Sunday, February 24, 2008

Between What Is Ours and What is Not Ours: Cary Howie's Claustrophilia, Anachronism, Friendship, and an Open Letter to My Profession

[don't miss Karl's post below on his ennui and weariness with the perpetually recurring fascist Macbeth]

Salient point is an early and sadly obsolete term for the heart as it first appears in the embryo: I fell upon it in a book of classical obstetrics with a sense of celebration. The heart, I believe, is that point where we merge with the universe. It is salient as a jet of water is salient, leaping continually upward, and salient as an angle is salient, its vertex projecting into this world, its limbs fanning out behind the frame of another. What I love of Caroline is that space of her at rest behind the heart, true and immanent, hidden and vast, the arc that this angle subtends. I would like to cobble such few sentences into a tower, placing them in the world, so that I might absorb what I can of these things in a glance. But when we say I love you, we say it not to shape the world. We say it because there’s a wind singing through us that knows it to be true, and because even when we speak them without shrewdness or understanding, it is good, we know, to say these things.” –Kevin Brockmeier, “These Hands,” Things That Fall from the Sky: Stories

“Homosexuality is a historic occasion to reopen affective and relational virtualities not so much through the intrinsic qualities of the homosexual but because the ‘slantwise’ position of the latter, as it were, the diagonal lines [s]he can lay out in the social fabric allow these virtualities to come to light.”—Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life” [interview], Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth

“Nothing, it would seem, is more difficult than to conceive, to elaborate, and to put into practice ‘new relational modes’.”—Leo Bersani, “Sociality and Sexuality”

I dedicate these ruminations to Michael E. Moore, whose friendship has given me much joy, and whose thought and writing burns with such ardor for the living and the dead, the real and the fictional.

When I and Myra Seaman were writing our Introduction to Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages [“Through a Glass, Darkly: Medieval Cultural Studies at the End of History”], we knew that we had to define, in some detail, what we meant by an engaged “cultural studies” and, related to that, what we thought we meant when we invoked the “political”—more specifically, in what ways can we really describe a certain kind of literary and cultural studies as “political”? I myself am so keenly aware of all the shallow and ultimately empty ways in which certain cultural studies are described as “political,” that I was almost frightened to make any such claim, and at one point I felt almost frozen in my inability to articulate how it could be that a book such as ours, which gathers together essays by medievalists on subjects as disparate as reality television, Chaucer, and White House legal memos, was really “political.” I found one possible route out of this impasse through thinking about how the work of the intellectual who engages with troubling contemporary subjects [such as torture or terrorism or the loss of the autonomous self and moral community] is simply necessary in and of itself [as work that can’t not be done, if one is compelled or called to do it, if one is paying any attention to the world], or perhaps, as a kind of ethical responsibility, regardless of any immediately detectable material and efficacious outcomes of that work. It may be that you don’t believe that scholarly writing actually changes anything real, but that does not let you off the hook of the attempt to intervene, however you can, into social and political orders and their cultural phenomenon. Or, as we put it in our Introduction, “As medievalists who are, whether we like it or not, the inheritors of a humanist tradition, we bear a special responsibility to the idea that the life devoted to reading, reflection, and letters retains some power in the matter of how history ‘turns out’.” Can we really engage in studies in which we claim we can’t or don’t care about the relation between our studies and the world? Or, as Paul Strohm once put it, and much more eloquently,
Postmodernism has been devastating in its critique of the authoritative observer, exposing feigned objectivity as a construction founded in privilege and supported by social authority. But its seeming obverse—complete disinvestment—is actually its twin, founded in a similar claim of disinterest and no less privileged (in this case, in its enjoyment of the privilege not to care). I associate unpositionality with privilege because history (past and present) is full of people placed in circumstances that require care, full of people who can’t not care. Such historical actors can neither be everywhere nor be nowhere; they have no choice but to be somewhere. And this is where I suggest we position ourselves: provisionally, precariously, temporarily, maybe sometimes bemusedly—but always somewhere. And wherever that somewhere is, that it be an invested place, a place that knows things are at stake. [Theory and the Premodern Text, p. 161]

It is in Strohm’s gesture toward a place—a somewhere—that, when working on the Introduction to our book, I began to sense the beginning of what I hoped could be an authentic answer to the demand made by the invocation of the political within literary-historical studies, but perhaps not exactly in the way Strohm intended. More particularly, it was while reading the conclusion to the essay that Michael Moore contributed to the volume [“Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants”], that it really struck me: friendship itself, as a particular mode, which is also a somewhere, of an intellectual life committed to the care [and even desire for and love] of ideas but also of the persons and texts [both in the past and present] that literally body forth these ideas—this is where I ultimately want to locate the political action of my work. In his essay’s conclusion, Michael wrote (and also lamented),
Can we still assert a human-centered ideal of community, based on friendship and binding solidarity among and between individuals? Friendship with oneself, viewed as part of the "fundamental constitution of humanity" might form the basis for a reawakening of the classical political demand for amity and justice. . . . The attempt to preserve a humane culture and to assert our rights or our love of the right, should not be left in the hands of a distant state, since these are qualities of the virtuous life. One should highlight the possibility of friendship and the connections between friendship, liberty, and joy. It is by no means easy to orient oneself during a period such as this one.
By “a period such as this one,” Michael means the era of the G.W. Bush presidency—and more pointedly, its abuses of the due process of law and use of torture in its war on terrorism—but he also means, I believe, the period in which the life and culture of the university itself has become, in the words of Cary Howie, “the place of the agon of reducible and competitive texts and bodies and disciplines” [Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure, p. 144]. I do not think that either Myra or I really worked out a fully satisfactory answer to the question of how, exactly, we see the work of our volume of essays as political [which is always connected, then and now, to our continuing struggle to answer the question of how the collective we call the BABEL Working Group is political], but we gestured in our closing remarks to the idea of Bill Readings in The University in Ruins that, perhaps, the real work of the post/historical university now might be to serve as “one site among others where the question of being-together is raised, raised with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question for the past three centuries or so” [p. 20].

It is in raising the image of “being-together” as a question [which is necessary if one wants to guard against all the ways in which, historically, the presumption of community or a shared humanity has led straight to cruelty, oppression, and the inhuman], where I think Readings opens a path toward the thought of amity or friendship, in the sense Nietzsche gave to the term in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as a “continuation of love in which [the] possessive craving of two people for each other gives way to a new desire and lust for . . . a shared higher thirst for an ideal above them.” This would also be the friendship of Thomas Aquinas in which the “love of friendship” [amor amicitiae] produces a kind of “mutual indwelling” [mutua inhaesio], which nevertheless does not necessarily imply shared thoughts or even shared wills, only a shared desire or hope that a certain kind of loving cooperation increases the chances of obtaining something that could be called good, and even of being loved in return [Summa Theologica]. But I would also add, as a kind of caution to these two descriptions of friendship, Maurice Blanchot’s idea, in The Writing of Disaster, that friendship is “not a gift, or a promise; it is not generic generosity. Rather this incommensurable relation of one to the other is the outside drawing near in its separateness and inaccessibility” [p. 50].

