Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Towards a Restless Medieval Studies: Redux

Figure 1. The Nomadic Museum

[be sure to follow link above to a very cool and ongoing art project, "Ashes and Snow," by Gregory Colbert, which involves a traveling, nomadic museum space as well as an online bestiary codex; it's a wonderful "moving" emblem for Jeffrey's idea of a restless medieval studies]

Jeffrey has shared with us here his comments for BABEL's Kalamazoo session, "What Is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?" [Sunday, May 11, 8:30 am], and in sympathy with his argument there, I want to share here a portion of an essay I wrote last fall [in which Jeffrey and Mary Kate play no small part], "Goodbye to All That: The State of My Own Personal Field of Schizoid Anglo-Saxon Studies," which is forthcoming in The Heroic Age any day now. The essay was partly written, as some of you may remember, in response to a weblog debate last winter between myself, Michael Drout, Tirincula, and Richard Nokes over the supposed "state of the field" of Old English studies, but then it also morphed into a kind of argument I wanted to make for what Jeffrey has termed restless and mobile forms of scholarly "emplacement," and for what I call in my essay, following Deleuze and Guattari, "schizoid" and nomadic processes of scholarly desire and scholarly desiring-machines. The entire essay is primarily pitched at certain vexed conversations and critical anxieties that seem to predominate in Old English/Anglo-Saxon studies, but I think the final part of the essay, which I share here, is applicable to medieval studies, and really, any scholarly studies, as a whole. And it goes without saying, as Jeffrey also notes in his Kalamazoo remarks, that my thinking here would not even have been possible without the "efflorescent" communities of the weblog-sphere.

Goodbye to All That: The State of My Own Personal Field of Schizoid Anglo-Saxon Studies

[what follows are excerpts from conclusion]

Perhaps the best answers to Drout’s and Nokes’s claims that some knowledge is not contingent or situated and that an important move for the self-preservation of Anglo-Saxon studies might be to at least privilege language study first before anything else (with the understanding that language study partakes in something like universal or pragmatic facts or truths), come from three graduate students in medieval studies, Liza Blake (New York University), Mary Kate Hurley (Columbia University), and John Walter (Saint Louis University), two of whom (Blake and Walter) appended comments to my blog post, “My Life Among the Anglo-Saxonists.” Blake referenced Deleuze’s idea that, “when questioning something’s identity,” you should replace “intrinsic essences by active transformations. In this new system, [in the words of Manuel DeLanda, from Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy] ‘figures are classified by their response to events that occur to them’” (qtd. in Joy 2007). Of her own struggles to identify herself as a scholar, Blake wrote further,
If there’s anything I learned in undergrad[uate] and graduate school, as I slowly and awkwardly came to “identify” myself as a scholar of literature, it is that I’m not mastering an area by difference (I do _____ while philosophy does philosophy and linguistics does language), but mastering an ability to sense—and provide for—when a text needs more historical analyses and when it asks for philosophical analyses (insert various “icals” here). In short . . . I would identify myself not by what I do, buy by how the texts I read transform my scholarly work, and transform what it means for me to be (or become—I’ve got a long way to go yet) a scholar. (Qtd. in Joy 2007)
In another comment, Walter reminded us that “the problem with claims that all we need to do is focus on ‘x’ is that X gets its meaning from its relationships to everything that’s not X,” and he indicated that he “liked Walter Ong’s take on what English studies is,” as evidenced by an essay Ong wrote in 1971, “English 2000 A.D.,” where Ong ruminated:
I suspect that at its best English in the future will continue to develop by reaching out and pulling in around itself as many as possible of the other always burgeoning humanistic subjects (including the sciences in their manifold humanistic dimensions). . . . Perhaps the end result will be the emergence of a multidisciplinary field of study, which we can hope will not be invincibly chaotic and which we might be styled anthropology in the deepest sense of this term, with various foci, these for English being around the verbally produced artifact. (Ong 1971, 11)

Finally, in a memorial piece, “In Memoriam: Nicholas Howe,” written for In The Middle, Hurley ruminated on her experience of re-reading Howe’s book Across an Inland Sea: Writing in Place from Buffalo to Berlin, which Hurley believes teaches us “as much about being a medievalist as it does about being a traveler” (Hurley 2006). She explained the ways in which Howe’s book, although it is not ostensibly about Anglo-Saxon England, resonates with the themes that predominated Howe’s work with Old English texts: “the idea and construction of home, and the ways in which the loss of that home inscribes itself in a place, and moreover in writing” (Hurley 2006). And she also pointed out how Howe also directly invokes the ruins of Old English elegy—its enta geweorc [work of giants]—in relation to places such as an abandoned train station in Buffalo, New York or High Street in Columbus, Ohio. Most importantly, Hurley highlighted Howe’s insights in his book regarding the temporal paradoxes of pilgrimage and pilgrimage sites, which in my mind could stand as an apt description of the exemplary (and may I say, beautiful?) way in which Howe approached the study of the Anglo-Saxon world in his scholarship. As Howe himself put it,
[t]he return enacted by pilgrimage need not be—perhaps rarely is—within one’s own experience or life; it is more powerfully a return within commonly shared practices and memories. . . . A pilgrimage site endures in the life of a person paradoxically as a place of transience. You journey there, you are there, and then you leave. . . . But from that pilgrim’s place comes some understanding that it is not transient and fixes it in memory so it can be found again. (Howe 2003, 114)
This idea of traveling to the past via the well-trod paths to ancient sites where, in the face of the “stony reticence” of those sites, “words should fail us” (Howe 2003, 139), and by which traveling there is both permanence but also the continual transience of going and coming back, captures beautifully, for me, an ideal praxis for Anglo-Saxon studies—a praxis, moreover, that would always understand the importance of the return to the present because, as Hurley explained Howe’s thinking regarding his journey to Chartres, “in our time a pilgrimage site exists only as it is made and remade through the desire of each visitor” (Hurley 2006), and Chartres is ultimately a ruin for us, not just in its decayed architecture, but because, in Howe’s own words, we “do not visit it as a place of worship” (Howe 2003, 116). In this sense, situatedness is all, and we will always arrive belatedly to the primary love object of our studies—Anglo-Saxon England—carrying other histories with us that can’t but help inflect our thought and affect, and why would we want to discard them? We do not reach backwards, facing away from the present, through orderly chains of words and significations to understand the past on its own (supposedly logical and rational and coherent) terms, but can only feel our way there through the rubble of what I would call these affective remains of the past, these letters to the future, or, in the words of Edith Wyschogrod, these “gift[s] of the past to a present affected with futurity,” which are inscribed “with the vouloir dire of a people that has been silenced, of the dead others” (Wyschogrod 1998, 248). It is not the so-called “science” of language and manuscript studies, but the art of the affective intelligence that can hope to help us draw close to these dead others, and to consider both their silence and the ruins of their words, while also imagining the possibilities of contact, of reanimation. For after all, as Catherine Brown has written, the Middle Ages “was invented to be a foreign country. The indigenous peoples are dead, and they didn’t even know they were medieval—they thought they were living in modern times. They thought it was now” (Brown 2000, 547).

