Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The New Retractionism?

From Elizabeth Scala's review of A. C. Spearing, Textual Subjectivity: The Encoding of Subjectivity in Medieval Narratives and Lyrics (TMR 08.04.07):
There's something of a theoretical retrospective going on in literary
studies these days. Hard-core social constructionists are trumpeting
essential differences (Eve Sedgwick), and dyed-in-the-wool Marxists
are urging more close reading and attention to aesthetics (Terry
Eagleton). The boomer generation of literary critics is seeing new
horizons in refuting its once signature moves, generously returning us
to a simpler way of reading. Medievalists, for their part, are not
immune to this trend. Since the principal subject of this review is A.
C. Spearing's Textual Subjectivity and its principal focus is
Chaucer, we could call this trend in medievalist scholarship "the New
Retraction." Its global form may be no easier to take than the local
one I will describe here, and neither is it any less suspect than
Chaucer's own repudiation of much of his writing at the end of the
Canterbury Tales.
The whole review deserves careful reading, exploring as it does what is at stake in acts of critical self-repudiation (in many senses of that phrase: Spearing's project is directed against the "I" of medieval literature). Liz also has a Molotov cocktail of an essay [I mean that as a compliment] on the gender of historicism that, when published, is going to start some important conversations. Her work is becoming truly provocative.

12 comments:

Karl Steel said...

The whole review deserves careful reading

Having some trouble turning it up. Am I just not looking in the right place?

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

I think it takes them a day or two to get the reviews up at the website; mine came via email. I'll cut and paste the review below. It will probably be formatted oddly.

---------
Spearing, A. C. Textual Subjectivity: The Encoding of Subjectivity in Medieval Narratives and Lyrics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. viii, 273. $125.00. ISBN: 0198187246, ISBN-13:9780198187240.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Scala
University of Texas at Austin
scala@mail.utexas.edu


There's something of a theoretical retrospective going on in literary
studies these days. Hard-core social constructionists are trumpeting
essential differences (Eve Sedgwick), and dyed-in-the-wool Marxists
are urging more close reading and attention to aesthetics (Terry
Eagleton). The boomer generation of literary critics is seeing new
horizons in refuting its once signature moves, generously returning us
to a simpler way of reading. Medievalists, for their part, are not
immune to this trend. Since the principal subject of this review is A.
C. Spearing's Textual Subjectivity and its principal focus is
Chaucer, we could call this trend in medievalist scholarship "the New
Retraction." Its global form may be no easier to take than the local
one I will describe here, and neither is it any less suspect than
Chaucer's own repudiation of much of his writing at the end of the
Canterbury Tales.

In this book, Tony Spearing returns to the question of the narrator in
medieval poetry. He overturns much of his own former scholarship to
argue that most of our theorizing of the complex narrating subjects
constructed by Troilus and Criseyde, the Canterbury
Tales
, and Pearl are really matters of linguistic necessity
rather than poetic creativity and intent. Beginning with the rather
simple narratorial situation in Middle English romance, here
exemplified by King Horn and Havelock the Dane, Spearing
holds that deixis--"terms that have no objective referential
meaning...are used to describe objects or events in their spatio-
temporal (and, by extension, emotional) relation to the person who
uses them[:] I, you, here, there,
this, that, and so on" (5)--accounts for the
complexities that will be identified as self-consciously crafted
narrating personae distinct from the authors who created them. In
Horn and Havelock, Spearing shows, many deictic features
appear to mark both a spoken and a written narrative situation; this
emerges from the textual conditions of late medieval poetic making.

Textual Subjectivity thus challenges readers, particularly
those invested in Chaucer's complex storytelling, to give up the
assumption of "the narrator" installed after New Criticism's reign of
irony and largely drawn from assumptions based on the novel. The
"function of the medieval poet as a reteller and commentator marks a
fundamental difference from the role of the novelist. The consequences
of this fact are, perhaps inevitably, missed by theorists whose
conception of 'fiction' is shaped by the novel, a genre whose very
name indicates a claim to originality" (22). Spearing devotes his book
to these consequences and reminds us, with a review of older criticism
that is now largely neglected, how scholarship once operated without
this base assumption. Showing the slipperiness of terms like "poet,"
"author," and "narrator," which are too often used interchangeably,
Spearing re-locates the grammatical and poetic speaking subject in the
text and refocuses our attention on the textuality of medieval
narrative.