And I suppose that I am hoping, here and now, as one avenue toward “raising” the “question of being-together” (and of thinking through how we can draw more near to each other in our shining separateness and mystery), for a practice of friendship as a radical politics that would disturb the usual ways of doing things in here—within the university, but especially the humanities—and that would emplace within the ruined structures of this site multiple heterotopias in which, pace Foucault, the “fragments of a large number of possible orders [would] glitter separately . . . without law or geometry” [The Order of Things, p. xvii]. And after reading Cary Howie’s brilliant and beautiful, and in Karl Steel’s estimation, heartbreaking book, Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure, my heart runs over and I am emboldened to ask: how might the chief work of the post/historical university, and especially of an anachronistic premodern studies, be the cultivation of a more humane culture through an erotic [or, libidinal] practice of “close” and “enclosed” reading—of texts, but by extension, of everyone enclosed within those texts, including ourselves—and that would desire what Howie describes as “a communal entrance” where “corporately and corporeally we make room for time, and where time, simultaneously, is given us in and as space, in and as ‘the middle’ of any age”? This practice of reading, which is deeply comparatist and “touching” in its affectively constructed contiguities—bringing into contact, in Howie’s book, Peter Damian and Marie de France and Dante with Gaston Bachelard and Roland Barthes and Jean-Luc Nancy with Thom Gunn and Adam Phillips and Mark Doty and all the bodies that the conjunction “and” brings close to us—this is a “gift,” in Howie’s view, that is “inexhaustible” and no “labor of contextualization or so-called historicism could ever fill it up” [p. 151].

The thought and writing of Howie’s book is so radiant, I hesitate to do more than simply urge its reading. Like a secret and profanely holy letter, his book should not be reviewed as such [summarized, evaluated, judged, and perhaps killed], but should, rather, be passed, quietly and with the urgency of desire, from friend to friend. I will not pretend to provide here an overview of all of the book’s aims and subject matter; suffice to say, as the book’s own dust jacket will tell you, that Howie provides “extended readings” of the queer erotics of the enclosure or the “inside”—of the work of art, the hermitage, the anchorage, the monastery, the mystical cell, the marital prison, the lover’s bed, the book, the gay lyric, the Zurich bathroom, the lover’s body, the church wall, the kiss, etc.—in English, French, and Italian writers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but also in contemporary letters and art. And he offers, by way of these readings, both a history of the love of enclosure (claustrophilia) as well as the critical practice of “embedded touch” [p. 4], which has some affinities with Elizabeth Freeman’s “erotohistoriography” and with what Carolyn Dinshaw has recently termed a “post/disenchanted temporal perspective” [see Freeman, “Time Binds, or, Erotohistoriography,” Social Text 23.3-4 (2005): 57-68 and “Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” GLQ 13.2-3 (2006): 177-95].

Howie’s book is also an extended meditation on poetics and, further, on the ontologies of metonymy and anaphora, especially on the ways in which the “concomitant symmetries” of metonymy are always “about to break out, or break in” [p. 3]. Perhaps most important and thrilling of all, Howie’s book is a powerful demonstration that enclosures are never static and that to “be inside (a chapter, a house, or a chapterhouse) is not to be sealed off: it is to be summoned, paradoxically, into a more, concrete, ecstatic relation to not just what lies beyond but within these boundaries” [p. 4]. Ultimately, the enclosure, a space in which things and bodies are always proximate, is also the site of expansion where the metonymies—“of tongue and page, body and bed—stretch the space in which vice and virtue come together in a common, if differently shared, moment of arrival” [p. 6]. For me, personally, the greatest beauty of Howie’s book is in its vision [and enactment] of a type of scholarship that, in his words,
provides a way to talk about textual proximity, and the extent to which historical moments, genres, and bodies are always dragged from their contingent others while simultaneously giving themselves to be similarly dragged. This traherence . . . never quite gets free of what it ostensibly emerges from, and furnishes the basis for a reading practice that would resist the slavish devotion to the controlled, discrete bloodlines of those patrilinear critical and literary histories that continue to haunt contemporary reading practices.
The implications of this are as follows. To touch is to experience a limit and open a connection. Whether this touch is figured visually, hermeneutically, or sexually, it traces the outline of a community of embodied lovers expropriatively given over to bodies, texts, and buildings sensibly intensified by this gift. Neither a mere idealization of aesthetic attention nor a diminishment of eros to interpretation, the metonymic, participative touch (or look, or reading) beings more fully into being the bodies, texts, and buildings it brushes against. The risk of violence remains—when does it ever go away?—but it is important to stress that, if touch is in some way entry, it is thus only inasmuch as appropriation has been thoroughly relinquished. Such an entry, such a touch, requires an ecstatic reorientation of the most basic (and finally damaging) ontological presuppositions: that this body has fundamentally nothing to do with mine; that this body cannot be touched; that this body is impenetrable or forever lost. [pp. 6-7]
This is scholarship, not just as a type of study or even a practice of reading, but as a way of life, even an ethics, a form of love, or affective solidarity. It is a scholarship and practice of reading that resonates with the thinking and work of my friend Michael Moore, an historian of the Carolingian era, who recently wrote,
The dead have a claim on us with their long-forgotten passions and foibles, and their unwonted delicate breath continues to stir the hair on our necks. This regard even extends to the realities invoked by art and literature. In the poem “Undressing Justine,” Czeslaw Milosz discovers and makes love to a character from an old Polish romance novel. The being of this delectable character is also human, and therefore worthy of being cherished: “Though you never existed, let us light candles / Here, in our study, or in our church.” [“An Historian’s Notes for a Miloszan Humanism,” Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2 (Summer 2007): 191-216]
And this brings me to one aspect of Howie’s book that I most want to highlight and celebrate, especially in relation to friendship: its chief mode of address is the tu and nous: you, and we, us. Again and again, when providing illustrations for his thinking or for how he is reading his beloved texts, medieval and more modern, Howie addresses me [but also the writers whose words he is analyzing] directly, as those situated inside with him, as lovers, or is it as co-conspirators in desire and in touch within the enclosure of his book which touches so many other books, and by extension, so many other bodies? Although he highlights this affective gesture on his very first page,
In the pages that follow, I make a series of gestures that attempt to show just how far inside, just how spatially and textually delimited, we inevitably are. Indeed, I argue that there is, finally, no such thing as solitary confinement. The question of being inside and the question of how it is possible to speak this fragile pronoun, “we,” across temporal, spatial, and ontological difference, never cease to overlap and literally to inform one another [p. 1],
it did not really settle inside of me except through repetition. Page after page, Howie would break what might be called the regular mode of seemingly disinterested critique, and address me/us directly: “get too far inside [of love] and you may—paratactically—slide right out of love, pop out of its socket”; “I hide from you; you seek me out”; “love is born of the bed, and all of a sudden we’re bounced right up to the third heaven”; “this is the pulse, the throb, the engendering spasm of a bed that beats. Not just my bed, but ours”; “But if I am enclosed with you, enclosed by and as our touch, then what is there between us?”; “to say I am enclosed in your mouth and I am enclosed in your hand is to inscribe a difference at the heart of you”; “We kiss, and between us someone else intervenes; in truth, a whole series of others, but also the very phenomenon of otherness, and the horizon against which we they all take shape. Difference, created and uncreated, writes itself where we touch”; “being inside you is always simultaneously being beside you, irreducibly”; “there is nothing between us but this fire. No, that’s not right. There us nothing between us. And this fire”; “Claustrophilia takes place . . . in and between us, as the erotics of our being together in space, which is to say, the erotics of our being together at all”; “you can only enter me to the extent that I entrance you.”

