Eileen in her usual bullying way has forced/cajoled/tricked etc. me into composing an essay for a collection she is putting together on humanisms. I'll be looking at "inhuman art," especially as the theme developed in the work of Roger Caillois, but also in a few medieval texts. I'm trying to develop a concept of what I am calling aninormality (more on that soon). Some of this work has appeared on the blog already. Over the next week or two I'll be offering some pieces of the essay into which this work is condensing. I welcome your feedback.
What I'm wondering right now, though, is: is it really true (as I claim) that medievalists have largely not participated in the "return to beauty," so important in more contemporary-focused humanities? If so, what is it about the aesthetic that makes medievalists reluctant to bring the category to their work? I'm not speaking about formalism (we see plenty of close reading and attentiveness to prosody), but why the reluctance to invoke beauty per se?
To be trained as a medievalist is to learn worship at the altar of Clio. Because the period we study is so distant from us, so estranged, history becomes our guarantor of truth in explication, the surety that our grasp of what is temporally remote is not distorted by anachronism . Thus the medievalist ardor for historicism, a demanding and research-intensive interpretive mode in which analysis proceeds via nuanced understanding of political events, literary traditions, law, cultural context – in short, of a historical moment in all its complexity. Rigorous yet flexible, historicism endures because it serves the medievalist well. In conventional historicist inquiry, however, synchronic context is typically yielded the power to underwrite what a work of art can mean. Robert M. Stein opens his recent book Reality Fictions: Romance, History and Governmental Authority, 1025-1180 with some words about the relation between text and historical circumstance, demonstrating in the process how standard historicism works:
I suggest in this book that provocation to romance writing is the same as the provocation to history: they grow out of the same cultural need and intend to do the same cultural work ... I am writing about a political process [state formation] and its connection with literary innovation ... I intend ... to deal directly with the pressures on modes of representation that are correlative to changes in the structure of political power.
Stein's linking of romance to history through changes in governmental structures and political ambitions is a highpoint of his study. To make his thesis cogent, he confidently invokes doctrines that historicism taught medievalists long ago to accept: art is intractably enmeshed within its originary geotemporality; art performs a definitive social function; art is enabled by Zeitgeist and itself undertakes cultural work.
Compare Stein's point of interpretive departure, however, to Helen Vendler's swift application of the emergency brake when critics attempt politically-minded readings. As Rachel Donadio observes about this important critic of contemporary American poetry, in Vendler’s conceptualization the work of art dwells in a privileged space, exterior to historical context:
In a review of David Denby’s “Great Books” (1996), the film critic’s account of how he returned to college, immersing himself in Columbia’s core curriculum, Vendler wrote, ‘Seeing the Columbia course use Dante and Conrad as moral examples is rather like seeing someone use a piece of embroidery for a dishrag with no acknowledgment of the difference between hand-woven silk and a kitchen towel.’ In 2001, again in The New Republic, her main venue in recent years, Vendler took the critic James Fenton to task for his interpretation of Robert Frost’s 1942 poem ‘The Gift Outright,’ a version of which was recited by the aging poet at the Kennedy inauguration in 1961. Fenton, in her view, had imposed a mistaken interpretation on a poem as much ‘about marriage as about colonials becoming Americans,’ because ‘his politics has wrenched him into misreading it.’ (Some argued Vendler herself was misreading the poem by choosing to ignore its subject matter.) ["The Closest Reader"]Most scholars of the Middle Ages will likely find their sympathies drawn more to Robert Stein, James Fenton, and David Denby than to Helen Vendler. Medievalists work in a discipline that stresses historical circumstance so heavily that it is difficult for us as critics to be satisfied with the Vendler-like "impassioned aesthete who pays minute attention to the structures and words that are a poet’s genetic code" (Donadio, “The Closest Reader”) without an anchoring movement into determinative history. The return to beauty, so trumpeted in the contemporary-focused humanities after the publication of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, has failed to recruit many participants among medievalists, who seem constitutionally incapable of detaching formal and aesthetic analysis from a social and cultural context. How we understand the relation of the text or artwork’s past to our present interpretive moment may differ widely: we may argue that the medieval is much like our own times (the Middle Ages as threshold of the Same), or we may hold that the period is vastly different from the present (the Middle Ages as chastely Other), or we may even deploy words like extimité (“intimate alterity”) to stress that simultaneity of both modes. Yet in all cases history potentially predetermines the meaning within the form: context produces art, which remains historically bound and therefore rather inert.
