Saturday, January 31, 2009

Briefly Noted: Upcoming Beowulf Performance


Thanks to a heads-up from my Brooklyn College colleague Michael Meagher, here's something for medievalists and particularly Old Anglophiles in the tri-state area:
Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage

Flawed heroes, sympathetic monsters and haughty professors collide as this hefty poem is rescued from the grasp of 1,000 years of highbrow analysis and transformed into a defiantly raucous musical. Presented by San Francisco's infamous Shotgun Players and New York's infectious Banana Bag & Bodice, this new SongPlay is an irreverent dissertation on art versus criticism in blood soaked Scandinavia! Written by Jason Craig, music by Dave Malloy, directed by Rod Hipskind.
April 9-19th at the Abrons Art Center. For those of you in the region teaching Beowulf this semester, maybe it's not too late for a field trip?

As for me, I'm of course offput by the distinction they draw between art and criticism. As we've seen repeatedly around these parts, and has been enshrined in a certain important volume, the best criticism is a "raucous...collision."

EDIT: Okay, I just posted this, but, what gives?: "rescued from the grasp of 1,000 years of highbrow analysis"?! First off, is there a tradition of engagement with Beowulf preceding Thorkelin? If so, Mssrs. Craig, Mallory, and Hipskind need to shock the academic world with their discovery! Second off, does this "rescuing from the grasp" business mean that the poem itself is poor struggling Grendel and "highbrow analysis" is Beowulf himself? Aargh, methinks this haughty professor needs some mead.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Oh Lord, Bless This, Thy Hand Grenade


Matthew Gabriele offered an excellent suggestion in my post below: to learn more about horses being cursed, learn whether or not horses were blessed. After a quick search I discovered, first, that I need to get myself to a library if I want to answer the question, and second, I discovered the original of the holy hand grenade. You there, yes you, you with the 20-sided die, you may be doubtful, but you will now know that I am right.

Have a look here and tell me if I'm not right. Some of the relevant portions of the image, taken from page 290 of an 18th-century volume, The Rituale Basileense juxta Romanum Pauli V et Urbani VIII include this blessing:
Benedictio Sclopetorum, & Bombardarum, fiat ex supradicta benedictione armorum mutatis mutandis, & aspergantur aqua benedicta. Benedictio Pulveris tormentarii, seu jaculatorii; item Globorum plumbeorum, vel ferreorum, conjunctim vel divisim.
In my typically hit or miss Latin, this means:
Bless the rifle and cannonball, and let the above blessing of the arms [be done] with all the appropriate changes, and let them be sprinkled with holy water. Let the gunpowder [?] be blessed, and the projectiles: namely, the bullets, whether of lead or iron, whether collectively or individually.
Thank you. Isn't there a Medieval Academy Prize for meritorious [I spelled that right I hope] service to Geekdom?

And your little dog horse, too


Having astonished myself by completing my to-do list before 10pm on two successive days, I've been going through the stacks on Specula by my bed. First impression: I've been pleased to have read several articles on cultural contact zones (Leor Halevi, Oct 2008, "Christian Impurity versus Economic Necessity: A Fifteenth-Century Fatwa on European Paper" and Karrin Kogman-Appel, January 2009, "Christianity, Idolatry, and the Question of Jewish Figural Painting in the Middle Ages"). But that's not why I'm writing today.

In the July 2008 issue, Katherine Allen Smith published "Saints in Shining Armor: Martial Asceticism and Masculine Models of Sanctity, ca. 1050-1250," which concerns a couple dozen male saints who, imitating or appropriating chivalric identities, afflicted their bodies by constantly wearing armor, which was often ill-fitting or excessively heavy to boot. The frequent references to their doing battle with the spirits of the air of course (anachronistically) reminds me of Guthlac, and the self-inflicted ordeals of Lawrence of Subiaco (described on 586) certainly calls for a more affective, poetic engagement than Smith would have been able to give it in the course of the article.

It's a footnote, however, that really struck me. She quotes (582 n40) from a cursing from the 1031 Council of Limoges, the record of which is often cited in discussions of the development of the Peace Movement (and thus a key place in the debate over the emergence of chivalry and of the milites as a class: this article strikes me as a good take on the subject; the PL ascribes the record of the council to Jordan of Limoges, but it's actually by Adamar of Chabannes: see, among other places, Little's Benedictine Maledictions 214).

The relevant words of the curse:
let them [the excommunicated knights] be cursed and their accomplices in evil [adjutores eorum in malum]: let their arms be cursed, and their horses [et caballi illorum]: they will be with the fratricide Cain, and with Judas the traitor, and with Dathan and Abiron, who entered hell while still living.
I love all of this, but I highlighted what especially concerns me. We are likely all familiar with the chivalric circuit, and, thinking about medieval and modern armored cavalry, and about lobster knights, I wrote in comments here about how the "elite status of this military profession derives precisely from its inhuman interpenetration of armored cavalry with warrior," so it makes sense to me that cursing a knight would mean also cursing his arms and horse. Simply cursing the man would be incomplete.

With my apologies for the minimal payoff: although the word "adjutores" frustrates deleuzoguattarian readings of the curse--the deleuzoguattarian circuit isn't one of dominant center AND accomplice--it still fascinates me. It's odd to me that the horse and armor should be in the same semantic and taxonomic register; and it's odd to me that they should be accomplices. With "adjutores," the curse seems to grant too much agency to armor and horse, while at the same time muddling the distinction between nonlife and life. A horse is like armor in that it's a necessity for a knight, but otherwise it's very much not like armor. What conception of the animal, I wonder, allows for the horse to be cursed in the same breath as armor? What conception of the animal allows the horse to be cursed, like armor, as an accomplice?

(image from here by twoblueday under a Creative Commons license)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"The Hunger," or Precarious Self


How does the cliché go? "Being a blogger means never having to say you're sorry"? Brooklyn College begins its semester today (and before your jealous hackles rise, know that it ends on May 20th), and I imagine many of my colleagues will complain about how quickly the break went, wondering what they could have done to make it better. These wistful words have been mine, too, but not this time. In the midst of various obligatory visits, I managed to exceed my own expectations, generating about 100 pages of [what I think of as] good solid bookdraft. What suffered? The blog, and, even if I don't have to, I apologize.

What follows below is the conclusion to a chapter. It relies heavily on Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, a book whose title promised productive interchange with my own (titled, at this point, How to Make a Human: Violence and Animals in the Middle Ages). I've not been disappointed, but I've also experienced a sense of relief in reading it. G. W. Bush had not yet finished his first term when Butler published many of the pieces that comprise Precarious Life, and the conditions she analyzed and decried only worsened in the four years following the book's first edition. She wrote against the conditions of Guantanamo, where the US held prisoners in a place outside the law [baring in mind edit, haha bearing in mind the complex relation to the outside Agamben analyzes in Homo Sacer and State of Exception], where the US held prisoners, we now know, for the sake of being held, held with no expectation of their ever being prosecuted of anything, held them, it seems, only to be tortured (see here: "the Bush administration's focus on detention and interrogation made preparation of viable prosecutions a far lower priority"). With so much changing in the last week, not least of all, the condition of being of the Guantanamo prisoners, much of Butler's book has become obsolete. Perhaps "obsolete" is not quite the right word, but it is certain that its relation to the present has changed utterly.

At the same time, Butler's analysis will, for better or worse, be of continued utility. Its applicability--despite Butler's persistent [albeit complicated] humanism--to critical animal theorists has already been insisted upon by Chloë Taylor when she writes, inter alia,
When exposed to the fragility of human bodies, to our own mortality, we say that we are sick like dogs, that we die like dogs, that, in the worst cases, we are slaughtered like sheep. Contra Butler, it would seem that vulnerability makes us animal, rather than specifically human. It is insofar as we are animal, embodied, that we are vulnerable. (66)
Inspired by Butler, in league with Taylor, and animated by more hope than I have felt in years, I wrote the following words, which I expect you to read, if at all, only in your leisure.

"Frank fed us human meat, and we got the hunger. That's how you become a cannibal, Dee. You get one taste of delicious, delicious human meat, none of this stuff ever satisfies you ever again for the rest of your life."

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia [thanks Mike Smith for turning me on to this clip]

Judith Butler has written about the exclusions that mark certain lives as “grievable” and exclude others from the community of concern. “Each of us,” she writes, “is constituted politically in part by virtue of the social vulnerability of our bodies.” Those not recognized as belonging to the community have no social vulnerability. They are not recognized as vulnerable insofar as they are not recognized as belonging to the community of those whose lives matter and thus who are understood as being fully alive. They, who “cannot be mourned because they are always already lost, or, rather, never 'were,'” who possess only what Agamben terms “bare life,” a life outside the boundaries of a meaningful life or death, cannot be recognized as suffering violence, since no one feels any outrage or sense of shared suffering for what they suffer. Thus, “if violence is done against those who are unreal...from the perspective of violence, it fails [from the perspective of the dominant community] to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated.” This exclusion, which is, to cite Derrida's phrase again, a “denegation of murder,” helps constitute the human, for, as Butler writes, “I am as much constituted by those I do grieve for as by those whose deaths I disavow.” She writes that therefore the obituary should be understood “as an act of nation-building,” but, as Chloë Taylor insisted in a recent reading of Butler, the obituary should also be understood as an act by which animals lives become forgotten. After all, no casualty list ever records massacres of beasts.

