Saturday, February 28, 2009

From the Laptop of Hæleð Wulfgar

My Dearest One,

greetings from East Anglia, which you may know as Anglo-Saxon England. I am a most esteemed warrior and owner of wide tracts of fenland and I am looking for someone I can trust to accept into their checking account a large sum of silver pieces, roughly in the neighborhood of 5,000,000 silver pieces, or in your economy, a gadjillion dollars. I am so sad to report that my liege-lord died of a terrible spear wound in a battle with some filthy, godless heathens and we have been weeping and crying over this because now there is no one to give us rings, but we also have all these silver pieces from selling fen plots and we have no more forever a great hall to put them in: cattle die and kinsmen die, thyself too soon must die [or, in your language, where is the horse and the rider, where is the horn that was blowing, they have passed like rain on the mountains, etc.]--you get the picture. For the sake of our lives we have been hiding out in a deserted barrow in Crowland, going out every now and then to do a little raping and pillaging, but mainly we are very depressed and we do not have the divine boon of your pharmaceuticals. While we are making do with beer we are worrying so much about what will happen to us and are hoping that you, our esteemed friend and lovely dear, will help us and become our partner in a glorious investment.

Just before he died, our liege-lord asked us to send all of our treasure to the future, but to bury the cattle and slaves with him [that's why "cattle die," etc.], so we don't need your help with the cattle or slaves [which we really wish we had right now because we're starving and there's no one to bring the hot towels after the massages], but more importantly, your ability to put the said funds into circulation wisely for our joint interest and relocating us is a major considerable factor regarding our request as our knowledge on financial matters is not enough to handle an amount of money above a gadjillion U.S. dollars.

On your personal advice, we are also considering the below options as areas relative to our interest to put the said funds working:

1) hospitality industry
2) farming and acquisition of fenlands
3) slanket manufacturing
4) microbrewery
5) post-hole digging

In view of this, if you are touched to work with us in sincerity, by standing as our late liege-lord's foreign representative to receive the said deposit on our behalf, we shall embrace you as our new found lord/kinsman and will compensate you accordingly. As you indicate interest, please be fast to contact us at this email address ( to enable us to give you further information relative to the presence/position of the silver pieces and the steps we shall take to finalize on the project.

Do not hesitate to include your personal telephone/fax numbers as this will facilitate communication between you and us. Thanking you in advance for your kind and urgent response, more so for keeping our proposal to yourself.

Sincerely, Wulfgar

Friday, February 27, 2009

Note Worthy

by J J Cohen

I have come to believe that I am incredibly old fashioned when it comes to note taking for research projects. Typically I scribble upon xeroxes and book margins, letting my notes remain lost in the things themselves. Sometimes I annotate and sort web items via Zotero, a handy Firefox add-on. Sometimes this blog serves the same purpose. I had also been using a Microsoft Word "Notebook" but really that's just a bare bones outlining tool and I don't like it very much. Right now I am test driving Circus Ponies' NoteBook, and although initially I have found it a little confusing all in all it is a visually smart organizational tool ... though again I am not so sure I want such a flat kind of outlining device in the longterm. Maybe NoteBook is nothing more than an electronic simulacrum of its paper predecessors, and I need to make a more radical break. I mentioned Tinderbox here before but haven't tried it -- not just because it is so expensive, but also because I might be too old fashioned to make the cognitive jump the program seems to demand.

So I wonder: how do you take notes when you are engaged in research? Have you found electronic organizational tools that are worth investigation?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Notes from the Underground

[illustration: Cohen child looks dubiously at Vesuvius. National Gallery, Washington DC]
by J J Cohen

A few weeks ago the Cohens finally wandered to the National Gallery to see the Pompeii exhibit.

A reconstruction of villa life in the resorts frequented by wealthy Romans, Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples is quite a treat: a mixture of artifacts and reconstructions, with plenty of space to wander and just enough signage to inform the masses while keeping them moving. Bacchanals and hermaphrodites aplenty please the adults, while cutesy items are there for the kids (e.g. the famous cave canem mosaic "doormat" had been recreated, and you had to step over it to enter a reconstructed villa).

I enjoyed the multiple histories evoked by the exhibit, the last third or so of which focuses on the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum during the 18th century. Just when the value of a classical education was at a high point, classical Greece and Rome (the societies upon which contemporary Europe considered itself built) began sending messages up from deep below that foundation, up from the depths of the distant past, validating and feeding the Graeco-romanaphilia of a latter day. The excavation of Pompeii was so spectacular that the site quickly became a required stop on the Grand Tour. Here, after all, was a little slice of the classical past, seemingly unmediated by intervening centuries, a direct experience of temps perdu (though in actuality as much a reconstruction as the Pompeii exhibit at the National Gallery: still, the objects of everyday life were there to be glimpsed as if time istelf had preserved them tenderly).

My family will be in Rome for a week this summer, so expect a blog post on Pompeii itself as a tourist destination. To get ready for the experience, I have been reading the National Gallery exhibit catalogue (which is excellent) and The Last Days of Pompeii by Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, which is not so great (too! many! exclamation points!! and way too melodramtic) ... but which stoked an obsession with secrets proffered by the earth that resonates very well with my current research project.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Theseus is no fraud, or, Thank You Paul Auster!


There was a pattern in my students' papers on The Knight's Tale. Those who had read the Mark Sherman chapter, "Chivalry," in the Oxford Chaucer Guide accused the whole chivalric class of fraud. Pretending to be the embodiments of high culture, pretending to be motivated by love, they were instead only bloodthirsty warriors; the Temple of Mars and the malignance of Saturn are the truth of knighthood; and so forth. I'm sympathetic to this view, and, because of my teaching, even responsible: my tribe, being suspicious of political power, is necessarily suspicious of Theseus, and loves to call him out as much for his mistaken reverence for the ineffectual Jupiter (I.2442) as for the tyranny of an Athenian parliament (I.2970) where Theseus does all the talking. I try, perhaps not very well, to tell them that my criticism is a phase, like any other phase, and that they may want to dip in other critical waters, or--to extend the metaphor--open a new canel. Perhaps it is time for we beautiful souls (plural of "yafeh nefesh" please?) to subject Theseus to a Chávezista or neocon interpretation, one suitable for our decade?

I've said only a bit of this in class; instead, I argued for the inextricability of chivalric culture from chivalric violence, and I thought, secretly (but perhaps not so secretly now), that the accusations of cultural fraud against knights is simultaneously cynical--"oh, those knights. they were really just stinky, illiterate, nasty types" (I think I have the right Pinkwater here)--and deeply sentimental ("true culture is elsewhere, with us beautiful souls, who don't kill anyone"). I'd like to push matters a little bit further, so, with that in mind, tomorrow night, I will distribute to them a photocopy of Paul Auster's stunning new translation of Bertran de Born's most famous poem, which appears in the March 9, 2009 issue of The Nation. If you subscribe, great! But since the entire poem is accessible only to subscribers, I think I'd be violating something by quoting it in full. Our nonsubscribing academic readers, however, should have online access to it through their libraries; as for the others, my apologies: perhaps write to Auster directly. Here's what The Nation provides for free:

I love the jubilance of springtime
When leaves and flowers burgeon forth,
And I exult in the mirth of bird songs
Resounding through the woods;
And I relish seeing the meadows
Adorned with tents and pavilions;
And great is my happiness
When the fields are packed
With armored knights and horses.

And I thrill at the sight of scouts
Forcing men and women to flee with their belongings;
And gladness fills me when they are chased
By a dense throng of armed men;
And my heart soars
When I behold mighty castles under siege
As their ramparts crumble and collapse
With troops massed at the edge of the moat
And strong, solid barriers
Hemming in the target on all sides.
And, skipping a big chunk, here are the last two stanzas:
I tell you that eating, drinking, and sleeping
Give me less pleasure than hearing the shout
Of "Charge!" from both sides, and hearing
Cries of "Help! Help!," and seeing
The great and the ungreat fall together
On the grass and in the ditches, and seeing
Corpses with the tips of broken, streamered lances
Jutting from their sides.

