Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Not Knowing In Advance What Forms Our Humanness Will Take

While ruminating Michael's response to JJC's questions, I would like to queerly insert myself here and also ask some questions. I was asked not too long ago to participate on a panel at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo this coming May on queer and feminist theory ["Affinities and Enmities"], which also includes Carolyn Dinshaw and Steven Kruger, and this has me somewhat beside myself with fear and anxiety since I am in many [oh, let's just say *all*] ways unsuited to speak to this subject, unless we consider my connection to this panel to be an instance of queer intermingling where I will join a queer assemblage long in the process of "becoming" . . . something. All kidding [kind of] aside, I have long worked in my own hidden corners without ever really attaching myself to any theoretical "school" or movement [becoming-movement or otherwise], while at the same time, I also recognize that much of what I do with Old English literature and its "linkages" and attachments to seemingly incongruous "non-Old English" texts, images, events, etc. has always been queer, with the purposeful intent of creating queer effects. But there has also always been this knee-jerk tendency in me to always, almost violently even, distance myself from any body of criticism that gathers itself under any kind of "sign," whether that sign is Marxist, feminist, queer, what-have-you. I cling tenaciously to the idea that any system of thought [because queer studies, for all its gesturing to the contrary, still constitutes a system of sorts, even a desiring-industry--however endlessly transmogrifying and "becoming" without beginnings or endings it might be] that I might "buy" into could mean the death of my creativity. Like W.G. Sebald, who is one of my heroes, I seek in my work to "patiently engrave and link together apparently disparate things in the manner of a still-life," and I don't want to subject this often felicitously serendipitous activity to the question of how it might ultimately be situated theoretically. There are certain “queer” pleasures in doing things this way, that I assume any good queer theorist could understand.

Having said that, the more I read in queer theory [in preparation for the panel at Kalamazoo], the more I can see its creative, and even its ethical, powers, while at the same time, I'm a little worried over what gets lost in its endlessly capacious modes of description and signification. In one sense, part of the power of queer studies, it seems to me, lies in the fact that it can be about pretty much everything, and everything, moreover, can be queered. But that also means it can be about nothing at all [and since even "nothing," like death, can be queered, then even "nothing" is not nothing]. Queer theory is generous, open, infinitely plastic, limber, forgiving of everyone and everything, and infinitely productive of different pasts and different futures. These are all good things. It is also exuberant, playful, joyful, and even loving. Good again. It attends to the marginalized, the dispossessed, the disappeared, the untouchables of history; indeed, it "touches" the untouchables, and even desires them and makes them lovable. Queer studies is affective and seeks relations that are always turning themselves inside-out, always multiplying their emotional and other affects so that they can be deployed across and beyond identities [human and non-human] and not ever remain enclosed within static residences or pressed under the weight of supposedly dead histories. This is, again, all to the good. But I sense, too, in Michael's, and in select other writings in queer studies [such as J.J. Cohen and Todd R. Ramlow's "Pink Vectors and Deleuze: Queer Theory and Inhumanism," RHIZOMES 11/12] a subtle disconnect between the idea, espoused by Michael O'Rourke in various places, here and elsewhere, that the future of queer studies will have something to do with a consideration of futurality [a futurality, moreover, that is tied to what might be called the unfinished business of (mourning) past human-becomings], and also with love and amity, and the idea, expressed by Cohen and Ramlow in their essay cited above, that queer studies ultimately aims at the "death of the human," where "the human is simply beside the point" and "death barely seems possible." Articulating this point in a slightly different way in his book Medieval Identity Machines, JJC wrote that queer theory, especially of a Deleuzan bent, helps us to see “the limits of the human as a conceptual category and demarcates a new terrain . . . where identity, sexuality, and desire are no longer constrained by ontology, 'muscle,' or lonely residence in a singular and merely human body” [p. 77].

I guess this is my long-winded way of asking Michael [and even Jeffrey] of how they might traverse or touch or negotiate this divide between a queer studies obsessed with things always about-to-arrive enclosed in "unlived possibilities" and the work of mourning and grieving [very human actions that are, so to say, bent over a certain absence or passing of what-was-human, and also interested in unfinished projects of loving and desiring what-was-human—in returning, even, to once-more-palpable romantic relationships with singularly beautiful human persons] and a queer studies intent on the death of the human. I was struck by a quotation of Judith Butler's [from Undoing Gender] that Cohen and Ramlow included in their essay [supposedly as a support for their assertion that Deleuze and Guattari aimed, together, not at the death of the author but the death of the human, and that Butler would concur]:
“We must learn to live and to embrace the destruction and rearticulation of the human in the name of a more capacious and, finally, less violent world, not knowing in advance what precise form our humanness does and will take.”

I see this statement of Butler’s as not one hundred percent in sympathy with a theoretical project that would aim at the death of the human, but instead as a wish for a differently articulated [spoken, but also lived] humanness that, while discarding [and, sure, killing off] earlier definitions of the human that depend on the demarcation [and suppression] of the supposedly “inhuman,” is somehow not ultimately inhuman, but more fully human. So I guess this leads me to a few more questions, such as: is it possible that, while “human” is a historically problematic description of who and what we are, that, indeed, queer studies is not possible without it? In other words, isn’t queer studies, to a certain extent, a type of flowering of that within us that is most human, most humane, most beautiful, most loving—but loving in a way and fashion that can only really be called human [and even, queerly human]? Not to mention, can queer studies even be thought by anyone/anything not-human? Is it not, in that sense, a very human production? Is it possible that, even if a certain form of queer theorizing could allow us the means whereby we might be able to throw the various atoms and molecules of our being across vast tracts of non-human spaces in order to hook ourselves, as it were, to an “infinitely connective machinery of desire” [Cohen and Ramlow], that our capacity to do this rests, to a certain extent, on our queerness as humans? Is being-human the most queer thing of all [if it involves our ability to always imagine what could be otherwise]? I have one other question, especially for Michael: in what way[s] is a queer studies concerned with futurality post-secular, even theological?

101 Uses for a Dead Dog

A while back, I discussed a case of necrobestiality. The hope for exoneration of a fellow caught in flagrante delicto with a deer's carcass hinged on the definition of an animal: was a carcass still an animal? When does a carcass cease to be an animal? What if it's dismembered?

One time is a surprise; twice is a pattern; three times, if we should get there, suggests a zeitgeist and will demand an article. We're at two now:
Bay County Circuit Judge Joseph K. Sheeran ruled Friday that even though Michigan law does not explicitly define sex with a dead dog as a crime, charges against a Saginaw man [Ronald E. Kuch, 45] will stand....

[DA Katheryn] Fehrman asked Sheeran to overrule District Judge Craig D. Alston, who found probable cause that a crime had been committed and that Kuch was the perpetrator.

But Sheeran said Fehrman's interpretation of the sodomy law, which outlaws ''crimes against nature'' and bestiality as well, was off base. He said she ''attempts to use textualization to read the meaning out of the statute and argue that morality has no place in the law.''

Fehrman had said in previous written and oral arguments that a dead dog is not an animal and therefore cannot be violated against its will.

Sheeran said the purpose of the sodomy law is not to protect a specific victim, necessarily, but ''to prevent people from debasing and dehumanizing themselves.'' Such laws also protect society, Sheeran said, and ''prevents people from acting like animals themselves.''

Sheeran also upheld the indecent exposure charge. He said it was irrelevant whether the patch of woods where the alleged crime committed was public or private property.

''There was a substantial risk that someone might be offended.''

''If he didn't want to be observed, why did he commit it during the day near a daycare center?'' Sheeran said, saying that Kuch didn't commit the act ''accidentally or inadvertently.''

The definition of an animal for a DA seems to depend on whether or not it has a will that can be violated, which seems to bring the animal in line with the status of a human. In other words, bestiality is, so far as the DA is concerned, a sub-species of rape; either that, or the DA is erasing the line altogether between bestiality and rape. Her interpretation concerns the victim. For the judge, bestiality seems to be more in line with medieval conceptions of it: a loss of human status. His interpretation concerns the perpetrator. Oddly, the judge implies that acting like an animal includes having sex with dead animals. Maybe he has access to ethologies that I don't.

