Friday, July 25, 2008

NCS Swansea, fin

by J J Cohen

Go here, here, and here for other posts in this series.

In no particular order, I offer some final thoughts on the conference. NCS was quite an event, so please excuse the sheer number of pieces I've composed on the topic.
  • I was disappointed in the number of papers that did not seem well rehearsed, a problem evident especially at the panel at which I presented. One scholar was several times surprised by what she beheld on her page. An inauspicious moment came early, when she had trouble getting through a long excerpt from Augustine. She announced that she was going to read the Latin aloud for a while to assist her with the English.
  • Nearly every paper in the six paper panels was far too long, a big problem when there are that many presenters. Betsy McCormick's, in the same panel as me, was a model: beautifully performed, lucid, just the right amount of argument for the right amount of time. A graduate student named Brooke Hunter, in a 3 person session on "Haunted Chaucer," also presented a perfect paper: 18 minutes, well articulated points, compelling delivery.
  • The typical NCS performance began by announcing a change in title. The speaker would then make reference to the very long version of the paper from which this tiny and insufficient piece was being extracted. He or she would last apologize for not having a sufficient number of handouts.
  • I began my own presentation by reassuring the audience that I keep a 500 page version of my paper -- with over a thuosand footnotes! -- in a glass case at home. I also declared that I had changed my paper's title from "Forgotten Realms" to "Similes and Metaphors in Grettir's Saga." Everyone stared at me in speechless fear; I had to add "Kidding!" before some laughter erupted. The joke I didn't use (because I wasn't in Swansea to do stand up, you know) was to say that I had brought only one handout, so I was keeping it for myself.
  • Very often during this NCS I found myself thinking back to my first, NCS Dublin in 1994. It was a difficult time in my life, with many big transitions (including, among other things, a relocation to DC). I arrived at the conference out of sorts, and was surprised at the formality of the proceedings. Two acts of kindness stand out for me: (1) Carolyn Dinshaw chatting with me, a person she did not know, as we awaited cabs in a Trinity College courtyard; her interest in my project renewed my flagging confidence. And (2) Glenn Burger inviting me out to dinner at an Indian restaurant and supporting me in the crazy thinking that I wanted to start. More than that, he provided me with a model of how to do challenging, affirmative work.
  • So fourteen years have gone by, and that is a long time (exactly two scholarly generations, in fact). I hope that I was able to share some of the good karma that I received in 1994 with some young-in-the-field scholars in Swansea. I feel like if I don't keep giving it back, then I've somehow failed a major obligation.
  • The intellectual high of listening to some intriguing work at the conference is taking a while to wear off. Presentations by Valerie Allen, Christopher Baswell, Carolyn Dinshaw, Stephanie Trigg, Patty Ingham, Larry Scanlon, Ruth Evans, and Anthony Bale have really stayed with me.
  • Speaking of Anthony Bale, I sought him out, introduced myself, and apologized to him. I still feel badly about the draft review I placed on this blog of The Jew in the Medieval Book, an excellent work of scholarship that I did not treat in a way that satisfies me. The first draft read like it was written by someone else: there were moments when the tone is so condescending that I am perplexed as to what my frame of mind must have been at the time. The same with the comments I made when Karl gave me some very good feedback. The good thing about this blog is that conversations with those whose work we discuss happen: thus Peter Haidu showed up in anger after my words over a book he wrote (those are words I stand behind), and Anthony found the review after someone pointed it out to him (I stand only behind the version that will appear in SAC). The long and short: I'm very happy I blogged the review, because that gave me the chance to rethink what I wanted to appear as the review's final form.
  • Every conference needs field trips. The day out to the castles was good beyond words, and allowed all of us some space together when we were not dissecting papers or sitting as audience members. Likewise pub time: those social moments are in some ways more important than the dissemination of scholarship at panels, because that's where the conversations had the leisure they needed to unfold.
  • These are some of the people who made the conference truly enjoyable: Betsy McCormick, Myra Seaman, Justin Brent, George Edmondson, Bob Stein, Carolyn Dinshaw, Stephanie Trigg, Tom Prendergast, Debra Strickland, Dan Kline, Gerry Heng, Theresa Coletti, Christine Chism, Ethan Knapp, Patricia DeMarco, John Ganim, Miriamne Krummel, Sylvia Tomasch, Tom Hahn, Christina Fitzgerald, Jonathan Hsy, Glenn Burger, and Steve Kruger. Thanks to all of them ... and to anyone I've unintentionally omitted from the list. The conviviality of the conference will -- like the backache from my dorm's mattress -- stay with me for a long time to come.

28 comments:

Sarah Rees Jones said...

Thanks for all these posts.

As an Historian I am very interested in literary medievalism and I enjoyed attending the NCS in New York. I stayed away from Swansea (which as a married-into-Welsh person I would have loved to attend) for two reasons. Mostly (1) to get some writing done (successful, very!!) and (2) because in NY I found myself in several sessions that were vigorously critical of Literary scholars' engagement with History. Sometimes this was done in stimulating, humorous, gracious and vigorous way - sometimes not so much ... (so giving every impression that the speaker needed to get out of academia and gain some perspective on their anger). I left thinking that I really needed to go to some History conferences in future (I have tended mainly to go to Medieval Studies or Archaeology ones).

So it is good to hear how this year's NCS went - it was clearly very different from the last one. I am sorry to have missed many of the papers - so many that I would have liked to have heard including several that you include in your list - but also Helen Fulton who I guess was also working hard on the organisation. Perhaps next time we should ask you to live blog it?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I don't think it can be said enough: the local arrangements committee, esp. Helen Fulton, worked hard to pull the conference together, and NCS was a success due to their efforts.

