Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Query for the Recently Ossified Professor Cohen

For my seminar on monsters and demons in medieval literature, we turn to Beowulf this week and next [having spent some time already with the Old English Wonders of the East and the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle], and along with that, my students are reading several critical texts, including the first chapter, "The Ruins of Identity," from JJC's book Of Giants. One of my students emailed this afternoon to say and ask me this:

I understand the conception of giants in Norse lore, the remnants of their presence through the stone works, etc., but what I don't quite fully grasp is Cohen's notion of loss as experienced by Nordic people through the absence of the giants. Cohen writes: "The existential melancholy that drives such etiologic narratives arises because these more than human beings have abandoned humanity to itself, leaving enigmatic traces of a joyful proximity never to be regained." Is he arguing that people long for a "proximity" in time to giants . . . because of the fantasy they can provide? the superhumanity--super power, perhaps--they represent? I guess I'm just flummoxed with his choice of phrase "joyful proximity" because until this point, my sense was that humans fled from monstrosity (figuratively and quite literally), or at least kept it at a voyeur's distance.

One way that I might begin to answer my student's question would be to explain how--in JJC's version, let's say, of a giant history--the figure of the giant always exists prior to the Law [with a capital "L"], prior to human institutions and societies with their strictures and prohibitions and curtailing of excess [sexual, violent, gustatory, etc.], and therefore the giant can be, in the cultural imagination, a figure of the enjoyment of things that are no longer allowed to be enjoyed. As Cohen puts it, "The giants of the homilists are the ancient, primal, but dead Fathers of Enjoyment who committed every sin" [p. 19]. But what Cohen means, more specifically [I think], by his phrase "joyful proximity," is that the giants of the past are often viewed, in particular medieval cultures, as having been "the constitutive first matter of the earth" [p. 11]--they possessed a certain "oneness of the world" [p. 21] that is now lost to us. Although God [let's say, the Western Christian God], technically banishes/destroys the giants who, according to Genesis, once roamed the earth, they continue to haunt our consciousness [and selfhood] as the figure of everything that is now forbidden to us, and which both secretly thrills and terrifies the delicate architecture of our supposedly more human selves. The actual giants who keep reappearing in literature--like Grendel and his mother--are, in a sense, a kind of wish-fulfillment of our darkest nostalgia/fantasy for the giants of the supposedly "oldest days": there is a secret thrill [jouissance] to be had in getting close to these figures, which also requires that we kill them, over and over and over again.

Any other thoughts, JJC? [And please let me know, too, if in characteristic fashion, I've mishandled your intentions and meanings.]

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Pardoner's present -- and future

Teach long enough and it is bound to happen: in the midst of pontificating along in your oh so hip and cutting edge Chaucer class, you realize that the handout you've been relying on to show how critically up to date you are actually demonstrates the opposite. You now hold a ticket to the Museum of Fossilized Xeroxes, and you realize you'll soon be interred in the Museum of Ossified Professors.

That happened to me today as I was teaching the Pardoner's Tale. Look at this thing (below): I'm stuck in the 90s! (Does VH1 produce a version of that for medievalists?). Some of my omissions are glaring: the psychoanalytic Pardoner that Patterson critiqued in Speculum; the Pardoner as incarnation of gender theory in Robert Sturges's book; the Pardoner as epistemological void from Dinshaw's Chaucer's Sexual Poetics. What other "recent" Pardoners am I missing? Has there ever been, for example, a postcolonial Pardoner?

Here's my Jurassic xerox. It's supposed to show the oscillations of love and hate that have always animated Pardoner scholarship.

Interpreting the Pardoner

1. "The one lost soul among the Canterbury pilgrims" (George Lyman Kittredge, "Chaucer's Pardoner," The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 72, 1893, pp. 829-33)

2. eunuchus ex nativitate ["eunuch from birth"] (Walter Clyde Curry, Chaucer and the Medieval Sciences, 1926) [sympathy]
• "testicular pseudo-hermaphrodite of the feminine type" [Beryl Rowland, Neophilologus, 48, 1964, 56-60]

3. allegory for spiritual impotence (Robert P. Miller, "Chaucer's Pardoner, The Scriptural Eunuch, and the Pardoner's Tale," Speculum 30 [1955] 180-89) [not sympathetic]

4. homosexual (Monica McAlpine, "The Pardoner's Homosexuality and How It Matters," PMLA 95 [1980] 8-22; Steven Kruger, "Toward a gay reading of the Pardoner's Tale," Exemplaria 6 [1994])

5. effeminate / randy and "enthusiastically heterosexual" (David Benson, "Chaucer's Pardoner: His Sexuality and Modern Critics," Medievalia 8 (1985 [for 1982]) 337-46; Richard F. Green, "The Sexual Normality of Chaucer's Pardoner," Medievalia 8 (1985 [for 1982]) 351-57; R. F. Green, "The pardoner's pants (and why they matter)," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 15 [1993]).

6. queer (Glenn Burger, "Kissing the Pardoner," PMLA 107 [1992])

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Straight Outta the Newberry: Giant Uppity Women, Alexander, and the Danaides

I am just back from the Newberry Library in Chicago, where I was invited to make a presentation on the Old English illustrated Wonders of the East [included, with Beowulf, in the Cotton Vitellius A.xv manuscript] to a Renaissance Consortium seminar being led by Susan Kim, titled "Unworthy Bodies: The Other Texts of the Beowulf Manuscript." It was fun [!] and I can't wait to go back next week to hear a talk by Asa Simon Mittman, one of the few scholars, other than Susan Kim and a "wee handful" of others [Dana Oswald, Greta Austin, Mary Campbell, Andy Orchard, Paul Gibb, Ann Knock] who have done serious work on the Wonders text [and much of what has been done is still in unpublished dissertation form--travesty!].

While preparing for this talk, I was re-reading Chapter 2 of Julia Kristeva's Strangers to Ourselves ["The Greeks Among the Barbarians, Suppliants, Metics"], which led me to read, for the first time, Aeschylus's play The Suppliant Maidens [based on the myth of the Daniades], which led me to the version of the myth in Robert Graves's Greek Mythology, which got me thinking, "where have I heard this story before?", which led me to re-reading Chapter 2 of JJC's Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages ["Monstrous Origin: Body, Nation, and Family"], and boy oh boy am I tired now [I mean, then]. But all kidding aside, all of this reading was really productive and interesting, and I just thought I would share with everyone here some of what I presented at the Newberry.

I should first tell everyone that my main focus in the Wonders text, which is a compilation of marvels and monsters mainly based on Greek and early Latin sources, is with one passage in particular that describes women ["wif"] who are thirteen-feet tall, marble-bodied, have boar tusks and camel feet and ox-tails that protrude from their loins ["lendenum"]. The text of the Wonders as a whole is mainly static and lacking in any kind of narrative frame, unlike the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, which follows it in the manuscript. Its narrative voice is devoid of opinion or any real intervention into the text [which we do have with the tenth-century Latin Liber monstrorum], and you can almost think of the text as a series of snapshots of strange creatures and beasts and plants and places, all of which are not connected together in any coherent or symbolic fashion. No attempt to fit these "wonders" into a symbolic or allegorical scheme is attempted, and one of my seminar students likened the text to a "curiosity cabinet," which I think is an excellent description. But the passage with these women is also almost startlingly unique in that, after describing their physical properties, the author tells us that, because they could not be captured alive, and on account of their size, and because of their shameful and unworthy bodies, Alexander killed them. I view this intrusion of Alexander into the text as an interesting anomaly or "interruption," which both links it to the text that follows, but also begs the question: why do these creatures, as they say in some parts, need killin'?