The life of the scholar often feels like a solitary confinement, and there is much to lament about the ways we do things in the academy—the way we hire, the way we tenure and promote, the way we review scholarship for publication, the way we convene symposia and conferences, the way we award grants, the competitive nature of all of it in general, and even the indifference we have toward those who are not proximate enough to us, or so we think—all of which fosters a culture of despair, and in some cases, even hatred [and for me, often, just boredom—boredom, my friends, boredom boredom boredom: don’t you want to be thrilled, to be swept away? don’t you want to be with, brushing up against, your fellow travelers in the library and not against, or away from, them?]. How is it, after forty or so years of the most radical blasting open of modes of thought and scholarly practice, that the institution of the humanities—by which I mean, its managerial structures—could still be so mired in nineteenth-century [and earlier] notions of privilege, patronage, prestige, orthodoxy and discipline, anonymous authority, straitjacketed hierarchy, and condescending censure?

There can be no real fraternity, no friendship, in such an atmosphere, although here and there, like small points of light, cells of friends will gather and leave their traces in the epigraphs and acknowledgement pages of books and in the notes of articles. But that is a different sort of friendship than the sort I want to advocate for here, one that could only be accomplished in our collective embrace of what Howie calls a “queer ontology”: “Think what it means to reach out, in the dark, toward something or someone you cannot see”—this would be a “an erotic participation” through which we would become “not identical but singularly shared and mutually, messily incompleted,” and it would be “committed to the intensification of [our] materialities in their very mystery and withdrawal, these multiple and proliferating enclosed spaces upon which we inevitably, extensively touch” [pp. 7-8].

To put it another way that touches directly on the subject of our studies—the so-called Middle Ages—and again in Howie’s words, “if the past is, it is only insofar as it is enclosed by the present, and only insofar as this enclosure appears” [p. 14]. Practices of anachronistic reading are necessary, finally, because, in Howie’s terms, they speak directly to
the spaciousness within objects, and within times, that only becomes sensible when we see them as at once singular and plural, discrete and imbricated somehow in one another; and finally, when we submit ourselves to their frames by seeking to undo them, and still more crucially, by seeking ourselves, singularly in common, again and again, to come undone. [p. 151]
Paraphrasing Howie, between what is ours and what is not ours, what intervenes is close to ours, and to us. And we, thereby, are close to each other. If we could somehow see this better, friendship would be possible between us, and by that friendship, or mutual indwelling, or affective regard, we could light up from within the dark enclosures of the university so thoroughly, they would “space out,” radically, in infinite directions.


Karl Steel said...

First off, Eileen, my god, how do you do it?

Second, there's such a contrast between my post and yours! My ideal Macbeth crushes us with responsibility for its crimes, demands we recognize its crimes as ours, is, in short, the most stifling of tragic modes. The demands of High seriousness! The questions by which I wend to my post are these: What can the Other offer us? What does the Other do to us? What must I do, and knowing what I must do, why can't I do it? Is it better not to go on?

There's no room for love, let alone erotics, in my dreamed Macbeth.

But what happens when the encounter with the Other is not only, or not only primarily, a demand for responsibility, a demand to be plunged into self-suspicion, a demand that plunges us into the grim satisfactions of cynicism? What happens when we let love catch us up?

You'll see by the link that it's almost impossible to start to wonder this way without sticking one's foot in a tub of treacle...which might explain why academics have been so reluctant to talk this way. Not only is it embodied, enworlded; it's gauche. Well, gauche be damned.

We can start to talk about the we without that 'we' enveloping, swallowing up the +n of the I+n. In this mode of friendship, when we say we, it's not the I expanded into universality in miniature. It's not the reluctant we that, at best, always grieves for the excluded not-All in which the Other must dwell.

In the mode of friendship, we might think in terms of a we whose best is not dispersal and disaggegation, but rather contact. And that being with whom we come in contact, that comes in contact with us, is not, or at least not entirely, an Other (with all the sadness that this word demands).

I wonder is this post-disenchanted mode what happens after the ethical turn? (to recap: linguistic turn, ethical turn, and now, maybe, this? Friendship and eros?)

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Thanks Eileen for restoring my faith in amity, a faith that has been badly shaken over the past year or so by events large (scholars acting badly in peer review and other spaces where they thought action and responsibility had become unlinked) and small (the intense negativity that immediately clusters around much that is offered for group conversation: for example, Stanley Fish's posts on professing literature in the NYT. It's one thing to disagree with the guy, it's another to allow the internet and a wacky pseudonym to become your license for being uselessly mean and absurdly censorial. Eight hundred times.) About the latter: even something as throwaway as a tongue in cheek Inside HigherEd piece on professorial clothing elciits within six comments the sage pronouncement "I think the pathology on display is summed up pretty well by the author himself..." Geesh. We seem so intent on silencing each other sometimes that we can't stop talking about why others need to shut up. So why bother writing?

And I suppose what baffles me most is the pleasure such commentators seem to take in posting such stuff, even if these self-appointed judges and juries never attain the attention they seem to crave. Yet that's why reading the comments in The Valve or Long Sunday can grow so tiresome so quickly ... at a certain point it's simply about one upmanship and intellectual bullying. Amity isn't even a glimmer.

