Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium

Now available from punctum books.

Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium. Eds. Ed Keller, Nicola Masciandaro, and Eugene Thacker. Brooklyn, NY: punctum books, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0615600468. 297 pp.

Essays, articles, artworks, and documents taken from and inspired by the symposium on Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, which took place on 11 March 2011 at The New School. Hailed by novelists, philosophers, artists, cinematographers, and designers, Cyclonopedia is a key work in the emerging domains of speculative realism and theory-fiction. The text has attracted a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary audience, provoking vital debate around the relationship between philosophy, geopolitics, geophysics, and art. At once a work of speculative theology, a political samizdat, and a philosophic grimoire, Cyclonopedia is a Deleuzo-Lovecraftian middle-eastern Odyssey populated by archeologists, jihadis, oil smugglers, Delta Force officers, heresiarchs, and the corpses of ancient gods. Playing out the book’s own theory of creativity – “a confusion in which no straight line can be traced or drawn between creator and created – original inauthenticity” – this multidimensional collection both faithfully interprets the text and realizes it as a loving, perforated host of fresh heresies. The volume includes an incisive contribution from the author explicating a key figure of the novel: the cyclone.
CONTENTS: Robin Mackay, “A Brief History of Geotrauma” – McKenzie Wark, “An Inhuman Fiction of Forces” – Benjamin H. Bratton, “Root the Earth: On Peak Oil Apophenia” – Alisa Andrasek, “Dustism” – Zach Blas, “Queerness, Openness” – Melanie Doherty, “Non-Oedipal Networks and the Inorganic Unconscious” – Anthony Sciscione, “Symptomatic Horror: Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour Out of Space’” – Kate Marshall, “Cyclonopedia as Novel (a meditation on complicity as inauthenticity)” – Alexander R. Galloway, “What is a Hermeneutic Light?” – Eugene Thacker, “Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans” – Nicola Masciandaro, “Gourmandized in the Abattoir of Openness” – Dan Mellamphy & Nandita Biswas Mellamphy, “Phileas Fogg, or the Cyclonic Passepartout: On the Alchemical Elements of War” – Ben Woodard, “The Untimely (and Unshapely) Decomposition of Onto-Epistemological Solidity: Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia as Metaphysics” – Ed Keller, “. . .Or, Speaking with the Alien, a Refrain. . .” – Lionel Maunz, “Receipt of Malice” – Öykü Tekten, “Symposium Photographs” – Reza Negarestani, “Notes on the Figure of the Cyclone”

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Abstract: Absolute Secrecy, or, On the Infinity of Individuation






Now a hidden word [verbum absconditum] was spoken to me, and my ears as if by stealth received the veins of its whisper. In the horror of the vision by night, when deep sleep is wont to hold men, fear seized me, and trembling, and all my bones were shaken.
– Job 4:12-3

To preserve a place is to preserve distinction. Therefore I pray God to make me free of God, for my essential being is above God, taking God as the origin of creatures. For in that essence of God in which God is above being and distinction, there I was myself and knew myself so as to make this man. Therefore I am my own cause according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is temporal.
– Meister Eckhart

[T]he essence of my self arises from this—that nothing will be able to replace it: the feeling of my fundamental improbability situates me in the world where I remain as though foreign to it, absolutely foreign.
– Georges Bataille

No light has ever seen the black universe . . . Black is entirely interior to itself and to man.
 – François Laruelle

My secret to myself, my secret to myself, woe is me.
– Isaiah 24:16

Premodern mystical discourse, being rooted in the possibility of St. Paul’s rapture (‘this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter’, 2 Corinthians 12:3-4), is governed by a fundamental optimism regarding the availability of an absolute secret, an ultimate truth that is knowable, only to the individual and precisely not to the world as such, an infinite whisper that is irrevocably found within an uncanny domain of event or experience in which the individual, in knowing the secret, and in keeping with the etymological concept of the word (secretum, from secerno: to set apart, sever, disjoin), is cut off from himself, as indicated by Paul’s use of the third person. Thus for Dionysius, the realization of the absolute truth, that which is “beyond assertion or denial,” coincides with “being neither oneself nor someone else” (Mystical Theology). Or as Marguerite Porete says, “the secret treasure of this goodness . . . annihilates her within herself (Mirror of Simple Souls). Starting from a recognition of the complicity between mystical secrecy and the problem of corporeal individuality within this tradition, my paper will pursue the thought of individuation as absolute secret truth—a truth that is absolutely secret (unknowable outside of its own reality) and a secret that is absolutely true (real beyond all other knowledge)—in order to expose a mystical fact: that the opacity of the real, the hiddenness of the in-itself or blackness of the universe, is nothing other than the infinity of the event of oneself. Necessarily, this argument will follow the problem of individuation far beyond its ontological confinement to the passion of facticity, the philosophical imprisonment of being-oneself to a fundamental dislocation within being (i.e. being-there). Instead, I will assert the truth of a new form absolute mysticism, one which unveils the question of individuation as an infinite passion that forever dislocates or topologically destroys the ground of ontology itself. 


