Dog Parks and Human Intrusion on Natural Assemblages

by R. Scott Seabrook, UNC Charlotte

Let me preface this piece by stating firmly: I am a proponent of pet ownership. I grew up with cats, dogs, parakeets, gerbils, guinea pigs and hamsters. I have always loved having pets and the companionship they offer. However, I have been looking at the amount of natural land that is being annexed to provide parks for dogs. I have been looking at the areas where there is a real need for these parks; overpopulated areas like New York City or Chicago that lack green space, apartment dwellers and the like. I have been looking at my neighbor who chains his dog up in the front yard to be ignored and barks at every passing car. While I am looking at my neighbor’s dog, I am looking, too, at the many species of birds that fly through the trees in my front yard, the squirrels that play and forage in the bushes and the bees that pollenate the flowers in the garden.

Gervaise Markham in his “Farewell to Husbandry” claimed that bees “are exceedingly industrious and much given to labor, they have a kind of government among themselves, as it were a well-ordered Commonwealth” (Book 2, 168). Jane Bennet states in her paper “The Agency of Assemblages and The North American Blackout”, “Earth is the whole in which the parts now circulate” (445) and she describes assemblages as the “whole and its style of structuration” (445). Further, she argues agency within assemblages as “the abilities of bodies to become otherwise than they are, to press out of their current configuration and enter into new compositions of self as well as into new alliances and rivalries with others” (447). When we combine the thinking of these writers, though they wrote more than 300 years apart, there is a connection to the respect they see for that which exists within a group of actants interacting with and without one another.

If we stretch this amalgamized notion of the industriousness of bees, their given habitat being nature, their individual and group agency within the assemblage of a hive and we stretch this notion further to include all the creatures and growing things in ‘natural nature’, and we stand this against human’s domestication of not only cows, horses and other livestock that Markham espoused in his work but against dog’s as pets, as substitute spouses, children and partners that humans invade upon the naturally occurring assemblages already in place and conducting their natural routines, destroy their environment, alter their nature, their matter in pursuit of providing places for dogs to exercise and socialize and their human ‘owners’ to enjoy the same, where do we draw a line to recognize the intrinsic value of those beings, animal and vegetable, being evicted in the name of dog parks?

I realize this may seem a harsh line to take currently in an age of doggie daycares, doggie day spas, boutique inter-mingling of breeds, dog walkers and dog care givers, and again, I am a proponent of pet ownership, but when statistics such “5.4 dog parks per 100,000 residents” (1) in Portland, Oregon ( show that nature is being forced out to make way for dogs, it begs the question: To what end do human’s refuse to recognize the benefit of nature and its contributions to environment to make way for an elevated stewardship or dominion over all creatures, to elevate dogs to the level of priority need over nature?

The need for dog parks has many virtues: they allow socialization, exercise and bonding time. As previously stated there are places like New York City that need dedicated land for pet owners to walk, exercise and generally allow their dogs time out of doors. Yet, at the same time, I ponder the invasion of humans on the animals that call nature their home. What of these indigenous denizens whose homes are eliminated in the name of dog socialization, human socialization and the other benefits of dog parks?

To look at a section of a natural assemblage, for argument’s sake let us say 90 acres in Upper Saucon, NY. (here is a link to the article: that “has been undisturbed for more than a decade” (1). The article states that the city council voted unanimously to turn the natural area into a ‘nature park’ with “parking lots, bridges, a dog park, educational staging areas and a series of walking trails” (1). This, again, brings up the question of human, and/or dogs’, intrusion on natural assemblages, on nature, becomes one of decision between allowing nature to remain undisturbed or to allow human encroachment on it.

Markham may not have understood the connection humans have developed to dogs, Bennett may argue that the dog park acts as a created assemblage that serves its purpose, but what would Alaimo, who refused to ruin her tilled soil with a Dorito, or Bennett or Markham say of the matter that is being destroyed in the name of dog parks? How would each of them see how the matter of nature and all its beings and plants and trees are held in disregard to the plight of the apartment-bound hound?


Markham and The Commodification of Greek Food

by Maria Lignos, UNC Charlotte

What are Greeks known for? Being the cradle of civilization? Well, yes of course but I’m thinking about something much more tasty… I’ll give you a hint: gyros, moussaka, souvlaki, baklava, stuffed grape leaves. Greeks are known for their delicious food, duh! Greek food has become a popular staple of American culture, with thousands of Greek restaurants sprinkled all over the country. I can attest to this fact, as my own family owns a Greek and Italian restaurant in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. Our “Greek corner” offers a variety of authentic Greek meals, from spinach pies and gyro platters, to souvlakia and wraps. From one dollop or spoonful of creamy tzatziki sauce made by Minos Lignos himself, to the teaspoons of oregano speckled on chicken, the meals in our restaurant are narrowed down to a science. Each and every customer will indulge in the same bite as the next, experiencing a slice of “Greece” each time they pay us a visit.

