Thursday, November 28, 2013

Cease your toils

During the time that Brillat Savarin wrote The Physiology of Taste (for the 30 years prior to his death from pneumonia in 1826 after standing in the glacial abbey of Saint-Denis to attend the 30th anniversary commemorating Louis XVI's execution), the turkey, domesticated and amply sauced in France, was already no longer called a coq d'Inde. The dinde (as the humble turkey is still called today in French) had been stripped of its New World origins and its Christopher Columbus misnaming, and had become commonplace, a bird for everyman.

The turkey is the largest and, if not most delicate, at least the most flavorful of our domestic birds. It also enjoys the unique advantage of attracting to it every class of society. When the vine tenders and the plowmen of our countryside want to treat themselves to a party on a long winter night, what do you see roasting over the bright kitchen fire where the table is laid? A turkey. When the practical mechanic or the artisan brings a few of his friends together to celebrate some relaxation all the sweeter for being so rare, what is the traditional main dish of the dinner he offers? A turkey stuffed with sausages or with Lyons chestnuts. -- from M.F.K. Fischer's (marvelous) translation of La Physiologie du Gout. 

Brillat-Savarin experienced the original exoticism of the turkey while in exile in America, when his New York friends whisked him away to a hunting property in Connecticut and he hunted wild turkeys. He successfully shot one and recounted with great, wry pride, "this deed... [that] I shall recount all the more eagerly since I myself am its hero." But before the shooting and the eating, deep in the hunting woods, our hero engages in a reverie worth the telling on this day when just maybe we might get caught in daydreams, cease our toils, and meander as well as feast and laugh and toast and cheer.

I found myself for the first time in my life in virgin forest, where the sound of the axe had never been heard. I wandered through it with delight, observing the benefits and the ravages of time, which both creates and destroys, and I amused myself by following every period in the life of an oak tree, from the moment it emerges two-leaves from the earth until that one when nothing is left of it but a long black smudge which is its heart's dust.

This year's Thanksgiving gets to observe the benefits of time, with us less sad that my dad is not here, and, in great wonder and joy, hosting both deeply happy newlyweds and a mom made new by a wondrous adoption. We will be grateful and remember and hope. And read Art Buchwald's "Le Grande Thanksgiving" column, and add the new favorite McSweeney's "Public School Education Thanksgiving." And we will feast.

Parsnip Pear Soup*

Maple Glazed Carrots*
Green Beans and Radishes Braised in Orange Juice*
Cumin-Roasted Beets*

Winter Squash Pot Pie with Swiss Chard and Chickpeas*
South of France Turkey**

Simon and Garfunkel Stuffing
Pomegranate Ginger Cranberry Sauce*

Rosemary Mashed Potatoes**
Gratin Dauphinois**

Candied Cranberry Tart***
Pumpkin Creme Caramel*

*From this year's issue of Vegetarian Times
** From this year's issue of Rachael Ray (I know she's creepy, but her test kitchen is good)
***From my Epicurious app


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Objects that Orient Ontology

Petrus Christus, Carthusian Monk
We've been spending the semester in my medieval art history class thinking about "Painting and Presence." Petrus's Carthusian Monk was my avatar on Facebook, I found him at the Met - we're in deep. Though I knew (with great relish and anticipation as I contemplated teaching these lush works of art with their vital wood supports, their vibrant oil surfaces, their fervent color projections, and their intense degree of illusion) where the course was going in terms of content, I didn't really know where it was going to go conceptually. I had set up "painting" as an emerging category (the newness of oil and its visualizing possibilities, the shifts in patronage arrangements, the gathering of different audiences) and "presence" as a kind of open category (aura? power? theology? ontology?).

