Eileen A. Joy, Department of English

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville



“Medieval Nature and Its Others”

A Workshop sponsored by Medieval and Renaissance Center

New York University

23 April 2010 @ 1:30 – 6:00 p.m.

13-19 University Place, Room 102

Assemblage, Faciality, and Event in Malory’s Tale of Balyn and Balan

To lose our fascinating and crippling expressiveness might be the precondition for our moving within nature, moving as appearances registering, and responding to the call of, other appearances.

—Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, and Subjectivity

According to Anthony Giddens, “One of the most obvious characteristics separating the modern era from any other period preceding it is modernism’s extreme dynamism. The modern world is a ‘runaway world’,” and the resulting “integral relation between modernity and radical doubt is . . . existentially troubling for ordinary individuals.”[1] And all of this is exacerbated further by the fact that, whereas “in premodern settings . . . time and space were connected through the situatedness of place,” in modernity, time and place become estranged from each other, leading to a general “disembedding” of social institutions whereby social relations are “lifted out” of local contexts and rearticulated “across indefinite tracts of time-space.”[2] According to Zygmunt Bauman, the fixed and normative “social standing” that supposedly defines the premodern era is replaced in modernity with “compulsive and obligatory self-determination.”[3] And the end result is “a combined experience of insecurity (of position, entitlements and livelihood), of uncertainty (as to their continuation and future stability), and of unsafety (of one’s body, one’s self and their extensions: possessions, neighbourhood, community).”[4] In Bauman’s scheme, late modernity literally “liquefies” the supposed solidity of the premodern past, defined primarily by “traditional loyalties,” estates and classes, communal dependency, and “customary rights and obligations.”[5] As a result, the late modern individual is “reshaped after the pattern of the electronic mole . . . a plug on castors, scuffling around in a desperate search for electrical sockets to plug into.”[6]

In Ulrich Beck’s well-known “risk argument,” a totalizing, globalizing economy, in conjunction with new, accelerated technologies, demystified norms of knowledge, perpetual self-reflexivity, and non-traditional social configurations, has brought about unprecedented social hazards and threats to the planet. In this scenario, individualization is to be understood as a change of biographical patterns in which private existence “becomes more and more obviously and emphatically dependent on situations and conditions that completely escape its reach.”[7] To be a human individual today is, finally, to live in “a state of permanent (partly overt, partly concealed) endangerment,” but Beck and Beck-Gernsheim argue that this state of affairs also potentializes the release of individual creativity that, in turn, creates a “space for the renewal of society under the condition of radical change.”[8] Whether or not individual creativity has any space left for itself is, of course, a whole other domain of argument.

In my mind, medieval romance—and especially Malory’s Morte darthur, arriving as it does on the heels of so many long-established Arthurian narrative traditions, which it labors to absorb, recompile, and also refashion—forms an exemplary site for excavating the traces of the nascently (or proto-)modern human individual who is supposedly bound and contained within local and national networks of chivalric tradition and centralized, sovereign authority, but who is also thrust, through ‘aventure,’ into the “compulsive and obligatory self-determination” of a certain alienating pastmodernity. I am inventing here the term ‘pastmodernity’ to evoke a special temporal zone in the so-called ‘medieval’ past in which modernity arrives, as it were, in fits and starts ahead of itself, just as ‘postmodernity’ names a variety of temporalities and world ‘conditions’ whereby modernity is seen as a becoming-something else while still remaining in “undead” traction with older social, cultural, political, psychic, etc. formations. The present moment, in any time, is therefore partly the sum of certain movements of what Cary Howie calls ‘traherence,’ in which nothing really “gets free of what it ostensibly emerges from”[9] and every Now is simultaneously a “not yet” and a “then.” Indeed, in one of the tales that occurs early on in the Morte, “The Tale of Balyn and Balan,” we can detect a certain traction between a sedimentation of traditional systems for both hailing and fantasizing the medieval sovereign subject and the arrival of what Scott Lash has called the non-linear nomad of late modernity who lives in “regularizable chaos” at the “interface of the social and the technical,” a place (or “place-polygamy”) where the self is always fundamentally incomplete.[10]

