Wednesday, April 02, 2008

About Time

So Eileen conned, forced, compelled, tricked (etc) me into participating in the K'zoo BABEL session on "What is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?"

I've been firing every synapse of my brain trying to come up with something novel and pithy on the topic .... and -- some scribblings and vagrant thoughts aside -- have so far a big fat zero to show. First, my scribblings. Then, the diagnosis of the underlying problem.

These sparse jottings have accumulated in the notebook I carry with me at all times:
Start w/ the commensensical. Bynum wrote long ago that the present determines the questions we address to the past. But more. Doesn't that form a circuit? Can't be one way communication. The past might give unexpected answers answers to those present-minded questions ... Past may very well interrupt even change present thereby (the reality of possibility -- its materiality, even when it does not strictly speaking exist). Cf. Bruno Latour: time is what we add to the equation last of all, to account for changes that "time" per se didn't bring about (causal agent that in fact hides causality). What about Aramis? Can the possibility itself speak, interrupt time's flow, bring the present and past to confused newness?
Well, the use of confused is right. What I'm trying to get at is that time already doesn't easily parcel itself into past-present-future, that the question as phrased in the session's title cannot be answered (other than to say, honestly, 'It is and always has been inextricable. The same goes for the future.') We like to think of time's movement as an arrow, but that linearity is more for convenience and easy order than it is a recognition of phenomenological, physical, cosmological, or experiential reality.

And here's where I get hung up: I've said some version of this before. Many times, in fact. In "Midcolonial," my introduction to The Postcolonial Middle Ages:
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 embededness in the present and future. Once homogeneity and progressive or hierarchizing "developmental" models are denied history - once simple, linear sequences of cause and effect are abandoned for more complicated narratives of heterogeneity, overlap, sedimentation, and multiplicity -- time itself becomes a problem for postcolonial studies, and the medieval "meridian" or "middle" becomes an instrument useful for rethinking what postcolonial might signify ... 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 ... Much work has been done on the atemporality of postcolonial theory's non-periodizing "post-," and this inquiry could be extended when paired with a rethinking of the Middle Ages' temporally vexed "middleness" ... Janus-faced, biformis, the postcolonial 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.
Or these passages from the first chapter of Medieval Identity Machines:
my intention is to survey recent critical work on temporality to discover how time might be thought beyond some of its conventional parameters, outside of reduction into a monologic history (especially when "history" is understood as either simple context or a chain of flat, serial causality); outside of enchainment into progress narratives, with their "ever upwards" movement of evolutionary betterment and abandonment of the past for a predestined, superior futures; and outside of linearization, the weary process through which a past is not encountered for its own possibilities, but either distanced as mere antecedent or explored only to understand better the present and to render predictable the future. In fidelity to the themes of this book, I am most interested in engagements with time that stress the open-ended movements of becoming over the immobililities of being, that stress mutating interconnections over the stabilities of form ... One of the most important texts on medieval chronology, Bede's Little Book Concerning the Fleeting and Wave-tossed Course of Time (known in English succinctly but unpoetically as The Reckoning of Time) concludes, naturally enough, with a discussion of "the eternal stability and stable eternity" of paradise. Time's machines offer no such "blessed repose," but operate in ceaseless motion, in strange middle spaces unperturbed by questions of delineative beginnings or definitive ends.
Or this passage, also from the "Time's Machines" chapter of Medieval Identity Machines:
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.
Why am I quoting all this now? Because in trying to think about time -- and in trying specifically to think about the place of the present in considering the medieval -- I am not certain that I have anything more to say on the subject than I did a few years back. I want to be trenchant, I want to be original, I want to be new ... but in rereading what I've already published, I can see that what was at the time provisional has hardened for me into belief. That frightens me: I am not in general a believer, and am always looking to push myself towards the places where I am most ignorant. Deleuze said it best, in an interview with Claire Parnet: it is only interesting, it is only creative, to write from the edge of your ignorance, not to compose from the settled position of knowing in advance the contours of what you will say. I am no longer sure I have anything interesting to say about time. Belief, the worst replacement for ignorance, has placed itself in the way.


Anonymous said...

Maybe a way out of your labyrinth would be to stop thinking about time, then, and to think about the 'PLACE' in your title instead. You have been doing a lot of newer work on material cultures and their interaction with time that which will be fresher for you.

Karl Steel said...

SRJ, that sounds good! "the Present" can be as much spatial as it is "temporal," and, as Sarah says, this links up with everything you've been doing recently.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Indeed, these are fantastic points -- and I think that there's a degree to which the past, as a kind of a "haunting" presence can only take place concretely in places, the idea of place as the thing we share concretely with the past -- I think that Gillan Overing and Clare Lees have lovely stuff on this in the intro to A Place to Believe In.

I also think that there's a useful interaction in what you say here: What I'm trying to get at is that time already doesn't easily parcel itself into past-present-future, that the question as phrased in the session's title cannot be answered (other than to say, honestly, 'It is and always has been inextricable. The same goes for the future.') We like to think of time's movement as an arrow, but that linearity is more for convenience and easy order than it is a recognition of phenomenological, physical, cosmological, or experiential reality. The problem of place as a very specific moment in which the past is, in some sense, still an agent in the present, and capable of not only being put to use by humans but also still having influences and some kind of force that is proper only to it -- something that is, fundamentally, not human about what time does.

Frederic Jameson has an absolutely beautiful line in his review of Derrida's Specters of Marx, titled "Marx's Purloined Letter":

that [the] living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we would do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us...Derrida’s ghosts are these moments in which the present-----and above all our current present, the wealthy, sunny, gleaming world of the postmodern and the end of history, of the new world system of late capitalism-----unexpectedly betrays us.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Sarah, for pointing out what was before my face. It's funny, a graduate student in my office pulled Yi-Fu Tuan Space and Place off my bookshelf and asked me about it. I hadn't read the book since I taught a seminar on cultural geographies more than ten years ago, and offered that it had become so assimilated into analytical practice than no one read it any more. But I know that isn't really true: the book may no longer seem pathbreaking, but much more work remains to be done on place and emplacement. Perhaps later in the week I'll share a small riff I composed recently on embodied places as the antidote to disembodied historicisms.