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini

I don't expect the category of "presence" to be the same for every class (students' interests and my own will push and pull that different ways each time I teach this course, I hope), but this time, it was definitely ontology. The existence, the conditions of being, grappling with what it means to be so many things: painting as object, painting as vision, painting as devotion, patron, patron as image, patron as soul, and objects, so many objects that positively glowed by the time we'd realized we'd been talking and writing about them for weeks: shoes and mirrors and dogs and candles and windows and textiles (oh the textiles!) and tiny sculptures writhing on bedposts and the ends of benches and fruits and windows. What were they all doing and being? And though my writing presents them as a cascade of things, in each painting they are neatly arranged, suspended in a poised quiet.

Campin, Mérode, tools
If (if!) a hammer is a hammer when it hammers, what is it (doing and being) when it is in a work of art? (An equally good question, with a fantastic answer from the painter himself, is to ask after and asparagus: go ahead, look at Manet's one asparagus and ask!)This alone makes me wish we'd read more Heidegger, more Bogost, more Morton, more Harman, more Bennett - more object oriented ontology all over the place. (It also makes me wish that Harman and Morton would take their awesome art criticism to medieval art). The question is one that art history has asked in its own within-the-frame way (and, in being our "writing in the major" course, "Painting and Presence" has a historiographic element): a hammer is not ever (ever!) just a hammer ever since Panofsky wound the connecting threads of "disguised symbolism" into Early Netherlandish Art. It is the tool that helps Joseph make the mousetrap that will catch the mouse that is the devil for whom Christ is the bait from the typology of that one Psalm. The field of art history has wrestled much with disguised symbolism and social history has done tremendous work to shift the conversation. And yet, far from social history and deep into questions of being and painting, ontology and representation, that Panofsky started asking, this detail from the Mérode Altarpiece that holds some very prized objects has everything I want to be thinking about right now: tools, representation, and a table. Friday afternoon, I denied all grading and obligations and read Sarah Ahmed's essay "Orientation Matters" in the New Materialisms anthology and she wrote of tables (from a table) with Husserl and Heidegger and Derrida, and I can't stop thinking about objects that orient ontology, objects that are the starting point (Husserl's mode of orientation) for existence. You can start (oh my goodness anywhere, but let's just say) with the hammer in the world that Campin saw, and translated into representation. That represented hammer then does work an in-the-world hammer never could: it can (if our interpretive minds respond to it this way) be a symbol, or engaged in the symbolic construction of the devil-catching mousetrap. In some ways, the bigger challenge is just letting the hammer be. But I learned with elemental eco-criticism that we seldom let even the smallest blade of grass be, we and our yearning minds.

Christus, Goldsmith, coins and a mirror and...
And so I am left to think of these arrangements on tables, on wooden tables and wooden boards that become paintings. Of objects without symbolism, objects that might be "in and of themselves" objects, except they never are, being, as they are, pigments suspended in oil swirled over polished and treated wood. Except that they are objects because my mind perceives them so and is able to see great meaning in them (symbolic, radical - think Dian Wolfthal's piece from the Troubled Vision anthology about this very mirror). As Jeffrey Cohen's marvelous book on stones gathers, as I savor what Tim Morton has me thinking about in Hyperobjects, I want to think more about simultaneity and being: a stone as inert and vital; a painting as representational and real, an object as itself and salvation.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bugle Call

Will it be like this?

The barn where the kids ride horses is, like so much else around here, in the middle of a cornfield. And yet, for some reason, I always feel as though I'm leaving what's ordinary about this landscape every time I take them there. I think that it's the gravitational pull of the horses' world: the neighing and huffs across the stables corridor, the mouser cats primly avoiding the heavy hooves, kids leading horses in and out of the pastures, the calls of Candace and Lisa who keep this equine ecosystem moving and fed. The minute we're there, we're very far away from anywhere else. I watch my children ease into their fascination with the horses: thrill, control, dream. I give in completely to thinking of horses past, medieval palfreys - the deep dignity of this bridled animal who may be domesticated, but is not always entirely tamed; the force and courage of this fervent bulk that takes the hunter to his prey, somehow rides the warrior into battle. There is absolutely nothing there to stop me from the historical romance of the horses, even as I know that Apah would really just prefer a carrot thank you, that Indy will nudge you when you sing, and that mischievous Dukey just might canter unexpectedly again with my tiny Eleanor gleefully hanging on. So I watch the kids on the horses, and I always bring something to read that will let me daydream a little more. This time, it was Eric J Goldberg's article, "Louis the Pious and the Hunt" from the July issue of Speculum: a historical survey of the imperial status of the hunt long before I'm used to thinking about it. And in the midst of it, a most unexpected excerpt of Carolingian poetry by Walahfrid "On the Bone of a Little Doe," a relic of the fauna that now feeds the flora:

