Tuesday, June 12, 2007

More on England and its Possible Worlds

Here, a further contribution to an emergent thread on wonder, possible worlds, medieval alternative realities, and modern fantasy as portal to the medieval. See also:
[from Medieval Identity Machines]

Postcolonial theory directed toward the study of the Americas has a tendency to describe western Europe as a community of nations with a shared set of values, especially in the outward thrust of their imperial zeal. Even within national boundaries, European countries are imagined to be homogeneous: the French, the English, the Spanish and so on are supposed to have discrete identities intimately tied to the stable and apparently natural boundaries of their homelands. Europe is thus composed of coherent corporate entities with a tendency to act uniformly, even when in competition with each other. In describing the exploitation machine erected by Columbus as a kind of "medieval vacuum cleaner" which sucked resources from the New World for deposit on distant shores, Antonio Benítez-Rojo can therefore assume that Europe acted as a singular agent in perfecting a structure which was initially rather inept, augmenting its Columbian bricolage with la flota (the machine formed of ships, ports, and flows of raw material and wealth), missionaries deployed to effect religious transformation, plantations with their adaptable structures for quick implementation and lasting domination, "an entire huge assemblage of machines" whose conjunction enabled efficient colonization and maximum profit (The Repeating Island).

Medievalists who study the European west are unlikely, however, to recognize the singular geographical actor at the receiving end of this impressive apparatus. Strangely enough, it is the culture of the meta-archipelago and the dynamic Caribbean machine which reverberate as possible figurations for the psychical and cultural complexity of the occidental Middle Ages. Recent work in medieval studies has undercut the possibility of assuming a transhistorical, corporate identity for Europe, arguing that the term organizes into an imaginary totality communities which did not necessarily perceive themselves as part of any such grand collective. Linguistically and culturally diverse, connected by shifting alliance and multiple affiliation, medieval Europa was a machine animated as much by conquest, alliance and shared history (consolidating or integrative movements) as violent counterstruggle and ultimate inassimilability (eruption, assertion, sedimentation of difference). Benítez-Rojo is writing of a specific time and place in their relation to constitutive histories and topographies, of a geotemporality of which the Middle Ages knew nothing and which -- "medieval vacuum cleaners" aside -- had in turn little knowledge of the European medium aevum. Yet his "polyrhythmic" conceptual figurations are useful in struggling toward a language in which to collect an entity as big as the western Middle Ages even while insisting upon the inherent inadequacy and potential violence which all such generalization performs.

What if like the Caribbean space described by Benítez-Rojo the western Middle Ages consist of islands of difference made contiguous through the shared embrace of turbulent, confluential seas? Bede, after all, described the flow of time (lapsus temporum) as both "churning" (volubilis) and "wave-tossed" (fluctivagus). Why not extend Bede's oceanic metaphors to include the possibility of more solid spaces within the temporal flux? Some of these islands might, like the barren outcroppings sought by early Irish eremites, stand in relative isolation. Most, however, would be more like monkish Iona. The loneliness of this island in the outer Hebrides dissipates the moment we recall that Saint Columba assembled there a polyglot community drawn from many nations; that the monastery which he founded was visited with some regularity by merchants from Gaul; that flows of books and boats and pilgrims traversed its shores; that little Iona's history is inseparable from epic battles waged in Ireland and Scotland, from the consolidation of a Christian Northumbria by Oswald, from the missionary effort to convert those Pictish kingdoms now lost to history. Adomnán, Columba's eventual successor and composer of his vita, even entertained at the monastery a storm-tossed pilgrim returning from the Holy Land. The Life of Saint Columba is a weirdly heterogeneous text, as likely to narrate a relentlessly local anecdote about a demon dwelling in the bottom of a milk pail or the saint's predicting an imminent spilled inkpot as to provide a sweeping evocation of how this "island at the edge of the ocean" disseminates miracles known beyond "the three corners of Spain and Gaul and Italy beyond the Alps." Iona in the Life is not ultimately much of an island. Even when Columba resides on its rocky shores his spirit wanders, participating in distant martial clashes, communing with angelic visitors, scattering his selfhood across the wide world. The Life of Saint Columba textually performs this sacred fluidity, resolutely refusing linear chronology or recognizable biography. Names and events recur irregularly; sometimes Columba is dead and sometimes he is alive; the action often unfolds in Iona, but sometimes we are in Ireland, or among the Picts, or watching the Loch Ness monster attack. We are constantly transported across marine expanses without transitional signals, taken back to Iona without warning, in movements that draw together distant geotemporalities without synthesizing them into a homogenous whole.