It bears repeating that in the dominant medieval intellectual and social traditions, animals do not belong to the community of the grievable; to recall Augustine, animals “are dissociated from us by their want of reason, and are therefore by the just appointment of the Creator subjected to us to kill or keep alive for our own uses.” Being that animals are given over to humans to be used, it would be absurd to mourn their deaths, to grant them some manner of obituary, to pray for the horse, as Bevis asks we do for Arondel (4613-19) In a popular medieval story, a greyhound overturns a cradle and bloodies itself defending its master's infant son from a poisonous serpent. When its master is summoned home by news of his son's death, he kills the greyhound, but, quickly realizing his error, he abandons himself entirely to grief. In one Middle English version, he “brake his sper in thre partiis, & put his wyf in preson, and yede him self to the holy londe”; in another, he enters his orchard “and for dule of hys hounde / he lepe in and sanke to gronde” (884-85), drowning himself; in another, he strips off all his armor:
And al barfote forth gan he ga,
Withowten leue of wife or childe.
He went into þe woddes wild,
And to þe forest fra al men,
þat nane sold of his sorow ken. (918-22)
In all three versions, he surrenders his entire social existence. He breaks his spear, forsakes his family, and leaves for the Holy Land; he drowns himself; he disappears into the woods, where no one would know of his sorrow. Each version has in common contempt for the advice of women, for the initial mistake of either his nurses or wife guides the knight to catastrophe. The misogyny, however, is not what the story is really about, but rather a screen around its incognizable content; as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, misogyny protects readers from a story that would have otherwise taken them into an abyss. Each of these stories of the knight and the greyhound is also a story in which choosing to grieve for a dog means abandoning the community of humans; each story is therefore one of realizing the structures of violence by which the human inessentially sustains itself. Once astonished by his recognition of his shared vulnerability with what should be recognized as a mere dog, the knight must exclude himself from a community that constitutes itself by knowing that humans should not die like animals. Humans who mourn dogs no longer have any place to be. For the knight to remain himself, animals must die like animals: unmourned, eaten or used up in labor, discarded and unmemorialized.

It would not do, for example, to wonder what became of the lions that ate Ignatius, or to wonder too much about what Ignatius himself ate before he met his grisly end. Since Ignatius disdains the Jewish law and sects that prohibit certain foods, it seems that his alimentary codes at least anticipate those of Augustine. Without objections to eating meat—or, perhaps better said, objecting to objections to eating meat—Ignatius likely broke bones and tore limbs, inflicting on animal bodies what he expects the lions will inflict on him. To be sure, this is a speculative reading. But because the lives of animals are so far outside the considerations of the Christianity exemplified by Ignatius, the disdain they suffered at the hands of the saint can be reconstructed only by compelling the silences in Ignatius's ouevre to speak. The community his writing helps constitute constitutes itself in part by excluding from consideration the significance of all violence except what humans suffer. The silence on all deaths but those of Ignatius and their co-believers is therefore a kind of evidence. Even as Ignatius harnessed the horror of his coming death for rhetorical force, he never considered that the deaths he silently countenanced, that he himself likely encouraged through his appetites, were just as horrific. Lions and other, less mighty animals, never having had life in the way that humans do, cannot be grieved unless humans recognize their shared vulnerability with them. But had Ignatius given voice to this shared vulnerability, he would have lost himself, for the indifference of Ignatius's ouevre to violence against animals, his almost complete silence about the food he ate before he himself was eaten, inscribes the boundaries by which Ignatius knows himself and his fellows as human.

The imagined deliciousness of human flesh functions in a manner akin to the human recognition of their social vulnerability amidst other humans, for it sets human life apart as special. The death of another human demands mourning, and also demands that each human remember that he or she will someday die as well: each recognized death is a memento mori. The remembrance is therefore also a remembrance of weakness. The fantasy of the deliciousness of one's own flesh, by contrast, is not a reaction to someone else's death but a fantasy of one's own death and one's own flesh that transforms human death from an occasion of grief into an occasion of triumph. The anthropophage commits violence against the human, and thus, by inspiring mourning in the human community, reminds humans of the vulnerability of their lives; yet its unshakeable fixation on human flesh simultaneously attests to the supremacy of human life. This is a violence akin to that suffered by the martyrs in hagiography, where every torment inflicted on them by some insatiable, compulsive tyrant bears witness not to the power of the tyrant but to the power of Christianity.

It is therefore to the advantage of humans that the taste of their flesh encourages anthropophagy. In the widespread story of Nicholas and the Three Clerks, Nicholas, dissatisfied with the meat the butcher tries to sell him, demands the three clerks the butcher has slaughtered, butchered, and salted like pigs. One manuscript of The South English Legendary records Nicholas's words before the counter:
ich wold ther of bigge. wel swythe gret won
of bacon that were fair and clene. fain ich wolden habbe
sel me so wel as thou wost.
I would buy from you a great deal of fair and clean bacon. I would gladly have this. Sell me as good meat as you know of.
In describing the clerks as “so wel as thou wost,” Nicholas elevates the dead clerks above the common run of meat. By coming to their assistance, as he would for no pig, he has mourned them or at least, through his actions, memorialized their deaths; when he resurrects them, he at once witnesses to and rectifies his grief over the violence they suffered. But even while the clerks are dead, even before the resurrection, Nicholas knows their flesh as human, because he knows it as far more desirable than the flesh of any pig. In that regard, the clerks have not been reduced to utter weakness by being slaughtered, for, inasmuch as they demand special attention, they still have an effect on this world greater than that of any animal.

The identification of readers with the clerks of the Nicholas story also allows them to identify with the clerks as the best meat and thus to identify with the clerks as not pigs. To the degree that they expect that Nicholas would have described them too as the best meat, they experience what Žižek terms interpassivity, “believing or enjoying through the other.” In this case, the belief is akin to the self-satisfaction felt in imagining being present at one's own funeral. The fantasy is not one of grieving for one's own self, but one of imagining the power that one will continue to have over others. The human imagines itself dead, and imagines its corpse an object of great alimentary delight; by inspiring delight greater than that caused by any other food, it knows itself to be the superior kind of life and therefore human. This fantasy is not, then, simply a passive experience, nor is it a fantasy of vulnerability. Although the corpse seems inert, it still acts by and through itself by driving others either to grief or delight. Even in death, the human retains its structural position of power; while in life, the human enjoys a similar kind of passive power by imagining that its living flesh would, if dead, be cause for celebration—and obsession—among anyone lucky enough to eat it. Whatever doubts humans may have about the specialness of their being, doubts that perhaps inhere most deeply in the apparent indistinguishability between human and animal flesh, the overwhelming desire of others for human flesh convinces them that humans matter more than any other living thing. In this dynamic, grievable and desirable lives are inextricable.

The fifteenth-century moral treatise Dives and Pauper proves that the verb “occidit” of the Sixth Commandment does not apply “boþyn to man & of beste,” but it still places limitations on the slaughter of animals: anyone who butchers an animal “for cruelte & vanite,” that is, anyone who enjoys killing the animal, has sinned. Humans, however, must possess something more than mere life; they must be creatures who cannot simply be put to use; the supremacy of human life requires the supremacy of human death. The slaughter of humans should not be simply a job, but a sin, an object of desire, a pleasure, a pleasure that coerces, a pleasure that infects eaters with “the hunger.”

[photo from a few weeks ago, at a diner that any Twin Peaks fan knows serves "damn good coffee, and hot"]

Dante Alighieri's Star Meter is Up 8% at the IMDb; Also, Emmanuella Chiriqui

[fig 1: The IMDb doesn't know what Dante looks like]
by J J Cohen

So John Filardi, an alumnus of the GW English Department, is here teaching a course on screenwriting, focused upon comedy. By all accounts it has been a terrific class.

Today he invited Emmanuella Chiriqui (Sloan from Entourage) to his class to talk about ... well I don't even know. When I accidentally by happenstance and without forethought chanced to be lurking by the door as the class ended, she and I struck up a conversation (as celebrities and their stalkers oft will do). I asked her what movies she has appeared in recently. She mentioned Saint John of Las Vegas and I nodded sagely ... then ran to my office to look it up on the IMDb. Seems Chiriqui is playing a stripper named "Tasty D. Lite" in the film. But that isn't the odd part -- or, at least, the oddest part: listed as one of the writers of Saint John is Dante Alighieri.

