Sunday, October 29, 2006

Wolves and Enemy Combatants, Humanism and the Inhuman

This may seem a little crazy, but I am going to try here to stitch together several recent, disparate posts and comment threads, mainly by sharing part of the conclusion to Michael E. Moore's essay, "Wolves, Outlaws and Enemy Combatants," which serves as one of the chapters in what is now titled Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, ed. Eileen Joy, Myra Seaman, Kimberly Bell, and Mary Ramsey for Palgrave Macmillan's New Middle Ages series. [Go here for short precis of book, plus a chapter outline with brief chapter summaries.] Michael Moore, incidentally, is a historian of the Carolingian period, specializing especially in early law codes, and he is also a colleague of mine at Southern Illinois, and a good friend.

Although I suspect it is bad form to discuss these matters in public, we recently received the external reviewer's report for the volume and let's just say that many of us have some heavy revising to do, while at the same time, Palgrave is still committed to the book and it will likely be published in summer 2007. Nevertheless, I find myself continuing to be troubled and, I suppose, even a little depressed, at the notion, expressed by the reviewer [albeit with great politeness], that, perhaps, no one really wants to know what medieval scholars have to say about contemporary popular culture or current political issues, like the war on terror or the torture of enemy combatants at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Further, is it possible that some of the chapters that deal directly with policies of the Bush administration will be viewed as too polemical, and what does it mean to say, as I think the reviewer infers, that scholarship cannot [and should not] be polemical? In other words, scholars cannot choose sides, or appear to be choosing sides. And yet, I do not know how Steve Guthrie, another author in our book, could possibly have researched and written his chapter, "Torture, Inquisition, Medievalism, Reality, TV," without choosing sides. How can he not choose sides on the issue of the torture of prisoners by American military and intelligence personnel at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, and might he not have an ethical responsibility as a scholar of the Middle Ages but also as a citizen of the world to not allow himself to take refuge in the so-called "place apart" of the university? Is it not a kind of crime to claim to only be academically, but not personally or politically, invested in the "history" of torture? What would it mean to be a neutral "scholar" of torture?

We have a vast body of scholarship, I believe, that has amply demonstrated that medieval scholarship is never completely disinterested nor fully objective, nor does it ever stand "outside" of anything [chief examples include Norman Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages, Allen Frantzen's Desire for Origins, David Matthews's The Making of Middle English, and Stephanie Trigg's Congenal Souls]; at the same time, I believe there is some kind of general, often unspoken consensus within our field that our scholarship should always strive to be something that stands above politics and above personal bias. At the "same same same" time, we have scholars in our field wildly claiming that their work in, say, queer studies or feminist studies, is inherently politically liberatory [or "important"], while at the "same same same same" time, others point to that supposedly radically politically scholarship as "oh so politically lame" because its "real" social impact is too limited or nonexistent. Well, that about covers it, doesn't it? I think the fact that Bruce Holsinger is publishing his "pamphlet," Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism and the War on Terror, with Prickly Paradigm Press should tell us something about the lack of welcome within medieval studies publishing venues for what might be called an engaged, political medieval studies [and check out Prickly Paradigm Press, by the way--they're very cool and have actually preempted something I have been wanting to do with BABEL: create a venue for the "outside the box" scholarly "chapbook" or "novella"]. And there will be some in our field who won't read it for the very reason that it will not be appearing in the "usual" venue, whether as a longish article in Speculum or Exemplaria or as part of Minnesota's Medieval Cultures series.

