Sunday, February 25, 2007

Loving the New Middle Ages

Following on from our recent ruminations on the queer politics of hope I thought we could move on to love. So, I would like to share my upcoming review of Anna Klosowska's gorgeous Queer Love in the Middle Ages (which I am told will be in the next issue of Sixteenth Century journal--its a joint review with Tison Pugh's Queering Medieval Genres).

By the way, Noah Guynn's new book Allegory and Sexual Ethics in the High Middle Ages is out:

I would be really interested to hear what people make of this new-ish work on the Middle Ages.

Queer Love in the Middle Ages. Klosowska, Anna. New York: Palgrave, 2005. 195 pp. $65.00. ISBN 1-403-96342-8.
Queering Medieval Genres. Pugh, Tison. New York: Palgrave, 2004. 226 pp. $65.00. ISBN 1-403-96432-7.

Despite the almost unshakeable presentism of much Queer Theory it is undeniable that some of the best work currently being done in the field is by medievalists who are keenly engaged in the project of recuperating a sexually dissident Middle Ages. At the Queer Matters conference in London in May 2004 two of the plenaries were medievalists, Carolyn Dinshaw and Karma Lochrie, and the event, perhaps the biggest in queer studies since the Santa Cruz conference in 1991 at which the words queer theory were coined, was organized by Robert Mills. Up until recently much of this cutting edge scholarship appeared in the University of Minnesota Press’ Medieval Culture series which published Glenn Burger and Steven Kruger’s Queering the Middle Ages (2001), Burger’s Chaucer’s Queer Nation (2003), and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Medieval Identity Machines (2003). Since the demise of this series we have seen the emergence of one with similar commitments, The New Middle Ages, at Palgrave Macmillan. In 2003 they published Richard E. Zeikowitz’s Homoeroticism and Chivalry: Discourses of Male Same-Sex Desire in the Fourteenth Century, in 2004 Tison Pugh’s Queering Medieval Genres, and in 2005 Anna Klosowska’s Queer Love in The Middle Ages. It is the latter two which I will consider in this review and ask to what extent the new (queer) Middle Ages they recover is desirable or not.

Pugh’s book overlaps in significant ways with Burger’s and Zeikowitz’s in that it seeks to queer a wide range of mostly fourteenth century texts by destabilizing heteronormative interpretations of them and offering counter-normative readings which attend to sexuality, sexual identity, and homoeroticism. In chapter one Pugh argues for the necessity of queering to the project of unhinging the heteronormative and teasingly claims that sexual binarity and generic ideologies should both be viewed as complicit in writing out the queer. From the outset the deconstructive impulse behind Pugh’s reading practice is apparent as he seeks to jolt, shock, highjack, and overturn and this is what I would take “queering medieval genres” to mean, defamiliarizing and “overturning the heteronormative bias[es]” (3) of medieval genres and criticism of the texts which occupy them. But it seems to function differently for Pugh, for whom, as I understand it, the act of queering is something which happens not to the text per se, but radiates out from it, so that the reader is disarticulated from their heteronormative privilege in some way (95). Pugh makes two important points in the introduction: firstly, that he aims, after Allen Frantzen, to swerve away from a focus on sexuality and genitality to a consideration of same/sex love and affect, but it is nowhere apparent to me that he tells us anything new about queer affectivity. Secondly, he recapitulates, after Judith Butler and Biddy Martin, the need to revivify a queer attention to gender as a proper object. This is a timely reminder and Pugh is seriously committed to both feminist and queer readings of medieval texts although not unproblematically.

