Sunday, December 29, 2013

Withdrawing the Grain


When I teach the Prioress's Tale, as I did twice last semester, I have typically liked asking the students "who kills the Little Clergeon?" Most give the obvious answer, what we might as well call the correct one: "the Jews," or "a Jewish professional murderer," while others, when sufficiently prodded, blame the monk who plucks the grain from under the little boy's tongue.

Who's the murderer, then? And who makes a martyr? The boy miraculously keeps singing, despite being nearly decapitated, but only until he tells the monk where to find the kill switch. Having killed, the monk goes catatonic, falling as if bound to the floor. And now we in the classroom have something else to talk about. We can keep on about the Antisemitism of the Prioress, or Chaucer, or medieval Christian Culture. But now we can also talk about how stories of martyrs demand a victim, and how the love of sacrifice needs its deaths. And so on.

Now, though, I'm newly sympathetic to the monk. As a reminder, here's the conversation, beginning with the undead boy (a translation into Modern English here if you need it):
"Wherefore [because of that grain] I synge, and synge moot certeyn,
In honour of that blisful Mayden free
Til fro my tonge of taken is the greyn;
And after that thus seyde she to me:
'My litel child, now wol I fecche thee,
Whan that the greyn is fro thy tonge ytake.
Be nat agast; I wol thee nat forsake.'"
This hooly monk, this abbot, hym meene I
His tonge out caughte, and took awey the greyn,
And he yaf up the goost ful softely.
And whan this abbot hadde this wonder seyn,
His salte teeries trikled doun as reyn,
And gruf he fil al plat upon the grounde,
And stille he lay as he had been ybounde.
The monk's newly captured my sympathy, now, because I've made a similar decision, twice, with both of my parents. I was close to my mother (died in 2001) and not so close to my father (died early November, this year), but in both cases I was given and took the monk's choice.

That's far from unique. Most Americans die in hospitals now, many of them only through some decision to let them be allowed to die. In both cases, my parents were unconscious when they finally died: my mother in a coma, my father on morphine. Any decision was made with what was, at best, their literally tacit approval. But it was a decision, made by us more than by them. They did not die on their own.

My father consulted with his children when we decided to withdraw care for my mother (meanwhile, in a cruelty more than a little reminiscent of the Prioress's Tale, I was told that we were "tying God's hands" by letting my mother die). My father's own father suffered a terrible stroke a year before he finally died, but was dragged back into life, not happily. Sometime in his last year, he told my father, "you should have let me die." Probably with that in mind, but also all too aware of his own suffering, my father made it clear enough that he would be willing to be allowed to go when things got bad enough. We knew how to end things, and we suspected, at least, that they wanted things to end. But we could have kept it all going if we wanted to keep it going. The decision finally had to be ours, not theirs.

It's odd and maybe stupid to find my own experience in Chaucer's ugliest tale. It's not as though either of my parents died as a martyr to Antisemitism. But having twice been a parricide, of a sort, like so many others, as so many of us are likely to be, I can't help but feel with the monk, suffering a choice imposed on me, faced with a suffering that is my duty and curse to end, in pity. In pity, but also  "ybounde" to the fact of a death that will never come, and never stop, until we too must withdraw the grain.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A happy and a merry

by J J Cohen

"How are you?" The customer ahead of me in the Dunkin Donuts line asked this of the young man at the register, in the perfunctory way that New Englanders use the phrase, never expecting a reply. "I AM ALIVE!" he announced with the widest grin. We were flying back to DC from Manchester NH on Christmas, and that seemed a small gift. As were the donuts we allowed our kids to eat just before lunch.

Whether you are celebrating the solstice, Yule, Christmas, Festivus, Boxing Day, the end of the semester or the fact that life-goes-on-so-why-not-revel, here's hoping that your observances bring you joy. And many gifts, great and small, especially from unlikely places.

My holiday card to you consists of two images from our recent trip: sunset as viewed from the small "mountain" where my sister lives in Maine, and a scene of snow along the rocks from the nearby coast.

Wishing you all the best for 2014,

Friday, December 20, 2013

PUBLISHED: Issue 4.4 of postmedieval: PREMODERN FLESH


There is a viscous porosity of flesh – my flesh and the flesh of the world. This porosity is a hinge through which we are and of the world.
Nancy Tuana, ‘Viscous Porosity: Witnessing Katrina’

I am thrilled to announce today that Issue 4.4 of postmedieval, PREMODERN FLESH, co-edited by Holly Crocker and Kathryn Schwarz, is now published! As Holly writes in her Introduction (which is free to read and/or download HERE], and in which she performs a gorgeous reading of William Fowler's poem The Laste Epistle of Creseyd to Troyalus (turn of the 17th century) in relation to the themes of the issue and her own preoccupations with "reading in/on the flesh," Holly writes,
Reading in the flesh means we take the surface neither as an obstacle to deeper secrets nor as an end in itself, but as a densely intricate mixture of evidence and sign. This is despite the immediate allure of depth reading, which frequently allows us to get past misleading elements of a narrative’s self-presentation: is something else at work here? . . . Digging into the surface is crucial to reading in the flesh. . . . Surface and depth are coextensive in a way that frustrates both modes of reading. In an effort to capture just this sort of aporia, Heather Love has urged scholars to practice ‘flat’ readings, those that are, in the words of her title, ‘Close But Not Deep’ (Love, 2010). This approach has the virtue of ‘sticking to description,’ a laudable priority it largely shares with surface reading (Latour, 2005, 136–137). Love takes the text at its word, but, unlike proponents of surface reading, the flat reading she outlines retains a healthy measure of hermeneutic suspicion. By working to provide a ‘good description,’ flat readings ‘account for the real variety that is already there’ (Love, 2010, 377). In other words, by documenting tension, flat reading could describe the competing strains on Creseyd’s arrival without seeking to connect either to larger concerns.
. . .
Flat reading is deeply appealing, and influences much of what I have to say about reading in the flesh. I do not describe the work of what happens in this issue as flat reading, however, because, as essays in this collection show, Love’s method puts too much stock in distance. Keeping the flesh at a distance, as [Jan] Zysk and [Emily] King demonstrate in their readings of early modern stagings, is a spectacular failure. In somewhat different fashion, [Jonathan Gil] Harris accounts for flesh’s work across distances of both time and place, while [Frances] Dolan interrogates the veracities of time and place in flesh’s recollections. Reading in the flesh, unlike flat reading, assumes presence, contact and a collapse of the comforting distance of documentation. It does not link subjects through formal narratives that settle bodies into social position and literary history; instead, reading in the flesh enforces interpersonal implication at the level of the mutable, variable body.
 . . .
It is the aim of this issue . . . to begin new conversations about embodied life, autonomous subjects, and the potentials and risks of social (inter)subjectivity. This is, finally, a collective yet varied effort to flesh out what it means to live, write, and read in the flesh.
The issue's contents are richly various, concerned with premodern flesh in many guises (human flesh -- dead, carnivalized, sexualized, hybrid -- manuscript's skin, the ‘translated’ flesh of vegetable matter, and so on) and you can see the Table of Contents here:

Editor's Introduction

  • "In the Flesh," Holly A. Crocker (University of South Carolina)


  • "Melting Flesh, Living Words," Jay Zysk (University of South Florida)
  • "The Temporal Excesses of Dead Flesh," Cynthia Turner Camp (University of Georgia)
  • "Carnival in The Merchant of Venice," Jonathan Goldberg (Emory University)
  • "The Curious Pleasures of the Heroic Corpse," Kathryn Schwarz (Vanderbilt University)
  • "Scattered Remains and Paper Bodies: Margaret Cavendish and the Siege of Colchester," Frances E. Dolan (University of California, Davis)
  • "Fleshing out the text: The Transcendent Manuscript in the Digital Age," Elaine Treharne (Stanford University)
  • "Spirited Flesh: The Animation and Hybridization of Flesh in the Early Modern Imaginary," Emily L. King (Vanderbilt University)
  • "Hi Mho Jhi Kudd: Thomas Stephens's Translated Flesh, or, Coconuts in Goa," Jonathan Gil Harris (Ashoka University)
I am also personally really stoked (yes, I said that) about the cover image for this issue, which comes from a photographer and artist, Sally Mann, I have long admired, ever since my days as an MFA student in Richmond, Virginia (1988-1992), when I first saw her work exhibited at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In our "About the Cover" feature on the journal's website, here is what I write about the image we chose:

I look, all the time, at the people and places I care about, and I look with both ardor and frank, aesthetic, cold appraisal. And I look with the passions of both eye and heart, but in that ardent heart, there must also be a splinter of ice. (Sally Mann)

The photograph on this issue's cover, Semaphore (2003), is from Sally Mann's Proud Flesh, a series of nude studies of her husband. Mann is considered one of the most important photographer-artists of the 20th and 21st centuries and her work is held in the most important museums in the world. From Immediate Family (1992), portraits of her children (many nude) which ignited great controversy for their frank capture of childhood's many spiritual and physical vulnerabilities, to What Remains (2003), a study of mortality, death and decay which included portraits of Mann's dead greyhound and also bodies from a forensic anthropology facility, to Proud Flesh (2009), which documents the progress of her husband's muscular dystrophy over a period of six years, Mann has produced a powerful body of work that documents both the stark beauty and haunting frailty of bodies and flesh. As this winter's issue, co-edited by Holly Crocker and Kathryn Schwarz, concerns itself with premodern flesh (human flesh -- dead, carnivalized, sexualized, hybrid -- manuscript's skin, the ‘translated’ flesh of vegetable matter, and so on) and the ways in which, as Crocker writes in her Introduction, flesh ‘is ever present’ and ‘the preoccupations it galvanizes are terrifyingly (and sometimes thrillingly) capacious,’ we felt that Mann's study of her husband's sublime body (under ‘affliction,’ as it were) provided a rare opportunity to join the premodern and the modern under the sign of the enduring in/human form, especially as Mann has employed here (and elsewhere) a 19th-century ‘wet plate’ process, in which glass plates are coated with collodion, dipped in silver nitrate, and exposed while still wet. But Mann takes this even a step further by adding imperfections to the final plates because she does not let the collodion go all the way to the edges, and thus her images often have the feel of the damaged ‘antique.’ This gives to her photographs what The New York Times has called ‘a swirling, ethereal image with a center of preternatural clarity.’ Of the work undertaken for the series of photographs that comprise Proud Flesh, which was partly a study of the aging body as well (Mann and her husband have been married for over 40 years), Mann has written, ‘Like Flaubert, two things are sacred to me in my process: impiety and perfection -- the former often hereditary, the latter always hard-won. Beyond the felicitous “unifying accidents” that occasionally grace the work, making art requires tenacity, a temperament born of an ungodly cross between a hummingbird and a bulldozer, and, most of all, practice. Practice looking.’

