Sunday, September 03, 2006
Once More Into the Breach of the Anglo-Saxon Mind, but This Time with Feeling
Some might remember back in the heady days of our debate over whether or not the early Anglo-Saxons were apartheid-style racists, that I promised a debate with something like the title of, "yes, the Anglo-Saxons might have been racists, but did they have feelings?" Well, here it is. File this also under the heading of, "Eileen is working on this article and needs feedback" [like, seriously]. Not too long ago, Robin Norris [Anglo-Saxonist at Carleton University, Ottawa and fellow BABEL-er] asked me to contribute a paper to a Kalamazoo session she was organizing on the four anonymous Old English saints' lives included in AElfric's Lives of Saints. Of these texts, I know next to nothing, but I was always intrigued by the story of the Seven Sleepers, mainly because I thought it might work as an interesting metaphor for some ideas I had been batting around in relation to Beowulf, traumatic memory, and Isidore of Seville's idea that "history is a branch of grammar because whatever is written down is consigned to memory" [or words to that effect], and blah blah blah. I just liked the image of these men asleep in a cave for hundred of years and how I could maybe use that image alongside Isidore's definition of history in relation to my own ideas about history as an always-posthumous narrative of ghostly events, the "Real" kernels of which remain palpably, stubbornly *behind*. In any case, I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into when I said "yes" to Robin. As some may know, from my Ambien-induced essay, which JJC graciously and generously plugged here on his blog, I've been spending some time thinking about the ways in which contemporary social and political theorists describe modernity and the modern [or "late modern" or "second modern"] individual, and how they draw upon the Middle Ages [often quite wrong-headedly] as a kind of static and "traditional" social framework out of which modernity emerges. And I'm sure many of the readers of this blog have stayed current with all of the debates over how, supposedly, there were no "individuals" in the Middle Ages, and then, we decided the twelfth century was when/where the "individual" was born, and so on and so forth. Sometimes I weary of these kinds of discussion, and my usual touchstone text for this is Charles Taylor's beautiful work of moral philosophy, Sources of the Self. My larger purpose in all this has to do with my interest in formulating human rights in an age of, supposedly, "post-humanity." This is a subject that, actually, both obsesses and worries me. In any case, I am sharing with everyone here where my Seven Sleepers paper [presented at Kalamazoo this past May], which ended up dovetailing with my other project [which mainly focuses on Malory's "Tale of Balyn and Balan"]. Keep in mind that it's a short conference paper, and I am now developing it into a longer essay, to be published in a subsidium volume of Old English Newsletter. Further reading right now involves books on sociology of the body [Bryan S. Turner and Thomas Csordas] and religion and the body [Bynum and Sarah Coakley], and any other tips that can be thrown at me I would greatly appreciate. I'm especially interested in anything out there I might not know about that covers cognition and the Anglo-Saxons. Cheers.
The Seven Sleepers, Eros, and the Unincorporable Infinite of the Human Person
“. . . the self is not constructed solely by its environment, but also by the interpretive action that means not only suffering the world but also coming to understand it and your place within it. There is room here for a self to innovate and try to transform that place by thought or action. The particular way a self or groups of selves do so in the actual subject of history.” –David Gary Shaw, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England
In Love and Its Place in Nature, the philosopher of classical antiquity and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear writes that, for Freud, love has “distinctive psychoanalytic significance.” Further,
“[a]s Freud comes to appreciate that the individual is a psychological achievement, he becomes increasingly interested in the conditions under which this achievement occurs. The individual, he realizes, cannot be understood other than as a response to certain forces that permeate the social world into which he is born. And the individual is a manifestation and embodiment of the very same forces to which his existence is a response. . . . Unless we see love not merely as located in the human being but as permeating the world in which he lives, we cannot understand the psychic structure which constitutes the individual.”
Of course, as is well known, the Middle Ages, and certainly even more so, Anglo-Saxon England, is not supposed to be a place where the so-called “individual” even exists, and we are all well familiar with Jakob Burckhardt’s famous pronouncement in 1860 that, “in the Middle Ages, everyone was dreaming or half-awake, beneath a collective veil . . . woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession,” and where “[m]an was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, corporation—only through some general category.” According to Nancy Partner,
“[o]ne of the great impediments to recognizing the depth, complexity and individuality of the people who lived during the immense span of historical time we categorize as ‘medieval’ has come to mean the opposite of those qualities, at least as regards persons. Medieval culture, in terms of its art, literature and theology, has long been acknowledged as sophisticatedly complex and emotionally dense . . . . But somehow this collective cultural achievement is oddly disconnected from any idea of medieval persons of equivalent individual complexity.”
Further, the “prevalence of didactic genres (ranging from epic to sermons) which stress conformity with religious and social norms encourage the notion that in some way the pre-modern era of history was populated with pre-individuals.” In Partner’s mind, we need to “press harder than we usually do on the concept of the self operating silently here,” because “there lingers a common and unexamined assumption that ‘having’ a self . . . necessarily involves adopting one assertive style of individuality, even the set of values and goals we associate with the individualism which grounds western liberal modernity,” and it can often be too east to let medieval persons “sink down into a shallow bas-relief of ‘medievalness,’ defined by the moralizing conformist elements of the dominant literate culture.” It would be better to understand medieval men and women “as essentially like ourselves, of the same species at the same moment of development in evolutionary time, personalities formed at a deep level through the same developmental processes, as minds with the same emotional/rational structure confronting the world, however distractingly different their language, ideals and fervent beliefs.”