And here we begin to hit on what, for me, is the real heart of the matter: the necessity of a scholarly affect of openness with regard to the possible interrelations (or in Walter Benjamin’s terms, the possible constellations) between an Anglo-Saxon text (a verbal, but also a visual, and yes, an archaeological-anthropological artifact) and, frankly, almost anything else that might lie in our path of pilgrimage to the past and back again. And with Blake’s commentary above, especially, we have what I think is the critically important idea that, for all of our training and possible critical biases or leanings, and for all of the ways in which the artifacts of the past are, of course, somehow fixed in both memory and in historical spaces and times, we must allow ourselves to be surprised and led by what we do not know about them—by all the ways in which a text could ask us questions we had not thought to ask ourselves as part of our traditional preparation for sitting down with an Old English poem, or homily, or saint’s legend, or set of law codes, or the like, if only we were willing to suspend certain habituations. As James Earl has asked of Beowulf, “What would Beowulf look like if we could see it ‘without feeling much previous history’? What would it look like stripped of everything we have been taught about it, as if it had just washed up onto our shore and we were reading it for the very first time?” (Earl 2007, 688). This would entail a reconceptualization of our reading practices, pace Paul Zumthor, as, “at least potentially, a dialogue,” in which
two agents confront one another: I am in some way produced by this text, and in the same moment, as a reader, I construct it. A relationship of active solidarity rather than a mirror-effect; solidarity promised rather than given, pleasurably felt at the end of the long preparatory work required by the traversing of two historical distances, going and coming back. (Zumthor 1986, 66)
And I think we have to also give ourselves permission and the time to wander at will, or by accident, through the fields and thickets of other disciplines and realms of thought and places (whether a city or movie theater or genetics lab) that lie off the beaten paths of our disciplinary tradition: how else could Howe have connected an abandoned train station in a contemporary American city to the ruins built by giants in the Anglo-Saxon landscapes of Old English poetry? To say then, as Drout ultimately does, that what Anglo-Saxon studies needs now is a renewed focus on philology, historicism, and manuscript work, in order to resist the “pull” of a literary studies that would be too personal or too political or too much like “the dorm room bull session” (Drout 2007a), strikes me as an impoverished view of what our field should be and do. It is a view that does not seem to understand that the texts of Anglo-Saxon England, “far from being a rigid tablet of fixed rules and monuments bullying us from the past,” in every moment of their reading and interpretation, actually reveal history “as an agonistic process still being made, rather than finished and settled once and for all” (Said 2004, 25). The perspective (whoever is espousing it) that Anglo-Saxon studies should turn away from postmodern literary studies is also myopic as regards the future of the humanities and the part that Anglo-Saxon studies might play (must play) in that. It should give us pause, further, that while many Anglo-Saxonists are still actively resisting and dismissing critical theory, during the symposium of the editorial board of Critical Inquiry convened in 2003 to discuss the future of the journal, critical theory, and the humanities, Teresa de Lauretis argued that “now may be a time for the human sciences to reopen the questions of subjectivity, materiality, discursivity, knowledge, to reflect on the post of posthumanity. It is a time to break the piggy bank of saved conceptual schemata and reinstall uncertainty in all theoretical applications, starting with the primacy of the cultural and its many ‘turns’: linguistic, discursive, performative, therapeutic, ethical, you name it” (de Lauretis 2004, 368). Then again, this could mark the perfect time for the entry of Anglo-Saxon studies as the “pre” of everything (English) into the larger (and pressing) project of considering the “post” of everything (English). This is a project already ongoing in many quarters, and in a system of higher education—the University—that can, at this point, be considered posthistorical.

In his book The University in Ruins, published two years after his untimely death in 1994, Bill Readings argued (convincingly, in my mind) that, partly due to “globalization,” whereby “the rule of the cash nexus” has replaced “the notion of national identity as a determinant in all aspects of social life,” the University (capitalized to indicate its historical status as an idealized institution) has become a “transnational bureaucratic corporation” and “the centrality of the traditional humanistic disciplines to the life of the University is no longer assured” (Readings 1996, 3). Because “the grand narrative of the University, centered on the production of a liberal, reasoning subject, is no longer available to us,” it is “no longer the case that we can conceive the University within the historical horizon of its self-realization” (Readings 1996, 9, 5). Readings prefers the term “posthistorical” over “postmodern” for the contemporary University “in order to insist on the sense that the institution has outlived itself, is now a survivor of the era in which it defined itself in terms of the project of the historical development, affirmation, and inculcation of national culture” (Readings 1996, 6). Ultimately, the University is “a ruined institution, one that lost its historical raison d’etre,” but which nevertheless “opens up a space in which it is possible to think the notion of community otherwise, without recourse to notions of unity, consensus, and communication” (Readings 1996, 19, 20). This is a space, moreover, where the University “becomes one site among others where the question of being-together is raised, raised with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question” (Readings 1996, 20). Indeed, the University, however “ruined,” must strive, in Readings’ view, toward building a “community that is not made up of subjects but singularities”: this community would not be “organic in that its members do not share an immanent identity to be revealed,” and it would not be “directed toward the production of a universal subject of history, to the cultural realization of an essential human nature” (Readings 1996, 185). Rather, this would be a community “of dissensus that presupposes nothing in common,” and that “would seek to make its heteronomy, its differences, more complex” (Readings 1996, 190). In this scenario, the posthistorical University would be “where thought takes place beside thought, where thinking is a shared process without identity or unity”—this is ultimately “a dissensual process; it belongs to dialogism rather than to dialogue,” and instead of a new interdisciplinary space that would “reunify” the increasingly fragmented disciplines, there would be a “shifting disciplinary structure that holds open the question of whether and how thoughts fit together” (Readings 1996, 192).

Readings’ thinking accords well with Derrida’s in his essay, “The University Without Condition,” where Derrida argued for a “new humanities” and “unconditional university” that would “remain an ultimate place of critical resistance—and more than critical—to all the powers of dogmatic and unjust appropriation” (Derrida 2002, 204). This unconditional university, further, would constitute “the principal right to say everything, even if it be under the heading of fiction and the experimentation of knowledge, and the right to say it publicly, to publish it” (Derrida 2002, 205). Finally, the humanities
would have a privileged place in this unconditional university, because the very principle of unconditionality has an originary and privileged place of presentation, of manifestation, of safekeeping in the Humanities. It has there its space of discussion and reelaboration as well. All this passes as much by way of literature and languages (that is, the sciences called the sciences of man and culture) as by way of the nondiscursive arts, by way of law and philosophy, by way of critique, questioning, and, beyond critical philosophy and questioning, by way of deconstruction—where it is a matter of nothing less than rethinking the concept of man, the figure of humanity in general, and singularly the one presupposed by what we have called, in the university, for the last few centuries, the Humanities. (Derrida 2002, 207)
Here, then, I ask for an Anglo-Saxon studies without conditions—for the right, as an Anglo-Saxonist, “to say everything, even if it be under the heading of fiction and the experimentation of knowledge, and the right to say it publicly, to publish it.” I ask, too, for a shared vision of the University as the site of the “shifting disciplinary structure that holds open the question of whether and how [our] thoughts fit together.”

But it is not enough to say I want these things or to ask for them—after all, Drout himself has said that he has “no interest” in telling Anglo-Saxonists “what they should be interested in” (Drout 2007c). But it is not a question of interest—what I am interested in (the “queerness” and nonlinear dynamics and schizoid “flows” of the Anglo-Latin Guthlac narratives, at present) versus what you might be interested in (the sources of Ælfric’s Lives of Saints or the metrics of Beowulf, perhaps?). It is, rather, a question of collective desire. There must be room, in my mind, within Anglo-Saxon studies, not just for the individual scholar who wishes to take herself into uncharted theoretical territory (to go and come back again as a lone traveler), but for deleuzoguattarian roaming packs and multiplicities to emerge and join with other packs and multiplicities to create desiring-scholarly-machines and critical machines-machines-machines-machines. This would be, in the words of Jeffrey Cohen and Todd Ramlow, a “process formed of alliances with and through [disciplinary] others, a process not collapsible to either side of a self/other binary, a process always in motion, changing (performatively) in multiple contexts” (Cohen and Ramlow 2005/2006). These alliances would be made up of groups of scholar-machines (an Anglo-Saxon studies machine, a queer theory machine, a post-Norman Conquest history machine, a third-wave feminist studies machine, etc.), each of which would function as “a break in the flow, in relation to the machine connected to it,” and everywhere there would be “break-flows out of which desire” would pour forth (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 37). Ours would then be field (or machine) that would have to run on the libidinal economies of the philologist as well as the queer theorist, the codicologist as well as the new historicist, and so on. I want, further, to see working groups formed across the temporal divides that separate Anglo-Saxon studies from the “other” Middle Ages and beyond, in which groups Anglo-Saxonists would take leadership positions (while also practicing anti-hierarchical collaborative work) and the primary impetus for the disparate “joinings” of these groups would be nothing less than a complete re-envisioning of the humanities and its relation to public thought and life.

This would be the only possible route, in my mind, toward the kind of schizoid desiring-revolution that Deleuze and Guttari argued for so passionately in their collaborative work, where desire itself, when it lights out for the territories elsewhere unleashes, in the words of one of their translators, “schizzes-flows—forces that escape coding, scramble the codes, and flee in all directions: orphans (no daddy-mommy-me), atheists (no beliefs), and nomads (no habits, no territories)” (Seem 1983, xxi]. Such a desiring-revolution will be necessary to reinvent the “business as usual,” not just of Anglo-Saxon studies, but also of the transnational bureaucratic corporation called the University which has created a culture of cynicism and despair as regards the fate of the humanities. But I—I do not despair. If it turns out that assembling a pack, or multiplicity, of theoretical rogues within Anglo-Saxon studies is not possible at present, I can always leave this house and carry these studies to other territories and other packs. It has been my feeling for some time now, in any case, that what might be called the University proper—at least in terms of its brick and stone buildings and manicured green spaces and conventional classrooms and libraries and departments rooted in fixed geographies—is no longer adequate to the project of a humanities that could be said to matter somehow, not just now, but in the future. We may need new affectively-constructed spaces, or floating intellectual “cells” or “group houses” or “undergrounds,” that would be global and heterogeneous, always on the move, and perpetually committed to asking the question of what “being-together” means. This is not an academic question, but a political one. There is no escaping it.

