Saturday, April 25, 2009

Groundlessness and Torture

by KARL STEEL

Here I am again. In anticipation of Kzoo book shopping, I've carved out time in the last month to read through chunks of my library: can I justify getting more books this time if I haven't yet read, say, last year's Geoffrey of Auxerre Apocalypse Commentary? Unlikely, unless I seek justification somewhere else for buying books.

Most recently, I read Suger's Deeds of Louis the Fat, picked up, according to my jacket flap note, in 2001, and otherwise untouched until last week. The Deeds aims to tether the Abbey of St. Denis to the French Crown: this is its religion (from "ligare," to tie, fasten). Suger thus cheers on Louis's suppression of "tyrants," who, in this case, are the intransigent lords surrounding Paris, reluctant to cede to the King their right to independent violence. As might be expected, the Deeds is full of interesting tidbits: Parisian Jews--per the notes, like the Roman Jews--present the new Pope with a covered Torah scroll; Louis's great enemy Hugh of Crécy escapes by disguising himself at times as a jongleur and at times as a prostitute; Suger hates the barbaric Germans and admires the Norman Kings of England; a demonic pig kills Louis's son Philip (for more see here); and, delightfully, Suger blanches when the monks of St. Denis elect him Abbot without consulting Louis: throughout the Deeds, Suger assails the Holy Roman Emperor for insisting on the Imperial right to clerical investiture, but only here, with his own election, does Suger have to confront the full implications of his ideals.

The Deeds' most striking feature is its violence. The troops of a rebellious lord surrender to Louis, who has their right hands chopped off and makes them return "carrying their fists in their fists." Louis ravages the sections of Normandy held by the Kings of England. He hangs the chief conspirator in the murder of Charles the Good with a dog, which gnaws off the conspirator's face and covers him in its shit (any connection?). Here's a typical moment in the Deeds:

Attacking them with swords, they piously slaughtered the impious, mutilated the limbs of some, disemboweled others with great pleasure, and piled even greater cruelty upon them, considering it too kind. No one should doubt that the hand of God sped so swift a revenge when both the living and dead were thrown through the windows. Bristling with countless arrows like hedgehogs, their bodies stopped short in the air, vibrating on the sharp points of lances as if the ground itself rejected them [for this, see first hit here]. The French hit upon the following unusual revenge for William's unusual deed. When alive he had lacked a brain, and now that he was dead he lacked a heart, for they ripped it from his entrails and impaled it on a stake, swollen as it was with fraud and evil.
My question concerns our response. Our benighted colleagues might think this an example of a particularly medieval violence. We might think in terms of the sociology of missile weapons, or the history of juridical violence, or of the body, or of the heart as the organ of the self; observing that Suger tells us nothing of the pain William and his men suffer, we might preserve this passage as a witness in the history of pain. Proper scholarly responses are uncountable.

It strikes me, however, that good scholarly responses stifle what we ought to do with Suger's love of Louis's violence: we should condemn it; we should be appalled, outraged; we should look at St. Denis and want to destroy it, to erect in its place a statue of Louis and Suger, enmeshed in damp viscera, a statue, if such a thing were possible, that induced nausea in any patriot. We can of course turn this horror again, to wonder, in a scholarly, yet corporeal, manner at the differing disingenuities of a scholarship that denies affect versus a scholarship that revels, "authentically," in affect, as if emotion were "truer" than scholarship, as if scholarship without emotional investment were possible. We can study the history that makes "scholarly, yet corporeal" a likely and meaningful opposition.

We can also turn to wondering what grounds we have for condemning Suger. He's a prelate and monk. We would prefer that he be otherworldly rather than a statesman. We would prefer that he love his enemies, that he forgive them and attempt to lead them to a good life through his patience, that he martyr himself in cherishing the souls of others, that he reserve judgment to God. Preferring this, we could accuse Suger of being a bad Christian, a hypocritical lover of the world, of the state and its violence. Being good scholars and good postmodernists, we would have to know, however, that the accusation of hypocrisy relies upon belief in the impossible, namely, the existence, somewhere, of "authentic speech" and "authentic belief," identical with the self. Being good postmodernists and good scholars, we also would have to know that Suger's Christianity, in all its violence and dedication to the Crown and its methods, is as true a Christianity as any.

