Saturday, May 4, 2013

...and then there was EBOV

Completely fallaciously, I have always liked to consider myself to have a "go with the flow" kind of personality. But beyond my penchant for Dave Matthews Band, artistry, and travel aside, I recognize that deep down, I am--as painful as it is for me to admit--a control freak. Knowing how things will turn out and how to behave in particular settings is thus my forte, and these personality traits have usually served me very well in classroom settings for about the past twenty years. Generally, it too as served me well in the world of academia, keeping track of timelines, reading the necessary material to become familiar with my area of study, and following the "right" track to become successful.

But that, of course, was before Environ Body Object Veer. I think my perceptions of a standard graduate seminar and myself as a scholar were first tested when we discussed Tim Ingold's Being Alive. We began class by wondering aloud whether walking while talking about the text would change our perceptions and interactions with the book and each other. Of course not liking the drastic change and distraction this would provide, I immediately thanked God that we were not actually doing that. Someone of course then suggested we walk around the room, and five minutes later, the majority of my fellow students were walking, standing, looking out the window, inhabiting different spaces of the room and leaving me, sitting in my chair feeling the most physically uncomfortable I had been in a graduate course. How can we learn, I thought, and how can we approach learning in such a way when we have always been told we can't?

I obviously bring up this moment not to poopoo different types of learning, my fellow classmates, or the EBOV course itself. Rather, I now am amazed looking back at how much I fought that lack of rigidity, lack of control, instead of embracing and learning from it as I have now. Reading texts that I never would have before, looking for agency, access and meaning in objects and animals that I never would have read for, I feel that sentiment of unavoidable cheesiness: that I "grew" so much from this experience. From my professor, peers, and the scholars and figures I interacted with this semester, I have learned to have some fluidity in scholarship is not only beneficial but necessary in order to look at new ways of approaching the world and find opportunities in things not before thought possible. Because for as easily accessible as scholarly terms such as "medieval," "race," "literature," are to use (and which undeniably are involved in my work), they can also be extremely limiting, forcing us to classify ourselves in neat, tidy boxes and to be unable to branch outside of them. I find this particularly important for graduate students, in an environment where there is seemingly so much merit and weight placed on "knowing": knowing what you want to study, knowing what you want to say about what you study, and knowing exactly how you are going to get there.

But I think if I have learned anything from this course, it is that there is an inherent fault in this pressure "to know," particularly in the life of a graduate scholar. Although it has become somewhat cliche to say that "life is messy," there is in most areas of living a kind of slipperiness, a refusal to remain fixed in the nice, tidy boxes we typically confine ourselves to as graduate students. Following this logic and the thematics of this course then, I (as might be expected) do not know the right way to move through a space without such limitations. And yet I think that is sort of the point. And though four months ago I would have been uncomfortable, anxious, afraid of not knowing, I am now trying to explore new theoretical approaches, allow myself to be inspired by new objects of study, and not be confined by such a rigidity.

In my end of term paper for EBOV, instead of my scholarship being driven by what I study, I instead allowed myself to write about a scene that I was unsure of and yet completely stuck on. Approaching the unfamiliar territory of ecocriticism, affect theory, and critical animal studies all in one foul swoop, I have never felt more uncomfortable writing a graduate paper...and never felt more proud of a graduate paper that I have written. While I am not necessarily sure that I will use any of these critical modes in the future, I now know it is possible for me to do so, to not feel limited or not allowed to do things that are not, well, "what I do." Though my upcoming field exam, prospectus, and eventual dissertation have become more fluid to me than ever, I know now I am on the veering path, finally able to say that in my scholarship, I am simply going with the flow.

So Long, Farewell

I was originally going to write my last blogpost on the malignant will of the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings, but I felt that lingering on malignancy  and malignant objects was simply not in keeping with the spirit of the class. That isn't to say our discussions haven't been wide and varied, and or that the One Ring is not an object rich for discussion, but that I wanted my last post to linger more on the wonder in our course than bad feeling. I am not an eco-theorist by any means and didn't realize when I registered in December that EBOV would be a seminar focused on the ecologies of the inhuman. But I'm so grateful for this seminar, and the colleagues I've made (met?) and the way the seminar became a constant destabilization of the way we think about the world and pedagogy. That I can articulate thoughts about things confidently, that I can speak confidently as a student and future scholar, I think is in large part due to this class. I am endlessly grateful for the wonderful support we've been able to provide each other, and the ways we challenged one another, and the support thats grown out of our dynamic organically.

Friday, May 3, 2013

veering into gratitude

As I've been thinking about this course over the past few days, trying to sum up what we've accomplished, it's been hard to ignore my profound feeling of gratitude for the space that we developed together. We began our course with a discussion on veering, and the texts--both literary and theoretical--that we read constantly veered into new, and often inhuman, spaces. I am grateful for the insight and attention my fellow classmates brought to these works, and for all that I learned from them in discussing these texts. If I am being honest, however, I am even more grateful for the affective environment created in our class than I am for the rich intellectual one. In ways both positive and challenging, this semester reminded me that our lives veer, too, as do those of the people we love. I frequently felt the weight of the world on my shoulders this term, and it was an absolute gift to come every week to a class that was almost unbelievably free of ego, to meet weekly to ask questions and play and make things with a group of such considerate, smart, and compassionate people. Seemingly without anyone's intending it to, our class became, for me at least (and I think for others of us as well), a place for working things out, a simultaneously rigorous and gentle intellectual space to engage--in sometimes almost overwhelmingly affective ways--with a marvelous group of texts and a singular group of people.  Thank you all.

Ontographically Yours, With Love

6220 - 771 - 2013

Black clay, litanies, secrets kept, open books, scribbled (love) notes, turtles all the way down

Trolls, tweets, gay-best friends, book-reviews, things under the bridge, not too soon

Spirals, pearls, veering diagrams, word-clouds, bits of paper, objects, objectives

Photographs, hearty-laughs, walking in circles, windows, hurt feet, 6-inch heels, turn the lights off

Middle English, mid-semester translations, mid-sentence doubts, mastication, yummy brownies

Lines of flight, Line's Flight, don't blink, don't ever blink, memes, monsters, giggles, pies

Writing yourself in, speaking up, opening out, veering off course, broken parts

Swords, horns, anchors, video-games, hot-rod red beasts, shipwrecked ecologies

Months past, seminars passed, meals shared, salads consumed, worlds reimagined

6AM, PDFs submitted, Blog-lights shining, bed-rooms calling, bon nuit, bon jour

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Past and Present Theory

As soon as I signed up for this class and saw the syllabus, I began to feel equal amounts of intimidation and excitement. I had hoped that by viewing medieval texts through modern theory, I would gain a better understanding of them than I had in high school, the only time I'd had exposure to medieval texts.  What I found in this class instead was far more expansive than I had imagined.

From the very first meeting, with our discussion of veering and what it means, I knew I'd made a smart decision in taking this course. The way we discussed theory so openly and creatively was something I've very rarely found in a class before, and I felt that everyone at the table was equally engaged, and each brought something unique to the discussion. This pattern only increased over the semester, and each week I would come to class and learn more about theory than I'd dreamed possible, and through that understanding, my appreciation for the medieval texts we read increased. The inclusion of guest lecturers and the creative teaching methods (crafts in a graduate class!) really helped to make each week something to look forward to, and it also made the readings more clear to me. For example, I probably wouldn't have had the love of Mandeville that I do if it weren't for Anthony Bale's guest lecture on the importance of translation and the way a text really changes through time, just as I wouldn't have had as strong an appreciation for Will Stockton's work if he hadn't presented one of his papers to us.

