Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Stop the Presses, Greg Carrier, You're in the Weekly Standard, as is Medieval Disability Studies, as is Waste Studies: Convergences, Convergences

Figure 1. Is this your Dark Ages? Or this? or this?

by Eileen Joy

So I'm back from Dublin and London and trying to wade through and respond to 500 gadjillion emails [I mean, um, 542 emails], and I have these really interesting messages from Greg Carrier and Susan S. Morrison on medieval disability studies and excrement/waste studies, and how these might intersect with BABEL's ongoing projects, and at the same time, Jeffrey has invited graduate students [including Greg] in medieval disability studies to guest-blog here, and then Susan also sends me a recent essay in The Weekly Standard on our recent Kalamazoo Congress that essentially highlights medieval disability and waste studies as the end of everything good about medieval studies:

A Dark Age for Medievalists

Right on, Greg and Susan: you are both partly responsible for worrying more about "what people thought" about things in the Middle Ages [like disability and excrement] and less about "real" medieval history, and your studies have "little to do with historical or economic facts on the ground." Clearly, the author has not read Greg's post here, right? But why should she? After all, the author was similarly put off by the presence at the Congress of terms such as "heteronormativity" and "hybridity" [sound familiar, dear ITM readers?], and was thrown into absolutely vertiginous intellectual vertigo by "heterosyncracy" [please, dear author, fasten your seatbelt next time]. You have to read this essay to believe it. But don't get upset. Laugh. After all, we're having more fun. Or maybe we're trying to be dead serious but no one "gets" that. So I'll drink to both of those notions.

27 comments:

Eaquae Legit said...

I'll drink to that. Those. Ah heck, we're still struggling to get other medievalists and other disability scholars to take us seriously - why should the newspapers be any different?

I'll take this as a positive. Any publicity is good publicity, right?

Karl Steel said...

Charlotte Allen's a bitter piece of cork. For some more commentary, see Unlocked Wordhoard. My main contribution? She's against the HPV vaccine (because cancer scares people off sex) and is responsible for a notorious Washing Post column on the stupidity of women.

So, derision from this person is the highest compliment imaginable.

Welcome back Eileen!

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

There goes my strategy of not giving the dyspeptic Allen an attentiveness that would make what she wrote seem important ... ! My comments are here. She really is quite the plagiarist.

An excellent post on the subject can also be found at Caught in the Snide.

Welcome back from Dublin, Eileen ... you apparently made quite a few friends there!

Insurditate vero said...

It appears I wasn't the only deaf person at Kalamazoo this year, after all!

I don't know if that's a good or bad thing, though.

BLB said...

"So, derision from this person is the highest compliment imaginable."

Exactly! That article is like an inverted, Bizarro ITM. Everything is snobbery, hatred, disengagement, tone-deaf snidery (and note that curious wish for "gentrification" to reach Kalamazoo). I feel dirty for having read it -- and am now off to see the links that respond to it.

-BLB

Eileen Joy said...

Oops--I didn't realize what I was treading into with this one, and had not seen the post over at Unlocked Wordhoard. Sorry, Jeffrey, for giving space to the vile and mean, but as Oscar Wilde once said, "the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about." But maybe in this case, silence really *would* have been golden.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Pas de problem: honestly, ITM ought to have weighed in on this one, even if it is totally predictable what we'd say. Thanks, BLB, for your running with it!

irina said...

I'd also like to point out, though it's probably not even relevant, that her fact checking is nonexistent.

I found the article particularly amusing since, as a result of the sessions in my own field I wound up attending, I came away from Kalamazoo mildly depressed at the conservativeness of Anglo-Saxon studies, at least among established or newly-established folk. Oh, what I would have given for a little critique of heteronormativity, some mention of faeces, or even, heck, something approaching a sensitive literary reading of a text. Charlotte and I should have changed places. (Or, I should have gone to the sessions she pretended to attend, and she should have pretended to attend the sessions I was at.)

Can we talk someday about how facts are fetishised, not only in historical fields (where I can see their value at least), but in some literary fields, where the so-called facts are of dubious veracity and interpretative value? Can we talk about how there's not nearly enough discussion of what people in the Middle Ages *thought*?

Eileen Joy said...