Here, then, is a peek into some of my thoughts [right now, anyway] on the subject of these "women" and Alexander's murder of them [please keep in mind that these are mainly random and chaotic "gatherings" of others' ideas]:

I have been trying to devise ways to understand the place of the Wonders text relative to what might be called an early English political identity, and even an early English moral economy, that rests, to a certain extent, on classical notions of the social status and place of barbarian peoples and foreigners, as well as upon the idea, expressed by William Ian Miller in his book The Anatomy of Disgust, that disgust has “powerful communalizing capacities and is especially useful and necessary as a builder of moral and social community.” How might the disgust, which leads to murder, provoked by the “unworthy” bodies of the women in the Wonders text, mark the place, in Miller’s words, of “a recognition of danger to our purity,” which is simultaneously “an admission that we did not escape contamination,” because “Disgust never allows us to escape clean. It underpins the sense of despair that impurity and evil are contagious, endure, and take everything down with them.” How, further, might the hybrid, excessive, and shameful bodies of the women in the Wonders text, both as figura and littera, serve as a placeholder of what Michel de Certeau termed, in his book The Possession at Loudon, the “nocturnal” that has erupted “into broad daylight,” and which reveals an “underground existence, an inner resistance that has never been broken”? Moreover, as Certeau phrases the question, “Is this the outbreak of something new, or the repetition of a past?” According to Certeau, “The historian never knows which. For mythologies reappear, providing the eruption of strangeness with forms of expression prepared in advance, as it were, for that sudden inundation. . . . Like scars that mark for a new illness the spot of an earlier one, they designate in advance the signs and location of a flight (or return?) of time.”

To begin at one end of the history that, I believe, circulates as “an inner resistance than cannot be broken” underneath the monstrous figures of the Wonders text, let us consider the Danaïdes of archaic Greek legend—the fifty daughters of Danaus and descendants of the Argive Io, a priestess of Hera’s and one of the many lovers of Zeus, who is turned into a cow by the jealous Hera and chased all over the world by a gadfly. Of this story, Julia Kristeva, in her book Strangers to Ourselves, writes,

The heifer maddened by a gadfly is quite a disturbing image: like an incestuous daughter punished by her mother’s wrath, she saw no solution but to flee continuously, banished from her native home, condemned to wander as if, as the mother’s rival, no land could be her own. Her illegitimate passion for Zeus is thus madness. A madness of which the gadfly properly represents animal and . . . sexual stimulation. A madness that leads a woman not on a journey back to the self, as with Ulysses (who, in spite of meanderings, came back to his homeland), but toward a land of exile, accursed from the start.

Io finally settles in Egypt where Zeus returns her to human form and she gives birth to a son, Epaphus. Kristeva writes that, “It is noteworthy that the first foreigners to emerge at the dawn of our civilization are women—the Danaïdes,” the fifty daughters of Danaus, one of the great-grandsons of Io’s son, who, in order to escape a forced marriage with their fifty cousins, the sons of another of Epaphus’s great-grandsons, Aegyptus, flee with their father to Argos, where they are, in Kristeva’s words, “foreigners for two reasons: they came from Egypt and were refractory to marriage.” Further, “Remaining outside the community of the citizens of Argos, they also refused the basic community constituted by the family.”

It’s only a matter of time, of course, before the fifty cousins show up and threaten violence unless the sisters marry them, and depending on which version of the story you read, either on their own initiative, or at their father’s behest, all but one (or two) of them murder their husbands on their wedding night by stabbing them through their hearts with pins concealed in their hair. According to Kristeva, “This was the height of criminal outrageousness. Foreignness is carried to forbidden revolt, a hubris giving rise to abjection. Such outrageousness was punished (according to one variant of the legend) by having the Danaïdes and their father put to death,” with the sisters condemned to the endless task of carrying water in jars perforated like sieves to a bottomless cistern. In another version, the women have to “renounce their claim to exception” by marrying “in their proper order the winners of a race.”

According to Kristeva, in the story of the Danaïdes we can see that

Strangeness (or foreignness)—the political facet of violence—would underlie elementary civilization, be its necessary lining, perhaps even its font, which no household cistern—not even, to start with, that of the Danaïdes—could permanently harness. Even more so, the foreign aspect of the Danaïdes also raises the problem of antagonism between the sexes themselves in their extramarital alliance, in the amatory and sexual “relation.” In short, what is the “relation” between the “population” or “race” of men and the “population” or “race” of women?

We might turn to Jeffrey Cohen’s work in his book Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages, for the beginning of a possible answer to that question, relative to early English history, that also brings us closer, I think, to the women in the Old English text of the Wonders, who are problematic partly because Alexander “could not capture them alive” (“he hi lifiende gefon ne mihte”), and partly because of their “giant-ness” (“micelnesse”). That they are “shameless” (“æwisce”) and “unworthy” (“unweorðe”) in their bodies is subordinated to the facts of their un-tameable nature and their excessive size (although I do think we have to consider the placement of their ox-tails—on their lendenum, or loins—as critical to their power to provoke disgust, horror, and even a type of sexual category panic that necessitates their murder, for, after all, they are women, wif, first of all).

In his chapter “Monstrous Origin: Body, Nation, Family,” Cohen relates various versions, culled from Anglo-Norman texts, of the Albina myth, which purports to explain how Britain received its original name, Albion. In one version, an unnamed king of Greece has twenty-four daughters whom he marries off to various well-known men. Because the eldest daughter, Albina, is upset by the conservative strictures of marriage, which do not allow her to speak out publicly against her overly censorious husband, she convinces her sisters to agree to hide knives under their pillows and stab their husbands while they are sleeping. But since one sister betrays the plan, their father order that his daughters should be cast out to sea on a boat without oars or sails. After much drifting, they arrive at an uninhabited island (England, of course), and, according to Cohen, “Whereas the first Britons immediately transformed a shapeless waste into cultivated fields and homes, the women forage for food in the wilderness and, like parodic Diana figures, set about capturing the ‘venisoun’ that they crave.” Feelings of newly awakened lust soon follow, the devil appears on the scene to impregnate the women, and the sisters “give birth to fierce giants, a . . . supremely monstrous writing of their somaticity.” A tribe of giants then rules the land until the arrival of Brutus, Aeneas’s great-grandson, who eliminates them to make way for “a new world order.” According to Cohen,

Albina and her sisters contrast in their insistent physicality to the fantastic body of Brutus, able to give birth to a nation without any mention of body at all. Albina becomes a misogynistic incorporation of disordered Nature, of the way in which the material world reproduces itself outside of human intention or control. At the time of her disappearance into the monstrous flesh of her children, she is the Real in all its inhuman, biological vitalism. Brutus, on the other hand, is a structurating principle that overcodes these obscenities of the flesh, of the merely material, and prevents through a symbolization into heroic order their generation of monstrousness.