It's interesting, Sarah: I've seen more anger at previous NCS conferences, like the NYC one, but especially London a few years back, where the ire was palpable almost everywhere in the wake of Carolyn Dinshaw's biennial lecture. I'd like to think that the field has moved along nicely from such times, and the evidence of that movement is the program itself -- this year it did a tremendous job of indicating where all the scholarly energy is.

But I'm sorry you couldn't make it to Swansea!

Eileen Joy said...

So, in one of the other NCS posts, Jeffrey writes,

"A critical methodology barely present at this conference was psychoanalysis, even in the panel on 'Medieval Pathologies.' I have a hard time accounting for that vanishing. Since Aranye Fradenburg is the rumored choice for the next Biennial Lecture, that may well change at NCS Sienna in 2010."

So I've just kind of been obsessing about this ever since I read it. I have never considered myself as someone concerned with psychoanalysis--by which I mean, in my writing on Old English texts--until it just sort of started creeping up on me as I was beginning to think more deeply about ethics, humanism, and queer theory. Because, most recently [as in right now], I have been laboring to finish an essay on "Andreas" [for a volume on that poem that Andrew Scheil is editing], which I have been mainly thinking about through the work of Chakrabarty and Sarah Ahmed [in "Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality"], while simultaneously trying to kind of compose an essay in my mind on Leo Bersani's work, most especially in "Forms of Being" and "Intimacies," on "impersonal narcissism" and also on the violence inherent in certain processes [unleashed by traditional forms of psychoanalysis] of "self-mastery," I find myself asking this question:

how might we forge new critical relations between post-colonial and psychoanalytic approaches to our field? what, further, are the historical relations between certain trajectories of nationalist "mastery" and the more "personal" violence of more personal, psychoanalytic processes of self-mastery?

This essay, if I can pull it off, will be one such attempt, thanks to Jeffrey's post. Thanks, Jeffrey!

Eileen Joy said...

And thinking again about integrating psychoanalysis with post-colonial thinking, isn't that what, to a certain extent, Kathleen Biddick does in "The Shock of Medievalism," among other texts [and I'm thinking, too, of Biddick's recent brilliant, if difficult at times, essay in GLQ, "Unbinding the Flesh"]? And I'm thinking, too, of the essay by Steven Kruger in "The Postcolonial Middle Ages" on fetishism. But when reading Nadia Altschul's recent "Literature Compass" review essay on post-colonial medieval studies, I'm struck that this point doesn't really get highlighted. And by bringing up extimacy in his essay "Midcolonial," that opens "The Postcolonial Middle Ages," Jeffrey also conjoins the psychoanalytic with the post-colonial. And to a certain extent, when Kofi Campebll wrote here recently about David Wallace's book "Premodern Places," and he was discussing the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris's idea of a post-colonial [collective/hybridized] consciousness in which is it difficult sometimes to know the line between conqueror and conquered [and in which consciousness history both resides and is even born out of a series of repetitions of certain violent and discontinuous "adventures" that are both always repressed and always returning]--again, it seems to me that to do post-colonial thought without psychoanalysis might be, somehow, misguided.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

You can find a psychoanalytic drift in work by Bhabha, for example. Spivak cites Lacan, especially on subjectivity. And if you want to go all the way back to foundational texts, the Martiniquan PoCo theorist of race Frantz Fanon was a psychiatrist influenced by Lacan's writings.

You're right about Biddick and her use of psychoanalysis: she'd have no Imaginary without it, and no all-encompassing view of Christian supercession. Patty Ingham is another medievalist who combines the psychoanalytic and the postcolonial with subtlety.

When I first came to GW I joined a Lacan reading group in which we also read a lot of Zizek. You can see the influence throughout _Of Giants_, and in the Saracen essay in _MIMs_. I don't read as much as I used to in the area, though, partly because of my disillusionment with Zizek, in part because citing Lacan's work can seem too much like belonging to a secret club, in part because I'd reached a point where its utility was outweighed by its circumscribed ambit. I don't have anything against such work (except when it becomes suffocating in its totalizing: hence a problem for me with Lee Edelman's amor de Lacan).

To go back to what you observed, Eileen: queer theory, psychoanalysis, and postcolonial theory richly intersect (I think) in that all three offer to medieval studies something that the field's dominating historicism cannot: a sophisticated vocabulary for thinking about the untimely and the unhistorical. These are essential concepts (say I) for being able to analyze the nondominant /subordinate /subaltern /Other in terms that are not limited in advance by a specific moment and particular, dominating discourse.

I would also potentially add disability studies -- in the form of crip theory -- to that list, as well as another critical mode that all these others owe so much to, feminism. That just about covers everything, doesn't it?

I know I keep mentioning it here, and I don't want to steal her thunder, but Liz Scala's essay on the gender of historicism will have much to say to the subject of vanishing -- really, made-to-vanish -- psychoanalysis when it comes out next year. New Middle Ages will publish the volume, called _The Post Historical Middle Ages_. I just finished my own piece for it.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: you hit on something [well, several somethings, actually] that I don't have time to unpack tonight [or even tomorrow, with my already-violated-essay-deadline looming], but that I think is really important here:

is psychoanalysis, in some respects, totalizing [I would say, um . . . yes], and more importantly, in forms that are mainly gendered masculine [I would say, um . . . yes]?