So, the temporal inextricability I mentioned and that Mary Kate quoted back applies to the inseparability of time and space as well: hence astrophysicists with their "timespace."

MKH, those lines from Jameson are, well, haunting! Thanks for those.

Anonymous said...


I also think these suggestions are fantastic, and that you are just the person to lead scholarship in this direction (as Karl notes, you probably are already doing that). In fact, my scattered musings on the importance of place emerged from thinking about your “Midcolonial” essay:
I think the forthcoming blog-post(s) on Wallace will probably be very pertinent, too. If you haven’t read it, you might also enjoy Rosi Braidotti’s work on nomadism and ethics.

cheers, holly

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I know Braidotti's work pretty well -- at least I did way back when it was new. She sometimes gets Deleuze wrong I thing.

Thanks, Holly, for linking to such a wonderfully provocative essay. That's given me plenty of food for thought, esp. re: the gender of emplacement.

Eileen Joy said...

Hello All: I have been pulled out of my South Carolina hiding place by this thread, but I'm glad. or was I conned or tricked? [I'm taking a secret *second* spring break and trying to wrestle to the ground some writing projects that were due, oh, umpteen non-teleological months or so ago.] And Holly, can you explain why I came all this way to South Carolina from Saint Louis, where it has been raining non-stop, so that I can continue to be trapped inside while it rains non-stop *here*? Or else, can you make it stop raining? [haha]

First, both Sarah and Holly kind of hit it, bang, right on the head, of what I was hoping might be intuited by the "place" in the title, "What is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?", such that the title begs, not so much questions about temporality/teleology alone, or even "presentism" as a critical practice alone, but also questions about spatiality, placement, and what Hans Gumbrecht might call the "production of presence" [or, the "effect of tangibility that comes from the materialities of communication" and which is always in "constant movement"], and also, pace Christopher Tilley's "The Materiality of Stone," questions about phenomenologies of the "present"/presencing in medieval studies vis-a-vis bodies/places/landscapes [and I can thank JJC for that book reference].

But I have to back up for a minute, too, and say that it is PRECISELY through those argumentative "bits" of himself on teleology/temporality/inter-historicisms that JJC quotes here that this discussion panel was actually dreamed up to begin with, and also because I am concerned with this question in relation to those segments of our discipline that remain "unconvinced" or "unmoved," or however you want to put it, by such arguments, no matter how many times they have been voiced and in whatever venues [JJC's books, plus other books by scholars such as P. Strohm, D. Wallace, C. Dinshaw, S. Kruger, G. Burger, K. Lochrie, B. Holsinger, K. Biddick, S. Trigg, etc.]. But to go back, again, to JJC's original thoughts regarding, in a sense, "been there, done that, and not sure I want to change my mind too much," well . . . good! As Holly points out, JJC has been influential in this respect and that is precisely why I wanted him on this panel and I am so glad he agreed to do it, even if it were only just to repeat certain arguments that bear repeating, and repeating, and repeating.

BUT, having said THAT, I have also really been struck, in my own recent reading which has largely been influenced by JJC's current reading and thinking expressed here on this weblog and elsewhere re: materiality, landscape, aesthetics, phenomenology, temporality, etc., how the "place of the present" in the title question of the KZoo discussion panel is, again, not just about temporality but also about spatiality, about "presence" as much as about the "present," and about bodies [of persons, of knowledge, of texts, of places and of objects *in* places, etc.] in space *plus* time. So the question is also about *location* and not just the location of the subjects in question [a medieval text? a contemporary poem? a medieval object, like a stone wall? the modern memorialization of that object? the work of translation?--I'm thinking here of a lot of what has been obsessing Mary Kate lately], but also about the location of the scholar, too, in relation to his or her work and to the so-called "objects" of his or her study.

And this brings up as well the, perhaps understated, *ethical* dimensions of the question, which I think Mary Kate beautifully illustrated vis-a-vis Derrida's "specters," or what we might call the hauntology of the past. What do we *want* and *need* from the past and what does the past *want* and *need* from us and how do we negotiate these often competing desires and needs, and whose "claims" ought to compel us most and how do we properly hear/read those claims [whether emanating from the space of the "now" or the "then"]? I myself am often torn by the idea that only the present can ever really matter, such that what we do, here, and together, and for ourselves, with as much mindfulness [in the Buddhist sense] as we can muster, is the most ethical work we can do [there is, then, no real past and certainly no "posterity" that can be counted upon and why pour one's heart and mind and work into such empty vessels when all around you are proximate others to whom you can, in a sense, "turn" and "face"], and the idea that every scrap and fragment from the past that is somehow still "present" among us is, in the words of Edith Wyschogrod, some kind of "voulour dire" of our dead and silent Others, a letter to "a present affected with futurity," an "I want to say" to which, at our peril, we are not attentive *enough*. "I want to say" the past is saying to us, "I wrote this letter to you," etc. And here I also always think about Benjamin's idea in his "Theses for a Philosophy of History" that the past has "claims" on us which cannot be settled "cheaply." So, in asking "what is the place of the present in medieval studies," I am also asking about ethics, about our obligations to the past, if we think we have any.