Bravely and admirably, Spearing chooses the most difficult and
resistant cases to prove his points. One can hardly think of narrators
more likely to be personalized and individuated (and thus open to our
probing skepticism) than those of Troilus and the Man of
Law's Tale
, especially since the latter claims to be a speaker
different from one "Chaucer" in his own prologue. Called upon for a
story by Harry Bailly, the Man of Law complains about the lack of
stories available because Chaucer has told so many of them already.
True, such a claim does not argue for a distinct and consistent
personality for the Man of Law that could (and should) then become the
key to unlocking the meaning of his narrative. Spearing is certainly
right here. But surely it does distinguish the Man of Law from the
Chaucer we know to be his author.

Much of Spearing's book argues for the value of good common sense.
This is especially pointed where it relates to hyper-theorizing
narrative (largely on the basis of the nineteenth- and twentieth-
century novel) and the failure to examine knee-jerk assumptions about
the autonomy (and thus unreliability) of narrators. Spearing's
extensive reading in narrative theory (in at least three languages)
licenses his critique of its lack of historical differentiation as
well as his corrective to medievalists for over-indulging in it--and
that includes himself. He tirelessly castigates himself and some of
his former studies, in fact, for their over-indulgence in these
matters, a de facto separation of author and narrator.

But one could quibble here on a number of grounds, some of them
Spearing's own. As, for example, when he complains of the way so many
current medievalists blithely ignore the critical works of earlier
generations in an unscientific evaluation of previous "knowledge." How
can one complain about this kind of critical neglect and write
footnotes such as "Space forbids a comprehensive survey of existing
criticism; in particular I omit consideration of the relation of the
'I' of Chaucer's writing to Chaucer's social and political situation
in his lifetime" (77, n. 9)? But there are less ironic moments of
contradiction. For instance, when Spearing draws attention to a
certain kind of criticism he finds unduly neglected, he enacts some
neglect of his own. Here I note his tendency throughout Textual
Subjectivity
to defend the commonsense interpretations of Helen
Cooper, Derek Pearsall, and the late Elizabeth Salter. These three
important and well-respected British medievalists of Spearing's own
largely New Critical generation (who remain untainted by any
theoretical allegiance--we would call them literary historians) need
little defending.

However, it should be noted that the students of these three, along
with those of E.T. Donaldson, have been largely responsible for the
theoretical turn in medieval literary studies. Here I am referring to
such scholars as Lee Patterson and David Aers, among others. Because
their critical works are prominently cited by scholars of diverse
orientations, Spearing's special pleading for them leads me to wonder
if Spearing is really complaining about the neglect of his own work--
even as, ironically, he's repudiating much of what would have been
read. Less personally perhaps we might note the anti-Americanism in
the particulars of Spearing's anti-Kittredgian critique; this is a
critique of the very American Chaucer industry in which Spearing
himself works. In many ways this is a book that rails against the way
modern medievalists have cast Chaucer in their own image, the way
critics continue to find Chaucer in sympathy with themselves by
separating him from his fallible narrator. But given the remarks
above, we might likewise see Spearing's Chaucer in much Spearing's own
image, British and commonsensical, throwing entirely new light on the
book's core conviction.

Taking up Spearing's topic, the subjectivity produced in texts by
language rather than by "characterization," we might return to theory-
-a different theory than the one Spearing demonizes--to rehistoricize
the "self" he spends so much time critiquing. Many of the readers who
find themselves criticized by this book for their overly complex and
"ingenious" readings are those who would also argue against any notion
of a unified or stable "self" in these texts--such a fantasy is the
construction of Burkhardtian humanism. The narrating subjects of
Chaucer's poems and of Pearl's unconsoled father are subjected
to various discourses as well as the subjections of language, and such
studies have emphasized their subjected nature rather than their
autonomous selfhood. This is not Spearing's cause. Nor is it
explicitly what his book is about, even though it is the language that
he uses--and so, one could say, it remains invoked by him even if he
does not mean it.