Probing deeper (I am a tireless researcher), I discovered that this vaguely familiar Dante fellow has not only composed many a medieval text used to beat into intellectual submission the youth of our high schools, he has also been the writer of many films. Many of these works are, of course, adaptations of The Inferno. Dante also has a movie called (naturally) Beatrice. Most surprisingly, he is credited with the soundtrack to La Double vie de Véronique. Among his genres? "Drama | Fantasy | Comedy | Adventure more." Among his keywords? "Hell | Female Nudity | Dante | Inferno more." So says the IMDb, which also offers that his "STARmeter: ^ 8% since last week." I'm sure it's always nice when your STARmeter is up -- but what is a STARmeter, and what is its unit of measurement, and how far up is too far up? Can you explode if your STARmeter rises too quickly?

And I still couldn't figure out why Saint John of Las Vegas should be credited to the great poet of Florence. Here's its synopsis: "a buddy comedy in the vein of Raising Arizona meets Sideways, that chronicles the subtle, life-changing journey of JOHN [Steve Buscemi], a former Vegas blackjack player, who, as a result of circumstance and forces beyond his control, is inevitably drawn back closer and closer to Sin City." Sure, one character is named Virgil (played by Romany Malco) (yet another buddy movie in which the white guy learns life's lessons from the chap with more skin pigmentation). There is nothing in the plot that could be called Dantean ... but then I found this declaration: "A loose adaptation of Dante's Inferno."

Very loose, I am guessing. But then again my STARmeter is down 22% since last week, so what do I know?

Big Changes at Exemplaria

by J J Cohen

It's official: after twenty years, R. Allen Shoaf has retired as editor of Exemplaria. The journal was among the first high-profile venues for publishing theory-savvy medieval and early modern research. Honestly, I believe that Exemplaria is the major reason that medieval studies became so receptive to theory early on. The journal also paved the road along which book series like the New Middle Ages followed.

Recently the journal moved to Maney, which repackaged Exemplaria as a slimmed down and glossier periodical, rather like a science journal. Exemplaria is now published four times a year, which will no doubt alleviate its infamous backlog. With the new year comes the reign of its new editorial board:
The advisory board has also been completely changed: all have been sent notice that a new advisory board is being put into place, serving five year (rather than indefinite) terms. I've been on the board since 2001, so I am happy to give up my place to someone new. This infusion of fresh brains (horrible image) can only be a good thing ... so look for many changes to come at this journal.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Two enduringly popular posts about animals

by J J Cohen

A small piece of trivia for your Monday morning: among the ITM posts that Google steers hapless typists towards most frequently are this one on naming pets with medieval monikers, and this one on erotic animals. Still waiting for that search query that will combine both into "erotic medieval pet names" -- you know, like, um, "Chauceratrix" or ...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A talk that is NOT about medieval obesity

by J J Cohen

If you are in New York, NY the week after next, you have the chance to see the final performance of The Weight of the Past, my favorite presentation in my scholarly performance repertoire. The talk on February 5 is co-sponsored by the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium and the NYU English Medieval Forum.

And if you can't make it to K'zoo, despair not: you can make your way to Leeds in July to see my brand spanking new project '"Between Christian and Jew: Orthodoxy, Violence, and Living Together in Medieval England." This plenary lecture is part of the kick-off of the Heresy and Orthodoxy strand that dominates the conference.

Friday, January 23, 2009


[figure 1: A view of Lake Erie, from Hamburg's public beach. I took this photo on a chilly day this past November.]

by Mary Kate Hurley

(Speaking of beginnings, don't miss JJC's post below, on a beginning we've all been watching the past few days.)

Despite the chill in the air and the snow on the ground here in New York, spring semester always puts me in mind to think about beginnings. Spring reminds me that when it comes to my medieval interests, it all started in the spring – in this case, spring 2002. My first Old English class started seven years ago this past Wednesday – and every year, I’ve grown more certain that if the course caught my interest, it was largely because of how difficult it was. I’d never learned a language before, truth be told – French had been part of my growing up, present both in and out of school thanks to my mother’s background as former French professor. And anyone who’s been through the American school system knows that it’s a rare thing to really learn English grammar. I joke about it, but I think I really did learn modern English grammar in my Old English class – I wonder if others have had that experience? I certainly didn’t know the difference between a nominative and a genitive (in terms of what the words meant, at any rate), and I don’t think I’d ever heard of the dative before. It was like a revelation, really: modern English just made so much more sense after taking Old English, from the past tense of verbs to the use of apostrophes to indicate possession. Grammar rules had reasons – who knew?

So awhile back, Jeffrey invited us to talk about what we're teaching this semester -- and now, finally, I can make my contribution to that discussion. This semester is pretty exciting for me, as I’m beginning my career in teaching literature, after five semesters teaching freshman composition. If you're familiar with my academic preoccupations, the way I plan to begin the semester won’t surprise you.

Columbia’s English department has recently instituted a new course for graduate students to teach. It functions as a kind of introduction the English major. Essentially, we cover various genres of literature (the triad of poetry, drama, prose), and critical methodologies for understanding and interpreting them. It’s a wide ranging class, in which a professor lectures for an hour once a week, and then graduate students teach a section of seminar that meets for two hours, also once a week, and covers more material than the lectures do. It’s a big course, and looks scary from the outside, but it’s not meant to be an in-depth study of any one period or method – it’s just introductions, making acquaintances, and learning to engage with texts in ways that are meaningful to current critical discourses.

All that aside, I wanted to start with something that would put everyone on the same level. I can’t teach literature without finding some way to put something medieval, or even better Old English, into it. I couldn’t even teach writing without using medieval references to illustrate writing points (like the idea of “auctoritee,” borrowed happily from Chaucer). My opening class? I think I’m going to start with something I know intimately, but am utterly unable to understand (yes, one honors thesis, one masters thesis, and countless translations later, I still don’t understand this poem – I doubt I ever really will). The idea here is to start from a place where there is no background information, to look closely at what can be understood without a sense of the context of a piece. So I’ll start with the manuscript: what can we tell just from looking at this text, as it appears on the page? Then, I hand out a modern edition of the poem (in old English, of course). I’m assuming no one will be able to read it. But if you know that it’s an edition of the MS we’ve been looking at, then what can you say about the text now? With a little luck, I’ll be treated to a rousing chorus of “It’s poetry!” The fun part will be discussing why we can say that now, if we couldn’t tell before. It allows discussion of editorial practice, and will hopefully allow us to talk a bit about assumptions concerning how poetry “looks.” Also: a great moment to point out alliteration, caesurae and the like.

From there, we move to a translation (I’m still deciding which to use, so any suggestions would be appreciated!), and what becomes an exercise in close reading of what the poem says, and how we arrive at conclusions about the techniques it is using to do so. Of course, I’ll close the class with a mini-lecture on the cultural and historical context of the poem, and hopefully that will spur a few more minutes of discussion and questions about how we can understand the poem in its literary and historical contexts. Ideally, it’ll be a fun exercise to think about how we approach poems, what we bring to the table in analysis, and how to think about a poem without immediate reference to the author’s biography or even any historical context. Most of all, I’m hoping it will get everyone talking early on in the class, as they will presumably all be coming in at the same level of knowledge concerning the poem in question.

In a class about introductions, you see, I’m planning to introduce them to the poem I’ve spent far too much time reading, thinking, writing and talking about, on ITM, OENY and elsewhere. My first real literature class? I’m teaching The Wanderer.

cross posted at OENY.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

For History or for the Moment?

by J J Cohen

My son Alex and I went to the Inauguration on Tuesday. You can see some pictures I took here.

We froze various parts of our anatomy off, but loss of body seemed a small price for joining ourselves to a crowd so ebullient. For reasons of historical resonance (and because it provided a break against the frigid wind), we sat for much of the morning at the Lincoln Memorial. As the time for the oath of office neared, we wandered to a spot near the World War II Memorial, a good place to view the Jumbotrons. The crowd (I must admit) booed Bush, Cheney and Warren. The shocked silence that followed Justice Roberts' flubbing of the oath [note to John Roberts: write words on arm next time] was followed by a cheer so loud it still bangs against my eardrums.

Many commentators have concluded that Obama's inauguration address was not up to snuff, especially when compared to the soaring diction of his speech at the Sunday concert or his various rhetorical achievements during and even before the campaign -- or when compared to Lincoln. Obama has been faulted for crafting words that were too much of the moment rather than a speech that will live in history. He kept the now so foregrounded that the distant future (this line of reasoning runs) lost the gift he should have bequeathed.