Figure 2. Interior of the Nomadic Museum

Monday, April 28, 2008

An Embarrassing Admission

Despite three degrees in English and despite being the chair of a department of such, I am a terrible speller. I blame the convergence of two phenomena:
  1. A near-lifetime study of Middle English, that happy go lucky linguistic intermezzo when the rules of proper spelling hadn't been invented yet;
  2. My own hastiness, prompted these days by having to answer so much email that to do so efficiently would prove only that I am an automoton.
Over the weekend I sent out an email invitation to GW's graduating English majors, inviting them and their families to a reception and champagne toast. The patina of poshness that "champagne toast" imbues to any invitation was immediately eroded by a subject line that included the words "English Deapartment Reeception." Yesterday I was compelled to send a follow up email:
Those weren't typos in the subject line of yesterday's message. "English Deapartment Reeception" is the Middle English spelling. Those of you who have taken my Chaucer class will have realized that fact immediately; those who have not may now think I obtained my PhD from an online offshore institution.

Errors in typing or not, the reception for graduating seniors truly is on Saturday, 17 May from 1:30 to 3 p.m. in Rome Hall 771. The theme will be "Your BA in English Does Not Necessarily Make You an Able Speller." I look forward to meeting your families and friends then.

-- The Deapartment Chear
Back to grading those papers. And yes, I will be deducting points for misspelled words ... or, knowing me, words that are correctly spelled but do not seem so to my hasty, Middle English addled eyes.

[cross posted to GW English News]

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Dreaming Language: Lytton Smith's Monster Theory

(I've been wanting to write about LJS's chapbook for about a month now -- a moment's rest in the rush of the end-of-semester madness made this finally possible. As some of you know, LJS is frequent commenter at In the Middle -- and I can't recommend his work highly enough. He's also a colleague of mine in the Columbia English department's Medieval contingent, and a fellow Anglo-Saxonist. That might be why it was a bit strange writing about him in the third person! I have to confess, I don't know how to write a poetry review...thoughts and comments welcome! The image is from national geographic, and illustrates another Loch Ness Monster theory. Seemed a good match.)

Reading Lytton Smith’s chapbook Monster Theory is a bit like stepping into a memory you’d forgotten. At first the reason seems obvious: in a book where so many poems take cues and even characters from the world long past, of course you’ll find something in it that is eerily familiar, whether a “Book of Encouragement and Consolation,” a “Charm Against the Loss of Crops,” or even a “Monster Theory.” However, on second approach, this strange familiarity becomes just that -- strange, but in the sense of the French étranger: foreign. If there is a memory here, it isn’t something entirely of the reader’s making. It’s at that moment, in the recognition of that which isn’t precisely recognizable, that the poet’s spell begins.The sense is that this book requires – demands – our complete attention, and moreover, demands to be re-read, even in absence. This little book of poems haunts the reader who lets its language speak to her.

Throughout the book, the poet asks for an gesture of imagination from his reader, and from the first a point of entry is established: “Bury your eyes in late barley,” opens the first poem, called “Scarecrow Work.” With this opening it becomes clear that there is a relationship forming, a world the poet constructs of language which, while it seems to be reveling more than revealing, will show the reader something that exists beyond the glittering surface of its words. Repetitions, particularly of verbs, seem important here, as in the last stanza of “Scarecrow Work”:
“…Your lesson: what will not scatter is safe, /
Is dove, is olive return.”

The existential status of that “which is” safe, isn’t merely safe, and the repetition of “is” – is dove, is olive return – suggests that, while each thing that does not scatter is safe, each thing that does not scatter will still scatter, if only in a proliferation of references.

The centrality of the poem “Monster Theory” to the chapbook which bears its name is well placed. A poem not unlike the patchwork [monster] it speaks, the work performed by each section of the piece stands in for a larger analysis of what the [monster] patterns, promises, reveals and conceals. Though the first section reminds us that “It is always at an outset a displacement—”, the bracketed [monster] moves quickly through that displacement and into a stunning soliloquy that closes the work. The poet writes of a village, a cartographer, a lost daughter, a gathering search for a monster which refuses restraint or removal (the almost playful lines of the fifth section enumerate the ways the [monster] thwarts any attempt to prevent his escape: “Cauldron of boiling water: stench, but not of burning flesh. /Buried alive: Why expect so much of wood and soil?”), and the rendering of the [monster] as myth (“two anxious and too young sentries posted at the cave entrance…” mark a particularly lovely line in the third section), until finally in the seventh section we see the [monster] speak. Though in dialogue with what we presume is the daughter he snatched away, the [monster’s] words are the only voice we are allowed to hear. We are confronted with a [monster] who seems to know his place, and this is where the poem’s provenance becomes strikingly clear. Inspired by the essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (the introduction to a volume of collected essays called Monster Theory), Smith has retained some key phrases from Cohen’s article, and this lends the [monster] an eerie prescience, a theoretical take on lives human and monstrous which approaches a kind of philosophy of monstrous purpose: “The monster exists as harbinger to crisis, / devil’s advocate to the identity.” It becomes clear, however, that when this [monster] is allowed to speak, another aspect of human identity is at stake, and with language, this focus lends light to other work being done by these poems:
‘You of all should know fear of the monster
is a kind of desire, a way of loving without
the difficulty of touch.’ ‘............
………………………’ ‘If your hands grant
a life I could not have imagined, the amber
of electric through the body, I have seen
also your weeping after.'
This sense of the body -- human or not – which simultaneously gives voice to and is voiced by language, is what Smith seems most interested by in so much of his poetry. The intersection of language and body, his poetry tells us, can be painful and profound.

“Annuls the Space/Time Experience” is one of the moments where the intense pain that language can cause is brought out most beautifully in the text. “Is this the dream of language,” the poet asks, and then confronts the reader with the possibilities: “a trap with rusted hasp (suggests escape / but offers teeth)” The musical beauty of language is not forgotten either, and in another moment of the same poem, we are offered these lines:

…and Ben has left
a written note as if to say the lair

is love of lair, the lyre a stringed bereft
of am, the lure just that, another dream
of language much as fluid as adrift…

The progression from lair to lyre to lure is particularly musical, and its setting in a poetic meditation on language is particularly appropriate. And yet, in spite of (and perhaps because of) the beauty of such lyric lines, the poem concludes on this haunting note:

“…we’ve fallen for our absents
and this is then the dream of language,
of those who’ve left, and left us with their absence.”

Those who’ve left, and left us with their absence – returning to this line, repeatedly, the haunting beauty of that which isn’t present (and so must be represented in language) is what it seems Smith is most adept at rendering. And of course, it is where bodily presence is least possible that it becomes all the more pronounced.

In a particularly bold poetic move, the poet writes in the voice of Eva of Wilton, the intended recipient of Goscelin of St. Bertin’s Liber Confortatorius. In “The Book of Encouragement and Consolation,” this young anchoress, who is only known through a letter she may have never received, and the voice of a man, Goscelin, whose love for her may have been implicated in her removal from St Bertin to Wilton, is given her own chance to respond. The embodiedness of her language – “(tongue / composed, the restrained throat forgotten / as threshold)” – as represented in the text is striking, and we remember that silence is an absence which implies a presence, and so lasts “only until its next breaking.”

Despite the deep ambivalence that becomes clear in terms of what “dream of language” we might ultimately embrace, the poet implies that this isn’t the end. If, as in “A Manual for Weather,” we are reminded that “All that is left of weather / Is how it is written…” and if we might (as with a bracketed [monster]) exchange the word “weather” for other words, Smith’s poetry envisions this status as one of hope, not desperation. If language cannot be fixed, or static, therein lies its beauty, its hope – its ability to live beyond us. Lytton Smith creates a world in which words are more than simply memory, and he invites us to leave our preconceptions about language and its myriad uses at the door. At the end of “A Manual for Weather,” positioned as it is at the end of Monster Theory, we are granted the grace of an unexpected arrival:

Welcome, friend. Leave your instruments
at the entrance. We live between weather
and earthlight: there is no use for them

here, no music without weather. Pitch
nor oscillation, string nor wind nor voice.

