by EILEEN JOY
I see invention as inseparable from singularity and alterity. --Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature
Consider this a very belated post-card from BABEL's panel, "On The Question of Style," held at last May's Kalamazoo Congress, but also a response to a recent post by historian Guy Halsall [Univ. of York]--"What Do We Mean By Interdisciplinarity?"--at his weblog Transformation of the Year 600 (which is devoted to Halsall's current research project, which you can read about HERE). Halsall's post it itself a bit belated, too, in that it comprises remarks given at the 2009 meeting of the International Medieval Congress in Leeds at a session devoted to "Modernism, Postmodernisn, and the Medieval Grand Narrative I: The Marriage of Theory and Praxis." I would encourage everyone to read Halsall's post, especially as I am going to be overly brief in my summation of it and may not do it full justice, but suffice to say that I see him arguing four primary things [I especially hope I get this right since Halsall himself indicated in his own post that many in the audience at Leeds indicated afterwards they agreed with him, yet maybe did not entirely get what he was trying to say/argue]:
1. although the term "interdisciplinary" is invoked ad nauseum within the academy, and especially in (typically very successful) grant applications, and also undergirds many a "Centre" of this-and-that "studies," it actually has become "meaningless" over time [in terms of results produced], yet it remains a "cherished myth" of medieval studies, and "should be rigorously challenged at its every usage"; moreover,
2. disciplines themselves do not have as much internal cohesion as we often imagine they do [take, for example, the fact that the boundary lines which used to be thought to exist between "literary" and "historical" texts are now understood to have always been "permeable" and unstable to begin with], and according to Halsall, setting a boundary around anything leaves it open to perpetual transgression [which is a good thing, actually--think of Foucault's example, from his "Discourse on Language," of Mendel's "monstrous" position vis-a-vis the discipline of biology of his time--disciplines actually constrain discourse in certain ways, often disallowing innovations that might be "true" and "real" yet can be dismissed; new objects require new disciplines, new protocols, new methodologies, and new discourses], all of which means disciplines possess neither internal nor external limits that are ever stable and therefore what "counts" as a discipline would always be a slippery slope, indeed [this is not to say that there is never any such thing as productive interdisciplinary work being done; as Halsall writes, "The true interdisciplinary scholar . . . actually works and publishes in two different disciplines, being recognised as a fellow-practitioner in both. This person is as rare as claims to interdisciplinarity are common but there are some. There are archaeologists who have carried out anthropological field-work, for example"]; further,
3. many so-called interdisciplinary projects, especially within a field like medieval studies, often just lapse into one or another sort of "cultural" or "social" history; in Halsall's view, all postmodern theories, in one form or another, are ultimately historicist, and as Halsall puts it more pointedly:
What emerges from the literary approach to history or the historical approach to literature if not straight cultural history? Once ‘context’ is assigned importance, history, as I see it, always wins. Perhaps this is because in spite of historians’ claims, the Rankean empiricist ideal still underlies pretty much all historical work. There have – perhaps understandably – been no real moves to produce history in line with the pre-Rankean ideal of history as ‘philosophy teaching by example’. Furthermore, the kind of explanation or causation that contextualism implies is (in my view) unsatisfying even from a historian’s point of view.Of course cultural history is extremely valuable, BUT,
4. what happens to research that isn't invested, up front, in the supposed interdisciplinary "cultural history" outcome? A more "fruitful" way of dividing up medieval studies, in terms of contested and contesting positions, and working across those divisions, might be via theoretical positions. More pointedly, in Halsall's words [again],
If theory is – as it is – a way of seeing, rather than something to be applied, mechanically, it is something to be engaged with and refined, and this can be done from two points of view with an outcome, I suggest, that, as well as producing better theory, also reflects back, in different ways, on the areas whence those points of view started, rather than producing a single, merged, synthetic, effectively uni-disciplinary outcome.I have a sneaking suspicion that most of us would not disagree with most of points 1 & 2 above. I have heard a LOT of talks at a lot of conferences in the past few years about the exhaustion and/or somewhat false pretensions of work that goes under the rubric of "interdisciplinarity," and I think most of us understand just how difficult it is to master the skill-sets, discourses, primary texts, intellectual history, and canonical methodologies of one discipline, let alone two or three, and we'd likely also agree that much work that calls itself interdisciplinary typically represents a scholar in, say, literary studies poaching materials from, say, philosophy or political theory, without necessarily immersing herself in the intellectual history/longue duree debates of that field. Of course, to say that the term interdisciplinary itself has become completely "meaningless" might be a bit overblown and hyperbolic, or at the very least, might entail a broader discussion about how each of us defines what we mean by "interdisciplinary" and how we see it as possibly enriching the field of medieval studies in ways that would actually re-shape the discipline of medieval studies and not just further extend it in directions it was always going to go anyway, which I think is partly Halsall's point. I think he's actually asking for more, and not less, disciplinary innovations, ones that do not always lapse back into familiar historicist models of thought and product.