Irina: if you would like some discussion about how facts [and the archive] are fetishized, a wonderful starting point is Dominick LaCapra's "History and Criticism" [Cornell UP, 1987], especially the first chapter, "History and Rhetoric." Although some in medieval historical studies will not readily admit it, there has been for some time now very lively discussions among historians about the fetishization/romanticization of historical "facts"/the archive and the slipperiness/literariness of historical objectivity [you might also think about Derrida's "Archive Fever" here, although he is not an historian, and then add in for the historians Roger Chartier, Hayden White, Frank Ankersmit, Hans Kellner, Berel Lang, and in medieval historical studies, Nancy Partner, Monika Otter, Patrick Geary, etc.]. Another important book in this regard is Peter Novick's "That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession [Cambridge University Press, 1988].

I myself actually devoted the entire first chapter of my dissertation to this subject, "Winged Creatures and Honey-Gatherers of the Spirit" [that's cadged from Nietzsche], where I begin with Borges's short story "The Library of Babel" as a kind of parable for the idea that the scholar of the medieval past always confronts a certain paradox having to do with the impossibility of ever being able to fully reconcile the authorization and authentication of a specific text with the material conditions and aporia of the manuscripts [and there can never be, therefore, a "whole" text, let alone, as in Borges's story, an archive which would contain

"the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogs, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalog, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books."

I've always loved what Frank Kermode had to say on the subject:

"World and book, it may be, are hopelessly plural, endlessly disappointing; we stand alone before them, aware of their arbitrariness and impenetrability, knowing that they may be narratives only because of our impudent intervention, and susceptible of interpretation only by our hermetic tricks. Hot for secrets, our only conversation may be with guardians who know less and see less than we can, and our sole hope and pleasure is in the perception of a momentary radiance, before the door of disappointment is finally shut on us." ["The Genesis of Secrecy," p. 145]

I also like Simone Weil's more enigmatic take on the fetishization of an "object" of study:

". . . as in the case of an excessive devotion, we become dependent on the object of our efforts. . . . [We must] draw back before the object we are pursuing. Only an indirect method is effective. We do nothing if we have not first drawn back. By pulling at the bunch, we make all the grapes fall to the ground." ["Gravity and Grace," p. 171]

Karl Steel said...

Hilarious, Eileen, that we were writing our comments at precisely the same moment, on virtually the same subject, and doing things so much in our own characteristic ways!

Eileen Joy said...

Well, let's see, Karl, if you were *also* thinking/writing this:

While some were being exercised/exorcized by Charlotte Allen's piece, what struck me was the way in which some commentators [including "Caught in the Snide" and some of the commenters at "Unlocked Wordhoard"] were distancing themselves from Allen by saying things like, "although I myself have often written about how I don't *get* postmodern approaches to medieval literature, Allen's piece is too much/too tone-deaf/just plain wrong," etc. And this brings me, too, to some of Greg's comments in his first post about the necessity, in his mind, to think about real disabled bodies, within a medieval context, before thinking about those bodies through the *ideas* of such bodies found in contemporary disability theory.

So there is some interesting slipperiness between Allen's expressed angst over the loss or lack of "history" at Kalamazoo [i.e., some kind of *real* medieval history] and blog commentator's unease with seeing the medieval through particular modern or postmodern lenses. There is also a concern over *real* versus *imagined* bodies, which raises the question of "how to *think* the body from outside or within the *idea* of the body," right? I have no valuable insights at present regarding this question, but I find it a troubling one, as I do the supposed divide [historical, theoretical, or otherwise] between the medieval and the modern.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Well, I was thinking that, Eileen, and writing it to Greg -- last week, that is, and that's why his Margery Kempe post already has some of my commentary embedded within it. My question about Kempe has to do with this search for what Greg calls "actual disabled persons" and "actual disabled bodies." What's at stake in the actual? Does a temporary disability not count as an actual disability? That is, do actual disabled bodies have to be in a steady state of disability?

I ask this because also behind my Kempe questions is this blunt fact: all of us, if we live long enough, become disabled. That's a blunt fact of senescence. Kempe experienced with her husband John, reduced an incontinent and infantile state, wholly dependent upon others for his care (and possibly bereft of his own sense of self as well). Kempe experiences it for herself as well, in Book II, when in Germany the reality of possessing a body advanced in age slows her down, makes her ache, makes her weary.

