A necessary task of theory is precisely to provoke a text into unpremeditated articulation, into the utterance of what it somehow contains or knows but neither intends nor is able to say.
—Paul Strohm, Theory and the Premodern Text
Somewhat prompted by Jeffrey’s two posts on what it has meant for him to serve as Chair of his department and some of the frustrations attendant upon advocating to sometimes unreceptive audiences the value of literary studies within the university, and also for the importance of community and shared vision when negotiating some of the university’s largest [more global] concerns relative to funding, strategic initiatives, and mission, I cannot help but be struck at the same time by the short-sightedness and perhaps even the [possibly irresponsible, or at least, disingenuous] banality of Stanley Fish’s argument, conveyed by Mary Kate in her post “Is There a Methodology in This Class?”, that the best thing we can do with a literary text is to “find out what the author meant” [i.e., hunt for and articulate the so-called “intentionality” behind literary texts, because, in the end, texts mean what their authors say they mean]. This represents, I really believe, an incredible constriction of what literary studies are capable of doing [and at a time, historically, when literary studies are imagined not to do anything of much real “use” within the university, and humanities programs have to struggle with sometimes strangulating budget limitations]. Somewhat accidentally, I also read Fish’s comments in relation to the essay by Louis Menand, “The Ph.D. Problem,” in the recent issue of Harvard Magazine [an excerpt, actually, from his forthcoming book The Marketplace of Ideas, and thank you to both Julie Orlemanski and Jennifer Brown for posting links to this on Facebook and Twitter, respectively], where Menand describes a fairly woeful state of affairs in the world of graduate studies in literature relative to the scarcity of jobs in literary studies within the university [also related, I might add, to the shrinking numbers of English majors at the Bachelor’s level], which has partly been the outcome of the profession of literary studies becoming more and more about a certain self-isolating “professional reproduction,” with no regard for whether or not there is a viable market for the growth of overly specialized, professionalized humanities disciplines. Whether or not one agrees with all of the aspects of Menand’s argument [and I don’t necessarily—read the whole essay if you have time], one can’t help but pause and think that the last thing literary studies needs now is a constriction and narrowing of its objects and methodologies of study; if anything, it needs a greater pluralism of its objects and methodologies and a wider purchase on multiple realms of application. I am leery of any argument that either begins or ends with the idea that we should do one thing over another [that chooses, further, between “better” and “worse” ways of pursuing our studies], because frankly, we should do everything we can. Even more frankly, we need the multiple fires of wild experimentation, even if some of them die out and only leave smoke behind them. We need to stop playing so safely [although granted, when jobs are at stake, and furthermore, when those jobs are scarce, playing safe is often the name of the game, but for what ultimate benefit, as a far as the progress of any field or discipline is concerned, not to mention our own personal happiness? how can our field hope to innovate, in serious fashion, under this aegis?].
I find Fish’s argument especially hysterical in relation to reading Milton, especially Milton’s Paradise Lost. I am not a Miltonist, of course, but I have always loved teaching Paradise Lost and have been teaching it every year for about eight years now. This is a perfect text to talk about in relation to intentionality, of course, since there are few literary works that expend so much energy in continually reminding the reader of what the author’s intentions and arguments are [and when we take into account how much verbiage Milton expended in non-literary polemical writings, such as his “Doctrine of Discipline and Divorce,” locating the ideological motivations of the author is no overly-laborious shell game]. So, where is the fun, anyway, in locating intentionality in Paradise Lost, when the author has spent so much time already in showing his own hand? I’m not an idiot and I realize that, even given this state of affairs, Miltonists still continue to argue, and seemingly without end, over exactly what it is Milton might have meant in any particular passage in the poem, but literary studies in Fish’s scenario becomes a kind of compendium of disputations over this or that supposed intention, and all this within the framework of a text that is practically screaming its intentions [and here, I find Suzanne Conklin Akbari’s comments, regarding how different texts, more and less “energetic” in their textual design, strongly or more weakly manipulate readers, really worth thinking about further, especially across the medieval/early modern divide].
Wouldn’t some kind of law of diminishing returns apply to this state of affairs, or is Fish content with a literary criticism that argues, ad infinitum [and perhaps ad nauseum] over what an author might have intended [and if so, what is the value of such a literary studies that is so situated in contests over historical moments of instantiation—can these studies “speak” to anything other than those moments, and if not, how is literary studies different than archaeology, brushing off the dust of multiple modernities from the artifacts of the past and keeping those artifacts, however preserved in comtemporary locations, firmly in the past, breathing in and out their antiquarian airs]? Within medieval studies, of course, we have seen the hold that typological and exegetical-type readings have had on the field, and we have also seen how the replication, in literary critique, of so-called medieval world-views can sometimes ground the critical enterprise to a sort of halt: what happens when criticism of medieval texts merely enacts a repetition and contemporary paraphrase of the perceived “original” message? This may be exemplary excavation, but is it criticism? Shouldn’t criticism entail some critique of the various [often oppressive] “orders” [social, political, religious, whathaveyou] thought to be held together and maintained in language?