In chapter two Pugh queers the twelfth-century lyrics of Marbod of Rennes, Baudri of Bourgueil, and Hildebert of Lavardin. Paying attention to these much-neglected texts is welcome but here we begin to see where his attempts to mobilize a deconstructive queering founder. Queer and gay (male) tend to collapse here as do heterosexuality and heteronormativity and despite his being at pains to tell us otherwise Pugh does seem to be trying to reclaim these men as homosexual forebears. My worry is that queering medieval texts for Pugh, means gaying them, and that creating a space for homosexual desires, however laudable, really doesn’t do anything to shake the heteronormative edifices of the societal and generic regimes under consideration. Chapter Three examines a range of Chaucerian fabliaux although most weight is given to The Wife of Bath’s Tale. Remembering Pugh’s aims to shift away from sex to love and to reinsert gender into queer analyses this is a key chapter, but again there are problems. This book is really more about sexual contact (between men) than sensibility and queering seems to be something women do to men in fabliau. The distinction between the queer male and queer female fabliau is a helpful one but why can’t women be queer in these texts unless they are somehow undercutting male privilege? Chapter four advances an original reading of the queer possibilities in Troilus and Criseyde but again the female tends to drop out. While Pugh examines the triangulated relationship between Pandarus, Troilus and Criseyde in great detail Criseyde never appears as anything more than a bridge between the men in his argument. The same problem emerges in Chapter five which unpacks the perverse erotics of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Again, queering seems to be a game played between men and Pugh never considers the centrality of women to the queer dynamics of the text: Lady Bertilak, Guinevere, and most importantly Morgan. Arguably it is the women who are the most destabilizing agents in this text but Pugh leaves female same-sex desire untouched.

If Pugh’s new Middle Ages is one I would not particularly desire then Anna Klosowska’s is one I could fall in love with. Her queer “cryptology” (1) is a very French one, a deconstructive reading practice inspired by Derrida and Barthes, which aims to “begin the queer re-reading of the medieval French corpus” (144). Klosowska seeks out a number of what she calls “thematic sites” (3), underassigned moments, or what Pugh calls occluded sites. She borrows the Lacanian image of the point de capiton to describe these supersaturated, often surprising, moments, although I prefer the word charnière, or hinge-points which can also name these places of “connection” (4) and “interchange” (4) but also the way in which they, and Klosowska’s persuasively elegant readings, lure us in. In the introduction, after Frantzen, she argues for more groundwork, less wishful thinking, and for “the need to elaborate a tight theoretical framing that springs from the texts” (18). The terminological questions she poses and the intervention she makes into current debates about queer historiography makes this introduction indispensable.

Chapter one brilliantly queers Perceval with painstaking attention to the episode of the Fisher King and its unsettling qualities. The reading practice Klosowska stages is a mixture of queer philology/lexicography and queered psychoanalysis where Kristeva’s Stabat Mater appears alongside Perceval. This chapter, with its resemblances to Derrida’s Circonfession in mind, could be compared with Pugh’s on Sir Gawain, since both attend to castration and same/sex desire, but it is Klosowska who makes a more persuasive argument for queering as a kind of differàntial cutting, a reading practice saturated with a perversely enjoyable jouissance. The second chapter on Yde et Olive answers the question whether we can “legitimately do the history of sexuality in the absence of direct references to sexual acts?”(9) and again argues for a methodology emphasizing cutting, holes, dissection, recombination, and pleasure. Her beautifully complex Lacanian take on the female/cross dresser and the way the visibility of the slits and seams foreground her pleasure and the reader’s (75) is sure to have ramifications way beyond medieval studies. For Lacan and Klosowska cuts, margins, the in-between and borders are “sites of emergence” (76) and the queerness texts attempt to conceal re-emerges in the cuts, gaps, and silences. Chapter three traverses a number of supplemental moments in familiar texts including Lanval and Roman de La Rose and queer criticism of them to argue for the smuggling of queer readings into the heart of the medieval French canon.

If Pugh leaves the phallic Law mostly unchallenged, then Klosowska offers the queer medievalist a way in which to negotiate the complexities of heteronormative, rigidly phallic texts from a castrated vantage, and allows us to renegotiate the queerness of these texts in ways we cannot predict. While both authors talk about play, signs, those moments when the text “winks” at the reader, and perverse pleasures, it is in Klosowska’s conclusion when she describes Roland Barthes as “a fellow passenger on a train” (145) that I get an overwhelming feeling of her loving Barthes. She loves reading him, loves talking about him in relation to medieval texts, loves getting into and appreciating the details of those texts with him. And the more I read Klosowska’s book the more I loved it. This book should not be called Queer Love in the Middle Ages but rather Queer Love for the Middle Ages.


Karl Steel said...

it is in Klosowska’s conclusion when she describes Roland Barthes as “a fellow passenger on a train” (145) that I get an overwhelming feeling of her loving Barthes.