It seems to me that for any words uttered by any speaker to escape their moment and live powerfully afterwards, they must be capable of time travel. These words must immediately transport their listener back into the moment of their utterance (a time of crisis, most likely, a time when the future is difficult to discern no matter how passionate the hope for a better time to come). They must also make that future possible, open that time to come to possibility, by acknowledging forcefully the power, the grip of the past. Sometimes they do this by rebuking that history, by clearing space for something better to arrive. Sometimes they do this by forcefully choosing our better history, leaving behind the the recriminations and worn out dogmas that have come to seem the truth.

You'll notice already some of Obama in those lines. Here are some more: We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter.

Those are good words. Those are strong words. They are of the moment, but they have a power that (I believe) will enable them to live long beyond the passing of our times. That's true timelessness: not a removal from history, but a temporality in which past, present, and possible futures coinhabit.

But, that's just my own of the moment opinion.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Today and Tomorrow

[video: creepiest yet catchiest MLK tribute known]
by J J Cohen

Eileen writes of time travel, and many of us feel like we are witnessing the touching of times decades removed. Martin Luther King's March on Washington of 1963 brushes against a gathering on the Mall in 2009. The sorrow born of a gunshot in 1968 curves into the hope of what comes tomorrow.

These commingled temporalities have their architecture in which to cohabit, and (in case you have not been watching TV, surfing the web, or reading the newspaper) that structure is the Lincoln Memorial. I've always felt an attachment to Washington's monuments, especially the Lincoln. Among the more vivid memories of my childhood is the remembrance of ascending its steep steps on a warm night, fireflies in the trees and gold light on the marble. My dad was a government worker whose business brought him to DC a few times a year. In the summer we'd make a family vacation of it, visiting the sites on days when the heat was almost unbearable. But there was something almost holy about seeing the monuments after sunset, when floodlights drench their white stone in light. A quiet that the day cannot possess descends.

The Lincoln Memorial is twenty minute's walk from my office at GW. Sometimes I've wandered from Foggy Bottom just to stare, or to read the words inscribed on its interior walls. That American acropolis is the closest thing I have to a church. I was among a generation of school children who studied Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech as if it were scripture. Lately some other words of King's have been going through my mind, words he delivered just before his death:
We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man.
Those declarations send a chill through me every time I read or hear them. Is it too much to say that it feels like the promise they describe is being realized, at least in part? Watching Barack Obama and his family serenaded on the steps of the monument yesterday, the statue of Lincoln towering behind them, made me feel so.

My son Alex and I spent this morning strolling Friendship Heights, the area of of DC very close to our house. We were gathering some last minute items that we'll need for tomorrow's big event: some snacks, warmer hats (when I tried one that I liked, Alex told me I was humiliating him, contemplating headgear more appropriate to a teenager, good god, how can someone so old even think about that?!), an extra Metro card, some cash. A motorcade perhaps thirty police cars long whizzed along Wisconsin Avenue. Tour buses filled with out-of-towners pulled up to restaurants where rooms are set aside to feed group after group of 30-50. The sidewalks were filled with residents and visitors, most of them (I imagine) thinking about the change in governmental power tomorrow, happy simply to be here as it unfolds. I don't think I've ever walked among such an elated collation of strangers.

So, for MLK and inauguration day, two pieces of writing. The first is an excerpt from the "I Have a Dream" speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. The second is a poem composed by the National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, to honor the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States. Enjoy ... and happy MLK and Inauguration days to you, no matter where you live.


Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."2

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.


New Year, 2009

Venus in the arc of the young moon
is a boat the arms of a bay,
the sky clear to infinity
but for the trailing gossamer
of a transatlantic plane.

The old year and the old era dead,
pushed burning out to sea
bearing the bones of heroes, tyrants,
ideologues, thieves and deceivers
in a smoke of burning money.

The dream is over. Glaciers will melt.
Seas will rise to swallow golden islands.
Somewhere a volcano may whelm a city,
earth shake its skin like an old horse,
a hurricane topple a town to rubble.

Yet tonight, under the cold beauty
of the moon and Venus, something like hope begins,
as if times can turn, the world change course,
as if truth can speak, good men come to power,
and words have meaning again.

Maybe black-hearted boys in love with death
won’t blow themselves and us to smithereens.
Maybe guns will fall silent, the powerful
cease slaughtering the weak, the rich
will not gorge as the poor starve.

Hope spoke the word ‘Yes’, the word ‘we’, the word ’can’,
and a thousand British teenagers at Poetry Live
rose to their feet in a single yell of joy –
black, white, Christian, Muslim, Jew,
faithful and faithless. We are all in this together.
Ie. gallwn ni.*

*[Welsh, "Yes, we can"]

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Coming Unstuck in Time: Elizabeth Freeman's Erotohistoriography Redux, Part I

Figure 1. Dr. Who jigsaw puzzle


Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his death and birth many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between. He says. Billy is spastic in time . . . .
--Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Either embarrassingly or not, medievalists do love their time-traveling sci-fi narratives, whether via The X-Files, Star Trek, Firefly, Dr. Who, Primeval, Torchwood, Heroes, Roswell, Twilight Zone, and the like [and those are just the television shows]. My favorite novel on the subject has always been Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, where Billy Pilgrim, an Army chaplain's assistant held prisoner in an underground slaughterhouse in Dresden during the fire-bombings of World War II, becomes "unstuck in time": he travels back and forth between 1940s Dresden [where he is a prisoner of war], 1950s and 1960s Illium, New York [where he is married, works as an optometrist, and has two children], the planet Tralfamadore, where he has been abducted by aliens who live in fourth-dimensional time, and the time of his death in 1976 when he is shot by a hired killer [there are also forays into his childhood and to the time when he is living with his daughter after his wife's accidental death]. Nothing is told in linear order and the continual refrain of the book is, "And so it goes." The Tralfamadorians have the ability to see every instant of their lives from beginning to end and don't believe anything set in this time can be changed [they are fatalists of a sort and don't believe in free will], although they do believe you can choose to concentrate on certain fixed moments more than others, and they especially encourage focusing on moments of pleasure. In this sense, and following my initial post on Elizabeth Freeman's erotohistoriograpy and time's binding, the Tralfamadorians see time as something we are irrevocably bound and stuck to, but in which, there is always a chance to go somewhere, again and again--to arrive at a certain place, from any direction, with a different or perhaps a lingering [never quite done with it] perspective [and thereby, perhaps, experiencing one's history as something best "captured" in an idiom of pleasure]--even while ultimately going nowhere.

There are two ways [well, there are certainly more than two ways, but humor me] to view Billy Pilgrim's story: either he is hallucinating most of it [there is ample evidence for this via the fact that he suffers shell shock after the war and is hospitalized in a veterans' mental ward, and later, suffers a brain injury after a plane crash] as a way to compensate for the trauma he likely experienced as a survivor of the fire-bombing of Dresden, especially as one of the prisoners of war commanded to help clean up the bodies [the fire-bombing of Dresden is one of the most horrific events in world history--on this point see, especially, W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction], or everything happens exactly as the narrative claims it does, but there is not necessarily any meaning to be gained from this state of affairs, as evidenced especially by the jabbering bird whose nonsensical "Poo-tee-weet" reverberates in the smoking silence after the Dresden massacre and also outside the window next to Billy Pilgrim's bed when he is hospitalized for shell shock, and which also serves as the very last line of the novel. For although Billy Pilgrim's linear biography ends with his murder in 1976, the novel ends with Dresden, post-firebombing, and the cry of the bird. And this recalls me as well to one of my other favorite experimental novels, Kevin Brockmeier's A Brief History of the Dead, in which the last human on earth, Laura Byrd, lying in her tent in a penguin rookery on an Antarctic ice shelf, and fiercely hallucinating, freezes to death amidst the incessant, hectic chattering of the penguins--the idea being that, while human teleology and the world(s) it created vanishes in an instant with Laura Byrd [whose memory held the world intact while she was alive], the supposedly dumb and oblivious life of animals and the world(s) they supposedly simply inhabit goes on without us. For Laura Byrd, recalling the world [and her life in that world] through personal memory wasn't so much a matter, as with Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians, of focusing on the most pleasurable moments, but rather, of remembering anything at all, no matter how minor or seemingly random and inconsequential (such as a stranger she once gave a match to) as a way to keep that world--quite literally--embodied, for in addition to the Antarctic, the other setting of Brockmeier's novel is The City, where everyone who has died but whom Laura remembers exists in three-dimensional, sequential, embodied time, and as one character there remarks, “Of course we’re bodies. Bodies and nothing but. Have you ever heard of a spirit that ate hamburgers and chili dogs for lunch, a spirit that got leg cramps in the middle of the night?”