And finally, although this may be an older [and overdone] "saw," pace JJC's comments here that the past and present are inextricable and always "extimate" to each other, always enmeshed, always "in the middle" somehow, as JJC's work itself has beautifully demonstrated, the issue of "presentism" as a critical practice within premodern studies still needs to be advocated for and as strongly as possible and in as many venues as possible, I think [while not oversimplifying what we think "presentism" is and can do, right?]. This brings us back, then, to JJC's mention of Bynum saying that the present frames the questions we ask the past. I've always sensed just a little bit of tension, though, between what that means to Bynum in her work and what it might mean to JJC in his. Because I think that, ultimately, Bynum sees more alterity in the past than some of us do and she works very hard [and god knows, brilliantly] to delineate that alterity, that historical "difference." Here is how she puts it in her "Critical Inquiry" essay, "Why All the Fuss About the Body?":

". . . if we situate own categories [about the body and identity] in the context of our own politics, we must situate those of the Middle Ages in theirs. The relationship between then and now will thus be analogous and not proportional, not direct. . . . Origen is to Origen's context as [Judith] Butler is to Butler's. By understanding the relationship of figures to contexts, and then the relationship of those relationships, we will often see that there is a large and developing issue with which both figures struggle, each in his or her own vocabulary and circumstances. Or, to put it another way, the past is seldom usefully examined by assuming that its specific questions or their settings are the same as those of the present. What may, however, be the same is the way in which a question, understood in its context, struggles with a perduring issue such as, for example, group affiliation."

Now, in this excerpt [from an essay I have usefully used so many times in classes I've lost count] we see that Bynum places a certain amount of what I would call a somewhat traditional historicist faith in this thing called "context" and in its, can we say[?] "stability," or, perhaps it quality of standing "still enough" that we could "read" it/understand it? Is this version of the relationship between the past and present fully compatible with JJC's musings in "Midcolonial" and also in "Medieval Identity Machines" on "open-ended movements of becoming" [maybe it is] and how does it converse with Fernand Braudel's idea [of which I must admit I am very fond in my own work] that

“nothing is more important, nothing comes closer to the crux of social reality, than [the] living, intimate, infinitely repeated opposition between the instant of time and that time which flows only slowly. Whether it is a question of the past or of the present, a clear awareness of this plurality of social time is indispensable to the communal methodology of the human sciences.”

Or with Terence Hawkes's idea, in "Shakespeare in the Present," that we should pursue "a kind of principled and self-inventing betrayal of. . .[scholarly] tradition," and instead of merely prosecuting "facts," actually execute "a material intervention into history" itself. And further, what would this "material intervention into history" actually look like? And this is all "just to say," again, that in the title for the panel discussion, I was also hoping to keep rolling, as it were, various critico-disciplinary discussions over what we think we mean when we say we practice a "presentist," or in JJC's terms, an "intertemporal" medieval studies, and why does it matter, especially vis-a-vis what might be called some of the more traditionally historicist approaches to our objects/subjects of study? With the position of the humanities itself within the setting of the American university in a somewhat threatened position, I think this particular conversation--about *our* "position" [temporally, spatially, etc.] in relation to the "past" of medieval studies--could be argued to be "pressing."

And finally [I mean, "really finally"], I am currently reading, thanks to Nicola's suggestion, Hans Gumbrecht's "The Production of Presence," and it is really such a rich and provocative book, especially as regards the entire "critical theory" enterprise and where it has gotten [or not gotten us], and so I will just sign off with some bits from that that I think are also apropos to how we might all, collectively, think through the idea of "place" and the "present" in relation to BABEL's KZoo session:

". . . any form of communication, through its material elements, will 'touch' the bodies of the persons who are communicating in specific and varying ways," but "it is true nevertheless that this fact has been bracketed (if not--progressively--forgotten) by Western theory building ever since the Cartesian 'cogito' made the ontology of human existence depend exclusively on the movements of the human mind. Conversely and from an epistemological point of view, this also meant that any philosophical and theoretical positions that are critical of the Cartesian dismissal of the human body as 'res extensa' and, with it, critical of the elimination of space, can become potential sources for the development of a reflection on presence. Now, any viable reflection on presence will have to break with the (now fading) 'postmodern' intellectual convention according to which all acceptable concepts and arguments have to be 'antisubstantialist'."

"In saying that every human contact with the things of the world contains both a meaning- and a presence-component, and that the situation of aesthetic experience is specific inasmuch as it allows us to live both these components in their tension, I do not mean to imply that the relative weight of these two components will always be equal. On the contrary, I assume that there are always specific distributions between the meaning-component and the presence-component--which depend on the materiality (i.e., on the mediatic modality) of each object of aesthetic experience."

Tim said...

One (admittedly nebulous) idea that I had would be to dig deeper into your exhaustion with time and interrogate it. Why is "the present" so exhausting? I'm thinking in particular of the first movements of Hegel's PhG, which is a kind of proof by exhaustion, as the sheer magnitude of reference of the "now" and the "this" overwhelms the subject. We have usually followed that move outwards into some kind of historicism, but what about that moment itself?

Anonymous said...

I just saw Eileen's post, which will take me much longer to think about. I have a quick add to my earlier comment in relation to JJC's response (JJC is hard for me to type, by the way--I always end up with the wrong # of j's and c's): I was talking about Rosi Braidotti's most recent work on nomadism (a year or so ago), in which she returns to the work she did in the early/mid 90's. It is rather cool to reflect (or to see a scholar reflect) on the work that s/he thought s/he knew, or was finished with. Paul Gilroy's *Postcolonial Melancholia* is the same for me. I think you're at that point with your own critical trajectory, perhaps. I don't hold up those works as great in any settled way (they are both imperfect, and more important in some ways for that), but they both seem like an honest return to work that went on to mean a great deal to a great many people. Your work is much the same, JJC. This blog offers evidence of that all the time.



Jeffrey Cohen said...

It is fantastic to have provoked such lively conversation with my melancholic musings.

Eileen, you both impress and frighten me with the sheer amount of critical weight behind the panel's succinct, questioning title! Your comment is so full of good points that I am going to read it again early tomorrow when I can give it the time it deserves (right now I am lurking not far from my daughter's door having just read her "The Cat in the Hat" and turned out her light ... trying to see if it will be a high maintenance night or not).

