Friday, November 30, 2007

Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages

An interesting conference at the University of Edinburgh, January 11-13. Keynote speakers are Juliette Dor, Steven Kruger, Sara Lipton and Carol Braun Pasternack. Programme here; abstracts here; main conference website here. If any reader of ITM is attending and would like to guest blog the event, please let us know.

Laptop Loss: The Aftermath.

In the not too distant past, my laptop was stolen. Our student newspaper, the GW Hatchet, re-enacted the scene of my discovering the theft thus:
When Jeffrey Cohen, the chair of the English department, returned to his office after making some photocopies, what he found astonished him. His desk was arranged as usual, but there was a gaping hole where his laptop computer had been 30 minutes earlier. Also its chain lock cable was slashed.
In the interest of accuracy, I must stress that no hole was in fact gaping. The fabric of the cosmos had not torn, and my laptop had not been sucked into the primal void. There was simply an empty space on my table where my MacBook Pro had been accustomed to reside.

At this time of academic insanity, when those of us who are graduate students are composing three seminar papers simultaneously and those of us who are further along in the profession are frantically struggling against deadline convergence (I myself have two articles, two reader's reports, an abstract and a book review due in the next two weeks) -- and most of us are grading exams and papers and attempting to assist our students in keeping it all together -- well, at this time when we are all generating quite a bit of data, I offer the following two suggestions for safeguarding the fruits (whether they be bananas or kumquats) of your scholarly labor:
  1. Get a program that automatically backs up your computer to a hard drive at least once a day, every day. Since I have a Mac, I upgraded to OS X.5, which includes a nifty program called Time Machine. The entire laptop backs up every hour at both work and home (I keep two external hard drives) ... and retains an earlier version of everything, should I ever want to return to a document after I've revised the vitality out of it.
  2. Since a backup that resides on a hard drive that you keep near your computer isn't much of a backup, pay the $4.95 monthly charge and sign up for Mozy. Over several days, their software program will back up the entire contents of your computer to Mozy's servers, where it is kept encrypted and secure. You can access your files anywhere, and after the initial backup (which takes forever) only new items are sent to the remote server.
Good luck as your semester comes to an end.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A song that should have been on the Beowulf movie soundtrack

The song? Grendel's Mother by the Mountain Goats. Permanently residing in the soundtrack that plays all day in my head courtesy of the evil genius who composes the Chaucer blog. Angelina Jolie, eat your heart out. Or rip out and devour the heart of Hondscio, or whatever disposable member of Beowulf's retinue you please.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Caribbean Medieval

Island Love
[photo at left of the Palm at the End of the Mind by author]

I've been in love with the Caribbean since visiting Saint Lucia in 1990. In the years that followed I've been to Cozumel, Key West, Saint Martin, Saint Thomas, Grand Cayman, the Bahamas -- as well as Bermuda (an island that floats in the Atlantic, but similar in many ways to those farther south). Perhaps there is just something about islands that draws me: I proposed to my wife atop the crumbling fortress on George's Island, in Boston Harbor; the first extensive trip we took together, a year into our marriage, was to Kauai and Oahu (that was as far as our frequent flier points would carry us); and of course I give over much of my life to thinking about Britain. As Mary Kate is frequently arguing here at ITM, place suffuses meditation, often in surprising ways.

It's the end of the semester: classes to conclude! meetings to attend! papers to grade! exams to compose! deadlines to miss! All of us academics are nearing exhaustion. I invite you, dear readers, to mix yourself a rum drink, turn the heat way up and switch on a fan, find some internet radio station that streams steel drums all day -- or skip all the fantasies of island life and read this piece on George Odlum, or this great book by Richard Price -- and then skim the following, some excerpts from previously published work that suggests how the Caribbean might transform the medieval. [For some insight on how the medieval did in fact transform the Caribbean, on the other hand, you can't do better than Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell: read his book, or read his talk at GW].

I opened The Postcolonial Middle Ages with this quotation from Antonio Benítez-Rojo: "Where time unfolds irregularly and resists being captured by the cycles of clock and calendar..." (The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, 2nd ed., trans. James E. Maraniss). Benítez-Rojo describes the Caribbean as a "meta-archipelago," a figuration I found especially useful in struggling toward a language in which to collect an entity as big as "the Middle Ages" even while insisting on the violence generalization performs. In Medieval Identity Machines, I finished the thought, so to speak, offering this account of how Antonio Benítez-Rojo's model might provide a useful figuration for time as well as space.

Islands and Middles

How does one encounter the past as an anteriority that continually introduces an otherness or alterity into the present?
-- Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture

Unlike Hamlet's description of unknown futures, time is probably less an "undiscover'd country" than a postcolonial expanse. Medieval studies has long known that its lands, peoples, texts are nearly always indelibly marked by long histories of colonization, resistance, assimilation, coexistence. This section explores some recent scholarship on another hybrid geography, the Caribbean, to suggest the ways in which a particularly deleuzian strain of thought in postcolonial theory might be useful to medievalists interested in rethinking the relations among space, time and cultural admixture in their discipline, as well as to theorists of the contemporary postcolonial who might want to account with greater temporal depth for the complexities of colonialism's histories.

A vastness of islands scattered over a confluence of troubled seas, the Caribbean is difficult to totalize. Produced over centuries through multiple colonizations (five European tongues have mingled with numerous aboriginal and African languages, catalyzing hundreds of dialects, creoles, pidgins), Caribbean space is diverse, a place of category-defying syncretism, symbiosis, fusion. Collective designation, moreover, runs the risk of simply repeating the colonialist demand that the heterogeneity of the islands be reduced into some neatly describable territory in order to better dominate its supposed disorder with Western technologies of government and industry. In his attempt to articulate the "discontinuous conjunction" of this wide expanse, Antonio Benítez-Rojo deploys a conceptual construct which he labels la isla que se repite, the "repeating island" or "meta-archipelago." Because a chain of islands consists of a territorial harmony, a geographic unity plotted across the still space of a map, Benítez-Rojo insists that such a domineering view can never capture the fullness of Caribbean reality. Possessed of neither center nor absolute limits, indifferent to any precision of green spots fixed with individuating latitudes and longitudes in an ocean of blue, the meta-archipelago which he describes is not a collection of islands but an amalgam of "processes, dynamics and rhythms" conjoining familiar repetitions of history to unexpected eruptions of the new. The Caribbean meta-archipelago does not enchain but gathers into loose alliance a heterogeneous mixture of phenomena not amenable to easy synthesis: "unstable condensations, turbulences, whirlpools, clumps of bubbles, frayed seaweed, sunken galleons, crashing breakers, flying fish, seagull squawks, downpours, nighttime phosphorescences, eddies and pools, uncertain voyages of signification" (The Repeating Island, 2-3). This sensuous mélange assembles into animated conjunction the geographic, the topological, the natural, the human, the mythic, the material, covering "the map of world history's contingencies, through the great changes in economic discourse to the vast collisions of races and cultures that humankind has seen" (5). Lands, waters and histories exist in a dispersed togetherness that never congeals into finite unity. In an essay which Benítez-Rojo does not cite, Gilles Deleuze similarly envisions a conceptual archipelago which could also be described as anti-universalist, conjugative, perspectivist, "an affirmation of a world in process":
Not even a puzzle, whose pieces when fitted together would constitute a whole, but rather a wall of loose, uncemented stones, where every element has its value in itself but also in relation to others: isolated and floating relations, islands and straits, immobile points and sinuous lines … an infinite patchwork with multiple joinings.

Within remarkably similar poetics of fluidity and movement, Deleuze and Benítez-Rojo independently transform the quotidian archipelago into an aqueous assemblage which has less to do with actual islands than with a multiply connected meshwork of scattered "middles" which might decenter the world, but does not necessitate the abandonment of speaking about that world's shared immensity. The meta-archipelago, Benítez-Rojo writes in summary, is a restless machine of uncertain borders composed of unceasing flux (5).

Postcolonial theory directed toward the study of the Americas has a tendency to describe western Europe as a community of nations with a shared set of values, especially in the outward thrust of their imperial zeal. Even within national boundaries, European countries are imagined to be homogeneous: the French, the English, the Spanish and so on are supposed to have discrete identities intimately tied to the stable and apparently natural boundaries of their homelands. Europe is thus composed of coherent corporate entities with a tendency to act uniformly, even when in competition with each other. In describing the exploitation machine erected by Columbus as a kind of "medieval vacuum cleaner" which sucked resources from the New World for deposit on distant shores, Benítez-Rojo can therefore assume that Europe acted as a singular agent in perfecting a structure which was initially rather inept, augmenting its Columbian bricolage with la flota (the machine formed of ships, ports, and flows of raw material and wealth), missionaries deployed to effect religious transformation, plantations with their adaptable structures for quick implementation and lasting domination, "an entire huge assemblage of machines" (8) whose conjunction enabled efficient colonization and maximum profit.

