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)

Welcome (and Preview)

This course is for anyone interested in medieval literature and culture and for those seeking a better understanding of contemporary posthumanist theory (i.e., “the turn after the linguistic turn”), wishing to explore the non-modern genealogies that stand behind recent trends in animal studies, speculative realism, and object-oriented ontology.

The blog is being revised for the fall 2013.  See the course description with a list of the core texts and browse the rest at your leisure before we meet in September. I will recommend some reading before our first meeting . . . stay tuned!

Just Description / Flat Ontology

As this course gets off the ground, here are some methodological reflections.

What we will be doing in this seminar is asking a lot of questions, but first of all we must describe what we think is questionable. And how do we go about that? From our first meeting it should become clear that sometimes we do not do much of anything. Not critique. Not yet. I want us to hold off for as long as possible before we engage in heroic critical undertakings, and let the evidence — of embryology, cosmology, economy, and politics — take us where it well: making connections, assembling layers, environing and entangling the subject. If we follow the links, local tensions, relay points, and so on — simply describing what is the matter in each domain – do we not have a lot of what we need?  The connections ramify and will lead this way and that (e.g., towards antifeminism here, towards pro-feminist possibilities there; towards the establishment of power here, towards subversion there). Systems of whatever centric kind (anthropocentric or androcentric) are not constituted only by a centre.  They are distributed, diffused, deployed at various sites on the periphery too.  So, for example, however male-centered  old accounts of embryology or cosmology are, they go to other places besides.

This is an argument in favour of what I will call “just description” (a phrase inspired by Sharon Marcus’ “just reading”), by which I mean a kind of mere description that is possibly also the more just. It is a justness that does not rush to judgement because, in a sense, there is no need to do more than give fair accounts of phenomena. A fair or accurate account of a phenomenon is one that shows up inequities, gaps, oversights, etc.

The thought is motivated by something Latour says about how to reassemble the social in the book by that name: “we have to try to keep the social domain completely flat. It’s really a question of cartography” (Reassembling the Social, p. 171). He is explaining his idea of flat ontology, where the goal is to understand the social in terms of panoramas instead of pyramidal structuresflattening the world and mapping the contours and continents — as though on a Mercator Project Map — the better to be able to see how sites are connected. For even stable hierarchies depend on lateral connections, and powerful individuals or classes need to distribute their powers elsewhere. Once you step back and take in the whole global system, you can see how interdependent things really are.

There are many affiliations between otherwise incommensurable things to trace, simply taking the time to describe how — to use Manuel De Landa’s terminology in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History hierarchies are constituted by meshworks and vice versa. A just description is an account that shows how messy things are in reality.

For related developments in literary criticism — a.k.a. the “descriptive turn” — see:

  • Best and Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108.1 (2009), pp. 1-21.
  • H. Love, “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” NLH 41 (2010), pp. 371-91.

Virtu and Virtuality

Totipotential cell life (blastomeres) in the fertilized ovum.

As we will see this week, the general situation of gestation and growth can be understood as a virtual condition, adopting the medieval Latin coinage virtualis (strength, potency, effectiveness), employed in highly specialized senses by the schoolmen, cosmographers, and poets and other wanderers, and taken up recently again by several contemporary thinkers. The idea remained at the level of abstraction in scholastic debate but always hovered around the word virtu (in French, Italian, or English), employed to describe concrete scenes of springtime efflorescence, planetary influence, and human generation. At some point we should talk about this in relation to Chaucer’s General Prologue. As we witness this week, the term crops up repeatedly in discussions of embryology — most famously, in Dante’s “virtute informativa,” which is the power of an organism to reproduce itself by means of an active force inherent in blood that becomes semen, which when it is mingled with female matter in the womb is further shaped by animal force, “virtute attiva,” thereafter receiving a human spirit replete with virtue, “di vertù replete” (Purgatory XXV). Giles of Rome and Bartholomaeus Anglicus among others in the course of their scientific discussions use the terminology expressly in speaking about the seed or soul acting “virtually.”  It would seem to be one of the sites of immmateriality that is materialized at different spatiotemporal scales, and the very reason for materiality. The virtual is that which enables matter to attain successive states of animation or vivification, and so cannot be identified exactly with some past or present state, matter or non-matter, but — and here we must interpret for ourselves and find the words to express what lies outside of human categories — it is like a dynamic potentiality that penetrates into matter.

There is a beautiful, brief account of virtu in medieval literature and culture in Jeffrey J. Cohen’s “An abecedarium for the elementsin a recent issue of postmedieval.

The blogosphere is full of discussions about virtuality — which originates as a medieval concept but ends up being elaborated in Spinoza, Deleuze, and De Landa among others.  These are from a few worthy blogs to check out periodically anyway: Larval Subjects, The Pinocchio Theory, and Metamorphosis.

If you’re at all drawn in by these ideas, see also Massumi’s Parables of the Virtual.

