Ferguson, Mr. Hyde, and the non-human

After reading Darren Wilson’s testimony, I, like many others, was struck by the dehumanizing language that Wilson used throughout. I also noticed some similarities to the opening scene of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I teach most every semester. After a twitter conversation concerning these parallels, I sent some further thoughts along to David Perry, who then wrote a piece for The Conversation at the Chronicle. Also, see Karl Steel’s excellent writeup of how he addressed Ferguson in his class on medieval race.

In his #FergusonSyllabus piece, Perry writes:

I’m interested in language and power. Wilson uses the following words in his testimony, describing his perceptions of Brown. He calls him a “demon,” repeatedly emphasizes his size, compares himself to a “5-year-old” against “Hulk Hogan.” At one point, he uses “it” in a way that arguably refers to Brown. He claims that a third punch “could be fatal.” Throughout, he endows Brown with terrifying size, speed, and strength, charging, even after he had been shot the first time, unstoppable, superhuman.

In our twitter conversation, I was comparing these descriptions to the following scene:

All at once, I saw two figures: one a little man who was stumping along eastward at a good walk, and the other a girl of maybe eight or ten who was running as hard as she was able down a cross street. Well, sir, the two ran into one another naturally enough at the corner; and then came the horrible part of the thing; for the man trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground. It sounds nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see. It wasn’t like a man; it was like some damned Juggernaut. I gave a view-halloa, took to my heels, collared my gentleman, and brought him back to where there was already quite a group about the screaming child. He was perfectly cool and made no resistance, but gave me one look, so ugly that it brought out the sweat on me like running. The people who had turned out were the girl’s own family; and pretty soon, the doctor, for whom she had been sent, put in his appearance. Well, the child was not much the worse, more frightened, according to the Sawbones; and there you might have supposed would be an end to it. But there was one curious circumstance. I had taken a loathing to my gentleman at first sight. So had the child’s family, which was only natural. But the doctor’s case was what struck me. He was the usual cut-and-dry apothecary, of no particular age and colour, with a strong Edinburgh accent, and about as emotional as a bagpipe. Well, sir, he was like the rest of us; every time he looked at my prisoner, I saw that Sawbones turn sick and white with the desire to kill him. I knew what was in his mind, just as he knew what was in mine; and killing being out of the question, we did the next best.

(What follows here is a slightly revised version of the original email I sent to Perry.) Here, the novella opens with a paranoid fever dream about the dangerousness of Victorian London. Mr. Hyde, described as a “damned Juggernaut” who “trampled calmly” a small girl in the dead of night, is set upon by an angry mob demanding his blood. Even the doctor wishes to kill Mr. Hyde. Every time I teach this text, I spend nearly an entire class session on the oddity of this opening scene. Why are there so many people out this late at night? Why does the mob seem so violent and then become so civil once Hyde agrees to pay their blackmail demands? Why would the mob treat Hyde so viciously? Yes, he knocks over girl, and this is certainly not a civilized action, but the response is entirely disproportionate to the event. That the mob becomes relatively civil and decidedly non-bloodthirsty once Hyde acquiesces to their demands makes all this even more suspect.

The absolute evil of Mr. Hyde is attested to by Dr. Jekyll and other characters, but none of these are necessarily reliable narrators, especially the good Doctor. On one hand, I suggest to my students that this could be evidence of something called the “bounce,” essentially a con game to ensnare hapless citizens. But more than that, we trace the language describing Mr. Hyde throughout the novella as being “hellish, “Satan,” “ape-like,” and “troglyditic.” He is also described as hirsute and not handsome, compared to the genial and soft features of the upper crust. Many of these terms–descriptions of hairiness and animality–were used in contemporary discourses that express anxiety and fear of the working underclass.  Frustratingly, the language of fear and anxiety concerning class difference hasn’t changed that much, and reading Jekyll and Hyde in 2014, it is difficult not to see how this language reflects racial panic as well. When I last taught this text in September, it was not long after the initial protests in Ferguson, and my class and I did note parallels to how some of the police officers referred to the protestors as animals.

Several months later, I can note that the language that the narrators of the novella used to describe Mr. Hyde bears a striking similarity to the language that Darren Wilson uses to describe Michael Brown. Both traffic in the language of the non-human, that is, the hulk, the demon. The “intense aggressive face” that Wilson describes Brown as having sounds like the “inexpressible deformity” that characters describe of Hyde. Finally, Mr. Enfield, the witness to the event with the girl, says to Mr. Utterson,

“There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.”

That Mr. Hyde is evil is too easy a reading of a novella that labors to show the fractured, complicated nature of all of us. The characters’ responses to his savage and Satanic bearing are perhaps less of a presentiment of his sci-fi origins and more an indictment on their own biased tendency to prejudge someone who looks different than they do.

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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 welves. 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.

 

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CFP for “De/Coupling Monstrosity and Disability” — Kalamazoo 2015

“De/Coupling Monstrosity and Disability”
50th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 14-17 2015.

