by EILEEN JOY
I want to emphasize that historicism has served the medievalist well for so long because it is both rigorous and flexible. It does not denote a monolithic practice--and there is no "other" to it: meaning that historicism has to be part of any critical encounter with the past. It is the sine qua non that enables other, potentially unhistorical modes.
--Jeffrey J. Cohen, "Time Out of Memory," The Post-Historical Middle Ages
Menard (perhaps without wanting to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the halting and rudimentary art of reading: this new technique is that of deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution. This technique, whose applications are infinite, prompts us to go through the Odyssey as if it were posterior to the Aeneid and the book Le jardin du Centaure of Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique fills the most placid works with adventure. To attribute the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Céline or to James Joyce, is this not a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual indications?
--Jorge Luis Borges, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"
As promised to everyone at NYU and here at In The Middle, I have now the full, somewhat expanded text of my remarks to share from the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium forum on "Historicism, Post-Historicism, and Medieval Studies," held just this past Thursday [April 1st] at New York University. Karl, Dan Remein, Patricia Dailey, and I read, ahead of time, the two chapters in The Post-Historical Middle Ages by Jeffrey and Maura Nolan ["Time Out of Memory" and "Historicism after Historicism," respectively], and prepared remarks relative to our thinking on historicism and post-historicism within the field of medieval studies. In his paper "On Not Finishing Erkenwald," Karl "enrolled" himself "in the Society of the Friends of the Text, established by Roland Barthes to decry 'foreclosure of the text and . . . its pleasure'," while Dan R. offered us his translations of poems [including riddles] from a newly-"discovered" and long-missing Anglo-Saxon manuscript that appears to be a companion to the Exeter Book, which forms the basis of Dan's "very secretive research" and lays the groundwork for a kind of Old English "radio-poetics," where we might finally be able to argue that the Anglo-Saxons had an understanding of the conceptual poem.
Dan challenged us to "extend the impulse" of Jeffrey's essay "Time Out of Memory," which "suggests we counter historicism's tendency to still the past by expanding our awareness of the constantly shifting living capacity of the past." Most provocatively, Dan argued that, "as long as history is still posed as an object of our study, our scholarship will never be historical. And, 'medieval studies' will be historical when it ceases to endlessly historicize--when we stop thinking about the past and begin to think with it." Patricia Dailey warned us against ascribing a "presence" to the past that is not really there, reminded us of Derrida's assertion that there is no "outside" to the text, and also argued that there can never really be a "post-" to history, especially given the endless relations between the "traces" in the archive, none of which can ever be commensurate even with themselves. This, plus some great questions from the audience, led to some very productive debate which, unfortunately, was cut short due to time constraints [oh, the telos of an academic forum!]. Therefore, what I am posting here [below] is the expanded version of my remarks, punctuated by a series of "asides" where I pause to consider some of the more contentious points raised at the forum. If you were there at NYU last Thursday, I ask your assistance in making sure I have not mis-represented anyone's points here [either above or below].
Embracing the Swerve: A Fugitive Medieval Studies
There is no temporal direction for gazing at the past or at the future, other than nondirectionally outward. Get up and look around, as [John] Cage once said. You will see everything there is to work with right (t)here, at the conceptually contingent location of your besieged senses.
—Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager
—Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager
In her contribution to The Post-Historical Middle Ages, “Historicism after Historicism,” Maura Nolan makes some very reasonable arguments that strike a richly productive accord between alteritist and more inter-temporal forms of historicism, especially within the realm of literary, or aesthetic criticism. To whit, she advocates that,
1. temporalities are thick, mobile, and multiple in any given time period, past and present, and therefore some understanding of any moment’s particular heterogeneity is essential to the critical enterprise, or as Nolan herself puts it, “both sameness and difference are essential to genuinely grasping the past and its complexity” (p. 67);At the same time that Nolan advocates for a medieval literary studies that would have critical investments in the past’s somewhat intractable difference, while also recognizing its temporal and even ludic motilities, her essay also insists on the past’s distance and on the scholar’s responsibility to literally submit to that distance—to traverse its resistance while “bent” under the “yoke” of the past’s “weight,” which should constrain us. Moreover, an attention to form and its historical significance “enable[s] crucial insights about the ways in which history is rendered through form, and about the essential role that the mediation of form plays in transmitting and constructing past and present historical understandings” (pp. 80–81). Therefore:
2. artifacts—textual or otherwise—travel and get appropriated in and by different historical contexts (and actors), thereby functioning as markers of “the simultaneous continuity and alienation between past and present,” but each artifact also “resists its transportation” as it gets pulled backwards by the undertow of its “prior meanings” (p. 77); and finally,
3. the literary work is a “privileged aesthetic zone” in which “the potential for words to signify in multiple ways is indulged” (p. 70), and therefore, a “meaningful historicism . . . will not be threatened by accusations of artfulness,” especially when we consider that the historical method itself “is a kind of formalism, a craft of reading and writing about texts” (p. 83).
1. history “exerts a constant pressure on the literary work, just as form (literary form, cultural form, discursive or artistic form) shapes and molds history” (p. 63);Also important to Nolan is the caution that “[m]odes of thought that begin analysis with generalizations or abstractions—that start with an idea and look for a text to fit—cannot substitute . . . for a patient submission to the text until it yields its secrets and reveals its forms” (p. 83). Here Nolan sketches an investment in the recovery of authorial intention and she describes historicism at one point as “nothing more than a responsible literary criticism that seeks to understand the meaning of a writer’s work as fully as possible.” Further, she invokes the “truth of the Middle Ages” as that elusive “secret” at which both historicism and theory together supposedly aim (pp. 79, 83, my emphases). And all of this is somewhat at odds with (or maybe not at all—this is worth debating further) her call for a reading practice that would allow for “the strange, the exceptional, the weird, and the outsized, and accepts the notion that such oddities are endemic to art” (p. 84).