So, for your holiday-break pleasure, dig into some PREMODERN FLESH. [Yeah, I said that.]

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

This is Not My (or, Our) Time, so Please Take Ecstasy With Me: The Necessity of Generous Reading


for Jeffrey Cohen, Michael O'Rourke, and Karl Steel, scholars-in-arms

and also for Carolyn Dinshaw

As we navigate the ruins of [Bill] Readings’ university without condition and transgress the cross-hatches of disciplinary boundaries, we answer to a duty -- as Derrida reminds us, a responsibility to listen to others while subjecting ourselves to encounters with otherness. This is ongoing work however, because, as [Claude] Romano explains, “an encounter is not so much a ‘presentation’ (of two people) as a futurition. It has meaning only through the possibilities that it holds in reserve, which give it its future-loading.” These encounters are beginnings that never end because they “constantly defer” themselves by “opening ceaseless new possibilities.” Ruin is, as Jeffrey Cohen [has] brought home to us so beautifully [in his recent work] . . . “a going-from,” but as we go, we should be willing to take no end of risks.

~Michael O'Rourke, Response to "Parts, Wholes, and the New," conference panel organized by the Organism for Poetic Research, 2nd Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group, Boston 2012

The intimacy with an unknown body is the revelation of . . . distance at the very moment we appear to be crossing an uncrossable interval. Otherness, unlocatable within differences that can be known and enumerated, is made concrete in the eroticized touching of a body without attributes. A non-masochistic jouissance (one that owes nothing to the death drive) is the sign of the nameless, identity-free contact with an object I do not know and certainly do not love and which has, unknowingly, agreed to be momentarily the incarnated shock of otherness. In that moment we relate to that which transcends all relations.

~Leo Bersani, "Sociability and Cruising"

For a long time now, I have been thinking about what I am going to call -- for lack of a better phrase at present -- generous reading. It's this (utopic) (foolish) idea I have that, within the humanities and the university more broadly, we might actually devise a way to read the work of others -- even those we might disagree with for all sorts of reasons, or from whom we might feel disciplinarily (and otherwise) estranged -- with some sort of spirit of radical openness to what others are desiring to think and articulate at any given moment. I say quite purposefully -- desiring to think and articulate -- because I believe we put too little of a premium within our professional academic lives on actually caring about other persons' intellectual wishes and desires (what does he, she, they, want? what are they TRYING to say/do? what do they need from me?), and instead often approach others' work primarily from the route of how we think we might be able to utilize the "end products" of that work (positively or negatively) in our own scholarship, which scholarship (moreover) is often conceptualized along fairly narrow theoretical, methodological, temporal, disciplinary and other lines (for the important sake of "expertise," this is sometimes, and valuably, necessary). Let me clarify before proceeding so that it does not seem as if I am claiming that most of us supposedly work within overly "narrow" intellectual and other concerns and interests. I do not believe that and would like to further believe that most of us are on the lookout most of the time for new ideas, and new provocations to thought; it's just that, given the constraints of our lives (teaching schedules, personal lives, disciplinary boundaries that are not always easy to cross, and various other stresses and pressures), the amount of time we have to simply read other scholars' work simply for the purpose of answering the (hopefully) joyous question -- "I wonder what THIS is about?" -- feels (or maybe really is) unavailable.

So, for practical reasons (and I am, or have been, as guilty of this as anyone), we often read books and articles, etc. that we have vetted ahead of time to be "relevant" to whatever it is we are working on at any given moment. In addition, we often read these materials with an eye toward how they will aid or possibly hinder certain ideas and arguments we have already settled upon, and if we are open to being diverted from our (somewhat) settled notions, it is not without some discomfort that we change direction(s). Don't get me wrong (again) -- I think most of us welcome new ideas and new trajectories of thinking in our various fields of research (as spurs, especially, to deeper and more complex modes of reflection on our chosen subjects), but the willingness to be completely (100%) upended in our intellectual investments and most cherished frameworks of thought is another matter entirely. There is also simply the matter of what it might mean to simply ENJOY, or even just to value for their own sake, the projects of others, even when they have nothing to do with our own projects, or might even be at cross-purposes with them. That is why I feel compelled to write this post. Because sometimes I -- I mean we -- forget what it means to just wander into a museum, or a library, or a lecture, or a classroom, or an office, or a bar, or someone's living room, or a park (etc.), without pre-arranged intentions, and with some sort of radical commitment to the surprise of a, or the, stranger.

Because, you see, I actually believe that it should be the purpose of the humanities, especially, to foster and cultivate such enjoyment (which has no slight relation to "discipline"), and such radical hospitality, which is itself a call for more work to be created that would (and might) be enjoyed for its own sake (as opposed to: for your sake, or for the sake of your most cherished coterie of scholar-companions, or for the sake of your favored methodological approaches, etc.). I am mindful here of Richard Kearney’s recent work on “anatheism” (brought to my attention by Cary Howie) where he argues that poetics, and more importantly, the poetical “as if,” plays a crucial role in clearing “a landing site for the divine stranger without either prohibiting or mandating a landing” (Anatheism: Returning to God After God). This is the site of a radical hospitality to an Otherness that, when it arrives, might bring you flowers, or flaming arrows, but as a gesture that has agreed to loosen its grip on a too narrowly-imagined telos, the clearing of this site enacts an ethos of what I will call foolish generosity (or felicitous receptivity) that not only desires an encounter with the contingent and the fortuitous, but also believes that, without such clearings, we are left with an impoverished ontological imaginary, without which we will find it difficult to summon the inner resources necessary to, in a sense, loan ourselves out to others -- in short, to care about anything at all (and one hopes that the University would be a site of such care, of ourselves and others' eudaimonia, or flourishing, especially as recently formulated in Aranye Fradenburg et alia's book Staying Alive). As Jane Bennett puts it in The Enchantment of Modern Life, the work of “rendering oneself more open to the surprise of other selves and other bodies” and of being “willing and able to enter into productive assemblages with them” is a project of “cultivating a stance of presumptive generosity” -- it is an ethos that “emerges in conjunction with a picture of the world as a web of lively and mobile matter-forms of varying degrees of complexity."

And yet, much of modern life -- and of academic life, especially -- seems to be built upon the negotiation of various antagonistic differences that are not ever overcome (or positively ameliorated) so much as they are "tolerated" and/or are constantly pushed against. This is how Leo Bersani puts it in "Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject":
Negotiating difference has been the dominant relational mode in our culture. Such negotiations have primarily consisted in attempts to overcome or destroy difference or, at best, to tolerate it. Our most liberal injunction has been: learn to communicate (or pretend to communicate) with a world where differences practically guarantee failed communications. We have yet to elaborate the concrete steps (in education, in politics, in the practice of sociability, in the organization of living spaces) that might help to erase the hegemony of this relational regime and institute a relationality grounded in correspondences, in our at-homeness in the world’s being. 
What Bersani means by our "at-homeness in the world's being" is that (if only we could better see/feel this!), instead of thinking about the ways in which various "identities" populate the world (and thus also always striving to position ourselves in relation to these "identities," some seen as friendly, others as more threatening -- this is, in a sense, the foundation of all violence and war), we might, rather, grope our way toward a vision of the world as a "solidarity" of "positionings and configurations in space" -- a world, moreover, in which all of us are "inaccurately replicated everywhere" -- and thus difference is "not a trauma to be overcome," but is instead "the nonthreatening supplement to sameness" ("Against Monogamy"). For Bersani, the one realm that reveals and displays this world better than any other is art itself (painting, film, the novel, etc.), because it "gives us a model of the world as world, one we 'know' as aesthetic subjects thrown outward, 'defined' by relations that at once dissolve, disperse and repeat us" ("Against Monogamy").

Nothing is more absurd, Freud asserts in Civilization and Its Discontents, than what is perhaps the most cherished biblical commandment: 'Thou shalt love they neighbour as thyself.' This commandment, revered as 'one of the ideal demands' of civilised society, is 'really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man,' which Freud claims, dictates not that we love our neighbours, but rather that we exploit them, rape them, rob them, murder them.

~Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, "One Big Soul"

What would happen, then (Bersani asks), if we replaced the jouissance of always wanting to repress and overcome difference (think Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents and also Lacan's writing on that work, where the greatest pleasure comes from enjoying another's, and even our own, destruction) with the pleasure of finding ourselves "harbored" within that very same difference? Does this mean we all just slip away into some sort of groovy orgy of being awash in the "forms" of other persons and other persons' thoughts (even when those persons and their ideas might really feel "blergh" to us)? Not necessarily (and let's be clear right now that I am not encouraging people to jump into toxic lakes or to go dancing with neo-Nazi skinheads, so please shelve those objections now). But Bersani's question is important to me, personally, because I find that I have grown really weary of scholarship (and public intellectual debate) that is intent on either destroying/negating its supposed "opposition" and/or, at the very least, would like to make the case that the work that SOMEONE ELSE is doing is useless, not worthy of consideration, and maybe even (gasp!) harmful to the overall health and vigor of intellectual life itself (and these are all forms of debate, moreover, where nothing more is at stake than how to read Hamlet, or how to theorize the Middle Ages, or whether or not objects are always withdrawn or in relation with other objects, or whether or not the proper approach to the past is through invested affect or cool-headed rigor, etc.).

