Monday, June 30, 2008

Inapposite Art

by J J Cohen

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 [1]. 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. [2]

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?

[1] 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.
[2] 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.


Chris said...

I'm a little confused. I haven't read the Scarry book -- is she arguing for some sort of universal sense of beauty, one that transcends historical and cultural contexts? And if so: No, really?

Eileen Joy said...

I am now officially *really* excited about this essay--I had no idea it would start here, with a critical treatment of historicism and aesthetics, and bring in Helen Vendler no less! [A critic whom I also once invoked in a presentation on the Old English "Wonders of the East" by way of Wallace Stevens's "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird".]

The "aesthetic" *is* making somewhat of a comeback in medieval studies, I think, I *hope* [John Hill is currently editing a volume on "thinking about aesthetics" in Old English literature for Univ. of Toronto Press, for which I am contributing a chapter], but I worry, too, that this "comeback" will mainly be made up of work that is nostalgic--at least, in my sub-field--for the older "new critical" work of scholars like Ted Irving, Alan Renoir, Stanley Greenfield, etc. [all excellent scholars, but . . . . the "turn to aesthetics/beauty," if it is to be progressive in the present, has to go further than this], or that will consider new work in metrics, pointing-graphism, geometrics, etc. [i.e., in my field, the work of Robert Stevick, David Howlett, etc.] to solely constitute what we think we are talking about [in Old English studies, anyway] when we talk about aesthetics.

By way of Robert Stein's "Reality Fictions," Jeffrey writes of the medieval "ardor" for historicism whereby

"art is [always] intractably enmeshed within its originary geotemporality; art performs a definitive social function; art is enabled by Zeitgeist and itself undertakes cultural work."

This really hits at something I have been obsessed about for a long time now regarding "new historicism"--that, although it savvily marries Derridian and Foucauldian methods of critique to an old-style attention to supposed "primary" socio-historical contexts [with "texts" and "context" possessing more fluid and unstable boundaries], the supposed "primary" socio-historical context always trumps any kind of aesthetic [and really, subversive] reading that not only could still be located in that "primary" context, but also transcends and "twists"/bends it along different time-space continuums [and so, what happens is: old-style historicism still manages, under the guise of "new historicism," to strangulate the possibilities of different readings that might take into account an aesthetics that is more promiscuous than rigidly-drawn "geotemporalities" can always account for--so, in Greenblatt's work, for example, Shakespearean and other early modernist "energies" always trump the ways in which those "energies" get redeployed/twisted in the present and under different banners].

Further, the idea that absolutely everything [persons, texts, etc.] is always already enmeshed in power structures [governmental and otherwise] that "speak" them, is just too limiting and doesn't always allow for the energies [psychic, artistic, bodily, etc.] that are always both coursing along and also departing from these structures [and even resisting them: and Jeffrey basically tells us that here]. I have always thought, in fact, that one of the chief purposes of art was subversive critique, even though I know some will aver that that is a modern notion--that somehow, in the medieval period, art is always somehow "corporate," even though I wonder if that is not more the case *now*? [Just think of the iPod. What does "independent music scene" mean anymore? What is an artistic "underground" anymore? How do you locate an avant-garde before it gets swept away into the powerful tide of transnational capital?]

Yes, as R. Stein argues, art performs important social and cultural work, and is even carried off by socio-cultural forces not always within the control of the artists producing the arts [and let's not forget all the possible functions of singular and collective unconsciousnesses in all this, which unconsciousnesses are themselves always imprinting and being imprinted--and how do you pull all these threads apart?], but how to account nevertheless for what Green-Lewis and Soltan [quoted here by Jeffrey] refer to as,

"art’s thrilling intimation of an untapped plenitude within us and in the world"?

This reminds me of Milan Kundera's recent defense of the novel in "The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts," where he tells us how the novel, thrillingly, compresses time/temporality in such a manner that it shows us, with a kind of shock, the beauty of "sudden densities." The novel does this, yes, but how could criticism also *do* this, with respect to that novel, a poem, a symphony, etc.? And I do not think that aesthetics have to be divorced from ethics [which might also mean certain types of historicisms--emphasis on the plural]: they can be "poethical," a la Joan Retallack, and following Jeffrey [who is splitting off, in a sense, from Scarry], these "poethics" don't have to have "the human" as their foundation for understanding.