This of course brings one of our class readings to mind, specifically Gervase Markham’s, “A Way to Get Wealth: Containing Six Principal Vocations, or Callings, in which every good Husband or House-wife may lawfully Imploy themselves.” This “imployment” or turning the everyday recreations of men (e.g cattle) into fruitful and profitable endeavors is very much like what my family has done with Greek food. No longer is food and cooking confined to the domestic sphere, a job solely performed by the obedient wife. Rather, the making of food has been removed from what was traditionally known as a household craft and has entered the public sphere, and more specifically the economic sphere.

In the same way, my family’s recipes and Greek food as a whole, have become commodified, a way to make wealth. Like all restaurants, my family has and continues to sell and make a profit off of our culture. Our recipes, which at once held a more personal and familial role, have now entered the market/capitalism and been pasted into “books” we now call menus. The commodification of our Greek food has turned our personal skill into a science, almost like an assembly-line of exact teaspoons, cups, and pounds of ingredients being measured and used precisely to offer customers the particular result of “Greekness” each time they dine with us. In many ways, the commodification of our food has also Americanized our recipes, as my family, like others who make a profit off of their cultural food here in the United States, may modify or add certain ingredients that cater to American culture. For example, we have added bacon to our Greek sandwich, called the UFO, in order to make it more “American,” and thus more “sellable.” Such a simple modification, but one that became yet another way, as Markham explains, to make wealth. And alas, who would have ever thought that Markham’s book would be applicable to a twenty first century Greeks like myself?

Animal Welfare Legislation: The Key to Advancing Animal Status Beyond That of Property?

by Beth Mason, UNC Charlotte

A case currently moving through the Oregon legal system bodes well for animals, and animal rights and animal welfare groups hope this will set a legal precedent for animals in the US that will follow suit in the other states. Represented by an attorney from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Shadow, a Quarter Horse plaintiff is suing his owner for three years of starvation, neglect, and damages to pay for ongoing care that he will need for the rest of his life. His former owner, Gwendolyn Vercher, surrendered him to a horse rescue farm earlier in the spring, but was charged with neglect after a veterinarian determined that all of his ailments stemmed from starvation and neglect of proper care and shelter during the time she owned him.

This kind of progress for animals abused by humans has been a long time coming. Anna Sewell and her noted book Black Beauty unofficially kicked off the animal rights movement in England around 1877 by telling the plight of cart and carriage horses through the voices of the animals themselves. By raising average people’s consciousness to the brutality and suffering visited upon pulling horses, Sewell effectively introduced the notion of animal protection from people into the fabric of British society and culture. Though Irishman Richard Martin and Reverend Arthur Broome also toiled on the behalf of horses and other beasts of burden as early as 1822, as they worked to legislate protection for animals in the British Court, it was Sewell’s groundbreaking book that propelled these notions into the mainstream around the world. Since then, legislation for animal protection has increased in fits and starts. Public awareness of animal suffering at the hands of humans seemed to advance at a snail’s pace until the early 1970s when ethicist Peter Singer published Animal Liberation, arguing for both vegetarianism and for a necessary rethinking of the commonly accepted hierarchal structure in which humans are seen as having the highest intrinsic value of all living beings, justifying dominance over the rest.

Ecofeminist Stacy Alaimo wrote of the inclusion of all living things to be seen and valued as equal parts of nature in her seminal book Bodily Natures in 2010. Despite her thesis being transcorporeality (movement across bodies and nature, rather than ranked in a hierarchy), her ‘radical’ notion of equal value and inclusion of all living creatures as necessary to the natural world is both timely and appropriate, considering the status and value with which average people see their own dogs and cats, for example, as part of their families. Any of us who ride and care for horses may actually share this idea, after forging close relationships with the horses which we show and compete. The sense of operating together with a horse as a team speaks volumes to the level of intuition, intelligence, and synchronicity that horses share with their human counterparts.

Oregon is well known as the US state with the most progressive and comprehensive animal cruelty laws. But other states may very well follow suit. In New York, for example, a group called the Nonhuman Rights Project has previously sought writs of habeas corpus for captive laboratory chimpanzees, arguing that they are “legal persons” (a legal status that already extends to corporations and sailing ships, of all things) and therefore possess the right to freedom. Just last year, Connecticut became the first state to allow courts to appoint lawyers or law students as advocates in animal cruelty cases, in part because overburdened prosecutors were dismissing a majority of such cases. And all 50 states have enacted laws and felony penalties for animal abuse. Their levels of use and punishment, however, seem to be lacking.

