by EILEEN JOY
When the Call for Papers for the 2008 meeting of the New Chaucer Society came out some months ago, I was astounded. With Congress session sections ranging from "Form and Aesthetics" to "Transitions, Ruptures, and Temporalities" to "Geographies and Colonizations" to "Devotion, Dissent, and Diaspora" and beyond, this looked to me to be the conference to not miss. I was especially interested in the description of the session section on "Gender versus Sexuality," organized by Diane Watt:
In the last two decades, the focus on sex and gender (primarily conceived in terms of the male-female, masculinity-femininity binaries) in Chaucer and Middle-English Studies has shifted to one on sexuality (which often eschews binary categories and embraces more fluid definitions and categories). Meanwhile, the trend within gender criticism has moved away from thinking about women, the female, femininity, and anti-feminism, to exploring men, the male, and masculinity. At the same time, gender, sexuality and queer are sometimes used as if they were synonymous terms. To what extent, in medieval criticism, is gender opposed to or equivalent to sexuality? Does a focus on sexuality elide questions of gender, especially in relation to women? To what extent does the opposition between gender and sexuality arise out of tensions and conflicts between feminism and queer theory? Indeed is feminism an outdated discourse or are there valid new feminisms (such as postcolonial feminism, or, of course, queer feminism or lesbian feminism)? What can feminist approaches to Chaucer and medieval literature learn from queer studies, and what can queer approaches learn from feminism? As we debate these terms, feminism and gender studies continue to thrive, giving us new insights into periods like the fifteenth century and introducing new ways of thinking about issues like place, time and space.With panel sessions within this section on "Queer Times and Places" [organized by Bob Mills] and "Gendered Spaces and Sexualized Places" [organized by Michelle Sauer] and "Gender versus Sexuality" [organized by Karma Lochrie], I thought, "who the hell would miss this?" Now that the program is also online, and I can see who exactly will be on these and other panels [including our very own Jeffrey and Betsy M. on a panel on the politics of memory], I am asking myself why I chose to go to the Leeds Congress instead? I thought briefly about throwing myself out of a one-story window, but then realized that since Clare Lees and Diane Watt would also be at Leeds [in addition to being at the NCS meeting in Swansea], and since I would be on a roundtable that Clare organized on "Locating Gender in the Middle Ages" [in order to examine "how genders and sexualities are mapped discursively, linguistically, poetically, materially, and analytically"], that maybe I wouldn't throw myself out the window after all.
But then when I realized that the thought of having to address the topic of gender filled me with dread, and jumping out windows was looking good to me again. I had some relief when Clare informed us that we would each have about five minutes and that's about three good paragraphs--this is either completely liberating or a kind of challenge that maybe even Judith Butler would wilt under. Suffice to say, I've been panicking for about two weeks or so regarding what I should or would want to say. I piled up every book on gender/sex/sexuality imaginable on my dining room table and hoped that their collective intellectual weight would engage in some kind of osmotic synthesis or else crash the table and me with it. I considered the term "gender" in relation to my own life experience. No, still nothing [I mean, there's a lot of little somethings, but nothing definitive, nothing I would want to stake an analysis upon--get real: is there anything more essentialist than your own life?]. Do you think it is fair to say that, after about twenty years of feminist, gender, sex and sexuality, and queer studies, the question/issue/materiality/location of gender could not be more confused, or confusing? It's one of those subjects where, the minute you begin trying to describe it, as Butler would say, you engage in a hopeless process whereby "[a]nything we might say against it [sexual difference] is oblique proof that it structures what we say. Is it there in a primary sense, haunting the primary differentiations or structural fate by which all signification proceeds?" [Undoing Gender, p. 177] Ummm . . . DUH!
Well, after some struggling and crying and even pleading with my dog Sparky to pitch in [he declined], I did manage to cobble together some random notes which I am hoping will assemble themselves into three tidy paragraphs by July 7th, and any critical suggestions from our readers for how I might continue shaping these thoughts would be most helpful. I want to acknowledge a debt here as well to Holly Crocker, who first got me thinking of gender, and more importantly, the human, as a location or topography, something that accords with the medievalist historian David Gary Shaw's idea of the person as a "highly localized site of awareness" [in his book Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England]. In some remarks that Holly contributed to a BABEL Working Group roundtable session on "Medieval Humanisms/Modern Humanisms" at the 2005 meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association, she had this to say:
I’d like to suggest that gender is more about places than times. Gender is a structure of difference, and as such, it immediately illuminates what Jeffrey Cohen calls the “temporal interlacement” of the Middle Ages: the “the impossibility of choosing alterity or continuity” as a critical model for contemporary scholars. And, considering the post-historicist interest in medieval studies in “place” (a la David Wallace's Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn), it seems that we should put more thought into the human as its own “topographical mode,” if you will. One of the ways of mapping the human, I maintain, is gender. But it is not just that gender is a way of drawing lines that demarcate what counts as (in)human in a binarized polarity--it is, but that’s not so interesting. Rather, if we think of gender as a mode of “placement,” I would like also to pursue the ways that its processes of alignment naturalize certain of its divisions. In other words, I’d like to suggest that the elision of “masculine” and “human” is a way, first, to exile all that which is not readable as masculine from the ambit of the human. . . . I’d like to suggest that contemporary interest in “place”--which often defies temporalities--needs to be thought of as an active category of difference that can have troubling consequences over time. Placing the