Interestingly, there was a highly abbreviated, digital theater production of Slaughterhouse-Five in Belgrade, Serbia last year, which ended with a scene from the middle of the novel [Chap. 4] that takes place in 1967 on the night of Billy Pilgrim's daughter's wedding day. Unable to sleep, Billy watches a late-night television documentary on the fire-bombing of Dresden and all of a sudden history appears to be going backward. Bombs travel upwards into the open bellies of planes and shrapnel flies out of soldiers' bodies back into the barrels of guns which are then shipped back to factories and dis-assembled, and in Billy's mind, the soldiers become schoolboys and then babies [even Hitler becomes a baby] and all of these babies then devolve into two supposedly perfect persons: Adam and Eve. Culled from Chapter 4 and placed at the end of the narrative, not as a documentary that Billy is watching [conjoined with his facile hallucinations], but as the actual bending of what I might call historical Dresden-time [for in the Belgrade production, these scenes play out on a video screen behind the soldiers who are gathering the bodies in Dresden], the backward-running "tape" of history, as it were, plays out a utopic, yet terribly naive view of history that I feel pretty sure would not have pleased Vonnegut--as if somehow, if we could just start over, we would not repeat the same mistakes, or, that we were somehow better off as "innocents," sequestered from history.

A much more complex view of history, which I believe both Vonnegut and Freeman put forward, would seem to advance the idea that history is only really legible through bodily relations across time [however that "time" is ordered and dis-ordered]--bodily relations, moreover, that serve as points of attachment and dis-attachment, and without which, we can neither situate/bind ourselves, nor be going anywhere else. This reminds me as well of a recent episode of Lost [a TV series to which I am heartily addicted], "The Constant" [Season 4, Episode 5] in which the character Desmond jumps back and forth between 1996, when he is enlisted as a soldier somewhere in England, and 2004, when he is somewhere in the south Pacific [where all of the characters, to one extent or another, are "lost" in so-called present time, although even what is actually "present time" is always up for grabs, especially when the physicist Daniel Farraday shows up and informs everyone that the island they are stranded on has its own peculiar time]. Much like Billy Pilgrim, Desmond has no control over this time-jumping [apparently brought on by exposure to a high level of electromagnetism--never mind the silly science of all this], and the overall result is a kind of psychosis in which the 2004 Desmond suffers from an amnesia in which, all of a sudden, he no longer recognizes where he is or who his companions are, and the 1996 Desmond believes he is suffering from some kind of series of hallucinations brought on by random seizures. In the 2004 time frame, the physicist, trying to help Desmond, tells him that, when he is back in 1996, he should look Daniel up at Oxford University, where he is teaching, and ask for his help [apparently, Daniel has been undertaking time travel experiments there], so Desmond does that and the first thing he learns is that this spastic back-and-forth time-jumping will likely kill him, resulting in a brain aneurysm, but there might be one way to avoid that: Daniel instructs Desmond to locate a constant [like a mathematical constant caught up in a string of variables] that would connect the two Desmonds and, in a sense, rework them back into one Desmond, and for Desmond, that is his ex-fiancée Penny Widmore, whom he goes to see in 1996 and begs her to give him her phone number so that he can call her on December 24, 2004, thereby stitching the two Desmonds/times together. Granted, this is the corny love story variation on the frightening notion that history never makes any sense, with romantic love [or the desire of singular bodies for other, singular bodies] serving as the test of endurance for meaningfulness. In contrast to this, the one "constant" in Vonnegut's novel is the character of Paul Lazarro, a fellow soldier of Billy Pilgrim in Dresden who swears early on in the novel that he will avenge the death of another soldier, Roland Weary, by killing Billy one day [because he believes Billy is responsible for Roland's death], and he does, indeed, eventually bring this about by hiring Billy's killer in 1976. The one constant in history, then, according to Vonnegut, is violence [and more pointedly, the desire for revenge, which always wins out over love or affection: there is surprisingly little of either of these in Vonnegut's novel]. Violence, in this scenario [in the figural form of Paul Lazarro] is the teleological motor of history.

Intriguingly [I hope], I want to say that Freeman's erotohistoriography, especially with regard to sadomasochism as a sex practice that uses "physical sensation to break apart the present into fragments of time that may not be one's 'own'," would seem to argue for both love [or, certain physical "sensations" connected to certain "queer" desires and sex practices] and violence as important modes of "feeling historical" that expose "the limits of bourgeois-sentimental emotional reactions to historical events," yet also refuse "to eschew feelings altogether as a mode of knowledge" ["Turn the Beat Around: Sadomasochism, Temporality, History," pp. 38, 40]. And following Virginia Burrus, who [in her book The Sex Lives of Saints] asks if eroticism might be nearer to theology than to anything else, Freeman's thought in this article begs the question of whether sex can ever be thought, or felt, outside of violence. Is sex nearer, in other words, to violence than to anything else? Or to put it another way, is sex only really historical as such when it is understood [and even felt] within power relations? It is Freeman's argument, nevertheless, that sadomasochism has a more utopic potentiality than my questions here imply, since [in her opinion] it has the ability to re-wire the senses in such a way that it "re-organizes the relationships among emotion, sensation, and historical understanding" and thereby "ignites historical possibilities other than the ones frozen into the 'fate' of official histories." How it does this I leave for a subsequent post. More anon.

GW MEMSI Spring Events

by J J Cohen

Here's the complete listing of GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute vernal festivities, along with a spiffy poster created by Lowell Duckert (click to enlarge).

Events are free and welcome all who would like to attend ... so if you are reading this and live near DC -- or want an excuse to come to Washington and meet the new president -- we'd be pleased to have you join us.

Not that Obama will be joining us, but all you have to do is walk down Penn Ave and you'll probably bump into him. Plus the Tiny Shriner might share the key to the secret bunker where Dick Cheney used to lurk: it's now a fez and scotch storage unit, I've been told, so Tiny has been going there a lot.

Schedule of GW MEMSI Events for 2009

David Wallace (1/30)
"Writing after Catastrophe: Conceptualizing Literary History and the Boundaries of Europe, 1348-1400"
GWU Marvin Center Ampitheatre (800 21st St. NW)

April Shelford (2/20)
“Reading and Enlightenment in 18th-century Jamaica”
GWU Rome Hall 771 (801 22nd St. NW)
11:30-1:30 PM; lunch seminar with precirculated paper

Andrea Frisch (3/6)
"The Poetics of Forgetting in Sixteenth-century France"
GWU Rome Hall 771 (801 22nd St. NW)
11:30-1:30 PM; lunch seminar with precirculated paper

Lytton Smith (4/3)
“The Unending Medieval and the Edges of Poetry”
GWU Marvin Center Ampitheatre (800 21st St. NW)

Sponsor of the Thirty-Seventh Annual Meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America (4/9-4/11)
Renaissance Washington, DC Hotel (999 9th St. NW)

Stephanie Trigg (4/24)
“Mythic Capital: Medievalism, Heritage Culture and the Order of the Garter, 1348-2008”
GWU Marvin Center Ampitheatre (800 21st St NW)

Sponsor of the Roundtable “How to Get the Medieval Studies You Want: Institutional Perspectives” at Kalamazoo (5/7-5/11)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Inauguration Weekend

by J J Cohen

So you may have heard that the DC area has gone a bit overboard in prepping for the Inauguration and its attendant hoopla.

All bridges to Virginia, for example, will be closed -- apparently to prevent Karl Rove from leaving his home in Arlington and mingling with the multitudes. I am gladdened that this longtime security risk has at last been neutralized, but why did it take eight years? Democratic Marylanders like me can just glide on down ... or, in all honesty, walk: it's only five miles, and I have been warned repeatedly that the subway system will be so crammed with people that a stroll will be faster than a Metro ride.

A security perimeter will be set up around the parade, and once the streets have reached their maximum density of revelers per square foot, no one else will be admitted. Expect a small scale riot as would-be Obama gawkers hurl their bottles of spring water and their energy bars at the police (we have been warned to bring our own food and water because it will be very difficult to move once we are inside the security zone). Oh yes, we are also not allowed to pee unless we want to wait in a line that stretches to the crack of doom. So far the only thing that has not been decreed is the hanging of large banners around the District that announce YOUR JOY WILL BE KILLED and WOULDN'T YOU BE MORE COMFORTABLE WATCHING THIS AT HOME?