Medievalists who study the European west are unlikely, however, to recognize the singular geographical actor at the receiving end of this impressive apparatus. Strangely enough, it is the culture of the meta-archipelago and the dynamic Caribbean machine which reverberate as possible figurations for the psychical and cultural complexity of the occidental Middle Ages. Recent work in medieval studies has undercut the possibility of assuming a transhistorical, corporate identity for Europe, arguing that the term organizes into an imaginary totality communities which did not necessarily perceive themselves as part of any such grand collective.

Linguistically and culturally diverse, connected by shifting alliance and multiple affiliation, medieval Europa was a machine animated as much by conquest, alliance and shared history (consolidating or integrative movements) as violent counterstruggle and ultimate inassimilability (eruption, assertion, sedimentation of difference). Benítez-Rojo is writing of a specific time and place in their relation to constitutive histories and topographies, of a geotemporality of which the Middle Ages knew nothing and which -- "medieval vacuum cleaners" aside -- had in turn little knowledge of the European medium aevum.

Yet his "polyrhythmic" conceptual figurations are useful in struggling toward a language in which to collect an entity as big as the western Middle Ages even while insisting upon the inherent inadequacy and potential violence which all such generalization performs. What if like the Caribbean space described by Benítez-Rojo the western Middle Ages consist of islands of difference made contiguous through the shared embrace of turbulent, confluential seas? Bede, after all, described the flow of time (lapsus temporum) as both "churning" (volubilis) and "wave-tossed" (fluctivagus). Why not extend Bede's oceanic metaphors to include the possibility of more solid spaces within the temporal flux? Some of these islands might, like the barren outcroppings sought by early Irish eremites, stand in relative isolation. Most, however, would be more like monkish Iona. The loneliness of this island in the outer Hebrides dissipates the moment we recall that Saint Columba assembled there a polyglot community drawn from many nations; that the monastery which he founded was visited with some regularity by merchants from Gaul; that flows of books and boats and pilgrims traversed its shores; that little Iona's history is inseparable from epic battles waged in Ireland and Scotland, from the consolidation of a Christian Northumbria by Oswald, from the missionary effort to convert those Pictish kingdoms now lost to history.

Adomnán, Columba's eventual successor and composer of his vita, even entertained at the monastery a storm-tossed pilgrim returning from the Holy Land. The Life of Saint Columba is a weirdly heterogeneous text, as likely to narrate a relentlessly local anecdote about a demon dwelling in the bottom of a milk pail or the saint's predicting an imminent spilled inkpot as to provide a sweeping evocation of how this "island at the edge of the ocean" disseminates miracles known beyond "the three corners of Spain and Gaul and Italy beyond the Alps." Iona in the Life is not ultimately much of an island. Even when Columba resides on its rocky shores his spirit wanders, participating in distant martial clashes, communing with angelic visitors, scattering his selfhood across the wide world. The Life of Saint Columba textually performs this sacred fluidity, resolutely refusing linear chronology or recognizable biography. Names and events recur irregularly; sometimes Columba is dead and sometimes he is alive; the action often unfolds in Iona, but sometimes we are in Ireland, or among the Picts, or watching the Loch Ness monster attack. We are constantly transported across marine expanses without transitional signals, taken back to Iona without warning, in movements that draw together distant geotemporalities without synthesizing them into a homogeneous whole.

The western Middle Ages as expanse of diverse conceptual isles means existence in intimate, unexpected connection through the swirl of manifold currents, through swiftly changing movements which rapidly commix flows of peoples, goods, ideas, armies, languages, architectures, books, genes, religions, affects, animals, technologies. Scatterings of lands gathered in their mutual relations, gathered with the currents that animate but do not totalize them, a medieval meta-archipelago would lack fixed boundaries and contain multiple centers. European cultures, communities, nations become relational and provisional imaginings rather than ontological, self-possessed wholes. Think, for example, of Custance in Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, inscribing a colonial trajectory at once provincially English and transnationally Christian upon a world that includes Syria, Rome, Northumberland.

A meta-archipelago requires that this cosmos be seen not only through that imperial gaze which frames the narrative, but also through the eyes of the Sultaness, the Northumbrians, Custance herself as a woman caught in a gendered game of cultural, religious, mercantile, bodily exchange. David Nirenberg has demonstrated that violence not only established medieval communities of diversity, but was integral to sustaining them (Communities of Violence). As the Man of Law's Tale also indicates, violence plays an important role in the instigation and maintenance of the flows that forcibly bind one conceptual island in the medieval archipelago to another.

Yet, in a kind of decolonization, the meta-archipelago enables the supposed margins of Europe to lose their status as peripheral geographies, so that Wales, Ireland, Brittany, Iceland, the Midi, Catalonia become centers in their own right, dynamic points of reception and dispersal in an open meshwork of transverse, transformative differences. No circumscribing map could capture the proliferating fullness of such islands, for every time the borders of a homogenous Britannia seem to have been securely delineated, another story begins to circulate of some interior, underground civilization where the people speak a long dead language, have green skin, or give other marks of their fairy alterity, of their inassimilable difference to an island that will never achieve its ambition of becoming a well ordered self-same.

These "figures of secret and unknown origin" (as Gervase of Tilbury called them) inhabited the interiors of mountains and ruled submarinal demesnes. Even the skies were populated by alien navigators of inscrutable intent. In the Otia imperiala, Gervase describes how a congregation leaving church beholds an anchor falling from the sky. In the distant clouds sailors can be heard struggling to pull the device back aboard their ship. Soon one of these mariners shimmies down the rope, hand over hand. He is immediately seized by the crowd, struggles for his life, and drowns because the "moistness of our denser air" is intolerable to his ether-adapted lungs. When "our" previously invisible air becomes weighty enough to function as someone else's sea, then "our" skies become the currents by which the medieval archipelago exuberantly connects difference to sameness in unanticipated ways. In mentioning such fantastic peoples living below the earth, under the waters, and in the clouds along with the real denizens of places like Wales and Ireland -- people who were themselves sometimes represented in just such "magical" and dehumanizing ways in order to exaggerate the challenge which they posed to English hegemony -- my intention is not to take any measure of concrete, lived reality away from any denizen of the medieval archipelago but rather, in sympathy with a medieval impulse, to populate its land, seas, and air with as much life as possible, to restore to this world its vastness, its vitalism, its irreducible heterogeneity.

As David Wallace observes in his General Preface to The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, the Middle Ages have been badly treated by scholars who desired find in them a "future that comes to early" -- who wanted to discover the same delineations of nation and imperial power which they unproblematically celebrate in their own present. Wallace's succinct, insightful reading of The Cambridge History of the British Empire (first volume published 1929) and Cambridge History of English Literature (first volume 1907) emphasizes the awkwardness which such teleological rhetoric engenders. Because medieval England with its "plurality of languages" was "a culture more colonized than colonizing," no "secure point of origin for imperial history" exists, mandating that the Middle Ages be commemorated in order to be quickly forgotten (xii-xiii). In contrast, Wallace's own edited volume ambitiously aims for and largely achieves a "dizzying complexity" of cultures, languages, and material realities (xiv). In envisioning a British Isles resistant to harmonization rather than a unified and premature England, The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature attains something like the archipelago-like spread articulated by Benítez-Rojo. In the dazzling series of chapters labeled "Writing in the British Isles" (179-309), sections on Wales, Scotland, and Ireland are allowed to "write their histories, so to speak, from the inside out (with the English sometimes visible, sometimes not)" (179). In decentering the island into a scattered multiplicity, the volume's project is admirable, even awesome.

It therefore feels almost criminal to critique its achievement, especially because Wallace's editorial restructuring of how insular history gets narrated will be felt in the field for a long time, catalyzing further decolonizations of the "English" Middle Ages. Yet one might object that within the large geographic and collective structures which the volume keeps in place, communities of difference (what Anne McClintock calls the "internally colonized") are left out, are rendered ineligible to write their histories. The preface to this bulky and inclusive book argues that the chapter on London in the "Writing in the British Isles" section "must stand in, methodologically, for accounts of other places that have yet to be written, cannot yet be written, or have found no space for inclusion here." Among these excluded narratives are "the writings and public inscriptions of the Jews" (xvi). One cannot say that such a Jewish account cannot be written; see, for example, the documentary narration of exactly this history in Joseph Jacobs, The Jews of Angevin England, published in 1893. That such an account has simply "found no space for inclusion here" is not a reassuring explanation for why a volume notable for its capacious embrace of cultural difference nonetheless presents an unselfconsciously Christian -- and therefore an ultimately singular and reduced -- Middle Ages.