2. the Middle Ages are “recognizably human but ineradicably different” (p. 68);
3. “attempts to understand the past, medieval and modern, have limits—historical, ideological, and aesthetic boundaries that give shape and form to . . . [various] modes of past- and self-understanding” (p. 69);
4. to “think through what a culture’s aesthetic production actually does, from the inside and at close range, should be a primary objective” of our criticism (p. 83); and finally,
5. “the best that scholars can do, mired in linear history as they are, is to recognize that critical difference is the lifeblood of scholarship, while acknowledging that bending to the yoke of the past is a necessary precondition for grasping its particularity, its precious difference from the present” (p. 83).
* * *
it should be noted here that Nolan’s essay was partly the outcome of a close engagement with Jeffrey Cohen’s essay, “Time Out of Memory,” and that both authors read and responded to drafts of each others’ essays-in-progress. It is worth emphasizing, therefore, the collaborative and counter-engaged thinking that went into the writing of these two essays while also recognizing that Nolan and Cohen do not necessarily ultimately agree on what might be called “doing justice” to history. In her response at the NYU fourm, Patricia Dailey worried that Jeffrey’s essay might have been too invested in a project of re-vivifying the past (a sort of “tread[ing] dangerously,” as Dailey put it, on the idea that one can bring the past to life somehow), while not being attentive enough to the idea, via Derrida in Archive Fever, that there can be no proper relationship to the past, no actual “pure presence” either in or of the past with which we could “commune,” as it were, and therefore Dailey asked us to consider (again) that there is the archive itself and then there is also the trace, which is always incommensurate with itself, or rather, the archive is nothing but a network of traces, or again as I glean it myself, and as Derrida wrote in Archive Fever, “the structure of the archive is spectral. It is spectral a priori: neither present nor absent ‘in the flesh,’ neither visible nor invisible, a trace always referring to another whose eyes can never be met, no more than those of Hamlet’s father, thanks to the possibility of a visor.”
But it has to be stated here, too, that Jeffrey is not necessarily unaware of all of these cautions, and yet he is still interested in asking if the past might be “kept alive, possessed of something other than a revenant’s graveyard existence,” while also being understood as always existing “only in a plural state: an ebullient then crashing against a vivacious now and shaping times to be.” Keeping the past “alive” for Jeffrey does not necessarily mean re-vivifying, in dangerously naïve ways, dead bodies, so much as it means keeping the past “capable of plenitude, heterogeneity, change.” “Aliveness” in this sense, as I read it, is actually very much in sympathy with Derrida’s idea of the trace that is incommensurate with itself [therefore, perpetually undecidable and heterogeneous], and with Derrida’s thinking on the supplement, in which the original [historical] thing itself could never actually be grasped, and an endless series of inter-mediations is everything [and here, the so-called historical project would be one in which both past and present are restless and mobile in their significations and re-significations, and as a result, and going past Derrida for my own purposes, and even contra Jeffrey, I would say no mourning is necessarily required].
To put this another way by way of Aranye Fradenburg’s essay in the same volume, “(Dis)continuity: A History of Dreaming,” after Derrida “we felt entitled to scorn the notion that the signifier confers immortality, failing to appreciate Derrida’s continuing appreciation of the signifier as nonetheless not nothing, but rather an undead something with the function of marking the place of another something, in fact another signifier, that isn’t there, but once was, and may be again.” As to what, of course, Jeffrey’s formulation of the “aliveness” of the past really means to Jeffrey and how it does or does not converse with Derrida’s ideas on the archive and the trace, I leave here as an open question hopefully leading to further debate and discussion, although I want to also include here Dan’s comments on my previous blog post in response to some of Dailey’s commentary at the forum, that
“there is no reason to have a fantasy of the medieval past resurrected, or a medieval past that even ever happened (yet?), [in order to be able] to speak with it or to it, to let it inform and enrich our lives, to do our duty to it and acknowledge our debt, infinite, to the Dead as the Other which always already has a claim on us . . . and not just as a figure in some text, even if there is no outside [to the] text. This is the whole reason to think the specter in Specters of Marx. Texts may never succeed in referring outside themselves, maybe we don't either, but within that economy of the same we seem to live and die anyway. I guess I want to repeat what I was saying that night, too, that I'm in no way willing to abandon History. In fact, I'd leave historicism to die on the altar of the historical itself, so I could finally relate to history instead of just talking about how to relate to history. That this relation of 'post' to historicism will be complicated is a given.”Dan's remarks brought me to also remember a passage in Anna Klosowska's book Queer Love in the Middle Ages, where she writes that,
"pleasure is a legitimate way of reading, although a personal and sometimes frightening one. It seems to me that medieval studies are an intellectual space where, by and large, we have safeguarded the right not to seek pleasure in a text. A scholarly reading of a text needs to be accurate, erudite, establish new connections, and bring out aspects that other readers have overlooked: for instance, symbolic capital, political relevance, representation of women, or queerness. . . . The erudition required by our texts and the field's more than usual respect for tradition, may provide a safe refuge from [pleasure]. Yet, it seems that at our most assertive, when we publicly embrace our fetish and are able to speak our pleasure in little known facts, we are less pathetic."Finally, these remarks [of Dan's and Anna's] also recall the question posed by Stephanie Trigg and Tom Prendergast in their contribution to The Post-Historical Middle Ages, "The Negative Erotics of Medievalism," as to whether we can "discover the Middle Ages and desire her at the same time"?
