Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Caribbean Medieval

Island Love
[photo at left of the Palm at the End of the Mind by author]

I've been in love with the Caribbean since visiting Saint Lucia in 1990. In the years that followed I've been to Cozumel, Key West, Saint Martin, Saint Thomas, Grand Cayman, the Bahamas -- as well as Bermuda (an island that floats in the Atlantic, but similar in many ways to those farther south). Perhaps there is just something about islands that draws me: I proposed to my wife atop the crumbling fortress on George's Island, in Boston Harbor; the first extensive trip we took together, a year into our marriage, was to Kauai and Oahu (that was as far as our frequent flier points would carry us); and of course I give over much of my life to thinking about Britain. As Mary Kate is frequently arguing here at ITM, place suffuses meditation, often in surprising ways.

It's the end of the semester: classes to conclude! meetings to attend! papers to grade! exams to compose! deadlines to miss! All of us academics are nearing exhaustion. I invite you, dear readers, to mix yourself a rum drink, turn the heat way up and switch on a fan, find some internet radio station that streams steel drums all day -- or skip all the fantasies of island life and read this piece on George Odlum, or this great book by Richard Price -- and then skim the following, some excerpts from previously published work that suggests how the Caribbean might transform the medieval. [For some insight on how the medieval did in fact transform the Caribbean, on the other hand, you can't do better than Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell: read his book, or read his talk at GW].

I opened The Postcolonial Middle Ages with this quotation from Antonio Benítez-Rojo: "Where time unfolds irregularly and resists being captured by the cycles of clock and calendar..." (The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, 2nd ed., trans. James E. Maraniss). Benítez-Rojo describes the Caribbean as a "meta-archipelago," a figuration I found especially useful in struggling toward a language in which to collect an entity as big as "the Middle Ages" even while insisting on the violence generalization performs. In Medieval Identity Machines, I finished the thought, so to speak, offering this account of how Antonio Benítez-Rojo's model might provide a useful figuration for time as well as space.

Islands and Middles

How does one encounter the past as an anteriority that continually introduces an otherness or alterity into the present?
-- Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture

Unlike Hamlet's description of unknown futures, time is probably less an "undiscover'd country" than a postcolonial expanse. Medieval studies has long known that its lands, peoples, texts are nearly always indelibly marked by long histories of colonization, resistance, assimilation, coexistence. This section explores some recent scholarship on another hybrid geography, the Caribbean, to suggest the ways in which a particularly deleuzian strain of thought in postcolonial theory might be useful to medievalists interested in rethinking the relations among space, time and cultural admixture in their discipline, as well as to theorists of the contemporary postcolonial who might want to account with greater temporal depth for the complexities of colonialism's histories.

A vastness of islands scattered over a confluence of troubled seas, the Caribbean is difficult to totalize. Produced over centuries through multiple colonizations (five European tongues have mingled with numerous aboriginal and African languages, catalyzing hundreds of dialects, creoles, pidgins), Caribbean space is diverse, a place of category-defying syncretism, symbiosis, fusion. Collective designation, moreover, runs the risk of simply repeating the colonialist demand that the heterogeneity of the islands be reduced into some neatly describable territory in order to better dominate its supposed disorder with Western technologies of government and industry. In his attempt to articulate the "discontinuous conjunction" of this wide expanse, Antonio Benítez-Rojo deploys a conceptual construct which he labels la isla que se repite, the "repeating island" or "meta-archipelago." Because a chain of islands consists of a territorial harmony, a geographic unity plotted across the still space of a map, Benítez-Rojo insists that such a domineering view can never capture the fullness of Caribbean reality. Possessed of neither center nor absolute limits, indifferent to any precision of green spots fixed with individuating latitudes and longitudes in an ocean of blue, the meta-archipelago which he describes is not a collection of islands but an amalgam of "processes, dynamics and rhythms" conjoining familiar repetitions of history to unexpected eruptions of the new. The Caribbean meta-archipelago does not enchain but gathers into loose alliance a heterogeneous mixture of phenomena not amenable to easy synthesis: "unstable condensations, turbulences, whirlpools, clumps of bubbles, frayed seaweed, sunken galleons, crashing breakers, flying fish, seagull squawks, downpours, nighttime phosphorescences, eddies and pools, uncertain voyages of signification" (The Repeating Island, 2-3). This sensuous mélange assembles into animated conjunction the geographic, the topological, the natural, the human, the mythic, the material, covering "the map of world history's contingencies, through the great changes in economic discourse to the vast collisions of races and cultures that humankind has seen" (5). Lands, waters and histories exist in a dispersed togetherness that never congeals into finite unity. In an essay which Benítez-Rojo does not cite, Gilles Deleuze similarly envisions a conceptual archipelago which could also be described as anti-universalist, conjugative, perspectivist, "an affirmation of a world in process":
Not even a puzzle, whose pieces when fitted together would constitute a whole, but rather a wall of loose, uncemented stones, where every element has its value in itself but also in relation to others: isolated and floating relations, islands and straits, immobile points and sinuous lines … an infinite patchwork with multiple joinings.

