Friday, August 15, 2008

De amicitia

by J J Cohen

Today our second annual ITMBC4DSoMA, a communal reading of Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval, comes to its close.

CD's book has passed so thoroughly into the conversations of contemporary medieval studies that it is difficult to visit the text anew. Don't get me wrong: GM has been neither surpassed nor assimilated. But as our posts and discussions here have made clear, the volume continues to be a catalyst for some of the most important interchanges in the profession. Less than a decade after its publication, the book is well on its way to status as a classic.

So, some closing thoughts. What GM most leaves me with is its productive utopianism based in affective, heterogeneous communities. CD writes:
We can make alliances across conventional boundaries. And as we try to recontextualize the debates, to empower different players and audiences, I see the necessity of doing what I am doing here: preaching to the converted. (181)
"The converted," she warns, "is never a single, monolithic category":
Everyone reading this, I would hazard, already believes in academic freedom. But not everyone reading this, I imagine, is queer or queer-friendly ... And (in the spirit of Margery Kempe) all of us -- not just the elect -- can preach: each of us can embrace the project of building coalitions (those postmodern communities). (181, 182)
She concludes her book with what in the Middle Ages would be called a benedicite:
Getting medieval: not undertaking brutal private vengeance in a triumphal and unregulated bloodbath ... not turning from an impure identity to some solidity guaranteed by God ... but using ideas of the past, creating relations with the past, touching in this way in our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future. (206)
Nine years after reading these lines for the first time, they still leave me dizzy: the vertigo of experiencing temporality in creative and nonlinear ways; the intoxication of their sheer affirmativeness; the (hopeless?) romanticism of believing that we can have a community beyond brutality, vengeance, purifications, boundary guarding -- beyond, that is, what medieval studies can be at its worst: intent on establishing a disciplinary cordon sanitaire, delighting in enforcing a licit ambit and using the anonymity of peer review and other mechanisms of the profession to police that territory.

That is not a vision of medieval studies that will be familiar to many of this blog's readers, thank goodness. Medieval studies is far more congenial now than it was a decade or two ago. Attempts to circumscribe narrowly what the discipline ought to be have not, however, wholly vanished: they are alive and well, and many of us have stories to tell of reader's reports or reviews in journals or comments in blogs. But even though I could tell many such tales myself, I must admit to finding them, ultimately, tiresome. They can come to seem the reality of the field when in fact -- take it from someone who has been working here for sixteen years -- they are only a small fragment of an expansive and, for the most part, convivial discipline.

Mary Kate recently called my attention back to a brilliant essay by Gillian Overing. Composed in 1993, the piece is a response to a paper by Tom Shippey and was delivered immediately after his remarks at an MLA panel. Shippey was, to put it mildly, ungracious towards the works he lingered over and then dismissed. Old English studies, he insisted, was headed in all the wrong directions, with scholars mired in their own narcissism, asking questions to which they were providing the answers. His paper contains statements about Overing's and other scholars' work like:
I often find myself rewriting her sentences ... Isn't this a case of starting with an ideal and turning over a literature till you find a match? ... But as a general rule I would say that any modern investigator who looks back at Old English and finds in it confirmation of a cherished modern thesis should check, and wonder whether this isn't too handy to be true. Also, of course, too familiar to be interesting.
To such an unsympathetic -- not to mention inaccurate -- account of what Language, Sign and Gender in Beowulf attempts or achieves, what is there to say? I suppose, like Kempe, like CD at a pivotal moment, Overing could have said Don't touch me. Who would blame her?

Instead she does something absolutely breathtaking. Mary Kate describes it, spot-on, thus: "in grand style, [she] was amazingly professional in her response ... she used her final paragraph not to excoriate, but as she puts it, to celebrate." I quote some of those words here, because ever since Mary Kate brought them back to me they have been foremost in my mind:
I come to this MLA in an unusual frame of mind--for I am here to celebrate. This session itself, and the reasons which occasion it, are cause for celebration. The developing body of recent critical scholarship in our field presents us with exciting perceptions and challenges, and enlivens and enriches our discipline overall, both our professional exchanges and our work in the classroom. I welcome it, and I would also add "about time." In the not-too-distant past I have been one of those who has lamented--and complained about--the tardy admission of new critical methodologies into the field of Old English. But I have changed my tune, because things have changed; we are changed by this new work. .... I wish to emphasize the connectedness of our work as scholars, and once again, to celebrate the ways in which this new body of scholarship in our field validates and affirms those connections between our present and past academic history, and between our own histories and the texts we study and create.
With their affirmative challenge, Overing's words resonate well with Carolyn's at the close of Getting Medieval. They are laden with possibilities for a feminist-postcolonialist-queerly inclusive future for the field, and they -- not the negative critique and boundary-drawing words to which they responded -- were the true prophecy for the field's best future. The graciousness that Overing's words possess is something that also characterizes CD's writing. We strive for something like it as well at ITM. I would be the first to admit that I often do not succeed. I removed a post recently because of such a failure. But for me it is important that scholarship take risks. Sometimes you will fall flat on your face, and it will hurt like hell. At rare times a book like Getting Medieval will be the yield of your hazard.

