Monday, May 27, 2013

Look, Don't Touch! -- Karl Fumbles with Noli me tangere

by KARL STEEL

Picture from the Met
At the end of my annus mirabilis, I published a response essay in Reading Skin in Medieval Literature and Culture (ed. Katie Walter), a new Palgrave anthology with pieces by Lara Farina, Bob Mills, Julie Orlemanski, Elizabeth Robertson, Susan Small, Isabel Davis, Katie Walter, and Virginia Langum. Happy to see so many friends of the blog in that list. Look to this anthology for work on Blemmyes, on Havelok, on werewolves, as skin and time, on the philosophy of medicine and probing,on the Testament of Cresseid.

And look for me doing work that I kept from this blog, and more's the pity, because, as you'll discover, I fumbled. How hard I fumbled is up to your judgment.

My piece develops (no surprise) a posthuman material thought about skin. I'm mostly proud of it. Some samples:
"Flesh thus may be thought of as unrealized skin, or as unseen skin touching other unseen skin, in a body at once organized as a binary of surface and depth and as a plethora of laminated layers of skin, in which each bodily stratum is simultaneously its own surface and the depth that another cannot reach."
"If skin is a membrane, bidirectional plane of contact, or container, then we need not think of skin only in an organic sense or, for that matter, only as delineating the borders of a conscious subject. Skin rather should be understood as being everywhere things persist, meet, or are. Skin intervenes in any encounter. Skin establishes difference, an 'interval.' It mediates while confounding absolute immediacy" &c.
"To touch means to be touched in turn. To be at all is to experience one's limits and to be available, to abut on others and to feel one's shape by encountering resistance and by reaching back. As Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey put it, '"my body" does not "belong to me": embodiment is what opens out the intimacy of myself with others,' to which I would add that embodiment is also what prevents intimacy by enabling others to exist as others."
Too much "academic mumblespeak" and other bad prose habits there (thus, at once, rather, to which I would add), but otherwise not so bad. No (major?) errors.

I wish I could say the same for all of it. Elizabeth Robertson surely deserved better than the response I gave. Robertson, as I write, "traces doctrinal efforts to resolve the apparent contradiction between Christ's commanding Mary Magdalene not to touch him and his inviting Thomas to probe his wounded side." She does great work with the noli me tangere scene, and I supplement her discussion of some artworks with one about a twelfth-century Leonese ivory plaque of the scene (see above). Though the plaque says Dominus Loquitur Marie, the Lord talks to Mary, it's much more about touching than speaking. Christ's hand rests on the shoulder of one of the travelers to Emmaus, and when Christ reaches out to ward off Mary, his outstretched fingers just barely penetrate her halo. "Even," I say, "his attempt to avoid touch must be recognized as another moment of contact."

from the left
Except that's not what's happening. Not exactly. I was at the Met yesterday to see James Nares' extraordinary film "Street" (a must-see for all thinkers interested in scale and time), where I also saw this plaque among the objects Nares had selected "to provide different points of entry into aspects of his work." The plaque's about traveling, about visitation, about surprise, about touching and not touching, and about silence, since a plaque can only represent speech without actually giving it voice. It's about how this film about just looking also must be a film about touching. We're not simply conducting surveillance. The cries of delight when birds crossed the screen, when New Yorkers loved seeing, of all things, a pigeon (!), was proof enough of that.
from the right

But if you look at the plaque from the left, Christ isn't actually touching Mary's halo. His fingers stop just before it. Or they're floating just above it. Foiled!

Or so I thought, until Alison rescued me by pointing out that Christ's fingers do penetrate her halo, so long as we're looking from the right.

We have a host of lessons here. I can give you two, and invite you to list more. The first: don't write about a sculpture until you've actually seen it. I wrote my essay in Paris, not New York, and should have written about something, oh, at the Louvre or the Cluny. The second: don't forget anamorphosis, particularly with sculpture, which are, if we work with them properly, moving images. This plaque invites us, requires us, to move around the scene, so we can realize that, depending on the lighting, depending on our stance, we're going to see the touch Christ tried to prevent. And we're going to miss that touch so long as we don't let the sculpture move us around it.

And for more on such things, see Asa Mittman.

13 comments:

Unknown said...

Can't wait to read the collection! Marvelous insight, of the mirabile dictu variety, rather than fumble. That fraught line of touch (and what, pray tell, does it mean to touch a halo?) translated into ivory, the invitation to touch, to think of the ivory carver's touch creating this mere slip of space, the medieval owner's (?) touch, and us poor moderns who can't touch. Thank goodness for light, the imagination, and Alison!

Ben said...

This is a lovely post, Karl, and recounts a fumble that every art historian is all too familiar with. For as much as collection digitization is bringing us (and it absolutely is a huge net benefit), it's making us sloppy with things like anamorphosis, scale (yes), and embodied experience. This panel does what you describe because it was handled, and could be turned and viewed from different angles, and we need constantly to remind ourselves of that.