Within remarkably similar poetics of fluidity and movement, Deleuze and Benítez-Rojo independently transform the quotidian archipelago into an aqueous assemblage which has less to do with actual islands than with a multiply connected meshwork of scattered "middles" which might decenter the world, but does not necessitate the abandonment of speaking about that world's shared immensity. The meta-archipelago, Benítez-Rojo writes in summary, is a restless machine of uncertain borders composed of unceasing flux (5).

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, 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" (8) whose conjunction enabled efficient colonization and maximum profit.

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 homogeneous 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.

As David Wallace observes in his General Preface to The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, the Middle Ages have been badly treated by scholars who desired find in them a "future that comes to early" -- who wanted to discover the same delineations of nation and imperial power which they unproblematically celebrate in their own present. Wallace's succinct, insightful reading of The Cambridge History of the British Empire (first volume published 1929) and Cambridge History of English Literature (first volume 1907) emphasizes the awkwardness which such teleological rhetoric engenders. Because medieval England with its "plurality of languages" was "a culture more colonized than colonizing," no "secure point of origin for imperial history" exists, mandating that the Middle Ages be commemorated in order to be quickly forgotten (xii-xiii). In contrast, Wallace's own edited volume ambitiously aims for and largely achieves a "dizzying complexity" of cultures, languages, and material realities (xiv). In envisioning a British Isles resistant to harmonization rather than a unified and premature England, The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature attains something like the archipelago-like spread articulated by Benítez-Rojo. In the dazzling series of chapters labeled "Writing in the British Isles" (179-309), sections on Wales, Scotland, and Ireland are allowed to "write their histories, so to speak, from the inside out (with the English sometimes visible, sometimes not)" (179). In decentering the island into a scattered multiplicity, the volume's project is admirable, even awesome.

It therefore feels almost criminal to critique its achievement, especially because Wallace's editorial restructuring of how insular history gets narrated will be felt in the field for a long time, catalyzing further decolonizations of the "English" Middle Ages. Yet one might object that within the large geographic and collective structures which the volume keeps in place, communities of difference (what Anne McClintock calls the "internally colonized") are left out, are rendered ineligible to write their histories. The preface to this bulky and inclusive book argues that the chapter on London in the "Writing in the British Isles" section "must stand in, methodologically, for accounts of other places that have yet to be written, cannot yet be written, or have found no space for inclusion here." Among these excluded narratives are "the writings and public inscriptions of the Jews" (xvi). One cannot say that such a Jewish account cannot be written; see, for example, the documentary narration of exactly this history in Joseph Jacobs, The Jews of Angevin England, published in 1893. That such an account has simply "found no space for inclusion here" is not a reassuring explanation for why a volume notable for its capacious embrace of cultural difference nonetheless presents an unselfconsciously Christian -- and therefore an ultimately singular and reduced -- Middle Ages.