You bring up feminism [and certainly, in poco studies, the work of someone like Anne McClintock comes to mind], but how often, in medieval poco studies, do you see powerful alliances between feminist and psychoanalytic approaches? I am naive in this area [I have not done all the requisite reading, so . . . I don't know]. I am thinking, too, of how it might be possible to take the thinking of someone like Elizabeth Grosz, especially in "Volatile Bodies," "Time Travels," and "The Nick of Time" [let's call this something like materialist/critical/feminist temporality studies] and marry that to medieval poco studies [of course, to a certain extent, you did that already in "Medieval Identity Machines"!]. But what is really bothering me lately [partly because of having just finished Bersani's and Phillips's "Intimacies"], are the ways in which psychoanalytic thinking, no matter how radical, is always circulating around and drawing upon imaginary and symbolic realms that are gendered masculine [whether straight or queer]. It's almost like, sometimes, French feminist psychoanalysis never happened. But, I'm tired, so . . . good night!

Sarah Rees Jones said...

How do you (you at ITM) distinguish between historicism and History? I hope that you do and think that you should.

History is a hugely diverse discipline, including so many ways of thinking about the past and drawing on so many theoretical approaches. At its heart, I think, it is simply about people. How you think about people is something about which you can never stop learning.

Your historicism seems to equate roughly with one of (but note only one of) the most popular views of History.* That History is about Progress and context. All History undergraduates will do some kind of 'method and theory' course in their first two years that will take them through that view and expose them not only to what you might call ‘new historicism’ but also its critics. So when you turn your criticism of historicism (new or otherwise) into a criticism of History, I think that you go too far and show very little understanding of the range of History now, or for that matter in its past.

I have no objection at all to the idea that literature ought to be interpreted (I would actually say ‘felt’) in ways that are free of ideas of progress and context. My latest project (or that for which I have got funding for some PhD students) is to explore that material engagement in the past using narrative (inter alia), drawing on the work of anthropologists such as Hoskins and Appadurai, to think about the connections between people through the things that they owned/own and the stories that they told/tell about them (in relation to the half million excavated artifacts stored in boxes in York) over a period of roughly a millennium (you can see why this is a collaborative project involving at least nine people!). This is inspired by the work of literary scholars such as the medievalist/early modernist Elizabeth Salter, Aberystwyth (also at NCS) and Catherine Richardson (Kent) and their ‘historical’ colleagues and teachers such as Rob Lutton (Nottingham) and Andrew Butcher, and by archaeologists working on 19th century sites in cities such as New York, Washington DC and Melbourne (such as Yamin, Beaudry, Mayne). I was led to this latter work by colleagues in archaeology: Kate Giles and Harold Mytum.

Yet in the end I think that is Wrong to reject History altogether, even the ideas of progress and context. Much to my surprise I find that I do still believe in progress (or at least in time, and time can contain progress even if it doesn’t always – and does lots of other things too), and I also believe passionately in context – in the sense that I believe passionately in the power of place and in the continuum between people and their environments both built and natural. That last passion derives from archaeological theory but also from broadly socialist and internationalist historians (such as Bloch), and ultimately it is Political.

That is my position statement. It is partly my position as an Historian, but it is not and never ever should be the position of all Historians nor of all literary scholars. I would hate to live in a world where everybody looked like me! There should be room for many different ways of thinking about artefacts from the past, including poems, and we should be capable of working collaboratively and learning from each other, we shouldn’t be ‘flaming’ each other for not being Right. We should be both multi- and inter-disciplinary in as many different ways as possible.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Sarah, that was an eloquent apologia pro historia -- and by that I mean, a vigorous and persuasive defense of something that literary critics can be too glib about.

Especially me. My next book project is an attempt to think beyond historicism and to set into motion active notions of temporality and history that we and medieval and prehistoric and -- let's face it -- anyone or anything that has ever constructed a little bit of art possesses. I was constantly aware throughout the composition of the essay that I contributed to the Scala/Federico volume that the "historicism" of which I was speaking (and I spoke ONLY of historicism, not history -- I know from you and from my many colleagues in that discipline how diverse, lively, and easily reduced by literary critics your field is) is a historicism that isn't really practiced in some pure form. I often qualified the phrase as "traditional historicism," meaning a mode of interpretation that privileges synchronic context as the determinant of artistic meaning. At its worst, this mode renders (for example) various Canterbury Tales into romans a clef about political intrigue. I suppose its scientific analogs are genetic and evolutionary determinisms.

So, mobile and adaptive methodologies: yes. Never losing sight of lived experience and people's lives: absolutely, yes. A sensitivity to context and to material conditions: why be a medievalist if you aren't going to research such things? But also, for me: the possibility that any work of art or any human life can exceed its context, its givenness: how else can such things touch futures never dreamed?

Eileen Joy said...

I pretty much like everything both srj *and* Jeffrey say here, although I sometimes wonder about the "people" part--that, as srj writes, history is, "at its heart, about people." I would definitely agree to the extent that I really believe that most scholars laboring in medieval studies [whether in literature, history, archaeology, anthropology, art history, religion, philosophy, etc.] are doing so because they are interested in capturing [or, re-capturing] and "tending to," as it were, the persons of the past, and more pointedly, these persons [even more so, their mentalities and maybe also their so-called "lived" experiences] as they can be re-constructed through the artifacts and traces of themselves they leave behind [whether in grave remains, the foundations of a city, a legal document, or a poem].

But, having said that, the persons themselves are always, to an extent [or, perhaps, more literally and *fully*], gone. They have vanished, disappeared, and god help them, I sometimes think, if they were depending on us to "translate" their remains in a particular fashion [although I think one of the ethical imperatives of the historian ought to be to try to get this right, for every person has, it could be argued, a dying wish, or a desire that someone, somewhere, and *afterwards*, might "get my life right," and maybe even repair some of its damages, especially in the cases of those lost in the various maelstroms of violent, traumatic histories, such as slavery and the Holocaust--and to paraphrase Levinas, "we do not have the right to leave anyone alone at her death"].