When JJC plugged Bruce H.'s pamphlet, I was kind of amazed [and very happy, actually] that Holsinger has written such an essay, while at the same time I worried a little bit that it will pre-empt at least two of the chapters in our Palgrave book. Then again, in my mind, it can only be a good thing that several medieval studies scholars in their separate studies have ben thinking a lot about the Bush adminstration's use of what Holsinger terms the "neomedieval" in their assault on human rights, and also in their deepening of the divisions that exist within the international community. I would even go so far to say that, in three separate studies and in various places in the world, three medieval studies scholars [Holsinger, Moore, and Guthrie] allowed themselves to be troubled enough by the current state of affairs to devote their knowledge of premodern history and powers of critique [and yes, polemical critique] to what they see as a current crisis in contemporary human affairs [with the emphasis on human]. Although it may be, as Humphrey Bogart might have said, that all of their worrying and the writing that pours out of that worrying, might not amount to a hill of beans in this world. So this got me thinking, too [and again] about community and what we think we mean, as humanistic scholars, when we invoke the term. How are we, somehow, "with each other," as scholars [and against who?], and what other communities do we belong to that matter enough to choose sides with them? I don't quite know the answer, but I would like to offer here an excerpt from the conclusion to Michael Moore's essay as a possible beginning of a conversation on the subject:

from "Wolves, Outlaws and Enemy Combatants," by Michael Moore [an essay the chiefly deals with the White House legal memorandums on the torture of "enemy combatants" and also with the medieval practices of torture, exile and outlawry]
Humanism and the Inhuman

. . . . the question arises, whether any terrain still lies open for humanism, and whether a path can be discovered for the return of common law and the traditional concerns of politics. Tzvetan Todorov has suggested that to retrieve humanism, we should begin with the fact of community and our need for communal life. Developing certain principles and suggestions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Todorov hopes to develop a humanism based on lived experience, rather than ghostly abstractions: Rousseau discovered “a new conception of man as a being who needs others.” Todorov thus shows a reluctance to drink very deeply from the well of the Enlightenment. Alongside his renewal of humanism there is a revival and retrieval of classical philosophy, distant from the stilted vision of Leo Strauss: on the part of Pierre Hadot, Jean Vanier, and Comte-Sponville.

The hope of a renewed humanism can raise for us the theme of solidarity. Lasting friendships, the camaraderie of social groups, marriage, romantic partnerships and other binding solidarities seem to place philia or friendship at the heart of social order and the possibility of self-fulfillment. In his reading of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Thomas Aquinas argued that the virtue of friendship with oneself and with others is the basis of political concord, which is “found among virtuous men.” Such persons “behave in such a way that they are in accord with themselves and one another” in their mutual striving for virtue. Thus for Cicero, who was in accord with the Aristotelian view, political isolation was desolation.

In contrast to all such themes of solidarity is the outlaw: the person who undermines the community and departs from it in vengeful solitude. The late-modern state, alongside other powerful forces such as economic globalization, seems to promote social fission and individualization: “There is a nasty fly of impotence in the sweet ointment of the kind of freedom that has been shaped through the pressures of individualization.” Thus it could be said that the possibility of community now lies somewhere between the State and the outlaw, both of which labor against it. Nevertheless, it is an old and durable idea that community and culture can only develop when people can find security from outlawry.

In the famous prologue of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, known as the Archaeology, the characteristic forms of Greek civilization, peaceful life and self-fulfillment in a city-state, only became possible with the end of piracy. The pirate was the solitary enemy of peace, communication and culture. For centuries the symbol of the wolf has been assigned to such persons.

But what does exclusion from the legal world and humanity mean in the contemporary world? Since 2002, as has been discussed above, the White House has maintained that the President of the United States can exclude certain individuals from the realm of law and the circle of humanity, by declaring them to be “enemy combatants.” Such persons are held to have no rights and can be protected neither by national laws nor by international treaties such as the Geneva Convention. Viewed as comparable to wolves, such persons are imprisoned without hope of trial and are not protected from the use of torture. The enemy combatant is an outcast, unable to claim any law. The creation of this category was intended to strip, rather than to assign, a legal identity. The person captured and suspected of involvement in terrorism becomes an exile from every land, and every law. Traditional restraints against the maltreatment of prisoners can be put aside: he is treated as a demonic being, wearing a wolf’s head, outside the law. The ‘enemy combatant’ thus appears to be a revival of a pre-modern legal category, which has reappeared while judicial process is once again said to lie in the hand of the prince. The jurist Johannes Monachus (d. 1313) long ago reasoned that in the following terms: “everyone should be presumed innocent unless proven guilty” [Item quilibet presumitur innocens nisi probetur nocens], a principle that he believed must even bind the popes. According to Kenneth Pennington, the reasoning of Johannes Monachus gradually became widely acknowledged as a principle that bound and regulated the prince: “the jurists even decided that justice demanded that the devil himself must be given a hearing in court.”

