stone3906.jpgWe started with a recent NY Times editorial, "Why Nothing is Truly Alive." Illustrating his point with Strandbeest, Ferris Jabr argues:

"Not only is defining life futile, but it is also unnecessary to understanding how living things work. All observable matter is, at its most fundamental level, an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These associations range in complexity from something as simple as, say, a single molecule of water to something as astonishingly intricate as an ant colony. All the proposed features of life —
metabolism, reproduction, evolution — are in fact processes that appear at many different regions of this great spectrum of matter. There is no precise threshold."

Now, it's one thing to say that there's no one precise definition of life, and it's another to say that this lack of a precise definition means that it's "all in our head" and "futile." The former is obviously correct, while the later is the kind of mistake one makes only by assuming that concepts must be completely airtight to function at all. But, as pragmatism observes, no one actually lives their life that way. And all concepts, being of this world, are necessarily impure and shifting. So, while the life/nonlife distinction works a lot of different ways, so there's no ONE boundary, it still works, necessarily in a variety of ways, as we'll see in Gerald of Wales.

I also directed our attention to this excellent blog post on good conference behavior: the short version is be mutually supportive, but the longer post is well worth reading.

I pointed out some medieval Sigurd art: the Sigurd portal, and especially the Sigurd Runestone. This recent article mentions a fifteenth-century account that features Sigurd's enormous sword as a relic at what might be Aachen. I also pointed out material that I had found mostly from Mary Gerstein's "Germanic Warg: The Outlaw as Werwolf," whose richness I can't do justice to. Some observations are that Odin, being a god of frenzy and oath breaking (among other things), seems to be a version of Loki and Fenris, and that the wolf outlaw seems to be at its root a grave robber or cannibal, at least if we go by these early Germanic laws (one; two). I have texts like these in mind, which use archaeology, philology, and comparative folklore to discover the deep roots in, say, the concept of the hanging god, or of the antlered woodgod, or of the dragon-fighting hero (present in seventh-century English box, and pictured on page 410 here, pdf), when I ask: how can we read these kinds of works? If animals are key to "early" or "prehistoric" mythology, if there's a universal (?) tendency not to take much account of human/animal differences, then are works like the Volsung Saga and the Vita Merlini somehow representative of an earlier stage in human thinking? The simple answer is of course not, but the better answer complicates things further.

Now, today everyone talked about an animal article they found on their own. There was a LOT of material, and I'd like people to write up their findings below. Remember, you can edit this page yourself! Just sign your name to make it clear who's talking, and don't edit other people's stuff if you can help it.

Guðmundsdóttir, Aðalheiður. “The Werewolf in Medieval Icelandic Literature.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 106.3 (2007): 277-303.
Pointing out that Iceland is a "wolf-free country," Guðmundsdóttir discusses what wolves and werewolves could have meant to the Medieval Icelandic people reading about them. Shape-shifters, especially humans turning into bears (berserks) or wolves, feature prominently in the sagas. When undergoing this transformation, Guðmundsdóttir notes that the shape-shifters typically change "their form by putting on the hamr of a certain animal," which can refer to both a "pelt/skin and a shape." Continuing in etymology, there are two words for wolf in Icelandic, vargr and úlfr, which when combined mean werewolf (varúlfur). In the sagas, when humans change into wolves they can take "upon themselves a vargshamr (a wolf's shape)" and become "vargar (wolves)." Guðmundsdóttir then points out that this word vargr can also be found throughout Old Icelandic as a root in words for murderer (morð-vargr), gallows, expulsion, and son of an outlaw. In modern Icelandic it is still found as a root in the words for arsonist, vandal, and times of war and cruelty.

The wolf, both the animal and the signifier, also plays a major role in The Saga of the Volsungs. As Guðmundsdóttir elicits, the name Volsungs is also referred to as Ylfingar, which translates to Wolflings. Likewise, the first chapter of the saga describes the banishment of Sigi, Volsung's father, to the human world. The reason for this banishment, his concealed murder, marks him as a
morð-vargr, or "wolf in hallowed places." So the Volsung line as a sort of wolf pack is immediately established. And this enunciative association continues throughout the saga.

Following previous scholarship on the matter, Guðmundsdóttir suggests that there are two variants of the werewolf motif in Old Icelandic literature. The older one, of which Volsungs is an example, is characterized by shape-shifting as an innate ability that is often associated with warlike activity. The more recent variant follows the heritage of Bisclavret, Melion, and other European werewolf stories, in which shape-shifting occurs as the result of a cast spell. With this variant, it is typical that the transformed creatures retain human eyes, as these are considered to be mirrors of the soul. Since the typical way to reverse the spell of lycanthropy is to recognize the human within the animal, Guðmundsdóttir points out that more recent Icelandic werewolves are often transformed back into humans when a young maiden looks into their eyes. The contrast to this trope, I suggest, is found in Volsungs. For example, Guttorm, in his sorcery-induced lupine rage, can only follow through with his intention to kill Sigurd when Sigurd's eyes are closed. When Sigurd looks Guttorm in the eyes, however, they are too fierce to bear. This seems to infer that Sigurd's power as a Volsung warrior lies in his withdrawn wolf.

