by J J Cohen
Karl's post foregrounded the haptic, and wondered about phenomenology. The excellent and wide-ranging discussion historicized tactility well, emphasizing its similarity to both sight and smell, a kind of medieval synesthetic array.
My way of entry into the discussion is to hesitate at the welcome mat. Quite literally.
I first met Carolyn Dinshaw when I was a graduate student. This was just when the Dark Ages were becoming Middle. Dinshaw had been invited to my university to lead a discussion of a precirculated paper at a medieval colloquium (a paper that would later be published as "A Kiss Is Just a Kiss: Heterosexuality and Its Consolations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"; it was my first real exposure to Judith Butler's work, and made a convert of me). Chaucer's Sexual Poetics was making its big splash. Liz Scala had commanded me to read that book now, so I did (Liz is always right when she commands you to do something) -- and I was blown away. Reviewers would not always be kind to the volume (one of Dinshaw's faculty hosts was preparing a not very favorable one for Speculum at the moment she was visiting, as I recall), but I loved it for its unabashed feminism, for its new readings of works that were beginning to feel familiar, for its panache.
As a prelude to her paper presentation, Dinshaw was invited to an informal lunch with faculty and graduate students. (These lunches, dubbed for obscure reasons the Chester A. Arthur Appreciation Society, were always held at a restaurant more beloved for its inexpensive wine than its good food.) Dinshaw sat directly across from me ... and I was seized with panic because I was just a graduate student, and what the hell could I say to Carolyn Dinshaw? I so love your work, it's the most exciting stuff out there, will you sign my copy of Chaucer's Sexual Poetics? My eyes were drawn to her book bag, which was actually a rubber welcome mat that had been folded in half and welded into a kind of brief case.
"I like your welcome mat," I stuttered. It is possible that we then went on to talk about Judith Butler. Or Bertilak. Or cheap wine. I don't really know, but I do remember this: she impressed me as someone with whom you could speak about all of these things, and in return she would gently suggest that you were wrong and maybe ought to rethink what you were assuming to be true. She would always do this with such interest and intensity that it didn't matter that the ground was being systematically removed from beneath your feet. This loss could be disconcerting, could be queer (in the sense of estrangement, productive disruption -- to steal some synonyms from Getting Medieval). You might feel the roiling effect of that which will "shake up the ground of traditional categories and actions" (157).
But something about that welcome mat bent round into traveler's case was reassuring. Even if the destination was not necessary known in advance, stepping through that door to the unknown (a door that seemed as much in the past as the future and present), giving up on pilgrimages to certain knowledge: these commitments have their rewards, their pleasures, their lingering touch.
As it turns out I was fortunate enough to hear much of Getting Medieval as conference presentations and big lectures before it was published. The book has always had a comfortable feel for me, like coming home -- probably because (as Karl noted in the comments to his own post) to read a book first encountered almost a decade ago is in many ways to meet a temporally disjunct version of oneself. For me, much of what was to come later in my career was catalyzed by my glimpse of a welcome mat at a table in a Cambridge restaurant c. 1991. Returning to Getting Medieval is like traveling back in time, and realizing how much of the past inheres.
So, here is my question for you, dear readers, as well as my welcome mat: did this book touch you in the past? what resonances did a rereading call forth? And -- if you are lucky enough to be giving the book a first read -- does anything I've written do anything besides make your mouth water for cheap wine, and your browser yearn to surf eBay for welcome mat briefcases?