[be sure to follow link above to a very cool and ongoing art project, "Ashes and Snow," by Gregory Colbert, which involves a traveling, nomadic museum space as well as an online bestiary codex; it's a wonderful "moving" emblem for Jeffrey's idea of a restless medieval studies]
Jeffrey has shared with us here his comments for BABEL's Kalamazoo session, "What Is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?" [Sunday, May 11, 8:30 am], and in sympathy with his argument there, I want to share here a portion of an essay I wrote last fall [in which Jeffrey and Mary Kate play no small part], "Goodbye to All That: The State of My Own Personal Field of Schizoid Anglo-Saxon Studies," which is forthcoming in The Heroic Age any day now. The essay was partly written, as some of you may remember, in response to a weblog debate last winter between myself, Michael Drout, Tirincula, and Richard Nokes over the supposed "state of the field" of Old English studies, but then it also morphed into a kind of argument I wanted to make for what Jeffrey has termed restless and mobile forms of scholarly "emplacement," and for what I call in my essay, following Deleuze and Guattari, "schizoid" and nomadic processes of scholarly desire and scholarly desiring-machines. The entire essay is primarily pitched at certain vexed conversations and critical anxieties that seem to predominate in Old English/Anglo-Saxon studies, but I think the final part of the essay, which I share here, is applicable to medieval studies, and really, any scholarly studies, as a whole. And it goes without saying, as Jeffrey also notes in his Kalamazoo remarks, that my thinking here would not even have been possible without the "efflorescent" communities of the weblog-sphere.
Goodbye to All That: The State of My Own Personal Field of Schizoid Anglo-Saxon Studies
[what follows are excerpts from conclusion]
Perhaps the best answers to Drout’s and Nokes’s claims that some knowledge is not contingent or situated and that an important move for the self-preservation of Anglo-Saxon studies might be to at least privilege language study first before anything else (with the understanding that language study partakes in something like universal or pragmatic facts or truths), come from three graduate students in medieval studies, Liza Blake (New York University), Mary Kate Hurley (Columbia University), and John Walter (Saint Louis University), two of whom (Blake and Walter) appended comments to my blog post, “My Life Among the Anglo-Saxonists.” Blake referenced Deleuze’s idea that, “when questioning something’s identity,” you should replace “intrinsic essences by active transformations. In this new system, [in the words of Manuel DeLanda, from Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy] ‘figures are classified by their response to events that occur to them’” (qtd. in Joy 2007). Of her own struggles to identify herself as a scholar, Blake wrote further,
If there’s anything I learned in undergrad[uate] and graduate school, as I slowly and awkwardly came to “identify” myself as a scholar of literature, it is that I’m not mastering an area by difference (I do _____ while philosophy does philosophy and linguistics does language), but mastering an ability to sense—and provide for—when a text needs more historical analyses and when it asks for philosophical analyses (insert various “icals” here). In short . . . I would identify myself not by what I do, buy by how the texts I read transform my scholarly work, and transform what it means for me to be (or become—I’ve got a long way to go yet) a scholar. (Qtd. in Joy 2007)In another comment, Walter reminded us that “the problem with claims that all we need to do is focus on ‘x’ is that X gets its meaning from its relationships to everything that’s not X,” and he indicated that he “liked Walter Ong’s take on what English studies is,” as evidenced by an essay Ong wrote in 1971, “English 2000 A.D.,” where Ong ruminated:
I suspect that at its best English in the future will continue to develop by reaching out and pulling in around itself as many as possible of the other always burgeoning humanistic subjects (including the sciences in their manifold humanistic dimensions). . . . Perhaps the end result will be the emergence of a multidisciplinary field of study, which we can hope will not be invincibly chaotic and which we might be styled anthropology in the deepest sense of this term, with various foci, these for English being around the verbally produced artifact. (Ong 1971, 11)
Finally, in a memorial piece, “In Memoriam: Nicholas Howe,” written for In The Middle, Hurley ruminated on her experience of re-reading Howe’s book Across an Inland Sea: Writing in Place from Buffalo to Berlin, which Hurley believes teaches us “as much about being a medievalist as it does about being a traveler” (Hurley 2006). She explained the ways in which Howe’s book, although it is not ostensibly about Anglo-Saxon England, resonates with the themes that predominated Howe’s work with Old English texts: “the idea and construction of home, and the ways in which the loss of that home inscribes itself in a place, and moreover in writing” (Hurley 2006). And she also pointed out how Howe also directly invokes the ruins of Old English elegy—its enta geweorc [work of giants]—in relation to places such as an abandoned train station in Buffalo, New York or High Street in Columbus, Ohio. Most importantly, Hurley highlighted Howe’s insights in his book regarding the temporal paradoxes of pilgrimage and pilgrimage sites, which in my mind could stand as an apt description of the exemplary (and may I say, beautiful?) way in which Howe approached the study of the Anglo-Saxon world in his scholarship. As Howe himself put it,