But again, having said all *that*, I don't think real persons are ultimately capture-able in our histories, no matter what methodology we follow [whether the culture-history or post-processural archeaological approaches or the new historical/deconstructionist approach or whatever]. What might be capture-able, though, in my mind, is something that can only be glimpsed in the artifact itself [whether, again, a city wall or a narrative, etc.], and here I cadge from Gerhard Richter's writing on the painter Anselm Kiefer [whose artworks are very concerned with history--they are only about history, actually, and even its unrepresentable excesses], where the historical artifact always

"presents itself in the strange figure of a singularity that meets in unforseeable ways with the generality of its historical and philosophical structure."

And further, Richter asks,

"What does it mean that the historical presents itself not as a former presence but rather in the space of intersecting traces that inscribe its genealogical shifts and movements, and that, by extension, the historical was already--even at the time of its retroactively projected former presence, the fiction of its anteriority--a network of traces and relays?"

I've also always really liked Peter Munz's contribution to the Routledge "Companion to Historiography," 2nd edition ["The Historical Narrative"], where he writes,

"The problem [of recording history as it was] does not simply consist in the fact that the past is not readily remembered or frequently insufficiently recorded. . . . If this were the case, one would presume that people at any stage of the past knew what was happening to them and that the reason why we do not know is that records or traditions were lost. But the point is that even people who were alive at any stage of the past had either little knowledge or perception of what was happening; or that such perceptions as they had were widely influenced by their personal interests and abstractions and therefore were in no sense 'correct' perceptions. They themselves had no knowledge of 'res gestae' but, at best, were making up stories about it and constructing 'historiae rerum gestarum.' Which goes to prove the truth of an old saying . . . that 'stories only happen to people who have an ability to tell them'."

And this, too, is where I see the absolute necessity of the literary/aesthetic mode to the discipline of history [Munz, by the way, actually defends synchronic narratives in his essay because he believes that the past, of necessity, always bears the mark of the "arrow of time" and the historian has a responsibility, in Munz's view, to get some sense of that "arrow" right]. I would go further and say that there is no other mode that would be as appropriate as the literary mode for "doing justice" to history, and to the persons caught in the pitch and tide of history. Increasingly, since I do not believe justice is ever really possible in reality [at least, not in the many places and times when it is most fervently, yet uselessly hoped for and desired: think of the men in the prisons cells at Guantanamo Bay or slaves in pre-Civil War America and those herded into gas vans in Chelmo, Poland during World War II and so on and so forth], I am more and more convinced that it is only possible, first, in the realm of the aesthetic which is our best hope for a space within which we can suspend, and also ameliorate [if never actually repair], the persons, moments, things, etc. now lost to us in the *place* we call history.

Eileen Joy said...

I would also just add here that, in invoking the literary/aesthetic mode as a space within which we can "do justice" to history [and, more pointedly, to the persons which srj argues lie at "the heart" of history], I am purposefully trying to draw lines of sympathy with Jeffrey's argument that part of our task ought to be to try and capture [or evoke?], in Jeffrey's words,

"the possibility that any work of art or any human life can exceed its context, its givenness: how else can such things touch futures never dreamed?"

And just as I feel the realm of the aesthetic provides a kind of ideal staging-ground for getting history "right" in a way real persons caught in the pitch and tide of real histories can't always accomplish or master, I also feel it is our best bet for cultivating site of enchantment/wonder through which a more ethical attention can be developed.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

Eileen: It is the indeterminacy of history and its lack of positivism that I really love and one of the things that drew me to pre-modern history in particular (though of course our historical knowledge of more modern times is just as positivistically challenged). The constant search for a different answer is, I think, very human (I don’t notice the philosophical engagement of my cat in Plato’s cave – but maybe that is my lack of perception – after all he lies in the direct light of the sun for much longer than he lies under the bush watching the shadows). How do we do justice to other people – whether in the past or otherwise – there cannot be a simple, univocal answer to that, can there?

I too was struck by Jeffrey’s sentence about transcendence – it is very beautiful. As the daughter of a painter, wife of an English graduate, mother of a pianist I understand, in a non-educated way, some of the effects of aestheticism and transcendence. Today it strikes an odd coincidence because I have spent much of the day reading and thinking about Vauchez’s work on saintliness – and specifically his argument that clerical and secular elites imposed a new idea of saintliness which valued ascetic and personal qualities over the mundane enthusiasms of ‘simple folk’. I know this is an unfair comparison with what JJC is saying - but it does remind me of my work on utopias (a course in comparative history last spring term – which inter alia compared synchronic, diachronic and anachronistic treatments of utopianism) – there was a recurrent theme that utopias often reflected elite moralising agendas for the future. And surely some of the same questions must be asked about transcendence too – is it really never culturally specific? Is there a History of transcendence too? What would that History look like? This is not an area about which I claim any knowledge – it is one of the reasons I read this blog – for challenging my limits.





Ps…
I hope to pursue further soon. A literary medievalist friend/colleague gave what I understand was a great paper recently against ‘new historicism’ at yet another conference I did NOT attend this summer and he has said I can read a copy. He is a great and very civilised arguer – and I look forward to the argument!

Eileen Joy said...