Barons, better to pawn
Your castles, towns, and cities
Than to give up making war.
Now, this whole post is essentially an excuse to direct your attention to what strikes me as a supurb, timely translation. For my students, I trust they'll understand, after reading this, that chivalric culture is--for better or worse--no fraud.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Not Yet Living at the Same Time With the Others: Prendergast, Trigg, and Dinshaw on Medievalization and the Supernatural


Not all people exist in the same Now. They do so only externally, through the fact that they can be seen today. But they are thereby not yet living at the same time with the others.
—Ernst Bloch, Heritage of Our Times

And so I say to you yes you: / everyone’s a fugitive. Everyone.
—Spencer Reece, “Tonight”

Some might recall a post I wrote this past summer relative to the Leeds Medieval Congress in July, "I'm A Pleasure Seeker, Looking for the Real Thing: We're All Presentists Now," in which I discussed a paper presented by Stephanie Trigg [co-authored with Tom Prendergast], “When Is the Medieval? Medievalism as a Critique of Periodization”—in which paper Stephanie made the provocative statement that all medieval studies, on some level, are also a form of medievalism, or medievalization, and where she also drew attention to the problematic dichotomy we often want to draw between a certain kind of historicist medieval studies as “serious” and studies in medievalism as “not serious enough.” The newest volume of New Medieval Literatures [no. 9; 2007] was just published online this past October [excellent journal, I might add], and it includes a “symposium” based on a panel from the 2006 meeting of the New Chaucer Society, “What Is Happening to the Middle Ages?”, which includes two essays: Tom Prendergast and Stephanie Trigg, “What Is Happening to the Middle Ages?” and a response by Carolyn Dinshaw, “Are We Having Fun Yet?” Having just read these essays as part of my own desire recently to better acquaint myself with both the history of and the theoretical frameworks animating studies in medievalism [or, medievalism studies], I thought I would share summaries of these two articles here as well as some interesting questions they collectively raise for our consideration of what we believe the temporal boundaries of “medieval studies” to be.

In “What Is Happening to the Middle Ages?” Prendergast and Trigg return us to Umberto Eco’s famous distinction of “ten little middle ages” and his exhortation to us to spend some time determining which ‘middle ages” we are devoted to [with the understanding that our decision has political implications]. As compelling as some of Eco’s distinctions were, for Prendergast and Trigg, his list had a “stultifying effect on the study of the Middle Ages both because it has encouraged the field of medievalism to engage in a kind of criticism that is largely taxonomic and because it has perpetuated the split between understandings of medieval and medievalism,” and also because Eco “assumes that the Middle Ages themselves are stable, while different variable and partial elements of medieval culture are emphasized by different groups of game players, fiction writers, filmmakers, and so on.” Further, the medievalism of these groups is always subject to academic critique “on the grounds of historical accuracy” [p. 216]. What Prendergast and Trigg would like to do is focus less on how a particular representation of the Middle Ages does or does not match up with a so-called historical reality, and more on “the broader conceptualization of the medieval in its relation to any given present.” More pointedly, they ask,
How do we still recognize and produce the medieval? What are the discursive, institutional and political effects of these various acts of medievalization, whenever they take place and to whatever end, whether scholarly, imaginative, or strategic? [p. 216]
Whether something is described as “medieval” or is set “firmly in the past in a regressive or abject relationship to the past,” what ultimately happens is that the “medieval” [whatever that might mean] only really comes into relief “at the moment of its own supercession”—things only really “become medieval” when they are left behind [p. 219]. There is no middle ground, as it were, in this scenario between the supposedly real Middle Ages one can always go back to and discover in its historical authenticity and the more unreal Middle Ages that “returns” in the guise of the idealized romance [Arthur] or as “the abjected dark other” to modernity [think: the image of the gothic torture dungeon].

Prendergast and Trigg worry [and I would say, usefully so] about the easy acceptance [by some in our field] of the Middle Ages as a space of hard-edged alterity, for it is a short step from that stance to “dismiss the ‘medieval’ as the opposite of all that is useful to a modern university, a library, or a nation, on the simple grounds that the medieval has no place in modernity” and medieval studies thereby becomes an easy target as “the weakest link, the least modern, the least useful, the least relevant part of the humanities clamouring for government funding” [p. 218]. Nevertheless, to argue for the Middle Ages as some kind of “origin point” for modernity would be equally simplistic and short-sighted. I would note here that, while I agree with Tom and Stephanie on this point, I also believe in a kind of toolkit of the widest possible variety of guerilla tactics for convincing university administrators, grant institutions, and the like of the “relevance” of medieval studies; in other words, in the short term, we make whatever arguments are expedient in certain given contexts—if someone will be persuaded by the argument that the Middle Ages represents the “origin” of a certain kind of modern subjectivity or modern notion of legal “rights” or of certain literary modes, then I’ll make that argument if it gets me what I need in the short term [certain curricular changes, the establishment of a faculty line, funding for a research project, etc.]—and for the longer-term health of our field, we continue to work collaboratively and in vigorous fashion to delineate the more complicated inter-relationships between medieval, modern, and post-modern in such a fashion that, say, cultural studies becomes a discipline that cannot even imagine not having a “deep” historical component, and then, even more importantly, this more historically-minded cultural studies begins to form alliances with developing fields of inquiry in other disciplines, such as sociology or the cognitive sciences or new media studies. On this note, I would plug here a roundtable session scheduled for this coming July’s Medieval Congress at Leeds on “Complexity Science and the Humanities” which is described this way [and of course I’ll be in the audience with notebook in hand]:
Recent work on networks in theoretical physics has proved applicable in a number of different contexts including cultural dynamics and religion. Some of these findings provide intriguing insights for scholars concerned with population dynamics, the percolation of the spread of ideas, tipping points for altering the consensus of society and how individuals’ opinions and allegiances change over time. Medievalists have a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data on these subjects and are familiar with dealing with long-term change. This round-table discussion seeks both to explain some of these ideas in non-technical language and to bring together medievalists with economists and physicists for the discussion of possible collaboration in this fast-developing and well-funded area of research.
It occurs to me, too, that medieval studies would be well served to have a position similar to the one the biologist Richard Dawkins has occupied since 1995 at Oxford, the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science. I think a really progressive university should create a Chair of Public Understanding of Medieval Studies and then appoint someone to that Chair who would devote their career to the advocacy of the relevance of medieval studies to contemporary issues and problems—cultural, social, political, and otherwise. [Well, a girl can dream, can’t she?]

Prendergast and Trigg also worry about the ways in which medieval studies has, in a sense, policed its own temporal borders [never mind how university or grant administrators have cordoned off medieval studies from everything else], such that the term “medievalism” itself “separates and abjects the academic study of medievalism in order to retain the ‘purity’ of medieval studies” [p. 220]. Because so much labor has been invested in our field in order to transform what we perceive was once “uncriticial amateurism” into a “scientific profession,” such that we could be “legitimate” as a discipline, “popular recuperations of the medieval necessarily became misunderstandings—a kind of afterbirth which maintained only an attenuated relationship to the real work of medieval studies” [p. 221]. Ultimately, the “split between labour and pleasure is at the heart of the medieval/medievalism split” and contemporary medievalism is “tarred by the same brush that in conservative circles continues to dismiss cultural studies as mere chat about television, cinema, and the Internet” [p. 224]. By way of the “cases,” as it were, of the sometimes incredulous reception, in the Middle Ages itself, of saints’ relics and the legend of Arthur [as well as of his supposed relics, such as the Round Table at Winchester], Prendergast and Trigg show that, in all times and places, it is “difficult to unravel the connection of the medieval and the medievalistic,” and “even if the historical veracity of the thing being proved is accepted as true, the relics that point back to the veracious thing are themselves false—even if they were created as a kind of medievalistic simulacrum” [p. 228]. It will be important, then, in moving forward with our discipline, to “engage in a systematic investigation of the genealogy” of the categories of and divisions between past, present, and future “medievalisms,” and to “recollect along the way that the remains of the medieval always have a contemporary plot” [p. 229]. The “medieval,” in other words, can never really be separated from any particular “present” in which it is being invoked, appropriated, investigated, [supposedly objectively] described, refashioned, etc.

I find Prendergast’s and Trigg’s arguments especially useful for thinking about, not only the historicity of all the ways in which, in different times and places, we both remember and forget the past, but also how we might envision a more interventionist medieval studies—one that would take on contemporary appropriations of the medieval in the global social, political, legal, and other spheres, such as Bruce Holsinger has done in his chaplet book Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror, or as Steve Guthrie recently did in an article on the popular uses of the Middle Ages within the context of the war in Iraq [Medieval Perspectives, vol. 19], or as Kathleen Davis has done in her recent book Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time, where she writes in her Epilogue [apropos to Prendergast’s and Trigg’s essay]:
The political currency of feudalism and secularization returns us to the question “Where is the Now?” which, I have suggested, is the appropriate question to be asked about medieval/modern periodization. The assumption that “the Middle Ages” actually existed as a meaningful entity, and that it was “religious” and “feudal,” bulwarks the persistent determination to ignore the historicity of fundamental political categories. The problem with the “grand narrative” of the West is not simply one of linearity and the myth of “progress.” More crucially, it is a problem of the formation of concepts in conjunction with periodization, a process that retroactively reifies categories and erases their histories. If the future is to be open, rather than already determined, then periodization must come undone. [p. 134]
Davis’s book is especially significant in this interventionist vein, in my mind, because it joins with a growing body of work by scholars in other fields, such as Talal Asad, who are challenging, in important ways, the religious/secular, West/non-West, and modern/medieval binaries [see, for example, Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity].

