Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Opening Up

by KARL STEEL

I've a longer post planned, but for now, I offer this, a key moment (for me) in Getting Medieval, one I marked with "a passage to be quoted again and again."
The queer historian...is decidely not nostalgic for wholeness and unity; but s/he nonetheless desires an affective, even tactile relation to the past such as the relic provides. Queer relics--queer fetishes--do not stand for the whole, do not promise integrity of body; they defy the distinction between truth and falsehood, as do ordinary fetishes, but they offer the possibility of a relation to (not a mirroring or completing of) something or someone that was, or that was thought, or that was specifically prevented from being or even being thought. Wrenched out of its context of hypocrisy and stagnant, nostalgic longing for wholeness, the queer Pardoner's preoccupation with the matter of past lives can reinforce the queer sense of the need for and prompt the creation not of the kinds of books that would please 'historians,' as Foucault sneered, but rather of another kind of 'felaweshipe' across time. (142)

I also offer a few (undeveloped) questions provoked by rereading Getting Medieval with two things in mind: the phenomenological turn in queer theory, and Valerie Allen's On Farting.
  • Twice, Dinshaw expresses (what looks to me like) impatience with Barthes' phenomenological turn (see 40 and 51), yet I wonder how GM would have looked had Dinshaw attended more to the passivity phenomenology recognizes in touching. Touching brings together, sure, but it is also causes the toucher to be touched. Skin goes both ways, and even to speak of "both" is a limitation. We need a middle voice, a grammar neither active nor passive. Dinshaw of course speaks strongly of affect, but I also feel--at least for now--that speaking of "connection," of "relationships," by preserving the two (or more) separate things being brought into relation, occludes the great altering intimacy of being touched.
  • But we can get still closer. Dinshaw speaks of touching as a contrast to sight. Touching brings us into contact with someone or something, and, so long as it is a caress rather than a grasping, it has none of the pretensions to mastery that sight does. We are contaminated by touch (recall: contaminate from con + tangere), each one of us touched, the passive and the active mingled. I wonder, however, how an attention to smell--midway between sight and touch--a sensing at a distance, in which we are contacted by the thing sensed, a sense that seems particularly bodily because particularly animal, would have altered GM. Consider Valerie Allen:
    Like ears, nostrils never shut voluntarily. Permanently open for business, they are how we receive the world. Ears may be stopped for an indefinite period, but without inhalation, we die within minutes. The very act of drawing breath is one with smelling: 'man only smells during inhalation....To perceive no smell without inhaling seems to be peculiar to man.' For as long as we are alive, we sniff the world around us, including ourselves....Through every pore and orifice we wrap ourselves in smell, signing the air. As dogs well know, urine offers the most exact signature, shit and saliva close runners up. To smell the intestinal by-product of another brings one into extimate relation with them; more profound than psychoanalysis, it entails a knowledge of them more intimate than sight or hearing, more detached than touching or licking, a knowledge of the other where their very being participates in yours. (50-51)

11 comments:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I love that first quote, too, especially for the gender slash: s/he. What's interesting is that Dinshaw doesn't use this orthography often in her book ... except when she is speaking of John/Eleanor, the transvestite embroideress prostitute. So a little earlier on that same page she writes:

"as I touch on John/Eleanor, tracking him/her as s/he was caught in the gaze of municipal power and as s/he returned that gaze."

So much inheres in that slash, and its cut/touch. A resonant chapter subheading is in fact "Unmentionable/Aforementioned," getting at the temporal disruptions/contiguities there.

Interestingly, when Dinshaw glosses the "I" earlier in the book, it is fairly straightforward: "a lesbian teacher of queer histories"(37). I like to think about this particular "I" next to the feminist of Chaucer's Sexual Poetics, and the postcolonial subject of ""Pale Faces: Race, Religion, and Affect in Chaucer's Texts and Their Readers."

Anonymous said...

I don't really understand why you say that touch doesn't involve mastery. Any kind of touch at all imposes something on the person being touched. Moreover, it involves a very high dose of fantasy or pretension on the part of the person doing the touching, who is likely to be imagining to themselves all sorts of things--they think they are learning something about the person or object being touched, they think they are having some kind of tactile experience that they enjoy or wonder at or hate or whatever, they often also think they know how the person or animal being touched is feeling about it. In reality it may be nothing of the sort, although hopefully at least some of what we all say about the past does have some kind of resonance with what we could loosely think of as a past reality.