It has been said that nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. We can only hope that animal welfare and legal protection under the law has come to a significant tipping-point in the public consciousness. And legislation must be driven by punishment with real teeth that deters future neglect and abuse of animal species. Those of us who love and value all animal species will be watching this case very closely, with our fingers crossed in hopes of a paradigm-shifting ruling for Shadow the Quarter Horse.

Beyond Cook(ery)books: Homeopathy, Haraway, and the Knowledge of Women

by Sara Eudy, UNC Charlotte

My great-grandmother had a lot of superstitions around food. Certain foods held connotations of bad luck, while others would bring good fortune and wealth. Though a devout Baptist Christian, my great-grandmother functioned like a lot women in the Rural South, somewhere between Paganism and Traditional Christianity—let’s call it Pantheism, for lack of a better term. A firm believer in her own connection to the natural world, her beliefs—in many ways—aligned themselves similarly to those of Baruch Spinoza, who argues in his work Ethics, that God is of infinite substance and therefore all things are God (Propositions 11-15). This belief influenced her approach to cooking—living on a farm, practicing sustainability before it was mainstream, and knowing the very grass that fed the meat she ate. The recipes of her cookbooks often relied on seasonal, locally sourced, and homegrown. Likewise, her faith in herbalism followed suite, and she relied on home remedies for damn near everything, a habit that she passed to my mother, and eventually myself.

Like many women from the Early Modern period, my great-grandmother’s personal books weren’t solely dedicated to cookery. For her, they often included an occasional gospel song or two, and homeopathic recipes to create salves and medicines for a myriad of ailments. One such recipe for chest congestion instructed the sick to take one piece of rock salt, a teaspoon of sugar, and one piece of pine kindling (often called fatwood), place the salt and sugar into a spoon, light the kindling and let the heated pine resin drip into the spoon until the sugar and salt were melted, then take the spoonful. One would repeat this daily until the cough dissipated. Of course, my great-grandmother didn’t practice medicine, or consider herself a doctress; she knew simply that pine resin helped a cough. Indeed for centuries resin/sap has been used to counter rheumatism, and has anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, and anti-bacterial properties. Hard resin was used in salves while the softer, liquid sap could be used for sore throats and upper chest colds (and was sometimes combined with honey and beeswax to make a type of chewing gum). Like pine resin, herbs had particular properties, and she knew when to utilize what based on the needs of the individual. My great-grandmother’s homeopathic medicine, along with her cooking skills, cared for six children, more than 20 grandchildren. Passed down to my mother and grandmother, these remedies have since helped ease the pain of miscarriage, endometriosis, cervical cancer, and ovarian cysts. When my uncle found himself diagnosed with AIDS in the late 1980s, a point in time when many were dying of a disease with no cure in sight, so too did it help ease his pain and care for him in a way that medical doctors could not.

This brand of homeopathic medicine has historically been—and continues to be—largely practiced by women, and equally, is often discounted by those who deem to be pseudoscientific. Though not acutely medical in its ability to “cure,” homeopathy often eases symptoms and pain, and for those whose needs aren’t met by clinical medicine—particularly women, people of color, and queer people—homeopathic medicine provides comfort and care. Moreover, the cultural relevance of such practices is of extreme importance and creates a body of knowledge that often runs parallel to the clinical. It’s this location of “subjugated” knowledge that scholar Donna Haraway argues for in her 1988 article “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”. Within this article, Haraway attempts to create space for this knowledge amongst the science and “objectivity” granted to men in the West, and for her “‘subjugated’ knowledges are preferred because they seem to promise more adequate, sustained, objective, transforming accounts of the world” (584). This new objectivity, what Haraway titles “situated knowledges,” is about “limited location” and “allows us to become answerable for what we see” (583). In this way, practices, like of homeopathy, become legitimized alongside clinical science, and through feminist objectivity, the two are encouraged to function side by side, creating a more holistic and thorough approach to medicine. Where clinical care cannot, or in the cases of many, will not go, or where it becomes inaccessible due to class or race, practices like homeopathy exist to fill the void. Throughout history women have compiled cures for various ailments, and this knowledge differs based on location and people. For so many, clinical and ‘alternative’ don’t necessarily have to occur on opposite ends of the spectrum and they aren’t mutually exclusive, one merely sustains the other. I’d argue the approach of homeopathic medicine isn’t always a substitute for medical treatment, but it can be a beneficial supplement and aid to those whose bodies are unseen and devalued in the medical institution.

