Nelljean Rice (

Coastal Carolina University

Southeastern Medieval Association, September 2005

BABEL Panel: Medieval Humanisms/Modern Humanisms

Jack and the Beingstalk: Finally (Mis)underdstanding the Metaphor, or, the Katrina Effect


Poor, incompetent Jack. He threw away the beings, sorry, the beans, but, instead of dying, they grew up into the clouds. The magic beanstalk, a very slender, but strong thread of being, took him up to the lair of the monstrum: a marvel, a portent, a prodigy that carried a warning inside. Jack further compounded his error by killing this babewyn, this boystow, this chimera named Cormoran who lived on St. Michael’s Mount. Jack did it because he listened too hard to the tales of King Arthur’s knights. Jack’s tale finally ends “happily ever after” when he kills, with his sword of sharpness, the giant Galligantus and sends this monstrous head to Arthur. Arthur receives the head, a simulacrum of an “early warning system,” and Jack gets the large estate, the duke’s daughter, and fame throughout the land: a capitalist’s dream courtesy of FEMA . . . fi, fo, fum.

We first learn to be human listening to fairytales and our grown-up mistakes are in thinking that those tales are both unreal and too real.

Today, in a poetical, hysterical way, I’ll attempt to parse this tale in response to Dr. Joy’s questions about humanism, the post-human future, the intersections between the medieval and the modern, and the roles of the individual and the Other. I will be dwelling on the intersection between the real and the imaginary, between human and non-human, between I and Other. In order to do so, I have pulled from such diverse sources as Gaston Bachelard, Claude Levi-Strauss, Lisa Randall, Jeffrey J. Cohen, Christine Goldberg, Zygmunt Bauman, and several essays from two issues of The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture, “The Body and Being Human,” and “Technology and the Human Person.”

Recently, Lisa Randall, a Harvard physicist, wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times. This essay, titled “Dangling Particles,” immediately makes me think of certain body parts, and, of course, Jack’s beingstalk. However, Randall means the word “particle” to mean what it means in, say, particle physics. I know nothing about particle physics and therefore am Randall’s best subject: a somewhat Luddite poet who thinks too hard about language: what it does, where it goes, who it is. Randall blames scientists for poor word choices for the scientific “universe of discourse” but couldn’t the same be said for any discourse? She claims that the intrinsically complex nature of modern science and the poor word choices of the “authors” of this science, have caused a distorted perception of binary oppositions, where none exist, or uncertainties reported as “fact” merely because they were reported.

She blames who we all blame: the media. The media has to fabricate stories, not make them up, but make them out of parts. Why blame the medium for the message? They, the individual reporters, are making what Levi-Strauss calls bricolage – a careful sifting of items and details related to each other through congruity – yet I might agree with Randall that they are forcing the issues and trying to codify a meaning in a mere two to three hundred words. Perhaps they even glance over and ignore some juxtapositions which do not suit a pre-conceived thesis or political worldview. However, they are easy scapegoats as the cause of the public distrust of scientific advances. Randall states, “If we accept simple stories, [of scientific accomplishment] the description will necessarily be distorted” and, hoping that the “public” will be patient, she opines that “The truth. . .will always be far more interesting” than a simplistic binary opposition, or scientific uncertainties reported as fact. Still, she hasn’t addressed the primary concern of her op-ed thesis, which is that the language that scientists have chosen is inadequate to the task and she never mentions her fellow scientists who create the binary opposition on purpose.

In their speculations about the post-human and the mechanical replacement of worn-out body parts, the cyborgian GenRich with their synthetic, perfect genes, the Meta-man, boss of the MOSH, the “mostly original substrate humans,” scientists like Ray Kurzweil, Hans Morvec, and Lee Silvers gleefully stress that something beyond the human will be manufactured by biotechnocrats, biomedical scientists, computer programmers and robotics engineers. These entities will be perfect and so perfectly intelligent that they, in the words of Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Reading University, will be able to “send symbols and ideas and concepts without speaking,” doing away with the need for any language at all. Warwick, who has implanted computer chips into himself and his wife, cites the example of no more faked orgasms for her because his nervous system and hers are so “in tune” now. This example is so “middle school wet dream,” demonstrating his “rigid” view of language and love. It also shows (however tongue-in-cheek, or stalk-in-the-ground this example might be) the moral vacuity of some of the world’s major post-humanists. Just who does the continual, spontaneous, always mutually-timed orgasm benefit, anyway? Isn’t what we forget, what we lose, or what we do wrong, like “fake” an orgasm, sometimes the most important part of our learning what it means to be fully human?  Those who believe that super-artificial intelligences will eventually “eat” or “port” materials, mind files, and energies from their deliquescing human inferiors, as Joseph Davis says, have replaced metaphor with equivalence and disconnected the mind from the body.