Anyway, in terms of mastery, I would generally rather be looked at than touched. And while I do try to look into the past, I'm not so sure I can touch it. Touching a relic of it is really only touching the present--a thing existing in the present. The PAST is a construction in your own mind, albeit perhaps one produced in part by the experience of touching. But certainly not one that the touchee can participate in, other than very, very passively. Yes, it is fascinating to see or to touch something that has a deep past. But I think I am a long way from understanding what is meant in all these discussions by 'touch', since people seem to be making claims about it that I can't get. (Yes, I have read Dinshaw's book. But I had a hard time seeing much point to her endless crossing back and forth between 'then' and 'now'.)

I would be delighted if readers of this site could help me understand more of this.

Marian said...

I'm also wondering about the sight/touch opposition, but in a different way.

As an art historian I'm thinking it could do with some rethinking given the historicization of sight in, for example, Suzannah Biernoff's Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages. Biernoff shows how sight could be what we tend to think touch is - immediate, proximate, bodily, intimate - rather than a controlling or objectifying distanced gaze.

I was also struck in reading and now re-reading Dinshaw by how important images - things that are seen - as she develops her ideas in her introduction; whether its Michael Camille "touching" Pierre Remiet by looking at his illuminations or, of course, Barthes and his mom.

Holly Crocker said...

Interesting thoughts so far. Anonymous, I guess I would question your claim that “[t]ouching a relic of it is really only touching the present--a thing existing in the present.” I don’t think of touching as necessarily externalized, or only tactile. And I don’t think Dinshaw does either—we often speak informally about being touched by something (and teachers talk about their ability to touch their students—and not in harassing, litigable ways, mind you). This is the affective dimension of touching, and I think it is important the very idea of being able to touch the past in GM. In fact, and I think Dinshaw’s well aware of it, the idea of an affective touch is really more complexly developed in medieval discourse than our own. As Marian rightly points out, sight was a tactile affair in the MA, not just because it was imagined in material terms (it was), but also because it moved the affects, among the other internal wits. All the external wits (the senses) had this power to impact (or affect) a subject. Sight was as intermingled as smell, though Valerie Allen is certainly right to suggest that the orifices of smell were necessarily more open. Because sight was often compared to mental contemplation, moreover, there were more practices designed to withdraw sight from its tactile situatedness (we might say that medieval meditation was in some way designed to formulate the gaze as a distancing possibility). But to return to Karl’s point, which I think is provocative and right all at once, I certainly think we should think about the interplay, interdependence, or interanimation (however we might express it; those don’t quite get what I’m grasping for) of activity and passivity in intimate relations. Medieval theorists of the senses certainly were sensitive to the fact that this line was quickly eroded, if it could be said to exist at all.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks all very much for the response to the invitation.

Jeffrey, I like your multiple Dinshaw I's, because it's smart, and one more effort to remind us that thinkers do not stay static (there is no one Derrida, there is no one Dinshaw: think of the Dinshaw warning us in the GLQ Queer Temporalities that affective contact across time is not always liberating, that Marc Bloch spoke of Nazism as appealing to Germans who felt 'out of time'), and also because it speaks to one of the posts I thought of writing. I had thought of writing on touching my own self across time in rereading this book. In part this was because of a phone number in the end papers of a friend who's since died, and about whom I've thought little since. That reminder seemed all too appropriate to this book, especially the section on Barthes. In large part, however, I wanted to think through this encounter with myself because of my old, heavy annotations and what they did NOT say.

I had entered into this rereading with the memory of being violently impatient with theory "back then," and expected to see the margins full of reactionary scorn. I have to say: I was a bit disappointed not to find evidence of the break I thought I had undergone between 2000 and now. Places where I was impatient--say, "fiction" as a verb (205), or the use of "imaginary" in the quote from Sharon Willis on 191--are still places where I am impatient. Otherwise, however, I seemed to have liked it without, apparently, getting it, being touched by it, however you want to think this, since I made so little use of it after the first reading. I'm glad I've come back, and I'm unsettled by the encounter with this strange, forgetful, disappointing, and surprisingly insightful reader whose body I still inhabit.