The most striking themes over the course of the semester seemed to be objects, animals, and queerness, which seems to both fit and veer drastically from the learning objectives we set out to discuss at the beginning of the semester. I think the relationship between the human and inhuman, as well as the living and non-living, were the most significant and recurring themes, and they both appeared numerous times in our learning objectives. Yet it seems that the expansive world view that was brought up as something we needed to be conscious of throughout the semester was slightly overlooked, at least in my view, as we instead spent time focusing on the more abstract dividing lines between objects, humans, and animals, rather than cultural or national boundaries. In this sense, there was certainly a slightly veer from what we had originally expected.

This class seemed to be presented as an experiment, and I think the level of discussion proved that it was absolutely successful. The textual connections between modern theory and medieval writings may not have always been apparent each week, but they were there, and I can easily understand the reasoning behind each and every reading we did this semester. Together, I think they form a very unique mosaic of the past and the present, and while that mosaic often veered from what we may have expected, that only seemed to increase the worth of our discussions. I not only accomplished what I had originally hoped to gain from this course, but I feel I really grew in my understanding of literary theory and the way it can interact with not just modern works, but indeed, centuries of literature.

Monday, April 29, 2013

In Conclusion

I’ve been reflecting on this past year, unsure of what exactly can be said to sum up this year’s Environ Body Object and Veer course. What we set out to do and what ended up ensuing, as a result of many able minds, compelling texts and tangential moments, was so rich and rewarding that I can’t even begin to try and describe it. 

Taking stock of this year, though, I was left thinking about several things. These will undoubtedly creep into my final paper and thoughts far beyond this course (whether consciously or subconsciously):

  • Veering. We spent almost the entirety of the first class talking about the unpredictability and inevitability of the veer as a concept. Although it implies a certain swerving or distance from an original prompt, the “veer” became a unifying concept in terms of how critical texts can accompany centuries-old literature. The personal narrative aspect that my peers were able to contribute, from Sanskrit texts to harrowing accounts, made them all the more real and immediate.
  • Alienation. While analyzing Tim Ingold’s work Being Alive, we spoke about alienation of a nation born into being, which parallels to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s conception of a town right on the Welsh border in the dense History of the Kings of Britain. On my notes this day I’ve written that we are “invited to make ourselves uncomfortable” -- which, in the scope of the course, can mirror the entirety of the material itself. On a personal level, at first this course was incredibly intimidating for me, as the only medieval text I had read was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ever. Not even Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales. I was pleasantly surprised to find how accessible the material was, especially when speaking about the very problems that tend to circle around our society -- particularly that of alienation and loneliness, which are two universal concepts that are utterly human.
  • Disability. Perhaps the most compelling literature this semester, to me, was Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow’s Sex and Disability. The person accounts of dealing with disability and its discontents were heartbreaking and insightful, and put the entirety of the work into the context it deserved. Disability and queerness doesn’t necessarily reflect on a physical impediment, and can be an invisible disability that hinders someone equally as much. 
  • Queering. Recently I read a great piece about Mad Men and its parallels to literary theory. The most relevant to our course was the discussion about Peggy Olson, the secretary turned copywriter who persevered in an era where a woman holding power in the workplace was unthinkable. The piece speaks about how Peggy “queers” from the norm, ignoring the advice of other secretaries for dress and conduct and instead allows for her work to speak for itself. Although her queered conception of work ethic makes her successful, we don’t see any other characters in the show doing the same. For women today, it’s more possible to succeed, but the impediments of a glass ceiling and payment inequality are still all too visible in practically any industry. Just a thought I had when reading the piece.

There are countless others, but these were the overarching themes that stuck out in my mind about this year. On another note, I’m going to miss this course! Talk about intellectual stimulation. I never expected to be as challenged and inspired as I was long after our two hours were up every Tuesday. I’m looking forward to taking Jeffrey’s Literature of the British Archipelago course in the fall -- and I wish the best to everyone involved!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Brief Retrospective

This class was in many ways a dream-state that lasted for a semester, and in retrospect, the one thing I can say is that I had no idea what to expect. What would proceed for the rest of the semester was a deluge of various theoretical works and their wonderful incorporation into Medieval texts. I wasn't familiar with the field of Object Oriented Ontology, and perhaps that is why I'm referring to the class as a kind of dream-state. This class was a representation of my essential desires in pursuing an MA in literature. I never had a specific field of focus, and just wished to obtain a wide variety of knowledge through many classes that focus on differing time periods or methods. While this might be considered a “medieval” class, the perspective we brought to it through a wonderful collaborative effort can't be constrained by a period in time or a specific field. This class has been the pinnacle of my experience in the department so far, because of the way in which it allowed so many different voices to speak, and the resulting discussions were engaging and enlightening. I guess the final question in many of our minds is “did we veer at all?” And my answer would be that it probably doesn't matter. We seemed to be in a beautiful kind of spontaneity in which we went about our discussions, and I guess spontaneity can be marked or influenced by an invisible kind of "veering". I would like to thank all of my classmates and Jeffrey for this wonderful experience, and good luck in your future projects. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Final Front-Veer

Well, it has been quite a ride.

As I was walking back to my car with Can and Haylie after our final get together yesterday, I made a joke about going back to the History Dept. armed with a whole new arsenal of names and books to drop into theoretical arguments.

Bogost! Ingold! Dinshaw! Mentz! Bring on your tired old Foucault - I'm ready to be the smartest guy in the room! (In case you didn't realize, this was the joke part.)

Almost immediately, something my grandfather said a long time ago came to mind - "If you ever find you are the smartest guy in the room, you're in the wrong room."

With that in mind, for the past five months, Rome 771 has definitely been the right room. I don't really know what I expected when I registered for the EBOV course, but I know what I got: weekly exposure to some truly kind, generous, motivated and (most of all) brilliant people. I just wanted to take this last opportunity to say thank you to everyone.

Being a historian, I have an affinity for "isms" and an aversion to "ologies." I can rip out 20 pages on Parametric determinism and not need a second cup of coffee. When I see things like "Object oriented ontology," my brain retreats to a far corner of my skull, rocking back and forth and trying desperately to think of Christmas. Yet, over the past couple of months, I have come to a greater appreciation for ways of thinking about the world and our place in it that never even occurred to me before; while the readings we did were a small part of that, a much greater part is due to the interactions and discussions we engaged in class. It was intriguing and enlightening (that's right, Foucault - I said ENLIGHTENING), and I consider it a great privilege to have been a part of it.

One of the objectives I was hoping for was to "learn to think medievally." I think that through our discussions of Mandeville and the Gawain poet, Chaucer and Roland, I have a better idea of some modes of thinking and ideas that drove medieval writers than I did before, or at least have an inkling as to alternative lines of thought that I had never considered. More than that, I have gotten ideas for avenues of historical research, and all of these have been inspired not by the readings, but by my fellow classmates. Here are some of the possible projects floating through my head now, and credit to the people that put them there:

Molly / Sumayyah - an environmental history of Carolingian Europe; how did the land itself play a role in the progression of the middle ages, and to what extent can topography be an active participant in history and not just the setting?

Can / M - A cultural history of the supernatural; not only in monsters, but in the relationships between societies and the specific types of monsters they produce, especially hybridized or transformative "people" - lycanthropes, merfolk, tengu. What fears, priorities and relationships can be learned about a society from the monsters it creates - and how does the creation of those monsters then effect a change in that society? Is transformation itself an accepted societal fact while being a cultural anathema?

Haylie - A philosophical treatise on swordsmanship, with the acknowledgment of the relationship between weapon and wielder; I will never know what my sword "wants" or if it "wants," in any way that I can possibly fathom. However, I can attempt a "messy kind of caring," in acknowledging the object as much more than a tool confined to my purposes, without agency of its own, and deal with the idea of an existing relationship between me and it  -  a relationship I may never be able to fully understand, yet appreciate nonetheless.

Paula - a study of the dialectic tensions of being a part of or inside a particular culture; how individuals see themselves and how it differs from how their particular society sees them - and what happens to both when those differences are made known. How does the individual change the culture and the culture change the individual? To what extent?

