Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Monstrous and the Queer

Michael's posts and commentary spurred me to return to some of my early work, when I was just starting to read around in queer theory. Below I am pasting a section from my book Of Giants, a closing segment of a chapter in which I tried to make my work on monstrosity intersect with the growing corpus of scholarship on the queer Middle Ages. If I could do it over again today I'd likely not be so gosh darn earnest -- but Of Giants was my dissertation, so Older JJ officially lets Younger JJ off the hook. You may feel otherwise, especially because some of the issues I touch upon superficially here have been explored with far greater depth since I composed this.

The Exorbitance of Desire
It is important to emphasize that although heterosexuality operates in part through the stabilization of gender norms, gender designates a dense site of significations that contain and exceed the heterosexual matrix.
-- Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter

To return for a moment to a contemporary counterpart to the bodily dynamics of Bevis of Hampton, the film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles insists that identity occurs across bodies as much as within them. Its plot outwardly celebrates family and heterosexuality. Its protagonists suffer their impossible misadventures as they attempt to return to Chicago to celebrate Thanskgiving at home. Yet most of the film involves the two men's attempts to establish a balanced domesticity that excludes their wives. Not only do they occupy together the many vehicles of the title, but they often share the same hotel room, and the same bed. A key scene opens as they peacefully sleep, cuddling each other and dreamily repeating the names of their absent spouses. They awaken to find themselves locked in a strange embrace. "Where is your hand?" asks the fastidious character. "Between two pillows," the slovenly giant murmurs drowsily. "Those aren't two pillows!" The men jump out of bed instantly, nervously, and re-heterosexualize themselves by talking too enthusiastically about baseball. The comedy of "odd-couple" pairings arises through a homoeroticism which is invoked at the same moment it is disavowed, enjoyed just as it is safely dismissed. In this final section, I will suggest that this intersubjective flow of desire in romance exceeds containment in the pairing of the giant's body with the hero's frame. This exorbitance begins to function less as a precise, systematizable phenomenon, like extimité, and starts to resemble the post-modern identity category queer.

Despite the fact that Rainoart [a comic giant in Aliscans] and Ascopart [giant in Bevis of Hampton] are trained into the proper contours of chivalric masculinity, neither ultimately coincides with the subject-position of his mentor. Something in the nature of their bodies resists incorporation into a wholly human frame of reference -- resists, in fact, any static structuration at all. Ascopart betrays his master, Rainoart never learns the grace that signals fully successful embodiment. Neither giant comprehends what it means to be confortable dans sa peau, at home in one's body, because neither is able to materialize precisely those limits which precipitate an "individual" from the intersubjective network. If Ascopart and Rainoart figure the giant who is the intimate stranger at the heart of the romance knight, they also suggest that embodiment is a never-final process in which one body forms a circuit with another, losing its autonomy through a touch that is surprising, disturbing, alluring. Read back from the "perfect" body of the chivalric hero, the giant is simply the body under process; divorced from teleology, however, the giant is the non-totalized body in its pure potentiality, the site where everything that exceeds containment in the chivalric matrix becomes possible again. The giant suggests that there is more to human corporeality than any reduction into systematicity (psychoanalytic, historical, biological) can measure. Primal monster lurking at every origin, the giant declares that identity is something larger and more multiple than residing as a lonely individual in some merely human frame.

In other words, the giant insists that because desire is caught up in and dispersed throughout a mobile network of bodies, objects, temporalities and subjectivities, identity is always larger than any singular body that would circumscribe its trajectory. Proper identities can be culturally constructed and socially promulgated, but they do not always manage to capture desire within their limited contours. It may well be, for example, that the bond of intimacy which unites hero to giant is something in excess of mutual friendship. The giant's body is always an overly sexual body, as his repeated connection to promiscuous incubi attests. What has not yet been remarked, however, is the way in which the giant's hypersexuality becomes increased in romance through his racial alterity. Like their evil comperes, Rainoart and Ascopart are Saracens -- that is, Muslims. As John Boswell has demonstrated, medieval polemic characterized Saracen bodies as immoderately erotic: adulterers, polygamists, sodomites. Guibert of Nogent declared that Saracens were not satisfied with possessing numerous wives, but also were "sullied by uncleanliness with men," while Jacques de Vitry claimed that Muhammad had "popularized the vice of sodomy among his people, who sexually abuse not only both genders but even animals." In the Western medieval imaginary, the Saracen is characterized by a voluptuous physicality which "normal" heterosexuality fails to contain. His voracious desire alights indiscriminately upon a multitude of bodies, violating the regulation of difference by ignoring the "natural" constraints of gender, species, race. How much more excessive, then, must be the sexualized body of the Saracen giant.