Entelechy / Neoteny

As we quickly discover, entelechy seems unavoidable in many theories of generation (micro- or macro-cosmic), but in practice embryonic life suggests something prior to such means and ends, parts and wholes, potentiality and actuality, and as I’m apt to suggest, such life can be described under the rubric of virtual emergence. It is the indetermination of fetal existence that we encounter here. It is a kind of neoteny. Suspended animation. An event in space-time. A matrix. A milieu fecund with a future. Sperm, egg, embryo — these are strange phenomena that in the medieval period do not fit into the usual categories (neither animate nor inanimate). As you can tell already, I tend here to think along the lines of Deleuze’s “kinetics of the egg” (Difference and Repetition, pp. 100, 145, 269). How far can we extend such intuitions to the cosmos as a whole? For Deleuze, the “entire world is an egg.” The embryo is the highest point of generality before it becomes specific (species).  Individuation is de-differentiation. States and movements not viable for the species are sustained by the embryo. We are at the scene of something like pluripotent prime matter, which is the condition of primordiality from which anything arises.

The egg has attracted a fair amount of interest in (posthuman) theory. Manuel De Landa takes morphogenesis of the embryo to exemplify the virtuality and multiplicity of the “complex cascade of symmetry-breaking phase transitions” that constitute life and death (Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, p. 18). The egg is an intensive and inclusive topological space of possibility, made up of biochemical reactions and microcellular movement, which over time gives rise to extensive and exclusive structures and further biomass flows. Vilém Flusser writes: “The essential support of evolution is not the organism, but the egg. . . . What is then surprising, if we observe the already realised ‘phenotypes’ (the living and extinct organisms), is not the richness of their variations, but on the contrary, their relative poverty if compared to the realisable virtualities” (Vampyroteuthis infernal is, p. 49 — thanks to Nicola Masciandaro for that reference). Donna Haraway’s Cyrstals, Fabrics, and Fields, a book that began as a doctoral thesis, relates the discovery of a “molecular ecology” in modern embryology, as if portending ideas for which she is much better known today. All of this is thrilling in its own way, but can we do any more than draw analogies between such theories and medieval phenomena?

Let’s see where Ovid, Bernard, and Brunetto lead us next . . .

Ptolemy and Medieval Astronomy

I found this recent podcast clarifying in a number of ways:

We won’t have time to discuss all the implications of this week’s astronomical reading (!), and so I should offer some additional remarks.  One of the main points to emphasize as we examine several cosmological models (what Plato in Timaeus called “likely stories”), which the intellectual elite knew were inventions — some allegorical, others  geometrical — is that the earth is not such a fixed and central point as is commonly proposed.  Nor is it unmoved in the other sense, i.e., unaffected or untouched. The now commonplace cross-sectional diagram, showing all the spheres as perfectly concentric, is a gross simplification handed down by the encyclopedias and anthologists over the centuries.  In reality, several planets could not have the earth at their center without falsifying what was then regularly observed in astronomy and admitted about the limitations of human knowledge.  That much should be clear.  Moreover, Ptolemaic and Copernican universes are both fair descriptions of the deviating courses of planets – those wily wanderers in Greek – roaming across the night sky.  The point has been reiterated since but is often forgotten.  “Although it is not uncommon for people to say that Copernicus proved Ptolemy wrong,” as Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow write, “that is not true. . . . for our observations of the heavens can be explained by assuming either the earth or the sun to be at rest.”  They go to say, “the real advantage of the Copernican system is simply that the equations of motion are much simpler in the frame of reference in which the sun is at rest” (The Grand Design, pp. 41-2).  Third, neither system when simplified is an advance over centrism.  Nicholas of Cusa might be a better example for proposing a “centerless” universe, nearing the real complexity of the matter, although his remarks seem highly metaphorical.  He advocated the idea that the world has a center everywhere and circumference nowhere. He undersood what many other scholars knew about the relativity of space and motion: “we cannot discover motion unless it be by comparison with something fixed, that is [by referring it to] the poles or the centers and assuming them in our measurements of the motions [as being at rest]” (cited in Alexander Koyré, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe). Says Nicole Oresme, “It is apparent, then, how one cannot demonstrate by any experience whatever that the heavens are moved with daily movement, because . . . if any observer is in the heavens and he sees the earth clearly, it (the earth) would seem to be moved” (excerpted in The Scientific Achievement of the Middle Ages, p. 137).

Premodern science often held their models at an ironic distance, phenomenalizing them in these ways – imagining what things look like from different angles of vision, only coming to rest in articles of faith that cannot themselves be demonstrated. They are “likely stories.”

Cooks’ Conceits

The satirical treatments of cookery in the literature offers another view of mixing and mattering. Here is a recognizable commonplace. Chaucer, Gower, and Langland all address the way cooks transform matters out of all recognition, creating over-elaborate delicacies and adulterating their sauces; they are supposed to pervert what is natural.

Gower says cooks “grind, strain, turn upside down everything which God made in such plenitude; so it seems to me that a delicate person in his eating wants to change both God and His Ordinances” (Mirour de l’Omme, p. 110).

Chaucer’s Pardoner presents an extremely suggestive account that implies profanation: “Thise cookes, how they stamp, and streyne, and grynde, / And turned substaunce into accident / To fulfille al thy likerous talent!” (Pardoner’s Tale 538-41).

Russell is more focussed on threats to the equilibrium of the individual human body: “Cookes with þeire newe conceytes, choppynge, stampynge, & gryndynge, / Many new curies alle day þey ar conryvynge & Fyndynge / þat provokethe þe peple to perelles of passage,” and their concoctions “distemperethe alle þe body, bothe bak, bely, & roppes” (Boke of Nurture, pp. 149-50).