So I close, like Gillian Overing, with a celebration ... of friendship, because I find that word better suited to what I attempt here and in my own work than CD's community and coalition. Cicero, one of the many figures who have touched me across time, composed an essay on friendship, De amicitia. Here are some lines that have always been important to me:
When friendship has put itself forth and revealed its light, and has seen and recognized the same radiance in another, it draws near to that glow, and receives in return what the other has to give. From this convergence love [amor], or friendship [amicitia] -- call it what you will -- is ignited. These terms are, after all, equally derived in our language from loving.
Amor/amicitia. You will have gleaned already, readers, that even though we did not know each other well before we started blogging together, we four ITMers have fostered an amity that now lives as much off the blog as on. Recently I wrote to my co-bloggers: "Let some people dislike us. Whatever. We know what we value, and we hold to those values. Primary among these values is friendship, and the best thing about ITM is working and worrying with and celebrating with -- and also, simply, knowing -- you." With Carolyn Dinshaw's closing benediction still ringing in my ears, with Overing and Cicero likewise touching what I have tried to say, let me extend that last sentence and include you, the one who reads these words, whether you comment here or not. Knowing that you form part of an audience that is at times touched by "our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future" make this enterprise, this work that can sometimes seem without reward, worth every moment spent upon it.

Here is to queer touch. Here is to affirmative challenge. Here is to amicitia, and amor.


Eileen Joy said...

First, as to Mary Kate's really important questions of whether or not the past can ever even really be called "lost" [Dipesh Charabarty, among others, would say, "no, we inhabit pieces of it, at least, all the time, often without noticing because we have fooled ourselves into believing that we are thoroughly modern"], and also, as Mary Kate put it, "what are we to do with the past? And what is the past to do with – or to – us?" [and also regarding Mary Kate's asterisked endnote to herself indicating that she could recall I wrote something on ruins and the past, but what was it?], in my essay, in "Medieval Perspectives," on Tony Kushner's play "Homebody/Kabul" and the Old English poem "The Ruin" [short title: "The Hither Side of Time"] I actually cautioned *against* the romanticized notion that one can "touch" the past, and I also raised the distressing question [for myself, anyway, at the time I was writing the essay about six years ago]--via Levinas's essay "Reality and Its Shadow"--that art, and by extension, literary-historical criticism, might have *nothing* to do with the real world [not something I actually believe, by the way, but it is an idea that has to be "worked through" in ethical fashion: we cannot turn away from exploring all the possible ramifications of exploring the idea, as Levinas puts it, that the artist "exiles himself from the city" or that the artwork places subjects into "non-dialectical instants" of "immobile" time]. What further, I wanted to explore in this essay, might be the ethical ramifications of using the imagination [and one could also say, the type of criticism Dinshaw employs in her book] to stage "encounters" between the present and the past, and I mainly used Kushner's character in his play, The Homebody, to "work through" the perils and possible value of such a staging.

One of the tentative conclusions I reached is that the historical subject [whether a Margery Kempe or ourselves, as critics] is always "helplessly solitary," and if we are not extremely careful, our attempts to "touch" the others of the past will lapse into an objectification [even a fetishistic, sometimes even a racially or sexually charged fetishistic objectification] in which the historical other is not "joined" but "overcome," suppressed, mastered, etc. And yet, the past, uncannily, somehow always inheres in us, is with us all the time, not entirely Other, not entirely *over there*, somewhere else.