Also, naturally, I LOVE "Street" and I clearly need to see all of it. It's Turn-Around Norman in reverse! Thanks so much for hipping me to it.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks anon, and thanks Ben! Really appreciate this, and VERY nice connection to Turn-Around-Norman.

Lara Farina said...

I loved your response essay, and even this fumble is super cool! I wonder, though, if hands, especially like those in this ivory, have their own aura. We need to have the halo around the head visually marked for us, but such a thing around the hands would, I think, actually limit/diminish the feeling of force--immanent touch--surrounding them. Still, your comments on the haptic elements of the piece are fab. Thanks for posting this.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks Lara! Increasingly thinking about the oddness of halos. The obvious thing to say is that halos circle the head because that's where the person is, or its the most intensely personal part of the body (hence persona as mask or false face, which offers up a nice sacrifice to the poststructuralist gods). Yet any body part is worth keeping, if it comes from a saint, and the hands of Christ--injured and healing--matter as intensely as his head. Why NOT halo them? Because a halo would be .... like mittens? Sort of?

In a larger sense, I'm wondering about the physicality of halos, which is something I asked about at Tuscaloosa. Why, I asked, is there no De nubibus (On Halos), a treatise that attempts to figure out what these things are, whether, say, these representations of holiness have any material character?

Ben said...

Karl, that's a fascinating question. My first guess would be that medieval artists and beholder alike recognized halos as an artistic (i.e. human) convention and not as a significant theological or biblical fact.

Evan Gatti said...

I recently had a similar fumble with an image of a square halo (and yep, it brings up all of the typical what the heck IS a square halo questions that square haloes do), but the context was fresco, which raises a whole host of other issues. I *thought* the image from the apse in the Basilica in Aquileia was one of the Deacon Saint Tatian presenting the Patriarch Poppo to a whole host of heavenly and imperial figures. Poppo, marked with a square-shaped thing behind his head, holds a model of the church. Pretty typical iconography for an apse and the "square halo" makes sense for a living patron. But, while looking at some photographs taken at very close range during a recent restoration campaign, I noticed that Tatian isn't actually touching Poppo's shoulder as I had thought he was, but rather holding the square form behind his head. So, is it a book, or is it still a whatever-it-means "square halo"? I kind of want it to be a portable altar, but I think that's just me... Anyway, unlike the ivory, which was meant to be handled and seen from oblique angles, this is a fresco in an apse that was almost never seen in such close proximity as in the restoration photo. I am not at all sure what to make of this but I do wonder, is the fumble the first "mistake" where I read the scene as a serious of dedications, which would probably be how most people, medieval and not, would read the fresco and thereby is a part of its meaning even if not its intention. Or is the fumble my second attempt at a reading, where I ascribe some meaning to the image from an extraordinary view of the apse. I have no idea, not nor am I sure I should care, but the whole process (thankfully timed with my awakening to fumblr) makes me thankful for places where we might think these things through!

Karl Steel said...

Evan, that's GREAT. I think you have the basis there for a longer piece (maybe not article length, but certainly longer than your comment) about 'mistakes' of seeing that would have been made, inevitably, when the work is seen in situ vs. the 'proper' seeing from angles impossible to anyone but the original artists or later restorers. I'm reminded of the construction of 'perfect' texts that correct all grammatical and scribal 'errors' to produce a text that no medieval person would have ever seen.

Anonymous said...

Amazing this as it was only a few hours ago that I Googled "anamorphosis" having never looked into it before. Had this concept in mind while reading your post and was wondering all the way down the page if you were going to mention it, and then you did! I came to "anamorphosis" via Liebniz' "Funny Thought" essay, which I was pointed to by some references to it from Graham Harman. Strange loops.

Evan Gatti said...

Thanks Karl. I am not sure where to go with this problem but I am definitely going to spend some more time thinking and writing about it. The whole project, which is based on fresco fragments, raises issues of "proper" or privileged (and maybe even covetous) seeing. I think it relates a bit to Ben's post above. Because we have access to better and better reproductions of things we spend a lot of time (well I spend a lot of time) zooming in, maybe hoping to see something we've long ignored when, in fact, I'm ignoring questions of access (and materiality, but I think we are more conscious of that). The way we look and see raises different questions depending on the object we are looking at and seeing. Hmm, we'll *see* what comes of it. Thanks again for your original post.

Lara Farina said...

That IS a great question about halos. As to the question of where the "person" is, do we know that for medieval people (or for us) it's always in the face? Michel Serres thinks about self-recognition via tactility in The Five Senses. If I understand him correctly, he argues that the "I" is unequally distributed in the body but shifts depending on one's position in space and corporal enfolding (as in the case of fingers touching the lips, where the "I" is felt to be in the fingers).

L.

Ben said...

Lara, that's quite a bit to ponder there. One thing I have noticed is that although hands don't get halos, they are usually the first thing after the face to be rubbed out when an image is defaced. Clearly, it's an attack on persona but also on agency. Jennifer Borland has written about this in her essay "Unruly Reading," and I've seen it lots of other places: Byzantine material, sculpture, and elsewhere.

Lara Farina said...

Interesting! Thanks, Ben.