So thanks, Eileen, for an invigorating post about a book that is so near and dear to my own heart that I haven't written a word about since I evoured it nearly a year ago.

And thank you, Cary, for a gift beyond measure.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

And as I reread and see that I misspellledd "elicit" I also note that I was a bit too negative: Eileen, your post contains your trademark optimism, your insight, your ardor, your endlessly quotable aphorisms. Medieval studies is much the better for your humane presence.

Eileen Joy said...

Actually, Karl, I don't think your post on "Macbeth" is as much of a contrast to mine as you think. There may be no room for love, but there *is* room for erotics in your musings on "Macbeth" through the simple fact of you *wanting* something from it--more specifically, from a particular production of it that might be possible, that would be different from all the others. In this sense, you *are* desiring contact with the work of art, and with the bodies enclosed there, murderous or no. You actually expect something from a production of the play, something real and palpable, and that, again, is a form of contact with the work of art.

I am really really glad, too, that you are pointing out the "tub of treacle" into which many of us fear to tread when talking about love, affection, and eros. There is a real risk of the accusation of sentimentality when talking about friendship, love, and literary studies, but it is a risk worth taking, I think, as long as we are careful, as you yourself [and also Howie] point out, to avoid the smothering, "enveloping" aspects of the invocation of "we," or as Howie himself points out, quoting Kaja Silverman [who is herself ruminating on Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism"],

". . . it is only by embracing other people and things that we can free them to be themselves--only be enfolding them within our psychic enclosure that we can create the space where they can emerge from concealment."

Ultimately, the singular must always retain pride of place in any participative gesture. I do hope, Karl, exactly as you suggest, that friendship and eros *are* what happens after the ethical turn. To whom, or what, otherwise, might we turn?

Jeffrey: I didn't think your first post was too negative at all. A big part of what prompted my writing here is precisely the matters you outline: the professional gestures of censure, but also the hectoring and bullying and one-upmanship that seems to be the norm in much online discourse, especially on certain academic studies weblogs such as The Valve and Long Sunday [with my apologies to some of the commentators there, such as Joseph Kugelmass and Adam Roberts, whose writing there is always humane and generous in the best senses of the word].

Thank you, too, Jeffrey, for your kind words.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

OK, Eileen: how does one love in spite of / in the face of / together with "the professional gestures of censure, but also the hectoring and bullying and one-upmanship that seems to be the norm in much online discourse"? Karl put it in terms of contact: what happens when the Other we brush against (to use a formulation that has often been used in this forum) hurts to be touched -- or when the Other seeks touching, but only to inject venom, inflict pain, or play out some inscrutable drama? Is counterexample enough?

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: one more thing about what comes after the turn to ethics; in some ways, the turn to the consideration of friendship and amity *is* the ethical turn, or at least a big part of it. What were Derrida's last writings mainly concerned with? The politics of friendship, hospitality, and religion. Now, in preparation for writing this post and also for speaking on this topic at the Medieval Club of New York in a couple of weeks, I read Derrida's "The Politics of Friendship," and there is much here that is very rich, especially concerning the ways in which, historically, friendship has been constructed in such a way that it excludes friendships between women and also the heterosexual couple [and therefore, excludes women period] and politics, by extension, has often relied on the idea of fraternity, or brotherhood, and then again, humanism has relied on the idea of "friendship to man," and all of these concepts are problematic in particular ways, especially when, as Derrida writes, the "speech of friendship [*now*] has so radically delivered itself from the hold of all determined communities, all filiation or affiliation, all alliances--families or peoples--and even all given generality" [p. 304]. But I was also a little frustrated with a move that is predominant in much of Derrida's final writings--that of a deferral of the question, after an exhaustive inventory of all the ways in which the question remains necessary, or pressing upon us. So, we have a thorough deconstruction of the term "friendship," especially in relation to philosophy, religion, politics and humanism, and then we have the re-raising of the term as an urgent political [even, globally political] question, and then the ultimate nod to the perfect friendship [and by extension, more perfect democracy] "to-come" of the future:

". . . is it possible to think and implement democracy, that which would keep the old name 'democracy,' while uprooting from it all these figures of friendship (philosophical and religious) which prescribe fraternity: the family and andocentric ethnic group? . . . . For democracy remains to come; this is its essence in so far as it remains: not only will it remain indefinitely perfectible, hence always insufficient and future, but, belonging to the time of the promise, it will always remain, in each of its future times, to come: even when there is democracy, it never exists, it is never present, it remains the theme of a non-presentable concept. Is it possible to open up to the 'come' of a certain democracy which is no longer an insult to the friendship we have striven to think beyond the homo-fraternal and phallogocentric schema? When will we be ready for an experience of freedom and equality that is capable of respectfully experiencing that friendship, which would at last be just, just beyond the law, and measured up against its measurelessness?" [p. 306]

And as his conclusion, the enigmatic:

"O my democratic friends . . ." [p. 306]

Michael O'Rourke has written eloquently on Derrida's gestures toward certain events "to come" [primarily in relation to queer theory], and perhaps he can help me to see better how where Derrida ends here is not too much of a deferral: perhaps it is just a form of hope, but is it *productive* hope? That is where I am stuck, with respect to Derrida, anyway. In some ways, these gestures of Derrida toward the "to-come" are like a moral imperative, but I am not so sure . . . .

Jeffrey: as to your questions,

"how does one love in spite of / in the face of / together with 'the professional gestures of censure, but also the hectoring and bullying and one-upmanship that seems to be the norm in much online discourse'? Karl put it in terms of contact: what happens when the Other we brush against (to use a formulation that has often been used in this forum) hurts to be touched -- or when the Other seeks touching, but only to inject venom, inflict pain, or play out some inscrutable drama? Is counterexample enough?"

this is all challenging, of course, to what I am trying to formulate here, and Marty Shichtman essentially asked me the exact same question [in slightly different form] at Kalamazoo in 2006 after I had delivered a paper on eros, love, and the humanities. He also said something to the effect of, "but Eileen, what if I don't *want* to love everyone?" And the implication was [and is]: some people cannot be loved; indeed, they could even be called not worthy of love, or not worth the time, or too dangerous to draw near to, etc. etc. Or, it's just too exhausting, not worth your while, impossible, etc.

