Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Future of 'The Weight of the Past' / Credo

[illustration: a projector supported by The Flowering of the Middle Ages and The Faerie Queene, a talk supported by more collaborators than any bound volume could contain]
by J J Cohen

First, a tremendous thank you to those who invited and coddled me in NYC (especially Hal Momma, Liza Blake, the Anglo Saxon Studies Colloquium and the NYU English Medieval Forum), and to all who attended my talk, asked me questions that ripped away its foundational assumptions, and otherwise provoked me to rethink everything I thought I knew. Subjective destitution and an existential angst hangover are a small price to pay.

Highlights: a reception before my presentation, so that I could urge attendees that I would sound a lot smarter if they would imbibe a glass or five of wine; an intimate dinner for 22 afterwards, with an excellent food and excellenter company; shenanigans and antics later that evening; hanging out in Brooklyn chez Karl; a good Indian dinner with a taste-free dessert; shenanigans and antics Friday evening at a faux British pub with red telephone booths and an upscale nautical-themed bar serving absinthe-infused "zombie" drinks in ceramic tiki head cups (where we got deep).

So I gave a presentation entitled "The Weight of the Past" at NYU on Thursday.

Of all the pieces for public performance I've composed, "Weight" is my favorite. The talk originated as my Holloway Lecture at McDaniel College, then underwent a series of radical mutations as it was adapted and refined for some other venues. NYU was its final performance: a form of the essay will soon see print, and I observe that unwritten academic rule that thoughts hardened into books don't get oral existence any more. Yet the closing night of "The Weight of the Past" has already proven to be far from its last metamorphosis. To adapt what I was attempting to argue in the presentation itself: as substantial and as fully materialized as the thing might seem, its trajectory has yet to be arrested and "The Weight of the Past" keeps becoming other things. The questions I was asked at NYU were so penetrating that they've challenged me to refine and even reconceptualize some of what I yearn to achieve -- especially as this nexus of obsessions begins to take its form as a future monograph.

This reformulation will be most evident in the closing movement of "Weight." In its current version, the coda arrives just after a conversation I restage with my daughter Katherine, one in which we think about memorializing the dead, especially in museum displays of prehistoric corpses. I posted one version on the blog quite some time ago as Who Mourns for Lindow Man?, then later reflected on the function that these vignettes perform in The Moment of Interpretation and Those Carried in Its Wake -- though spurred by a question by Carolyn Dinshaw, I want to emphasize that these are for me moments of collaboration rendered visible, rather than the use of a story, person, or object to achieve something that does not necessarily require extrinsic participation or agency. So, here is the ending to "The Weight of the Past":
To intertwine meditation upon past and future while retaining some confidence that we are doing justice to history, we must encounter the materiality of the past in a way that grants life to what might otherwise seem inert. We must keep the distant past, the present moment, and the future—near and distant—alive, capable of plenitude, heterogeneity, change. We must never cease to grieve for Lindow Man, no matter who in life he was. We must never think of Stonehenge or of Avebury as anything but a ring of stones that does not cease to dance. We must never forget that the past has a weight, but that weight is seen only in the past’s movement, in its desire ever to remain alive.
And here is the provisional credo (or the credo of provisionality) that starts to move beyond such termination.

Many things about the closing paragraph do not ring true to what I had hoped to achieve in the piece: its hortative mode, its ethical high-handedness, its injunction to mourning, its funereal finality.* I realize now that what I have been attempting in "The Weight of the Past" project is not an ethics but an ethos: instead of an ethics of compulsion to remembrance, an ethos built upon the practice of wonder. I am attempting an explicitly collaborative praxis -- and by "collaborative" I actually mean "inhumanly collaborative": I'm as interested in alliances with rocks, texts, forces of nature, and corpses as I am with the living and the dead. The project offers, I hope, an invitation to coinhabit a world made strange.

I don't think I can say it better than that right now.

*Questions from Karl Steel, Glenn Burger, Carolyn Dinshaw, and many, many others made me realize these facts so essential and so close to me that I could not discern them well.


dan remein said...