  

Monday, February 13, 2012

Half Dead: Parsing Cecilia


 [for Dark Chaucer] 


percutis, ut sanes, et occidis nos, ne moriamur abs te
– Augustine, Confessions 

Synopsis: St. Cecilia’s botched beheading masterfully sculpts the conundrum of life/death liminality into a horrific three-day dilation of the moment of martyrdom, opening the decollative blow that typically coincides with receiving its crown into a series of unfinished neck-cuts. Pinched between the cruelty of the headsman’s impotence, the idiotic inflexibility of the law, and her own sacred durability, Cecilia embodies the paradoxical idea of an unending, asymptotically inconclusive decapitation, an infinite series of beheading blows that never severs the head. Her hacked neck fuses into one form the two principles it figurally evokes: the unbeheadability of the body of God—“illius enim capita membra sumus. Non potest hoc corpus decollari” [We are limbs of that head. This body cannot be decapitated][2]—and the semi-living nature of fallen humanity, as signified through medieval allegorical interpretation of the traveler who is attacked by robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and left “half alive/half dead” [semivivus, emithane] (Luke 10:30). The unity of this form is equivalent to the differential non-difference (half alive = half dead) between the Greek and Latin terms. The three-fold opening intensively multiplies the “zero degree of torture”[3] into a single tertium quid that is indifferently beyond the distinction between life and death. Being half dead, Cecilia is ultimately alive. Being half alive, Cecilia is ultimately dead. Dwelling in the hyper-intimacy of extreme dereliction, Cecilia is a lacerated, ever-dilating theopathic icon of divinity’s absolute indifference to life and death. Her three-day rest from both, during which she simultaneously does nothing and works all the more fervently, exemplifies the “passivity and absence of effort . . . in which divine transcendence is dissolved.”[4]

Thre strokes in the nekke he smoot hire tho, 
The tormentour, but for no maner chaunce
He myghte noght smyte al hir nekke atwo;
And for ther was that tyme an ordinaunce
That no man sholde doon man swich 
penaunce
The ferthe strook to smyten, softe or soore,
This tormentour ne dorste do namoore,
But half deed, with hir nekke ycorven there,
He lefte hir lye, and on his wey he went.
(Second Nun’s Tale VIII.526-34)[5]

