Friday, April 20, 2012

Elemental Dances: Crossing Environs w/Thomas Coryate

“Queer does not have a relation of exteriority to that with which it comes into contact … becoming part of a space where one has expanded one’s body 
saturating the space with bodily matter.”

Sara Ahmed


The Following is a Transcript of Paper Delivered at
the Graduate Conference on Medieval Studies 
at the Catholic University of America


"Are we human, or are we dancer?"
The Killers

I see people around me suffocating. We have circulating around and through us the concept of identity as an acrophobia, as a set of monkeys which sit on our back telling us to “see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.” By asking us to place our hands over our eyes, our ears and out mouths, what it encourages us to do it to seal our orifices off, so as to let nothing in or out. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call this a failed body without organs, a narcissistic sewing shut of the self, which attempts to produce an individual as an autonomous and contained thing, separate from its environment. What happens to us as a result is exactly what should expect: we suffocate, we become unable to see others or ourselves, and we also well up with all the shit stuck inside.

Conservative and Liberal identity politics both play this game. On one side we see the imperial, monotonous, colonial sublimation of all things into the self and on the other we see the minoritization and alienation of all things into separate, claustrophobia inducing boxes. The prior passes through the dance floor without becoming a part of it, looking annoyed at those around him who keeping knocking him about. The latter sits off in the corner, by herself, observing others on the other side of the room; watching but letting them be. Both go home without having too much fun, but also not changing very much.

This paper is a call into the mosh-pit that exists all around these two cloistered off figures. It dances in the middle of things, as Deleuze and Guattari imagine it, where bodies throw themselves against one another, fall in disorienting directions, exchange sweat and air with those around it. As Judith Butler writes, identity is a way of being disposed; we exist as things for other people and as the other which is ourselves. We become ourselves because of the physical, intellectual, & spiritual gifts of others. To become anything, even human, means to constantly become more than human; we dance and become our environment; we perform the dance of air, water, earth and fire; we dance and become Muslim as we become Christian. Let’s grind; open up our motions, bodies, lungs & learn to breathe again.


Queer Movements of Christianity

For now, I will address movements of Christian education, that dance of sacraments that is traditionally and more accurately called, the formation process of becoming Christian. Christians conceive of God is as an active Trinitarian community and the Eucharist, or communion, as an active ecological body in which is shared, consumed, and ultimately expelled into the environment.

Likewise, the Christian articulation of the Law and the Prophets is to “Love God, and Love the neighbor as the self”, which requires the simultaneous process of acknowledging a contingent existence of neighboring bodies as interpenetrating and forming one another, but also a contingently separate things. This requires a sense of wonder about each other, and self, but also a sense of adventurous, joyful, dangerous contact with a queer world.

GK Chesterton believed in faeries, which exist alongside but also intermeshed with our world. CS Lewis believed in Greek gods, which play in the spheres, but also intervene in our affairs. Tolkien believed in angels, demons, and other non-binary spirits; and angels that are messengers; an office Michel Serres prescribes to all things which act on us as mediators for other mediators, which transform us too into messengers in lines of actor-networks. These thinkers, like Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Contra Gentile, prompt us to imagine a Christianity which moves not to a singular eternal purity; for that is nothing; nothing is purity and monotony par excellence.

Instead, Christians can dance like Thomas Coryate, who walked from Jerusalem to India in 1614, embodying difference all the way. His Christian formation consists in shaking things up and enacting an ecological, communal body; which anyone who has lived in community knows, means productively conflicting, exchanging, & inter-identifying with diverse, queer, “odde” bodily motions of ontology. We can treat his letters home as dance lessons, as airy, watery, earthy, and fiery embodied debates between Christian, English bodies and Muslim environments, on the cross-roads of identity



Words reshape the body, and not only by language itself but the air on which it rides. “Your prayers doe stink” slurs Coryate in what becomes a failed assertion of closed identity, to a host of Muslims he meets while traveling through the Middle East on way to India. Registering the olfactory qualities of their prayers reveals an adoption of their words through the nose, as well by sound. Conversley, he adds that Christian prayers are “like a sweete smelling sacrifice.” We can imagine Coryate sniffing around various places of worship, opening up his orifices to allow tiny particles of air, words, and smells to stick in his body.

And no doubt this exchange of odors and hot air, heated by the sun and by their respective egos, are flowing between the bodies of Coryate and his interlocutors as they exchange insults. Thus smells travel via mouth as well through the nose. This “empty space,” in the face, where the two bodies meet and combine, writes Butler, is “literalized by the empty mouth which becomes the condition of speech and signification.” Coryate seems ironically unaware of serving as odorous and excrementry cross-roads for the airs of two faiths to mix and leave their mark on his body.

The diatribes continue: he adds that the Muslim afterlife is “A filthy quagmire so full of stinking dung-hills that a man cannot walke two spaces there but he shall fumble at a dung hill and defile himself… as the reward for superstitious mumbling in your praiers, and the often ducking of your heads when you kiss the ground;” while the Christian paradise as “a proper and perculiar inheritance purchased unto us by the precious blood of our Christ.” Whether it’s through the sloshing, muddy feces of the Muslim world which they reach by repeatedly touching the ground or the intake of human flesh and blood, real or represented in the imbibing of Christ, both heavens are described as being filled with the odorous airs of bodies which stick to the nose as the description might stick in our ears. Certainly Coryate’s abjection of Muslim airs is a fervent rejection from the body, but there appears to be a delight in taking it in nonetheless, even if he prefers exhaling to inhaling.