Sponsored by MEARCSTAPA (Monsters: the Experimental Association for the Research of Cryptozoology through Scholarly Theory And Practical Application)

It has been famously argued that there was no conception in the Middle Ages of the disabled as it would accord with modern notions of embodied difference. In looking for figures of the disabled and the deformed, scholars in medieval disability studies have often looked to monstrosity as an overlapping, if not entirely identical category. We are looking for papers that address the intersection of monstrosity and disability in provocative and searching ways. We especially encourage papers that do not simply collapse these two categories but rather look to interrogate the convergence and divergence of the monstrous and the impaired. What is the effect of reading monsters as disabled and the disabled as monstrous? How does the coupling of these two Othered figures obscure important features? How does reading them together illuminate the social and cultural processes by which difference is constructed? We invite papers from all disciplines and national traditions.

Please send abstracts of no more than 250 words together with a completed Participant Information Form (available here: http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/congress/submissions/) to session organizer Richard Godden (rick.godden@gmail.com) or Asa Simon Mittman (asmittman@mail.csuchico.edu) by September 15. Please include your name, title, and affiliation on the abstract itself.  All abstracts not accepted for the session will be forwarded to Congress administrators for consideration in general sessions, as per Congress regulations.

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Call for Papers, Kalamazoo 2015: “Unsettled Marks: To #;()@?”:—*!… and Beyond!”

rickgodden:

Check it out people.

Originally posted on The Grammar Rabble:

The Grammar Rabble is sponsoring a roundtable session at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies. This session is a follow-up to last year’s “#;()@?”:—*!…” roundtable (which had been sponsored by the BABEL Working Group). We are seeking proposals.

“Unsettled Marks: To #;()@?”:—*!… and Beyond!”

Punctuation marks infiltrate and inform our everyday experiences, but they have their own histories as well. They structure, relate, balance, and invoke; they collide, confuse, limit, and terminate. This roundtable, sponsored by the Grammar Rabble, takes punctuation and other typographical marks as the starting point for eclectic and inventive readings/meditations on Medieval Studies. We invite short presentations on any character–modern or archaic, Western or non-Western—and we are particularly interested in modes and marks of punctuation that are not immediately recognizable to modern eyes, including arrows, manicles, and neumes (and other musical notations). This session will continue to expand our sense of what punctuation…

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Infant Cyborgs

I expect to blog further about Allan Mitchell’s excellent Becoming Human in the near future. For now, I’m tagging this as a “Reading Quote” (clunky, I know). I want to use this space sometimes to transcribe provocative bits of reading I come across as I work on various projects.

I’m particularly struck, so far, by his attention to the dependencies and contingencies inherent to gestation and infancy. We would seem to be born in need of, or enabled for, various prostheses:

Supplementation and mutual dependency go to the heart of the matter of the child, as implied not just in animal husbandry and tool making but also in how humans must learn to walk and talk from the beginning. We may relate such biosocial becomings to Derrida’s treatments of innate insufficiency: here the newborn, requiring the supplements and supports of culture and language, expresses a disability that is a “natural weakness,” leading Derrida to ask, “How is a child possible in general?” Only with an apparatus of culture and technical prostheses does one have a future in human society, and we can specify that it is only thanks to so many nonhuman agencies, instruments, media, and other matters that one can have a life at all. We are natural-born cyborgs. A human neonate ultimately appears to be less like an animal than a derelict and derivative human, which is liable to seem a humiliating, strange sort of condition. One must be licked into shape. (28)

As Mitchell goes on to discuss, there is something “inhumanizing” and “dehumanizing” (33) at the heart of humanity, at least in its origins. We are born dependent, and perhaps continue to be. I think this book (in my reading so far) has a lot to contribute to disability studies.

A lot to chew on here. If you aren’t already, you should be reading this book. If you aren’t convinced yet, read Jeffrey Cohen’s short review.

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On Stillness: #Kzoo2014

Originally posted on EXM:

[This post is one of a pair of conference reflections. Also see “On Affiliation and Fragility: SAA 2014” by Elise Lonich Ryan.]

The 49th International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo has now been over for a few weeks, but I still very much feel myself caught up in its wake. It was an exhausting and exhilarating few days, but that could be said for any given Kalamazoo. This one, however, seemed very different to me. For one, I was more involved than I’ve ever been. I gave a roundtable and a paper presentation, and I organized a panel. I also attended two excellent sessions put together by MEARCSTAPA and also a session on the convergence of Postcolonial and Disability Studies. Aside from my own hyper-involvement, there was a distinct feeling of newness right from the start.

I arrived Wednesday evening after a two-day drive from New Orleans. Like all…

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On Teaching Bisclavret

(Note: I am also cross posting this at Modern Medieval.)

Like many people I know, I’ve been reading article after article on the Isla Vista shootings last Friday. When I haven’t been reading articles, I’ve been delving into the heartbreak and poignance of #YesAllWomen. I get like this (I’m certainly not alone). When an event like Isla Vista or Newtown happens, I always seem to have difficulty escaping the event horizon of such senseless tragedy. Well, I wish I could say it was always senseless. There is too much sense (I do not, in any way, mean reason). Rather, there is too much to be read, too many free-floating signifiers of hate and violence that demand to be interrogated, if not interpreted. It’s in this state that I finally poked my head out to get back to work prepping Marie de France’s “Bisclavret” to teach in a summer British Lit I Survey course.