A reconsideration of geographical emplacement is as vital to the future of the Middle Ages as it is to the analysis of Caribbean and other postcolonial spaces. Just as importantly, as Wallace has already implied, within these places of shared histories conjoined to disparate experience and expression, time likewise loses its smooth universality, its exteriority, its rigidity. While contemporary critical theory has developed a sophisticated vocabulary for dealing with that which is unheimlich ("uncanny" "un-home-ly" "out of place"), a problem just now being explored is that posed by the untimely. Without much further elaboration, Antonio Benítez-Rojo observes that inside the fluid and sinuous Caribbean machine, time "unfolds irregularly and resists being captured by the cycles of clock and calendar" (11). Benítez-Rojo's throwaway observation can be usefully extended using recent work by other postcolonial theorists. The Caribbean, the medieval west, English India, and any other geography produced through colonizations are likewise composed of multiple, hybridized temporalities, of what Sara Suleri has called disparate, thick, "colonial intimacies" in which time unfolds differently at different vantage points, according to divergent "logics of origin."

The adjective "postcolonial" has been accommodated comfortably enough into the contemporary critical lexicon for the hyphen that used to divide its constituent parts to vanish. This disappearing punctuation, like all ghosts, tells an interesting story about time. "Post-colonial" suggests straightforwardly enough that a historical period exists which is after colonialism. "Postcolonial," the hyphen digested but its constituent elements bumping against each other without synthesis, has come to signify a temporal contiguity to rather than an evolutionary difference from the noun that forms its linguistic base. The postcolonial can be said to originate "from the very first moment of colonial contact," as a "discourse of oppositionality which colonialism brings into being." Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge describe the postcolonial as "a splinter in the side of the colonial itself," leading Michelle R. Warren to conclude that postcolonial theory opens a window "into any time or place where one social group dominates an other." Just as there was never a time before colony, there has never yet been a time when the colonial has been outgrown, left behind. For this reason Gayatri Spivak has suggested replacing "postcolonial" with "neocolonial," but for accuracy's sake it would make more sense to speak of the "midcolonial": the time of "always-already," an intermediacy that no narrative can pin to a single moment of history in its origin or end.

Anne McClintock has cautioned that the term "postcolonial" is nonetheless haunted by a "commitment to linear time and the idea of 'development'" ("The Angel of Progress" 85). One could go farther and argue that postcolonial theory in practice has neglected the study of the "distant" past, positing instead of interrogating the anteriority against which modern regimes of power have supposedly arisen. This exclusionary model of temporality denies the possibility that traumas, exclusions, violence enacted centuries ago might still linger in contemporary identity formations. It also closes off the possibility that this past could be multiple and valuable enough to contain (and be contained within) alternative presents and futures.

No definition of postcolonial theory has gained the same citational weight as that by Homi Bhabha: "Postcolonial criticism bears witness to the unequal and uneven forces of cultural representation involved in the contest for political and social authority within the modern world order." Postcolonial interventions into the "discourses of modernity" fragment the clean and easy identity narratives which cultures tell themselves, offering "critical revisions" which stress difference, conflict, and (to cite Bhabha citing Habermas) "widely scattered historical contingencies" (171). "Bearing witness" would seem to be an activity one does in the present in order to address a recent past -- thus the haunting of Bhabha's definition by the modern. Yet there is nothing especially recent about the "differential, often disadvantaged, histories of nations, races," social antagonism, and irreducible difference he describes. Indeed, the temporal boundaries that Bhabha draws seem especially arbitrary in that an important challenge offered by this essay and by his work in general is a rethinking of temporality itself from a postcolonial perspective.