In her response to Prendergast’s and Trigg’s essay, “Are We Having Fun Yet?”, Dinshaw considers the “temporal weirdness” of Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle,” which was originally published in Irving’s Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, the fictionalized compendium of a fictionalized antiquarian interested in medieval re-enactments, among other literary and historical matters. In Dinshaw’s mind, a close reading of Irving’s story can “animate” for us “the temporal principles informing Prendergast and Trigg’s article” [p. 233]. Rip is a perfect figure for consideration because, thanks to his twenty-year sleep, during which he continues to physically age, Rip is both in and out of his time: while his body registers the passage of time, he has no mental recollection of that passage nor does he even know that there was a Revolution, and it barely seems to matter [he can still sit at his favorite tavern and drink beer like the bachelor he used to wish he was], while at the same time, Rip does experience some confusion as to where and when, exactly, he is, partly because, to everyone else in the village, he is somehow out of place, a peculiar throwback to another era. In Dinshaw’s view,
In Rip’s befuddlement and panic we get a sense of how it feels to be medievalized: in this case it feels very, very wrong, eventually threatening Rip’s very being: ‘I’m not myself—I’m somebody else […] I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!’ But medievalization is just part of the story in this village: Rip himself feels continuity, not rupture, and his experiential continuities render the ‘historical ruptures’ of revolution and ‘modernity’ nugatory . . . . As every historian knows and as ‘Rip van Winkle’ works out in narrative, a revolution does not necessarily or evenly across a population produce a rupture in experience. Moreover, Prendergast and Trigg’s analysis opens up the intriguing prospect that something or someone being medievalized can resist or push back against that process of medievalization. [p. 235]
Very much in line with Dinshaw’s work elsewhere, she asks us to consider what Rip’s story tells us about time “as a lived phenomenon” and how a medieval studies attuned to this might “accommodate, indeed explore, the fact that chronology, the timeline of events, clock time, do not tell us everything—or in many cases, even very much—about lived experience.” In this scenario, time is not only “not a smooth stream, but it is also not the same for everyone” [p. 235]. And I would add here that, in some sense, each of us is out of step in some respect with time—we always have to be recalled to it and to our supposed place in “official” time, while at the same time, in order to discover what is meaningful and unique about our own existence and experience, we have to become fugitives from chrono-teleological time, or in another scenario, we are all always already fugitives in or out of time [hence my epigraph above from Spencer Reese’s poem “Tonight” which is addressed to a newly-born infant—I am thinking here also of the multiple semantic meanings of ‘fugitive,’ from lost/straying to fleeting/ephemeral to passing to elusive].

Medieval studies, Dinshaw argues, “must be capacious enough to encourage us to reckon thoroughly with such heterogeneities of temporal apprehension and the implications (historical, disciplinary) thereof—the felt experience of time, be it the time of medieval merchants, clerics, or labourers . . . or mystics, or scholars, or members of the Society for Creative Anachronism” [p. 236]. If Prendergast and Trigg worry about a certain range of cultural productions [that fall under the label of “popular medievalisms”] being ignored by medievalists who wish to maintain clean lines between their study of the past and the present, Dinshaw worries about another realm that causes medievalists discomfort: “the realm of the spiritual, of belief, of faith.” In Dinshaw’s view, temporal heterogeneity “is in fact a hallmark of Christianity . . . and a temporally expansive medieval studies needs to take faith, and more broadly the supernatural, to be taken seriously.” More pointedly, Dinshaw asserts, following James Simpson, that “faith of a kind” is “in fact the ground of all interpretation,” and interpretation “is like religion . . . in that it ‘demands’ an ‘exercise of faith’ in order to begin” [p. 236; see James Simpson, “Faith and Hermeneutics: Pragmatism versus Pragmatism,” JMEMS 33 (2003): 215-39]. Furthermore, the act of interpretation is always temporally asynchronous:
when I read Margery Kempe’s Book, I encounter her words in a hermeneutical Now in which medieval past meets twenty-first-century present. The peculiar temporality of interpretation—the time of hermeneutic contact—is out of linear time. In view of such inevitable hermeneutic conditions, medieval studies is not—as we must not pretend that it is—so entirely separate from the spiritual phenomena it discusses. [p. 236]
Dinshaw’s essay goes on to make several other important points, but I want to stop here with her provocative argument that interpretation is like a religion, and that medieval studies is not as objectively removed [as it often thinks it is] “from the spiritual phenomena it discusses.” Of course, we have to be careful and remind ourselves of how important it has been in recent years for our field to distance itself from the kind of allegorical criticism that merely recapitulated Christianized, hegemonic readings of medieval texts [all assumed to be Christian in one measure or another, as if that world-view so thoroughly dominated the mental airwaves of the Middle Ages that nothing else got through, and we could discern nothing else]. And having cleared that troubling admission out of the way, we can ask with Dinshaw, more searchingly, how interpretation is an act of faith, one dependent on the very heterogeneous and asynchronous temporalities that fuel, as it were, medieval Christian mentalities. And let's ask, too: faith in what, exactly?

Does anyone else see, as I do, the little bomb that Dinshaw has thrown into this conversation? So many considerations crowd my mind—first of all, poetics. For if interpretation is a “kind of faith,” it requires, not a rationalistic, fully objectified discourse [nor what Ricouer termed a “hermeneutics of suspicion” or what Eve Sedgwick, more recently, has described as “paranoid readings”], but rather, a poetics in the sense that John Caputo gives to that term: “an evocative discourse that articulates the event,” as opposed to a logic, which is “a normative discourse governing entities (real or possible), which can or do instantiate its propositions” [The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, p. 103]. Further [and here I am thinking specifically of Margery Kempe, as well as of Dinshaw writing on Kempe], a poetics “describes a desire beyond reason and beyond what is reasonably possible, a desire to know what we cannot know, or to love what we dare not love” [The Weakness of God, p. 104]. I am thinking here, too, of Joan Retallack’s poethical wager, in which a certain “poetics of desire . . . moves us toward a responsive and pleasurable connection to the world by means of informed sensualities of language” [The Poethical Wager, p. 5], and where we stake our faith on a certain meaningfulness [which doesn’t have to have anything to do with God or gods], despite all epistemological evidence to the contrary. But this will also mean acknowledging that, on some level, there has to be a there there—as Dinshaw puts it a little further on in her response to Prendergast and Trigg, the past always retains in some fashion its otherness and what we might “understand as the past’s own intransigence makes an ethical relation to it possible” [p. 240]. There is a certain palpable materiality to the past—no matter how silent or inaccessible or covered over with layers and layers of self- and appropriative representations—that begs some acknowledgment of obdurate difference and even of an alter will to have said what we would never say ourselves, or even want to hear. But in any case, we traffic in ghosts, which is to say: we believe in them. Or do we? What do we believe in, again? If interpretation is an act of faith, faith in what, or who? You tell me.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Multilingualism in the Middle Ages

by J J Cohen

Just want to bring your attention to this site, which Annika Farber kindly brought to mine: Multilingualism in the Middle Ages. Faculty from the universities of Bergen, Bristol, Leeds, Madison-Wisconsin, Manchester, Oslo, Penn State, Utrecht, and York are working with academic publisher Brepols to create a site bringing together resources, e-collaborations, and the electronic residue of seminars and conferences (bibliographies, PowerPoint files, and so on). Quite a rich site.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Festive Friday: Spout a Gnome

by J J Cohen

It's Friday. Your neurons are not firing with the precision they possessed earlier in the week. Your "To Do" list hovers at the same number of items that clogged Monday. That essay which is two weeks past deadline is moving towards three. Your fez needs cleaning.

We know how you feel. But we also want to say: snap out of it! Stop loving yourself so much! Why is it always about you, you, you?

For this Festive Friday, we invite you to spout a gnome. No, not "a legendary creature resembling a tiny old man." Keep that kind of gnome to yourself. By gnome we mean "a short pithy saying expressing a general truth": we're talking wise, not wizened. A kind of Old English-y gnome. Given that aphorisms tend to be highly conventional, we propose the following rule for its articulation: your gnostic utterance must follow the formula "Medieval Studies needs less X and more Y." Example: "Medieval Studies needs less Charlotte Allen and more Tiny Shriner."* You may then follow up with another maxim that is sillier. Mine: "A Tiny Shriner belongs on a bar stool, old and proud of his martini." Got it? And bonus points if you can identify the actual medieval proverb that I warped to create that last one.

Oh, and you are not allowed to think too much before you spout your gnomes. They must spout quickly or they must not spout at all.

