Environing

Trouble the boundaries and enmesh the cosmos, but an Anthropocene ecology remains housebound. Ecotheorists are fond of pointing out that the oikos in ecology is the Greek word for a house’s environing. This noisy home swings its doors and windows open, bolt them as we might. Yet oikos is also an economy in which all things are apt to be rendered commodities for equivalency and exchange, for the forcible transport of messages not theirs. Humans differentiate themselves from world, from other animals, from other humans through ceaseless overpowering—violence that cannot be disowned. We declare the Anthropocene, but the world pushes back.

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Sea/sky. Photo by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.

In “The Reeve’s Tale,” Geoffrey Chaucer sets a fourteenth-century meditation on anthropogenic environ change in Cambridge, center of philosophy, agriculture, and business. The clerks Aleyn and John lay awake in strange lodgings. Tricked by an unscrupulous miller, they have paid to endure a night under his roof. From their shared bed the young men listen to the nocturnal melody of the miller and his drunken family, a “rowtyng” [snoring] loud enough to be heard a quarter-mile away (1.4166). The noise that thunders from the miller’s open mouth is so intense that only animal comparison can convey its force: “as an hors he fnorteth in his sleep” (“like a horse he snores in his sleep”; 1.4163). Within slumber and without precise language, humans sound much the same as other large mammals. Fnorteth is reverberation oblivious to species difference, a noise that travels with brutal force.

“The Reeve’s Tale” is known for grim ambience. Its narrative ecosystem resounds with dissonant, nonverbal signifying, a dense archive of human sound that has become inhuman resounding. With its snores, cries, shouts, pleas, poems and prayers, “The Reeve’s Tale” is reverberant, a material ecology that noisily foregrounds the penetrability and porousness of flesh within a surrounding and story-inscribed atmosphere. The miller and his family snore because their bodies are humoral environments out of balance. Excessive drinking engenders a superfluity of blood, which in turn triggers the need for restorative sleep. The intoxicated body illustrates the transcorporeality of medieval embodiment, both human and animal: the four humors do their work within skin that offers a permeable membrane, rather than a barrier to the world.1 The medieval equivalent to Anthropocene environs is this open, fleshly system that, through the humors, enmeshes the gravity of the moon, the impress of place, the agency of matter, the density and humidity of atmosphere.2 Such material entanglement holds as true of animals, plants, and stones as of humans. It underscores that human embodiment is a specific phenomenon, not an abstract universal: a tenuous system easily disrupted.3 Human identity is corporeal and happens in place, propelled and then limned by enduring violences.

The action that arises in “The Reeve’s Tale” is in the end all too human, all too masculine: two acts of sexualized revenge, a message sent by the clerks to the miller through the bodies of his wife and daughter. Within this domestic economy, horses, cakes, wheat, beds, sex, and blows are exchanged with little regard for the lived consequences that such equivalence and reduction entail. Economy and ecology, the house and its range, register a long Anthropocenic truth of human environing. Interpenetrability is subject to constant economic recapture. John and Aleyn are forced to purchase from the miller a breakfast baked from flour he stole. The clerks believe that the proper payment for such abuse is to be made through the sexual enjoyment of the women in the miller’s household. Once they sleep with the wife and daughter, the tale becomes a disturbing account of what happens when all the world is reduced to an economy of sale, substitution, and revenge, every ecology transformed into an economy, all matter—even virginity—rendered vendible. No wonder the story ends with screams, blows, blood. Women’s bodies are used by men to send messages to other men. That these women have their own stories is hinted at, but never explored with much narrative attention.

Other medieval tales embrace the shared precariousness of mundane life, the burgeoning of a Disanthropocene in which stories enmesh the human and nonhuman so that neither stands alone. Yet Chaucer does attend to the particularities of violence within the human, and thereby warns us that when we attempt to transcend that category by declaring the Anthropocene, we do so at the peril of specificities that require precise accounting. Ethics inheres in the choice not to universalize, not to ignore the differences found within the category of human—differences that vanish when the Anthropocene becomes a term for disembodied, geologic and yet still anthropocentric force. In stories that we have long been telling opens a more complicated space. Violence and suffering are unevenly distributed. Within Anthropocene environs gender still matters. So do class and race. The human body is a machine of sonority, as ecological in its signaling as animals and stones. Human bodies are also plural phenomena, specific and universalized at peril. Drawing boundaries and declaring epochs may be necessary, but such systems are fragile, insufficient. They inevitably attempt to exclude the impress of environs upon our very bodies, the resounding of environmentality within our stories and our words.

Medieval stories have much to teach about the deep history of times and spaces. They environ still.

Notes

1. On transcorporeality as a modern phenomena of permeability and toxicity, see Alaimo 2010.

2. See Akbari 2009 on the place-bound environmentality of the body.

3. See Paster 1993 on the materiality of humoral psychology.

References

Akbari, Suzanne Conklin. 2009. Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100–1450. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Alaimo, Stacy. 2010. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Paster, Gail Kern. 1993. The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.