Kelsey - A revisitation of the notion of the "middle ages" as a process rather than a cordoned off time period, and all of the sub-processes that might (or might not) coincide with that. I seriously doubt that me trying to talk about "a post Roman paradigm of patronage en route to an unlooked for mercantilism" is going to replace "feudalism" anytime soon, but I'm eager to see if I can work it into a sentence. I'm also not afraid to look like a complete idiot if I get in over my head.

And Finally Jeff, thank you for allowing me to be a part of this group experiment, and for your patience and example; I only hope that I am half as successful at conducting a class with so many varying thoughts and brilliant ideas without letting it becoming either complete chaos or an indecipherable morass. You skillfully managed to guide and hold an incredibly dense stew from exploding in all of our faces, and it tasted great.

Ok, Jake -- Title with a Star Trek reference, but ending with a culinary metaphor? Now I'm veering...

Live long and prosper, folks!

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Apocalypse of Space

Last night I asked my science oriented friends what I thought was a simple question: what is between galaxies? It fueled a discussion centered around a  sort of horrified awe. The two main answers were IGM and dark matter. When I asked what either of those actually was no one really knew. A wiki search yielded an unsettling answer: no one really knows. What we know and what we see in the universe accounts for only 25% of the mass out there and the rest of the universe is just a giant question mark.

Having this conversation (one in which I continued to repeat SO WHAT IS SPACE?) brought a lot of the discussions we've had in class and a paper from the latest symposium to the front of my mind. A lot of the 'fear' (in quotes because it was an abstract fear born out of fascination more than anything else) about space and the matter connecting it came out of the necessary decentering of the human the apocalyptic paper in particular, one that focused on the sensory overload of such a situation, the way that sort of experience breaks the human apart with the discussion my friends and I were having. What happens if we are, in fact, as one of my friends suggested just planets in someone else's ocean?

The collection of stories that were referenced in the post apocalypse discussion I think resist the idea that the human ceases to matter. We have to cope with the immense overload and reposition the human as something less important. I'm thinking of Bogost now and perhaps this isn't what he intended but the margins are where we are; the universe and earth keep going (as a species we are fascinated by life before and after us). But writing from the margins is a useful (and perhaps necessary?) exercise, one exemplified in One Hundred Apocalypses. It pushes our conceptions as writers and scholars - the human exists, often as a cynic, skeptical of the world around them. What happens when we allows ourselves to experience the world as apocalypse or dark matter - totally overwhelming and indifferent to us?

"All processes are beings too."

            Of the multitude of topics discusses on Friday at the Ecologies of the Inhuman symposium, one theme consistently appeared to be as the overarching topic of the day. Division and union seemed to be something almost every speaker touched on at some point, and the panel at the end of the talks seemed to hint at that idea as well. The line between a divide of human and inhuman was, perhaps unsurprisingly given the name of the event, the most common topic. From an instrument using a host in the Prioress’ Tale, as Alan Montroso discussed; to Anne Harris’ theory of objects becoming inhuman while acting upon the human as an interruption in a human worded narrative; to the interesting conceptual boundary of “green men” in medieval cathedrals and modern day New York City, as Carolyn Dinshaw brought forth, it seems that the line between what is human and what is not human has been a long contested boundary.

             It was when the speakers took that idea even further forward that I really began to be fascinated at the quality of discourse unfolding in front of me. Ian Bogost seemed to begin the direct discussion of union with his statement that all processes are beings too, something that echoed Steve Mentz and numerous other speakers of the day. That is, Bogost proposed that the meeting of the real and the sensual, humanity and animalist, and safety and hazard are all spaces where the membrane is clearly there, creating a union between what is sub- and super-human.

            This concept was incredible to me, and quite honestly, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the discourse that unfolded after Bogost’s talk, something that was very much based on ideas from Steve Mentz’s talk as well. The idea of a process as a being, meaning that it’s possible to engage with something as more than a transition between one state and another, opens up a plethora of possibilities for scholarship and understanding, just as Mentz discussed being in a shipwreck. We are already in a shipwreck, according to Mentz, and as James Smith said at the end of the panel, destruction can be creation in a different temporality. Perhaps it is the shipwreck, the moment between safety and hazard, which opens up the possibility for now beyond the “straight time” that Carolyn Dinshaw discussed in her book “How Soon Is Now?”. Maybe it is the diffusion of a conceptual boundary that will enable a hinged moment of transition to eradicate the already blurring line between the human and the inhuman. 

Although every presentation from last Friday's Ecologies of the Inhuman Symposium was compelling in its own right, Professor Anne Harris' ecotheory-driven presentation "Hewn" was absolutely riveting.

Aesthetically, Harris' presentation differed from the rest because of a central video component that came virtually out of nowhere. She began by defining hewn, which is "to cut with blows of a heavy instrument", a statement, she said, "was as old as humanity itself". The deconstruction of an object with the measured use of a tool is in itself a creative act: it's re-building something new. The tone of the presentation was positive.

Until the video of the voltage. 15,000 volts surged into wood via nails.

I couldn't take my eyes off the trees of patterns, singed into the wood by amplified electric volts. The nail aspect of it immediately gave it a Christian significance, which Harris expanded upon by linking the cyclic nature of a tree giving wood to become a cross. The fractal erosion, she explained, could be undone by playing the video backward, somewhat "reversing the suffering" that Christ experienced being nailed to the cross.

Maybe it's because I grew up Catholic, but when the slideshow ended I felt a tremendous amount of guilt. Human guilt, spurred by an ecological phenomenon that transcended the nature of static wood. I couldn't get the video out of my mind, and it made me think immediately of a particularly harrowing episode of "Louie", the brainchild of self-deprecating comedian Louis C.K.

The episode of "Louie" entitled "God" heavily relies on a flashback of Louis C.K.'s childhood in a regimented Sunday school environment. The nun teaches the children about Christ's suffering in gory detail -- and upon C.K. laughing about an unrelated joke -- she takes matters to an extreme. The next day, a medical professional visits the children, sitting in the front row of the chapel's pews. He selects C.K. and his friend as volunteers, and recounts Christ's suffering from a medical perspective -- images of his body cut into ribbons and gory accounts of internal bleeding are both terrifying and inappropriate. But the lesson haunts Louis, when he is instructed to drive the nails into the hands of his friend, who is acting as Jesus. The ten-year-old Louis is unable to do it, to which the man replies "So why'd you do it to him? Your sins drove the nails through his hands".

Soon after, Louis begins to have nightmares about the experience. In a heartbreaking scene, he breaks into the church at night screaming at the symbolic statue of Jesus itself in the chapel: "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to!" He then takes out the pliers that he brought with him, and physically removes the nails from the Jesus statue in the chapel.

The guilt that C.K. feels is one of a certain Christian guilt -- directly feeling horrible about things that, in real time, could never have happened. Still, the 44-year-old Louis recounts these moments, presumably as scarring, with a certain level of nostalgia that comes through when his mother lovingly calms him down after the incident.

The show (which C.K. writes, directs and acts in) merges Seinfeld-esque standup scenes spliced with sketches of everyday life typically gone horribly awry. It's exaggerated, but utterly human instances hewn from C.K's own experiences as a single father dealing with divorce. Louis regularly encounters the death of pets, constant rejection, raising two little girls on his own, bizarre fantasies and crippling social awkwardness that plagues his everyday existence in the show. And we laugh in spite of ourselves.

The show hovers around the humor plucked from striking those emotional chords causing us to re-examine something of our own past -- much like the strange meld of nostalgia and guilt I felt after Harris' presentation. The tragic reality of the situation is the joke -- one that takes courage to, well, hew from our own bittersweet experiences.

Ecologies of the Inhuman: The Fallacious Individual

Allow me to pose a question: What is it?