Holly, thank you not only for pointing me towards two works I didn't know about (both seem great, and are now on my reading list), but also helping me to contextualize my own mid-career crisis a bit as well! I really appreciate the kind words.

Anonymous said...

Eileen, you betray your whereabouts with your rain complaints:) Because I'm in grading hell, rain suits me just fine (though my part of the state is drier than yours, I think). At any rate, staying indoors certainly seems conducive to some smart thinking on your part.

I particularly like your comments on Bynum, context, and stability—I’m always puzzled by disciplining/disciplinary statements of that sort, mainly because they seem like pieties of the field that I don’t quite understand and I can’t quite maintain.



Jeffrey Cohen said...

To follow up on last night's quick comment, another quick comment: I am definitely feeling something like a mid-career crisis, but not for conventional reasons: that is, not because I feel like I'm in a funk, or that the material and conversations have become same-old same-old, or that I am weary with the field ... or any of those things that can happen to someone who has been at it for too long.

In a way it is just the opposite: I am so under siege for my time that I haven't the space required to THINK anymore. It's partly a condition of being involved in too many things at once (how do you do it Eileen???!) and it is partly structural: as department chair I am sucked into meetings and problem solving and resource development ... activities that have definite -- and sometimes even immediate -- rewards, and that is great. JUst yesterday, my "work at home day" was interrupted because someone maybe wants to give my department a vast amount of money, and maybe even something bigger than that, and language was needed IMMEDIATELY. Happy to comply! But such tasks, important as they are, don't leave me the time to read, contemplate, and just have blank space that (I imagine) I at some point had.

End of whine. The positive: that is why I am happy to have Eileen trick/force/cajole me into panels like the K'zoo one, to force a rendezvous with some serious thinking; and that is why I am happy to have you, dear readers and commentators, to kick me out of any rut that seems to have caught a wheel. Thanks!

Karl Steel said...

On the issue of your discussion of Hawkes, what would this "material intervention into history" actually look like? and, earlier, where you ask, about the location of the scholar, too, in relation to his or her work and to the so-called "objects" of his or her study....And here I also always think about Benjamin's idea in his "Theses for a Philosophy of History" that the past has "claims" on us which cannot be settled "cheaply." So, in asking "what is the place of the present in medieval studies," I am also asking about ethics, about our obligations to the past, if we think we have any.

I've gone back to my notes for Sara Ahmed's "Queer Phenomenology," GLQ 12.4 (2006) 543-74 (a thesaurus [in the Latin sense] that I believe I became aware of because of my fellow-sufferer in grading hell, H. Crocker: thank you again), and discovered this:

For Husserl, orientations are about a beginning: where do we start from? It is from here that my world unfolds. Ahmed's example: Husserl's beginning spot is his writing table in a domestic house with his children. The home is the background to the writing, and the writing depends on other things being kept to the background, including the work of keeping the desk clear (547). "Perception involves such acts of relegation that are forgotten in the very preoccupation with what it is that we face" (547). Think about this in regard to Adrianne Rich writing about the selfishness of children about writing. Think of the "political economy of attention" (547). And think about tables and chairs in philosophical examples, as they are always near at hand for them (550, from Ann Bradford's The Phantom Table).

For 'table' read megalith, manuscript, even, why not, kenning.

From there I want to develop some kind of queer/Marxist phenomenology, as I believe this is required for precisely the ethical questions you raise in your comment, Eileen, and also in order to settle the claims of the past on the present as completely as possible. To put a simple idea simply: we must ask how the table got here, and how we got to the table, to form this coming-together in the present. This requires knowing the necessities and compulsions of pasts held silently, as a force, in the present.

We can release those forces--with what effects, who knows (see MK Hurley's Jameson cite above)--by asking questions such as: Who cleared the table? Who moved it here? Who made it? Who chopped the wood? On whose land did the tree grow? When we and the table touch, all that work (and everything work implies, including, most important, the inequities of the organization of work) also comes into contact with the work that formed us (and, here, again everything work implies), the historical us. I'm using historical, obviously, in a Marxist sense, in terms of a site of struggle, and, also, as I'm about to make clear, in a Benjaminian sense, of a site of past struggles that can be rejoined by reaching out into them from the present.

This contact with the table, and its pasts, can be one of pleasure, a heightened, shared embodiment. The contact can be so intimate that we can't talk in terms of a "relationship" anymore (recalling recent Bersani on this point: hence the "queer" in my "queer/Marxist phenomenology").

But it is nevertheless a contact that requires an ethical attention of us. This attention demands we be critical of the contact, demands we turn on ourselves and ask how we arrived, how it arrived, how we became together. This attention requires an intervention: a demystification and an activist intervention into and for the past offering itself (and being offered) up to this present. We might, through this attention, alter the conditions by which it arrives for us, and we arrive for it.

Eileen Joy said...

Wow, Karl: your comments here are really provocative and more helpful to me than you might imagine, since Michael O'Rourke and Noreen Giffney recently invited me to act as a respondent [third week of May, just after Kalamazoo--yikes] in their next "The(e)ories" intensive seminar on Sara Ahmed's book "Queer Phenomenology," which I have been reading and thinking about for a while now [Michael and Noreen have asked me to make a response to Chapter 2, "Sexual Orientation," and Ahmed herself is leading this 2-day seminar, so I'm very, very, um . . . scared].