Are we not also always strange to ourselves, in the same way history is both strange to and intimate *with* us? [And on this subject, everyone should read Judith Butler's "Giving An Account of Oneself," which happened to be very influential, by the way, in Gillian Overing's recent talk about gender and "Beowulf" at the Anglo-Saxon Futures symposium in London this past May, so . . . convergences, convergences]. And again: are we not also strange to ourselves? This cannot be asked enough times, and I think it is connected, somehow, to Mary Kate's comment on my post about the *excess* that is always contained in any remains we might possess of past lives [the declarations made and not followed, the sudden halts along paths mapped out to destinations never reached, the creative identities--such as John/Eleanor Rykener's--partially made and enacted and then imprisoned/executed/silenced, etc.]--these are the threads of what is left hanging, as it were, and which are in need of, if not completion, some kind of historical understanding, some kind of curatorship of possibilities wished for and left undone, some kind of attention and ethical regard *paid*. But in order to proceed, cautiously, toward picking up these threads, touching them, and daring to re-articulate them, we must proceed cautiously with a kind of love that is not only looking for a type of reflection.

In Kushner's play, The Homebody is a London housewife "bound" to her sitting room where, her mind addled by a variety of pills, she mainly lives in the ancient gardens and palaces of the Afghanistan of her outdated guide-books [while at the same time, she is perfectly well aware of Afghanistan's current political history, of the horrors there under, first the Russian wars, and then the rule of the Taliban], and while her imagination runs wild with sensualized and fetishized encounters in this place only rendered to her textually and which often only bring her back to her narcissistic self bound to the bourgeois West, as it were, she nevertheless practices at the same time [much like Dinshaw in her book, I would hazard] what Levinas would call a "wakefulness" or openness of the self in which she is "exposed to the other without restraint and without reserve," and further, "The openness of the I exposed to the other is the bursting open or the turning inside-out of interiority" ("God and philosophy"). At one point in the play, as I write in my essay,

The Homebody tells us, “I love the world. I know how that sounds, inexcusable and vague, but it’s all I can say for myself,” and then, more plaintively, she poses the question, “Where stands the homebody, safe in her kitchen, on her culpable shore, suffering uselessly watching others perishing in the sea, wringing her plump little maternal hands, oh, oh. Never joining the drowning. Her feet, neither rooted nor moving.” It is in her awareness of being “neither rooted nor moving” that The Homebody comes closest to understanding her own predicament--her inability to free herself from the burden of a too-material self-relationship, what she calls “the terrible silent gardens of the private,” in order that she might meet the Other in his own time (as opposed to the time she fixes in her instant of time for their encounter, which can only hopelessly obscure the Other’s real self). In The Homebody’s anxious worrying over the world and her own place in it, we see the tension that is created when her own desperate desire to be “moved through an encounter with the beautiful and the strange” runs up against her own admission that “All touch corrupts,” and therefore, “The Present is always an awful place to be."

So, this is the predicament, as it were. But we must make the attempt, nevertheless, to move out of ourselves through encounters with the beautiful and the strange [which include our historical Others]. Although even Kushner himself wrote in his notes to the play that the Homebody stands in as a kind of warning against a Western-style objectification of the foreign, the East, the past, etc., she is also an ethical figure who herself states in her own monologue that her love for the world is *not* "that overstretched self-aggrandizing hyperinflated sort of adulation which seeks in the outsized and the impossible-to-clearly-comprehend a reflection." [And this is why, to be honest, I am not really for historical or psychoanalytic projects, as outlined, respectively, by Madhavi Menon and Jonathan Goldberg in the PMLA essay "Queering History" and Leo Bersani in "Homos" and elsewhere that aim for homo-history or sameness--I actually think Dinshaw is more admirable for insisting repeatedly on heterogeneity and disaggregation, while at the same time, it has to be admitted that her project of a queer historicism is intimately connected to her own identity as a queer and perhaps her "disaggregation" is the condition of "sameness" we all share even when we won't acknowledge it, but stil . . . .] We must risk relations with our historical Others, even through Dinshaw's "touching" or The Homebody's "love," while always already recognizing our own incompleteness and the risk of ethical violence that always remains in any kind of communitarian formation, because, as Butler writes,

"we must recognize that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when what forms us diverges from what lies before us, when our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human. To be undone by another is a primary necessity, an anguish, to be sure, but also a chance--to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, to be prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the self-sufficient 'I' as a kind of possession. If we speak and try to given an account from this place, we will not be irresponsible, or, if we are, we will surely be forgiven" [p. 136].

