Monday, December 03, 2007

Dissertation Fragments, Part II: Horizons of History

This past week, in the midst of sifting through the fifty times "says Orosius" occurs in the Old English translation of the History against the Pagans, I reached another milestone in my academic life. As I've mentioned elsewhere (follow the link for the abstract!), I was asked back to my alma mater, Wake Forest, to give a talk to their medieval group. It was my first real "academic" talk. The presentation went well -- and I was pleased that it was made among professors and friends who are as dear to me as those at Wake. I got some very productive questions: most notably, and perhaps most interestingly for the dissertation prospectus this talk is going to morph into over the next few days (a transformation I began last week before the talk) was a question about resistance to the use of not only multiple theoretical perspectives but of their use in understanding, speaking of and writing about Old English literature.

It's a question I'm still working out the answer to. At any rate, I've posted the first part of my talk below for your reading enjoyment. Questions, comments and criticism are all welcome (and frankly needed!). I'll be posting the rest of it over the course of the week, while I wrestle with the Old English Orosius and the temporalities of translation for a paper due next Monday. For now, however, I give you The Horizons of History -- or perhaps what ought to be called "Notes Towards a Dissertation." Apologies for randomness of my citational style -- occupational hazard of the oral format I fear.

The Horizons of History: Writing (and Rewriting) Anglo-Saxon Collectivities

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning!

We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes
in the old days, the kings of the tribes—
how noble princes showed great courage!
Often Scyld Scefing seized mead-benches
from enemy troops, from many a clan;
he terrified warriors, even though first he was found
a waif, helpless.For that came a remedy
he grew under heaven, prospered in honors
until every last one of the bordering nations
beyond the whale-road had to heed him,
pay him tribute. He was a good king!

Familiar though they are, for an Anglo-Saxonist the opening lines of Beowulf return like a cherished refrain, calling out across time to form and reform a community of listeners around a well-known text. Indeed, we have heard this story before – in multiple classes where we teach, read, or translate it. And each time it is translated or reworked, we return to a scene of a “telling” – the scene of a tale which is resurrected across historical and linguistic difference, to speak to us in the now.

However, these familiar lines are also the space in which more than one community – or as I will term it collectivity – is formed through the narrative. My use of “collectivity” rather than community bears some explanation: partially informed by the work of Bruno Latour, the term “collectivity” avoids the artificial, vertical distinctions most often drawn between “nature” and “society”, subjects and objects, humans and non-humans. I would suggest, rather, that by allowing all of these (artificially constructed) sets – humans, non-humans, nations, texts, myths – to operate as quasi-objects or actors in what Deleuze and Guattari term the plane of consistency, we might allow for a more dynamic understanding of how ideas, humans, texts, and social groupings interact and operate on equal grounding in the construction of group identities.

Returning to the opening lines Beowulf, then, we begin to see these collectivities taking shape from the very beginning. In the space of less than a dozen lines, the poem identifies at least five separate collectivities which inhabit multiple temporal spaces interlaced not only in this opening but throughout the work. We have the Gar-Dena, those þeod-cyninga, the kings of the people, who form the first. They are a collectivity perceived – or received – by a second, listening group, indicated by the “we” of the first line. Scyld Scefing himself calls the third group into being: because he egsode eorlas, terrified the earls, we now have a collectivity best described as “those who are terrified by Scyld.” The final lines offer two more collectivities, one of which is predicated on Scyld’s actions, and one in which he participates. Scyld Scefing unites those who lie as ymbsittendra (the sitters-about, as it were) or bordering nations, all of whom unite to gomban gyldan – to pay him tribute. Scyld, we are told, wæs god cyning (was a good king). Of the set of good kings, he forms a part.

