Sunday, July 30, 2006

Why History Matters Redux: The Redress Project

Although the subject of my last post--the special issue of Representations 92: "Redress" [Fall 2005; edited by Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman] and The Redress Project--is not seemingly directly related to medieval studies [it has more to do with the subject of slavery, mainly in the early modern and modern periods], I believe it is actually quite relevant and important concerning our recent discussions on this blog about "why history matters" and whether or not early Anglo-Saxons might have been colonial-style racial oppresors [we know, of course, from the law codes, that early Anglo-Saxons possessed slaves--the larger question would be: how was it determined who would be a slave and how was that "class" of persons legally defined, regulated, constrained, etc.?]. I also believe that, for any medievalist who, like JJC, is interested in questions--theoretical, historical, and otherwise--that have to do with time, chronology, periodization, "untimeliness," and what might be called, following Vance Smith, "irregular histories," that some time spent looking at the scholarship of the Redress Project, comprised mainly of English, History, Law, Social Policy, and Human Rights scholars, is an absolute must. It relates, moreover, to the "hope" of Michael Uebel [expressed in a soon-to-be-published essay] that "critical medievalism . . . will recognize itself as particularly well suited to advance the terms by which temporality can be understood as a vital (cross)-disciplinary concern."

First, The Redress Project started as a reading group at Berkeley that met in the fall semester of 2004 "to foster a discussion of some of the different ways that . . . scholars [in different fields] . . . think about specific instances of historical injustice and the possibility of their remedy. The Redress Group’s ongoing task is to open up critical dialogue on questions of injury, justice, and closure that have yet to be posed within the traditional disciplines, and to address problems that have been either denied or repressed within liberal historiographic and philosophical critique." In their Introduction to the special issue of Representations, "Fugitive Justice," Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman conceptualize a "redress discourse" that would locate itself in the space between "grievance and grief; between the necessity of legal remedy and the impossibility of redress" and which is also "the political interval in which all captives find themselves--the interval between the no longer and the not yet, between the destruction of the old world and the awaited hour of deliverance" (p. 3). Best and Hartman also outline the chief questions of the Redress Project:

  • Why is justice fugitive? Why [for former slaves] . . . does justice appear elusive and perpetually dubious from within the crucible of slavery and at the height of the slave trade--when the time of injury and the time of repair would have been coeval? [Former slaves] . . . could not have been accused, as many are today, of "sleeping on their rights." Is this elusiveness then an index of the incommensurability between grief and grievance, pain and compensation?
  • What is justice for the slave? What is justice for the slave's descendants? Does the slave even have descendants? Who are the slave's many descendants?
  • What is slavery? [This, I think, is the especially pertinent question relative to early Anglo-Saxon legal classifications of different sorts of "persons"] What is the violence particular to slavery? . . . What is the essential feature of slavery: (1) property in human beings, (2) physical compulsion and corporal correction of the laborer, (3) involuntary servitude, (4) restrictions on mobility or opportunity or personal liberty, (5) restrictions of liberty of contract, (6) the expropriation of material fruits of the slave's labor, (7) absence of collective self-governance or non-citizenship, (8) dishonor and social death, (9) racism? We understand the particular character of slavery's violence to be ongoing and constitutive of the unfinished project of freedom.
  • What is the slave--property, commodity, or disposable life?
  • What is the time of slavery? [again--very apropos to our concerns with temporality as medievalists] Is it the time of the present, as Hortense Spillers suggests, a death sentence reenacted and transmitted across generations?
  • Is it a time that we can all remember?
  • Why is the history of reparations of slavery . . . a history of nonevent, a history of events either too recent to deserve the name of history or events that reverse contemporary expectations about reparations? And extending from that last question, why is the appeal for redress one that always seems to arrive too late, and to be marked by a note of belatedness and insufficiency?

Finally, in their Introduction, Best and Hartman are at pains to distinguish the work of their project from work on reparations or on remembering and working through trauma. Rather, they see their work [and the work of the other scholars involved with them] as:

the attempt to interrogate rigorously the kinds of political claims that can be mobilized on behalf of the slave (the stateless, the socially dead, and the disposable) in the political present. . . . we are concerned neither with "what happened then" nor with "what is owed because of what happened then," but rather with the contemporary predicament of freedom, with the melancholy recognition of forseeable futures still tethered to the past. . . . what is the story about the slave we ought to tell out of the present we ourselves inhabit--a present in which torture isn't really torture, a present in which persons have been stripped of rights heretofore deemed inalienable?