Let me reiterate (and I will do so, repeatedly, throughout this post), that I am not against disagreement or dissensus -- indeed, the health of any polis depends on it, and we can recall here the important lesson taught by Frederick Douglass:
If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. The want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. 
We must have disagreement and ideas can only move forward when they are tested against other, contrary ideas; I think we will have general agreement on this, but what I am wondering about now is whether or not these disagreements -- especially within the realm of the humanities, and the university more largely -- might not be couched and practiced within more generous frames of approach to others' work and with the (hopefully) shared and agreed-upon proviso that we do this work together: for and with each other. And as messy and complicated and at times painful as that "for and with each other" might (and will) be, not being willing to commit ourselves to the idea of the University as a shared endeavour (as opposed to the site of a continual, competitive agon) means that, at the exact moment that the public University is under pretty concerted siege by corporate, governmental, and other interests, we have decided to value individual achievement (or the achievement of one particular methodology or field) over the future of the University as a collectively-held institution and "public trust" (perhaps the last one) where it is still possible (and necessary), as Bill Readings argued in The University in Ruins, to raise the question of what being-together means, but not in any sort of conventional, traditional "community"-based way. Indeed, for Readings (and also for me), we cannot continue to cling to the post-Enlightenment idea of the University as mirroring some sort of ideal, rational community. There is rather something else we should be doing, and yet (paradoxically) it still requires some sort of "together-ness" (for WE are doing it, however incommensurately). Readings' argument is subtle and worth parsing out further for my own purposes here:
This claim for an ideal community in the University still exerts its power, despite its glaring inaccuracy -- evident to anyone who ever sat on a faculty committee. I argue that we should recognize that the loss of the University's cultural function [as a model of rational community, a microcosm of the pure form of the public sphere] opens up a space in which it is possible to think the notion of community otherwise, without recourse to notions of unity, consensus, and communication. At this point, the University becomes no longer a model of the ideal society but rather a place where the impossibility of such models can be thought -- practically thought, rather than thought under ideal conditions. Here the University loses its privileged status as the model of society and does not regain it by becoming the absence of such models. Rather, the University becomes one site among others where the question of being-together is raised, raised with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question for the past three centuries or so.
So we will agree that agreeing is impossible -- it is not even the point, and shouldn't be, for dissensus is productive -- but we might commit ourselves nevertheless to this "community otherwise." This will entail various forms of self-disinterested generosity and a radical listening to and for the Other in order to see what happens, not when my, our your thought, "trumps" anyone else's, but instead, what happens when we tip over into another's world, and then, well, just anything could happen. This is also a model of responsibility to others -- we take responsibility for the possibility of each other's thought and work. (And I suppose, I have to admit here, too, that for my own career -- such as it is, whatever that is -- I favor a methodology of "getting lost" in other persons' thought and I'm not so interested -- again, personally -- in the model of tensive academic discourse, being more the type who likes, again, to disappear into others' thinking, to groovily dissolve into Otherness, and thus I am more of an "amour fou" academic, and that's just me.) This speaks, then, as well, to Readings' argument for, not a University made up of disciplines, but a "shifting disciplinary structure that holds open the question of where and how thoughts fit together." This is also to remember Foucault's challenge, in "The Order of Discourse," that we do not yet have a theory that would enable us "to think the relations between chance and thought."

There are so many examples of the sort of combative (and even aggressive) scholarship and public-intellectual bloviating that I could provide, and I think many of us are very familiar with the genre without me having to provide an exhaustive bibliography. But one needs some cases in point (we academics love our exempla, after all, and it is only fair to provide them). I could gesture to the many exchanges that have erupted in the blogosphere, but also in more conventional print media, over the past several years, relative to various trajectories of thought within Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) and Speculative Realism (SR) and all of its associated off-shoots -- these are schools (or, more properly speaking, strains) of thought that would appear to make a lot of people so uncomfortable that it is not out of the ordinary to hear their proponents (figures such as Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, and Timothy Morton, for example) being accused of being less than sincere in their intellectual commitments (as if they were embracing some sort of hucksterism and fog-speak just because it's good for their careers; it should be noted, at the same time, that the dogmatic and even highly-stylized nature of some of these very same thinkers' own writings leave them wide open to vigorous, and at times, rancorous counter-critique -- for myself, this "style" is not a problem; indeed, it makes their work more interesting and frankly, more generative of more thought). More recently, one might consult Nathan Brown's recent review of Timothy Morton's Realist Magic in Parrhesia, in which Brown is both sympathetic to portions of Harman's work while also raising a vigorous polemic against the work which follows in its "foggy" wake, such as Morton's book, viewed as a text from which one cannot hope to learn anything at all. Jon Cogburn's blog-response to Brown's review, "How Not to Engage With Other Humanists," raises some interesting and valuable concerns about the dangers of "policing" other people's thinking, but because he mistakenly believes Nathan Brown to be a philosophy professor (he is, in fact, a professor of English), the entire critique falls apart because it is predicated on the argument that philosophers, in general, are not generous to literary theorists (especially within the context of the history of the whole Continental/analytic split within Philosophy as a discipline). Interestingly, both Nathan Brown and Jon Cogburn have scholarly and intellectual commitments to thinking through some of these new post-Continental and realist philosophies, and thus it is hoped that: 1) Nathan Brown might not just automatically assume that Timothy Morton is a fraud, doing what he does only because it is "popular," and somehow very knowingly so, and 2) Jon Cogburn would also read Nathan Brown more sympathetically in terms of who he really is and where he is coming from in his critique of Morton's work. It is in the charges that other scholars somehow have bad motives in their work that I am most concerned.

In this vein, one could also point to Alexander Galloway's essay in Critical Inquiry earlier this year, "The Poverty of Philosophy and Post-Fordism," where Galloway argues that recent strands of philosophical realism somehow “ventriloquize the current industrial arrangement,” have no real relation to or alignment with material history (and are therefore amoral and “dangerous” and even falsely "materialist"), and that “there is little to differentiate the new philosophical realism from the most austere forms of capitalist realism,” and therefore these new modes of realist thinking are “politically retrograde.” Part of the problem with Galloway’s argument is the assumption that SR and OOO (and even Actor-Network Theory) flatten everything out in their ontologies such that all objects are just as “meaningless” or “absolute” as every other object, which is a real distortion of the work that has been done by figures such as Jane Bennett, Levi Bryant, Graham Harman, Bruno Latour, and others. So the real problem here, for me, is not whether or not Galloway is "on board" with Object-Oriented Ontology (he certainly does not need to be and it might also be interesting, and helpful, for the so-called "new realists" to have pointed out to them the ways in which various strains of OOO thinking might dovetail, and in worrisome ways, with certain "industrial arrangements") -- the larger problem is the accusation of amorality along with the misrepresentation of what these thinkers are actually doing and saying, because to lift some of their thought out of its larger (always more rich and complex and never commensurate) contexts serves the purpose of Galloway's austerely conceptualized (and thus elegant, but still distorted) argument.

It has to be admitted as well that this lack of generosity in reading others' work comes from all corners and that some within SR and OOO are just as ungenerous in their assessment of others' work (Morton on Laurelle, for example, or Harman and Latour on postmodern European theory, where they seriously misrepresent the so-called "linguistic turn," etc.). Again, let us PLEASE have disagreement, but maybe with the willingness to not shave off the parts of other persons' work that don't serve your rhetorical purposes and also with some sort of minimal-threshold understanding that other scholars do not wake up in the morning and, over their coffee and toast, declare, "today I will hoodwink everyone with my flim-flam fog-machine in order to get more plenary talk invitations." Every scholar, no matter what their primary subject matter (OOO, SR, Laurelle, queer studies, feminism, etc.), have passions as well as real intellectual commitments guided by those passions, and please do not try to separate the two (our "work" and our "desires" -- our secret, inner lives, which are inchoate, like our writings -- cannot be separated, and to try to do so is an act of violence, against ourselves and against others). We do not take our own work lightly (and what else do we have, alongside this work, other than our relationships, with each other, with other others, etc.?) and we risk much in the making of this work for no real material rewards whatsoever -- can we not grant this reality to others as well (or do professional and other jealousies and fears and insecurities, and the lack of enough footholds within the university for everyone who wants one of those, mean that we always have to assume bad motives on the part of others whose work is, somehow, gaining ground, or going in a different direction than we want to go)?

Within medieval studies, I have personally been dismayed at invectives that have been leveled against: 1) affective approaches to the study of the past, 2) the supposedly "wrong" kind of [supposedly too self-knowingly fashionable and therefore not-smart] theory, and 3) the newer "materialisms" (such as OOO). It dismays me to say that two names in particular crop up here -- D. Vance Smith and Andrew Cole -- more specifically, in their pieces (written separately and together),
1. D. Vance Smith, "The Application of Thought to Medieval Studies: The Twenty-First Century," Exemplaria 22.1 (2010): 85-94.

2. Andrew Cole and D. Vance Smith, "Introduction: Outside Modernity," in Cole and Smith, eds., The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

3. Andrew Cole, "The Call of Things: A Critique of Object-Oriented Ontologies," minnesota review 80 (2013): 106-116.
I should begin by saying that the scholarly oeuvre of both of these scholars is quite formidable and that I admire both of them for their writing and mastery of their subjects (which are richly various). Indeed, when I was in graduate school, one of my most cherished essays, that I read many times over, was Smith's "Irregular Histories: Forgetting Ourselves," published in a special issue of New Literary History in 1997 that Smith edited with Michael Uebel, which issue also comprised really important seminal theoretical essays in medieval studies by Jeffrey Cohen, Steven Kruger, Aranye Fradenburg, Robert Clark + Claire Sponsler, and Sarah Stanbury, among others. This issue, in fact, was one of the chief influences upon the formation of the journal postmedieval, and Myra Seaman and I said as much in our prospectus for that journal when we first founded it in 2009.