Thre strokes in the nekke he smoot hire tho
The representation of the three strokes emits several rays of darkness, that is, occult illuminations of significance from what the image hides. First, there is the darkness of the threeness itself, the obscurity of its relation to the semi-beheading event. That the reason for the three is later provided in no way erases this significant obscurity. Not only does the explanation not touch the question of threeness itself, it rather exacerbates the obscurity by linking threeness to the arbitrariness of the law, superadding the abstract/bureaucratic violence of law per se to the palpable violence of the strokes and thus intensifying their numerical enigma. This conjunction—an excellent object for contemplating more generally the intimacy between law and number, all the hidden complicities between the law of number and the number of law—is essentially temporal, a repetition of momentary indistinction between the time of the act (“tho”) and the time of the law (“ther was that tyme an ordinaunce”) that incisionally counts and literally strikes law upon body. (The word law, via OE lagu, itself indicates something set down, a stroke, and is related to lecgan [lay], which also means to slay, strike down; cf. the expression to lay into someone). The darkness of this relation, the hidden mechanical link between the constitutive time of the active instant and the historical time of its situation, opens into the deeper darkness of the triune law of time itself (past, present, future), the inescapability of its numbering. In light of Aristotle’s definition of time as “the number of movement in respect of the before and after,”[6] thre strokes is simply a literal intensification of the wound of time, the continuum of its cutting into being.[7] Still, however deep a significance for the three is given, it never touches the threeness of the stroke itself as a specific phenomenal reality. For that is something, in its immediate facticity, behind which cause and reason necessarily recede. Three in this sense is the real time of (thinking with) the one experiencing being beheaded, with her who is being capitally cut off from all that does not matter by facing a simple brutality of one, two, three—the essential count of ex-per-ience itself or out-through-going. To see this experience (as opposed to imagining what it is ‘like’) means seeing a superlative identity between three and Cecilia’s semi-beheading, a direct and immediate identity. This threeness, as the primary, first-word feature of the event, is the threeness of beheading itself, an essential threeness of the act that is paradoxically disclosed, like the being of Heidegger’s hammer, when beheading breaks down or fails to fulfill itself. The essential ‘count’ of beheading is three, in the sense of being a tertium quid produced in the severing of the head/body binarism. Cf. “Severing also is still a joining and relating” and Dante’s description of the infernal cephalophore Bertran de Born as “due in uno e uno in due” (Inferno 28.125).[8] Beheading unlocks the invisible head-body holism, the conjunction of each being within the other, into the negative conjunction of severed head and body. Decapitation’s count is three, and in three distinct ways: 1) serially, decapitation is the weird third thing that follows the separation of head (one) from body (two), a neither-head-nor-body that includes and emerges from both; 2) additively, decapitation is the sum of its parts: head plus body (head + trunk) equals three, where head must be counted twice, as head and as part of body; 3) synthetically, decapitation is three as the union of its dualities, its two-in-one and one-in-two. The threeness of beheading may also be sought within its twisted temporality, its being a specular folding of past, present, and future, or “an event that ends before it begins and begins after it ends.”[9]
Second, there is the darkness of the syntactical contraction of the three strokes into one act. By eliding the experiential space between the strokes, this contraction deepens the event by not dramatizing it, like off-stage violence in a Greek tragedy. Three strokes in the nekke, as if part of one design (an idea artistically realized in the Cecilia sculpture at the cathedral in Albi), silently equates the passing of the strokes with the unrepresentable, leaving it suspended and all the more present as something that does not enter into memory. Why? Because the passing of the three strokes, the durational suffering of them, is something radically unworthy of recollection. Not because it is to be forgotten, but because it is only known without recording, understood immediately in the absence of memorial entrapment and deformation. This silent passing of the strokes does not simply encode trauma, the real live wounding that never passes into language and is (dis)remembered symptomatically. It is something deeper: the exact openness of being wounded that will not, by its own deep transcendence of suffering in suffering, be circumscribed in any repetition whatsoever. Behind the baser darkness of the terrifying dilation of decapitation’s ideal instantaneity into three-fold time there lies the more brilliant darkness of Cecilia’s radical or totally rooted self-opening under the blade, her unrecordable dismembering. The unending opening of beheading into three exposes the shining obscurity of the deeper time that is the very place of Cecilia’s rootedness in God, the enigmatic ease of her actually being what Gawain only momentarily and with great difficulty achieves: “grathely hit bydez and glent with no membre / Bot stode stylle as the ston other a stubbe auther / That ratheled is in roche grounde with rotez a hundredth” [Truly he awaits it and flinched with no member, but stood still as a stone, or a stump that is anchored in rocky ground with a hundred roots].[10] This rootless rootedness or abyssal stillness is the passional seed and prefiguration of the three-day half-death that follows (537)—a temporal imitation of Christ’s entombment that the triune beheading law enables with perfect providential perversity, intimating a ready-made path to revolutionary salvation via suffering of the law’s very letter, i.e. martyrdom as hyper literal head tax: “Render unto Caesar . . .” (Matthew 22:21). The saint’s living three days in half-death is not simply the effect of surviving three strokes. It is the fulfillment and produced end of her real passive acting or intentional endurance of all of them as one. Without this mysterious intention the specific duration of the survival would be senseless, whence Cecilia’s subsequent revelation of her secret request, To han respite thre dayes and namo (543), and its correspondence with the three-stroke maximum: This tormentour ne dorste do namoore. Note also the formulation of the wish, as if the prolonging of her death were a postponement of, or even rest from, execution (respite also connotes cessation of suffering),[11] rather than its brutally extended form. Occupying the negativity of limit (namoore), the full threshold of the end, Cecilia here demonstrates how transcendent ceaselessness is a constraint-based art, a spiritual exercise that necessarily and paradoxically operates within strict conditions. Never ceasing—She nevere cessed (124); nevere cessed (538)—is an infinite work of finitude, not a task of those who think they have all day. The darkness of Cecilia’s intense openness to beheading may thus be formulated as an aggressive form of amor fati that fiercely insists from within on experiencing all three strokes, on passing through the full force of necessity, precisely without recourse to any external means that would enforce or facilitate that passage. The prolongation it produces is not a matter of experience-hunger, of wanting more life. Rather it is the need to arrive oneself to the real end, as opposed to merely being there when it is over. The last thing a saint wants is to die in her sleep. Die awake, so awake that experience runs ahead of death; show up, finally. Cecilia is not loitering or lingering on the boundary between this life and the next – “surely it is the height of folly for you to linger on this bridge.”