* * *
My own intention here is to call for ir-responsible reading practices within medieval studies—modes of reading that would actually disrespect the supposed distance between the past and present and embrace instead the movement of what Lucretius termed the clinamen, the swerve or declination in the motion of atoms falling through a laminar void, and which literally means, as the political theorist Jane Bennett has explained, “to take the minimum angle necessary to veer away—[to] prefer not to go with the flow.” This is also, as Michael Serres has put it, “the tiniest angle necessary and sufficient to produce turbulence.” Without the swerve, the universe would have no turbulence—in other words, no novelty, no spatiotemporal possibility, no surprises. As a result of the actual swerves that take place every day (on both micro and macro levels), the present is always that fugitive temporal zone that is constituted, in the words of political theorist William Connolly, by a “dissonant conjunction between past and present,” and therefore “it becomes wise to fold the expectation of surprise and the unexpected into the very fabric of our explanatory theories, interpretive schemes, religious identities, territorial conceptions of politics, and ethical sensibilities. And to work on ourselves subtly to overcome existential resentment of these expectations.” This calls to mind as well Bryan Reynolds’ method of reading Shakespeare transversally as “Shakespace,” a term that “encompasses the plurality of Shakespeare-related articulatory spaces and the time, speed, and force at which they transmit and replicate, like memes, through places, cultures, and eras.” Such spaces require “fugitive explorations” that “defy the authorities that reduce and contain meanings” as they hunt for “slippages, loose threads, and latent signifiers in a chosen text,” not to merely deconstruct that text, but as a “gateway to other possible readings and, by extension, to other conceptual, emotional and physical localities.” To embark on fugitive explorations within medieval texts is necessarily to both work and play within their most immediate historical languages and frames, while also carrying them, like temporal contraband, into other territories.
For the purposes of re-thinking new models for reading medieval texts, I am especially inspired by the poet Joan Retallack’s thinking on the “poetics of the swerve” as “a constructive preoccupation with . . . unpredictable forms of change” and “unsettling transfiguration[s] of once-familiar terrain.” In this scenario, the critical essay is an “urgent and aesthetically aware thought experiment,” and we write, not to “deliver space-time in a series of shiny freeze-frames, each with its built-in strategy of persuasion,” but to “stay warm and active and realistically messy,” to “disrupt the fatal momentum” of linear histories. For better or worse, the past is not so much behind us as we are literally embedded in its wreckage, and therefore we inhabit what Retallack has coined the “(chaotic) continuous contemporary,” a sort of fractal coastline along which we can glimpse some of the ways in which “large cultural trajectories” come into contact and flow with “constantly changing local configurations.” And we might remind ourselves, too, of how Bourdieu described our habitus—as “embodied history, internalized as second nature and so forgotten as history . . . the active present of the whole past of which it is the product.” We might try to recognize better the ways in which our habitus [both our disciplinary habitus and our more en-worlded one] obstructs our view of the marvelous and vibrant energy of things moving in directions we cannot always predict in advance.
The past may be “ineradicably different,” as Nolan argues, and I certainly believe that part of our work entails bringing that difference, even that strangeness, into some sort of detailed relief; nevertheless, I do not view the past as back there somewhere, but rather, as beside me, if even in fractured bits and pieces, and I’m interested in the creative cross-contamination of this detritus—these past and supposedly more present texts and artifacts.
* * *
Patricia Dailey brought up something in her remarks that led to the question, for me anyway, of whether or not all comparative approaches to literary readings can be considered equal. This was raised when Patricia wondered out loud if she, too, was supposedly a “radical” in her readings of medieval texts since she is also a comparatist. My assumption is that she was responding directly to my own paper since I was arguing for placing “unlike” items together in my work with Old English texts and also arguing that my own work was not historicism “as usual.” I cannot say for sure if Dailey’s question was rhetorical [perhaps even sarcastic], but it definitely got me thinking about how comparative literary studies are defined in general and also impelled me to pose the question here as to whether all comparatist-type approaches are welcome with open arms in medieval studies [my hunch is that they are not, but it’s something we could debate and discuss further].