It’s the Midterms and What’s the Point?

by Victoria White, UNC Charlotte

Why should I vote? What is the point? How will it help? These are the questions my students, friends, and family pose to me each time a discussion of politics is incited. While I usually explain the idea of having a voice in government and exercising the right to vote, I find myself growing weary of this rhetoric. Why should I repeat the same old adage that has been instilled in me since my earliest years? Instead of simply saying that it is a civic responsibility we should all do, I have become more outspoken in the way I address questions about voting. Now when asked why we should vote, I turn to Jane Bennett’s work in The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout.

With an apt metaphor involving the electrical grid, Bennett puts forth her idea of agency within an assemblage. Before knowing what agency means to Bennett, we must first understand her idea of an assemblage. Through an explanation about the electrical grid breakdown during the North American Blackout, Bennett explains that an assemblage is “the distinctive efficacy of a working whole made up, variously, of somatic, technological, cultural, and atmospheric elements” ( ). In other words, an assemblage is a collection of actants (or pieces) that make up a system to perform some function in society and in the world. If the United States is an assemblage, then each actant, no matter how small, would have agency. Immediately we think about the House of Representatives, the Senate, Supreme Court, President, etc, all having a voice in this assemblage, yet we forget some of the more minor players. While actants within an assemblage have agency, that agency is shared within the assemblage and is an open current (to share in the electrical metaphor of Bennet’s).

That is correct dear reader, I am talking about you and I. We are also a part of the assemblage. We have voices in this great and monstrous web. While we cannot forget the disenfranchisement of black and brown voters, we must also remain steadfast in our responsibility to vote. Our agency does not end with one election season either.

On June 27, 2015, the United States Supreme Court upheld that marriage for same-sex couples was legalized nationwide– this was not an election year. On June 12, 2016, almost one year to the day, the most deadly hate crime against LGBTQ individuals happened at Pulse Night Club in Florida. This tragedy came just before the pivotal and controversial election of Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence. Though Donald Trump did make a statement about the shooting after its initial occurrence and then again at a rally in North Carolina, his statements were not necessarily directed at the LGBTQ community more than they were towards the Muslim community. He is quoted as saying, “we want to live in a country where gay and lesbian Americans and all Americans are safe from radical Islam, which, by the way, wants to murder and has murdered gays and they enslave women” (Epstein).

The continuing rhetoric against the Muslim community (identified by the anti-Muslim masses through extremist doctrines that do not represent the religion as a whole) resulted in a Muslim travel ban and rise in anti-Muslim sentiments. This tangled web of discourse between religion, politics, and LGBTQ communities has gone on for years now, with comments made by Trump about the banning of trans-identifying individuals in the military to the support of the“fine people” on both sides of the White Supremacist (read: terrorist) vs. Anti-Racist rally goers in Charlottesville.

As is our agency within an assemblage, we must call out comments like these from representatives who hold positions of higher standing than us. As we come to the midterm election season of 2018, I find myself again wondering how my voice matters in this ocean of neverending skepticism and party-division within our country. In the wake of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, the current administration’s internment of children and their parents at the Mexican/US border, and the incited violence against key Democratic party figures, it seems there is a desperate and immediate need for change.

We must call our representatives, speak out against injustice, and always be cognizant of our political and social climate. We are actants in an assemblage and we must direct our agency, however it manifests, into change.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout.” Public Culture. vol. 17, no.3, 445-65. 2005.

Epstein, Kayla. “Donald Trump makes overtures to LGBT community after Orlando, but their response is mixed.” The Washington Post. 17 June, 2016.

When the Enlightenment Binary Meets the Dakota Access Pipeline

by Jordan Frederick, UNC Charlotte

Maya Angelou once said, “No human being can be more human than another human being.” I first came across this quote in college when, as a bright-eyed freshman, I saw the words printed on t-shirts for sale in the Student Union. I thought the turn of phrase was witty and the point poignant and I was excited to help out a cause that championed equality.

The Enlightenment concept of the binary was one that my freshman self would have had trouble coming to terms with. That there could be some sort of hierarchy of being within the human race was something that I would be forced to deal with as I became interested in activism and started to learn the language of privilege. It was actually Shakespeare who helped open my mind to the very real prejudice that guides the actions of mankind when first I read The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last and (to my mind) most poignant work.

Despite the Prospero-centric plot of “The Tempest,” it was Caliban who, for me, made for the most interesting character study in this play. Caliban’s mother, Sycorax the sorceress, was the original (as far as we readers are aware) inhabitant of the island, and Caliban her heir. To a mind obsessed with fairness as mine was, it is Caliban who should reign supreme and all later inhabitants look to him for guidance. That is not, of course, the case: long before the start of the narrative, Prospero had supplanted Caliban as master of the island by merit, presumably, of his superior (book) knowledge and what readers later realize to be abuse and trickery. Even Miranda – who is herself treated as inferior to her father, denied magic, controlled by spells and manipulated from the first pages of the play – looks down upon Caliban as an “abhorred slave” to be despised despite the fact that it was Caliban’s knowledge of the island’s resources that kept Prospero and Miranda alive after their shipwreck (I.ii. 351).