Extimité has been glossed throughout this book as "external intimacy" or "intimate alterity." This strangely foreign, disturbingly familiar site could be pushed out from its embedment in Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and be allied with what the term queer has come to signify within postmodern identity theory. A site which is perturbing, disruptive, and at the same time attractive, the queer functions as both secret inside and forbidden exterior to all that is straight and normal. The disavowed progeny of abjection and heteronormativity, the queer designates a supposedly "unlivable" space, and yet the production of this impossible realm marks a foundational moment for the identities which attempt to exclude it. The queer can thus become a contestatory point of resistance to systemization, as well as a powerful site from which to deconstruct dominant ideologies: "in contrast to the stabilizing categories of identity politics, the term 'queer' would resist nominalization, functioning as an adjective, adverb, even verb, stressing epistemology rather than ontology" (Burger, "Queer Chaucer" 156). Jonathan Dollimore describes the queer's gendered effects as repeatedly unsettling "the very opposition between the dominant and the subordinate," and labels it "sexual dissidence" (Sexual Dissidence 21). Carolyn Dinshaw gives the queer an ontologically unruly definition:
Queerness works by contiguity and displacement, knocking signifiers loose, ungrounding bodies, making them strange; it works in this way to provoke perceptual shifts and subsequent corporeal response in those touched ... It makes people stop and look at what they have been taking as natural, and it provokes inquiry into the ways that 'natural' has been produced by particular discursive matrices of heteronormativity. ("Chaucer's Queer Touches / A Queer Touches Chaucer" 76-77)

Something in the queer prevents its full re-integration into whatever matrix of identity it arises to challenge with its perversity, its excess, its defiant joy. Its "disillusioning" force is certainly an "insistent reminder ... of heterosexual incompleteness" (Dinshaw, "Chaucer's Queer Touches" 92), but it is also something bigger: the discomfiting limit of any circumscriptive system (of space, of time, of identity) which parcels the world into discrete phenomena and impossibly immobile categories.

The queer involves something more than an erotics of homosexual desire, but -- as the beauty of Galehaut's passion demonstrates -- it certainly includes same-sex longing. From their first meeting, Lancelot and Galehaut share a bond of intimacy. When Lancelot convinces his amis ("friend, beloved") to surrender his army to Arthur as an act of friendship, he is moved to tears of joy as the giant fulfills the request, and murmurs, "Blessed Lord God, who can be worthy of this?" (Lancelot II.52 138). Galehaut so loves Lancelot that he arranges for the knight's secret tryst with Guenevere. Even though he knows this relationship will isolate him from the body to which he seeks proximity, he is willing to embrace a position at the margins of a coherent identity so that Lancelot's joy will in some measure be his own. It isn't precisely possible to say why Galehaut acts as he does; there is something in his self-abnegation that makes him all the more forceful as a presence, but prevents his exact location within the heterosexual cultural matrix which the bodies around him enact.

Unlike the describable, almost quantifiable phenomenon of extimacy, Ascopart, Rainoart, and Galehaut are not wholly reducible to structural effects within the identity systems in which they arise. Galehaut is more than a "stain of enjoyment" who functions in the text as a support for its normalizing apparatus of gender; if that reductive mechanics held true, he would not die so alone, so broken-hearted, and so invested with the passions of the reader, who has been invited to share with him his excluded subject-position. Galehaut's death is among the the most affecting episodes of the long Lancelot-Grail cycle. Convinced by misleading evidence that his beloved Lancelot has committed suicide, Galehaut refuses to eat or drink. Monks warn him that "if he died as a result, his soul would be damned" (Lancelot III.106 332), but he perseveres in his movement toward a forbidden destiny. His last, painful days on earth are spent gazing fondly at Lancelot's shield, the metonym of the absent and identity-giving body of his beloved. Galehaut out-Lancelots Lancelot, whose every attempt to achieve immortality by dying for love is ingloriously botched. In making this assertion, I do not intend to repeat uncritically the all too frequent conjoining of the queer, the tragic, and the death-bound. Although Lancelot itself makes this conflation, perhaps as a way of containing the queer's power to unsettle, it is quickly undermined by Lancelot's passionate reaction to the giant's disturbing demise. Kept ignorant of Galehaut's self-sacrifice by Guenevere, he wanders to a chapel where a beautiful casket is guarded by five knights. Its inscription is a stunning rebuke to his obliviousness, to his inability to see beyond the relationship he enjoys with the queen and notice that his identity is caught in other circuits of desire. Etched in the huge casket are the words "HERE LIES GALEHAUT THE SON OF THE GIANTESS, THE LORD OF THE DISTANT ISLES, WHO DIED FOR THE LOVE OF LANCELOT" (IV.120 59). The knight faints at this declaration of Galehaut's love, at the eternal inscription of his amis under Lancelot's name. Galehaut died of the very love-sickness from which Lancelot once suffered, and which Galehaut introduced his beloved to Guenevere in order to assuage. Lancelot's perseverance proves that it is easy to live for love; Galehaut goes further, and suggests that the truest passion embraces its trajectory of becoming even as it curves into the realm of the unlivable, the incoherent, the abjected -- into an immortality beyond the limits of the body.

