Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Constriction, Circumscription, Critique: More Other Worlds

Why are these possible worlds and alternate realities I've been aggregating necessary, at least to the England that dreamed them?

In part -- as came through in the comments to yesterday's post -- these Other Worlds offer a potentially affirmative vision, a version of the world that doesn't necessarily include the circumscriptions, foreclosures, and abjections through which stable identities come into being. True, many times these worlds open a portal upon memories of historical traumas that limn the present. Just as frequently, through such a portal can be glimpsed a more capacious ordering of that present -- and by more capacious I also mean more enchanted and more just.

One way of explaining the allure of these Other Worlds is to emphasize their escapist potential, since they are in part oneiric geographies that, once entered, could allow the dreamer to depart a troubled present without changing it, at least for a while. But that's only part of the story. By asking what the present would be like if it were configured differently, by wondering what Now would be if Then were remembered either better or simply differently, these Other Worlds offer, at least potentially, the opportunity for trenchant social critique, for imaging the world otherwise.

Fantasy is likely never the best way to change the mundane givenness of a particular life, of a particular world ... but fantasies of alternate realities do emphasize the contingency, the non-inevitability, of the world as currently known. Medieval England's Other Worlds invited the nation to ponder what it had abandoned to become itself, what other possibilities there might be for forming community in the realm.


Eileen Joy said...

In yesterday's post linked to this one, JJC wrote:

"The western Middle Ages as expanse of diverse conceptual isles means existence in intimate, unexpected connection through the swirl of manifold currents, through swiftly changing movements which rapidly commix flows of peoples, goods, ideas, armies, languages, architectures, books, genes, religions, affects, animals, technologies. Scatterings of lands gathered in their mutual relations, gathered with the currents that animate but do not totalize them, a medieval meta-archipelago would lack fixed boundaries and contain multiple centers."

You can hardly beat part of srj's response there,

"Your [JJC's] vision of England is fantastic – it truly is. But really it’s a vision of anyplace in the premodern world isn’t it? The importance of water and light, of imagination and discovery, of movement and belonging? Or a dream of our anyplace? A timeless world with all the bad bits taken out? What happens if you put time back in – can you – does it still work in the same way?"

This idea of the "commix[ed] flows" [JJC] and "anyplace" [srj] is something I often wish historians [and medievalists, especially] would pay more attention to. I used to have posted above my desk this quotation from Alfred North Whitehead, "The elucidation of the meaning of the sentence ‘everything flows’ is one of metaphysics’ main tasks." It is also, I would argue, the chief task of the historian, but it is a daunting one, maybe even a kind of bete noire for some.

So much of scholarship--whether about the history of early England or mollusks or gravity, etc.--seems tethered to the idea of "first principles" and various notions of "bounded" claims--in other words, to the task of "fixing" things/history and putting them "in their places." Blame rational positivism, if you will, or "scientist" whatever, etc. A scholarship that would really aim for the so-called "true" picture of early England would recognize what JJC's work already recognizes--that any history [not just early England's; it could even be the history of a single person] is made up of "islands of difference made contiguous through the shared embrace of turbulent, confluential seas." Beautifully put, but not always easily captured in our clumsy, well-meaning prose, our articles, our monographs [and what are most book reviews but merely narrow-minded assessments of where an author has gone right or wrong in "fixing" something in a specific "place"?].

And what of time, indeed, as srj asks us [also in earlier post]? Is there a way to account for this turbulent, confluential history that is not bound by time, or that perhaps demonstrates the ways in which it is *too* bound by it? The answer is likely that it is always both, simultaneously, and we often swim the channels that fluctuate between both states of affairs, mistaking our position in the process as always "somewhere" as opposed to "anyplace."

I got a strange letter shortly after Kalamazoo that has got me thinking about all this in a personal, not just a professional way. A former mentor, who is also a very important scholar in Old English studies, wanted to give me some advice. He's worried that I'm spreading myself too thinly over too many projects and that I'm too interested to too many disparate subjects, and have also [possibly] engaged in too many associations with too many people [i.e., non-Old English scholars], making myself "too available" [and maybe I am, then, too "friendly"]. He wanted me to know that I won't live forever [will soon be dead] and that the only things that really matter are the past and the future--more specifically, in my work, I should honor the dead and also reflect on what it is I do now that might matter in the future, being careful to distinguish between the "serious" [likely to still matter later] and the ephemeral [not likely to be around 20 years from now].