*a scholar of proverbial utterances would know that this formulation equates to "Medieval Studies needs less delight in policing its enjoyments, and more creativity in its enjoyment."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Vagrant Subjects

Figure 1. Victims of Hurricane Katrina


The subject lies at the intersection with external, relational forces. It is about assemblages. Encountering them is almost a matter for geography, because it is a question of orientations, points of entry and exit, a constant unfolding. . . . The sensibility to and availability for changes or transformation are directly proportional to the subject's ability to sustain the shifts without cracking.
—Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics

The new issue [no. 7] of Early Modern Culture: An Electronic Seminar is out, edited by Linda Woodbridge and Craig Dionne, and the theme is "Vagrant Subjects." You might recall that Jeffrey plugged this online journal once before, for Issue no. 6, devoted to "Timely Meditations," which featured a really interesting essay by Linda Charnes on wormholes and micro-periods from the future, and to which Jeffrey's colleague Jonathan Gil Harris contributed a response. Ever since Jeffrey initially told us about this journal I have been really enamored of it, especially for the way each issue incorporates multiple responses to the main essays and even responses to the responses and sometimes responses to the responses to the responses [hence, I believe, the moniker of "seminar" for the journal]! God knows, this must be time-consuming for all involved but what a great benefit for the rest of us, since the scholarly voices in each issue are always in productive flux and tension with each other and no critical issue is ever really "closed" or "settled" as a result--provocative questions are raised and re-raised in such a manner that invites further ruminations [and one would imagine, another set of essays somewhere else in time and place, and then another set, and so on and so forth]. it contributes, moreover, to an the "explcitly collaborative praxis," one that is never finished, that Jeffrey talks about here.

Craig Dionne, as some may recall, is the editor, with Steve Mentz, of Rogues and Early Modern English Culture [Michigan, 2004] and is also the Editor of the Journal of Narrative Theory, which devoted a special issue to BABEL's humanisms project. Craig is also a contributor to BABEL's new volume of essays [in progress], Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism. On a more personal level, ever since I met Craig [through Marty Shichtman] a few years ago at the annual meeting of the Midwest Conference on British Studies [at Notre Dame], he has become a great friend and an important interlocutor for me, and he has profoundly influenced my thinking on a number of subjects. It was because of his suggestion about a year ago to read Patricia Fumerton's Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England, that I became interested in exploring whether or not not it might be possible to theorize certain structures of vagrancy, itinerant mobility, unsettled aesthetics, and "low" subjectivity in certain Old English texts, such as Guthlac A and B [go here for some of my initial musings on that].

The new issue of Early Modern Culture: An Electronic Seminar centers on the subjects of vagrancy, low subjectivity, and unsettled aesthetics in the early modern period and actually begins with an essay by Patricia Fumerton, "Mocking Aristocratic Place: The Perspective of the Streets," but not before Linda Woodbridge poses these provocative questions in her Introduction to the issue,
This issue of Early Modern Culture treats a constellation of themes -- poverty, vagrancy, mobility, idleness, work, crime, rogue literature, class disparities. I'll close with a question: is it a good idea to treat this spectrum of topics alongside each other, all as aspects of the topic "vagrant subjects"? All of us who have worked in this area have done this, yes; but is it a good idea? My recurrent fear is that in doing so do we buy into a Renaissance mind set that couldn't hear about poverty without thinking about vagrancy, roguery, crime -- as if they were a seamless whole. I thought about this recently when invited to contribute several pieces to an encyclopedia, and was asked which of them should be cross-referenced to the others. What would it say, I wondered, if one cross-referenced "poverty" to "vagrancy," "rogue pamphlets," "thievery," "beggary," or "the Elizabethan underworld"? As Sandra Logan subtly argues with regard to degrading punishments and the degraded living conditions of the poor, such confluences of category can influence our thinking subliminally. Ultimately I cannot think it was not a good idea to find occasion to bring together four such stimulating essays; but the issue merits thought. Let us work hard at this.
For those interested in exploring the connections between poverty, working conditions, mobility, and aesthetics [both high and low] in any period, I recommend this issue highly.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Drawing a Dissertation

by Mary Kate Hurley

Readers at ITM and Old English in New York may remember that the topic of my first chapter is the Old English Orosius. You may remember, way back in November, when I revising my chapter on the Orosius, I was having a bit of trouble straightening out the terms with which I spoke of the various voices in the text.

I'm working, again, on revising that same old text. You can see a small snippet of what I've been doing with it here. However, in the past few weeks or so I've been trying to tap into my formerly quite creative side, which sometimes gets sublimated by both a lack of time and a lack of interest. I don't have time to draw anymore, for example. But in the past couple weeks, I've taken to literally sketching out some of my arguments in the chapter, to help me keep straight the number of elements, levels, or names that appear in the essay.

The fruits of today's labor? The following diagram. Please note that, should it make it to the final copy of my dissertation chapter, I'll redraw it and make it a bit cleaner:

The "legend," if you will, is the following.
ASE = Anglo-Saxon England
Rep of HAP = Representation of the Historiarum Adversum Paganos in the Old English Orosius.
Cwæð = The "cwæð Orosius" construction in the Old English Orosius.

Essentially, I'm trying to represent, albeit somewhat simplistically, the levels of interaction of the Latin and Old English texts. So they intersect where Latin historical texts are present in Anglo-Saxon England. The first level of that intersection is the Latin versions of the Historiarum present in Anglo-Saxon England at the time of the translation. At that point, the attribution of the text can still be to Paulus Orosius, as these are texts in the original language, copies. The next level, then, is the Old English translation. The "voice of authority" is no longer Paulus Orosius himself -- if such a thing is possible to think of, to borrow the Derridean line, and in light of having *just* taught Death of the Author to my undergraduates -- so I'm calling that level of narration/authority the "Translator/Narrator."

This next level is where things get a bit messy. For various reasons, in order to understand the way the source text (the Historiarum Adversum Paganos, by Paulus Orosius) interacts with the translation, the Old English Orosius, I find it useful to suggest a distinction between the parts of the Old English text which are specifically meant to represent the Latin text and those which can only be departures that are the results of an explicit choice on the part of the translator. The majority of the text falls into the first category. Certain sections of the text, like the part in the geographical preface which relates the travels of Ohthere and Wulfstand, fall into the second. These are clear departures from the Historiarum. To express the identification between the translator and the voice of Orosius, I've chosen Orosius-translator. This category is distinct from the explicit, reported speech citations of Paulus Orosius that occur where the text inserts the first person or, more explicitly, the cwæð Orosius (a phrase which occurs fifty times in the text, and means "Orosius said"). To mark the distinction, I'm using Orosius-narrator.

That's a lot of information, particularly for folks who perhaps aren't as familiar with the Orosius. However, the question I have for you today dear readers, is about the use of diagrams in dissertations. Are they a good thing, where they help lay out your thought process in a way that makes your prose that much clearer? Or are they a crutch I should dispense with, and use merely in the draft stages, to help my mind keep track of the many "facts" of the text? Has anyone out there written a book/dissertation/article that makes extensive use of diagrams? Or that uses diagrams at all? How did that work?

cross posted to OENY

There Will be Morality Plays

by J J Cohen

I feel in bondage to this post by Eileen, but don't have a coherent thought to offer. Yet. Meanwhile, a question on a different topic.

So I never get to see movies until everyone else has already enjoyed them, analyzed them, and moved on. Such is the fate of he who depends upon a Netflix queue and who lacks sufficient leisure. Last night I finally saw There Will Be Blood, and I must state that I do not comprehend the greatness my friends promised of that film back when they saw it. I intuit that the narrative works something like a morality play, and so as a medievalist who has read the Pardoner's Tale (or even as someone who once watched Treasure of the Sierra Madre) I should udnerstand its conventions and denouement. I know the story comes from Upton Sinclair, an author not known for nuance. I also know that the film's narrative of oil, greed, and immorality probably resonated differently under Bush-Cheney than it does with a change of White House occupancy. But still. Was the message of that film anything more complicated than: capitalism fosters insatiable greed; religion and capitalism are identical twins; greed will make you drink a lot of whiskey, use cute little deaf boys as props, speak in an excessively deliberative manner, and bash people with wooden bowling pins? Is the take away message something more complicated than "oil = riches = worldly goods = bad stuff, bad bad stuff"?

The Pardoner's Tale is a lot more complicated than that. What did I miss here?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sadomasochism, Temporality, History: Elizabeth Freeman's Historiography Redux, Part II

Figure 1. Gerard David, Christ Nailed to the Cross (after 1484)


. . . sadomasochistix sex performs the dialectic of a quick-paced modernity and a slower ‘premodern,’ the latter indexed by any number of historical periods. Seen as a kind of erotic time machine, sadomasochism offers sexual metacommentary on the dual emergence of modernity and its others, on the entangled histories of race, nationhood, and imperialism as well as nationhood. Moreover, S/M does this work in simultaneously corporeal and symbolic ways, turning the queer body into a historiographic instrument: more than a cumulative effect of traumatic and/or insidious power relations, the body in sadomasochistic ritual becomes a means of addressing history in an idiom of pleasure.
—Elizabeth Freeman, “Turn the Beat Around: Sadomasochism, Temporality, History"

Sexual practices are banal, impoverished, doomed to repetition, and [in] this . . . disproportionate to the wonder of pleasure they afford.
—Roland Barthes, Preface to Renaud Camus, Tricks: 25 Encounters

History is just a load of stuff that already happened.
—Colin Farrell as Ray, In Bruges

