Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Have we lost the power to shock?

And is that loss perhaps a good thing?

I was thinking this morning that in a different place, at a different time Michael O'Rourke's recent post on Chaucer and fisting might have caused a mini scandal. Where are the teapot tempests of yesteryear? The invective, the emotion, the "profession is going to hell in a hand basket" declamations? It makes me almost nostalgic for my academic youth, when scholars could be shocked -- SHOCKED! -- that Chaucer might be read so perversely.

Actually, what I was remembering was the critical reaction to one of the earliest attempts to queer Chaucer. (WARNING: the following is based upon my recollections, and as my son reminds me almost daily I am so elderly that I have one foot in the grave. My memory is extremely faulty, a hair's breadth away from senility.) Glenn Burger had given a paper on queer Chaucer at a major conference (NCS, I think, but maybe it was MLA) c. 1994 in which he said something along the lines of "I am not arguing that Chaucer engaged in genital activity with other men (but neither do I want to rule out that possibility)." Another medievalist reported the line on the Chaucer electronic discussion list as affirming that Chaucer had had sex with other men. Outrage followed! (Listservs in the mid 90s were wonderful places for spleen. Quiet scholars got to TYPE IN CAPITALS and trot out their hell-handbasket metaphor ensembles). I suppose it was a time when "queer" had yet to be critically distinguished from gay; when a gay Chaucer somehow seemed scary; when Chaucer seemed so sacred that he didn't have genitals (or didn't use them, except as instruments of purgation). Maybe it was also a time of larger electronic communities, rather than the microcommunities that the blogs of today tend to foster.


Eileen Joy said...

Well, um, duh! . . . YES. I hesitated at first to respond to Michael O.'s post on philosophy, Chaucer, ass-f&*king, and fisting, partly because I wasn't sure I should allow myself to be viewed *publicly* writing about certain topics that are, dare we say it, sexually "perverse"? It's funny, but queer theory thrives on perversity at the exact same time it seeks to say, "nothing, really, is perverse." But if nothing is perverse [except when seen from the position of heteronormativity], then what's "queer," after all? Queer theory, it seems to me, delights in its ability to be "shocking," while also claiming nothing really *is* shocking, unless you're a refusing to venture beyond your heteronormative hegemony. Queer theory delights in tracing the boundaries between normal and abnormal, male and female, human and non-human, sex and love, while also claiming all those boundaries, of which it has such need, are somehow falsely drawn or not real. In any case, nothing's shocking anymore, because, partly thanks to queer theory, everything potentially shocking has gone beyond au courant straight to boring.

EYYÜP HAN said...

Ich am nat a litel wroth that sum thyng ich spak in pryvytee to a fewe rederes of myn blogg hath now spred ynto the discussion of scolers. Ich thoghte a blog was a subtil thing kept for a smal coterie of freendes, but it semeth that eny oon on the gret internet (the which is lyk cristendom but for computers, meseemeth) kan rede of yt. Allas! Allas! That ever synne was love.

And thus ich do assure yow, ich haue genitals. Elsewise, how wolde Litel Lowys be heere to torment me wyth hys musique of gret noyse and din, and my Thomas be heere ever sendyng me letters requesting introduccions to gret lordes? To saye no thyng of Philippe and the debt ich moot paye.

And by seynt Lagerfeld, whan yong ich lookid quite fetching in a speedo.

Wyth much blusshyng, ich remayne
Le Vostre Servaunt

"Litel" Lowys said...

Pops that is X kyndes of n4sty. Kanstow refrayne from spamming folkz about yower junk on the int3rn3t?

Weve talked about this b4.


Anonymous said...

nothing's shocking anymore, because, partly thanks to queer theory, everything potentially shocking has gone beyond au courant straight to boring.

I think that's well put. One of the reasons I think shock value has disappeared is that theorists in the literary humanities have so completely split off their subject matters from themselves (or from their selves) that the theory has become this autonomous and (get ready to roll your eyes) narcissistic thing only loosely, if at all, connected to the lived realities of its audience, not to mention its historical subjects. Welcome to the machine.

I'll add to this observation at the Zoo, but for now I think, as Jeffrey does, it might be important to wonder why exactly scholars are less likely to type in CAPS then before.

Karl Steel said...

One of the reasons I think shock value has disappeared is that theorists in the literary humanities have so completely split off their subject matters from themselves

Assuming this is true, are you positing a time when scholarship was more organically united with the lived experience of the scholar?


I did have a Q that came to me re: fisting and the Summoner, which was this: would we even notice if we took the Summoner out of the reading? Would the points on fisting stand equally well without the medieval text? We'd lose the perverse (or matter-of-fact for the sangfroid among us, following EJ) touching across time, but otherwise, would we even notice it missing? I hate to sound like one of those back to the text reactionaries, but...

PS some academic listservs are still places of madness.

GC and LL: perhaps you need mediation? Perhaps a Love Day?

Anonymous said...

Karl: No Golden Age. The state of literary humanities is one I assess in the present. I can certainly cite examples of scholarship that are exceptions to the rule. The reasons such examples are exceptions should be interrogated.