At the same time, and because this is an enchanted world—by which I mean, a literary one (while, admittedly, the Arthurian world is also a supernatural realm)—we can also glimpse in Malory’s text, especially in all of the accidents that punctuate Balyn’s quest, a certain future-oriented “evential hermeneutics”—the phrase coined by the philosopher Claude Romano to describe the human being as an advenant who is “constituitively open to events, insofar as humanity is the capacity to be oneself in the face of what happens to us.” For Romano, there is no originary “Being” (or being-there) for the human, who instead “happens to his possibilities only from an even greater passability with respect to the events that punctuate his adventure and thus give him a history.”[11] For Romano, passability, “arises from the origin of our self-projecting adventure lying outside ourselves (in birth), and therefore coming before any activity or passivity. It is a ‘being exposed beyond measure to events, in a way that cannot be expressed in terms of passivity, but precedes the distinction between active and passive.’ As such, it is a sort of ‘pre-subjective opening,’ because ‘a passivity that would be mine . . . is given only in the after-shock and counterblow of the event’.”[12]

This definition of what I would call the contingent human also accords exceedingly well with what Allan Mitchell has written about Balyn in his recent book Ethics and Eventfulness in Medieval English Literature—that Balyn is “an emphatic example of . . . one who is touched by events . . . . More than most knights-errant, Balin finds himself to be particularly gifted and given over to temporality and exteriority.”[13] This can be seen, especially, in the fact that, although Balyn sets out for his adventures from Camelot, as most knights do, unlike most of the rest of them, he never returns, and while, at times, he seems completely unconscious of the possible consequences of his often furious and seemingly blind actions, at other times, he appears all too aware that he is giving himself over, almost passively, to the wild contingency of the Outside. Just before passing on to a castle, behind which is the small island where he will meet his death at his twin brother’s hands, and which castle is fronted by a sign that says, “IT IS NOT FOR NO KNYGHT ALONE TO RYDE TOWARD THIS CASTEL,” Balyn hears a horn blow “as it had ben the dethe of a best,” and he says to himself, “That blast . . . is blowen for me, for I am the pryse—and yet I am not dede.” And then, as is typical for Balyn, he goes right on in. Although he soon “repenteth” that he ever did go in, at the same time, he claims that, regardless of life or death, he “wille take the adventure that shalle come to me” (pp. 58, 59).[14]

In Romano’s “evential” hermeneutics, which is an elaboration and up-ending of sorts of Heidegger’s ontological hermeneutics (where Being precedes events and is then projected into them), we can see a beautiful conjuncture with the importantly determinative trope of “adventure” in Malory’s Morte, which literally founds the knightly individual. Although it is always in Arthur’s court, wherever it is being held, that everyone gathers as a community, self-identity, however tied to that court, can never really be discovered (or uncovered) there. It is always on the Outside—the zone of aventure (what Jane Bennett has called a “heteroverse,” as opposed to a “universe”)[15]—where the social relations of the Arthurian world are “lifted out” of the super-structure of Camelot and re-articulated across indefinite tracts of space-time, represented by chains of endlessly deep and winding forests, hallucinatory tableaux, and the non-linear “traveling life” of the knight himself. And in Balyn’s story, in particular, Balyn’s claim early on, that “manhode and worship [ys hyd] within a mannes person” (p. 42)—an important claim for the medieval chivalric ideal in general, that honor resides not necessarily in clothing and gear and titles, but within some sort of interior space of personhood—this claim is completely up-ended by the details of Balyn’s own narrative which seems to argue instead for the idea, elaborated in Romano’s philosophy of the event, that Balyn comes into existence as a person only through that which happens to him, and there is, technically speaking, no “inside” or interior personhood that could precede the events of his own story.