Having said that, however, my reading, over the past several years, of the three above-cited pieces, has given me no little sense of discomfort and dismay, NOT because I do not agree with Smith and Cole as they present their views in these essays -- I do not need to agree, and I value disagreement (it has certainly helped my own work when others have pushed me to, as they say, "think again") -- but because of: 1) the negative (and even self-satisfied) tone of dismissal of others' work -- which work, moreover, is not always represented fully enough in all of its original complexity, and which is then also regarded, outside of its most full context, as either not worth considering/pursuing at all and/or as possibly even being "dangerous" (and given that a university should foster all forms of inquiry, even when they "fail," this bothers me and smacks of the sort of gate-keeping I think we should work vigorously to overthrow); 2) what I would call bad-faith assumptions that are made regarding the motives (or supposed bad motives) of these essays' critical targets; and 3) the ways in which all three of these pieces, in different ways, assume there is always a better way to do theory within medieval studies, as opposed to assuming that we need a multiplicity -- if even an unruly and not-fully-rational multiplicity -- of theoretical approaches to our studies, even if those are not, nor can ever be, commensurate with each other (I will note here that Bruce Holsinger has a critique of Object-Oriented Ontology in the same issue of minnesota review that models a much more fully engaged and generous critique, to which Harman also responded HERE, calling Holsinger's criticism "warm and positive"). I urge everyone who has not read these pieces already to do so (if you are so inclined) and to not necessarily take my word without first judging for yourself what I am going to say next, for I am not going to offer synopses of any of these pieces (as regards #2, such has already been done by Kathleen Biddick and Aranye Fradenburg, for example, in The Medieval Review and Studies in the Age of Chaucer, respectively).

It is always good to put one's cards on the table, to be as honest as possible, even if that means risking embarrassment (in academia, it seems, many like to play their cards "close to the vest," but I am giving that up, for good), and so I will say that -- whether this is obvious or not, to some -- that I have personal and professional investments in the objects of critique of all 3 of these essays (to whit, affective approaches to the past, postmodern medievalism studies, and object-oriented ontologies), so that definitely colors my responses to them. One could say I am predisposed to be uncharitable in advance to these pieces. It's important to admit our personal and other investments, because sometimes: critique hurts. This isn't really about the work as much as it is as about the persons attached to the work, the persons who make the work. Which is why, to be honest (again), when I read Smith's "Application of Thought" essay and realized he was, in a rather clever (respectful, yet at the same time harshly critical) way, dissing the work of Carolyn Dinshaw (more precisely, her book Getting Medieval), a part of me was, like, "no, you dih'unt!" Cause I love her work. WORD. This is my way of saying that, of course, I initially resist anyone critiquing my so-called intellectual heroes, but I am also willing to step back and say, "hang on a minute, maybe there are some reasons we should be cautious when employing affective approaches to the past," and Smith's essay is richly instructive on this point. BUT, his essay is not content to just point out the possible limitations of work on affect within medieval studies (which cautions might then better instruct those of us who wish to pursue these approaches). Instead, he has to go further and say that some medieval scholars’ desire for “relevance has come at a cost of a creeping anti-intellectualism” (there is that uncharitable idea, again, that some scholars do what they do so they can be "hip," as if their intellectual commitments are shallow and cravenly opportunistic), and in the work of certain scholars, such as Dinshaw, who are interested, especially, in self-reflexivity, affect, and the haptic in relation to crafting new historiographical methodologies, Smith worries further that, although Dinshaw’s work possesses scholarly “rigor,” its style and method is ultimately “inimitable” (because a “scrupulous adherence” to its call for the importance of incommensurability would render imitation impossible, as if that would be the point of following in Dinshaw’s footsteps, anyway).

What Smith is really concerned about, it appears, is that “the danger of valuing affect so highly is that doing so attributes to it an epistemological and even ontological difference so radical as to exclude other categories of representation—that is, to deny these other categories the difference necessary to their work of identification and representation.” As if feeling has to be opposed to, or forecloses, thinking (when in fact there is no such thing as thinking that is not also feeling). And further, “the installment of affect as an historiographical mode” might even be “insidious,” a product, ultimately, of our own “self-interest” and “narcissism.” But who says this is exactly the case—that affect’s epistemological and ontological difference is so “radical” that it excludes other categories of representation? Certainly not Dinshaw, nor, really, any of us who work on affect, the haptic, queer historiographical modes, etc. (it should be pointed out that the work of Nicholas Watson also comes under scrutiny in this review essay, and that the "creeping anti-intellectualism" that supposedly infects/harms medieval studies in the 21st century, due to some scholars' desires for "relevance" at the cost of, I guess, intelligence, is attached to a lot of other scholars' work whose names are, for better or worse, not mentioned directly). Regardless, these are the words that hang in the air after reading such a review: creeping anti-intellectualism, insidious, self-interest, narcissism. What brought the critic -- D. Vance Smith -- to such a judgment? Does he think so little of those who labor beside him in medieval studies, or does he feel the necessity of enacting a pedagogical correction to his fellow scholars, a little tonic for what ails them? Can he not simply point out what he sees as the possible theoretical and other quagmires of the affective approaches to the past without also impugning the persons who take up these approaches in their work? Are they, or their methods, really so "insidious"? Are there good reasons (I can't think of many) to limit thought in this way? Is the "application of thought," then, some sort of reverse amplificatio, where we cut and hone and whittle ourselves (and our minds) down to the bone of some sort of pure rational thinking, shorn of its many bodies? Thinking, as neuroscience has shown, is always embodied. And I think we risk much when we try to evade that fact.

As regards the other two pieces -- the Introduction to Cole and Smith's The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages and Cole's critique of object-oriented ontologies, I will just highlight two small moments -- small, but nevertheless reflective of what might be called the critically severe tendencies of both pieces. In their Introduction, "Outside Modernity," which essentially makes the claim that the history of theory in the 20th century is not really complete unless one takes into account the Heiddegerian, Hegelian and Marxist traditions that have both contributed to the "making" of modernity (as a historical-theoretical concept) and have also been entangled, in various (and important) ways, with medieval thought and culture (and who would argue with this? not me), they also argue that those within medieval studies who are interested in critical temporality studies (Dinshaw again comes under harsh scrutiny here) are engaged in studies that are simply not worthwhile if they don't take these German traditions into account because they are more interested in "affirm[ing] the novelty of this or that new methodology" -- so once again we have the idea here that some scholars are just interested in things that are shiny and new, even if they might also be stupid. More troubling though, for me, is the idea that there is only one way -- only one set of trade routes -- by which to trace the history of the development of theory in the modern era. So, you either trace it through Marx, Hegel, and Heiddeger and in contradistinction to Hans Blumenberg (etc.), or you must not be doing it right. "Modernity," of course, has many different landing-places, many different points of entry, and also of definition, struggles over definition, and redefinition. Why not craft an argument that certain routes to historicizing the development of theory in modernity have been overlooked, but this does not necessarily make every other historicization posed thus far inadequate? Would our field not be better served by the idea that all of us, from various routes, are building this history together, and that it isn't just -- and can't be -- one approach or the other? Nor is there even one, totalizing history: I thought we rejected this idea a long time ago as rightfully oppressive.

Related to this sort of sweeping (dismissive) gesture, in his essay in minnesota review, "The Call of Things: A Critique of Object-Oriented Ontologies," I am not so much concerned with Cole's cautionary concerns regarding the claims of OOO and other "new materialist" + "vitalist" + ANT (Actor-Network Theory), etc. theorists such as Graham Harman, Jane Bennett and Bruno Latour (Harman himself responded generously HERE), and I also think some of his cautions have already been laudably advanced by scholars such as Liza Blake, Juliet Fleming, Nicola Masciandaro, and Kellie Robertson, among others (so he is not alone within premodern studies in raising critical concerns). What concerns me more is his statement at the end of his essay, that,
critiques of object-oriented ontology and speculative realism, of actor-network theory and vitalism, have yet to emerge from the field of medieval studies, apart from the essays collected in this issue of minnesota review. Perhaps when the thrill of object-oriented ontology wanes in this field, some medievalists will not limit themselves to the “application” of its ideas and the mimicking of its lyricism in the reading of medieval texts and will instead show what it means for a new philosophy to be built almost entirely on the exclusion of the Middle Ages.
Interestingly, Cole himself invokes the idea of "generous reading" just after this, in order to admirably urge these "new philosophies" to take the Middle Ages into account (or else risk historical and other types of intellectual incoherence), and yet he himself completely sets aside the fact that, at least since 2010, premodernists and quite a few of the "new realists" have been working together on just such critiques and reformulations of the new materialisms (go HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE, for several such examples, but there are many more, including THIS, not to mention like a gadjillion blog posts and conference presentations he could have accessed, read and cited, but chose not to, perhaps because those media do not have the proper scholarly "cred"). But Cole is obviously, from his remarks cited above, aware that medievalists have been working on these new trajectories of thought, and he does not believe they (and who ARE "they," again?) have been critical enough, as they are under some sort of "thrill/thrall" in which they have (supposedly) lost their critical faculties due to their (one imagines, unscholarly) desires to "mimick" the "lyricism" of these new writings (and we're to be on our guard against lyricism, which is to say, poetics?). First, which work, more specifically, is he referring to? He doesn't say, and therein lies the rub. This is not only not generous on his part; it is also underhanded and slightly less than honest, a sort of bully-tactic in which the so-called "victims" of his attack have no recourse to respond. There can thus be no dialogue, no conversation . . . no approach, no drawing-near, no solidarity of any sort, however dissensual.

"Take ecstasy with me" . . . becomes a request to stand out of time together, to resist the stultifying temporality and time that is not ours, that is saturated with violence both visceral and emotional.