A reconsideration of geographical emplacement is as vital to the future of the Middle Ages as it is to the analysis of Caribbean and other postcolonial spaces. Just as importantly, as Wallace has already implied, within these places of shared histories conjoined to disparate experience and expression, time likewise loses its smooth universality, its exteriority, its rigidity. While contemporary critical theory has developed a sophisticated vocabulary for dealing with that which is unheimlich ("uncanny" "un-home-ly" "out of place"), a problem just now being explored is that posed by the untimely. Without much further elaboration, Antonio Benítez-Rojo observes that inside the fluid and sinuous Caribbean machine, time "unfolds irregularly and resists being captured by the cycles of clock and calendar" (11). Benítez-Rojo's throwaway observation can be usefully extended using recent work by other postcolonial theorists. The Caribbean, the medieval west, English India, and any other geography produced through colonizations are likewise composed of multiple, hybridized temporalities, of what Sara Suleri has called disparate, thick, "colonial intimacies" in which time unfolds differently at different vantage points, according to divergent "logics of origin."

The adjective "postcolonial" has been accommodated comfortably enough into the contemporary critical lexicon for the hyphen that used to divide its constituent parts to vanish. This disappearing punctuation, like all ghosts, tells an interesting story about time. "Post-colonial" suggests straightforwardly enough that a historical period exists which is after colonialism. "Postcolonial," the hyphen digested but its constituent elements bumping against each other without synthesis, has come to signify a temporal contiguity to rather than an evolutionary difference from the noun that forms its linguistic base. The postcolonial can be said to originate "from the very first moment of colonial contact," as a "discourse of oppositionality which colonialism brings into being." Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge describe the postcolonial as "a splinter in the side of the colonial itself," leading Michelle R. Warren to conclude that postcolonial theory opens a window "into any time or place where one social group dominates an other." Just as there was never a time before colony, there has never yet been a time when the colonial has been outgrown, left behind. For this reason Gayatri Spivak has suggested replacing "postcolonial" with "neocolonial," but for accuracy's sake it would make more sense to speak of the "midcolonial": the time of "always-already," an intermediacy that no narrative can pin to a single moment of history in its origin or end.

Anne McClintock has cautioned that the term "postcolonial" is nonetheless haunted by a "commitment to linear time and the idea of 'development'" ("The Angel of Progress" 85). One could go farther and argue that postcolonial theory in practice has neglected the study of the "distant" past, positing instead of interrogating the anteriority against which modern regimes of power have supposedly arisen. This exclusionary model of temporality denies the possibility that traumas, exclusions, violence enacted centuries ago might still linger in contemporary identity formations. It also closes off the possibility that this past could be multiple and valuable enough to contain (and be contained within) alternative presents and futures.

No definition of postcolonial theory has gained the same citational weight as that by Homi Bhabha: "Postcolonial criticism bears witness to the unequal and uneven forces of cultural representation involved in the contest for political and social authority within the modern world order." Postcolonial interventions into the "discourses of modernity" fragment the clean and easy identity narratives which cultures tell themselves, offering "critical revisions" which stress difference, conflict, and (to cite Bhabha citing Habermas) "widely scattered historical contingencies" (171). "Bearing witness" would seem to be an activity one does in the present in order to address a recent past -- thus the haunting of Bhabha's definition by the modern. Yet there is nothing especially recent about the "differential, often disadvantaged, histories of nations, races," social antagonism, and irreducible difference he describes. Indeed, the temporal boundaries that Bhabha draws seem especially arbitrary in that an important challenge offered by this essay and by his work in general is a rethinking of temporality itself from a postcolonial perspective.

The progress narratives of that traditional history which has left its traces in the names assigned to the major epochs of the West declare that the Middle Ages began in darkness and ended at a rebirth which rendered them obsolete. As the possible alliance between the contemporary Caribbean, English India, and the medieval West suggests, however, a progressive or teleological history in which time is conceived as mere seriality and flat chronology is inadequate to the task of thinking the meanings and trauma of the past, its embeddedness in place, its active relation to the future. Once homogeneity and hierarchizing, developmental, or overarching models are denied history, time becomes an active component within the open structure of alliance which both Benítez-Rojo and Deleuze call a machine, an assemblage "of diverse elements … which generates new structures without homogenizing the components … the emergence of a form, a form in which the materials themselves have a say."

An advantage, moreover, of conceptualizing temporality as multiply centered movements among unstable isles rather than as a unidirectional river is that distance in space no longer implies distance in time. Too often that which is geographically far from some ideological center is represented as primitive, undeveloped, Other, so that travel toward the periphery is coded as travel back in time. Because it possesses no margins per se, the medieval archipelago resists such easy conflation. Dublin and St David's c. 1300 are no more nor less backward than London c. 1300 or Washington DC c. 2001. Creation of a nonspatialized, shared, coeval time allows the possibility of what the anthropologist Johannes Fabian calls "the radical contemporaneity of mankind," the opening up of a world without temporalized violence against that which is different and distant. In arguing that temporalities separated by centuries may also in a sense be coeval, I am taking Fabian's argument further than he intended, since for him coevalness applies to cultures contemporary to each other but geographically removed.

Once progressivist narratives of chronology have been abandoned, can movement in time ever be "back," with all the negative connotations which anterior temporality (as undeveloped, as primitive) carries? The possibility of coevalness across time, it must be noted, does not imply a radical moral relativism, but simply carries an insistence that "advanced" civilizations cannot claim an innate ethical superiority over those at their temporal or geographical margins. Coevalness requires as well an acknowledgement that the achievement of a tolerant or non-persecuting society is at best a fragile and temporary gain rather than the irreversible attainment of some higher stage of societal evolution, some permanent state of enlightenment. A constant vigilance is by implication absolutely necessary to maintain these moments as tenuous as they are rare.

The Middle Ages have been too often characterized as a field of undifferentiated otherness against which modernity emerged, an exclusionary model of temporalization at least as old as the construction of the "Renaissance" as an epoch of classical rebirth. By establishing a continuity between the pre- and post-medieval, this periodization precipitated the Middle Ages as middle while at the same time banishing them from any kind of center. The medieval thus constructed becomes, in Louise O. A. Fradenburg's words, unchanging, inert, "lost to us by its very pastness." Alterity removes the Middle Ages from temporality altogether, rendering it inviolate. Conceptualizing this same temporal expanse as a middle space of scattered islands collected via ceaseless currents produces a rather unmedieval Middle Ages. The medieval as meta-archipelago -- as interminable, difficult middle -- stresses not simple difference (the past as past) or predictable similarity (the past as present) but temporal interlacement, the impossibility of choosing alterity or continuity (the past which opens up the present to a multitude of futures).

This resolutely medium aevum therefore lacks both a Genesis-like in principio at which to locate a destiny-laden foundation and a Day of Judgment to organize manifold circulations into a linear temporal movement. If this Borromean knot which entwines disparate temporalities, supplanting the teleological chronology of more traditional history, seems uncannily similar to the theoretical displacement of linear history within postcolonial studies, that is no coincidence, since the "middle" of the Middle Ages is already forging a productive alliance with the nontemporal "post" of postcolonial theory. It makes sense, then, to explore the complex ways in which the medieval touches the "midcolonial," making both more familiar and more strange. The past need not function as a field of simple origin, as a time of mythic wholeness which underwrites contemporary fantasies of ethnic, national, or even epistemological homogeneity. Janus-faced, biformis, the Middle Ages performs a double work, so that the alliance of postcolonial theory and medieval studies might open up the present to multiplicity, newness, difficult similarity conjoined to complex difference.

A conceptualization of time as unbounded middle is not simply the recent invention of critical temporal studies and postcolonial theory, but is evident even in medieval authors, including one of the most canonical writers, Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales are best known for a temporal opposition between the still and confident eternity of which the indestructible bodies of saints partake (incorruptable Cecilia in the Second Nun's Tale, the murdered but uncannily animate "litel clergeon" of the Prioress) and the hurried measurement of days and hours which obsess Harry Bailey and the Canon's Yeoman ("capital time," a figuration of temporality which has much in common with the transmutational fixations of alchemy and humoral theory). Yet this same collection of heterogeneous narratives also produces a meta-archipelago of its own. Like Salvation History itself, The Canterbury Tales are possessed of a beginning (the General Prologue, the departure from Southwark, the instigations of Fragment I) and a definitive end (the approach at sunset into Canterbury, the Parson's sober recitation, the contrite Retraction), but this unfinished assemblage is actually all middle. The Tales combine politics, religion, art, commerce, social critique into an unsynthesized amalgam of romance, hagiography, history, fabliaux, fantasy, sermons, exemplary narratives, poetry, prose. They produce a motley assortment of persons who often overstep the boundaries of their textuality and begin to act as if alive.