Within Old English studies more particularly, I think comparative approaches are mainly confined within very narrowly temporally circumscribed cultural, linguistic, aesthetic, historical, and other ambits [evidenced in, for example, the copious amount of work done on sources and analogues relative to the relations between Latin, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Anglo-Saxon literatures that can be argued as "influences" upon and "sources" for each other]. So, it is perfectly acceptable to undertake a study of the Old English Andreas with an eye toward the ancient Greek and Latin hagiographic and romance traditions that precede it and partially underwrite its form and meaning(s), or to note all of the ways in which it amalgamates a Germanic-heroic ethos with a certain Christian militarism, etc. But is it also perfectly okay to do a reading of Andreas alongside zombie movies or Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction novel The Three Sigmata of Palmer Eldritch without going to painstaking lengths to delineate how these texts can be justified to be related to each other along certain traditional temporal-linguistic-historical-longue durée ideological continuums? I think that, in Old English studies anyway, it is still a struggle to do work outside of certain normative temporal-historical boundaries, at least if you are looking for any sort of appreciation, let’s say, from your peers. But even more important than that, I would invoke here what Karl said during the forum about his own “irresponsible” reading of the Middle English alliterative St. Erkenwald, which is most often interpreted within political-historical or doctrinal-historical contexts, where he wondered if
“[d]elivering the poem over to its history preserves me as just an observer watching the text do its work. To save myself from this preservation, I’d like to enroll in the Society of the Friends of the Text, established by Roland Barthes to decry "foreclosure of the text and . . . its pleasure." Through an irresponsible reading practice, I’d like to elude what Barthes calls the “two policemen,” “the political policeman, and the psychoanalytical policeman,” each of whom decrees that “pleasure is either idle or vain, a class notion or an illusion.” I'd like to try a responsible reading practice, in a Derridean sense, where I do not comfort myself with the good conscience of feeling I've done my duty to the poem by situating it in this or that historical struggle, by making it witness to this or that anxiety, or by calculating my fidelity to the truth of history. I'd like to preserve the amazement and—to recall Bynum's lecture on “Wonder”—the admiratio that drew me and still draws me to the singularity of Erkenwald; to be just, and not just to have the force of law, I must continue to be thrown by what I read, where I might not unlock Erkenwald but rather lock myself up with it, and to it, as hands or eyes lock together, fascinated, not letting go.”Finally, I would just also say here that, as regards comparatist approaches to medieval texts, I’m personally looking for something more daring in terms of the concepts that guide the logic, or a-logic, of the comparison itself, something in the vein of Nicola Masciandaro and Anna Klosowska’s recently co-authored essay, “Between Angela and Actaeon: Dislocation” (in L’esprit créatur 50.1 : 91–105; a special issue co-edited by Cary Howie and William Burgwinkle, I might add), where they work out
“a kind of hermeneutic triangulation, taking aim at a space between and within a saint and a transgressor of the sacred: Angela of Foligno (d. 1309) and Actaeon. Distant, Angela and Actaeon are yet next to each other in fascinating ways related to language, body, presence, vision, and metamorphosis. Like two stars in a constellation, they are close in separation, far apart only to appear impossibly proximate. Most conspicuously, Angela and Actaeon are corporeally near in nakedness and disintegration. Where Angela strips herself to stand naked before the cross, Actaeon is rendered animally nude by mutation into a stag. Where Actaeon is torn apart by his hounds after seeing a goddess, Angela’s limbs are separated when God enters and withdraws from her body. The where of these conjunctions, the unwitnessable place they reveal, is an unseeable state of identity between transgression and sanctity. We call this secret locale dislocation.In their essay, Nicola and Anna put forward a comparatist model of reading characterized by a dialetheic logic that supplants the classical dialectic of either/or with and+or and also by an idea of “accordion time” that “allows touching of the present and the posthumous, continuous across/within the time hiatus.” In her comments at the NYU forum, Patricia Dailey wondered if our desires for a-teleological readings might be paradoxical because they are always bound, somehow, to the Ur-telos, and I don’t quite know [yet] how to respond to that statement—it’s like asking how to think thought outside of thought. Is one always bound to what one is trying mightily to depart from in the very terms of that leave-taking [the essence of the deconstructive revelation, as it were]? For now, I throw this question of Dailey’s out to anyone who might respond to it.
. . . .
In the figures of Angela and Actaeon, we read sanctity as existing simultaneously inside culture’s interstices and beyond/against culture as such. We would locate sanctity as a Lyotardian sublime, a “beyond within” culture. Our thesis, which we uphold without laboring to prove, is that sanctity is original culture, the hidden aberrant-authentic center of cultus, a hardly discoverable displaced site where the ancient touches the avant-garde, in other words an avant-avant-garde that is paradoxically primordial.
Dislocation is a sacred being out of place: not being in another or improper place, but being out of place itself. Dislocation is a rare exponent of the way a body is always both precisely what is in place and a place in and of itself. The body is dislocation’s instrument and intimate container. Tracking dislocation also calls for a dislocated method, a sylvan wandering that allows itself to become lost enough to find what cannot be deliberately traced. . . . Our essay would preserve Angela’s and Actaeon’s mode of being as signs by seeing them as free from meaning, unloosed from signification. Now they can be stars in a constellation, still but no longer stars.”
* * *
In order to craft my own temporal zone within which to rethink the relationships between literary texts (and also between literature and the world, between literature and life, because for me, and this is important, scholarship is an actual life-practice, not just something I do in a remote aery labeled “work” or “profession”—cadging from John Caputo, I write so that I can write even more in order to live so I can live even more ), I have drawn in my own work upon the physicist Julian Barbour’s admittedly heretical conception of time as actually static. Given all of the brilliant work that has been undertaken recently on becomings [small ‘b,’ emphasis on the multiple and ‘inter’] over Being [capital ‘B,’ emphasis on the singular and ‘inner’], this may seem a counter-intuitive move, but bear with me, as this is only a thought experiment. In his beautiful book The End of Time, Barbour argues that the universe is made up of “instants of time” that “do not belong to something that flows relentlessly forward.” These instants of time are, further, “instantaneous arrangements of all things in the universe” and they are “perfectly static and timeless.” Because our brains are somehow self-sentient (miracle of physics!), we perceive these static instants of time as dynamic and temporal, but in fact, there is actually no temporality at all, although we are surrounded on all sides by objects that appear to bear the marks of time’s comings and goings. For Barbour, “being” is real, and “becoming” is the illusion, and everything that can possibly “be” has already “happened.”