These collectivities co-habit the first eleven lines of Beowulf – yet they do not exist in a single, identifiable time in history. They inhabit multiple temporalities in the single space of the text. The implications of this for the formation of collectivities (which, remember, can include texts and humans) is most marked with the case of the “we” with whom the poet begins. The word seems to mean, or refer to at least – us: the listeners, the readers, the group which receives stories and texts passed down from geardagum. However, when examined closely, it becomes clear that this is a “we” of whom we can know very little – always shifting, it is reconstituted in and by each poetic utterance. Beowulf, though we read it as a written text, is of course, part of an oral tradition. What is identifiable about this particular collectivity, then, is the action, and not only that of listening. The active identity of the “we” in the first line of Beowulf describes a community via a completed action, and not simply that usual translation of gefrunon, “have heard.” Gefrunon, from the infinitive gefrinan, carries the connotation of a very specific way of gaining knowledge: used only seven times in the corpus, three of which occur in Beowulf, the majority of the uses of the verb involve a sense of what Bosworth-Toller defines as “to learn by action, find out.” Perhaps the most intriguing of these uses occurs in line 76 of The Dream of the Rood: Hwæðre me þær dryhtnes þegnas, freondas gefrunon, gyredon me golde ond seolfre (“Yet the thanes of the lord, the friends found me there, and geared me with gold and silver,” 75-77). Bringing this meaning to gefrunon’s usage in Beowulf has a crucial effect: bound together by what we might even term a quest, “we” have heard of these other collectivities which inhere in the poem not simply because we read it, or stumbled upon the knowledge. “We” learn by asking – we find out, we discover. The poem, then, anticipates our response to the history it represents. It acknowledges a futurity of reception – a time when another “we” will have learned by asking. This “we” – a collectivity already written into the fabric of the poem – constitutes a kind of futurity within Beowulf that posits a world beyond its composition and recitation – a world that will actively engage it in a time which is, for the poem, fundamentally not yet.

As these opening lines of Beowulf suggest, the “time” of the poem embraces a variety of temporalities – from the time of its main actions, to the distant past of Scyld, to the eternal time of Christian cosmology. The significance in the futurity of a “we” who learn by asking, however, is of the utmost importance in beginning to understand the multi-valent temporalities of the collectivity in Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature. In his “Discourse and the Novel,” Mikhail Bakhtin posits the intentionality of living discourse as a space shot-through with the multi-temporal status of utterance – a space, perhaps, not unlike the space of Beowulf. For Bakhtin, the “internal dialogism” of the word “is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer’s direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation in any living dialogue.” (280) Bakhtin, of course, is speaking in direct relationship to the novel – a form foreign to Anglo-Saxon England. However, I would argue that Anglo-Saxon literature – be it prose or poetry, translation or creation – might be fruitfully thought of as constituting itself a living discourse, a space in which ideas of collectivity, time, and identity are begun, and reworked, through the period and beyond it.

The subject of my talk today – and of my dissertation, coming to a database near you in 2010 – is what I call the horizons of history. With the plethora of theoretical and critical terminology at my disposal, from fields as divergent as literary studies, historical studies, linguistics and art, one might well ask why I speak of Horizons rather than perspectives or boundaries. The answer is far from simple, but a brief explanation might serve us well as a beginning. Horizons can only be observed in the middle – i.e., the horizon is always experientially equidistant on all sides from the center point, that of the observer or subject. Any movement of the subject recenters the span of the horizon – new things come into the line of vision, others drift below the perceivable boundaries of sight. Consequently, a horizon cannot be crossed by the subject who observes it, whether they look “forward” to a future or “back” to a past. Only the object can cross over the horizon. The nature of horizons, then, is as a limiting factor in perception, defining the scope of the subject’s world-view.

The question this raises in my work is in the definition of boundaries. Boundaries must enclose something, be it a people, a place, or a time. In my argument, the boundaries in question enclose a larger, and even more contentious concept – that of “history.” For my purpose, I wish to engage the narrative strategies of history in what is traditionally called the Anglo-Saxon period. For my purposes, I define “history” – and “historiography” -- as the narrative space in which collectivities imagine and create their identities—or have these identities imagined and created for them. As such, my interest in history is the way in which historiography itself can be written in order to become that object which crosses the temporal horizons which bind its own world-view. Intersecting Bakhtin’s definitions of “living discourse,” these texts participate in a temporality that supercedes and encloses the individual times which compose the heterogeneous temporal fabric of the text. As such, the discourses of past, “present”, and the future unwritten intersect, creating a temporal space in which ideas of collectivities inhere and are passed on.