These symbols and concepts serve to exclude dangerous enemies and serve to strengthen a sense of American community. We live in dangerous times, it is often said, and new rules apply. But the turn to new rules might itself lead to new times. As Quentin Skinner reminds us, notions of liberty and independence of the early modern period resisted the notion that the rights of the citizen should lie in the powerful hands of a government. This doctrine, inscribed in the founding documents of the United States, is compromised by recent changes in legal and political doctrine. The acceptance of legal doctrines stripped of the notion of humanity would represent a change in the American legal constellation. The Declaration of Independence expressed an ideal of humanity as the subject of rights: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. . .” It would be naïve to think that such ideals, developed in coffee shops and secret societies of the eighteenth century, at considerable personal risk to the thinkers, now reside safe by their inscription in an old document or because of their historical influence over the formation of a state which has changed considerably since then.

What has been introduced is the idea that rights are not endowed by the Creator but by currently existing political authorities, and then only if those regimes are judged to be viable, a viability to be determined by the executive power of the United States. The return of outlawry therefore has implications for a definition of the subject of rights and puts the idea of humanity into doubt. We are already asked to accept the principle that our civil liberties should yield to national security, and as Skinner rightly argues, this means accepting a certain level of servitude. It is extremely doubtful that the reduction of the sphere of rights will only affect the terrorist outlaw.

There has been a shift in the modern world, toward a situation in which the realm of positive law, the particular law of the state, has broken free from all comparison with higher laws, ethics, custom or common law. Thus according to Prodi, the modern State acts as if it its enactments and legal claims are not subject to any restraint or comparison with a higher or better law. This means that “human beings are now subjected to the absolute dictates of positive law and to the power and authority of the modern state.”

As long ago as 1995, in response to the growing absolutism of positive law, and the phenomenon of state intervention in the sphere of rights, Paul Ricoeur argued that we must reassert, in a new form, the inheritance of the Enlightenment, and thereby attempt to lay claim to “the rights of humanity, in the precise sense of this term—that is, the rights attached to human beings as human beings and not as members of some political community conceived of as the source of positive rights.” We are wrong to imagine that the State is the sole source of right, as an entity with a singular and unchallenged capacity to offer humanity and human rights.

The old idea of the wolfish-outlaw, as it makes a comeback, is relevant to the question of whether legal humanism is still possible in our time. In the view of the legal historian Francesco Calasso, the fourteenth-century jurist Bartolus of Sassoferato recognized the human and humane dimension of the law, and developed a legal humanism of a noble type: involving “not just discovery and exaltation of humankind but defense of them in thought and in action.” The assertion of the nobility and applicability of the ius commune as a canon of comparison for the law of particular States [ius proprium] and reference to a jurist like Bartolus on Roman Law, now seem hopelessly outmoded and bound by the intellectual conditions of the fourteenth century. Can we still assert a human-centered ideal of community, based on friendship, and binding solidarity among and between individuals? Friendship with oneself, viewed as part of the “fundamental constitution of humanity” might form the basis for a reawakening of the classical political demand for amity and justice.

With tremendous energy, the late-modern State projects its vision of an abridged humanity. The fact that “man is a wolf to man,” so horribly verified in the World Trade Center attack, has led to a vengeful retreat from old ideals of judicial due process. At the same time, we can point to a loosening of the bonds of local and friendly associations based on love and fellow-feeling, in favor of distant and false bonds based on hatred and fear: all in order to bind the primordial wolf.

