Monday, January 30, 2006

PoCo Approaches to the European Middle Ages

Here's a review of a book I very much enjoyed reading. The review will be published in the not-too-distant future in Notes and Queries .

Are postcolonial medievalisms still big news?

Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams (eds), Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures . Pp. xii + 298 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 54). Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh: Cambridge University Press, 2005. £50.00 (ISBN 0 521 82731 0).

Reviewed by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington University

Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages offers a substantial contribution to the project of rethinking the medieval period from a multicultural but non-synthetic point of view. The idea of a postcolonial Middle Ages is no longer a new one. The past few years has seen an energetic outpouring of such scholarship by medievalists like Kathleen Biddick, Kathleen Davis, Geraldine Heng, Bruce Holsinger, Patricia Ingham, Sylvia Tomasch and Michelle Warren. They are joined by scholars like Robert Bartlett, R. R. Davies, and John Gillingham – historians who do not (so far as I know) describe themselves as sharing philosophical concerns with Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Antonio Benitez-Rojo, but whose recent books have been engaged in a similar project of reconfiguring the narratives we tell about the past, stressing contingency and multiple possibilities, rejecting unselfconscious Eurocentrism and teleogy-inducing Anglophilia. For historians as well as literary and art critics, the contours of medieval studies are very different now from their more settled shape of a decade ago.

Kabir and Williams' book arrives at a good time to assess the changes that postcolonial medieval studies have already engendered, to speculate on limitations and blind spots, and to open up possible futures. The editors accomplish this task by gathering some of the usual suspects (Suzanne Conklin Akbari, long known for superlative work combining the best of traditional approaches with newer theoretical concerns; Roland Greene, who helped bring a postcolonial and transnational emphasis to early modern studies), some new voices (James G. Harper, an art historian), and luminaries whose previous work was not explicitly postcolonial but whose essays in Postcolonial Approaches make it clear that they have long been engaged in sympathetic research (Nicholas Howe, Seth Lerer). Even if the pieces gathered in the volume end up being too diverse to be housed comfortably beneath the volume's sub-rubric of "Translating Cultures" -- capacious as that phrase may be -- nonetheless this collection distinguishes itself for the high quality of its writing, the creativity of its critical approaches, and the insight exhibited within each individual piece.

Perhaps a single line from the introduction by Kabir and Williams will yield an adequate hint of what its contributors share in their methods and aims. Examining the Christmas star as it glimmers above the Magi in an illustration from Les très riches heures de Jean, duc de Berry, the editors write that this celestial marvel "radiates alternative interpretive strategies" (5). By focusing upon the crowded, diverse field of signs that composes the illustration, Kabir and Williams demonstrate that despite its pious Christianity the Magi scene cannot be reduced (or translated) into some uncomplex or unambivalent narrative. The sumptuous image radiates wonder, an exhilarating mixture of beauty and dissonance. And it is this noise -- heard when the critic is attentive to alternatives, exclusions -- that the contributors to Postcolonial Approaches seek. Limitations of space preclude my giving a full account of each contribution. To my mind, however, the strongest of the three parts of the book is the opening section, christened "The Afterlife of Rome." As Clare A. Lees and Gillian R. Overing pointed out in their introduction to a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies on "Gender and Empire" (34.1 2004), the early Middle Ages have been inadequately examined from a postcolonial viewpoint (3). The three essays clustered here help remedy that defect, and collectively argue for the importance of Romano-British history in thinking about the anxious belatedness of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. I should also add that the pieces by Nicholas Howe (on the haunting, material as well as figurative, of Anglo-Saxon England by Rome) and Seth Lerer (an awesome meditation on the patterned floor of Heorot and the work of Seamus Heaney) are especially eloquent, even moving: they both seem to hover in a rich space between criticism and poetry. Alfred Hiatt's essay on maps, while solid, seems a bit pale in comparison. The second section, "Orientalism before 1600," gathers an intriguing essay by Suzanne Conklin Akbari on Alexander and the construction of Western imperial identity; an innovative reading of Gower and monstrosity by Deanne Williams; and an examination of changes in the representation of Turks in fifteenth-century art by James G. Harper. "Memory and Nostalgia," the omnibus closing section, includes a smart linking of British India to fantasies of Rome and medieval England (Ananya Jahanara Kabir); an extraordinary reading of medievalist Joseph Bédier as Creole by Michelle Warren; and an essay by Roland Greene on La Celistina as "protocolonial baroque." The volume concludes with an epilogue by Ato Quayson, an Africanist whose serious reflections on what a postcolonial Middle Ages prevents his piece from seeming like mere window dressing or a nervous nod to "real" authority. Indeed, his "Translations and transnationals: pre- and postcolonial" is a strong finish for a consistently strong, thoroughly engaging volume.