Spearing's attention to the control of language over the author's
attempt to write narrative, and in more modern students' interest in
the subjections of narrative speaking, we can see not so much stark
differences as relations of emphasis. That is, focused and narrow
attention to one of these features necessarily blinds us to others
nearby. And to that extent, Spearing's points are well taken, even if
I'm not about to change my mind about the individuation of Chaucer's
narrators. I can appreciate what Chaucer's narrative shares with the
Middle English romances of Havelock and Horn. But such a
comparison tends to make those romancers more complex (in making oral
performance textual) rather than simplifying Chaucerian narrative
(making all of his narrators into versions of Chaucer himself).

This book proceeds chronologically, and thus works implicitly in
developmental terms, beginning with Havelok and Horn and
working through Chaucer's Troilus and Man of Law's Tale
to the Pearl poet, lyrics, and epistolary poems. The jump from
the early thirteenth-century romance to the late fourteenth-century
works of Chaucer could be better explained. The romances make
Spearing's case most clearly and thus set the model of textual
subjectivity out of which, he argues, the later texts develop. That
is, in Horn and Havelok we see fine examples of the
subjectivity effects that grammar and writing produce, which form the
foundation upon which later writers like Chaucer build. Spearing's
readings of Horn and Havelock are sensitive to the ways
Middle English romances more generally appeal to both a written form
and an oral context. This mingling of written and oral text occurs
throughout romances copied into the fifteenth century, which suggests
both the aural nature of delivery (reading aloud from a written text)
as well as the possible fictionalization of the minstrel performance
in later romances, topics studied by Joyce Coleman and Andrew Taylor
respectively. Such attention to these romances makes us aware of their
author's presence in the text as well as the use of free indirect
discourse--contrary to what scholars of the nineteenth-century claim
for Jane Austen's invention of the device.

Spearing is pressed into harder service once he begins discussing
Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, whose readers are heavily
wedded to the notion of a fully characterized narrator telling its sad
tale. He sends out a clarion call for us to see this figure as an
inscription of Chaucer facing the difficulties of writing, instead of
liberating Chaucer from making them a fiction of the poem (74). If
the source of much of Spearing's critique is the over-influential
readings of "Chaucer the Pilgrim" by E. T. Donaldson, the deeper
source for Donaldson is G. L. Kittredge's dramatic reading of the
Canterbury Tales as the speeches of individual characters in a
play. Further, in moving from these early Middle English romances to
Chaucer's late medieval English sophistication, he sets up a
linguistic lineage of narrative articulation at odds with the French
and Italian sources of Chaucer's works. And though Spearing does
mention the works of Machaut and Froissart as the sources for some of
the narrators Chaucer seems to have analogously complicated according
to their models, he attempts to show the Middle English language as
one that more fully constrains and thus explains the "consciousness"
(or lack of one) we have at work in late medieval English fiction.

Textual Subjectivity is full of provocative and compelling
considerations that ought to be taken seriously. Spearing is well
aware of the fundamental philosophic propositions about the subject
his study broaches, and he cites (even if secondhand) Heidegger to
posit its limits. Though he does not fully take it up, he gestures to
a predominantly different world view in the Middle Ages, one that
"took for granted the objective existence of certain realities, such
as God or stories" (28), unlike the modern world, in which the human
subject is made "the ultimate foundation upon which entities are
rendered intelligible" (28; quoting Critchley, Deconstructive
Subjectivities
). Positing the objectivity of God is one thing, but
taking "stories" to the same objective extent is yet another.
Spearing does not dilate at this point, but rather concludes: "But I
cannot offer that as anything more than speculation"--or than
assumption, we might better say.