What grounds do we have left to condemn Suger? A postmodern cliché: the ground will always give way, regardless of our strategy. There are, I know, postmodern ethics. We have ethics founded on surprise and wonder; on subjects called into being as hostages to the other; on enclosing and cherishing and touching another; on the 'minimal violence' of strategic naming to protect another. We have models for actions, for, if you like, ethical events, but no grounds. This point, I know, is hoary by now; but I can't leave it alone.

Because when (astonishingly) Shep Smith, a Fox News Talking Head, shouts "we are America! We do not fucking torture!, I applaud (and am, also, horrified that this even has to be said, has to keep being said), but, then, like a good postmodern, I remind myself, smirkingly, of the precritical metaphysical conceit of Smith's distinction between what America has done and what America is. When one of the legal architects of torture is reported to have whinged about his memos being taken too far, I want to immolate him as a hypocrite while, again smirkingly, realizing that Bybee's whinging is as sincere as speech can be. When the Christian Right approves and applauds torture, I want to compel them to live up to their own beliefs (e.g., here), before remembering that Ashcroft's Christianity is as true as any other.

Responding like a scholar to Suger and Yoo alike, I wonder, as so many others have wondered, if my dedication to critique means, finally, that I cannot actually say anything.

(a useful resource) (image from here via a Creative Commons license)

10 comments:

Steve Muhlberger said...

Any intellectual stance that prevents one from critiquing cruelty, esp. cruelty for profit (like being appointed a federal judge) must be abandoned.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

I am also contemplating a cruel 12th century at the moment (not yet 1190, but the prequel to that in a way). I am also constantly aware that my professional prose can smooth the cruelty away, with my relentless focus on institutions and places rather than people.

I don't share the postmodern dilemma (being, much of the time, a pretty empirical historian). But I have found the empiricism is providing a way out. When I look I can now find clear evidence of the consequences of cruelty - of failed ambitions, abandoned plans, broken lives, new (previously inconceivable) directions. Rather than describing change in the twelfth century as kind of rational progress, or as a series of reform and renewal movements (as it has often been described in my field), this evidence of ruin is enabling me to put the 'cruelty' centre stage as something which underpins a view of the progress of History as non-linear, unpremeditated, often-botched and irrational, as contingent on immediate circumstances and personal relationships and decisions, and, above all, resisting narrative and narration. The problem in then how to deal with that last point in prose.

Matthew Gabriele said...

An interesting post, Karl. So many thoughts now swirling in my head...

Doesn't Suger remind you of Bybee/ Yoo/ Addington/ etc.? I mean, he's the man behind the throne, reveling in the violence and power that King Louis can wield, yet Suger himself never has to carry it out and will always be back behind the firewall, safely in Saint-Denis. To him, perhaps, they're not real people -- they're objects, scratchings on parchment, enemies of the king.

And this, perhaps, ultimately is the problem when you work with theory (ANY theory) in extremis. The thing about working with the past is that, no matter what, you're talking about people -- real, human people. They are not intellectual creations. The literature about them might be/ probably is a creation but they themselves are not. Real things happened to real people in real time. We ought, I think, respect what they experienced just as much as what they thought (or said).

Eileen Joy said...

Karl et al: I think the comments here are great because they open up two sites of concern for *writing* and *saying* which go to the heart, I think, of Karl's post here, especially his worry at the end that he cannot actually "say" anything that could constitute a "critique" that wouldn't be, at the end of the day, "without foundation" [which is another way of Karl saying--I think--that there is never any "ground" from which to speak--no foundation that will hold--but even more importantly, no grounds *for* speaking, with "grounds" here, in the second plural sense denoting, maybe, something like purpose and what I would call matter-ful-ness].

First of all, regardless of postmodernism's evacuation of the foundation of everything [which I don't 100% believe, btw--that is just a provisional starting point, in any case, and many cogent books have been written demonstrating that the lack of foundation wrought by postmodern critique can still actually serve as *places* for ethical and political thought/action--to whit Zygmunt Bauman's "Postmodern Ethics" and Diane Elam's "Feminism and Deconstruction" and William Connelly's "Neuropolitics"], there is still the position, as pointed to by Steve here, which is never evacuated by *any* system of thought or state of affairs, to *have* to say something [this might be described, also, as "I can't help myself; I *have* to say something, and I'll worry about the consequences or non-consequences later, or rather, it's precisely because I *do* understand the consequences of certain histories and historical actions that I will not and can not just stand here and impartially observe, albeit I understand how slippery everything is"--this is also about desire and hope and maybe even some outrage that just gets caught in the heart and can't be dislodged, however "emotional"--but all thinking is embodied and "emotional"--we know this now, we can't keep dis-avowing this as if "reason" were some sort of better and more "sane" alternative]. The potentiality of speech or writing to intervene into any state of affairs with the hope of change or amelioration or repair or whathaveyou is not, in my opinion, undone by postmodernism's anti-foundationalism, and otherwise, what are we all doing here, anyway, even just talking to each other?