Despite Balyn’s own intentions (such as they are minimally articulated throughout his “Tale,” primarily as the somewhat self-destructive desire for, as Balyn himself puts it, the getting of Arthur’s love regardless of the risks),[16] Balyn’s story highlights the idea that, “As one to whom events happen, we are neither simply active nor passive, but live out of a passibility that puts our very selves into play and is a capacity to appropriate our possibilities and thereby advene to ourselves.”[17] Another way of putting this would be to ask you to consider that the world is not the place where we take place, but rather, the impersonal events of the world, arriving to us, open us up as encounterable, and thereby also open up the world itself. World and subject open together in events, the chief example of which is our very own births. In the magical zone of adventure in medieval romance, the fictional conceit is that the knight comes into chivalric being as he passes from one site to another, encountering events that supposedly reveal the worthiness he always possessed as he, again, passes through them and supposedly comes more fully into his own being, which is like a thing finally revealed in the world (and which also assumes an Outside, a Nature, that has no distinction until we arrive and take place in it); but I say, following Romano, let’s reverse this ontology, and say that it is the world that arrives to the knight, who can only really advene to himself in the events that can never be predicted in advance. It will have to be admitted that Balyn himself is often wholly impervious and impassable with regard to the possibility of advening to himself through the events that literally, and without predetermined meaning, happen to him, at which times Balyn is a kind of pure negation who cancels in advance, through his often unwitting violence or inattention, the very possibility of possibility, but he is also a sort of beautiful movement, a sensation that Deleuze might say acts as “a break within the flow of absolute consciousness,”[18] with the absolute consciousness in this case being the assemblage of Camelot.

[for a helpful summary of the primary events of Balyn's adventure, go here]

And Camelot is an assemblage, I would argue, in the way that Manuel Delanda describes Deleuze’s thinking on such systems: it is characterized by “relations of exteriority,” which imply that “the properties of the component parts [a knight’s “doughty hondes,” for example, or the “fayre foreste,” or the call of a distressed damsel] can never explain [on their own] the relations which constitute the whole [Camelot, or, the “machine” of Arthurian romance], that is, ‘relations do not have as their causes the properties of the [component parts] between which they are established,’ although they may be caused by the exercise of a component’s capacities.”[19] A knight or lady, as singular components, in other words, may be plugged into any number of different literary assemblages (other than Malory’s Camelot)—and their interactions with other components cannot be predicted in advance, but place these things in relation to each other within the spatial boundaries of a medieval romance (a knight seeking “aventure” riding through the “fayre foreste” with a lady running toward him and crying out that her lover has been wrongfully killed), and we know what happens next, or rather, one of just a few outcomes, or further “relations,” can be predicted in advance. There is a good reason, when we teach Arthurian romance, that our students struggle to keep characters, locations, and separate “adventures” straight: they are all, more or less, exactly the same, and only the names change.

There is a high degree of internal homogeneity and territorialization in the world of Arthurian romance, which contains certain well-defined spatial boundaries (there is always a forest, always a castle, always a perilous bridge, always a set of tents in which Arthur can be found holding court, etc.) as well as non-spatial “sorting processes” whereby certain characters are allowed in this world, others are kept out, and face-to-face relations are predetermined to a certain extent by generic scripts that constrain possibilities, but this is not to say, of course, that each medieval romance is not utterly different from every single other medieval romance, which is why it also has to be argued that Malory’s Arthurian world is only really an assemblage, not only because of its internal homogeneity and symbiosis (which, left to itself, would makes that world more of a stratum, or a stone-world), but because it is a system of bodies, actions, passions, statements, expressions, and enunciations that, in the words of Deleuze and Guattari, “swing between a stratum state and a movement of destratafication . . . between a territorial closure that tends to restratify them and a deterritorializing movement that connects them to the Cosmos.”[20]