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. European cultures, communities, nations become relational and provisional imaginings rather than ontological, self-possessed wholes. Think, for example, of Custance in Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, inscribing a colonial trajectory at once provincially English and transnationally Christian upon a world that includes Syria, Rome, Northumberland. A meta-archipelago requires that this cosmos be seen not only through that imperial gaze which frames the narrative, but also through the eyes of the Sultaness, the Northumbrians, Custance herself as a woman caught in a gendered game of cultural, religious, mercantile, bodily exchange. David Nirenberg has demonstrated that violence not only established medieval communities of diversity, but was integral to sustaining them (Communities of Violence). As the Man of Law's Tale also indicates, violence plays an important role in the instigation and maintenance of the flows that forcibly bind one conceptual island in the medieval archipelago to another.

Yet, in a kind of decolonization, the meta-archipelago enables the supposed margins of Europe to lose their status as peripheral geographies, so that Wales, Ireland, Brittany, Iceland, the Midi, Catalonia become centers in their own right, dynamic points of reception and dispersal in an open meshwork of transverse, transformative differences. No circumscribing map could capture the proliferating fullness of such islands, for every time the borders of a homogenous Britannia seem to have been securely delineated, another story begins to circulate of some interior, underground civilization where the people speak a long dead language, have green skin, or give other marks of their fairy alterity, of their inassimilable difference to an island that will never achieve its ambition of becoming a well ordered self-same.

These "figures of secret and unknown origin" (as Gervase of Tilbury called them) inhabited the interiors of mountains and ruled submarinal demesnes. Even the skies were populated by alien navigators of inscrutable intent. In the Otia imperiala, Gervase describes how a congregation leaving church beholds an anchor falling from the sky. In the distant clouds sailors can be heard struggling to pull the device back aboard their ship. Soon one of these mariners shimmies down the rope, hand over hand. He is immediately seized by the crowd, struggles for his life, and drowns because the "moistness of our denser air" is intolerable to his ether-adapted lungs. When "our" previously invisible air becomes weighty enough to function as someone else's sea, then "our" skies become the currents by which the medieval archipelago exuberantly connects difference to sameness in unanticipated ways. In mentioning such fantastic peoples living below the earth, under the waters, and in the clouds along with the real denizens of places like Wales and Ireland -- people who were themselves sometimes represented in just such "magical" and dehumanizing ways in order to exaggerate the challenge which they posed to English hegemony -- my intention is not to take any measure of concrete, lived reality away from any denizen of the medieval archipelago but rather, in sympathy with a medieval impulse, to populate its land, seas, and air with as much life as possible, to restore to this world its vastness, its vitalism, its irreducible heterogeneity.

[PS Here is a bit I found on Gervase's story of the enchurched anchor, including a mocking citation of Seamus Heaney's poem on the subject. And here is the citation itself.]


srj said...

Mind reader! I had just decided that I needed to go and read your book in order to understand your argument about Englishness when you go and post it all on the WWW. Well here am I sitting outside at 10pm and it’s still light enough to read by, but the birds are giving it their all as the sun finally slices into the horizon. It has rained hard all day – flash floods – but the torrents of water have been sucked up by the dry earth and it is now almost still, even the gentle breeze troubling the windchimes has disappeared.

Your 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? Do bad things start happening?