The poet Goethe once declared that national hatred has a peculiar quality: “You will always find it strongest and most violent where there is the lowest degree of culture.” Displays of hatred have been common in recent years, thriving in a moral atmosphere of decline. One should highlight the possibility of friendship and the connections between friendship, liberty and joy. It is by no means easy to orient oneself during a period such as this one. I researched and pondered the theme of this essay while on retreat in the German monastery of Maria Laach (Monasterium Sanctae Mariae ad Lacum). Walking the paths lined with ancient beech trees or sitting in the quiet of the old liturgical library, I found that the topic troubled my thoughts. It seemed like a violation of the monks’ hospitality to study torture and terrorism inside the monastery walls, and yet those walls gave my reflections a hopeful and dignified frame.

We have been given the world as a setting in which to practice virtue and to attain self-knowledge; we are also bidden to study the world and the human tradition. Only this can open the prospect of contemplative happiness, “to which the whole of political life seems directed.” In periods of disturbance and change, personal constancy and discussions with like-minded friends become more important. If we can remain true to our friends: then “new paths will appear, enabling us to practice spirituality.”


Glaukôpis said...

Please, you certainly aren't the first scholars to go political. Even if this reviewer is complaining, this shouldn't be a major concern to you. You have something to say, then be proud, and say it.

Moreover, it's bull to say that scholarship can't become political. All scholarship is an opinion of some sort (one that is supposed to be strongly backed-up with evidence, but still an opinion), and most of those are at least partially politically motivated in some small way, whether or not we realize it. It's a perfectly natural extention to skip the subtlety and say exactly what you mean. Otherwise, why are we studying these dead people if we learn nothing from them? People tell us so often to defend our choice of study, and we tell them that it's because the past has lessons to teach us, some of which can be applied to our lives today. So why should we shrink back from applying them??

Besides which, if TV and movie stars can express their political opinions on TV, why can't we do it in print? It's still a free country, after all. (I'm not going to qualify that statement the way I'm tempted to.)

Err, that's supposed to be my cranky way of being supportive. I, at any rate, would be quite interested in reading such a book.

J J Cohen said...

It was my pleasure to be invited to write the afterword to this volume. I'll paste a few sentences from it below. I don't share the Palgrave reviewer's hesitations over intercutting the now with the then, since they seem to me so inextricably intercut to begin with.

Reading through the essays collected in this volume has been a pleasure. The winding threads of their shared conversations often led to unexpected conjunctions: cable television with Chaucer, the evening news in Florida with Orderic Vitalis, George Bush with wolves and Henry Bolingbroke, penance manuals and Arthurian myth with reality television. Time, in other words, tended to be not some neatly divisible category (past, present, future; beginning, middle, end) but an obdurate enfolding, an admixed middle space that cannot be separated back into discrete moments. Forget the clichéd progress narrative of how the contemporary had to leave the medieval behind to become its resplendent self. Forget the historical denigration of the medieval as abject, other, undeveloped. In their insistence upon the intimacy of the medieval within the modern and the modern within the medieval, these essays collectively offer nothing less than a theory of temporal interpenetration. The chronologies detailed here are complex, nonlinear, stories of how the past cohabitates the present and might even potentially trigger unexpected futures ....

Such temporal enfoldings, where past meets present and disrupts the linear chronology that is supposed to engender a transcendent future, have been a recurring focus of this book. Reality, Television and the Middle Ages is an admirably interhistorical project, sophisticated in its deployment of mixed chronologies. ...