More on the rest of it perhaps later (?), but as the train reference jarred a memory loose, one that I think intersects (or gives another voice to), your discussion of silences, I wanted to put it out here right now. From the collection of eulogies and letters by Derrida, The Work of Mourning, where he remembers Barthes:

"I shall not make of this an allegory, even less a metaphor, but I recall that it was while traveling that I spent the most time alone with Barthes. Sometimes head to head, I mean face to face (for example on a train from Paris to Lille or Paris to Bourdeaux), and sometimes side by side, separated by an aisle....Even if I wanted or was able to give an account, to speak of him as he was for me...even if I tried to reproduce what took place, what place would be reserved for the reserve? What place for the long periods of silence, for what was left unsaid out of discretion, for what was of no use bringing up, either because it was too well known by both of us or else infinitely unknown on either side?" (55).

Gabriele C. said...

I always had suspicions about Roland and Olivier, lol.

Seriously, thanks for the book tips, I'll definitely check them out. The motive of male friendship in the chanson de geste is a very interesting one, and the way it is rendered in the Old Norse adaptations makes me want to re-examine male friendship in the Icelandic sagas as well.

Michael O'Rourke said...

That is pretty uncanny Karl. I was reading The Work of Mourning on the bus just the other day and was rather taken with Derrida's description of his relationship with the Americanist Joseph Riddel, his memories of whom he associates with speed, race cars, driving, danger and death. There's much more to be said about travel in Derrida and his "quasi-transcendentals" (Catherine Malabou's book Counterpaths is all about this).

Michael O'Rourke said...

Hello Gabriele C.

There is virtually nothing on male (even less on female) friendship and affect in the sagas or paettir, with the exception of Carl Phelpstead on Hrolf's Saga and David Ashurst on homosexual liebestod. I organized a panel on affect and friendship in the Icelandic sagas a few years ago and can send my introductory notes if you are interested. This is wide open.

Michael O'Rourke said...

Here we are. This was for a panel on Queer Affect in the Icelandic Saga at Leeds in July 2005. The other speaker was David Ashurst on William Morris' translation of Laxdoela. The chair was Armann Jakobsson who has wonderful work coming out in masculinity in Njala.

