelty can be blamed on a failure of identification can hardly account for sadomasochistic projection: no doubt, some killers and other villains can and do perceive their victims as like themselves, vulnerable and dependent, and therefore, for those very reasons, suitable targets of cruelty.
With all this in mind, we are now in a position to reconsider one of the most philosophically challenging, influential demands for an identification with nonhuman suffering. This is Derrida’s statement on the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. As Derrida observes in his The Animal that therefore I am (L'animal que donc je suis), when Bentham proposes that the important question about nonhuman animals is not whether they can speak or have reason, but whether they can suffer, this "changes everything" [change tout]. To a large degree, Derrida is correct. Where philosophers have traditionally excluded or included nonhumans within the human community of rights on the basis of positive capacities – for example, the capacity to make tools, form family relations, exhibit a theory of mind, or various forms of "lack" in Lacan, Heidegger, and their epigones – Derrida focuses on a shared non-capacity, what he calls a "nonpower at the heart of power," the ineluctable, general exposure of animals and humans alike to discomfort, injury, and death. If thinking about animals and humans begins not with abilities, language in particular, but with a shared vulnerability, certainties about agency and freedom all happily collapse.
Derrida's recentering of the animal question on suffering still has two problems: the first is that it raises the possibility that animals may be killed ethically so long as their suffering is eliminated. This would be "humane killing," which comes as such a surprise that an animal has no time to experience fear or pain: this is the goal of the slaughterhouse design championed by Temple Grandin, developed through her identification with nonhuman sensory worlds. The second issue is that identification with the "nonpower at the heart of power" need not necessarily result in less cruelty or more kindness. An awareness of suffering need not necessarily result in the desire to end it.
These objections are perhaps too practical. Derrida's concern is less with animal welfare than with philosophy. He is led to his logical endpoint by his approach to language, in which having language, this supposed distinguishing capacity of humans, is itself not a capacity, but an entanglement in an always shifting, preexisting, limitless network. At the furthest end of this "nonpower" lies the figure of the animal, preserved in Derrida's analytic, despite his attempts to do otherwise, as a homogeneous figuration of abyssal mystery.
More to the point for my analysis is that Derrida arrives at this problem by aiming at "the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life" [la façon la plus radicale de penser la finitude que nous partageons avec les animaux, la mortalité qui appartient à la finitude même de la vie]. The truth of things may be an aporia, and therefore necessarily, anti/foundationally unreachable, but what it is not is in the middle of things. One has to follow things through to their end to find this truth of absence. Toril Moi's championing of ordinary language philosophy identifies many of the problems in this, not least of all the fact that "Derrida's deconstructive concepts at once enact and deconstruct such ideality," thus requiring that concepts meet the demands of a presumably philosophical purity so that deconstructive analysis has something to disprove. 
The purity in its most intense form, as an absence, Derrida discovers in death, suffering, and inability, all of which lie on the other side, at the before (the radical, from the Latin radix, root) and at the after (the finitude, from the Latin finis, a close or conclusion). The "nonpower at the heart of power" locates truth, even if that truth is a void, in suffering, vulnerability, violence, death, across borders, and at least implicitly across temporal limits. Whatever its dedication to upsetting pretensions to unmediated experience, nostalgia for origin, and all other myths of purity, it also needs these myths in order to preserve the grounds for deconstructive analysis. 
All this is not to demand that human and animal difference should be conceptualized around differences in ability. I welcome a focus on nonpower, among other things, even if, as Dominic Lacapra observes, this focus goes rather "too far in acknowledging human disempowerment" in relation to nonhumans. It is rather to question both the centrality of suffering in Derrida's analysis and the accompanying centrality of finitude, and the presentation of all of this as authenticity: Herbert Marcuse's "Ideology of Death" should make us suspicious about any elevation of "a brute biological fact..into an existential privilege" (for introducing me to this essay, thank you to Aranye Fradenburg's superb Sacrifice Your Love).
Nor am I denying the actual practice of cruelty. Animals can and do suffer, generally not just like people, but nonetheless in their own ways. Recognizing this suffering is no small matter. Furthermore, to say that revelations of cruelty may not necessarily lead to an end to cruelty is not to say that such revelations are valueless: possible results may range from individual kindness to wholesale assaults on an otherwise indifferent or worse social order. Or they may lead to anti-Semitic and Islamophobic assaults on (certain forms) of animal slaughter: good for some animals, bad for some people. I am challenging notions that center right action on the discovery of suffering, especially when this discovery of suffering is elevated into being a central truth – as it can be, strangely enough, for thinkers as antithetical as Bataille and Derrida --- and on those that insist that the route to that truth is through the discovery of cruelty where it was otherwise unsuspected or unfelt.