My dissertation explores a couple of different concepts of what “Anglo-Saxon” Collectivities can mean through the early Middle Ages and beyond. Unbound from periodicity in the strictest sense, the “Anglo-Saxon”, or “Old English”, becomes a constructed category, created and deployed in different historical moments for different purposes. Most specifically, the collectivities imagined in the Anglo-Saxon period are re-imagined at specific moments by communities in the process of imagining themselves, effecting what I will argue as a kind of collapsing of temporality, bringing together humans and texts that are temporally distant into a single collectivity. This “Becoming Old English” changes the ways in which the idea of a “nation” inheres in time, positing the time of the text as a time which allows for the breakdown of temporal boundaries, writing futures and pasts for a present which needs them. The time of the text is, irrevocably perhaps, always now – a contingent, relational now which participates in the past and future which permeate its horizons.

Text and Translation of Beowulf are from Chickering (1977)

Works Cited/Consulted

Bakhtin, Mikhail. "Discourse in the Novel" in The Dialogic Imagination. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1982.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Joy, Eileen and Mary K. Ramsey. "Liquid Beowulf" from The Postmodern Beowulf. Morganton: West Virginia University Press, 2007.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Also: I'm not sure how to cite this yet (though I will find out): the work posted here on ITM by Karl, Eileen and Jeffrey (along with many of the comment-ers) has had a foundational role in my thinking, as is no doubt obvious down to the very level of vocabulary. If there's a horizon that's been expanded in the work I've done toward this talk (and the prospectus which shall follow), it is most definitely the one that forms the boundaries of my own academic and intellectual capacities. For that: thank you.

Cross posted at OEinNYC.


Eileen Joy said...

Mary Kate: thanks so much for sharing your presentation here, or your "fragments," as you say. Interestingly enough, you are tarrying over some critical questions that really obsessed me as I was writing my own dissertation, particularly in my final chapter, "The Time of Beowulf Is Infinite In Every Direction," where I mainly tried to approach the question of the historicity of the poem through Walter Benjamin's "Theses for a Philosophy of History" [and also through work in historiography, mainly by Dominick LaCapra, on the representation of traumatic memory in art]. I doubt [much to my own despair sometimes] that I will ever really *do* anything, publishing-wise, with this part of my dissertation, except that I am trying to rework it a little bit for an essay I'm working on relative to aesthetics for a book John Hill is editing on aesthetics and Old English poetry [which I may post on as a more full response to your post here]. This is just my way of saying that I really like what you are doing here and would really welcome some critical back-and-forth relative to your own project and my own past/present thinking on historicity and the poem.

A couple of things:

You say at one point that "Beowulf" is, "of course, part of an oral tradition." I always find this a "sticking point" of much critical thought on the poem, and for myself, I think the poem mainly "performs" or imitates features of orality, or, following John Niles [who actually believes the composition of the written poem was likely undertaken by a kind of oral culture "insider" who, nevertheless was helping to engineer its written composition--he does not like the "performance"point of view], it is a "tertiary quid: a unique kind of hybrid creation that came into being at the interface of two cultures, the oral and the bookish, through some literate person's prompting" ["Locating Beowulf in Literary History"]. I actually believe it is even more far removed from that "interface" [I think it's wholly literate, in a way, but that's a while other discussion].

Could there ever be a reading of "Beowulf" in which there were no horizons whatsoever? Could, in other words, the "objects" of the poem [its language, characters, etc.] be "seen" or "observed" in a space that was not limited by any type of horizon [temporal, historical, etc.]? Following this, would something like Menon and Goldberg's "homohistory" ever be applicable [or justifiable] for a reading of "Beowulf," in which everything that happens in the poem would be seen, not as "different," but as "the same"?