For those of us who have spent any amount of time reading and thinking about and teaching Paradise Lost, we know that half the fun is all of the ways the text breaks down under the weight of its own preposterous logic and grandiose ambitions [I mean, really Milton, you’re going to reveal the mind/intention of God to Man?—I guess this actually makes Milton himself an intentionalist, doesn’t it?], and even argues with itself. Although some scholars, led by Fish, will argue that these dislogics and counter-arguments within the grand argument are all part of the author’s scheme, there are just so many ways in which the text of Paradise Lost cracks open, without too much prying, to reveal all sorts of what Jeffrey, following Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, might call unfolding-worlds caught within and pulling against the textual mesh of “what Milton said” [which is related, sure, to “what Milton meant”—but did even Milton always know what he meant?]. Regardless, therefore, of the high level of artifice and poetic rhetoric that Milton “energetically” [to borrow from Suzanne] imposed upon his poem [and the reader], there is practically no end to all of the ways in which the poem pulls at its own seams, and it may be that one of the important functions of literary criticism, as I have written elsewhere, might be to trace the inexhaustible dimensions of that which, with every reading, is always still unfolding and becoming in these texts, which is also to speak, I believe, of the utopian possibilities of reading. Otherwise, how else to define history as that thing which is always happening, then and now, simultaneously, in perpetual exchange and interchange, always in transit, moving between definition and the undoing of definitions as openings to new ways of “seeing,” both in the past and the present, as opposed to history as what is dead and always over—frozen in time—and always different? I am reminded here of something Christopher Nealon once wrote, that “the whole point of doing historical work is to situate it along the seam of its becoming-historical, which is a way to keep it in touch with that which eludes it.”
Let’s consider, too, all of the ways in which the English language Milton employed carries within it all sorts of connotations, denotations, and thicknesses of meaning that no author can be in complete control of, and at the same time, Milton, like many authors before and after him, hurries to cover over or throw road-blocks in front of alternative readings that nevertheless can be seen as intrinsic to the text, which “says” what it means partially by “not saying” what it does not want to mean, but which anti- or other type of meaning is dragged along nevertheless in the wake of the language chosen at the expense of the language not chosen. In other words, the “meaning” of any given text resides partly in the gaps between what is articulated explicitly and what is under active erasure in a particular act of articulation—in this sense, deconstruction is no mere “tool” for reading a text but actively uncovers important historical dimensions relative to what is sayable at the cost of what is buried in very particular times and places of textual inscription. This is a critical practice, as Dan Remein points out, that attends to the Other and Outside of texts [which are nevertheless somehow also within the texts that actively cover them over], and therefore, deconstruction is, again, not just a tool brought to the working table of the interpretation of a text, but more importantly, represents a deeply ethical way of paying attention to possibilities and potentialities that, while lying in palpable silence within certain texts, can only really be “opened” and unfurled in a series of readings situated in “other times” that come after a particular text’s originary instantiation. But this also means allowing for the possibility that the present in which we are located is just as unstable as the texts we read from the past—both the past and the present are in flux together and even inhere in each other in “untimely” ways, depending on our angle of vision in any given moment of reading. Utopic readings, in other words, can work in both directions: forward, yes, but also backward—the past and present are both always “available,” therefore, in my view of history, for “becoming undone” in the presence of the other. Literary criticism might be a way of not only tracing all of these acts of “becoming undone,” but also of actively engaging in the untying of threads of teleological time that sometimes bind too tightly the texts we read, limiting their potential for multiple acts of combustion across different times and places.
This brings up, also, the point raised in the comments to Mary Kate’s post by mon-rodriquez amat concerning the relations [and tensions] between power and knowledge that inhere in texts, which situation, I would argue, ethically entails mis-readings of texts against their intentionality [the classic Foucauldian archaeological approach, of course]. What if the intentions behind a text are morally despicable [with the understanding that even a term such as “moral” has to be debated in thickly constructed historical contexts], and the act of reading and interpreting a literary text, as much as it will highlight intention, also needs to be about unveiling certain social, political, and other conditions that constrain interpretation in different times and places, and maybe even, in certain moments of social circulation, limit agencies, harm persons, pervert justice, and so on and so forth? And so, finally, as regards Fish’s commentary [as conveyed by Mary Kate], to talk about literary criticism as a practice that, with all humility, should attend to texts in a way that is limited to the texts themselves [id est, to the textuality of texts only, leaving aside any other scholarly desires for the potentialities of texts to say something beyond the individual minds who created them, seen to be trapped in a sort of temporal amber] seems, again, incredibly short-sighted, maybe even dishonest. BUT, at the same time, and in the hope of reinvesting our critical practices within medieval studies with newly-imagined modes of attention to texts as aesthetic objects that “travel,” I want to also hold open the possibility of a critical practice that would, as Fish commends, attend only to the text itself [in constellation with other texts, also attended to in terms of their textualities and inter-textualities], but in ways that move far beyond the hunt for author or other intentionalities. This criticism would be post-historical, but it would not be ahistorical.
