'Inhuman Nature' explores the activity of the things, forces, and relations that enable, sustain and operate indifferently to us. Among the topics explored are the futurity that inheres in storms and wrecks, wood that resists its burning or offers art and dwelling, hymns that implant themselves like viruses, the ontology of everyday objects


Inhuman Nature, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ed., Oliphaunt Books, 2014.     download book

Gathering into lively conversation scholars in medieval, early modern and object studies, Inhuman Nature explores the activity of the things, forces, and relations that enable, sustain and operate indifferently to us. Enamored by fictions of environmental sovereignty, we too often imagine “human” to be a solitary category of being. This collection of essays maps the heterogeneous and asymmetrical ecologies within which we are enmeshed, a material world that makes the human possible but also offers difficulties and resistance. Among the topics explored are the futurity that inheres in storms and wrecks, wood that resists its burning or offers art and dwelling, hymns that implant themselves like viruses, the ontology of everyday objects, the seep and flow of substance, the resistant nature of matter, the dependence of community upon making things public, and the interstices at which nature and culture become inseparable.
Tinker as you will.
TABLE OF CONTENTS // Jeffrey Jerome Cohen — Introduction: Ecostitial / Steve Mentz — Shipwreck / Anne Harris — Hewn / Alan Montroso — Human / Valerie Allen — Matter / Lowell Duckert — Recreation / Alfred Kentigern Siewers — Trees / James Smith — Fluid / Ian Bogost — Inhuman