Spearing sees the modern theory of the narrator as something we too
easily assume for medieval literature. This theory participates in the
humanist assumption of an autonomous self--one that writes completely
new and original narratives. As such, it is something that modernism
and post-modernism have been working to undo, and that the late-
medieval period had not yet seen done. In his words: "For medieval
writers a distinction that seems obvious to us but is now beginning to
dissolve did not yet exist, or was only just beginning to come into
existence. In this respect as in others, we are experiencing their
history in reverse" (23). Such observations subtend some of the post-
historicizing moments in current medieval studies that link the
medieval to the post-modern in new and engaging ways. Like much of
that post-historicism, Spearing attempts to link his work to pleasure,
seeing the danger of "a lessening of the pleasure to be gained from
reading" (33). But much remains unanswered in this plain defense of
pleasure, what might be a defense of the New Critical close reading
his work exemplifies and whose over-reading of the narrator he now
critiques and repudiates. While acknowledging the "primitive and
indispensable goal of pleasure," he fails to tell us how it is
constituted, for whom it works, and by what standard it could be
universal.

In conclusion, Textual Subjectivity is, like Tony Spearing's
books more generally, thought provoking, intelligently written, and
sensitive to the details of literary texts. If I am not fully
convinced by his argument, I am sure the subject deserves more of our
attention.

Dr. Virago said...

Since I haven't read the book, I don't think I can say much of substance at the moment. However, two points of information (i.e, things that are bugging my OCD mind):

1) The standard editorial spelling, following the consistent MS spelling, is Havelok -- no c before the k.

2)Havelok is, at earliest, a late 13th century text, and may be an early 14th c. one. (My refs here are Smithers' edition and the TEAMS edition.)

Just saying...

Mary Kate Hurley said...

This is quite fascinating...I'm looking forward to reading it.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

The Spearing book AND the review, I mean...so I suppose I ought to have said "looking forward to reading them both".

Karl Steel said...

By the way, I know it's a tired sport to pick on Stanley Fish, but did anyone else read his column on French Theory.

My reaction: Fish's faux naive contention that there's no strong political content to poststructuralism is belied by the outrage evident in, say, the first 20 comments or so. Not a one is okay with poststructuralism; not a one shows any real familiarity with it (or its antecedents, e.g., the Dialectic of Enlightenment, this last's week's reading); and all want language to be straightforwardly meaningful and, perhaps as lagniappe, pretty, but never, never wily. Maybe the other 500+ comments are different.

Fish's grave error, I think, is not to discuss the...haha...ontotheological implications of poststructuralism: what happens to God (and whatever else stands in the place of God, including math and the tense harmonies of New Criticism) when the transcendent signifier is revealed as a crock? There may be no positive political content to that insight, but lord knows a great deal of other, murderous political content has just lost its legs. No doubt this accounts for the rage of lazy students who, you know, just want to read pretty books.

==

Christ. I wish the Times had given Bérubé or even Nussbaum that slot. But there's no way that the paper that gives Brooks and Kristol and Dowd a voice is going to do the best thing.

Now, Fish's column is relevant here because perhaps we can track in this one more instance that we're supposed to be waking up from the long nightmare that is theory. We should, however, maintain a distinction between doing theory more 'behind the scenes' (a la JJC ODM v. JJC OG) and the other option, the one I think implicitly promoted by Fish and by what we might call the 'New Retractionists,' becoming (implicitly or explicitly) nostalgics by not doing theory at all anymore...

Eileen Joy said...

I've just read Fish's essay and my heart has sunk. Reading Scala's review of Spearing's book, which I did a few days ago, also made me feel a little queasy [but less so than Fish's essay]. I have to dash now and will write something more substantial about this a little later on in the day, but I wonder if Stanley Fish realizes the tragic political implications of his own argument [which claims that French theory, or rather, its deconstructive and other epistemological insights, have no real political implications]? I wonder, further, if Fish understands that he is engaging in exactly the kind of destructive rhetoric that makes any kind of politics at all impossible, and that also pretends to "not see" how powerful language really is, not in a cognitive sense, but in a material sense [and my chief example here would be the Bush White House legal memorandums on torture, but that is only one example, and on this point, I would only beg people to read the essays by Steve Guthrie, Michael Moore, and Daniel Kline in our Palgrave book, "Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages"--Kline, especially, demonstrates just how dangerous things get at the highest level of political power when the so-called French theory is exercised by the wrong persons].

