Friday, January 11, 2008

Within the Middle: Claustrophilia (again): Quotes of the Day

In a comment on Jeffrey's post on Christopher Tilley's The Materiality of Stone, I complained about the anthropocentrism of Tilly's phenomenology:
To a degree, phenomenology stirs up "embeddedness in context" by reminding us of how the context--the self, that is--always changes through contact, how contact is always dispersing and reforming the self (which means we need another concept for self, a new language). But what are the final limits of that dispersal? I'm tempted to believe that the transformative encounter with the other through our senses is one tethered to our sensory limitations. Even if the "us" is shifted...there's a limit, and because of that limit, the disclosed phenomenon is always, ultimately, translated into an us that is, yes, always shifting, but shifting like an amoeba: within limits, and through assimilation.

And losing sight of that limit, and assimilation, means losing sight of power.
I don't know if I want to let go entirely of that awareness of the limit and with it, power (by which I mean coercive power), but I'm feeling a bit ecstatic right now, because I've just finished reading Cary Howie's extraordinary Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure in the Middle Ages. The book's made a few appearances on the blog so far (for example, here's Jeffrey admiring Howie's sparkle). Since I read this book because of Jeffrey's (and, if I remember correctly, Eileen's) recommendations, and since they've presumably read it, I want to declare a mini-itmbc4dsoma on Claustrophilia. What did you two (or three, [EDITED for sense!] if Holly Crocker, who is mentioned in the acknowledgments, wants to say anything), or other readers of Howie, get out of it? What did it to do you? Or, to ask a question more in line with Howie's argument, what happened between you?

Before sharing some of my favorite moments, however, I should say, or confess?, that I was more than halfway through the book before I began to understand it. There's a lesson in that. I've started to think that certain scholarly books should come with warning stickers, something akin to the clown-painted boards that refuse anyone under a certain height their chance to throw up on the Zipper or the Cyclone or what have you. Perhaps Žižek should come with a sticker directing us not to tarry with the negative until we've read a certain amount of Hegel, select portions of Marx, and, of course, Lacan, and probably much else (and a warning NOT to review certain films). With Howie, I would have appreciated a sticker proscribing me entry until I had immersed myself in phenomenology and especially, at least for the first 30 or 40 pages, Heidegger. I've only just begun to get "unconcealment" (which means that the multiple times I've tried to read Agamben's The Open have probably been for nothing), and not getting this concept meant a lot of frustration early on. I would have appreciated, as well, a warning that anyone unaware of queer theory's promotion of the slippage of metonymy, with its preservation and intermingling of objects, over the predictable equivalence of metaphor, with its mere substitution of objects, needed to skip ahead, briefly, to pages 81, 96, 121, or 93, where Howie explains "I would argue that metonymy offers a relationship of contiguity (indeed, contiguity as enclosure), which does not swallow part into whole, but, rather, preserves each of its terms in the surface upon which they touch. Metonymy is thus the trope of borders, tact, and the very spaciousness of desire." Had I had these warnings, which I, perhaps, uniquely need, the noise of my notes would have been less frequently frantic, more often ecstatic, generally less full of difficult muddles. If you will indulge me in my embarrassment, or welcome this abandonment of the illusion of self-possession so typical to the profession, what follows are minimally edited samples from my more frustrated encounters:
"Does hagiography mark, does it write [why does he double up marking with writing? aren't the two essentially equivalent, at least in poststructuralism?], the holy as that which resists the ethical, before whose ambivalence despair and understanding are equivalent?" (21). What is the distinction here? What is "the ethical" here, and what does it look like? (for an assault on ethics, see here)
This section has to do with the fetishistic temptation in the work of art as characterized by Heidegger (paradigmatically with a Greek Temple). But even after a few months away, I still have very little idea what it is he's doing. When he says that "unconcealment closes," I suppose this means that things resolve into being (not that nothingness is a void), which means they become bounded, and then adds "but it does not close in or close out; it marks a line, a material edge" (30), I suppose this means that, phenomenologically speaking, we come into contact with that unconcealed stuff and are with it. It's still there, not wholly appropriated, but we are with it all the same: hence it has a line but is not, because of this line, closed OFF (which is perhaps the word he wanted to use) to us. That said, there's still so much that's opaque in this; as if he doesn't want to give it up to truth, as if he WANTS to prevent the illusion of full disclosure, and thus his opaque style models the work of art as characterized by Heidegger.
"Marina's technique, together with its dead genital sign, echoes Jehan's writing in exile; these lives, in addition to Marie's dervish-like turning, could be said to constitute an account of experience in the barest sense, by which I mean a compromised inasmuch as mediated, that is, enclosed, traversal of the senses, especially vision. Such a traversal constitutes vision even as it moves toward it: in this way, to ape Jean-Luc Nancy, it spaces vision out" (64). What the fuck? I get mediation as enclosure, since to be mediated is to be carried within something, enclosed by (someone else's sense), but I don't get how traversal is MOVING TOWARD vision, and how this can be separate from CONSTITUTING vision??

Thank goodness that I stuck with it. My (eventual) joy in Howie is not just for his bawdiness (e.g., "Romuald, in Damian's vita, is as cantankerous as Damian himself: he wanders the Italian hills building hermitages, visiting monasteries, and routinely beating the shit out of wayward monks" (74); "If the altar of God is also an asshole..." (77)), nor only for the fluidity of his joyful anachronistic slippage between Jacopone da Todi, Marie de France, Dante, Thom Gunn, Mark Doty, and Fred Schneider.