One tentative way of trying to respond here would be to first step back, just a bit, from the word "love." It is too strong in the context of what I am trying to say here, in relation to Cary's book but also to the profession of how we do things "in here" [within the university]. Yes, I am talking about love, but not necessarily as a specific action that goes out to specific persons in a certain uni-directional or even bi-directional way [in other words, I am not even yet talking about love as relationship, with expectations on two sides, so to speak, or ideas of mutual exchanges and reciprocities and gifts and rewards, etc.--I am not, in other words, talking about love in a way that can be connected to our traditional notions of, let's say, a loving, mutual relationship or partnership]. I am trying, more so, to speak of love [but more properly eros/libido] as a certain *affect* that one takes with regard to the world, as a certain *look* that in Cary's words, "lights things up," as a certain posture that presupposes goodness and even beauty in others before they even appear or open their ears or mouths [or their hearts, if they have them]. It has to do with a certain kind of expectation I *desire* and *want* to have about others, even when they fly in the face of it, overturn it, and maybe even go out of their way to hurt and harm me. It's about attachment--being erotically attached to the world and feeling that, everywhere around you, things and persons are wanting to *be* somehow, to unfold, reach, bloom, and trying to figure out how to help cultivate that growth without doing violence somehow. Or, to put it another way, from Simone Weil:

"Belief in the existence of other human beings as such is love."


"Love is not consolation; it is light."

I don't even know if I am making sense at this point, but again, I would just say that I do not intend my original post to be a kind of command or plea to love ["okay, everyone stop what you're doing and start loving each other now!"] or even a statement of belief that goes something like, "all we need is love." That would be altogether too naive *and* facile. What I am after is something more like the French term "regard," in which there is really *seeing* someone and also giving to them a certain concentrated *attention*. Or, at a minimum, suspending judgment, assuming the better before the worst, and somehow creating what might be called a field of expectation within which persons have a better chance at unleashing their best potentialities, or, paraphrasing the poet Spence Reese, at unleashing their operas.

Ultimately, we [or, I] can't dictate affinity or amity or friendship between specific persons. Taste comes in here, just as it does in art: we will always *like* some persons better than others. But certainly, within an academic field such as medieval studies, we possess [or want] something in common, however we might want to define that, but at the very least, our studies presuppose that we possess a common *affection* for our objects of study, for the past, for books, for writing, for ideas, etc. How can we finally shake free of the structures of our discipline [and that *is* the apt term here: discipline] that promote antagonism, argument, putting each other in our "places," working alone, withholding information, always doing things in "linear"/straight fashion, competition, etc., such that we could recognize a better accord with each other?

Karl Steel said...

one more thing about what comes after the turn to ethics; in some ways, the turn to the consideration of friendship and amity *is* the ethical turn, or at least a big part of it.

Briefly, I want to distinguish the turn to friendship from the ethical turn through the differing demands. The ethical turn can be characterized by impossible demands, high seriousness, and sadness over the to-come of just contact (where the to-come is at once a gesture of hope for something better and the destruction of hope through an implicit metaphor of the asymptote, of the 'never to be good-enough'). I see all this in Strohm's demand for positionality.

And lord knows I don't mean to abandon any of this high seriousness. It certainly characterizes (most of) my work on animals!

What friendship does, in its post-disenchanted manner, is allow us to come in contact, without, or even with, a sense of its fundamental futility given the Things That Really Matter. It's a (re)discovery that pleasure can matter too, or that it can be experienced, sought, shared, without having to matter. We might even draw, weirdly enough, on Zizek's annoyance with the impossible demands that poststructuralism makes on politics. What would be the equivalent, in the currency of friendship, to this: "The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse"?

The aim becomes something other than justification.

And, in this mode, the accusation becomes not loving enough rather than, in the ethical turn, not being serious enough. One would expect that discussion threads would assume a different character, since what, after all, characterizes the really nasty literary threads but accusations of insufficient seriousness?

Something like that.

Jeffrey's question must wait. I'm caught flatflooted.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: you've cited this Zizek passage here before and I'm glad you've done so again. It sums up succinctly some of the discomfort I was feeling while reading Derrida's essays on friendship and democracy. I know the perfect democracy, and perhaps the perfect friendship, and also justice, are always "to-come," but I also want to know how to live and work *now* and the argument could be made that, not friendship per se, or even love, but the erotic is the center of the most intense [and intensifying] local/global politics. It is a political gesture that can matter *now* as opposed to *later*, always later.

Anonymous said...

Hi everybody—

Really great post, Eileen, and really great discussion, Karl and Jeffrey. I have a lot to say about the issues raised here, so much that I don’t know where to begin. I suppose I’ll begin by pointing out what I think is an interesting omission in the discussion thus far: literature itself. Most of what you are talking about resonates specifically in relation to the profession, and perhaps rightly so. But Cary’s book is equally about close encounters with particular poems, songs, novels, articles, documents, books, and on, and on. It is the poetic texture of those intercorporeal involvements that make his ability to work between personal and professional contact so amazing and invigorating. It is the stories that he relates, and not just the theories/theorists (I can get Jean-Luc Nancy elsewhere, for example, but why would I want to, and can I really, without Cary’s reading of Iacopone, of Rutebeuf, or of Trubert?), that make his work so incredible for me. Cary shows me the theoretical power of critical invention through his luminous readings.

Argh--perhaps a story (a personal and professional story) will capture what I’m trying to say better. After the 2004 Presidential election, I was angry and dispirited. As a way of thinking through the ways in which fear, envy, and competitiveness divide persons who might have common political interests, I went back to what I considered one of the ugliest pieces of literature in my scholarly ambit--Chaucer’s *Reeve’s Tale*. Admitting, and even contemplating, my “ugly feelings” in relation to that text was critically and personally rewarding. I started thinking about the historical construction of negative feeling in literary representations, attending to the rich and diverse literatures on affect in medieval texts themselves. Although my thinking was spurred by reading theorists often mentioned here (Ahmed, Sedgwick, Dinshaw, etc.), and although I am a big fan of Margreta de Grazia’s cheeky dictum—“Always Anachronize!”—I came to believe that our work is not simply to mourn or to lament the negativity we *observe* in medieval texts (that we mostly keep at a distance through our critical observations). It is to come up with better readings of those texts—by personal and sustained engagement—in order to confront how certain feelings are mobilized. How do they move us, in short, and when? Bringing in my feelings about politics—and about feelings—was crucial in my ability to engage with a text that I do not find uplifting for a number of reasons. Feelings are personal, social, literary, cultural, and transversal, all at once. We need a situated affective criticism that will engage such crossings in all their (in)formal variety.