Sarah: thanks for your continued conversation here; it's really helping me out, actually, as I think through these issues in my own work. I didn't mean to imply, either, that historians should some become or be literary artists [or practitioners of a certain type of literary practice, or other aesthetic practices], so much as I want to make a claim for the non-documentary approach to history: that art [poetry, stories, music, etc.] can often tell us a lot more about "what really happened" [or even about what was desired to happen, dreamed of, unconsciously wished for, etc.], and that an historical practice/scholarship that sought to elucidate the statement made by Anna Klosowska in her book "Queer Love in the Middle Ages,"

"art reveals more of life than life does,"

would be a practice and scholarship well worth pursuing. But I say that as a practitioner in literary studies, of course [which, I suppose, raises the question of personal biases in scholarship--duh!], and I completely agree with you that there could never be a univocal answer to how we might "do justice" to the persons and events of the past. I have always been partial to multi-perspectivist approaches to, frankly, everything.

I am really intrigued, though, by your argument [or is it a caution?] that even an idea like transcendence might have to be carefully contextualized/historicized [or rather, that we should recognize that even a concept or *entity*--if it exists--like transcendence cannot completely escape historical frames]. To write a history of transcendence would be . . . almost impossible? Could it be anything other than a history of different conceptualizations of supposedly transcendent experience [so, in other words, again, contextualized]?

But a wonderful book on the subject of "presences" over "meaning" [and that tries to wrestle with how to articulate the ways in which "Western culture can be described as a process of progressive abandonment and forgetting of [non-hermeneutic] presence," is Hans Gumbrecht's "The Production of Presence: What Meaning Can't Convey," which I can't recommend highly enough.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Eileen, one quick comment on your psychoanalysis and feminism comment: one could easily find, I think, a healthy number of medievalists who have used the concepts and writings of Julia Kristeva to better understand the Middle Ages. Here is a theorist who can never allow you to have your psychoanalysis gendered masculine, and her work on the semiotic chora and woman's time and abjection was for a while being widely cited. So there is that.

Sarah, thanks for your querying of the historical specificity of transcendence. I'd agree with you: it's experience -- as well as the very compulsion to experience at certain times and in certain ways -- is historical. It does cultural work. But I think that possibility of transcendence/ecstasy/aesthetic overload/and so on is likely nonhistorical at its core, in the way that emotion or empathy or so many other things are. They have historically determinate forms, but that is only a part (even if perhaps the greater part) of the story.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: your point about Kristeva is well-taken, and of course, I've taken that tack myself. It's just that, once you start to wade into more mainstream psychoanalytic debates/thought [not in medieval studies], I just see Freud and Lacan a hell of a lot more than I see Kristeva, Cixous, or Irigiray. Admittedly, I'm reading a lot of Bersani right now and am just kind of wearying of the Freud/Lacan/Freud/Lacan/Freud/Lacan [maybe some Laplanche] see-saw. I'm trying to figure out whether it is possible to approach Bersani's argument for impersonal narcissims outside the terms set by Bersani himself through Freud and Lacan. It's just frustrating. I'm out of my element.

BLB said...

"I often qualified the phrase as "traditional historicism," meaning a mode of interpretation that privileges synchronic context as the determinant of artistic meaning. At its worst, this mode renders (for example) various Canterbury Tales into romans a clef about political intrigue. I suppose its scientific analogs are genetic and evolutionary determinisms."

I do wonder how much of this kind of reductive, "secret code" or "skeleton key" historicism is /really/ out there, and I do worry -- as someone who enjoys working with literary and "historical" texts (my cards, table) -- that an otherwise salutary attempt to push towards important questions of aesthetics and new chronologies might lead to some unfair characterizations of historicist work.

It does seem that the historicist work I've found most exciting isn't concerned with arguing that extrinsic events or contextual arrangements are the only determinant literary texts. Not only do they generally limit their claims, but they also allow for two-way traffic. Much of this kind of work takes up feedback loop model, looking at the interaction between literary/artistic ways of thinking and "non-literary" ones (the question of how we make this divide is of course a huge one). Some of this historicist work seems to drift towards textual scholarship, documentary studies, histories of institutional productions, and thus, I'd say, actually expands the idea of the aesthetic. In my dream situation, I'd hope that by placing a poem and a "document" next to each other, I'd be able to see the craft, poignancy, and flavor of the document, and see something about the poem I hadn't seen before. I think it's intensely concerned with form, genre, and the power and beauty of writing. In this kind of approach, the "history" is the awareness of the possible connections between texts, based on ways they're produced and the larger interests they might be caught up in.* It does seem like that kind of work, if not radically innovative, isn't harmful or unproductive.

Maybe it'd be helpful to distinguish a kind of "political" reading from a more generalized "historicist" one? I mean, I think I know exactly what you're talking about -- the kind of thing where somebody argues that Melibee is in fact and without a doubt Thomas of Woodstock, and the tale refers to a time when his servant was beaten by London, and Chaucer /must/ be saying that... etc. etc. Bleagh to that!

*-I fully acknowledge this paragraph may just be rephrasing poorly remembered bits of /The Political Unconscious/...

Sarah Rees Jones said...

What about transcendance within the mundane? I think that is what I was looking for within my 'work' yesterday, and a thought I wouldn't have developed without working (and worrying about some of the issues I see in Vauchez's work) while reading this blog at the same time - and then seeing 10 minutes from the middle of a TV programme called 'Tribal wives' in which a western women lives with a remote tribe and experience the common joys and sorrows of everyday life.

To be universal and ahistorical - transcendance has to be possible within mundane experiences (stroking cats, sitting in the sun - it reached all of 30 degrees here yesterday) - it is the artfulness of representing transcendance that makes it Historical and culturally specific. Not sure how you get away from that - in any kind of performance other than one of silence. Silence is becoming a recurrent theme of historical interest this summer.