I guess what I'm asking of Greg -- and anyone else -- is, how flexible do you want disability to be? My own answer would be VERY flexible, so much so that it overlaps other messy categories (queer, hybrid...) Why exactly is it so important to sort the actual disabled bodies from those that might inhabit some space between the real and the fabulated, or between the saint and the madwoman, or between the mother of fourteen and the elderly pilgrim, or between the caregiver and the prosthetic-user, or between the medieval and the modern ...

irina said...

Eileen: Thank you for the valuable bibliography, which I will enjoy reading in my rebellious moments this summer. Kermode's phrase, "Hot for secrets," sounds like a wonderful title for a book all on its own.

The Borges story that was on my mind last night was "La busca de Averroes." Isn't part of the point that the modern author's attempt to understand how and what a medieval mind might not understand is as doomed to failure as Averroes' attempt to imagine theatre? At the same time, I think there's something so pressing about exactly that foregone attempt to imagine, to place ourselves in a world which will remain forever locked off and foreign.

I'm becoming incoherent now, but what I want to say is this: I find most arguments which attempt to establish facts about literature, and especially about Anglo-Saxon literature, to be rather unstable houses of cards: not particularly stable, and not much use for anything but impressing people. Trying to imagine the past -- the past of bodies, minds, animals, things, processes, events -- is infinitely more perilous and open-ended, but, to my mind, more worthwhile, even if it fails.

Jeffrey: The question I would ask re: "actual disabled bodies" is how useful the term "disabled" is at all when used as a category for dividing and defining medieval bodies? It seems to me much more exciting to use it as a starting-off point to ask questions that don't necessarily result in new taxonomies.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Irina, thanks for that. I'd like to think that an enduring strand in my own work has been an argument against new taxonomies, at least when such categories are understood as immobile and self-bounded facts/realities/actualities. In Of Giants I looked at the monster as a protean space between the human and the abject, rather than as a form that might be held still long enough to examine upon a dissection table; in Medieval Identity Machines I was more interested in what happens between bodies than in the "reality" of bounded social/erotic/racial identities per se. And in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity I tried to map how facts like "the English race" are actually fictions covering over long histories of shift, amalgamation, and transformation.

And so with Kargey Kempe. Quite a while ago I asked if she was Jewish -- and by that I didn't mean a Jew (she clearly was not), but Jew-ish: was there something in the movements that constituted her identity that brought up close to, that brought her perhaps even within, a whole field of possibilities associated with medieval Judaism? I think the answer is a tentative yes, but that's an answer that has to be separated from her being an actual Jew.

I wonder if maybe it'd be useful for Greg (or anyone else who wants to) to speak of what crip theory might offer with and/or against disability theory?

Irina said...

Jeffrey:

Ba-da-BING!

That was my reaction upon reading your post and the paper you posted on Kempe being Jew-ish. Here's why, and I'm going to give away a big dirty secret in the explaining of it.

The truth is, although I came to medieval studies, and to Anglo-Saxon in particular, because of their utter strangeness, and although I love antiquated words and dusty old German dissertations just about as much as could be, deep, deep inside, I think the only thing that counts is the present. Antiquities are wonderful, antiquarianism, no.

And so it struck me as I read your paper that your tracing of the nuances of Kempe's "Jew-ishness" resonates powerfully with our own reality. We know what it means, or might mean, in our society to say of oneself, or of someone else, that they're "kind of Jewish." It can be a comfortable in-joke, a sly, mean-spirited accusation, or as deadly serious as Plath's "I began to talk like a Jew/I think I may well be a Jew."

But we don't quite know what that meant in the past. More importantly, most people (present company obviously excepted) don't even bother to wonder if those kinds of nuances existed. They look imaginary and po-mo and loosey-goosey to people who only trust parish records for truth, but in the world we inhabit, those gradations of meaning and implication are unquestionably real and often very powerful.

It's my existence in the present that convinces me of the validity of looking into the "what people think" area of study Allen demonizes. Because I know, in the present, how little official records, or really, anything that might be provable about the facts of my life, what I ate, how I slept and what I excreted, says about the reality of my life. And this is what strikes me as being so perverse in Allen's attitude -- she would require us to look towards the past for precisely those things which are not particularly important in our own lives, and discount as irrelevant the meanings which make our lives even livable, and which, I like to imagine, played a not insignificant role in the existence of medieval people too.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

OK, one more thing, and then I will stop procrastinating and finish the stack of faculty annual reports I'm commenting upon. Eileen wrote:

You have to read this essay to believe it. But don't get upset. Laugh. After all, we're having more fun.