How would an ethos of wonder translate into a rhetoric or a poetics of 'conclusions' in papers, talks, addresses, etc? Is it about arriving at, or inviting to arrive at, a question--the question itself--? I mean, literally, instead of hortatory modes, might we try using interrogative pronouns? Or, alternately, how can a sentence that, before Austin we would recognize as a 'statement,' end a talk in such a way that it opens the talk--the the talk finally opening at its end, in its finitude? Or, to return to the interrogative, how do we even think the interrogative? We call it a pronoun, but one given in advance of any and every noun, without possibly knowing which noun is coming to replace it in the 'answer.' Who, which, what. Perhaps What is among the weirdest in english usage: what do you think? Not, 'what is the thing that you think' but just 'what.' What as the expression of absolute amazement that something is there, and the desire to wonder about it, with it, at it, and from it, actively. A practice, a poetics of letting the singular finitude between us well up in infinite possibility. But it is also a regard for the whatever is coming (or not coming) to replace that pronoun. A regard for it and a care for what it is, or is not, or might be that also doesn't care at all what it is in asking 'what' because the 'what' is there to invite the wonder, whatever it is. What clears a ground from which the noun can announce itself, and announce its connection to us in language. Here Jeffrey, is where I might disagree with one thing you have said here. I think that the care for the quality of this connection (not care as in a neurotic security measure, attending to it to make sure it is safe and not deadly to me, but care in terms care as an active practice of wondering) is an ethical relation, perhaps even an ethics.

Practically, of course, this means, how do you, Jeffrey, finish this piece of writing when it is in the context of the published book? So perhaps all of this won't help, but I wonder what will help us. And we can thank you a great deal for that ethos spreading among us, like an atmosphere.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I will take that kind of ethics, Dan, because it is one that I can grasp.

And I have come to realize that I do not ever finish the writing. That's why my talk went back to giants -- my dissertation topic and the subject of first book -- and moved the texts away from the some of the interpretations I'd locked them into fifteen years ago. So, I will never finish this piece of writing: and I feel great happiness in knowing that, at last.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: first, thank you so much for the gift of your talk and your writing. Thank you, also, for what you say regarding the writing never really being "finished" or "concluded." I don't like the word "process" too much, perhaps because it has been overused a lot in the past 20 or so years in the lingua franca of psychoanalysis, composition theory, etc., BUT: I would really like to see more openness and dialog regarding how we are never really finished with an idea, an argument [all of which, ideally, are tentative and never "once and for all"], a project, a piece of writing, etc., and why should we be? I also think our scholarship could actually be more enjoyable if we could grasp that it is always open-ended, unfinished, deeply collaborative [with those contingent with us but also with those we have never even met and sometimes aren't even aware of], co-affective, and, hopefully, pluralistic and "thick" in the way in which you described your historiographical method [or, even history itself] in your talk.

Eileen Joy said...

And also, as regards wonder, I think we should reflect, too, on the moment that involved Katherine and the Lindow Man: her almost visceral response [one of grief mixed with fear, I think] but also her brother Alex's response to it [a kind of older brother "oh don't be silly, of course he's dead, everyone dies, even us"]. Somewhere between Katherine's [perhaps] naive astonishment and Alex's pragmatic knowledge there is a place we rarely can inhabit: when you already know too much [read, in the university: have been over-disciplined] but can still be struck with feeling over a something you already look at too much: other bodies, other times, reality.

dan remein said...

It turns out, (though a lot of us probably know this--its still fun to bring it into the light of day)that Wonder is quite the germanic term, with quite the etymology. A quick OED search brings up its first, early, dominant usage, in terms of wonder as a genitive of an object. That is, meaning that one is affective by wonder which is wonder of something. To actively wonder might be a kind of passivity?

From the OED:

[OE. wundrian = OS. wundrôn, (M)Du. wonderen, OHG. wuntarôn (MHG., G. wundern), ON. undra (Sw. undra, Da. undre): f. WONDER n.]