The progress narratives of that traditional history which has left its traces in the names assigned to the major epochs of the West declare that the Middle Ages began in darkness and ended at a rebirth which rendered them obsolete. As the possible alliance between the contemporary Caribbean, English India, and the medieval West suggests, however, a progressive or teleological history in which time is conceived as mere seriality and flat chronology is inadequate to the task of thinking the meanings and trauma of the past, its embeddedness in place, its active relation to the future. Once homogeneity and hierarchizing, developmental, or overarching models are denied history, time becomes an active component within the open structure of alliance which both Benítez-Rojo and Deleuze call a machine, an assemblage "of diverse elements … which generates new structures without homogenizing the components … the emergence of a form, a form in which the materials themselves have a say."

An advantage, moreover, of conceptualizing temporality as multiply centered movements among unstable isles rather than as a unidirectional river is that distance in space no longer implies distance in time. Too often that which is geographically far from some ideological center is represented as primitive, undeveloped, Other, so that travel toward the periphery is coded as travel back in time. Because it possesses no margins per se, the medieval archipelago resists such easy conflation. Dublin and St David's c. 1300 are no more nor less backward than London c. 1300 or Washington DC c. 2001. Creation of a nonspatialized, shared, coeval time allows the possibility of what the anthropologist Johannes Fabian calls "the radical contemporaneity of mankind," the opening up of a world without temporalized violence against that which is different and distant. In arguing that temporalities separated by centuries may also in a sense be coeval, I am taking Fabian's argument further than he intended, since for him coevalness applies to cultures contemporary to each other but geographically removed.

Once progressivist narratives of chronology have been abandoned, can movement in time ever be "back," with all the negative connotations which anterior temporality (as undeveloped, as primitive) carries? The possibility of coevalness across time, it must be noted, does not imply a radical moral relativism, but simply carries an insistence that "advanced" civilizations cannot claim an innate ethical superiority over those at their temporal or geographical margins. Coevalness requires as well an acknowledgement that the achievement of a tolerant or non-persecuting society is at best a fragile and temporary gain rather than the irreversible attainment of some higher stage of societal evolution, some permanent state of enlightenment. A constant vigilance is by implication absolutely necessary to maintain these moments as tenuous as they are rare.

The Middle Ages have been too often characterized as a field of undifferentiated otherness against which modernity emerged, an exclusionary model of temporalization at least as old as the construction of the "Renaissance" as an epoch of classical rebirth. By establishing a continuity between the pre- and post-medieval, this periodization precipitated the Middle Ages as middle while at the same time banishing them from any kind of center. The medieval thus constructed becomes, in Louise O. A. Fradenburg's words, unchanging, inert, "lost to us by its very pastness." Alterity removes the Middle Ages from temporality altogether, rendering it inviolate. Conceptualizing this same temporal expanse as a middle space of scattered islands collected via ceaseless currents produces a rather unmedieval Middle Ages. The medieval as meta-archipelago -- as interminable, difficult middle -- stresses not simple difference (the past as past) or predictable similarity (the past as present) but temporal interlacement, the impossibility of choosing alterity or continuity (the past which opens up the present to a multitude of futures).

This resolutely medium aevum therefore lacks both a Genesis-like in principio at which to locate a destiny-laden foundation and a Day of Judgment to organize manifold circulations into a linear temporal movement. If this Borromean knot which entwines disparate temporalities, supplanting the teleological chronology of more traditional history, seems uncannily similar to the theoretical displacement of linear history within postcolonial studies, that is no coincidence, since the "middle" of the Middle Ages is already forging a productive alliance with the nontemporal "post" of postcolonial theory. It makes sense, then, to explore the complex ways in which the medieval touches the "midcolonial," making both more familiar and more strange. The past need not function as a field of simple origin, as a time of mythic wholeness which underwrites contemporary fantasies of ethnic, national, or even epistemological homogeneity. Janus-faced, biformis, the Middle Ages performs a double work, so that the alliance of postcolonial theory and medieval studies might open up the present to multiplicity, newness, difficult similarity conjoined to complex difference.