[12] She is crossing it so busily that death itself cannot happen or take place without protracted difficulty. In sum, the real subject of Thre strokes in the nekke . . . is the preposition in, the place where Cecilia’s desire operates, freely exposing the strength of its utter submission to God. Julian of Norwich understands this: “I harde telle . . . of the storye of Sainte Cecille . . . that she hadde thre woundes with a swerde in the nekke . . . By the stirringe of this, I consyvede a mighty desire, pryande oure lorde God that he wolde graunte me thre woundes in my life time [contrition, compassion, and longing for God] . . . withouten any condition.”[13] As does Bataille: “incapable of doing anything—I survive—in laceration. And with my eyes, I follow a shimmering light that turns me into its plaything.”[14]
Third, there is the darkness of the headsman’s intention. The primary and normal sense is that the headsman is not intending three strokes but is attempting thrice to behead her in one. This is supported by the assumption that this is what he, as headsman, should be intending and by the subsequent indication that was unable to (He myghte noght), which implies that he was in fact trying his best or attempting to apply a maximum of strength and skill to the effort. This is also supported by the earliest version of the Passio and subsequent versions. “[Q]uam cum speculator tertio ictu percussisset, caput eius amputare non potuit.”[15] “Quam spiculator tribus ictibus in collo percussit, sed tamen caput eius amptare non potuit.”[16] “The quellar smot with al his mayn, threo sithe on the swere / He ne mighte for nothinge smitten hit of.”[17] Yet there are other more obscure possibilities, various clouds in the headsman’s will, divisible into those that fall under the normal sense of his intention and those that do not. The former will be more properly discussed with respect to the next line. The latter comprises several intersecting possibilities, all of which are supported by the basely literal sense of Thre strokes . . . he smoot hire, namely, that the headsman simply struck Cecilia three times in the neck. Some of these are: 1) that the headsman wanted to torture Cecilia, to deny her a quick death, either by protracting the beheading or not beheading her at all; 2) that he did not want to harm Cecilia, but was compelled to, and thus did so minimally; 3) that he didn’t care about what he was doing and performed the task without proper intention; 4) the he was intentionally conflicted, subject to opposed desires, and acted through some complicated combination of the above, perhaps changing his mind in the process. There is also a third and stranger kind of intentional darkness that is between and outside these distinctions, namely, the possibility that the headsman did indeed try his best but only via a pure and spontaneous decay of intention, a nameless form of volitional perforation whereby the will, not in relation to any other interfering object but precisely in relation to nothing, secretly and suddenly (sua sponte), lacks itself. Such intention is dark in the sense of being the subject of a clinamen or weird swerve that occurs, as Lucretius says, at no fixed place or time, only here the clinamen must be construed as itself weirded by the full perseveration of the originary intention—a swerve that travels in a straight line, as it were. Such a dark will, a will that purely is and is not one’s own, is well figured in the three non-severing strokes in that they do hit their mark, but inexplicably without realization of the intention for doing so. Although this potential negative spontaneity of the headsman’s will must be thought apart from possibilistic conditions or chance, it may be inversely compared to the event and experience of hitting a target by only diffidently or naively attempting to, that is, the situation where one succeeds in fulfilling an intention without really trying to. In that case, an intention’s deficiency becomes the paradoxical means of its realization, so that one strangely cannot take credit for succeeding at what one meant to do. In this case, an intention’s integrity is the paradoxical site of its non-realization (but not because of any external factors), so that one must take credit (if that were possible) for failing at what one meant to do on the basis of that meaning alone, that is, for a pure, unknowable, and thus unconfessable kind of failure that cannot properly be located in the will, or its application, or the difference between them. Although this third kind of intentional darkness is very difficult to conceive in practical terms, it may be fittingly defined in this hagiographic context as a momentary negative occasionalism or local withdrawal of divine omnipresence as universal intermediary of all action. The idea of such withdrawal also furnishes a more general theory of passion miracles, which so often involve a suspension of the capacity for things to touch, especially in the context of the comic impotence of violence to effect its ends. This may be conceived externally (blades fail to cut, fire fails to burn, etc.) but also internally, with respect to the mechanics of mental powers, so that the headsman’s will may be thought as failing to touch itself and thus spinning in place like a disengaged primum mobile. The will still moves, gives every appearance of being itself, yet is somehow suspended in an essential detachment from its own being. Such a darkening of the headsman’s will, which may be correlated as well to the executioner’s traditional head covering and its symbolic removal of personal agency from legal murder, thus represents the perfect profane counterpoint to the celestial motion of Cecilia: “[As] hevene is swift and round and eek brennynge, / Right so was faire Cecilie the white / Ful swift and bisy evere in good werkynge, / And round and hool in good perseverynge / And brennynge evere in charite ful brighte” (SNPro VIII.114-8). Ultimately, the dark will of the headsman is visible as the intimate shadow of Cecilia’s own, the adjacent negative outline of her alchemical burning and melting into God.