Case in point—I take your point, Eileen, that the French "regarder” would offer a way to give someone “a certain concentrated *attention*.” Yet in medieval English forest law, the “regard” was a legal procedure of royal surveillance. It was a formalized survey meant to regulate the domain of the King’s forest (it thereby supposedly offered the monarch unlimited ocular control of his domestic body). Concentrated attention itself can sometimes be hurtful…

Yet, Eileen, I think your work broadly acknowledges that moments of hurt occasion moments of care. Acknowledging moments of hurt and figuring out how to care in relation to them seems to me the best way to confront the negative feelings that Jeffrey points to in professional circles. Keeping the literary in view, even when we are dealing with professional hurt, also seems crucial. When we only focus on the divisive, competitive, political use that people make of texts, we forget very quickly that there was a reason that we all cared about the work in question in the first place. I think some of the work on beauty and pleasure—in new formalism and elsewhere—is at least trying to think about our sustained engagements in these terms (sometimes problematically, to be sure). As Maura Nolan argued a few years ago, and I really like her turn to Adorno, what medieval studies perhaps needs now is an “aesthetic turn.”



Eileen Joy said...

Just quickly, as I am in the midst of a stack of M.A. theses [aargh, and also, hmmm, that's *good*], I want to thank Holly for bringing in the question of the literary, and by extension, the aesthetic. I never meant to occlude that aspect of Cary's book [although perhaps I accidentally did in my larger concerns with the "profession" of humanities scholarship], and was trying to point to it *most* when I was pleading for:

the cultivation of a more humane culture through an erotic [or, libidinal] practice of “close” and “enclosed” reading—of texts, but by extension, of everyone enclosed within those texts, including ourselves—and that would desire what Howie describes as “a communal entrance” where “corporately and corporeally we make room for time, and where time, simultaneously, is given us in and as space, in and as ‘the middle’ of any age."

I just want to underscore Holly's point here, which is obviously important in Howie's book, that the real "touch" of the poetics and ethical erotics Howie argues for has primarily to do with enclosed encounters with literature, with poetry, with art, and by extension, with all of the "bodies" that, in a sense, vibrate there.

Yes, yes, a turn to the aesthetic, but with great care to not construct that turn as too much of an escape from those situated beside us in the present--and in Howie's argument: how to bring these two [loving] gestures together? I thought that was partly the point, in his last chapter, "Modes of Entry," where he wrote, and I quote at length:

"In Sebastian Lifshitz's film 'Presque rien,' distributed in the Anglophone world as 'Come Undone,' two lovers whose history is told out of sequence walk through the ruins of a medieval castle in Brittany. For Matthieu, the castle at Ranrouet, built over several centuries, is a 'summary of military architecture'; for Cedric, 'it's just some rocks.' Cedric leans in to kiss Matthieu, who resists, clutching his history book. A nice, more or less homogeneous historicist synthesis here rubs up against the barest material contiguity. Cedric, unsurprisingly, comes a lot closer than Matthieu to a sort of being singular plural of the architectural object, and not just because he sees it, singular, as stones, plural. While Matthieu wants to appropriate Ranrouet as a content of organized historical knowledge, Cedric wants to make it the space in which a kiss opens up, in which bodies touch." [p. 151]

Howie's bit on anachronism, which I quote in my original post, comes just after this.

Thanks, too, Holly, for pointing out some of the other meanings of "regard," which are not so liberatory as my own definitions. I guess I would just ultimate situate myself, again, with Howie, who writes,

"Claustrophilia . . . names the love that lights up a body, building, or book, *from within*, acknowledging what is discrete and irreconcilable in the beloved as the effect of one's own appropriative, organizing gaze. Relinquishing that desire for appropriation, one sees each former object *in light* of another, and thus beyond the logic of objectification: a light, hermeneutic and mnemonic, always refracted, always coming from elsewhere." [pp. 151-52]

This is what I was trying to hit at with "regard," and I think the above passage might also get close to the situated and affective reading practice Holly advocates for here.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Wow. Too much to respond to, too little time, too much Old Norse and too little background to prepare me to participate in this discourse (I just ordered Howie's book, though, so I'll fix that soon)...but a beginning:

Eileen, first and foremost: this post epitomizes why I think that the work you do might help to make the academy more livable -- it's a vision of medieval studies and ultimately literary study that opens a way in which we can make it live-able. The idea of "regard" (inadequate though the terminology may seem) seems integral to this -- as well as to our understanding of the past or pastness of the presence of the literary text.

It seems to intersect with what I understand of Levinas' idea of the face, which precedes language and to an extent also precedes ethics (if I remember -- I really need to reread Levinas) precisely because it REQUIRES ethics, necessitates and provokes an affirmation of the face that precedes any other interaction precisely because it consists in recognition.

as regards the academy (and I merely scratch the surface of this issue) -- I think that Holly's comment is particularly useful here: Keeping the literary in view, even when we are dealing with professional hurt, also seems crucial. When we only focus on the divisive, competitive, political use that people make of texts, we forget very quickly that there was a reason that we all cared about the work in question in the first place. It seems we might also need to remember that these texts touch us, that the texts we study initiate a relationship -- we open ourselves to an encounter with the text, and the text "touches" us -- and we respond. We recognize how it feels. And I wonder if part of the problem in the academy is that far too often we wish to make use of texts -- for professional gain, nationalist political agendas, or theoretical advantages. And perhaps "using" texts too often means controlling them, rather than letting the encounter itself dictate the course of the engagement, letting ourselves (as I believe you put it) -- be touched.

Disconnected thoughts! Maybe a few of them resonate. Also -- far too few direct citations for engagement! (I just came from teaching writing, clearly...) More soon -- for now, I have to go parse Old Norse.

Anonymous said...


Re: “regarder”: it would seem to me that acknowledging its broad semantic range would enable the kinds of projects you pursue. How do we get from a juridical procedure of surveillance to a personal feeling of esteem? In other words, while acknowledging that different ideas can be put to use in liberating or disciplinary ways (theory travels, no?), we might concentrate on how we turn one form into another. For a negative example, take the S. Ahmed you were discussing recently—how does speaking “in the name of love” work in support of a hate agenda? For a more positive turning—and one that travels across time—how does a regime of disciplinary regulation get transformed into an expression of positive affect? I did some thinking about the “regard” in relation to the English Forest Charter and medieval poaching (especially since the medieval English forest was a space defined mainly—if not exclusively—through a jurisdictional decree; it was a space created out of an idea), but I didn’t get that far, probably because I don’t know Levinas as well as you do...

Mary Kate,

Totally dig the way you identify the problematic "use" to which we often put literature--and I love the exploratory encounter you describe as a positive alternative. It really is like feeling one's way (to adapt *somebody*--I think that's Sedgwick). Wish I could parse Old Norse...

All best,


Jeffrey J Cohen said...

And, in this mode, the accusation becomes not loving enough rather than, in the ethical turn, not being serious enough. One would expect that discussion threads would assume a different character, since what, after all, characterizes the really nasty literary threads but accusations of insufficient seriousness?