The article practically writes itself. I just need to get hold of the court papers for both cases and hope for a third. No doubt I'd draw in Paul Morrissey's extraordinary film Flesh for Frankenstein (you'll see why I've linked to the quotation page) as well as the (no doubt spurious) reports of necrophilia/anthropophagy of the Fore in New Guinea: the incident I'm remembering I have in my notes, but, believe me, it's far too disgusting to quote here. I wouldn't say no to more suggestions, particularly for bibliography (will I finally have to read a lot of Bataille?).

(image of Lefty Frizzell, who famously sang about a man "ashamed to show his face in Saginaw, Michigan." I am in no way suggesting that Frizzell had anything to do with necrobestiality. Sheesh.)

3 questions for our captive guest blogger

Dear Michael,

Thanks for your recent, very polished posts. I'm wondering now if you would embrace the spirit of blogging and offer us something more extemporaneous? I, for one, would like to hear your reflections on the following:

(1) It seems clear to me from your writing here and elsewhere (esp. your very nice piece "The Roguish Future of Queer Studies") that you see queer theory's best ally -- and best promise for a lively future -- in Jacques Derrida. Would you take a moment, though, and reflect upon the possible limitations of a deconstructive mode upon what you have called in the past the Future*Queer? Does queer theory have other promising allies besides Derrida and Deleuze? How about outside continental philosophy?

(2) When I introduced you on the blog, I mentioned the international perspective that you bring to queer theory. Though much "early" queer theory came from the UK (esp. in Early Modern studies), it seems like its energy then moved across to the United States and settled in contemporary theory and medieval studies. Am I wrong about this? It's interesting, for example, that the two medievalists whom you note gave plenaries at the Queer Matters conference are American (though the organizer you mention, Robert Mills, is not; I am a big fan of his work, by the way). Many of the medievalists doing queer theory you cite in your posts are likewise American (Glenn Burger is one of the exceptions). Is the geography of the academy in any way significant when thinking about the current state of queer theory, especially perhaps when it comes to getting jobs and publishing books? Have you and Noreen Giffney, with the breathtaking energy you've put into queer theorizing in Ireland, brought about institutional change or have you found yourselves fighting against academic currents?

(3) I am guessing that you would describe queer theory now as remaining as vivacious and as full of promise as it was when medievalists were first exploring its possibilities in the 1990s. Is that true, or do you subscribe to the view often heard on the conference circuit that queer theory has lost its former energy and is becoming a specialist's sub-discipline or small and exclusive club?

(4) And a final, easy question. At Leeds in 2005, at one of the post-panel pubfests, you and I talked about what we found appealing about queer theory, especially in its challenges to dominant notions of identity. I offered that queer theory yields a useful vocabulary and a catalytic mode of thinking for considering identity's contradictions, vagrancies, and (in)exclusions. You said that you also found appealing its transfigurative effect upon identities of all kinds. Would you like to say more?

You will notice that I actually posed four questions. That's me: I can't count.

Monday, February 26, 2007

What the crusades were really like

Hundreds of pillow-wielding kids descended on Union Square Saturday afternoon for a fluff battle of epic proportions, and nearly as many came wielding cameras, to record the event for history, or for their photo blogs. "Like, wow," said one combatant exiting the fray, "this must have been what the Crusades were like." Um, yeah.Everett Bogue

A pillow fight indeed. Only with cannibalism.
[Thanks, Holly!]

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Loving the New Middle Ages

Following on from our recent ruminations on the queer politics of hope I thought we could move on to love. So, I would like to share my upcoming review of Anna Klosowska's gorgeous Queer Love in the Middle Ages (which I am told will be in the next issue of Sixteenth Century journal--its a joint review with Tison Pugh's Queering Medieval Genres).

By the way, Noah Guynn's new book Allegory and Sexual Ethics in the High Middle Ages is out: http://www.palgrave-usa.com/catalog/product.aspx?isbn=1403971471

I would be really interested to hear what people make of this new-ish work on the Middle Ages.

Queer Love in the Middle Ages. Klosowska, Anna. New York: Palgrave, 2005. 195 pp. $65.00. ISBN 1-403-96342-8.
Queering Medieval Genres. Pugh, Tison. New York: Palgrave, 2004. 226 pp. $65.00. ISBN 1-403-96432-7.

Despite the almost unshakeable presentism of much Queer Theory it is undeniable that some of the best work currently being done in the field is by medievalists who are keenly engaged in the project of recuperating a sexually dissident Middle Ages. At the Queer Matters conference in London in May 2004 two of the plenaries were medievalists, Carolyn Dinshaw and Karma Lochrie, and the event, perhaps the biggest in queer studies since the Santa Cruz conference in 1991 at which the words queer theory were coined, was organized by Robert Mills. Up until recently much of this cutting edge scholarship appeared in the University of Minnesota Press’ Medieval Culture series which published Glenn Burger and Steven Kruger’s Queering the Middle Ages (2001), Burger’s Chaucer’s Queer Nation (2003), and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Medieval Identity Machines (2003). Since the demise of this series we have seen the emergence of one with similar commitments, The New Middle Ages, at Palgrave Macmillan. In 2003 they published Richard E. Zeikowitz’s Homoeroticism and Chivalry: Discourses of Male Same-Sex Desire in the Fourteenth Century, in 2004 Tison Pugh’s Queering Medieval Genres, and in 2005 Anna Klosowska’s Queer Love in The Middle Ages. It is the latter two which I will consider in this review and ask to what extent the new (queer) Middle Ages they recover is desirable or not.

Pugh’s book overlaps in significant ways with Burger’s and Zeikowitz’s in that it seeks to queer a wide range of mostly fourteenth century texts by destabilizing heteronormative interpretations of them and offering counter-normative readings which attend to sexuality, sexual identity, and homoeroticism. In chapter one Pugh argues for the necessity of queering to the project of unhinging the heteronormative and teasingly claims that sexual binarity and generic ideologies should both be viewed as complicit in writing out the queer. From the outset the deconstructive impulse behind Pugh’s reading practice is apparent as he seeks to jolt, shock, highjack, and overturn and this is what I would take “queering medieval genres” to mean, defamiliarizing and “overturning the heteronormative bias[es]” (3) of medieval genres and criticism of the texts which occupy them. But it seems to function differently for Pugh, for whom, as I understand it, the act of queering is something which happens not to the text per se, but radiates out from it, so that the reader is disarticulated from their heteronormative privilege in some way (95). Pugh makes two important points in the introduction: firstly, that he aims, after Allen Frantzen, to swerve away from a focus on sexuality and genitality to a consideration of same/sex love and affect, but it is nowhere apparent to me that he tells us anything new about queer affectivity. Secondly, he recapitulates, after Judith Butler and Biddy Martin, the need to revivify a queer attention to gender as a proper object. This is a timely reminder and Pugh is seriously committed to both feminist and queer readings of medieval texts although not unproblematically.

In chapter two Pugh queers the twelfth-century lyrics of Marbod of Rennes, Baudri of Bourgueil, and Hildebert of Lavardin. Paying attention to these much-neglected texts is welcome but here we begin to see where his attempts to mobilize a deconstructive queering founder. Queer and gay (male) tend to collapse here as do heterosexuality and heteronormativity and despite his being at pains to tell us otherwise Pugh does seem to be trying to reclaim these men as homosexual forebears. My worry is that queering medieval texts for Pugh, means gaying them, and that creating a space for homosexual desires, however laudable, really doesn’t do anything to shake the heteronormative edifices of the societal and generic regimes under consideration. Chapter Three examines a range of Chaucerian fabliaux although most weight is given to The Wife of Bath’s Tale. Remembering Pugh’s aims to shift away from sex to love and to reinsert gender into queer analyses this is a key chapter, but again there are problems. This book is really more about sexual contact (between men) than sensibility and queering seems to be something women do to men in fabliau. The distinction between the queer male and queer female fabliau is a helpful one but why can’t women be queer in these texts unless they are somehow undercutting male privilege? Chapter four advances an original reading of the queer possibilities in Troilus and Criseyde but again the female tends to drop out. While Pugh examines the triangulated relationship between Pandarus, Troilus and Criseyde in great detail Criseyde never appears as anything more than a bridge between the men in his argument. The same problem emerges in Chapter five which unpacks the perverse erotics of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Again, queering seems to be a game played between men and Pugh never considers the centrality of women to the queer dynamics of the text: Lady Bertilak, Guinevere, and most importantly Morgan. Arguably it is the women who are the most destabilizing agents in this text but Pugh leaves female same-sex desire untouched.