I'm not sure I have anything terribly coherent to say in response to your remarks, except to say how very rich and important they are [I think I need a little bit of the day to let them settle in and percolate--as you know, ethics has always been a major component of my own work so the kinds of questions you raise here are always troubling and unsettling me, and thank you for re-raising them]. But I thought maybe I would share with everyone something that's been on my mind these past two days [and which I think is partly related to this conversation here], mainly because I have been listening to the soundtrack for "Atonement," which is beautiful, but it keeps bringing me back, too, to something that really nags at me in the book [and by default, in the movie as well]: the idea, expressed by Briony in her old age and as she is entering dementia, that literature [and by extension: writing, art, etc.] can effect a certain restoration of incomplete or thwarted pasts and also bring into being missed or lost futures. Now, of course, if you've read the book [and/or seen the movie] you may know that this statement of Briony's is, perhaps, a kind of desperate and wildy unrealizable claim that even she [and by extension, McEwan] does not really believe [making the whole novel a kind of cruel and ironic joke, and more about Briony's narcissism than anything else, which *does* seem to be McEwan's forte in novel after novel], but the question kind of hangs there in the air and begs further rumination: can literature, and can scholarship, make reparations for the past? And by extension, is fiction all there ever really is, regardless of what you believe?

When I wrote [with Mary Ramsey] the Introduction ["Liquid Beowulf"] for "The Postmodern Beowulf," I was very intent on turning to this question in the conclusion by way of a speech W.G. Sebald gave at the opening of the House of Literature in Stuttgart in 2001, where he said that,

"there are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be any attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship."

Our argument, in the Introduction, was to take this statement of Sebald's and extend it to scholarship as well [which, for all of its pretensions to positivism, is itself a type of imaginative literature] and to say that,

"scholarship can also be a 'restitution,' as well as an artistic (even poetic) intervention into history that engraves and links things together in the manner of a still-life in order to [in Gerhard Richter's words, following Benjamin] 'grasp the ways in which [history's] images flash up only in the fleeting moment that illuminates . . . a field of endless relations that cannot be reduced to any realist or literalist concern'."

And then we also cited Edward Said's words, that *really* resonate with our conversation here, I think, that "rather than being defined by the silent past, commanded by it to speak in the present, criticism, no less than any text, is the present in the course of its articulation, its struggles for definition."

So, this is all just to say that, over the past couple of days, I've been thinking a lot about the tension that inheres between what McEwan's novel is trying to tell us, perhaps, about either the futility or centrality of fiction [in historical memory and in the restorations/reparations of those memories] and Sebald's faith in literature as an act of historical restitution. And also about whether what Said says is also true: that criticism [even when it is focused on an artifact from the deep past] is always, on some level, a struggle for definition [its own definition as well as the definition of the critic herself] in the present.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: as to your comments regarding "how do I do it???!", I myself had thrust upon me this year the position of Director of Graduate Studies in my department and this has really almost overwhelmed me, plus agreeing to organize the annual meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association next October has likewise thrown me for a loop, but "how I do it" has something to do--and this is only in my case, as I see it--with how very manic I am and the fact that I just want to cram in as much of everything as I can in every possible minute I can find literally because it feels good to do so. I also have a lifestyle, as I've written about here before, that lends itself to long, intensive periods of solitary time without other obligations touching upon me [even something as supposedly "small" as putting a child to bed can take hours, and this is something I don't have to do, nor, when I am in Saint Louis, do I live with anyone, and even with all of my obligations at school, I am never scheduled to have to be in my office and/or a classroom more than 2 days a week, so I can't really complain even about school obligations].

But the real answer really is, I think, my mania which, fortunately for me, has never swung to touch bottom on the other side. A personal confession: my father and brother and other male relatives on my father's side all suffer from various bipolar and manic depressive conditions and I have seen the ravages of that up close. For most of my life I feared that that would also be my medical/psychic destiny, but now that I'm 45 and I've never experienced depression [except in the mildest forms and usually triggered by very observable causes, such as losing a job, the death of a friend, etc.], I can see that I have a different sort of wiring problem: for me, if there is a problem, it is that on some days, the world is too unbearably beautiful to bear or make full sense of, and out of this feeling pours more words and thoughts and ideas for projects than I know what to do with, and so I guess that's my explanation. And that's more about myself than I've ever wanted to say in public, but somehow, this blog brings it out, because I know I am among friends.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

To return, as promised, to Eileen's full and useful comments from Wednesday:

Thanks for filling me in on some of the thinking that unfolded behind the formulation of the panel. I know that you know that my kvetching was aimed at me, not the panel at which I've been tricked/duped/menaced etc. into being present. In some of my recent work (especially the "Weight of the Past" project) I've been staging an encounter with my own "old" scholarship, exploring the ways in which it might through Lacanian-inflected readings petrify its object of study, and wanting through rocky architectures like Stonehenge (or at least Stonehenge as narrated by Geoffrey of Monmouth) to perform a rendezvous with the past's art that resists immobilizing the object under scrutiny, that enables even massive stones an unsettled encounter and a kinetic future. I wouldn't be able to initiate such a performance if I hadn't laid some groundwork by thinking about temporality in mobile terms, so instead of becoming frustrated with not surpassing that corpus I probably ought simply to have acknowledged how intimate it has become to my current work, which now attempts to push its inklings towards more distant horizons. Or at least more artful ones.

Eileen, you bring in that Bynum article from Critical Inquiry ("Why All the Fuss About the Body?"), an article that when it came out in 1995 I spent a fair amount of time arguing against -- at least, against its subtitle "A Medievalist's Perspective" becoming "THE Medievalist Perspective," because that seemed to be how it was being received. It was great that non-medievalists were reading a medievalist's work; it was not so great that the essay was being treated as the consenus medievalist position on body criticism. There are many accolades to be heaped upon the essay, do not get me wrong. But what I didn't get was the unnuanced account of contemporary work on the body, stressing discontinuity across disciplines. At the time I was in a 'body reading group" that had among its members faculty in continental philosophy, anthropology, Women's Studies, and English. None of us recognized the field as Bynum described it; none of us agreed that the body was as discipline specific as Bynum was making it out to be. But more puzzling to me was why make the argument "more death less sex" (I think you could fairly reduce the essay's central thesis to that slogan) at a time when queer theory was offering such a powerfully affirmative vision of why the body matters?