It's for, and chiefly for, Howie's attention to being, yes, in the middle, and how it offers me a less depressingly closed-off ontology and epistemology than those to which I've lashed myself for so long (whether he offers me anything new for understanding coercive power is a question I suspend for a while). Unconcealed being does not give itself over entirely; keeping something in reserve, or always being more excessive that it appears, it cannot be assimilated entirely; nor do we, in giving ourselves over to texts, to eros, to contact with each other, even to God, become assimilated entirely (even in digestion, I wonder?). As Howie argues, in enclosure, we--and they--are in, not absorbed in each other, embraced, not disappeared: in this moment, we are with-in (a tempting hyphenated mutant for which I claim responsibility, and that I like to imagine Howie erased in an earlier draft).

He wonders, "Is there room, within our thought as comparatists and claustrophiles but also within thought more generally, for a relationship of contiguity or juxtaposition that would not be reducible to either an antagonism, on the one hand, or simple collapse, on the other?" (149) He wonders, "Within an economy of metonymy and anaphora, of dragging and differential repetition, might it be possible to speak of a comparative critical practice, or even a comparative mode of being-in-the-world, where being beside something or someone is not, first and foremost, a question of hierarchical, quantifiable ordering but, rather, a question of how bodies, and bodies of literature, that are allegedly outside but close to me also, again and again, get under my skin and go to my head?" (150). On Purgatorio 26:28-33
For through the middle of the burning road
There came a people face to face with these,
Which held me in suspense with gazing at them.

There see I hastening upon either side
Each of the shades, and kissing one another
Without a pause, content with brief salute.
ché per lo mezzo del cammino acceso
venne gente col viso incontro a questa,
la qual mi fece a rimirar sospeso.

Lì veggio d’ogne parte farsi presta
ciascun’ ombra e basciarsi una con una
sanza restar, contente a brieve festa.
he writes, "Dante is written into the space between homo- and hetero-, a space that grows smaller as the two ranks draw close, and that maps onto the time--of suspense or belated presence--in which Dante sees and sings. The outcome of this drawing close is not, however, an assimilation, not a unity. It is, rather, a touch: the sensible affirmation of proximity within distance. More specifically, it is a kiss" (111).

He speaks as well of our contact with authors, here about one who died just years before Howie discovered his writing:
It goes without saying that I arrived too late for Bo Huston, but thankfully just late enough for the books that bear his touch, which carry him metonymically beyond and into himself. I remember thinking what a shame it was that I had arrived in San Francisco in 1997, merely four years after his passing. But his enclosures persist, and metonymically inflame...When the author is dead, this [metonymical presence] is a small consolation, but it is all we have: a trace neither utterly removed from its putative source nor synecdochically making this source wholly present (as in the medieval cult of relics), but metonymically dragging someone, something, momentarily close. (121)
This is all I have to say for now, all except my asking, my exclaiming, isn't this lovely? Heartbreaking? Don't you want to read the book?


Eileen Joy said...

Karl: I myself have not yet read Howie's book but did, indeed, suggest it for our so-called "book club." It is on my short list of books I want to read, right after Lara Farina's "Erotic Discourse and Early English Religious Writing," which I am reviewing right now for "Sixteenth Century Studies." But I must say, that after your post here, I want to throw Farina's book violently to the floor and rush over to the bookshelf where Howie's book is sitting and read it instead [and to Lara Farina, wherever you are, I love your book and mean no disrespect]. Howie's books sounds fantastic and I really will start reading it this week for this, our mini-book-thingamajiggy.

Karl Steel said...

Oh, I can't just declare a "mini-book-thingamajiggy" (which is, strangely enough, a more wieldy term than the one we've been using) on my whim; there's no OBLIGATION here; but, yes, the Howie is a book you will love. I promise. If you find yourself getting bogged down initially--which you probably will not--you might want to skip ahead to the last chapter.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

I love this book, and hope to have something to post on it later in the week. The term starts tomorrow, and I have a new class with 80 students who I have to figure out how to entertain ... and on top of that there are a bajillion administrative tasks on my desk. But thanks, Karl, for bring up Howie's book!

Cary said...

Karl, your comments--and frustrations--are incredibly insightful. I'm not really sure that anything's gained by having the guy who wrote the stuff chime in, so I'll leave the discussing to the rest of you; but I'm delighted that the book is being used as something other than a (small) doorstop.

Karl Steel said...

Cary, thanks for dropping in, and thanks for the kind words: perhaps less insightful than engaged? If you do want to say something--or correct something!--by all means do. There's nothing gauche about that at all. And we've been fortunate enough to have several authors come by and join in the conversations on their books (most recently, James Simpson, who you can see in a nearby thread).

Holly Crocker said...

Sorry I’m so late to this thread—here in SC, we are overflowing with candidates. The presidential candidates have moved on, but now I’m in the middle of our department’s hiring season! Anyway…

I would like to express my admiration for Cary’s work in terms that get under his skin; but, and to his credit, I probably can’t find that threshold. He is a brazen thinker, and I’m completely enthralled by the work he does. I haven’t had the chance to read all of *Clautrophilia*, but if you guys decide to take it up, I will do my best to go there with you!