human, particularly through constructions of gender difference, allows us to think about the structures that we continue to respect as visibly neutral (or outside time). These can be quite tangible (and here I’m thinking about texts and their material constructions), but they can also be quite abstract. The ways in which the tangible and abstract of what we count as “human” bleed into one another, then, and calls upon us to review the ways in which categories that we’ve often thought outside the domain of place--race, class, gender, sexuality, religion--are in many ways the place-holders for a “human” identity that stands apart from all of these, except in privileged, rarefied, and fantasized ways (and here I want to bring in Bruno Latour’s exhortation that we recognize the “fact” as a gathering--like a place, or a storehouse, to bring in Mary Carruthers or Vance Smith--over which we exercise creative control through time).So, with all that, and more, in mind, herewith are my own thoughts for the Leeds panel on "Locating Gender in the Middle Ages":
I. Confusion/The Question/Ethics/Unsettledness/Crossings
My first foray into gender studies was a feminist theory reading group I belonged to from 1993-1995, where we read Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter, among other texts; I can safely say that since that point, after fifteen years of reading in feminist, gender, sexuality, and queer studies, and having spent a good deal of the mid- to late 1980s as a gay/AIDS activist [and most of the late 1990s and early to mid-2000s being disgusted with a gay activism that sees “gay marriage” as the most important rallying point for a gay politics], that I feel less sure about what gender IS than I have at any other point in my life; with Judith Butler, in Undoing Gender, I agree that the terms “sexual difference,” “gender,” and “sexuality” have come into conflict with one another, and currently, feminist studies are often viewed as having to do with gender whereas queer studies are viewed as having to do with sex and sexuality [and we might ask, what kinds of critico-theoretical as well as more practically political problems does this cause for us?]; following Butler, who is following Irigiray, I am interested in an ethics “which is not one that follows from sexual difference but is a question that is posed by the very terms of sexual difference itself: how to cross this otherness? How to cross it without crossing it, without domesticating its terms? How to remain attuned to what remains permanently unsettled about the question?” [p. 177]; this is especially important for premodern studies, I think, when we understand, pace Butler, that “the question of sexual difference” is a question “whose irresolution forms a certain historical trajectory”; finally, we must keep in mind that one of the problems sexual difference poses is “the permanent difficulty of determining where the biological, the psychic, the discursive, the social begin and end” [p. 185]: therefore, sexual difference is “neither fully given not fully constructed, but partially both,” and it possesses “psychic, somatic, and social dimensions that are never quite collapsible into one another but are not for that reason ultimately distinct”; the important questions are then posed by Butler: “Does sexual difference vacillate there, as a vacillating border, demanding a rearticulation of those terms without any sense of finality? Is it, therefore, not a thing, not a fact, nor a presupposition, but rather a demand for rearticulation that never quite vanishes—but also never quite appears?” [p. `186]; the question of sexual difference, then, must always remain “open, troubling, unresolved, propitious” [p. 192].
II. Inter-betweenities/Intensities/Immanent Gender
In the journal PhaenEx’s recent call for essays,* the editors ask for papers on the “in-between”:
What is neither here nor there, now nor then? What resides or occurs in the in-between, and what is its meaning or purpose? And what is the meaning or purpose of the edges that mark the liminality of both this in-between, and the phenomena on either side of it? What are the rhythms, speeds, contours or densities of the in-between? What affects, sensations or movements do edges evoke? Can the in-between be known, can we dwell there - or do we only ever traverse this phenomenon, pass through or pass over? Do edges draw a clear line in the proverbial sand, or do they rather shift like the waves of sands across a desert? "The in-between" and "edges" are clearly related phenomena, in that they both raise questions about the limits of binary systems of classification and the identity of things as discrete and separate entities. But what is the nature of this relation? How do the phenomena of the in-between and edges support one another, challenge one another, or even form the condition of possibility for one another?In-betweennesses, or what Michael O'Rourke recently called inter-betweenities [and not to be necessarily conflated with the liminalities of certain anthropologically-inflected critical discourses of past decades], are decidedly "in the air" of current intellectual discourse. With the Anglo-Latin and Old English narratives of the eigth-century Mercian hermit-saint Guthlac as my touchstone texts [and with a particular focus on the flows and intensities of Guthlac’s demonic flight, his “companion” Beccel who mourns him—but whose presence is suppressed until the end of the narrative—and the self-prohibition Guthlac establishes to never be with his sister in life so that they can be together in eternity after death], I want to ask if it is possible to think about how sexual difference in these texts is posed as a type of chiasm within which certain “affects, sensations, and movements” are evoked and also “crossed”; further, I want to explore how, in Deleuze’s terms, gender, as well as “a life,” is always “everywhere, in all the moments that a given living subject goes through and that are measured by given lived objects: an immanent life carrying with it the events or singularities that are merely actualized in subjects and objects. This indefinite life does not itself have moments, close as they may be to one another, but only between-times, between-moments; it doesn’t just come about or come after but offers the immensity of an empty time where one sees the event yet to come and already happened, in the absolute of an immediate consciousness. . . . One [gender] is always the index of a multiplicity” [“Immanence: A Life”].
*special thanks go to Michael O'Rourke, for the reference to PhaenEx, and also for turning me on, via a syllabus of John Caputo's [REL660 Theology of the Flesh], to Deleuze's "Immanence: A Life." Is there anything cool we could want to know that MOR doesn't already know? No.