The thing is, the only thing that I think really matters is the present, and when I think about the past, I think about the way it was --sure--but more so, about the ways in which it inheres in the present, and why that might matter vis-a-vis the future [or more closely, how that might affect my thought/action in the here and now]. This relates to "other worlds," believe it or not, because I think what I'm really really interested in is cultivating states of enchantment that sometimes, just maybe, have to be predicated on thinking *otherwise* [otherwise from present "reality," otherwise from history, otherwise from non-fiction, otherwise from conventional professional expectations, etc.]. I can't change the past and while it might be nice to think my work would be thought worthwhile by someone sitting in a quiet study or on a park bench 150 years from now, I don't orient my career toward either possibility. I write, and work, and teach for those living beside me. I don't speak to or for the dead. If that's bad for a medievalist to say, forgive me.

When I am sitting at my favorite table at Erato, as I am now, and drinking a glass of wine, and listening to music, and watching the people around me--some of whom I know and some of whom I don't know but wish I did or wonder about--and listening to the traffic on Grand Avenue outside the open front door and writing these words into the ether of the Internet, I think about history and other worlds all the time, but what I mean by that, is that I think about where I am right now and who I might be with, again, right now. What are the manifold currents and commixed flows moving all around me at just this moment? How could I be the historian of that, its clerk, its tireless note-taker, its medievalist?

srj said...

EJ - that is really kind - but I also really disagree (I htink - though not in a fit state today to do so with any eloquence!) It is hard to keep up with you all and do a 'day job'.

First I wanted to say that I like JJC's take on national identity - I don't believe in Englishness, Britishness (or American-ness) as fixed and bounded realities (and am positively glad that nobody can define them). Rather they are ever flexible forms of rhetoric - sometimes more inclusive sometimes less.* And there is that word 'time' again.

As I have said before, I am quite happy to subscribe to time as non-linear and complex, subjective and multivalent - all of that - we don't need to equate time (or place) in the past with simple linear narratives (though I guess that has been debated since the time of Thucydides).

But I don't want to get bogged down in defining time and narrative. Mostly I want to say that I don't think that we can ignore time and place (either then or now) altogether. 'Contingency' is a useful concept, perhaps, as in the sense of the unpredictable. Time and place are part of the contingent circumstances which constantly and somewhat unpredictably change our subjective view - and those contingent processes of change are part of the work of humanists and humans. So - to give a banal example - if at a particular point in time my bit of 'England' had closer interpersonal ties with the Rhineland than it did with other parts of England that changes the particular ways in which JJCs commixture could be expressed or understood. Similarly if I experience death that changes my own feelings about life and what I might experience (or achieve) in it. Both contingencies are influenced by place and time and those are inevitably part of the experience.

OK - wonder today - (1) finishing - definitively finishing over one third of the great work, (2)winning a future for somebody else - (3) marvelling at sickish children persevering with (what seem like) life-changing public exams. Eldest enthusiastically testing youngest on physics as I tap.

*have uncomfortable feeling that this assertive loving, ever-flexible inclusivity is another form of imperialism - but maybe jewdas guards against that.

Eileen Joy said...

Sorry for the delay in my reply, srj [you may not even return to this thread--who knows?], but I think we actually agree [although you *do* disagree with something that I *do* say which I guess I want to now revise]: no, as you say, we can't really ignore time and place, and I don't want to get "bogged down in defining time and narrative" either [although, I don't know--it might be fun! in addition to the gadjillion other things we're all always trying to do every day]. And yes, as srj writes,

"Time and place are part of the contingent circumstances which constantly and somewhat unpredictably change our subjective view - and those contingent processes of change are part of the work of humanists and humans."

I couldn't have said it better myself. I think I've mentioned this on the blog before, but when some of us "intellectual" types start getting into all sorts of metaphysical conversations about time and being and multiple bodies and flows of being across time and space, etc., I think it always behooves us to reflect on the ways in which we [or some of us] are really kind of trapped in particular, singular bodies, times, and places, whether through illness, chronic pain, poverty, etc. It's just that, as an artist-scholar, with a lot of time and not too many $$ worries on my hands, I try to think [sometimes] of other, fantastic possibilities.

srj said...

EJ - i have returned (partly to see if there was anything on Guthlac - that is another thread)- partly because it seems to be working for me right now to combine the solitary slog in the mines of nit and grit with a bit more expansiveness in the evening over here.

My impression on this blog is that the more we 'talk' the more we agree. Conversation forges convergence!

But I do find it hard to hold all aspects of ongoing the conversation in my head at the same time - and so I had forgotten your thoughts on 'bodies'. This might be in the nature of a blog - but I suspect it is in the nature of thought, memory and conversation.