Susan S. Morrison (Texas Tech. University-San Marcos)

44th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2009

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: Are We Serious Enough Yet? The Place of Ethics in Medieval Scholarship

The Pleasures of Fecopoet(h)ics

Figure 1. Paul McCarthy, "Complex Shit" (inflatable sculpture)

Provoked by an article by Michael Calabrese,[1] this session asks whether literary criticism can be or should be politically- and/or ethically-driven, and if so, how much. Calabrese fears that literary-critical concerns are forgotten in the flurry to enact ethical and political understandings of texts. At the risk of, as Calabrese puts it, merely “performing ethics,”[2] I hope to show how criticism can be ethical and even pleasurable.

Using presentist theory can be threatening. In the April 24, 2009 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Edmundson rails against the use of “readings,” by which he means “the application of an analytical vocabulary... to describe and (usually) judge a work of literary art.” While Edmundson goes on to perform readings explicitly allied with Longinus, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, and Sontag -- who presumably are not tainted as are the enemies he cites -- “[Marx, Freud, Foucault, Derrida, or whoever]” -- he clearly feels under siege, threatened, and disappointed in the turn away from what he calls, for example, an ideally Blakean reading of Blake’s verse or an “Eliotic” reading of T.S. Eliot’s verse.[3]  How we can achieve such readings is not specified. We can, after all, only read as we are able in our own time. 

I have discovered that Professor Edmundson is not alone. My own work focuses on excrement in the late Middle Ages and now waste in general. But the mere evocation of terms like “fecopoetics” - the poet's use of scatological discourse -  or “waste studies” causes anxiety, disdain, smirking, and, yes, anger. Last fall my book on excrement in the late Middle Ages came out; it was reviewed by sympathetic scatologists, even to high praise in the journal Practical Gastroenterology,[4]and was nominated for the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title. But three years before its publication, I had sent a chapter to a journal we all know.  While one of the reader’s reports made conventionally useful suggestions for revision, another, after calling my writing “tendentious,” “trivializing,” “puerile,” and “heedless,” wrote:

I have the impression that I could argue like this until I am blue in the face, and it will never make a dent on the writer’s train of thought….I apologize for not going through this whole article to make a case for rejecting it – my time does not allow for that, nor would doing so make much of a difference to anyone.  I am sure that certain other readers will exult over it, and if you do publish the article to show how ecumenical you can be at any cost, I will observe a seemly silence, and learn whether or not I belong among this honored folk.

Stephanie [Trigg] and Tom [Prendergast] started off by asking, “Who are we?”  I ask, “Who is “this honored folk” this poor, angry, even pitiable reviewer is constructing?  Why this fury?  Who are those “exulting” medievalists this reviewer fears?  Are they in this audience or is this audience a self-selected group?

More recently, a section of my current research on waste was reviewed by another journal we all know.  Again, one reader made several good suggestions for revision while the other, recommending against publication, writes that my entreaty to pursue waste studies

seems to be meant as more of a satire on critical theories….[The author] splices heady theory with tongue-in-cheek theorizing…. [The writer] parodies the act of literary analysis.

This reviewer evidently wants to prevent me from being another Alan Sokal, whose persiflage of contemporary theory hoodwinked the editors of Social Text.  I’m not saying I don’t need to revise and I’m happy to take criticism.  But what intrigues me is the depth of emotion these reviewers feel. Are we being serious enough yet? Some of us are seen as clearly NOT being serious enough. I really do firmly believe it is ethically “good” to examine excrement and waste in texts. Why is this so alarming? Why so threatening? How do we explain Charlotte Allen’s notorious article in The Weekly Standard “trashing” last year’s Kalamazoo conference where she mocked the session I chaired on excrement, and, even more disturbingly, scholars working in disability studies and even graduate students. 

The reclamation of aestheticism and formalism in the early twenty-first century, after a perceived theory overload in the late twentieth century, responds to the real and abiding angst that theory as a process is suspected of having decayed; hence the recent and pending special issues of Critical Inquiry and the PMLA which respond to anxieties about the future of theory.[5] There seems to be a sense that presentist theory obfuscates the past and enables us to even disremember the past.

The philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas can provide guidance for how ethical literary criticism can challenge appropriative readings of the past. Lévinas’s writings can alter how we read literature, not to create a closed system of analysis, but as a way into seeing the utterance of literature as an ethical event.[6] Ethical criticism is dialogical, is “interpretation as interruption.”[7] Criticism and theory are ethical when they disrupt closed understanding.[8] And what could be more disruptive than excrement or waste?