It may be that the generic yet highly idiosyncratic Balyn is an agent, or cutting edge, of deterritorialization, a kind of contagion who seeks to carry the whole assemblage away with him by, in a sense, taking the rules of this world to their too-literal extreme, and hurrying headlong thereby into the void of his own death, an end predicted to him, with dire seriousness, several times throughout his tale. During the twin brothers’ penultimate battle, mentioned above, on a little island in one of the many no-places of the Arthurian Outside, both Balyn and Balan are wearing borrowed armor, and therefore do not recognize each other. And being equally matched, they are wounded and die simultaneously, possibly demonstrating—in a kind of beautiful miniature of the entire genre—that there can finally be no individual lives. There can only be expressions or enunciations of the system, which requires, not just death, but even the undoing of one’s birth (or possibility of being re-born both to and in the world). Indeed, after Balyn realizes he has mortally wounded his brother Balan and falls backward from grief, Balan removes Balyn’s helmet and does not “know him by the visage, it was so full hewen and bledde” (p. 60): for the most part, this is a truly faceless world—Balyn never possessed a face even before his non-face was shredded by his brother, and therefore, the absence of Balyn’s face in this scene figures a sort of sublimely terrifying slippage of faciality that reveals the black box of Arthurian subjectivity. The brothers’ final request, made in one joined voice, is to be buried in one pit together, just as they came into the world, “bothe oute of one wombe, that is to say one moders bely” (p. 60)—which is to say, as if they had never entered the world to begin with, or ever been encountered by the world.

But for me, there is also one moment in Balyn’s story that signifies the spot of a kind of crash-landing from the future of the possibility of Romano’s “evential hermeneutics”—this is the moment when, after killing the Irish knight Launceor, Launceor’s damsel lover, Colombe, arrives to announce to Balyn, “two bodyes thou hast slayne in one herte, and two hertes in one body, and two soules thou has lost,” and immediately after saying this and making “grete dole oute of mesure,” she takes her lover’s sword and after struggling for a bit with Balyn who is trying to wrest that sword from her, she sets “the pommel to the grounde, and rove hirselff thorowoute the body” (p. 46). This scene is not, in and of itself, extraordinary within Malory or even the larger corpus of medieval romance. Knights are often accidentally killing someone’s lover and you can almost always count on the injured party to show up, give vent to sorrow “oute of all mesure,” and then throw themselves on their lover’s sword, and if enough people are there to witness it, they will also throw themselves on the ground and shed a reservoir of tears. But what is unique in this scene is that, immediately after Colombe’s suicide, Balyn is so struck with wonder at her will to self-destruction over her love for the dead Launceor, and so ashamed of himself for causing that self-destruction, that, as Malory writes, “for sorow he myght no lenger beholde them, but turned hys horse and loked toward a fayre foreste” (p. 46).

It is only for a moment that Balyn turns away,[21] and the sight of his brother suddenly riding out of the forest toward him quickly breaks the scene, but in that singular instance of both being struck with amazement at the power of eros—of a fierce attachment to the world, and more pointedly, to one particular body in that world, without whom this world has been drained of reason and possibility—and also in turning away from the sight of two particular loving-destroying bodies, Balyn reveals his capacity for what remains unthinkable for him in almost every other moment of his story: the ability to stop, to pause in astonishment at the sight of an event that reveals the wonder of the sudden presence of a body, a being, who is so saturated with herself and her lover’s sword (which is also to say, his body and his things), that she is opting out of the system in order to go on as a lover, even without her body. Further, this scene of erotic, bodily grief and astonishment—as event, even as a cutting through of Balyn himself as an event—deterritorializes the strata of Balyn’s world and threatens to literally carry him away. But Balyn’s astonishment, which causes him to turn away from the sight of the very world which we might say he cannot bear, which threatens to carry him away from and back to himself in a new way, is almost immediately broken by the sight of his brother Balan riding toward him out of the “fayre forest,” which, in Malory’s world at least, is the classic route of escape. It is also the image of an incorruptible beauty, because it is not really a beautiful forest, but an idea of one, seen at a distance: the very frame of the aesthetic (and inhuman) narrative to which the faceless Balyn must return.