This is like saying all of the possible events of history exist alongside each other in simultaneous yet not entirely contiguous stasis. It is also like saying we have already lived all of our possible lives. Somewhere out there is a configuration of matter in which Margery Kempe exists in 15th-century Norfolk and is always crying, and another one where she was never even born, and even another one where she is a member of the Free French movement. It’s all a question of how certain particles of matter ultimately disperse and arrange themselves into various “configurations”—the possibilities for which are seemingly infinite. The landscape of the universe is ultimately “timeless,” although Newtonian-type dynamics is always painting paths through and across it. Barbour calls his instants of times “Nows” and the country, or universe of “Nows,” he names Platonia:
Nothing changes in Platonia. Its points are all the instants of time, all the Nows; they are simply there, given once and for all. . . . There are no paths with unique starting points conceived as creation events. Indeed, there are no paths at all. Instead, the different points of Platonia, each of which represents a different possible configuration of the universe, are present—as potentialities at least—in different quantities. . . . Imagine that Platonia is covered by a mist. Its intensity does not vary in time—it is static—but it does vary from position to position. Its intensity at each given point is a measure of how many configurations . . . corresponding to that point are present. . . . The land of possible things has one absolute end, where it abuts onto mere nothing, but it is unbounded the other way, for there is no limit to the richness of being.Ultimately, in Barbour’s world-view, “our very existence is a kind of being present everywhere in what can be” and we are “each just the totality of things seen from our own viewpoint.” If there is such a thing as time in this totality of things, it is the sum of the relations that we discern in and between everything that exists within the geometries of our attention at any given moment, which is to say, all moments at once. Or, to put it another way, and as Barbour eloquently asks, “Who knows what experiences are possible in the oases of richly structured Nows strung out along the trade routes that cross the deserts of Platonia?”
Is Barbour’s view of time completely bonkers? Quite possibly, although other quantum physicists do take his ideas seriously. For me, Barbour’s picture of the universe merely provides an imaginative device for thinking about the possible relationships between texts, especially between texts that often are not believed to “go together” at all, historically, but whose unexpected and “time-less” proximity to each other somewhere in the gathered mists of Platonia is conducive to the shock of new arrangements of thought, not on the history, but on the historicity of the artwork as it moves from location to location, point to point—all of the ways in which it engages in endless sensuous relations with other objects that all exceed what I would call their initial starting points and for which relations the critic stands in as what the philosopher Graham Harman would call the vicar of causation. This is also to think of literary texts and other artifacts situated in different temporal and other zones as what Harman has described as “ghostly real objects signaling to each other from inscrutable depths, unable to touch one another fully,” but available for any number of vicarious, inter-mediated encounters.
Because of my desire to place disparate objects alongside each other as if they could have been contiguous at a particular point [or could have been related "across" points in a suddenly "still" and "time-less" universe], I have in my work considered the severed head of Grendel in Beowulf alongside the photograph of a dead Chechen female suicide bomber; the burning of the Cotton Library in Ashburnham House in London in 1731 alongside a particular bombing episode during the wars in Sierra Leone (1991-2002); the Old English Ruin poem alongside Tony Kushner’s play Homebody/Kabul; and the fictional Alexander’s murder of a tribe of hybrid human-animal “women” in the Old English Wonders of the East alongside the very real mutilation and massacre of Muslim women in Gujarat, India in 2002. The idea here has always been, not to submit myself, as scholar, to the “yoke” of the Old English text, but rather, to associate the Old English text with other texts and objects with which it would never, on its own, begin to speculate otherwise, and in the spirit articulated by the late Eve Sedgwick, who asked us to consider, against paranoid reading practices that always know the police(d) territory in advance, “reparative” reading practices, which are “methodologically adventurous”—the “desire of a reparative impulse,” in Sedgwick’s words, is “additive and accretive. . . . it wants to assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self.”
* * *
on the matter of certain texts, placed into association with each other, so that they can speculate otherwise, I was purposefully invoking at the NYU forum [and here I am also “outing” for the first time] a new project that the BABEL Working Group is embarking upon with the philosophers, scientists, and artists of Urbanomic on “speculative medievalisms,” which is leading to a special symposium in Falmouth, UK in January 2011 and a collaborative essay collection, conceptualized and to-be-edited by Nicola Masciandaro, Michael O’Rourke, Anna Klosowska, and myself. In our prospectus for the project [primarily authored by Nicola], we say, with Agamben [in Stanzas: Word and Form in Western Culture], that “the problem of knowledge is a problem of possession, and every problem of possession is a problem of enjoyment.”
For us, “the importance of speculation, as a constituent pleasure of intellectual work coinciding with the poetic vector of thought, the necessity of its ability to take creative leaps, becomes especially urgent. The speculative constitutes the dimension where discourse remains pleasurably and daringly open, both with regard to the nature of its object and with regard to its real, enworlded end, its ultimate for-itself.” Our project “is informed by the contemporary philosophical development known as speculative realism. Speculative realism is less a school of thought than a confluence of diverse intellectual investments in the scientific capacity of philosophical discourse to know subject-independent realities and in the necessity of speculation as the means of such knowledge. In dialogue with both the hard sciences and the humanities, speculative realist philosophers seek, from divergent topical trajectories, to restore and enliven the epistemic potentiality and empirical poiesis of thinking, the power through which, for instance, Anaximander was able to ‘perceive’ without direct evidence that the Earth is not affixed to anything but surrounded on all sides by space. Speculation in these terms must be distinguished from practical guesswork or conjecture, and even more strongly from the kind of discourse that stays within the supposedly transparent definability of terms and facts. Speculation is rather the rigorous exploration of the potentialities of the perceivable, the very foundation and condition of experience and experiment, and thus a practice that must precisely intend the risk of ‘conscious follies’ that, for example, the journal Speculum has historically precluded from itself.”
