Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Lonelyhearts Ad: Hetero-Queer BABEL Seeks Other Hetero-Queers for (Re)productive Play Among the Ruins of the University

Figure 1. Still image from Todd Solondz's film Palindromes (2004)

Well, here it is . . . such as it is: the so-called BABEL Working Group manifesto, or call it a love letter, or a lonelyhearts advertisement: Notes Toward an Enamored Medieval Studies. Just keep in mind that this is a fairly down-and-dirty version of a conference paper that was scripted for a certain kind of "performance" and please read it in that spirit. What you will find here, if you were in the audience for the original, are some missing bits plus the conclusion I did not get to read. In addition, due to some questions I received afterwards, I tried to finesse a bit the Bersani/Edelman angle. So, there you have it. And then some.


Liza Blake said...

Eileen, thanks for sharing that -- it was beautiful, and even though I've never met you, I could almost hear you reading it!

In some ways, I like that it's so open ... and I have a real soft spot for theoretical manifestos ... but I was wondering about the medieval part of it. I went back and combed through, and it seems like medievalism makes its appearances in the beginning (medievalists on queer questions, among others), and near the end, where you say that medievalists are poised to intervene in the present's version of the past. But wouldn't this apply (and this is not a rhetorical attack question, where I get you to agree to a paraphrase then tell you why it's wrong; I'm genuinely curious) to other historically interested/inflected fields of study as well: early modern, enlightenment, even later? This may be an obvious question, but I ask because it seems that sometimes when medievalists argue for their historical abilities, it is not just a matter of going back the furthest, but of going back far enough that we find something different: a pre-modern to the modern (however much those categories are contested, they are sometimes still invoked ever so slightly: not, you can't understand the present without the past, but you can't understand the modern without the pre-modern).

I'm having trouble posing the question I want to ask you. What makes medievalists so special? (this sounds belligerent) Is there something about medievalists that allows them to intervene in a way others couldn't? (this sounds defensive) Can we [non-medievalists] help? (this sounds ... simple?)

I think I'm laying this on you not because you're staking a claim for medievalism, but because you seem, well, inviting.

In short, thanks for posting and letting us in.

Anonymous said...

I like Liza’a question – and this is my response – it’s a bit preachy because it is cut from something else I’ve done and not written off the cuff for this blog (best I can do while sandwich-eating!).

In contemporary culture ‘medieval’ is not a neutral word. First there is the ‘renaissance myth’: the idea that the modern has successfully shaken off some barbaric medieval past which we only narrowly avoid slipping back into through conscious rational effort. This is the ‘medieval’ as pejorative. Then there is the nostalgic world of the fantasy medieval: the hobbits and knights in shining armour and the romance of the medieval, of a golden age to which we wistfully yearn to return in order to escape the material stresses of modern life. This is the medieval as desire.

Both these medievals play a critical role in determining our understanding of our modern selves: the frequent use of the word ‘medieval’ in the western press and popular culture attest to that. In the west the turn from the medieval to the modern is deeply imbedded in our collective psyche and it is frequently used in our assessment of not just ourselves (as individuals and communities) but in our assessment of those we judge to be ‘other’ – who we think did not experience this turn – or perhaps experienced it in different ways.

Neither kind of medieval is one that would be easily accepted by most professional academic medievalists (even though so often they assume parts of the same agenda). Their scepticism (at the very least) means medievalists can play a critical role in informing this subconscious self-confidence we have in the western modern as a kind of adulthood, as a maturing away from the medieval. Professional medievalists may not be the only players in this game, but we do have specialist insights into and knowledge of the period which can be used to real effect in reassessing what it is to be modern now, and what it might be to be modern (or all grown up) in the future.

Eileen Joy said...

Oh, Liza, damn you [!]--you TOTALLY got my weak spot! Seriously. And what's with all the, "oh, I don't mean to be critical, but . . . ." and "this is not a rhetorical attack" and "I don't mean to be belligerent," or whatever. No need to equivocate because, in a way, you really have hit on the major weakness of the piece, because in some respects, it was mainly a plea for an enamored humanities studies with the "medieval" kind of wedged in. But having said that, you are actually helping me here to figure out exactly how medieval studies could possiblly represent the best "site," let's say for new and creative interventions into present "matters," issues, theories, etc.

Now, in answer to your first concern regarding what makes medieval studies supposedly better suited than, say, classical or early modern studies, to provide the "history" as it were for the present that could "open" differently, well . . . nothing. I mean, on one level, I should have said "premodern" [dammit, why didn't I, you know?], because what I was really after there, especially vis-a-vis "Children of Men," was to sketch out some of the dangers of a present that has been drained of historical meaning so that it becomes, in Zizek's phrasing, a present of "pure meaningless historical experience," and let's be clear on this: Zizek isn't saying the film depicts a future [which is really our present] *without* history--indeed, history is everywhere in the world the film depicts [even Michaelangelo's "David" makes an appearance]--rather, Zizek is saying, and I agree, that what is lacking in the artifacts [and let's maybe say, artifactually constructed experiences and events] all around us all the time is any sense of *meaning* [i.e., of historical depth]. This is why I also brought in Kugelmass's idea that "the only possible approach for [those of us who are] . . . devoted to literature" would be to be the persons who somehow slow time down and measure change [and literature and other forms of representational art, in fact, are mediums through which this "necessary" process happens all time and you might say the scholar is one who pays attention to that and broadcasts the news of that]. As to who needs to do this work--well, I think *all* of us in premodern studies, really, all of us.