It doesn't matter what the "it" is - a thought, a rock, a tomato, a suspension bridge. Think of something and define it in the simplest terms possible.

Did you think of what it isn't? If I asked you to define a tomato, would your answer be "a tomato is not an apple"? Probably not. Yet that is exactly what we do every time we think of ourselves or other entities as "individuals."

Individual. It's a word that we use to express an idea of singular existence - especially in regards to a particular person. From the medieval Latin in dividere, "not divided." Not only is this a definition by negative, which is a particularly terrible way to express something, but according to one of the running themes at "The Ecologies of the Inhuman" symposium, it's also patently false. We are, as I will term it, "relationals." The essence of our existence is relative to something else, no matter how much we try to define it away. I am a father, a teacher, a student, a swordsman, and any of a myriad of other definable terms; but only because of my relationship to the other side of those terms, regardless of physical proximity. I am a father because I have that relationship to a child, whether she is with me or not. I am a swordsman even when not physically fencing. I am a student even when not in the classroom.

Alfred Siewers would have us "let trees be trees," as they are both transcendent and immanent. Valerie Allen notes that "matter has sufficiency." Alan Montroso asserts the agency of the inhuman - that use defines a perspective of relationship. Yet taken together, we must realize that these arguments form a holistic ontology wherein if everything has its own perspective, and that perspective is relative to another entity's agency or existence  then nothing is truly individual. "Letting trees be trees" intimates that humans have some power to affect the trees that changes them fundamentally; which we can't possibly do, because what a tree truly is is a matter of perspective and relationship both from the vantage of the tree, and the things it interacts with. Because all matter has both sufficiency and agency, then differentiation can only happen through interaction; the illusion of individuality relies on the perspective of the relational.

This is the miasma that we exist in - James Smith's "Fluid" as well as Steve Mentz's "Shipwreck." We are fundamentally interconnected, existing in a constant state of flux, where agency itself may be completely irrelevant, as the intentional (or even unintentional) results of the actions and movement of everything change constantly.

A bird nests in a tree in my backyard. I enjoy its song. A worm lives in the ground. The bird sings, trying to attract a mate, the worm digs its tunnel, and I decide to build a bird feeder. The worm changes the fabric of the ground, making it easier to be found and eaten by the bird. I cut a limb from the tree to make a bird feeder, scaring the bird into hunting elsewhere. The tree seals the wound I made and traps more water in the ground, making it easier for the worm to dig, and easier for me to hammer a post in the ground. My hammering collapses part of the tunnel the worm made, disturbing it. The bird feeder then attracts more birds, who not only don't hunt the worm, but congregate and find mates. The worm lives to continue to fertilize the ground for the tree, which grows stronger and now supports more birds. At some point during this entire exercise, the intentions of each participant were disturbed, changing the agency of each entity as they both affected and were affected by the situation. I am still me, yet now I am a bird watcher. The bird is now a mate as well as a bird. The worm is still alive, oblivious as I am to the fact that I saved its life, and the tree is now physically different;both wounded and stronger, yet still a tree. My car now has a LOT more bird dirt on it that I have to wash. We are all the centers of our own perspective, but none of us are the center of agency for the state of things as they now are. We have each played a part in redefining each other.

This, I believe, is the essence of an object oriented ontology, beautifully realized not in any one of the papers of the "Ecologies" symposium, but (intentionally or not) illustrated by the relationships of the papers to each other. As are we all, because only the universe we live in can truly to be seen as "individual," "in dividere." Our existence, our very essence, is fundamentally relational.

Further Venues for Exploration

There was a plethora of amazingly interesting and engaging presentations at the GWU Ecologies of the Inhuman symposium. I would first like to comment on the sheer variety of approaches that people have taken towards a dislodging of an anthropocentric line of scholarship, which speaks volumes on the nature of the field of object oriented ontology.
I found Alan Montroso's close reading of the Prioress' Tale particularly engaging, as he focused on removing an anthropocentric line of reasoning and opted to see the human figures as “tool-objects” for the inhuman, music. He even chose to use the word “virus” as a descriptor for the role music and other sounds play within the narrative, which is a refusal to commit to the negative connotations that are conventionally associated with the word. It would be an interesting experiment to see how animals or other beings react to music, and see how the music of nature interacts with human productions, whether it is a scientific experiment or an aesthetic synthesis that can be found in the work of certain artists. I would expect such research to be done by now, so this might be more of a personal reminder than a suggestion.
My main focus aligns with my own interests, which is Ian Bogost's mention of the Gears of War franchise. Not only did it connect to his mention of Cliff Brezinsky, director of the franchise who owns the Ferrari, but it was an admirable contribution to his argument of the inhuman as the process of transformation. The franchise has set the standard for “cover-shooters” in the industry, and his recognition of the game as a “getting to cover shooter” was compelling, yet it ignores the franchise's narrative background which aligns with the general focus of the symposium. The games take place on the planet Sera which humans have colonized in pursuit of a highly valued power source called Imulsion. What they don't realize is that the planet is inhabited, as the extra-terrestrial species called Locusts exist underground in areas inaccessible by their scanners. What we instinctively and conventionally recognize as "extra-terrestrial" is proven false, as humans are the invaders and true "extra-terrestrials." Even though the general public reaction to the game isn't one that recognizes the "alien" existence of humans on Sera, the game does hint at the notions. This might make more use of post-colonial theory in terms of analysis, yet there is commentary on the (in)human condition as well. Throughout the violent actions the player commits as the protagonist Marcus Fenix in “defense” of the human colony, we can start to notice the inhuman in the remaining human characters, especially in their unimaginable physical proportions and eventually how similar they can be to the Locust enemies as well. While it seems to be a simple action game that many would scoff at due to a weak narrative and strong focus on committing violent acts, there is a wealth of theory that can be applied to it. As a side note, I should mention that looking around the room during the symposium, I was somewhat happy to be the only one who was smiling and nodding my head to his mention of Cliffy B and Gears of War after listening to a variety of analysis on works that I wasn't very familiar with.  


First, read M's, Molly's, and Steve Mentz's posts about the event herehere, and here

Alf Siewers, the second of ten extraordinary speakers at the GW MEMSI Ecologies Symposium last Friday, began his talk on "Trees" with a still from the 2012 film adaptation of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. I couldn't help it; under my breath I whispered: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

Before moving to DC I taught camps and overnights for three years at the Oregon Zoo. The education department is situated within the Conservation division at the zoo, and the staff truly took that to heart. Our values where statements such as "all animals are amazing," and "every habitat is unique and worthy of protection," and The Lorax was an important touchstone. Especially for the younger campers (our largest group), "Unless" served as a metonym for everything we were trying to do. We put it on buttons and art projects, and a week of camp wasn't complete without a reading of the book (preferably by Kathayoon, who took great pride in having memorized the long story). We really, truly cared - about animals, about habitats, about environmental justice - and we wanted our students to care, too.

I bring this up because of the centrality of questions of care at Friday's event. Hopelessly imprisoned within anthropocentric ways of being and knowing, how do we pay attention to the inhuman world with which we are imbricated but which we cannot ever totally understand or grasp? As James Smith put it (quoting something which I didn't get down: please correct me in the comments), "why do we love you, oh world, as you flee from us?" Put slightly differently, this question animated the entire symposium: How do we love you, oh world, as you flee from us? The inclusion of Ian Bogost provided some important resistance to thess questions: Bogost wonders, should we even care (particularly in the verb sense), since caring - extending questions of ethics, morality, violence to inhuman others - is also always irredeemably anthropocentric?