For Partner—and I must admit, increasingly so for myself—the discipline of psychoanalysis, “with its coherent structure of explanatory concepts, is our intellectual instrument for recognizing the human psyche over historical time and across cultures.” And I would argue, too, that recent discoveries in cognitive science are likely to support this idea. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson tell us in their book Philosophy in the Flesh, “the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment,” thought is “mostly unconscious,” and because the mind “is not merely embodied, but embodied in such a way that our conceptual systems draw largely upon the commonalities of our bodies and of the environments we live in,” the result is that “much of a person’s conceptual system is either universal or widespread across languages and cultures.” Further, “[o]ur conceptual systems are not totally relative and not merely a matter of historical contingency, even though a degree of conceptual relativity does exist and even though historical contingency does matter a great deal.” Partner’s belief that the discipline of psychoanalysis is our best “intellectual instrument” for understanding the human mind “over historical time” is indebted to the thought of the philosopher of classical antiquity and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear, who, in his book, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul, argues that Freud’s achievement was to locate the deep and often unconscious texture of the human mind fully inside the human world “without reaching for divine intervention or requiring a specifically religious world-view.”
Because psychoanalysis, as Partner tells us, is “in its essential interests and procedures, a theory addressed to the symbolizing activity of the mind,” the “forms of expression” of, say, the Anglo-Saxon mind—whether in the form of poetry, hagiography, sermons, sculpture, manuscript illustration, or otherwise—provide us with the means, I would argue, for tracing the “language of the self” of that mind, as well as the “the restless negotiations between this deeply stratified self and the real world.” What I would like to do here with the remainder of my time today is merely sketch out very briefly how, under the influence of the thought of Partner and Lear (but also of recent developments in cognitive science), I might begin to begin thinking about what Lear would describe as the psychic development of the individual as “a response to certain forces that permeate the social world into which he is born” in the Anglo-Saxon period through an analysis of the anonymously-authored Old English legend of The Seven Sleepers—a piece of literature so rich in the details of the psychic interior that I am somewhat amazed at the scant scholarly attention it has received. I would like to also ruminate how, in this legend, the self can be seen as what David Gary Shaw calls “a highly localized site of awareness” that is “bound, at least for this worldly life, to a body.”
One of the most striking aspects of the anonymous Old English legend of The Seven Sleepers is its psychological complexity, especially with regard to the character of Malchus, who is appointed by the others, hiding in a cave together, to go to the market for provisions, but also with regard to how even the city of Ephesus itself wishes its own walls could fall down rather than exist as a support for the hacked bodies of Christian martyrs that the Caesar has ordered be displayed there, and even the streets cry out against the “holy bones” scattered across them. In brief, the legend recounts the story of seven members of the “elite” class of Ephesian society who, horrifed at the emperor Decius’s torture and slaughter of those who refuse to worship his gods, have given themselves over to a kind of uncontrollable sorrow and weeping. While hiding in a cave outside the city, ostensibly to delay the emperor’s torture of them, Decius orders that the entrance to the cave be sealed, but unbeknownst to him, the seven men, due to their emotional state, have literally wept themselves into a death-like sleep, from which they do not awake until after 372 years have passed. Thinking they have only been asleep for one night, they send Malchus to the city market for more bread, and he enters a city, of course, he no longer recognizes because it is now thoroughly Christian. The upshot of all this, of course—after some scuffling at the market due to Malchus’s “intrusion” there as a kind of alien from another time (he is treated, quite literally, as a “foreigner” and suffers all the fear and terror of that Othering)—is that the seven men are recognized as having been “resurrected” from an earlier era, after which point, they “die” again and rise to heaven.
As Robin Norris pointed out in a paper she presented on the legend at the 2004 meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association, the emphasis on the emotional affect of the seven sleepers themselves (mainly sadness and sorrow), as well as of the world they inhabit is a “decidedly unÆlfrecian approach,” and also represents a very free adaptation and expansion of the legend’s Latin source, especially with regard to the physical manifestations of the seven martyrs’ interior suffering, such as the details regarding how, when crying, their eyes are fluttering (þa eagan floterodon, line 599). Ælfric, in fact, when he did address the legend—twice, in his Catholic Homilies—did so only very briefly in order to emphasize its doctrinal message that the resurrection of the body on Judgment Day had been visibly proven. According to Hugh Magennis, the Old English version of the legend is “untypical” in various ways, especially in “the portrayal of the saints as somewhat reluctant in the face of danger . . . . Far from ironing this feature out, the Old English writer is particularly drawn to it, deliberately exploring the very human worries and fears of the characters, who in some ways make unlikely heroes.” Further, Magennis writes that “the reader is struck by the insistent interest in the humanity and vulnerability of the Christians in their natural, if not ostensibly heroic, concern to preserve their lives,” and “[i]n one vivid simile the Christians are compared to grasshoppers pursued by heathens.” This “human interest . . . is also seen in the presentation of the persecuted Christians at the beginning of the narrative,” who “provide the emotional context for the immediate story of the Seven Sleepers. They are shown as terrified at the danger of being found out: they hide, they weep, they tremble. Through graphic description, the writer emphasizes the sheer terror and the reality of the suffering endured by the Christians.” And in the portrayal of Malchus, especially, on his expedition to Ephesus after the sleep, “[s]howing a sensitivity to human feelings uncharacteristic of hagiography as we have seen it described, and extremely rare in Old English, the writer sympathetically conveys both the bewilderment of Malchus and his fear of being brought before” the emperor. Finally, Magennis also points out that the Old English version, in contrast to its Latin source, “shows particular interest in the thoughts, feelings and direct words of the characters. Verbs of thinking to oneself, saying to oneself, feeling and wondering pervade the text.”