I'm reminded here now of Andrew Scheil's remarks at BABEL's Kalamazoo panel, "What is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?", where Andy asked,

"When asked 'What is the place of the present in medieval studies?,' for me, a literary critic based in Anglo-Saxon studies, the question resonates most compellingly when directed toward the current protocols of literary criticism within medieval studies: namely, the asymmetrical and imperfect dialectic between historicist and 'non-historicist' approaches to literary texts, between literary approaches that foreground the 'pastness' of the literary text and literary approaches that, self-consciously or not, privilege the 'presentness' of the literary text. For if literary criticism constitutes its object as a historical artifact (implying some sense of distance from the present), then my answering question for our discussion is what claim can medieval literature have on the present if the reading of medieval literature is subjugated to a project of historical understanding?"

Further along, Andy said,

"One peculiar trait of literature is its proclivity for endless temporal regeneration: the 'I' of the lyric, for example, is re-activated, bound to the reader, no matter the distance of that reader from the historical moment of composition; it is an essential component of lyric form that it lives again, with each new voicing, in more than a superficial way. As a phenomenon, what do we do with this subject, part textual artifact of the medieval century, part contemporary reader? I do know that our current dominant modes of literary criticism are not well equipped to handle that disjunction, burying it beneath History. I think bringing to bear our critical faculties on the immediacy of that phenomenological moment should occupy us as vigorously and seriously as the application of endless social and historical contexts."

Andy then quoted George Steiner [from "Humane Literacy," a 1963 essay]:

"We engage the presence, the voice of the book. We allow it entry, though not unguarded, into our inmost. A great poem, a classic novel, press in upon us; they assail and occupy the strong places of our consciousness. They exercise upon our imagination and desires, upon our ambitions and most covert dreams, a strange, bruising mastery."

And finally, Andy concluded with this:

"Do we lose something vital, something that allows us 'to find ourselves more truly and more strange,' when we depress the unsettling power of the literary text and corral its wayward potentials with the burden of historical context? For me, the question 'What is place of the present in medieval studies?' encourages us to look for modes of criticism that validate the immediacy of the literary text, understood as a transhistorical phenomenon that manages to hold History at arm’s length, at least for the duration of that moment when literature 'presses in upon us'."

I quote Andy Scheil at length here because I think he raised at Kalamazoo some questions that are very sympathetic with Jeffrey's questions, while at the same time, I think Andy and Jeffrey are utterly different kinds of scholars who would "go at" the aesthetic in medieval texts/culture in different ways [for example, Andy is thinking about the poetry of poetry while Jeffrey, at least here anyway, is thinking about the poetry/art of non-human "productions," such as a rock in the landscape, and even more importantly--and let's face it, crazy and daring--Jeffrey is also wondering what the "benefits" of beauty are, not for human understanding, but for the non-human "bearers" of non-human "beauty"--wow]. But it's the *questions* they are both raising about historicist versus aesthetic approaches to medieval texts that I think are really important here: i.e., what is at stake in one over the other, or even in trying to "run" them alongside each other? And how is either approach, or both, ever valuably "present"? [Of course, I think Cary Howie's "Claustrophilia" provides some brilliant answers to these questions.]

Jeffrey asks,

"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?"

I say, instinctively, "yes," but to articulate these relations and non-relations, this calling forth of worlds without falling back into those worlds, *that* is a decidedly human art. I can't wait to read the rest.

Eileen Joy said...

And I just had another thought here for a possible project for the [really far way] future: what would happen in thinking gender/sexuality through the aesthetic? How are gender/sexuality studies constructed/approached now [via psychoanlysis, deleuzoguattarian modes, historicism, ethics, discursivity, science, Foucauldian genealogies, deconstruction, etc.] and what would it mean to re-read gender/sexuality *as* an aesthetic category of being/acting in the world? What would it mean to try to understand the erotic as, essentially, a sub-category of the aesthetic/beauty? [Maybe this has already been done--I don't know.]

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Chris, the short answer is yes. Beauty for Scarry is a universal, as evident to the ancient Greeks as to the modern Harvard professor of English.