She's right. She's always right. Remember that sourpuss article I posted here at ITM just before departing for Kalamazoo? The reason I did that whole series of Tiny Shriner at Kzoo posts was to counteract the "I hate conferences because I am so superior to anything such spaces offer" affectation. You know what? Conferences are enjoyable. Our colleagues are fun. Learning from them is fun. Drinking and eating with them is fun. Sessions and papers can be profoundly moving. They can even change your world.

If the profession were full of people like Charlotte Allen, people who suck upon lemons all day and complain at the rankness of the world, I'd want nothing to do with it. Luckily for me, it is filled with people like you, whoever you are, the one who is reading the comments at In the Middle, the one who makes me happy indeed to be part of this field.

Irina said...

Jeffrey: learning? eating? drinking?

*Cough* I believe you forgot the dancing.

The dance... oh, that splendid heterotopia where the hunter of sources mingles with the high theorist in a great flowing river of liquor and sweat, and to the same glorious rhythm both attempt to comprehend exactly what Kelis' milkshake is, and what might be going on in that yard.

Eileen Joy said...

Irina: do I know you? Were we separated at birth? First, you can match one Borges reference with another [at one point, I dared myself to think my whole dissertation through Borges and Calvino]. Then, you talk about "imagining" the past [which, as you point out, is both "perilous" and "open-ended," but worthwhile, even when it "fails"], something which I have thought and written about a lot in relation to my own, what I am now calling, partly thanks to Joan Retallack, "scholarship-as art-as life." Then, you reveal your "dirty secret"--that, even though you clearly love the dusty artifacts of Anglo-Saxon England, deep down, you think it is only the present that really matters. This something that I wrestle with, or perhaps "come to," constantly in my own work: if the past *is*, as Cary Howie has written,

"it is only insofar as it is enclosed by the present, and only insofar as this enclosure appears."

Because I have always been kind of obsessed with traumatic historical events [such as war, genocide, slavery, etc.] and the ways in which those "events" are represented in art, I find myself often exercised over what the historical "truth" of memories of such events might be, and how that "truth" is mediated, or perhaps even brought forward [in ways it otherwise could not be brought forward] in art. But even when I consider what might be called the ethics of really *listening* to the voices of the past, and asking myself how important it might be to catch the distinct phrases that were caught in a volcano of time--the wishes for "being-present" with us, in the future [which always brings to mind, for me, the lines from Shakespeare's "Henry V": "But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died at such a place,’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afear’d there are few die well that die in battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument?"], I am always mindful that, nevertheless, the artifacts of the past, whatever those might be, are here with us now, and the uses that we make of them are always, on some level, for-us, and that is rightly so.

Jeffrey: as to your parting comments here, "right on, brother."

dan remein said...

eileen

without getting to into all this fantastic discussion just yet...

sometimes--though i rarely like to accede to such an epithet as this one, regardless of your own promiscuous use of it--i just think 'intellectual soul-mate' when i read the things you post--and even more eerily when i read your commenting.

the very end of the Kermode, which is from the very end of his book, is the epigraph to my mfa MS, which is what i am calling my current book manuscript--and it plays in so so directly to how i think about the past as fetishized, along with Archive Fever .

And these things did come to mind in reading this article--although i did want to laugh, because we were having more fun. What were medieval people thinking?!

And, as to the trouble of this anxiety over real and imagined bodies (were there really men fucking men in this monastery, or is it just possible that some imagined it based on what they read...) I think Anna's Klowsowska's Queer Love in the Middle Ages manages one of the most elegant refusals to cowtow to a kind of historicism that doesn't care what people though--which is to say that she does a kind of history in the present, and for the future.

Irina said...

Eileen: I see your Borges and raise you a Cortazar, namely, his short piece from Cronopios y Famas, "PĆ©rdida y recuperaciĆ³n del pelo." Tying a knot in a single hair, letting it be swept down the drain, and then starting the almost impossible task of recuperating that one hair.... and the fact that it's worth it, because perhaps, if the hair hasn't already made its way through the sewer system and into the ocean, we just might catch it, and that just thinking about the delight this would cause is enough to search for other, equally difficult tasks to undertake.