Deleuze and Guattari label such works transversal or rhizomatic, lacking an exterior unity and composed not of a "system of units" but of "directions in motion." As nonhierarchical and acentered as a meta-archipelago, rhizomatic books do not argue a point or mirror a world, but create an assemblage which "operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots" (A Thousand Plateaus 21). Chaucer appears to have finished the concluding section of his opus fairly early in the project, and so we know, therefore, that the Canterbury Tales were supposed to culminate at the tomb of the "holy, blissful martyr" Thomas à Becket, where in the sacred space of a cathedral the quotidian pilgrimage is transubstantiated into the soul's journey to celestial eternity. Yet, having written that orthodox ending in the face of which there would seem to be nothing more to say, Chaucer sabotaged at every point the possibility of everlasting resolution.

Not only did he continually rework the General Prologue, energizing its wide-ranging fellowship by adding an inspired assortment of new characters (including himself), he also seems to have been constantly revising the overall plan for the tale-telling. Derek Pearsall has argued that Chaucer's original plan was for each pilgrim to provide one story on the way to Canterbury. Chaucer later modified the tale-telling frame to allow two or more narratives by each figure before arrival at the final destination, then at a later date opened up the possibility of multiple tales by each pilgrim on the journey to the cathedral as well as during the return trip to London. It is perhaps shocking enough to think that the Canterbury which the Parson transfigures into Jerusalem Celestial allows a return. Yet Chaucer also decided to introduce the possibility of expansion for the company via chance encounters along the road, such as the alchemist and yeoman who explosively overtake the narrative, rendering the Canterbury company less pilgrims defined by their destination than simple compagnons de route, fellow travelers.

The Canterbury Tales project could not be finished by Chaucer because it aspires to no totality. Bernard of Clairvaux described the body as the tabernaculum (tent) "in which we wander as pilgrims," a vivid image which Bruce Holsinger glosses as a body which "is not a permanent home or native residence, but … an ever-present but mobile reminder of humanity's displacement from the true Holy Land above" ("The Color of Salvation" 172-73). Chaucer likewise intricated pilgrimage with bodies, but without reading the peregrinations of these pilgrim corpora back from what for Bernard is their overarching goal. Infinitely dilating, framed but in no way contained by the artificial book-ends of London and Canterbury, The Canterbury Tales construct a middle space that is all motion, containing a vision of pilgrimage that does not end at the bones of a long dead martyr. In this world between worlds, Egeus declares in his inept but unexpectedly insightful way, "we been pilgrymes, passing to and fro" (Knight's Tale 2848): an extraordinary pilgrimage that is simultaneously towards and from, a journey without telos or simple origin, a journey of pure movement, pure encounter, pure becoming.

Chaucer's rhizomatic drift has allowed me to wax utopian, but in the end it is necessary to pull back and make one final observation about such assemblages of proliferation. Despite Benítez-Rojo's frequent claim that the meta-archipelago that he describes structurally excludes the possibility of violence, the history of the Caribbean would suggest otherwise. In the same way, even the extraordinary middle space that Chaucer envisions has its imperialistic movements of colonization, reclamation, and control. The action unfolds in distant geographies, but is always ultimately quite English. Although marked by occasional eruptions of Latin, French (the urbane friar of the Summoner's Tale, with his "je vous dy sanz doute") and Flemish (the proverbial quotation of the Cook's Tale, "sooth pley, quaad pley"), as well as regional English dialect (the "northernisms" of John and Aleyn in the Reeve's Tale), as a whole the Canterbury Tales are linguistically reductive, promulgating London English as the only possible literary language for the nation. The Canterbury Tales even contains a narrative which takes great joy in purging itself of non-Christian presence, reducing a ghetto which affronts Christian integrity with its resistant difference to a heap of mutilated and eternally silenced bodies (Prioress's Tale). The Jews suffer a doubled temporal death. Not only do they represent an anachronism for Christianity, since they refuse to believe that Christ is the messiah and therefore consign themselves to perpetual inhabitation of an outmoded Old Law, these Chaucerian corpses are a reminder of a specifically English history, the anti-Semitic violence of the twelfth and thirteenth century which culminated in the Expulsion of 1290. English national identity is sutured around the figure of the absent Jew, a body out of time which reminds not only of the violent limits of the British Isles as a medieval archipelago, but more generally of the centrality of bodies to any thinking about time.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Postcard from Cozumel

Just back from a trip around the western Caribbean -- not scholarly, of course, but it was impossible to resist the lure of Mayan ruins on Cozumel. We toured a site called San Gervasio, named not -- as you might expect from that "San" -- after a saint, but instead in lasting memory of the man who ruined the ruins.

In the days before the conquistadors, Cozumel had been a thriving pilgrimage site, especially for young women. Smallpox and other diseases so decimated its population that the island was essentially abandoned until the nineteenth century brought a new wave of settlers from the mainland. "San Gervasio" is an area in the island's interior that was christened by its new owner with his own name: he thought so highly of himself that he added that saintly descriptor, and used the land as a ranch. The Mayan temple complex he blew to pieces with dynamite, seeking a wealth these architectures did not hide. Now a national park, the area is protected by the Mexican government as a heritage site. Gervasio's descendants are fighting to regain the land.

Archaeologists are carefully reconstructing the Mayan complex, so upon tumbled mounds stone pillars and walls are rising again. To walk through this landscape of shattered steps and fragmented structures is to feel not the melancholy of some lost past, but the life of these stones in the present. Unlike Stonehenge, with its circumscriptive walkway system that separates its megaliths from the time into which they intrude but a time which they do not seem to inhabit, at San Gervasio few barriers prevent you from treading where you wish, from exploring whatever odd nooks strike your fancy. The small teams of excavators and construction laborers may give you a bored glance if you intrude upon some space where they are working, but otherwise you are as much a part of the scenery for them as the iguanas and palms. Most striking in these ruins are the remains of walls with bright red handprints upon them, the lasting trace of lives which touched them centuries ago and left no other story.

My son Alexander even found something among the smashed rocks: a circular piece of ancient white that is either the remnant of a broken dish or a fragment of a skull. This is the same kid who discovered a Neolithic flint axe in Hyde Park. In this case, however, he has made himself so nervous about the possibility of a curse inhering in the bone that he won't talk about his find at all.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ruins and Poetry: Beowulf and Bethlehem Steel

I’ve spent the last few days in Buffalo, New York, which some of my readers from Old English in New York will know is where my father’s family originates. I end up on the shores of Lake Erie at least twice a year now – and it’s a place I’ve come to think of as a kind of home.

About a week ago, in Boston with some of my dearest of friends, I finally saw the movie Beowulf. There are a number of very worthy blog-reviews, and more traditional reviews as well; however, I’ve been reticent to add my voice to the growing number. I saw the movie. I felt vaguely embarrassed as my friends asked me if THAT was what I studied. I cringed as the dialogue and speeches I love were destroyed by lines that no Anglo-Saxon warrior would ever say. I felt betrayed at the blatant sexuality and the use of women in the poem, the way they weren’t granted so much as a point of view, the way even those who had an opinion didn't ever fight back. No, I didn’t like this movie. It didn’t show me the poem I love, and it didn’t show me the gravitas I have come to cherish in my Anglo-Saxon verse.

And then, on the way to a family day-after-Thanksgiving gathering I caught sight of something familiar. The old Bethlehem steel factories live on the outskirts of Buffalo in a town called Lackawanna. Parts are owned by a foreign company – Mittal. Those parts are kept up, have been rebuilt even in the five years I’ve been coming back to Buffalo. The majority of the buildings, however, are modern ruins, growing vast fields of tall grasses inside the hollowed out sections of old structures, gated and barb-wired, a darkened wasteland sitting on the banks of Lake Erie. I don’t know the history of Bethlehem steel – at least, I do not know it intimately. It seems to be caught up in greed, exploitation, and the pain both cause in people who never see the profits of their labor, the ugliness of its moral stance written in grey slag on the beachfront. Nick Howe wrote eloquently in Across an Inland Sea that, unlike its northern neighbor Toronto, Buffalo will never be a city of “heritage”: a past one accepts without moral, or more likely, aesthetic embarrassment...a useable past for interior decorators (38). Buffalo is made of something tougher, less pliable, but perhaps (if one can make such a claim) more real. Again, borrowing from Howe’s elegant description: “Looking at the world from a city in decline keeps you from believing too many of the claims other places make about their futures. And it teaches you to value those intact ruins which were once someone else’s city of the future” (38).