~José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity

Where do we do from here? How about if you go your way, and I go mine, but we somehow do this in solidarity? I want to call everyone's attention to an extraordinary blog post (to which Julie Orlemanski first alerted me) by Chris Taylor, a young Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago, "Going My Way?", in which Chris worries that, "Our impulse to critique, and our conversion of critique into mere criticism, is fucking us up. Sometimes I feel like we’ve imported modes of cultural critique subtended by a hermeneutics of suspicion into our relations with one another with the effect that we listen to one another to hear why we shouldn’t listen to one another." Further, he writes, or I should he say, he proposes,
It begins with a question, one rarely asked and so rarely responded to. Neither articulated nor answered, the question persists as an inchoate feeling for and vague orientation toward another. If we were to give voice to this question, to make it explicit, we would thematize the mystery of this orientation, this feeling-for-another that puts us in hesitant proximity with one another. The question might be phrased as “Going my way?” What this question inaugurates through its inarticulation is the astonishingly robust and ridiculously fragile collectivity that we are, whoever we are. In not asking this question explicitly, we refuse to ask it once and once only, we refuse to thematize a foundational orientation that would determine, once and for all, who we are. We’re not a party, no arche or nomos secures to us our identity as ourselves, and in refusing to ground our collectivity through an inaugural determination of who we are and what we want, we commit ourselves to the tense and uncertain work of feeling toward and with one another. We are nothing but the uncertain feeling that we’re oriented toward one another in our orientations toward something else. That we’re inclined toward one another in the multiplicity of our inclinations.

. . .

The decision to repair instead of reject, to treat as flawed friend rather than infallibly flawed enemy, to (re)produce a fraying relation instead of developing an allergy, is ultimately organized by fictions of intention, sincerity, possibility, and so on. We feel that we’re inclined toward one another, that we’re going the same way, and this basic affect/orientation makes non-allergic critique both possible and necessary. We imagine we’re going the same way even if we sometimes decline from one another or swerve away into terrible things. We survive through these fictions. We live on them and through them for the simple reason that we are all too wounded by this world to not carry fucked-up-ness with us in ways we can’t even know without the rigorous, critical, sustaining, and enriching help of our revolutionary friends. 
We might also admit -- especially those of us who work within historical studies -- that not only are we all going in different directions (not all of them necessarily good, rational -- but oh god is "rational" over-valued -- useful, productive, etc.), but that we never inhabit the same time, and that even when we talk of time, of specific temporalities, specific locations in time, specific periods, etc., that none of these times are our time. Our time is a different time altogether -- one that we make together as we wend in different directions, in and out of each other's work (and lives) that may, or may not be, always hospitable to us and our own proclivities of thought (and feeling). We sometimes forget that we can also choose our own time, a lesson powerfully taught to us in the work of José Esteban Muñoz, who tragically departed from us, too soon, on the 4th of this month, and who wrote in his book Cruising Utopia, that "the here and now is a prison house," and that we must "strive, in the face of a here and now's totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel the then and there." For Munoz, queerness, especially, was an "insistence on potentiality" or the "concrete possibility of another world."

Might we work better, then, on behalf of this potentiality and another world -- not just for ourselves, personally, but for each other? I, then, would work on your potentiality, and you, why, you would work on mine. Here, there would be plenty of disagreeing about all sorts of things, but there would be no aggressively competitive agon in which, in order for my ideas to succeed, your ideas have to be smashed by my sleekly-designed hammer (the shattering of which ideas would give me a certain thrill). For I am so tired, so weary, of all the ways in which people within the University -- for reasons of selfishness, insecurity, small-mindedness, whathaveyou -- either stand in the ways of others' desires to accomplish something, or do not lend a hand to help those who are striving to add something to the world, rather than to subtract things. This is not to say there would be no agony, no difficult striving, no pain, no struggle. Indeed, although the book is not yet in my hands, it appears that Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman's new book, Sex, or the Unbearable, admirably performs this very dialogic struggle, as they explain in their Preface:
Sex, or the Unbearable is . . . an experiment in the forms of theoretical production. It proceeds from the belief that dialogue may permit a powerful approach to negativity, since dialogue has some of the risk and excitement we confront in the intimate encounter. Not for nothing does the OED list “communication” and “conversation” as the primary meanings of intercourse. In its dialogic structure, then, this book takes shape as collaboration, argument, and exploration at once. It belongs to an experimental genre in which theory, politics, and close textual analysis encounter the pedagogical necessity of responding to the provocations of otherness. Dialogue commits us to grappling with negativity, nonsovereignty, and social relation not only as abstract concepts but also as the substance and condition of our responses—and our responsibilities—to each other.
Again, this idea of responsibility -- that we have some responsibility for the development of each other's thought, not in order to help shape it in order to align it with our own (in some happy consensus model), but to be willing to enter into the other's provocations without a desire for being sovereign in the encounter, which, of necessity, will always be difficult. But this is also an invitation, I want to believe, following Muñoz's thought, to stand somewhere else together -- somewhere that is neither your time, nor my own, but another time outside of this one altogether (call it the ideal University). This might be a place of joy and pleasure in which we refuse the current relational and disciplinary regimes that insist we pose our desires against each other and instead experience together what it means to leave ourselves behind in favor of a new relationality -- a new touching, a new communication, a new encounter -- that would, in Bersani's idiom, transcend all relations. So take ecstasy with me, and futurize with me. There is another way.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Signs Taken as Wonders: Žižek and the Apparent Interpreter


[Hi ITM readers: This posting also appears on the blog for “Reorienting Disability,” a seminar that Julie Orlemanski and I are organizing for the New Chaucer Society Congress in Iceland in July 2014. We invite anyone with interests in medieval disability to follow along and join in on the conversations that unfold there, even if you aren't attending the conference!]

In this posting, I’d like to respond to an increasingly complex story about the “fake sign language interpreter” at a highly publicized memorial for Nelson Mandela. As reported by the Associated Press:

[Thamsanqa] Jantjie told the AP last week he has schizophrenia and hallucinated, seeing angels while gesturing incoherently just 3 feet away from President Barack Obama and other world leaders during the Tuesday ceremony at a Soweto stadium. Signing experts said his arm and hand movements were mere gibberish. (16 Dec 2013)

Deaf communities in South Africa and worldwide have justifiably perceived Jantje’s faux-signing as an insult or affront (see HERE and HERE, for instance), but Slavoj Žižek claims in his remarks in the Guardian (read the whole piece HERE) that hearing people can find the mere bodily presence of the sign interpreter at an event like this in self-congratulatory terms, regardless of whether the signing is meaningful or not:

Now we can see why Jantjie's gesticulations generated such an uncanny effect once it became clear that they were meaningless: what he confronted us with was the truth about sign language translations for the deaf – it doesn't really matter if there are any deaf people among the public who need the translation; the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good. (Guardian, 16 Dec 2013)

While this overstated critique—which seems to reflect more upon Žižek’s view of the government than the issue at hand— is perceptive in some ways, this discourse (however it is intended) still has the effect of speaking for a “‘public’ or ‘us’ [that] does not seem to include the deaf or disabled,” as Rick Godden has stated (in the Facebook discussion that precipitated this blog posting). Indeed, Žižek doesn’t use the term “disabled” in this piece, as if to avoid directly invoking or including them as such (he uses the terms “underprivileged and hindered” and later “marginalised and handicapped”). Žižek—in order to score irony-laden political points—rhetorically “[renders] deaf people unimaginable and unencounterable” (as Chris Piuma nicely pointed out). And the signifying force of the interpreter is reduced, as Julie Orlemanski stated (again, via Facebook conversation): “his interpretation dissolves the ‘signifier’ of deaf people to get to the ‘signified’ of ‘poor, black South Africans’ as explosive ‘collective political agent’ (i.e., the ‘aliens’).

This story is complex and a wider entanglement of other sociopolitical issues remain to be explored where disability is concerned: what emerges here is that a story seemingly “about” one kind of disability perceptible via outer actions (deafness) is implicated in another: the much more difficult-to-discern external manifestations of schizophrenia and mental illness. I should state here that I align deafness and schizophrenia under the umbrella of “disability” here only provisionally. There are vigorous debates within the disability community about the implications of drawing varied kinds of physical impairment and mental illness into the same interpretive and political category. Does mental illness or a chronic condition qualify as disability? Are the deaf even disabled or a linguistic minority within a hearing majority?[1]

What interests me is how such misperceptions about the meaning of this “fake signing” arise. This is not about “hearing vs. deaf communities” per se but a dynamic relation between them: two simultaneous modes of perception and meaning-making that only sometimes overlap with one another. An interpreter—in order to be an interpreter—does not stand squarely in the world of the hearing or the world of the deaf; she or he must necessarily inhabit both worlds concurrently. Rather than embodied lingua franca, two worlds (is it just two?) encounter a disconcerting lingua incognita and register a sequence of alien signs in divergent ways. Deaf viewers perceive the gibberish as mockery; hearing people (at least those unaccustomed to sign language) see the “exotic” hand movements no differently than they see other signed languages—and project whatever misconceptions or fantasies they might have upon it.

So why am I writing about this on a medieval studies blog? I am thinking about Žižek’s strange discourse of miracle and wonder that emerges halfway through the piece: “What lurked behind these concerns was the feeling that Thamsanqa Jantjie's appearance was a kind of miracle—as if he had popped up from nowhere, or from another dimension of reality.” This sense of encountering alien embodiment as miracle makes me consider how wonder in contemporary disability studies and premodern culture operates as an ethically charged force. While Žižek is attempting some sort of social critique, I’m more sympathetic to criticism that more earnestly expresses its investment in the lives of people with disabilities or whose bodes otherwise read as unfathomable. In a foundational essay on ethical beholding, feminist and disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson shifts attention from the “starer” in any encounter to the “staree” who is perceived as “different” in her embodiment. Garland-Thomson observes that the “stareable body” can act not as a mere object (of wonder, marvel, or disgust) but as a transformative agent, a catalyst for meaningful social change.[2]

This notion of an ethical beholding of an extraordinary body yielding transformative effects resonates so well with medieval hagiography and its host of angelic and otherworldly messengers. In interviews Jantje reports hallucinating and communicating with angels, and Žižek briefly amplifies the effects of these statements to apparently dismiss them and move on discuss other things. However perceptive his points might be (in general), I can’t help but feel that Žižek risks romanticizing lived schizophrenia—not to mention deafness—as a set of mysteriously unknowable experiences that ultimately serve no other purpose than to signify for “us” (the so-called “normative” majority). This still leads back to wonder: the question of what—or how—disability signifies.