Ancrene Wiseass said...

Hello, Prof. Cohen! Just wanted to quickly stop by and say hello. So far as I know, postcolonial medievalism is still a pretty big deal, if not quite as "hot" as it was, say, a year or two ago.

More importantly, though, the medievalist blogging community is abuzz with word of your debut.

I'm planning to stop by again later to read more thoroughly and am looking forward to it!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks -- I've enjoyed your blog also.

I know "professor" (like "doctor") is one of the very honorifics that hasn't vanished, but the blogosphere is the great equalizer ... and I believe that one more hair turns grey on my head every time I am called "Professor Cohen." Plus it makes me feel 100 years old when I am still only 97.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Magister Cohen,

Here is some more evidence that that the Medieval remains highly relevent to today's society -- as does the monstrous ...

* * *

Dominatrix Acquitted in Bondage Death

DEDHAM, Mass. - A dominatrix was acquitted of manslaughter Monday in the death of a man who prosecutors say suffered a heart attack while strapped to a replica of a medieval rack.

Barbara Asher, a 56-year-old woman who called herself Mistress Lauren M, was also cleared of dismemberment.

Prosecutors said that 53-year-old Michael Lord suffered a heart attack in 2000 during a bondage session in a "dungeon" in Asher's condominium and that Asher did nothing to help him for five minutes for fear authorities would find out about her business.

Asher had her boyfriend chop up the body of the 275-pound retired telephone company worker, and they dumped it behind a restaurant in Maine, prosecutors said. His remains have never been found.

Prosecutors said Asher confessed to police, but the alleged confession was not taped, and investigators testified they did not save their notes.

Asher's lawyer, Stephanie Page, said there was nothing to prove Lord was even dead — no body, no blood, no DNA.

During his closing argument to the jury, prosecutor Robert Nelson put on a black leather mask with a zippered mouth opening and re-enacted the bondage session. With both hands, he reached back and clutched the top of a blackboard as if strapped to the rack. Then he hung his head as if dead.

Asher's lawyer objected, and the judge agreed.

"That's enough Mr. Nelson," Judge Charles Grabau said. "Thank you for your demonstration."

Dr. Virago said...

Hello. I just wanted to add to Ancrene Wiseass's blogospheric welcome. I also haven't had a chance to read closely or thoroughly, but I'm looking forward to it when I get the chance.

So, should we call you Jeffrey? What do you prefer? You can call me "V" if you want informality, but of course "Dr. Virago" isn't my real name anyway!

Karl Steel said...

Are postcolonial medievalisms still big news?

Is it okay if we just do it as 'is it still worth doing' and 'will its results still surprise us'?

Answer seems to be yes. And I'd say any anti-foundationalist reading is still and always big news for the MA.

BTW, I like the opening up the blog to works in progress. I don't think I'll volunteer myself just yet--I've got other fish to fry just now--but I'm looking forward to what develops.

Anonymous: replica of a medieval rack. There's got to be an article on popular medievalisms of this sort. I seem to remember something in Getting Medieval, but it didn't seem--iirc--as thorough a treatment as I would have liked.

As for me, I was struck by this, which dovetails neatly with my own work. Whatever that says about me.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Anonymous: a getting-on-in-years dominatrix, a portly customer who expires on her faux-medieval rack, a cadaver-chopping beau, a lawyer who dons a leather mask and impersonates an expired masochist, a judge who appreciates the whole theatrical reenactment ... geesh, that story has it all! Do you think in the Middle Ages a dominatrix would have to use replicas of Roman torture devices to keep the historical fantasy going? Stuffed lions and cheap crosses?

Karl, on that BBC link: see why I am a vegetarian? Still, when you think about it, pigs really do make a handy disposal system for all those unwanted corpses, should you happen to a be a practicing serial killer.

Dr Virago (love that name): Jeffrey is fine.

-- JJ

Karl Steel said...

What I love about that BBC piece -- and here I go, good-bye thread coherence! -- is the "contaminated with human remains" and the various quotes to that effect throughout it; e.g., "The risk to human health for those who consumed the products is extremely remote, based on the fact most pork products are typically well-cooked, which is known to effectively destroy most infectious agents," local health authorities said in a statement.

Of course, human flesh is meat, like any other. Although the local health authorities are using the scientific language of hygiene, it's really not any more applicable than if the pigs had eaten a dog or a squirrel. The problem isn't hygiene; it's the supposed specialness of human flesh, etc.

Where we're at is the same place we were in 7th- or 8th-century Ireland, where one of those medieval penitentials decreed that if a pig ate people, the pig could not be eaten until it had been starved for a while and then fattened up again.

Back to poco theory folks!