Eileen, your enthusiasm means a lot to me. I have truly enjoyed hammering this argument out, and want to thank you publicly for the invitation to compose an essay about problems that have obsessed me for a long time and which I thought might never find a forum for conversation.

Thanks also for bringing up Andy's work, which certainly has some shared interests with my own. As I sat next to him at the Kzoo panel, Andy reminded me that he and I had met almost 15 years ago, when I was giving my "Monster Culture (7 Theses)" its debut at CEMERS in Binghamton. That in turn reminds me that many of the same questions I was addressing of the monstrous I'm now asking of the inhuman and of art -- and as you will see, the essay does take a monstrous turn towards the end.

Lastly, on the question of sexuality -- and I am so very glad you raised this question Eileen -- I would like to think of this project as a queer one, meaning that I'd never have launched it had the course not been charted by my reading in queer theory. It was important for me for the first footnote to reference queer medieval studies, and I chose Gleen Burger and Steve Kruger's work, because (1) it is so good and (2) I think it gets unfairly neglected, and has so much to say to so many of the conversations we are now having in medieval studies (Glenn's monograph _Chaucer's Queer Nation_ also deserves far more attention than it gets). Anyway, there is something in this surplus of desire, value, and (as Caillois will have it) lyricism that is directly related to queer desire, to sexuality as something more than conjugality or genitality. I won't be pressing that point in the essay, but I will hope that it is there. The Queering the Non/Human Collection will also be footnoted because this essay was no doubt deeply inspired by it -- I can hardly wait to receive my copy of that volume when it appears.

Karl Steel said...

Great discussion, and great beginning JJC. A few comments, which I hope don't repeat Eileen's comments TOO MUCH.

Simply because of various iterabilities, simply because of the social unconscious, the historical moment of production is, like any moment, always in excess of itself: of course Stein knows this, but it still bears repeating that there's never a 1:1 relation for anything, since there's never a 1.

I also think of my favorite bit from Anna K's Queer Love in the MA, " "all fiction corresponds to an absolute reality--not of existence, but of desire that calls fiction into being, performed by the authors and
manuscript makers; and continuing desire for it performed by readers, a
desire that sustains the book's material presence across the centuries" (7). We must therefore also think of the desire that calls art into being, which is a desire that is always in excess of the desire to 'work out' social problems. With the art we can know (and even the impermanent arts--cuisine, dance, song--can be known a bit), there's also, clearly a desire to to speak and touch across time, to enter into unknown conditions. This is something the neolithic Jeffrey has been working in, and something we might work out, even with Voyager 1 (and I wonder if we could ever make something of its 'monstrous return' in the first Star Trek film and "We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.").

On the supposed symmetry of beauty: well, as a proponent of ostranenie at my heart, I think of beauty as a surprise, as introducing an excess into--or opening up the excess of--the cool world of objects. We could even 'just' go back to the Sublime: is THIS symmetrical? Does it speak to us as 'moral beings'? I don't think so. We might even think this excess a making visible of the invisible, a granting of the face to what should not have faces (I'm invoking David Morris's "Faces and the Invisible of the Visible: Toward an Animal Ontology"), if we can think the face apart from a singular frontal orientation, if we can think faceness as a multiplicity, if we can think this, in short, in its molecularity. In VERY short: I don't truck with symmetry.

On inhuman art, I'm SURE it's been brought up here before, but I want to remind us of various mappings--and transformative, contaminating remappings--of human forms through nonhuman imagery (and much depends on whether we think this a metaphorical analogy or a metonymical slide). Think back to the Song of Solomon, Alison in the Miller's Tale. My point with this reminder is, simply, that the presence of humans does not mean the presence of the human or the absence of the inhuman.

No do I think that comparing people to other people (e.g., from my last night: "that guy playing Hamlet acts like your friend Aaron") keeps up within the realm of the human. Emphasizing art without representations of people, emphasizing art that attempts to imagine a world beyond people, is a great place to start. But I think it might not go far enough in disestablishing the ready humanness, the mistaken self-presence of people, which, at the least, undergoes some kind of failure because of the spectrality occasioned by mimesis. And, in general, it should give way because the human is never self-present to itself as such! I think the (weak) analog MIGHT be 'queer' readings of the CT that, by heeding only the Pardoner, do nothing to disturb the myth of normative sexuality....