[t]he return enacted by pilgrimage need not be—perhaps rarely is—within one’s own experience or life; it is more powerfully a return within commonly shared practices and memories. . . . A pilgrimage site endures in the life of a person paradoxically as a place of transience. You journey there, you are there, and then you leave. . . . But from that pilgrim’s place comes some understanding that it is not transient and fixes it in memory so it can be found again. (Howe 2003, 114)This idea of traveling to the past via the well-trod paths to ancient sites where, in the face of the “stony reticence” of those sites, “words should fail us” (Howe 2003, 139), and by which traveling there is both permanence but also the continual transience of going and coming back, captures beautifully, for me, an ideal praxis for Anglo-Saxon studies—a praxis, moreover, that would always understand the importance of the return to the present because, as Hurley explained Howe’s thinking regarding his journey to Chartres, “in our time a pilgrimage site exists only as it is made and remade through the desire of each visitor” (Hurley 2006), and Chartres is ultimately a ruin for us, not just in its decayed architecture, but because, in Howe’s own words, we “do not visit it as a place of worship” (Howe 2003, 116). In this sense, situatedness is all, and we will always arrive belatedly to the primary love object of our studies—Anglo-Saxon England—carrying other histories with us that can’t but help inflect our thought and affect, and why would we want to discard them? We do not reach backwards, facing away from the present, through orderly chains of words and significations to understand the past on its own (supposedly logical and rational and coherent) terms, but can only feel our way there through the rubble of what I would call these affective remains of the past, these letters to the future, or, in the words of Edith Wyschogrod, these “gift[s] of the past to a present affected with futurity,” which are inscribed “with the vouloir dire of a people that has been silenced, of the dead others” (Wyschogrod 1998, 248). It is not the so-called “science” of language and manuscript studies, but the art of the affective intelligence that can hope to help us draw close to these dead others, and to consider both their silence and the ruins of their words, while also imagining the possibilities of contact, of reanimation. For after all, as Catherine Brown has written, the Middle Ages “was invented to be a foreign country. The indigenous peoples are dead, and they didn’t even know they were medieval—they thought they were living in modern times. They thought it was now” (Brown 2000, 547).
And here we begin to hit on what, for me, is the real heart of the matter: the necessity of a scholarly affect of openness with regard to the possible interrelations (or in Walter Benjamin’s terms, the possible constellations) between an Anglo-Saxon text (a verbal, but also a visual, and yes, an archaeological-anthropological artifact) and, frankly, almost anything else that might lie in our path of pilgrimage to the past and back again. And with Blake’s commentary above, especially, we have what I think is the critically important idea that, for all of our training and possible critical biases or leanings, and for all of the ways in which the artifacts of the past are, of course, somehow fixed in both memory and in historical spaces and times, we must allow ourselves to be surprised and led by what we do not know about them—by all the ways in which a text could ask us questions we had not thought to ask ourselves as part of our traditional preparation for sitting down with an Old English poem, or homily, or saint’s legend, or set of law codes, or the like, if only we were willing to suspend certain habituations. As James Earl has asked of Beowulf, “What would Beowulf look like if we could see it ‘without feeling much previous history’? What would it look like stripped of everything we have been taught about it, as if it had just washed up onto our shore and we were reading it for the very first time?” (Earl 2007, 688). This would entail a reconceptualization of our reading practices, pace Paul Zumthor, as, “at least potentially, a dialogue,” in which
