Quick Notes on Resource Extractions

On: Holsinger, Bruce. "Of Pigs and Parchment: Medieval Studies and the Coming of the Animal." PMLA, vol. 124, no. 2, March 2009, pp. 616–623.

One of my first assigned readings in graduate school is Bruce Holsinger’s “Of Pigs and Parchment: Medieval Studies and the Coming of the Animal,” (2009) a short cri de cœur exhorting Medieval studies and the study of the history of the book to grapple concertedly with the simple fact that parchment culture depended on the mass slaughter of non-human animals.

It’s a remarkable essay, full of small moments Shklovsky-esque estrangement from Western print and animal cultures. In particular, I was struck by how the sheer scale of skin necessary to produce a single codex revealed the economic (really, subsistence!) underpinnings of a culture for whom books were simultaneously invaluably precious and barely a part of everyday life:

Many medievalists trained in paleography will recall Bernhard Bischoff’s sobering observation about the quantity of skins needed for particularly large books: “For the production of the Codex Amiatinus alone—and it had two sister manuscripts—over 500 sheepskins were required at Wearmouth or Jarrow” (10). Yet we rarely let ourselves think in a sustained way about the economies of scale and animal consumption that allowed for the transmission of medieval literature: the reduction of entire flocks, indeed by some estimates whole villages of animals, into a single book. (Holsinger 619)

In the choice between feeding a family or a village and producing print culture, even in 2016 and working towards a PhD in English Literature, I’d choose the former every time.

This turn resonates across recent popular strands of thought in media studies, epitomized for me best by Jussi Parikka’s recent A Geology of Media (2015), that foreground digital media’s supply chains and production cultures in order to point towards the ecological underpinnings and reverberations of contemporary computing technologies.1 As media studies increasingly considers the known-but-not-known-enough-to-be-troubling (c.f. factory farming) ecological and ethical ramifications of supply chains like coltan mining in the Congo and toxic waste deposition in China, or the precarious in all senses of the word human labor assembling devices in Foxconn in Shenzhen (just to rehearse a few common touchstones), Holsinger’s turn reminds us all in comparative media studies that production is always built on the exploitation of things-perceived-to-be-resources, whether those things are oil, soil, animals, or our fellow humans. Indeed, the thing that Holsinger’s essay starts to crack for me is not pointing to a cycle of exploitation—old hat in the academy, but still worth underscoring as frequently as possible—but the hyphenate idea from that previous sentence: things-perceived-to-be-resources. What are the limits of us understanding capital-but-also-I-guess-lowercase-T Things qua object oriented ontology as potential resources to be transformed, transmuted, and transfigured into other Things that are of higher utility to us humans? How can media studies address the role of suffering and pain in these transformations—particularly when the suffering is potentially beyond our current abilities to perceive and understand, as with animals, or even, as Parikka provocatively suggests (taking up Reza Negarestani’s astonishing novel Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials [2008]), the earth itself?2

Citations for the Interested

Holsinger, Bruce. Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture. Stanford UP, 2001.

–––. “Of Pigs and Parchment: Medieval Studies and the Coming of the Animal.” PMLA, vol. 124, no. 2, March 2009, pp. 616–623.

Negarestani, Reza. Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. Re:press, 2008.

Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

  1. Or, on a lighter-but-still-vastly-terrifying-note, when I recently learned after moving into a new apartment and furnishing it almost exclusively in tastefully anonymous Scandinavian decor, that IKEA uses nearly one percent of the world’s total wood production

  2. For a later post: after I read through this essay I remembered that I had encountered Holsinger before, in a seminar on word, life, and image in undergrad, for which I wrote a term paper drawing heavily from his Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture (2001) to think through how Medieval musical notation operated to dissolve, erase, or transform individual performers in devotional practice—chiefly through physical pain. 

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