This book is part of an experimental series (Oliphaunt Books via punctum press and George Washington University) that is pushing the boundaries of medieval environmental studies and modern academic publishing. In both regards, it raises intriguing, complicated, and important questions--but in both ways it represents more a series of first steps than a final product.
The volume contains eight essays and a substantial introduction. Each essay has a one-word title, e.g. "Shipwreck," "Matter," and "Recreation." The authors use these words as springboards to question seemingly stable ideas of definition, agency, and perceptions. The essays collectively (built from a series of conferences) work to map, as Cohen writes in his introduction, "the activity of the things, objects, forces, and relations that enable, sustain and operate indifferently to the category and creature human." (i) For example, in "Trees" Alfred Kentigern Siewers begins his essay by thinking about the ways in which the living being the Llangernyw Yew tree (2000-5000 years old) may be "hopelessly entangled in centuries of human and non-human culture." (101) Valerie Allen connects quantum physics, Aristotle, new materialism, and medieval understandings of mathematics in her challenging but interesting "Matter." She points out that mathematics and measurement alike bridge ideas of materiality and immateriality in intriguing ways.
The authors take familiar (at first) concepts and sources and decontextualizes and deconstructs them. The essays foreground the idea of "ecological enmeshment," highlighting how "always supported by objects, substances, and ecologies, the human is never uncompanioned" (iii). They also work to show that "environmental meshes, 'ecostices'" (v) exist for the nonhuman as well, blurring borders between people and nature, and blurring the idea of agency in nature. The essays mainly draw on conventional literary theory, actor network theory, and object-oriented ontologies. As such, they can at times be a bit tricky for non-specialists (myself included), and though several of the authors do explain terms, concepts, and previous works, at times a reader who has not already been part of this conversation can feel a bit unmoored. Yet that said, there is an excitement about the ways that the authors and essays unmoor themselves from traditional expectations of both medieval literary criticism and of nature.
In his essay "Human," Alan Montroso takes up this idea of enmeshment, weaving together (via modern theory and The Prioress's Tale) human perceptions, musical sounds, human and bird bodies, and the idea of noise/sound as both produced by organisms and capable of "living" like a virus independent of its initial host. He then extends this idea into a discussion of the power of the medieval hymn as both a product of human agency (and divine will) and as a "sonic object" a "real object intangible and evanescent, perhaps, but real nonetheless." (43) He then attaches these ideas to a specific host, as it were, the Marian hymn Redemptoris Mater, appearing throughout the The Prioress's Taleas an active force that infects not only the characters in the story, but even Chaucer's text of the tale, which Montroso points out is one of only four that Chaucer wrote in "Rhyme Royal" (45). Montroso also connects this representation of a Marian hymn to Ovid's Orphean stories--and, as the connections to medieval Christological ideas multiply, this idea of the human body as "host" for something else, something bigger and something "inhuman" becomes even richer.
The essays like this one that touch on medieval fascination with the humanity/inhumanity, corporeality/incorporeality, life/death of Christ and of human souls are the strongest in the book, and these ideas could have been pulled together more deliberately. For example, "Hewn" by Anne F. Harris and "Trees" discussed similar medieval objects, contexts, ideas, and beliefs--yet these are not bound together internally within the book. Thus it is up to readers alone to recognize the very interesting connections between Siewers' discussion of the Nevern yew and the Nevern stone cross "tree of life" (102) and Harris' explication of the Ruthwell cross and the Dream of the Rood.
Though I cannot address each essay singly, I would like to take a bit more time with Harris's essay, which should have been the framing essay for the book. "Hewn" deliberately tackles change--change of form, change of matter, change of being, and links change to agency. She tackles ideas of dependence and independence, and also the ways in which big concepts in medieval theology were represented by (and even subsumed into) discussions of work and instrumentalization. Harris connects the objects of the Arma Christi to the Dream of the Rood, and discusses how the transformed tree/cross is not a dead object, but a living (and in medieval theology a life-giving one). She looks at stone crosses (objects hewn by human hands, turned from stone to tree), the wound of Christ (created by human agency, surrounded by the tools of men), and a modern art work to see the hewn not as cut and dead, but as "lively." (21) She concludes through these medieval objects and their stories, "the hewn bears witness to suffering. Every hewn thing carries and proclaims the act of cutting down." (30) This essay binds together disparate medieval forms and objects, inviting medievalists to see new connections between familiar medieval ideas. Harris enmeshes ideas about creation, matter, re-creation, the potential fluidity of wood and stone, and the role of human work in all of this. Had this been the first essay, and had the medieval themes of creation and destruction and salvation been more clearly called to the reader's attention throughout the subsequent essays, this volume would have had more cohesion.
The essay "Fluid" by James Smith (the only historian among the authors) is another essay that I found compelling, in part because of the depth with which he engaged medieval authors and evidence. Drawing on Alcuin of York, Hugh of St. Victor, Guibert of Nogent, Alaine of Lille, Bernard of Cluny and others, Smith argues convincingly for a medieval fascination with ideas of temporal, elemental, and spiritual fluidity--a fear of the chaos of the swift passing of time and the ways that flowing waters evoke a kind of elemental entanglement. He points out that "turbulence was natural within medieval morality--the rota fortunae was ever spinning--and yet its absence was of divine importance…The tranquility of water at rest contrasts sharply and yet emerges in dialectic interplay with the fury and commotion of roiling waves." (123) He engages with questions of what medieval thinkers and authors both feared from and hoped for out of the human entanglement with the material world and their own corporeality, with the forces of natural consumption and destruction, and with the perpetual motion of the world and elements. This essay has strong connections to the ideas raised in the first essay of the volume, Steve Mentz' "Shipwreck," though those connections are harder to make than they should be because of the essays' distance from each other in the book.
At times throughout the volume, the authors and the materiality of their own environments are radically present in their own essays. This is intriguing, though once I am encouraged to include the authors more directly into my own reading, it is frustrating that there is no "about the authors" section, no contact information, etc. How much more interesting and relevant would readers find Ian Bogost's anachronistic and unusual references to his "Lamborghini-driving friend…known for designing Gears for War, a dark, gruesome shooter [game]" alongside a discussion of Marie de France's Bislcavret, if we knew that Bogost is both a medievalist and a computer science professor, as well as a game designer himself? This book's premise (and promise) is that it takes on new ideas of transdisciplinarity as it tackles trans-species questions--yet the editor and authors still hold back from fully embracing this ideal by not revealing more about their own academic selves.
At this point, a brief introduction to punctum books (directed by Eileen A. Joy, part of the BABEL working group) will better contextualize the form and goals of Inhuman Nature. Punctum is an open-access project aimed at creating new spaces for discourse, new paths for dissemination, and room for innovative and non-traditional projects and papers that, though important, may fall between traditional publishing genres. Its masthead proudly declares it to be a space for "spontaneous acts of scholarly combustion," (http://punctumbooks.com/about/) and describes itself as self-consciously radical, as an "independent publisher dedicated to radically creative modes of intellectual inquiry and writing across a whimsical para-humanities assemblage." Readers should expect to be challenged.
This open access encourages experimental readership--people who would perhaps be unwilling to commit to a pricey hard-bound volume on something only tangentially related to their own interests may be much more willing to take a risk with these books. The printed book, which can be ordered for a set price (unlike the donations optional open access PDF) is basic, but of fine quality, with black and white images, a soft cover, and portable size. I enjoyed having the physical book, but also decided to access a digital copy, curious to see how it the press was embracing the hybridity of the digital book. To my dismay, the PDF replicates the book in my hands: black and white images, static navigation, and no additional features. There are so many ways in which this series could more fully embrace the digital humanities—full color images, active links to websites cited by the authors, a table of contents that could let you jump directly to specific essays, etc. I hope that as punctum continues to develop, it pursues ways to make their digital, open-access aspect stand out in the publishing landscape by not only being open access, but also by being as innovative in form as they are in content.
Returning to Inhuman Nature: All of the essays offer intriguing insights into the ways that new materialism conceptualizes the world, but not all of them are as good at also conveying new ideas about the medieval world. The strongest essays are those that root themselves in rather than just connect to the medieval sources and voices. At times the volume's own origins in a series of conferences is too visible--the experimental nature of the essays leading perhaps to less developmental and collaborative editing across the volume. The essays read as independent, when they could have been productively tangled together. Yet, since this book is in many ways experimental, it should be judged ultimately in that context, and it definitely succeeds in shifting the reader's standpoint, and in questioning some of the conventions of academic writing. Try the book out--there are so many intriguing ideas and approaches that all readers who approach it with an open mind should find something here worth mulling over and engaging with. - Ellen Arnold