Now, as is typical of Mary Kate, she has mined Fish’s talk at Columbia University for far richer questions buried within Fish’s comments, having to do with whether or not literary studies can be called empirical and in what ways, exactly? And further, what do we mean when we invoke terms such as “methodology” in our studies and how might that differ from “interpretation,” and what then, also, do we mean by “interpretation”? [I will say here that you can put me in the camp of people that is decidedly not interested in turning literary studies into a social-scientific, empirical endeavour; I see literary studies, rather, as a site par excellence for a-methodological experimentation, but give me a bit more time to figure out exactly what I mean by that.] One possible route here might be to follow Susan Noakes’s lead in her book Timely Reading: Between Exegesis and Interpretation [Cornell, 1988—thanks to Anne Clark Bartlett for recommending this book] and say that an ideal mode of reading might be one that “shuttles” back and forth between “humanistic” modes of exegesis that attempt a “reconstruction” of the “dismembered” bodies of texts and modes of interpretation that would envision “texts as bodies that the skilled reader will metamorphose into new shapes without end” [p. xiii]. Also, and very importantly, is “theory” just one “tool” among many for deciphering and reading a text, or is it something more than that? [I actually do think theory is about life, and about changing our lives, but we’ll leave that argument for another place.]
Implicit in Mary Kate’s thoughtful comments are also, I believe, some very important questions about reading itself—what does it mean, say, to read a medieval text that “says” what it does across hundreds and hundreds of years, carrying with it all sorts of social, historical, cultural, political, and other baggage that gets re-configured in each particular time and place within which it is read? If the predominant mode of the criticism of medieval texts is historicist [both of the old-fashioned and newer varieties], where does that leave literary criticism? If everything is “text,” in a sense, and historical studies have become decidedly literary [aware of their construction as narrative] and literary studies have been, for a long while now, decidedly historicist, what finally distinguishes a literary from an historical reading of a text? Does it matter anymore [other than in terms of discussions about genres of writing and forms of production]? Has literary criticism, further, lost something in what seems to be its primary concern these days—tracing, as Stephen Greenblatt and the other architects of New Historicism might put it, not the transhistorical meanings of texts, but rather, the ways in which they help to form and circulate certain social, political, psychological, and other energies in very particular historically embedded contexts [contexts, moreover, that are typically drawn very tightly around “initial” moments of “entry” of the work of art; id est, do not talk about presentism to a New Historicist, for whom the time(s) in which various works are first created and “performed” matter most of all].
These matters have been much on my mind lately as I have been reading the provocative essays collected in Elizabeth Scala and Sylvia Frederico’s The Post-Historical Middle Ages [Palgrave, 2009]—essays which, collectively, do not advocate for anything like leaving history behind in our reading of medieval texts so much as they imagine history’s operations within medieval studies in ways that transcend what the editors call “historicism as usual.” Indeed, as Jeffrey writes in his essay in the volume, historicism “does not denote a monolithic practice—and there is no “other” to it; meaning that historicism has to be part of any critical encounter with the past. It is the sine qua non that enables other, potentially unhistorical modes” [“Time Out of Memory,” p. 61, n. 37]. Most important for Jeffrey, as he articulates it in his essay, is that past, present, and future be kept “alive—capable of plenitude, heterogeneity, change” across different times and places, and therefore history is never static, never fixed in just one place or mode of communication [p. 57]. At the same time, Maura Nolan’s essay in the same volume, “Historicism after Historicism,” argues for a “genuine historicism” that would be “a kind of formalism”—as “medievalism,” it would have to “embrace form as the precondition of historical apprehension,” or else it “cannot ever understand the workings of poetic art.” Therefore, to “think through what a culture’s aesthetic production actually does, from the inside and at close range, should be a primary objective” in contemporary medieval literary studies [p. 83]. Ultimately, there is a certain “particularity” and difference that inheres in artifacts of the past that must be engaged with, and the best sort of historicism names a practice of reading that is “sensitive to alterity and difference, aware of multiplicity and variation” [p. 84]. All times are, in a sense, different from all other times, and this includes, as Nolan points out, that sometimes the past is different from the past, and the present can be different from the present—I thought these points were quite important, actually.