At his first appearance, the Lorax introduces himself this way: "I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues." During the Q & A, someone (please correct me if you know who: I was assisting with catering and not taking notes at this point) suggested that, when creatively and thoughtfully deployed, anthropocentrism can be a means to productive and ethical ends. I agree wholeheartedly (I've argued elsewhere that anthropocentric thinking can itself lead to imaginative forms of what Bogost calls "carpentry"), and it seemed to me that the panelists put this into elegant and careful practice. In the end, I want to resist the (undeniable) logic espoused by Ian Bogost and embrace instead a messier, more imperfect caring, even though such an affect is inherently dangerous: as Steve Mentz put it in his talk on shipwreck, "the vessels that have carried us this far are coming to pieces under our feet." Let us embrace, then, an illogical care, always knowing that we are inherently blind to the world as it is blind to us, that every alliance we form will always leave other actors out in the cold, but also that, as Mentz points out, a least we're all sinking on the same ship.

Concerns about Eco: A Response to Ecologies of the Inhuman

Fluid, Trees, Human, Matter, Apocalypse, Shipwreck, Hewn, Recreation, Green, Inhuman…Access

Like the presenters at MEMSI’s “Ecology of the Inhuman” symposium, I want to keep my thoughts short and sweet, picking up where their brief analyses left off to expand upon the ecologies, world views, and tiny ontologies presented there.

Any one paper could spawn its own blog (not just a single post), making it incredibly difficult to write a single response to all that was opened up, posed, posited. But to me, if there is a common, unspoken thread interwoven through each of these unlike ecologies, it is one of access. More specifically, accessibility and privilege within an ecology, exploring those who have access to such a world (and those implicitly left out). As each presenter only had eight minutes to reveal the lifeworld of their word, it is perhaps understandable that there was not enough time to carefully elucidate those included and excluded from their ecology’s parameters.

However, I think it essential to not lose this kernel of thought when discussing ecology, as one of my biggest concerns with such a theoretical framework is that in trying to illuminate the experience of the non or inhuman, we inevitably oversimplify human experience to include a dangerous article: “the.” From here, a erasure of life distinct from the perceived “universal” human experiences is enabled, reenacting the violence of history that has been taking place for centuries. This, of course, is not to say that ecomaterialist objects have not suffered the same fate as subjugated and unprivileged peoples, but I also do not think that it is necessary to forego one scholarly ethics of responsibility for another.
So, as I was myself generatively left with more questions than answers after this symposium, I use this space to supplement the all-too-short Q&A to ask questions like: “how is the human embrace of fluidity a position of privilege (both within human experience but also outside of it as well)?,” “Does the message behind the song and the religious affiliation of the human (and those who slew him) matter within the ecology of The Prioress’s Tale?,” “Are apocalypse and shipwreck cohesive worlds to inhabit, and where do we place (as one audience member put it) perspective into these frames of mind?,” and “What are we to do or are we able to do anything with the woman of the Norwich cloister?” By teasing out these lifeworlds, I hope to work towards a prevention of the discursive violence mentioned above. Perhaps I thus am creating and occupying my own ecology of access, “hinging” (to use Ian Bogost’s term) my own scholarly lifeworld on the ecologies posited by these wonderful presenters.    

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Ethic-Machines and Narratology

Ethical Narratives :: Narrative as Ethic

“What do we do, now?” was a learning objective I scribbled down for the EBOVeer seminar and while we already began to debate it among ourselves, on Friday, April 5th, we got to see 10 brilliant minds debate the same question as part of the GWU MEMSI Ecologies of the Inhuman. What emerged  was an exploration of the Ethics of Object-Oriented/Ecological philosophy.

One camp of comments, led by Ian Bogost, functioned within what I think of as an “Ethic-Machines” framework; wherein the different objects-of-our-lives ( both “goal” and “materials”) function to direct our actions; a toaster for instance is a mechanism which captures us into a habit of caramelizing bread, directing a series of actions towards that every day. I enjoy this model and will be writing on this more elsewhere, as it brings in for me a kind of parliament of gods, wherein our idiosyncratic world is dictated not by a single monolithic ideology but by a chorus of competing objects which draw us into their orbits.

A collaborating, but also divergent camp was Eileen Joy's suggestion of Narratology as a form of ethic-production. Following Joy, I speculated that just as a story cannot contain all things, so too our ethics will inevitably leak. A narrative constructs certain characters and the world in certain ways, establishes motives, compulsions, and logics of its own; while ever bracketing that the story might be told differently and from a different perspective. (Note: Narrative may be a way Ethic-Machines work).

Indeed, this is critical, as the self-narrative of my life proceeds, changes, and is revised I reassess my values as a result. Often this replacement of one narrative for another is grounds for severe emotional turmoil, as well as for relief. At other times, reminding ourselves of what story we are telling can help clarify our decisions and make life more livable.

This can be particularly tricky when the power of other’s narratives cut across ours or even overwhelm the furniture of our stories in their own (over-)determined system of values, beliefs, and logics. It can be the work of a weekend, a lunch with a friend, or a favorite book/movie to help us find ourselves again; to help us say: that is not the story I am telling, that is not the life I am living. This can be life-saving, where the stress, competition, and despair of other narratives would cast us as villains, failures, nonentities or fill us with unproductive shame. We need not accept every story we are told, especially about ourselves.

Failed Narratives :: Narratives of Failure

Ethics gets bogged down in the implicit logic of punishment. When we talk about our responsibility for violence in the world, even in secular conversations, we still speak as though our guilt is necessarily a reason to be fearful or to flagellate ourselves. We can point to our participation in exploitative industrial practices, our carbon foot-prints, our tax dollars going to kill people in another country and imprison our population at home. If you are a person of means, capable of doing all these things effectively, the chances that you, personally, being taken to task for it, during your life, is rather slim. Also, the chances of you severely changing the direction of these massive systems are slim. If we are failures, we are also failed by a failing world.

Guilt is frankly a status that doesn't require us to reify it within ourselves. Feeling guilty has its uses, it can incite people to action, but usually it just fuels a spiral of severe insecurity followed by small acts which produce either a sense of shame or of being holier than thou. As a Roman Catholic, I’ve seen the effects of guilt and they are widespread but in terms of usefulness it’s kind of a failure. Guilt is a parasite that destroys its host. Guilt is viral. There are such things as toxic narratives.

Instead of guilt, instead of counting all our ecological sins, instead of making this about punishment, what if we make this about the thousand tiny glories we see and make every day?

Say you will, every day, be somehow responsible for the suffering and death of 99 lives. Rather than wasting time on running our emotions across the coals, if we use that to fuel the acts (emotional and otherwise) that sustain the 1 life we did have enough care and power to help. If we are to do something for those 99, I see little reason, beside a personal enjoyment of masochism, to feel bad about our failures. Do something about it, or not, but Ethics and the Dead don’t necessarily care about our shame.

Con-Sequential Narratives :: Narratives of Consequence

Shame is an emotional mode of assessment; another collaborating but divergent mode is Consequence.

The consequence of our action may be retribution, being voted out of office, exploitation, death, or imprisonment, the loss of clean water. In that case, you are forced into counteraction, actively or passively. Again, your personal shame, unless that is the aim of the agents affecting the backlash, is likely a moot point. You did something and something happened as a result. (Admission from Q&A: cause-effect is yet another narrative; effects may happen w/out apparent cause or visa versa).

Now, one of those things that happen as a result may be shame. You may not have a choice in what you feel. However, after an initial wave of the emotion, you may gain some degree of choice (more for some than others) to change your emotions or avoid the instigator of the feeling. Choosing to feel shame may be done for many reasons, but again, in terms of its usefulness, I see it as relatively weak; inspiring hallow, slow, and self-doubting action. You may enjoy it. You may not see any other way to feel or have the power to change. Many of us, however, have some small but critical degree of power to make little changes in our habits to open up our emotional vocabulary and our capacities over shame.