Yet rising above these ruins now are the turbines that form part of what is called “Steel Winds” – an effort (I hope not final) to make the area which has for so long been home to the carcass of a giant productive once more. From an article in the Buffalo News, this line particularly struck me:
Fate has not forsaken us. It gave us a stiff wind blowing off Lake Erie. It left us a vast lakeside stretch of befouled land unsuitable for human habitation — but perfect for the mammoth wind turbines that no one wants to live near.
Fate here isn't anything that Beowulf and company would have recognized -- as we so often do in this age, fortune is blamed only for the good that falls to humans, and is said to be absent when we taste only of the bad. Boethian references aside, it is strange to see Fate invoked in this context...and stranger still as I wonder about what Fate--or more appropriately in this context, Wyrd--has done with the Beowulf I find beautiful, but that millions will now see as an adventure story where Pride is the Enemy, and the Sins of the Father echo in progeny born from the bodies of women objectified.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, in The Monsters and the Critics, a line that's been troubling me as I've written and re-written my dissertation prospectus these past few weeks.
Beowulf is not a “primitive poem;” it is a late one, using the materials (then still plentiful) preserved from a day already changing and passing, a time that has now for ever vanished, swallowed in oblivion; using them for a new purpose, with a wider sweep of the imagination, if with a less bitter and concentrated force. When new Beowulf was already antiquarian, in a good sense, and it now produces a singular effect. For it is now to us itself ancient; and yet its maker was telling of things already old and weighted with regret, and he expended his art in making keen that touch upon the heart that sorrows have which are both poignant and remote. If the funeral of Beowulf moved once like the echo of an ancient dirge, far-off and hopeless, it is now to us like memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo. There is not much poetry in the world like this...
Tolkien's point on the wider sweep of imagination aside, I think there's something in the assertion that Beowulf uses materials "preserved from a day already changing and passing" to bring down though generations the story we claim we know. Put together from pieces of a fragmented past, "Beowulf" is a poem we know, perhaps, only by its reputation -- we know it by what we've been left. We know the figurative landscape of the poem: the story of a hero, the monsters he fights and the death he dies doing it. We guess at the tone of the poem, of its seriousness and its strength, but we can only ever make an educated guess at its contemporary reception or use -- and the educated guess is still inflected by chance, however slight.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I think our interpretation of Beowulf is far more like bricolage than we are perhaps sometimes willing to admit. Neil Gaiman, in an article about the movie that I actually managed to read in its entirety (and I will read all of those blog reviews in greater detail - Prof. Noakes has a great list of them compiled at Unlocked Wordhoard, I've just not had time to work through all of it!), says of his first reading of Beowulf : "And I thought, this is a great story. It's got serious monsters in it and dragon fighting at the end. That's when I fell in love with it."

He fell in love with it based on those monsters Tolkien tried so hard to lift beyond what demeaning (and demanding) critics might say about them.
Sitting with my high-school age cousin this weekend as I helped her work out the answers to her AP homework questions on the poem, I realized that Beowulf is a ruin in this day and age -- a structure whose original purpose is lost and broken, a structure that might hold meaning but doesn't hold a concrete use for the majority of those dwelling in the present day (the metaphysical musings on ruins, however, is another matter). All my eloquence about the poem's structure and beauty weren't of interest, wouldn't move my cousin to love the poem in the way I do, any more than it could her classmates, or any more than it did for me my senior year of high school. I didn't love Beowulf until someone -- Gillian Overing, in my first Old English class -- told me a story I could understand, a story I wanted to know more about. And at the end of the day, all my philology work and theoretical readings and deep study of the Middle Ages aside, here's what I think matters abotu Beowulf -- the movie and the poem: from the wreckage of the past, the burned remnants of manuscript and centuries of bored English majors, Neil Gaiman found a story he could tell, one to try to move other people to engage this work of the distant past. It wasn't the most well-executed story, and as a film it was just sad in places. But that's what we risk when we resurrect the past in the form of new media and new stories - we risk that this time will fail too, that the wreckage will only be added to, that our work will remain a ruin.

Driving by the Steel Winds turbines today on my way into the city, towering over the wreckage of the steel plant which used to be at the heart of the city's economic life, I also realized something else. There's a grace in the slender turbines which rise above the industrial waste of the past: there's a future here, a future of renewable energy resources. A future that's more than the past it is built on, and perhaps even a future that has learned from the history written in the unliveable land. And as with the Steel Winds, so with Beowulf: we cannot escape that Anglo-Saxon England was a violent and unforgiving place to live, a place where women were used (and horribly) as means to political ends, a place where feuds might obliterate whole peoples.

But it was much, much more than that too. Maybe there's something yet to learn from this Beowulf, beyond Angelina Jolie's nudity and Beowulf's bad lines. Maybe it can speak to something more than the sum of the parts of the past it inherited. Maybe its resurrection at this cultural moment is itself of value. And maybe we're too close -- temporally, spiritually -- to see this movie for what it might be: another performance of a poem whose ending has not been written yet.

The black and white photos on this page were taken by Kendall Anderson and can be found on this photoblog.

cross posted at Old English in New York

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Medieval Studies, Unsettled Subjectivity, and the Thousand Tiny Itinerants of Saint Guthlac's Body

Figure 1. St. Guthlac en route to Crowland

At the prodding of Craig Dionne, an early modernist and editor of the book, Rogues and Early Modern English Culture, who is also currently editing a special issue of Early Modern Culture on "Vagrant Subjects," I recently read the brilliant book by Patricia Fumerton, Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England, which has prompted me to think about how we, in early medieval studies especially, might start wrapping our brains around the problem of how to account for the "low" or "mobile" subjectivity of medieval persons who might have been the "working" or "displaced" or "vagrant" or other type of "poor" in early English culture. It is the understanding of many in early modern studies that the project simply wouldn't be possible in our field, partly because the type of exploitive commodification more prevalent in the economies of early modern England [and beyond] had not yet emerged, and partly because, well, you know . . . there is no subjectivity in early English literature that can be readily accessed and analyzed [such that we might also ruminate not only "low" subjectivity but also the ways in which more privileged classes might have appropriated that subjectivity for their own aesthetic and social ends].

I am just returned from the annual meeting of the Midwest MLA [in Cleveland, Ohio] where I participated on a panel on this very subject with Martin Shichtman [medievalist who most recently has written on the cultural capital of the Arthur myth in medieval England and also on depictions of the Middle Ages in contemporary film], Craig Dionne, and Joseph Csicsila [co-editor, with Craig, of the Journal of Narrative Theory, and a Twain scholar], and let's just say we had many heated discussions [um, arguments] about this over multiple beers and martinis [with the help, thank god, on the medievalist side, of Laurie Finke and Christine Neufeld]. As someone who thinks and writes a lot about Old English literature, especially in relation to the question of what constitutes or "counts as" a [somehow inviolable or sacred or "human"] "person" in Anglo-Saxon England, I think the more recent discussions in early modern studies on vagrancy, mobility, low subjectivity/low aesthetics, and the working/displaced poor provide an excellent point of departure for how we might consider these same categories in early English history and literature. The best book thus far that hits very close to these themes, in my mind, is David Gary Shaw's Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England, a book I've plugged so many times on this blog I think I've lost count [but go here for one of those plugs].

For myself, I've decided to approach the question, first, by way of Fumerton's book; second, by way of Jeffrey's deleuzoguattarian approach to the Old English and Anglo-Latin Guthlac narratives, "The Solitude of Saint Guthlac," which forms a chapter in his book Medieval Identity Machines; and third, by way of recent work in post-colonial and deleuzoguattarian-inflected cultural studies on "embodied others" and "nomadic ethics" [by Sara Ahmed and Rosi Braidotti, respectively, with some work by Iain Chambers on migrancy and identity thrown in for the heck of it]. I don't know where I am ultimately going with all of this, except that I plan to make this a primary writing project over the next year or so and will be presenting different stages of my thinking, vis-a-vis the Guthlac narratives, at conferences and in other venues over the next eight or so months, partly in relation to the other question that's been nagging me for a while now: is a queer Old English literary studies possible, and if so, what would it look like? In any case, I share with you here a draft of the brief talk I gave in Cleveland, "The Thousand Tiny Itinerants of Saint Guthlac's Body," and any suggestions for further reading, thinking, etc. would be greatly appreciated.