Although, as Mary Campbell, in The Witness and the Other World, has written, the Wonders is a text that “records a mass of unsynthesized data shorn of any relation to an experiencing witness” and also lacks “an intercessor between data and audience,” I would suggest that Alexander’s brief appearance as the executioner of the giant women whose bodies are disgusting connects the text to the one that follows it, the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, and therefore, we might ask if the Wonders participates, if even tangentially, in the genre of the culturally-founding heroic narrative, of classical but also medieval romance, in which, as Cohen writes, “The defeat of the giant is a social fantasy of the triumph of the corporeal order (in all its various meanings) written as a personal drama, a vindication of the tight channeling of multiple somatic drives into a socially beneficial expression of masculinity.” The defeat of giants, especially those gendered female, might also pose a rebuke to those women who do not heed the advice Danaus gives his daughters in Aeschylus’s play based on the Greek myth, The Suppliant Maidens: “Remember to yield: / You are an exile, a needy stranger, / And rashness never suits the weaker. . . . Honor modesty more than your life.”

Friday, January 26, 2007

Two outdated books useful for thinking about early Britain

Because I am so bored and have no work to do (<--- sarcasm), I have been thumbing through two books that have been sitting on my desk since I dusted them off in the library last August. Both reveal scholarship that is badly out of date, especially in their shared tendency to think of the cultures of the past as having shared one collective and monolithic mind (and usually this "mind" is really shorthand for race). Yet in their encyclopedic obsessions both collect useful materials that will assist anyone wanting to revisit their topics from a more postcolonial bent.

They are:
  1. Arthur William Whatmore, Insulæ Britannicæ: The British Isles Their Geography, History, and Antiquities Down to the Close of the Roman Period (1913). Gathers almost every classical reference to Britain and Ireland. Also contains fun statements like "The story of the Sirens is a play upon the Gaelic word 'seirean,' applicable to the promontory of Lleyn, Carnarvonshire." Locates Atlantis in Ireland. Proof that if you learn too many dead languages, they will gang up together in your head, take over your neurons, and make you expostulate wacky things. Only you'll do this in Greek, Hebrew, Welsh and Latin, so no one will really notice.
  2. Howard Rollin Patch, The Other World According to Descriptions in Medieval Literature (1950). Finds the Rig Veda alive and well in Irish mythology. Thinks the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish are all just the Celts, while the Icelanders are the Germans. A pretty good comparative overview, though, of lands of the dead and other kinds of otherworlds in various medieval myths.
OK, and now off to file an emergency plan for the department of English. Seems my initial plan ("1. Run into street yelling 'We are going to die! We are going to die' 2. Die." was not good enough).

Everyone: what's your favorite antiquated and little known book, with just that right mix of the time bound and the eternally useful?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The god question

While driving Kid #1 home from Hebrew school Tuesday night, the following conversation unfolded. I'm trying to get it verbatim but no doubt I am creating as I record. It seems to me that it is the kind of conversation we have among ourselves here on ITM all the time (ethics, responsibility towards the other, belief, the meaning of life, the universe and everything ...) -- only here I wasn't using my medievalist/theorist vocabulary. It's kind of personal, I realize, but maybe it shows how some of the abstract ideas circulated here need to be translated to make them practical. It also shows that no matter how much Levinas you read, you'll never adequately answer the interrogations of a nine year old.

KID: Dad, if we don't believe in God, how come we have to go to a synagogue?
ME: You don't believe in God?
KID: Not really. I don't know if there is a God or not.
ME: That's different from saying you don't believe.
KID: I guess. I just think that people who believe in God make him into Santa or something they want. He gives goodies if you act like he wants you to.
ME: A lot of people think of God as a parent.
KID: Yeah. Full of punishments if you're bad. But most people don't think they're bad, they just want God to punish people they don't like.
ME: If God isn't anything but vengeance, I don't really want anything to do with God.
KID: Me neither. (Pause) So why do we go to a synagogue? So many religions are more popular than Jews. There are a lot more Christians.
ME: That's true. And Buddhists and Muslims. But your mother and I like the kind of Judaism we're trying to teach you. It encourages you to doubt. It doesn't tell you who God is or what goodness is. It puts you in charge of thinking about those things, and it makes you question and learn and argue. And it makes you realize that we have to heal the world.
KID: Also Jewishness is in our family.
ME: It's an important part of our history. We have family who died because they were Jewish. There were lots of points where Judaism almost disappeared from both sides of our family. So it's important to us to pass along some knowledge and traditions to you and your sister. You might reject them when you're older. That'd be OK, at least you have them to reject. It'd be worse not to have known.
KID: So is there a God?
ME: I don't know.
KID: Me neither.
ME: Sometimes people who are sure there is no God are really only sure the world is human. And small. I think there's something in us that's bigger than what's just human. I see it in the love I have for you. It always surprises me how much bigger it is than I am. It makes me realize that there's something in the way that humans can care for each other that takes us out of ourselves. Maybe God is there. Whatever God is. Or maybe that's not God, that's the best that we can be as humans.
KID: Hmm.
ME: I'm blathering.
KID: No. I just don't know.
ME: Neither do I. And guess I'm like you, I have my doubts about God. I can say what I suspect, and lots of time I'm afraid what I suspect is true. But I always hope the world is better than I think it is at the worst moments.
KID: What happens when we die?
ME: It's questions like that that made us sign you up for religious school!
KID: Can I have a Tic Tac?

If someone were to ask me point blank if I believe in God and an afterlife, my most direct answer is no. In the end, though, questions of belief aren't as important to me as questions of living, doing, acting. I think that's why I like the Jewish emphasis on praxis over orthodoxy. When it comes to the God question, and if I try to force myself to avoid pablum, it is difficult to say much that doesn't sound hollow. And you know, as medievalists, we are staring the God question in the face all the time.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"D for the Despair you feel, writing at this pace."

Check out the Grad School Primer at Acephalous, and be forewarned that its abecedarium of truths does not come to a close when the PhD is in hand. The Primer could be copied with minor emendations for almost any portion of the academic ladder ("J for all the Joy you'll feel in this Hell when it snows" ... except it doesn't snow much in the library).

Anyway, back to letter D, the title of this post. I realized yesterday that I am no longer a scholar. I've now gone the longest in my academic life without producing an article, essay, book chapter, anything. I've almost ceased to write. And to think. Neurons once devoted to hurling Deleuze into Chrétien now negotiate contracts for updating the departmental web site and writing letters of support for teaching awards. Unlike last semester, when I taught my medieval version of "Writing, Race and Nation," this spring I'm back to teaching the undergraduate Chaucer course. I love it, don't get me wrong, but after 12 years of doing it here at GW it ain't so difficult anymore.

It's a good thing that the Infinite Realms collection is chugging along, otherwise I might never think a medieval thought again.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Time and bodies

The New York Times has initiated a new science column called Basics. The first installment is an article by Natalie Angier and may be of interest to readers of this blog. In "Making Sense of Time, Earthbound and Otherwise" Angier writes of time as impossibly long and incredibly short. What she stresses, though, is time's regularity ... and its humaneness. In fact it is quite an anthropocentric overview. Here's the conclusion:
We are poised between the extremities and homogeneities of nature, between delirium and ad infinitum, and our andante tempo may be the best, possibly the only pace open to us, or even to life generally. If we assume that whatever other intelligent beings that may be out there, in whatever alpha, beta or zepto barrio of the galaxy they may call home, arose through the gradual tragicomic tinkerings of natural selection, then they may well live lives proportioned much like ours, not too long and not too short. They’re dressed in a good pair of walking boots and taking it a day at a time. And if you listen closely you can hear them singing gibberish that sounds like Auld Lang Syne.