For these and other reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Old English version of The Seven Sleepers as a kind of creative attempt on the part of the anonymous author to individualize, through an exploration of the psychic interior, a sacred history—a sacred history, moreover, that locates itself, not in the tombs of what Peter Brown has called “the very special dead,” nor in an abstract world of disembodiments, but in the very human and living world. In this sense, the Old English legend can even be seen as a kind of resistance to what Brown has described as “the most marked feature of the rise of the Christian church in western Europe”: “the imposition of human administrative structures and of an ideal potentia linked to invisible human beings.” This is not to say that the legend does not affirm certain invisible powers—after all, the seven martyrs sleep in a death-like trance for 372 years and are “resurrected” by God before really dying a second time—and the ultimate “point” of the story, in its hagiographical essence, can only really be located in its medieval Christian doxa: the resurrection is real, and therefore it’s in the after-world where one finally, really “lives,” with body and soul together. But I would like to also pursue the idea that, in its emphasis on the emotional affects of it characters and even of its human world—in this case, the city of Ephesus—the legend also touches upon the theme of the development, through eros, of a certain archaic (and in this case, also spiritual) subjectivity. In this sense, it participates in what some would argue is a peculiarly modern project, although I would like to contest that, specifically through a further analysis of the Old English legend itself, which I see as representing a certain concern, and regard, for the interior life, and for the world which makes that interior life possible. It contributes, moreover, to psychoanalysis, when we understand psychoanalysis as, in the words of Jonathan Lear, “the history of a series of battles that are fought and refought within the human soul,” and also as the site where we can “trace the route of love as it is manifested in human beings” as “a force for individuation.” As a result, the Old English legend also grapples with, and even tries to answer, in my view, a certain problem of memory’s relation to history—in this case, of how to render an account of a sacred history that does not lapse into an undifferentiated doxology but retains a material and heterogeneous particularity that, in the words of the scholar of religious thought Edith Wyschogrod, also marks the place of an historical “excess that opens the dimension of the more, of an unincorporable infinite,” but only when we understand that we are talking about the “unincorporable infinite,” not of the divine, but of the human person.
Posted by Eileen Joy at 11:18 AM
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Partner is quoted as saying that psychoanalysis is an instrument for "recognizing" the human mind across history.
Is "recognizing" the human mind the same as "understanding" it?
I would think not. Far from thinking that the use of psychoanalysis as "an instrument" for recognizing the human mind, say, in the 12th c. is anachronistic, I would nevertheless hope for a more clearly articulated vision of what psychoanalysis is and can do. To take two medievalists on psychoana, I am not sure that either Partner or Patterson have offered such a vision--the latter because he knows little about it and the former because she is an enthusiastic (read uncritical) proponent of it.
IMHO, the best psychoanalytic readers in the entire discipline are Vance Smith and Aranye Fradenburg, for the simple reason that they have a grasp of the dynamics of the historical and modern psyche that no one else has.
It's been a real pleasure getting to know a new scholar's work--new to me at least--here, EJ, so thanks for your paper and your request for comments.
As you know, I'm dubious about 'the human,' and I'm dubious about wanting to recognize subjectivity by recognizing individualizing structures that are akin to what we think our are. If at all possible, I'd like to preserve the heterogeneity of the Anglo-Saxon other (to set up an awful place holder), to avoid wanting to find in it what Hugh Magennis calls "very human worries."
There's an analogy here to the work I'm doing on animals. The denial of subjectivity in medievals by Burckhardt and his heirs is akin to the denial of subjectivity in animals: because we don't see what we recognize as reason, as self, therefore animals/medievals don't have it. Similarly, the recognition of subjectivity in medievals strikes me at first glance as a variant of the relationship between animal rights philosophy and animals: animals clearly demonstrate actions that match what we think of as uniquely rational and therefore uniquely human; they use tools, solve problems, learn behaviors, grieve--even to death; they love; they dream; they have a language, etc.; therefore, to the degree that they resemble our preferred way for thinking of ourselves, animals merit rights as subjects. So too with the discovery of "very human" emotions in the medievals.
Because their social-structural particulars are so different from ours, I would imagine that the Anglo-Saxon umwelt is not necessarily much like ours, and it could do a real disservice to want to discover ours in it. I wonder if there's a non-appropriative way to apprehend or at least engage the past, or the animal or present other (however heterochronic that creature) for that matter. As before, I'm still not sure.