The origins of our cultural legacy, sedimented in waste, have had and will continue to have repercussions for the Anglophone canon.  We see waste, both literal and figurative everywhere: from Grendel’s arm to Yorick’s skull to the “dust” in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. We can learn from literature that deals with waste what models might best contribute to ethical relationships with the world around us.  For example, waste stalks Beowulf -- in the many deaths of living beings and in the decay and destruction of culture and civilization. The display of Grendel’s arm in the hall, like a hunting trophy, is the visible sign of culture’s triumph over the monstrous (833b-6b).  Only by destroying his bodily integrity, can the humans reassure themselves of their own. Yet Grendel, constructed as a monstrous other, as waste, by the humans, is oddly similar to those who seek him out for destruction, as the horrific discovery of Æschere’s head exposes. We are all simultaneously whole and fragmented; we all contain the potential to become -- inevitably-- trash. The poem enjoins us to remain thoroughly mindful of our own inevitable decay.

This, then, may explain the anxiety by some toward my exploration into waste. Myra Seaman has characterized the human as “presumed by traditional Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment humanism,”[9] as a rational male being at the center of the world with independent agency.  My wasted human -- who has more in common with a mama’s boy monster living in a dank mere than with a triumphant, “unified, cohesive ‘human’” -- adheres to the posthumanist emphasis on “mutation, variation, and becoming.”[10]

Excrement and waste are fundamentally problematic topics, otherwise they would not attract such deeply emotional reactions from those reading about them, including one blogger who scathingly writes, “I guess this is what happens when you no longer take Western Civilization seriously….” My endeavor is to show how “Western Civilization” is, in fact, filled with waste; this recognition clearly is found to be threatening; and this can only suggest to me that there is something there worth exploring further.  The ethical obligation I now feel is to somehow write in a welcoming way that invites sceptics in to my point of view.

The emerging religious environmental movement (such as “Green Christianity”) criticizes the resistance to action and lack of motivation to act concerning environmental degradation despite our scientific and technological ability to do so. Using the term “creation care,” evangelicals see religion as a modality that can help make social change by changing the heart.  Similarly, literature and literary criticism both can function as modalities of “restitution”[11] that can help motivate social change. The horror, fear, shock, and disgust we feel when confronted by waste can jolt us out of our complacency. We recognize in waste not only the humanity of the other, but also the affinity the other has to us. Acting on knowledge -- even of something as repugnant as waste and the whereabouts of its disposal -- prevents alienation, ultimately leading, as Aristotle would argue, to pleasure and happiness.

Are we serious enough yet? Of course we are.  And we don’t need just presentist theory, but futurist theory, for our own and our society’s pleasure and our own and our society’s well-being. Let's make waste matter.


1. Michael Calabrese, “Performing the Prioress:  ‘Conscience’ and Responsibility in Studies of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 44 (2002):  66-91.

2. Calabrese, 70.

3. All references to Mark Edmundson, “Against Readings,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 24, 2009, B7-B10.

4. “Morrison's study offers an engagingly written book that makes a convincing case for the cultural significance of the medieval fecal and that elucidates Chaucer's poetry in thoughtful ways.” Valerie Allen, The Medieval Review.   Another reviewer, a medical doctor, recommended the book for "physicians interested in bacterial biomass and biodiversity" and "intestinal flora." (John Pohl, Practical Gastroenterology)

5. See the Critical Inquiry 30 (2004), an issue solely devoted to the future of theory and the PMLA call for papers for November 2008 on Literary Criticism for the Twenty-First Century.

6. Ann Astell and Justin Jackson, “Before the Face of the Book,” in Levinas and Medieval Literature:  The “Difficult Reading” of English and Rabbinic Texts (Duquesne UP, 2009); accessed from on April 21, 2009. 

7. Robert Eaglestone, Ethical Criticism: Reading After Levinas (Edinburgh:  Edinburgh UP, 1997), 167.

8. Eaglestone, 177.

9. Myra J. Seaman, “Becoming More (than) Human:  Affective Posthumanisms, Past and Future,” Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2 (Summer 2007):  246 [246-257].

10. Seaman, 247.  See also Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis:  U of Minnesota P, 2003), xiii.

11. As Eileen Joy and Mary Ramsey have contested, echoing W. G. Sebald.  Eileen A. Joy and Mary K. Ramsey, “Introduction,” The Postmodern Beowulf:  A Critical Casebook” (Morgantown:  West Virginia University Press, 2006), lv [xxix-lxvii].  They are reworking W. G. Sebald, “An Attempt at Restitution,” The New Yorker, 20 & 27 Dec. 2004: 114.