She forgot to mention that these Auld Lang Syne singing aliens also have ten pairs of legs and three mouths ... and that maybe they don't live their time as we do on this 365 day year 24 hour day globe.

Elsewhere, Gail Kern Paster's book Humoring the Body has been reviewed in The Medieval Review. Gail is my former colleague at GW (she is currently the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library), and I've always been a fan of her blend of historical precision, emphasis on materiality, and theory savvy. The review (by Jesse Swan) is at times overwritten ("these same features become, for the participating or at least provisionally acquiescent reader, masterful qualities contributing to the cogency of the substance of the book's effort"), but the points made are good ones. The book is quite valuable to any medievalist thinking about the body in time.

Finally, one more note about the body and its humors, this time in relation to the question of race and racism in the classical period: check out Mary Beard's blog, where she posts on Racism in Greece and Rome.

[updated at 10 AM to fix a link and add the reference to Beard]

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Terrible Beauty of Monsters: Pan's Labyrinth

Without much premeditation, and without having read anything about the film, and because I received an email on Friday from a friend who urged me to see it, I pretty much stopped everything I was doing yesterday afternoon [Sunday] and drove to the Tivoli Theater in St. Louis to see the new film by Guillermo del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth. The movie, I must warn everyone, in addition to being breathtakingly beautiful and intensely compelling as a narrative, is also unremittingly violent and bleak, and it ends on a devestating note that is at once horrible and somehow spiritually redemptive [but only if you believe human sacrifice can be redemptive--I have my doubts, and it is this point, in particular, that I thought might be worth debating here in relation to the film].

I don't want to give too much away regarding the plot, but suffice to say that the main narrative is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and that it concerns a young girl, Ofelia, who is uprooted, with her pregnant mother, to a rural military outpost commanded by her new stepfather, Captain Vidal. Throughout the movie, Ofelia travels back and forth between the real world, which is dominated by the sadism of her stepfather and his soldiers, and the world underneath the labyrinth gardens adjacent to the abandoned mill in which Captain Vidal has made his headquarters. Ofelia is a child who loves magical fables, and the conceit of the sub-story of the film, which is really a self-generated narrative on Ofelia's part, is that Ofelia's body contains the soul of the former princess of the world underneath the labyrinth gardens and in order to return there [and to her real father], and to also return that world, now a kind of wasteland, to its former golden glory, there are certain tasks she must perform. Suffice to say that the movie purposefully contrasts the cruelty and horror and human "monsters" of the world above the gardens with the monsters and terrors of the world below--a world which, nevertheless, provides refuge for Ofelia from the sorrows of her life in the mill.

Although this movie encloses, as it were, a story both for and about children [for it also concerns Ofelia's unborn brother], no child under ten or so should see the movie, as it is too dark and the violence depicted is extremely disturbing. But everyone else should see this movie. It is a parable for our times, to be sure, and a highly moving yet discomfiting one at that. As to why he would purposefully bring together the magical world of childhood "fairy" fantasy with the stark reality of Spanish history under Franco, de Toro has said, "For me, facism is a representation of the ultimate horror and it is, in this sense, an ideal concept through which to tell a fairy tale aimed at adults. Because facism is first and foremost a perversion of innocence, and thus of childhood."

Because del Toro rigorously designed his underworld and its creatures on classical models, readers of this blog should be very interested in the film. They should also be interested to see it, I think, given this comment from del Toro about the magical world he created in his film: "I wanted all the creatures to have an air of menace. Fantasy is not an escape for Ofelia but a dark refuge. There is something vaguely embryonic about all the magic environments because I believe that fairy tales are ultimately about two things: facing the dragon or climbing back to our world inside."

I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Viewing it was an upsetting, yet transformative experience, and speaks to the power of art in our times.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

DC vignette

Bright snow has transformed downtown Washington into a shimmering version of its quotidian self. The marble buildings looming behind the curtains of flakes are all the more impressive for the sudden levity swirling around their pillars.

I've just given my spiel on Richard III to about 175 people at the Shakespeare Theatre, seated on a stage so crooked that it made me seasick (the play is being intentionally performed off kilter).

A podcast of my remarks and the Q&A will be released by the theatre next week. I'll link to it in case anyone wants to work out while I descant on deformity inside their iPod.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

My Life Among the Anglo-Saxonists: More Anomie, Despair, and Self-Immolation

Figure 1. Still image of Professor Dent in Dr. No (1962)

For a long time now, within medieval studies, the Anglo- Saxonists have identified themselves as the tribe most reluctant to come out of the bush and face modernity. I realize that what I just wrote, quite purposefully, is about as politically incorrect as I could possibly make it on several different levels, and I also know that what I am about to write further may get me in some trouble, so let me begin with two disclaimers and a caveat:

Disclaimer 1. Some of the most brilliant, humane, and thoroughly "modern" people I know work [and have worked] in Anglo-Saxon studies, and I do not mean to imply in my remarks that all Anglo-Saxonists are of a particular philosophical bent or stripe--that would be purely idiotic and stupid.

Disclaimer 2. The thoughts expressed in this post are mine and mine alone, and do not represent the feelings or beliefs of either Jeffrey J. Cohen or Karl Steel, nor do Jeffrey or Karl lend to my post, ahead of the fact, their silent imprimatur or approval.

Caveat. Blog posts, by their very nature, and although occasionally written in a very high, polished, and academic style, are meant to be [I believe] somewhat "spur of the moment" and reactionary. In other words, we don't treat blog writing the same way we treat essays and articles published in scholarly journals, or even papers presented at conferences. My comments here are just that: reactionary, in the moment, off the cuff, and as tenuous as the wind, yet also truly felt.

Having said all that, I recently stumbled across a post, "More on the State of the Field," over at Unlocked Wordhoard (Dr. Richard Nokes), which is a response to a post, "Again with the State of the Field," at Wormtalk and Slugspeak (Dr. Michael Drout), which is a response to the post, by Tiruncula, "What does a healthy field look like from the inside?" at Practica, which is a response to Michael Drout's even earlier post, "State of the Field." And since all of this, Drout has added some more comments, "An Example," with more comments likely to come. Whew.

In a kind of nutshell, the "upshot" of all this is the well-worn caveat that Anglo-Saxon [or, Old English] studies are in real trouble because: a) they are not valued by departments of English who do not any more embrace nor understand the worth of philology- and textual-based studies, and therefore actual positions and even resources for Anglo-Saxon scholars are simply cut away or lack requisite funding and support, from both academic institutions and publishers; or, b) they have refused to engage meaningfully with contemporary critical approaches to textual culture and are therefore the true "left behind." So, either, Anglo-Saxon studies have been purposefully marginalized [and even, excised] by Others, or Anglo-Saxon studies has willfully marginalized itself. OR, yet another way of putting it, via Michael Drout, might be this: "Using an ecology metaphor, you might say that Anglo-Saxonists are like a species that's healthy, genetically diverse and parasite free but whose habitat is being rapidly destroyed." By which he means: within Anglo-Saxon studies itself, there is a healthy development of "new" directions and approaches and subject matter, which nevertheless cannot flourish because of certain long-held prejudices against the study of the past, especially the medieval past. But while Drout, and others, are quick to point to their approval of "new" directions in the field, there is always simultaneously a kind of lament for [and anger toward] the supposed abdication of what Anglo-Saxon studies should really be about: language study, and language study only; or no, that's not it somehow--rather: language study first, before anything else.