OK - that is just limbering up - back to saintliness.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Sarah, my moment of transcendence was this morning, walking the dog through an empty neighborhood. My son is away at camp for another week, my wife in Colorado on a business trip, so it's just me and my daughter at home -- and she likes to sleep, so I've been faced with long periods of unaccustomed quiet. I'd left the silent house, was walking along a street without much life, when directly overhead a bird warbled a cry I'd never heard before. Corny, isn't it, that a bird chirping could take me out of my private thought orbit and enlarge the world? But it did, and the corniness has as much to do with knowing that high literary lyricism and more mundane arts are part of a common impulse.

Then again, stroking a cat wouldn't do much for me. I have a hard time imagining them as anything but small lions.

BLB: thanks for that. Historicism has served the medievalist well for so long because it is both rigorous and flexible. I have to keep reminding myself to make that point, because it is not as if historicism denotes a monolithic practice (and as practiced it is almost always something more than the event allegories none of us seem to like). As Sarah has emphasized throughout this discussion -- and I am so glad she instigated it -- it's not as if there is an "other" to historicism: meaning that, historicism has to be part of any good critical encounter to with the past. It is the sine qua non that enables other, potentially unhistorical modes.

As to finding the aesthetic and the craft in non-literary genres: that has a lot of potential, and opens up the boundary of historicist analysis. I like your emphasis on formalism as well: again, a strength of historicism -- and one that ought not to be rejected -- is its careful analysis via close reading. Where would we be without that?

Sarah Rees Jones said...

BLB: placing a poem and a document next to each other BLB you are a wo/man after my own heart.

Now I shall waste too much time wondering who BLB is ....

JJC - our lion is quite ridiculously non-lionish - you need not be afraid.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Wow -- this conversation encompasses so many of the things that are important to me as an historian, especially Sarah's appreciation of the indeterminate. For me, good history relies more on asking questions and coming up with the most likely answers, rather than a single explanation. But the joy is in knowing that what we think we know might change given a new reading or new discovery. And then, as someone who really trained first in Ancient history, I do tend to reject ideas of historical progress. So I'm always surprised when a colleague in another field puts forward criticisms of history that are based on ideas of 'what history is and what historians do' that bear little resemblance to my own understanding.

Eileen Joy said...

It's amazing how the turns of this conversation are in serendipitous synchronicity with two things I was reading last night: Carolyn Dinshaw's chapter "Temporalities" in Paul Strohm's "Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Middle English" and Hans Gumbrecht's "The Production of Presence: What Meaning Can't Convey" [which book I've been reading off and on since this past January]. I almost fell of my chair when I was reading Sarah's comment about transcendence in the mundane and also about silence, as I was also, just then, reading the conclusion to Gumbrecht's book, which is titled, "To Be Quiet for a Moment." But even just before that, he writes something that I think is apropos to Sarah's invocation of silence as a cultural subject and also letting yourself be absorbed into the mundane, or into the mundane routine of an "other" world, as with the case of the western woman transferred to a tribal outpost [or into the call of a bird, as Jeffrey was, or into an experience with the inhuman aesthetic that exceeds our usual frames of reference and maybe even history itself, as Jeffrey argues here and elsewhere]:

". . . what is the effect of getting lost in the fascination that the oscillation between presence effects and meaning effects can produce? [For Gumbrecht, this oscillation is a product of the aesthetic encounter.] Once we understand our desire for presence as a reaction to an everyday environment that has become so overly Cartesian during the past centuries, it makes sense to hope that aesthetic experience may help us to recuperate the spatial and bodily dimension of our existence; it makes sense to hope that aesthetic experience may give us back at least a feeling of our being-in-the-world, in the sense of being a part of the physical world of things. . . . [W]e can establish a categorical difference between this recuperated dimension of self-reference, the self-reference of being a part of the world of things, and that other human self-reference that has been dominant in modern Western culture, above all, in modern science: the latter is a self-image of a spectator standing in front of a world that presents itself as a picture." [p. 116]

And a little further on:

"*Gelassenheit* [an extreme degree of serenity, composure] figures as both part of the disposition with which we should open ourselves to aesthetic experience and as the existential state to which aesthetic experience can take us. In order to avoid any possible confusion of this existential state with certain hypercomplex forms of self-reflexivity (of which we intellectuals are only too fond), I have come to describe, with a deliberately colloquial formula, that specific serenity as the feeling of *being in sync with the things of the world*." [p. 117]

And I wonder, reflecting upon Gumbrecht's thought, as well as upon many of the comments here, if history couldn't somehow be the discipline [or practice] that attempts to render what this being-in-the-world looks/feels like, even for those who are not aware of it at the time of its "production" or existence? Which brings me to BLB's reflection upon an historical method [my own preferred method, I might add] that brings documents, texts, and artifacts alongside each other in order to delineate [or, perhaps, re-cognize] a kind of feedback loop, or cadging from BLB a bit, a pattern of "traffic" between the things that are in-the-world together. As I've said here and elsewhere before, everything really *is* connected [the world is just one big thing with all of these appearances of difference--granted, appearances have material, psycho-somatic effects], and perhas one of the jobs of the historian is to trace those connections, the traces of networks and relays that connect everything and that move, perpetually, in asynchronous, rhizomatic fashion. [You always have to ask, though: do we discover patterns that were always already there, or do we invent these patterns and then retroject them into the past?--does it matter?]

And after finishing Dinshaw's essay, "Temporalities," last night, which is concerned with a larger project she has been working on relative to Margery Kempe, Hope Emily Allen [first modern editor of Kempe], mysticism, and queer historicism [a project she presented on at Kalamazoo in 2007, especially in relation to her *felt* experience of temporal multiplicity in the archive of Allen's papers at Bryn Mawr], I am a little embarrassed at my comment here yesterday that the persons of the past

"are always, to an extent [or, perhaps, more literally and *fully*], gone. They have vanished, disappeared, and god help them, I sometimes think, if they were depending on us to "translate" their remains in a particular fashion."

