Book Reviews

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.

Stumbling with Gower

I finished Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book about a month ago or so, and I meant to write an immediate blog post/review. But, as with so many things, time slipped away with me barely noticing it. It has a habit of doing this, time. I’m comforted, though, by the fact that I think Holsinger’s John Gower would be sympathetic to my angst-filled relationship to time. At the very end of his book, Holsinger writers (from the perspective of Gower):

Outside the customhouse I stood on the wharfage, watching the slow, careful movement of the Goose as it craned a pile of wool from the dock. On the decks of the trading vessels, workers toiled at the crates and barrels of goods brought to London from around the earth, from the looms of Lyon, the vineyards of Alsace and Tuscany, the olive groves of al-Andalus, and there, on the river’s edge of London, with the low bulk of Southwark rising before me, with the dense span of the bridge against the sky, I felt the unboundedness of it all. A history I would never fully understand had passed me by, these great machinations linking Florence, London, the marches of Aragon and Castile— and the narrow lanes of Southwark, and a dead woman on the moor.

Gower is thinking about the events of the story in which he had just played a part, refracted through the sights of the city that only fitfully acknowledged these events. On one hand, he’s watching the every day movements of London–goods moving about, people toiling, the steady movement of the water. On the other hand, there is something awesome at work, something overwhelming. Gower feels “the unboundedness of it all.” This unboundedness, of a time that sweeps us up and yet escapes our apprehension is there in the steady movement of the boats that bring goods from Tuscany and al-Andalus. Time is a river, and we don’t risk drowning in it because we’re already submerged.

Unsurprisingly, I loved this book. If I had to try to sell someone on this book, I’d say “Come for the prophecies, intrigue, and machinations of fourteenth-century England, but stay for the mundane, for the everyday, and for the restless heartbreak of its characters.” Not every character ends the novel as the victim of tragedy, but it’s there gnawing at the margins of everyone’s life nonetheless. These are characters who are peripatetic in their movements across, within, and outside of London, but that’s nothing compared to the unboundedness of their inner worlds. Greenblatt be damned.

Perhaps the most frustrating word for medievalists in the past few years is “swerve,” taken from the title of Greenblatt’s book. I won’t rehearse the argument here, except to say that Greenblatt’s (by now) repetitive thesis imagines history as a movement from an abjected, static, stultifying Middle Ages to a Modernity where we are fully realized selves. Miraculously, for Greenblatt, we swerved out of the darkness and into the light. One of the most intriguing parts of Holsinger’s book, then, is his reclamation of the term “swerve” in the body and character of Eleanor/Edgar Rykener:

Swerver. And that’s what I am, like it or not. A man in body, a woman in soul. One day a he, the next a she, a stiff cock for some, a tight arse for others. Provided they could pay, Eleanor would do all and be all for her loyal jakes, and she had plenty who liked taking it and giving it every which way. Sometimes as a man, sometimes as a woman, sometimes as both at once, though that could get complicated. Why, just last week there was this gongfarmer, big-muscled and hairy as you could like, but get him in the stall and he starts to–

Eleanor is, for me, the most compelling character in the book. Her story is both extraordinary and yet so painfully ordinary. She lives a life that many would choose to ignore (even when enjoying its fruits) and her story intersects repeatedly with the goings-on of the elite and the powerful, but still hers is (at its center) a story of someone trying to save a sibling from an abusive situation. In Holsinger’s hands, “swerved” becomes a term of pathos, but also a sign of our wounded identity–it’s first an insult hurled at Eleanor/Edgar, but it is also a term that captures her mobile and flexible identity, and I would suggest it points to a similar existential state for so many others. Gower and the Fonteyn sisters might not be transvestites, but their lives are similarly mobile, unbounded, and at times alarmingly unmoored–they reside in so many places but find themselves not quite at home all too often.

At the very end of the novel (don’t worry, no spoilers here), Gower buys a pigeon pie, finds it to be rotten, and he slips on a loose paving stone. These are comic and absurd details, intrusions of the everyday in the face of the epic sweep of history. More to the point, though, these intrusions, these haptic happenstances are everything:

We live in an immense world, whole universes of taste and touch and scent, of voices commingling in the light, and dying away with the common dread that stands at every man’s door. Yet we perceive and remember this world only as it creates those single fragments of experience: moments of everyday kindness, or self-sacrificing love, or unthinkable brutality. I angled my face to the sun and blinked away a spot, then another, these dark blemishes floating in my sight, mottling my vision, more of them by the day.

I’m looking forward to the sequels — there is a lot more plot that seems looming, and I love the intricacies of such stories. But mostly, I want to stumble along with Gower and Eleanor a little more.