Now it's a curious thing, but when Zizek gets to the end of the film, "Children of Men," when our main heroine, holding her infant, is all alone in a small boat bobbing up and down on the water [and we can glimpse in the distance the prow of a large ship on which the word "Tomorrow" is clearly visible], he says that this image of the single, little boat in the middle of nowhere [with everyone else ostensibly dead or "elsewhere"] is really important because history can only turn out well if we cut our roots: "The condition of renewal is that you cut your roots . . . . This is your future." So, we must be more historically "mindful" but also cut our roots. In some ways, that describes the BABEL project very well for me: it was started by medievalists who want a more present-minded medieval studies but also want a contemporary studies, and even public policies, that are more historically-minded; at the same time, we want to cut our roots to all the "traditions" of how we supposedly do things "in here." You could even say that our despair in working within a system that has become stultifyingly "dead" and "disciplinary" [in the sense of force] led us to a dark bar in Asheville, and when bourbon didn't help, BABEL emerged, as it were, on cocktail napkins. What I would really like one day is a completely new university, one we wouldn't even be able to recognize from where we stand now. In this sense, BABEL is both a "home" but also a "wandering."

Of course, from the very beginning BABEL has reached out to scholars working in other periods in the humanities, as well as to scientists, social scientists, and artists. So far, we have collaborated with a poet, a fiction writer, a biologist, a geologist, a fellow of a psychoanalytic institute, and have plans to bring to Kalamazoo next year a human rights lawyer and possibly a mathematician. So we've never been about privileging the medievalist, EXCEPT in this one way: just for once, wouldn't it be nice if the medievalists started a revolution instead of always being the ones to either join belatedly or huddle in dark corners declaiming everything new is the end of the world? So, for me, one important aspect of BABEL is that it is *driven* as it were by medievalists, but following Michael O'Rourke's phrasing, BABEL is "roguishly relational in its opening to disciplinary neighbors [and I would even say non-neighbors outside the university proper] in 'an infinite series of possible encounters' . . . open to the other, the future . . . the coming or the love of the other."

As to how medievalists, as a sub-group of all this might be "special," Sarah said it better than I could have. Right on, Sarah.

Thank you, Liza, for these further provocations to thought.

Karl Steel said...

Excellent words, EJ. Maybe you should frontpage them?

An inchoate response, too soon brought to language:

Funny enough, I want to promote premodern studies for returning history to us (even if, especially if, it's only to get past it, to traverse the fantasies in which history enmeshed and through which history made us). But more than that I want to get past the Now (whether I mean this capital 'N' in the Dinshavian sense, I don't know). I think of postcolonial scholars or indeed any scholars in the humanities particularly (particularly!? can I even use that word?) as doing the kind of necessary work that I tend to think of only as done by premodernists: of spreading that too confident Now out into other places, other times, of reopening narratives of self and space that had been thought closed, of recovering other possible sites of origin and disputing the usual ones.

Because of the unique position of 'the medieval' (as SRJ so well says) in the Western Now, medievalists are indeed well suited to do this work, but ultimately, I'd like to think we can preserve the particularity of what we study and, at the same time, destroy the Middle Ages. I'd like to blast it apart as a unity, as a site of origin (I have a schoolbook on my shelf, no doubt pinched from someplace, called Europe the Mother of America, publication date 1930), to free us from the weight of its fantasy.

Maybe that's what I'm trying to get at by bringing in everybody to this project?

But of course for this to work "they" have to listen to the medievalists.

Michael O'Rourke said...

While I am very taken with, even a little bit in love with, your manifesto Eilleen I am en-armour-med against the word hetero-queer and want to ask you a bit about what you mean by it. If you mean doing queer differently, otherwise, obliquely, critically, hetero-ing the queer, then I am very down with that. If you mean hetero-queers doing queer theory (or queerness) then I would be skeptical (while seeing the oxymoronic potential in the name). I would be worried that calling oneself a hetero-queer (with or without the hyphen) is actually a normativizing gesture. The same goes for straight queer (with or without the hypen). If you are talking about hetero-queer in the critical sense then the hyphen would be important in the ways it might make space for the Deleuzian/Cohenian/Ramlovian rhizomatics you mention in the opening paragraphs. I guess I'm irascible about the word heteroqueer because people have (very positively despite my own objections!) used it to refer to some of my writing on what I was some time ago calling queer-straight theory/erotics. Having been through all the possible names I've finally settled on "critically straight" or "critical straightness studies". But if you can tell me hetero-queer is doing this kind of (anti-identitarian) work for you EJ I will happily embrace it, even queerly kiss it.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl writes, "but ultimately, I'd like to think we can preserve the particularity of what we study and, at the same time, destroy the Middle Ages. I'd like to blast it apart as a unity, as a site of origin. . . . Maybe that's what I'm trying to get at by bringing in everybody to this project?"

