Monday, July 17, 2006

Peter Haidu, The Subject Medieval/Modern

Notes towards a review of Peter Haidu, The Subject Medieval/Modern
(somehow I need to compress this into the 500 words that L’Esprit Créateur wants)
Subject and text, state and civilization, are profoundly ambiguous icons of problematic interdependences. This book does not sing their praises: it views them with suspicion, convinced of the profound continuities between the medieval period and modernity, between violence and state-form ... Those suspicious icons – subject, ideology, text, state, and civilization – have effectivities; they exist. They require examination as objects of historico-theoretical research, an examination impelled by the multiple passions of beauty, justice, and knowledge, as art of an effort to deal with a world increasingly seductive and terrifying (The Subject Medieval/Modern 6)

Very early in this super-sized tome (446 pages), I worried.

The opening epigraph ("I am a subject, and I challenge the law") seemed to prophesy the kind of "Medievalists shall better the world through philology!" argument that Emile Blauche has mocked repeatedly on this blog – a kind of politically naive scholarship masquerading as politically engaged scholarship that, I must admit, I wasn't sure actually existed in its pure form. My anxiety deepened a page later when I reached the dedications, the first being "for Mike Flug, Columbia CORE, and the Faculty Civil Rights Group at Columbia University ca. 1964-68" and the last being "for those who survived, and for our children." I don't know what happened at Columbia involving CORE and civil rights, but this sounds ominously like the Holocaust.

The "Introduction" didn't do very much to ease my anxiousness. The book bears a publication date of 2004, but it crossed my mind that should a wormhole suddenly propel the volume into the future sans copyright page, some distant literary historian would likely place its date of composition in the late 1980s. A scattering of ornamental citations to later texts aside, much of the argument seems built on historical work and theories of subjectivity from that robust decade of High Theory. If not exactly left behind as the critical conversation developed, the keywords of the 80s have been extensively modified, amplified, annotated, qualified. I was surprised, for example, to see a discussion of medieval France as nation that did not cite Patrick Geary's copious scholarship on the myth of nations. I was saddened to see an articulation of medieval subjectivity and identity that did not at least engage with the postcolonial, feminist, queer, Foucaultian, Derridean, Butlerian ruminations on these topics that have been published by medievalists younger than Haidu and his coterie.

Haidu also seems addicted to portentous pronouncements. His first sentence gravely declares "The modern subject was invented in the Middle Ages, such is the thesis of this book, destined to disturb medievalists and modernists (including postmodernists) alike" (1). Both kinds of scholar, Haidu continues, build their professional self-identity on a binarism that keeps their epochs separate ("constitutes their historiographical self-image by Othering its opposite ... Both images are delusional and ideologically determined"). Yet, he propounds, the medieval period "is the revolution that cast the die of futures we tremble in" (2). Again, ominous stuff. And what if it is true? What if the modern state and the modern subject have their "beginnings – not 'origins'" (as Haidu puts it) in the Middle Ages? Haidu implies that this continuity renders the Middle Ages a temporality to fear, just as we surely dread our own perturbed historical moment and our own violent state-forms. I admit, though, this potential equality of angst does little for me. If we were to trace modern governance (of selves, of peoples) to the Greeks or Romans rather than to the courts of twelfth-century England and France, I'm not sure how much changes. Nor do I think that the everyday modernists and postmodernists to whom Haidu's sermon of fire seems to be delivered care all that much one way or another when our invidious structures of life first breathed. Is continuity really all that more dreadful than alterity? Extending the state back in time of itself does little to alter the contemporary contours of state forms. Such extension might be interesting but it cannot of itself sufficiently motivate an "effort to deal with a world increasingly seductive and terrifying" (6). I would give much just to know what Haidu means by "deal with." Behind that vague idiom lurks the unexpressed but amply intimated ambition of the book.

Linking state and subject will not necessary have much to say to literary studies, moreover, unless literature itself can be shown to be part of the "beginnings – not 'origins'" of this emergent state and its formulation of subjecthood. Haidu argues such weight is indeed literature's to bear: medieval texts "participate in the cultural invention of the subject as part of the political invention of the state" (2). I wish I could say exactly what this particular subject is. Haidu writes that "The linguistic subject is equivalent neither to the subject of consciousness nor to the subject of action: it is frequently their simulacrum." I can discern echoes of English translations of the work of Foucault, Baudrillard, and Derrida here, and perhaps even Lacan, but I am not able to say with lucidity how this model of the subject works. Haidu's only other qualifier is that "contradictions between subjectivity and identity are frequent ... Contradictions produce the political subject, sometimes by challenging identity." The sentence made me nod my head in agreement as if I finally got what is at stake in all this groundlaying, but then my comprehension faded as I realized that "political subject" and "linguistic subject" are not necessarily the same thing, and I still wasn't sure how simulacra come into play.