1. intr. To feel or be affected with wonder; to be struck with surprise or astonishment, to marvel. Also occas. to express wonder in speech. a. in OE. const. genitive of the object of wonder, also with preps., now nearly always at, occas. over, formerly also on, upon, of.
c888 ÆLFRED Boeth. xxxiv. §10, Hwa mæ{asg} {th}æt he ne wundrie swelcra {asg}esceafta ures scyppendes? 971 Blickl. Hom. 33 Nis {th}æt to wundri{asg}enne..{th}æt he acweald beon wolde. Ibid. 153 He {asg}ehyrde heora {th}rowunga & he {th}a wundrode æfter {th}ære {asg}esih{th}e. a1000 Ph{oe}nix 331 {Edh}onne wundria{edh} weras ofer eor{th}an wlite & wæstma. c1000 Ags. Gosp. Mark vi. 2 Mane{asg}e {asg}ehyrdon & wundrodon on his lare. c1200 ORMIN 7633 Josæp..& Mar{ygh}e..wundredenn ba{th}e off all {th}att hemm wass cwiddedd tære off Criste. a1250 Owl & Night 228 {Th}u fli{ygh}st a ni{ygh}t and no{ygh}t a-dai, {Th}ar-of ich wndri. c1250 Gen. & Ex. 3716 {Ygh}etenisse men ben in ebron, Quilc men mai {ygh}et wundren on. 1297 R. GLOUC. (Rolls) 5353 In lepes & in coufles so moche viss hii ssolle{th} hom bringe, {Th}at ech mon ssal wondry of so gret cacchinge. a1300 Cursor M. 18774 Godmen o galilee, apon quat thing sa wonder yee? c1386 CHAUCER Sqr.'s T. 217 Somme of hem wondred on the Mirour..Hou men myghte in it swiche thynges se. c1430 Syr Gener. (Roxb.) 7599 Mirabel wondred of hir woo, Whi hir ladie ferd soo. 1483 CAXTON Gold. Leg. 125b/1 All the peple drewe to hym and wondred on hym. 1529 MORE Dyaloge x. 16b/2 We nothyng wonder at the ebbyng and flowyng of the see. 1590 SHAKES. Mids. N. IV. i. 136, I wonder of this being heere together. a1600 MONTGOMERIE Misc. Poems xxiv. 16 O, wareit be my weird, For wondring on a deitie divyne. 1667 MILTON P.L. IX. 856 Hast thou not wonderd, Adam, at my stay? 1753 RICHARDSON Grandison (1754) IV. 191, I wonder at you. 1780 COWPER Progr. Err. 191 Rufillus..Wonders at Clodio's follies, in a tone As tragical, as others at his own. 1818 J. W. CROKER Jrnl. 7 Dec. in C. Papers (1884) I. iv. 123, I cannot but wonder at her living here and bearding the Prince in a way so indelicate. 1844 EMERSON Lect. New Eng. Ref. Wks. (Bohn) I. 273 The unwise..wonders at what is unusual, the wise man wonders at the usual. 1919 B. CAPES Skel. Key xvii. 213 His benevolent truthfulness was a thing to wonder over.

Secret Guinea said...

Hi Jeffrey,

It was great to meet you finally.

I had just a simple question/suggestion for your project. You were talking about Yucca Mountain as a disturbing contemporary example of the problems involved in communicating meaning across a long period of time. I was wondering if you consider medieval moments of ruins or monuments actually speaking or conversing with the future? There are lots of examples of the present observer contemplating the ruin and trying different meanings out on what is there. But what happens when the monument responds?

It seems to me that this is what happens at the climax of Andreas, when Andrew sees the ruined stonework outside his prison "wondrously rooted/ beneath the plains of time" (line 1492-3). The saint speaks and the stone replies by splitting and pouring forth the waters of the flood. (the saint's words invoke Moses and Joshua, who also made stone respond to their command). It's a weird sort of communication, and definitely renders the past subservient to the present, but it still one of those rare moments of transaction between times.

Eileen Joy said...

I really love odd convergences of thought that just happen every now and then. So, we're having this discussion here, prompted by Jeffrey's paper [and really, I think, by his larger project in its historiographical, ethical, multi-/inter-temporal, and aesthetic dimensions], and also by Dan Remein's comments, following Jeffrey's statement of an "ethos of wonder," regarding a possible poetics or rhetorics of "conclusions"--are conclusions possible? are they ethical? etc.--all of which got me thinking about how an ethos of wonder [which has a lot to do with aesthetics, I think] productively intersects or possibly negatively interferes with historicism, and then Craig Dionne sends me part of a revised Introduction for an essay he's writing for BABEL's volume on "fragments for a history of a vanishing humanism," which seems really apropos here as a kind of provocation [and I don't think he'll mind me sharing this at all]:

"But any approach that promises a return to aesthetics today does so in the choppy currents caused by the rigorous critique of any and all essentialisms, casting suspicion on the idea of art for art's sake as a form of nostalgic formalism if not political quietism. In defense of the new formalism and its (u)turn to more sensitive registers to account for the metacritical nuances of the literary text, some of the more politically engaged historicisms may have resembled the old song of topological criticism, readings of particularizing discourses and localized practices that root the text so deeply in its own time that, like the grip of a dead soldier, the context is never made to let go of the hilt nor the text allowed to be used as anything but a remnant to be revered and eventually buried or piled in its own antechamber. It seemed as if historicism had stripped the affective power of the literary text. At worst, the turn to ethics via the new interest in phenomenology, to name just one important trend in the profession meant to correct historicism's iconoclasm, is an anxious distrust of politicized readings founded on a perception that the critical idiom of materialism, with its totalizing concepts of class and ideology seen to appropriate all oppositional or resistant struggles into a recognizably modern perspective--belonged to a failed Stalinism that had run its historical course. The problem of aestheticizing the text does not go away that easily, I argue, since turning one's nose at the project of historicism and refashioning an aesthetic criticism may allow the weeds to grow over the persistent contradictions of materialism and its projecting back of modern perceptions into the past, but one can find that the deeper theoretical categories one mobilizes to free the text from these plaguing problems ultimately returns one to the place one began. Bringing back the affective power of the art means also to flirt with ahistoricism."