The medieval is queerly situated within the modern, at once intimate and unknown. This "extimate" positioning serves as an important reminder that the intertemporality articulated by this volume has an ally in queer theory, and with queer medievalists. With its emphasis on the "preposterous" and the historically impure, queer theory so presciently anticipates much of what is discussed here that I think it appropriate to end my afterword with a quotation from one of queer medievalism's foremost practitioners:
Because the very basic idea that history lives, that even distant and relatively unexplored times and places are relevant to twentieth-century American lives, suggests sites of cultural relation that are unpredictable, uncontrollable ... we can forge dynamic relations to the past, even the distant or unfamiliar past, even if at present we do not know where such relations will lead ... using ideas of the past, creating relations with the past, touching in this way the past in our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future.
Carolyn Dinshaw published those words in 1999, after reciting them on the conference circuit several years earlier. I had believed that this invitation to open up the present and future to queer cohabitation with the past was best being realized within postcolonial medieval studies, but this collection of essays on television, politics and the Middle Ages convinces me that the ripples of its temporal turbulence have been considerably more extensive.

Eileen Joy said...

Glaukôpis--thanks for your kind support of book, and sure, we wouldn't be, as you say, "the first scholars to go political," nor, as you also point, is scholarship ever completely neutral on any point--points that are, hopefully, supported by some kind of evidence a community can agree is compelling in some way. Nevertheless, the field of medieval studies, I believe, regardless of all the ways in which it has incorporated things like queer or postcolonial theory, still remains fairly resistant to the idea of a politically-charged and present-minded and culturally *engaged* scholarship. There are some exceptions, to be sure [JJC et al.'s "Postcolonial Middle Ages" or Karma Lochrie's "Heterosyncracies" being chief example]. And at the thought of what JJC is now terming "intertemporality," or enfolded temporality, etc., really frightens a lot of scholars, I think, because it holds forth the image of history similar to the historian Roquentin's vision of the world in Sartre's novel "Nausea," where the bare, unformed existence of everything is hidden by the forms we impose on them. Here is how Roquentin describes it in his diary:

"So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn't remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision. It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of 'existence.' I was like the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, 'The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,' but I didn't feel that it existed or that the seagull was an 'existing seagull'; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can't say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must believe that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word 'to be.' Or else I was thinking . . . how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, I foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface. If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form which was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness."

The "frightful, obscene nakedness" of history is what terrifies us, so we give it recognizable forms and order and even beautiful meanings. We pretend we are neutral observers and data collectors of the forms that preceded us, and we say we can't apply our knowledge to the present because we are only looking behind us, at the past. That way, we're never really responsible for how others use, or ignore, or set aside, the "history" we tell.

Karl Steel said...

Good stuff. Will Moore be dropping by here for a discussion?

First off, it was once called Reality, Television, and the Middle Ages, right? I liked that title a lot.

I'm thinking, too, of the few books on the Middle Ages more than 30 years old that I read. What springs to mind immediately are Howard Patch's The Goddess Fortuna in Mediaeval Literature, Eileen Power's Medieval English Nunneries, Comparetti's Virgil in the MA and other works that seem to me to topical compendia without much of an argument. In short, quasi-Encyclopedias interested primarily in mapping mind-independent objects rather than arguing for particular mind-dependent concepts. It seems, then, that the works with most staying power are bloodless works produced through extraordinary sitzfleisch: but what I find most useful, from then, I don't find most admirable, now. If I have to sacrifice staying power to engagement, I chose the latter because it helps the immanent me, which is the me I’m stuck with.

I love Moore’s meditations on friendship, and not only because it reminds me of what I was saying about the classroom that was so generously picked up by Eileen and JJC. Here, however, I want to think of two things Moore writes together:

“Viewed as comparable to wolves, such persons are imprisoned without hope of trial and are not protected from the use of torture. The enemy combatant is an outcast, unable to claim any law. The creation of this category was intended to strip, rather than to assign, a legal identity. The person captured and suspected of involvement in terrorism becomes an exile from every land, and every law.”

“Thus according to Prodi, the modern State acts as if it its enactments and legal claims are not subject to any restraint or comparison with a higher or better law. This means that ‘human beings are now subjected to the absolute dictates of positive law and to the power and authority of the modern state.’”