This brings me to Jeffrey's post here, "De amicitia," and to the question of what I want to call queer orientation, especially in the sense that Sara Ahmed gives to that term in her recent book "Queer Phenomelogy," where she writes that

"Queer orientations are those that put within reach bodies that have been made unreachable by the lines of conventional genealogy. Queer orientations might be those that don't line up, which by seeing the world 'slantwise' allow other objects to come into view." [p. 107]

And this also calls to mind Foucault's comment in an interview that homosexuality "is a historic occasion to reopen affective and relational virtualities not so much through the intrinsic qualities of the homosexual but because the ‘slantwise’ position of the latter, as it were, the diagonal lines [s]he can lay out in the social fabric allow these virtualities to come to light" ["Friendship as a Way of Life"]. Are we *queer* enough yet? No, and the epistemological evidence points to a situation in which we never will be [for, of necessity, there are those who will always choose the solitary cell of a monologic past closed off to the dialogic present over the expansive and inter-temporal Now of Dinshaw's queer historicism or the constellation of Benjamin's materialist historicism], but we must proceed *as if* and in friendship [which is not the same thing as saying we dispense with critique but perhaps that we better learn how to practice that critique as a form of affective and collaborative intervention]. There are many who will object to the privileging of the term "queer" in my thoughts here [as if this is only trendy academic sloganeering or, worse yet, that "queer" might actually = homosexuality in the most narrowly conceptualized sense, but even the fear of such tells us something, too], but I must confess that I can hardly think of a more capacious term for those with whom I really believe the historian should be most concerned: all the discounted "untouchables" of the past, and maybe also, those laboring alongside us in the archive, who we believe are also untouchable. To work together for the purposes of, paraphrasing Ivan Illich, maximizing personal energies under personal control ought to be our highest aim. Yes, let's continue to challenge each other's thought, but let us not presume to judge the value or worthlessness of [or even the personal motives behind] any one individual's life projects [unless those projects aim to harm the existence or physical or psychic well-being of others]. Let us try to understand better that the ultimate aim of a university might not be the cultivation and privileging of particular bodies of knowledge and particular methodologies that somehow predominate and "win" as the result of a continually competitive agon with other bodies of knowledge and methodologies [which is like, in my mind, a nightmare of Hegelian dialecticism gone mad], but rather, the university should be the institution most responsible for the stewardship of the generative production of every possible question that could be asked in every possible mode of inquiry, and no one would presume to know the final answers, no one would presume to have found the best "way" [albeit, in disciplines such as the sciences and social sciences, practical applications will result from some answers being better than others in particular contexts and will even save lives, but this is never a "fixed" affair with no room from further improvements and fine-tuning and even reversals].

It is, perhaps, the role of the humanities, especially, to finally throw off the fixation and fetters we have labored under for so long in Western culture, that only a rationalist hermeneutics, rigorously applied to every system of "thought," will get us anywhere. Even deconstruction, it has to be admitted, is in thrall to this method which, at a certain point, leaves us hanging. And so [and this brings us back to Dinshaw among other matters] . . . on to alterity, to our Others in history, to those working alongside us, and to ourselves: there is so much to learn about what we will never know. To continue exploring what it is that we don't know, alongside these, my friends, is meaningful work, it is pleasurable work, and it is joyful work. It is work, further, that allows us to concentrate more mindfully on the importance of relationships: these will always be more important than criticism, more important than scholarship, more important, even, than the past or the future. For if we can *be* present to each other in the way Butler recommends in "Giving An Account of Oneself," then we will understand better, as Butler writes, that ethics cannot be separated from "the matter of social life and the historically revisable grids of intelligibility within which any of us emerge" [p. 135]. And that is another reason why Dinshaw's affective historicism matters and how, when we are together, in amity, and also looking out for others not yet with us [or never wanting to be], the future has not been neglected.

Eileen Joy said...

I idiotically left off my preamble to my comment above, which was to say this:

I was just composing a response to Mary Kate's post on Dinshaw's book, "The Ruins and the Past," and also to a comment she made on my post, "Time is the Question of the Subject," having to do with the *excesses* of persons "left over," as it were, in history [and what we are to make of/do with those excesses], and I was also ruminating on a response to Jeffrey's post "[Noli] me Tangere," and then realized, just now reading "De amicitia," that everything I want to say, actually, belongs right here.

[And then, the longer comment everyone sees above.]

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeffrey—

I’m glad you wrote this post, mainly because it gets at the heart of what is admirable about ITM. The community (and I’ll stick with that term) you have gathered here is one of genuine affection and respect. It is clear that you and your co-bloggers really like each other, and the comfort you feel in each other’s cyber-company obviously encourages you to greater experimentation in your thought and work. This community’s emphasis on friendship, then, is a model for professional collegiality.