The Thousand Tiny Itinerants of Saint Guthlac’s Body
If we consider the great binary aggregates, such as the sexes or classes, it is evident that they also cross over into molecular assemblages of a different nature, and that there is also a double reciprocal dependency between them. For the two sexes imply a multiplicity of molecular combinations bringing into play not only the man in the woman and the woman in the man, but the relation of each to the animal, the plant, etc.: a thousand tiny sexes. And social classes themselves imply “masses” that do not have the same kind of movement, distribution, or objectives and do not wage the same kind of struggle. . . . Yes classes are indeed fashioned from masses; they crystallize them. And masses are constantly flowing or leaking from classes.
—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

In her book Unsettled, Patricia Fumerton explores the literal (material) as well as the literary (metaphorical) status of the itinerant laborer in early modern England in order to, in her words, trace “the emergence of a new kind of secular subjectivity in the period, one that was not solely God-based but that could . . . sense a more modern notion of singularity and disconnection.”[1] While this subject, in Fumerton’s view, would always be “socially determined, and in this sense, ‘subjected’ . . . the notion of such a subject also posits the possibility of a ‘free’ individual or detached self, even in the case of its actual or felt impossibility.”[2] But in order to map “the topography of lowly mobile workers,” we have to “liberate our thinking from the insistent critical dialectic . . . of ‘low’ versus ‘high,’ ‘margin’ versus ‘center,’” because

[t]his sometimes nuanced but ultimately dead-end dialectic is dependent on a placed universe (that is, one in which the voices of the low must be measured relative to the voices of those who have a “place” in society). But to truly understand the “low,” we must track them in their own space—a spaciousness of itinerancy, fragmentation, disconnection and multiplicity that produces a very different topographical mapping of societal relations than those determined by place.[3]
Fumerton is especially interested in investigating “the extent to which the straightforward ‘facts’ of lower-class mobility might result in a subjective interiorization of unsettledness,” or what she terms “unsettled subjectivity.”[4] And she is also interested in how this subjectivity is represented—in the public legal records (the official “clerk-ly” narrative), in the private journals of the landless seaman Edward Barlow (the “low” autobiography, as it were), and perhaps most importantly, in the “lowly street literature” of broadside street ballads centering on the lives of seaman which offered to their “lowly” audiences both the assurances of “placed constancy” as well as “inconsistency and unsettledness at ‘no cost.’” Ultimately, these ballads marketed “multifarious, dispersed, and provisional identities” and “point us to a future study of lowly street literature [the spacious voices] . . . of early modern England, as much as to a new class of unmoored and global workers.”[5]

It is partly my aim here to say that the so-called modern romanticization of itinerant or wayward identity as a form of freedom, as well as the interiorization of “unsettledness,” is not by any means uniquely modern, although the Anglo-Saxon period from which I draw my thinking will not readily reveal to us a mobile working class of itinerant wage laborers such as the button-makers and tinkers who populated early modern England, much less private journals kept by the “lowly” denizens of these ranks. Indeed, pretty much the entire corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature can be considered, for the most part, as the remnants of a “high” or “official” culture, and that means also, a culture that was decidedly not secular. Which is not to say there is no way to track what might be called the figuration of low subjectivity (the Old English elegies Wanderer and Seafarer, or saints’ legends like Mary of Egypt, certainly provide good places to start)—only that when we do find it, we have to understand that it is always constructed, always appropriated, always literary. Nevertheless, in the Anglo-Latin and Old English narratives of the life of the eighth-century Mercian Saint Guthlac (674?-714) we have a figure who possesses a certain contemporaneous versimilitude, and who also battles demons that, in one regard, are merely stand-ins for the lowly Celtic or British fen dwellers whom Guthlac displaces when he decides to transpose himself from aristocratic warrior to Christian monk and then to hermit saint—all of which requires moving from the interior circles of Mercian-Anglian political power through the regula and doxa of Christian monasticism to an abandoned earthwork on a small island (Crowland) in the swampy frontier land between East Anglia and Mercia. This is the geography of the “midlands” where, in the narratives of the saint’s life, Guthlac’s body is subjected to continual assault by “terrible and strange old fiends” who are also the former “inhabitants” of “settlements” where Guthlac now lives (Guthlac A: ll. 140-41).[6] At one point, in the Anglo-Latin Life, the conflation between devils and “Britons” (who may themselves be stand-ins for the Welsh with whom Mercia was continually tilting against) is made starkly clear when, in a troubled dream, Guthlac confronts a host of demons in the form of “British troops” (Brittanicaque agmina) whose “barbarous speech” (strimulentas loquelas) he recognizes from having once lived as a prisoner-exile among them. In his dream, these “British”-appearing demons lift him in the air on the “sharp points” of their spears, at which point God causes them to vanish (Life, sec. XXXIV).[7]

In his essay “The Solitude of Guthlac,” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is concerned with showing how, “[t]hrough Guthlac’s body,” there “courses a specifically eighth-century formulation of Anglo-Saxon unity constructed against a British inferiority, a fantasy of corporate integrity with vast colonialist utility for contemporary Mercia.” At the same time, however, “Guthlac never quite achieves the celibate solitude for which he yearns, for the saint is throughout his life persecuted by a throng of demons who lift him, unwilling, into their own identity machines, into their own perverse becomings.”[8] In Cohen’s mind, the Guthlac legends have been “inscribed by their Mercian emergence with a dual trajectory, an inward movement toward self-definition via the envaluation of homogeneity and an outward vector of dilation and assimilation.”[9] As Cohen notes,

the tribute list known as the Tribal Hidage . . . depicts Mercia as a land amalgamated from much smaller units (regiones, kingdoms, tribes), some consisting of several thousand households, like Hwicce, and others containing only a few hundred. . . . Cohesion was attempted coercively, juridically, apostolically, ideologically. Mercian kings obliged subject rulers to provide labor, materializing a sense of corporateness and shared territory via a call to defense against outsiders. The building of fortifications like Offa’s Dyke can therefore be seen as instrumental to the project of building an ambitious ethnic and political collectivity.[10]
This was an enforced collectivity, one that may have circumscribed certain limits upon the movements of un-domiciled individuals. Anglo-Saxon law codes of the ninth through eleventh centuries make this very clear, and further study of their proscriptions concerning domicile and travel, and who is a “foreigner,” would lend a deeper historicization to Fumerton’s analysis of the mobile poor in early modern England.

Ultimately, in Cohen’s words, “[p]ossible bodies never exist in a pure state, can never escape the markings of history even as they struggle against historical constraint. Only through concrete relations with time and with the material world do bodies of any kind ever become solid,” and desire—whether the desire of a saint to remain celibate and untouched and unpenetrated or the desire of a demon to penetrate that celibate body—pace Deleuze Guattari, is always a “volatile, ‘molecular’ phenomenon that can never be fully caught into anthropomorphic representation,” as well as a “perpetual motion of shifting contiguities.” [11] This body encloses and disperses, as it were, a thousand tiny sexes, which “constantly construct and dismantle themselves in the course of their communication, as they cross over and into each other, beyond, or before a certain threshold.”[12] Indeed, in the Anglo-Latin account written by Felix, there is one arresting and extended scene which strikingly illustrates the horror of the mixing of thousands of bodies as well as the inevitability of their schizoid inter-penetrations: intent on disturbing Guthlac while he is praying in his barrow, a multiplicity of demons (so thick that the “whole space of the skies” is darkened with their “dusky” and “cloud-like” shapes) enters shrieking through the floor-holes, doorway joints, and spaces in the “wattleworks” of Guthlac’s lowly home where they bind him and carry him “through the wildest part of the fen,” then drag him “through the dense thickets of brambles, tearing his limbs and all his body.” They then wing him “through the cloudy stretches of the freezing skies,” where even more squadrons, or thunderstorms, of demons are met, all of whom then drag Guthlac down to the “jaws of hell” (Life, Sec. XXXI). As Cohen writes, “the demonic invasion of Guthlac’s cell stages an encounter between a saint who, although an amalgam of disparate pieces himself, has unified these fragments into a totality, and a swarm of demons who resist any settled harmony, any figuring of the body as stable,” and at this “nexus where sameness seeks to obliterate difference, at this place of suture where a saintly Anglo-Saxon face is produced, Guthlac temporarily disperses himself across his own demons,” who, through Felix’s descriptions of them as both amorphous clouds but also as “great heads” and “scabby thighs” and “swollen ankles” and “fierce eyes” and “horse’s teeth” and “throats vomiting flames,” are “multiplicity enfleshed, molecular and conjunctive.”[13]
Ultimately, as Cohen argues, when “Guthlac is read with his fiends rather than against them, when monster, man, fen, beorg, church, nation, text, God, hell are mapped as pieces of an identity machine consisting of ‘provisional linkages of elements, fragments, flows, of disparate status and substance: ideas, things—human, inhuman, and inanimate,’ then Guthlac becomes something other than the saint who ascends to a celestial throne to escape time and change.” For Guthlac—whoever he might be or of what or whom he may be composed—“is the assemblage formed by a sacred body battling demons who are bound, like him, to an intense and contagious desire for a fenland beorg, who are bound to an audience who are in turn bound to them.”[14] This also raises the question, for me, of how the Guthlac narratives function(ed) as art for, regardless of their possibly regulative and disciplinary and ideological intentions rooted in a politics of Christo-nationalist place, they open a path to the sensorium of the unregulated, displaced, and wildly mobile “flows” and “intensities” of the extreme, transformational processes of what Deleuze and Guattari termed “de-territorialization,” in which, I would argue, reader, author, and text together form a “becoming-world, carried out in such a way that it becomes imperceptible itself, asignifying, makes its rupture, its own line of flight, follows its ‘aparallel evolution’ through to the end.”[15]