There are few brave souls in Anglo-Saxon studies [Allen Frantzen is one of them and his book Desire for Origins pretty much sums up this whole argument, circa 1990] who are willing to argue that "b" is the more likely culprit than "a" [and, in some situations, "b" leads directly to "a"] for the supposed "state of affairs" in Anglo-Saxon studies, and there are some--typically those Old English scholars ensconced at places like Cambridge and Toronto--who will argue that things have, actually, never been better for the field. But putting all that aside for the moment, I am more distressed to hear these kinds of comments coming from scholars working within the field [not just of Anglo-Saxon studies, but even medieval studies more generally]:

It strikes me that the problem is that we have abandoned literature. Too often, the study of Anglo-Saxon literature is that it has been abandoned for the practice of philosophy-lite and history-lite. . . .we already have people who do philosophy and do it better than those in English departments do it. We call these people "philosophers" and house them in philosophy departments. [Nokes]

Anglo-Saxon studies and philology are a highly irritating rebuke to most of the rest of the sub-disciplines in English because our intellectual practices are a direct refutation of one of the central dogmas of literary studies: that all "knowledge is situated and contingent." . . . The discipline of philology has, since Grimm (and maybe even since Rask and Bopp) built up a great deal of knowledge that is valuable exactly because it is not contingent and situated in any meaningful sense. . . .far too many English professors and graduate students don't really know much about how English works. Oh, they know all about how Language works, but this is all knowledge at an incredibly high level of abstraction (binary oppositions, prisonhouses of language). Ask a colleague to explain semantic shifts over time or phonological change or the influence of Old Norse on English and you'll get a blank look. . . . Anglo-Saxonists . . . do know how language works (and the most important thing about how language works is that it changes in certain regular, though complex, ways). But we are a distinct and embattled minority in English departments. And, I would assert, we are in such a minority position exactly because we possess knowledge and disciplinary practices that call into question the work that other members of the profession do, and so for them the easiest thing to do is to ignore and marginalize us. . . . [BUT] We practice, as one of my students said with joy and wonder, "English with right and wrong answers." We should show how this is valuable and how our colleagues do need us. . . . [what] we should do is to focus on language and how it works in a historical sense rather than an abstract philosophical sense. Literary studies suffers from a continuous pull in two directions: towards solipsism and towards politics--you end up with "that text means this to me" or "that text illustrates this political/social phenomenon." [Drout]

I am not making the argument that there should be no politics or sociology or philosophy in English. And I don't actually see how one could have language analysis without history. But those other disciplines should be subordinate to what we should be able to do best: analyze language, narrative and culture in ways that are not easily accessible to political scientists, sociologists or philosophers. Our game should be played on our home field. [Drout]

Michael Drout is by no means a conservative troglodyte in his scholarship, and anyone familiar with his work knows, as Tiruncula notes on her post [cited above], that he is not someone who just "does philology." He is as interested in politics and culture and history as he is in language, and he is adept at crossing disciplines in interesting and creative ways, but his comments above, similar to those of Richard Nokes, also cited above, belie a kind of lament for the idea that, somehow, language doesn't matter to us, as scholars of literature [whether medieval or modern], as much as it should, and further, that, somehow, language is so primary that it precedes everything else: history, culture, politics, identity, etc. And, like many laments of this type that I have tired of hearing ever since I was in graduate school [early to mid-1990s], it both exercises the either/or fallacy [either we're language study experts or we are pseudo-scholars pretending to know things we can't possibly know if we're not langauge experts first] while at the same time declaiming that what it really desires is both/and [of course we should talk about history and culture and politics and philosophy but only from the perspective of a language expert--wouldn't that be the best of both worlds?]. Because Michael Drout is, in fact, a language expert [much more so than I am, that's for damn sure], and I admire his expertise in that area, he is also very comfortable throwing around his disciplinary linguistics knowledge in order to criticize a paper he heard in the field of contemporary ethnic literature [see the link above to the post "An Example"]. Indeed, he claims that, due to that paper's seeming lack of engagement with "real" language study, it possesses a "hideous lacuna" at its center--while at the same time, he does not acknowledge work being done in the cognitive sciences that is challenging the idea that, as he would have it, language is not "situated" in any meaningful sense. For starters, it is situated in a human body, which is itself always situated somewhere, and that, my friend, is fucking meaningful. And even if it's true that Grimm's and Verner's and other semantics "laws" supposedly point to always-verifiable-and-unchanging-over-time "truths" or "facts," what to do with such knowledge? Is language reducible, then, to a kind of mathematics--in other words, is it really that abstract? Are we really going to claim, after all this time, that language study is a science? In some ways, this points to what Drout's arguments are really all about: techne versus arche.

Just some observations and questions. And speaking of science, I believe my laptop battery is about to go "kaput." So that's all folks. At least, for now. Cheers, Eileen

Friday, January 19, 2007

She Gleams Like a Splendor, But Does Not Deliver Herself

First, I apologize for my practically non-existent status in the past few weeks [although, perhaps, no one has really noticed--an idea I "might should," as they say down South, consider]. Several events have converged at once to make the beginning of my spring semester both heady and frighteningly overhwhelming at once:

1. We [meaning myself, Myra Seaman, Kimberly Bell, and Mary Ramsey] are in the final revising and editing stages of our collection, Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, due to Palgrave the beginning of February.

2. I am presenting a talk on the Old English Wonders of the East at the Newberry Library in Chicago later this month at a Renaissance Consortium seminar being led by Susan Kim, titled "Unworthy Bodies: The Other Texts of the 'Beowulf' Manuscript." [This is very exciting for me, by the way, as I am extremely admiring of Susan Kim's work and Asa Simon Mittman will also be participating--he recently published the very cool book, Maps and Monsters in Medieval England (Routledge, 2006).

3. I am teaching an M.A. seminar on monsters and demons in medieval literature and the contemporary horror film.

I'm freaking overwhelmed. But then it suddenly occurs to me today as I'm sitting--yes, once again--at my favorite table in my favorite bar in St. Louis, Erato, that there is a marvelous point of convergence between all of these things and JJC's recent post about Little Light's "feminism of monstrosity" and some of the diss-ing she has received as a result. In other words, as often happens on this blog [and rightly so, given the focus of much of JJC's scholarship], we are talking, again, about monstrosity and identity, and that has pretty much been the focus of my own work of late. My talk at the Newberry is going to focus on the thirteen-feet-tall marble-bodied women with boar’s tusks, ox-tails, and camel’s feet of the Old English Wonders, who, “on account of their giant-ness” (“For heora micelnesse”), and because they have “foul and worthless bodies” (“pa acwealde he hi for ðam hi syndon æwisce on lichoman 7 unweorðe”), are killed by Alexander the Great. I'll share more about that when I return from Chicago, but in the meantime, I want to share a portion of the chapter I am contributing to the Palgrave book, which, all of a sudden it occured to me is extremely apropos to Little Light's post, as well as the many responses to her post.

This chapter, "Exteriority Is Not a Negation But a Marvel: Hospitality, Terrorism, Levinas, Beowulf," is an overly-long essay that has been "in progress," quite literally, since the spring of 2004, and it has undergone many painful and laborious revisions. It has three sections--the first dealing with Emmanuel Levinas's philosophy of hospitality and being-for-the-other, the second dealing with female Chechen suicide bombers, and the final section dealing with Grendel in Beowulf. What I am going to share here is the second part of the essay, primarily because it speaks directly to the idea of women who, because of their decision to become suicide bombers, evoke the language of monstrosity.

Also, given everything that is going on right now in my professional life, I am hoping I have a lot to share over the next few months, relative to my M.A. course, the Newberry seminar, and also the Palgrave book, from which I plan to share excerpts from all of the chapters in the coming weeks.

excerpt from "Exteriority Is Not a Negation But a Marvel: Hospitality, Terrorism, Levinas, Beowulf":

II. It Gleams Like a Splendor But Does Not Reveal Itself

In Levinas’s philosophy, “being–for–the–other” posits the possibility of transcending the burden of self and ego through a face–to–face relationship—what Levinas terms la face–à–face sans intermediare, “a facing without intermediary.” This is a relationship with the Other, who, “under all the particular forms of expression where the Other, already in a character’s skin, plays a role—is. . .pure expression, an extradition without defense or cover, precisely the extreme rectitude of a facing, which in this nudity is an exposure unto death: nudity, destitution, passivity, and pure vulnerability.” Further, this “pure expression” always exceeds any figurative 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 that exceeds figuration, I have thought, 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 due to my curiosity about the phenomenon of women who are suicide terrorists, I came across the photograph 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 her face, serene, if also vulnerable.

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 façade, “whose essence is indifference, cold splendor, and silence,” and 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.” 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.” 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.” 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 said of Gazuyeva, “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.”

It is important to understand the larger historical context within which Elikhadzhieyeva and other Chechen women have committed themselves to murder and suicide—a context, moreover, that can be seen as conducive to, simultaneously, inhumanity, insanity, and the completely rational (and sane) desire for a revenge that could only be accomplished extralegally. Since 1999, when Russia reintroduced military forces into Chechnya in order to suppress the Chechen rebellion (a rebellion they had “put down” once before with massive bombing and other war campaigns in 1994 and 1995), but especially after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center towers, when Russian President Valdmir Putin declared that the struggle against Chechen rebels was simultaneously a struggle against al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism, Chechen citizens have been plunged into a nightmarish cycle of vicious abuse, including abductions, torture, rape, assassination, and mass extermination. Of particular concern to international human rights organizations have been the systematic “sweep” operations and nighttime raids, on the part of the Russian military, that have resulted in the “disappearance” (likely after torture and extrajudicial execution) of thousands of Chechens since 1999. According to a Human Rights Watch “Briefing Paper” on the subject published in March of 2005, the Russian government “contends that its operations in Chechnya are its contribution to the global campaign against terrorism. But the human rights violations Russian forces have committed there, reinforced by the climate of impunity the government has created, have not only brought untold suffering to hundreds of thousands of civilians but also undermined the goal of fighting terrorism.” In addition, “as part of Russia’s policy of ‘Chechenization’ of the conflict, pro-Moscow Chechen forces have begun to play an increasingly active role in the conflict, gradually replacing federal troops as the main perpetrators of ‘disappearances’ and other human rights violations.” Most of the “disappeared” are men between the ages of eighteen and forty, although children and women have also been targeted, and while local and federal prosecutors routinely investigate abductions reported by families of the victims, no actual convictions have ever resulted from these investigations. According to Human Rights Watch, most of the cases “are closed or suspended after several months ‘due to the impossibility of establishing the identity of perpetrators’,” and even “when detainees held in unacknowledged detention are released and the perpetrators established, no accountability process takes place.” There has also been evidence of Russian military forces burying executed Chechens in mass graves.

So, while on the one hand, the State, in the form of local and federal government authorities, is “investigating” the abductions and extrajudicial executions of Chechen citizens, with the other hand, in the form of its military, it is burying the evidence of the murder of its own citizens. To add to the general terror and despair of all this, the 2005 “Briefing Paper” also notes that in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, “most people. . .live in the partial ruins of apartment buildings damaged by relentless bombing campaigns. There is no running water and power outages are frequent.” In other areas, people “who have survived the chaos of two wars and actively protested the abuses perpetrated in their villages are now to terrified to open their door even to their neighbors.” Such is the bleak world in which Elikhadzhieyeva and other female suicide terrorists were formed.

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 “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, 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.” 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?”

Because the current government of Russia, and the United States, whatever evidence to the contrary, do not identify themselves as tyrannies, but rather, as federalist democracies that supposedly set certain limits to the government’s use of force, terrorism—in particular, suicide terrorism—poses a special problem, because it is a type of violence that cannot be brought to court, as it were. And yet, suicide terrorism—at least, in the case of the female Chechens—can also be a violence of last resort. It does not represent the first time the stranger-Other, who is also a citizen, has knocked on (or blown open) the door of the State and demanded recognition. And in the case of Chechnya, especially, where the perpetrators of abuse against civilians, in “the vast majority of cases. . .are unquestionably government agents,” the avenue of legal recourse for redress of abuses against civilians is obviously not open, except as an apparition.

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 eighty-nine 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. In his study My Life Is A Weapon, Christoph Reuter writes that suicide attackers “are not cruise missiles on two legs, killing machines who come out of nowhere with the wrath of God or the murderous orders of a cult leader programmed into them. They are, whatever lengths they or we will go to forget it, people—individuals with families rooted in a given society.” The Chechen women who have become suicide bombers have been living in conditions of absolute poverty and desolation—both physical and psychic—and their acts of terrorism can be seen as the last gestures of an extreme desperation. But 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 collective body 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 always embodies difference writ large (usually along lines that are sexual, racial, and cultural), and “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!).

Also 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 leader of these women has been 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 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.

According to Cohen, the monster resides in the “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 against persons and groups of people who do not possess equivalent force: they are, in Levinas's words, 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”).

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 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 turn our home (our recollection of ourselves–to–ourselves) into a kind of wandering that allows us to meet and welcome the stranger-Other and even behold her—behold the face of Zulikhan Elikhadzhiyeva—on the plane of the expression of her most enraged and suicidal being, currently exceeds our grasp. It is almost too much to ask. And yet, by her death, she both demands and escapes our judgment

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Women, monsters, identity

Related to this post in which, after Ancrene Wiseass tipped me off via email, I directed reader attention to "the seam of skin and scales" by Little Light ("a crimefighting multiracial transsexual steampunk street medic who moonlights as a hereditary semiprofessional occultist and obsessive religion scholar"): check out "I am a monster, and proud" at a blog called Women's Space/The Margins.

Little Light is chided for using insights conveyed within a 1961 poem by Robin Morgan without acknowledging that work (from the comments: "It’s not going to do not to acknowledge Robin Morgan’s imagery, poem, and herstoric writings which invoke this same imagery, as though they didn’t exist.") To which I have to wonder: Read any Mary Shelley lately? Barbara Johnson? How about Gloria Anzaldua? Even Mary Baine Campbell (best known to medievalists for The Witness and the Other World) has a wonderful poem about the feminine and the monstrous in her collection Trouble. I'd even add Marie de France to the list, and while we're at it, why not Chaucer? It seems to me that a feminism of the monstrous is not an idea that arose at any one point and is thenceforth copyrightable, but that the intimacy of the identity categories is an insight that has been alive for centuries, reappearing at unpredictable intervals and in strange new forms. That doesn't diminish any particular version, but it does make questions of ownership and origin impossible to resolve.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

JJC on R3

Washington DC residents are currently enjoying six months of Shakespeare in Washington. (Will the day ever come when we have Marie de France in Washington?)

Local readers of ITM may be interested in the fact that I will be presenting on Richard III as lovable loathable monster as part the Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Windows Discussion," held in tandem with a new production of the play by Michael Kahn. You can find out more about both by following the links.

The body remembers its pleasures

Medieval visions of the afterlife are replete with bodies eternally punished for the excesses of enjoyment in which they indulged in life. The fires of hell are simply a literalization of the flames of lust to which sinners succumbed during their terrestial sojourn. Dante is particularly adept at this kind of poetic justice, providing an aesthetically pleasing orgy of tortured flesh, agonies without endings. In his infernal realms, for example, those who read the story of Lancelot and are pushed to indulgence by its lascivious example spend their time after death blown by relentless winds, the restless and irresistible gale of their own passions.

I was thinking about Dante during my recent vacation not because it was in any way reminiscent of hell (at least not for me; I can think of many people, though, for whom being trapped aboard a Disney ship would be worse than finding oneself shoved up Satan's ass like the poor friars in Chaucer's "Summoner's Tale"). As Eileen observed while I was gone, sometimes we want to declare that we eat certain things simply because we are hungry -- that is, we as scholars tend to think think think about everything, so that each forkful headed towards the maw is freighted with a cultural and historical significance that makes the utensil almost too heavy to lift. Sometimes this inability to turn off the Super Meaning Detector is wearying, and we fall ill with blog ennui. Most of the time, though, we get good (even meaty) insights out of such reflection.

Back to Dante on the Disney ship. Most of the time I was pleasantly and mindlessly enjoying myself with my family. Let me get the sappy part over with: being with my family intensely for seven days straight made me realize how fortunate I am to have such amazing people in my life. Wow.

OK, back to the disembodied and non-sentimental scholar who makes cutting remarks about other people's enjoyments to mask his own maudlin core. An interesting thing about drifting the Caribbean with a boatload of fellow tourists intent on eating, drinking, purchasing and consuming as much as possible was to see, amply, how every pleasure the body embraces is recorded by, stored inside, remembered within the flesh. It does not take a personal declaration that you have been snacking on artificially flavored salsa chips and "creme" filled non-baked goods to make obvious to the world the fact these have been your enjoyments: your flesh keeps that record for you, expanding to store the adipose memories of those pleasures. Sadly, it doesn't take twenty or thirty years of such binges to leave the body altered: I was amazed at how many young children already carried with them the history of their overeating. Smoking, similarly: the face, the teeth, the skin betray the length of this chemical love affair. As those who have examined the Blogroll (at right) know, I have an amateur's passion for archeology. I find it fascinating how the bones of the dead can be read to reveal fragments of their living stories. On this vacation, though, I couldn't stop reading the living. Perhaps out of my own guilt at being such a consumer (why did I keep thinking of Jamaica Kincaid's "A Small Place" as we sailed to St Martin, St Thomas, the Bahamas ... ?), I overcompensated by judging those less frugal with their pleasures.

Every narrative needs its epiphany, so here's mine: when it comes to the body I'm mired in the medieval. It's hard for me to think of corporeality and enjoyment without immediately connecting it to some price to be paid.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Tiny Shriner III: Pigs Edition

In honor of my dissertation's final chapter, on pigs, here's a set of piggy links. I've mentioned this on the blog before, but you might still want to watch out for potentially anthropophagous pigs. The police say that there's no proof the pigs ate human flesh; but they're not entirely sure. While it wouldn't have been entirely fair to the pigs, the police might have looked to the pseudo-Egbert penitential, which explains, "Si porcus, vel gallina vel cujuscunque generis animal de corpore hominis ederit, vel sanguinem ejus biberit, occidatur animal, et detur canibus" (if a pig, or a cock, or any other kind of animal has eaten from a human corpse, or drank its blood, let the animal be killed and given to the dogs). Alternately, if they were feeling more humane, the police could have consulted the Adomnan penitential: "Caro suilla morticinis crassa vel pinguis, ut morticinum quo pinguescit refutanda est. Cum vero decreverit et in pristinam maciem reversa, sumenda est" (The flesh of a swine grown fat from [eating] carrion should be rejected like the carrion on which the swine grew fat. However, when the swine has lost weight and returned to its former leanness, let it be accepted [for eating]).

Pigs were probably the most dangerous domestic animals of the Middle Ages. Don't let down your guard: pigs do tend to gang up on people. In 1379, three sows rushed to help their piglets murder little Perrinot Muet; Mars sends pigs to "freten the child right in the cradel" (Chaucer CT I 2019) and perhaps he also inspired the pigs in a recent case in Norfolk in which a "51-year-old man was knocked over by a sow at a Norfolk farm, prompting the rest of the herd to attack him" or in another case in Serbia, in which "A farmer's home in northern Serbia was destroyed in a blaze caused by three pigs that broke out of their pen, walked into the living room and knocked over the TV."

The foundation of the common medieval punning alternation between porcus and corpus dates at the latest to Aristotle's observation on the similarity between porcine and human anatomy. More recently, a poster for a torture horror film, Hostel II, has come under fire because of its bloody representation of flesh. No harm, explains the designer; it's just a picture of wild boar meat. With that in mind, purchasers of meatballs made from human fat may want to check that they're not being cheated.

If I've whetted your appetite for pork, you may want to look at this dubiously sourced article on zombie pigs or you may wish to look into a future stocked with meat tubes (here and here and also in Oryx and Crake) or, if you're feeling more gentle, you may just want to satisfy your cravings with a pork-flavored postage stamp. If you're feeling really gentle, you may want to become a hog breeder.
Breeding pigs commercially is an art. I talked to a man who had one of the most successful records for breeding sows out there and he told me things no one's ever written in a book as far as I know. Each boar had his own little perversion the man had to do to get the boar turned on so he could collect the semen. Some of them were just things like the boar wanted to have his dandruff scratched while they were collecting him [locution sic]. (Pigs have big flaky dandruff all over their backs.) The other things the man had to do were a lot more intimate. He might have to hold the boar's penis in exactly the right way that the boar liked, and he had to masturbate some of them in exactly the right way. There was one boar, he told me, who wanted to have his butt hole played with. "I have to stick my finger in his butt, he just really loves that," he told me. Then he got all red in the face.
(from Animals in Translation, 103, a peculiar, chatty book that I might write about in the next few weeks)

"It is time for a feminism of the monstrous"

Check out this post by Little Light, on the seam of skin and scales.

I especially like these sentences, on monsters and category violation:
What I say may be in a language incomprehensible, but there is a time for that, and it is right now, because this is a monster's creed. It is for the cobbled-together, the sewn-up, the grafted-on. It is for the golden, the under-the-earth, the foreign, the travels-by-night; the filthy ship-sinking cave-dwelling bone-cracking gorgeousness that says hell no, I am not tidy.

(Thanks to the splendiferous Ancrene Wiseass for sending the link my way).

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Jewish Christian Middle Ages

Sometime in the early 80s, Barney Frank was suffering
during one of those interminable end-of-year round-the-clock sessions when junior Members were often dragooned into presiding in the wee hours. During a tedious speech by Republican Rep. Marjorie Holt on school prayer, Holt referred to America as "a Christian nation." Frank interrupted her to observe: "If this is a Christian nation, why does some poor Jew have to get up in the middle of the night to preside over the House of Representatives?"

In his chapter on Derrida in The Premodern Condition, Bruce Holsinger describes at length the "interventionist medievalism" (120) of the Radical Orthodoxy group, in particular, Catherine Pickstock's After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. As Holsinger explains, Pickstock "aims at a wholesale dismantling of Derrida's critique of Western logocentrism through a 'recasting of the premodern' against what she sees as its pernicious recruitment by deconstruction" (121). After Writing presents a pretty easy target for a medievalist, at least so far as Holsinger summarizes it. This is despite Pickstock's erudition in Western philosophical traditions, in fact despite her insistence that the deconstructive critique of language inadequately accounts for the bodily presence necessary to produce language (a point I know I find attractive, even as I find the implied prediscursive body-as-presence argument suspicious). For Holsinger, Pickstock's work presents an easy target because she mourns the loss of the "liturgical civilization [that] existed in its purest form in the Western Middle Ages and achieved its most coherent expression as the liturgy of the Roman Rite" (125) and because she longs for something she calls "genuine liturgy" (qtd 127) to restore "real language" (qtd 127). Far from being a medieval artifact, the ideal(ized) liturgy from which Pickstock quotes dates from the Counter-Reformation, a period of intense religious longing, nostalgia, and reaction against Protestantism, and now, I suppose, recuperated for much the same purposes to inveigh against a secular "nihilistic" philosophy that suspects all promises of presence.

What leapt out at me, I suspect wholly uncharitably, was the Jewishness of two of Pickstock's bêtes noires, Lévinas and Derrida. Keeping this in mind renders Pickstock's "commitment to credal deploy this recovered vision systematically to criticise modern society" (qtd 119) a bit pernicious, at least to my eyes, right now. Heavy charges, but I suspect the deployment of "medieval Christianity" to critique a modern society that, in contradistinction to most late medieval dominant societies, is not systematically trying to extirpate or convert Jews. This is not to say that a secular state is necessarily better at preventing systematic extirpation. Lord knows it isn't. But neither anti-Judaism nor anti-Semitism are necessary features of post-religious states, which cannot be said for medieval Christianity.

The problem here is in part one of imagining the Middle Ages by default as a Christian Middle Ages, of forgetting, for example, that Hebrew numbered among the languages of textual production in twelfth- and thirteenth-century England, and of forgetting peculiar moments like the one I'm about to describe. Medieval Christians (clumsy placeholder) preferred Jews to be abject, as Jewish misery was a sign of Christianity's triumph. Keep that in mind when you read this:
In this year [1273], eight days before the Feast of Saint John the Baptist [24 June], because the Mayor was then absent on his journey to the King in the parts beyond the sea, the Sheriffs, together with certain discreet men of the City, appeared before the Council of his lordship the King at Westminster; whereupon, the members of the Council, before certain Jews there present, questioned them, thus saying--‘It is notorious that the Jews kill with their own hands all beasts and fowls, whose flesh they eat. But some beasts they consider of their law, and some not; the flesh of those which are of their law they eat, and not the flesh of others. What then do the Jews do with the flesh of those which are not of their law? Is it lawful for the Christians to buy and eat it?’ To which answer was made by the citizens, that if any Christian should buy any such flesh of a Jew, he would be immediately expelled; and that if he should be convicted thereof by the Sheriffs of the City or by any other person, he would lose such flesh, and it would be given to the lepers, or to the dogs, to eat; in addition to which, he would be heavily amerced by the Sheriffs.--‘But if it seems to you that this punishment is too light a one, let your discreetness make provision that such Christians shall be visited with a more severe punishment.’ Whereupon, the members of the King’s Council said--‘We will not have such persons visited with any more severe punishment, without his lordship the King; seeing that this matter concerns the Jews, who belong to his lordship the King. But we do strictly command you, in virtue of the fealty in which you are bound unto his lordship the King, that you cause this custom throughout the City rigidly to be observed.’ (Henry Thomas Riley, trans. Chronicles of the Mayor and Sheriffs of London, A.D. 1188-1274 and The French Chronicle of London, A.D. 1259-1343. London: Tübner and Co., 1863, 176-7)
Since I can't imagine that they killed pigs, certainly the Jews did not kill "all beasts and fowls." If we may judge by similar laws on the Continent, what the law references are the clean beasts judged by the Jews to be unsuitable because of some taint discovered during slaughter. The Jews would sell these carcasses (cows and sheep presumably) or portions of carcasses to Christians, whose religious alimentary qualms tended to be focused more around pleasure than around pollution. Everyone was happy: the Jews didn't have to throw away useless meat, and savvy Christians bypassed their "own" butchers to get meat at a discount. "Discreet men of the City" (no doubt Christian butchers who wanted to secure a monopoly) aimed to put a stop to this practice. Whatever the mercenary reasons were, the public logic likely ran as follows: because Jews must be thought abject, Christians cannot be seen to eat something that the Jews had rejected as repulsive. It'd be like eating something a leper had spurned! Yet in their rejection, Christians are also rejecting what the Jews reject. This is what fascinates me, and what trips up Pickstock's Middle Ages and the "Christian" Middle Ages more generally. Christians end up, after a fashion, keeping kosher, and doing so amidst some of the worst persecutions of Jews in England's history. I need hardly say it, but what marvelous irony!

(image above: "The Mikveh, or ritual bath dug up on Milk Street close to St Paul's Cathedral. Courtesy of the Museum of London Archeology Service," from here. Also see JJC's post on Jewish Architecture in England and, below, on the second-oldest synagogue in the Western World.)

Postcard from St Thomas

(... and Saint Martin, and the Bahamas)

The picture on your postcard, readers, was taken by Kid #1 from one of the highest points of the island. You can see a postcard-perfect (when else can I use that cliché?) bay and some smaller, uninhabited islands. We loved this island: for its intriguing history, its utter beauty, its offering of some undisturbed family time in an environment far from home. Today we are in deep denial that this vacation has come to an end.

The trip, by the way, was a gift to the kids, and in a way an apology: since I became department chair, and since my wife has an even more responsible job, we do not spend as much time together as we did a year ago. This makes all of us sad, but we have coped fairly well with the change.

At right you will now see my favorite discovery on St Thomas: the second oldest synagogue in the western world. I was startled at first to find it in the Caribbean, but further reflection on the area's colonial history took that puzzlement away.

My little inner chant from this trip: the body remembers its pleasures (that's meant to be dark, not hopeful: it's about the record stored in the flesh of the body's enjoyment history). I hope to explain that sentence later in the week, after the hell of the spring term beginning subsides to a long-simmering purgatory.