An argument, like making out, or grinding, could be called swapping spit with someone; and in the days of humoral theory, becoming liquid is considered more than a metaphor, but a real way in which bodies were recorded to transform gender, races, and disposition. Coryate argues, grinds up against, and flows with Muslim waterscapes throughout his travels. “Thou… drink of the liquor of the running river” writes an anonymous poet in the Introduction to Coryate’s letters, In Praise of the Author. Unlike the practice of settled everyday life, that of drawing water from a well, the very water Coryate drinks in the river remains in motion from the time it enters the mouth (as one of many options) and ultimately runs through the veins and other currents of the digestive track, and as it exists through a multitude of outlets, being it through the skin, the urethra, the anus, etc.

Let it also be said that standing water provides more opportunities for disease to enter the body than moving water, suggesting that if Coryate did not want to be infected by Muslim fluids as he traveled through their lands, drinking from the river may be healthier in the end; except that rivers were also the dumping place for sewage during this time. Hence, we also see an instance of the medical practice of bleeding in Coryate’s text in order to flush out these fluids. “In Constantinople,” Coryate records “I had an Ague, which with a little letting blood was clean banished.” Again, while attempting to assert the molar identity of his body against a foreign life-form, Coryate only serves to bring attention to the queer cohabitation that occurred as the disease entered, altered and mingled with the body.

The forign world literally floated in his blood, one of the most vital bodily fluids in humor theory, and more than hot air, capable of transforming the identity of a person or a lineage if exchanged. Modern mico-biology also attests that diseases stay in the memory of the immune system for a life-time, changing the body to remain in some ways a perpetually, parasitically occupied, diseased thing.  While pushing Arab fluids out of him, Coryate needs to drink & remember them to survive.



Living on and eating on Muslim lands, likewise transforms Coryate on his travels. As Sara Ahmed writes, “Queer does not have a relation of exteriority to that with which it comes into contact… becoming part of a space where one has expanded one’s body saturating the space with bodily matter.” These lands have been saturated by Muslim bodies, and he now joins with them.

Food which Coryate indiscriminately imbibes as he travels, are not only made from foreign materials and in foreign ways, but since, as Coryate says the “victuals being cheape in some Countries where I traveled, that I oftentimes lived competenlie for a pennie sterling a day” it should be inferred that he was eating the inexpensive peasants cuisine. Food would likely be simple and the be drawn from that which was most available. What came into Coryate’s body reflects the landscape of where he was travelling, through digestion, marking his perspiration and smells, etc., before he in turn used it to mark the landscape through defecation.  We are what we eat, and in the days of humoral theory where heat and wetness defined gender, race, and countenance, imbibing environments literally act on and change identities we now largely view as culturally produced.

The movement in and out of each others holes, challenges the sealed, ontological status of the molar being, the normative idea that if nothing else, a person has the individuality at the level of flesh. We are open networks of differentiation, where “the boundary between the inner and outer is confounded by those excremental passages,” writes Butler, “in which the inner effectively becomes outer and this excreting function becomes, as it were, the model by which other forms of identity-differentiation are accomplished. In effect, this is the mode by which others become shit.” While shit is often not owned up to once it leaves the body, it evidences environmental transformation that puts pressures on the clean oneness of the body. It is what happens when various outsides meet and spend time together inside. The smell of shit, as we have seen, while associated with the Other, is more the byproduct of the Other becoming self.



Having gone through Coryate’s airy, watery, and earthy transformations with the Muslim environment as he debates, I finish with fire. I can feel his body change in the heat of Arab lands, which as noted, according to humoral theory, has the power to materially change a person’s identity as they dry out and warm up. Furthermore, fire is likewise in the Christian imagination, specifically the scripture passage on the gift of the holy spirit as tongues of flame. Fire changes bodies through the gift of gab.

Coryate’s fiery language transforms his body as he argues with Muslims on his travels, revealing many spiritual ironies in his assertion of Christian identity. He delivers the speech in Arabic, which he learned, and wrote down both in Arabic and in English in a letter back home. Literally, his body is affected and trained in Muslim linguistic motions of the mind and mouth, which have been infused in practice of Arabic.

Coryate claims that the best manner of Christian education is to learn other languages, for which he suggests repeating the same words until they become rote/wrote in the body. He claims to have done with both as motions of the mouth in speaking the language and in hand while writing it. This harkens back to his critique of Islamic prayer as repetition. His repetition of Arabic, Muslim inflected motions are then clear signs that to become identified as Christian to the Muslim who he argues with, he must become Muslim by repeating their language.

An Arabic scholar and colleague of mine noted that the Arabic script which Coryate records is not “proper” Arabic, even for the time period. It has, she claims, an English accent. This tells us that Coryate has not mastered or become solidly either Arab or English in his performance of translation, but bumps up against the language communities of both. He is a queer polyglot. Likewise, in order to contend with Islam, Coryate has had to study the faith. Even if he demonizes it, he at least partially learned it. He let fiery spirits of Arab culture and Islam into his body, in order to them expel it. This fire however remains in him and travels traveling along with his letters, down to us as we share them.

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