Jeffrey has sent you his valentine and I now send you mine, and if you like a little sex with your violence or a little violence with your sex, then this letter is for you. Somewhat belatedly [although, how do we count time in the blogosphere?], I am returning to my ruminations on the thinking of Elizabeth Freeman on eroticism, temporality, and history, which I began here and here, in order to address her essay, “Turn the Beat Around: Sadomasochism, Temporality, History” [differences: a journal of feminist cultural studies 19.1 (2008): 32-70], which I find provocative and challenging. The essay is long [and forgive me, too, Elizabeth Freeman and anyone else for the omissions in my summary and responses, because there is simply so much!], and before settling into her primary argument [see epigraph above], Freeman first takes us on some related (de)tours that address:

1) the “slow” and retroactive time of sexual dissidence in modernity [which allows us to see that “sexual deviants . . . were unimaginable before the modern regime of ‘progress,’ a discourse even more totalizing than the ‘civilizing process’ championed by evolutionism”]

2) how, in Sade’s writings, S/M “shuttles” back and forth between the modern and the premodern [more pointedly, between the power relations of the Ancien Regime and the French Revolution], and thereby becomes “a form of writing history with the body in which the linearity of history may be called into question, but the past does not thereby cease to exist” [p. 36]

3) some of the history of the analysis of S/M by radical & lesbian feminist, critical race, and white gay male theorists, in order to show how there has been “somewhat of a schism in S/M theory . . . between a will to condemn sadomasochism’s historical trappings . . . and a will to ignore or trivialize them,” and to ask the question: “But are we truly locked into a choice of viewing sadomasochism as either an equivalent to the historical forces that oppress or the agent of their complete dematerialization and privatization into psychic drives?” [p. 38]; for Freeman, we need to continue trying to theorize S/M: “to historicize it theorizations, and, most urgently, to theorize its historicisms,” for, in Freeman’s mind, “S/M may bring out the historicity of bodily response itself,” not only “the conditioning of sexual response over time,” but also “the uses of physical sensation to break apart the present into fragments of time that may not be one’s ‘own’ or to feel one’s present world as both conditioned and contingent” [p. 38]

4) how some white lesbian feminist critics [such as Kathy Acker, Lynda Hart, and Ann Cvetkovich] offer different avenues toward a reconsideration of S/M as a form of temporally reorganizing personal trauma into a more positive [or “healing”], or even futural, experience; one insight here might be that “the masochist’s sensations seem to alter the flow of time so that there is an ‘after’ to violence appearing as its ‘before,’ a consensual might-have-been triumphing over a personal history of being victimized” [p. 39]; BUT, while these theorists importantly address S/M’s temporal registers in a sophisticated manner, they do so mainly within the realm of personal/family trauma, such as that occasioned by incest, which still leaves open the question of:

5) how S/M also indexes national and imperial pasts [genocide, slavery, the Inquisition, etc.], and “can also aim for a certain visceral fusion, a point of somatic contact between a single erotic body in the present tense and an experience coded as both public and past. . . . Here, the aim is not displacement, but a certain condensation of public and private, collective and individual subjectivities”; therefore, S/M “might be a way of feeling historical that exposes the limits of bourgeois-sentimental emotional reactions to historical events,” while at the same time “it also refuses to eschew feelings altogether as a mode of knowledge” [p. 40]

The bulk of the rest of Freeman’s essay is taken up by an analysis of Issac Julien’s 1992 8-minute digital silent film The Attendant (originally made for the BBC series Time-Code), the bare plot of which can be summed up as follows: in a British museum, a white museum-goer and a black museum guard have a sexual encounter, one that takes place in relation to F.A. Baird’s 1833 painting of a slave market, Slaves on the West Coast of Africa, in which, in Freeman’s description, “a white, presumably a European man straddles a prone, presumably an African man, as other black and white men look on or continue their business. In the periphery of this scene, more white men whip, bind, inspect, and brand other black men” [p. 42]. When the black museum guard catches the eye of the white museum-goer, the painting in Julien’s film literally comes to life and “metamorphoses into a tableau vivant of an interracial sexual orgy, with participants posed exactly as they were on the canvas, only now wearing modern S/M gear” [p. 43]. Once the museum closes, “the Attendant and the Visitor consummate their lust by whipping one another in a room off the main gallery—or the Attendant may simply be imagining this happening; the film leaves this ambiguous” [p. 43]. It is important to note here that the scene of the visitor and guard whipping each other is presented as a series of frozen stances [first one on top, then the other, then both standing side by side, with only the sound of a whip cracking on the soundtrack]. The film has no dialogue or voiceover narration, but does have various sound and music effects, including a kind of sonic heartbeat that registers throughout. [I have not included all details of the film here, just its bare trajectory.]

According to Freeman, Julien’s film “brings out a certain formal dialectic within sadomasochism, one that hyperbolically clarifies the temporal aspects of power and domination and yet also offers new modes of temporal apprehension and historical consciousness” [p. 43]. One way in which the film does this is by exploring the relation between film and the more “still” arts, such as painting, such that it enacts “a striking meditation on the passive and active modes not only of sex, but also of perception: it explores the dialectic between contemplation and intervention as they inflect sadomasochistic scenes and then open these scenes into history” [p. 44]. Ultimately, Julien’s “innovation is to link the dynamics among film as a temporal medium, the temporalities of the cinema’s various narrative gestures, and the time of still art to sadomasochistic practice itself,” which relies on certain modes of passive inaction [stillness, waiting], pictorial representation, and “moving” bodily narratives that spatialize time. What conjoins Julien’s film to Sade is precisely the mode of tableau vivant, which is both a static and moving picture, and what The Attendant ultimately suggests is that “a large part of sadomasochism’s power lies less in pain itself than in the pause, which the film figures most insistently as the frozen moment of suspense between the crack of a moving whip and its contact with a body that will flinch.” Therefore, S/M “plays with and literalizes power as time” and also celebrates “Freud’s description of the perversions as a form of dallying along the way to heterosexuality” [pp. 49, 50]. Freeman asks us to consider S/M’s emphasis on the pause as a historicist mode that would provide an “antidote” to “the traditional historicist models of progress that Sade . . . repudiated and to the ‘revolutionary’ ideology of a complete break from the past that Sade celebrated” [p. 51]. Similar to Benjamin’s idea that times stands still within certain dialectical images, the pause “reveals the ligaments binding present and past” [p. 51].

The setting of Julien’s film in a museum was certainly purposeful, and Freeman suggests that, while “S/M cannot return its players to a prior historical moment any more than a museum can, it can remind us of what the museum itself represses: memory is not organic or natural at all, but depends on various prompts and even props” [p. 55]. More specifically, in Julien’s film, “the image of the whip travels,” and held by the Attendant, it “indexes the erotic energy that enslaved black men managed to preserve and transmit to their successors despite their sufferings” [p. 57]. It is noteworthy, in Freeman’s view, that “Julien reanimates the dead in sex scenes rather than in the scenes of revenge or fearmongering in which a classically Derridean ‘hauntology’ usually traffics,” and therefore Julien makes an important contribution to “a queer-of-color critique that would hold sensuality and historical accountability in productive tension” [p. 57]. Ultimately, in Julien’s film, “the register of touch can literally open up slavery’s historical baggage and distribute its contents differently” [p. 58].

Because the film ends with the Attendant, in a kind of dream sequence, singing Dido’s “remember me” aria from a theater balcony to a frozen discotheque crowd below him [played by the same men who inhabited the painting], which aria is from Henry Purcell’s 1698 opera Dido and Aeneas, whose librettist Nahum Tate reworked Vergil’s Aeneid in relation to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, thereby conjoining the classical epic to British nationalist strivings, Freeman asks, “What does it mean that The Attendant ends with a black man apparently suffused with homoerotic and sadomasochistic desire inhabiting the role of a diasporic queen as written by a celebrant of British imperialism?” [p. 60]. In Freeman’s view, the Attendant’s inhabitation of Dido’s lament “obliquely illuminates the role of sexuality in the cultural memory of a conquered people,” and Dido’s lament itself “raises its own dead, even as her words frame the story of England’s rise on the backs of dead and dying African slaves” [p. 61]. Time, in Julien’s film, becomes a “modality of power rather than a neutral substance,” and the body becomes, perhaps, “an inadvertent conduit for effaced histories of pleasure rather than a figure for some ahistorical essence or a mere mannequin upon which icons of oppression are scandalously hung for fun” [p. 62]. Further, S/M “is not merely drag: it reorganizes the senses and, when it uses icons and equipment from traumatic pasts, reorganizes the relationships among emotion, sensation, and historical understanding. Its clash of temporalities ignites historical possibilities other than the ones frozen into the ‘fate’ of official histories” [p. 63].

By way of concluding, Freeman asks that we consider S/M as a “critical technique or mode of analysis enacted with the body erotic” that “offers up temporal means for reconfiguring the possible: the ‘slow time’ that is at once modernity’s double and its undoing, the sensation that discombobulates normative temporal conditionings, the deviant pause that adds a codicil of pleasure to a legacy of suffering.” She adds that these “are not, to be sure, reparations for past damages (as if perfect redress were possible) or the means of transcending all limitations. They are, however, ways of knowing history to which queers might make fierce claim” [p. 63].