Some interesting texts to consider alongside this:
The Middle English hagiographic tale St Erkenwald, which concerns, iirc, the Bishop of London who, during a renovation of Westminster, discovers an old sarcophagus from pagan London and opens it to look at the body. When he learns of the old pagan's exemplary life, he weeps for the pagan's damnation; but his tears, falling on the corpse, baptize it, and so Erkenwald's grief (regret? a sense of unfairness? civic pride?) proves miraculous. But that's only tangential, 'grief association.'
The other night I was reading Gregory the Great's Homilies, you know, just for the hell of it, because I was having a hard time figuring out Homo Sacer. Homily 1, "Who is My Mother?," in the translation by David Hurst (Kzoo, 1990), treats the martyrdom of Felicity's sons (clearly a Xian rewriting of a Maccabees legend). Gregory praises her for overcoming her love of the world, her "natural feeling," in encouraging her sons in their martyrdom. Gregory nevertheless does not lose sight of the grief she felt even in her "inner force of love that overcame her natural grief." As he explains, "Blessed Felicity outranked other martyrs for having died so often for Christ in the sons who preceded her in death. For love of him her own death did not suffice." In other words, while on the one hand Gregory lauds Felicity for transcending the mutable world to think on her sons' heavenly glory, on the other hand, the very "natural" feeling she should have overcome itself gave added weight to her sanctity, because it increased her grief and hence her suffering. The maternal suffering represents a fixation on the gifts of Fortuna, and hence should be disdained, but without that suffering, Gregory would have no reason to give his attention to Felicity rather than any other martyr.
I'm not sure exactly this connects to your approach, except it just struck me because it was on my mind. I'd love to see how you develop this argument. Something it'd be fun to see on this blog would be revisions in response to comments (if indeed our comments can or should have that effect!).
Karl, on Erkenwald, you've doubtless read the best thing written on it? Vance Smith's “Crypt and Decryption: Erkenwald Terminable and Interminable,” in New Medieval Literatures, 5, ed. Rita Copeland (Oxford University Press, 2001).
I think it might qualify as nonappropriative reading. Well, mabe not, but it's bloody good.
Karl has raised some excellent challenges to a project that asserts the translatibility of emotion/affectivity across time.
Sure, the A-S Umwelt is radically different from mine, from yours, and even from Professor Cohen's. And I think Karl is right to worry about the "disservice" that may be generated by the desire or pressure to "discover ours [our subjectivity particulars] in it [the A-S subjectivity particulars]."
But here's what needs to be thought through more: it is not always, and it never has been for me certainly, a matter of finding myself, my world, in the other, but rather (equally) the reverse: finding them in me, in my world, because I allowed them to find themselves in me.
Here's why I would suggest that that's not mere sophistry: if we're talking about affectivities and emotions, we will, cannot help but, use our Umwelt as a kind of Turing test, and thus psychoanalysis and neuropsychoanalysis are, I would submit, the best tools we currently have to recognize the human in historical others. BUT, that said, if our primary responsibility is to these historical others (or, for that matter, living others such as animals), isn't what's really going on a complex process of recognition, identification, and (sometimes) understanding that allows for a place in my world for the others, which must remain others? It's not thus a matter of saying "I find that they (e.g., the Anglo-Saxons) have real "human" emotions just like me or my kind," but of finding that they have emotions that, though I cannot ever claim to understand them fully, I can claim to recongize. Why? Because psychoana opens me to them, and that openness doesn't necessarily equate with appropriation.
I know you all love "real world" examples, but WTF: in my capacity as a crisis counselor, I've worked with a range of human responses to loss, danger, and pain. There are, as you might imagine, handbooks, guidebooks, and such that will tell you, e.g., that African Americans grieve this way, that Mexican Americans respond this way to painful loss, that Asian Americans handle emotional expression this way, and so on. To be fair to such guides, what they tell you is that these groups tend to think, emote, or behave in these ways. This nuance doesn't matter, because once you work with members of these and other groups, you learn one thing very quickly: if you're going to help them, at all, deal with the crisis event, you must suspend everything you think you know about them as being members of a particular group or population and operate on a level that I've characterized elsewhere on this blog as amounting to empathic attunement. I become receptive to their subjective particularities in ways that I am not in other settings. I do not find myself in the so-called other so much as allow the other to find herself in me. Sure, it's a two-way communication of selves, but to be effective (in a nonappropriative way, which is to say effective therapeutically) I drop all the defenses which otherwise would have prevented a finding and momentarily safe-harboring of their world in mine. My world is not traumatized; theirs is. That difference will impede "understanding," but not communication or healing or recognition.
So, yes, I am doubtful that psychoanalysis as it is currently employed in the academy by humanities folks like Partner, Patterson, Cohen, Joy, et alia is anything but in the final analysis appropriative. Protestations from well-meaning Leftist humanists notwithstanding, until psychoanalytic approaches are rethought, radically rethought, they will continue to generate nothing but interesting "readings."
One key to breaking this cycle of appropriation, though I didn't put it this way when I wrote my essay on time and medieval psychoanalysis, is to stop generating readings of the static objects of history and start attending to the dynamical processes that characterize the complex intersection of affect, cognition, and behavior.