I despair.

Karl Steel said...

I wonder, further, if Fish understands that he is engaging in exactly the kind of destructive rhetoric that makes any kind of politics at all impossible,

I think he knows that perfectly well, and I think that's precisely why the Times hired him.

I'm going off right now to ask our library to order the Cultural Studies in MA anthology

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

I read the essay on the day it appeared on Fish's blog, and decided not to post on it. What is there to say? It is Fish being Fish being Fish, saying the kinds of things he has been saying since the 1970s.

Holly Crocker was kind enough in recent comments to point us towards scholars like Braidotti and Gilroy who re-approach their oeuvres de jeunesse anew. That kind of work suggests to me that the best minds are restless ones: they don't stop probing, growing, changing. Spearing's move seems different, since (as Liz points out) the staged rejection of an anterior self does its own work in the present, and there are some good reasons to be suspicious of the performance of such dramatic breaks: think of Steve Kruger's work in The Spectral Jew on the Christian convert Petrus Alfonsi repudiating the benighted Moses he used to be.

Fish seems immune to change: he is the same neutral skeptic he was forty years ago. It's likely not much better to reject your past self wholesale (that seems to me yet another way of remaining in place), but to be able to touch the past self even as you move away from it, touch it queerly, that might mean something. And I'm thinking here of Eve Sedgwick's work on Henry James, as she describes the on-in-years author encountering (touching? cruising? brushing against?) the young man he used to be, at least through his mind, at least through his own writing. It's a great moment that could lead to a more temporally capacious notion of self, or could lead to rejection or shame.

Medieval studies -- and scholarship more generally -- ought to be mobile, vagrant. Not built upon imperturbable convictions, not built upon repudiations.

Dr. Virago said...

JJC wrote: Medieval studies -- and scholarship more generally -- ought to be mobile, vagrant. Not built upon imperturbable convictions, not built upon repudiations.

Perhaps the way to rethink one's own work is somewhat like you did regarding your own work in this comment here, Jeffrey?

Again, not having read Spearing's work, it's hard to talk about what he's doing only through Scala's lens. *But*, while I am disturbed by the act of wholesale repudiation and its seeming post-theory mode, I'm also intrigued and somewhat cheered by the insistence that the medieval narrative voice is not the same as the modern "narrator," although I suspect that my eagerness to stop talking about narrators and Chaucerian irony is very different from Spearing's. Mainly, I'm just sick of the same-old, same-old, and I like to avoid student discussions that treat characters as living people who might have chosen to do other than what they've been written to do, and that includes narrators. I'd rather talk about what was chosen (or not) for them to do, if that makes any sense. They also *love* to talk about unreliable narrators until the cows come home, as if that's the only literary analysis terminology they have ever learned, and I find it too flat and schematic for Chaucer's complex narrative performances. This love-affair my students have with reliable or unreliable narrators puzzles me, and so I try to avoid it or work past it to move on to something I find more interesting. But maybe I should pay more attention -- maybe it's telling me something about their desires to trust or to be told or something. Maybe I should just ask why they care so much.

But that's totally off topic.

As for Fish -- bah! That's about all the energy I have for him these days.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for this comment, Jeffrey: It's likely not much better to reject your past self wholesale (that seems to me yet another way of remaining in place), but to be able to touch the past self even as you move away from it, touch it queerly, that might mean something. Wise words, and a nice counter to Fish, and to what Fish inspires (in my case, a stentorian obviousness caused by my TOTAL IRRITATION, once again, with Fish. Better just to avoid him).

And, DV, But maybe I should pay more attention -- maybe it's telling me something about their desires to trust or to be told or something. Maybe I should just ask why they care so much.

But that's totally off topic.


Maybe...? But it's interesting.

Anonymous said...

Deconstructivism (and the understanding that the I, the world, and the forms of signification are not independent) is perfectly American. From baseball umpire Bill Klem we learn, “It ain’t nothin’ till I call it.”