Ultimately, “speculating about the nature of reality with the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past is not a bad description of what we ‘medievalists’ do. In short, there is between medieval studies and speculative realism (which seeks to overturn these models) something like the space of a compelling, magnetized shared blindness that might be realized as love at first sight. The gap concerns the age-old problem of the boundary between poetry and philosophy, meaning and truth, in short, the reality of the image in the mirror of thought. A speculative medievalism, which could proceed from the insight that the desire for a thought that can think beyond itself is precisely the problematic explored in medieval theories of love (whence Andreas Capellanus’s famous definition of love as immoderata cogitatio, immoderate contemplation, i.e. that speculation is a mode of love), might then be imagined as comprising forms of intellectual work with medieval texts and objects that would work to (re)awaken the discipline of philosophy to the reality of love (philia).”
* * *
I will admit up front that my selection of comparative items in my work is often serendipitous, accidental, and purely whimsical, but the historical (and political) stakes, as it were, can never be settled “cheaply,” as Benjamin often reminded us, and I never forget, as Benjamin also reminds, that, “by dint of a secret heliotropism, the past is always turning toward that sun rising in the sky of history.” The past has urgent questions to ask that remain troublingly unsettled in the present and even just a cursory glance at my work in Old English literature over the past ten years reveals a preoccupation on my part with the issue of violence and its de-forming effects upon the world and the world’s more utopian possibilities, as well as with the question of whether or not humanism (as a sort of literary-ethical endeavor) is still possible. I do not take this question, or its multiple histories lightly. My approach to literary texts, and medieval ones in particular, are not in any way a-historical, and I work to secure as best I can, as Paul Strohm has urged, “some provisional standpoint, and some point of attachment for critique”—in other words, we should “position ourselves: provisionally, precariously, temporarily, maybe sometimes bemusedly—but always somewhere. And wherever this somewhere is,” it should be “an invested place, a place that knows things are at stake.” In other words, as Strohm also writes, “history (past and present) is full of people placed in circumstances that require care, full of people who can’t not care,” and we should not overlook or set aside these very real material conditions (these circumstances, as it were) of the multiple histories that shape our world. At the same time, we can take all of the insights traditional historicism and ideological critique bequeath to us (the world is violent, I am the subject of oppressive regimes of power, the human is predicated on murder, language only refers to other language, romantic love is the insidious lure of a certain symbolic sacrificial order, etc.) and then we need to ask, what else is there? With Nicola Masciandaro and Anna Klosowska, writing in their Call for Papers for their “Post-Abysmal” panels scheduled for this year’s Kalamazoo Congress, I want to say, “Give us something that is more than nothing; we’re tired of the abyss/death. What else is there?”
* * *
there is likely not enough time in the world to go over all of my own conflicts regarding ways of doing historical work that follow the “hauntology” model and I have certainly wrestled in much of my own work with the idea that I owe the dead some sort of “proper accounting” as regards the texts and artifacts they have bequeathed to us as “gifts” of a sort, and to which we are supposed to “do justice” [and whatever that might mean, I am continually conflicted about it, veering back and forth between the idea of having to “get it right,” relative to something like facticity, and wanting to unlock the potentialities of what was not said/undertaken but could have been as a way of unleashing new futurities somehow initially “wired” in the past]. For a long time now, these words from Edith Wyschogrod, from her book An Ethics of Remembering: History, Heterology, and the Dead Others, have had to suffice [for me] as a provisional credo for historical work:
“In speaking for the dead others, the historian enters into a temporal zone that is neither past, present, nor future. The tense in which her present is inscribed is that of the future-present, an impossible new time in which the future as promise cannot lose its sense of presence. A historical artifact is also a gift of the past to a present affected with futurity. What is inscribed in the gift is not only the vouloir dire of a people that has been silenced, of the dead others, but is, in addition, what giving wants to say.”* * *
Last year, Andrew Scheil asked me to write an Afterword to a collection of reprinted essays on the Old English Andreas, a re-telling of the apocryphal story of St. Andrew’s rescue of Matthew from the cannibal citizens of the “murder-wound” island of Mermedonia--which citizens also have to punished/murdered in a holocaust-like firestorm/ocean deluge before being resuscitated to be converted to Christianity. After surveying the collection of essays, the majority of which attend to issues of typology, language, style, and possible sources and analogues for the Old English legend, I paused to consider that, with the exception of John Hermann’s work in the 1980s to expose the dark and even sadistic “Christian imperialism” and anti-Semitism at work in the poem, studies of the poem have for the most part mainly avoided questions of how the poem bespeaks violent power relations with regard to issues of religion, race, nation, culture, and the figure of the foreigner. Given the very active intervention since at least the early 1990s of medieval studies in post-colonial critique, this appears almost as a blind spot in studies of Andreas, and yet, I would argue that the poem, and Anglo-Saxon culture more broadly, could serve as ideal sites through which to investigate and make more legible the historicity of colonial or expansionist encounters, especially when we understand that the present is not simply the continuation of the past nor is it a clean break with that past; rather, following Jeffrey Cohen, we might think of historical time as geological: “It flows in places, hardens in others, irregularly, with frequent crystallizations (individuated moments of self-organization), drift, unpredictable movements toward increased or decreased complexity.” And if we want to avoid the move whereby strangers are ontologized as figures who supposedly possess material reality all their own (they are “strange” and “monstrous” before we even meet them), we have to understand how they are produced, as Sara Ahmed has written, in “encounters between embodied subjects [that] always hesitate between the domain of the particular—the face to face of this encounter” and “the general—the framing of the encounter by broader relationships of power and antagonism.” Although some have assumed it so, post-colonialism is not a transhistorical, totalizing phenomenon, and history, again in Ahmed's formulation, “is not the continuous line of the emergence of a people, but a series of discontinuous encounters between nations, cultures, others and other others.”