Two bits of wonder today. One a rising archaeologist (he’ll be famous next year). The contemporary kind who wears a tie and talks contracts, babbling with helpless enthusiasm about the little spit of land he has just found jutting out into the river that has been lost for centuries, the pits, the jetties, the sudden changes in the subsoil, the still working flushing mechanism of the cast iron communal toilets. Archaeology is like that. It’s all jumbled up time wise. One day you are in the nineteenth century and the next day looking at romans. Time only gets put back in during the post excavation stage.

Wonder number 2 a JYA student who a taught a few months back caught me while I was queuing up to buy a feta cheese salad and a bottle of orange juice. She had done an essay on Nottinghamshire stained glass and visited Southwell Minster. Like the archaeologist she was really fizzing – so fired up with it all, so raring to go. One of those great rewarding moments.

So this isn’t about very much. I don’t have a book text to post – so you get ramble instead. Sounds like I am being locked out of the house – better go!

J J Cohen said...

Thanks, srj, for that beautiful post. I'm looking forward to that sun that seems barely to set at this time of year -- just over two weeks from now and London j'arrive. And I share with you an enthusiasm for the enthusiasm of others! Two beautiful vignettes.

Re: the anyplace/premodern/good parts only portion of the comment: I agree with you to an extent, though the specific histories that animate that landscape are British and Irish, since the reverie is really that of the author of the Life of St Columba. BUT your point is well taken: the bad bits are taken out. The reasons for that are several (and thank you for giving me the chance to refelct upon them):
(1) the Life of Saint Columba itself tends to downplay the violent and the dark, offering a very sunny picture of Iona and its founder. It's interesting to juxtapose the Life with contemporary depictions of life as being fleeting, troubled, not worth loving.
(2) Because Benitez-Rojo (the Caribbean PoCo theorist who was my point of departure) paints an unremittingly negative picture of the Middle Ages and Europe, I wanted to provide something more affirmative, more full of possibility
(3) my book (Medieval Identity Machines) is, more largley, an attempt to practice medieval studies affirmatively. As I admit at the end, every narrative I treat has a very dark side, a darkness that has for the most part been amply written about. I did not dwell on such darkness not because it is unimportant, but because it is only part of the story, and not necessarily the most important part
(4) somewhat in contradiction to what I just wrote, I was interviewed by a reporter from the Chronicle of Higher Education today (several of us at ITM know him from a Kalamazoo article he is working on). I mentioned to him that a difference between a scholar and a "mere" enthusiast is that scholars are not allowed to enjoy their Middle Ages so much that they idealize them. Gender inequality, violence, genocide -- these are part of the story and can't be ignored.
(5) And I don't think these issues have been ignored, not at ITM (remember this?) or in my work. My latest book traces in part the forced vanishing of certain cultures and the violence of conquest; my current project is about the relegation of living cultures to an ancient past.

tim spence said...

This recent thread's concern with time, history and culture harmonizes with a few quotes from Michel Serres with which I've been grappling. In a conversation with Bruno Latour, Serres explains:

"In the end we'd almost have to speak of uneducating. As soon as you bring together on an island all those who are right and who assume the right to judge everything and you abondon everything else, by ignoring this everything else, you run the risk of repeating it. To forget exposes one to repeating."

The second quote, which fascinates me, imagines time much like I understand Benjamin's notion of history. Serres explains:

"Time does not always flow according to a line . . . nor according to a plan but, rather, according to an extraordinarily complex mixture, as though it reflected stopping points, ruptures, deep wells, chimneys of thunderous acceleration, rendings, gaps--all sown at random, at least in a visible disorder. Thus, the development of history truly resembles what chaos theory describes. Once you understand this, it's not hard to accept the fact that time doesn't always develop according to a line and thus things that are very close can exist in culture, but the line [of modernistic temporality] makes them appear very distant from one another."

meli said...

Wow, this is a great post. I'll be working with similar ideas soon cos I'm writing about an Australian novel which draws on Gervase of Tilbury and Ralph of Coggeshall. Thanks!

