Figure 1. Bracha Ettinger, "Matrix-Family Album," series, n. 3
by EILEEN JOY
I was not able to attend the annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, held at Yale University this past weekend [18-20 March], but Kathleen Biddick has graciously agreed to let us post here the comments she made on a roundtable organized by Nancy Partner, The Toronto Feminists: How Did We Get Here from There? And Where is "Here"? The panel featured Kathleen Biddick, Dyan Elliott, Judith Bennett, and Maryanne Kowaleski, all of whom prepared remarks in response to questions posed by Nancy Partner beforehand. As is to be expected, Kathleen Biddick's remarks are richly provocative [especially her formulation, via the radical psychoanalytic thinking of Bracha Ettinger, to transmedieval transubjectivities, and her call for blasphemy at the end], and they also provide a rare insight into Biddick's own academic autobiography:
March 20, 2010
MEDIEVAL ACADEMY MEETING
Yale University, New Haven
PANEL: The Toronto Feminists: How did we get Here from There? And where is “Here”?
Organizer: Nancy Partner
Panelists: Judith Bennett, Kathleen Biddick, Dyan Elliott, Maryanne Kowaleski
Response: Kathleen Biddick, Dept. of History, Temple University (Kathleen.firstname.lastname@example.org)
Question 1 In grad school, what did the category terms “woman/women” seem to mean, if and when they ever occurred at all? When can you remember “sex” being mentioned in connection with historical research? And when do you think you first learned the word “gender”?
Thank you, Nancy Partner, for organizing this panel. Your invitations have always productively provoked my thinking. The chance to participate in your 1993 Speculum special issue on Studying Medieval Women: Sex, Gender, Feminism gave me the opportunity to explore what Joan Scott has called the “psychodynamics of critique”—in her words “the critical refusal to accept the rules (the terms of identity) set by someone (or some group) I nevertheless care deeply about, indeed whose aims I share and whose approval and affection I also seek” (“Finding Critical History,” in Becoming Historians, ed. James M. Banner and John R Gillis [Univ. of Chicago, 2009], p. 41).
My critical contributions today, as then, are offered in such a spirit.
Let me open with a conjuring.
How many feminists ghosts can fit on our podium? MANY—so please let me conjure just one: Nellie Neilson, one of 8 women to have received an American doctorate in history before 1900, at age 53 (1926) first elected female fellow the Medieval Academy, and at age 70 (1943) first ever elected female president of the American Historical Association. Neilson has always inspired me. Her work embodied precociously the productive tensions of critical history: in her loving attention to language, she cultivated a Maitlandian sensitivity to philology (Frederick Maitland being her English mentor) and at the same time she attended to the particularity of the archive. She channeled her archival studies of the estate of Ramsey Abbey to Ambrose Raftis (Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies), the dissertation supervisor of Judith, Maryanne, and myself. In his own dedication to critical history, I now conjure Raftis (alas now, too, a ghost) to our podium as an honorary feminist.
Let me now move on to your questions: when did we encounter the categories women, sex, and gender?
My short answer: Blame it on Barnard College Class of 1971. I dedicated my first book, The Other Economy: Pastoral Economy on a Medieval Estate (1989) to my medieval mentors at Barnard College: Suzanne Fonay Wemple and Maristella Lorch and the company of Barnard women, 1967-71. As early as 1966, Barnard professor Annette Baxter was already precociously offering a course on the History of American Women. I learned about sex and gender when I studied with the internationally famous and deeply dashing sociologist, Mira Komaravosky, a pioneering expert on gender, especially on masculinities. Our class studied her then recently published and now famous book on BLUE COLLAR MARRIAGE. Given my class background, it seemed to me that I was learning more than I wanted to know about masculinity, femininity and gender. I can remember vividly a rather tearful interview with Prof. K. in which we discussed my discomfort over the painful closeness of her book to my background. Her deeply intelligent response: you are not your identity; your identity is not you. Komarovsky instilled in me a profound insight into the discursive process, an insight which stuck with me in my graduate studies and subsequent research. You are not your identity she told me; your identity is not you (Wow, thank you, Mira Komarovsky)!
And not to be forgotten, my Barnard course in Greek tragedy with the recently arrived assistant (and also beautiful) professor of classics, HELENE FOLEY, who went on to become an elected fellow of the American Academy for her feminist scholarship of Greek tragedy. Her brilliant course planted in me the seed of thinking deeply about Antigone. One of my favorite undergraduate courses, “Antigone and the Limits of Sovereignty,” took root at Barnard.
But there is more to say about how Barnard, untimely in those times, shaped my desire for knowledge. There is the one professor with whom I did not get to study, a young professor who arrived at Barnard around 1968 or 1969. To the student body, she was simply thrilling; in other words, she created a buzz. This was the young Catherine Stimpson, who would contribute so much to feminist and queer scholarship and to making the academy a more livable space. Somehow, back then, we understood that she embodied what Homi Bhabha has called something new entering the world. Epistemological embodiments still thrill me.
So when I arrived in Toronto to commence my graduate studies in 1973, you could say by the standards of the master’s discourse, I was deeply deluded. I expected nothing less than the powerful and beautiful intellects of Judith, Maryanne, Dyan. And I expected Ambrose Raftis to support my work in the epistemological spaces inbetween history, philosophy, literature. And so he did! Around 1973, I had yet to discover the brutality of the disciplinarity of history—more about that traumatic fall from grace as the panel unfolds.
Question 2 …..This is my career. It consists of sitting in rooms filled with men. When did this change? And when it changed, what changed? Things feel different now, but different doesn’t feel as different as I thought it should….