[Ruth Evans posted this great response to this story on Facebook: Note that the guy purported to be having a "schizophrenic" episode, which Zizek does not follow up on (his purpose had nothing to do with Jantjie's mental state), but there are interesting things to say about this. According to Darian Leader (What is Madness?), the paranoiac often presents themselves as "the sole interpreter" of a law or knowledge, but the schizophrenic wants to communicate that "there has been a change,", so the choice of a meaningless sign language seems especially apposite: Jantjie was not interpreting a truth but registering change (his own; South Africa's) and allowing himself, through this weird performance, to structure his world. To see this as an affront to deaf people is to assume that he was there as an official interpreter (was he?) and to ignore the need that schizophrenics have to make sense of their world.]

I realize this is more than an issue of linguistic misperception and this story’s entanglement with mental illness is very complex (various reports suggest he was institutionalized at some point and had other gigs as sign interpreter)—but these unexamined discourses of wonder in Žižek’s response strike me as requiring closer consideration.

I’ll end here with some thoughts on what this whole story might say for those of us interested in disability studies and/or scholarship on premodern culture and theory. I might venture to say that medievalists and others working on historically distant cultures try to cultivate a generous understanding of the perceived alterity of minds and experiences in the distant past. As Julie Orlemanski has stated in an article on leper-kissing in postmedieval, putting premodern culture and contemporary theory in conversation enacts a complex “interface” between worldviews (see HERE), and Alison Hobgood and Houston Wood (in their intro to Recovering Disability in Early Modern England) urge a mode of scholarship in which premodern culture and contemporary disability studies “generously behold the other” (10) (see HERE). If we actually restore deafness and schizophrenia into this discussion perhaps a more ethically transformative understanding can emerge. This story serves as a reminder to be attentive to the communicative and transformative potential of all minds and embodied experiences—even if (or particularly if) they are perceived as alien.

[CORRECTION: The original posting had the word "singing" a few times when "signing" was intended. I've since corrected the typo. A provocative transmodal typo, but a typo nonetheless!]

[1] For instance these varied perspectives in the Disability Studies Reader, 4th Edn, ed. Lennard Davis (Routledge 2013): Margaret Price on defining mental disability, Bradley Lewis on the “Mad Pride” movement, Catherine Prendergast on the “unexceptional schizophrenic,” and Susan Wendell on chronic illness.
[2] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford UP, 2009), esp. 194.

Monday, December 09, 2013

12 Days of Mordor: A Rendition


(first, perhaps you are looking to buy books this holiday season. How about this one?)

A couple days ago, Geoffrey Chaucer suggested we spice up song titles with an added "Mordor." So let's blame Chaucer, as we always do, for what my wife and I concocted after Saturday's dinner, which was:

On the twelfth day of Mordor
My Precious gave to me:
Twelve balrogs burning
Eleven Uruk sieging
Ten stewards stewing
Nine Nazgûl sniffing
Eight legs of Shelob
Seven dwarves a-delving
Sméagol and Déagol
Five Istari
Four hobbit lads
Three Elf Lords
Two Palantír
and in darkness to bind them, one ring!

If you're on fb, be sure to read the comments and join in the snarking (I know, I know: Palantíri). The great Chris Clarke was predictably brilliant (see also this). Improvements are encouraged!

credit goes mostly to my wife, Alison Kinney, but I'll happily claim any errors.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Be Careful on the Runway: ON STYLE: AN ATELIER


Style, more than species, is what distinguishes the howl of the wolves saluting the moon from the songs of the neighborhood dogs rising over fences and alleyways. 
~Valerie Vogrin 

Aesthetic form is a spellbinding (or not) attempt to transmit and circulate affect, without which not much happens at all. 
~L.O. Aranye Fradenburg

I am THRILLED to announce today that we have finally published ON STYLE: AN ATELIER, edited by myself and Anna Klosowska, with the assistance of Mon. Sparkles Joy [who may be the first Papillon to be listed as an assistant editor on an academic book, but he IS an expert on fashion, after all: Ask Mon. Sparkles Joy]. The volume comprises essays presented on two linked panels that addressed the intersections between scholarship and style, co-organized by Anne Clark Bartlett and myself, at the 2010 International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan and the first meeting of the BABEL Working Group in Austin, Texas in 2010. Contributors include: Valerie Allen, Gila Aloni, Kathleen Biddick, Ruth Evans, Jessica Roberts Frazier, Anna Klosowska, Christine Neufeld, Michael Snediker, and Valerie Vogrin.

PLEASE REMEMBER that all punctum books are open-access and free to download [and are also available in handsome print editions], and that open access is NEVER EVER NEVER free. So much uncompensated time and labor goes into each punctum volume, and I urge you to understand that open-access initiatives cannot and will not thrive unless all of us recognize our responsibility to help make that the case. When you go to download the book there is a pop-up window that asks you to consider making a donation to the press. PLEASE DO. Do not send me flowers or chocolates or diamonds for the holidays, although I love getting those from all of you each year. Instead, please help me make my dreams come true by donating something, no matter how small, to punctum books.

I will share with everyone here my short Preface to the book, and also Anna Klosowska's delicious "Reader's Guide":

On Style: A Prefatory Note

Scholarship in medieval studies of the past 20 or so years has offered some provocative experiments in, and elegant exempla of, style. Medievalists such as Anne Clark Bartlett, Kathleen Biddick, Catherine Brown, Brantley Bryant, Michael Camille, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Carolyn Dinshaw, James Earl, L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, Roberta Frank, Amy Hollywood, Cary Howie, C. Stephen Jaeger, Eileen Joy, Anna Kłosowska, Nicola Masciandaro, Peggy McCracken, Paul Strohm, David Wallace, and Paul Zumthor, among others, have blended the conventions of academic writing with those of fiction, drama, memoir, comedy, polemic, and lyricism, and/or have developed what some would describe as elegant, and arresting (and in some cases, deliciously difficult) prose styles. As these registers merge, they can produce what has been called a queer historiographical encounter (or in queer theorist Elizabeth Freeman’s terms, “an erotohistoriography”), a “poetics of intensification,” and even a “new aestheticism.” The work of some of these scholars has also opened up debates (some rancorous) that often install what the editors of this volume feel are false binaries between form and content, feeling and thinking, affect and rigor, poetry and history, attachment and critical distance, enjoyment and discipline, style and substance.

In his essay, “The Application of Thought to Medieval Studies: The Twenty-First Century”—Exemplaria 22.1 (2010): 85–94—D. Vance Smith worries that some medieval scholars’ desire for “relevance has come at a cost of a creeping anti-intellectualism,” and in the work of certain scholars, such as Carolyn Dinshaw in her book Getting Medieval (1999), who are interested, especially, in self-reflexivity, affect, and the haptic, Smith worries further that, although Dinshaw’s work possesses scholarly “rigor,” its style and method is ultimately “inimitable” (because a “scrupulous adherence” to its call for the importance of incommensurability would render imitation impossible, as if that would be the point of following in Dinshaw’s footsteps, anyway). What Smith is really concerned about, it appears (from this essay, anyway) is that “the danger of valuing affect so highly is that doing so attributes to it an epistemological and even ontological difference so radical as to exclude other categories of representation—that is, to deny these other categories the difference necessary to their work of identification and representation.” And further, “the installment of affect as an historiographical mode” might even be “insidious,” a product, ultimately, of our own “self-interest” and “narcissism.” But who says this is exactly the case—that affect’s epistemological and ontological difference is so “radical” that it excludes other categories of representation? Certainly not Dinshaw, nor, really, any of us who work on affect, the haptic, queer historiographical modes, etc. And regardless, as Anna Kłosowska writes in her contribution to this volume,
The question of style, as it applies to medieval studies, is precisely the overcoming of that dichotomy between Nature and Man: a third element. And when the critique proceeds through the denunciation of the inimitability of someone’s style, as if it were the third sex, ungenerative, queer, sterile, sodomitic, lesbian, etc., the critic unconsciously puts his finger on exactly what style is; but that critic is mistaken about the style’s supposedly non-generative powers. In fact, style, neither fact nor theory but facilitating the transition between the two, is . . . the generative principle itself.
Ultimately, the question of style—and isn’t affect itself a style, a mode, or mood, a way of inhabiting and moving, artfully and creatively, through the world, of sensing one’s, or anyone’s, place at any given moment in a way that helps us to thrive (and we’re to be on our guard against this)?—asks us to consider the ways in which, as much as one might want to insist otherwise, everything is hopelessly (and yet somehow also marvellously) entangled: self and Other, sense and articulation, form and content, personal self and scholarly self, observer and observed, past and present, and so on.

What, then, can be said about the ‘style’ of academic discourse at the present time, especially in relation to historical method, theory, and reading literary and historical texts, especially within premodern studies? Is style merely supplemental to scholarly (so-called) substance? As scholars, are we subjects of style? And what is the relationship between style and theory? Is style an object, a method, or something else? These were the questions that guided two conference sessions initially instigated by Anne Clark Bartlett and organized by the BABEL Working Group in 2010 (in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Austin, Texas), out of which this volume was developed.

On Style: An Atelier gathers together medievalists and early modernists, as well as a poet and a novelist, in order to offer ruminations upon style in scholarship and theoretical writing (with exempla culled from Roland Barthes, Carolyn Dinshaw, Lee Edelman, Bracha Ettinger, Charles Fourier, L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, Heidegger, Lacan, Ignatius of Loyola, and the Marquis de Sade, among others), as well as upon various trajectories of fashionable representation and self-representation in literature, sculpture, psychoanalysis, philosophy, religious history, rhetoric, and global politics. As you are reading this volume and dwelling in its atelier, please remember to wear your tenses lightly and to always, always, be fierce.