Although the hermetic life is one in which a hard and closed singularity is prized over a loose and open multiplicity, Guthlac’s hermitage is not possible without adopting the habitus of those who, historically, have been multiply displaced and un-housed across the landscape of a middle-land that is itself always migrating (from, for example, the arable farmsteads of the post-Roman period to the labyrinth of black streams and reed beds of Guthlac’s time to the drained green plains of today). These are the migrants and exiles who, always on the move and perhaps legally undomiciled, become the strangers and foreigners, the impressed laborers but also the “illegals” (the “devils”). Strikingly, in the Old English poetic version of the legend (where the watery and cave-like barrow of the Latin narrative has been transposed into a desolate and hidden mountaintop), this is made explicitly clear when the poet tells us that Guthlac’s hermitage is a “secret place” (dygle stow, l. 215) where God once allowed the “fiends” to live when, “tired from their wanderings, the accursed came to rest for a stolen moment” (Guthlac A: ll. 212-13). And in the first extended confrontational exchanges between Guthlac and “exiled kinsmen” (wræcmæcgas, l. 263), certain “spokesmen” for the “fiends” excoriate Guthlac for wresting their “home” (ham, l. 271) from them, and also warn him that he has chosen an impossible and even animal life, one in which no one will ever give him sustenance (Guthlac A: ll. 273-78). In its descriptions of the demons, who are also displaced kinsmen, the language of the Old English Guthlac A slides back and forth between the idea of Guthlac’s harassers as apparitions from an otherworldly hell whom God appoints as the saint’s torturers and as exiles recently evicted from their marginal dwellings who appear on their own initiative to claim their landholding rights and to warn Guthlac of the hardship of the e/stranged life (their life) he has chosen.

To be a saint living in the wilderness—to be Guthlac—is to be literally strange in the sense that Sara Ahmed gives to that term in her discussion of the relationship between identity, belonging, and home in her book Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, where she writes that, in the construction of the figure of the migrant, historically, “the strangers are the ones who, in leaving the home of the nation, are the bodies out of place in the everyday world they inhabit, and in the communities in which they come to live.”[16] And the “drama” of the stranger, following the thinking of Iain Chambers, is one in which the stranger is “cut off from their homelands of tradition” and becomes an “emblem” or “figure” that “draws our attention to the urgencies of our time: a presence that questions our present.”[17] But it is Ahmed’s feeling that “to take the figure of the stranger as simply present is to overlook and forget the very relationships of social antagonism that produce the stranger as a figure in the first place,” and this view finally “fetishizes” the stranger, in much the same way, I would argue, that the authors of the Guthlac narratives and Guthlac himself, as a fictional character, fetishizes the demons and outcast “Britons” who haunt and torture him. This ultimately produces what Ahmed terms an “ontology” of the stranger “as given in and to the world,” and finally “conceals how ‘the stranger’ comes into being through the marking out of inhabitable spaces, bodies and terrains of knowledge. To talk of the migrant [then,] is not sufficient. It cannot deal with the complexities of the histories, not only of the displacement of peoples, but the demarcation of places and spaces of belongings” or “dwellings.”[18]

Here, then, is where I see the possibility of beginning to suture some lines of thought from Fumerton’s account of “unsettled” or “lowly” or “landless” subjectivity in early modern England—which also gestures toward the possibility of considering the “lowly modern subject” of global capitalism—back to the “incorporated” and utlah (“outlaw”) bodies and minds of a more God-based Anglo-Saxon England and forward to the work of Ahmed, Rosi Bradotti, Iain Chambers, and others on nomadic subjectivity and ethics in a late, transnational capitalist culture. Such suturing of these disparate discourses into what I would call a “deep” or “long” history might be necessary if we believe that what Braidotti calls the “embodied and embedded” nature of subjects is directly proportional to the ability of those bodies to aim for affirmative and joyful and not nihilistic and destructive processes of becoming, and if we believe further, in Braidotti’s words, that the “capacity to endure is collective, it is to be shared,” and further, “[i]t is held together by narratives, stories, exchanges, shared emotions and affects. It is neither equal to itself nor does it guarantee self-perpetuation.”[19] Or, in the words of Virginia Woolf in her novel The Waves (and thinking again of Guthlac merging with his demons), “But when we sit together, close . . . we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an insubstantial territory.”[20]

[1] Patricia Fumerton, Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p. xiii.
[2] Fumerton, Unsettled, p. xiii.
[3] Fumerton, Unsettled, pp. xiii–xiv.
[4] Fumerton, Unsettled, pp. xviii.
[5] Fumerton, Unsettled, pp. xxi.
[6] Citations of Guthlac A are from Jane Roberts, ed., The Guthlac Poems of the Exeter Book (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979). Translations are mine unless otherwise noted.
[7] All citations of the Anglo-Latin Life are from Bertram Colgrave, ed. and trans., Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956). All translations are mine unless otherwise noted.
[8] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “The Solitude of Guthlac,” Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 117 [116–53].
[9] Cohen, “The Solitude of Guthlac,” p. 121.
[10] Cohen, “The Solitude of Guthlac,” p. 145.
[11] Cohen, “The Solitude of Guthlac,” pp. 141, 147, 148.
[12] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 33.
[13] Cohen, “The Solitude of Guthlac,” pp. 150, 151.
[14] Cohen, “The Solitude of Guthlac,” p. 152.
[15] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 11.
[16] Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 78.
[17] Iain Chambers, Migrancy, Culture, Identity (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 6.
[18] Ahmed, Strange Encounters, p. 79.
[19] Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics (Cambridge, Eng.: Polity Press, 2006), pp. 160, 199.
[20] Virginia Woolf, The Waves (London: Grafton, 1977), p. 11.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A weight has lifted

Last night I gave the Holloway Lecture at McDaniel College. Those of you who have been reading its fragments here at ITM know that "The Weight of the Past" is a rapid tour that commences in deep time, where ages are registered by the lives of rocks rather than the duration of organisms, and lingers over the interaction of pieces of distant history with medieval worlds. The talk's temporal trajectory endsmore than 10,000 years hence, in the Department of Energy's attempt to think beyond the extinction of English and of the USA. Nothing too ambitious.

The Holloway Lecture is a big deal on the McDaniel campus, involving a dinner at the President's House and a formal talk attended by just about anyone with a connection to the place. Every college should have an annual humanities event like this one. I could see immediately the good work it does in solidifying intellectual community.

My lecture went very well, helped in part by the extraordinary hospitality of Kathy Mangan and Becky Davis, as well as the contagious enthusiasm of a large group of students and faculty. Technology has recently turned against me: in the last month I have laundered my cell phone, lost my laptop to a thief, and had the navigator device in my car attempt to strand me at a distant farm. I was afraid that my parade of PowerPoint images would combust the moment I hit the PLAY button, but fortunately we were able to gaze at Barber Rock, nuclear warning architectures, Neolithic tombs, and even Albus Dumbledore. I don't usually use projected images when I deliver a talk, but this one really required them. The hushed darkness also gave a solemnity to the proceedings that was broken only occasionally by my famously bad jokes.

McDaniel College is bucolic, architecturally beautiful, an intense but nurturing place for students and faculty alike. I truly enjoyed my time there. The students are ardent blog readers, and knew many a post from ITM. They also love the Chaucer blog. I was asked many times during my visit to reveal the identity of tits author. I stated that I will die first -- and (in the absence of a very large bribe) I will.

I was so wired after the lecture that I didn't climb into bed until past midnight. I arose at 5.15, hit the road ... and spent two and a half hours in traffic, a particle in the wave of insane people who commute to Washington and Baltimore from the exurbs every day. I arrived at GW just in time to hear my colleague Gil Harris give a brilliant introduction to Stephen Greenblatt (did you know that Greenblatt performed with the troupe who became Monty Python, and is mentioned [as dead] in one of their classic skits?). Greenblatt gave an extraordinary talk about his collaboration with contemporary playwright Charles Mee. They have reimagined Shakespeare's lost play Cardenio, using the process of staging and translating that work to theorize cultural mobility -- and even imagining what "mobility studies" might be.

Thanks, ITM readers, bloggers, and commentators, for all your support and suggestions as I refined my ideas. The lecture would not have been nearly as good were it not for the community that congregates here.

(PS The image above is Augustine banishing a heretic, which I used in my talk as an image of what Augustine tends to do to annoying heterogeneity in his materials. The talk was also in part about winged demons and their gigantic progeny, so the illustration performed double duty.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tuesday Morning and Translation

One of the blogs I subscribe to is the Words Without Borders blog, and today, a quick perusal of their website before I went to teach yielded two things I wanted to share with you all here at ITM.

