Now that i’ve defeated my post Kalamazoo teaching load, I thought it was time, as promised, to post the text from my talk from the GWMEMSI ecologies roundtable. I’ve added footnotes and adjusted a few things, and I hope you enjoy!
Fluid: A Temporal Ecology
In this paper, I would like to evoke a medieval fluid ecology, that of the temporal world, a space possessed of a mutability and impermanence that both fascinated and disturbed the expectations of those within it. Furthermore, I would like to suggest that this all-encompassing web of fluidity offers the conceptual tools to do something paradoxical within modern discourse, to slow down while the world speeds up around us.
The double face of love and mistrust flickered and inverted within medieval perception of the temporal world. The patterns of vital motion within a fluid hydrology, the very forces that drove the cosmos, were the same forces that epitomised the flaws of temporality. “Why do we love you, O World, as you flee from us?” asked Alcuin of York in his poem O Mea Cella.1
In the twelfth century, Hugh of Saint-Victor described the temporal world, with all that is in it, as “flood water sweeping past, whose inundations and changing currents -whether we compare them to a flood that covers everything or to a mighty sea- are very like reality.”2 Might we see this all encompassing insecurity of fluid motion as an example of the molestation of medieval moral life by what Jane Bennett might call an ‘impersonal affect’ of fluidity? In the treacherous flux, Benett’s “subsistent world of non-human vitality” emerges, and yet it is not a vitality that medieval people could be content with.3 The fluidity of temporal life swept up the soul in a complex web of interactions, and yet such a participation carried risk.
In a world encapsulated by a shifting and swirling maelstrom, matter had a disturbing agency. As Augustine put it in De Doctrina Christiana, the world was to be used as a vehicle of travel, not to be enjoyed.4 It was somewhat disturbing when the world used you. In this context, an actant-fluidity is a somewhat unsettling thought. Through myriad pushings and pullings, buffetings and fluxes, the fluidity of the medieval world propelled and eroded not only human life, but the mobile cosmos on a grand scale. Attempting to circumvent this process brings to mind the story of king Canute and his demonstration to his courtiers that the tide, in spite of his power, would never obey him.
With flight of the world came a strong sense of anxiety, for it was inexorable and non-human. The alienating conatus of a passing world, the very stuff of worldly life striving, was a constant reminder of temporality in unfavourable comparison with the fixed empyrean heavens. In his twelfth-century De Contemptu Mundi, Bernard of Cluny evoked the trope of the fugitive world in a powerful display of spiritual pathos. “See how the whirling courses of things hasten away, like streams of water. The world’s glory has fallen and fled and vanished in the cycle of days…Its position is unfixed, its status is unstable. It goes and it returns, like the sea, now bad and tomorrow even worse.”5 Bernard and his fellow monastics chose contempt as the appropriate response, but what might we do in the same situation?
We moderns are caught in a flux of our own, in what Zygmunt Bauman has famously termed ‘liquid modernity’,6 a world in which the “new piety” is to believe that “it is preferable to slip, shift or float than to know, stop or stay” as Adam Phillips put it.7 If we humanists are slow recording devices invested in the deliberate and the reflective as members of this panel have suggested in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral,8 then how, and this is an open question, do we engage while making space for contemplation?
Rather than fearing fluid ambiguity, might we embrace it as part of a vocabulary of scholarship? Steven Mentz, for example, has recently formulated a softer, more flexible approach to imagining discourse.9 Flow is both our greatest distraction, and our most vibrant opportunity. Alcuin was forced to leave his cell and engage with the world, and yet the memory of his sweet abode (his habitatio dulcis) remained. The heart of our fluid world, its oikos, lies at the center of endless motion, and yet we must cultivate the little space of slow time, the contemplative heart, within us.
2Noah’s Ark III, ‘De Vanitate Mundi’, in Hugh of St. Victor, Selected Spiritual Writings / Translated by a Religious of C.S.M.V., with an Introduction by Aelred Squire, O.P., Classics of the Contemplative Life, London, Faber, 1962), pp. 175-176.
3Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham NC, Duke University Press, 2010, pp. xi-xiii
4De Doctrina Christiana, Book 1, Chapters 3-5. For an online edition, see: ;
5Ronald E. Pepin (trans.), Scorn for the world: Bernard of Cluny’s De contemptu mundi : the Latin text with English translation and an introduction, East Lansing MI, Michigan State University: Colleagues Press, 1991, Book 1, p. 71.
6Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2000.
7Adam Phillips, On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life, London, Harvard University Press, 1994, p. 124
8See Eileen A. Joy, ‘You are Here: A Manifesto’ (esp. pp. 169-170) and Lowell Duckert, ‘Speaking Stones: John Muir, and a Slower (non)humanities’, in Jeffrey J. Cohen (ed.), Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, Brooklyn NY, Punctum Books: Oliphaunt, 2012.