But I must admit that I really stopped cold at Nolan’s call to think through a culture’s aesthetic production “from the inside and at close range”—is such a position even possible? If there is any inside, proximity, or closeness to the Middle Ages, it is by virtue of its artifacts being here with us now, in the present. We are not so much close [nor can we get closer to] their time of production, as they are close to our time of interpretation. But we might also return here to Fish’s call to attend to the textuality of texts and ask if, by virtue of attending primarily to the textuality of medieval literary texts, do we thereby enter into a particular history somehow different and other than our own? And if, as the New Historicists assert [following Derrida] that all culture is text and everything counts as culture, do we believe that we have enough of that medieval “culture” to be able to inhabit it from the “inside” [however partially]? This would entail, of course, that medieval persons had some kind of full understanding of themselves which was evinced somehow in their culture, which I don’t see as true for any group of persons situated in any time period. Isn’t the beauty of art, in some respects, that it performs this state of affairs? [Even Nolan’s valuing of the attention to unique form in medieval aesthetic production seems to me to assume a certain coherence of form in any particular time period, whereas I would see the question of form, in any given period, as always emerging, partial, both backward-and forward-looking, and never fully “formed,” as it were.]
Nolan’s arguments stand in some contrast to Aranye Fradenburg’s essay in the collection, “(Dis)continuity: A History of Dreaming” [an astounding and beautiful essay that was, in many ways, my favorite in the book, along with the essays by Jeffrey, Patricia Ingham, and Stephanie Trigg and Tom Prendergast], where she announces up front that she will be offering a critique of “discontinuist historicism—of the idea that different periods of time are simply and radically other to one another,” and where she also avers that “we all live in different times” and “different times live on in us and in our practices” [p. 88]. And I am reminded here, too, of an essay Frandenburg cites approvingly, Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon’s “Queering History” [PMLA 120.5 (2005): 1608-17], where they argue that “we need to question the premise of a historicism that privileges difference over similarity, recognizing that it is the peculiarity of our current historical moment that such a privileging takes place at all” [p. 1609]. The “unhistoricism” and “homohistory” that Goldberg and Menon propose would not stand outside of history, but it would not understand “difference” in only chronological terms, nor would it privilege “teleological sequence or textual transparency.” Goldberg and Menon’s historicism would not choose between alteritist or self-identitarian modes of historicizing so much as it would call both of these moves into question, and ultimately it would
not sacrifice sameness at the altar of difference nor collapse difference into sameness or all-but-sameness. In keeping alive the undecidable difference between difference and sameness it would refuse what we might term the compulsory heterotemporality of historicism, whether it insists on difference or produces a version of the normative same. Reading unhistorically would validate reading against the categorical collapse so often performed in the name of history. [p. 1616]It seems to me that the most interesting historicism, one that would attend to the textuality of texts [but in ways much more capacious than Stanley Fish is willing to allow], would be devoted to exploring [as Fradenburg does in her essay, relative to the signifying of dreams in both Freud and Chaucer] the connections and disconnections between different ways of signifying just about everything. As Fradenburg writes,
Signifiers are remarkably mutable, but they can also be very persistent—and persistent does not mean timeless. Signifiers enable repetitions, revivals, and resurgences; they mark the spot where things have gone missing, hence where we begin to look for them (again). [p. 90]So, signification travels, and also disappears, in interesting ways, across time and place, and one of the tasks of literary criticism today [whether in medieval or more contemporary studies] might be to track these migrations. But what also of the domain of the “literary” in particular? One result of New Historicism has been that everything “counts” as culture, and all of culture is “text” [as I indicated above], and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we now might begin to locate, or re-locate, the “literary” against or beside the “historical”—even as the domain of that which actively subverts and up-ends the historical, the realm in which everything is always contiguous somehow while also held in various processes of mediation and translation across space and time [and I've also been thinking about ways in which, when the text itself does not up-end anything, that we, as critics, should up-end the text ourselves, and by any means necessary--not in order to harm or mis-speak its historical or "truth" content, but to enlarge its domain and "time" of signification]. I am thinking here, especially, of Cary Howie’s call, in Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure, following Catherine Brown, to recognize the medieval as coeval: “Our dealings with the world, with difference, are ultimately fumblings, necessary and beautiful, toward an immediacy that is im-mediate, in the strongest sense: not beyond mediation but inside it.” And this immediacy, this “inside-between, is grounded in the notion, indeed in the experience, that between immediacy and mediation, so to speak, some other kind of relation is not just possible but already at work” [p. 9].
Some other kind of relation that is not just possible but already at work [yet in need of interpretation, unfolding]. Might the task of literary criticism within medieval studies today be to trace this relation [while also sharpening our definition of what we mean by “literary” versus “historical”; “reading” verus “criticism”]? And what might that look like? Well, start with Cary Howie’s book. Then go here. Read The Post-Historical Middle Ages. As for me, I’m still working on it.
To be continued.