Since the contributors to the Redress Project see their subject as one that is mainly post-colonial [and therefore locates its incipit in the early modern period], I would ask, finally, how might medieval studies contribute to this Project? What, further, can medieval studies learn from this Project?

And thanks to Janet Thormann, who passed on to me the special issue of Representations that Best & Hartman edited.


Eileen Joy said...

Every year the Third Culture over at poses a provocative question, which is then answered by its members--mainly scientists and science-minded scholars. In 2004 the question was, "What do you believe is true even though you can't prove it?" and Timothy Taylor, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford, has this to say [which I think is apropos to this thread and the thread on Apartheid and Anglo-Saxons]:

"'All your life you live so close to the truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque' wrote Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Something I believe is true even though I cannot prove it, is that both cannibalism and slavery were prevalent in human prehistory. Neither belief commands specialist academic consensus and each phenomenon remains highly controversial, their empirical "signatures" in the archaeological record being ambiguous and fugitive.

Truth and belief are uncomfortable words in scholarship. It is possible to define as true only those things that can be proved by certain agreed criteria. In general, science does not believe in truth or, more precisely, science does not believe in belief. Understanding is understood as the best fit to the data under the current limits (both instrumental and philosophical) of observation. If science fetishized truth, it would be religion, which it is not. However, it is clear that under the conditions that Thomas Kuhn designated as 'normal science' (as opposed to the intellectual ferment of paradigm shifts) most scholars are involved in supporting what is, in effect, a religion. Their best guesses become fossilized as a status quo, and the status quo becomes an item of faith. So when a scientist tells you that 'the truth is . . .,' it is time to walk away. Better to find a priest.

Until recently, most archaeologists would be inclined to say that the truths about cannibalism and about slavery are that each has been sharply historically limited and that each is a more or less aberrant cultural phenomenon. The reason for such a belief is that it is only in a small number of cases that either thing can be proved beyond reasonable doubt. But I see the problem in the starting point.

If we shift our background expectations and say that coercing a living person to do one's bidding is perhaps the very first form of property ownership ('the slavery latent in the family' to use Marx and Engels' telling phrase), and that eating the dead (as very many wild vertebrates do) makes sense in nutritional and competitive terms, then the archaeologist's duty is to empirically establish those times and places where slavery and cannibalism had ceased to exist. The only reason we have hitherto insisted on proof-positive rather than proof-negative in relation to these phenomena is that both seem grotesque to us now, and we have rather a high opinion of our natural civility. This is the most interesting point, and the focus of my attention is how culturally-elaborated mechanisms of restraint and inter-personal respect emerged and allowed such refined scruples."

J J Cohen said...

But I see the problem in the starting point.

I love these words from Taylor. He's got to be right.

I doubt widespread ancient cannibalism has a lot to do with, as he suggests, nutrition (remember all those old arguments from protien necessity that used to circulate?), but would imagine the truth has got to be more complicated: humans devoured other humans because they loved those humans (as in Mandeville's idea that anthropophagy is a form of memorialization [you can carry your ancestors forever in your flesh] or of compassion [you can save them the pain of being eaten by worms]. And people ate people as a form of violence (Taylor talks about this as "competitive" advantage). The latter kind of cannibalism must be related to the same impulse that sometimes inspires the enslavement of others, or genocide, or the brutal toppling of some other group's Stonehenge.

Taylor's words about truth and belief remind me of Bruno Latour, who insisted that he could not tell the difference between the two. He would have agreed especially with tehse lines: most scholars are involved in supporting what is, in effect, a religion. Their best guesses become fossilized as a status quo, and the status quo becomes an item of faith. So when a scientist tells you that 'the truth is . . .,' it is time to walk away. Better to find a priest.

great stuff.

Eileen Joy said...

Okay--I am still working my through the entire issue of Representations, and I am on the essay by Colin Dayan, "Legal Terrors," the abstract for which I quote here:

"This essay examines the conditions under which categories of identity are legally reconstructed. It argues that legal practice and spiritual belief in colonial North America and certain parts of the Caribbean shed light on current rituals of dispossession and torture in the United States."