That is not to say, however, that your relationships on this blog are the same thing as professional collegiality. As I was saying to a friend the other day, ITM is *just* a blog. I realize that many of you will object—I’ve seen posts on this site hailing the transformations blogging will bring to the profession, and I know there are those who think that blogging *is* scholarship. That is probably true of some blogs, but I would say that ITM is not in that category. Many of you post work in progress on this site—many of you work to bring together an array of materials that open up discussion in new directions—but that is not the same thing as scholarship. I think of ITM as a scholarship support group, and I’m always glad to watch how you do your collaborative thinking. I know that professional scholarship comes out of the conversations that go on here; but I think there’s a category distinction between blog work and professional work that might be worth maintaining.

To classify ITM as a full-on professional blog would not only be inaccurate; it would also do a disservice to the amity you’ve created here. Blogs in the academy that are fully professionalized have a very rigidified structure (for one example, see Brian Leiter’s, and the posts are subject to much more contention, judgment, and sometimes punishment than one will ever see at ITM. There, no one posts about their kids, their gardens, or their hang-out sessions at conferences. Junior people in the profession (much less grad students) are much more circumspect about participation. When disagreements happen, they can have real professional effects, often negative.

Before you all object, and claim that ITM is just “friendlier” than those other blogs, and that you’ve created a different model of scholarship, allow me preemptively to disagree. I think your readers respect the affirmative environment that you’ve created here, and so post accordingly. If I disagree with a comment someone makes, most of the time I simply move back to my everyday work. I know this is not a space in which sharp disagreement is encouraged. To write such a post, I know from recent experience, seems like a violation of the mutually-reinforcing atmosphere you’ve got going on. It looks strident and extreme. Who wants to be the jerk railing against such “friendly” people? Not me.

So I’m glad to see Jeffrey’s affirmation of friendship as the central force behind ITM. Even if the coziness here strikes some as over the top, I’ve always taken it to be what he represents in this post: several friends thinking through some things on blog, all the while congratulating each other on varied successes that happen off blog. When Jeffrey announces new work by one of the community’s contributors, I respond to it as I would a friend showing off a recent publication. I am genuinely happy for that person, but I know what we are sharing is not professional recognition. So, at the end of a long, hot summer, I am glad to see Jeffrey’s reminder that we might all chill out a bit…no moral cowardice in that.



Eileen Joy said...

Holly: thanks so much for your comments here. I do want to clarify one thing, though--don't we all need disagreement in some fashion in order to push our thinking forward? I *do* think disagreement is welcome on this weblog [no matter the discomfort it might bring, personal and otherwise]. And I am hoping that some will remember that one way that Karl and I developed a relationship with each other [which was both professional but also personal] was, and on this blog, by strenuously disagreeing with each other in every way possible with regard to the terms "human" and "humanism." At one point, a commenter broke in to ask each of us to listen to each other more carefully, because it seemed like we were talking past each other, and we did [this was over a year ago]. We are still in disagreement about some fundamental aspects about what each of us thinks "humanism" means [and whether or not it holds, any more, any ethical value: I say mainly "yes"; Karl says "no"--this is not agreement however you slice it and I doubt either of us will ever fully concede our positions, although each of us have modifed our approaches as the a result of the other's tough critique]. BABEL's next volume, "Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism," is partly the result of just such a give-and-take. Nevertheless, the "coziness" you describe as having developed here is, I think, an accurate description, but I hope that doesn't preempt the possibilities for productive disagreement, either between Jeffrey, Mary Kate, Karl, and I or between any one [or more] of us and our readers and commenters. I recall, also, a very lively set of disagreements, which you were involved in, a while back in relation to a post Jeffrey wrote on bioluminescent art and Eduardo Kac's "glowing green bunny," which disagreement Jeffrey highlighted in the Afterword he contributed to Noreen Giffney and Myra Hirds's collection "Queering the Non/human." Indeed, Jeffrey and I still don't see eye to eye on that one, and likely never will. Finally, some of my earliest posts on this blog were rants against queer theory, against Elizabeth Grosz, against Deleuze and Guattari, all of which Jeffrey and others intervened into with the intention of getting me to reconsider the value of certain theorists' work, which I did, while still holding on to what I guess I would call certain basic principles from which, at least for now, I can't tear myself. But again, I think your "coziness" descriptor is somehow right on; I just don't want us to gloss over the fact that a lot of disagreement has happened on this weblog and, I hope, will continue to happen.