The parallels to white colonialism are writ large upon the pages of The Tempest. The narrative of a white savior in a foreign land whose benevolence is bestowed in vain upon an ignorant native who must be subjugated to the master’s will was a common one among Enlightenment writers who believed in the superiority of the Prosperos of the world. As England stretched her arms across the continents to claim her colonies, it was the binary which sustained her and allowed the Christopher Columbus and his kin to view indigenous peoples as less than human “savages.”

This binary is still alive today in the exploitation of indigenous land by the American government. Winona LaDuke wrote eloquently on this topic in an interview with Science for the People entitled “They Always Come Back.” LaDuke speaks eloquently about the way that generations of Americans have used and abused the environment in the name of development. To her mind, the binary is alive in the way that human comfort is placed above the health of the Earth, but it is also alive in the fact that those lands being contaminated by coal mining, nuclear testing, and urban development are so often native land.

In 2016, the debate around the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline became a hot topic in the news as indigenous peoples and their allies rallied together in protest of a project that would not only desecrate lands sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux people but had the potential to contaminate a major water source supplying those same peoples. For a few weeks, the news was alive with stories of these protests and the government backlash as it tried to shut them down. In the end, however, the story faded from the public eye; the pipeline was constructed, and native voices were once again silenced.

“The point,” LaDuke would say, “is that Euro-Americans perceive the development of their culture as a mastery of the natural world, a prime example of the progress from primitive to civilized society.” Even in this modern age, indigenous lives and wellbeing are being placed below those of white Americans and the colonizer/colonized binary remains in place.

So, too, in The Tempest. At play’s end, Caliban is more of a slave than when the story began for now he has submitted fully to the dominance of Prospero and has given up forever any plans for revenge. Prospero, not Caliban, has the last word, and the audience is sent away with the words of Prospero’s prayer for remembrance and forgiveness in their ears rather than Caliban’s plea for mercy and equality.

Not much, it seems, has changed.

Misogynoir and Black Female Knowledge

by Shanon Murray, UNC Charlotte

As a lived experienced, misogyny saddens me. From a child’s perspective, I interpreted these harmful male-female binaries as a way of life – norms not to be challenged without emotional or physical consequences of some kind. It never occurred to me that these inequalities originated within a patriarchal system that oppresses and undermines women as valuable contributors to society. Historically, women have been and continue to be the objects of study and scrutiny under the male gaze, positioning them as the known rather the knower, in many aspects of life. More disheartening are the complexities of microaggression and violence against women when race enters the conversation.

Rep. Maxine Waters, Tennis Champion Serena Williams, and Billboard-Charting Hip Hop Artist Belcalis Almanzar are all prominent women in their respective fields of politics, sports, and music, yet their many accomplishments and successes do not shield them from the harmful effects of misogynoir. Coined by Moya Bailey, misogynoir involves the “co-constitutive, anti-Black, and misogynistic racism directed at Black women” (Bailey, 2016). While much of Bailey’s work focuses on media and popular culture, the terms applies to all the ways that Black women are the recipients of violence and hatred not only at the hands of white and African-American men, but also white women and Black women who (knowingly and unknowingly) reinforce and perpetuate anti-Black ideology. This is most commonly accomplished through colorism within the Black community, gatekeeping and the subtle exclusion of Black women in spaces that we have not historically had access to, and the policing of Black female bodies and Black female emotion (read: anger).

Although women in general have been categorized as the inferior and more emotional sex, it is Black women who are chastised, critiqued, and shunned the most when they exhibit visual signs of discontent in both public and private spaces. What Waters, Williams, and Almanzar all have in common besides achieving elite status in their professional spheres, is the awareness of their “otherness” in a society that prefers the performance of whiteness and respectability politics. These forms of erasure dismisses the power and agency of Black women and undermines our collective cultural knowledge needed to combat racism and misogynoir within our society.

