[Over the next few weeks ITM will be publishing as blog posts some of the presentations from the New Chaucer Society congress session "Are We Dark Enough Yet? Pale Faces 2016." Cord Whitaker offered the first post, here. The roundtable was meant to honor the long wake of Carolyn Dinshaw's 2000 Biennial Chaucer Lecture ("Pale Faces: Race, Religion, and Affect in Chaucer's Texts and Their Readers"), especially because the NCS was returning to London for the first time since she delivered it there. This collaboratively shaped roundtable pondered the ways in which literary medieval studies has both changed and resisted some profound challenges to its self-identity over the past decade and a half. Returning to the theme of Carolyn Dinshaw's lecture, presenters wondered about diversity among medievalists, the place of the personal, the matter of race, and the decolonization of medieval studies as a discipline. Please share and add to the discussion! It is our hope to formulate an action plan out of the event and its aftermath. -- JJC]
In my Arthurian Lit survey earlier this year, I decided to include Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant—just to change things up a bit. At the end of the term, a student wrote in their course evaluation: “Ishiguro = What was the point of reading this again?” Many of us are familiar with immature and snarky student evals. And it is perhaps easy to dismiss this individual as another “problem student,” part of the generation with a consumerist attitude toward education. We have seen worse.
Curiously, this student never complained about having to read chronicles. The complaint about Ishiguro is beyond another case of microaggression in the classroom; it is not about matters of taste but relevance, about what matters. It is symptomatic of a cultural logic that has turned the Middle Ages and subsequent medievalisms into a racialized heritage under siege. A distorted and ill-informed notion of the past has thereby authorized this student to defend the Arthurian canon from me. In this universe, Ishiguro does not belong. The matter of my body and thoughts do not belong. I have wasted the student’s time.
In the past two decades, Carolyn Dinshaw has returned repeatedly to questions of time.1 In place of modernity’s linear temporality, asynchrony marks the nature of the human condition past, present, and future. Temporal heterogeneity allows for a more intimate and queer understanding of the interconnections among objects, persons, and events. Asynchrony structures much of her work; her scholarship is an expansive record of her time travels that defies sequential desires and readerly expectations. Going East, Dinshaw reminds us, is going into the past.
Increasingly, I find myself thinking about other directional markers and their entanglements with time. As a North-American queer medievalist of color, I think about the American South, an region oversaturated with the rhetoric of heritage. In our current global moment, when what goes by the name of populism has unleashed the political fringes, the Ku Klux Klan distributed recruitment flyers in the little Southern college town where I teach, in the same semester as my Arthurian Lit course. Political misappropriation of all things medieval, of course, is nothing new. Tison Pugh and Angela Wisel, for example, have examined how the Klan invokes and distorts medieval chivalry to defend race-based privileges and to justify violence.2 My college town, especially members of my home institution, responded to the Klan with an anti-racism rally. There will never be a hip-hop musical about a Confederate general, one would hope. Going South is going back in time. We have seen worse. Some of us.
Critical inquiry, Dinshaw suggests, is a performance. The critic is a professional performer in desperate need of a healthy dose of amateurism. But I wonder if amateurism is affordable for some but not others. Reading Dinshaw reading Mandeville’s Travels, I recognize certain historical and personal ironies. As Dinshaw points out, the pale folks mentioned in the Mandeville’s passage are not modern-day Indians:
From these isles, in passing by the sea ocean toward the east by many journeys, men find a great country and a great kingdom that men clepe Mancy. And that is in Ind the more . . . And they be full fair folk, but they be all pale . . . In that land be many fairer women than in any other country beyond the sea, and therefore men clepe that land Albany, because that the folk be white.3
In fact, Mancy (Manzi 蠻子) was a derogatory term meaning “barbarians” used by medieval Mongols to refer to both the region and the people in southern China, where I trace my ancestry but have never been. I am the pale manzi marked by southerness. But to my student who resented reading Ishiguro, I am a Chinaman in the South, neither black nor white; an amateurish medievalist seeking authenticity and authority; a crypto-pale, postcolonial subject performing some versions of the medieval past and present.