Lancelot attempts to integrate his friend back into a normative structure of meaning by interring the corpse at Joyous Guard/Dolorous Guard, where Galehaut will lie beside the hero's future grave and that of Guenevere. Yet this extimate figure inserted between the two lovers retains its queer power, even in the supposed immobility of death. There is something more to Galehaut than can be easily absorbed through obsequies and other public rituals, something that "exceed[s] the heterosexual matrix" -- something which acts like an "insistent reminder ... of heterosexual incompleteness," but also of heroic insufficiency, of the limits and failings and sad exclusions enacted through chivalric embodiment. Galehaut is interred by Lancelot within a visually exorbitant tomb wrought in ancient times for the Saracen king Narbaduc. Beatiful and alien, strange body at the heart of a familiar architecture, the stone tomb stands as an eternally resistant reminder of Galehaut's intimate alterity.

Galehaut haunts with the force of his desire Lancelot's subjectivity. This giant figures the failures of symbolization, the part of the system that cannot be folded back into its functioning and be made to undergird its structures of cultural signification. Galehaut, who loved Lancelot so much that he died for him, figures another way of being in the world which escapes reduction into the limited human frame within which most romances close. The giant's queer corporeality is the absolute guarantee that no human body is reducible simply to the system of identity through which it is rendered culturally legible. Since the body is always in motion, always in the process of becoming, and never until death a still form on a dissection table, there is always something more in the body than can be captured in structure, in explication, in the "final" resting place of a lonely grave -- in anything but constant movement.

(picture, above, found here)


Michael O'Rourke said...

Its always a pleasure to re-read JJC and to recall just how important OG was and still is (I remember telling a friend who was working on gnomic verse and giants that I was meeting JJC at Leeds in 2005 and she almost collapsed. Because JJC is the man). What strikes me reading the portion of the "Exorbitance of Desire" chapter now is the assemblage of queer and Lacano-Zizekian theory with what was for JJC then an emerging Deleuzoguattarian emphasis, which gets most fully worked through in Medieval Identity Machines. Two observations: the first is that OG and MIM turn non-theoretical medievalists on to theory (including queer theories) precisely because of the subtlety of the explications. One example from MIM is the brilliantly nuanced explanation of what D and G mean by the body without organs, a notoriously difficult concept which they stubbornly refuse to define. The second, and this is a question I have posed to Jeffrey before, is this: because JJC is such a subtle user of theory I wonder if as his work has progressed the theory has become much more submerged so that it ripples just below the surface? This is not to suggest that JJC has turned away from theory (far from it) but to ask whether it is a different way of doing theory, of putting theory to use?

Michael O'Rourke said...

Or the becoming-imperceptible of theory?

J J Cohen said...

You are too kind, Michael.

I definitely have not turned away from theory -- how could that happen? (oh, wait, Frank Lentricchia). But I have worked in quieter ways with theory lately than I used to. My most recent book (Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity) was the product of doing lots of reading over several years in critical race theory, and of continued reading in postcolonial theory and to a degree queer theory (esp. Butler) ... but I didn't write in the same heavily citational mode that I had in the past.

In part this more taciturn mode was inspired by the success I had in getting medievalists who wouldn't ordinarily read my work to do so when I placed an essay in Speculum (an essay I believe contains the first mention of Deleuze and Guattari in that journal, but an essay that I would never describe as deleuzoguattarian). In part the mode was also borne of my feeling that I had internalized my reading to such a degree that heavy citation felt like frosting on a cake that had what it needed baked inside already.

So, in some of my recent work it seems like theory is something like the secret language behind much of the exposition, not so submerged that it isn't obvious to those listening for it. I remember at that very same Leeds conference, Michael, you floored me after my presentation when you asked if I'd been reading Ashis Nandy. In fact I'd been suffering terrible insomnia and had spent the warm darkness of the late nights in Leeds huddled in my dorm room with Ashis Nandy and Amitav Ghosh.

Not literally, I should say.