One quick note to Emile B. [and then more later]--yes, I understand your reservations, and don't worry, books and articles by Fradenburg and Smith have special places in my study--i.e., they are with the texts I reac h for the most often.
Many rich comments and cautions, and I hope I can do justice to them here. First, please keep in mind that, as far as psychoanalytic theory & practice are concerned, I am an extreme novice. So don't align me with anyone just yet [i.e. Partner and Patterson]. In fact, don't align me with anyone, ever. Thanks to Emile B.'s incredibly detailed bibliographic posts throughout the summer, at least I have the beginnings of a pathway into the thicket. Having said that, please keep in mind, too, that, initially anyway, I can't be anything *but* "appropriative"--how else to begin thinking through any sort of problem, historical or otherwise? At the risk of sounding dilettantish, my approach is usually to grab anything that comes my way that seems to apply, absorb as much of it as I can, and bounce as many ideas off of it as I can think of it to see what sticks, what passes through, what blows up, etc. I take the Rube Goldberg approach to scholarship, while at the same time, sure, I need to discriminate, and when I don't know something, I ask an expert. In fact, I'm especially appreciative of knowledge that comes to me from non-academic sources [or that, at least, have not been entirely co-opted and watered down and simplified as part of some institutionally-embedded disciplinary set of knowledge practices]. In any case, I can't see avoiding being "appropriative," while at the same time, I don't want to do damage to others' ideas, or to particular historical contexts, just to serve my own possibly psuedo-intellectual purposes.
Having said that, and regardless of how anyone feels about Nancy Partner's work [which I happen to admire, especially her essay "No Sex, No Gender"], no, I don't think "recognizing" the human mind, over time no less, is the same as "understanding" it, and while I would never want to collapse the historical-cognitive distinction[s] between say, the medieval mind and the modern mind, I occasionally feel impatient with the idea that those living in the Middle Ages were so "alter" from us that we couldn't possibly grasp their psychology. Again and again I have said, and will say again, that only in humanities studies is 1,000 years treated as an extremely long, apparently ultimately impassable time span. In many other disciplines, and especially in science, it is like a mere blip. Granted, we could go discipline by discipline [in the sciences, from palentology to chemistry to astrophysics to biology, etc.] and we would discover that there are all sorts of ways of measuring time and different conceptions of what "deep" or "long" time is, but still . . . I hope everyone can see what I am getting at here: 1,000 years, as cocerns human development, ain't as long as everyone thinks it is. Does that mean that a twelfth-century man living in Norwich is, essentially, "just like me"? Of course not; that's facile. But then again, the vast differences--cultural, socio-historical, and otherwise--between myself and some of my neighbors in downtown St. Louis is more extreme than between myself and, say, Geoffrey Chaucer. I'm just sayin'. Anyone who can help me make the argument, Partner included, that it is "okay" [and not an act of academic heresy] to think about & discuss some kind of notion of transhistorical, cross-cultural human cognition/identity, is someone whose help I need right now. I don't know to what extent emotion & affectivity can be, as Emile B. puts it, "translated" across time, but what I do know [and feel] is that it behooves the medieval historian to find out what that extent might be. Following many of Karl's cautions, here and elsewhere in other blog posts, it never serves us well to *assume* differences in cognition and subjectivity across and between so-called living "species" [or, following that, to deny the existence of subjectivity in others, or to degrade its supposed value when it has a different shape and contour and modes of expression than "ours"], but at the same time, it does not serve us either to nelect the responsbility to determine what differences there might be between, say, a chicken and a bear and a human [excuse the oppressive language of "chicken," "bear," and "human"]--how else to protect what is, ultimately, special and unique, and to also parcel out social obligations accordingly? How else to relate to others? [What am I relating *to*, in other words, and why should it command my attention and respect?] Anyway, at the very least, is there not "emotion" and "affectivity" [human and otherwise] that passes through various temporal borders? If Rupert Sheldrake is right, and there is such a thing as morphogenetic fields, then the universe has a "memory," there *is* such a thing as an "extended mind," and anything is possible as far as this discussion is concerned. Go here for more on that:
Ultimately, I am with Emile B. in the matter of what might be called my scholarly projections--I am not interested in discovering my own subjectivity in the Anglo-Saxon mind, and I never have been. I am, further, not interested in facile discussions that run along the lines of "the medievals were modern/us" or "we are/always have been medieval," nor will these types of discussions ever interest me. Emile B.'s provocative idea of *allowing* the medieval to find "themselves" in him [which will never be the same as saying, "they are like me, and I am like them"--in fact, it is altogether more difficult, for "they" are very different and yet "I" open myself to them with a kind of, let's say, affective wonder] is more in line with my own feelings, and accords especially well, if you think about it, with evolutionary biology, although I know Emile B. is likely thinking differently even from that. His project is more ethical-affective. To whit:
Emile B.: "It's not thus a matter of saying 'I find that they (e.g., the Anglo-Saxons) have real "human" emotions just like me or my kind,' but of finding that they have emotions that, though I cannot ever claim to understand them fully, I can claim to recongize. Why? Because psychoana opens me to them, and that openness doesn't necessarily equate with appropriation."