And the two dead lovers, left behind, shimmer in their eventfulness, which the narrative hurries to cover over and look away from. The only way forward, then, is to Balyn’s own catastrophic death—to be slain himself by his own brother whom he himself will slay, bringing him back, perhaps ironically, to this earlier scene in which two hearts in one body and two souls have been irrevocably lost together (and always will be)—this is the foregone conclusion of a life devoted to the idea of knighthood, to its aesthetic beauty and chaos of mistaken identities, and ultimately, its supposedly “higher” impersonality, which requires death. And yet . . .

. . . because Malory’s world re-unfolds each time we return to it as readers, its events—Balyn’s momentary astonishment, which is a sort of suspension of himself (as well as his and his brother's uncannily doubled death which is also a return to their mother's womb, as if they had never been born at all)—remain always in the future. Although the characters are, as it were, shut up in a narrative in which the same things happen to them over and over again with no possibility of a different ending—every time we read Anna Karenina, Anna will always jump between the cars of the oncoming train—yet, there is an apophatic element inscribed in the body of the language of Malory’s (or any literary) text, which we might say is also an important function of the “event” of Colombe’s suicide and Balyn’s astonishment at it—an event, moreover, that, in John Caputo’s words, is “inexhaustible, possessed of unplumbable depths, an inner restlessness and dynamic by virtue of which the event is never given a final expression in words and never reaches a final realization in things.”[22] This might also be a new credo for the human individual as an advenant who desires, not to master the world, nor merely to project herself into that world, but rather, seeks opportunities to well up in the “diachrony of the radically burst open and non-synchronisable times”[23] of events, to take place in the taking-place of the world.


1. Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), pp. 16, 21. For the effects of speed on the late modern condition, see also Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics, trans. Mark Polizzotti (New York: Semiotext(e), 1986) and William E. Connelly, Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

2. Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, pp. 16, 17.

3. Zygmunt Bauman, “Foreword: Individually, Together,” in Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: SAGE Publications, 2002), p. xv.

4. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), p. 161.

5. Bauman, Liquid Modernity, pp. 2-3. Bauman distinguishes between an earlier, more “solid” or “heavy” modernity, in which power required “territory” in which to exercise itself (with “empire,” Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, and the Fordist factory standing in as arch-metaphors), and our more current “light” and “liquid” modernity, in which “power has become truly exterritorial, no longer bound, not even slowed down, by the resistance of space” (p. 11). Reversing the state of the affairs in an earlier modernity, in which settled majorities ruled over nomadic minorities, in the “fluid stage of modernity, the settled majority is ruled by the nomadic and exterritorial elite,” and it is now “the smaller, the lighter, the more portable that signifies improvement and ‘progress.’ Traveling light, rather than holding tightly to things deemed attractive for their reliability and solidity—that is, for their heavy weight, substantiality and unyielding power of resistance—is now the asset of power” (p. 13).

6. Bauman, Liquid Modernity, p. 14.

7. Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter (London: SAGE Publications, 1992), p. 131.

8. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, Individualization, pp. xxi, 3. Giddens has likewise argued for the positive socio-political implications of the situation of the disembedded individual in a post-traditional, late modernity, in which he sees the possibility of a future-oriented “utopian realism.” On this point, see Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), pp. 151-78.

9. Cary Howie, Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure (New York: Palgrave, 2007), pp. 7, 112. ‘Traherence’ is a neologism coined by Howie.

10. Scott Lash, “Foreword: Individualization in a Non-Linear Mode,” in Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, Individualization, p. xi.