It might be objected that the historicist model does not do that much for the work of art itself. When historicism and other socially-minded forms of criticism ignore art’s aesthetic effects, they do not leave sufficient room for what Jennifer Green-Lewis and Margaret Soltan have described as “art’s thrilling intimation of an untapped plenitude within us and in the world.” In art, Green-Lewis and Soltan argue, inheres the ability “to move us to a condition of ecstasy as we lose ourselves in its particular forms of beauty.” This movement outside of the self offers what they call “a cheerfully secular faith,” one in which “beneath the mundane life of daily consciousness lies a deep source of meaning, a motive to action, joy” [Teaching Beauty in Delillo, Woolf, and Merrill (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)]. Conventional historicism, in other words, has a difficult time articulating why the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – with its green holly conjoined to crimson blood, its frisson of terror intercut with infectious exuberance -- should have a bodily, ecstatic effect, should possess a beauty that more mundane medieval texts do not. This beauty, it seems, moves the poem outside of its own history, into an aesthetic realm where its meditations on Ricardian kingship or contemporary Welsh-English relations matter less than its ability to render birdsong in a winter storm as plaintive to medieval ears as to our own.
A paradox exists within aesthetics, however. Beauty is frequently found in emanations from the nonhuman world: oceans, flowers, landscapes, onomatapoeia and celestial objects are favorite critical sources. Claude Monet famously discerned London’s grandeur by painting the city devoid of its inhabitants. Wisps of fog, the glimmering Thames, and stony architectures made nebulous by stains of light (Charing Cross Bridge, the façade of the Houses of Parliament) appear more frequently on his canvases than human figures. Yet for all the privilege the nonhuman enjoys as a trigger to aesthetic experience, beauty is ultimately a deeply human category. For Elaine Scarry, beauty’s innate symmetry is intimately related to a notion of justice based in proportion and balance. Beauty stages an ethical relation; beauty exists to make us better in our humanity. “There will always be those who believe,” write Green-Lewis and Soltan, “the intoxicating power of art inclines us toward civic virtue by invigorating our faith in humanity, clarifying our spiritual and ethical particularity, and inspiring us to do great and good things” (Teaching Beauty 3). While I fervently hope that this ameliorating, humanizing power of art is true, I can’t help wondering what beauty does for the animal or for the rock formation or building that finds itself its bearer. 
Something exists in art that is inapposite, extraneous. Art is not reducible to its enmeshment in historical circumstance, even if the time and place in which it arose wholly saturates it; nor can art inhabit some space exterior to history. Can art be imagined as an active agent in world of human and nonhuman forces? Can art produce, intervene within, transform the history within which it arises? As one force among many, can art call worlds into being without falling wholly back into those worlds, without ever escaping from a perpetual unfolding?
Can art be something other than human?
 Thus rejecting the possibility or at least the desirability of such straightforward encounter with the past, queer theory often argues for a perverse or (in the words of Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger) preposterous rendezvous: see their introduction to Queering the Middle Ages, ed. Burger and Kruger (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001) xi-xxiii, and especially their rejection of “a conventional historicism… confident that it finds the ‘truth’ of the past.” That seemingly univocal truth, they argue, is more truthfully “a retrospective selection of some facts [and narratives] over others,” imbuing the chosen evidence with explanatory force; those roads not taken and stories passed over in silence, meanwhile, are assumed to be “dead ends” (xx). History assumes different contours, and takes a different position alongside the present, when these supposed cul de sacs are followed rather than rejected out of hand.
 I do realize that I am using “art” and “beauty” as synonyms here, an equivalence that many would argue against, but one found in Scarry, Green-Lewis and Soltan. Roger Caillois will qualify art as the work of human hands, but will then (as will be seen) find that work to part of a cosmic or universal impulse rather than a strictly human achievement.
Image: Claude Monet's iconic "Charing Cross Bridge," pillaged from the Tate.