Sunday, March 11, 2007

Touching On

"Queerness works by contiguity and displacement, knocking signifiers loose, ungrounding bodies, making them strange; it works in this way to provoke perceptual shifts and subsequent corporeal response in those touched ... It makes people stop and look at what they have been taking as natural, and it provokes inquiry into the ways that 'natural' has been produced by particular discursive matrices of heteronormativity. ("Chaucer's Queer Touches / A Queer Touches Chaucer" 76-77)"

Following on from JJC's transgenic bunnies and the touch of the queer, I have just returned from Leeds (the home of the International Medieval Congress) where I was attending a conference devoted to Jacques Derrida's On Touching-Jean-Luc Nancy called The Future Matters: Apropos of Derrida's Touching on the Technology of the Senses to come in a Post-Global Horizon. Oddly, there was no mention of the Middle Ages (or medieval scholarship on touch) despite Derrida's critique of what he calls haptocentrism in the phenomenological tradition which touches, in Tangent number V, on the concept of the flesh and touch in Christianity (winding through Didier Franck and Jean-Louis Chretien). The strangely baroque figure of the touch or kiss of the eyes which Derrida mobilizes in this book would also seem far less strange to readers of Medieval Literature. This amazingly dense and extravagant book (a kind of sequel to Writing and Difference, Of Grammatology and Speech and Phenomena) sees Derrida doing a lot of palintropic turning back (to Aristotle, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas) so I'm wondering if anyone at ITM has thought about how On Touching might be a resource for Medievalists (I'm thinking of SIr Gawain and the Green Knight, Troilus and Criseyde, or The Pardoner's Tale as obvious touchstones) turning to the critique of "humanualism".

I would also take this opportunity to mention that we have recently lost Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean Baudrillard and to mourn their passing. It seems Nancy, who should have died in the early 1990s, will survive them all.


Anonymous said...

Apologies in advance for the sketchiness of what I’m about to say (spring break’s really busy for me):

Cary Howie’s new book will focus on this potential of touching, mainly in continental writings (*Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure in Medieval Literature,* Palgrave, forthcoming in May). Based on conversations with Cary and others, I am convinced there needs to be a medieval flesh project, focused on the multiple possibilities of (the) flesh (Karl’s work, posted on this blog, suggests an alternative to the sensual dimensions). I would think that such a project should not just look for the traditiional emphasis on rupture, shock, or displacement in touching (as CD’s passage, above, admirably exemplifies), but also, as M. O’Rourke’s posts have pointed to (and the Nancy/Derrida connection prommotes), the possibilities for conjunction, admixture, and incorporation that touching allows. This is scary stuff, to be sure, but in thinking about the “sullying” potential of (the) flesh, I think we might brush up against a new way of thinking about (the) flesh outside its partitive history.

Gotta go—I’ll be back to reading next week,


Jeffrey Cohen said...

I don't know the answer to your Derrida question, Michael, but I suspect it is no.

Your post and Holly's comment remind me of a book I read quite a while back on “haptic visuality”: Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. The book's project is to explore how toucj might work in a visual register to convey what has otherwise been lost to history.

Karl Steel said...

I am convinced there needs to be a medieval flesh project, focused on the multiple possibilities of (the) flesh

My goodness, I'd be all over that, if invited!

Haven't read (yet) the Derrida, MO'R, but sounds marvelous. Another approach, one that might join together the sensual and violent approaches, might be done through the few stories I know of devotees taking bites out of the preserved corpses of their favorite saints. From Herman Pleij's Dreaming of Cockaigne:

"Joos can Ghistele...on his way from Ghent to the Holy Land in 1481, was dismayed to find that a bit of flesh was missing from the arm of the centuries-old corpse [of Jan van Montfoort]. Upon inquiry it appeared that a descendent had taken a bite out of it, after being denied a relic of his hallowed forefather" (123)

Michael O'Rourke said...

Thanks Holly, JJC, Karl. Derrida is actually very critical of Deleuzian haptics in this book. One of the strategies of his critique of haptocentricity is to show how Deleuze, Merleau Ponty, Levinas, Nancy and everyone else actually falls back on metaphysics. The project of On Touching is to put the whole language of touch in the Franco-German phenomenological tradition out of service.