This is not to say that many of us have not benefited directly from collaborative work with colleagues in different fields, or that our thinking about certain "objects" within medieval studies has not radically changed as a result of the reading we have done in other fields [I think the engagement that some in medieval studies have been having for a while now with object-oriented ontology, new materialisms, new and post-phenomenologies, philosophy of science, new media, sociology, political theory, and the like--in disciplines other than literature or history--are bringing about radical new approaches to understanding, say, the operations within a literary text, or of relations between human and non-human agents in history, or of affective pathways between human and nonhuman objects in history, etc.]--it's just that Halsall is asking us [productively, I think], to consider how to engage more deeply in the sorts of theoretical engagements, across fields and disciplines, that would not just lapse into what he calls "uni-disciplinary" results [a kind of consensus, let's say, about what kinds of history count, what types of theory count, collectively], but would lead instead to the strenuous re-evaluation of modes of thought and methodologies for doing our work. In some ways, isn't the work going on now, across multiple disciplines, under the rubrics of post/humanism, anti-humanism, animal studies, and new materialism, doing just that? And reaching back further, didn't feminist theory, across multiple disciplines, accomplish [and still accomplish] this sort of ground-shifting work? [I mean, feminist theory is, at bottom, confrontational, as is Marxist critique.] I disagree with Halsall a little bit that all of these theories are essentially unified in that they are all historical, for they actually present different, contested views of history, different ways of "seeing" history that are not always compatible [but I think Halsall's larger point is that, at least within medieval studies, they all operate within certain, very familiar literary-historical and cultural-historical paradigms that don't really change from study to study].
Halsall's own work is deeply cultural-historical of course, as well as what he calls "multi-disciplinary," and he also employs a very traditional historicism in the sense that he relies heavily on different sorts of "primary," documentary-type evidence [grave-goods, other archaeological evidence, charters, letter collections, and the like] while also looking at items like literary texts. So, if what he really wants is "engagement at the level of the development of theory," I guess I wish I knew more about what that means for Halsall--does he want a reform of "theory as usual" in light of the types of historical-archaeological objects and methodologies he works with, or does he want to craft new historical methodologies altogether [is that even possible at this point?]. Or, does he want more engaged debates, within historical studies, say, about how to read and evaluate different types of "evidence"? These are open questions.
How does any of this relate to BABEL's panel, "On The Question of Style," at last May's Kalamazoo Congress, which featured remarks from Valerie Allen, Kathleen Biddick, Ruth Evans, Anna Klosowka, and Michael Snediker? I'm not entirely sure, but since one of the questions posed to our discussants was how style-in-scholarship might enhance disciplinary knowledge, as well as how style functions as actual content-in-scholarship [which might be another way of asking how style is thought itself], it strikes me that when we talk about theory and theoretical engagement in relation to disciplinary knowledge and "outcomes," that we also have to talk about, not just how we see things [and what constrains and/or allows different, productive ways of seeing things], but also how we say what we see. And these are questions that hopefully swerve in a slightly different direction than the obvious post-structuralist insight that everything is, in some sense, language, and there is no "outside" to that, and therefore language [which is also always deferring and displacing meaning(s) from one textual location to another], arranged in a certain way, always simultaneously produces and constrains what we are able to think.