In relation to Black women and our collective/individual sources of knowledge, I draw upon Cavendish’s The Blazing World, as an example of the ways in which women who have been generally excluded from fields dominated by men, reclaim power and agency. Not only does Cavendish grant authority in terms of power to the Empress, but she creates an “othered” race of half human/half animal beings who are primarily the most knowledgeable entities in the new world. Although Cavendish does not present this text from the viewpoint of the racial tension that we experience today, she understands the consequences of challenging the norm and undermining specifically the human-nonhuman binary. As such, Lawson speaks to Cavendish’s disruption and highlights the invention of “her own theory of visual perception as a form of cognitive apprehension” (Lawson 469). While the author is referencing the infusion of natural science and philosophy within The Blazing World, Black women, who have historically been othered, perceived as non-human, and gazed upon as intellectually incompetent, have also created their own forms of “visual perception” by entering and reimagining their fields of interest despite erasure, silencing, and exclusion.

Drawing upon Williams’ latest experience at the US Open, as well as her battle with healthcare providers after giving birth to her daughter, there is a consistent pattern of silencing from the privileged knowers Haraway describes as “unmarked, disembodied [and] unmediated” (Haraway 586). As marked beings, Williams and others like her, whether high-profiled or working class, will always be subject to Dubois’ idea of double consciousness unless a dramatic shift in the gender-race paradigm occurs. This “hybrid” way of being, although difficult to navigate, is at best an attestation to the multiple systems of knowledge African American women must hold within us to achieve civic freedoms.
This type of new world – free from misogyny and misogynoir – is possible when we can assume complete agency over our own bodies, life choices, and our own knowledge that is not tampered by dominant culture and individuals who have historically held power. As Rep. Walters poignantly expressed in last year’s House Financial Committee meeting, it is important for Black women to reclaim not only their time, but their identity, and rightful place in this society as valid human beings.

Bailey, M. (2016). Misogynoir in Medical Media: On Caster Semenya and R. Kelly. Catalyst : Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, 2(2).
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575–599.
Lawson I. (2017). Hybrid Philosophers: Cavendish’s Reading of Hooke’s Micrographia. In: Marchitello H., Tribble E. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Early Modern Literature and Science. Palgrave Handbooks of Literature and Science. Palgrave Macmillan, London

Trump, Grimoires, and Distributive Agency: Supernatural Actancy in Early Modern Magical Practice

by Paul Hunter, UNC Charlotte

Donald Trump believes he is the target of a figurative witch hunt. But witches are literally hunting Trump or, at least, attempting to ‘bind’ him. Since February 2017, pagans across the United States of America have joined together regularly to ‘bind’ Donald Trump with magic to prevent him from harming the country (Burton; “Witches”). The Sun’s Tom Michael claims that the 2017 Trump Tower fire was potentially a result of these witchy rituals, and at least one pastor in Alabama is attempting to use prayer to protect Trump from witchcraft (Garrison). Regardless of the veracity of Michael’s claims or the success of the pastor’s prayers, this cultural moment highlights the existence of a living magical tradition in the United States of America.

In the spirit of both this living tradition and Spooktober, let’s consider a relatively underrepresented genre of Early Modern writing: the magical grimoires─the books of rituals and rites that offer a window to Early Modern magical practice. In an effort to spook and inform, I have selected an invisibility spell from the Grimoire Verum. This text purports to be from the 16th century but is most likely an 18th century work informed by early grimoires, such as the Picatrix and The Key of Solomon. This selection from the Grimoire Verum provides an avenue for discussion of the agency of the dead and the relationship between the supernatural and natural worlds. The text also begs the question: where would one find “a dead man’s head”?

To Make Oneself Invisible

Collect seven black beans… Then take the head of a dead man, and put one of the black beans in his mouth, two in his nostrils, two in his eyes and two in his ears. Then make upon his head the character of Morail.
When you have done this, bury the head, with the face upwards, and for nine days, before sunrise, water it each morning with excellent brandy. On the eighth day you will find the spirit mentioned, who will say to you: What wilt thou? You will reply: I am watering my plant.

Then the Spirit will say: Give me the bottle, I desire to water it myself.
In answer, refuse him this, even though he will ask you again.
Then he will reach out with his hand and will display to you that same figure which you have drawn upon the head. Now you can be sure that it is the right spirit, the spirit of the head. There is a danger that another one might want to trick you which would have evil consequences…

Then you may give him the bottle, and he will water the head and leave. On the next day, which is the ninth, when you return you will find that the beans are germinating. Take them and put them in your mouth, and look at yourself in a mirror. If you can see nothing it is well….

We require a working definition of agency before attempting to locate it in the text. Agency is defined by Jane Bennett in terms of a distributive agency, where agents are “actants” that contain “a simultaneous variety of virtual modes of expression, and which subset will be actualized at any given moment is not predictable with confidence” (457). For Bennett, this notion of agency as actancy emphasizes “the cascade of becomings,” and Bennett argues that she does not “deny intentionality or its force” but views it “as less definitive of outcomes” (457). Actancy in this model is not the sole privilege of rational humans as it would be under a strict subject/object binary; actancy is instead “the power to make a difference” for both human and nonhuman beings (Bennett 457). So where are sites of actancy in this text?