As to what is "professional" versus what is not "professional," I profess some confusion [or maybe it's just personal aversion over a true state of affairs I abhor] over your description and am hoping you can clarify a bit. Other weblogs, as you say [rightly, of course] have a more rigidly professional character and format [and I would go further to say that they perform a function that is closer to a peer-reviewed journal or small, elite symposium] but I worry a little about the way in which you describe [accurately, for sure] this so-called more professional type of weblog: it is structurally rigidified, forbidding, contentious, and sometimes involves punishment. I can see in this, quite obviously, the very structure of the academic profession itself, as it has come to be defined, for all of us holding academic positions, from the 19th-century German model forward, but I guess I want to question a little bit why this model should be privileged as somehow more "professional" than other models for producing and adjudicating scholarship. Why "punishment," especially? Why a rigidity of structure and contentious [and maybe we could ask, too, if there are better and worse modes of contention]? Are we not able or allowed to change the way we come to define "professional"? Or do we have to accept this as "the way it is," and then place ourselves as always just below that?

Karl Steel said...

Two very different comments in response! First Eileen.

Eileen, as you know, in my animal work I've been tormented by questions of 'assimilation' and mere self-regard, and, for several years, dismissed any 'affirmative' descriptions of the human or animal as mystification. Your response gets at several of ways I've found past some of my impasses. Caveat: much of what follows is highly metaphorical. "Meet[ing] the Other in his own time (as opposed to the time she fixes in her instant of time for their encounter, which can only hopelessly obscure the Other’s real self)" is no more possible than meeting ourselves in our own time or real selves, because the other is no less heterogeneous, no less riven by desires, no less driven longing than we are (and, okay, this is pretty Zizek, yeah: Ø?) [think of this as a more theoretical articulation of some of what I was getting at in my "Past of the Past" post]. All that can 'really' be known is the encounter itself. The encounter might be one of violence, but it might be something more generous (on this, see Donna Haraway's When Species Meet, e.g., "The coming into being of something unexpected, something new and free, something outside the rules of function and calculation, something not ruled by the logic of the reproduction of the same, is what training with each other is about" (223)). It must be stressed though, that being able to know only the encounter does not mean that only what can be known matters! Beyond, or deep within, or always among (which is better, I think, than metaphors of spatial profoundity) what we come to know in the encounter, in both ourselves and the other, there is something inexhaustible, perhaps as irretrievable to us as it is in what we encounter. All we can do is spin to make the encounter on other points, to be infected via the encounter via other points. So long as we bear this in mind we will, I think, do much to prevent an assimilation of other-to-self that, after all, because of the heterogeneity of both other and self, can only ever be illusive.

[Drawing from a review I did elsewhere] I develop these ideas in part from thinking of Leonard Lawlor's This is Not Sufficient, which at its best tries to imagine a "nondualistic difference" to refine Derrida's animal ethics. Lawlor insists that none of this cannot be done without violence. Against the liberal hope for a peaceful peace, Lawlor argues--following, for example, Merleau-Ponty's Humanism and Terror--that violence cannot be avoided: at best, it can only be minimized, reduced to only the "radical evil" (so called because it is the evil at the root). Radical evil makes a "good conscience" (one of Derrida's chief bêtes noires) impossible. More usefully, it makes possible differences between an I and not-I, and thus marks out the not-I for ethical consideration even as it reifies the not-I (to a degree!) by this very marking out. Because reification is--at least in some sense--violent (was it Lacan who spoke of giving a child a name as violence?), Lawlor argues for a fundamental violence at the heart of ethics. But, having made this point, Lawlor doesn't just give up; he doesn't stop where I stopped for so many years. He provides a guide for enacting a "violence against violence" against the worst violence, that violence that tries "to eliminate the evil of the pharmakon once and for all" (e.g., the animality of the human and other not-I in the heart of the I). They key is to at once "welcome and yet guard the alterity of others" (101), an alterity that, again, is manufactured through the reification that makes the recognition of the not-I possible. We open ourselves up, give the not-I their proper name-which protects them, which, as a "nonuniversal name" (105) marks them off from the always shifting collective--even while knowing that even a proper name, to the degree that it reduces indetermination, assimilates them to us and quantifies them. Lawlor proposes that a name be used less like a sameness that repeats and more like a date, which "does not allow itself to pass into eventless repetition" (102): in this sense, the name-as-date can never be completely assimilated, since, like a date, it always holds itself open, and holds onto, to its own time, to its time before and beyond us. Thus we can recognize the impropriety of even a proper name; there is always more there than we know, which means that we cannot receive the animal (the past, the not-I, etc.) entirely: thus we "recognize that the name is a kind of shield that allows animals to be left alone" (110). For now, I can propose only one additional refinement, which I draw from Ralph Acampora: in Acampora, the welcoming, because the world and other living beings are already with/in us, is less a welcoming than an acknowledgment. It is not, as Lawlor terms it, a "reception" (73), but a refusal to forget that we are always already touched by the not-I. At least in this sense, the noli me tangere always comes too late.