My university is not all that far from the White House, and so we have been bombarded with messages about safety and security and the apocalypse that looms. My favorite was yesterday's email update, which included this section:

Tips for Personal Safety: Prepare in Advance

  • Be sure to purchase in advance and/or pre-load Metro SmartTrip cards before Inauguration Weekend. Also, visit ATMs to ensure you have sufficient cash before the crowds hit D.C.
  • Refill necessary prescription drugs and remind your guests and visitors to do so as well.
  • Be careful while texting and walking. These activities combined can be very dangerous and may cause falls, collisions, and bottlenecks.
  • Be mindful of information from unofficial sources. If you receive e-mails or text messages from unofficial sources that an incident has occurred, proceed with caution and look for official sources to verify it.
  • Dress warmly and wear comfortable shoes. Women attending the GW Inaugural Ball should either wear or bring with them comfortable, flat shoes in the event that they must walk unexpectedly.
Yes, mother. My SmartCard will be loaded (even though the Metro will be so crowded that I am supposed to walk). I will visit the ATM so that I will have a wad of cash to bribe my way through the barbed wire of the parade security perimeter. I will load up on extra Zyrtec in case my allergies flare up. I promise to dress in an extra heavy coat (but not TOO heavy: at the security perimeter bulky people will be turned away). My shoes will be flat and comfortable because I know when you say "be prepared to walk unexpectedly" what you really mean is "be prepared to run when the police teargas the excluded people at the security perimeter hurling Cliff bars and Evian bottles." When the Tiny Shriner starts the rumor of "Free booze in the West Wing!" I will ignore it because no one who wears a fez counts as an Official Source. Most important of all, I will not walk and text at the same time because I know that I will stumble, fall, and be trampled until I am a small red spot on the concrete. This spot may freeze up, others will slip, bottlenecks will emerge, and we will have inauguration mayhem, all caused by texting while walking.

Happy Inauguration, everyone.

[x-posted GW English Blog]

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Insistent Return of a Corporealized Historiography and Future Making: Elizabeth Freeman’s Erotohistoriography

Figure 1. Dominique-Louis-Féréal Papety, The Temptation of Saint Hilarion (1843)


To think outside narrative history requires reworking linear temporality. It requires ‘the rewiring of the senses’ (Jacqui Alexander’s words) in order to apprehend an expanded range of temporal experiences—experiences not regulated by ‘clock’ time or by a conceptualization of the present as singular and fleeting . . . .
—Carolyn Dinshaw

It seems to me 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.
—Christopher Nealon

[the citations of Dinshaw and Nealon are from “Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” ed. Elizabeth Freeman, GLQ 13.2-3 (2007): 177-95]

About two years ago, I stumbled upon the work of Elizabeth Freeman [an Americanist, cultural critic, and queer theorist at UC-Davis] when I read her essay, “Time Binds, or, Erotohistoriography,” which was included in a special issue of Social Text, edited by David Eng, Judith Halberstam, and José Esteban Muñoz, devoted to the question “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” In that essay, Freeman argues that “we need to understand and practice time as fully incorporated, as nowhere existing outside of bodies and their pleasures,” and against [or rather, alongside] the recent turn in queer studies to loss, shame, and grief [e.g., Christopher Nealon’s Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion Before Stonewall and Heather Love’s Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer History], Freeman asks us to consider how “this powerful turn toward loss . . . may also be a premature turn away from a seemingly obsolete politics of pleasure that could, in fact, be renewed by attention to temporal difference” [pp. 58-59]. Further, “how might queer practices of pleasure, specifically the bodily enjoyments that travel under the sign of queer sex, be thought of as temporal practices, even as portals to historical thinking?” [p. 59]. Erotohistoriography would name a practice of tracing histories written on queer bodies—more precisely, it would trace “how queer relations complexly exceed the present,” and “against pain and loss,” it would “posit the value of surprise, of pleasurable interruptions and momentary fulfillments from elsewhere, other times” [p. 59]. With the idea of time’s “binding,” Freeman wants to invoke two senses of the term:
not only attachments in the here and now but also those forged across both spatial and temporal barriers: to be ‘bound’ is to be going somewhere. Yet even as it suggests connectivity, ‘binds’ also names a certain fixity in time, a state of being timebound, belated, incompletely developed, left behind, or not there yet, going nowhere. [p. 61]
In relation to this idea of time’s binding, Freeman also refers to an idea she developed in an even earlier essay, “Packing History, Count(er)ing Generations” [New Literary History 31 (2000): 727-44]: that of temporal drag, “a kind of historicist jouissance, a friction of dead bodies upon live ones, obsolete constructions upon emergent ones” [p. 66]. I find Freeman’s idea of temporal drag really exciting for helping me to conceptualize—in Old English and Anglo-Latin hagiography—the ways in which so-called “sacred” subjectivities [i.e., martyr-saints] are constituted by a temporal drag in which the bodies of these saints register, in Freeman’s words, “on their very surfaces the co-presence of several historically-specific events, movements, and collective pleasures,” and thereby “articulate . . . a kind of temporal transivity” [“Packing History,” p. 729]. Saints—in their own time—are “moderns” and also “queers” of a sort [queermoderns], who allow themselves to be pulled backward by the undertow of the mainly mythologized history of Christ’s [and other martyrs’] suffering in order to stage a kind of camp or drag performance of that suffering, leading to both a negation and fulfillment of the self from elsewhere, other times (the past but also the future, because these are, as Butler might say, repetitions with a difference). As Virginia Burrus has written in relation to late antiquity, hagiography is “the site of an exuberant eroticism”—an eroticism, moreover, that draws upon deep reservoirs of both pain and pleasure—and it might be argued [as Burrus does, convincingly] that late antique and early medieval sacred narratives formulated an ars erotica that “does not so much predate as effectively resist and evade the scientia sexualis that likewise emerges (derivatively) in late antiquity and eventually culminates in the production of a modern, western regime of ‘sexuality’” [The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography, pp. 1, 3]. The question is also begged: is eroticism nearer to theology than to anything else? [Burrus seems to say: yes.] The more important, and troubling, questions for me are whether: 1) this sacredly exuberant eroticism [which is also, in its sadomasochism, a set of counterpleasures] engages in a type of ethical violence, or 2) does it, more hopefully, open bodies to more generously affective and utopic relations with other bodies in and across time? [I suspect it does both, in different times and places, and the time and place of such questions—which also relates to questions of writing and reading—will always matter in the determination of our answers.]

More broadly, over the past two years, I have found myself drawn to Freeman’s erotohistoriography and notions of binding and temporal drag, as well as to Carolyn Dinshaw’s thinking toward “a postdisenchanted temporal perspective” [“Theorizing Queer Temporalities,” p. 185], in relation to two current projects of mine: first, my book [for which I am currently on a teaching leave] on the representation of traumatic history in art in Beowulf and in other, later works of literary and visual art, such as the paintings of Stanley Spencer and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where the pull of the dead upon the living is often figured in queer libidinal terms; and second, what I have planned as my next book project on the Old English and Anglo-Latin narratives of the Lives of Saint Guthlac, where I want to trace in these hagiographic narratives certain histories of:
1) itinerancy/unsettledness/low & diasporic subjectivities;
2) various oblique angles opened by queer relations and queer touch (and related to this, the connections between phantasmic sadomasochism and ethical violence, but also between phantasmic sensuality and utopic inter-“bodies”/inter-“being”);
3) incestuous desire/transitive gender(s); and
4) the politics of in(di)visible friendship
Especially in relation to the Lives of Guthlac, but also to Old English hagiography more broadly, I’m interested in how current thinking on history, historicity, and temporality in queer studies (and, especially in Freeman’s work, on “addressing history in an idiom of pleasure” and on “feeling historical”/the “feelings” of history written on the body) might contribute to our understanding of early hagiographic narratives as forming, in the words of Bob Mills, “the point at which doctrine, violence, and imagination coalesce” in a kind of “suspended threshold zone” [Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure, and Punishment in Medieval Culture, p. 120]. As Mills writes further,
the sacred body is the focal point for an exploration of positions of strength and weakness, pain and pleasure, identity and otherness; and the martyr, like the cross-dressing actor, provokes a crisis of categorization that undermines any attempts at constructing a binary typology based on sexual difference alone. [p. 144]
Also important for my purposes is the plea Mills makes toward the end of his book, that we not “discard completely theological readings [of medieval martyr narratives] emphasizing the spiritual and the sublime,” but at the same time, that we recognize that, “within the sphere of medieval devotion, religious sublimation and carnal desire can become powerfully intertwined,” and the “worldly and the transcendent are not always at odds with each other . . . but may well produce one another” [p. 176; this is partly Burrus’s argument as well in her book The Sex Lives of Saints; I cannot recommend both Mills’s and Burrus’s books highly enough].