I'm thinking back to two things.
First, JJC, here, last February:

"I entitled this post 'inexclusion' because the monster often winds up exiled through some gesture of repudiation (and typically that gesture also grants some dominating identity a temporary stability) -- but at the same time incorporated through that very gesture, becoming an essential support for the dominant, the ideal, the normal."
And Agamben, State of Exception, 86 (this work is essential for what Moore is doing, I think):

"The normative element needs the anomic element in order to be applied, but, on the other hand, auctoritas can assert itself only in the validation or suspension of potestas. Because it results from the dialectic between these two somewhat antagonistic yet functionally connected elements, the ancient dwelling of the law is fragile and, in straining to maintain its own order, is always already in the process of ruin and decay. The state of exception is the device that must ultimately articulate and hold together the two aspects of the juridico-political machine by instituting a threshold of undecidability between anomie and nomos, between life and law, between auctoritas and potestas. It is founded on the essential fiction according to which anomie (in the form of auctoritas, living law, or the force of law) is still related to the juridical order and the power to suspend the norm has an immediate hold on life. As long as the two elements remain correlated yet conceptually, temporally, and subjectively distinct (as in republican Rome's contrast between the Senate and the people, or in medieval Europe's contrast between spiritual and temporal powers) their dialectic--though founded on a fiction--can nevertheless function in some way. But when they tend to coincide in a single person, when the state of exception, in which they are bound and blurred together, becomes the rule, then the juridico-political system transforms itself into a killing machine."


First I think of these two because the outlaw in the war on terror is inexcluded, not wholly exiled. This is true of course in an almost literal sense, as these unfortunates--who, now, can be us—- are inside cells and programs of torture, yet, having been utterly abandoned to the law (an echo of Agamben I think), are paradoxically outside all rights. But what law, what state is it that consumes them? Because the capacity for inexclusionary suspension of rights is essential for states like the rightist military kleptocracy we now suffer, the state is also outside and inside its law at the same time: see Agamben, from above, “the modern state of exception is instead an attempt to include the exception itself within the juridical order by creating a zone of indistinction in which fact and law coincide” (26). It's rather something like, for example, this, which Agamben cites:

“Nevertheless it must be noted, that if the observance of the law according to the letter does not involve any sudden risk needing instant remedy, it is not competent for everyone to expound what is useful and what is not useful to the state: those alone can do this who are in authority, and who, on account of such like cases, have the power to dispense from the laws. If, however, the peril be so sudden as not to allow of the delay involved by referring the matter to authority, the mere necessity brings with it a dispensation, since necessity knows no law.”

Because both state and outlaw have entered into a zone of indistinction in which state, authority, law, and politics coalesce into something analogous to, why not, a black hole, we must, as Moore argues, find some way to protect ourselves from the state and from outlawry, not because they threaten us differently, but because their reliance on each other will be our doom.

P.S., you might ask Moore is he knows the work on the wolf by Aleks Pluskowski. He has a book coming out soon, but in the meanwhile, Moore might want to look at "Apocalyptic Monsters: Animal Inspirations for the Iconography of Medieval North European Devourers," 155-76 in The Monstrous Middle Ages. Cardiff: U of Wales, 2003 and at “Prowlers in Dark and Wild Places: Mapping Wolves in Medieval Britain and Southern Scandinavia.” 81-94 in the excellent collection Just Skin and Bones? New Perspectives on Human-Animal Relations in the Historical Past. BAR International Series 1410. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2005

Glaukôpis said...

JJC: Thanks for the excerpt! I'm really interested in reading it now!

Also: cable television with Chaucer -- I suddenly feel less guilty for having written a paper on musical theatre and Chaucer.

Eileen Joy: Oh, I definitely understand it's harder for historians of older time periods to get out and comment and be accepted as commentators on the present, but that's why I'm so glad you are getting this book published. Maybe it will inspire others.

And that was a beautiful excerpt. Thanks!

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks, all, for the very meaningful comments here. I have forwarded the comment thread to Michael Moore, who really appreciated the input.