two agents confront one another: I am in some way produced by this text, and in the same moment, as a reader, I construct it. A relationship of active solidarity rather than a mirror-effect; solidarity promised rather than given, pleasurably felt at the end of the long preparatory work required by the traversing of two historical distances, going and coming back. (Zumthor 1986, 66)And I think we have to also give ourselves permission and the time to wander at will, or by accident, through the fields and thickets of other disciplines and realms of thought and places (whether a city or movie theater or genetics lab) that lie off the beaten paths of our disciplinary tradition: how else could Howe have connected an abandoned train station in a contemporary American city to the ruins built by giants in the Anglo-Saxon landscapes of Old English poetry? To say then, as Drout ultimately does, that what Anglo-Saxon studies needs now is a renewed focus on philology, historicism, and manuscript work, in order to resist the “pull” of a literary studies that would be too personal or too political or too much like “the dorm room bull session” (Drout 2007a), strikes me as an impoverished view of what our field should be and do. It is a view that does not seem to understand that the texts of Anglo-Saxon England, “far from being a rigid tablet of fixed rules and monuments bullying us from the past,” in every moment of their reading and interpretation, actually reveal history “as an agonistic process still being made, rather than finished and settled once and for all” (Said 2004, 25). The perspective (whoever is espousing it) that Anglo-Saxon studies should turn away from postmodern literary studies is also myopic as regards the future of the humanities and the part that Anglo-Saxon studies might play (must play) in that. It should give us pause, further, that while many Anglo-Saxonists are still actively resisting and dismissing critical theory, during the symposium of the editorial board of Critical Inquiry convened in 2003 to discuss the future of the journal, critical theory, and the humanities, Teresa de Lauretis argued that “now may be a time for the human sciences to reopen the questions of subjectivity, materiality, discursivity, knowledge, to reflect on the post of posthumanity. It is a time to break the piggy bank of saved conceptual schemata and reinstall uncertainty in all theoretical applications, starting with the primacy of the cultural and its many ‘turns’: linguistic, discursive, performative, therapeutic, ethical, you name it” (de Lauretis 2004, 368). Then again, this could mark the perfect time for the entry of Anglo-Saxon studies as the “pre” of everything (English) into the larger (and pressing) project of considering the “post” of everything (English). This is a project already ongoing in many quarters, and in a system of higher education—the University—that can, at this point, be considered posthistorical.
In his book The University in Ruins, published two years after his untimely death in 1994, Bill Readings argued (convincingly, in my mind) that, partly due to “globalization,” whereby “the rule of the cash nexus” has replaced “the notion of national identity as a determinant in all aspects of social life,” the University (capitalized to indicate its historical status as an idealized institution) has become a “transnational bureaucratic corporation” and “the centrality of the traditional humanistic disciplines to the life of the University is no longer assured” (Readings 1996, 3). Because “the grand narrative of the University, centered on the production of a liberal, reasoning subject, is no longer available to us,” it is “no longer the case that we can conceive the University within the historical horizon of its self-realization” (Readings 1996, 9, 5). Readings prefers the term “posthistorical” over “postmodern” for the contemporary University “in order to insist on the sense that the institution has outlived itself, is now a survivor of the era in which it defined itself in terms of the project of the historical development, affirmation, and inculcation of national culture” (Readings 1996, 6). Ultimately, the University is “a ruined institution, one that lost its historical raison d’etre,” but which nevertheless “opens up a space in which it is possible to think the notion of community otherwise, without recourse to notions of unity, consensus, and communication” (Readings 1996, 19, 20). This is a space, moreover, where the University “becomes 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” (Readings 1996, 20). Indeed, the University, however “ruined,” must strive, in Readings’ view, toward building a “community that is not made up of subjects but singularities”: this community would not be “organic in that its members do not share an immanent identity to be revealed,” and it would not be “directed toward the production of a universal subject of history, to the cultural realization of an essential human nature” (Readings 1996, 185). Rather, this would be a community “of dissensus that presupposes nothing in common,” and that “would seek to make its heteronomy, its differences, more complex” (Readings 1996, 190). In this scenario, the posthistorical University would be “where thought takes place beside thought, where thinking is a shared process without identity or unity”—this is ultimately “a dissensual process; it belongs to dialogism rather than to dialogue,” and instead of a new interdisciplinary space that would “reunify” the increasingly fragmented disciplines, there would be a “shifting disciplinary structure that holds open the question of whether and how thoughts fit together” (Readings 1996, 192).