     What once covered bone marrow now nurtures a tree.
     A shinbone produces a seed - that must be a very good omen.
     I am astonished that the bark is not damp and that it is
     Tougher than the very wood: such is the strength of the bone.
     All things exist to serve you, great emperor: you go hunting for deer
     And a forest grows up from their bones! Hail!

Artificial deer decoys are still legal in Indiana
Deer in the forest. I think of deer in the forest every year at this time. We are in the period of transition from Archery Season to Firearms Season. From October 1 to November 15, it's still pretty medieval out there. The custodian from our building posted her archery kill on Facebook and there'll be venison to celebrate at her house. Now, though, the firearm hunters will submerge into the woodwork (via tree stands and quiet creeping). I have a standing invitation from a friend to go and I find myself, as I have every year, stuck in fascination, unable to gear up the momentum to say "ok, let's go, let's do it." I've seen very few animals die before my eyes: six magnificent bulls during the San Isidro feast days in Madrid during my honeymoon with Mac (yes, there's more to talk about there), and two tiny mice slowly squeezed to death by the snakes to whom they were fed at the McCormick's Creek Nature Center while Iris and I watched helpless, mesmerized, wordless. I'd have to stay wordless here, too - quiet, thinking about the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight conversation that prompted the invitation in the first place.

It won't be like this!
So to fill the empty space between the invitation and a decision, I poke around, I research a bit, I become even more fascinated: the rules and regulations of what is called "Fair Chase" (you may not use bait, not even salt, you may not use dogs except to track a wounded deer, you may not flash a spotlight, you may not use infrared, or electronic calls - but you may use a deer decoy); the "Disposition of Carcasses" (calling Karl Steel!), that would not allow for Carolingian poetry (you are responsible for every bit of the deer you kill); the requirement that an "antlered deer" have at least 3 inches of antler. There are still many things I don't understand: the land - there is state land and private land and there's great excitement because the state is opening up more land to hunting, but it all makes me realize that I know more about medieval forest law than about modern hunting lands. And of course, the kill without the hunt. The fought bulls, the snaked mice - there was an element of the chase, no matter how disparate. Here, we'll watch and wait. Is it the kill? the waiting? the trophy? the feast? This friend has shared quail and venison with us before and there'd be feasting to be done this time, too. Yes, I would definitely use a medieval recipe, and, moreover, heed the warning signs of the advice column entitled "Does Your Venison Taste Like Hell?" (nice medieval flavor to the pointed question). I don't yet know what I'll do. I've taught the incredible images of Gaston Phebus I put up here today. I've marveled at the medieval ritual of the fumets (the duke determines which stag to hunt based on the courage he smells in droppings). I've taught the intertwined wonder of the hunting scenes from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Now to move that into the real? (well, maybe not the fumets) - the quick and the vivid and the not-up-for-discussion. I imagine a surge of adrenaline in the forest as all parties involved realize what is happening in a reality that has no time or space for language. I imagine being cold and quiet and bored. I imagine horror subdued by quickness and precision. I watch my children on horses and know that there is a reality of animals approaching that both quickens and dissolves my daydreams.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Parchment, Echo, Nature?, Epochs?, Bristles: Contact Ecologies, 2013