It is a choice to keep looking at data about things you can’t change (or not without giving up on the things you are currently working to change). There is reason to be aware of problems outside the ones you are working to help, but primarily to help you assess what you can do, might do, and cannot do. At one point however, I have to turn from the 99 to the 1, and I work much better with a sense that at least I did something, anything, of value. It's a matter of emphasis, consequence and story.

Even if my intent and feelings are mistaken, the consequences of my actions and our actions will come at me regardless. It may be I do better than I intend or I may do worse. If there is a judgment and a living or unliving punishment awaiting me down the line, so be it. I don’t need to add fuel to the hell-fire by torturing myself in the process. My smallness can either be something I rue or else something I rejoice in; or both. Indeed perhaps all I can do for someone is feel for them. Still, rather than worry over the problem “I can only do so much” we can celebrate “look at what I did” or else “look at what I can do!”

If this world is a shipwreck, rather than count all the things we let slip through our fingers into the deep, we can instead hold onto those things that we can and that we care about, so as to further and celebrate them. So too with the new things that may come from up from the uncertain waters. They may be short-lived, but so are we. They may be small things, but so are we. In the dark night of the ecological soul, we erupt con-sequentially with a thousand tiny glories.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Response to Will Stockton's Response and the Fierce Urgency of Now

Please forgive the delay in my post…I was advocating a slowing down of scholarly time to a point where the deadline for this discussion was less important than the actual ideas I had percolating in my mind. But even with this delay (and awful joke to delay further), I still find that I am trying to buy time, to slow down the process of this response in order to fully unpack Will Stockton’s amazing talk “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Queerness, Presentism, and Romeo and Juliet.” I have pages upon pages of notes, several ideas for what I wanted to write, and yet now that I am here, I find I have too much to say, too much to discuss.

Perhaps this is what Stockton referred to in the opening moments of his talk, in which he complimented Jeffrey Cohen's introduction of him, particularly after having to introduce a well-known early modernist for a talk at his university and realizing that--for all he could say about her--he had somehow forgotten to write an introduction. Or, perhaps it is more like Stockton’s response to elaborate on his own thesis about not only needing to define queerness not only as in opposition to, but needing to have queerness in some way, shape, or form tethered to gayness. When asked how explicitly "how we do this?", he refreshingly claimed he was not sure...yet. 

This was an answer that I felt personally empowered by, rather than a response by which I was confused or concerned. And this, I think, was what I appreciated most about Stockton’s talk: that I was left with more questions than answers, about Romeo and Juliet, about the reading we have done for this class (including Stockton’s), about my work and my involvement in queer theory. A play that seems theorized to death (no pun intended), discussed until students and professors alike are bored to tears, Stockton brought so many innovative points and questions of his own: if we read Romeo and Juliet as “queer” figures ruled by desire (and nothing else), why do they feel the compulsion to fulfill the societal expectation of marriage? How do we read the Friar and Nurse as queer figures, in terms of their skepticism or sexuality? What does the potential “loss of a day” in the play do to a queering of time?

Likewise, during this discussion of Romeo and Juliet, I could not help thinking about our class’s discussion of The Pardoner’s Tale and Stockton’s chapter on it. Can we tether a kind of queerness back to the Pardoner, to Henry Bailey, to the knight himself? How can the community of the pilgrimage be read in these terms, with a destination in mind that never comes to fruition, a contest that never reaches completion? Is it productive to see the Pardoner and Mercutio in conversation with one another, both skeptically queer about the institutions they potentially take part in?

And lastly, and perhaps—selfishly—the questions I am most grateful for, the ones about my own scholarship. What does it mean for me to use queer theory/ies in my own work on race in medieval literature? Do I need to tether queerness to gayness? How can I responsibly and ethically tether these two terms together, not only in my work in medieval literature, but in my readings of contemporary culture? What responsibility as a scholar do I have to do this work? And, quite simply, in what ways as a straight cis-gendered woman am I a queer theorist, and does that identity really matter?

These are, of course, questions for which I do not yet have answers. But even with this swimming head and even with the greenness of my career as a scholar, I recognize how rare it is to get an opportunity to leave a talk with so many questions, ideas, ephemera. And for that, I feel thankful, excited to work towards learning these answers and furthering the ideas that Will Stockton has so graciously set out for us. So here it is, (the beginnings of) my response to Stockton’s response, questions to answer questions, to enter into an important discussion—both on queer theory and interactions with the past—of which I hope to become a part. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

verona cowboy

The day after listening to Will Stockton's provocative talk I watched Midnight Cowboy (1969) for my queer theory class. The film follows Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a young man from Texas who moves to New York City and hopes to become a stud. Dressed in a brand-new cowboy costume, Joe assumes he will have his pick of female clients, but soon finds that he is far more interesting to gay men. As he grows increasingly more destitute, Joe forms a close bond with Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a conman with a bum leg and poor health. The film ends with Joe cradling Rico, who has died next to him on a bus to Florida.

I watched this film with Stockton's presentation very much on my mind. In his talk, "The Fierce Urgency of Now," Stockton responded to and resisted definitions of queerness that operate primarily in the negative. Paying particular attention to the play's much-dicussed haste, Stockton drew our attention to the characters--the nurse, the friar, and Mercutio--who resist this haste and who caution against Romeo and Juliet's rush to legitimate their (heterosexual) relationship through marriage. Reading these figures alongside SCTV's "Sassy Gay Friend," Stockton proposes caution and patience as queer values, necessary correctives to a gay politics that is too invested in rushing into gay marriage.

Although his speech is slow, Joe, too, sometimes acts with haste. This is especially evident in his only financially successful encounter with a women. At first Joe struggles to achieve an erection, and it is only after his client teasingly accuses him of being gay that he jumps into bed with her, a hasty legitimation of his heterosexuality. And yet, in spite of this and other moments of haste, the thing that most struck me about Joe was his frequent displays of attentiveness. Joe notices other bodies, from Rico/Ratso to horses, homeless people and dogs. In this kind attention, Joe inhabits a slowness, a willingness to linger, that marks him as visibly and performatively different than the New Yorkers that surround him. Joe's tenderness is a kind of queerness.

Although Stockton's talk was very specifically a response to an essay in Shakesqueer written by Carla Frecerro, "Romeo and Juliet Love Death," I thought it also resonated with another essay in that same volume. In a reading of Henry VI, Part 3, called, simply, "Stay," Cary Howie argues that

standing still might be one strategy of resistance among the many that have been ascribed to, and embraced by, people and objects variously described as queer . . . To stay with a text like Henry VI, Part 3 [and here, I would add texts like Romeo and Juliet and Midnight Cowboy as well] is . . . to stay with one another, to acknowledge patiently what happens in the middle of things, where we are reading and living, singularly and in common, but also writing and fighting and waiting and dying; where one of the hardest things to do, but also one of the most necessary, is to resist the impulse to say what we will or will not become. (150)

In drawing my attention to the queer valences of patience and caution, Stockton's presentation alerted me to how the choices of certain characters--Joe Buck or Mercutio, Ratso or the Friar--to "stay" engender unexpected, queer, and ultimately hopeful forms of gentleness.

Possible Repercussions of Terminology

This is partially a response to some of the issues brought up by my fellow classmates, and partially my thoughts on what Stockton had to say during his guest lecture. It is difficult not to agree with his contribution to the opposition towards a fantasized heterosexual romance that Romeo & Juliet is taken granted to be. In pedagogical terms, high school education in both its fundamental teaching methods of literature, as well as obligations to state politics (in public schools) can be held responsible for why the tragedy is taken for granted in the way it is. This neglect, intentional or otherwise, of possible readings is nothing but a limitation of the possibilities that surrounds the production of knowledge, a rebuke of which Stockton's presentist approach assumes. The issue that most of my classmates raised in their blog posts seems to be around his specific application and defense of the term "queer," which poses the question: Where do we draw the line, or should there be a line at all?