J J Cohen said...

Tim: great quotes. What's the source?

Meg: Wow, didn't know there was a novel that took up these stories. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Karl Steel said...

Lovely comments, all. JJC, hurrah for Google Books, which helps answer your q to Tim: try here.

my book (Medieval Identity Machines) is, more largley, an attempt to practice medieval studies affirmatively.

Is then, then, when you stopped being so Lacanian? Can you explain the shift from Lacan to D&G? (hint: great blog post idea!) What motivated it? Am I characterizing you right, JJC?

A few more airships. I mention the following one here :

De navi que visa est in aere

Rex fuit in theatro Scottorum tempore quodam
turbis cum variis, cum militibus ordine pulchris.
ecce repente vident decurrere in aere navim,
de qua post piscem tunc unus iecerat hastam,
quae ruit in terram, quam natans ille retraxit

Okay, that one is not very interesting (although we do get a hint of the anchor that ended up a church door). More interesting in the story Agobard of Lyons records:

"We have seen an heard of many overcome by such great madness and deranged by such great foolishness that they believe and claim that there is a certain region called Magonia [trans note: "Magic Land"] from which ships travel in the clouds. These ships carry crops that were knocked down by hail and perished in storms back to that same region. Those cloud-sailors [are thought to] give a fee to the storm-makers and to take back grain and other crops. So blinded are some by this great and foolish belief that they believe that these things can [actually] be done.

We [once] saw many people gathered together in a crowd who were showing off four captives, three men and a woman, as though they had fallen out of some ships. These people had been held for some time in chains. But at last, as I said, they were exhibited to that crowd of people in our presence as [criminals] fit to be stoned to death. Nevertheless the truth did come out. After much argument, those who exhibited those captives were, as the Prophet says, 'confused, just as the thief is confused when apprehended.'"

From De grandine et tonitrius (CCCM 52 3-15), trans P. E. Dutton, Carolingian Civilization: A Reader, 2nd ed., 220-221. (BTW, I highly recommend this volume: it's full of fascinating stuff, most of it, I should think, wholly unfamiliar to those of us educated in English departments).

J J Cohen said...

You are characterizing me correctly, Karl ... the Lacan fascination certainly did dwindle as the D&G preoccupation grew ... but I don't think it was as causal as that sentence makes it seem. In retrospect I'd reached a point of diminishing return with Lacan and Zizek; I felt like I understood the allegories well enough (!) and was repeating them without doing anything that seemed new. That is, Lacan et al seemed to be compelling me to come to conclusions arrived at in advance, and I was getting weary of those conclusions. Very Christian, it began to seem (Christianity without god, really).

Very different from D&G. Perhaps a blog post, some day.

Thanks fro more fascinating air ships materials. A quick Google search reveals that many UFO themed web sites post versions of such stories (esp. Gervase) as proof that aliens were visiting earth even in the Middle Ages.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for the mini-explanation of the shift away from Lacan/SZ. I'm reading Parallax View in bits and snatches, finding myself full of wonder but also utterly confounded by what look like unacknowledged contradictions. I know that he wants to discover contradiction in the heart of the Real, or whatever, but that doesn't excuse making one's argument contradictory, does it?

Thanks fro more fascinating air ships materials. A quick Google search reveals that many UFO themed web sites post versions of such stories (esp. Gervase) as proof that aliens were visiting earth even in the Middle Ages.

It's easier to believe that people believe, then and now, that there's something weird about the sky. Agobard, Gervase, &c., Revelations 1:7:
Look, he is coming with the clouds,
and every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen

And Nicola's great and eerie cave joke:

"Therefore, when we walked out of the cave into the open air I cracked the joke, "Now this is a cave!" and was very happy to see the kid in front of me throw me a surprised and knowing look."

tim spence said...

JJC, apologies for the lag time on the Serres reference. Karl, thanks for the assist. That Google Books seach is pretty cool.