Your statement, at the end, that,

"The time of the text is, irrevocably perhaps, always now – a contingent, relational now which participates in the past and future which permeate its horizons"

is really thought-provoking, and I think, always true, both for its original writers/readers, and for us.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Have been working through your dissertation this afternoon in between student meetings about papers on nation and nationalism (what fantastic counterpoint to the reading). I have to apologies for any incoherence: I'm in the midst of a very bad cold, so everything feels very fuzzy and indistinct right now -- not the best time for intense thinking.

I think your interests are more in the aesthetic than mine are -- although god knows my interests change so quickly that I wouldn't hold myself to that for long! Based on what I've read so far, I think your ethical engagement (particularly in the Levinasian tones of some of the footnotes) with the idea of "working through" the "traumatic history" presented by the poem is precisely the ethical stance I think is very much needed with regards to Anglo-Saxon studies and scholarship. I was curious, then, if you were influenced much by the idea of the past as "inexhaustible" in Bergson -- it seems like that's something you're interested in in terms of the idea of Beowulf and the sort of "temporal archive" it creates (I'm borrowing Paul Strohm's term for Troilus and Criseyde at present -- not sure if that's justified).

I also like the idea that you're working with on the subject of Beowulf stretching forward into its future to share similarities with modern wars and rebellions -- which is very compelling, and I think quite justified. I particularly like your point about the cohesiveness of the world-view being constituted after-the-fact, and that the influence in terms of that writing extends even to the present critical work that engages it (assuming I'm reading you correctly). This is precisely

I'll grant you the point on the "oral tradition". I actually have been called out on that now by everyone who has responded to the thought -- which makes me think that I should do more to address it. I think your way of phrasing it -- and Niles' as well -- is useful. The performance of orality is different from the fact of orality -- but I guess when it comes down to it with Anglo-Saxon poetry (and here comes a massive generalization) all we can have is a performance of orality in textual form. Or am I oversimplifying?

Fantastic question here: Could there ever be a reading of "Beowulf" in which there were no horizons whatsoever? Could, in other words, the "objects" of the poem [its language, characters, etc.] be "seen" or "observed" in a space that was not limited by any type of horizon [temporal, historical, etc.]? My instinct is to say that no, there isn't that possibility -- if only because we can't annihilate the horizons that bound our own cultural heritage of both memory and forgetting. What I do think is that there's the possibility of extending that horizon -- making it more than just the permeable membrane into and out of which things move. I think that's the motion I want to make with the Latourian ideas in this section of the talk -- i.e., what if the poem itself has what reader-response theory might call a horizon of expectation, or what in Bakhtinian terms is a dialogic relationship to the future? What if it forms part of a network of quasi-objects (that includes humans and non-humans) that all participate in making -- not only Old English but also the heroic world-view, the Heroic Age, Old English, Old English studies and history, and even History itself?

So maybe my answer isn't no. Maybe it's "yes but". Does that make sense? I think you know more of the theory than I do...

Following this, would something like Menon and Goldberg's "homohistory" ever be applicable [or justifiable] for a reading of "Beowulf," in which everything that happens in the poem would be seen, not as "different," but as "the same"?

Possibly -- however, I'm unfamiliar with the theory in question, though I think you've spoken of it here -- could you elaborate a bit on what, precisely, would be "the same" rather than "different"? You seem to be referring to events within the poem, but I could use the clarification.

Off to commune with Orosius. I'll post the rest of my presentation (it was a long talk!) tonight or tomorrow....Great comments, Eileen, looking forward to hearing more...

J J Cohen said...

Thanks for posting this, Mary Kate. The theorist in me is eager to see how far you are going to take the conceptual framework of collectivity (I see the Latour in your bibliography, so I'm wondering about his notion of a 'democracy of objects,' as well as his notion that time is always a retroactive addition to any framework, a causative force invented to solve intractable problems of agency. As a PS, I like his Pasteurization of France and Aramis better than We Have Never Been Modern). The historian (or at least historyphile) in me wonders how your work on collectivity is going to intersect that on ethnogenesis, ethnic solidarities, etc. and who some of your key scholars will be here (Wormald, Foote, Geary ...)