There is also the question of responsibility--you can bring me your nihilism [not "you," Karl, but anyone] and I can still dare to leap over it if I feel I must, speaking and saying while I plunge headlong into bottomless-ness, or perhaps flying into something that will hold me [as I hold it] along the way [temporary, consoling alliances, which hit, I dare to hope, at Karl's desire for a "scholarly yet corporeal history"]. I think Sarah's idea of history and its supposed "progress" as

"non-linear, unpremeditated, often-botched and irrational, as contingent on immediate circumstances and personal relationships and decisions, and, above all, resisting narrative and narration"

is really a useful train of thought [really, the state of things as they truly *are*], while she also reminds us how difficult it is to narrate such a state of affairs, such a history. But again, we do it anyway because we feel we can't *not* make this attempt, this narration, even if the only "product" of that narration might be yet another "saying" which is: look at this mess of everything--it's beautiful, terrifying, and everything else [and this type of historical narrative also helps to undo some of those other foundations we can happily do without: the myths of nations, races, progressive teleologies, etc.]. There are, as Sarah says [and Steve implies], *consequences* to historical events, although they will not always be easy to fully delineate or, in some cases, to "repair." A "consequence" is a sort of foundation, is it not, upon which to speak and to say? Although this foundation, following Sarah, is just one bit of wreckage amidst a whole pile of historical wreckage [which calls to mind Benjamin's angel of history].

If we want our historical "critique" [to continue with Karl's terminology] to arrive at some definitive *place* of judgment, then we are likely in trouble, for sure, as Karl outlines here, but to then abandon all hope, as it were, is a different matter entirely. There will always be provisional places to stand, as it were, even with others, who might share our concerns and worries, as wellas our desire to say something or anything at all. If we allow ourselves this desire to say *something* while also admitting that our statements are both invested in the idea that saying always *matters* while always being open-ended, provisional, contingent, and always-incomplete [always in need of more saying--which was the purpose of Marcus Hensel's most recent post at Prehensel's Purple Prose that Jeffrey linked to last week], then we can proceed in the spirit of Steve Guthrie's "as if"--as if this matters, will matter, could matter. In that sense, we will never run out of things to say, or to care about.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks very much, gang, for your comments. I'm hoping I'll be able to respond by tonight, but, in the meantime, much appreciated!

Eileen Joy said...

While trying to finish my Kalamazoo paper on desire, incest, and friendship in the Old English Guthlac poems, I was re-reading Bryan Reynolds's "Transversal Poetics and Fugitive Explorations: Theaterspace, Paused Consciousness, Subjunctivity, and _Macbeth_" [his Intro. to the book "Performing Transversally: Reimagining Shakespeare and the Critical Future"] and I was just all of a sudden struck at how Reynolds's Intro. [and entire book] is precisely an intervention into the very question Karl raises here of the possible [im]possibility of critique post-postmodernity.

Reynolds very much argues for there still being a possibility of productive [and even ethico-political] critique, one that very much speaks on behalf of "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" [i.e. is, again, political, and even empowering, agency-wise] and which, although it is very much deconstructionist, nevertheless does not slide into perpetual undecidability or infinite suspension. I am very taken with his idea of "fugitive explorations," an important component in Reynolds's transversal poetics, which form an investigative-expansive mode of analysis:

"Engaging the framework of boundless potential proposed by transversal theory, fugitive explorations call for readings of a given text . . . that defy the authorities that reduce and contain meaning, both of the readings and the text itself. Dominating authorities can be found in all readings and reading environments, both of a text's inception and point of reception: they are the past, present, and future authoritative, interpretive communities that channel and situate a text and its interpretations across spacetime, arbitrarily producing its history and value. Hence, fugitive explorers venture wherever they are drawn . . . reconstituting parameters accordingly, as they strive to uncover 'fugitive elements'--human, narrative, thematic, semiotic, and so on . . . ." [p. 7]

Further:

"Fugitive explorers often endow agency where agency had been wanting, evacuated, or forbidden" in order to "understand and empower fugitive elements insofar as doing so generates positive experiences." [p. 8]