This is actually very close to something I tried [let me re-emphasize: TRIED] to do in an essay, "In His Eyes Stood A Light, Not Beautiful: Hospitality, Terrorism, Levinas, Beowulf," which is being published in the Palgrave book formerly known as "Medieval, Reality, Television" [new title still being fought over]. This essay deals with my attempt to, let's say, "get close" to two particular items: the partially exploded body-mind of a dead Chechen suicide bomber and the severed head-mind of Grendel vis-a-vis Levinas's thinking on hospitality and some of Derrida's elaborations on Levinas's thinking. I also wanted to show that this affective openness Emile B. writes about is as necessary for those who are alongisde us in time as well as for those who are separated from us in time. I will share here just an excerpt [the Chechen part]:
------------beginning of excerpt--------------
II. Detour: Exteriority Is Not a Negation, But a Marvel
According to Levinas, the Other is not so much an actual face as it is a “pure expression” that always exceeds any limits we might put on it—“Expression, or the face, overflows images.” Even though I know that, in Levinas’s scheme of things, the face is not really a face, per se, but rather, an expression—and even, the overflowing of expression—I find myself thinking, obsessively, about the face of Zulikhan Elikhadzhiyeva, the twenty–year–old Chechen woman who approached the admissions booth of an outdoor rock festival at Moscow’s Tushino airfield on July 5, 2003 and detonated the explosives strapped to her belt, killing only herself (another female bomber who was with her managed to kill herself and fourteen others). Browsing the Internet one day searching for pictures of this event, partly because I was curious about the phenomenon of women who are suicide terrorists, I came across the photograph above of Elikhadzhiyeva lying on her back between police barricades, blood splattered on the bottom edges of her shirt, one fist partially clenched over her heart, a beer can overturned on the ground beside her head, her eyes closed, her mouth half–open—the scene is almost peaceful, and the face, serene, if also vulnerable. The photograph literally arrested me; after all, she was only twenty years old, the same age as many of my students. I have never considered a twenty–year–old as someone who could be capable of such a fierce will and desire to kill herself and others, out of a deep vengeance, or perhaps, a desperate powerlessness (which could also be a desperate facelessness).
While some may have been transfixed by the gruesome images of the shredded bodies of bombing victims under white sheets through which their blood could be seen to seep through here and there (and this was the image most news outlets chose to accompany their coverage of the event), I could not get Elikhadzhieyeva’s face out of my mind when I first saw it, nor can I, even now.
Elikhadzhieyeva’s face haunts me precisely because it is what Levinas would have said is not really a face, but a facade, in which “the thing which keeps its secret is exposed and enclosed in its monumental essence and in its myth, in which it gleams like a splendor but does not deliver itself. It captivates by its grace as by magic, but does not reveal itself.” While there are some, I know, who will claim that it is not possible to be captivated (which is to say, to be struck with wonder) by such a face, the possessor of which is a suicide bomber (whom we call a monster and for whom some will argue no empathy is possible or even required), I would argue that, at the very least, this face—which is extraordinary in its exteriority—is a marvel that commands our attention and challenges us to take on the task, in Levinas’s words, of responding “to the life of the other man,” for we “do not have the right to leave him alone at his death.”
Between October of 2002, when roughly forty Chechen rebels, including over a dozen women, seized a theater in Moscow in the middle of a musical performance and held 800 theatergoers hostage, and September of 2004, when more than a dozen Chechen rebels, also including women, seized a school in Beslan (in the southern republic of North Ossetia), Chechens and Russians have witnessed the emergence of what many consider to be a shocking phenomenon—female suicide bombers. Because many Chechens reject the idea that these women have embraced a radical Islamic fundamentalism, and many Russians, conversely, have assumed that these women embody what they see as the “Palestinianization” of the Chechen rebellion, a certain tension, confusion, and even hysteria, attaches to the ways in which ordinary Russians and Chechens, government officials, and the international press have attempted to describe them. It has been said about the female Chechen suicide bombers, alternatively, that they have been kidnapped by Islamic extremists, given psychotropic drugs, and then raped as part of their coercion into doing what no woman would supposedly do of her own accord; that they are emotionless “brick walls,” “pre–programmed,” “brainwashed,” and “de–humanized”; that they are suffering from post–traumatic stress disorder; that they are blackmailed “zombies”; and that they are the harbingers of the fact that “something has come unglued at the heart of Chechen society.”