Critical engagements with Andreas that would delineate the shifting and dynamically nonlinear historical conditions under which encounters between Others take place, not only within the poem but also within the political and cultural milieus of the Anglo-Saxon world that commissioned, curated, and circulated the text, would help to further historicize and make more culturally particular Hermann’s initial foray into the poem’s Christian-Germanic politics, and would also contribute to the longue durée history of the development of regimes of difference and collective identity, especially as those regimes have figured in nation- and empire-building in different times and places. Moreover, such engagements with the poem would also help to illuminate the ways in which a continental Christian imperialism may have intersected with certain claims of Anglo-Saxon national (or, proto-national) identity which were themselves bound up with particular matters of soul and psyche that are richly attested to throughout the poem.
As I was thinking about the possible future(s) of scholarship on the poem, I was torn between writing on whether or not it was possible for Old English scholars to continue to remain aloof from the poem’s dark cultural politics or whether it might be more important to imagine and delineate how Andreas, as a work of art, has the capability, in the words of Leo Bersani, to “deploy signs of the subject in the world that are not signs of interpretation or of an object-destroying jouissance,” but rather of “correspondences of forms within a universal solidarity of being.” As I read and re-read Andreas numerous times while composing my Afterword, I found it extremely challenging to conceive of reparative readings of the poem that might recuperate in some fashion its unrelenting rhetoric of warfare and hatred, or that might reveal more generously imagined forms of being in the world. If cannibalism, in Matheus’s own words early in the poem, is the “worst death on earth,” then its perpetrators must be the worst people imaginable: inhuman and monstrous. And yet, more than once the poet lets us know that the Mermedonians are not cannibals by choice: for whatever reasons, their country lacks meat, bread, and water, and they are sorely oppressed by hunger as well as the fear of death by famine, which has also ultimately twisted their minds. They set about the task of eating strangers in their country, not with relish, but with sorrow and out of a terrifying necessity. Yet somehow, for all of the energy the poet expends on describing the Mermedonians’ moral and physical depravity, there is no act of violence they can commit that can even begin to equal what God himself is capable of unleashing, such as the flood that Andreas commands to pour forth from an ancient stone pillar (after three days of torture at the Mermedonians’ hands). This is a flood, moreover, that becomes especially terrifying when an angel of God encloses the city in fire so that no one can escape drowning. In the deafening maelstrom of water, wind, and flame that ensues (ll. 1541-52), the “wailing” and “wretched tumult” of “old men” is heard “widely” (ll. 1554-55), creating for the reader a scene of absolute devastation, terror, and human abjection.
Although the poem itself would not allow for such a question, one has to wonder how an Andreas could remain unchanged—battle-hard and indifferent—by witnessing such a scene, but as a saint whose body can be ripped to shreds, then miraculously heals itself, is he ever really human? One wonders also how the Mermedonians, who were resurrected after suffering such a holocaust (so that they could be converted!), could ever move beyond the trauma of their own violent deaths, but as cannibals who are also murderers, are they supposed to deserve such consideration? In such a zone of devastation, is anyone in the poem, finally human?
I decided finally to devise a possible answer to this question with a brief consideration of Andreas alongside a modern novel that has a lot in common, genre-wise, with the Old English poem: H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, which also includes a journey to an island in the middle of nowhere where certain barbaric practices are in full swing. The story is narrated by Edward Prendick, an English gentleman who ends up on the island after being shipwrecked and who soon discovers that the infamous physiologist Dr. Moreau has set up an encampment there for the purposes of vivisecting a variety of exotic animals in order to turn them into humans, in order to see if the only thing separating humans from animals is body posture, speech, and rules of conduct that can be taught (i.e., “not to eat fish or flesh,” “not to claw the bark of trees,” and “not to chase other men”). Similar to Matheus and Andreas, Dr. Moreau is on a mission of conversion (albeit, a decidedly secular-scientistic conversion), one which has to be enforced through violence but which is ultimately about the retraining of habits of mind and body. Of course, the experiment goes terribly awry and in order to turn the animals into humans, a lot of unnecessary physical, and we can imagine, psychic suffering is inflicted. At the same time, the supposed instinctual “savagery” of animals (such as their desire to walk on all fours, eat other animals, or attack humans) cannot really be tamped out, and without constant and vigilant supervision and the climate of continual fear provided in the figure of Dr. Moreau himself, the animals eventually revert to old habits, hunting down game and aggressively attacking the humans on the island.
But it is also clear, in Wells’s handling of the story, that the savagery that Moreau wreaks upon the so-called “Beast Folk” is somehow worse than anything an animal might do by following its so-called “natural” instincts, because Moreau’s savagery is rational, scientific, carefully premeditated, and thoroughly human, if also inhumane. Similar to God in the Old English Andreas, his violence knows no “rational” bounds and has no constraint. Eventually Moreau and his assistant doctor Montgomery are killed by their surgical progeny and Prendick is left to fend for himself among the “Beast Folk.” After discovering that “their simple scale of honor was based mainly on the capacity for inflicting trenchant wounds,” Prendick learns how to judiciously wield a hatchet and spends ten months “as an intimate of these half-humanized brutes” before he ultimately leaves the island on a small schooner that has drifted inland. In the meantime, the “Beast Folk” revert to their former animal states, yet still retain traces of their “dwindling shreds” of “humanity,” while Prendick himself undergoes “strange [animal] changes.”