This is a fascinating essay, with which I am not yet all the way through, but I was arrested earlier today by this passage:

"The ominous leeway in the interpretation of American legal rules--from slave codes, to prison cases, to the Bush administration's torture memos--has led to a redefining of persons in law. The redefinition--the creation of new classes of condemned--sustains a reasoning that goes beyond the mere logic of punishment. This legal metaphysics perpetuates a social dialogue that is unique to the Americas and exmeplified by the perpetual need to condemn certain entities to be *dead in law*."

There is a *lot* more to Dayan's argument than this, but I am struck by her notion that the "legal metaphysics" she delineates is "unique to the Americas," especially with regard to what might be called the legal "death" or legal "undoing" of "persons" [and this relates also to the Redress Project's interest in slavery as, not just the historical institution of the commodification of forced servitude without compensation, but also as "social death." As I have shared previously, I spent part of this summer looking at Anglo-Saxon law codes in relation to a book chapter I am writing that, in part, deals with Levinas and Derrida's idea on the ethics of hospitality. In addition, two contributor's to BABEL's Palgrave book, now titled "Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages"--Steve Guthrie and Michael Moore--have written chapters on torture and "legal death," both in the medieval and modern periods. Both my own research and Guthrie's and Moore's essay demonstrate, I believe, that the "unique" form of "social death" and "how the law can create persons at the same time as it renders them dead" (Dayan) is not necessarily *only* "post-colonial" [when we understand that term to only apply to the early modern period *forward* as so many apparently do in fields other than medieval studies]. I will share here, by way of evidence, a brief excerpt from my chapter-in-progress, which also draws upon Moore's recent writing:

-----[beginning of excerpt]------

. . . . early English law codes, such as those of Ine, Alfred and Æthelstan, demonstrate some of the ways in which the figure of the foreigner, stranger, or lordless man, held a prominent place in the juridical system of Anglo–Saxon England, and also show how a certain hospitality could be made legal. In the law codes of Alfred (871–99) drafted after the treaty with Guthrum in 886 (referred to as the Danelaw), and modified by Edward the Elder (Alfred’s successor, 899–924), it is stipulated that

Gif man gehadodne oððe ælðeodigne þurh enig ðing forræde æt féo oððe æt feore, þonne sceal him cyng beon—oððan eorl ðær on lande—7 bisceop ðere þeode for mæg 7 for mundboran, buton he elles oðerne hæbbe; 7 bete man georne be ðam þe seo dæd sy Criste 7 cyninge, swa hit gebyrige; oððe þa dæde wrece swiðe deope þe cyning sy on ðeode.

[If any attempt is made to deprive in any wise a man in orders, or a stranger, of either his goods or his life, the king—or the earl of the province—and the bishop of the diocese shall act as his kinsmen and protectors, unless he has some other. And such compensation as is due shall be promptly paid to Christ and the king according to the nature of the offence; or the king within whose dominions the deed is done shall avenge it to the uttermost.]

In the early English law codes in general (beginning with the seventh–century laws of Ine and extending through the eleventh–century reign of Cnut) the stranger is most often referred to as ælðeodigne (“alien person”) or feorcumen man (“man who comes from afar,” or “foreigner”), and occasionally the word gest (“guest”) is also used, with the term gestliðnesse (literally “guestliness”) denoting “hospitality.” Clearly, the displaced person without specific kinship or local group connections, held a special status within Anglo–Saxon England, and Alfred’s law, cited above, could even be said to denote a space of legal welcoming of (and hospitality for) the displaced person into the domestic kin–dwelling and protection of the State. In the law codes of Cnut (1020–1023) we can even see the codification of a moral concern for the treatment of strangers where it is written that “he who pronounces a worse judgment on a friendless man or a stranger from a distance than on his own fellows, injures himself.” But in the law codes of Æthelstan (924–39), we can see how the legal welcoming and protection of the stranger also belies a fear of the individual who is too foreign, too displaced, or too unwilling to be attached to the state through a locally–circumscribed domicile:

Ond we cwædon be þam hlafordleasan mannum, ðe mon nán ryht ætbegytan ne mæg, þæt mon beode ðære mægþe, ðæt hi hine to folcryhte gehamette 7 him hlaford finden on folcgemote. 7 gif hi hine ðonne begytan nyllen oððe ne mægen to þam andagan, ðonne beo he syþþan flyma, 7 hine lecge for ðeof se þe him tocume.