He myghte noght smyte al hir nekke atwo
The headsman’s failure to sever Cecilia’s neck, considered as an evental contradiction or prevention of his exercised will, fulfills the characteristically Christian renunciatory logic of strength-through-weakness: “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). There is a real dialectical relation between Cecilia’s self-exposure and her material power to withstand the tormentor’s blows. The obscurity of this relation concerns the actual location of this strength, which may be understood as existing everywhere, nowhere, or locally somewhere. Of these possibilities, locating the power in her neck seems the simplest and most physically plausible solution. It also offers the beauty of an inverse re-writing of the biblical trope of “stiff-necked” (durae cervicis) pride (e.g. Exodus 34:9, cf. “la cervice mia superba,” Purgatorio 11.53), whereby the humble neck, bending itself freely before the blow, achieves a truly superior durability. Literalizing in reverse the psychomachean allegory of Humility’s decapitation of Pride,[18] Cecilia’s humbly-strong cervix stops the instrument that would violate it, exposing the fundamental weakness of its wielder vis-à-vis her uncuttable sancity—a correlative fulfillment of the verse, “Dominus iustus concidit cervices peccatorum” (Psalms 128.4) [The Lord who is just will cut the necks of sinners]. As this line is read by Augustine in reference to “proud sinners in particular, the arrogant, stiff-necked kind,”[19] so Cecilia’s saintly neck-strength signifies an ordinate spiritual obstinacy and pride, a pure relentless refusal of the false which is paradoxically demonstrated in the inviolable openness and impenetrable nudity of an extreme passivity that renders action itself passive and inoperative, making agency the comically abject subject of its patient. On this point the impotent headsman is unveiled as the profane opposite of Cecilia’s angelic protector, who will instantly kill whoever improperly touches her body: “I have an aungel which that loveth me, / That with greet love, wher so I wake or sleepe, / Is redy ay my body for to kepe. / And if that he may feelen, out of drede, / That ye me touche, or love in vileynye, / He right anon wol sle yow with the dede” (VIII.152-7). In light of this aura of protection, it is all the more meaningful, as an image of authentic or do-it-yourself sanctity, that Cecilia appears to survive beheading on her own strength, without external intervention of the sort provided by John the Baptist when Sanctulus of Nursia, facing the power of “the strongest headsman, of whom there was no doubt that with one stroke he could sever the head,” calls out “Saint John, get hold of him!” and “instantly the striker’s arm became stiff and inflexible, and held the sword heavenward.”[20] Still, the precise nature of the no maner chaunce whereby the executioner myghte not sever Cecilia’s neck remains uncertain. The expression no maner chaunce signifies impossibility as a negativity or limit that governs probability from the outside and also suggests the idea of proving that impossibility through exhaustion of possibilities, the failure of trial and error. This sense fulfills the weaker sense of myghte, “in which the ability or potentiality becomes mere possibility,”[21] whereas the stronger sense (to be strong, have power, be able) makes less sense when governed by no maner chaunce.[22] Indeed, the semantic hierarchy of the verb provides a good account, whatever the specific actuality of the event, of the swordsman’s situation as a suffering of the demotion of one’s power into an unavailable option, the becoming impossible of a power. The causal darkness of the scene thus lies precisely in its representation of an odd event of obstacleless interruption: nothing interferingly stops you from doing what you are doing but something nonetheless prevents it from happening. The negative or non-event reaches reversely into new and seemingly impossible forms of impossibility, all the stranger because things are working, moving forward, namely, the sword is indeed cutting into Cecilia’s flesh. The wonder of the semi-beheading revolves around a pair of unaccountable intersecting conjunctions: the executioner’s simultaneous impotency and effectivity, and the saint’s simultaneous durability and receptivity. To synthesize these double sides of the situation is difficult. Moving in the direction of diffuseness, we may imagine deficient blows slicing into minimally resistant flesh, a kind of pathetic miraculous in which the divine power can only barely raise itself into the world by displacing a little of the world’s own force, sucking a small amount of power from the agent and blowing it into the patient. Moving in the direction of intensity, we may imagine very powerful blows slicing maximally resistant flesh, a kind of heroic miraculous in which the divine power cannot resist dramatically presenting itself by meeting the force of the world face to face, inspiring the patient with power to endure an equally inspired agent. Alternately, we may imagine some admixture of the two alternatives spread across the three strokes, or a mutual cancellation of them altogether: a truly ridiculous eventuality in which the saint requires no divine intervention whatsoever because her neck is naturally strong enough to survive three blows from an inept headsman. All possibilities violate the decollative ideal of instantaneous death and thereby only exacerbate the spectacle of suffering, multiplying the three blows into a matrix of possibilities that nowhere presents any relief from their endurance. Nor is the darkness of the situation’s causal insolubility ever resolved. Rather, it is marvelously all-the-more occluded by the raw presence of Cecilia’s suffering and the subsequent revelation of her wish, in which the weird how of the event is transmuted into the fulfillment of its demonstrative actuality: “Thre dayes lyved she in this torment . . .  ‘I axed this of hevene kyng’” (537-42). And yet the specificity of the request and its fulfillment only underscores the realization of a precise modulation of psycho-physical forces that ends life in three days through wounds. Volitionally persevering herself as an unseverable unicity that will not be cut “atwo,” Cecilia chooses, with more or less understanding of that will’s operation, even the terms of her affliction.[23]    