To return to Christopher Tilley, in Materiality of Stone (which as blog readers know is one of my favorite recent books): "But the context of a stone is not simply its spatial background or horizon. It always involves time as well. The backgrounds of a thing are constituted out of a whole network of past experiences and future expectations which are not, in any empirical sense, part of our immediate sensory fields. Thus the invisible aspects of a stone are as essential to its meaning and significance as those that are visible."

The same with texts. And, as Tilley points out, the only way to encounter such an inherently multiple temporality is through criticism as performance art: "Writing the past in the present is always a creative act, a conceptual dreamwork." For this kind of artful writing, as he says, we must offer no apology:

"Human beings, and their responses to the world around them, are infinitely flexible, and the power of the human imagination in response to place has few limits. Inevitably, our creative response to the remains that we have studied is a metaphorical work of art for which we make no apology. This is to stress the contemporaneity of archaeological discourse and practice as always something produced in the present and for the present, and ultimately for our own edification. Writing the landscapes of the past is an ordering of a disorded reality. It gives them a place in the future and thus makes them relevant to our lives."

In "The Weight of the Past" and the projects (like this one for K'zoo) related to it, I have tried to foreground my own situatedness, my own presence in the present, the objects and affects that come along with me. Here's what I wrote recently in an essay that will be published in a collection being put together by Liz Scala and Sylvia Federico on "Post Historicism" (a collection, by the way, that has a hand grenade of an essay by Liz on the gender of historicism -- provocative stuff that is going to ignite a very important and long overdue conversation):

"Even more than Tilley, though, I am interested in how history exists only in a plural state: an ebullient then crashing against a vivacious now and shaping times to be. I have therefore intermixed in this essay what is personal (my children, who change every time I look at them; my history of scholarship, a record of tentative and inadequate probings of pasts I am incapable of understanding in their fullness) with what is medieval (stories about stones, bodies, and the human desires discernable in the ceaseless movements of both). My aim has been to keep my analysis unsettled, lively, gregarious, hoping to open the prehistoric to the posthistoric by mapping their common trajectories, by discovering the points at which they both take flight … whether from Africa to Wiltshire by way of Ireland, or to the present by means of books, rocks, kids and corpses."

Well, we'll see if it works. But my paper for "What is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?" will have traces of all these things -- and of this very rich conversation on the blog -- contained within it.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

One more thing -- this time about temporality and blog community.

Eileen and I often seem to get hooked by similar subjects simultaneously. In fact, sometimes I'm deeply influenced by something she hasn't even written yet. Though we have seldom shared geographically proximate space, at some point a neuron or two from her cranium was absorbed into mine so that we occasionally wind up being untimely at the same time. That's a convoluted way of expressing gratitude to Eileen for both organizing a panel that is giving me the spur to think about a topic very dear to me, and for her recent comments (which have aided that thinking immensely).

But I also want to thank Mary Kate and Karl for two recent catalyzing moments. First, MKH, for sharing your work on translation, both at ITM and with me over breakfast in NYC. Thinking about how words carry and are transformed by that movement has to be at the heart of any project aimed at bridging past, present and future.

Karl helped me in two ways, one of which I thanked him for in person already, but want to make public as well:
(1) his reminder here about avoiding lachrymose history by avoiding termination points that don't have to be culminations, and
(2) his use of some phrases that may become his lexical trademarks (like Zizek's "qua" or Grosz's "thinking the new"). Specifically, I am thinking about how he has been productively foregrounding himself and his desires in some of the writing that has appeared on the blog recently. Thus in this very comments thread: "From there I want to develop..." -- an acknowledgment that it requires a certain act of will, as well as perhaps a longing, to make something emerge at interstice of present and past. Even more strongly, in his revised last paragraph to his Phoenix and Turtle essay:

Wondering, I want to imagine—certainly not to identify—the unnamed “bird of loudest” lay of the opening line as the two purportedly dead birds, the singing dove with-in the perpetual presencing of the Phoenix, in whose form the birds are so mingled that they have become unrecognizable, but not unseen. Despite the poem’s generic affiliation with other poems of avian allegory, I want to imagine this bird, and all its birds, not only as disguised human subjectivities, but also as animals, not allegorical ...

An act of imagination, of desire, of resistance -- not the revelation of something natural or incontrovertible within the text itself. An act of making art through the "brushing against" he describes in the poem.

That's a long way of saying that the temporal situation of the interpreter/artist/critic matters, as does his or her desires, and in the touching of these movements against those of a dynamic past can be glimpsed ... the place of the present in medieval studies.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks, Jeffrey, for such a rich response to my and others' musings here. One reason that I wanted to quote that bit from Bynum's essay "Why All the Fuss About the Body?" was that I had a hunch that you would not "sign on" to the idea that the supposed alterity/difference of the Middle Ages [which is assumed to "stand still" long enough for us to be able to describe its contours and longings] is the most proper object of inquiry for medieval studies, even when those medieval studies might still be asking of the past questions framed by the present [or that seem to be most "pressing" in the present]. My main interest in the essay as a teaching tool has always been Bynum's useful delineation [in terms my students can really understand] of some of the conflicted questions that have circulated around identity, in the past and now, in relation to what we believe to be its "individuality" and its "spatiotemporal continuity." But I have also complicated Bynum's argument by teaching it alongside Deleuze and Guattari's "One or Several Wolves," which I did last semester in my Post/human Literatures course, alongside, also, a viewing of David Cronenberg's "The Fly" and some readings in medieval werewolf tales and Ovid's "Metamorphoses." But one thing I had *not* thought about until Jeffrey brought it up here is the "more death less sex" angle of Bynum's argument, although I wonder if, in queer studies/body studies, we always need both [how else, too, could Lee Edelman have arrived at his "No Future" book, I wonder, while at the same time I often think it is a sort of Western philosophical/religious/psychoanalytic trap to always collapse sex/sexuality into death, which is part of the reason I resist both Edelman and Bersani sometimes because I feel I've "been there, done that" before--Freud?--and didn't like it the first time]. But I would also say, still, that thinking about bodies in relation to death is very useful and this happens to be the main concern recently of Bryan S. Turner [who kind of invented the field of "sociology of the body"], although he stages his thought on the body now through what he calls its "vulnerability" or "availability" for "wounding"--I can't wait until this book comes out, which is apparently in process.