Jakobsson, Ármann. "Enter the Dragon. Legendary Saga Courage and the Birth of the Hero." Making History: Essays on the Fornaldarsögur (2010): 33-52.
Jakobsson talks about how the dragon Fafnir in the Saga of the Volsungs (and the dragon in another saga) represents fear. He finds the slaying of the dragon as a sort of coming of age moment for the hero. Referring to Freud's idea of the uncanny, he also sees Fafnir as being a paternal figure; Fafnir, who was once human, falls in the category (of two) of monsters that is very like the human. He sees Sigurd and Fafnir as oppositions, the former of eros, or living, and the latter of thanatos, dying.--Jennifer

Fraiman, Susan. "Pussy Panic versus Liking Animals: Tracking Gender in Animal Studies," Critical Inquiry// 39, no. 1 (2012): 89-115.
Fraiman discusses the gendered construction (or lack of attention to gender) that some visible scholars in critical animal theory. She confronts the ways that such strands of thought code gender, or fear of gender by:
  • recognizing how Regan and Singer demonize feeling when thinking about animals.
  • how both women and animals code one another as consumable (this is riffing off Adams)
  • Wolfe's concern that cultural studies should be "cultural studies" and are locked in speciesism marginalizes groups of humans with shared identities.
  • the myth of a model of self-sufficiency and how it "is actually a fiction, maintained by woman's emotional work" (20).
  • critiquing the reinvention of animal studies as having as founding fathers (Derrida, Agamben, D&G) and obfuscating the earlier work of ecofeminists that predate the later "animal question."
The alignment of male philosophers on the side of animals places them close to the animal as a feminized subject (insofar as animals and nature are depicted as avatars of women and vice-versa), which creates an anxiety that produces the imposition of a hyper-alienated, biopolitical framework. This is what Fraiman terms "pussy panic," a critical animal manifestation of fear of castration. Entering into the animal question with total neglect of the intersectionality of animals with other human groups is a desire to abandon discourse that might be feminizing (and here we have trope of Smuts' "interactive woman" in opposition to Derrida's "anxious man" being seen seen). This is also played out in the differences of animal-human interaction that are organized around touch as opposed to sight (it seems like Fraiman is here implying the male gaze of the biopolitical philosopher, which isn't so much an actual identity, as a crafted critical trope of the "anxious man"). She then moves on to a discussion of competing ecofeminist models of eating flesh, arguing that our own feeling and subjectivity as humans is always implicated in our interactions with non-human animals. --Isabel

Wanner, Kevin J. "God on the Margins: Dislocation and Transience in the Myths of Óðinn." History of Religions 46.4 (2007): 316-350.
Wanner begins by discussing the work of religious theorists Mircea Eliade, Jonathan Z. Smith, Peter Berger, and Bruce Lincoln, and posits that "all of the above theorists make two basic claims: the first is that religion characteristically seeks to ground human or historical orders in a (or, from the typical religious perspective, the) cosmic order; the second is that the latter order is equally characteristically regarded by religions as eternal and absolute" (319). Against such assumptions, Wanner seeks to question the supposed essentiality to religion of centrality, transcendence, and permanence through an examination of Norse paganism. He particularly focuses on myths of the chief god Óðinn, as that material is dominated by, he argues, "motifs not of centrality and eternality but of spatial marginality, social liminality, and ephemerality.
He cites a description of the Norse cosmos by Aron Gurevitch, who describes it as "an aggregate of farmsteads inhabited by people, gods, giants, and dwarfs" ("Space and Time in the Weltmodell of the Old Scandinavian People," Mediaeval Scandinavia 2 (1969): 45), and extends Gurevitch's description by positing that within this aggregate, "different sets of beings are thought of as inhabiting their own civilized zones" and that "[w] is thinking in topographical or cultural terms, the Norse cosmos lacks a clear axis mundi" (327).
Considering Óðinn's appearance as a masked or disguised traveler in situations where he appears to be in a liminal or disenfranchised position, Wanner posits that "his disguise permits him entry into space controlled by another and gives him the time needed to maneuver into a position of strength" (330). This manipulation and control of space and time is especially pertinent, given that the Norse apocalypse was thought to mark the end of human and divine beings and realms alike; the themes of centrality and eternality, then, would not have been particularly relevant given imminent doom for everyone. Rather, Óðinn's importance as a god is linked directly to his liminality and manipulation of space and time, as he is a "god who joins his followers in an unrelenting struggle that all are aware can only end in their own destruction" (345).
While this article doesn't pertain directly to animal studies, it's useful both for introducing some elements of previously unfamiliar Norse materials, and also for providing a framework for thinking through networks of power manipulation. Indeed, many of the [non-human] animals we've encountered thus far exert power and control from liminal positions, thus subverting the equation of centrality with superiority.