The poem ends where we do – at the limit of what language can represent. The final line goes out almost like a prayer – and a remarkable chapbook ends with what peace a world of language might finally give:

Silence, and words folding into it, enough.


Lytton Smith's Monster Theory was the winner of the PSA chapbook award in 2008. His book of poems, The All Purpose Magical Tent will be published by Nightboat Books in 2009. Lytton blogs at: The All Purpose Magical Tent.

Cross posted at OENYC.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Towards a Restless Medieval Studies

For your delectation, my Kalamazoo paper, an offering to the BABEL god at the roundtable "What is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?"

You will remember that we had some preliminary discussion here ... and I wish I could have composed something a little longer, because I didn't have the space to detail spatial investigations very well. In the longer version I'll keep permanently filed in my mind along with my other Platonic Forms, there is mention of Sara Ahmed, Yi Fan Tuan, Christopher Tilley, cultural geography, archeology, and phenomenology. Possibly there is also a chorus line of grass skirt clad penguins as well. But in this version, we're down to a bare minimum.

I should also add that a catalyst for this paper is Jehangir Malegam's work on medieval peace. His meticulous research strongly suggests that earthly serenity was not something to be desired -- that stillness was reserved for the heavens. This mundane realm had of ethical necessity to be perturbed, restless.

My apologies for the fact that this piece is rather allusive: it responds to opening remarks by Nancy Partner, the gist of which you will glean from what appears below.

Towards a Restless Medieval Studies
"What is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?"
Kalamazoo 2008

Over the past ten years, much of my scholarly work has been organized around questions of temporality, especially in time’s relation to identities. I’ve wanted to know more about the place of time, especially as the past, the present and the future curve or knot in ways that resist reduction into arrows of progress or a stasis of culmination. This untimely and unhistorical project, shared with many other medievalists, has been enabled through alliances formed with queer, feminist, and postcolonial theory -- schools of criticism that have examined the enabling fictions of modernity and found them wanting.

Itinerant and unsettled, contemporary medieval studies is opening innovative spaces for community, spaces in which to be more gregarious, more challenging, more PRESENT. Some of these efflorescent communities take advantage of new technologies: I wouldn’t be here today with so much to say on this subject if I didn’t participate in a blog. I also don’t think it is a coincidence that many of us seated at this panel are or have been department chairs – an office we’ve held not because no one wants to listen to us medievalists, but because our colleagues know that we who study times long passed have much of value in the present to say – to say about the present, to say about the place of history in the present, to say about place and about time.

So, “the place of the present in medieval studies.” Without the challenges posed and the friendships offered by queer theory, by feminism, by postcolonial studies, I would not have been spurred to think temporality in words like this:
a progressive or teleological history in which time is conceived as mere seriality and flat chronology is inadequate to the task of thinking the meanings and trauma of the past, its embededness in the present and future. Once homogeneity and progressive or hierarchizing "developmental" models are denied history - once simple, linear sequences of cause and effect are abandoned for more complicated narratives of heterogeneity, overlap, sedimentation, and multiplicity -- time itself becomes a problem … and the medieval .. “middle” becomes an instrument useful for rethinking what [the contemporary] postcolonial might signify. (The Postcolonial Middle Ages)
Or this:
how time might be thought beyond some of its conventional parameters, outside of reduction into a monologic history … and outside of linearization, the weary process through which a past is not encountered for its own possibilities, but either distanced as mere antecedent or explored only to understand better the present and to render predictable the future. (Medieval Identity Machines)
I stand by those words, written at that time before (according to this session’s opening remarks) 9/11 intervened to teach us a lesson in the bluntness of the world, at a more innocent time when medievalists just wanted to have fun. In a pitiable attempt to get somebody – anybody --among their colleagues to listen to them, medievalists (it seems) were exploring the fragility and dispersedness of human identity.

Yet I don’t think that any of us were forming these alliances out of resentment at being ignored, or even because such work is pleasurable. Well, it is fun, don’t get me wrong, but such scholarship is not to be dismissed as mere fun. To think temporality otherwise; to discern in our Now the living traces of multiple pasts (even the United States carries within it the burden and the possibility of medieval pasts); to recognize that time is so complex that futures can curve to sink their teeth deep into histories long passed; to touch these times and to love them: that’s the place of the present in medieval studies. Such emplacedness challenges us to reconceptualize the Middle Ages and history more generally, to think them outside of the points of view that have hardened around them and seem true – but only because we’ve repeated them for so long. Such congealing into doctrine says more about our reverence for imagined pasts and our fear of unstable futures than about the Middle Ages. Doctrinaire modes of analysis strive to encapsulate this geotemporal expanse, to still into a museum display. A more restless approach will grant the medieval its life in the present.

So, the place of the past in medieval studies: it has no place, if place is thought only as stability, as dead exhibit, as bounded subject. We need our monsters, our postcolonialists, our feminists, our queers. We need to recognize kindred spirits, to engage with meticulousness and a sense of common cause the ponderings of our fellow scholar-wanderers. Theory has given us a lingua franca, a border space where we can have “temporally promiscuous” (Gil Harris) conversations. Let’s go further and imagine what Wallace Stevens urged -- “To compound the imagination's Latin with / The lingua franca et jocundissima” – to roam that space where philosophy and narrative embrace or even become art.

Place needs to be as peripatetic as time. I’ve said it before. I will say it again: Medieval studies -- and scholarship more generally -- ought to be nomadic, mobile, vagrant. Not built upon imperturbable convictions, not built upon repudiations. The place of the past in medieval studies: it’s what our presiding genius Eileen Joy called “unsettled”: a restless medieval studies. That’s what I’m signing up for. That’s what I see here today.

[image: "Le città della Gojia: Partenikos," from here]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Escaping The Waning of the Middle Ages

It's not that rare that an article in the New York Times makes me cringe. However, only rarely do they invoke one of my favorite books to do so. Today, David Brooks (writing, intriguingly, from about an hour away from my hometown in North Carolina -- Elon!) writes about the Middle Ages as The Great Escape. He invokes the spirit of Johan Huizinga, whose Waning of the Middle Ages was a great influence on my own entrance into medieval studies, although from the beginning, my medieval history professor encouraged me to question his work.

Brooks, however, has wholesale bought into it as the antidote to a modern political campaign, saying that
Over the past 15 months, I’ve been writing pretty regularly about the presidential campaign, which has meant thinking a lot about attack ads, tracking polls and which campaign is renouncing which over-the-line comment from a surrogate that particular day.

But on my desk for much of this period I have kept a short essay, which I stare at longingly from time to time. It’s an essay about how people in the Middle Ages viewed the night sky, and it’s about a mentality so totally removed from the campaign mentality that it’s like a refreshing dip in a cool and cleansing pool.

The essay, which I haven't read, is by Michael Ward. It's called "CS Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem." It appeared in Books and Culture, subtitled "A Christian Review."

What is vaguely disconcerting about Brooks' account is that, as he speaks of Huizinga (and other historians) he sounds like him. Observe Brooks:
The medievals had a tremendous capacity for imagination and enchantment, and while nobody but the deepest romantic would want to go back to their way of thinking (let alone their way of life), it’s a tonic to visit from time to time.

As many historians have written, Europeans in the Middle Ages lived with an almost childlike emotional intensity. There were stark contrasts between daytime and darkness, between summer heat and winter cold, between misery and exuberance, and good and evil. Certain distinctions were less recognized, namely between the sacred and the profane.

Material things were consecrated with spiritual powers. God was thought to live in the stones of the cathedrals, and miracles inhered in the bones of the saints. The world seemed spiritually alive, and the power of spirit could overshadow politics. As Johan Huizinga wrote in “The Autumn of the Middle Ages,” “The most revealing map of Europe in these centuries would be a map, not of political or commercial capitals, but of the constellation of sanctuaries, the points of material contact with the unseen world.”
Compare with the first page of Huizinga's first chapter of The Waning of the Middle Ages, "The Violent Tenor of Life" (you can read it here):
To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The constrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking. All the experience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life.
I don't blame Brooks (though I'll admit I often want to) for his enchantment by the Middle Ages. What I do take issue with is that, although he seems to know better, he blindly accepts this filtered view of a complicated time. This nostalgic impulse is one that Brooks (and Ward) are both aware of in CS Lewis. This is, again, from Brooks:
The modern view disenchants the universe, Lewis argued, and tends to make it “all fact and no meaning.” When we say that a star is a huge flaming ball of gas, he wrote, we are merely describing what it is made of. We are not describing what it is. Lewis also wanted to include the mythologies, symbols and stories that have been told about the heavenly actors, and which were so real to those who looked up into the sky hundreds of years ago. He wanted to strengthen the imaginative faculty that comes naturally to those who see the heavens as fundamentally spiritual and alive.

