Becoming Human, Some Brief Thoughts

One of the best things about winter break is that I have had a chance to finish a few books that have been languishing on my desk (or rather in my Kindle app) since the summer. One book that I finished is Allan Mitchell’s Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child. I started this book eagerly, and it did not disappoint. However, my initial approach to it was as if I were sipping a nice bourbon, slow and pensive. Over the course of the semester, I would get into it here and there, often finding some vibrant or provocative sentence that would set my mind spinning in new directions. As I finally got a real feel for the book, however, and with the openness of break, I devoured the final two-thirds of the book.

I do not believe I am alone in thinking that this is one of the most important books published in the field in the last several years. I also think it would make an excellent text for an Introduction to Medieval Studies-type course. Along with all of the cultural, historical, and literary work Mitchell does, he also provides excellent introductions to object-oriented ontology and actor-network-theory, among other theoretical approaches.  For myself, I have been aware of these approaches for a while, but Mitchell’s lucid discussion has helped me gain a much firmer grasp of these ideas.

The book is organized into three chapters – the first, “Being Born,” on the micro and macro understandings of the development of the child in the medieval period; the second, “Childish Things,” an exquisite study of objects mostly through a close analysis of a single pewter toy knight, and later a wonderful reading of Chaucer’s narratorial posturing and of Sir Thopas; the third, “The Mess,” an examination of our dependence upon and interrelationship to objects, specifically the table and how it organizes and subjects us. Of course, this briefest sketch does not do justice to how wide-ranging the book is.

For myself, I was most interested in the first and second chapter. Mitchell describes the constant becoming of the human (I am using the Kindle edition, which lacks page numbers–this is from the Introduction):

The concept of ontogeny (becoming) is a better category than ontology (being) for capturing the creative, conjugated forms of earthly existence. Analogous processes are at work outside of the womb in infancy and beyond, an equally contingent and creative period. A newborn is delivered over to social networks, regimens, and mechanisms (shaping, suckling, naming, baptizing, language acquisition , etc.), all the conditions of a life so conceived. Human reproduction is therefore a story of life incomplete and in process (“ neotenic”), which is to say eventful, ecological, virtual, and radically dependent on so many material supports. Human development posits a self-estranging , coagulating proto-body at the origin of being, exerting immense pressure on notions of human identity, distinctiveness , freedom, judgment, and so on. It is a precious, if precarious, time when creatures are barely alive, exposed to and extended in a potentially limitless field of ancestral relations, consisting of passing states and partial configurations. It is a kind of becoming that is nothing but creaturely life: for a time unformed, insensate, unclothed, anonymous, unbaptized, prostrate , and speechless, to name a few of the marked deprivations that will be addressed early on.

Later, in the first chapter, “Being Born,” he reads Thomas Usk, Dante, and Pearl together in order to lay bare how “natality and infancy outlast childhood and go to structure some of the most important relations one can have in public and private life. They represent virtual ontogenetic conditions that are perhaps never escaped. Medieval writers see that nativity and infancy constitute creaturely vulnerabilities and vibrancies that penetrate into the future without end.” In this emphasis on ontogeny as the basic and fundamental quality of being human, we can see how what we call the human subject is cast into a web of associations and networks, dependent yet also interdependent.

In his discussion of toy ontology, the disruptive yet constitutive energies of miniature objects, Mitchell continues to trace how ontogenesis is an on-going process, and specifically, the role that objects play in it:

it is useful to have recourse to what Lingis, following Merleau-Ponty, calls a whole “postural schema,” our embodied manner of knowing and encountering the world: the ways fingers hold a cup, the back leans against a chair, or the eyes see a face to advantage. 180 Postures, gestures, manners, gait all show the traces of the world playing off against the body. Playing with things has long been seen as a way of acquiring the right postures, as witnessed earlier in Giles of Rome’s De Regimine Principum. Giles is a medieval witness to the phenomenological observation that the bodily schema is developed over time, and, as Lingis would say, that the body is proof of exposure and involution in a material medium. Inanimate things trace their histories that way. Of course, Giles introduces a normative element into his account of play and games, his immediate interest being in exercising the body to sort out correct ways of operating mouth, ear, hand, shoulder, and leg. The child is elevated above beasts by physical deportment . Yet miniaturization is likely to throw off any such kinaesthetic equilibrium (i.e., the decorum that Giles describes as belonging to the princely or knightly body), compelling a body to reckon not just with the scale of an object but also with the size and sense of the human subject before whom an object presents itself. For one thing, human proprioception (i.e., the perception of spatiotemporal position of the body) may be at risk given what we have noticed about the speed and duration of scaled objects. It may result in vertigo.

Playing with toys, with the objects at hand, the child can learn how to be properly and normatively human, that is, to comport its body in the expected manner. However, the toy, so often a miniature, can threaten this normative process. We seem to be at risk of being unraveled in the very process of being fashioned.

I’m not aiming to do a proper review of the book, although I look forward to reading the many that will proliferate in the coming months; rather, I’m drawing together a few passages that I found particularly suggestive in terms of how the category human is shown to be so limited and incomplete.

As I kept returning to ideas of incompleteness and interdependency, I wished that he would engage directly with the insights and analyses of Disability Studies. But, while Mitchell has focused more on key terms such as object and ecology than disability, I think that he has made a contribution to that field nonetheless. Or, I might say instead, this book is beginning to help me see how there are some very productive alliances to be forged between Disability Studies, Ecological analyses, and object-oriented ontologies. For example, here is one more passage from the chapter, “Childish Things”:

A sovereign figure is deposed, falling to insurgent matter , introducing another regime of attraction. The toy itself seems to secure autonomy in a sort of anarchic materiality, having toppled the “monarchy” of the human again.

I wonder how these sorts of insights can be extended to consideration of the prosthesis in medieval culture. Although the prosthesis could be seen to complete the impaired body, to restore a sense of sovereignty, I suspect its materiality remains “anarchic.” More on this at a later date.

I think that this book is required reading for anyone in the field of medieval studies or someone who is interested in the material aspects of the human, but I also think the insights brought together here are important for continued work on medieval disability.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the insights. Sounds like an interesting read that opens up many connections. Associations could be made with disability studies (as you fruitfully suggest) and also gender theory: the doing instead of being distinction associated with performativity and Judith Butler’s _Gender Trouble_.

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