Half Deed
The term half deed correctly translates seminecem from the original Passio: “seminecem eam cruentus carnifex dereliquit” (38). In the Legenda Aurea, which Chaucer also drew upon, semivivam sometimes occurs.[24] The interchangeability of the terms is indicated by an entry in the Medulla Grammatice: “Seminecis: half dede, half kwyk,”[25] but similar attention to literal correctness is shown in the two versions of the Wycliffite Bible, which translate the half-alive victim of the good Samaritan parable (“et plagis impositis abierunt semivivo relicto,” Luke 10:30) with “half quyk” and “half alyue”[26] and in Langland’s version of the parable: “for semyvif he semed, / And as naked as a needle, and noon help abouten.”[27] Half-dead may enjoy a certain general conceptual priority over half-alive, insofar as the term is deployed by the living, from the perspective of life, within which it seems more natural to think the liminal state in terms of the constitutive opposite (death) rather than the pure privation of one’s own state. The distinction between the interchangeable terms is also clearly related to the connoted futurity of emphasis, where the chosen term implies a potential for or movement into its increase, i.e. half-alive as nearly dead and (perhaps) going-to-live, half-dead as barely alive and (perhaps) going-to-die. The distinction was in fact important to medieval exegesis of good Samaritan parable, for which half-alive signifies the fallen but redeemable nature of sinful humanity,[28] as clarified in the twelfth-century Lambeth Homilies: “They (the devils) left him half alive; half alive he was when that he had sorrow within himself for his sins. Here we ought to understand why it says ‘half alive’ [alf quic] and not ‘half dead’. Hereof we may take an example by two brands (torches), when the one is aquenched altogether, and the other is aquenched except a little spark; the one that hath the one spark in it we may blow and it will quicken (revive) and kindle the whole brand. The brand that is wholly quenched, though one blow on it for ever, may never again be kindled. These two brands betoken two men: the one sinneth and is sorry for his sin, but cannot subdue his flesh . . . This other man sinneth and loveth his sins.”[29] In light of the half-alive/half-dead distinction, there are several specific senses to Chaucer’s use of half deed in relation to Cecilia. First, half deed emphasizes the fact that she is going to die, that she is closer to death than life, yet precisely for that reason nonetheless alive and indeed paradoxically living all the more intensely in intimacy with the other side of life for the three days during which she “never cessed hem the faith to teche / That she hadde fostred” (538-9). Second, the term emphasizes, in light of the allegorical logic of the Samaritan parable, Cecilia’s independence from external divine aid, the fact that her martyric miracle consists only in a little more life. That is all she requires. No supernatural displays, no hagio-grotesque cephalophory, no dramatic leap into the al di là, just a three-day expansion of the “zero degree of torture” into an opportunity “that I myghte do werche . . .” (545). Rather than a liberating spiritual consummation of the sort exemplified by Prudentius’s account of St. Agnes’s beheading, in which angelic flight follows a swift death,[30] Cecilia’s passion fulfills itself in her staying here, in remaining, lying in the state in which the world leaves her. Third, half deed harmonizes with the principle of mors mystica, the mystic death to self necessary for divine union, as per Julian of Norwich’s “mighty desire” for an unconditional spiritual wounding cited above. It places the saint, still living, wholly within death, disclosing at once the saint’s self-transcendence and the fundamental unreality of death itself. Here half deed perfectly signifies the essential negativity of the realization of a pure, as it were, contentless plenitude, like the actus purus identified with God, in which experience, the whole out-through-going of temporal being, is abandoned in the very midst of time, “not an experience of absence but rather an absence of experience—or even better, a point of indiscretion where this distinction would itself collapse.”[31] Fourth, half deed partakes of Chaucer’s characteristic death-privileging interest in figuring life/death liminality: “neither quyk ne ded” (Tr 3.79), “Always deynge and be not ded” (BD 588), “Myself I mordre with my privy thought” (Anel 291), “My throte is kut unto my nekke boon . . . and as by wey of kynde / I sholde have dyed, ye, longe tyme agon” (PrT VII.649-51), “and leften hire for deed, and wenten away” (Mel VII.972) . . . This interest is most clearly shown in his handling of the scene of Arcite and Palamon’s discovery in the Knight’s Tale. Boccaccio, his source, places great emphasis on the vital sensitivity of the wounded knights, who cry out when they are found: “due giovani fediti dolorando / quivi trovaro, sanz’ alcun riposo; / e ciaschedun la morte domandava, / tanto dolor del lor mal gli gravava” [they found there two young men critically wounded and in constant pain; and so much did the pain of their injuries afflict them, that each one begged to die].[32] Chaucer elides completely this pain and passion, replacing it with a double negative that pushes their being into a more purely liminal state of suspension: “Nat fully quyke, ne fully dede they were” (I.1015). Subtracted from both life and death, the double knights appropriately inhabit a strange kind of vaguely intensive double death, half-dead to life and half-dead to death, which produces a dark suggestion proper to the tale: they may be brought back to life, but only for further death. The scene provides a clarifying counterpoint to Cecilia’s passion. Where the Theban knights’ neither-live-nor-dead state represents a passive death-in-life that may be awakened to deathly passion, Cecilia’s half-death embodies an active life-in-death that expresses and opens into supra-living passion, “brennyge evere in charite ful brighte” (VIII.118), i.e. the superessential divine life that “live[s] in a fashion surpassing other living things.”[33] Crucially, however, Chaucer places the superlative intensity of Cecilia’s saintly living wholly within this life, without any reference to another world or afterlife, and thus necessarily within death—an orientation that participates in the tale’s emphasis on the availability of paradise in the temporal here and now: “The swete smel that in myn herte I fynde / Hath chaunged me al in another kynde” (VIII.251-2). There is another world: this one. Cecilia’s half-death is deathly, ghastly, an ‘unbearable’ torment of being neither here nor there, alive nor dead. Yet it is so precisely as an index of the general lived nature of mortal life vis-à-vis its radical potential to produce and experience the true anagogy of the present, a foretaste of eternity that needs no future or other world. Next to this revolutionary life, the whole world is indeed half-dead.