If Pugh’s new Middle Ages is one I would not particularly desire then Anna Klosowska’s is one I could fall in love with. Her queer “cryptology” (1) is a very French one, a deconstructive reading practice inspired by Derrida and Barthes, which aims to “begin the queer re-reading of the medieval French corpus” (144). Klosowska seeks out a number of what she calls “thematic sites” (3), underassigned moments, or what Pugh calls occluded sites. She borrows the Lacanian image of the point de capiton to describe these supersaturated, often surprising, moments, although I prefer the word charnière, or hinge-points which can also name these places of “connection” (4) and “interchange” (4) but also the way in which they, and Klosowska’s persuasively elegant readings, lure us in. In the introduction, after Frantzen, she argues for more groundwork, less wishful thinking, and for “the need to elaborate a tight theoretical framing that springs from the texts” (18). The terminological questions she poses and the intervention she makes into current debates about queer historiography makes this introduction indispensable.

Chapter one brilliantly queers Perceval with painstaking attention to the episode of the Fisher King and its unsettling qualities. The reading practice Klosowska stages is a mixture of queer philology/lexicography and queered psychoanalysis where Kristeva’s Stabat Mater appears alongside Perceval. This chapter, with its resemblances to Derrida’s Circonfession in mind, could be compared with Pugh’s on Sir Gawain, since both attend to castration and same/sex desire, but it is Klosowska who makes a more persuasive argument for queering as a kind of differàntial cutting, a reading practice saturated with a perversely enjoyable jouissance. The second chapter on Yde et Olive answers the question whether we can “legitimately do the history of sexuality in the absence of direct references to sexual acts?”(9) and again argues for a methodology emphasizing cutting, holes, dissection, recombination, and pleasure. Her beautifully complex Lacanian take on the female/cross dresser and the way the visibility of the slits and seams foreground her pleasure and the reader’s (75) is sure to have ramifications way beyond medieval studies. For Lacan and Klosowska cuts, margins, the in-between and borders are “sites of emergence” (76) and the queerness texts attempt to conceal re-emerges in the cuts, gaps, and silences. Chapter three traverses a number of supplemental moments in familiar texts including Lanval and Roman de La Rose and queer criticism of them to argue for the smuggling of queer readings into the heart of the medieval French canon.

If Pugh leaves the phallic Law mostly unchallenged, then Klosowska offers the queer medievalist a way in which to negotiate the complexities of heteronormative, rigidly phallic texts from a castrated vantage, and allows us to renegotiate the queerness of these texts in ways we cannot predict. While both authors talk about play, signs, those moments when the text “winks” at the reader, and perverse pleasures, it is in Klosowska’s conclusion when she describes Roland Barthes as “a fellow passenger on a train” (145) that I get an overwhelming feeling of her loving Barthes. She loves reading him, loves talking about him in relation to medieval texts, loves getting into and appreciating the details of those texts with him. And the more I read Klosowska’s book the more I loved it. This book should not be called Queer Love in the Middle Ages but rather Queer Love for the Middle Ages.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

ITM USA Insomniacs: JJC on TV

In case you have previously missed your chance to witness me with a real fake version of the Beowulf manuscript, looking vaguely embarrassed to be featured in a documentary that cuts between me, a CG dragon, some pagans frolicking with swords, and a bodybuilder who could kick my ass, you might want to check out this show on the History Channel. Here are the times: Saturday, February 24 10:00 PM (today!); Sunday, February 25 02:00 AM (tomorrow!); Sunday, March 04 10:00 AM (next week!). Enjoy it with a stiff drink! But think about Karl's post and the ongoing discussion under Michael's first post while doing so.

The Child Gives Himself to the Wolf

A few months back, I heard Peter Travis give a talk, “Aesop’s Animots,” on a fable in which Aesop feeds a group of philosophers ox tongues. Along the way, Travis discussed The Silence of the Lambs, Aesop’s ugliness and muteness, the latter of which he overcame only in middle age, and the prevalence of corporeal punishment as a pedagogical technique. He also briefly gave his attention to a fable by Caxton in which a nurse threatens a crying child with being thrown to a wolf:
Men ought not to byleue on al maner spyrytes / As reherceth this fable of an old woman / which said to her child bicause that it wept / certeynly if thou wepst ony more / I shal make the to be ete of the wulf / & the wulf heryng this old woman / abode styll to fore the yate / & supposed to haue eten the old womans child / & by cause that the wulf had soo longe taryed there that he was hongry / he retorned and went ageyne in to the wood / And the shewulf demaunded of hym / why hast thow not brought to me some mete / And the wulf ansuerd / by cause / that the old woman hath begyled me / the whiche had promysed to me to gyue to me her child for to haue ete hym / And at the laste I hadde hit not /
And therfore men ought in no wyse to truste the woman / And he is wel a fole that setteth his hope and truste in a woman / And therfore truste them not / and thow shalt doo as the sage and wyse.

Our blog has considered children and animals before. JJC wrote:
As the Disney megacorporation realized long ago, and Katherine [kid #2] is realizing just now, animals teach children how to become human. They also provide kids with a temporary, imaginative escape from that burden.

Children readily identify with, sympathize with, and think through animals, especially talking animals: I grew up with Narnia, Watership Down, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, 101 Dalmations, The Rescuers, Charlotte's Web, Peter Rabbit, and The Wind in the Willows. Assuming that this ready identification is transhistorical, fables no doubt worked so well for early education—Travis observed that fables were the second text children read, right after the Distichs of Cato—precisely because children want so much to listen to talking animals.

The fable of the nurse, the child, and the wolf is the first tale in Avianus's collection, which was enormously popular in the Middle Ages (“Rustica [note this difference] deflenti parvo iuraverat olim, / ni tacaet, rapido quod foret esca lupo”); it ends with the same misogynist moral. Naturally enough, the collection of fables opens, as any classroom should, with a plea for silence. The crying child clearly stands in for a crying, complaining child, an uncompliant student who must calm down before he (likely a he) learns anything. By heeding the nurse, he's heeding the analog for his teacher. But by doing so, he's heeding someone whose gender--and/or class, if she's a "rustica"--makes her untrustworthy (and besides, he's imagining his teacher as a woman). Untrustworthy for whom? Not for the child, but for the (male) wolf, clearly the figure at whom the fable directs its moral: don't trust women. If the child places himself in a position to receive the moral, he imagines himself as an animal. Not a problem, sort of, since this is what child should do with fables in order to allow them to work their pedagogical magic. But in identifying with the wolf, he imagines himself as something that wants to eat him.

The child can identify with the child and obey the "ni tacaet" of the nurse/rustica/teacher, even though this is what the moral tells him he shouldn't do, or he can identify with (one of) the animal(s), which he must do to hear morality of fables as his, but in so doing, he imagines himself edible, desirable. He might even imagine himself an erotic object, if the male wolf is imagined as a frustrated suitor and the nurse as a common figure from the fabliaux, the star of a certain nasty Beatles song (on my mind only because my bedtime reading has been the Robbins translation of Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles: but, given the wolfwife, I'm pushing a bit too hard here). I had once thought that the collection started here to frustrate the child's cathexis with animals to teach the child not to identify with animals so readily. Clearly not satisfactory. Here's a interpretative knot, which I humbly present to you, blog-readers, for unraveling. Lend me your hands.


* A related question. Fables were a very popular medieval genre. We have major collections not only in the pseudonymous Ysopet tradition and the Avianus collection, but also collections by Babrius and Phaedrus (also pseudonymous?), Odo of Cheriton, Marie de France, Berechiah ha-Nakden, Walter of England, Lydgate, Robert Henryson, and no doubt some others I'm forgetting. There are also beast epics, like Ecbasis Captivi, Ysengrimus, and (amoral?) animals tales, like Ramon Llull's Book of Beasts and the many Raynard the Fox stories. There's also Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale, which either participates in this tradition or sends it up or both. I can't imagine this huge body of medieval animal literature was meant only for children. Certainly no child, and few adults, could read Ysengrimus's very difficult Latin. Yet at some point adults stopped telling animal stories to each other. When and why? Is this an actual break between the medievals and moderns (barring La Fontaine)? Certainly fables still get told between adults. Not often, but sometimes. Nonetheless, it strikes me that modern adult fabulists--Thurber, for instance--are putting us on, and part of the pleasure in reading Thurber comes in being in on the joke: the moral's there, Thurber's earnest (particularly in his anti-McCarthy fables, like "The Very Proper Gander") but it's almost as if he's disavowing that earnestness. There's also Animal Farm. I don't want to offer up the medievals--excepting Chaucer as always--as unselfconscious (childlike?) consumers of fables, but perhaps that's what I'm leading myself to do. So, again, when and why? Any suggestions short of, you know, finally reading Jan Ziolkowski and/or Annabel Patterson's Fables of Power or returning to R. Howard Bloch's chapters on Marie's fables?