The magician, the dead man, the spirit, and the beans can all be considered actants within a framework of distributive agency. The magician initiates the operation and carries out most of its actions. The dead man’s spirit imbues the beans with their magical powers, and the dead man’s head provides a fertile location for the beans, which grow and germinate. All function as parts of this operation, and all “make a difference.”

In the penultimate paragraph of the text, the writer warns the magician that certain spirits may seek to “trick” him. The capacity for trickery is clearly the capacity to “make a difference,” thus satisfying our requirements for actancy in terms of a distributed agency. Additionally, this capacity also seems to indicate more conservative definitions of agency, as trickery hinges on intentionality and reasoned decisions. If we take the spirit that “water[s] the head and leave[s]” as the same as the spirit of the dead man, the dead demonstrate agency in Early Modern magical thought. They are capable of exerting force in the world and generating change.

So why is this text spooky? I believe that we find this text unsettling because it involves a person (the magician) exerting agency over the material body of another person (the dead man). To have someone else’s agency supercede our own with regard to our body after death feels like a violation of our willful intentions. Likewise, having another person compel our spirit for his or her own purposes is unnerving and agency-violating.
Hopefully, this post has demonstrated that the Early Modern magical grimoires provide fertile ground for future research.

Have a haunted Halloween!

Works Cited
Bennett, Jane. “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout.” Public-Culture, vol. 17,
no. 3, 2005, pp. 445-65.

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Markham and Memes: How Hurricane Florence Revealed our Agentic Anxieties

by Nicole Kaufman, UNC Charlotte

It seemed as if the whole world was watching, or at least the entirety of the United States, as a good deal of the South was recently hit by Hurricane Florence. I could slowly feel the panic rising beginning with the Wednesday before the storm, the time when many colleges and schools decided to start canceling classes and the news channels began broadcasting coverage all day long. There was worry about gas shortages, food and water scarcities, and of course damage from deadly flooding. Family that I had not heard from for months even called to check that I was doing okay in Charlotte, NC.

Meanwhile, Facebook showed me a different story. Every time that I logged on, my feed showed me memes, or humorous images, about Florence, particularly Facebook events intended to scare the storm away. I remember one in particular was entitled “Do the hokey pokey at Florence so she’ll turn herself around” and another “Everyone direct fans at Florence to blow her away.” As memes are intended to do, these jokes took the real fear and panic surrounding the storm and turned them into something lighthearted, something to make humans feel a little less afraid of nature by asserting our agency in a hyperbolic fashion. Of course, when Florence was downgraded before the storm hit the Carolinas, the idea went around that the storm had been humiliated by all of the jokes, hence the decrease in power.

In reality, we know that there is no logical connection between making fun of a hurricane and alterations in its intensity and trajectory. With that being said, there seems to be a sense that maybe deep down, we really do have the power to make tangible change in unpredictable and frightening natural circumstances. This desperate desire in particular is what interests me. Where does this obsession to prove our own agency come from? We see this same anxiety crop up in the language of Gervase Markham’s The English Husbandman. He says “that not any other sand but the salt is good or available for this purpose, because it is the brine and saltness of the same which breedeth this fertility and fruitfulnesse in the earth, choaking the growth of all weedes and bad things, which would sprout from the earth, and giving strength, vigour, and comfort to all kind of Graine or Pulse, or any fruit of better nature” (6). Here, he recognizes nature, the sand, as the cause of success or failure. Nature is portrayed as an active agent of change. While the agency of nature exists separately from humans and is not something that can be given or taken, Markham later attempts to assert his own agency over that of nature’s: “Thou whom it hath pleased God to place upon a barren and hard soile, whose bread must evermore be grounded with sweat and labour, that maiest nobly and victoriously boast the conquest of the Earth, having conquered Nature by altering Nature, and yet made Nature better than she was before” (4). This imaginary power struggle, imaginary in the sense that Markham does not really have the power to change the land in the way he thinks he does, continues throughout the piece. He seems to believe that if he follows the very specific practices he has outlined for amending soil, he can make the land do what he wants it to do. However, as seen from Hurricane Florence, no amount of preparation, anxiety, or jokes can change the course of the natural world to more readily fit our own human desires.