As Valerie Allen remarked, style is not just an elegant ornament of language but rather is its actual disposition. Style is, further, a mood,
a grammatical function of the verb-system that orients the verb toward reality in a certain way (declarative, hypothetical, etc.). Mood identifies the mode in which the verb is. Mood and mode are basically the same word (from Latin modus), so we can think of grammatical mood in terms of musical mode. Metaphor or analogy is perhaps the only way of getting access to style as a general concept, for it is impossible to get without style (in the archaic sense of “outside”) in order to think it. Style or mood and being are conjoint: “in every case Dasein always has some mood;” writes Heidegger; being is always in a mood — “we are never free of moods,” he says. . . . All communicative acts have modality.There is no writing, further, without intention, or directionality, or following Heidegger again,
being in the world entails having things matter to us. The intentionality of style is not unidirectional, where we have designs upon our audience; it involves having an audience that matters to us, that shapes our diction. If saying so suggests that discourse communities determine our style it also harks back to the classical adage that style is formed through habits of reading, that writing is imitatio. The other side of the question — how do we write as we ought? — then is: “whom ought we to read?”Ruth Evans commented upon the "beauty" of difficult writing, and on the ways in which beauty
splits desire, on the one hand extinguishing or tempering it (as in Thomas Aquinas), but on the other hand, as in Kant, bringing about “the disruption of any object.” Fascinated, we fail to see anything in the object -- in the style -- except our delight in looking at it. It’s one of the effects that the eerily beautiful style of Aranye Fradenburg’s Sacrifice Your Love has on me: its difficult, artful prose succeeds in making both present and absent the beautiful object that we call the Middle Ages.Ultimately, for Evans, "it is the movement of desire within particular styles of literary criticism that stops them being merely self-referential, by allowing new things to emerge. . . . a 'fruitful remainder,' something left over, unexpressed: the remainder of desire." This connects to Anna Klosowska's idea of style as a "Neuter" or "third sex" that nevertheless possesses a "generative ability," a "superfluous element [that] ensures the flow of transactions," ultimately facilitating the relationship between fact and theory. For Kathleen Biddick, thinking about style, especially vis-a-vis Michael Snediker's formulation of aesthetic persons in his book Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions (Minnesota, 2009) and Bracha Ettinger's conceptualization of trans-subjective, matrixial co-poesis in her book The Matrixial Borderspace (Minnesota, 2006), might be one way to imagine "a beside and beyond itself of the master signifier, a beside and beyond itself of the Phallus" that dominates so much discourse in queer theory [especially in relation to the death drive and futurity]. Through a meditation upon the matrixial "borderspace" of the Gothic smile of the Old Testament prophet Daniel [violently martyred as a Jew and later transformed into a Christian prophet who condemned Jews], carved in the Portico de Gloria of the Cathedral of St. James at Compostela [late 12th century], Biddick ruminated the connections "between exegesis, sculpture, performance, juridical execution, and liturgical lamentation" that coalesce in Daniel's story and the ways in which the "stony remainder" of his smile in the sculpture at Compostela signifies a "transtraumatic" encounter, a subjectivity which is never whole but which nevertheless can transmit partial, transubjective affects, ones in which Daniel always remains solicitously open to scrutiny, allowing, in Ettinger's words, "the articulation of a meaningful space between living and non-living, which has nothing to do with the notion of the abject and with the binary opposition between life and death." In all of these remarks, we might say that style engineers natality, holds history open, makes thinking possible, enables transactional encounters, takes up affective positions, tarries beyond master signifiers, and in the words of Michael Snediker, performs an "inhabiting of possibility."
For those interested in reading all of the comments by Allen, Evans, Klosowska, and Biddick, as well as the Response from Michael Snediker, you can read those HERE. In the meantime, I would just propose that when we talk about historicist-theoretical engagements, as well working across or between disciplines [however stable or unstable those might be], that style should also be an important part of that conversation. Because BABEL is interested in exploring this subject even further, we will be convening another panel on style at the inaugural biennial meeting of the Group at the University of Texas at Austin the first week of November, and you can see more about that HERE. In addition, BABEL is putting together a book, related to these panels, on the relationships between style, theory, methodology, and history which is envisioned as a conversations between medievalists and queer theorists, so stay tuned on that.
I honestly don't know if this post hangs together, or makes sense. How's that for an un-stylish sign-off? For real.