Yes, again.
I return to Brueghel's Tower of Babel after a conference, this time, in the echo-chamber of the upper reaches of the Tower, whence attempted contact with the divine stretches, and where I can position myself to think (all too briefly) on the gathering of speakers and ideas of "Contact Ecologies" at George Washington University (Jeffrey J. Cohen and Haylie Swenson, architects, GM-MEMSI, site). The phrase/idea/concept/ethos of "Contact Ecologies" is an open one, under construction, in the making. Jeffrey's invitation to speak was insistently unaccompanied by a blueprint, so multiple architectures/points of view resulted. (Realize, I may not be able to let go of this metaphor, try as I might). Bruce Holsinger brought us to the wonder of the "parchment inheritance" through the dizzying numbers of animals sacrifices in the production of manuscripts (knowledge, that gesture of turning the page, finding out more). You can start with any number of thousands in any collection, but those quickly escalate to the millions, and so we have a complex "historical ecology of the animal archive." You know it's a good gathering when the first paper makes the audience gasp. Augustine, the Babylonian Talmud, and a letter from the contact ecology of war (Crusades) followed, each articulating a new scale (at one point, the sky itself was all parchment) of this act of materiality and biology, this thinking on parchment. I spoke about the contact ecology of sound, specifically as shaped by the echo, by Echo herself. And Eileen Joy was right to hear my voice change when I reread Ovid's myth: catastrophe, illness, and desire are all in that myth and in how we practice echo and hearing. William IX, Michel Serres, and Timothy Morton amplified her, made me see how far echo could reach, not only in how sound provides contact but in trying to understand how that sound/contact recedes as echo. I couldn't help but end in an object, and it was the Eleanor of Aquitaine vase and I'll be writing more about that (probably at Material Collective) soon. Kellie Robertson fearlessly placed us in the Augustian/Aristotelian nature/ecology fray. Nature is unsustainable. The idea of Nature "never speaks comfortably from her material bodily form," and I quickly became fascinated with the medieval discomfort with Nature. There was no naïve happiness or sure containment of a concept of the natural in the Middle Ages, and that epoch's discomfort continues to provoke ours. Teleology and Theology became intertwined and the modern insurance-industry phrase of "acts of God" takes on an entirely new set of problems for me. Steve Mentz proposed an "ecological theory of historical change" via a journey through the Anthropocene, the Homogenocene, the Thalassocene, and the Naufragocene. In the shipwreck, we grasp for any grounding and historical epochs offer brief respites of certitudes and ground. But "all epochs are false constructs" (though we need them - profound oscillations/waves provoked here). And so to think beyond the theft model (in which history and ecology both are a series of tales of dispossession) to the composture model, in which a rich, loamy intermingling does the work of history. This is where the shipwreck and its era (the Naufragocene) comes in, and our awareness and embrace of it, of learning to swim in (not desperately away) from it. So imagine our eager minds when Timothy Morton greeted us with the hope and horror of bristles. "Things are ungraspable because they bristle," but they are lively as such - they respond, they are resilient, they are multi-scale. Maybe instead of distance from objects (be they the Eleanor of Aquitaine vase or the hyperobject of global warming), we can think less of distance and more of a fraught approach. Fractals help here (in their multiplicity and edges), and so do hedgehogs - the little herisson of Derrida's contemplation of poetry, the retreat/receding/withdrawal of the prickly thing. But also, its frisson (and, in terms of frisson's relation to jouissance, I couldn't help but delight in thinking of OOO becoming o O O!). Children, a flooded basement, The Day call, so three unformed thoughts: TOYS: "Philosophy," said Tim, "should be in the business of making toys, as opposed to setting down laws. We should be creating new things for others to play with, so as to generously enlarge the domain of thought." GENEROSITY marked this gathering: in the initial questions put forth by Jeffrey, in the willingness to Try Things Out (every sense of that phrase), in the companionship and eagerness to broaden the conversation, which had been brilliantly initiated even before we gathered by Eileen Joy's revolutionary call (ok, you can call it a talk, but come on) for the future of publishing. And (of all things!) CRAFTSMANSHIP: the love of a good sentence, the effort of putting it all together, the assemblage of ideas came up over and over again in conversation. Might we be feeling the imprint of our thinking about materiality in the love of a sentence, the physical thrill of an idea?