Strictly speaking, Guthlac is not a martyr-saint, but is what is known as a confessor-saint—an ascetic who dedicates his life to God by retreating to a life of abjection in the so-called “wilderness,” and who lives in a time and place (8th-century England) when Christianity is established well enough that the brutal persecution of Christians has receded to a mythic past, and therefore, the primary route toward epic physical suffering is through various forms of self-imposed asceticisms and with any luck, the visitations of sadistic demons. Confessor saints mainly establish their saintliness through the performance of miracles [Guthlac’s are somewhat hilariously underwhelming in my opinion—talking to birds, locating hidden beer, finding lost gloves, and the like] and by predicting the exact hour and minute of their deaths [and also by dispensing sage and prescient advice to anyone who happens to wander by and ask for it]. I sometimes think that the end of the so-called “Great Persecutions” [itself a myth of sorts—on this point, see Michael Lapidge, “Roman Martyrs and their Miracles in Anglo-Saxon England,” in Miracles and the Miraculous in Medieval Germanic and Latin Literature, ed. K.E. Olsen, A. Harbus, and T. Hofstra (Leuven: Peeters), 95-120] spelled a kind of crisis for Christians who desired to be martyrs and who were drawn to the delectations of intense physical pain and self-deprivation, and for whom various modes of waiting, suspense, and delay [chief operations—both symbolically and more literally—in Freeman’s erotohistoriography, and also in Karmen MacKendrick’s Counterpleasures, a cultural study of s/m eroticism from saints’ lives to Sade and beyond] were to be passionately cultivated. Because there are no Roman or other magistrates to torture Guthlac, and the monastery at Repton is somehow too comfy and populated [and perhaps also because he has to make up for time spent as a dissolute warrior youth who raped and pillaged his way through Mercia], he seeks out a desolate barrow in the fens and girds himself for the onslaught of demons, and of course they arrive, because saints need, and enjoy, physical temptations and torture. There is almost a comic aspect to the predictability of this script, but I do not want to dwell on that—for the moment, anyway.

I am getting ahead of myself a bit, because what I mainly want to do in this and a subsequent post is provide a slightly more detailed overview of Freeman’s thinking, as capitulated in three articles: “Packing History” and “Time Binds,” cited above, but also the more recent essay “Turn the Beat Around: Sadomasochism, Temporality, History,” differences: a journal of feminist cultural studies 19.1 (2008): 32-70, all of which I assume serve as previews of sorts for her forthcoming book, Time Binds: Queer Histories, Queer Temporalities. I want to do this for several reasons: 1) it simply helps me to collate and synthesize some of Freeman’s work relative to my own personal projects, and to also hopefully gain productive feedback from ITM readers directed toward those projects; 2) Freeman will be serving as the respondent for a BABEL panel at Kalamazoo this coming May on the place of pleasure in scholarship [which panel will also feature Dinshaw, Peggy McCracken, Anna Klosowska, Cary Howie, Nicola M., and Dan Remein], so I also simply wanted to immerse myself in her current thinking on history, time, and pleasure; 3) I think scholars working in premodern studies on matters relative to the relations between gender, sexuality, historicity, and temporality would find Freeman’s thought to be of great value [and Freeman herself has already acknowledged intellectual debts to medievalist and early modernist scholars, such as Dinshaw, Louise (now L.O. Aranye) Frandenburg, and Carla Freccero, and therefore there is already an established dialogue “across periods,” as it were, but this dialogue could and should be more expansive]; and 4) I think Freeman’s thinking could benefit by being pushed a bit by scholars working in earlier periods, since one of the claims she makes for herself is that she attends to something under-attended to in queer studies—the theorizing of the historicity of queer bodies/sex practices—and also because she also pays such beautiful attention to the drag of the past upon what I will call queermodern bodies and subjectivities [with the term “modern” needing more full elaboration in all periods, for every period is modern in its own way]; therefore, a more engaged dialogue between Freeman and scholars working in medieval and early modern studies on sexuality, eroticism, embodiment, temporality, and the like, would be of great mutual benefit.

What I am going to do is simply offer my own reading notes on Freeman’s three articles, highlighting what I think are her most important and valuable theoretical insights, and also asking her questions as I go along [this is a highly informal approach, but I hope it will be clear and helpful, and even more so, I hope our readers will read Freeman’s work in its entirety after getting some bits of it here]. I will include the first two articles here [“Packing History” and “Time Binds”] and will return to “Turn the Beat Around” in a following post [I find the premises of this most recent article the most ethically troubling, yet also beautifully persuasive, and it is quite a long article—it requires its own post]:

“Packing History, Count(er)ing Generations,” New Literary History 31 (2000): 727-44

Freeman here introduces her notion of “temporal drag”: retrogression, delay, pull of the past on the present (i.e., the “gravitational pull that ‘lesbian’ sometimes seems to exert upon ‘queer’”)

To Judith Butler’s idea that repetitions that are backward-looking are only citational (copies without an original), Freeman counters: “. . . to reduce all embodied performances to the status of copies without originals is to ignore the interesting threat that the genuine past-ness of the past sometimes makes to the political present” [p. 728].

“‘Generation,’ a word for both biological and technological forms of replication, cannot be tossed out with the bathwater of reproductive thinking. Instead, it may be crucial to complicate the idea of horizontal political generations succeeding one another, with a notion of ‘temporal drag,’ thought less in the psychic time of the individual than in the movement of collective political life” [p. 729].

*Freeman devotes the bulk of this essay to an analysis of Elisabeth Subrin’s experimental video Shulie (1997), which is a shot-by-shot remake of an unreleased 1967 documentary of the same title on then 22-year-old Shulamith Firestone, a student at the time at the Art Institute of Chicago who later founded New York Radical Women and New York Radical Feminists and also wrote The Dialectic of Sex in 1971, a really important second-wave feminist text (I would note here that Freeman is a beautifully astute and sensitive interpreter of contemporary cinema and all of her work that I have read incorporates analyses of avant-garde films, especially queer cinema [although in one article, not covered here, she also takes on Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.!]; I find myself wanting to know what she would write about certain films, especially Todd Soldonz’s Palindromes and the films of Catherine Breillat, which—big confession—I hate; I will share why in a future post on Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell)

“Listening to Shulie’s commentary [about her time spent at the Art Institute and her frustrations there as a female student with male professors], which is startlingly à propos to our own moment, audience members are forced to confront the fact that the prehistory of radical feminism is very much like its aftermath, that we have a certain postmodern problem that no longer has a name—or rather, whose names are under increasing erasure” [p. 731].

“. . . Shulie (1997) suggests that there are iterations, repetitions, and citations which are not strictly parodic, in that they do not necessarily aim to reveal the original as always already a copy, but instead engage with prior time as genuinely elsewhere. Nor are they strictly consolidating of authority, in that they leave the very authority they cite visible as a ruin. Instead they tap into a mode of longing . . . .” [pp. 734-35].

We can never really be in “a genuinely post-identity politics moment—unless ‘post’ can somehow signify the endless dispatches between past and present social and subjective formations” [p. 742].

**In what ways are medieval hagiographical narratives “drag” performances that “engage with prior time as genuinely elsewhere,” but at the same time, in what ways are these prior times also dragged forward [both within the time of the narratives themselves but also within the time(s) of their reception/reading as texts, both in the past and now]? I’m wondering how Freeman’s notions of temporal drag might engage with Cary Howie’s notion of “traherence”: “the extent to which historical moments, genres, and bodies are always dragged from their contingent others while simultaneously giving themselves to be similarly dragged. This traherence . . . never quite gets free of what it ostensibly emerges from” [Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure, p. 6]. To think Freeman’s “temporal drag” alongside Howie’s “traherence” would give us, I believe, more ample room for considering the ways in which the past not only drags upon the present, but also gives itself to be dragged by the present while still remaining somewhat stuck to its contingent, past others. Howie also calls for purposeful practices of anachronistic reading that would speak directly to “the spaciousness within objects, and within times, that only becomes sensible when we see them as at once singular and plural, discrete and imbricated somehow in one another” [p. 151]. I actually think Freeman and Howie are companionable thinkers in the matter of anachronistic reading—it’s just that sometimes, they’re going in opposite directions (Freeman reading the queer modern through the past(s) that drag upon it and Howie reading the medieval past outside of patrilinear time and through the modern “enclosed” alongside that past which has given itself over to us, and we to it—forgive me, as I have oversimplified both of their positions a bit for the sake of brevity and I do not have Howie’s book in my traveling library at present).

“Time Binds, or, Erotohistoriography,” Social Text 23.3-4 (Winter 2005): 57-68

*I have already quoted important portions of this above

“I . . . emphasize a Foucauldian notion of pleasure and bodily contact over a Freudian model of pain and ego formation in response to recent reevaluations of negative affect in queer theory. . . . melancholic queer theory may acquiesce to the idea that pain—either a pain we do feel or a pain we should feel but cannot, or a pain we must laboriously rework into pleasure if we are to have any pleasure at all—is the proper ticket into historical consciousness. Eroticism and materialist history, pleasure and the dialectic, are too often cast as theoretical foils: was it not the distinctly unqueer Frederic Jameson who wrote, albeit in a very different context, that history ‘is what hurts. It is what refuses desire’? Perhaps theorizing queerness on the basis of grief and loss acquiesces, however subtly, to a Protestant ethic in which pleasure cannot be the grounds of anything productive at all, let alone such a weighty matter as the genuinely historical” [p. 59].