But Jeffrey, you also bring up the question of "affirmative" [sex-centered] versus "negative" [death-centered] body studies, and this really interests me in relation to Bynum's work, not just in this essay, but also in her books such as "Metamorphosis and Identity," "Fragmentation and Redemption," and more recently in "Wonderful Blood," which arrived in my study recently but which I have not yet read. All of which is just to say that I wonder myself if we should engage in this binary [forgive my reductiveness, oh JJC!]? In other words, is it possible that a death-centered body studies could be affirmative in ways that sex-centered body studies are not, and vice versa, and simultaneously? Well, this is just me, arguing as always for a multi-phonic everything studies.

I can't tell you enough, either, Jeffrey how much your thinking and reading suggestions, especially in relation to your "weight of the past" project, and especially the Tilley book most recently, have really been helping me with my own thinking re: queer phenomenologies and eros, so thank you so much for that. I'm not sure I would have ever turned to considerations of both temporality and spatiality in my work if it were not for your influence there. In fact, when I give my pretty short [something like 7 or so minutes, I think] response to Sara Ahmed's "Queer Phenomenology" in May I want to highlight what I think is sometimes missing in these 'contemporary' queer studies projects: deep history, but how to talk about it in what I would call a mode that is *sympathetic* with that contemporary work, and since Ahmed is very much concerned at present with phenomenology [and with how certain bodies *extend* in certain spaces], the Tilley quotation you share here is so apropos to helping me do just that, by which I mean this bit:

"The backgrounds of a thing are constituted out of a whole network of past experiences and future expectations which are not, in any empirical sense, part of our immediate sensory fields. Thus the invisible aspects of a stone are as essential to its meaning and significance as those that are visible."

I very much love your invocation of the phrase "opening up": the idea that our scholarship can effect a kind of "opening" or rift/fork [to cadge from William Connolly] in time within which "ebullient pasts" can touch/brush up against/face "vivacious nows." But most importantly, for me, and thinking of Deleuze and Guattari [which I can't help you were thinking about, too], is your point about what might "take flight" in that "opening up," which recalls to me D&G's ideas of de-territorialization and "aparallel" becoming-worlds.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Rich discussion y'all, to which by way of response I will offer, with special relevance to Karl's meditations on work and all the talk about weight, a bit from my KZoo paper in progress which probably won't actually make it into the paper due to time constraints:

Actuality, which takes the intellectual form of the fact that something is and the perceptual form of the presence of something (such that it can be indicated, deictically, as that), coincides with work in the sense that to work is to make something actual, both work’s material, which working must engage with as it is, and work’s product, which working realizes or makes present through its material. Whence factum (something made) becomes the word for something recognized as true or real. Wirklichkeit (actuality) is similarly rooted in work and is accordingly used by Heidegger to explicate the scholastic concept of existence as a concept of being grounded in enactment:

Being is actualitas. Something exists if it is actu, ergo, on the basis of an agere, a Wirken, a working, operating or effecting (energein). Existence (existere) in this broadest sense . . . means Gewirktheit, enactedness, effectedness, or again, the Wirklichkeit, actuality, that lies in enactedness (actualitas, energeia, entelecheia).

Put simply, being, as existence, is labor, work, action, prior to but also necessarily through any and all specific forms of labor, work, and action that existence involves. The distinctions Hannah Arendt draws between these categories in The Human Condition may be appropriate to the phenomenal, symbolic, and social differences between them, but to divide them ontologically, with regard to their being, does violence to the actuality of human existence. Against such divisions, which serve to uphold and exploit the alienation of labor from life, should be set Bruno Gullì’s demonstration that “‘labor’ is to political and social ontology (or poetic metaphysics) what ‘being’ is to pure ontology,” which arrives at an understanding of a foundational relation between work and actuality from within the concept of labor. For Gullì, labor is essentially “living labor,” something that has life as “the most essential constituent of its ‘what,’ of it substance,” which means that “labor is real labor in the same way in which, in Scotus’s metaphysics, the concept of being is real being and not a logical universal.” In this real universal sense, as “a production that spans the range of human activity from economy to culture: a poetic praxis, a practical poiesis,” labor is the actuality that makes doing being and being doing, or as Gullì says, “labor is being as sensuous human activity.” This understanding of labor points back to the place where work is known not as something added to being but as an unfolding of being’s actuality. Work is not merely something beings do because they have or want to. Work is the playing out in intentional action, the enactment, of the having or wanting of itself which is the very structure of being as actual existence, in short, an enactment of actuality. Explicating a similar relation between work and being, Levinas derives labor from embodiment as dwelling, as the having of body that is consciousness:

Labor comes from a being that is a thing among things and in contact with things, but, within this contact, coming from its being at home with itself. Consciousness does not fall into a body – is not incarnated; it is a disincarnation – or, more exactly, a postponing of the corporeity of the body. This is not produced in the ether of abstract but as all the concreteness of dwelling and labor.

Likewise, the negativity of labor is situated not merely in labor’s affects, nor in its social structures, but in the situation of being’s having of itself as an imposition, as the burden of having to be, of not being at home with itself, the situation of being as exile and self-refusal. The burdensomeness of labor thus enacts the deeper burden of being whose generic concrete term is the body. “To be a body,” says Levinas, “is on the one hand to stand [se tenir], to be master of oneself, and, on the other hand, to stand on the earth, to be in the other, and thus to be encumbered by one’s body.” In short, the duality of work which is emblematized in the identity and difference between labor and work, that is, the duality whereby work is always both suffering and production, is traceable to this ambiguity of the body. And “this ambiguity of the body,” says Levinas, “by which the I is engaged in the other but comes always from the hither side, is produced in labor.” Work is a lifting of the burden of being, but only and precisely because it enters into a more burdensome contact with being, because it labors under its weight as its own.

