“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.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 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]
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.