Eileen A. Joy
Washington, DC


On Style
A Reader’s Guide

Anna Kłosowska

When George-Louis de Buffon, naturalist and mathematician—calculus, probablility, Buffon’s needle—devoted to style his acceptance lecture at French Academy (1753), he said that “well-written works are the only ones that will be passed on to posterity. . . . small objects [such as] knowledge, facts and discoveries are easily taken up, transported, and even gain from being put together by more nimble hands. These things are outside of man, the style is the man himself.”[1] In the coda to this volume, Valerie Vogrin reminds us that Victor Hugo, in his Function of Beauty, fulminates against small bourgeois minds that relegate style to the background: “Style is ideas. Ideas are style. Try to tear away the word: it’s the idea that you lose. . . . Style is the essence of a subject, constantly called to the surface.”[2] It seemed to us that the question of style, cognate as it is to the question of the role of the humanities, needs to be asked about theory in medieval studies. In this collection, style is instantiated (we have assembled a breathtaking cast) as well as thematized and theorized. Christine Neufeld writes in the conclusion to her essay in this volume: “Perceiving this aesthetic relation to the past does not free us from a sense of accountability to the delicate, tattered fabric of history that both touches us and exceeds our grasp.” In other words, we study style in this collection because it instantiates and theorizes the relation we have to the past, our subject. These are (again, via Neufeld), “the issues the Style project represents for medieval scholars: how to contend with the ‘immaterial’ intensities of our scholarship, the effects and affects of being touched by the past.” We wanted the volume that resulted from our collaboration to be as stylish as it is functional: our introduction offers a map of the contributions as well as wardrobe suggestions. But—to cadge from Hugo again—each author has “a way of writing that one has alone, a fold that imperiously marks all writing, one’s own way of touching and handling an idea.”[3] So, reading the introduction is a bit like reading the label on the pint of gelato.
                  Valerie Allen, in “Without Style,” focuses on the definition of style as an arrangement and, especially, as “an ethical disposition effected by that arrangement.” She maps “formative turns” in the history of the concept of style: the opposition between Plato (philosophy) and the Sophists (rhetoric) that privileges the former, the sixteenth-century splitting of the five canons of rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery) into two, philosophy (invention, arrangement) and rhetoric (style and delivery, “shorn of content”), a model associated with French humanist Peter Ramus (Pierre de la Ramée), and finally the logical turn, both in positivist philosophy and mathematical logics, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Allen quickly shows that this last turn, privileging rigorous notation over always indeterminate language, provoked a correction in the guise of pragmatics, with J.L. Austin showing that “ordinary words” have complex claims on agency just as well as the formalized meta-language does. Although the plain, non-rhetorical style of critical writing depends on numerous shortcuts—abstract, index, specialized lexicon, allusions, footnotes—this does not cancel the fact that academic writing, too, is for an audience, including “loved ones, as if our words were gifts,” as well as “the ghostly audience of absent authors” who marked us. Like the hoarder who collects old newspapers, in case they come in handy, we, too, aren’t quite in control of our word-hoard; we, too, have the experience that the language speaks us. When working on her essay, Valerie Allen wore a black georgette de soie YSL pantsuit embroidered with stylized white cabbage roses, reminiscent of fine Southeast Asian mid-century decors. Her perfume is Comme des Garçons 8 88. We invite the readers to try the same.
                  Ruth Evans’s essay, “Lacan’s belles-lettres,” on “the new aestheticism” in literary studies, examines the diagnosis that the more theoretical and hermetic writing is a symptom of exhaustion or waning of the discipline. Psychoanalysis suggests a way to understand the relation between obscurity and beauty: “the moment when the theoretical text presents itself as obscure, sightless, like the analyst who remains silent in analysis, allows desire to emerge in the subject, and thus allows for the production of something new.” She opens with a reflection on Jacques Lacan’s litter-ature (“trashy reading), her brilliant translation of poubellication: a suitcase word, mashup of “wastebasket” and “publication” with hints of “embellishment” and “bellicosity”; the last two words sum up Lacan’s style. Evans recalls Roland Barthes’s mot, “when written, garbage doesn’t smell,” to remark that Lacan reverses or complicates Freud’s pellucid explanation of trashy, thorny cases. In Lacan, on the contrary, it’s the psychoanalysis that reads as trashy and thorny. If Lacan’s style can be called beautiful, Evans says, it’s only on Lacanian terms: “beauty and desire are intimately related and densely contradictory.” Beauty is closer to destruction than goodness: it is mesmerizing, terrible, queasy. One might add that Lacan’s la belle, the round of the match that decides who proceeds to the next round, is always followed by la consolante, the round played only for pleasure. We can reframe the question of style as the question of pleasure, “opposition between scientific discourse and the discourse of the Other, that is, the unconscious,” linked to the opposition between science and the humanities. But Evans reminds us that the opposition is false: the same desire motivates scientific research as any other pursuit. We invite the readers to enjoy this essay while wearing black skinny jeans, stiletto boots, a cashmere leopard-print top, and D.S. & Durga’s Burning Barbershop.
                  My own essay in the volume, “Style as Third Element,” assimilates style to Charles Fourier’s third element. The early nineteenth-century utopian famous for his phalanstère—a commune big enough that every individual’s forms of desire find their complementary individuals who want nothing more ardently than to fulfill that particular desire (melon eaters and melon growers, and so forth)—Fourier defines the third element (in-between, neuter, neither solid nor liquid, hybrid) as the principle of generation. This was of interest to Barthes, who in his book Sade Fourier Loyola reflected on three structural perpetuum mobile: Fourier’s utopia, Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, and Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. It is Barthes’s genius not to take the presupposed opposition between Sade and Loyola for granted: in both the algorithm of perversions and the manual of spiritual exercises, memory lapses and errors of execution provide a built-in openness to the system. Both Sade and Loyola worry about having forgotten something: the more conscientious the exercitant, the more reliably s/he produces errors that are the condition of infinitely extended reparation: an inexhaustible source of fuel for the perpetuum machine. As does error in Sade and Loyola, the neuter (a concrete category mistake) makes the Fourier machine go. Compared to Sade, Loyola, and even Fourier, a medievalist has different pleasures on her mind, and a different sort of need to exhaust her subject animates her as she writes her book. And yet, just as Fourier, the eternal though inept sponger who lived off his nieces, just as Sade in the narrow confines of Bastille filling both sides of a 39-foot-long, five inches-wide scroll with the account of a fictional world of omnipotent predators collecting and cataloging the humiliations they inflict on their prey, and just as Loyola anticipating that—unlike standup comics—penitents never run out of good material, the medievalist, too, lives off others. All this is to help illustrate how absurd it is to distinguish (never innocently, always hierarchically) between critical theory and elegant style, between rigorous historicism and queer studies, and so forth (I provide a handful of egregious examples). For this occasion, readers should consider pink, my signature color, and Dominique Ropion’s Carnal Flower.
                  Kathleen Biddick’s essay, “Daniel’s Smile,” on the Old Testament prophet Daniel’s smile carved into a medieval cathedral, queer theory, the death drive, and futurity reflects on the “intimate vulnerability of style” and its connection to Michael Snediker’s “style as smile,” “a mysterious, collective force as a serial trope.”[4] From the opening autobiographical confession on the cruel orthodoxies of early 1960s teen magazines—“my heart would sink when I discovered that some accessory of mine, beloved to me for its vibrant charm, was, in fact, deemed by the style editors to be the latest sign of abjection”—Biddick draws a line through Snediker and Lacan’s thinking about the master signifier. She asks whether incarnation or psychosis are the only two options for the master signifier: incarnation when we follow an inborn, uterus-formed “style” and psychosis when we don’t? Do all humans have one master? Biddick leads us through Lee Edelman’s critique of Lacan and his definition of the death drive to Snediker’s D.W. Winnicott-based optimism. This is not a Leibizian mega-optimism, nor a naïve future-bound optimism that Edelman denounces in his opposition to heterosexual procreative absolutism with its emblem, the “poster child.”[5] Rather, Snediker invents a queer optimism whose emblem is “an aesthetic person.” And Biddick suggests that this “aesthetic person” can be understood from the vantage point of Bracha L. Ettinger’s matrixial borderspaces.[6] Ettinger, a “new Euridice,” does not have to be hemmed in by the Lacanian choice of incarnation or psychosis. She visits these options and the borderspaces they disallow, and yet “lives to tell the tale.” And Ettinger’s style! As Biddick details, “Her text blossoms with what she calls ‘eroticized aerials,’ receiving and transmitting the incipiencies of a co-poesis. Habits of explication falter at such incipiencies.” Ettinger proposes transmissibility (relating without relations) along acoustic and tactile synchronies, emergence (dynamic and partial), and transubjective affects (not subjectivity). The link Biddick establishes between Snediker’s queer optimism and medieval “exegesis, sculpture, performance, juridical execution, and liturgical lamentation” understands the sculpted medieval Daniel’s enigmatic smile in a new light: “the ‘tender love’ of Daniel’s young days in the palace of the chief eunuch that somehow persisted as a trans-traumatic encounter in the stony remainder” of his portrayal in the wall of a medieval cathedral. For this essay, one should wear kindness and white linen, and Santa Maria Novella’s Opopanax. More than the clothes, though, it’s the place that matters: try a deep, green, clear, early summer night, under enormous trees that soften the sound.
                  Michael Snediker’s response to the preceding essays by Allen, Evans, Kłosowska, and Biddick, “To Peach or Not to Peach,” focuses on the ways style works—that is, on seduction. Takes one to know one. As D. Period Gilson says in a review of Snediker’s poem “Ganymede,” Snediker’s poems are “like the most alluring of men.”[7] One of the most seductive poets and thinkers today,[8] Snediker is also one of the most important readers of Emily Dickinson and Americana. As I was reading his beautiful essay in this volume, I was thinking about what Gilson says about that “2013 Ganymede” who accessorizes with a Luis Vuitton clutch to go to a sandwich shop: “that mortal so utterly beautiful Homer tells us, like the Louis bag the speaker carries here, and yet, still mortal, not divine, like the speaker himself waffling between ordering the turkey or meatball sub.” Here, in a nutshell, is the importance of the style of “Ganymede”: it is a grand poem, and in Gilson’s words, “the poem carries this intellectual weight in a sexy handbag to Subway, where it orders a sandwich.” Yes, and yes: an intellectual poem, a poem that carries the weight of Western philosophy and literary tradition in an LV pochette into the most mundane and sadly lit interiors. What is style to Snediker? It is a line between the Actual and the Imaginary “where style lies. In as many ways as you wish.” Of course, this piece must be read when one is more than six feet tall, dressed in slim Armani and long-tipped shoes that one can only see often on the Paris Métro, devastatingly beautiful, and drenched in Santa Maria Novella’s Angels of Florence. Yes, drenched: given that 5% of the proceeds benefit the restoration of Florentine monuments after the flood of 1966. That is what, in my mind, Snediker’s style is doing: saving the world, one eternal city at a time.
                  In “The Aesthetics of Style and the Politics of Identity Formation,” Gila Aloni reflects on the blurred boundaries between past and present. Aloni begins with Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval,[9] and its concept of the past as a means to “build selves and communities now and into the future,” then moves to historian Daniel Smail, whose interest centers on the ways tradition shapes the brain,[10] and to Aranye Fradenburg’s concept of “atemporal historicity,”[11] to conclude with a reading of Chaucer’s “dream within a dream” in his rewriting of Hypermenstra in the Legend of Good Women. Although Aloni does not follow this direction, her reading reminds us that the single most important confluence of medievalism and present concerns, in terms of what has made medieval studies relevant, was without any doubt queer studies and the phenomenon of Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval. And by the way, let us not forget Dinshaw’s pantsuits at job interviews in the 1980s when women were still only expected to wear skirts, and her black leather trousers a few decades later at the “Knights in Black Leather” session at the MLA, or her retro-1970s geometric print polyester shirts at Kalamazoo in the naughts. Of countless others, let us only mention Anne Clark-Bartlett, who originally conceived the idea of this Style volume, and her “Reading it Personally: Robert Gluck, Margery Kempe, and Language in Crisis,” which is one of the reasons Eileen Joy wanted to be a medievalist.[12] For those who favor a statistical approach, we recommend Steven F. Kruger’s study of the internet as “an archive for American medievalism and pornographic and erotic medievalism.”[13]  It is recommended that one read Aloni’s chapter in the shadows of Issey Miyake’s studio in the apartments of the Places des Vosges while drinking Sancerre and applying Smashbox’s “Fade to Black” lipstick.
                  In “Renegade Style,” Jessica Roberts Frazier looks at the shopping scene of The Renegado (1624) to see how this set piece combines classical mythology and the “material efficacy” or agency of objects (plates that self-destruct if served with poisoned food, for example) to cast the Oriental “improper orientation towards things” as a historical as well as geographical Othering, a trait that links ‘Oriental’ characters to the démodé past that the West has supposedly already outgrown. A reversal in the second act shows the return of the repressed. A catastrophe (in drama, this term simply means dénouement) in the last scene echoes the “gruesome wardrobe malfunctions” (Dejanira’s robe, Marsias’s cries, Daphne) of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. No doubt, this piece is best read in Versace’s Byzantium collection (Fall 2012) or Chanel Pre-Fall 2011, or anything by Mary Katrantzou. For the conservative reader, we recommend Faye Toogood’s (of studiotoogood) recycling of the Hermès collection’s rejects (their Petit h initiative, a très Lacanian label), all slathered in latex blood.
                  Christine Neufeld observes in “Always Accessorize: in Defense of Scholarly Cointise,” that style is almost always taken as provocation. In her essay, she traces the confluence and resonance between three constituencies—“the queer community, the New Narrative school, and the medieval scholarly community,” which so powerfully came together in Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval and Bartlett’s 2004 Exemplaria article (cited above). Neufeld’s “sumptuary semiotics” points out that accessories are a symptom of the way style works: “as ‘excess,’ an effect that is greater than the sum of its parts, whose creative power depends precisely upon its inimitability, its mystery.” She notes that accessories are gendered: “[b]eginning with patristic texts, the ubiquity of Christian sumptuary injunctions, against women’s clothing and fashion consciousness in particular, link anxieties about costume’s expressive power to the persuasive power of women’s speech.” Decorative speech is gendered as well: every reformer urges his audience to curb the “feminizing force of rhetoric’s persuasive cadences in favor of more ‘penetrating’ logical analysis.” From the Wife of Bath’s ornaments to the realization that with Margery Kempe, “the immaterial discourse of her soul [was] expressed most provocatively through her white clothes and her endlessly spilling tears,” Neufeld guides us through a fantastic recovery of a dense, stylishly tactile past. She takes us further still, to the New Narrative School (New York and San Francisco, late 1970s and 1980s), to chart the “response by queer writers. . . to the disembodied poetics of the Language School.” In the Narrative School’s refusal to “choose between affinity and critique,” Neufeld maps the resonances with medievalist criticism, whose historical subject is both endlessly alluring and endlessly elusive. Oh, and one more thing: Neufeld has possibly the best shoe collection in medieval studies, a competitive field (may we mention Catherine Karkov, or our own Eileen Joy), where shoes have been known to cause the demise of academic journals (it was bruited that one publisher within medieval studies embezzled funds to keep his better half in Manolos). And let us not forget the late medieval poulaines, shoes with one or two-foot-long tips, sometimes tied by a string to the leg under the knee to facilitate maneuvers.
                  As Neufeld observes, “[if] exploring the Middle Ages now means we can or must acknowledge the unrecorded effects and unanalyzed passions, formerly deemed supplemental, accessory, to our critical discourse then, like Margery Kempe, we also are in search of idioms that allow us to articulate the ineffable.” The abundance of things— these “intensities,” as Gilles Deleuze or Michel Foucault would call them—reminds us that interesting relations can take forms other than oppositions or linear hierarchies. As Deleuze says in Difference and Repetition, “[o]ppositions are roughly cut from a delicate milieu of overlapping perspectives, of communicating distances, divergences and disparities, of heterogeneous potentials and intensities. . . . Everywhere, couples and polarities presuppose bundles and networks, organized oppositions presuppose radiations in all directions.”[14] For Neufeld, then, the turn to style is a natural theoretical consequence of the autobiographical turn, what she (citing the 2004 Exemplaria article by Anne Clark Bartlett, mentioned above) tags as “a new mode of so-called ‘confessional’ criticism [that] has emerged recently [and] unsettles the dichotomy of ‘expressivism and objectivity,’ intersecting petite histoire and grand récit to generate a new ground for the ‘transaction between text-as-subject and reader-as-text.’”[15] In other words, it is a result of our autobiographical turn that we are “in search of idioms that allow us to articulate the ineffable.” And the result of that autobiographical turn is also a paramount movement to create communities, affinities and kinships: communities brought together by style, like the wink and the sartorial hint of alliances doomed to secrecy in the context of the persecuting past.
                  Valerie Vogrin, fiction writer, editor of the literary journal Sou’Wester, and Director of Peanut Books, gives us a fireworks show of a last essay, each passage bold enough to stand by itself— and un-summarizable. Faced with this impossibility, I will only mention a couple of favorites: “Style, more than species, is what distinguishes the howl of wolves saluting the moon from the songs of the neighborhood dogs rising over fences and alleyways.” And: “The myth of a neutral style. As if knowledge was a substance to be displayed on a glass specimen slide. The challenge isn’t to see things as they are, but to see things at all.” Politics of style. Specific style as a philosophical proposition. Economy, as in: conciseness. But also as in: Marxism. Style as the generative principle itself. I could go on: Vogrin mentions Queneau’s Exercices de style, but she herself is the great encyclopedist of style in this volume, examining it in its different dimensions. Of course Vogrin’s piece is best read wearing vintage threads, preferably from Casablanca in Cincinnati, Ohio. It has three floors of clothes, from the 1870s on, and you can probably find there Nerval’s smoking jacket and the underpants that Verlaine tore off Rimbaud, and of course, Emily Dickinson’s umbrella. Failing that, try any Americana—jeans, cowboy boots, Pendleton blankets —recycled as girl clothes for the City of Lights (if it worked for Isabel Marant, think what it will do to you); accompanied by a custom scent from Christopher Brosius. Better still, go to a souk after dark on a spring night and have one made for you.