I don't mean to simply add to your reading list, but some work I've found very helpful in my own was composed by my GW colleague the philosopher Gail Weiss. Her essay "The Body as a Narrative Horizon" is contained in the collection I co-edited with her (Thinking the Limits of the Body, SUNY Press 2003) and has a lot of good material on the phenomenology of the horizon. It intersects quite well with what you've offered here, and may catalyze an addiction to Merleau-Ponty.

Looking forward to reading more.

Eileen Joy said...

Mary Kate: I kind of cringe [like, I am literally cringing] that you are reading my dissertation. Ack, or something like that. It's basically a huge mess of all sorts of not-fully-realized [but I think, compelling] ideas about the poem and its material history [as well as about the poem as a poem]. I decided after finishing it to simply break it up and publish portions of it as articles [done] and let the rest wither away on hidden library shelves. Just remember that it's grad. student juvenalia of a sort.

Having said that, yes, you're right to note that I am mainly concerned with the aesthetic--albeit, how traumatic history is represented in art, and the ethics of that, etc. [which is why LaCapra and Benjamin were such important thinkers for me, as well as Roger Chartier, Levinas--who I had only just begun to read and not thoroughly enough--and Pierre Nora]. I have not delved into Bergson yet, for anything I have done, but he is on my reading list [along with Merleau Ponty], mainly because many of the people I am reading now reference him constantly [Elizabeth Grosz, Rosi Braidotti, etc.]. I will be sure to consult Bergson soon, especially since one of my current projects, "Postcard from the Volcano: Beowulf, Memory, History," is an extension, or elaboration, I guess, of chap. 4 of my dissertation, combined with elaborations of various papers I delivered from 2001-03 that were influenced by the thinking behind the dissertation. You can see a precis for that project here:

The "homohistory" I was referring to comes from an article in "PMLA" by Madhavi Menon and Jonathan Goldberg, titled "Queering History" [Oct. 2005]. This is how Jonathan Gil Harris [JJC's colleague, if I recall correctly?] describes their argument there:

[beginning of Harris excerpt] In a recent polemical essay published in PMLA, "Queering History," Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon critique the teleological conception of time that informs historicist difference. Their primary target is the uncritical embrace of a "hetero-temporality" that characterizes historicism's before-and-after chronologies and makes of anachronism an impermissible perversion. In contrast to historicism's hetero-temporality, Goldberg and Menon propose a model of "homohistory." The "homo" of their homohistory doesn't champion sameness in the guise of universalism but, rather, the possibility of anachronistic affinity between supposedly different regimes of sexuality. As Goldberg and Menon observe, no identity and period can "stabilize [itself] so fully into self-sameness as to allow easily for the adjudication of difference or sameness to emerge with finality." Moreover, they see an uncritical investment in temporal difference as informing teleological accounts of history -- both covert and overt -- from Foucault to Fukuyama; assertions of such difference "falsely and oppressively arrive at fixed conclusions, not only in the production of theoretical objects but also pressingly in a political field that assumes the end of history and global domination by the forces of a new imperialism." [end of Harris excerpt; from "Untimely Meditations," Early Modern Culture: online journal, or "electronic seminar," as they call it:].

But that may not be an avenue you need or want to pursue [although I *would* recommend that you read the special issue of EMC on "Timely Meditations"--issue 6--which JJC plugged here at ITM a while back]. As regards "horizons," I immediately thought of Jauss's work, of course in reader reception theory [which you obviously have in mind], and which Frantzen goes on about at great length in one of the chapters in "Desire for Origins," which I assume you have read [I think I recall you writing here about reading that book, right?]. As to the poem having a "dialogic relation to the future," I simply don't see any other way to approach the poem without turning it into something "dead" and "inert," a museum-type "exhibit," etc. That was the relation I was really going for in my crazed dissertation, if imperfectly and at times nuttily [have you read the Sierra Leone part yet?--then you'll see what I mean].