 The reason why I signed up to follow a pursuit of literature is that uncomfortable lack of a specific answer that can be obtained through formulaic means, that there can be an exponential amount of possible meanings for a body of work. But what Stockton seems to improve and broaden with his presentist approach to the play, he seems to contradict or counteract with his defense of the "conventionally known application" of "queer." If we were to take "queer" as a term only associated with sexuality, then we accept a certain set of barriers around the amount of theoretical applications of the term, and that prison we fall into illuminates the problems that surrounds terminology. The work of many theorists have contributed to the idea of "queer" as a utopian term which is uniting instead of separating, a term that should be a show of how similar everyone can be (as Jake mentioned the all too familiar scene of a mother telling a child that they are special). Then I end up asking myself, if "queer" was to be strictly attached to the conventional understanding of homosexual, what will the plethora of other conditions that are victims to societal neglect be defined by? Must they also wait for a specific and conventionally understood term before they can achieve recognition? 

Trans / Figuring / Mercutio

"Is this the Real Life? Is this just Fantasy?" 
Freddie Mercury, Queen


Turning Queer

Shall we "Resurrect Mercutio", as Will Stockton playfully insisted in his brilliant talk "the Fierce Urgency of Now" at the George Washington University guest-speaker series hosted by the Medieval Early Modern Studies Institute? What do we turn towards, turn away from, and (I hope) bring along with us as we enliven the body of Mercutio as gay?

In Stockton's invocation of Ressurection, the Catholic theology of a life-in-death, I would make sure to qualify that the doctrine insists upon three relevant points: (1) that there is no life without the body, (2) that it involves a death that is the definite slaying of a self (not simply the extraction of a spirit from a body), and (3) that there must be firm skepticism in the form or matter of the body's resurrection / reconstitution. In other words, if we are to "Resurrect Mercutio" then it is through a "Transfiguration." 

What we turn away from in this language is the desire and queerness as "just Fantasy." The mental, libidinal, spiritual, linguistic drives which posit a mind/body dualism is strictly opposed by such Catholic doctrine of the "Real Life" of a bodily Resurrection / Transfiguration. Indeed, with a present, secular queer audience (as Stockton directs us to), we cannot help but hear within "transfiguration" a "trans" figuration that retains that same sense of  the undone and remade body.

Stockton noted Mercutio's "trans" affinity when he referred to Romeo's fellow as "mercurial," a substance which because of my work on "queer objects" resonated with me both in the sense of inconstant bodies and particularly transgender lives. These indeed are turnings (the material turns & the trans turn), but although they move away from current gay experience, they nonetheless function in terms of a "queerness" that has existed and continues to exist independently from this context. Lynne Huffer in Mad for Foucault, makes a particularly articulate case for this trans-historical deployment of queerness:

"From the Middle High German quer, queer means oblique... from the Latin obliquus, slanting... Queer also means adverse --- from the Latin versus, a turning, the root that gives us perverse, perverted, pervert. The danger of the queer is that it can easily be re-turned against us: we can be recaptured and pinned down again in our perversions and our genders" (H 2).

There is also a presentist reason for queer/turn towards the trans. The Queer Alliance has already begun turning against itself. Stockton offers Mercutio us the "gay" partner which must be denied (and killed off) for a heterosexual marriage to proceed. However as Gay Rights approaches a time in which all states recognize gay marriage, than could this scene also play out the denial (or killing off) of the "trans" character as an ally which is no longer needed. Romeo sides with Marriage and the State, which as the Gay Rights movement continues to become instantiated into the State, appears to set them off against the still marginalized and elided trans community, a party of Mercutio's who must now step off stage. That is the body I offer here to transfigure and help to put into conversation with Stockton's reading.


Mercury's Fierce Alchemy

As Mercury-Argosslayer, Mercutio embodies the God that is the crosser & marker of boundaries (Hermes, whose name means "a stone boundary marker"), a lover of Eros/Venus who mothered their feminized son, Hermaphroditus, and whose duplicitous/transitive quality quivers on the edge of sexual & gender distinctions. He embodies the planet that rides closest to the sun, who, again a partner of Venus, plays the role of dawn & dust stars, heralding the transition of time & fortunes (fools).

As Mercury-Quicksilver, we meet Mercutio in an object which we can more easily relate to, a thing which philosophers and poets (Shakespeare included) meditated on in order to understand the "trans" quality of the cosmos. It was regarded as the last vestige of pure chaos in the world after its formation, and thus possessed special powers of transformation, which is why alchemists traditionally prized it as the key to creating the Philosopher's Stone. It is "quick" silver, because it is alive and pregnant (feminized) with potentials.

Our accounts of mercury, here concur which the late medieval, early modern understandings of Mercury. Michael Sendivogius, in his Dialogue Between Mercury, the Alchymist, & Nature (14th century), testifies that, "[Mercury] is all things, who was but one; He is nothing, and his number is entire...He is a spirit, and yet hath a body; He is a man, yet as the part of a woman." Likewise, Bernard, Earl of Trevisan (late 14th century), writes that mercury embodies "living water" and "burning fire," resulting in a perfect mixing of the "Masculine, hot dry, and secretly informing" and "the Female... volatile, crude, cold and moyst" (B 139).

Shakespeare begins to think through a few of these alchemical questions in the words and sciences of Brother Laurence, the Apothecary  and Romeo; all of whom note that such duplicitous substances as mercury function here as a poison, there as a cure. Indeed, Romeo and Juliet is play invested in the paradox of substances, and to reduce these volatile ontological mixtures to mere linguistic or libidinal play is to skirt over the very embodied consequences and transformations undergone in their course. Mercutio dreams with his brain, not merely his mind, which leads us to ask: is it dysphoric?

As Mercutio, we meet Mercury has a tranny dream-weaver & sword-waver. Using the term "trans" I do intend to stress that what Stockton does not consider enough in his look at the (homo)sexual aspects of Mercutio, is gender. To speak only of Mercutio as a "sassy gay friend" is to proceed with a sense of knowingness about his gender. Indeed, if Mercutio is mercurial, we must regard him as "trans" or hermaphroditic. 


Drag / Queen / Mab

Baz Luhrman in his production of Romeo + Juliet, chose to make Mercutio's gender and material fluidity explicit in his gender effeminate clothing which reveals his masculine body but covered over in soft white cotton, and in the key party scene presents him as an audacious drag-queen. This may, like Stockton's reading, have implications on Mercutio's sexuality, and certainly there are homoerotic tensions in the film with Romeo, but this too become reductive if we do not attend to the simultaneous or competing status of Mercutio's gender.

Indeed Mercutio's obsession with phalluses, particularly Romeo('s), Tybalt('s) --- yes, the parentheses are meant to suggest that the characters themselves are kind of dicks as well --- and his own sword/dagger may as well be evidence of a trans-gender/sexual longing either for or against his own genitalia (could we imagine him either as FtM or MtF?). In other words, when Tybalt asks if Mercutio "consorts with Romeo" and Mercutio immediately whips out "his sword," could this not simply be an assert to demonstrate or defend his sexuality, but also/alternatively an attempt to demonstrate or defend his gender?

Could the sword be an evidence of penis or else a stand in for the penis he does not otherwise possess? Could he "consort with Romeo" not as a man, but as a kind of trans-man that cannot persue an operation some centuries beyond him? (It is notable, however, that early modern physicians did believe that an inversion of genitalia was possible by other, primarily humoral, means). Could he be a hermaphrodite?