Craig, as some of you may not know, is a Marxist critic [working in early modern studies], who is loathe to free the historical artifact from its [more originary] materialist contexts, especially those contexts that involve labor & production, who is "housed" versus who is "unhoused," etc. As to how this ties into aesthetics, his essay ["The Trick of Singularity: Twelfth Night, the Stewards of the Posthuman, and the Problem of Aesthetics"] is a beautiful meditation on the figure of the steward and the butler in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," but also in Kazuo Ishiguro's "Remains of the Day," as well as on the ways in which "song" gets appropriated by Orsino as a vehicle for a self-formation which is really a "self-blindness," and on Feste as a figure of "bare existence" whose "unsettled" and "placeless" mentality provides the "material," as it were, for the courtly lyric of love, self-fashioning, etc.

I, myself, when recently trying to finish an essay on the Old English "Andreas," which might be one of the most hateful, militant Christian texts *ever*, really struggled to find a way into the text that might allow for what Eve Sedgwick has called a "reparative reading"--one that would not seek to simply identify the oppressive structures of the text [its negative "official" ideology, its rhetoric of warfare, the real--Jewish and other Other--dead bodies left in the wake of that rhetoric, its xenophobia, etc.: this is the so-called "paranoid reading"], but rather would look for what might be "just to the side" of such a reading [related if tangential] and where we would desire in our interpretation something more "additive and accretive," where we would "assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self" [those are Sedgwick's words].

I found this a very difficult task with "Andreas," and there are many other texts in the Old English corpus that are more "open" in their valences, of course, and offer more possibilities for glimpsing, I think, what Jeffrey, in his NYU talk, described as history's "thickness" and "plurality." The question then might be whether or not the description of such thick plurality [which might include negative-objective as well as more positive-affective readings] might be better served by aesthetic or more historicist approaches? I suspect the answer is something I really believe Jeffrey demonstrated in his talk--you can say goodbye to old-style historicism [and thank god], but the historic is always lodged to some extent in the aesthetic and vice versa: the two could never be fully disentangled from each other [and even "disentangled" conjures up all the wrong metaphors for how the two are related and maybe always melded somehow]. The aesthetic [and a concern for the aesthetic], for all of modern art's claims to the contrary, is never really ahistorical, and it may even be that, without an ability [or as Dan puts it, and I agree, a certain *passivity*] to be able to be *arrested* [i.e., struck with wonder: think Sontag's "erotics of art"] by certain things that appear before us from the past [manuscripts, texts, stones, churches, grave remains, etc.], that historicism simply has no place from which to begin to think itself as a practice, or even as a *body* of knowledge.

dtkline said...


Your comments are getting at something I've been wrestling with lately, and that is the degree to which the very texture of our writing and argumentation foster additional forms of violence. (Here I'm thinking about Derrida's 'where there is the one, there is violence' from Archive Fever), and the ongoing dialogue--a sense of ongoing engagement without closure--seems crucial.

But I really like Jeffrey's invocation of 'wonder' as that continuing moment of openness to something else. (I've used 'surprise' in a similar way.)

My own solution to the question as Dan R. positions it is to rely on the subjunctive. If I ever write a memoire, I'll entitle it "Living in the Subjunctive."

Karl Steel said...

Dan, thanks for that bit from Derrida.

Here's something else relevant that I encountered recently:

"Steve approached me as one creature to another, making acquaintance with me and not assuming I was going to be what he expected. That is why we got along."

From Patricia Highsmith, "Chorus Girl's Absolutely Final Performance," in the collection of tales of murderous animals, The Animal-Lovers' Book of Beastly Murder. [Chorus Girl, the speaker, is an elephant, and Steve is her beloved former trainer, who, we might, w/ Dan's points in mind, think of as a peculiarly passive [or, more simply, receptive] trainer].]