Karl Steel said...

Eileen, in response to your questions, I'll try to paraphrase Holly and also to consider, at least as a thought experiment, some of the limitations of ITM. "Risk" might be the watchword. As much as EJ and I have disagreed and continue to disagree about "humanism," there's no risk in our disagreement. We're never going to stop being friends because of our disagreement, and, indeed, I'd say our disagreement was the beginning of our friendship. I do believe we do scholarship here (I know I have, e.g., my drafts of my Phoenix and Turtle essay, which profited enormously from everyone's comments). However, what distinguishes scholarship here from scholarship elsewhere is that we are not exposing our work to the risks that, say, peer-review or a tenure-review board poses. We expect no hurt feelings, except perhaps the hurt feeling of being ignored. We certainly expect no damage to our career! I can also consider the amity and the boundaries of the sayable here, the way that, because of the group huggery of ITM (admittedly a unfair exaggeration, but often--to our credit!--not too far off the mark), the community we body here is neither a scholarly community nor a democracy. To the degree that we are not 'thrown together' as departments and scholars and families are, this is indeed not a scholarly community. ITM is instead a self-selecting community and thus one that (at least, and normally only at least) implicitly rejects the modes by which other communities persist, welcome, what have you. We discourage acrimonious disagreement and thus do not, it seems to me, require a politics, which I might (inexpertly) summarize as a way to handle irreducible disagreements. We might think then, that ITM is modeling the post-political in the way that the imagined Marxist end of history imagines the post-political. With this Marxist terminus in mind, the question for us might be, then, whether something important been rubbed out in making this acrimony free zone? What if the acrimony (at least some of it) is not just bomb-throwing but rather the bursting forth of something we can forget only at our most pollyannish?

Anonymous said...


Oh yes, I disagree with my friends all the time—I usually reserve my fiercest disputes for those with whom I share the deepest bonds of amity. I wouldn’t do that here, even if it were allowed. It would violate the atmosphere of affirmation you’ve cultivated (said atmosphere is why, I believe, you have such a large and wide-ranging audience). I frankly don’t remember the disagreement between you and Karl, and I wouldn’t have counted the bunny conversation as a full-blown disagreement. My position differed from those of others, but it was all good. I’m talking about heated disagreements (and maybe this will lead us back to affect, Dinshaw, and GM), of the sort that show serious fault lines of dissension even within a community—in the forum on GM, which Jeffrey referenced last week, Dinshaw denies that community has to be based only on affirmatve bonds (this will be garbled, because my copy of that forum is not with me today, but she basically denies being in the business of setting up a community of what she calls “happy homos”—it is this kind of recognition—the consolidating powers of negative affective experience—that Heather Love’s work takes up). I take it that a heated disagreement is how you would describe as what happened between you and Jeffrey in the bunny instance, or between you and Karl in the other. If that’s the case, my bad for not recognizing the fervor involved. Such is perhaps the flattening capacity of electronic communication; or just my tone-deafness...

And I just read Karl’s post, so this part also responds to his thoughts: I don’t know about the Marxist post-history stuff (and by that I mean I’m no expert on that, so I cannot comment one way or the other). But his consideration of risk—or lack thereof—is exactly what I’m talking about. And risk can be really good—I don’t want to condemn what I called the profession because there’s risk involved (or even punishment). Knowing that there is risk involved in what one does makes taking risks even more meaningful and important. It also makes accomplishments more difficult and rewarding. I don’t need to be validated by railing or dismissive jerks—that’s not what I’m getting at. I hate getting negative reviews as much as the next person. But every time I’ve ever gotten one, it made me strip away everything I’d been protecting in order to ask my basic questions again, anew. Sometimes what I’ve done holds up; sometimes it does not. Getting that hard feedback is crucial. So are my friends, those who encourage me and drink a glass of wine with me when I’m at my lowest. Some of those people are colleagues, and some are not. Practically all of them are academics--they understand even better why I might need to be protected sometimes. In short, I need risk-free zones to do my work too, and it is no shame that ITM provides that for its community.



Jeffrey Cohen said...

Holly, thanks for triggering such a rich discussion -- and a conversation so intimately related to CD and GM.

Allow me to --> disgaree <-- with you, however, about what counts as a professional space. By your definition conferences, symposia, beers after a conference paper, maybe even conference proceedings, and also the classroom, are possibly not professional. If for the adjective "professional" to be attached to a practice there must achieve some norm of "contention, judgment, and sometimes punishment" reached ... well, what a pity that would be, and what a block to getting work done. (And I know, you didn't exactly say that; I was taking what you did say to its extreme). I would go so far as to say that by doing live blogging and conference wrap ups, blogs have extended these professional spaces immensely, both in time and audience.