In Mercutio's famous Queen Mab speech, given in Luhrman's portrayal, in the form of a Drag Queen, he is as much the the servant as an embodiment of the fairy-dream-weaver. S/He (Mercutio as the Drag Queen Mab) is "the fairie's midwife" impregnating courtiers, lawyers, and ladies with dreams of "straight curtsies " "straight dream on fees," and "straight on kisses dream"  (I.iv.72-74). There is a straightness insistant here, but out of a kind of haste, trying, as much as possible, to take the quickest road between two points. Then suddenly she turns:

"She drives over a soldier's neck / And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats, / Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades, / Of healths five fathom deep; and then anon / Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes, / And being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two / And sleeps again" (I.iv.82-88). The soldier, like Mercutio himself, goes mad with the heat of passion, becoming a violent lover of pants and blades; in a later scene we will hear him complain on Romeo's breeches and blade. Yet this is not the last image we get of Mercutio/Mab, he leaves us again with the idea of the midwife: 

"This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,/ That presses them and learns them first to bear, / Making them women of good carriage" (I.iv.92-94) Mercury/Mercutio/Mab is a cross(dresser), a gate(keeper), and may very well serve not only as Romeo's consort, but also a bearer of his "dreams." These dreams may be homoerotic, of a feminine masculinity, or may be a child. If we take Mercutio as a mix of genders, a kind of hermaphrodite, a trans-body, he may very well be a she, capable of midwifing more than dreams. 

Indeed Mercutio is made of "Quick" (i.e. both "fast" and "pregnant") Silver -- and so we find that he is (1) overwhelmingly embodied, (2) slain many times in becoming new again, and (3) truly unknown to us. This very much speaks to the "trans" figuration of Mercutio, in his historical moment, in the text, and in the present, which remain perpetually changing and uncertain in its position to us. While I promised to make this figure legible, I embrace that a key part of what is being made clear is a definite sense of unknowingness about the past, present, and future of Mercutio's many bodies and lives.

From the Outside Looking In

Will Stockton's discussion, a response to Freccero's essay on Romeo and Juliet, and location of the queer in a play touted to be one of the 'straightest' plays, had many shining moments but what stood out the most to me was his discussion of anti-sociality and social resistance through alternate modes of community. The more abstract parts of queer theory is often difficult for me to wrap my mind around, but its practical application, and the way it unfolds in literature is, for me, usually got at through race theory and the way it intersects and functions along side queer theory. Race and queer liberation struggles, the way both theories are grounded in Other'd bodies unfold in similar ways (though certainly not the same -- and both face very different challenges).

Stockton's points on alternate mode's of community (monastic life, Romeo and Juliet's secret marriage, etc) and his discussion of the queer body as the necessary center for queer theory made me think of current discourse about communities made up of bodies of color, and the external and internal reactions to those communities, especially when a sizable portion of that community is veiled (or 'threatened' with being veiled). His resistance to (and I think Robert made a comment to this effect as well) the idea that the discourse of communities marked for death and suffering, and rushing toward that sort of misery as the only interpretation of anti-sociality really struck a chord with me.

That sort of resistance is important, I think, in the transformation of spaces that have the potential to be rife with misery into places of 'happiness' (and I would resist defining happiness as something that conforms to an easily recognizable form of the term to the 'outside') for its inhabitants. Like the Friar who's desire seems vegetale, whose satisfaction is not recognizable to us, finding alternate spaces and vehicles to express different satisfactions and happiness is necessary. And I'd argue that it's possibility is grounded in the body, and the space made up of individuals.

Like Kelsey, I worry about divorcing the term queer from the actual queer body, and believe that the discussions necessary to engage with the creation of anti social spaces, and their maintenance are easily muddled or lost altogether when the term becomes an all encompassing one.

On Swords, Stockton, and the Queerness of Romeo and Juliet

This past Friday, Will Stockton, a noted professor of English and author, gave an excellent lecture on "presentism" and the idea of reclaiming a sort of inherent homosexuality (or at least homo eroticism) in interpreting Romeo and Juliet. Professor Stockton used SCTV's "Sassy Gay Friend" as a way to look at the character of Mercutio who, being the voice of queerness, challenges the heteronormal urgency of the death drive in the play.  Mercutio thus represents an obstacle to the inevitable fate of Romeo and Juliet, and as such, must die before the relationship between the young lovers can reach its inexorable conclusion.

As evidence of Mercutio's homo eroticism, Professor Stockton draws on Mercutio's apparent obsession with penises ( particularly Romeo's) and by extension, the phallic symbolism of swords and sword fighting in the play. I remember at one point making an informal comment to Professor Stockton about the seeming universality of swords as phallic symbols in studies of Shakespeare, something I find a bit simplistic and trite; he agreed with me to a point, yet contended that "in Romeo and Juliet, they are."

I would argue they can be.

At this point, I would like to point out that I am not an English major, and about as far from an expert on interpreting Shakespeare's work as one can possibly get; however, I have been an instructor in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) for 20 years, as well as a professional sword master for film and theater. Having had extensive exposure to the theory and practice of swords and their use, I would contend that while there is definitely room for a homo erotic interpretation of the sword fighting in R & J, it is in an inherent ambiguity on the part of Shakespeare in dealing with love and intimacy in general that makes the symbolism difficult to pin down. Herein lieth the queerness.

The play is fraught with oxymoronic language in regards to love and intimacy, a very nice discussion of which can be found here. I would assert that sex and swordplay in the play form two sides of the same type of paradox. In our modern world of guns and "stand-off" violence, we have lost a sense of the type of extreme intimacy involved in injuring or killing another person with a blade; the only other human interaction that physically and emotionally joins two people to the same extent within the context of a shared moment is intercourse. That said, it is telling, I think, that the difference lies directly in the idea that, unlike sexual arousal, killing is an act of intimacy that can be initiated regardless of the sexual proclivities of the people involved. This is the same notion behind the argument of why rape is not a "sex crime."

Therefore, I believe that while it is a valid point of study to discuss the possibility of homo eroticism and its implications in the use of "sword = phallus" in the play, we should be wary of simplifying things to the extent that we only focus on one side of the paradox. Shakespeare himself must have been aware of the homo eroticism, and quite probably wrote it into the theme of the play, but I wonder about whether he did it purposefully; there is something to the argument that Shakespeare may have taken certain steps to consciously avoid too strong an impression of homosexuality. The creation of "distance" between Romeo and Juliet is recurrent and very physical throughout the piece, which may be in part a reaction to the reality of Juliet's part being played by a young man. Even in Shakespeare's time, it is entirely possible that physical expressions of intimacy between two males on stage might have been disconcerting to a large portion of the audience. The most emotionally intimate scene between the characters occurs during the famous "balcony scene," where they also have the maximum physical separation. The most intimate physical interaction happens at the very end, with Juliet kissing Romeo's corpse, where they have the maximum emotional distance; Juliet kills herself immediately afterwards.

Thus, we can look at Mercutio as Professor Stockton's "Sassy Gay Friend" and the voice of "reason" in attempting to slow down the death drive, and that Mercutio's obsession with the phallic is a matter of reducing the "high minded" ideas of hetero-normal love to a base physicality. If this is the case, then Mercutio's personal sexual persuasion is not the central factor; the fact that he dies in an essentially impromptu sword fight initiated in a fit of emotional passion is. The pragmatist who scoffs at emotional intimacy in favor of the physical is killed in the most intimate way possible - physically "up close and personal" in a highly emotionally charged situation.

Mercutio may have been an obstacle to the death drive; but at the same time, he is an embodiment of the paradox of intimacy, and to focus on the homo eroticism does not do justice to the paradox. That said, I believe Professor Stockton is exactly right in the other direction - that to ignore the homo eroticism or to relegate the idea of homosexuality to an invalid anachronism does the play no justice either. The continued relevance of Shakespeare relies on our ability to understand the attempts to portray and reconcile the oxymora built into his creations, and the queerness of the relationships between opposing sides of the paradoxes. Whether it be love and marriage, life and death, or sex and swordplay, an understanding of not just sexuality but a greater idea of intimacy in general is the "glue" that both binds these themes together as well as confounds attempts to definitively dissect the disparate pieces into symbols.