A conceptualization of time as unbounded middle is not simply the recent invention of critical temporal studies and postcolonial theory, but is evident even in medieval authors, including one of the most canonical writers, Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales are best known for a temporal opposition between the still and confident eternity of which the indestructible bodies of saints partake (incorruptable Cecilia in the Second Nun's Tale, the murdered but uncannily animate "litel clergeon" of the Prioress) and the hurried measurement of days and hours which obsess Harry Bailey and the Canon's Yeoman ("capital time," a figuration of temporality which has much in common with the transmutational fixations of alchemy and humoral theory). Yet this same collection of heterogeneous narratives also produces a meta-archipelago of its own. Like Salvation History itself, The Canterbury Tales are possessed of a beginning (the General Prologue, the departure from Southwark, the instigations of Fragment I) and a definitive end (the approach at sunset into Canterbury, the Parson's sober recitation, the contrite Retraction), but this unfinished assemblage is actually all middle. The Tales combine politics, religion, art, commerce, social critique into an unsynthesized amalgam of romance, hagiography, history, fabliaux, fantasy, sermons, exemplary narratives, poetry, prose. They produce a motley assortment of persons who often overstep the boundaries of their textuality and begin to act as if alive.

Deleuze and Guattari label such works transversal or rhizomatic, lacking an exterior unity and composed not of a "system of units" but of "directions in motion." As nonhierarchical and acentered as a meta-archipelago, rhizomatic books do not argue a point or mirror a world, but create an assemblage which "operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots" (A Thousand Plateaus 21). Chaucer appears to have finished the concluding section of his opus fairly early in the project, and so we know, therefore, that the Canterbury Tales were supposed to culminate at the tomb of the "holy, blissful martyr" Thomas à Becket, where in the sacred space of a cathedral the quotidian pilgrimage is transubstantiated into the soul's journey to celestial eternity. Yet, having written that orthodox ending in the face of which there would seem to be nothing more to say, Chaucer sabotaged at every point the possibility of everlasting resolution.

Not only did he continually rework the General Prologue, energizing its wide-ranging fellowship by adding an inspired assortment of new characters (including himself), he also seems to have been constantly revising the overall plan for the tale-telling. Derek Pearsall has argued that Chaucer's original plan was for each pilgrim to provide one story on the way to Canterbury. Chaucer later modified the tale-telling frame to allow two or more narratives by each figure before arrival at the final destination, then at a later date opened up the possibility of multiple tales by each pilgrim on the journey to the cathedral as well as during the return trip to London. It is perhaps shocking enough to think that the Canterbury which the Parson transfigures into Jerusalem Celestial allows a return. Yet Chaucer also decided to introduce the possibility of expansion for the company via chance encounters along the road, such as the alchemist and yeoman who explosively overtake the narrative, rendering the Canterbury company less pilgrims defined by their destination than simple compagnons de route, fellow travelers.

The Canterbury Tales project could not be finished by Chaucer because it aspires to no totality. Bernard of Clairvaux described the body as the tabernaculum (tent) "in which we wander as pilgrims," a vivid image which Bruce Holsinger glosses as a body which "is not a permanent home or native residence, but … an ever-present but mobile reminder of humanity's displacement from the true Holy Land above" ("The Color of Salvation" 172-73). Chaucer likewise intricated pilgrimage with bodies, but without reading the peregrinations of these pilgrim corpora back from what for Bernard is their overarching goal. Infinitely dilating, framed but in no way contained by the artificial book-ends of London and Canterbury, The Canterbury Tales construct a middle space that is all motion, containing a vision of pilgrimage that does not end at the bones of a long dead martyr. In this world between worlds, Egeus declares in his inept but unexpectedly insightful way, "we been pilgrymes, passing to and fro" (Knight's Tale 2848): an extraordinary pilgrimage that is simultaneously towards and from, a journey without telos or simple origin, a journey of pure movement, pure encounter, pure becoming.