Ysopet-Avionnet: The Latin and French Texts. Kenneth McKenzie and William A. Oldfather, eds. University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 5. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1919.
Minimus the Mouse

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

History's Tears

[I would like to thank Jeffrey Jerome Cohen for inviting me to contribute to In The Middle and for welcoming me into the unfamiliar territory of blogodemia. I first stumbled into the milieu of this Medieval Studies Group blog when looking for articles on Derrida’s Specters of Marx and was thrilled to read Jeffrey’s review of Steven Kruger’s The Spectral Jew. On a later visit I happened upon a mention of my own work on the Derrideaness of Queer Theory which I was greatly energized to find in a discussion of the Jewishness of (queer) theory and even more delighted to see described as hopeful, a tone I have been trying to adopt in my recent work. When I wrote to Jeffrey to tell him this he asked me for some thoughts on queer futurity in the past so the following is the (tentative) beginning of an article (a not obviously medieval one to be sure) for a special issue of Rethinking History on the iconoclastic American historian Sande Cohen. This is a prolegomena, or I am tempted to say a problogomena, to a longer article on queering history and responsibility to the future which will have more to say about Cohen’s History out of Joint, Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘Finite History’, Lyotard on infancy and the event, and Caputo’s Against Ethics on the child]

History's Tears

“To be offered, or to receive the offer of the future, is to be historical”- Nancy, The Birth to Presence

In a recent issue of PMLA (2005) Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon revisited some of the terrain charted in Goldberg’s Queering the Renaissance (1994) just over ten years ago, in an effort to alter the ways in which we do the history of sexuality. The challenges they pose to historiography in that article will have, or ought to have, serious ramifications, beyond the field of early modern or Renaissance Studies. I also have no doubt that the methodological propositions Goldberg and Menon make will be enormously productive for those historians who seek to queer the past, and to undo the history of homosexuality. My worry, and it is a major concern, is that the kind of anti-teleological project they propose may only be useful for queering the past and challenging “the notion of a determinate and knowable identity, past and present”. That is to say, Goldberg and Menon’s essay closes off the future, refuses an ethical opening onto the queer future, says fuck the future in much the same way that Lee Edelman does in his polemical book, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. (2004). What I wish to argue is that Goldberg and Menon have fallen under the sway of Edelman and this represents a dangerous turn not just for queer historiography but for queer ethico-political thought more generally. I suggest that Goldberg’s own turn away from Derrida and the problems it brings, both for the politicality of the political and the futurality of the future, could be averted by re-turning to Derrida’s Specters of Marx, a book which came out in the same year as Queering the Renaissance. It was, of course, Derrida’s Politics of Friendship which Alan Bray argued (in The Friend) would become the new political charter, rather than Foucault’s History of Sexuality: Volume One, for an anti-identitarian queer ethical project, one that does not block off the possibilities of differently imagined futures. Specters of Marx (1994) lays the foundations for many of the concepts developed further in Politics of Friendship (1996) two years later: mourning, spectrality, messianicity, hauntology, impossibility and the perhaps but it is to the earlier text, at once a brilliant reading of Marx and a virtuoso philosophical reading of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that I turn to find philosophico-historical concepts which might help us produce a queer historiography which bears a responsibility to the past, the present and the future.

But first let me briefly introduce some of the concepts which Goldberg and Menon develop in their article. The first is “unhistoricism” which they set up in opposition to “a historicism which proposes to know the definitive difference between the past and the present”. Rather than embracing ahistoricism, as Valerie Rohy does in a recent GL Q article, they argue against a prevailing historicism (misidentified by them as to be found in the work of David Halperin and Valerie Traub) which emphasizes alterity over sameness. In refusing the way that “history has come to equal alterity” Goldberg and Menon choose instead to practice what they call “homohistory”. Homohistory is set up in opposition to “a history based on heterodifference”. Now, this is not a history of homos but rather this history would be “invested in suspending determinate sexual and chronological differences while expanding the possibilities of the nonhetero, with all its connotations of sameness, similarity, proximity, and anachronism”. The third concept they propose is “idemtity”, invoking the earliest usage of the word in 1570 in opposition to what has come to be sedimented in what we call identity, usually in the concrete formulation, identity politics. They say that pursuing “the project of queering under the rubric of identity or alterity, then, might productively push categories-in this instance, the categories of sameness and difference that serve congruent normalizing purposes in both the field of history and the domain of sexuality”. Finally, Goldberg and Menon reject what they term “heterotemporality” or the compulsory heterotemporality which bedevils historicism whether it “insists on difference or produces a version of the normative same”. They set the historian two challenges, firstly a deheterochronologization which would seek “to resist mapping sexual difference onto chronological difference such that the difference between past and present becomes also the difference between sexual regimes”, and secondly “to challenge the notion of a determinate and knowable identity, past and present”. So far so good, but for all this emphasis on differàntial history, or homohistory, and resistance to the strictures of knowability and possibility, Goldberg and Menon still remain teleologically bounded, to the past and the present, a capitulation which in the end refuses and forecloses, is spooked by the promise of, the future.

Lest it sounds as if I am being, like any good deconstructionist, a little bit too suspicious, let me trace this resistance to futurity back to Goldberg’s recent collection of essays Shakespeare’s Hand, where he acknowledges his enormous debt to Derrida but admits his growing impatience with the politics of deconstruction, claiming that deconstruction, “is itself a politics of a kind of patience that risks maintaining the status quo in the belief that the divisions and differences that make any moment or regime non-self-identical are the resources of futurity”. It is hard to see how one can square this with the projects of homohistory or the new unhistoricism. Goldberg goes on to reject his own Derridean past more emphatically in ways which sound distinctly Edelmanian; he says “I do not agree with the stance of biding one’s time that seems to go along with a certain ‘proper’ philosophical attitude, and I have even less tolerance for the notion that some spectral regime may some day herald a future worth waiting for”. Now that book was written two years before Edelman’s No Future where Edelman argues that heteronormativity and compulsory heterotemporality are imbricated with reproductive futurism (something Michael Warner had already argued years before with the brilliant coinage “reproteleology”) and also explains how homosexuals and homosexuality come to figure the death drive, something he urges queers to embrace (how teleological is that? Freud’s death drive is after all about a return to origins, a determinable endpoint) when faced with the fascist figure of the Child. He coins the neologism sinthomosexual based on the Lacanian term sinthome, to designate an an-archic resistance to meaning which unsettles any (literal) belief in the subject (maybe that should be Subject) or in futurity ( I am all for the first but not for the sinthomosexual’s unethical refusal of the future,which amounts to a Zizekian disdain for all the “democracy-to-come-deconstructionist-postsecular-Levinasian-respect-for-Otherness suspects” as he calls Liberals like Butler and Derrida in The Parallax View). In her own recent article “Spurning Teleology in Venus and Adonis”, Madhavi Menon reads Adonis’ refusal of heterosexual reproductivity in Shakespeare’s poem and his embrace of failure in terms which implicitly recognize him as what Edelman would call a sinthomosexual. What Edelman, Goldberg, and Menon seem to be arguing for is a swerve away from intelligibility, a refusal of literality and meaning in the direction of a sinthomosexual or homohistorical embrace of “the logic that makes it [the sinthomosexual as pure sign] a figure for what meaning can never grasp?” This is a move which Edelman, Goldberg and Menon never make because it would give us over to futurity, to the telepoietic, to the event as surprise, to the promise of a kind of religio-political redemption, to what Derrida calls the emancipatory messianic promise. In opposition to the sinthomosexual which is only im-plicitly ethical (and in Edelman explicitly unethical), I propose what I would like to call the phantomosexual or more properly and in less identitarian fashion, phantomohistory (fantôme is French for specter or its synonym ghost), a queer history which is haunted by the past, the endlessly contested and contestable present, and the undecidable and unmasterable future to-come. Phantomohistoriography would also be what I would term, a little awkwardly, historiopitality, an ethico-affective history which is not about exorcising the ghosts of/or the past but to make them, as Derrida puts it in Specters “come back alive, as revenants who would no longer be revenants, but as other arrivants to whom a hospitable memory or promise must offer welcome-without certainty, ever, that they present themselves as such. Not in order to grant them the right in this sense but out of a concern for justice”.

Now, I turn very briefly to conjure the specters, or phantoms, of Derrida. From “Force of Law” in 1989, Derrida’s first explicit foray into the juridico-ethico-political sphere his work has taken on an ethico-political cast, is marked, or structured, by what he calls a certain “religion without religion”, a kind of political messianism or what he has continually called a “messianicity without messianism”. Derrida’s “political messianism” involves a Levinasian-Blanchotian aporicity, a crossing of the uncrossable, a passing through the impassable (or an experience of the impossible), an infinite resonsibility before and ex-posure to the Other, or as he puts it in The Gift of Death, “all the other others” (both living and dead), to what Levinas calls “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger”. This religious (without religion) political demand, to recognize the singularity of the tout autre entails a messianic waiting without waiting for the (in)coming of the wholly other, making way for an incalculable, undeconstructable, abyssal, khoric justice, for the democracy to-come. The democracy to-come makes a demand on us in the here and now but the present, as Nancy and Derrida aver, is always unpresentifiable. Derrida’s particular take on historicity does not involve “an end of history or an anhistoricity” but rather:

A matter of thinking another historicity-not a new history or still less a “new historicism”, but another opening of event-ness as historicity that permitted one not to renounce, but on the contrary to open up access to an affirmative thinking of the messianic and emancipatory promise as promise: as promise and not as onto-theological or teleo-eschatological program or design.

By structuring historicity as emancipatory promise and the monstrous arrivant of/as justice “the very dimension of events irreducibly to come” Derrida stubbornly refuses to program the future, choosing instead to tear up chrono-phenomeno-temporality (to tear up Being/Dasein and Time). This tearing, these abrupt breaches are “the condition of a re-politicization, perhaps of another concept of the political”. (In fairness to Edelman he never does set out a political program and this opens up the ethical possibility of reconfigured futures even if he disavows them).If this sounds like an untimely politics then that is because, for Derrida, the time is “out of joint” and this temporal unhinging and disjoining is closely aligned to what Derrida calls the specter, the phantom, or the ghost. In Dertrida’s ana(r)chronic view of historicity and temporality, the radical untimeliness of the spectre signifies both an event of the past and of the future (“it figures both a dead man who comes back and a ghost whose expected return repeats itself, again and again”) and skews the chrono-temporal dimensions of past event and future-to-come (“a specter is always a revenant and thus it begins by coming back”). The phantomohistory or spectrohistoriography I am arguing for is marked by similar circulations and returns of differential or differàntial repetition (here deleuze meets Derrida and Cohen recognizes this I think) and like Derrida’s hauntology “dislodges any present out of its contemporaneity with itself” and thereby determines “historicity as future-to-come”. Spectrality in Derrida’s ethico-political-messianic scheme is similar to homohistory and idemtity, but differs (and defers) insofar as it encompasses the infinite ethical relationship and the political precisely as messianic future-to-come, or what Nancy calls finite history. At the “end” of Specters of Marx Derrida encourages others to join him in lending an ear to the specters that hover around him and us and prophetically warns us that “If he loves justice at least, the ‘scholar’ of the future, the ‘intellectual’ of tomorrow should learn it from the ghost”. One scholar prepared to learn from ghosts is John Caputo who argues, following Benjamin and Levinas, that the historian’s cultural responsibility is to the past, the present and the future. In his article “No Tear Shall be Lost: The History of Prayers and Tears” Caputo agues that history and justice come too late for the dead but that the “irreparability of the past goes hand in hand with the open-endedness of the future, with the radicality of the to-come, so that the more intensely we experience the tension and intensity of the past, the prayers and tears of the past, the more radically we pray and weep on their behalf for a future to come, the more radically we pray and weep “viens, oui, oui, viens!”.

Before I conclude (and open up to others in the middle) I want to stage with Caputo a deliberately counter-polemical argument for the future to-come as it is embodied in the spectral figure of the child, merely to highlight the unethical trap into which historians who follow Edelman, as I think Goldberg and Menon do, will fall. Here’s Caputo:

The child is the future, the other that is the same and not the same, the one to whom past and present generations are asked to give without return. The child is no less a paradigm for the historian, for the children are the ones to come in history no less than in the family. History is being written for the children, to children, and it is to the children that we call “come”, for whom we pray and weep, viens, oui, oui. The historian writes in the time between the dead and the children, between irreparable suffering and hope for the unforeseeable to-come”.

To finish then, but not to have done with all these ghosts, I am arguing that the term queer, in its spectral indeterminacy, makes way for historiographical practices that do justice to the reven(an)tal effects of the irreparable past as they live on in the present and to the specters/revenants who will come in the unanticipatable future-to-come. For, as Derrida says “It is a proper characteristic of the specter, if there is any, that no one can be sure if by returning it testifies to a living past or to a living future... A phantom never dies, it remains always to come and to come back… The thinking of the specter… contrary to what good sense leads us to believe, signals toward the future”. What I am calling phantomohistory, is a phantomalization of queer history or what Carla Freccero in Queer/Early/Modern calls a “fantasmatic historiography”, a spectrohistoriography which extends hospitality and justice to the wholly Other, living or dead, dreams of, prays and weeps over, the messianic time, the time of what Goldberg was once able to call “the history that will be”.

Guest Blogger: Michael O'Rourke

ITM is happy to announce that Michael O'Rourke will soon be offering some guest posts on queer, past and future. Works and authors to be touched upon include, he informs us, "Goldberg and Menon's "Queering History," Edelman's No Future, Derrida's Spectres and Caputo on the ethics of history."

Michael may be familiar to readers of this blog from his frequent presence at medieval conferences, including Leeds. A co-founder (with Noreen Giffney) of the Dublin Queer Studies Group and an organizer of The(e)ories: Advanced Seminars for Queer Research, Michael has published widely on queer and gender theory; Deleuze and Guattari; deconstruction; and literature. He is a member of the editorial board of Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, where he published an excellent appreciation of Jacques Derrida that I've cited on this blog (Queer Theory's Loss and the Work of Mourning Jacques Derrida).

I've always found Michael's work challenging and inspirational. I've especially valued the Irish (or, at least, non-US) perspective he brings to queer theory, a school of criticism which sometimes makes itself out to be the lonely progeny of the American academy.

I must also say that I admire his hair. Welcome, Michael.

Why Can't Medievalists Have Clubs Like This One?

Check out the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists™.

Tell me you don't have follicle envy.

5 letters on human nature

Just in time to intersect with the threads on humanism that have developed here and here arrive these letters from the New York Times editorial page.

The five missives respond to a recent opinion piece by David Brooks ("Human Nature Redux"). Brooks stated, without any particular argument, that belief in human goodness is as dead as Rousseau himself. He then observed with some shock that conservatives have not embraced evolutionary theory, a puzzling failure given that conservatism's truths coincide with evolution's emphasis upon the dark nature of man (<-- yes, I intentionally did not write "humanity" because gender seems an implicit part of Brooks' argument):
Here’s another perversity of human nature. Many conservatives resist the theory of evolution even though it confirms many of conservatism’s deepest truths.
I am guessing that those "deepest truths" include facts like humans have been since the days of the caves selfish bastards who'd sooner bash a club over a neighbor's head and steal his mammoth steaks than, say, found a charity dedicated to the discovery of an AIDS vaccine.

Oh, wait.

The column also contains a sentence that I swear has been plagiarized from, well, every undergraduate paper I have ever graded. Of Rousseau's noble savage Brooks writes: "This belief had gigantic ramifications over the years." Ramifications are bad enough, but when they are gigantic and endure not just for days but over the years ... watch out!

But back to evolutionary theory, selfish bastards, and (apparently) American conservatives. Here is the little aria that forms the middle of the piece:
Human beings operate according to preset epigenetic rules, which dispose people to act in certain ways. We strive for dominance and undermine radical egalitarian dreams. We’re tribal and divide the world into in-groups and out-groups.

This darker if more realistic view of human nature has led to a rediscovery of different moral codes and different political assumptions. Most people today share what Thomas Sowell calls the Constrained Vision, what Pinker calls the Tragic Vision and what E. O. Wilson calls Existential Conservatism. This is based on the idea that there is a universal human nature; that it has nasty, competitive elements; that we don’t understand much about it; and that the conventions and institutions that have evolved to keep us from slitting each other’s throats are valuable and are altered at great peril.

Today, parents don’t seek to liberate their children; they supervise, coach and instruct every element of their lives. Today, there really is no antinomian counterculture — even the artists and rock stars are bourgeois strivers. Today, communes and utopian schemes are out of favor. People are mostly skeptical of social engineering efforts and jaundiced about revolutionaries who promise to herald a new dawn. Iraq has revealed what human beings do without a strong order-imposing state.

Just the other day I was teaching Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, and I suddenly realized as I looked around the room that -- had humans not evolved the institutions of classrooms and universities -- my students would be slitting my throat and dancing in my blood. Fortunately conservatism has ensured their docility.

Anyway, I do want to call attention to the possibilities that writers like Brooks and some of the scientists he cites (like Wilson) preclude. In the five letters to the NYT, for example, Matthew Brookoff agrees with Brooks but argues that these conclusions about human nature argue for liberalism, with its checks and balances. David Barash, an evolutionary biologist, opines:

David Brooks is half right in asserting that evolutionary biology shows human beings to be selfish, nasty and competitive by nature. In the process, he conveniently doesn’t mention the other half, which is far less conducive to conservative political ideology: the adaptive outcome in question through the machinations of our selfish genes is often achieved by organisms behaving altruistically toward one another, contributing to genetic success by enhancing the success of other bodies like relatives, reciprocating friends and even, on occasion, unrelated individuals within the social group.

William Flesch, a professor of English at Brandeis, insists upon the place of altruism:

Recent studies have argued very persuasively that humans are different, and that E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker are needlessly pessimistic. We compete for status, true, but paradoxically the way we display status is by showing that we can afford to be generous to one another.

Michael Eigen, editor of The Psychoanalytic Review, inveighs against the stark binaries in Brooks' piece:

It is not a matter of one or the other or making a choice as to which is more basic. To put who we are in terms of one tendency versus another is to maintain an all-too-prevalent dissociative attitude that has played havoc with our sense of self for a good part of our history. I believe that evolution requires us to get beneath such categories and begin to partner the profound interweaving of multiple tendencies that give human nature the plasticity and persistence it demonstrates.

"Plasticity and persistence." Food for thought as medievalists here and elsewhere contemplate the universal, the ethical, the historically predetermined ... the human.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

RE: The Sharp Report of Scott Eric Kaufman's Owne Petard

Recently, over at Acephalous, Scott Eric Kaufman has shared a "conclusionless" draft of his essay on the history of theory in the 1970s and 1980s, titled "Culture of Argument" [ver. 2.8]. I encourage everyone to read it, but for convenience's sake, I will share with you here some of its highlights, as well as the response I have posted on Kaufman's blog. If you find yourself really interested in this subject, you will also want to check out N. Pepperell's response at Rough Theory. To hopefully not do "rough justice" to Kaufman's essay, here is my overly abbreviated version of his argument:

  1. Gone are the days of the early 1980s when important journals like Critical Inquiry were committed to a dialectical pluralism "in which key figures in the field debated each other openly before the entire profession";
  2. thanks to "the marked decline in the investment required to print and distribute a journal" [due to new publishing softwares, readily available], we have seen an explosion of sub-disciplines within sub-disciplines, which has contributed to the "balkanization" of the field of theory and to a situation where extra-disciplinary theories have developed that are, lamentable, cut off from purposeful engagement with "wider" conversations within the discipline [literary studies] at large;
  3. the only alternative to "balkanization" is "to embrace a kind of institutional thoughtlessness in which certain foundational ideas are denuded of their original theoretical entailments." So, for example, Laura Mulvey's important essay on the gaze in film studies has been utilized [in Kaufman's words, "routinized"] by other theorists for various purposes without taking into consideration all the dimensions of the Lacanian underpinnings of her original argument;
  4. the anthologies born out of the vigorous theory debates of the 1970s and 1980s "authorized a particular version of the critical past in order to empower a particular vision of the critical present," which version of the past has since ossified, such that the emergence of "virtuoso readers" [in the words of Frederic Jameson, critics who produce "bodies of criticism in which the practice of peculiar and sometimes eccentric textual interpretations is at one with the projection of a powerful, nonsystematized theoretical resonance"] has since become stymied;
  5. these Jamesonian "virtuoso readers," whom Kaufman valorizes [I believe] in his essay, "evince both Hegelian seriousness—an aggressive commitment to the consequences of their premises—and a keen eye for the particularities of the literary work before them";
  6. "The absence of Hegelian seriousness [in much current theoretical work] . . . is a byproduct of theory’s codification, in the form of anthologies, during the last years of the 1980s. Previously, these essays were encountered in the wild. They were still provocative, certainly, but as objects of debate instead of reverence. The ceaseless discussion about theory (broadly defined) in the period between its arrival in 1966 and its consolidation in the late 1980s trained a generation of literary scholars to see fine points of distinction between competing theoretical models. The generation of scholars following the advent of theory anthologies possessed a book—singular and imposing—containing a series of models applicable to literary texts. A 'theoretical approach' defined thus might employ one or more of these theories in an effort to make sense of a text, but in so doing these theories ceased to be discrete entities. They became, en masse, theoretical. Preauthorized, different texts from the theoretical canon could be applied with no regard for any internal contradictions such applications would entail"; therefore,
  7. "The incorporation of this vitiated form of theory into the professional mainstream has made it increasingly difficult for virtuoso critics to emerge because the entire process of professionalizaton—beginning with the teaching of theory, via anthology, to graduate students and extending to the kind of deep historical research currently required for publication, as well as the absence of a forum in which sustained theoretical debates can be held—precludes the development of Hegelian seriousness"; as a result:
  8. "Critics today no longer fear their methodology will be scrutinized at all, much less in the discipline’s flagship journals. They are free to borrow from different traditions in the service of producing 'interesting' readings. Nowhere is the abuse of this freedom more apparent than in the work of Homi Bhabha, who, as much as any currently prominent thinker, embodies the spirit of the age of the theory anthology. Almost every page in The Location of Culture (1994) yields citations appealing to anthologized authority—such as 'as Lacan reminds us' or 'the work of Said will not let us forget'—or which cite thinkers whose work is predicated on mutually exclusive assumptions"; so,
  9. "If we, as a discipline, are to promote the development of more Jamesonian virtuosos, the desire to introduce new theoretical models into the fold most be coupled with a commitment to what W.J.T. Mitchell, writing at the height of Critical Inquiry’s influence, called 'dialectical pluralism': 'the weeding out of error, the elimination of trivial or marginal contentions, and the clarification of fundamental and irreducible differences…the kind of communication which clarifies exactly what is at stake in any critical conflict'."
  10. Not quite concluding, Kaufman writes, "Stemming the creep of naïve eclecticism should be of the utmost concern, but doing so would require a forum in which an aggressive commitment to strong beliefs, weakly held, could be displayed," and a "new forum—one which shares the commitment to debate once embodied by Critical Inquiry—is necessary if we hope to see a new generation of Jamesonian virtuosos emerge."
Here is my somewhat tentative response:

First, I am glad I read Scott's essay, "Culture of Argument." Having been taught theory—mainly of the structuralist, narratological bent [Ricouer, Iser, Ingarden, Barthes, Brooke-Rose, Jakobson, Bahktin, Pavel, etc.]—while undertaking an MFA in fiction in the late 1980s, and then later—in the more classic "high theory" mode—as a PhD student in medieval literature, in the late 1990s, Scott's essay rang fairly true for me, at least as regards some of the earlier debates among literary studies theorists, the development and entrenchment of what might be called a theory canon [now ossified], and the ways in which certain theorists can be deployed alongside each other in an analysis of a literary text without regard for the intellectual "incoherences" that inhere in what might be called their obscene couplings [such that, as Scott argues, one should not invoke Foucault and Althusser in the same sentence as if they would agree about the psychic-social makeup of "the subject"]. Speaking as a medievalist, I am always glad to see anyone historicizing theory—it's an important project, and one significant book on this subject, written by a medievalist, that everyone should read, is Bruce Holsinger's The Premodern Condition (Chicago, 2005).

Scott's overall argument, however, I fear, has some serious Romantic (even Byronic/masculinist) tendencies, and also makes some (I think so, anyway) logical fallacies. On the more minor level of logical fallacies, I simply do not see the connection between "the marked decline in the investment required to print and distribute a journal" and theory's "balkanization." First, even desktop publishing is not cheap, and I speak from experience on this point. Printing and distribution are still an issue, and always will be, even with purely online journals like Postmodern Culture that still need individual and institutional subscriptions (and institutional support in the way of staff hours, space, equipment, and supplies) to stay afloat. Yes, there has been what might be called a certain explosion in sub-field-type journals (of both the more traditional "print" and more contemporary electronic variety), but we have a sui generis-type situation here: theory "balkanizes" itself, then the journals follow, not the other way around. Simply put, to say that the so-called "balkanization" of theory is somehow made possible through cheaper, more readily available publishing processes is pushing the supposed sequence of events just a bit too hard (while also ignoring the fact that publishing, even digital publishing, is hugely time- and cost-consuming).

This brings me to the idea of the "balkanization" of theory. Ever since the first time I saw this metaphor, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in fact, it has made me cringe. Its (supposedly) negative connotation is directly connected to the historical situation from which it draws its name: the Balkan (breakaway) states of the former Yugoslavia, and all of the problems (even bloody violence) attendant thereupon. What lies beneath the invocation of this history, if the invocation is meant to be negative (which, in Scott's critique, I believe it is), is a secret desire to have things "whole" again, more "unified." The processes of a metaphorical "balkanization" speak to a certain chaos and headless politics that can only be confusing and deadly, or at the very least, decadent. The threat of miscegenation and degeneracy looms ("sub-disciplines within sub-disciplines"). As to whether or not the obscene births of these so-called sub-disciplines, cut off from more broadly-inclusive and cross-disciplinary theoretical debates, is a good or bad thing for the field of literary studies as a whole: let us set that aside for the moment. For me, the more pressing question, at least as regards Scott's essay, is: why this yearning for the "One"? (A place/site, in other words, such as Critical Inquiry's "Critical Responses" section, nostalgically drawn by Scott as lamentably "past," where everyone who matters could somehow gather and voice strong, yet weakly held, opinions and hold each other accountable.) There is something eerily totalitarian in this wish—that, somehow, all theoretical discourses could be drawn under one eye, where everyone would be responsible and accountable to everyone else, but this also assumes a kind of high arbiter, or set of "higher" value judgments that would structure the inevitable debates. (Of course, the fact that Scott also invokes Hegel over and over again in the most positive of ways is also telling in this respect.)

One last minor quibble regarding the logic of Scott's essay: it simply cannot be assumed that the establishment of theory anthologies, and hence the canonization of certain essays/book chapters/theorists, necessarily affects the way all later theorizing turns out. First of all, there are many, many programs in which theory is not taught via the anthology, or even the anthology-method. I was not taught theory this way; indeed, in my PhD program, I was taught theory by two professors (married to each other, in fact) who insisted we read whole books, and the list was eclectic, to say the least, and often unconnected to whatever has been included in "the anthology." Therefore, I read Foucault's Discipline and Punish and Judith Butler's Bodies That Matter, sure, but I also read Owen Flanagan's The Varieties of Moral Personality, J.M. Bernstein's The Fate of Art, Diane Elam's Feminism and Deconstruction, Bill Readings' The University In Ruins, Zygmunt Bauman's Postmodern Ethics, and so on. Further, anyone with half a brain in a graduate program can intuit for themselves that one cannot really understand a theorist through extracts from that theorist's corpus (or, "whole body"). To understand any theory, and to deploy it as ethically and as intelligently as possible, is to also know that theorists, like any human being (like Jack London, for that matter, to steal a figure from Scott's essay), develop their thinking over a lifetime, and in the course of that lifetime, experience (and articulate) various shifts and changes (and even apostasies and paradoxical contradictions) in their thought. If this is not taken into account in the deployment of any theorist's thought (Foucault, for example, cannot be invoked just vis-à-vis Discipline and Punish, without also taking into account his later writings on governmentality), there is a certain intellectual dishonesty that will result. I actually agree with Scott that much work in current theory suffers from this dishonesty (especially in relation to the theoretical "fogbank" Scott invokes by way of Homi Bhaba's work), and that this likely, as Scott also points out, has something to do with processes of hiring and tenure and the general rush everyone seems to be in these days. I have devoted much of my own career to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas (and to Derrida's writings on Levinas, as well as on ethics and justice more generally), and I recognize that I could spend my entire lifetime just reading those two (and whoever they might invoke) and no one else, and I would still be trying to figure out my own theoretics of violence, suffering, and justice, which is what I mainly work on (within the sub-discipline of Old English culture and literature). From an ethical, but also from a professional standpoint, I consider this theoretical labor enough for my own career. Which is also to say, it isn't necessarily a more vigorously pursued cross-disciplinarity that will "save" theory from its intellectual dishonesty, but rather, a deeper mining of just a few texts over the course of one's professional life might do the same trick and could be eminently valuable. Think of rabbinic scholars who devote their entire careers to reading (and thinking about/writing upon) the Talmud, and how the Talmud itself is that "One" site that gathers unto itself all readings, all rabbinical thought, which is, in itself, in the words of John Donne, "a little world made cunningly."

Regarding my larger concern with Scott's essay, why is what Scott terms "Hegelian seriousness" so devoutly to be wished? Why are "Jamesonian virtuosos" [read: singularly "great" theorist-geniuses] also, so desired? How shall we define "sophistication," and who shall judge that? It would be idiotic of me to argue against Scott that a certain "dialectical pluralism" is not to be wished for—pluralism I am all for, even dialectical pluralism. It's just that Scott leans so hard on the "dialectical" side of the term, by which he means "Hegelian seriousness." It's all very masculinist and forbidding (and also participates in a kind of queer heroic ethos), as if somehow we—the supposedly really smart literary critics—possess the means to judge, in pluperfectly "Hegelian" fashion, each other's ideas. It's awfully "disciplinary," isn't it? (Scott's argument is also dependent, to a certain extent, on the idea that theory should somehow be made more systematic, more centralized if even more cross-disciplinary, more scientific, more classically rhetorical, more epistemologically coherent—all mirages of modes of intellectual "validation" I thought theory had helped to demolish; this leads me to what would have to be an essay for another time—how theory, past and present, has never been able to escape its grounding in Western empirical thought even as it seeks to call that empiricism into question). Here's the sentence from Scott that really leaped off the page at me:

"Stemming the creep of naïve eclecticism should be of the utmost concern, but doing so would require a forum in which an aggressive commitment to strong beliefs, weakly held, could be displayed."

I've always been of the belief that we need more naïvete, and not less—if there is such a thing as genius, it often stems from a form of naïve questioning (ask anyone in the sciences how this works). Why an "aggressive" commitment? An "aggressive" commitment to a particular theory makes more sense in a discipline like human rights philosophy or sociology or bioethics, where more than the interpretation of the operations of language in a literary text really is at stake. Rather than gather at the wished-for forum (theory's lost "center"—e.g. the Critical Inquiry of days gone by) where everyone could aggressively debate their theories of literary interpretation, and certain geniuses would emerge out of this tensile field of discussion, theoretical muscles rippling, I would rather slip away into a sub-discipline, and get lost.

[as a post-script, I would also just add here that I think some credit is due to the originator of the idea of "weak ontology"--Kaufman's strong beliefs, weakly held: the work of the political philosopher Stephen K. White, especially his book Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory; this is a very important book which I have plugged before on this blog]

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Introducing the Book

This really spoke to me, and not just because of my Norwegian grandfather. My favorite method of procrastination is tinkering with my computer. I've managed, after far too much effort, to get VirtualBox running in Xubuntu and, using samba, got my Windows Virtual Machine to access the partition with all my data. If I didn't have such a yen for gadgets--and if I couldn't cloak my bad habit in the obvious political benefits of using open source, free software--clearly I'd be done with the dissertation right now.

I should have stuck to scrolls.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

BABEL Meets the Journal of Narrative Theory

Just a sneak preview here of BABEL's special issue of the Journal of Narrative Theory [vol. 37.2, Summer 2007], edited by Eileen Joy and Christine Neufeld, and titled "Premodern to Modern Humanisms: The BABEL Project." As some already know, BABEL has been organizing panels at various conferences--some medieval, some not--to bring together medievalists with scholars working in other humanities fields [such as 20th-century or early modern literature], and also with artists [fiction writers and poets], social scientists, scientists [biologists, geologists--so far], in order to talk together about "humanisms" and the humanities, past, present, and future. This special issue of JNT is our first publication to come out of these discussions, and hopefully there will be more, as well as grant initiatives [in progress] that will assist us in bringing these discussions to bear somehow on general education curricular reforms. If you follow the link above, it will take you to the tabel of contents of the issue, plus brief abstracts for each essay. And in the meantime, our discussion continues at Kalamazoo this coming May [so mark your calendars!]:

Session #11: Premodern to Modern Humanisms (May 10, Thursday, 10:00 am)
  • Mary K. Ramsey (Fordham University), "Niobe's Tears: Mourning on the Margins of the Human"
  • Karl Steel (Columbia University), "How Delicious We Must Be: Cannibalism, Again"
  • LeAnne Teruya (San Jose State University/Department of Geology), "Mapping Humanism in the Age of G.P.S."
  • Timothy Spence (Hollins University), "Lyrics, Commentaries, and Communities of the Spirit: Humanistic Commentaries of Passion Against the Modern Self"
  • Kenneth P. Clarke (University College, Oxford University), "Chaucer's Tyrants and Humanisms"
  • Betsy McCormick (Mount San Antonio College), "Oh, the Humanity! Toward an Ethical Humanism"
  • RESPONDENT: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (George Washington University)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England

I've been carrying this book around for quite awhile now, and I keep meaning to post about it, and keep forgetting. Last summer, when I first started thinking about my essay on the Old English "Seven Sleepers" legend and was casting around, blindly, in the literature of selfhood, Nancy Partner recommended to me the historian David Gary Shaw's book, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England, as the best book she knew of on selfhood in the Middle Ages. I have to agree. Then again, what do I know? Seriously, I am not as much of an expert on this subject as is Nancy Partner, who I admire tremendously, so naturally, I take her word for it, but what I do know, now having read this book, is that it is one of the best [and most elegantly written] works I have read on selfhood, period, not just in the Middle Ages. I would put this book alongside Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self as required reading for anyone interesting in parsing out the various relationships and psychic traffic between self and world, both in the past and present, although admittedly, Shaw's book is mainly concerned with the medieval, epsecially the late medieval town [urban] self.

It is the primary aim of Shaw's book, as he himself states it, to make "an interesting guess" at "reading meaning into past selves," a task which has often been considered problematic by historians, by considering what he terms the "social self." To start with, Shaw considers the self to be "a highly localized site of awareness" that "is bound, at least for this worldly life, to a body. An important corollary of this principle is that the self identifies with its body and expresses itself by its body" [p. 12]. Further, he writes, "History's weight on us is constant and immense, and it is composed mainly of language and custom. We do not originate these, but we enter into them as into a house, well furnished both with goods and routines." It has to be stressed, however, that 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 and action. The particualr way a self or groups of selves do so is the actual subject of history.

The question of self and society focuses, then, on the nature of the self's agency when each individual emerges slowly into a world already so well appointed. It is not only that you grow inside a particular language such as English. That is only the bladest part. It is that you were born into a particular historical situation, into a family with a known social standing, a reputation, and a level of wealth, and its own quirky traditions. . . . Thus, on Pierre Bourdieu's account, the sense of agency is grander than the reality just because the limitations and dominance bequeathed by the milieu, by the
habitus (custom), are deemed decisive. [p. 13]

An here's one of my favorite parts:

. . . . the self is always, as Charles Taylor has argued, pre-eminently a self-interpreting animal. If culture can dominate and constrain a person, if the subjective identity is a necessary part of understanding how power relations work, it is because the core of the self is an interpreter who can only be controlled by trying to put a blindfold or blinkers on its creative narrative. Although parts of everybody's account of life are plagiarized, this does not prove that his or her stories cannot be significantly original. Some social historians might not think that these narrative or hemeneutical idiosyncracies add up to much, but if one is as interested in meaning as in causation, then God is in the details. [p. 15]

For Shaw, "the self in history is mainly the social self, for it is perhaps all that is left of human nature to say that a person's nature is to fashion herself out of tools she does not own, in the context of a world that she did not initiate, and cannot ignore" [p. 16]. I will leave everyone with Palgrave's brief description of the book:

Necessary Conjunctions is an original study of how regular medieval people created their public social identities. Focusing especially on the world of English townspeople in the later Middle Ages, the book explores the social self, the public face of the individual. It gives special attention to how prevalent norms of honor, fidelity and hierarchy guided and were manipulated by medieval citizens. With variable success, medieval men and women defined themselves and each other by the clothes they work, the goods they cherished, as well as by their alliances and enemies, their sharp tongues and petty violence. Employing a highly interdisciplinary methodology and an original theory makes it possible to see how personal agency and identity developed within the framework of later medieval power structures.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Most charming Google search to land someone at this blog

From Sharpsburg, Georgia, at 12.45 today:
how to know if a fairy is in your fairy mound

Time out of Memory

I've just submitted this for a new collection on historicism in medieval studies. Since I've yet to write a word of the actual essay, I'm wondering: suggestions? bibliography? blind spots?

Time out of Memory: The Medieval Prehistoric
This essay examines how material objects that predate the known historical record were fitted into medieval British cultures and histories, and how the time before history was imagined in medieval historiography. The analysis will focus upon two objects that might seem capable of offering nothing but mute testimony, but which in fact speak quite eloquently: the fossil of an ichthyosaurus worked into the porch floor of the Norman church of St John the Baptist in Tredington; and Stonehenge, especially as embedded by Geoffrey of Monmouth into his History of the Kings of Britain. Both instances, I argue, do not petrify their objects into some unchanging historical moment, but encounter the alien materiality of the past in a way that gives new life to what might otherwise seem an inert materiality. I then look at the prehistory of Britain as imagined by Bede, Geoffrey, and Gerald of Wales, arguing just the opposite: that in all three authors we see an impulse to fossilize the past in order to stabilize the present. Using recent work on materiality and temporality by Rita Felensky, Gil Harris, and Manuel de Landis, I will then emphasize the inassimilable residue that such medieval historicization leaves behind, and the other stories that might be told from these histories' gaps.

Letters from the Roman past

"gruel ...

pork-crackling ...

trotters ..."

Longtime readers of this blog know that a certain small mouse stoked my interest in Vindolanda, a Roman outpost by Hadrian's Wall where fate preserved some intriguing correspondence. In their banality these letters give a vivid glimpse of life along what seemed to the foreign-born residents of Vindolanda to be the distant frontier. The missives can be accessed here.

[noticed via Tirincula]

Friday, February 09, 2007

"captures some answering bright gleam in their own souls"

Check out Adam Roberts, "Undressing Gawain," at The Valve -- the SGGK piece he spoke of here: an errant meditation on clothing in the poem, with lots on beauty and the allure of medieval shiny objects .... and some speculation on the temporal cross-dressing that draws moderns to the medieval.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Also noted: Lee Patterson, Temporal Circumstances

Just noticed this was out: a collection of Patterson's essays, issued in the New Middle Ages series. The book includes “'Witnesses of Our Redemption': Jewish Martyrdom and Christian Sacrifice in the Prioress's Tale” (originally published in JMEMS), an essay that examines Christian and Jewish hybridities in wonderfully complicated ways. It is my favorite Patterson piece (and that is truly saying something). I'm also very fond of his riff on the Canon's Yeoman's Tale ("Perpetual Motion"); indeed, I wouldn't be able to teach that bit of Chaucer without it. Here's some information from the Palgrave website:

Temporal Circumstances provides powerful and detailed interpretations of the most important and challenging of the Canterbury Tales. Well-informed and clearly written, this book will interest both those familiar with Chaucer’s masterpiece and readers new to it.

Table of contents
Preface * Introduction: Historicism and Postmodernity * Putting the Wife in Her Place: The Place of Philology * Putting the Wife in Her Place: The Place of History * Freedom and Necessity: The Example of the Clerks Tale * Chaucer’s Pardoner on the Couch: Clio and Psyche in Medieval Literary Studies * “What Man Artow?”: Authorial Self-Definition in the Tale of Sir Thopas and the Tale of Melibee * “Witnesses of Our Redemption:” Jewish Martyrdom and Christian Sacrifice in the Prioress's Tale * Perpetual Motion: Alchemy and the Technology of the Self