Anon: Thanks for bringing up questions of power, (implicitly) violence, and the capacity or possibility to get outside ourselves, our desires (strange to us though they may be), and our present moment. These are problems that have troubled me for some time. However, I do think there's some way out. In part, I want to remember the concentration of other times in whatever object, whatever text, whatever writer we're encountering. There's more there than just our moment stretching out to it. There's something there, say, a concentration of centuries, that in some sense reaches back to us. It's not all in our mind. Similarly, I am trying to distinguish between grasping and the caress, where the caress at once lets the 'touchee' be and also cherishes it and also allows it to transform the toucher through the sympathy, the desire, of the caress. The (at least quasi) erotic element of that word is one I haven't sufficiently thought through, though, but at least I can say that I don't think of this touching as a mode of knowledge (which I think of as a kind of pretension to mastery) so much as a mode of being with (where supposed mastery allows itself to give way to what the being with does to each previously separate party). If that makes sense.

And, Marian and Holly, thank you SO MUCH for reminding me of the historicity of sensation. It's an anachronism, and not a useful one, to speak of sight (simply) as mastery for this period. We must remember that what is being looked at is, in some way, looking back, impressing itself on us, reaching out to us.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm getting tired--it's very late in my time zone--so maybe free associating, but for some reason this made me think of works of art that were created and placed in such a way that they virtually could not be seen or touched. Intricately carved bosses so high up in cathedral vaults that you need binoculars to see them, not to mention an acrobatic litheness to be capable of craning your neck that far back, tiny stained glass images way up there where again you can't see any more than a play of colour, detailed carvings on the inside of choir stalls where you have to practically climb up into it and use a flashlight to see them, sculptures up on towers and so forth. I don't really think that the activities I mentioned in the last sentence were necessarily expected, intended, or indeed technologically possible in a medieval church, so why are those things there? What can you say about a desire to create a work of art that blatantly transcends the ability of the viewer to see it? Something you will know that you aren't touching? Something that touches you with the immensity and awesomeness of its magnitude and detail and glitter and sensory potency, but which you just cannot process or, as it were, touch it back and 'have' it?

Holly Crocker said...

Anonymous--yes! I think that's it, but I'll take it one go further. The powers of medieval perception were not simply vested in whether or not one could perceive (though that's immensely important). They were equally were about *how* one perceived (how one saw, in particular). These works of art were interested in creating a ductus that stationed seeing to follow certain paths, to stop at certain sites. Just as important, however, was the power of an object to confound or confuse...medieval theorists of vision are very interested in finding ways to vest more agency in the devotional object than the viewer. They have a hard time doing so, interestingly (except maybe through the absurd inaccessibility aspect to which you point).

But, to give an example that has to do with smell: *Le Vilain Asnier* tells the story of a carter who drives into a spice market and passes out from the intense/rich smells. To revive him, a passerby sticks a piece of dung under his nose, whereupon he immediately revives, and swears never to come that way again. According to the tale's ending, one should be mindful of one's element.

dan remein said...

Okay, I am very very travel-tired, and have been out of the loop for quite a long time. But how can I not say something about this.

Karl, your interest in the lack of interest in phenomenology in that book beats in wonderful fragmentary tandem with my heart. The touch opens up whole sets of questions about how things work in time, and what gets produced by a touch (as the queer fetish throws a wrench in the truth/falsehood opposition, we seem to be left with a certain kind of event, one which is just not all that interested in knowledge production...and this is actually where I find, perhaps, Dinshaw most volatile and interesting,most likely, in her own words, to 'queer historiogtaphy'--that is, in suggesting that history-writing produces an event, not knowledge, she would seem to implicitly take on someone like, say Aristotle, with all the gusto of someone like Heidegger. But she doesn't say any of this, of course).

More after about a day of sleep.

Gabriel Liston said...

Karl, Perhaps we ought to think of smell as being "touched in the nose".

Visually, I can be in a cathedral with light coming down through colored windows I maybe can't quite make out but can actually feel and so am touched. Is that what Abbot Suger was after in St. Denis (I'm going on old art history memory here)?