• Icelandic Studies has for the most part remained oblivious to the incursions of feminist, lesbian and gay and queer studies in the last ten or fifteen years. Notable exceptions are David Ashurst’s detailed examination of “homosexual” liebestod in Breta Sogur and Alexanders Saga among other texts translated from Latin in Saga Book; Jenny Jochen’s article on triangulation and homosocial desire in Bjarnar Saga Hitdoelakappa; and Carl Phelpstead’s Scandinavian Studies piece on the sexual ideology of Hrólfs Saga Kraka.
• Studies of masculinity have been influential especially since Carol Clover’s 1993 article in Speculum “Regardless of Sex: Men, Women and Power in Early Northern Europe” which interrogated and destabilized the categories of “man” and “woman” “male” and “female”. Clover discusses the exceptionality of the women in Laxdoela and their performances of masculinity (she gives the example of Unn The Deep Minded). One wonders if Laxdoela is also a place to begin to extend the array of masculinities to what Judith Halberstam calls “female masculinity” or masculinities without men? Audr dressed and armed like a man avenges her brothers and performs masculinity as well as, if not better, than any man in the saga. These “bold, valiant” women, as well as Vigdis and Gudrun, suggest to us that disarticulating masculinity and males is an important project; as Eve Sedgwick has claimed “sometimes masculinity has got nothing to do with it”, nothing to do with masculinity that is.
• When male same/sex desires have been discussed it has largely been in considerations of the saga tradition of insult (nid) and sexual defamation, which often turn on charges of male penetrability or sodomizability. There is rich evidence for this in the sagas and pættir-men being accused of taking the feminine, passive role in sodomitical sex, being a mare, beardless, unmanly. But should we try to move our focus away from the genitalic to intimate or affective relations between men and between women?
• If male/male desire has been undertheorized in Icelandic Studies then so too has female/female desire since female/female desires and intimacies are rarely, if ever, acknowledged, let alone discussed, by saga scholars. One could argue with Jacqueline Murray that “lesbians” in the Icelandic saga are twice invisible, both marginalized and erased. Can we make a space for lesbian affectivity in Laxdoela Saga?
• How might we compare the relationship between Bolli and Kjartan and Bjorn Arngeirsson and _or_r Kolbeinsson in Bjarnar Saga?
• Critics have long asked if there is a Sedgwick school for girls. Terry Castle in The Apparitional Lesbian offers praise of Sedgwick but also a strong critique. She asks “within such a totalising scheme, with its insistent focus on relations ‘between men’, what place might there be for relations between women?’ The answer to this rhetorical question is “none” and “an entire category of women-lesbians-is lost to view”. Castle constructed another triangle; in effect she flips over or unfolds the Girard-Sedgwick triangle, rotating it on one of its sides to form an adjacent triangle the third point of which is female, not male. Next to the ‘normative’ male-female-male triangle she has placed its mirror opposite: female-male-female. Can we construct such a reconfigured triangle in Laxdoela or elsewhere? The triangulated relationships between Jorunn-Melkorka-Hoskuld and Hrefna-Gudrun-Kjartan seem to be motivated more by hostility than desire but I am mindful of Carolyn Dinshaw’s reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where she finds a lesbian plot motivating Morgan’s desire to “get at” Guinevere.
• Carl Phelpstead finds evidence of “symbolic” sexual domination or intercourse between men in Hrólfs Saga. When does the relationship between Bolli and Kjartan come into the orbit of the potential erotic? When they are swimming together? Kjartan’s swimming contest with King Olaf Tryggvason is no less erotic. They “go under” three times and Kjartan has never found himself in such a “tight corner”. Their bodily intimacy is followed by Olaf’s giving Kjartan a gift of a cloak. We might detected another erotic triangle between Olaf-Kjartan-Ingibjorg. But, do our queer readings really need to ratchet the homosocial up to the power of one to the potentially homoerotic?
• What is the relationship between violence and homosocial rivalry in Laxdoela? And what sort of connections can we make between misogyny, homophobia and the homosocial in the saga?
• How much of the homosociality in the saga is down to the influence of European chivalric romances in which male-male intimacy was almost homonormative?
• Cross/dressing in the saga and condemnation in Iceland. Breeches-Aud symbolically penetrates her husband who has divorced her on the grounds that she dresses like a masculine woman, in breeches: he is lying on his back, takes her for a man, she pulls out a small, impotent short-bladed sword and slashes him across the arm and nipples (a symbolic castration?).Gudrun also uses cross/dressing to her advantage by making her first husband a shirt which exposes his nipples, knowing that effeminacy is a grounds for divorce. How stigmatised or non-normative was cross/dressing in the sagas? Is it so capacious a category as to be rendered meaningless?
• Touching William Morris touching Laxdoela would seem to be a perfect example or double example of what Carolyn Dinshaw calls a “queer vibration”. Texts do not randomly bump up against each other-they need a queer intervention; they need the queer historian. How does the touch of the queer function in the affective encounter between Ashurst and Morris? What kind of “partial connections” are being made in this queer relation? What kind of post-identitarian community with the past? Michael Camille calls this “striking a pose”, submitting oneself to a temporal suspension. What does Ashurst’s contiguity with Morris and adjacentness to Laxdoela tell us about queer subjects and queer objects of desire?
• In 1982 Foucault changed his mind about “leaving Love to the Christians” and said, “I think now, after studying the history of sex, we should try to understand the history of friendship, or friendships…that history is very, very important”. A number of recent gay and lesbian historians have argued, similarly, that we have focused our attention too narrowly on sex and sexuality: we need to turn back to friendship and love. How productive a turn might this be for Icelandic studies? How does the category of “love” function in the saga which is unusual for its description of emotions? Is it what David Halperin calls a ”homoromance without gay identity”? Is “love” in Laxdoela a species of ethical practice or a relation of power in the Foucauldian sense?
• At the end of his life, the late Alan Bray, a pioneering historian of early modern England proposed that the theoretical charter for the new queer social history ought to be no longer Foucault’s History of Sexuality but Jacques Derrida’s Politics of Friendship. In The Friend, published posthumously, he predicted that future queer histories will be preoccupied less with analysing the links between sexuality and power than with documenting the various forms of “voluntary kinship” and other relations of ethical commitment among persons of the same sex that premodern societies once recognized, even formalized, and that postmodern queer cultures may wish to reinvent. Where would we begin such a study? Sworn brotherhood, blood-brothers (in Gisla Saga for example), and fostering seem important places to start thinking about non-heteronormative kinship arrangements.
• Jeffrey Jerome Cohen suggests in Medieval Identity Machines that queer theory needs to de-privilege its focus on the human and interrogate other circuits of affective desire-between men and their horses for example. Again, how might such a project be imagined? Hrafnkel and his beloved stallion Freyfaxi might be a good place to begin.
• A sustained critical focus on expressions of queer love, friendship, desire, intimacy and affect between men and between women is still very much needed so how might our readings of Laxdoela prove to be stepping stones for future queer readings of Icelandic sagas, poetry, _ættir? What other texts are or might potentially be amenable to queering, thereby potentially reconfiguring the entire field?