But that is a modern interpretation of the Middle Ages. A longing for the Middle Ages is NOT for the Middle Ages that existed. Another quote from Brooks shows that he knows this:
Large parts of medieval life were attempts to play out a dream, in ways hard to square with the often grubby and smelly reality. There were the elaborate manners of the courtly, the highly stylized love affairs and the formal chivalric code of knighthood. There was this driving impulsion among the well-born to idealize. This idealizing urge produced tournaments, quests and the mystical symbols of medieval art — think of the tapestries of the pure white unicorn. The gap between the ideal and the real is also what Cervantes made fun of in “Don Quixote.”

Writers like C. S. Lewis and John Ruskin seized on medieval culture as an antidote to industrialism — to mass manufacturing, secularization and urbanization. Without turning into an Arthurian cultist, it’s nice to look up from the latest YouTube campaign moment and imagine a sky populated with creatures, symbols and tales.
Brooks misses the point of his own writing -- and, I daresay, of Ruskin's. The ideal is wonderful -- it serves as something to strive for, perhaps. But what Brooks forgets is that the ideal was only available partially, and only then to the elite. Yes, it's easy to look at a campaign and get nostalgic for a simpler time of knights and tournaments and fair ladies in distress. A time when good and evil was obvious.

But that kind of enchantment -- the kind that only aspires to the "dream" without committing to actions in the world -- isn't an antidote to industrialization or anything else, because it doesn't live in the world, but somewhere above it, outside it, beyond it. "Meaning" is a process, not an end -- and a longing for a world that is only meaning (only allegory) ends up harming more than it helps. Moreover, it seems to me it's a surefire way to assure that nothing about the present -- the people starving, suffering, bleeding, and dying far from those who can indulge in dreaming of an "ideal," or interpreting the world -- ever changes. In the search for a stable place to stand, this "ideal" leaves out anyone who dwells (as JJC has so often shown so elegantly in more traditional print sources) at the borders, or in difficult middles. That's why I find Brooks' drive-by citation of Ruskin so problematic: If you remember "The Nature of the Gothic" (problematic work itself), you'll remember this passage:
[T]he second most essential element of the Gothic spirit [is] that it broke through that law wherever it found it in existence; it not only dared, but delighted in, the infringement of every servile principle; and invented a series of forms of which the merit was, not merely that they were new, but that they were capable of perpetual novelty... The vital principle is not the love of Knowledge, but the love of Change. It is that strange disquietude of the Gothic spirit that is its greatness; that restlessness of the dreaming mind, that wanders hither and thither among the niches, and flickers feverishly around the pinnacles, and frets and fades in labyrinthine knots and shadows along wall and roof, and yet is not satisfied, nor shall be satisfied.
I can't help but wonder, young medievalist that I am, if that interpretation of the medieval instinct (about architecture, perhaps, but no less medieval for that) might ultimately be the one we should long for: the unresting search for change, rather than Brooks' wish for enchantment, meaning and symbols. How do other readers of Brooks take this article? Am I being too much of a medievalist?

Thanks to EAB for the link.

cross posted at OENYC.

Monday, April 21, 2008

What We Do: A Medieval Morning Hunting Papal Cats

The local section of the NY Times reports that the current pope loves cats:
Though Benedict is the first pope to be written about by a cat, he falls squarely within a long Vatican tradition. According to “The Papacy: An Encyclopedia,” by Philippe Levillain, Pope Paul II, in the 15th century, had his cats treated by his personal physician. Leo XII, in the 1820s, raised his grayish-red cat, Micetto, in the pleat of his cassock. And according to The Times of London, Paul VI, pope from 1963 to 1978, is said to have once dressed his cat in cardinal’s robes.
I'm of course reminded of Yvain having his lion treated by the same maidens who tend his wounds, and of Edward I, who sent his sick falcons on pilgrimage (Robin S. Oggins, “Falconry and Medieval Views of Nature,” 50), and, more to the point, compelled to lose my next hour tracking down Paul II. One eighteenth-century history informs me that he is "said to have granted the cardinals the red hat" (C. W. F. Walch, A Compendius History of the Popes, London, 1759, p. 240). Interesting, but not useful. I get the sense that he's loathed by partisans for the Hussites and also by humanists (one humanist, Platina, repaid his suffering by sneering at Paul in his Vitae pontificum: note the defense of Paul II in the Catholic Encyclopedia). I'm given bad directions: after learning that a "Canensius" wrote a Vita Pauli II, I discover that this surname, well-known among Jesuits, might be spelled "Canisius" (or "Canensis" or "Cannesius"), and that his Christian name is Peter, or Paul, or, finally, Michael, who is not a Doctor of the Church. I learn, I hope finally, that Michael Canensis's (or Castrensis) Vita Pauli II appears in Volume III.ii, pp. 993 ff of an eighteenth-century history, the Rerum italicarum Scriptores ab anno aerae christianae 500 ad annum 1500 of Muratori (available, thank goodness, in our Eldorado, Columbia's Ancient/Medieval Reading Room). And, on occasion, not misguided by the Times' bibliographic ignis fatuus, I find firmer ground:
Some traces of the affection popes had for domestic animals have come down to us and they are all the more precious because they are rare. Paul II's biographer notes his exemplary compassion for animals and his horror at their impending death, which caused him to pity the farmyard animal and tear a calf, goat, birds, and chickens from the hands of his domestics or the butchers. Parrots, small dogs, and especially cats received a great deal of attention and were cared for by Paul II's doctor, Giacomo Gottifredi. This singular attitude earned Paul II one epigram in which the grief he felt at the death of one of his cats was mocked. (Philippe Levillain, The Papacy: An Encyclopedia, trans. John W. O'Malley, s.v., "animals," which I see echoed here: "He rescued birds from their captors and let them go free. He could not even endure to see a bullock being led to the shambles, but would stop and buy it from the butcher that its life might be spared")
Next step? Track down that epigram, which may prove the seed for an article simmering in my mind's backburner [Edit!: Block that Metaphor! maybe...the bouillon cube?], a piece on mourning for animals. I may also lean more heavily into the sodomy accusation against Paul II. Wish me luck, and share whatever research bug has recently bitten you: display your wounds!

(Creative Commons image from here)

Thank Setebos for YouTube

My Myths of Britain class is located in GW's Siberia, a building at the very edge of campus (you know, the place where they draw cynocephali and cannibals on mappaemundi). I don't mind the walk, not even on rainy days like this one, but my students do find it difficult to arrive on time. To quicken their gait, for the first five minutes of class I always show a short clip from a relevant DVD: The Fisher King as we did Marie de France, the Helm's Deep sequence from LotR as we examined crusader mythology in its relation to Mandeville, Sword of the Valiant (!) for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The class is quickly moving towards its close, and that means today's lecture is The Tempest. What better way to foreground the movement from Old World to New than to look at a play set upon an island 'twixt Italy and Africa, but really Bermuda and Virginia?

I realized last night that I had no relevant DVDs. Luckily someone has placed a scene from the nude extravaganza Prospero's Books on YouTube. Perfect: an excellent scene to discuss.

I also found this really weird mash-up there. New Agey chanteuse Loreena McKennitt sings the play's epilogue in a sparse, ethereal arrangement. The song is visually overlaid with footage from an old BBC documentary on Pompeii. Such an odd juxtaposition -- but the frailty, contingency, possibility of sorrow in the Shakespeare portion echo hauntingly in the scenes of ruin and death. I might use it next week as we conclude the course.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Aimé Césaire, Leopold Senghor, and the Postcolonial Middle Ages

At the age of 94, the poet, politician, and postcolonial theorist Aimé Césaire has died.

Blogs and websites around the world are offering their thoughts on his legacy. I was happy to discover this morning that a Blogger site is wholly dedicated to Césaire: Negritude offers a rich archive of materials, from primary sources to scholarship to collations of media mentions. Had I not encountered le poète martiniquais in my ninth grade French class, I might not have felt the gravitational tug of postcolonial studies, and might not have been inspired eventually to put together The Postcolonial Middle Ages.

During my first year of studying French, it seemed that the gates of linguistic heaven had opened ("There's a tense called future perfect?! I'm all over that!). My second year course, however, had reduced the language to the robotic mouthing of alien syllables and the memorization of conversation scripts. On a typical morning, Madame Allard would hook us to a tape player with multiple jacks, order us to don our headphones, and then command Écoutez et répétez! The voice on the tape would tell us that he was going to go shopping, or to the library, or to the cinema, and we would repeat his statements. He would remove a franc from his pocket to purchase a ticket or some cheese, and we would repeat that statement as well (yes, this anecdote of mine includes two artifacts lost to history: cassette tapes and French francs. It was that long ago).