In looking at Bruegel's Harvest, I see people touched by the oppressive humidity, exhaustion, thirst, fullness, and, in the case of the land-of-Cockaigne-looking fellow, touched under the palms by the stubble of the mowed field. In seeing them so persuasively touched, I feel touched myself. I can't tell you what it smells like exactly but am certain it feels warm, damp, and prickly in the nose.

Though a visual phenomenon, it is a sharing in the tactile imagination of the painter.

As a painter, sight is touch (not limited to the fingertips) made understood for any distance beyond the immediate reach of the body (including, as Bruegel demonstrates, hundreds of miles and hundreds of years).

Karl Steel said...

Just a quick thank you, to Dan, to Holly, to Anon (who conjured up such wonderful memories of crawling about on my knees to look at/for misericordiae), and to Gabriel (hello!), who writes so eloquently about the touch of sight, of time, and the empathy with the touches in representative art (and here we might think of the touch of the brush on the canvass too). It's not only for the medievals that sight can be a kind of touch. We might think, then, that 'sight as mastery' is an attempt to cordon off the haptic, affective qualities of the participation of looking.

Thanks all, again.

Eileen Joy said...

Consider me late to this conversation, the conversants of which have likely wandered off elsewhere, but I wanted to mention to Karl that, when reading chapter 1 of Dinshaw's book, I too was immediately struck, in her discussion of Barthes, by her brushing off the question of phenomenology. I did not take this as impatience with Barthes' preoccupation with phenomenology, but rather, as Dinshaw simply signaling that that was a route she was not *presently* going to follow, but it's still kind of jarring because you wonder how it is, really, we can talk about touch--even touch across time--and not bring in the philosophy of embodied perception. But we might also reflect that bringing in phenomeonolgy might not be *queer* enough, or could even threaten to undo some of the queer historicizing impulses here, for phenomenology, strictly speaking, and historically, is often rigidly scientific [too "rationalist"? I'm not sure].

Consider though, too, the small fissures that open up in the passage from Dinshaw cited by Karl on page 51, that Barthes' later work in "Camera Lucida,"

"abandons (oddly, queerly, according to some critics) the deconstruction of the subject that earlier enabled his queer history, operating instead according to phenomenological precepts; and it is driven by a desire to recover again his lost, dead mother, which relation itself might be marked as gay, queer."

And what interests Dinshaw, she says, is not the phenomenological "assertions" of this project but the "physicality of the historical contact that Barthes asserts as achieved in looking at a photograph." By small "fissures" that are opening up here [or maybe it would be better to say, questions that are being begged], I mean that there is an interesting frisson occurring between Barthes' supposed abandonment of the deconstruction of the subject in favor of a more phenomenological apprehension of a singular body/person, and this frisson exists in, or runs along the lines of a three-way, or even four-way, relation between the "two" Barthes, let's say, and the Dinshaw that argues for the disaggregated, non-essentialized self while also desiring to touch, across time [like Barthes] singular, embodied others. But one may not need phenomenology for the theory and practice of a desire which, more properly, might belong to a type of mysticism, or spiritual practice, or queer historicism that has need of something other than phenomenology to discuss non-rational phenomena.

As to the caress which may not [yet] be a touch and which would also not grasp at overcoming the other [something we know that Bersani does not believe is even possible as long as we hang on too tightly to our sense(s) of singular individuation], I assume Karl was drawing upon Levinas's idea of what he believes is the ultimate ethical gesture par excellence:

"The caress is a mode of the subject's being, where the subject who is in contact with another goes beyond this contact. Contact as sensation is part of the world of light. But what is caressed is not touched, properly speaking. It is not the softness or warmth of the hand given in contact that the caress seeks. The seeking of the caress constitutes its essence by the fact that the caress does not know what it seeks. This 'not knowing,' this fundamental disorder, is the essential. . . . The caress is the anticipation of [the] pure future, without content. It is made up of this increase of hunger, of ever richer promises, opening new perspectives onto the ungraspable. It feeds on countless hungers." ["Time and the Other," p. 89]

More problematically, of course, Levinas associates the caress with the feminine. As to whether or not touch can ever be anything but, in some measure, too forceful and/or appropriative, I recommend the following book,

Linda Holler. EROTIC MORALITY: THE ROLE OF TOUCH IN MORAL AGENCY. Rutgers University Press, 2002.