With this thread weaving time and alien worlds together, I just can't resist quoting another postmodern mystic, Neil Young (from "After the Gold Rush"):

Well, I dreamed I saw the knights
In armor coming,
Saying something about a queen.
There were peasants singing and
Drummers drumming
And the archer split the tree.
There was a fanfare blowing
To the sun
That was floating on the breeze.
Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the nineteen seventies.

Well, I dreamed I saw the silver
Space ships flying
In the yellow haze of the sun,
There were children crying
And colors flying
All around the chosen ones.
All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun.
They were flying Mother Nature's
Silver seed to a new home in the sun.

srj said...

Oh no - don't start me on Neil Young .....

Well I'm marooned in the kitchen - very English school-end-of-term here. The house has been taken over by 16 year old girls celebrating the end of exams, the end of school and (I expect) the end of time. They are laughing a lot and consuming lots of sugar.

It is still raining outside (been raining hard for 3 days now). I feel footnoted out - all my books are marooned in the middle of the party and the only thing on the TV is 'Gardeners' World' or 'Eastenders' - so I am off for a walk up the (wet) hill to imagine the view of the wolds in one direction and the city in the other (both no doubt entirely smothered in impenetrable dampness).

D&G - Derrida and ? What I really want to know about today is pre-Conquest castles - any of you help me there? I'm open to any angle, marxist, fantastical ... it's all grist to the mill.

Karl Steel said...

Not Dolce and Gabbana but these guys.

Funny song, Tim, and one I've heard tens of times without thank goodness listening to it. Reminds me of a combination of the cover of Their Satantic Majesties Request and the lyrics to Come Sail Away. I'm more inclined to the last stanza of NY's "Revolution Blues," which everyone surely knows:

Well, I'm a barrel of laughs,
with my carbine on
I keep 'em hoppin',
till my ammunition's gone.
But I'm still not happy,
I feel like
there's something wrong.
I got the revolution blues,
I see bloody fountains,
And ten million dune buggies
comin' down the mountains.
Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon
is full of famous stars,
But I hate them worse than lepers
and I'll kill them
in their cars.

What I really want to know about today is pre-Conquest castles

Where have you looked so far? I've been reading the Keynes and Lapidge Alfred the Great: Asser's Life and Alred and other Contemporary Sources (available in Penguin) in a desultory fashion, and I thought I remembered something about forts in it. But all I could find was something from the AS Chronicle about Vikings building a fortification 20 miles above London in the entry for 895. I just searched my database for 'fort,' but all I got was the psychoanalytic fort/da and the French "fort." I'd search for "castle," but there's a bit of trouble with the lappy just now. I'll get back to this soon I hope.

Karl Steel said...

I'd search for "castle

Okay, I've David Crouch's observations on fortifications around page 205 in the Birth of Nobility, which point out that there's no explosion of castle-building after the conquest. Before and after the conquest, major families tended to keep great manors and dominated in other ways than fortifications (lawcourts, raiding, I suppose church-building). Does that help? Not much...

There's some material on castles, although not preconquest castles, in JJC's 'Flow of Blood' Speculum article (and I presume in On Difficult Middles, although that one's not in my db) where you can see how D&G can be used to read urban architecture.

Short version: sorry. Don't have much on that.

srj said...

Thanks, Karl - that's very kind. So far I have only dug (excuse the pun) through SMRs and other archaeological reports. Hereford Castle (c. 1050) is one of the more famous pre-Conquest castles. It was built on the site of a minster dedicated to St Guthlac, and is one of a cluster of early motte and bailey type constructions. It is the very early castle/saint pairing that interests me - although I have not really got around to thinking about the saint yet - so perhaps I should pursue Guthlac more urgently.

I also have the night to check out D&G while the party continues below. (laughing has turned to screaming [black dahlia] and now singing as they spill out into the streets - the whole country of 16 yr olds has more or less finished their exams and is out partying). One of us definitely needs to stay awake - let's hope D&G does the trick.