If we weren't repeating from the tape loudly enough, Madame Allard would shout Répétez! Répétez! Répétez! in the exasperated way that only a teacher who has been in the classroom too long can -- you know, with sharp imperatives that carry a subtext of Mon dieu why do I have to teach these snotty dunderheads day in and day out until I retire? Meanwhile La Canard (as we naturally called Madame Allard behind her back) would have designated one lucky student to run to the doughnut store on the same block as our school, charged with bringing her back a croissant and un petite café with just touch of cream. She'd sip and munch as the tape held us captive to its tales of livres, fromage, and chiens.

Each day as I hooked in my headphones and the tape whirred to life, the protolinguist in me died a tiny bit. I remember, though, about midway through the term we opened our text book to a page that featured a small blurb on current francophone poetry. We were told to skip over the section to read some more conversation scripts (about purchasing une voiture, I believe, but maybe it was des escargots) -- but I didn't turn the page. I was hooked on what I saw.

Brief biographies of Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor demonstrated how their political ardors (one a member of the French parliament representing Martinique, the other the first president of Senegal) were accompanied by and entwined within artistic creation. A politician-poet? Could such a being exist? Wasn't politics the realm of the prosaic, wasn't art a realm untouched by cultural turmoil and decolonization movements and racism? I read what I could about Negritude ... and read what I could of each of their poetry. And you know, I was hooked. The beauty of the language, the rhythm of their poems ... now I could understand why French was worth the labor of studying. Forget buying une voiture. I was shopping for Cahier d'un retour au pays natal.

So what about you? What encounter with unexpected literature influenced you in a surprising way?

Friday, April 18, 2008

I Felt the Earth Move Under My Feet, but the Sky Didn't Come Tumblin' Down: Earthquakes, the Academic Novel, and the Archaic Torso of Apollo

Figure 1. photograph from 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, California

I like to think the earth moves beneath my feet, in symbolic fashion, but this morning, at approximately 4:30 a.m., I and my neighbors found ourselves standing outside watching the foundations of our houses tremble and having one of those "is the world ending now?" moments. As it turns out, the world wasn't ending, but something interesting had occurred--namely, an earthquake in southern Illinois, 120 miles away, measuring 5.2 on the Richter scale, and then while I was composing this blog post [not kidding--seriously not kidding], we had another quake measuring 4.5, also in southern Illinois, near the border with Indiana. My house started shaking again and while I'd like to claim that I had a kind of blase--oh, just another earthquake again--kind of reaction, I must admit it's not really fun and it's too early to use the earthquake as an excuse to start drinking, although there is a lovely bottle of Sancerre cooling in the fridge, but no, it really is too early. Of course, one feels the need to immediately do some research and I am not happy to report that I have discovered this morning that I live over one of the mother of all fault lines: the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which caused one the largest series of historical earthquakes [or "seismic bursts"] in 1811 and 1812, one of which even caused the Mississippi River, temporarily, to flow backwards. It was ten times larger, in terms of geographical effects and damage, than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The theory goes that the New Madrid fault exists because about hundreds of gadjillion [I mean, million] years ago, the North American continent tried to rip itself apart at this very place [where I live!], creating a rift in the earth's crust. The resulting depression allowed the Gulf of Mexico to extend hundreds of miles northward into what is now southern Illinois, and as the sea receded, the Mississippi and Ohio rivers formed. In my research, I also discovered that the U.S. Geological Survey considers the area where I live to be at considerable risk in the near future for a "significant" seismological event. Well, we've been talking here, thanks to Kofi's stimulating post, about the relationship between certain geographies and culture, and let's just say that, this morning, I didn't care about the relationship at all. Geography--and more pointedly, nature--trumps culture every time. Well, at least for ten or so minutes, twice, this morning, in this neck of the world.

Despite the somewhat unsettling events of the morning [pun fully intended], I also wanted to share with everyone here a short paper I gave recently on a colloquium panel devoted to the images of professors in literature and film. My friend and colleague Valerie Vogrin [who is a fiction writer] came up with the idea of doing this panel for a colloquium we have here at Southern Illinois every spring in which our faculty and graduate students interrogate together some broad theme [such as Empire, Masculinity, Religion, and Environment, to cite themes from previous years], and this year it was "the University." Valerie was going to concentrate on the image of the creative writing professor in three novels: Richard Russo's Straight Man, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, and Francine Prose's The Blue Angel, and she confessed to me before the panel how dismayed she was at the repetition of certain tired cliches, especially as regards the midlife crises of such characters--which crises, predictably, take on certain shapes and, for the almost-always male leads in such novels, always involve some trope of impotence, both sexual and creative. To which Valerie's response during the panel was, "what else you got?" She remarked, especially, on the ways in which these novels, although they take up the character of the professor [in both senses of the term "character"], they rarely show the professor at work, doing what professors do most of the time: writing, mentoring students, etc. What would it mean, we wondered, to really show the professor at work, and would anyone ever care? Further, if a certain portrayal of humanities professors--as morally bankrupt and always "stupid" as regards matters of "the real world"--is so popular, why is it so popular? What does that reveal about the ways in which the academic enterprises of the humanities are generally regarded, and what does it also mean when these so-called academic "satires" are written by those who can be said to be "on the inside"?

Another of our colleagues was going to focus on the intersection between speech and writing in Willa Cather's novel The Professor's House, and it was fascinating, but what really stuck with me afterward was the absolute sadness of the novel, especially in its delineation of the professor Godfrey St. Peter's long-repressed love for a former student and almost-son-in-law Tom Outland [who is killed in World War I] and the ways in which those repressed feelings lead him to, in a sense, abdicate his life. Another of our colleagues used the panel as an occasion to vent his very deep animosities and bitternesses over the profession of English studies as a whole [in its post-"culture wars" incarnations] through a reading of the oeuvre of James Hynes, who wrote The Lecturer's Tale, and whose novels some of you may know can pretty much be summed up as "vicarious [and not artfully rendered] revenge" against postmodernism and its professorial ilk. My colleague's paper on Hynes's work was, at turns, laugh out loud funny, hair-raising, and then . . . just so hateful you didn't want to look anyone in the audience in the eye, especially our students who, unfortunately, had to hear one of their professors compare an English department to hell.

Needless to say, the "images" of professors offered in these papers--especially of the literature or writing professor--was grim, and what seemed to be emerging in all of them was the idea [that I very much wanted to argue against] that the life of the mind is somehow divorced or estranged from the body [leading the body, in some instances, to rebel in spectacularly inappropriate ways or to simply resign itself to a non-bodily life], and that the intellectual life is one without feeling [or with feelings that are preposterously and narcissistically outsized or misplaced or misguided] and perhaps without ethics, and even further, that somehow the life of the scholar is not really a life at all but some sort of pretension to one. And if you want a "text" that brings the literary scholar and the creative writer together and highlights all of these themes, while also adding the idea of the existential uselessness and inherent self-destruction of the academic and literary artist, go no further than Tamara Jenkins's recent film The Savages. I am also reminded, when reflecting upon this subject, of Michael Haneke's most recent film [before the just-released Funny Games], Cache, the main character of which is George, a Parisian literary critic [who stars in a television show on books] whose emotional repression [he has no idea his wife, played by Juliette Binoche, is cheating on him with a best friend] is a thinly-disguised metaphor for his repression of his relationship, as a bourgeois [western] French intellectual, to a particular historical event in his past: "la nuite noir"--the night of October 17 1961, when hundreds of Algerian demonstrators in Paris were beaten and killed by the police. Although only a child when this happened, the event is intimately related to him through a childhood friend, Majid, whose Algerian parents were farmhands on his family's country estate and who were killed on that night in October. Because our main character, when he was a child, insisted to his parents that they not adopt the son of their former servants [partly out of a selfishness to not share his parents' affections], Majid is sent to an orphanage where, it is implied, he suffered terribly, and he later cuts his throat in front of George, whose reaction is to simply go home, take a sleeping pill, draw his bedroom curtains, and go to sleep. Roll credits. The amnesia and emotional deep-freeze of the bourgeois intellectual, which everyone already agrees is somehow a truth-based stereotype, becomes the perfect structure of character for France's willed amnesia of its violent relationship to Algeria.