Readings’ thinking accords well with Derrida’s in his essay, “The University Without Condition,” where Derrida argued for a “new humanities” and “unconditional university” that would “remain an ultimate place of critical resistance—and more than critical—to all the powers of dogmatic and unjust appropriation” (Derrida 2002, 204). This unconditional university, further, would constitute “the principal right to say everything, even if it be under the heading of fiction and the experimentation of knowledge, and the right to say it publicly, to publish it” (Derrida 2002, 205). Finally, the humanities
would have a privileged place in this unconditional university, because the very principle of unconditionality has an originary and privileged place of presentation, of manifestation, of safekeeping in the Humanities. It has there its space of discussion and reelaboration as well. All this passes as much by way of literature and languages (that is, the sciences called the sciences of man and culture) as by way of the nondiscursive arts, by way of law and philosophy, by way of critique, questioning, and, beyond critical philosophy and questioning, by way of deconstruction—where it is a matter of nothing less than rethinking the concept of man, the figure of humanity in general, and singularly the one presupposed by what we have called, in the university, for the last few centuries, the Humanities. (Derrida 2002, 207)Here, then, I ask for an Anglo-Saxon studies without conditions—for the right, as an Anglo-Saxonist, “to say everything, even if it be under the heading of fiction and the experimentation of knowledge, and the right to say it publicly, to publish it.” I ask, too, for a shared vision of the University as the site of the “shifting disciplinary structure that holds open the question of whether and how [our] thoughts fit together.”
But it is not enough to say I want these things or to ask for them—after all, Drout himself has said that he has “no interest” in telling Anglo-Saxonists “what they should be interested in” (Drout 2007c). But it is not a question of interest—what I am interested in (the “queerness” and nonlinear dynamics and schizoid “flows” of the Anglo-Latin Guthlac narratives, at present) versus what you might be interested in (the sources of Ælfric’s Lives of Saints or the metrics of Beowulf, perhaps?). It is, rather, a question of collective desire. There must be room, in my mind, within Anglo-Saxon studies, not just for the individual scholar who wishes to take herself into uncharted theoretical territory (to go and come back again as a lone traveler), but for deleuzoguattarian roaming packs and multiplicities to emerge and join with other packs and multiplicities to create desiring-scholarly-machines and critical machines-machines-machines-machines. This would be, in the words of Jeffrey Cohen and Todd Ramlow, a “process formed of alliances with and through [disciplinary] others, a process not collapsible to either side of a self/other binary, a process always in motion, changing (performatively) in multiple contexts” (Cohen and Ramlow 2005/2006). These alliances would be made up of groups of scholar-machines (an Anglo-Saxon studies machine, a queer theory machine, a post-Norman Conquest history machine, a third-wave feminist studies machine, etc.), each of which would function as “a break in the flow, in relation to the machine connected to it,” and everywhere there would be “break-flows out of which desire” would pour forth (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 37). Ours would then be field (or machine) that would have to run on the libidinal economies of the philologist as well as the queer theorist, the codicologist as well as the new historicist, and so on. I want, further, to see working groups formed across the temporal divides that separate Anglo-Saxon studies from the “other” Middle Ages and beyond, in which groups Anglo-Saxonists would take leadership positions (while also practicing anti-hierarchical collaborative work) and the primary impetus for the disparate “joinings” of these groups would be nothing less than a complete re-envisioning of the humanities and its relation to public thought and life.
This would be the only possible route, in my mind, toward the kind of schizoid desiring-revolution that Deleuze and Guttari argued for so passionately in their collaborative work, where desire itself, when it lights out for the territories elsewhere unleashes, in the words of one of their translators, “schizzes-flows—forces that escape coding, scramble the codes, and flee in all directions: orphans (no daddy-mommy-me), atheists (no beliefs), and nomads (no habits, no territories)” (Seem 1983, xxi]. Such a desiring-revolution will be necessary to reinvent the “business as usual,” not just of Anglo-Saxon studies, but also of the transnational bureaucratic corporation called the University which has created a culture of cynicism and despair as regards the fate of the humanities. But I—I do not despair. If it turns out that assembling a pack, or multiplicity, of theoretical rogues within Anglo-Saxon studies is not possible at present, I can always leave this house and carry these studies to other territories and other packs. It has been my feeling for some time now, in any case, that what might be called the University proper—at least in terms of its brick and stone buildings and manicured green spaces and conventional classrooms and libraries and departments rooted in fixed geographies—is no longer adequate to the project of a humanities that could be said to matter somehow, not just now, but in the future. We may need new affectively-constructed spaces, or floating intellectual “cells” or “group houses” or “undergrounds,” that would be global and heterogeneous, always on the move, and perpetually committed to asking the question of what “being-together” means. This is not an academic question, but a political one. There is no escaping it.
Figure 2. Interior of the Nomadic Museum