Freeman’s essay advances, “against the chronopolitcs of development, and also extending postcolonial notions of temporal heterogeneity beyond queer melancholic historiography,” an erotohistoriography: “a politics of unpredictable, deeply embodied pleasures that counters the logic of development” [p. 59].

**Freeman spends some time with Hilary Brougher’s 1997 independent film The Sticky Fingers of Time, which is a kind of lesbian science-fiction time-traveling story that starts out in 1953 with a woman, Tucker Harding, writing a novel called The Sticky Fingers of Time and who asserts that time has five fingers: the past, present, future, what might have been, and what could still be. There are several other female characters who all cross back and forth between 1953 and 1997, with one caveat: no one can go to the same place-time twice, so you can never meet yourself and, technically, there are no “re-dos” (in a sense, then, although jumping between different temporal zones is possible, a kind of "straight" teleology still operates). Freeman hones in on one small moment in the film, when one of the characters recalls a favorite moment in a novel written by Tucker: “I love that part, when Frankenstein splits his stitches and he dies, fertilizing the earth where that little girl grows tomatoes.”

“In contrast to the original novel, here the monster secures his future, joining the human scheme of obligations and dependencies rather than escaping on an ice floe. Though he seems to inseminate the little girl (for his bodily fluids will indirectly enter the orifice of her mouth when she eats the tomatoes), he transcends both the supposedly natural pain of childbirth and the cyclical time of reproduction. Like Walt Whitman, he disseminates himself. Together, his body and the act he performs with it suggest a historiographical practice wherein the past takes the form of something already fragmented, ‘split,’ and decaying, and the present and future appear equally porous. Indeed, they seem to answer Roland Barthes’s call . . . for a model of dispersed but insistently carnal continuity, which I call binding. In this sense, the monster’s body is not a ‘body’ at all but a figure for relations between bodies past and present, for the insistent return of a corporealized historiography and future making of the sort to which queers might lay claim” [p. 60].

***Some questions: aren’t the tomato and monster-as-fertilizer still caught up, to a certain extent, in a cyclical reproductive (if vegetal) time? Is this necessarily a bad thing? Is cyclical reproduction the problem, or rather, is the problem how this reproduction is often structured along heteronormative lines that always aim at “the same” (in this sense, homosexuality, or queer sex, is never really about brushing up against and reproducing
the same—homoness—as much as heterosexuality is)? It seems to me that we have to lay claim to new forms of reproduction (of critical thought, bodies, aesthetic objects, etc.) that might still be cyclical (repetitive), but “with a difference.” In her Introduction to GLQ’s special issue on “Theorizing Queer Temporalities [cited above], Freeman asks (partly in response to Lee Edelman’s No Future), “do all futurities entail heteronormative forms of continuity or extension?” She then states, “If I were committed to describing where queer theory is now, I might use this question as the X to mark the spot of our collective critical endeavor” [p. 166]. For me, this really is the penultimate question, and I find myself very much on the side of answering, “no, they do not,” but we have to articulate what that means, and that is partly what I think Freeman is doing in her work right now—articulating queer forms of reproduction across time, a kind of time-traveling, or jumping between bodies in time, bodies as time portals (and in a sense, too, our labors extended in critical writing are a sort of inscription of futurity, a bending of time in particular directions, or a bending of our attention in time).

“Binding, we might say, makes predicament into pleasure, fixity into a mode of travel across time as well as space. Like ‘dissemination,’ it counters the fantasy of castration that subtends melancholic historiography, for it foregrounds attachments rather than loss. Furthermore, the monster’s body and bodily act provide a queer alternative to the two most heterosexually gendered figures for ‘progress’: the fecund maternal body that supposedly engenders natural history and the heroic male body that supposedly engenders national history” [p. 61].

****Jeffrey’s chapter on Guthlac in Medieval Identity Machines, “The Solitude of Guthlac,” plays close attention to how Guthlac’s narratives encode a certain heroic masculinity that is part and parcel of an emergent Mercian political hegemony, but at the same time, they also undermine that supposedly solid and closed-unto-itself masculinity/patrinomy in many of the specific details of Guthlac’s flights with his demons, or as Jeffrey himself puts it, “Guthlac” [whatever “body”/country that name signifies] is literally “dissolved” in the demons’ “embrace.” The self (saintly, heroic, maternal, or otherwise) is always “multiple.” It seems to me that one of the tasks of queer theory today is not only to locate and articulate the
alternative to what Freeman identifies as the two most heterosexually gendered figures for progress, but to also trace all of the ways in which so-called maternal and heroic/national bodies are themselves always already queer, disaggregated, multiply sexuated, etc.

“In The Sticky Fingers of Time, within a conversation between two women, the singular and irreplaceable event of a wounded male body installs the deep time of a ‘before’ and an ‘after,’ marks the potential historicity of this time and facilitates human agency over it in the form of a narrative that our fictional writer hands over to her friend and she hands over to the filmic audience. Significantly, one speaker is murdered soon after the conversation, suggesting that two women cannot be the bearers of a future thought outside the context of reproduction. Or this is what you get when you look at the speakers and not at the little girl who does not actually materialize in this scene: as a figure for the queer undead, the monster is temporally linked—timebound—to the little girl who is not a child at all but a queer unborn, a future we cannot see but upon which we bet” [p. 62].

*****Here I find myself pausing over this “handing over” of a narrative both within the filmic narrative and across to the film’s audiences (who can also replay these narratives over and over again, with all sorts of theorizing variations), which calls me back again to Freeman’s Introduction in the special issue of GLQ where she writes, “One question that remains unanswered in the queer scholarly debate about futurity . . . is why write? . . . Writing is a toss of the dice not only into the future but also for the future” [p. 168]. In the roundtable itself on “Theorizing Queer Temporalities,” Carla Freccero touches upon this when she says, “I often work on the dead, and as time goes by I have begun to think of myself as a future dead person writing myself out of time as time is running out.” The historiographical enterprise is essentially a writing enterprise, is it not? And therefore, it is one that scholars share with artists (especially artists who are attuned to history in their work, who directly engage with history)—one could even say that all we have of history is the continual writing and re-writing of history: this is how history travels.

“The great surprise of this scene [the monster fertilizing and becoming-tomato, which then, in the future, will enter the girl’s mouth] . . . lies in the missing feast as it suggests: a taste of the idea that pleasure may be as potentially generative of a future as pain, trauma, loss, or foreclosure. . . . the scene I have described offers neither mother nor father in its imagining of relations across time, no original womb, but only a scarred and striated body on the one side, an absent prepubescent body on the other, and a dumb, juicy, not-yet-born vegetable in between, with no portable text mediating the transfer. And, crucially, it offers the mouth as a tactile rather than just a verbal instrument for temporal transactions, for temporal binding. The question is how this might become historical” [p. 63].

Drawing upon Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok’s writings on the operations of incorporation and introjection in melancholia, Freeman writes, “both the process of incorporation and that of introjection suggest what might be called a ‘bottom’ historiography,” and what is received [think back to scene in film that points to the future girl eating the future Frankenstein-tomato] “is not a transmission of authority or custom but a transmission of receptivity itself, of a certain pleasurably porous relation to new configurations of the past and unpredictable futures” [p. 64].

******How might early medieval hagiography figure this “transmission of receptivity”? For myself, I want to think this question alongside Burrus’s invocation of this passage from Baudrillard’s Seduction (relative to Burrus’s analysis of the trope of seduction in the Lives of the Harlots, including one of our perennial favorites, Mary of Egypt): “The law of seduction takes the form of an uninterrupted ritual exchange where seducer and seduced constantly raise the stakes in a game that never ends. And cannot end since the dividing line that defines the victory of the one and the defeat of the other, is illegible. And because there is no limit to the challenge to love more than one is loved, or to be always more seduced—if not death.” And Burrus adds here, “If not death: if not even death sets a limit on love, the sacrament of seduction is infinitely suspended; it is, in every sense, nonteleological” [The Sex Lives of Saints, p. 158]. How might the nonteleology of seduction and Freeman’s “bottom historiography” help us to trace, in early English hagiographic narratives, a transmission of erotic receptivity from God to saint, from saint to saint, and from text to reader to scholar to reader and beyond? And how, then, would this tracing itself appear, in Freeman’s words, as a mode of historicity structured by “tactile feeling, a mode of touch, even a sexual practice” [“Time Binds,” p. 66]? Why write, indeed? Is there anything but writing? Or to put this another way: as scholars situated in universities, in dialogue with artists and writers in other times and places (even a contemporary film, once shot, is past to the time of our writing about it), what and where is the time of our writing? And how receptive is it/are we? Refer to the painting above.