Chaucer's rhizomatic drift has allowed me to wax utopian, but in the end it is necessary to pull back and make one final observation about such assemblages of proliferation. Despite Benítez-Rojo's frequent claim that the meta-archipelago that he describes structurally excludes the possibility of violence, the history of the Caribbean would suggest otherwise. In the same way, even the extraordinary middle space that Chaucer envisions has its imperialistic movements of colonization, reclamation, and control. The action unfolds in distant geographies, but is always ultimately quite English. Although marked by occasional eruptions of Latin, French (the urbane friar of the Summoner's Tale, with his "je vous dy sanz doute") and Flemish (the proverbial quotation of the Cook's Tale, "sooth pley, quaad pley"), as well as regional English dialect (the "northernisms" of John and Aleyn in the Reeve's Tale), as a whole the Canterbury Tales are linguistically reductive, promulgating London English as the only possible literary language for the nation. The Canterbury Tales even contains a narrative which takes great joy in purging itself of non-Christian presence, reducing a ghetto which affronts Christian integrity with its resistant difference to a heap of mutilated and eternally silenced bodies (Prioress's Tale). The Jews suffer a doubled temporal death. Not only do they represent an anachronism for Christianity, since they refuse to believe that Christ is the messiah and therefore consign themselves to perpetual inhabitation of an outmoded Old Law, these Chaucerian corpses are a reminder of a specifically English history, the anti-Semitic violence of the twelfth and thirteenth century which culminated in the Expulsion of 1290. English national identity is sutured around the figure of the absent Jew, a body out of time which reminds not only of the violent limits of the British Isles as a medieval archipelago, but more generally of the centrality of bodies to any thinking about time.

1 comment:

Eileen Joy said...

In light of this post, it might interest you, Jeffrey, to know about the New York-based architect, Christian Hubert, whose website, Christian Hubert Studio, has to be SEEN to be believed:

Hubert's exterior *and* interior designs [mainly for private residences] are fantastic, and apparently he is an avid reader of Deleuze and Guattari, whose thought has been influential on his thinking of structures and landscapes, etc. I mainly stumbled across him because I discovered his wonderful online hypertextual dictionary, which he describes this way [it's a great teaching tool, by the way]:

"This hypertext web . . . is in a form somewhere between note-taking and writing. It contains extensive paraphrases of readings, generally, but not always, clearly credited. There are two main sections to this document. the other main section, less obviously concerned with science, is entitled theory.

Inside this space and is a dictionary/encyclopedia of scientific terms with critical or philosophical dimensions. Each of the spaces in this section, listed in alphabetical order, attempts a definition of a term such as phase space. Many come from readings in contemporary developments in science like chaos and complex systems studies, some theoretical biology, and some related philosophical writings, particularly the work of Deleuze and Guattari.

The conceptual model for this hypertext remains the Encyclopédie edited by Diderot. The problem of organization, especially the debate between alphabetical order and thematic or scientific order, preoccupied Diderot in the preface to the Encyclopédie. Theorists of hypertext claim the resolution of these conflicts, although a sceptic might say they simply been instrumentalized: that the renvois is identical to the link. I would hope that some aspects of that model might be developed through this document, particulary in relation to issues of multiple authorship and reading public, and that this web will eventually become both more spatial and visual in experience.

My primary interest is in the constellation of ideas and technologies, in the dense web of interlinkages between terms, in resonances between ideas from different fields. Hypertext is the writing form which best approximates this field, and when hypertext meets the internet, in the World-Wide-Web, for example, this new discursive technology promises to symbolise the embodiment of our new thought-worlds the way the clock, the book, the railway, or other prime artifacts of Western technology operated upon their own time, coevolving in feedback with the technical and social matrices that gave rise to them."

But the main reason I am thinking of Hubert in relation to this post, Jeffrey, is the project he has undertaken relative to Governor's Island in NYC. Go here for gorgeous images and text related to that: