Sunday, December 31, 2006

Noted with interest: Lacan's medievalism

From the UMP website:

Lacan’s Medievalism
Erin Felicia Labbie

Reveals the important links between medieval studies and Jacques Lacan.

One of the foundational premises of Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytical project was that the history of philosophy concealed the history of desire, and one of the goals of his work was to show how desire is central to philosophical thinking.

In Lacan’s Medievalism, Erin Felicia Labbie demonstrates how Lacan’s theory of desire is bound to his reading of medieval texts. She not only alters the relationship between psychoanalysis and medieval studies, but also illuminates the ways that premodern and postmodern epochs and ideologies share a concern with the subject, the unconscious, and language, thus challenging notions of strict epistemological cuts. Lacan’s psychoanalytic work contributes to the medieval debate about universals by revealing how the unconscious relates to the category of the real.

By analyzing the systematic adherence to dialectics and the idealization of the hard sciences, Lacan’s Medievalism asserts that we must take into account the play of language and desire within the unconscious and literature in order to understand the way that we know things in the world and the manner in which order is determined.


Introduction: The Unconscious Is Real

1. Singularity, Sovereignty, and the One
2. Duality, Ambivalence, and the Animality of Desire
3. Dialectics, Courtly Love, and the Trinity
4. The Quadrangle, the Hard Sciences, and Nonclassical Thinking
5. The Pentangle and the Resistant Knot

I'm curious to see which medieval texts Labbie selects, and how much of what she says is new. I also wonder how much of Lacan's medievalism is really the same as his catholicism. Looks intriguing.


Karl Steel said...

Clever organization for the chapter titles.

For texts, there's SGGK in Chapter V.

Given my recent discussion, as muddled as it was, in the comments on Ser Tristrem, I'm interested to see the discussion of animals and desire (or is 'animality' something different, describing the soul's desire for God and for body).

illuminates the ways that premodern and postmodern epochs and ideologies share a concern with the subject, the unconscious, and language, thus challenging notions of strict epistemological cuts.

Little confounded here at the use of "epochs and ideologies" rather than the usual "texts." In either case--whether it's texts or time and (more or less conscious) thought patterns--something is being made to carry the burden of the past's intention to excuse our (otherwise inauthentic?) deployment of critical theory in reading premodern texts.

I confounded, first, because I think such apologies should be unnecessary: whatever's going to help us notice things about the texts that we wouldn't otherwise notice should be fine. Second, I wonder if other sub-disciplines in literary studies are compelled to proclaim their historical bona fides quite so often. Given that the full flowering of critical theory dates at its earliest to Hegel, but really (?) to sustained discourses of antifoundationalism or at least postrationalism and thus no earlier than the 1920s(?), why don't we see these kinds of apologies for other eras? And by "other eras" I mean everything prior to, say, Claire Boothe Luce. Do Restoration people make these apologies? Or, better yet, Victorianists or Edwardians, since they are (purportedly) so close to "us"? I might be tilting at windmills here, since I don't know what sort of apologies Conrad or M. Shelley or Dickens scholars had to make, for instance, to justify making room in their toolkit for Lacan &c. However, if they haven't had to make those apologies, and, especially, if no one could expect them to make those apologies (something I faced with one interlocutor quite recently), it's pretty clear to me it's because the medieval, unlike modernity, functions as the site of the past, as a place preserved--to my mind, distressingly--from the heterogeneity, uncertainty, adulthood, eschaton, what have you, that constitutes whatever is 'our' zeitgeist.

(all this is said with the awareness, I guess, following Holsinger, that poco studies have always already been medieval)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Though even if PoCo studies had not always already been medieval, so what? Would that really change anything? Do we breathe a sigh of relief when we learn that theorists of the subaltern read the Annalistes and declare "Thank goodness! We medievalists can now read PoCo theory!"

I don't think justification was the main reason Bruce Holsinger wrote his Speculum piece or The Premodern Condition, so it surprises me that his work is often cited only as if he had.

Karl, you raise very good questions. My impression is that early modernists are oft beset by the same kinds of anxious queries about the possibility of theory ... but I don't know that Victorianists and so forth fret so much over the horrors of anachronism.

Karl Steel said...

I just searched, I think thoroughly, through the archives for a conversation we'd had earlier about just that (mis)use of Holsinger's article (the book I haven't read yet). Looks as though that conversation is one we had in person, which means, oddly, that it's likely wasted, since it's not archived, except in the private and shoddy rooms of my memory.

Here's something I read the other day that's both pertinent and, given that I like the writer (Amardeep Singh), distressing:

I think postcolonial theory is badly over-extended, and is being applied in ways that make little sense, including in historical eras that predate the modern concept of Empire, or Nation. It’s hard, for instance, to understand where people are going with ‘postcolonialist’ Medieval studies or Early Modern studies, since the British empire only really only dates from the late 19th century.

JKW has a relevant story if he wants to share it in an archivable forum. And I can only imagine the kinds of reviews The Postcolonial Middle Ages received...

A little off topic here, but it's on my mind: One of the things that Berube said at, I think, either the noon Thursday or Sat 8:30 MLA sessions was forget the problem about the gap between the Ivory Tower and the Public: what about the gap between the Ivory Tower and itself? Most of us have no idea what our colleagues are up to. The medieval colloquium that GW arranged prior to the job search is one way to fix that internal gap. Blogs, too, as Berube said, are a hugely useful way to listen to what our colleagues are saying.

I probably can't think of a much better way than blogs to implement the suggestions in the 'collegiality' section of this year's MLA Profession 2006. Unlike the quarterly PMLA journal--which is meant in part to represent the state of the profession, right?--academic blogs not only get read, and get read by all kinds of literature scholars, they invite the kind of productive give and take that we need for professional collegiality. Traditional written interchange between scholars can't do that. It's too slow, because of editors and peer review, because of the time and effort it takes to get together a conference or faculty seminar, so slow, in fact, that it can hardly be counted as give and take, unless we're measuring in terms of geologic time (e.g., Haskins v. Burkhardt). Blogs are instantaneous, and, unlike conversations in the mail room, they're good repositories of information and ideas. And, unlike the mail room, or the faculty retreat, or the Friday Sherry Hour, we blog on our own time, without any worry of being interrupted by interrupting events and people. And in a blog we're not only open to people not in our disciplines, we're open to people not in our profession. Too bad Profession didn't take them into account! (maybe they did: haven't finished reading it yet)

At any rate, I find it odd that there aren't more medieval blogs that foreground critical theory. I wonder if there were more if I'd be less likely to stumble across respected fellow academics (A. Singh) scoffing at medieval engagements--not appropriations--with poco theory.

Now, given that blogs were last hip in 2004, I'm probably, like so many medievalists, late to the party, bursting into a crowded room, as JJC quipped, and shouting 'j'arrive!'

Jeffrey Cohen said...

You have a good memory, Karl. I was repeating myself from long ago: the comments to this post on Roger Sherman Loomis as a PoCo medievalist. (Sadly, the Blogger search button doesn't search comments; you have to go to Google and do an advanced search of this domain to do that

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Oops, here is that URL:

Karl Steel said...

Hah! My memory's not as good as all that. I did do a google advanced search, but couldn't find the particular element of the conversation I remembered: a particular element that's probably only as true as a dream. I sort of feel like the main character in Stoppard's Travesties...