In point of fact, yes, they're gone. Margery Kempe is gone. Hope Emily Allen is gone. And yet. And yet. Can one have something like a more literal, somatized "traffic" with the dead [to "traffic," as it were in anachronistic experience]--as Margery did with Christ, as Allen did with Margery, as Dinshaw has done with Allen, --and through, primarily, a book, a text, a cultural ritual [communion], a statue [the Pieta], an archive? Dinshaw is interested in her essay in developing a concept of queer history that would reckon

"in the most expansive way possible with how people exist in time, with what it feels like to be a body in time, or in multiple times, or out of time . . . . Historicism is queer when it grasps that temporality itself raises the question of embodiment and subjectivity." [p. 109]

Dinshaw shares in her essay the anecdote that Foucault shares in his essay, "The Life of Infamous Men" [and Introduction to an anthology that never appeared], where Foucault

"recalls his physical reaction to stories found years earlier while researching 'Madness and Civilization.' He experienced the terrifying, austere, lyrical beauty of the *lettres de cachet* and other documents consigning atheistic monks, obscure usurers, and other wretches to confinement: this is the 'intensity', he sais in this essay, that motivated his analysis in 'Madness and Civilization' but that his discourse in that book was 'incapable' of bearing. He wants now, he writes, to present an anthology of documents that provoked that feeling, that 'vibration', that sensory experience of being-made-an-outsider which these unfortunate men lived." [p. 112]

For Dinshaw, such a moment in the archive [which she has also experienced with Allen's papers]

"introduces temporal multiplicity, an expanded now in which past touches present, making a 'physical' impression. In a genealogical framework that seeks to overcome the denial of the body in traditional historicism, we could attempt an analysis of the experience of such times." [p. 112]

Is it just me, or does everyone see the daring [even, breathtaking] risk of such an historicist adventure? Dinshaw herself recognizes, as did Foucault, that the methodology for such an analysis might lie *outside* of so-called rational discourse [would it be, I wonder, a type of mysticism?], and therefore, outside of reason. But the questions are worth pursuing, as Dinshaw herself outlines:

"What are these feelings, when a past rises up in the present? What does it feel like to experience 'a totally different form of time'? To live asynchronously? To be out of time? And what will allow us to analyze these feelings, these experiences?" [p. 112]

These questions seem pertinent to so much of the discussion here, and again, Gumbrecht's book seems important for helping us to formulate a methodology for speaking of the *meaning* of an experience--of presences--which, as Gumbrecht himself puts it, "meaning can't convey."

BLB said...

Jeffrey: Thanks for your response -- and especially for making it through my comment which had, poor thing, lost most of its definite and indefinite articles (the result of over-editing for this august conversation).

As Sarah has emphasized throughout this discussion -- and I am so glad she instigated it -- it's not as if there is an "other" to historicism: meaning that, historicism has to be part of any good critical encounter to with the past. It is the sine qua non that enables other, potentially unhistorical modes.

I agree heartily with this formulation, and it puts into words something I think I was trying to get at. I think it's important to look at a historical approach as an enabling one, as you put it here, that allows connections to be made and new formations to appear. I myself am less fond of historicism when it's used in a strictly limiting way, as a kind of police-force against supposed anachronism.

I also wonder if "historicism," in this more flexible sense of an enabling awareness of one's own scholarly relation to the past and of past texts' relationships to each other, is such a general term that it could almost use another name to get around disciplinary prejudice. Again, when "historicism" comes up in conversations with colleagues, the word seems so often to summon up its bad forms, either the "skeleton key" version you mention or a caricature of vintage new historicist work (cool anecdote leads to circular musings on subversion and containment). Kind of like how "formalism" for a while became associated with a context-free "new criticism" that might never /really/ have been as historically unaware as it seemed?

Sarah: No need to wonder! Although I don't think I'll name myself publicly in comments (especially after my loose grammar above), I'll drop a quick email introducing myself to your institutional address.

Eileen: I think "traffic" is a great way of putting it. Thinking more loosely about all this, I guess one of the possible rewards of an "enamored" (to cadge a term of yours) historicist project is to simulate the experience of someone living in a particular textual/documentary/historical moment. Reading literature and other fragments alongside each other, at its best, isn't about producing ingenious readings, but about re-enacting (never perfectly, always provisionally) the awareness of the people who moved in that environment (an imperfect project in many ways still, of course, since the users of that textual world for my late medieval period were few and privileged -- but still, human and gone). To pick a locus classicus for historicist entryways into a literary text, one that's been handled very well over the years: those slaughtered Flemings in the Nun's Priest's Tale, what would it mean to read that? How would you react? What might you know? (And, to try to characterize this right, the emphasis on new ways of thinking temporally that ITM and BABEL and C. Dinshaw are working on brings another dimension to this kind of thought, another axis to think on, since we're not just considering the experience of that moment but the way it plays and transforms in other periods and for the scholar doing the work and her audience reading it.)

And those Flemings make me think about another point. If we're talking about ethics, isn't the consideration of texts in a social position one of the most distinctly "ethical" ways of looking at them? Many historicists make the point that literary texts "do work" and "have power," which I agree with, but which sometimes seems to be more of an oddly masculinist claim that our little poems can actually kick ass. But turning that around, if texts have power, isn't it important to look at how they use it? Whom they save? Whom they kill? What they do with their beauty?

Sarah Rees Jones said...

Eileen: thanks for such a full and stimulating response. And thanks for the suggestions of reading.