11. Claude Romano, Event and World, trans. Shane Mackinlay (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009), p. 20. It is important to note here that Romano distinguishes between impersonal “facts,” which “happen within a world, are subject to causal explanation, and are inscribed within a datable present,” and the “evential” (a term he coined), which designates events that are “addressed to particular entities, reconfigure the world, cannot be explained by causes, and occur with a ‘structural’ delay that opens the future” (Shane Mackinlay, “Event, World, and Place,” paper presentation, Australian Society for Continental Philosophy Conference, University of Tasmania, 6 Dec. 2007, p. 6).

12. Mackinlay, “Event, World, and Place,” p. 14. Passages cited within this quotation from Mackinlay are Mackinlay’s translations of Claude Romano, L’événement et le monde (Paris: PUF, 1998) and “Le possible et l’événement,” in Il y a, Épiméthée: essais philosophiques (Paris: PUF, 2003), 55-111.

13. J. Allan Mitchell, Ethics and Eventfulness in Medieval English Literature (New York: Palgrave, 2009), p. 129.

14. All citations of “The Tale of Balyn and Balan” are from the Norton Critical Edition of Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, or The Hoole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of the Round Table, ed. Stephen H. Shepherd (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), referenced by page number.

15. “Heteroverse” is a term coined by Jane Bennett to describe how Thoreau conceived of an outside “Wildness”/world that is non-hierarchized. “Heteroverse,” as opposed to “universe” (which implies a world with ‘rounded’ wholeness), suggests “both how heterogeneous elements intersect or influence one another and how this ensemble of intersections does not form a unified or self-sufficient whole. It may also, through the idea of verse, convey the sublime character of this dissonant combination” (Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild, new ed. [Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2002, p. 53).

16. After Balyn has killed the knight Launceor who pursues Balyn in order to avenge Balyn’s decapitation of the Lady of the Lake and his resulting affront to Arthur’s honor, and has also watched helplessly while Launceor’s lover Colombe kills herself on Launceor’s sword, Balyn tells his brother Balyn, “I am right hevy that my lorde Arthure ys displeased with me, for he ys the moste worshypfullist kynge that regnith now in erthe; and hys love I woll gete—other ellis I woll putte my lyff in adventure” (p. 46).

17. Mackinlay, “Event, World, and Place,” p. 1 (my emphasis).

18. Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life, trans. Anne Boyman (New York: Zone Books, 2001), p. 25.

19. Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (London: Continuum, 2006), pp. 10, 11. The quote within the citation from DeLanda is from Gilles Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 98.

20. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 337.

21. It is significant, further, that this momentary act of turning away, because Balyn could “no lenger beholde them,” is unique to Malory’s version of the story. In the French prose Suite de Merlin, considered to be Malory’s primary source for this narrative, Balyn does not turn away in his astonishment and the author also qualifies Balyn’s astonishment as being related to Balyn’s surprise that a woman could love so intensely (whereas in Malory, it is the sight of the two dead bodies together that affects Balyn so profoundly, in addition to his shame at having caused the damsel’s grief): “Quant il voit ceste aventure, il ne set que dire: car il est si durement esbahis qu’il ne set s’il dort ou s’il veille. Car il ne vit onques ou siècle chose don’t il s’esmervillast autant comme il fait de ceste. Si dist que loiaument amoit la damoisele et que il ne cuidoit pas que en cuer de feme peust entrer amour si vraie” [“When he saw this adventure, he did not know what to say: for he was so astonished that he didn’t know if he were asleep or awake. He had never seen in this world a thing that amazed him as much as this one did. He said to himself that the damsel loved loyally and that he hadn’t thought such true love could enter into the heart of a woman”] (cited from Le Roman de Balain: A Prose Romance of the Thirteenth Century, ed. M. Dominica Legge [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1920], p. 20; the translation is mine).

22. John D. Caputo, “Bodies Still Unrisen, Events Still Unsaid,” Angelaki 12.1 (April 2007): 83 [73–86].

23. Romano, L’événement et le monde, p. 65; quoted in Mackinlay, “Event, World, and Place,” p. 9.