Friday, May 16, 2014

Kalamazoo 2014: Tangled Banks and Vegetable Bodies

Last Friday (May 9th), I took part in the amazing "What Is Ecocriticism, Anyway?" panel at the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University. We had a full room (and a large one at that); moreover, organizer Heide Estes (of this blog) had done an outstanding job of putting together a slate of panelists. You'll be hearing more about the panel over the course of the next several weeks, but I thought that, as I was the first presenter to speak, I should begin the discussion here by posting the text of my remarks:

Clockwise from upper left: (1) the Friedrich Herlin School's 1469 Christ with Ears of Wheat and Grape-Vine; (2) the ancestry of humans reflected in the genomic signature from a 2013 paper by Margaret McFall-Ngai et al.; and (3) retinas from a single mouse, each dominated by the X-chromosome of a different parent (from a Carl Zimmer article in the New York Times)

Today I want to talk about ecocriticism from the viewpoint of a scholar of early English drama—and that means talking about embodiment. For the last three decades, drama scholars have been working in the paradigm established by Mervyn James in his 1983 Past & Present essay on the Feast of Corpus Christi. James’s model of social integration through ritual performance centered on the Eucharist has been complicated by his successors: we’ve identified the limits of the civic body, its enactment of exclusions along lines of sex/gender, race/ethnicity, social class, confessional identity, disability and so on. But it remains true that, whatever the particular wrinkle we add to James’s holistic body politic, we nonetheless continue to agree with him that the bodies on display in Corpus Christi rites are human bodies. James puts it this way in his essay:

… related to and modelled on the human psychosomatic self … “Body” was the pre-eminent symbol in terms of which society was conceived. Other images were available—the social order might be seen as a tree, or as a ship, as a vineyard with its graduated hierarchy of labourers, or as a church building with it component parts. All had the advantage of suggesting structure—separate parts related to each other within a larger whole. But it was the idea of the social order as body which had the widest connotation, and which was most obsessive and fruitful.