Although fugitive explorations are indebted to the deconstructionist's method of pursuing slippages, loose threads, and the like, "it does this deliberately as a gateway to other possible readings and, by extension, to other conceptual, emotional, and physical localities. Therefore, fugitive explorations do more than merely expose the instability of texts and the semiotic systems in which they function." [p. 9]

Most importantly, for my own purposes, I really want to follow Reynolds's lead in pursuing, not a text's instabilities and lack, but instead, its *potentialities* [doesn't that describe a lot of what happens on this weblog and in the published writings of many of our favorite scholars?]. While Reynolds would remind us [and who needs reminding?] that there is never an inherent, absolute, or unmediated meaning in any text [or "saying"], he asks us to resist hermeneutical reductionism and instead, to "consider artifacts positively and extensively. . . . Accordingly, compensation or totalization is not the objective of fugitive explorations" [p. 10].

In relation to both Sarah's and Matthew's comments here, this bit from Reynolds is very apropos:

". . . fugitive explorations recognize limits within circumstances and agents, even while remaining steadfastly committed to both the concept that anything is possible and the fact that there is a real where things are, happen, and can be done, however difficult to access or influence, and however subject to mediation and matters of perception." [p. 11]

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

You use the same formulation about Suger and Ashcroft's Christianity: "as true a Christianity as any." It's puzzling to me, in that I don't know if you mean:
-- true to itself qua Sugerian or Ashcroftian practice of Christianity is a version of a group of religions that go under the label Christianity, and all these Christianities are equally true
-- or true in a universal sense of all practices of Christianity partake of an exterior Religious Truth in the way that all religions (necessarily) do
-- true to the history of the religion
-- true to Christianity's founding texts
I'm likely not the right person to answer that fourth possibility, but it does seem to me that by that measure Sugerian or Ashcroftian Christianity is not true -- to its foundational precepts, to its generative ethos ... to its own grounds.

You write: "We have models for actions, for, if you like, ethical events, but no grounds." I think the reason I've been drawn to stone so much in my recent work is that stone is the hardest of materials; it is bedrock; it is (literally) grounds. Yet through another (simultaneous) frame stone is a liquid, or a powder that dissolves and vanishes or transmutes. Marx might have been wrong when he gave postmodernism its slogan of "All that is solid melts into air." Stone is more durable than that; grounds are more durable than that. But that doesn't mean that all things are truths, all reality baseless fabrication or radical construction.

Karl, there is so much in your post to engage with. This is the merest fragment -- and what a rich commentary it has generated.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks Eileen for the update. Will now have to learn a bit about 'transversal' theory.

Am dipping in to answer JJC's q. in re: Xianity.

"as true a Christianity as any"
Your first answer gets closest to what I intended. Here's where I was coming from:

(bracketing the fact that the affective center of the faith is a tortured body) My sense is that accusing Ashcroft, or Suger, or some other Christian enthusiast for torture, of being bad Christians relies upon an idealization of Christianity. The accusation requires privileging foundational documents--that is, the origin rather than, say, studying the way that certain texts and interpretations come to assume the force of the origin-function. The accusation relies upon the disjuncture between what a Christian--for example--does and what Christianity truly is.

But a relentless antifoundationalist can't get away with such an argument. It may be rhetorically and even practically effective to accuse Christian torturers of being bad Christians--anything that works to increase kindness gets my support--but such accusations, as effective as they might be, are NOT intellectually supportable.

Christianity is as Christianity does. What Christianity does differs from time to time, place to place, community to community, and so on, always necessarily divided within itself, like any structure of belief.

With that in mind, how could I justifiably call Suger (etc.) a bad Christian?

Maybe it's just because I've been reading Foucault over the past couple days, but: Good scholarly practice demands, instead, that we determine the features of his faith, called Christianity, and how this faith came to hold within itself all its various, (necessarily) contradictory ideals and acts. Good ethical practice, which may be something else altogether, demands that we find some ground to accuse Suger and his ilk (which may include us as secret sharers in his crimes), but that ground can't be found in the difference between (an idealized) Christianity and his Christianity.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I'm with you, Karl, but I think that unlike Foucault, you can look at a long history of practice rather than a temporal snapshot. Michel has this structuralist's weakness for imagining that present moments are eternal, and that praxis isn't multitemporal.

The Modesto Kid said...

"piously slaughtered" is such a nice verb-modifier pair.