I had decided, in my paper, to focus on Woody Allen's film Another Woman, starring Gena Rowlands as a professor of philosophy who, having just turned fifty, is undergoing a sort of mid-life crisis, but one that takes a very quiet series of subterranean "turns" [as opposed to leading to a series of all-too-public escapades of bad behavior as is the typical case in the academic satire--Woody Allen's film is, it must be said, not at all a satire but a drama that takes itself, perhaps too seriously]. Upon re-viewing a film that I had seen many years ago and only vaguely remembered [and which I had chosen because I thought we needed at least one representation of a woman professor to explore], I was dismayed at where it turned out Allen was heading: right back to the idea that the life of the mind requires a forsaking of the body, as well as of art [and by implication, beauty] and other persons, but there were some interesting moments in the film that I thought could lead us in more positive directions regarding the value of the life dedicated to thought, and I share with you here my remarks [through which you will understand why this blog post's title invokes Rilke's poem, "The Archaic Torso of Apollo"]:

You Must Change Your Life: Woody Allen's Another Woman

EDIT 4/19: For those who may be interested, I also append here my colleague Valerie Vogrin's Colloquium essay:

"A Sub-Sub-Genre: The Creative Writing Professor as Protagonist"

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Pope Blessed My Office!

1. Figure: The view from my office. Follow I Street past the park and you can spot Pennsylvania Ave.

On Wednesday the Pope Mobile went screaming down Pennsylvania Avenue, bearing its sacred cargo towards a White House rendezvous. Inside the bullet-proof cube that forms the back of the Vatican SUV sat His Holiness himself, beaming benedictions to the crowds along the street's edge.

I was not on campus that day, but a small throng gathered in my office to witness the pontifical procession pass. I am told that it was splendid ... and that as the Bishop of Rome passed along the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue that can be glimpsed from Rome Hall 760A, he gazed up at the window, saw the Tiny Shriner peering out, and waved a hasty blessing.

Oh, and I saw him in person today as he returned from the mega Mass at Nationals Stadium. He'd traded the Pope Mobile for an ordinary Mercedes.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Time, again

Let me begin first by thanking Jeffrey and the rest of the In the Middle Team for the invitation to guest blog here. It's been far too long since I've taken an active part here, and I look forward to renewing old acquaintances and making new ones, and to the spirited and comradely conversations.

Now, on to my relationship with David Wallace's _Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn_. Fair warning: this is a very long post, partly a testament to my love of this book and its influence on my recent work. As it is the beginning of the weekend, though, I crave your indulgence.

Let me begin by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It is that rare academic book that speaks to its readers in casual, conversational tones, carrying us along a complex journey smoothly and with truly humbling erudition.

For those of you know who know me, it will be no surprise that what captured me most about this book are a) its obsession with notions of time and historicizing, and b) it’s dedication to a truly comprehensive understanding of hybridity. In figuring the movement from medieval to premodern to colonial to postcolonial, from England and Italy and Europe to the Canary Islands and Surinam and Guyana, Wallace invokes both concepts with superb subtlety. His work in this area resonates with my own recent work in some interesting and complementary ways.

The objective which resonated most strongly and immediately with me was Wallace’s insistence on the attempt “to render accounts of human life and development without (in Hegelian fashion) according sequential temporalities the power of determinative or necessary force.” Such attempts, he conceded, “do not always succeed. But this longue duree historicism has (at its best) proven able to consider general socio-economic trends while remaining forever cognizant of locally experienced differences” (12). What Wallace does not state explicitly, but what a great deal of the book goes on to argue, is that “locally experienced differences” should really read “locally and temporally experienced differences.” It is this insight of his that led to my most recent paper.

Wallace makes this point partly by noting that all notions of the “New World” are really retroactive impositions. At the time, most people did not think of Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas in those terms at all. It’s important to bear in mind here (and Wallace points this out) that Europe in the Middle Ages was a truly international place, and certainly in the later Middle Ages, a place quite used to encountering new cultures. The discovery of the Americas, then, was really seen as part of a pattern of expansion, a continuation of what by this time was a well established westward movement in search of what Wallace calls “more efficient growing conditions for Old World addictions” (223). Indeed, the Caribbean was first described in Italy as “the new Canary Islands,” a formation off the coast of Africa with which Europe was very familiar; they thought of this new place only as an extension of the world they already knew, and not as a “New World” at all. Columbus himself is usually described in the contemporaneous literature as having extended the King’s territories, rather than having discovered new lands.

While it is no surprise that retroactive periodization and understandings have structured the Western experience of history, there were two real surprises for me. The first, which I discovered while researching my book, is that Europe (and I use the term fully cognizant, pace Jeffrey’s forthcoming collection, that such a coherent projection requires massive deconstruction) did not think of the Caribbean as a New World immediately. The second is that many Caribbean writers also do not view the encounter between Old and New Worlds as such a radical moment; the institution of black slavery, yes, the meeting of worlds, no. One of the commonplaces of Caribbean literary and cultural studies is that the Middle Passage, the mass transportation of slaves from Africa to the Americas, is imprinted on the Caribbean psyche as a moment of trauma, albeit one which was ultimately as productive as it was destructive; it is with the advent of the Middle Passage, after all, that the modern Caribbean comes into being. This assumption, though, leaving its debatable accuracy aside for the moment, is steeped in a binary notion of hybridity which defines the Caribbean in terms of black and white cultures. But the true story of hybridity in the Caribbean is much more complex, and one of its most important elements, which is rarely discussed, is the place of the native populations who resided there before the importation of blacks and Indians to work the sugar-cane: the Amerindians. In the encounter between these two medieval cultures, the Europeans and the Amerindians (a perceived unity which deserves as much deconstruction as ‘Europe”), several Caribbean writers see continuity rather than radical change.

As Wallace traces a gentle rhythmic motion from medieval Europe to the Caribbean, so too does Wilson Harris, the controversial Guyanese novelist, trace a rhythmic movement from that initial encounter forwards through Caribbean history. Harris, I realized through the lens of Wallace’s insights, reads this meeting of Old and New Worlds in much the same way that Wallace does, as the continuation of a long established historical movement which did not represent a radical break for either the English who first came to Guyana, or the Amerindians they found living there. Harris, one of very few Caribbean writers even to acknowledge the existence of Amerindians (the convenient mythology being that they have mostly been wiped out and therefore, of course, not in need of serious engagement in the present), in fact argues that the Amerindians were a “medieval” culture in many of the same ways that European culture was “medieval”; both were moving through a distinct era within which key notions of identity, colonialism and hybridity evolved, and which would eventually give way to a kind of Renaissance. And both were conquering, imperialist peoples. The Amerindians living in the Caribbean at this time were formed by an even earlier clash of cultures. The Carib warriors came to the region and conquered the native Arawaks; because they came without women, they developed a policy of interbreeding with their conquered foes, thereby ensuring at one stroke a relatively rapid and peaceful integration of the two communities, and the decline of their conquering mentality, since there was no need for such a mentality among one’s new kin. This, for Harris, sealed their doom – when the two medieval cultures clashed, Europe’s imperial energies were furiously coming into their own, as the Amerindians’ imperial energies were dying.

But what is truly striking is the way in which Harris goes on to link that notion of hybridity to a new conception of time. I quote at length from my soon-to-be-published paper inspired by Wallace’s book:

“Harris goes on to argue that not only is this original encounter a definitive one for the Caribbean, but that it is played out over and over again in Caribbean history. Indeed, he suggests that the original encounter was but the first in several “stages of conquest” which the Amerindians faced. First, they were forced to re-create their former colonial glory on a subservient level for their own conquerors. Then, when the blacks and Indians achieved freedom in Guyana, they re-conquered and almost destroyed the Caribs, who had developed a reputation for tracking, and returning or killing, African slaves (and who had also been greatly weakened during the colonial era). Then, once that physical almost-extinction took place, the “new colonizers” undertook a further rhetorical erasure; witness the almost complete absence of Amerindians from Caribbean literature. Indeed, Harris suggests that this desire to conquer is what has defined the Caribbean throughout the ages: “the religious and economic thirst for exploration was true of the Spanish conquistador, of the Portuguese, French, Dutch and English, of Raleigh, of Fawcett, as it is true of the black modern pork-knocker and the pork-knocker of all races” (Tradition 144). He argues that the very repetitive nature of that conqueror’s desire and greed,

'involving men of all races, past and present conditions, had begun to acquire a
residual pattern of illuminating correspondences. El Dorado, City of Gold, City of God, grotesque, unique coincidence, another window within upon the Universe, another drunken boat, another ocean, another river . . . . a frail moment of illuminating adjustments within a long succession and grotesque series of adventures, past and present, capable now of discovering themselves and continuing to discover themselves so that in one sense one relives and reverses the ‘given’ condition of the past, freeing oneself from . . . blindness to one’s own historical and philosophical conceptions and misconceptions' (Tradition 144).

