Toying with ideas

Seems good on this rainy night to nestle up with Chaucer’s birds.

If you have some spare time, though, check out Timothy Morton’s very recent talk (of two days ago). Here’s the audio file. He opens with an amusing proposal:

“Philosophy should be in the business of making toys . . . the task is to make things for people to play with, rather than laying down the law.”

I like to think literature does just this.

Uncanny Valley

Today we didn’t have a chance to elaborate on the uncanny, but I suspect the idea will feature in future discussions. We can continue to meditate on the uncanny mutant, cyborg, automaton, or barely human figurine — including textual devices: characters.

And we are coming up on Halloween! So consider the phenomenon of the Uncanny Valley.

Dolls and Holy Matter

Automaton saints, angels, devils, and human effigies were known and employed in profane and religious contexts throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.[1]

Puppets and statuettes set up at altars, effigies carried in procession, or dolls given as votive offerings — all secured a place in contemporary devotion. The Synod of Tiers in 1310 endorsed miniature dramas that conveyed religious teachings, giving rise to mechanical mystery plays akin to puppet theatre.[2]  In England there is some dispute about whether medieval miracle plays employed marionettes and dolls.[3]

Devotional practices are one place to get a purchase on the significance of doll-like things, for there are numerous examples of such spiritual aids and descriptions of their effects.[4] Christchild dolls and cradles like the one pictured in particular constitute a set of what Caroline Walker Bynum calls “three-dimensional, tactile, handleable” holy toys.[5]


One celebrated example is the wooden infant Jesus belonging to Continue reading

Tasting Notes for Words

Since Jana was speaking about the feel of words in the mouth today, have a look at these tasting notes. For example, here’s something about the tang of “tang”:

“The taste of this word is like drinking the beverage mix name-branded after it: it starts sharp at the tip of your tongue and ends soft in the back of your throat. Voiceless stop gives way to voiced nasal.”


Some Little Things

Me — at least my finger — pointing at things in museums a couple years ago.

Weak and Strong Mixtures

Mixing takes many forms.  Forms are mixed bodies.  We’ve seen this heterogeneity at both micro and macro scales, and have considered several examples of how things come into being together.  Following Deleuze, we might speak of molecular versus molar configurations.  Bennett’s term for any configuration, small or large it seems, is the assemblage.  I think one of the recurrent questions we need to address now is this: if things are so mixed up, do they form only temporary or tentative arrangements or assemblages? Does this view of individual things evacuate them of any identity?

One of the advantages of surveying a collection of recipes is that it reminds us of how many words there are for mixing.  Cooks grind, strain, steep, boil, beat, stuff, sprinkle, and dress food.  In one case they stiffen jelly or thicken a stew.  Elsewhere, they are frothing, clarifying, straining out different constituents.  Over here they are making a spumy compote; over there they remove the lees from wine.  The kitchen is a dynamic scene of becoming where many of the ideas we’re exploring are enacted and embodied.

My point is simply to note that some entities (a compote, jelly, stew) are constitutively mixed up.  That is, they only acquire identity in the mix. Judging by present-day critical parlance, we prefer to focus on sedimented or saturated things (i.e., ideologies, discourses, cultural formations), privileging the relatively homogenous or stable kind of identity.  Some identities are not at all stable — yet they are not weakened by the fact.  Consider any medieval recipe that calls for vinegar and oil: one must keep stirring in order for the fluid suspension to become a new thing we call vinegar-and-oil.  Stirring allows the thing to become the thing it is.  So while all things may be subject to flux in the assemblage, it does not follow that an assemblage is a weak form of identity.  Volatility is a form of vitality.

The question should be, not whether matters are assemblages, but how powerful and perdurable is any given assemblage?  What’s it do?  How long does it last?

For some doubts about mixing and mashing see this.

Nature of the Egg

Yet another way to consider the egg — as food.

Chicken Eggs. The white and yolk of an egg have slightly different natures: the white is cold and humid, the yolk is warm and humid. The yolk is nourishing, easy to digest, and pleasant-tasting, whereas the white is of difficult digestion. Hens’ eggs are preferable to all the other eggs: they are a rapid restorative, they are comforting, they increase the male sperm and reinvigorate the sexual act. . . . (Tacuinum sanitatis)

Beginning at the Beginning (or, þe gynynge)

You will have read this message in email form already, but I want to start to use this blog for distributing information and depositing documents. And so here are some pointers as you begin reading about the beginning of things (or, perhaps more appropriately given the subject, a sort of “gynnyngles gynnynge,” to borrow a phrase from Middle English).

Next week much of what we are discussing will be in translation. However, On the Properties of Things is in Middle English with Latin headings. The Knowing of Women’s Kind in Childing is also Middle English. Here’s what I suggest you do:

Look over the ME Language Handout I have prepared. I have listed further resources in print and online there. We can discuss linguistic elements in seminar when they come up, and so you would do well to print out the handout for future reference.

For unfamiliar words consult the Middle English Dictionary. I will give a primer in how to use this resources in seminar. The OED can also be a great help.

My general advice to those who have limited experience reading ME is to go through the text as best you can, and do not worry about comprehending every word or sentence at first. If you have only read modern editions (say, the Riverside Chaucer) you will encounter two new (old!) letter-forms: the thorn and yogh. For those see #1 on the handout.

Don’t forget my office hours on Mondays (2-4:00), should you have any questions.