First: I'm not the only person feeling inspired by Forster. Christopher Merrill has a post on the University of Iowa's writing program which he calls "Only Connect". An excerpt:

Literature works by subterranean means. Ideas migrate at the speed of thought, which for a writer in the act of composition means the speed of sound—syllable by syllable—if not the speed of light. And literary exchanges have the merit of launching new ideas into the cultural discourse.

This connects so well with some of the Deleuze and Guattari I've been reading over the past few weeks -- these rhizome networks of literature. One of the things I think, increasingly, is important, is the work of not simply literary critics, but truly literary scholars. Put differently: I don't think I'll ever understand The Wanderer as well as I did when I tried, after many years of writing about the poem, to actually write the poem, via translation.

Second: I had never heard of Doris Koreva until this morning. One of her poems, translated here, expresses for me the relationship between what Allen Mandelbaum called, in his Chelmaxioms "the-Reader and the-Read." The lines I found most intriguing:

The reader casts his shadow over the poem.

All possibilities bloom in language,
the mind hears but what it wants to
or what it fears.
Such hope for language -- for communication -- but simultaneously, such fear. However, Koreva suggests something in her poem I've always felt, though I don't think it made sense to me until this morning: Is there something about literature -- the writing or composition of text -- that is inherently hopeful? A leap of faith, even: faith in language, perhaps, but moreover -- faith in the possibility of communication?

cross posted at OEinNY

What would Chaucer watch?

If Chaucer owned a television set, what would he watch?

Nothing, of course. He had no electricity. And even if he did have power, his house had no outlets. And, even without a writer's strike, there were no shows. You had to read stuff in boring manuscripts that didn't attempt to flog snack foods and laxatives every ten minutes.

But if you want a merrier answer to that philosophical question, check out the back-to-life Chaucer blog. Though personally I believe Chaucer would have watched Curb Your Enthusiasm.

PS This perfectly apropos image brought to you by Eileen Joy, Myra J. Seaman, Kimberly K. Bell and Mary K. Ramsey, whose book is coming out soon.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bruce Holsinger, Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror

My copy of Bruce's book arrived today (thanks, Bruce!) and I am truly looking forward to reading it. Has anyone else picked it up yet? Here is the description from the Prickly Paradigm website:

Far from an unfortunate cliché, medievalism has become a dominant paradigm for comprehending the identity and motivations of America’s perceived enemy in the War on Terror. Yet as Bruce Holsinger argues here, this cloying post-9/11 rhetoric has served to obscure the more intricate ideological machinations of neomedievalism, the global idiom of the non-state actor: NGOs, transnational corporate militias, and terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and al Qaeda. While International Relations theorists promote neomedievalism as a model for understanding emergent modes of global sovereignty, neoconservatives exploit its conceptual slipperiness for tactical ends. Holsinger concludes with a careful parsing of the Bush administration’s Torture Memos, which enlist neomedievalism’s model of feudal sovereignty toward the abrogation of human rights.
As mentioned on ITM last year.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Dissertation Fragments Part I: Horizons, or Two False Starts and an Abstract

So as a part of my ongoing dissertation prospectus work is preparation for a talk I’m giving at Wake Forest in late November. I’ve been invited back by my undergraduate advisers (and continuing mentors!) Gillian Overing and Gale Sigal to speak to the Medieval Studies group – a group including professors and grad students from a wide variety of disciplines, including English, French, History, Italian, etc. I am, needless to say, incredibly pleased to be giving this talk – it’ll be a lovely homecoming, and I’ll even get to sit in on Dr. Overing’s Old English class. That should bring back some memories! It’s intimidating, to be sure: it is my very first “real” academic talk, invited and everything. However, it’s also comforting: Profs. Overing and Sigal read my undergraduate honors thesis. Whatever I say in this talk (which is now taking solid form in preparation for a workshop this evening), it can’t be more embarrassing, or less intelligible, than my 36 page aria on a 115 line poem, titled: The Exile and the Other: Male Voice and Psychological Landscaping in the Wanderer. My undergraduate masterpiece would be reworked a number of times in the following years, but the 2004 version will always be my favorite -- and the longest -- of its iterations.

By way of new beginnings, then, as I enter the stage of my career that begins with the end of my orals reading and ends in the scariest place on earth, I offer some first, discarded fragments that underlie the central idea of my talk (and also my dissertation), which will be titled: "On the Horizons of History: Writing (and Rewriting) Anglo-Saxon Collectivities." To show where I've ended up in more concrete terms -- and as to provide a preview of coming attractions -- I've also included the abstract I sent to Wake as a kind of advance warning. Part II of this series will, in all probability, be sections from the talk itself (suggestions for format welcome).

Think of these fragments as meditations, or perhaps as interconnected musings. Try not to think of them as the past I’ve tried to repress. Because really, that’s just so linear...

I: A Place to Believe In

In the introduction to the collection of essays in A Place to Believe In, Clare Lees and Gillian Overing introduce the work of “gathering” that the essays perform in what they call a “meditation” on “the idea of Northumbria and its horizons, whether historical, cultural, or geographic” (7). Using the definition envisioned by Michael Casey’s “How to Get from Space to Place,” they define horizons as the [foundations] which “form the perceptual basis of boundaries [that] are themselves spatiotemporal in status. To be in perceptual field is to be encompassed by edges that are neither strictly spatial—we cannot map a horizon (even if we can draw it)—nor strictly temporal” (43, cited in Overing and Lees 8-9). In their thoughts on space, place and time in the Northumbrian landscape, Lees and Overing engage with the “crossroads” which place represents; indeed, the work of the authors in the collection are located “at the intersection of land and sea, or of space and belief; at the coming together of physical spaces and the bodies that inhabit and co-create them; and last but by no means least, at the juncture of past and present” (26). The horizon becomes a symbol of the possibility of continuity, perhaps even coexistence, in the present of memories, objects and writings of and from the past. The horizon, then, has much in common with a liminal space—“the horizon is porous, its boundaries shifting” (24). In the context of place, this interpretation allows Overing and Lees to imagine their own coexistence with Anglo-Saxon past which they can quite literally see, surrounding them in the landscape that encompasses Yeavering, Bamburgh and Lindisfarne. The concept of time, however, is more difficult. Alternate times—and Other histories—persist, but the horizons of history cannot help but function differently from those of the Northumbrian Landscape.

II: Order of the First Chaos

In the first calens of Ovid’s Fasti, another type of horizon might be considered, in the figure of Janus. Janus is the two-headed god of gateways (I.65). However, Janus also delimits a boundary: his most vital role is as not only the god of gateways, but also as the god of the first Chaos. When he was first formed, “yon lucid air and the three other bodies, fire, water, earth, were huddled all in one.” (I.105-6). He looks both forward and backward at the same time, and thus he looks forward to the coming year, and backward to the year which has already passed. The conception of time laid out by Janus is cyclical—the order of each calendrical year both precedes and follows itself as a kind of promise of stability in the observation of months and celebrations. However, because he is the god that the “ancients called Chaos” (I.65), the dual sight of Janus serves not simply to demarcate the boundaries of the repeating calendrical year, but as a perpetual reminder that order is preceded by chaos, and that chaos is perhaps still present beneath order’s thin veneer. Significantly, Janus, née Chaos, also serves as the protector of order. “All things are closed and opened” by his hand; he asserts and he avers that “the guardianship of this vast universe is in my hands alone, and none but me can rule the wheeling pole” (I.118-120). Order is quite literally in the hands of Chaos, and the calendrical year offers but a flimsy stability at best.

III: Horizons of History (an abstract)

My current project, tentatively titled Horizons of History, examines what might happen if we think of an “Anglo-Saxon England” with fluid boundaries – embracing the possibility of a semi-permeable, ever-changing horizon as both boundary and event, forming networks of written “collectivities” that are not confined to a single historical period or outlook. Engaging with the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, Bruno Latour, and Deleuze and Guattari, I wish to rethink the ways in which we conceptualize an “Anglo-Saxon” period via a sustained reading of historiographical material written on both sides of the Norman Conquest. My focus in this paper will be two-fold. First, it will serve as an outline and preliminary defense of the topic of my dissertation – positing both the possibility of a “Long Anglo-Saxon Period” in the Middle Ages, and examining what is at stake in thinking of the period in this fashion. The second part of the talk will offer an overview of how I see this horizon of history functioning the in the political/poetic corpus, focusing specifically on the Old English Orosius and Beowulf.


Works Cited

Lees, Clare and Gillian Overing (eds.). A Place to Believe In (Penn State: Philadelphia, 2006).
Ovid. The Fasti. (can't recall the edition)

Cross-posted at Old English in New York.