Fluid: An Ecology of the Inhuman

Hello All,

I have returned to London from Washington, D.C. after an enjoyable, thought provoking, and lively day at the George Washington Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (GW MEMSI) symposium on the topic of Ecologies of the Inhuman. I would like to thank all involved for making the day so enjoyable, and to thank Jeffrey Cohen and the wonderful people at MEMSI for being such excellent hosts. Thank you also to Ian Bogost for participating and providing a fresh and enlivening object-oriented perspective that was greatly appreciated.

As well as providing a vastly complex and scintillating insight into just what it can mean to think ecologically outside of an anthropocentric frame of reference, the symposium provided some troubling and often disturbing insights into the violence, dislocation, horror (as one audience member put it) and problematics of ecology. An enmeshed and interwoven world solves many problems that impede us, and yet raise new quandaries. In a world rendered fluid, riven, socially troubling, potentially dissolute, and intermediate by ecological thought (the dark ecology of Timothy Morton), how can an acceptance of this reality enable action, and what kind of action should it enable?

There is, by the very definition of the context in which the day took place, no definitive answer. A definitive answer would be undesirable, for it would give the illusion of permanent matrices for choice to be made. Any yet, through inspiration, I feel that there are many worlds of action waiting to unfold in co-composition with actors large and small.  I would like to offer a copy of my paper below as stimulus, to feed rumination for those who were present and engagement for those that were absent:

 *** Fluid ***

To flow is to strive against inertia, to spread forth, to become diluted by the myriad eddies of life, to become enriched by new influx. To flow is to be lost, to rush through life, to be dashed upon unfamiliar resistance, to feel turmoil within. These dynamics form a bond of historical specificities merged with material certainties across time, for the fluidity of creativity, composition and dynamism must ever inspire and unsettle in equal measure. This is something to be desired and to be feared, something that surrounds us in ecology of temporal and material motion that can no more be escaped than effect can escape cause. This paper, in its second iteration, flows through the fluid anxieties of medieval moral life, and empties itself into modern vicissitudes.

In a medieval intellectual 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.[1] It was somewhat disturbing when the world used you. Through myriad pushings and pullings, buffetings and fluxes, the motions of the medieval world propelled not only human life, but the mobile cosmos on a grand scale. And yet while the crystalline spheres moved with reassuring and geometric grace above, the temporal world overflowed with ever combining forces.

Fundamental patterns of vital motion, the very forces that drove the cosmos, were the same forces that epitomised the flaws of temporality. The response within the human heart? Anguish. “Why do we love you, O World, as you flee from us?” entreated Alcuin of York in his poem O Mea Cella.[2] Alcuin’s ardent allegoresis of the world as addressable dissolves instantly into a torrent of inhuman motion. The answer? Contempt. 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.”[3] Regarding the human heart, Hugh admonishes the reader to remember that “All things pass and flow and not a thing subsists under the sun, so that the sentence is fulfilled: vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”[4]

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 mundane life in process, was a constant reminder of temporality in unfavourable comparison with the unblemished 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]

What of we moderns, caught as we are in a sea of our own? As our institutions crumble, our cultures intermingle, our grasp on the triumphant anthropocentrism of the Enlightenment fades, what must we do? Alcuin and Hugh sought order in the intricacies of spiritual edifice, and yet even our minds flow away before us, leading to destinations tantalising and terrible. Flow is both our greatest distraction, and our most vibrant opportunity. Tim Ingold eloquently captures this when he argues the “ocean of materiality” humanity inhabits “is not the bland homogeneity of different shades of matter but a flux in which materials of the most diverse kinds, through processes of admixture and distillation, of coagulation and dispersal, and of evaporation and precipitation, undergo continual generation and transformation.”[6]

We can synthesise, we can build and we can strengthen, but we must allow ourselves the flexibility to flow with the forces that roil around us. To quote Jeffrey Cohen and Lowell Duckert, “catastrophes precede and follow any stability; failures inevitably arrive. In such moments of perturbation we behold the web of interrelationships that constitutes and sustains our own worldedness. Cataclysms inevitably shatter such ecological meshworks, but failure is an invitation to dwell more carefully, fashion more capacious perspectives, and do better.[7] Perhaps, in imitation of our medieval forebears, we can invest ourselves in cultivating our observer position in the heart of ecology so that we too might seek that which is worthy of lasting affective engagement. Our response? Fluid.

[1]    De Doctrina Christiana, Book 1, Chapters 3-5. For an online edition, see: <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/12021.htm>

[2]    “cur te fugitivum, mundus, amamus?” For Latin text, see: <http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/alcuin/cella.shtml>

[3]    Noah’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. (London: Faber, 1962), pp. 175-176.

[4]     ‘Hugh of Saint Victor: Theology and Interiority’, in Ineke van ’t Spijker, Fictions of the Inner Life: Religious Literature and Formation of the Self in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp. 119-120.

[5]    Ronald 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.

[6]     Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description. (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 24.

[7]     Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, and Lowell Duckert, ‘Howl’, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, 4 (2013),  p. 4.


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