This, as with so much of Harris’s work, is a dense passage, and it makes several important points, all of which are represented in Harris’s first novel, The Palace of the Peacock, an examination of which will form the bulk of the remainder of this paper. In the first place, it suggests, as I’ve been saying, that Harris sees the exploitation of the Amerindians as something which has continually recurred in the history of the Caribbean, by all those people who came there after them. But he also suggests that recognizing and acknowledging that series of exploitations can be beneficial to the comprehension and formation of Caribbean identities, helping Caribbeans in the process of “discovering themselves” and freeing themselves from a blindness to the past. Freedom from that blindness, as we shall see in the Guyana Quartet, involves an honest acknowledgement that our histories, and therefore our present identities, are derived from, and therefore must take account of, both the Amerindian and the European legacies: “Our antecedents were the victims of conquest, our antecedents were paradoxically also victors who gobbled up land and gold. We are all, in that sense, dialectically mixed and impure” (Quetzalcoatl 189).

Most importantly, though, the passage deals with an idea central to Harris’s work, and to his attempts to re-instill the Amerindian influence into a holistic conception of Caribbean identities. His assessment of the importance of the clash of these two medieval systems, and its impact on the future history of the Caribbean, has led Harris to incorporate within his works a theory of the interrelationships among time, history, and culture. It is a notion of temporal and cultural layering which does not only stress the inherence of post-contact cultures within one another (cultural hybridity), but also the inherence of the pasts within the present and future. . .

. . .In other words, to read such a complex and convoluted history in purely chronological terms is to miss the potential knowledges which can be gleaned from the discontinuities and divergences from apparent historical patterns. In terms of Amerindian history, for example, it is possible to see “an apparently unchanging identity which embodied pre-Columbian conqueror in post-Columbian mercenary” (Continuity 182). That linear and continuous view of history, though, does not take account of “the divergence at a certain moment of time . . . that pointed away from that continuous character line towards a subtle annunciation of native host consciousness” (Continuity 177). So, then, within his own work Harris set out to stress “a discontinuous line – the missing links, as it were, between cultures rather than a hard continuous dividing wall. Such a discontinuous or dotted line means, in effect, that one has no dogmatic evolutionary reinforcement of superiority and inferiority. One is, in fact, intent on an original overlap or viable frontier between ages and cultures” (Continuity 177). It is of vital importance, he argues, to be able to “assess discontinuities and original divergences” from the continual historical line “charted by historians as a humane imposition, on one hand, or an oppressive deterrent on the other” (Mittelholzer 30). Thus, Harris is preoccupied not only with the overlaps and interstices between cultures, but among different times as well – he is as concerned with the overlaps and frontiers between ages as he is between peoples. . .

. . . Harris discusses the medieval clash of cultures and its impact in terms of a notion of time which is both accumulative and discontinuous, and he clearly privileges the discontinuous. Viewing history as linear and accumulative, he suggests, potentially blinds us to the parts of history wherein the Caribs are re-conquered and re-colonized, partly because that continuous history assumes that the Caribs have long been made extinct, a fact which is simply not true. By focusing on the repetitions and discontinuities of history, subtleties and unpleasant truths have the potential to be revealed, not least among them the colonizing and genocidal roles which blacks and Indians played in relation to Amerindians once those groups had achieved their own freedom. I will suggest that understanding Harris’s discontinuous view of history, and the recurring nature of that original medieval encounter, is central not only to understanding the nature of Caribbean identities he envisions in Palace of the Peacock, but the very form of the novel itself.”

To my ears, Harris’ intermixture of times and cultures echoes very strongly Wallace’s discussion of the influence of English on native Surinamese languages. Wallace notes that although England possessed Suriname for less than 15 years, “a quarter century after English withdrawal, a shipwrecked Dutch sailor encountering slaves in Surinam assumed them to be speaking English”; and that in the language spoken in Suriname today, the “terms kosi and bosi derive from the English cuss (cuss, curse) and buss (a kiss; a smack): terms more current in the English of Behn’s time – and to their social use in Surinam – than to our own” (241). We can see here the same jumble of space, place and time that Harris describes, languages and peoples and cultures all out of time. And here, of course, we come back to an age-old debate at In the Middle – the nature of time.

We’ve covered this before, but let me close by saying that Wallace and Harris together have combined to give me a new image of thinking time to myself, if they have not yet led me to a single coherent term to describe the phenomenon. The felicities of life played a part here too: just before reading Wallace and re-reading Harris I was re-reading some of the writings of Albert Einstein, and one sentence in particular struck me again: “The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once.” The image that grew out of this sentence, for me, was that of time as a ball. Within that ball is the sum of all experience on this planet (choose whatever beginning point you will). All of it is contained within the ball. As more people are born, as more stuff happens, as more human experience accumulates, that ball expands. But there is no straight line, only all human experience swirling around within that ball, each aspect touching and jostling against the others and affecting them in ways we can’t ever know. We make the obvious connections and call those time; so that, as Einstein put it, everything doesn’t happen at once. But those connections don’t account for the refusal of history to be ultimately and finally linear. In that ball, 1341 can touch 1941 as easily as it can touch the advent of the Middle Passage, or the fall of Rome, Chaucer can speak to a Guyanese of Indian descent and lead him to study English at Cambridge while writing of the dissolution of the Caribbean’s ties with Europe.

The last example refers to David Dabydeen, a writer with whom both Wallace in this book, and I in mine, conclude. He is in a way the perfect representation of this notion of time. In the first place, he’s obsessed with medieval English literature, and it shows up throughout his novels and poetry. Secondly, Middle English literature led him not only to write in the first place, but to write specifically in the way that he does; his encounters with the medieval alliterative tradition, and its refusal of the Chaucerian and Chancery traditions, led to his own alternative and subversive uses of English, the very language which was for so long a part of the structure of domination which sought to determine his homeland and the identities formed there. And if his is a writing which, as Wallace puts it, “belongs neither here nor there, England or Guyana,” then it is also a poetics which belongs neither now or then, for it is undoubtedly infused with resonances not only of the modern and the medieval, but of all the times and spaces inbetween, and before and after. In this regard, I’ve identified the two words with which I disagree most in this book. Wallace writes that postcolonial theory considers texts and voices with “medieval, unmodern” ways of thinking. As I have argued here, elsewhere, and on this blog before, those two words do not automatically go together, for much that we consider modern is quite medieval, and vice versa.

I would like to end, then, with what has always been my personal punctum: “a sign or detail in a visual field provoking some deep – yet highly subjective – sense of connectedness with people of the past” (Wallace 2). It is a combination of two images taken from Dabydeen’s work- the image of an old snuff box, obviously colonial, found on the beach, and the sea itself onto which the beach opened. My great-grandmother had several such colonial relics around her house, and as a child I often admired their beauty (hers was a curious mirroring of the colonial tendency towards “the randomly assembled bric-a-brac of empire” (Wallace 279)). Far from being symbols to me of a wealthy and brutal regime, as I grew older they came to represent to me a common humanity – that these people who did such terrible things should share a sense of beauty with people who had endured such harshness (and believe me, my great-grandmother’s generation did). I feel the same way when I look at ancient Egyptian and Roman jewelry; that people of all times (or all around that expanding ball) care to make their things beautiful seems to me to say something more profound about humanity than all the horrors of war and colonialism. The second image, the sea, is the ultimate punctum: the sea encompasses and flows among all places and times – there are pieces in it of slave ships and slaves, medieval and antique treasures and modern toxic chemicals and sailboats. It carried the English and Caribs to the Caribbean, it took Caribbeans to Europe, and Ceasar to Africa. The same elements have been recycled as water and vapour for eons, traveling to other seas and back, each particle traveling unimaginable distances over time and space, and each part of a Brownian motion in which it always affects every other particle in the world. Seas and oceans for me always invoke all times and places, both the body of water itself and each particle that comprises it.

We would never dream of trying to name each particle of the sea, the way we do each particle of time. To quote Wallace, the approach to time described here forces us “to acknowledge ourselves peripheral to a cultural unfolding whose complexity and historical depth escape our grasp” (283). Perhaps it is only by finally conceding our marginality to time, rather than our control over it, that we can begin to fully realize all the things that time has to reveal to us.