Anonymous said...

nothing's shocking anymore, because, partly thanks to queer theory, everything potentially shocking has gone beyond au courant straight to boring.

Yup - we're all just showing our age. My children would be far more shocked by racism than by sex - their/our culture is saturated with explicit sex - to the point that I have noticed my students who are only a couple of years older than my children are increasingly bored with it and just think lecturers who talk about sex are incredibly sad (like their parents).

Karl Steel said...

The state of literary humanities is one I assess in the present

I hate to ride you on this, but then why "has disappeared"? Why not just "not present" or "rarely present"?

Anonymous said...

Karl: Add adverb "apparently" if that makes it better or you any happier. Apparently disappeared.

I wouldn't (though one could) argue for a time that there was genuine, far-reaching shock value. My point is that it ain't there now for reasons that have to do with contactlessness. Retroflection as well.

Michael O'Rourke said...

It rather depends on context. A paper on Chaucer and watersports might seem tame and quaintly boring at Kalamazoo but at the internatioonal Medieval Congress in Leeds it woul;d be most likely be met with apoplexy, dyspepsia or a third word that sounds like that. Translating qeint as cunt in an Irish university will lose you your job (or at the very least ensure that you no longer teach first years or the more impressionable students). Saying cunt in an american uinversity would not garner "an unprecendented number of complaints from students". Take what you will from this about the lived realities of a now unemployed queer scholar.

Michael O'Rourke said...

thats queynte for people who can spell!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Eileen: I disagree about boring. At least, it doesn't bore me. But as N50 says, sometimes our/my hanging on to shock potential undoubtedly makes me look, to my youthful auditors, like the pathetic spectacle that all people over four decades of age seem to them.

GC and Litel L: here we are theorizing the queering the Chaucer. the two of you actually DO IT, in a way that is filled with love. What could be better?

Michael U: I am so happy to be out of the DAYS OF CAPITAL LETTER SCREAMING which was always intended to shut people up rather than converse ... but as to narcissism, I join Karl in wondering if it is any worse nowadays. Was founding father of Chaucer studies George Lyman Kittredge more connected to the lived realities of his audience than today's Chaucerians? Is narcissism the other side of some scholarly either/or? (OK, scrolling down I see that you are present directed only in that evaluation and took back the temporal change narrative).

Michael O'R: sad indeed. I am so sorry to hear that story.

OK, kids are going nuts ... time to enforce some serious reign of bedtime terror upon one of them. Good night Princess Buppy!!

Karl Steel said...

Saying cunt in an american uinversity would not garner "an unprecendented number of complaints from students"

Depends on the institute, I suspect. Re Kzoo, depends on the panel. Opus Dei or some variant on them ran several sessions at Kzoo last year. I expect they'll be back again this year.

My profound sympathies for how the assholes at your former U (presuming you're speaking about yourself) fucked you over. Have you seen this?

Anonymous said...


I am very sorry to hear of what sounds like a drastically stultifying administrative move. So much for the disconnect. Unfortunately, the intimate connections between theorists and theorizations are often made manifest only through negating scenarios. Hard to find the love and joy in such circumstances...makes your positive outlook on queer theory all the more inspiring.



Michael O'Rourke said...

Cheers for the fucking link Karl. I love Jodi Dean. In fact, the only two blogs I read religiously are ITM and I Cite. It endlessly frightens me how much students can police the language of their teachers, almost as much as Opus Dei terrify me.

Speaking of queer theory and joy, Holly, I have been reading a lot of Adam Phillips of late. Its fantastic stuff and outside of an exchange between him and Butler (around her The Psychic Life of Power) I can find only the odd reference to him in queer theory (although I suspect that his new book on love co-authored with Leo Bersani will change that). I must also start into the bibliography of work on hope Michael U provided us with a few weeks ago.

Michael O'Rourke said...

As an addendum, I'm writing a paper on Agamben and bare life for a conference on bioethics this weekend and I was trying to imagine a politics of hope *with* Agamben who is so often considered to be a pessimistic thinker when I came across this in a 2004 interview with him: " i've often been reproached for...this pessimism that I am perhaps unaware of. But I don't see it like that. There is a phrase from Marx, cited by Debord as well, that I like a lot: 'the desperate situation of society in which I live fills me with hope". I like it a lot too.

Anonymous said...

Interesting question. Jeffrey (and Geoffrey) both have good points here.

I was having this very discussion--what would it take to really shock those of us in medieval studies nowadays?--not too long ago.

Our consensus was that the things that would tend to invite vehement reactions nowdays are things that aren't of a sexual/graphic/'icky' nature but rather things that are, for lack of a better term, politically outrageous. If there were a hypothetical medievalist who earnestedly argued that, say, medieval anti-Semitism was a good thing, or they wholeheartedly maintained that the Crusades were pure and justified, what have you, you might get some strong responses.

But shocked responses? I'm not sure...

Anonymous said...


This news story seems to confirm that it is religion and politics which [still?] have the power to shock.