I quote that back because I like it so much, Karl. You've lucidly demarcated for me something that until now I'd intuited only nebulously. So, a turn to friendship over a turn to ethics indeed.

Holly, thanks for your thoughts as well, and for bringing us back to the question of teaching literature that has haunted this blog and many others as of late. About these lines:
Feelings are personal, social, literary, cultural, and transversal, all at once. We need a situated affective criticism that will engage such crossings in all their (in)formal variety.

Right on! And this reminds me of the conversation we had here a while back when I quoted some theses from the postprocessualist (I learned that word from Sarah in our discussion) archaeologist on phenomenology and "personal" experience here. Christopher Tilley is very good at articulating why personal feeling is not actually so personal as we think, and why experience and emotion are useful for understanding better the worlds we inhabit/the worlds that inhabit us.

Another way of putting this, and one that perhaps could make this conversation intersect with several others we've had here at ITM, is to say that teaching literature is -- like writing about literature -- a mode of making art.

Creating art is difficult; it renders us vulnerable, because it demands risk; it can easily fail; it opens us to mockery and vituperation; it is exhausting, because it empties; as a process never completed it opens us to love.

Eileen Joy said...

Mary Kate: I'm glad you brought in Levinas, and your recollection of how, in his thought on ethics, the face, and more so, the recognition of that face's demand on us [its look whick asks *us* to look, to regard, and to answer] is always pre-ontological, is right on [your memory is not faulty!]. This is a face, moreover, that is not really a face, per se [the physical visage of a specific person], but is, rather [and this resonates with some of Howie's thinking on singular pluralities and on the "mystery and withdrawal" of certain singular materialities], an "exteriority that is not reducible to . . . the interiority of memory." It is, moreover, an expression of being that "overflows images" and "breaks through the envelopings" and facades of material form. At the same time [and again, this resonates with Howie's thinking that some bodies are never lost, and also to some of his thinking on physicality and immanence, which I did not discuss in my original post], because "the body does not happen as an accident to the soul," the physical face is the important "*mode* in which a being, neither spatial nor foreign to geometrical or physical extension, exists separately." It is the "somewhere of a dwelling" of a being ["Totality and Infinity," pp. 51, 297, 76, 168, 172-73]

And all of this, as you rightly intuited [I think], gets at what I am trying to say about the ethical importance of adopting certain affective postures that assume, before any specific actual encounters, a desire for the encounter, for being "faced," as it were.

Holly: I think your idea about thinking more about how we *turn* one form into another [i.e., "regarder" as surveillance into "regarder" as *feeling* esteem] is really useful. Did you write an article on the English Forest Charter and medieval poaching? I would love to see that.

Jeffrey [and Holly, too]: I wholeheartedly concur with your thanks to Holly for bringing us back to the question of literature [and I would say, art, more broadly] and its relation, not only to the *profession* of what we do [and our "professing" of that profession, our practice of it, our personal investments in it] but also to how, really, we live our lives. In your earlier post on Tilley's book ["The Materiality of Stones"], which you remind us of here, you quoted this bit from Tilley regarding phenomenological approaches to study of objects in the landscape, although I think it fits really well with much of what we have been discussing here:

"Any study begins with lived experience, being there, in the world. It must necessarily be embodied, centred in a body opening out itself to the world, a carnal relationship. The exploitation of basic bodily dyads provides one entry point into the study of place and landscape. A concentric graded sense of place and landscape provides another basic way in which meaning may be explored. Both originate in the body and extend outwards."

Almost everything we do in the world--including our writing, our teaching, our *making* of anything [which, yes, means, the whole of our lives is, in some sense, an artwork]--is, at its core, a carnal relationship, although we will often deny this fact, even to ourselves. This is also why I think Cary [and he can correct me, if I'm wrong] wants us to see just how *far inside* of everything we really are, how *proximately* we extend into things, even when we work really hard to make separations and to turn "enclosure" [which is really a vast and infinite space] into a cell which no one can enter.

Karl Steel said...

And I wonder if part of the problem in the academy is that far too often we wish to make use of texts -- for professional gain, nationalist political agendas, or theoretical advantages. And perhaps "using" texts too often means controlling them, rather than letting the encounter itself dictate the course of the engagement, letting ourselves (as I believe you put it) -- be touched.

Lovely stuff, MKH.

And thanks all for the excellent discussion. I'm going to try just to watch the conversation unfold, at least for the next few days, but know that you regard.

Anonymous said...


Re: Forest Charter--nope, ended up writing only a footnote on it--it was a cool footnote, mind you, but one of those instances in which I really didn't (and still don't) have it in me to follow the thread I'd stumbled upon. I think, really, that it had no theoretical potential (I was about to write "enchantment"--don't know why I didn't) for me. I like good footnotes, and the long hours of reading forest pleas have helped immensely in my teaching (since I'm advising a grad. student doing a project on the "forms" of medieval nature). And yet that's totally enough--in fact, it offers even more support for Jeffrey's point [and your point], "teaching literature is -- like writing about literature -- a mode of making art." That's wonderful.

To Cary (and all)-- I was at home yesterday, without my copy of *Claustrophilia.* In the future, I promise to talk about those readings that are actually in the book. I was recalling the readings that most stuck with me...sorry.



dtkline said...

Wow, I miss a couple days on ITM and the conversation has already done more in those few days than I can do by myself in weeks of cogitating - and hence the confirmation of 'community' and 'friendship' as a kind of ethical dialogue and encounter.

Only a couple of comments for now, for I hope for a chance to parse such things out face to face with each of you. Maybe in St. Looey?

First, a really lovely post, Eileen, that lays hold of many important, even essential, ideas that I've been struggling with, particularly friendship with/in the profession, a profession so fraught with mimetic desire that relationships are not only difficult to maintain, they often feel fraught even before they begin. If I can even say 'we' presumptuously, we seem to be drawn to this field for many of the same or perhaps overlapping or coextensive reasons but we compete for the same small cluster of jobs. For like the immortals in Highlander, there can be only one, no? So there's a structural competitiveness that seems to me to shape many of our interactions, and that's a difficult barrier to overcome in this increasingly capitalistic, competitive, consumer driven higher education structure we have to accede to? How does amity and openness persist in such an environment?

Second, and it's prolly just me, but 'community' in that deconstructive sense has a different valence than 'friendship' or even 'amity' in the sense that I hear behind 'friendship' that Levinasian warning against the amorous dyad that thoughtlessly - or maybe not - turns away the third person in their attention to each other. That 'community to come' reminds me to keep my investments in the present, in the 'now', rather than assuming (and we all know what *that* means) that the structure of relation I/we have established or relied upon is a stable, persistent thing apart from relationships upon which it is based (say, in contrast to things like marriage or contractual and work or spatially motivated relationships).