He lefte hir lye, and on his wey he went
            The executioner’s abandonment of Cecilia, especially with the reference to “his wey,” which is nowhere in the sources, evokes the dereliction of the victim in the good Samaritan parable, left “half-alive” on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. In this context, the executioner emerges more specifically as a liminal figure intentionally half way between the thieves who harm the victim and the travelers who fail to help him. He is like the thieves in that he is the direct agent of the violence and a willing participant in its purpose. He is like the passersby in that he is not himself the cause of the violence, but someone who similarly fails to help the victim, neither caring for her nor mercifully killing her. In these terms he is a special kind of subject of the law, the subject who enforces its letter but remains neutral with respect to the present, situational question of its spirit, someone seemingly equally unable/unwilling to either stand outside the law (do anything beyond it) or transgress it (do anything against it). The tormentor’s walking away is a conspicuous index of this inability/unwillingness, an a-instrumental surplus action that also marks him as a subject in the first place, an individualized intentional being who exists in relation to things whether he will or no. Crucially, the action encompasses opposite possibilities, possibilities which indeterminately coincide around the specificity of “his way,” that is, around the indication that the tormentor does not simply walk away, but takes a way specific to him. On the one hand, the tormentor’s walking away suggests the idea of open refusal, not in the name of anything, but simply in the name of what is other than the situation at hand. On the other hand, the walking away suggests not refusal at all, but only a movement into nothing, or the movement of whatever kind of self-interest, having ‘something better’ to do. There is no deciding the intention of the tormentor’s walking way—that is the point. He appears only in his disappearance and through a fundamental ambivalence, at once a potentially redeemable subject of the drama, an outsider with a future perhaps intimately related to its truth, and its worst kind of protagonist, a pure practitioner of its (ideological) structure, the truly neither-living-nor-dead, neither-hot-nor-cold subject whose business-as-usual, spiritless ‘life’ is nothing but a self-serving and sleepily sinful concatentation of omissive commissions and comissive omissions.       
            Chaucer’s interest in the figure of the executioner as subject is also indicated by his non-translation of the vilifying, objectifying adjectives applied to him in the sources (cruentus, truculentus). Instead, the poet gives him no adjectives at all and signifies him deictically, “This tormentor,” which has the effect of identifying him as a specific person, an individual. This dark who is neither a character nor a mere human prop, but someone whose intentionality is essentially and constitutively bound up with the climactic event of the drama, but in a fundamentally impersonal way. As my analysis has shown, Cecilia’s near beheading is unthinkable without reference to what is ‘going on’ with the headsman, what is up with him. His failure to finish the job is not only negatively at the center of the show, but is ironically upstaged by the saint’s dynamic ability to complete her work three days beyond the evident hour of her death. It signifies both as a negative exemplum of the work-ethic that governs the tale and as an indispensable cog in the providential logic of the hagiography. What accounts for Chaucer’s creation of this indeterminate space of identity around Cecilia’s tormentor? 
Nothing, I prefer to think. Allowing the headsman to walk away and be his own no-one, Chaucer exercises a dark, inscrutable charity toward an even darker subject of the spiritless law.