Jeffrey J. Cohen’s reminder that machina were human, or, humans were machines, and that even contemplation and allegory (and I would add metaphor: after all, we still call the parts tenor and vehicle) were machines, and that the medieval knight was the first cyborg, help me to remain skeptical of what Katherine Hayles calls the posthumanist “Platonic backhand.”

She reminds us that pattern (information) and presence (corporality) do not have to be binaries. Pattern does not have to dominate and the false polarities that Randall cites, do not have to trick us. I would remind us also that metaphor making is the language of creating new patterns and while metaphors may not prove a teleological truth, they do suggest an epistemological one without which we can not communicate any ideas nor, especially, emotions, no matter how many chips we have inserted into our hides. The “body” and “embodiment” will always be vehicles, machines, which drive our speech, and the body can also be the tenor, the signified. Body is always both I and Other whose individuality is both separate and attached. To describe the latest speculations on Meta-man, scientists resort to metaphor, using the “body” of language “embodied” in their speech acts.

Scientists can not describe their findings non-mathematically, unless they use metaphor, frail vehicle that it may be. Even Randall the accuser uses metaphor in her work on string theory. In string theory (can you see where I might be going with the beingstalk?), the largest known sporadic finite simple group is known as the “monster” group, or monster simple group. Part of the “moonshine conjectures,” monster simple group is the name for the symmetries of a 196,883 dimensional geometrical object. Imagine an abstract symmetrical snowflake embodied there. String theory and super-string theory, to grossly simplify (and I feel Randall’s glower as I do so) relies on the mathematics of folds, knots, and topology to proclaim that the fundamental constituents of reality are not particles, but strings which vibrate at resonant frequencies. The “string” in string theory is a metaphor, a slender thread of meaning, but it just might not be—metaphor, that is. It might be the infinitesimal real.

Did you know that one meaning of the word “beanstalk” is a vehicle for a type of space elevator, as yet, hypothetical? It is a fixed structure attached to earth yet spiraling into space—a geosynchronous orbital tether—which could permit delivery of goods and people into orbit as early as 2018. And as recently as last month, the journal Science reported that researchers have has success in reprogramming skin cell genes so that they become stem cells. If this works consistently, our ethical debates over stem cell research can end.

A string, a stalk, a stem. All themselves but also all Other. All branches of the cosmic tree. How come?

Lest the scientists try to hog all credit for these transformations, I would like to give Grammar the credit. In the Middle Ages she was the iconic representation of the art which John of Salisbury believed “prepares the mind to understand everything that can be taught in words.” She is the students’ socializer; she holds a scalpel, a medicine jar (see, she’s a scientist, also), and a writing implement. In some representations, she is gigantic, a monster who brandishes her cudgel. She is Moral Instruction. She is Glamour. Grammar=Glamour, glamour being Sir Walter Scott’s corruption of the medieval “glomerells,” those non-academic grammarians who instructed the youth in their Latin. Stringing this idea along, stalking the whiff of sulphur that clings to Grammar as Glamour, we might think that she, made up by those awful necromancers, the Romantics, is magic. If we agree with Zygmunt Bauman that the Modern “age of irony” has become the post-modern “age of glamour,” in which the lifestyle of the resourceful elite becomes a monstrous mutant in the shopping arcades, tempting the poor and the powerless to ever more frantic consuming of “sincere,” but “until further notice” liaisons with each other, then, folks, we are living in a true “Jack and the Beanstalk” world.

Small, seemingly insignificant things, like beans, possess great power. Adherents of Pythagoreanism were forbidden to eat beans because they were thought to contain the souls of the dead, and their vines were the way out of Hades, even though the notion of a spindly beanstalk, that needs to be staked and tied with string almost immediately, climbing up to Heaven seems absurd. This vegetable access to heaven was thought to have been available to all of us, but we somehow lost our ability to climb. The “giant” waiting for us is sometimes thought to be St. Peter, Jesus, or the Sun, or, alternatively, a witch, the Devil, or a phoenix. In some versions, Jack, punished for his greed and vanity, falls from the stalk and dies. While the cutting down of the beanstalk supposedly stabilizes the tale, framing the story with it’s magic growth and man-caused death, I believe that this ending celebrates capitalism and the death of God. As a fairytale, “Jack” is relatively new, having appeared first in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It has a modern sensibility about it, which is probably the reason it is currently one of the most anthologized and alluded to of all extant tales.

Let’s make a new meaning for it that marries the medieval and the post-modern and gives the monstrous giant identity and agency. What if the giant is Grammar and Jack the mis-speaking scientist questing after huge government and pharmaceutical industry grants? Cutting off the head of Moral Instruction and disembodying “that which prepares the mind to understand everything that can be taught in words,” creates the Katrina Effect. Nature as the Sacred Other, showing us just what puny beingstalks we are.