I didn't realise this the first time I read the story, but Cortazar really understood medieval studies.

Frankly, I find it such a struggle -- in writing, with my students, in my own mind -- to grant the past an iota of the complexity I experience in the present. It's cold comfort to remember that this isn't the sole affliction of medieval studies -- my partner was just yesterday complaining that many Benjamin scholars tend to take his work as an amalgamated unit of thought, rather than considering the contexts and age at which he wrote different essays. And these are people who have dates of publication at their disposal.

In a way, this problem is exactly what your Henry V quote speaks to: the dismembered limbs join, artificially, in one cry, but immediately begin to speak in different voices, and of different lives. I read Williams' fantasy there also to be that time will not erase those individual stories, will not impose a solitary narrative onto the event.

And this, this is why I could never do history. My perversely specific mind relishes in close reading, and just cannot deal with abstracted narratives.

Scott S. Boston said...

What I think is most interesting about this article is not its content, although Allen's hatred of all things pomo is obvious, but its place of publication. The fact that a critique of a the largest american gathering of medieval scholars is being published and deemed of interest to the readers of The Weekly Standard, shows I think the underlying neocon interest in all things medieval. The attitude of Allen I think also shows a desire to degrade any scholarship that does not reinforce a conservative, (read not pomo) viewpoint.
I had just finished reading Bruce Holsinger's Neoconservatism, Neomedievalism and the War on Terror (2007) when I saw the post, and the congruence was striking to me. Just one more article to use in my dissertation.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Just taking pieces of a discussion I'm coming to quite late...

JJC: The reason I did that whole series of Tiny Shriner at Kzoo posts was to counteract the "I hate conferences because I am so superior to anything such spaces offer" affectation. You know what? Conferences are enjoyable. Our colleagues are fun. Learning from them is fun. Drinking and eating with them is fun. Sessions and papers can be profoundly moving. They can even change your world. Amen to all of that. It's always struck me that the best of all teachers are the ones who never stop learning --and learning requires being open to being taught. So if there's "nothing to learn" from a conference because you're "too superior" to it, on some level, it seems you might not be trying hard enough. As to papers that change your world, I'm still sorting through several of the Kzoo sessions I attended, and I know that the type of work I do will be changed by it.

Eileen> I am always mindful that, nevertheless, the artifacts of the past, whatever those might be, are here with us now, and the uses that we make of them are always, on some level, for-us, and that is rightly so. Beautiful.

Irina, and Eileen> Your comments here remind me of a phrase I've often quoted from the epigraph to the LeGuin novel (or whatever it might be called, novel doesn't seem adequate!) Always Coming Home:

And so with translations from a literature of the (or a) future. The fact that it hasn’t yet been written, the mere absence of a text to translate, doesn’t make all that much difference. What was and what may be lie, like children whose faces we cannot see, in the arms of silence. All we ever have is here, now.

I have more questions, but I think it will have to wait until morning.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

A funny reaction to the article from miglior acque:

Nevermind the homophobia, the bitterness, the pinched tut-tutting: I am shocked and APPALLED that she nursed a beer for TWO HOURS. I'm sorry but she's certainly like no medievalist I've ever met. This completely unacceptable and quite irresponsible attitude to alcohol leaves me, well, frankly in need of a drink.

Eileen Joy said...

Dan: now you are just scaring me. I had two epigraphs for my MFA thesis, "I Have Kept My Heart Yellow: Stories" [titled cadged from a poem by Pablo Neruda and also the title of one of my stories about Marie Curie and Neruda meeting each other in the after-life--I have no idea where my thesis is, as I lost my copy--true story]: one is the quotation from Kermode which I also utilized again in my dissertation, and the other is this from the end of Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities," and which operated as a principle for me in my fiction writing [which often involved historical or famous literary characters, such as Madame Bovary] and still operates for me as a kind of mantra for historical studies:

"There are two ways to escape the suffering [of the world]. The first is easy for many: accept the Inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the Inferno, are not Inferno; then make them endure, give them space."