Of many ideas you provoke, the one that sticks in my mind is the joy of discovery - of that first contact with something in the archives or in the field - of literally touching the past which you say Dinshaw writes about. It is a thrilling moment. My most memorable was not in the archives (though there have been plenty there) but excavating the skeleton of a person (probably female) with the tiny skeleton of an infant curled around her head and two perfect, small votive clay jugs. The pottery was Minoan-Mycenean transition, so she died around 1600 BCE. The grave was unexpected and the feelings of personal intimacy were not only powerful but complex and have stayed with me for 30 odd years. Part of the complexity was that through encountering this mother and child (if that is what they were) I was encountering their history. There was a transcendental personal intimacy - the strongest of all. But there was another intimacy which came from learning through them about their time and place. This Historical knowledge is something that I have continued to accumulate as I have learnt about other mothers and children in other times - and that keeps changing my intimacy with that first child, just as in our own lives our personal relationships alter through time.

So couldn't agree more that history is part of a complexity of shifting relationships between us and people in the past which is never static and constantly changing. I never thought we needed a new word to describe that. You only have to think about Thucydides and Herodotus, or Carlyle and Macauley - to know that History has always been considered to embrace intense emotional narratives of the past - and it is those narrative histories which (whatever else happens in History) have always remained the most powerful and the most popular.

BLB: don't be shy about your identity - your writing is just grand - I too make many grammatical and other errors in this format. Who cares? I look forward to the email

Eileen Joy said...

BLB: I'm glad you touched upon the ethical toward the end of your last comment. Because the monograph which I have been trying to complete for, oh, about four years now, deals directly with the representation of traumatic history & memory in art, it is an aspect of the historical [and artistic] enterprise that I think about a lot. And to those who would say [as Stanley Fish does, a *lot*, but he's not the only one] that literature [whether a poem or an historical annal or a "tale"] doesn't really have material or political effects in the world [and therefore, neither does any sort of criticism that would take these objects/artifacts as its primary subject], I've always liked what Danielle Allen said at the 2003 "Critical Inquiry" Symposium in Chicago, that criticism

"has generally been an instrument for coming to understand political orders and phenomenon and then for intervening in them. . . . If one wishes to know how language is working and shaping our world, one needs to know not just how it plays, obscures, reveals, and subverts, but also where human social orders are explicitly (and not just implicitly) held together by words: the realms of law and punishment, of value and the division of labor (gender and sexuality come in here), of religion, of organized strife (from athletic events to war), of membership in imagined communities like 'the people,' and of generational transition."

This resonates, I think, with BLB's important questions,

"if texts have power, isn't it important to look at how they use it? Whom they save? Whom they kill? What they do with their beauty?"

One could even say that the urgency of asking these questions is even more pressing upon us in a postmodern era where, as Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher have written,

"an entire culture is regarded as text . . . [and therefore] everything is at least potentially in play both at the level of representation and at the level of event. Indeed, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a clear, unambiguous boundary between what is representation and what is event. . . . [Further], if all the textual traces of an era 'count' as both representation and event. . .then it is increasingly difficult to invoke 'history' as a censor." [from "Practicing New Historicism"]

I've always thought that was a nice summation of one of the historical dilemmas the practice of history [and even of a literary criticism that historicizes] finds itself in today.

Sarah: your story of the grave remains is moving. And thanks for the reminder that,

"History has always been considered to embrace intense emotional narratives of the past - and it is those narrative histories which (whatever else happens in History) have always remained the most powerful and the most popular."

For that reason, they can also be very dangerous, though, don't you think? I'm thinking, especially, of the ways in which the 1389 Battle of the Blackbirds in Kosovo which was so important, figuratively and symbolically, to the Serbian nationalists during the Kosovo War. I'm thinking also of what Johan Huizinga once wrote of medieval knights, “They wear the mask of Lancelot and Tristan. It is an amazing self-deception.”

Sarah Rees Jones said...

Eileen: Indeed! and can we meet for a drink some time?

Eileen Joy said...

Sarah: of course! I never say "no" to a drink. I'll be in London in January for at least a week, with some mobility. Are you ever in Saint Louis? [haha--don't answer that!]

Sarah Rees Jones said...

ok - I kind of meant that as a virtual joke since I have kind of run out of steam with this today and need refreshment. (BLB: note the appalling construction of that sentence). Its warm and the unrelenting footnotes have really got to me today. Let's raise a glass of your virtual champagne to JJC's new book.

But it would be good. I am going lots of places this year, but sadly not the US. I will be *here* and quite probably in London in January.

Eileen Joy said...

Now, Sarah, if you were on Facebook with us, we could send each other virtual drinks all the time! Cheers, Eileen

Karl Steel said...

I step away from the blog to get some serious revising done for a few days, and look what happens. What a wonderful set of comments, one to which I'll often return. Thanks SRJ, EJ, JJC, and the mysterious BLB. Two small things other than my adulation:

the metaphors of traffic and relationships have been used frequently, but I think they bear some rethinking, per various critiques of relationship and interrelation (whether this is Bersani, or Acampora, or Leonard Lawlor in the final bits of This is Not Sufficient, going back at least to D&G, to Levinas and/or Heidegger, etc.) In other words, placing something near something else on our table will set thoughts in motion, draw connections, but I think the resulting connections should be so intimate, so beyond any network of cause and effect, that we should no long be able to speak of what we witness as traffic. For this we need a new language, but thankfully we have models.

Second, I'm reminded, belatedly (since I come so late to this discussion), of Dinshaw's annoyance with Edelman in the Queer Temporalities roundable in GLQ: “Lee’s critique of the questions sets up “history” as straw man, in a form in which none of us actually practice it” (186). Hear, hear.