This text has always struck me as a deeply troubling one. The first time I taught it, I selected this lai because of its werewolf.  I was teaching my first upper-level medieval lit class (in fact, the last such course of its kind I have taught), and I chose as my theme “The Monstrous Middle Ages.” A short text about a werewolf seemed like an obvious and perfect choice. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the tale, here is a brief summary:

A Lord seems to have a wonderful life —  status, nobility, and a lovely wife; however, he has a secret. For three days a week he disappears into the forest to become a werewolf. His wife, anxious about these frequent disappearances, confronts him and asksHim and him what is going on. She fears that he has a lover on the side (I would add that this is a fairly justifiable fear given the evidence she had) and so she needs to know. At first, he refuses to tell her but after much coaxing he relents. He also reveals, after initial resistance, where he hides his clothes. He runs about naked in the forest, subsisting on whatever prey he can find, but he needs his clothes to once again resume human form. The lady, aghast at this state of affairs, convinces a knight (one who has attempted to woo her) to steal her husband’s clothes. In return, she marries the knight. The husband is then trapped in his wolfish form, and is eventually taken in by the King who recognizes the seeming nobility of the animal. The story comes to a climax when the lord sees his connubial usurper and attacks him. Next, the wolf sees his wife and, in a fit of rage, launches himself at her and swipes off her nose. At this point, it seems like the wolf is going to be punished for this, but one of the wise counselors of the King suggests that the animal has never acted so viciously before and so there must be a reason. Agreeing, the King has the lady tortured until she reveals everything. Ultimately, the lord is returned to his human form and his one-time wife, now disfigured, is exiled. As a sign of her crimes, future generations of the women in her line are born without noses.

Whenever I teach this text, there is always an excellent conversation about the tensions between the spaces of the forest and the court, between civilization and wildness. The early going consensus in class often seems to be that the werewolf is not the true monster of the text, but rather the lady exhibits more monstrosity in her actions. Now, part of the reason we reached such conclusions might be because of how I lead class discussion, choosing to focus on some questions, and not others, but I also think that Marie de France provokes her readers to both overlook certain key details and to be rattled by that act of overlooking. After we’ve talked for a while about the working of monstrosity in the text, I often pose the following question: “Is there any way we can discover a sympathetic reading of the Lady?” When I first posed this question, there was silence for a considerable duration. Finally, someone raised the point that there was very little evidence to merit the lady’s being tortured. This conversation soon turned to the idea that torture was extreme regardless.

Then, the ball got rolling. We returned to the prologue, which tells of the savage nature of werewolves, and the seeming contrast to Bisclavret (except for that whole disfiguring thing). If this is what people knew about werewolves, why wouldn’t the lady be a bit freaked out? Why wouldn’t she take extreme measures to extricate herself from such a situation? And, why include a prologue that seems to be contradicted by the tale, allowing for it to be easily forgotten?  We discussed how, in her vulnerable position, she had few options. It no longer seemed that easy to pinpoint where monstrosity could be found in the text.

Last night, I posted to twitter that I was unsettled prepping this text in the wake of UCSB. Someone then asked me if I’m not always unsettled by “Bisclavret.” I certainly am always bothered by it, but somehow I had missed a few details before that I couldn’t ignore now. After being told how praised and how good and handsome the lord is, the lady confronts him about his curious, alarming behavior. What I hadn’t thought too much about before was the lady’s first words:

“My lord,” she said, “my friend, my dear,
There’s just one thing I might care
To ask, if only I might dare–
But I’m afraid that you’ll get angry,
And, more than anything, that scares me” (From Judith Shoaf’s translation)

Sure, his later anger may seem justified, but does that justify such savage bodily violence? And, what do we do with the statement that the lady fears, “more than anything,” that her husband will get angry. On one hand he is great and noble and praiseworthy, but we must not forget the threat of his anger. She was right to fear not only the anger of men, but also how others would normalize and justify the action taken from such masculine anger.  Surely the wolf would only show anger if there was just cause, even though the court had no data for this, and so the lady must automatically be at fault. The torture is retroactively justified because of her guilt, but it is clear that this justification was already accepted before her confession.

After writing out this blog post, I realized that I really have nothing new to add at this moment to the critical discussion of either a.) teaching Marie de France’s “Bisclavret or b.) the toxic sludge of misogyny that the UCSB shooter seems to have waded in.  I am just struck by how the nice guy so suddenly turns violent, and how his virtue is taken at face value.  Yes, this is an imperfect analogy between this text and the state of affairs today, but I find it necessary to note that it seems all too easy to find contemporary resonance in a text which can be read to interrogate 12th-century notions of masculinity, violence, and patriarchal culture. And, I’m not saying that last Friday’s act of violence should be described as medieval. I’m saying that “Bisclavret” is all too modern.

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