[And we have declared respecting those lordless men from whom no law may be obtained, that the kin should be commanded to domicile him to common law, and find for him a lord in the district meeting. And if they will not or cannot produce him at the appointed day, then he is afterwards a fugitive outlaw, and let anyone slay him for a thief who can come at him.]

Even earlier, in the law codes of Ine (688–725), we can see that the status of the foreigner was ultimately precarious:

Gif feorcund mon oððe fremde butan wege geond wudu gonge 7 ne hrieme ne horn blawe, for ðeof he bið to profianne, oððe to sleanne oððe to áleisanne.

[If a man from afar, or a stranger, travels through a wood off the highway and neither shouts nor blows a horn, he shall be assumed to be a thief, and as such may be either slain or put to ransom.]

In this sense, the line separating the sacred foreigner whose body and possessions should be protected from the person who is available to be killed (by anyone, no less) precisely because he either does not signify his presence or refuses the invitation into the State’s dwelling, is very tenuous, indeed. One could say that all of the law codes cited above are predicated, in the final analysis, upon the State’s desire to both regulate and contain immigrants and disenfranchised persons (as well as eliminate them when they cannot be contained), and to also profit from them through fees of protection and taxation, and “[t]he fate of the foreigner in the Middle Ages—and in many respects also today,” as Julia Kristeva has written, “depended on a subtle, sometimes brutal, play between caritas and the political jurisdiction.”

Anglo–Saxon law codes point to a legally–codified ethics of care for the stranger–Other who is both threatened yet also threatening in his singularity, and they arise from a society that we know, from its imaginative and other literature, was deeply concerned with what might be called the protocols of hospitality, which protocols—in the absence of the law, or beyond the law’s reach—functioned as the important means whereby those who were Other to each other could communicate, without hostility, in spaces of common dwelling, whose doors, whether barred or open, marked the threshold between the “inside” of the communal dwelling from the “outside” of the stateless forest. Importantly, the very idea of the extralegal was enclosed within the Anglo–Saxon legal definition of the fugitive as one who was exlex, or utlah (“outlaw”). According to Michael Moore, “The forest was the proper haunt for such figures, ranging far from the houses and protection of the village. No food or lodging was to be offered to the utlah.” Further, “These criminals, conceived of as demonic creatures outside the boundaries of humanity, were pushed away from the society, absolutely excluded from the shelter of the community and its legal world and suffering what amounted to ‘civil death’.” In medieval Ireland and Iceland “the term ‘wolf’ was applied to any dangerous foreigner who did not belong to the local community. Wolfishness was also thought to be an attribute of the medieval outlaw, who was deemed to become wolf–like,” demonstrating that to exist outside the law, or outside of the known domicile of a particular kin group with specific connections to the State, was to be considered non–human, even monstrous. As Moore writes, “such acts of exclusion helped to form the community as a legal subject: the law was made by and for the village or kingdom, at the same time enclosing and defining it” and “the concept of outlawry was fundamental to establishing the inner, safe circle of communal law and royal power.” The medieval social community, then, had need of an extralegal “outside” in order to define itself as bounded while, at the same time, because of certain moral imperatives, rooted either in Christian belief or more archaic rituals of hospitality, and also for the purposes of strengthening its numbers (both human and economic), that community had to also leave a door open for the welcome of the stranger–Other.

-------[end of excerpt]------------

Clearly, in Anglo-Saxon England there was a legal means to "undo personhood" and to enact "social death." I will now confess some ignorance: what histories, if any, exist of slavery in England, and perhaps also in northern Europe, in the medieval period? I am not personally aware of any full-length studies [but I am not, either, a walking-talking bibliotheque]? If such a full-length history does not exist, would it be possible to write one, and what would be its primary source material--archeaological, historical, literary, etc.?

Eileen Joy said...

As regards the link JJC provided to the article in The Independent, "France's New Stonehenge," I love this passage in the article:

"The fact that the stones were erected, and then deliberately toppled, at roughly the same time, is also an important discovery. It offers new evidence that the neolithic was a period of social and religious upheavals, revolutions and wars. In other words, the neolithic may have been 'megalithic' - obsessed with whacking great stones - but it was not socially or culturally monolithic. Ancient man was as fractious and destructive as modern man."

We need the discovery of toppled "menhirs" in France to deduce this insight? Amazing.

J J Cohen said...