As this passage demonstrates, James does briefly consider non-human models for social existence—but he just as swiftly rejects them as less “fruitful” (a strange choice of words given his dismissal of trees and vines as possible alternatives). Indeed, just a few lines later, James confidently identifies the human form with “Natural body,” reifying our species at the expense of non-humans with equal claim to the naturalness of their forms—and we’ve more or less followed suit.
There have been a few exceptions to this anthropocentric trend: one is Claire Sponsler’s 1997 suggestion of a connection between cycle drama’s depiction of Christ’s Passion and such violent civic spectacles as cockfighting, bull-baiting, and bear-baiting; the other, Lisa Kiser’s 2009 exploration of the animalization of the suffering Christ as lamb and draft animal in both the civic plays and The Book of Margery Kempe. But there has been no extended, monograph-length exploration of non-human bodies and the enactment of corpus Christi in the late Middle Ages—an empty ecological niche I am more than happy to exploit.
The project I’ve been developing over the last few years concentrates on those bodies that Anaximander and Aristotle called “rooted animals,” that is to say, the vegetable bodies of plants. At its most general, my claim is that medieval plays participate in a Harawayan natureculture that treats the nominal boundaries between (human) inside and (non-human) outside as porous membranes, traversed in all directions by a wide variety of actants. The feast of Corpus Christi provides a particularly apt occasion for such transitions: the processions and plays marking the feast move along liminal lines separating community and self from not-community and not-self, and the core of the entire celebration is the rite of the Eucharist, the micro-Incarnation in which God enters man through the consumption (gustatory or optical) of the plant-derived wheaten wafer.
As Miri Rubin notes, medieval theologians were insistent on the elimination of all plant substance in the consecration of the wafer—in the sacrament, the processed wheat remained present only in its species or accidents; the substance of the wafer was understood to be wholly human. But the assertions of such academic elites were overwhelmed by a plethora of medieval images and texts invested in the Eucharist’s liminal oscillation between wheat and flesh, plant and human. I’m thinking here of such visual icons as the Mill of the Host (in which the words of the Gospels are fed into the mill’s hopper and ground into both wafers and infants) and the Mystic Winepress (in which the weight of the Cross is used to transform Christ into a bloody vintage, often complete with floating wafers) as well as typological compositions that juxtapose the Jews’ baking of unleavened bread in Leviticus with not only the gestation of the Christ Child in the Virgin’s womb but also the flagellation of Christ by the selfsame Jews’ descendants. I’m also interested in the lyrics, carols, and scriptures Margaret Aston describes in her study of the 1381 Rising's connection to the Feast of Corpus Christi: for example, “Johan the Mullere hath ygrounde smal, smal, smal; / The Kynges sone of heven schal paye for al” or “For oure lord him likneth to whete: and to other corn non, / Therffore [we] make his swete body: of the whete corn al-on” or “This corn was repyn and layd to grownd, Full sore beten and faste bownd / Unto a piler with cordes rownd; / At his fyngers endes the blod ran owt that day.”
Finally, of course, I’m thinking of plays, those embodied intersections of word and image or “quick books.” In the work I’ve done so far on corpus Christi as vegetable body, I’ve looked at the York and Chester cycles’ use of the Legend of the Wood of the Cross, that apocryphal genealogy redefining the instrument of Christ’s crucifixion as the sapling of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, paying particular attention to the tree / Cross as actant in both legend (press-ganged into service as a ceiling beam for Solomon’s temple, the tree resists human appropriation by altering its size and shape until the frustrated carpenters leave it alone) and pageant (the soldiers of the York Crucifixion play discover that the carefully measured bore holes of the Cross—measurements attested to in both this play and its predecessor, The Road to Cavalry—have shifted position, either in a Dream of the Rood-esque attempt to thwart Christ’s crucifixion or in accordance with God’s comment that Christ suffer to redeem humanity’s sins).
In another draft chapter, I reverse direction, focusing not on plants treated as human but on humans treated as plants. Here my primary texts are the plays of the N-Town cycle, pageants that destabilize the patriarchal binaries of man/woman and culture/nature by presenting their audiences with a Holy Family whose vegetative associations cross otherwise carefully policed species and sex/gender boundaries. Mary and Joseph are simultaneously chaste virgines and fruitful virgae, while Christ is “A frute swettere than bawmys breth” and a “peerless primerose of prise” who “blomyd in a madenys body” from the “sede” of God’s word. Unique to N-Town is the Root of Jesse play, a pageant that explicitly presents us with a species hybrid, a green man or mandragora figure identified in the manuscript’s speech prefixes as Radix Jesse, the root itself.
Most recently I’ve explored the ways in which the Croxton Play of the Sacrament directly confronts the problem of species differentiation and taxonomy, giving us an on-stage Host that is as much bred and cake as it is “flesh and blode.” The spectacular effusions of blood that accompany the Jews’ torment of the stolen wafer are there in the play to underline the truth of transubstantiation: skepticism is recast as superseded heresy, humanity is valorized over plant matter. And yet the Host we see in the play is completely virtual: the actors would in no way have been using a consecrated wafer, a wafer with a claim to human identity—and this gives us a double appropriation of Christian sacrament: fictional Jews steal a fictional Host while real players pretend that a real wafer is human body and blood. The play insists that it’s the foreign Jews with their disrespectful rationality who function as unkynd violators of the natural. But this appeal to exclusionary Christian natureculture is undercut by the need for our (medieval English) imaginations to transmute baked bread into incarnate deity. Kynd is simultaneous unkynd, nature is culture, and hybrid assemblages dominate the play.
Ecocriticism’s emphasis on the role of culture in creating “nature,” on the inescapably social (or, to borrow Timothy Morton’s term, enmeshed) character of human and non-human actants, is thus essential to my work. We live in Lynn Margulis’s endosymbiotic universe, incarnate in bodies comprised of ancient alliances between single-cell organisms. Research on X-chromosome inactivation in human women reveals that individual cells or groups of cells “select” which parent’s X-chromosome will be silenced—leading to a mosaic of differently-gendered organs (if that’s the right phrase to use here), for example, a left retina dominated by cells with paternal X-chromosomes and a right retina dominated by the maternal. Or even a heart divided between one’s parents at the cellular level! It turns out that genetic chimerism and mosaicism are not rare aberrations but routine aspects of many organisms: people are people … other people, that is, and they’re viruses as well. On six different occasions, mammal species have incorporated viral genes into their genomes to enable nutrient transfer across the placenta. Horizontal gene transfer has now been seen between distinct species of multicellular plants (as opposed to the established genetic exchange of single-celled life-forms), and the bulk of the genetic material in and around our human bodies belongs to non-human microbes: 20 million such genes to our paltry 20,000. We don’t inhabit Darwin’s tangled bank; we are, all of us, tangled banks engaged in further tangling. Why should the corpus Christi be any different?

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