Karl Steel said...

No do I think that comparing people to other people (e.g., from my last night: "that guy playing Hamlet acts like your friend Aaron") keeps up within the realm of the human.
NOR....keeps US....

Eileen Joy said...

Karl's comments here [brilliant! especially as regards art as opening up a kind of excess, I would say in the past *and* present, at all times] and a note attached to a philosopher [Freud] thrown at me [with a sheep] by Noreen Giffney on Facebook just compelled me to get on and order these two books which everyone on this blog interested in Jeffrey's [and our musings here] should read:

1. Elizabeth Grosz, "CHAOS, TERRITORY, ART: DELEUZE AND THE FORM OF THE EARTH [Columbia University Press, 2008]

BLURB: "Instead of treating art as a unique creation that requires reason and refined taste to appreciate, Elizabeth Grosz argues that art-especially architecture, music, and painting-is born from the disruptive forces of sexual selection. She approaches art as a form of erotic expression connecting sensory richness with primal desire, and in doing so, finds that the meaning of art comes from the intensities and sensations it inspires, not just its intention and aesthetic.

By regarding our most cultured human accomplishments as the result of the excessive, nonfunctional forces of sexual attraction and seduction, Grosz encourages us to see art as a kind of bodily enhancement or mode of sensation enabling living bodies to experience and transform the universe. Art can be understood as a way for bodies to augment themselves and their capacity for perception and affection-a way to grow and evolve through sensation. Through this framework, which knits together the theories of Charles Darwin, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Jakob von Uexküll, we are able to grasp art's deep animal lineage.

Grosz argues that art is not tied to the predictable and known but to new futures not contained in the present. Its animal affiliations ensure that art is intensely political and charged with the creation of new worlds and new forms of living. According to Grosz, art is the way in which life experiments with materiality, or nature, in order to bring about change."

2. Bracha Ettinger, THE MATRIXIAL BORDERSPACE [University of Minnesota Press, 2006]

BLURB: "Artist, psychoanalyst, and feminist theorist Bracha Ettinger presents an original theoretical exploration of shared affect and emergent expression, across the thresholds of identity and memory. Ettinger works through Lacan’s late works, the anti-Oedipal perspectives of Deleuze and Guattari, as well as object-relations theory to critique the phallocentrism of mainstream Lacanian theory and to rethink the masculine-feminine opposition. She replaces the phallic structure with a dimension of emergence, where objects, images, and meanings are glimpsed in their incipiency, before they are differentiated. This is the matrixial realm, a shareable, psychic dimension that underlies the individual unconscious and experience.

Concerned with collective trauma and memory, Ettinger’s own experience as an Israeli living with the memory of the Holocaust is a deep source of inspiration for her paintings, several of which are reproduced in the book. The paintings, like the essays, replay the relation between the visible and invisible, the sayable and ineffable; the gaze, the subject, and the other.

Bracha Ettinger is a painter and a senior clinical psychologist. She is professor of psychoanalysis and aesthetics at the University of Leeds, England, and Bezalel Academy, Jerusalem."

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Just ordered the Grosz; thanks for that. I am going to keep my fingers crossed that the following statement from the blurb isn't true: "Elizabeth Grosz argues that art-especially architecture, music, and painting-is born from the disruptive forces of sexual selection." That is, unless (like Mandeville) Grosz is going to argue that a such thing as lapidary sexuality exists.

Karl, thank you for the salient reminder of the inhuman human, and the notes on excess. I'm sure you can guess that I don't agree with Scarry on beauty's inherent symmetry, or on symmetry's necessary relation to justice -- and am glossing art as inherently excessive (ecstatic, estranging, queer).

Love the point about Voyager 1 (and its Star Trek return) as well. Medieval analogue: Noah's granddaughter Caesura (!) sailing to Ireland to attempt to survive the deluge -- and possibly sending her history to the future by carving it on rocks. Liza is really good on this one.

Eileen Joy said...

I like to think that most publisher blurbs are wrong about a LOT of things: same with advertisements for movies. I'll never forget, years and years ago, seeing an advert for Stephen Frears's film "Sammie and Rosie Get Laid" that billed it as a comedy. Uh-huh.