You're right, Eileen, it IS amazing -- but it is wholly true. We have this bias towards thinking that people who build monuments like Stonhenge couldn't possibly topple other people's similar achievements ... that wouldn't be civilized. But when has architecture and memorialization through lithicization every beenw holly civil??

J J Cohen said...

On medieval slavery, there isn't a lot that I know of, at least not in the form of monographs. A book I've found useful because of its carefulness is Steven A. Epstein, Speaking of Slavery: Color, Ethnicity, and Human Bondage in Italy (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2001).

More germane to this discussion is David A. E. Pelteret, Slavery in Early Mediaeval England: From the Reign of Alfred until the Twelfth Century (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1995). Lots of materials collected here, so very useful.

Finally, for a glimpse at what it might have been like to BE a medieval slave, check out Garnier of Rouen, Moriuht, ed. and trans. C. J. McDonough (Toronto, 1995). Garnier is annoyed at his Irish neighbor and wife, freed slaves, and he makes merciless fun of them. Fascinating in the details it reveals.

It would be inetresting too to think about the gender of slavery. In the story of Pope Gregory going to market, it's Angle boys who attract his ardor. For later writers (i.e. William of Malmesbury) slavery is especially a danger to girls, for it witnesses many being sent from the homeland overseas.

Karl Steel said...

Quick comment in some final moments of packing, so no time for an intellectual intervention here.

The Garnier of Rouen sounds great.

Also much stuff on slavery, too, in the eighth-century Agobard of Lyons. His beef has to do with issues of conversion, as he wanted to baptize the slaves of Jews, which would have freed the slaves. Clearly, the Jews were not so into that, and neither was Louis, much to Agobard's irritation.

Can't remember what, if anything, Agobard had to say about Jewish slaves of Xians, or even if there were such things.

Just did a quick search of my notes, which turns up such things as this, from the Forum Judicum, the Visigothic Code:

“Christian slaves shall not be subjected to the control of Jews unless the latter are openly proved to be Christians, use Christian food, and contract marriage according to Christian customs” (394-5)

Anyone read this? Bonnassie, Pierre. From Slavery to Feudalism in South-western Europe. Trans. Jean Birrell. Cambridge, 1991. The only Bonnassie I've read was his piece in Annales on carrion and cannibalism. That was accurate and thorough, so I expect this book should be useful, too.

Karl Steel said...

Read your AS piece last night in the midst of pre-flight insomnia, and I wanted to say: 1) more reason for me to read, finally, Homo Sacer; 2) you might want to add to that, somewhere, some analysis of who the 'bestial men' were in the Penitential of Adomnan, "A bestiies capta et semiviva bestialibus hominibus sumenda sunt" (Those [animals] captured by beasts and half alive are to be given to eat to bestial men" (Wasserschleben, F. W. H. Die Bussordnungen der abendländischen Kirche. Halle, 1851. Reprint, Graz, 1958 ,120).

Gotta run!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Not a lot of coherent thoughts here (tired), except that medieval slavery is just not applicable. One of the main problems is that slave is a legal classification, and only describes one kind of unfree (or partially free) person. One of Charlemagne's comites, IIRC, was also a slave -- although I cannot remember off the top of my head if this same person was also called a vassus I think not; rather, I think he's named as one of Charlemagne's fideles. I think the ref is in the ARF.
But my point is that there were more than a few ways of being unfree, and none of them were, as far as I know, really under debate as to moral value. I don't think objections to slavery by and for Christians was any stronger than it was in the ancient world when Roman moralists spoke against slavery -- that is, not because there was anything inherently wrong with owining another person, but because some of the side effects of slavery were bad for society. In the case of Jews owning Christian slaves, I think it had to do more with Jews not owning Christians than with Jews not owning slaves.

J J Cohen said...

I wouldn't say that slavery isn't applicable tout court, but would agree that it is a much more fluid category than, say, New World chattel slavery was. I like Garnier of Rouen's Moriuht because, in its peeved obsession with a former slave who was beginning life anew, it really does emphasize how different the category of slave was then as compared to the kinds of slavery most Americans know from their lesson books on the civil war. Steven A. Epstein's book, on the other hand(Speaking of Slavery) looks at a time and place that thought of slavery in far more corporeal and identity-perduring terms.

"Slave" and "slavery" are such loaded terms (loaded especially with associations that have more to do with American history than anything else) that they are not easy to bring back to the Middle Ages. But I think that if they are used critically and self-consciously,