I think that although many of us may not be consciously aware, we are slowly moving toward Jane Bennett’s definition of agency in “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout.” This agency is distributed across an assemblage, or a web-like grouping made up of actants (445). Bennet makes a compelling argument for this view of agency: “If we don’t know just how it is that human agency operates, how can we be so sure that the processes through which nonhumans make their mark are qualitatively different?” (461). If this definition is to be believed, Hurricane Florence, the soil, electricity, and nature as a whole have agency, as do humans, including those of you reading this post right now. This can be hard to conceptualize as us humans like to believe that we are the power powerful beings in existence. However, as Markham’s anxiety shows, I think we know this is not true and it never has been. The panicked emergence of Hurricane Florence memes shows that this is still true today. Perhaps our use of humor as a coping mechanism shows that we really do believe nature has an agency that exists without human mediation.

Spectacle and the Elimination of Personhood

by Sophie Yates, UNC Charlotte

Like many women, I found it incredibly difficult to watch the testimony given by Doctor Christine Blasey Ford to the Senate Judiciary Committee (now almost two weeks ago). It was difficult to see a woman suffer as she attempted to tell her deeply traumatic story to a room predominantly filled with men. It was difficult to watch these same men turn around and express their outrage at seeing Ford’s would-be attacker vilified and persecuted in his attempts to become a Supreme Court Justice. More disturbing, however, than these basic elements of Ford’s testimony was the way in which she was reduced, during the process of her testimony and the resulting flurry of media commentary and criticism, from a multi-dimensional woman into a blank symbol that seemed to take on whatever value the viewer or commentator required of her.

Val Plumwood, in her essay “Nature in the Active Voice,” describes the tendency in traditional Western discourse to see “the essentially human as a part of a radically separate order of reason, mind, or consciousness, set apart from the lower order that comprises the body, the woman, the animal and the pre-human” (Plumwood 21). This designation (which Plumwood refers to as “human/nature dualism”) is concomitant with Barad’s designation between the “know[ing]” subject and the “known” object in Western scientific practice (Plumwood 21, Barad 813). These strict hierarchies of being are applied, consciously or unconsciously, any time a call is made for an “empirical” examination of an entity or phenomenon. The “knowing” subject, because of its “essentially human” capacity for reason, sits in impartial judgment of the “known” object, which, by default, becomes essentially non-human or other-than-human. This is the process that, culturally, definitively shapes Western methods of inquiry and truth- seeking. An extension, incidentally, of this binary of being is the conflation of natural and feminine identities in what Carolyn Merchant referred to in her book, The Death of Nature, as the ability, when “stripped of activity and rendered passive, [to be] dominated” by such traditionally male concerns as “science, technology, and capitalist production.” Because of this structure of methodology, Ford faced a process of essential dehumanization as soon as she made the decision to testify. She was no longer a woman with a story to tell, but a resource that had to be exploited and manipulated into yielding the result desired of it.

Ford, in the opening statement of her testimony, underlined her situation as the effective object of the hearing in the words and phrases that she employed. She began her testimony by making it clear that she “was not there because [she wanted] to be,” but because she felt that it was her “civic duty.” In her testimony, Ford voluntarily removed herself from any true expression of agency. She gave her testimony and answered both friendly and hostile questions not because she wanted to, or because she felt that it would be of benefit to her in any way, but because she had been compelled by a culturally-enforced sense of duty to do so.

As soon as Ford stepped up to give her testimony, she became a resource. Both liberal and conservative sources examined and evaluated her statements, demeanor and appearance in order to determine her overall “credibility” as a witness. Deanna Paul of The Washington Post reported gleefully that Ford had been a “dream witness,” remarking approvingly of the way in which Ford had delivered her testimony, “with the intonations and in the halting way a teenager speaks.” Paul Butler of Georgetown University Law Center commented that that kind of vocal performance “can’t [be controlled by] an advocate, but when you have a witness like that, it’s golden.” Lindsey Graham, when asked if he believed that Ford had received fair treatment during her testimony, stated that the roles in the case of Ford and Kavanaugh had been reversed: Kavanaugh was the “slut whore drunk.” All of these statements (representing just a few of the many) either evaluated Ford based on her symbolic value or broke her down into a sum of her parts, each part excavated for evidence of credibility. Senator Graham commented in the same interview that he believed Ford to be “a victim” of the empirical “process” of investigation.

The active destruction of a female subject’s personhood and safety in the name of the furtherance or hindrance of two conflicting and (notably) male-dominated agendas is nothing new as a cultural event. In fact, the same dynamics that apply to Ford’s testimony (and its reception) could be applied to such seemingly disparate phenomena as the pushing-through of the Keystone Pipeline, the use of hydraulic fracturing in mining practices, or the moving of US business operations overseas in order to take advantage of profitably lax environmental and labor regulations. Christine Blasey Ford is a “victim,” as Graham claimed, but one in a process much larger and more insidious than the hearings that took place on September 27th. She is a resource, and she lives in a world where all resources must and shall be used.