The work of feminist theory is not finished yet. And it won’t be finished as long as the discourse of the master, what Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizkek have called University discourse, prevails hegemonically. According to Lacan and Zizek, University discourse is the discourse of the master who “disavows [his] performative dimension, presenting what effectively amounts to a political decision based on power as a simple insight into the factual state of things” (Zizek, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle [Verso, 2005], p. 139). By disavowing the gap between the subject position of enunciation and enunciated content, university discourse disavows fantasy.
In one of my all-time favorite books of medieval scholarship, The Master and Minerva: Disputing Women in French Medieval Culture (1995), fellow Torontonian medievalist, Helen Solterer, brilliantly elucidates how medieval scholastic protocols of dispute inscribed a female figure at their center. That feminine symbolic is what the University discourse repetitiously produces (even in the so-called days of postgender) as the disavowed foreign body at its very heart. Symptoms of such phallic thinking riddle the series of essays published recently in the December 2008 American Historical Review Forum on Revisiting “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”.
I think that fantasy can undo University discourse from within. One of the most exciting recent examples of this is the work of Bracha L. Ettinger, artist, psychoanalyst, feminist theorist and professor of psychoanalysis and aesthetics at the University of Leeds. Ettinger is reworking Lacan’s late work and Freud’s theory of the uncanny in order to rethink feminist theory beyond masculine-feminine difference (see her book The Matrixial Borderspace [Univ. of Minnesota, 2006]). To do so, Lacan warned, is to court psychosis. Ettinger breaks this taboo. In breathtaking moves she replaces the phallic structure of difference with a transubjective theory of co-emergence. She materializes her theory of these thresholds of identity and memory in her painting. Does Ettinger’s rethinking of psychoanalysis beyond the sadistic-aggressive structure of separation and radical alterity signified by the Phallus and Castration “without displacing or rejecting either “ (p.17) have any relevance for medieval scholarship?
For my work, it is her notion of transcryptum that I find most productive. Ettinger defines transcryptum as the “artobject or artevent, artoperation or artprocedure, which incarnates transcription of trauma and cross-inscriptions of its traces, in which case the artwork’s working-through of the amnesia of the world into memory is a transcryptomnesia: the lifting of the world’s hidden memory from its outside with-in-side” (p. 167).
New undertakings, such as the journal postmedieval, are exploring such transmedieval attunements. Likewise, the recently published collection of essays by Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul, Medievalisms in the PostColonial World: The Idea of the Middle Ages Outside Europe (Johns Hopkins, 2009) transcrypts. In my current project, entitled Dead Neighbors: Sovereignty and the Archive, I am attempting my own transcryptum. This project vibrates between the discourse on miracles to be found in contemporary debates over sovereignty (Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Carl Schmitt, Eric Santner) and an interrupted reading of Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies. My project stages the archive and the artevent (whether it be the Bury Cross and governmentality, the optics of Shakespeare’s play, King Richard II, and the medieval Eucharistic debate, engravings of the Turk, the name given to automata that wowed the salons of late 18th century Europe which made its way into Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History) as tuning forks that vibrate in the encounter with the corporeal, that is those dead neighbors, Jews and Muslim, out of which, I argue, medieval and early modern sovereignty fashioned its second immortal body.
But medievalists, please handle transmedieval transubjectivies with care. The University discourse resists. For example, take the fate of my NEH fellowship proposal for my project Dead Neighbors. The review panel awarded it a ranking of “no merit,” because (as the comments stated) it was not “in the spirit of the mission of the NEH.” It is labor to bring new things into the world.
Question 3 Setting: Late 90s at the American Historical Association meeting….Joan Scott and Natalie Davis walk into the crowded conference room….I could see a “wave-effect” ….I thought I was seeing that some big sea change had really happened in the profession. Right?
What vibrates in such a wave is not Scott and Davis as subjects, but rather the critique they practice. Critique is not dead yet, in spite of ferocious efforts to silence it. Critique endures in its slow, patient, focused interrogation of the “grounds of the system’s possibility.” When, for instance, King's College London recently decided to drop its longstanding faculty position in medieval paleography (a recent event to which the Medieval Academy responded) and one which, I think, needs to be heard as the canary in the mineshaft, deconstructive critique can come to our aid—in the words of Joan Scott: “what we need now is a reassertion of the value of critique, a defense of its scholarly integrity, and an articulation of its philosophical presuppositions” (“Against Eclecticism,” differences 16.3 : p. 127).
The productive question to pose to King's College London is not one about preserving tradition, or the perils of presentism, or the pragmatics of practicality (as important as such interrogations might be); instead, I think, we need to grasp fully the discursive strategies whereby the corporatized Anglo-American University is increasingly reorganizing itself around sameness both in the classroom and in the research carrel. This process is already quite advanced and it has taken its toll on junior scholars in premodern studies who are especially vulnerable, I think, to the drive for sameness. Thus, many of them have to closet their passion for critique. So critique needs to ask, what are the conditions of possibility for “sameness” in the University discourse of power today?
I think we could begin a conversation about this by looking again at the set of essays recently published in the American Historical Review Forum (December 2008) on Revisiting “Gender as a Category of Historical Analysis”. What seemed to have dropped out between 1986 and 2008 is critique. What is left is the becoming-orthodox of women’s studies, gender studies, queer studies.
So perhaps the time has come to plan another retrospective, this one on a famous feminist manifesto published in 1985 (Socialist Review): Donna Haraway’s cyborg manifesto. In the opening of that essay, Haraway meditates on blasphemy: “blasphemy always seems to require taking things seriously. Blasphemy is not apostasy.”