If I use "intellectual soulmate" promiscuously, then I must be lucky to have so many [Jeffrey, Mary Kate, Karl, you Dan, now Irina, Michael O'Rourke, Betsy McCormick, for now], but still, what is "many" [?]--I still only see a "few."

But stumbling upon your work, Dan, through your weblog, and also through the privilege of reading your recent seminar paper, I see this longing for an affective and affecting and artistic way of "doing history," that *does* instantly send me to the language of "soul-mate," and who, after all, wants to be alone in all this? [Well, many do--but they tend to be the cranky, unhappy ones; they often produce scholarship of a certain singular "genius" and then they drink themselves to death--I'm only half-kidding, BUT, disclaimer: some people stick to themselves and are *very* happy *and* produce good work--I know that, I'm not stupid, and a wonderful short story on this subject is Nathan Englander's "The Twenty-Seventh Man"].

Your comments, also, Dan, on Anna's book are really smart, and generous to her project. I think she would be happy to see those words. I have certain books I carry around with me everywhere now that I have read more than once and just like to have "close by" as aids against scholarly despair: one is Anna's, another is Cary's "Claustrophilia," another is Jeffrey's "Medieval Identity Machines," another is Simon Critchley's "Infinitely Demanding," another is Caputo's "More Radical Hermeneutics," another is Gumbrecht's "Production of Presence," another is Bersani and Dutoit's "Forms of Being." These books are not all alike, although they do share something in the way of a certain affect toward their disparate subjects, a kind of ridiculous hope and even enjoyment of the possibilities for radical thought, which is both pleasurable and politically utopian.

Insurditate vero said...

JJC, regarding your question comments about how flexible disability should be in terms of (medieval) historical study: That’s the question, isn’t it? If I find ‘x’ number of definitions, does that mean that disability was understood as something that’s flexible in the medieval period, or does it merely reflect the fact that disability was broken down into ‘x’ categories?

I guess I should have been careful in defining exactly what I meant by the disabled body. It’s true that my deafness is permanent, so in that sense it’s inflexible on a personal level in that it’ll always be there. However, my deafness is flexible in terms of how it’s understood socio-culturally, and also in terms of how I portray myself, so isn’t there a potential space within the body itself, and not necessarily just outside of it that has to be examined? The problem, of course, is source material: is it possible to examine this ‘internal’ space, particularly given the dearth of source materials written by the disabled themselves in the medieval period? (I set off ‘internal’ because there is also a question of whether or not this is truly an internal space, particularly given the socio-cultural discussions regarding disability and how it is perceived, both by the disabled person and those around him or her.)

I don’t deny that there aren’t temporary disabilities. Nor do I deny that the idea of disability can’t be extended to other life situations (e.g. it’s eminently possible that a father who couldn’t find a job would feel disabled in that he couldn’t provide for his family, might have felt emasculated, etc.). This is the wonderful thing about disability: it really is everywhere we look. I simply can’t cover every possibility in a PhD thesis, sadly! In many ways, the questions we’re all asking here would take many scholars a lifetime to at least begin answering.

I’ve also wondered about my motives for clearly demarcating actual disabled bodies from those that might occupy, as you put it JJC, ‘some space between the real and the fabulated.’ In fact, I wrote a post regarding the impact of ‘crip theory’ on medieval disability studies on my blog yesterday (under the post title ‘Disabled communities’), and Sarah left a wonderful comment:

Can we study silence?

That really is the question, isn’t it? As she pointed out, if I study only actual disabled people (i.e. those who are explicitly named as being disabled in the records), I skew my analysis by not recognising that people could be disabled and yet not be mentioned in the records precisely because their disability was not seen as a disability or impediment. The implication, of course, is that disability is more pervasive than I appear to have given it credit for in that while it is certainly present in records, it’s also not present because, as you imply, JJC, it’s as much a personal experience as a (public) socio-cultural one – the saint and madwoman may be ‘public’ whereas the mother of fourteen and the elderly pilgrim have more ‘personal’ experiences. Of course, the catch-22 is if we allow 'disability' to cover a wide variety of life experiences, don't we run the risk of diluting the 'disabled experience' and potentially twisting it into something that medieval people wouldn't have understood? (I also realise the same can be said of restricting ourselves to actual disabled bodies in that it may end up being too specific of a definition and analysis.)