Third, and in a very practical sense, what is the place of gender here. Try as I may, I often find it hard to set aside the conditioning that is so much a part of my cultural DNA so that I'm either concerned about how I will be perceived or conflicted about what I did in reaching out to someone else, and my reactions seem to vary according to the gender and sexuality of those with whom I come into contact. As Karl challenges us, what happens when we turn ourselves over to love, to caring for the other, even a distant and often digital other?

Fourth, I've not read 'Claustrophilia' but I will now, and soon.

Finally, to Eileen's last (re)sponse concerning the solitariness of scholarship, I wonder if were not in the process of changing the *genre* of the profession. It's been, what?, a romance for generations - the generally solitary male moves from the sponsorship of one lord to another under which he learns the tools necessary to vanquish all the obstacles in his path in his quest for the grail Ph.D./job, subsuming all (or at least having to consider such) in pursuit of this goal? I could elaborate this further, I guess, but you get the picture - though I'm sure other genres are apt as well. What genre admits for amity and care as well as enclosure and peripatae (if that's even a work, but you know what I mean...)

Thx for widening the circle.

Eileen Joy said...

Dan: I think your question about what the space of gender might be in this conversation is important, although I might substitute sexuality for gender. We have learned, within professional contexts, to be extremely careful in how we construct our approaches to those who might perceive those approaches [those moments of "drawing near"] as threatening, *because* we are male [but also female], because we are older, because we are professors or chairs of something, or editors, or publishers, etc. etc. Any display of affection can be misconstrued as too *interested* and hence inappropriate. There has to be faith, though, that we can undertake what I might call certain risks of giving affection and that, somehow, we will not be misconstrued, or punished. Given the times and professional contexts in which most of us live and work, however, I know this is the wildly idealistic viewpoint.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

My present temporality does not permit any measured response to this very wonderful discussion, just a reminder:

If you are in the NY area don't miss the live friendship event with Eileen and company on March 7th.

Cary said...

Eileen (and everyone): I’ve been following this thread for over a week now, and the first thing it occurs to me to say is something that several of you have already said, namely, thank you—for lighting me up momentarily with your look; for opening the book and carrying it out of itself and into this conversation, this community. I’m writing from a cafĂ© in Ithaca on a snowy morning—one of those mornings when the sky is so bright it hurts, despite (or on account of?) the snow—and feeling, frankly, a little stunned with gratitude. It sounds hyperbolic—and immediately makes me think of the canned scripts for gratitude, especially those circulating this time of year, at the Academy Awards, for example, and after each primary in this long election season—but the risk of hyperbole is one way, perhaps, of addressing the boredom Eileen so eloquently speaks of in relation to the creaky machinery of our institutions. (I will say this in parentheses as a tribute to Eileen’s knack for saying especially great things parenthetically: the repetition of boredom—“boredom, my friends, boredom boredom boredom”—effectively and hyperbolically challenges, in the name of friendship, the very boredom that gets repeated. This rhetorical resistance is also, it seems to me, part of what eros must look like.) In other words, form matters: saying things otherwise—without foreclosing what ‘otherwise’ should mean—is difficult, and crucial, and intimately, I’d wager, bound up with both the literary and the institutional issues at the heart of this discussion. (How, for starters, can we make more room for writing that doesn’t look like much of the safe, market-tested, and boring—my friends, boring boring boring—academic work published these days? We medievalists—if I can put ‘us’ this way—are nonetheless in a better position, thanks to blogs like this one and folks like Bonnie Wheeler, than many of our peers and friends in other disciplines.) I also can’t help telling a story from my high school. Picture it: Brunswick, Georgia, circa 1991, the air thick with paper pulp processing—for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s something between a Christmas tree and a fart—and a dense, salty December gloom. Our show choir had gathered, one afternoon, for its annual pre-holiday candlelight event, during which each student would name something she or he was thankful for. I had retreated into a supply closet because I found it embarrassing to listen to other people mumble their gratitude over their tiny hand-held candles. A few minutes of low, earnest murmuring from beyond the closet door gave way, suddenly, to a muffled scream and a few low, earnest thwacks: I opened the door and discovered that a woman had—with, let me add, only minor consequences—tearfully and accidentally set her hair on fire. I like the idea that gratitude could set us aflame and startle us out of our closets.

Karl Steel said...

the air thick with paper pulp processing—for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s something between a Christmas tree and a fart—

Well put! Given where my dad worked (think, if you're from the Pac NW, of the notorious "Tacoma aroma"), I'm very, very familiar with the smell. I'm sure I fall into the standard narrative of becoming an academic to escape the odor. A bit boring itself!

Thanks for joining the conversation!

Eileen Joy said...

Cary: what lovely comments. I didn't mean to embarrass or "stun" you by any means [haha], but in a way, I hope we *did* stun you. And by all means, please risk hyperbole as often as possible. God knows I do, and it feels good. Yes, it feels really really good, especially when it's true.

It has been a special obsession of mine for a long while now to argue for a more "feeling" and more artistic scholarship [indeed, I am just returned from Bowling Green State University and a special conference on "beholding violence" in medieval and early modern culture, where I talked about this very thing, albeit briefly during a comment session after my main talk--more on this later]. Why should a medieval studies monograph move me any less than a poem or a novel or a painting or an opera? Why can't we see that in beauty, there *is* some truth [if not all of it], and that in order to write these sorts of books we cannot straitjacket ourselves by thinking ahead to the "pitch" that niche academic "markets" demand. This is going to sound really idiotic on my part, but I've always kind of secretly wished for an expatriate movement or commune or outpost or underground within medieval studies that would be irreverent, wicked, decadent, playful, indulgent, interested as much in the artistry as in the "facts" of its intellectual work, and also interested in what might be called the metonymies and discordant concordias of everything [in showing, perhaps blasphemously, how everything touches up everything else, how everything is enmeshed and enworlded together or, as Italo Calvino might joke, "all at one point"], but this "commune" would always be committed, too, in rigorous historicist fashion, to delineating, in the pitch and tides of history, those texts and bodies that have been swept away from us yet somehow keep returning as revenants in need of [perhaps even desiring] our figuration of them.

Thank you, too, for mentioning Bonnie Wheeler and her importance within medieval studies publishing. She is a singular and prescient force for books that would have a hard time finding a home elsewhere, or that would simply get turned into something more like what someone else wants, something more in line with the status quo, whatever that might be at the moment, and yes, it's usually not too exciting.

Your story from Brunswick is wonderful: indeed, you're a natural storyteller. You read, and you write, like the artists with whom you have such affinity. Thank you, again, for your book.