Standing in stark opposition to the idea that the female bombers are somehow not in their right mind, or that they have been coerced against their will, are the statements of the women themselves, or of those who might have known something about their motives. In September of 2003, an anonymous Chechen woman (going by the pseudonym “Kowa”) told a BBC World Service reporter, “I have only one dream now, only one mission—to blow myself up somewhere in Russia, ideally in Moscow. . . .To take as many Russian lives as possible—this is the only way to stop the Russians from killing my people. . . .Maybe this way they will get the message once and for all.” Kowa’s husband, only twenty–four years old, was killed by Russian forces during its wars with Chechnya, and she indicated she wanted revenge and “was ready for it.” Further, she said, “In my case—as with most cases with female suicide bombers—the motive is revenge. No one is forcing us and I am not afraid.” A surviving hostage of the of the Chechen rebel takeover of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in October of 2003 told an Associated Press reporter that one of her female captors, whose husband and brother had been killed in the war with Russia, said the following: “I have nothing to lose, I have nobody left. So I’ll go all the way with this, even though I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.” Another Chechen rebel apparently told a hostage, “You’re having a bad day, but we’re having a bad ten years.” Speaking of one of the first female Chechen suicide bombers, Elza Gazuyeva, who in November of 2001 killed herself and a Russian commander who she believed had ordered the execution of her husband, a woman interviewed in Grozny (a city completely devastated by the wars with Russia) said of other bombers like Gazuyeva, “They are understood here. . . .They are adored.” Of Gazuyeva specifically, the woman said, “She was, is and will remain a heroine for us.” Lisa Ling, who traveled to Chechnya in order to interview families of female suicide bombers for a National Geographic documentary on the subject, said in an interview that the female bombers “were normal girls” who, nevertheless, also “saw no way out. They saw their lives. . .as too difficult to handle, and when they reached that stage, in their minds, taking out the enemy was an opportunity to become a hero.”
Regardless of the women’s own statements, or the feelings of those left behind in the ruins of Grozny, or the statements of those who have taken the time to investigate their motives and also the psychology behind their motives, central to the issue of what might be called the troubling, yet intimate alterity of these women, is the name given to them, as a collectivity, by the Russian government and quickly picked up and broadcast widely by the international press: they are the “black widows” of Chechnya—that is to say, they are the actual widows (the wives, yes, but also the mothers, sisters, and daughters) of men killed in an ongoing war with Russia that has claimed over 100,000 lives, but they are also venomous black widow spiders who kill with one bite. Apparently, the Chechen women first earned this moniker during the rebel takeover of the Dubrovka Theater when they were seen on Russian television wearing black hijabs and explosive–laden belts. Furthermore, the supposed (and mysterious) leader of these women is referred to as “Black Fatima,” a nickname that incorporates racial and religious fears. They are therefore both intimately familiar, yet also monstrously Other, and it is precisely because of their intimacy—because they are, ultimately, like us—that they frighten us and drive us to the language of exteriority: we say that they are inhuman, and even, monstrous, and their acts, evil and unspeakable. We say, in as many ways as we can, they are not like us. In the case of the siege at the school in Beslan, which ultimately resulted in the maiming and deaths of scores of children, some of the Russians who witnessed the aftermath of the siege attempted to kill, bare–handed, one of the captured rebels before Russian soldiers intervened. One of those Russians, Khariton Valiyev, said to a reporter, “People wanted to tear him to pieces. I myself would have pulled his eyes from his head with my fingers,” indicating a desire to remove the one thing—the eyes—that would most humanize (give “face” to) the rebel and with which he could look at his attackers—that is to say, with which he could attempt to command their regard (a regard, admittedly, some will argue he has no right to command).
It has to be admitted that suicide terrorists do not “play fair,” since, as Jean Baudrillard writes, “they put their own deaths into play—to which there is no possible response (‘they are cowards’),” but they are also attempting to contest a system (in the Chechens’ case, an authoritarian and highly–centralized Russian government that has literally terrorized, through bombings, kidnappings, rapes, torture, and executions, the entire population of Chechnya) “whose very excess of power poses an insoluble challenge,” to which “the terrorists respond with a definitive act that is also not susceptible of exchange.” In turn, the government’s response is typically one of complete refusal to negotiate and flat–out extermination. After the siege at the school in Beslan, Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, told the press, “We shall fight against them, throw them in prisons, and destroy them.” Putin’s comments are typical of most state governments’ responses to terrorists. In April of 2004, in a speech delivered in Kansas City, Missouri that referred to terrorist attacks in the cities of Karbala, Najaf, and Baghdad in Iraq, United States Vice–President Dick Cheney stated, “Such an enemy cannot be deterred, cannot be contained, cannot be appeased, or negotiated with. It can only be destroyed. And that is the business at hand.” This “policy” can have disastrous, unintended consequences: during the siege of the Dubrovka Theater in 2002, Russian soldiers stormed the theater with experimental knockout gas and executed, on the spot, all of the Chechen rebels while they were unconscious, and 129 Russian civilians were inadvertently killed by the gas, for which no antidote had yet been developed. On both sides, this is a zero–sum game, and it also raises the difficult question, posed by Derrida,
"What difference is there between, on the one hand, the force that can be just, or in any case deemed legitimate (not only an instrument in the service of the law but the practice and even the realization, the essence of droit), and on the other other hand the violence that one always deems unjust? What is a just force or a non–violent force?"
We must never forget that terrorists are real persons with real lives grounded in all the material and psychic particularities of the local—Zulikhan Elikhadzhiyeva, for instance, lived with her sister in a brick house in a small Chechen village and studied at the medical vocational school there. The two Chechen women, Amanat Nagayeva and Satsita Dzhbirkhanova, who brought down two Russian passenger planes in August of 2004, killing themselves and 89 other passengers, lived with two other women in a cramped, bombed–out apartment building in Grozny and worked selling clothing and other goods in the central market. The Chechen women who have become suicide bombers have been living in conditions of absolute poverty and desolation—both physical and psychic—and while their acts of terrorism can be seen as the last gestures of an extreme desperation, we cannot forget that these gestures are also immoral acts of violence that maimed and killed others who were, like the female bombers themselves, “ordinary civilians.” Just as “we” refuse to negotiate with terrorists—just as we withhold, in other words, the gift of welcoming through language—“they” also refuse to welcome us through language, and instead, write their suicide letters on our bodies with their weapons and render us incapable of returning anything to them except our hatred, which they do not stay to receive. But our understanding of these women, if we are willing to embark on such a project, will have to begin with an understanding of the general perception of them, grounded in the order of the symbolic, as monsters. As Jeffrey Cohen reminds us, the monster’s body is always a cultural body: "The monster is born. . .as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence."