I’ve copied my comments to Sarah’s question below for ease of reference. (Note: we were discussing deaf-mutes in the records in particular.)

I've always suspected that legal records only mentioned the disabled when their disability actively impeded their ability to participate in legal cases.

The blind aren't mentioned because you didn't need to see to participate in a case; if a cripple or paralytic could be brought before the court, that wouldn't matter either, and so on.

(Incidentally, I have explicit references to cripples and paralytics being brought to court in carts, or being unable to attend the proceedings because they're crippled/paralytic, and several other references to other disabilities. [Another point I thought of after posting these comments were how essoiners appear in the records requesting leave of absence from the manorial court, etc. because they were ill and therefore incapable of carrying out their duties: their illnesses were verified by respectable knights who confirmed that the essoiner’s illness was indeed impeding him/her from attending.])

As for the deaf, I have found one case from 1210 that seems to indicate that mutes and deaf-mutes were excluded because of the inability to speak, hence their few references in legal cases (outside of murder, so far; I haven’t found cases dealing with other crimes). On the other hand, the few cases I've found that discuss murders committed by deaf-mutes explicitly state that the cases were thrown out because it was determined that (a) the deaf-mute couldn’t formulate a defence and (b) since he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t convey to someone else what happened so that they could defend him on his behalf. That, and they usually end by noting that deaf-mutes had no capacity to feel malice since they didn't know what it was, so how could they be punished for what was, to them, not a malicious act?

To answer your question [regarding studying silence] - a fair one! - in a roundabout way, I would say that yes, we can study silence. The fact that deaf-mutes, for instance, are not included in legal records reflects upon the importance of speech, and the few cases that do appear reflect the practical considerations that were taken into account, as hinted at by my reference to examples concerning paralytics and cripples above. These considerations may very well have reflected upon overall societal ideas of deafness and disability.

I would not restrict myself to just legal records precisely for the criticism you bring up, the possibility of skewing my analysis. I think that different source materials reflect different ideas of what it meant to be disabled. The idea of disability was flexible in that different aspects of society (and their attendant records) each had different (sets of) definitions that emphasised some things and de-emphasised others in terms of disabilities. This suggests that societal priorities regarding both ideas of disability and the actual disabled were not necessarily the same and could have developed differently.

This is so exciting for me because it really forces me to consider the question of the term 'disabled' itself: were the disabled disabled in that they were perceived as being totally unable to participate in society, say, or were they seen as dis-abled - they were unable to participate in some things, but were perfectly fine to participate in others? I really think medieval society had a more flexible perception of dis(-)ability than we give it credit for.

This is something I would like to examine at the PhD level, and I strongly feel that it is doable. I certainly recognise that my PhD project will have to take into account the 'invisible', if you will, references in the records as much as the visible ones, but this is where I think medieval ideas of the body – whether philosophical, theological, or medical – would help to at least strongly suggest ways in how these issues could have been resolved at the practical level.


This does not necessarily answer your question in full, JJC. I will be writing a post regarding this question on my blog in the next few days, though!

Irina said...

Faaascinating conversation.

In Surditate Vero: This isn't so much a proper response to your post as it is a riff:

I found the question, "Can we study silence?" and your answer to it fascinating. It reminded me, in the painfully literal way my mind works, of a small point I made in my first diss chapter about Aelfric Bata's Colloquies. Drew Jones has written very helpfully about all the different kinds of infractions of monastic rules that take place in the colloquies, but he does mention the breaking of silence as one of them. This seemed sort of strange to me, since the colloquies are a Latin textbook -- wouldn't it by nature break silence?

Bracketing the value of the Colloquies as a straightforward historical source for a moment, your post made me wonder if it isn't possible that a great deal of real life silence is covered over, in the text, with imagined voices. And I have to wonder -- and ask you -- if there are moments in medieval texts where silence has voices provided for it, and is thus obscured.

Second riff: I recall reading in a Lois Bragg article lately the claim that medieval families often placed their unproductive disabled members in monasteries. I wonder, first, how accurate this is, and second, if a deaf-mute person living in a monastery with a vow of silence might not enjoy a very different level of participation in that society.

Anonymous said...

The press for Morrison's forthcoming book looks quite impressive:

http://www.palgrave-usa.com/catalog/product.aspx?isbn=1403984883