First, I just want to say how abbreviated my summation of Freeman’s essay and argument is—there is much I have left out [for example, her analysis of what Julien is doing with race/color/skin in his film, and with sound and rhythm], but I wanted to mainly focus on issues that have already been long-discussed on our blog, especially with regard to the relations between temporality, sexuality, affect, and history. Indeed, history is the term I naturally want to linger on here, for while I find Freeman’s thinking on the relations in S/M between sex and temporality utterly fascinating and convincing, I feel a bit more fuzzy-headed on the history side of her triumvirate, which is not to say that I do not understand what is obviously the most critical part of her project—the importance of the queer body as “historiographical instrument” as well as her call for queer theorists to better theorize S/M’s historical dimensions, and also, following the more broad claims of her erotohistoriography spelled out in other writings, such as “Time Binds,” to formulate how “the bodily enjoyments that travel under the sign of queer sex [might] be thought of as temporal practices, even as portals to historical thinking.” Those of us who are interested in the subjects of the body, embodiment, gender, sex, and sexuality in studies of late antiquity and the Middle Ages are lucky, I think, to have a contemporary theorist such as Freeman who is pushing queer theory to take better account of the historical and the pull of the past on subjectivity, identity, sexuality/sex practices, sociality, and the like. More pointedly, with respect to Freeman’s most recent thinking on S/M as an “erotic time machine,” since there have been some excellent books recently published in premodern studies that address S/M [primarily within hagiographical contexts—e.g. Robert Mills’s Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure, and Punishment in Medieval Culture and Virginia Burrus’s The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography and her even more recent Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects], as well as books such as Karmen MacKendrick’s Counterpleasures, which includes premodern hagiography and medieval spiritual practices in its longue duree cultural history of “odd-seeming” and transgressive pleasures, the time seems ripe for a productive conversation across disciplines and fields with regard to the queer body as an historiograpical instrument that time-travels [an idea given one important launch in our own field by Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval]. It would be important, too, at some point, to bring into this conversation new work that is being done by contemporary theorists on affect, sensation, and touch that also takes up what I would broadly call “movements” in time [e.g. Erin Manning’s The Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty and Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation], and also, given the importance of medieval spirituality to the history of this conversation, the recent thinking by John Caputo [inspired by Deleuze] on a “theology of the flesh” seems apropos as well, but we’ll save that thought for another day [but wouldn’t that be a cool symposium, too?].

In any case, coming at Freeman’s thinking on S/M as a form of historical writing on and with the body from the longer perspective of the Middle Ages, we can first ask how Freeman’s idea that “sadomasochistic sex performs the dialectic of a quick-paced modernity and a slower ‘premodern,’ the latter indexed by any number of historical periods” might travel into medieval contexts such as flagellant communities or medieval schools where enthusiastic whippings were a central part of the pedagogy [the former being obviously more self-willed than the latter, although there were ample illustrations and writings related to the latter that certainly opened the possibility of the practice developing queer sexual valences]? And in what manner might depictions of violent martyrdom, in both the literature and the visual arts of the Middle Ages, perform the dialectic of a “quick-paced” now and a slower then? Or, is this question evacuated from the very start because Freeman’s attention is definitively upon S/M as it is habituated within a post-Sadean modernity [indeed, is possibly even produced within modernity as a type of sexual opposition, albeit an opposition that is historically loaded and saturated with premodern “scenes”], and to speak of S/M within medieval contexts would mean to take account of a different type of shuttling between times, a shuttling that might have more to do with fusion than with opposition, but which nevertheless might involve the suspension or pause that Freeman describes as so essential to S/M’s time scheme. As Bob Mills puts it in Suspended Animation, with reference to the late medieval painting by Gerard David, Christ Nailed to the Cross [see image above],
the representation of [the] protagonist [Christ] looking out from the painting toward the viewer gives rise to a suspension of time, since as soon as we, the beholders, are required to participate in the visual narrative, the illusion that Christ’s passion was an historical event located at a particular chronological juncture is shattered. We too become implicated in the scene, laying the image open to the possibilities of victim identification and (imaginary) corporeal sensation. Motifs of this sort contribute to the process by which sensations transfer, imaginatively, from one body to the other . . . . The medieval principle of imitatio Christi encapsulates the fantasy that pain is transferable and that it can be shared—that worshippers are able to fuse mentally and even physically with Christ’s body. [p. 162]
There are obvious parallels here with how Julien’s film The Attendant negotiates a relationship between the figures in the slave market painting and the two men who participate in the painting’s traumatic scene, while also recuperating [or making more utopic and futural] its dark energies by sexualizing them, and the ways in which medieval depictions of scenes of martyrdom, in Mills’ view, asked beholders “to view pain not simply as a destructive force but also as a phenomenon that produces bliss” [p. 163]. At the same time, the medieval painting, in Freeman’s phrasing, “rings some changes” on historical consciousness by “reanimat[ing] the erotic dimension of affect that is both solicited and repressed in sentiments like nostalgia, patriotism, or pride in one’s heritage,” and here we might substitute: love of or faith in Christ/Christianity.

But we still might ask, if the late medieval painting, or earlier medieval hagiographic narrative, such as Ælfric’s tenth-century Life of Agatha, performs a dialectic between two times, how might we describe in more historical detail those two times and the ways in which they are in productive [but also, possibly, destructive] tension with each other [and why only two times]? What times are these, more specifically? We might tentatively acknowledge that, at least in the narratives of martyrs, there is always the zero-time of Christ’s passion which the martyr is always attempting to return to and fuse with, albeit belatedly if ecstatically [with the mode of exstasis standing in as the time portal]. There is still the question of the real historic occasions and places that were particularly conducive to what might be called the “return” and “repetition with a difference” of the iconography and narrative of Christ’s martyrdom with a particular force [which is also to ask: were martyr narratives equally palpably present in medieval culture in all times and places? I doubt it], a force that could even be called radical and subversive and queer—after all, after the Benedictine Reform, those religious who sought out the most extreme, ascetic forms of a solitary life were viewed with more suspicion. We also have to acknowledge that martyr-saints are never really there in any time at all [“there’s no there there,” as Gertrude Stein might say] because they exist primarily in a cultural [and also political] imagination that gives rise, in particular times and places, to certain texts and pictorial art: they are always being appropriated after the supposed facts of their existence, which is largely invented [also, in some respects, all martyrs are the same martyr: repetitions and mimicries, but again, with a difference]. Whereas the buyers and slaves in the West African market depicted in F.A. Baird’s painting [in Julien’s film] have a somewhat palpable historical reality—i.e., slave markets really existed [and the painting itself can be said to participate in the beginnings of naturalism]—the medieval narrative or pictorial depiction of the martyr-saint does not have behind it a real martyr-saint, only a mis-en-abyme of images of martyr-saints who are all, in one fashion or another, copies of Christ, and often, transgressive copies [because more excessively violent and abject]. [I know that, over time, real persons have been tortured and also executed for their beliefs, but medieval hagiography, in my mind, is very much a type of generic heroic-romance literature.]