I love this, Karl--it hits very close to what I myself am trying to do: linger, tarry even, over certain so-called "medieval" particularities, while also calling every boundary line [temporal, identitarian, geographical, national] into question--or rather, boundary lines are everywhere you look but they are all porous, passable, crossable, moveable.

Michael, your questions are really good, and I'm glad you asked so I can clarify more than I did at Kalamazoo and in posted BABEL "love letter," what I mean by hetero-queer. First, I do not mean anything close to "straight," especially in the way you yourself have defined queer-straight theory/erotics [which I think is very cool]. Nor do I mean hetero-queers "doing" queer theory. I suppose you are right to be wary of how the term "hetero," attached to "queer" could pose a normativizing danger, and I don't want that; indeed, I want the opposite: I want to show how, biologically speaking, hetero-processes of (re)production are responsible for "queer" as well as for "straight," for "white" as well as "black," etc. I want to de-stabilize the term "hetero" itself by attaching it to "queer" to show that even heterosexuality itself is a process of "queering," biologically speaking [and in some respects I am simply trying to follow the leads of Karma Lochrie and James Schultz on this, but only in some respects--in other words, I appreciate their insights that "heterosexuality" is a term whose meaning is very unstable, both in the past and also in our own time], but I want to go even further than the so-called historicizing move.

Now, at this point, it behooves us, likely, to try to distinguish between certain historical processes/experiences/events/discourses
in which terms like "straight," "homo," "hetero," "gay," etc. have very specific meaning[s] that materially impact specific persons' lives, for good and ill and everything in between, so that's one thing. In that sense, some persons really are heterosexual or homosexual or gay or queer or queer-straight, ot what-have-you, but that is a kind of claim to definition that has to be argued, defended, contested, etc. In other words, there are modes of self-fashioning and also policings of the self [by external forces] that draw upon the vocabulary, historically defined [by historical victors and subversive elements], of hetero, straight, gay, queer, what-have-you, and in these instances these terms have to be "thought through" and even "lived" in ways (mainly political but also personal) that have nothing to do with what I'm trying to accomplish through the invocation of the term hetero-queer.

I mean to, as you say, hetero [verb] the queer, but also to queer the hetero, because, yes, I am, indeed, after a certain anti-identitarian space within which the possibility is left open for something to emerge we haven't yet anticipated [because we have to work hard, too, to always prepare, following the thought of Caputo, for the "singularities" we did not know were coming or were there, latent, already]. But I am also trying, on another level, to grapple with ways to develop an idea of queer that might be better informed by evolutionary biology, and so my term, to be honest, was mainly developed after reading Elizabeth Grosz's "The Nick of Time" (Duke University Press, 2004), in which she does some pretty nifty readings of Darwin through Nietzsche and Bergson, and demonstrates a pretty powerful "bridge" between biological determinism and indetermination:

"Darwin provided a model of history that is finadamentally open but also regulated within quite strict parameters. There are historical constraints on what becomes a possible path of biological/cultural effectivity: it is only that which has happened, those beings in existence, now or once, that provide the germs or virtualities whose divergence produces the present and future. That which has happened, the paths of existence actualized, preempt the virtualities that other existences may have brought with them; they set different paths and trajectories than those that might have been. History is a broader phase space than that which can be occupied by living beings. And the history of geneaology of living beings transforms and magnifies this phase space, the space of virtualities or latencies, as they transform themselves. While history remains open-ended, the past provides a propulsion in directions, unpredictable in advance, which, in retrospect, have emerged from the unactualized possibilities that it yields" [p. 92].

All forms of life, although the past "inheres" in them, seek to self-differentiate [through sexual desire , sure, but also through other means], and because the original motor of the human form [at least since we crawled out of the ocean in whatever form we were before our reproductive organs became "hetero"] is a kind of hetero-motor, wired [so to speak] for diachronicity and bifurcation, but tending always toward the desire for open-ended becomings and modes of self-differentiation, such that, in my mind, we have always been hetero-queer.

I believe, too, that Grosz's thinking on Darwin also has powerful implications for how we do history.

I hope that makes sense [but god knows].

Michael O'Rourke said...

Thanks Eileen. Grosz's Time Travels is even better because it explicitly imagines how a Darwinian ontology of life might be helpful for queer theory and for sexual difference feminism.The chapters are short, occasional pieces which read very much like mini-manifestos. The duo, The Nick of Time and Time Travels, not only return Grosz to a deservedly central place in QT but also provide a welcome antidote to the anti-social thesis in queer theory right now (just read her chapter on Foucault, relationality and forces). Darwin for queer theory, who would have thought it? Now thats blasting apart (of the Benjaminian variety) for you!