[2] Augustine, Ennarationes in Psalmos, 88.5, PL 37: 1122.
[3] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1995), 33.
[4] Georges Bataille, On Nietzsche, trans. Bruce Boone (London: Continuum, 2004), 135.
[5] The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).
[6] The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), Physics, 220a.
[7] The identification of the three strokes with time, as a perfect intersection of chronos and kairos, passing time and the moment of opportune crisis, is supported by the apocalyptic dimensions of the tale. See Eileen S. Janowski, “Chaucer’s ‘Second Nun’s Tale’ and the Apocalyptic Imagination,” Chaucer Review 36 (2001): 128-48.
[8] “[A]uch das Trennen ist noch ein Verbinden und Beziehen” (Martin Heidegger, “Logik: Heraklits Lehre vom Logos,” in Heraklit, ‘Gesamtausgabe,’ Bd. 55 [Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1970], 337). Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, ed. Giorgio Petrocchi, trans. Charles S. Singleton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979). On these principles, see And They Were Two In One And One In Two, eds. Nicola Masciandaro & Eugene Thacker (New York: n.p., 2011).
[9] Nicola Masciandaro, “Non potest hoc corpus decollari: Beheading and the Impossible,” in Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in Medieval Literature and Culture, eds. Larissa Tracy and Jeff Massey (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2012).
[10] Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, eds. Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), lines 2293-5.
[11] MED, s.v. respite, 1b.
[12] Hakim Sinai, The Walled Garden of Truth, trans. David Pendlebury (London: Octagon Press, 1974), 52.
[13] The Writings of Julian of Norwich, eds. Nicholas Watson & Jacqueline Jenkins (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 65, my emphasis.
[14] On Nietzsche, trans. Bruce Boone (London: Continuum, 1992), 91.
[15] Giacomo Laderchi, S. Caeciliae Virg[inis] et Mart[yris] Acta. . . (Rome, 1723), 38.
[16] Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, ed. T. Graesse (Leipzig: Impensis Librariae Arnoldianae, 1850), 777.
[17] The Life of St. Cecilia, ed. Albert S. Cook Boston, 1898), 91.
[18] See Psychomachia, lines 280-6.
[19] Expositions of the Psalms, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2004), 128.4.
[20] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 2.140.
[21] MED, s.v. mouen, 3.
[22] More generally, the text requires us to undecidably entertain the differences between a) the headsman in no way having sufficient power to sever Cecilia’s neck (because it is too resilient, naturally or supernaturally); b) the headsman’s having sufficient power to sever her neck and in no way being able to activate it for some reason; and c) the headsman’s having sufficient power and activating it but in no way succeeding to sever her neck because of some contingency. Inability must be distinguished from impossibility, even though they may overlap. Aristotle considers the senses of inability as privation of potency in Metaphysics, 1046a.     
[23] My argument thus fulfills, by taking one step further, Elizabeth Robertson’s reading of Chaucer’s Cecilia as exemplar of the “inherently radical nature” of choice (“Apprehending the Divine and Choosing to Believe: Voluntarist Free Will in Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale,” Chaucer Review 46 (2011): 130. Robertson emphasizes “Cecilia’s choice to exert her free will . . . despite extreme physical exertion” (129) and more importantly, discerns how violence is the tale is “a metaphor for the nature of choice itself” (130) in light of the voluntarist understanding of choice as marking “a radical shift from one domain to the next, from indeterminacy to determinacy, from potency to act” (130). My point is that precisely in these terms Cecilia’s will must be read as mysteriously touching and operating upon the real of her own execution.   
[24] Sherry L. Reams, “The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale,” in Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales I, ed. Robert M. Correale and Mary Hamel, 2 vols. (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2002), I.514.
[25] MED, s.v. half, adj. 1c.
[26] MED, s.v. half, adj. 1c.
[27] The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Complete Edition of the B-Text, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1978), B.XVII.57-8.
[28] See, for example, Origen, Homilies on Luke, trans. Joseph T. Lienhard (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), Homily 34; Augustine, Sermo 131.6; PL 38:732.
[29] Old English Homilies and Homiletic Treatises, ed. Richard Morris (London: N. Trubner & Co., 1868), 80.
[30] “[S]he bowed her head and humbly worshipped Christ, so that her bending neck should be readier to suffer the impending blow; and the executioner's hand fulfilled her great hope, for at one stroke he cut off her head and swift death forestalled the sense of pain. Now the disembodied spirit springs forth and leaps in freedom into the air, and angels are around her as she passes along the shining path” (Prudentius, Crowns of Martyrdom, 14.85-93). 
[31] Thomas A. Carlson, Indiscretion: Finitude and the Naming of God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 257.
[32] Teseida 2.85, cited from Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales, II.138.
[33] Pseudo-Dionysius, Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), Divine Names, 5.3.