Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your garden shears. ~Lowell Duckert, “Recreation”
The roundtable session on “Ecologies,” organized by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and sponsored by George Washington University’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute [GW-MEMSI] for the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Michigan this past May, was a memorable event, featuring lively, provocative, creative, and at times, both funny and somber, reflections upon the key terms designated by the speakers: Fluid (James Smith); Trees (Alfred Siewers); Human (Alan Montroso); Post/apocalyptic (Eileen Joy); Hewn (Anne Harris), Recreation (Lowell Duckert), Green (Carolyn Dinshaw), and Matter (Valerie Allen).
An audiofile of the roundtable session is now posted, and you can access that HERE. We would also note here that this session’s presenters will re-convene with each other at George Washington University this coming spring [April 5, 2013], joined by Ian Bogost, and that some version of these two gatherings will be published by punctum books as the second volume in the Oliphaunt Books series (the first volume of which is Jeffrey Cohen et alia’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects). So stay tuned for that!
The session’s presenters ranged widely, subject matter-wise and philosophy-wise, and we offer here a pastiche of some of the more memorable reflections:
- Images of both love and mistrust flickered in medieval perceptions of a temporal world seen to possess a disturbingly fluid and entropic agency; where medieval persons often engaged in different varieties of contemptus mundi, while also wanting to love this fugitive, elusive world, how might we engage this crisis of an impersonal world always in endless flux, and the impersonal affects of its material objects, while also making room for the “slow time” of contemplation? [James Smith, “Fluid”]
- In their theories of the rhizome, privileged over the arboreal, Deleuze and Guatarri may have missed the “mystery” of the real trees which have shared important alliances throughout history with human techne and also figured prominently in our creative arts; we still live within trees (our houses, built out of timber) and, in that sense, have not evolved as far as we might imagine from the “green worlds” of the medieval imagination. [Alf Siewers, “Trees”]
- One of the most unsettling, disanthropocentric acts we can attempt is to envision a more capacious definition of “human” by looking at ourselves from the perspective of non-human units. When we can acknowledge the shapes and features that we share with other objects, when we see ourselves through the literal or imaginary eyes of other things, we look utterly strange and alien. What happens, in our readings of Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale,” if, instead of assuming music is inextricably linked with violence against the human body, we look instead from the perspective of music itself, if we look at the particular iteration of music, the Alma redemptoris hymn, as a subject that works to perpetuate its own existence regardless of what type of material within which it finds itself embodied? [Alan Montroso, “Human”]
- At the end of the anthropocene, the most important human task may be writing, with no intention of making sense, only sentience; we’ll want to dispense with the idea of agency altogether, even one mapped as a transit system across different bodies, human and nonhuman, and also stop worrying over the supposedly crucial reflexivity — self-reflexivity or other Other-reflexivity — of critique. Instead, we’ll get decadent — literally, we’ll decline ourselves and see what we hit on the way down in our declension. Like the Old English Seafarer, but going against the grain of his despair, we’ll become “behung with icicles” and sink downwards, where we’ll hear nothing but the “sea’s sounding.” Cast adrift, we’ll cultivate drifting as our mode of existence, and “attunement” to the world’s “obscure forces” as our occupation. [Eileen Joy, “Post-apocalytpic”]
- Ecology starts with the separation of “stuff” from the “environment,” as in the excavation of alabaster, the soft permeability of which established a network of connections between earth, stone, sculptor, the divine figures which emerged out of the medieval sculptor’s carvings, and the aesthetic “cravings” to be in the presence of the divine. An ecology of the hewn — of something torn asunder — is what has always existed: an ecology of separation, in which the “will to art” has us always digging and carving [all of the alabaster in medieval England, for example, was depleted in a mere 200 years]. Are their moral obligations, then, to lithic origins? [Anne Harris, “Hewn”]
- Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar left his parks to his countrymen “for their recreation”; we might reflect on the multiple meanings of recreate — both to “walk abroad” and have leisure, but also to re-create ourselves — and also ruminate the darker valences of the term: war is also a form of re-creation; what if recreation was an “active doing” aimed at mutually sustaining forms of co-existence that would bring humans and nonhumans into new alliances of both “common pleasures” and the “commons” itself [oikos]? What would a recreational ethics look like: who is restored, revived, refreshed, and who is excluded from those recreational benefits? Recreation should not just be represented by the special, enclosed parks that humans walk through, but might represent more of a life-practice in which we learn how to become more intimate with the nonhuman life forms with which we are always re-creating ourselves. [Lowell Duckert, “Recreation”]
- A chance co-habitation of space — the cloisters in a Norwich church — where Carolyn Dinshaw was studying the “green men” faces sculpted in the roof bosses while a homeless[?] woman sat on a stone bench nearby, offers an occasion to think through how both the medieval foliate faces and the solitary [perhaps disenfranchised] woman dismantle binaries of inside/outside and nature/culture; the woman also marks the very crisis that the ecological thought [a la Timothy Morton] is supposed to address by way of its argument that the entire non-essentialized world is our [melancholic] concern — in other words, are all inter-dependencies, advocated for in the ecological thought, equal [they are not, obviously] and how are we to ultimately measure what inter-dependency means in different contexts? If the ecological thought asks for a radical democracy that transcends the politics of pity and human-centric sentiment, by what other means [if not simplistically empathic, relative to notions of shared finitude, etc.] will we determine our obligations? [Carolyn Dinshaw, “Green”]
- Riffing off of the idea that “Aristotelean matter is a household word,” Valerie Allen presented a classical- and medieval-style encyclopedia (in miniature form) on “matter,” beginning with the reminder that the Greek term for “matter” — hyle — means timber, and therefore “matter” is always related to “making,” and thus also to poesis; in medieval philosophy matter was also the measure of what “it is”and therefore “proper” measure becomes a form of counting & description as well as a means of normative and essentializing biases; the question is then raised: can the determinate shapes of medieval matter be de-essentialized without rendering them formless? This question also pertains to ecological thinking more broadly. [Valerie Allen, “Matter”]