Eileen Joy said...

Oh, and by the way, you can stop now with that joke about me always bullying, cajoling, and tricking you into doing things. You know it's about the money. It always has been.

Karl Steel said...

Okay, maybe this is a bad question, but I've been trying to puzzle this out. Let's take a medieval law, for example: it strikes me that I have 2 ways--and only 2 ways--of reading it. I can situate it historically, or I can find in it symptoms and shapings of desire, abjection, and/or other psychological/intellectual stuff. However much this stuff can (must?) express itself historically, it's fundamentally transhistorical. I can mix and match these 2 approaches, but I feel stymied by my sense that these are the only two available. Is your exploration of the inhuman, Jeffrey, an attempt to get past this?

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Thanks fro that, Karl.

I'd like to think that in a way all my scholarship has been an attempt to move beyond that potential impasse, and to show that the either/or is false choice (it's always both at once). BUT in this most recent project I'm interested in beauty/aesthetics as a way of getting at what in the thing itself (rather than in the thing as an archive or index of human feelings or histories) -- what innate or (in Caillois's words) "objective lyricism" will trigger that ecstatic effect.

Eileen Joy said...

There is also the question of *how* to read a text in relation to a *where* [with the "where" hopefully being a very elastic category], and both of those still in relation to "thinking aesthetically" without necessarily having to "do historicism" or even "text as symptom" of a specific time & place [again: history/historicism]. Now, since Karl's example was a law code, it gets a little tricky, because, by its very nature a law code is one of our best examples of a text that is "governmental," and by extension, politically and socio-culturally "force"-ful. It will do everything you want it to and then some as regards an historicist reading that is also "open" to contemporary concerns with subjectivity, power, cultural desires & anxieties, etc. I myself have been working with the Anglo-Saxon law codes in relation to the figure of the stranger/foreigner and [political] hospitality in Anglo-Saxon England and I have here on my desk [thanks to a tip from Asa Simon Mittman] an essay by William Ian Miller, "Home and Homelessness in the Middle of Nowhere" [in a book edited by Nicholas Howe, "Home and Homelessness in the Medieval and Renaissance World," Notre Dame, 2004] that looks at Icelandic law codes regarding vagrancy in order to examine the ways in which the figure of the homeless person in medieval Iceland was a "uncanny source of contagion, disgust, loathing, and fear," and how, also, the "idea of home, or domicile at least, was lodged dead center in the Icelandic legal structure."

As to how all of this might be treated on more elastic, in Jeffrey's term, geotemporal planes, we could turn to an Icelandic saga such as "Grettirsaga," in which all of the social tensions and anxieties attached to the main character, Grettir, are in direct relation to his un-domiciled status [which is a result of his own unwillingness to be "mastered"/domiciled as well as to his status as a legal outlaw], his fugitive and restless wanderings, and his figuration as an "extra-legal." But still, in this reading, we would be containing our analysis within the matrix Karl outlines for us here.

But we don't have to stop there. For again, there is the question of *where* I want to be when I "read"/interpret/even "feel" this story. Which was partly what I was trying to do, as I have outlined here on the blog before, when I was writing my dissertation [but also now as I am expanding portions of that diss. into the book "Postcard from the Volcano"] and conducted [and am conducting] various thought experiments whereby I attempt to:

1. read "Beowulf" in the rubble of Grozny, circa 1999;

2. read the image Grendel's severed head, suspended on the end-point of a "slaughter-pole" in Heorot alongside the image of the face of a dead female Chechen suicide bomber;

3. read "Beowulf" through Anselm Kiefer's and Stanley Spencer's paintings and W.G. Sebald's novels and Toni Morrison's "Beloved" and Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah" and Leonardo's "Last Supper"

These readings are highly concentrated on the aesthetic aspects of all of these "objects," but the work is deeply historicist in that my primary interest is in the representation of traumatic history in art [and as the project is still half-formed, partly finished, and ongoing, so I won't say too much more], BUT, having said that, my real real real interest in all this [from the very beginning] has always been in trying to determine what I would call art's special province in relation to history, its unique privilege and also ability to "mediate" history in a way that "history" [properly speaking, the discipline of history] never would be able to mediate on its own. if any of that makes sense, well, um . . . whatever.