It may be that Freeman’s definitions of and insistence upon the categories of a “quick-paced modernity” and the supposedly “slower premodern” would break down entirely within medieval “scenes” of sadomasochism, and yet, Virginia Burrus’s chapter on “Hybrid Desire: Empire, Sadism, and the Soldier Saint” in her book The Sex Lives of Saints, might demonstrate otherwise [but with a twist]. Focusing in this chapter on Sulpicius Severus’s fourth-century Life of Martin, which Burrus typifies as hypernatural science-fiction, Burrus detects in Severus’s portrait of Martin a “precursor to Donna Haraway’s cyborg figures—‘densely packed condensations of worlds, shocked into being from the force of implosion of the natural and the artificial, nature and culture, subject and object, . . . narrative and reality” [p. 93]. At the same time, Burrus also carefully delineates the historical and political contexts of Severus’s writings on Martin in order to reveal Martin as a sort of post-colonial figure as well [i.e., “post-colonial” within the context of late Roman imperialism]. In this sense, Severus’s Martin, especially as he is rendered in various scenes of domination and submission, acts as a sort of switching-station for the negotiation of different times: the zero-time of Christ’s passion, the post-colonial time of late imperial, pan-Mediterranean Rome, the time of Severus’s own love/need for Martin [which is also the time of writing], and the futural time of the cyborg. Believe me when I say I am not even beginning to do justice to this chapter of Burrus’s, but I mainly want to draw our attention to the important question of what it might mean—vis-à-vis Freeman’s work—to consider S/M [now or before the modern] as a practice in which the past drags upon the present and yet out of which a certain modernity is always emerging in dual time with its others [historical others, sexual others, cultural others, etc.]. For Burrus, the very genre of hagiography emerges in late antiquity at a time that is partly charged by the present we currently inhabit and vice versa:
It is scarcely an accident that the incitement to hagiographical discourse arises within the charges and contested transculturalism of a late Roman empire perched at the edge of antiquity. Nor is it an accident that interest in hagiographical erotics reemerges within our own similarly “multicultural,” ambiguously “postcolonial,” even possibly “postmodern” context. We too are perched at a temporal edge (or so we imagine it), awash in an ocean of heteroglossia (in the academy and well beyond), sharply aware of the complex and mobile relations of power that infuse all of our practices (literary, erotic, and otherwise). Hagiography is a historical product, a queer, late version of the ancient novel, emerging at the intersections of romance with biography, historiography, panygeric, martyrology—a statement that does not so much define its genre as announce its persistent subversions of genre, its promiscuous borrowings, its polyphonous multiplication of contesting (and thus always compromised) voices, its subtle and ever-shifting resistances within power, its layered remappings of place and replottings of time, its repeated traversals of the boundaries of history and fiction, truth and lies, the realms of the sacred and the profane. [p. 18]
This also raises the “yet another” question of whether or not, as Freeman argues, sexual minorities “have in many ways been produced by, or at least emerged in tandem with, a sense of ‘modern’ temporality,” or if sexual deviants were “unimaginable before the modern regime of ‘progress’” [“Turn the Beat Around,” pp. 32, 34]. We already have a somewhat thick body of scholarship in medieval studies that has called into question whether or not such terms as homosexuality, heterosexuality, “perverse,” and “abnormal” could have had any force in medieval life in the same way they do now [e.g. Glenn Burger’s Chaucer’s Queer Nation, Karma Lochrie’s Heterosyncracies: Female Sexuality Before Normal Wasn’t, and James Schulz’s Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality]; nevertheless, how modern, really, are certain “minoritarian” sexual practices, such as S/M [and for that matter, how might “progress” be defined/described in certain premodern periods—certainly, there were notions of progress, but what were they, more specifically, and how did they change the pace of particular temporalities in the way, say, the invention of factory assembly lines changed the temporality of labor]? We might think a bit more about the idea of emergence, which can call up linear notions of time, but doesn’t have to [here, I am thinking especially how emergence is defined in the sciences as “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems”]. It may be that sexual minorities are always produced by or emerging, in different times and places, “in tandem with” whatever “sense” of temporality is dominant/official in any given moment, but then we have to also do the work of delineating what those different senses of temporality are [in different places] and how sexual practices are either figured by or become more visible and legible in or alongside those temporalities. We will also have to start shifting and sorting out historical and more aesthetic temporalities: the arts create their own time, and this is directly relevant to some of my further thoughts on Freeman’s work, SO:

This also leads me to want to further consider what “history” signifies, exactly, in Freeman’s thought, especially with regard to S/M as a kind of time machine. Is history some kind of actual past in this scenario, or is it only ever a retroactively-posited representation of a particular [overly self-invested] memory or image of history [or even, of a dream of an image of history, or of something that is behind/anterior]? Further, if S/M is a “hyperbolically historical, even metahistorical way of having sex” [p. 42], is S/M then helplessly, perhaps even laughably, anachronistically clichéd [in the way a bad Renaissance Fair is anachronistically clichéd—this also raises the issue of how S/M inscribes on bodies what I would call an unreflective historical nostalgia]? My questions arise out of the tension I detect between two statements Freeman makes in her essay—first, that S/M “gestures toward the possibility of encountering specific historical moments viscerally, thereby refusing these moments the closure of pastness” [p. 42], and second, that it brings the body “to a kind of somatized historical knowledge, one that does not demand or produce correct information about or an original experience of past events, or even engender legibly cognitive understandings of one’s place in a historically specific structure” [p. 62]. So, while S/M might gesture toward the possibility of encountering a real history [and thereby “faces” history, as it were, and bends toward it], it does not demand or produce “correct information” about the past—okay, fair enough [I mean, this is like . . . common sense], BUT: I worry about the ethical slipperiness that is created in the gap between the reaching toward the possibility of viscerally encountering the past [which is never really “over”—I couldn’t agree more] and the admission that the “historical knowledge” produced in the body in S/M ritual does not necessarily correspond to anything historically “legible.” Here we brush up against the idea of historical knowledge embodied in certain postures and sensations as maybe spiritual or mystical [at the very least, mystified—it is Virginia Burrus, we might recall, who asks if eroticism is nearer to theology than to anything else]. Oddly, I find myself in this gap recalling Pierre Nora’s statement that “[w]hat looms on the horizon of every historical society . . . is presumably a final, definitive disenchantment,” and I reflect that Julien’s film stages a sort of re-enchantment of history in which a certain traumatic history’s pores, in the words of poet Spencer Reese, literally “ooze with the brine of discotheques.” But I must also confess that I find myself a bit stuck here—I don’t know, exactly [yet], what to make of this gap or slippage between these two statements and would only say here [for now] that they create an intriguing crux in Freeman’s overall argument, one that we might return to and ruminate more collectively. At the very least, the presence of this gap leads me to also ask:

What is the relation between history and art/artifice, both in Julien’s film and in Freeman’s erotohistoriography? As indicated above in my summary of Freeman’s analysis of Julien’s film, Freeman does pay very close attention to the ways in which Julien’s film negotiates still and moving pictures, sound effects, and the tableau vivant, in relation to “a certain formal dialectic within sadomasochism, one that hyperbolically clarifies the temporal aspects of power and domination and yet also offers new modes of temporal apprehension and historical consciousness,” such as the Benjaminian-historicist mode encoded in the pause so critical to S/M sex. But I am concerned, too, to at least wonder at the relation, both in Julien’s film and in Freeman’s erotohistoriography, between history and its representation in art/writing as an event—an event, moreover, that is re-played, however inaccurately, in S/M sex [which itself becomes in the process its own event], but also in the art form that purports to perform and “act” such sex and in the criticism that describes that performance, and here I would also say, of Freeman’s criticism, cadging from Carol Jacobs writing on Benjamin’s thought, that “it is already in the work of art as its potential” [In The Language of Walter Benjamin, p. 7]. [This also raises the issue, which I can’t fully explore here, of whether or not S/M as a sex practice is as historically saturated and temporally aware as Freeman makes it out to be, or rather, if it is primarily within the realm of art and of the criticism that illuminates that art that such historical consciousness within S/M sex is drawn and performed—I just don’t think most practitioners of S/M sex are as sophisticated or as hyperbolically historically aware as an Isaac Julien or other artists in their appropriations of and encounters with historic scenes vis-à-vis sadomasochism.] Even if we stick with the Benjaminian historicist mode that Freeman purposefully invokes [and perhaps precisely because of it], we have to interrogate a bit further what of the historical inheres in the shock of the past or now-time [Benjamin’s jestzeit] that results from the constellation of past and present objects and images assembled by Julien in his film.

Might we start, first, with the premise that the historical was never itself to begin with [and that narrativization, which is about meaning, always comes later]? And also, that history cannot be thought outside of presentation and re-presentation? And yet, there is always the ethical imperative to not completely elide what of the pre-symbolic Real sticks, as it were, to all of this, and how. I think this is something Freeman is actually attending to when she suggests that Julien’s film offers “a queer-of-color historiography grounded in bodily memories of a nonorginary pleasure—one perhaps never experienced ‘as such’” [p. 63], and yet, isn’t something of those supposedly originary bodily memories dragged forward somehow, albeit only as phantasms, but still, as a result of this, does anything still linger/haunt once the film ends, insisting on its own always-fugitive presence and perhaps even saying, noli me tangere? At the same time, because Julien’s film is set in an art museum and begins with a painting coming to life and ends with a drag performance where the black museum guard sings Dido’s lament from Purcell’s opera [a scene that also serves as a repetition of that lament since it also appears earlier in the film when the painting comes to life], which is itself a hybrid appropriation of Vergil and Geoffrey of Monmouth, the film would seem to highlight the idea that the only real access to history is through these performances and re-framings of history-as-art, and the bodily memories evoked in the film exist only in a series of traces and relays between artworks which possess their own history and embodiment as artworks. And I would say, too, that the utopic energies that Freeman locates in S/M’s temporal promiscuities [through which painful collective histories are re-charged with futural pleasures] are not realizable outside the realm of the aesthetic. S/M itself is an artwork, for which history is one prop among others. Is history really encountered through S/M, or do we just keep meeting up [again] with a certain collective [Western] dream of a violent historical romance?

