Sunday, May 16, 2010

On Natality and the As If: To My Friends With Love

by EILEEN JOY

Although, of course, we've already announced here on the blog the publication, a few weeks ago, of the inaugural double-issue of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, because the 45th International Congress on Medieval Studies is now officially over, and because we had a party Friday night at the Rose Street Market in Kalamazoo to celebrate (see photo), and because I've just spent 4 intensive days of intellectual over-stimulation while also engaging in all sorts of foolishness with what can only be called a radiant circle (or is it--nod to Nicola--a constellation?) of friends who helped me, Myra Seaman, and Holly Crocker to make this journal an actual possibility (a space--possibility--in which I hope it ever remains), I hope I will be indulged this Sunday morning in using this space to offer my thankfulness and gratitude to everyone who helped and continues to help me actualize a vision of our field as a mobile and restless series of movements of possibilistic "middles" of thought, work, and to be frank, life-practices that can be said or hoped, in the words of Lauren Berlant, to tilt toward the "emotional time of being-with, time where it is possible to value floundering around with others whose attention-paying to what's happening is generous and makes liveness possible as a good, not a threat" ("Starved").

What do I hope for with this journal? In a word, natality. In the face of master signifiers, death drives, and what often appears to be the general meaninglessness of everything (which, granted, can also be re-thought as a productive series of incoherences; in other words, voids and abysses aren't always so bad, as Anna Klosowska's and Nicola Masciandaro's two panels on the post-abysmal amply demonstrated on Thursday, and as Erik Butler said in the first post-abysmal session, the world we're in is a kind of hell, but it's also where everything interesting is happening), natality is not a popular term in the academy at present, and I will be viewed by some as hopelessly naive, heteronormative, and maybe even stupid, but my friends, we can have queer natality, even in an abyss. But more particularly, I take my idea of natality chiefly from Thomas Carlson, who in his book The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and the Creation of the Human, writes,
There is perhaps no act less loving than to step in for another, or indeed all others, so as to make everything already actual for them, given ahead of time; and there is perhaps no act more loving, or more difficult to define, or quite simply more difficult, than to give another the actuality of possibility itself--to give another time and life. (p. 216)
So, in perhaps an idiotically roundabout way, I'm trying to say that my chief hope for the journal is that it will serve as a space, a site, for the cultivation of the actuality of possibility--for others' work to emerge in ways that none of us could ever predict in advance; in other words, as a sort of cleared ground (or cloud) within which thought, work, and things can arrive, which is to say, can be born/e (which is to say, can both "come to life" and "be carried"). This has something to do as well, and I have no shame in saying it, with how, over the past three years especially, I have been trying to formulate my thinking on love, or friendship, as a politics of queer natality. As I said in the comments to a post I wrote after last year's Congress,
I guess I want to also resist the notion that love is always, somehow, an object choice, and there are therefore certain "objects" that glow or darken as a result of the attention they receive, or don't receive. For me, love is also a kind of force field that may not even be directed to any particular objects or persons at all but actually radiates out toward the entire world and loves everything in it, or practically everything. Now before everyone jumps all over me I am decidedly NOT talking about some kind of goofy "I love everyone & everything!" kind of love. I am talking, rather, about a sort of orientation to the world that is always fixed/attentive upon its possibilities, rather than upon its already-thereness as an object. We have, of course, attraction to all sorts of *specific* persons and objects, which we sometimes call love, and which usually ends badly. The love that I want to try to practice does not fixate upon specific persons and objects, although it certainly *lands* there on occasion and, if I'm lucky, helps to light things up from within and *between*, but more importantly, the love I'm for is a kind of clearing of space that allows for something to be left alone as well as for something to unfold in just the way it always needed to whether I was there or not, but it didn't have the space, either, maybe, before I cleared it. This also means love as a kind of making way for natality, for things to be born that you couldn't anticipate. I think it is possible to love this way, and bad as I am at it, I see this as the only way to love.
This also has something to do with what Cary Howie talked about in his typically gorgeous and very moving paper at the second post-abysmal session, "As If: After Ciappelletto," in which he asked us to think, through a particular story in Boccaccio's Decameron about the sanctification of the notoriously wicked Ser Ciappelletto, about the question: what slips past perdition (?), and to also consider the predicate "as if" as engaging in a poetics of suspension of belief that clears a landing site for the divine stranger, without drawing limits around the landing site itself. This would be like a literary-theological practice without the orthodoxy of having to sort what is right from what is wrong. This would be poetics, and criticism, as a form of hospitality that puts one thing on hold in order to allow for the arrival of something else. As if: an undulation between loss and finding. This is the inbetween space we're so fond of at In The Middle, and practices of affirmation in the space of the as if, if we're willing to risk them, are simply a way of responding to what we don't know: "the void which isn't one" (to gesture back again to the post-abysmal panels as a whole). This is to also realize, as Cary pointed out, that we will always be more than the sum of our vices and the ruses we devise to hide them. As always, Cary ended with a poem, Mary Karr's "Sinners Welcome," which, if the BABEL Working Group had an office, or a home, or a stalagmite-studded cave or cloud somewhere, this "sign," which is also a portal, "Sinners Welcome"--this would hang over the door.

5 comments:

Karl Steel said...

Lovely, and thanks Eileen.

Maybe I should come back round to my reading of Aelred's work on friendship, which really is, I think, about certain object choices lighting up and others concomitantly, inevitably darkening, and then Travis can finally have his proper go at me. Maybe I should ALSO wonder about 'lighting up' and the regime of the visual, while remembering that the visual is ALSO haptic in medieval optics (so far as I know). Maybe I should, also, talk about the way the "sicut/aussi comme/as if" of so many of the texts I read produce authenticity as the other side of the "as if" (if it was "as if" the animals were speaking, then humans can pretend to occupy the site of real speech).

I could do all those things, and I will, someday, but I want to do them all not as a gatekeeper, not as a critic, not as a dialectician, always encountering you and a future through struggling through a negative, but as a fellow traveler on the way to who knows what, remembering that we're in this together.

(one thing, by the way, I like about natality is that it admits that the new or future or what have you doesn't come from a break with the past, but through a production--NOT identical reproduction, despite the 'natal' element. It's a trope that finds hope (or indeed the fear of something going wrong) in the past and present both)

tneel said...

Eileen, thank you for bringing me back to natality, and Karl, thank you for juxtaposing the non-break of historical natality with Aelred and his production of a Ciceronian/Christian friedship that is such a site of contested histories. To what extent is he rewriting Cicero? Rewriting Ambrose? Breaking with Augustine? In the light of natality, these might be the wrong questions inasmuch as rewriting equates to copying and production always figures fissures. Thank you for this.

anna klosowska said...

"if the BABEL Working Group had an office, or a home, or a stalagmite-studded cave or cloud somewhere, this "sign," which is also a portal, "Sinners Welcome"--this would hang over the door."
This reminds me of the beautiful Mother's Day Poem that Brantley wrote. I just want to say, there are so many immensely brilliant people in that cave/cloud (present at Kzoo and virtual). It is a privilege and an immensely lucky break to be around you.

dtkline said...

Lovely and loving thought, Eileen, and a beautiful formulation that I've been considering some myself (a la the Lydgate paper). I'm wondering these days if natality itself, as in the newly born, isn't already queer and is somehow 'unqueered'? These are not well articulated thoughts on my part, but I believe I understand and receive this love.

And Karl, have you read O'Donnell's Augustine biography? Marvelous.

tenthmedieval said...

Wow, Eileen, if you can come up with a working definition of love then I will hail you as the greatest genius I ever met. There is possibly no more socially important question the humanities could ask!