[1] George-Louis de Buffon, Discours sur le style et autres discours académiques (Paris: Hachette, 1843, 11). All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.
[2] Victor Hugo, Oeuvres posthumes de Victor Hugo. Post-scriptum de ma vie (Paris: Calman-Lévy, 1901), 24–25, 52.
[3] Hugo, Oeuvres posthumes, 45.
[4] See Michael D. Snediker, Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
[5] See Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
[6] See Bracha L. Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace, ed. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).
[7] D. Gilson, “The Last Poem I Loved: ‘Ganymede,’ by Michael D. Snediker,” The Rumpus, July 13, 2013:
[8] As Daniel Tiffany said recently of Snedkiker’s book of poems The Apartment of Tragic Appliances (2013), “We have been missing poems like these for a long time.  It’s as if one were overhearing the grotesque and beloved ‘Matthew mighty-grain-of-salt O’Connor’ coming through James Merrill’s Ouija board. Michael Snediker is one of the most original and affecting poets of his generation.”
[9] Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999).
[10] See Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
[11] Aranye Fradenburg, “(Dis)continuity: A History of Dreaming,” in The Post-Historical Middle Ages, eds. Elizabeth Scala and Sylvia Frederico (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 87–116.
[12] “Reading it Personally: Robert Gluck, Margery Kempe, and Language in Crisis,” Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 16 (2004): 437–456.
[13] Steven F. Kruger, “Gay Internet Medievalism: Erotic Story Archives, the Middle Ages, and Contemporary Gay Identity,” American Literary Identity 22:4 (2010), 913-944.
[14] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (London: Continuum, 2004), 51.
[15] Bartlett, “Reading it Personally,” 437–456.