Karl Steel said...

I love the quotations above, from Sebald, from Tilly, from Said, from Benjamin, but I have to add on a few points:

Re the McKewan, and, since this is from a conversation with ALK yesterday, I can't take much credit for it, except to the extent that it speaks so well of concerns I've voiced here repeatedly: in our acts of representation, for whatever purpose, what remains to the represented? What is occluded, what is frozen, in the act of speaking-for? I'd want us (thx, Jeffrey, for calling attention this this 'trademark': I like the attentiveness, & I love your generous interpretation, but of course I feel either self-conscious or feel that the trademark is a parasite substituting for what was my own nervous system: but if Zizek can keep on "is this not the very"-ing, then I can keep on "I want to"-ing) begin again, I want us to foreground the creative, involved, deliberate interventions we make when we speak of something, always knowing that interventions cannot help but be an appropriation. But, lest we feel overwhelmed by our responsibility for the crime of appropriation, we should also know that this is not all we do. And here, I have to thank the blog for every idea that follows. We are also asking that thing, that past--the stone, the Lindow Man, the 'table'--to join with us, or to allow us into it, in what is less an appropriation than it is a conjunction, an act of love, an embracing that changes all of us. So when Eileen praises Jeffrey, I very much love your invocation of the phrase "opening up": the idea that our scholarship can effect a kind of "opening" or rift/fork [to cadge from William Connolly] in time within which "ebullient pasts" can touch/brush up against/face "vivacious nows," I want to think both in terms of brushing against, but also in terms of Howie, in terms of the intimacies of mutual enclosure.

Point 2: I hate to keep picking on the Tilly, especially when I've yet to read it, but given what's above, I have to resist this: Human beings, and their responses to the world around them, are infinitely flexible, and the power of the human imagination in response to place has few limits. Which is it: infinite or limited? I'd say: 1) certainly not infinitely flexible (here Karl invokes the human unwelt); 2) and we have no full idea of our limits. I can't help but quote, well, the same bit, Tilly-against-Tilly, that Eileen quotes, the invisible aspects of a stone are as essential to its meaning and significance as those that are visible, but also this week's bathroom reading, in this case a short story by H. P. Lovecraft, "From Beyond," where this episode's half-mad WASP says, "With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with a wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have" (The Lurking Fear and Other Stories, Random House, 1971, 60). I'm of course not accusing you, Jeffrey, of anything of which I accuse Tilly (so unfairly), since foregrounding your own situatedness is the very opposite of pretensions to the vastness of human ability.

Nonetheless, again, I want to stress that the "ebullient then crashing against a vivacious now and shaping times to be" should also consider the organization of work: on whose behalf we have been encouraged/made to work? We should also ask similar questions for the objects of our study that we invite into, that intrude on, that offer themselves to our becoming. He invokes Ahmed's table again. However, in making this plea, I want to avoid the charge of "insufficient seriousness": somehow, I want to make my Marxist pleas in love.

(and here, too, for Nicola's characteristically rich meditations on work, where, perhaps, he's moving beyond considerations of work as organizations of work--again, with the inequities this organization has, to date, implied or demanded--and into a place where work is known not as something added to being but as an unfolding of being’s actuality: Work is not merely something beings do because they have or want to. Acknowledged, but I don't want to collapse distinctions between kinds of work, kinds of compulsions, kinds of encounters in labor (including encounters between pasts, presents, and what these encounters offer to both the past and future), because, again, what's left out in such collapsing, as least so far as I can determine right now, are the ethical demands placed on us in these encounters and by our knowledge of the organizations of work).

Bryan S. Turner [who kind of invented the field of "sociology of the body"], although he stages his thought on the body now through what he calls its "vulnerability" or "availability" for "wounding"--I can't wait until this book comes out, which is apparently in process.

Oh lord: it's on my list now. Derrida's animal work tries to imagine (natch) an ethics at whose heart is a 'not being able,' a vulnerability, rather than a shared set of rights (for "rights," see, e.g., Nussbaum or, if I have him right, Singer). Sounds like Turner will pick things up where Derrida, sadly, had to leave them off. There's a shelf-load of new animal books, but this might be the ticket to something entirely new.

In other words, is it possible that a death-centered body studies could be affirmative in ways that sex-centered body studies are not, and vice versa, and simultaneously?
I'd say yes, if 'death' is understood metaphorically as a giving up of identity rather than a terminus. But I know I'm far from the first to say this.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Are you all stealing mah panels? Expect an e-mail!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I know this formerly scorchin' hot thread has dwindled to embers now, but as I return to it (as I return once more to that K'zoo paper), I just want to add something to Karl's las comment.

The Tilley quotation that you quiblle with is the ending movement of his book, and as the rhetoric of conclusion demands he overstates his case. I don't think he ever argues that humans are literally "infinitely flexible." That grandiose formulation is meant to underscore that his work is aimed at granting the prehistoric as full a range as possible for human inventiveness, cleverness, possibility. The book hybridizes phenomenology and hardcore fieldwork, so in it you get passages on rising sea levels, significance of choices made among rocks of varying textures, past and present experience of navigating stone architectures, mapping of orientations in space ... that is, much on the interaction of multiple delimiting agents, proceeding from "almost all things are possible" to "but these are the choices made, the structures built, the interactions catalyzed, and here are the embodied consequences." That is, he is kind of like Bruno Latour: the world is suffused with possibility, but multiple agents and networks constrain/delimit/produce those possibilities into factual reality.

By the way, re: Ahmed's table, I like how you put its manufacture back within an economic narrative. She is I (if I remember correctly from her book Queer Phenomenology) more interested in the table's history as an example within analytical philosophy, and takes it towards gender rather than labor ... but the work you suggest is just as important.