This brings me, finally, and again, to Dido’s lament. It fascinates me that Julien ends his film with an aria that connects his narrative, and also us as his audience, to one of the penultimate moments conjoining love and death in the Western experience [while, obviously, it also connects the Africa of Baird’s painting to the Africa of Vergilian epic]. Yes, as Freeman points out, I understand that, on one level, Julien’s appropriation of this operatic moment undermines “the British empire’s monumentalizing history of itself” [p. 63], and also, because its refrain is, essentially, “remember me, but forget my fate,” it is well-suited to carry, as Freeman argues, an “historical memory of pleasures that exceed the parameters of [Dido’s] own lifetime, her individual love affair, her geopolitical location, and her death” [p. 61]. But in what ways also, does Dido’s lament, especially situated as a drag performance in the fin-de-siecle present of Julien’s film, remind us of what Jonathan Goldberg has called that “strange dynamic which, in Western culture, binds death into desire,” and which “is not the product of a marginal pathological imagination, but crucial in the formation of that culture” [Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture, p. xii]? And if Sade has anything to do with it—with S/M sex practice in general but also with its artistic representation in Julien’s film—can we really relegate to the background all of the cut and carved and dead bodies that serve as such exquisite corpses in Sade’s oeuvre [granted, on one level, it’s all a hyperbolic joke at the expense of a certain society’s supposed mores and politics]? Likewise, how does the lament, situated in Julien’s film, and regardless of the subversive nature of its placement there, function as just one of an endless series of performed fantasies of sacrificial desire that, as Simon Gaunt has recently shown, have functioned as the “insidious lure[s] of a symbolic order” that has been crucial to the evolution of Western European thinking about love—thinking about love, moreover, that, although often located in secular poetic registers, relies heavily upon the religious language of ascesis and martyrdom [Love and Death in Medieval French Occitan Culture, p. 210]?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I was partly troubled by Freeman’s essay because there is a part of me that does not want to hear how S/M, as a sex practice [never mind as an historical-aesthetic temporal practice], can utopically re-charge, and thereby partly recuperate and re-encode, traumatic histories of violence. I sadly admit my terminal unhipness by disclosing here that I am one of those persons who, until I read Freeman’s essay at least [I’m all for positive, affective readings of anything, so she mainly has me], had decided that S/M, wittingly or unwittingly, simply repeats or participates in various histories of violence [past and present] and is thereby ethically unsound, or unbearably sad, or both. And sometimes, it even makes me laugh . . . nervously, because I know that sex and violence have intertwined histories and it is likely almost impossible to think one outside the other. Further, the relation of pain and pleasure is similarly intertwined [perhaps they are even co-dependent, as MacKendrick’s book Counrterpleaures amply demonstrates], and it may be, too, as Leo Bersani has famously written, that all sexuality is “ontologically grounded in masochism” or is a “tautology for masochism” [The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art, pp. 39, 89]. All relations, sexual and otherwise, are in some respect relations of force, and as Hent de Vries has suggested, violence may be “the inescapable horizon or inherent potentiality of any act, or of any refraining from action” [Violence, Identity, and Self-Determination, p. 18]. And if it’s ethics I’m really worried about, I could recall Derrida’s insight that there is no ethics “without the presence of an other, but also, and consequently, without absence, dissimulation, detour, difference, writing. A violent opening” [Of Grammatology, p. 139]. Perhaps, in one sense, S/M is just putting one’s cards on the table [if in highly stylized and hyperbolically dramatized fashion], although I will continue to worry about our love affair, at least in the West, with the annihilation of the self and with desire as death. And I would not be lying if I told you that, although I devote a good portion of every day thinking and writing about the past, there are days when I would like to see it obliterated.

Valentine's Day: It's Not Just for Massacres Any More

[image: Saint Valentine baptizing Saint Lucile, Jacopo Bassano, 1575]
by J J Cohen

For your 14 February delectation, the story of Saint Valentine, martyr by decapitation, as translated into English by William Caxton (1483) from the Latin of Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa (1275).


Valentine is as much to say as containing valour that is perseverant in great holiness. Valentine is said also as a valiant knight, for he was a right noble knight of God, and the knight is said valiant that fleeth not, and smiteth and defendeth valiantly and overcometh much puissantly. And so St. Valentine withdrew him not from his martyrdom in fleeing, he smote in destroying the idols, he defended the faith, he overcame in suffering.

St. Valentine, friend of our Lord and priest of great authority, was at Rome. It happed that Claudius the emperor made him to come tofore him and said to him in demanding: What thing is that which I have heard of thee, Valentine? Why wilt thou not abide in our amity, and worship the idols and renounce the vain opinion of thy creance [faith]?

St. Valentine answered him: If thou hadst very knowledge of the grace of Jesu Christ thou shouldest not say this that thou sayest, but shouldest reny [deny] the idols and worship very God.

Then said to St. Valentine a prince which was of the council of the emperor: What wilt thou say of our gods and of their holy life?

And St. Valentine answered: I say none other thing of them but that they were men mortal and mechant [bad] and full of all ordure [garbage] and evil.

Then said Claudius the emperor: If Jesu Christ be God verily, wherefore sayst thou not the truth?

And St. Valentine said: Certainly Jesu Christ is only very God, and if thou believe in him, verily [truly] thy soul shall be saved, thy realm shall multiply, and he shall give to thee alway victory of thine enemies.

Then Claudius turned him[self] unto all them that were there, and said to them: Lords, Romans, hear ye how wisely and reasonably this man speaketh?

Anon the provost of the city said: The emperor is deceived and betrayed, how may we leave that which we have holden and been accustomed to hold sith [since] our infancy? With these words the emperor turned and changed his courage [mind], and St. Valentine was delivered in the keeping of the provost.

When St. Valentine was brought in an house in prison, then he prayed to God, saying: Lord Jesu Christ very God, which art very light, enlumine this house in such wise that they that dwell therein may know thee to be very God.

And the provost said: I marvel me that thou sayest that thy God is very light, and nevertheless, if he may make my daughter to hear and see, which long time hath been blind, I shall do all that thou commandest me, and shall believe in thy God.

St. Valentine anon put him in prayers, and by his prayers the daughter of the provost received again her sight, and anon all they of the the house were converted. After, the emperor did do smite off the head of St. Valentine, the year of our Lord two hundred and eighty.

Then let us pray to St. Valentine that he get us pardon of our sins. Amen.

Text available all over the web, but I took from here.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Loss, Mourning, Affirmation

[illustration: memorials]
by J J Cohen

Apropos to a lively discussion that has come to focus on education jobs, as well as to this recent post about mourning, and especially to this ancient post about grieving for a lost teacher (see #6), I want to share with you an event that has preoccupied my family over the past few days. Though its relevance to this blog is at best tangential, writing about it seems (for reasons unclear to me) a necessity more than a choice.

My son Alexander entered sixth grade this year, and thereby transitioned from a small elementary to a vast middle school. The place can seem chaotic, especially in the morning as hundreds of preteens arrive en masse, or when a bell rings and a sudden swarm races for rows of lockers. I feared that Alex would have a difficult time adjusting, but assisted by compassionate teachers he adjusted to his new life without problems.

His favorite teacher this year has been Mr. Hegedus, who teaches sixth grade Ancient World History. Last autumn during visiting day I observed his class. I was impressed. Actually, I was both inspired and a tad envious. Using little more than a dog-eared book, a projector, a seemingly endless bag of Jolly Rancher candies, and his considerable charisma, Mr. Hegedus kept a classroom of thirty eleven-year-olds fascinated by the minutiae of daily life in a Mesopotamian city. The population of this required social studies course is quite diverse, with kids of various backgrounds and motivations brought together for a communal exploration of a subject that likely seems remote from them. Yet Mr. Hegedus made his students feel the kind of palpable connection to that distant past that requires a teacher of great personal magnetism to conjure.

Of course, given that Alex chose to be Augustus Caesar in his third grade wax museum, the Ancient World has been an easy sell to him. He loved the section on Greece because it gave him an excuse to watch the historically accurate film 300 again. He marveled when Mr. Hegedus brought up the topic of Greek homosexuality, and offered that the word gay doesn't always mean the same thing at every time period. He enjoyed composing a letter from a Roman footsoldier to his family at home, describing what it was like to be part of a frontier legion (much emphasis on various military hazings in that one). He already has his toga ready to go for Greco-Roman day at school. I also see that Alex has deeply enjoyed having a male teacher, a first for him.

On Tuesday Mr. Hegedus was driving home from the school at which he has taught for 13 years when he suffered a stroke. Fortuantely he was able to pull to the side of the road before he lost consciousness. When informed of their teacher's perilous condition on Wednesday, students and teachers wept. I do not believe a more popular educator can be found at the school. I met Alex as he walked home that afternoon: he fell against me and cried. Later I took him to his piano lesson, and we had an uncanny encounter with a hawk: the bird sat in a tree watching us with such attention and such fearlessness that it gave us both a feeling of foreboding (even though we knew very well that we were overinvesting a natural event with human significance).

Yesterday Mr. Hegedus died.

His students had no chance to speak their farewells. The cards they created remained undelivered. Alex told me that the most unbearable part of the day was walking into the social studies classroom, knowing Mr. Hegedus would not be present. Not knowing what else to do, he swiped a pen from his favorite teacher's desk. When I asked him why, he said: "Because the last thing Mr. Hegedus said to me was 'Where is my pen?' He couldn't find it to check off my homework. Now I'll always have it for him."

In class yesterday Alex also created a small memorial to Mr. Hegedus, a sheet of red paper on which he inscribed his teacher's name and his two favorite sayings ("Veni, vidi, vici" and "Carpe diem"). Two paperclips are attached to the plaque. This weekend he will fasten two helium balloons to the clips, and -- as is now his custom -- will launch that message into the heavens, the good-bye he never was able to speak.