Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Hybridity as the conjunction of the disparate, not the synthesis

From Judson J. Emerick's review of Charles B. McClendon, The Origins of Medieval Architecture: Building in Europe, A.D. 600-900, in The Medieval Review:
McClendon ... describes ... a merging of "artistic traditions," classic and non-classic, that is, Antique and Germanic ... I find this a core issue that all readers of McClendon's survey will
wish to ponder. For instance, in Chapter 4, devoted to Anglo-Saxon
architecture in the seventh and eighth centuries (mostly in
Northumbria), McClendon tells of several ways in which Anglo-Saxon
builders followed Antique and Late Antique Roman tradition—by focusing
worship spaces on icons and stained-glass windows, and by building in
stone with arches, piers, and columns more Romano. At the same
time, McClendon insists, they also "subtly combined" that tradition
with ideas, motifs, and approaches from their own non-Antique,
Germanic practice. Thus the plans of the abbey churches at Wearmouth
and Jarrow follow that of the typical royal Anglo-Saxon long hall,
built of wood. A stained-glass window (he illustrates a reconstructed
example from Jarrow) or a columnar portal (the famous one from the
fa├žade of St. Peter's at Wearmouth) incorporate forms or motifs from
Germanic Style II Animal ornament in Anglo-Saxon metalwork (see
McClendon's summary on pp. 82-83).

But do we really deal in these cases with the fusing, blending, or
mixing of traditions? Or do we encounter something more like
pastiche, the kind of bricolage that energizes virtually all
visual/architectural composition, and that takes effect from stark,
even violent juxtapositions? The plans of the late seventh-century
Northumbrian abbey churches may well play off that of the chieftain's
hall, borrowing the latter's prestige to make a political point, but
we need not present that as the result of any merging of Germanic and
Christian (Mediterranean, classic) taste or sensibility in
aesthetic terms. I would see rather one tradition (or practice
or visual habit) interrupting the other. The male saint depicted in
the stained-glass window from Jarrow functions like any Mediterranean
icon; those aspects of the portrait that echo motifs familiar from,
say, the jewels decorating the Sutton Hoo purse lid, overlie and
clash, rather than fuse with the Late Antique icon. The portal from
Wearmouth (pp. 73-79) conforms closely (if brutally) to norms
established centuries previously in ancient Roman Imperial Corinthian
scenic design: the builders merely substitute some Germanic
interlaced birds for the typical acanthus vine scrolls we expect to
see. Pastiche perhaps, but not, I submit, any blending of
practices, much less of any Antique architectural one with a
barbarian art of small-scale bodily adornment.

Much of our work here at ITM has stressed this phenomenon: cultural intermixture tends not to produce new stabilities so much as the conjoining of the disparate in its conflicts. This topic so interests me that I wrote a book about it (you can read the introduction here)... and am still thinking about hybridity for a current project.

1 comment:

Karl Steel said...

Saw a marvelous dynamic paper last night by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (who incarnates marvel and dynamism) that suggested a number of routes for bridging the scholarly divide between Old English works and pre-Conquest Women Nobles/Royalty and Anglo-Norman works and post-Conquest &c. Also got to meet Mary Ramsey, co-editor (with EJ) of the exciting Postmodern Beowulf.

She showed us a slide of a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle whose final leaves contain a version of the Brut, in Anglo-Norman, in the margins (handout's at home, otherwise I could give you the ms info). A perfect illustration of this non-synthetic conjunction of cultural traditions because, as JWB observed: why write the Brut in the margins? Why not just find a blank page and write it there instead? Because, she suggested, someone's trying to come to terms with the different histories, not setting out one as true and one as untrue, but rather just together what, in fact, can't, because of the contradictions in narrative, go together.