In his “seven theses toward understanding cultures through the monsters they bear,” Cohen argues that the monster is always a “harbinger of a category crisis,” and because the monster also always embodies difference writ large (usually along lines that are sexual, racial, and cultural), “the boundaries between personal and national bodies blur” in the body of the monster which always threatens “to fragment the delicate matrix of relational systems that unite every private body to the public world.” The female Chechen suicide bombers are especially troubling in this scenario because they bring together in their cultural bodies two “signs” that have traditionally terrified through their Otherness: “woman” and “nonwhite” (what Cohen terms She and Them!).
And where is it, exactly, that the monster make its home? According to Cohen, the monster resides “in that marginal geography of the Exterior, beyond the limits of the Thinkable, a place that is doubly dangerous: simultaneously ‘exorbitant’ and ‘quite close’.” The female Chechen terrorists are strange to many Russians (and even to some Chechens), yet also lie very close to the heart of what Russia is—a state that originated and maintains its hegemonic authority with violence: they are the “isolated and heroic being[s] the State produces by its virile virtues”—and therefore, it will never be a matter of simply driving them back to the wilderness from which they supposedly came, nor of just destroying them (Russia’s “official policy”), for as Cohen also reminds us, “No monster tastes of death but once.” Further, Cohen writes, "Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself: it is always a displacement, always inhabits the gap between the time of upheaval that created it and the moment into which it is received, to be born again."
If the only policy against terrorists is to hunt them down and destroy—i.e., to kill—them, without conversation, they will keep returning to us, bearing to us the gift of their deaths, and our own murder. If we cannot approach these figures except as monsters, as inhuman, as illegible, then we cannot embark on what Levinas calls the “absolute adventure” of pluralistic being, which is peace itself, but only when we understand that peace "cannot be identified with the end of combats that cease for want of combatants, by the defeat of some and the victory of the others, that is, with cemeteries or future universal empires. Peace must be my peace, in a relation that starts from an I and goes to the other, in desire and goodness, where the I both maintains itself and exists without egoism."
But this kind of desiring, which requires that we meet the Other and even behold her—behold the face of Zulikhan Elikhadzhiyeva—in her own time, currently exceeds our grasp. It is almost too much to ask.
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So, yes, empathetic attunement, if possible, and dynamical processes, always.
I'm not really sure if my thought comes through the way I mean for it to in my previous post [and in my essay excerpt, which I realize now i too truncated in relation to the larger piece in which it is embedded]. I am mainly trying to say that I see ethics [I think] as being somehow located in a kind of affective wonder [which is always different than amity or fellow-feeling or whatever that tends toward "sameness" as a basis for caring for/respecting others] toward others who are always, in some respect, "not-like-me," and that it is their very exteriority, or alterity, or uniqueness, or however you want to phrase it, that kind of commands me to open myself [or as Levinas would put it, turn myself inside-out]. At the same time, we can't disregard certain aspects of "sameness" that make it possible for us to accomplish this affectivity. Then again [and thinking out loud in a self-contradictory manner], perhaps it is the very difficulty of suspending, as Emile B. would put it, all preconceptions [and hence, also, identifications] of others that is the real ethical challenge--not to ask: how is this person/thing enough "like me" that I can give them/it my regard, but rather, how can I open myself to welcome [in Levinas's sense of welcoming as making the other "at home" in me] what is completely foreign to me, yet requires my shelter, my regard, and my attention?
Fair play. (Credit to Mike Skinner for turning me on to that expression.)
I don't know...if you're invested in generating more readings, that's cool, but I find them ultimately unethical. I've generated a few in my day. So I am one to talk--in the negative and positive sense of that expression. Maybe it's part of the process on the way to becoming a more responsive and responsible thinker.
I think I'll slip this into the Zoo talk. In the meantime, I don't think anyone can convince me that we need Levinas to know what peace is.
I wouldn't try to convince you that we need Levinas to know what peace is, although I think we need other writers & thinkers to help us give shape to our often half-formed lines of thought. They can simply be departure points, never resting places [in any kind of critical inquiry]. But I'm not sure I know what peace is, either, left to my own thoughts on the matter. I've never *seen* it, either, at least not in any kind of pure or unadulterated state. I don't think humans can ultimately ever be at peace, which is why an ethics for warfare will likely always be a more necessary project than a so-called "peacetime" ethics. Nevertheless, if you don't need Levinas, you don't need him. I wouldn't force him on anyone.
More to the more important point Emile B. makes: what kind of work [critical inquiry- & writing-wise] does the more responsive and responsible thinker do?
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