Wells’s novel is fairly crude in its execution and its parable about the moral corruption of modern science is heavy-handed, but similar to Andreas, it attempts to delineate and hold in place a boundary that can never really hold: upright “humans” on the one side and barbaric “animals” on the other. Both the Old English and modern narrative end when the main characters—Andreas and Prendick—leave their respective islands the same way they came, but whereas Andreas hastens on his ship to cross over what might be called the heroic horizon of his future, glorious “battle-death” in Achaia (ll. 1698-1702), and thereby stays firmly in the fantastic and unreflective past of legendary heroes and monsters, Prendick returns to the present of modern San Francisco, and then London, where he has a nervous breakdown and cannot persuade himself that the men and women he sees every day “are not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls.” In the library, “the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey,” and “the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses . . . seemed no more my fellow creatures than dead bodies would be.” Eventually, Prendick retreats to the solitude of the countryside and to the company of books and the stars, in whose “vast and eternal laws of matter,” he finds some peace and hope for something that is “more than animal within us.”
The challenge, as readers of both texts, might be in seeing beyond the false dichotomies they each create—between familiar and foreign, same and Other, righteous and wicked, earthbound and heavenward, civilized and primitive, human and animal, rational and emotional—in order to trace an affective, vicarious relation between certain non-contiguous “instants” of time: the wailing of the drowning Mermedonians, Andreas’s weeping for himself after being tortured (ll. 1398-1413), the “exquisite expression of suffering” that Prendick hears in the howling cries of a puma that Moreau is vivisecting one evening, and the inarticulate terror and dread Prendick experiences upon his “return to mankind.” What stitches these moments together is a certain anguish occasioned by the disorientation of selves undone by violence—a violence, moreover, that both founds our ability to grieve for others who are vulnerable like us (literally, “available for wounding”), yet also keeps each of us enclosed in a certain inarticulate beyond. And to allow ourselves to be seized, and partially undone (or dis-located), by such a beyond, even in the reading of a poem like Andreas, without attempting to overcome or master its difference, might be to move closer to a humanistic practice, which I call literary criticism, still worth salvaging.
Sara Ahmed. STRANGE ENCOUNTERS: EMBODIED OTHERS IN POST-COLONIALITY. Routledge, 2000.
Julian Barbour. THE END OF TIME: THE NEXT REVOLUTION IN PHYSICS. Oxford University Press, 1999.
Walter Benjamin. "Theses on the Philosophy of History." In ILLUMINATIONS: ESSAYS AND REFLECTIONS, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt. Schocken Books, 1968. 253-264.
Jane Bennett. THE ENCHANTMENT OF MODERN LIFE: ATTACHMENTS, CROSSINGS, AND ETHICS. Princeton University Press, 2001.
Leo Bersani. "Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject." Critical Inquiry 32 (2006): 161-174.
Pierre Bourdieu. THE LOGIC OF PRACTICE, trans. Richard Nice. Stanford University Press, 1995.
John D. Caputo. "Bodies Still Unrisen, Event Still Unsaid." Angelaki 12.1 (2007): 73-86.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. MEDIEVAL IDENTITY MACHINES. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Jeffrey J. Cohen. "Time Out of Memory." In THE POST-HISTORICAL MIDDLE AGES, ed. Elizabeth Scala and Sylvia Frederico. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 37-57.
William E. Connolly. NEUROPOLITICS: THINKING, CULTURE, SPEED. University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
Jacques Derrida. ARCHIVE FEVER: A FREUDIAN IMPRESSION, trans. Eric Prenowitz. University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Aranye Fradenburg. "(Dis)continuity: A History of Dreaming." In THE POST-HISTORICAL MIDLE AGES, ed. Scala and Frederico. 87-115.
Graham Harman. "On Vicarious Causation." Collapse II (March 2007): 187-221.
John P. Hermann. ALLEGORIES OF WAR: LANGUAGE AND VIOLENCE IN OLD ENGLISH POETRY. University of Michigan Press, 1989.
Anna Klosowska. QUEER LOVE IN THE MIDDLE AGES. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Lucretius. ON THE NATURE OF THINGS, trans. H.E. Latham. Penguin, 1951.
Nicola Masciandaro and Anna Klosowska. "Between Angela and Actaeon: Dislocation." L’esprit créatur 50.1 : 91-105.
Maura Nolan. "Historicism after Historicism." In THE POST-HISTORICAL MIDDLE AGES, ed. Scala and Frederico. 63-85.
Joan Retallack. THE POETHICAL WAGER. University of California Press, 2003.
Bryan Reynolds. "Transversal Poetics and Fugitive Explorations: Theaterspace, Paused Consciousness, Subjunctivity, and Macbeth." In TRANSVERSAL ENTERPRISES IN THE DRAMA OF SHAKESPEARE AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES: FUGITIVE EXPLORATIONS. 1-26.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction is About You." In NOVEL GAZING: QUEER READINGS IN FICTION, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Duke University Press, 1997. 1-37.
Michel Serres. HERMES: LITERATURE, SCIENCE, PHILOSOPHY, ed. Josue Harari and David Bell. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
Paul Strohm. THEORY AND THE PREMODERN TEXT. University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Stephanie Trigg and Tom Prendergast. "The Negative Erotics of Medievalism." In THE POST-HISTORICAL MIDDLE AGES, ed. Scala and Frederico. 117-137.
H.G. Wells. THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. 1896; repr. Signet Classic, 1988.
Edith Wyschogrod. AN ETHICS OF REMEMBERING: HISTORY, HETEROLOGY, AND THE NAMELESS OTHERS. University of Chicago Press, 1998.