I'll share with you here an abstract that I sent to John Hill for a book he is editing on Old English poetry and aesthetics, which apparently, Toronto is interested in publishing. This is basically my salvaging of chap. 4 of my dissertation into something more manageable than whatever it was I thought I was doing there, which was, at the least, just too, um . . . large]:

"Like a Flower Whose Calyx Emits the Astringent Perfume of Irony: The Tragic Time of Beowulf"


In his reflections upon the German trauerspiel [mourning song] and tragedy, Walter Benjamin wrote that “the tragic marks out a frontier of the realm of art at least as much as of the terrain of history.” Historical time, Benjamin wrote,

"is infinite in every direction and unfulfilled at every moment. This means we cannot conceive of a single empirical event that bears a necessary relation to the time of its occurrence. . . . The event does not fulfill the formal nature of the time in which it takes place. For we should not think of time as merely the measure that records the duration of a mechanical change. Although such time is indeed a relatively empty form, to think of its being filled makes no sense. . . . in short, without defining how it differs from mechanical time—we may assert that the determining force of historical time cannot be fully grasped by, or wholly concentrated in, any empirical process."

In tragic heroic narrative, on the other hand, the “fateful climax” of the hero’s death “fulfills” time, yet the hero also dies of an “ironic immortality,” because “no one can live in fulfilled time,” and also because the death itself is “ironic from an excess of determinancy.” Further, in the same fashion, “the meaning of the fulfilled time of a tragic fate emerges in the great moments of passivity: in the tragic decision, the retarding point of the action, and in the catastrophe,” such that “tragic time bursts open, so to speak, like a flower whose calyx emits the astringent perfume of irony.”

It will be the concern of this paper to delineate what I believe are the very purposefully articulated grammars and structures of nonlinear temporalities in "Beowulf" (especially with regard to Beowulf’s recounting of the Swedish-Geatish conflicts and the events of Ravenswood just before entering the cave of the dragon)—nonlinear temporalities that, I will argue, construct a beautiful aesthetic of what Benjamin terms an “excess of determinancy,” and thereby also construct the ironically tragic “time” of the poem. It is my larger aim to posit the poem as a site of multiple dialectical tensions between the time of art and of history, and to argue that the poem’s historicism—whatever that might mean—only comes into view posthumously when we, its modern interpreters, grasp the “constellation” (always an intensely aesthetic arrangement between works of art as objects among other objects) which our own era has formed with the earlier one of the Anglo-Saxon period within which this poem was set down in writing. Ultimately, following the thought of Gerhard Richter on the painting of Anselm Kiefer, this paper will explore the ways in which Beowulf, as an artwork, “presents itself in the strange figure of a singularity that meets in unforeseeable ways with the generality of its historical and philosophical structure.”

Karl Steel said...

All of this material on temporality is so far outside what I know right now that I barely feel competent to comment on it. I'll offer what I can to this very exciting project...

Like Jeffrey, I'd like to know more about the impact of community vs. collectivity perhaps in re: "ethnogenesis, ethnic solidarities, etc." and other largescale communal self- (othering-)conceptions, but I'd also like to take these two terms (com. and col.) and throw them against Beowulf lines you quoted. After all, there's another community described in the first few lines, one at least touching on "those who are terrified by Scyld," namely, the "enemy warriors." How do they become enemies? By standing in the way of Scyld's destiny, his history, his future, or, rather, by enabling his destiny (as a great warrior) to come into being. What, that is, the relationship between violence and self-formation, between warcraft and community, and how does this impact the distinction between queer, even utopian collectivity and the community (of violence?)?

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Wow! So many detailed comments, and way too little time to articulate anything in relation to them! Now that I seem to be on track with the prospectus (last draft to be turned in Monday, I hope), I'll be returning to this conversation -- but thank you guys for commenting....and more soon!