Gabriele C. said...

Wow, thank you Michael, that's very interesting.

My - sadly neglected since I spend too much time writing novels these days - PhD thesis is about The Karlamagnús saga - Analysis of the Text and its Discourse with the French and Scandinavian Literature of the 12th and 13th Centuries (or, in the original German: Die Karlamagnús saga I, einschließlich der Teile KMS IX und X sowie den post-Roncesvals-Episoden der Karl Magnus Krønike - Analyse des Textes und seines Diskurses mit der französischen und skandinavischen Literatur des 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts), thus not directly dealing with homoerotic and homosexuality. But as often with academic research, my interest goes odd ways and queer subjects come creeping up. It may even prove useful to indeed have a look at the different discourses of queer motives in the two literatures. On another note I had to do a lot of research on Feudalism since the French system is so different from the Icelandic and Norvegian concepts, and that is mirrored in the adaptations.

J J Cohen said...

Michael, could you say something more about this line from your review?
My worry is that queering medieval texts for Pugh, means gaying them, and that creating a space for homosexual desires, however laudable, really doesn’t do anything to shake the heteronormative edifices of the societal and generic regimes under consideration.

Michael O'Rourke said...

Yes, of course Jeffey. What troubles me about queer theory in its institutionalized form (and perhaps also in its activist incarnations, although these are less visible now) is that it becomes nothing more than another name for lesbian and gay studies and identities, or more narrowly, and more troublingly, gay male studies and identities. What Pugh's book does, at least on my reading, is to "gay male" texts rather than queer them by suggesting that we can find something like what we would call gay maleness in a number of different texts and generic locations in and from the Middle Ages (he seems, as my review suggests, much less interested in women). Pugh is at pains several times in the main text and notes to say he is not interested in reclaiming gay men in the past but it seems to me that this is precisely what he is doing. If queering is to remain (and therein lies its efficacy) an anti-identitarian mode of enquiry for medievalists--who are best positioned to accept this slipperiness-then it is rather disappointing if we are looking for gay men (or lesbians, or indeed heterosexuals) in the middle ages. This is the work of lesbian and gay studies not queer theory and for me, although not everyone who works in queer studies, these are separate enterprises. Does this answer your question?

J J Cohen said...

It answers my question. I do think that queer theory can sometimes be a little tough on "mere" gays and lesbians, and treat such lives as if they were a simple reinscription of heterosexual norms in another form: thus, for example, a widespread antipathy of queer theorists towards the insitutionalization of gay and lesbian marriage. It seems to me that the issue is far more complicated than that ... and although there is certainly some reinscription, there remains a good deal of challenge as well. I also think that, although queer is obviously a much more capacious category than "gay and lesbian," it can be just as susceptible to boundary drawing and disdain towards that which is placed outside its ambit.

Michael O'Rourke said...

Very true JJC. It can, of course, be just as antipathetic, even hostile, to heterosexual academics who do queer theory too. So, I agree that the capaciousness of the term can be misleading since it like all universals draws a cordon sanitaire around itself. There are exceptions, such as Butler and Warner, who, interestingly, have been most vocally opposed to gay marriage.