Ours is the neo-liberal age of Black Lives Matter and White Fragility. According to Robin DiAngelo, white fragility is “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” (54).4 Some of the defensive counter-moves include: confusion, indignation, refusal to continue engagement, penalization, retaliation, isolation, and ostracization. White tears. Sounds like some of Chaucer’s pilgrims, or some of our students.
DiAngelo’s notion of White Fragility is useful in our thinking through the volatile complexities of identity markers in our classroom, our scholarship, and our profession. Manifestations of white fragility range from blatant racist acts to microaggression. More importantly, DiAngelo critiques liberals’ resistance to meaningful engagement with politically fraught contents because they “already had a class on this” or “already know that” (55). Been there; done that. Yet, when faced with persistent counter-moves of white fragility, it is not enough to say, “We have seen worse.”
What does white fragility look like in the Middle Ages? in Chaucer? Dinshaw points to imbrications of medieval paleness, especially that of the face, with matters of race, religion, and sex. Paleness is a slippery signifier that can denote whiteness, but can also oppose whiteness. Chaucer’s characters turn pale at crucial narrative moments. Paleness is an affect, based primarily on a humoral conception of the body. Rather than white fragility, it might be more accurate to speak of “pale fragility” in something like Custance’s drained face in the Man of Law’s Tale, where paleness marks the cultural anxiety over the fullness of conversion and the instability of Christianity.
But I wonder about white fragility and non-humoral-based materialisms in the Chaucerian corpus. White fragility allows us to re-read many intertextual moments in the Canterbury Tales, especially some of the interruptions. Consider Sir Thopas, in which the mock-romance hero is marked by his “white leere” (857); and “Whit was his face as panyndemayn” (725). Not a pale face, but a white face. Not humoralism, but hylomorphism. The tale is unbearable not simply because it is a parody, but because it sublimates the violence in the Prioress’s Tale into an absurd confrontation between a cute toy knight and a giant named Sir Olifaunt. “Namoree of this” (919), the Host lashes out. “What was the point of listening to this again?” he asks. The “elvyssh” Geoffrey makes everyone uncomfortable. Or consider the Franklin’s interruption of the Squire. The Squire’s Tale is insufferable not only because of its projected length, but because it bestows gentillesse upon a pale-looking people not quite white enough. What better way for the Franklin to assert his social standing than to defend a fragile gentillesse? Put differently, the Squire is Ishiguro; the Franklin behaves like my student.
Pale and white faces foreground an ideological fragility at the heart of the social wrangling over difference, then and now. And this perceived fragility legitimates claims of precarity and stewardship, which in turn dictate what matters and what doesn’t. Here, I want to consider the Middle English mater as meaning both physical substance and immaterial activity.5 DiAngelo notes that white fragility is a state of reduced, or the lack of, stamina to sustain meaningful engagement with issues of race and diversity. And Sara Ahmed has drawn attention to the state of depletion that many minoritarian academics have found themselves in. 6 Everyone is looking drained, but not all of us are fragile and pale, or can afford to be.
Wan-Chuan Kao is an assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University. He is currently working on a monograph titled White Before Whiteness.
1 See Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999) and How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).
2 Tison Pugh and Angela Jane Weisel, Medievalisms: Making the Past in the Present (New York: Routledge, 2013), 140-43.
3 Dinshaw cites from the Cotton Manuscript version of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Available at Project Gutenberg.
4 Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3, no. 3 (2011): 54-70.
5 See Kellie Robertson, “Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto,” Exemplaria 22, no. 2 (2010): 99-118.
6 Sara Ahmed, “Feeling Depleted?” feministkilljoys (blog), November 17, 2013, https://feministkilljoys.com/2013/11/17/feeling-depleted/