Haidu's bringing literature back to the table a few pages later helps a bit in revealing the interplay of these many terms: "practices modernity characterizes as 'literature' ... do the ideological work of their polity in exploring and constituting subjectivity by providing performative models of human comportment" (5). The performative imperative that literature can launch I understand; it is a thesis that helps to explain why Haidu turns to a canon of revered medieval French texts to explicate his argument. Canonicity also gives his materials a natural coherence. But then Haidu asserts that "The canon is an allegory whose code has been misplaced, or, more precisely, repressed" and I think: here it is again, the return of better living through philology. The hierophantic medievalist will reveal the secret that the canon itself cannot know. Yet it seems to me that the power of many of the texts Haidu analyzes stems from just the opposite set of circumstances: not that these artistic works repress "the story of our coming to the untenable site of subjectivity we occupy" but that they exult in exploring that process, taking it to its limits, confounding it, undercutting it. If subject- and state-formation through textuality are a secret, they are secrets that the Middle Ages knows well and speaks openly and repeatedly through texts.

You may think from what I have so far written that I do not think very highly of The Subject Medieval/Modern . In fact, the further the book moves from its vatic and obtuse beginnings the more compelling its unfolding critical narrative becomes. The impossible agenda set out early slowly recedes into a series of sophisticated and illuminating readings that stress the complicated subject positions various texts engender. The first chapters (collected in an initial section Before the State) admittedly lack nuance. The institutions depicted in them seem monolithic and mutually impermeable rather than the fluid, ad hoc and conflicted structures they often proved to be. The breezy certitude with which Haidu speaks of "church" and "aristocracy" made me wish for a little Deleuze or Latour and a little less Foucault: could we have some improvised networks, some alliances and hybridities, some materializations rather than so many hard realities? A sophisticated treatment of the Song of Roland (a poem Haidu made his own long ago) starts to foreground contradiction and heterogeneity better, so that by the time Chrétien de Troyes arrives the book's early reductiveness has given way to a generosity of interpretation. Prose that had seemed overly turgid becomes replete with a playful invention that better suits its subject matter ("The hero sends a succession of vanquished antagonists as signs of their own defeat and of his glory to Arthur's court, functioning as an 'Arthurian Bank of Social Value' [ABSV]" 104-5). The discussion of Marie de France as postcolonial writer could have been an interpretive tour de force, but its argument is weakened from its appearance ex nihilo: Haidu writes as if younger medievalists like Michelle Warren and Patricia Ingham had never contemplated similar questions. The last chapter, on the criminal cleric François de Villon, offers a more satisfying meditation on being a "problematic subject" and subalternity. Haidu writes:
If voice means subjectivity, François Villon's great gift, his greatest bequest, is the voiced being of subjectivity to those who lacked it. In the whorehouse of life, there is room for that gift, the self-extension of the subject" (340)

That turn to a renegade writer who composed "ballades for the voiceless," sometimes featuring prostitutes and working class women, sometimes written in argot, allows Haidu to speak his project as the book concludes with a directness that it previously lacked. Indeed, the conclusion ("The Medieval Crucible") is the most compelling section of the volume:
Our discomfiture, our guilt and anxiety, our helplessness at the machinations of systems and officials of power, devolve from structures of subjective consciousness rooted in the continuing medieval construction of modernity. Within this paradoxicality, which really turns into a sense of impending tragedy, the attentive reader repeatedly stumbles across the thirst, among multiple and oppressive determinations of subjectivity, the parched, unending thirst, in the records of the past, for human peace and freedom. (364)

This memorialization of and affiliation with voices that might otherwise have been lost – voices that strain to be recognized in their desires, in their humanity, even after such things were denied them in life - seems to me among the best things that a medievalist's engagement with the past can achieve. Whether the modern subject is medieval and the medieval subject modern is, in the end, beside the point (how could they really have been otherwise?). What matters more are the exclusions from full subjecthood upon which the modern and medieval notions of the human are based, and the tools we have at hand (including history) that might yield a more capacious, less violence-limned and affirmative conception of what "human" really means.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

CORE & the FCRG addressed the effects on local populations, mostly poor ethnic minorities, of urban renewal and institutional expansion on Morningside Heights.
Actually, I discovered some of Rancière's crucial works only after closing on S M/M.
See most specifically "Fragments in Search of Totalization: Roland and the Historical Text," Modernity in the Middle Ages, edd. Cazelles & Mela, Droz, 1990. Some postcolonial medievalism escapes this stricture: work by Sharon Kinoshita, Kris Over and Michelle Warren comes to mind.
Cf. two pieces from the early 90's: "Fragments in Search of Totalization…", & "The Dialectics of Unspeakability: Language, Silence, and the Narratives of Desubjectification", in Saul Friedländer's The Limits of Representation: Nazism and the 'Final Solution', Harvard: 1992.
By the way, I'm bilingual, and publish in both French and English: the glancing reference to "English translations" of French theorists is snide, misleading, and dishonors the writer (as does the reference to my "coterie": who the hell is that? Tell me! I really want to know!) I use translations when that's the form in which I first encounter a book that looks important and unpostponable! Like Derrida's Politics of Friendship, or Badiou's Ethics, both of which I discovered in the UCLA Bookstore, in English translation. I recommend both, whether in French or English! Right now! Quick!
Much of this applies equally to the anti-Vietnam-war protest, in which I also participated; for concrete historical & institutional reasons, my political involvement remained primarily in civil rights.