But I also take your point very well that an atmosphere of boundless affirmation can lead to a self-enclosed support group atmosphere, and that could ultimately have a stultifying effect. Luckily, though, a blog can never actually be fully self-enclosed: there will always be a conversation with a wider world unfolding (even if traces of that conversation are not always evident at first glance) -- a world of books, blogs, conferences, people, all of them constant sources of challenge. Still, I know very well the boundaries we draw, even if we're not always good at sticking to them.

Lastly, I think the difference between ITM and the blog you describe (Brian Leiter’s) is that that blog has possibly confused itself with a peer-reviewed journal (I say that from your description, not because I've had a chance to read it yet). As you know I publish in peer reviewed journals from time to time (!), but I also was attracted to the genre of the blog because of the expansion of professional space on which it is predicated. My model in January 2006 when ITM started was Michael Berubé's great site, now unfortunately discontinued. It was a professional space by any measure, but it also had many an informal conversation about houses, conferences, kids ... really what it did was make more visible the big, complex world in which our scholarship flourishes (or finds its limits reached). Some people will find such mixed genre work unappealing. That's why our browsers have the ability to move away from sites that do nothing useful for us. Many others, however, found Berubé's blog an inspiration.

Last, let me agree with you wholeheartedly: ITM is *just* a blog, one among many, not the best and not the worst.

Eileen Joy said...

Holly: the one thing that really hit me in your last comment here had to do with receiving negative reviews of one's work. There has never been a single time [almost] where I have not benefited from strong criticism [even when it stung] of my writing and thought. First, you feel defensive, and then you say . . . wait a minute, this helps. And then the work is improved. The only thing is: I think there are better and worse ways of framing/wording such reviews, and I take that task [of reviewing] very seriously when I undertake it myself, and I always work really hard to offer my critique without presuming that the author must be an "idiot" or whatnot to not have read this or that book, etc. Also, I try very hard to resist telling an author, "oh no, what you're even just trying to do is stupid/useless, etc." I learned my technique, actually, within an MFA in creative writing program where, basically, the mantra was, if you want pigs to fly in your short story or novel, that's fine, but there are better and worse ways to make those pigs fly [and to have it mean something, whatever that "something" might be]. So, there's that.

As to Karl bringing in the idea of risk and Holly's further comments on that, I think that makes sense, too, but mainly only because I really like how Holly defines risk as something that forces you to really consider the *meaningfulness* of what you are doing and why it matters [or has to matter, to someone, somewhere, etc.]. Although every now and then, when certain persons [usually on the conservative side of the profession] are getting hysterical about the possible "ruin" something like queer theory will being upon the discipline, I think we need to relax and say, "hey, everyone, it's the humanities, not an airplane that's about to crash." There are risks, and then there is also: there are no real risks. Civilization won't come to and end, etc. [while at the same, time, yes, I know that history, deployed by the wrong people in the wrong times, can have devastating effects upon people's lives and we'll always work hard to remember that and not abuse our profession, I hope].

What I'm really glad about that Holly brings up here, however, is her reminding us of how Dinshaw has reminded us that community does not always have to be affirmative [the "happy homos," for example]. This is exactly the main objective of Sara Ahmed's new project "On Being Directed: Promises, Happiness, Deviations," which I have already blogged about. But, in a nutshell, Ahmed argues in that project for the importance of what she calls the killjoy in any community: the angry black woman, the unhappy queer, etc. because these figures act as important blocking agents to the community's "happiness" and therefore push it to never be too complacent, to forcefully genealogical, too "straight."

Thank you, Karl, for pointing out, in relation to my statement about the impossibility of The Homebody [and this could stand in for Dinshaw or any historian invested in an affective, queer historicism] ever really meeting the Other in their own time [other than meeting them in the time she herself *fixes*/constructs for that appointment which always, to a certain extent, obscures the real presence of the Other], that we ourselves can never really meet ourselves *in our own time*. That was partly why I was bringing in those bits from Judith Butler, to make that point and to allow us some ethical wriggle room for making some mistakes as we try, perhaps clumsily, to touch our historical Others, to "give accounts" of ourselves as a kind of transaction with historical Others who are also trying to "give accounts" of themselves, and which "accounts" can only ever be partial. And you're right: this encounter can be generous, it can be narcissistic, it can be violent, it can be restorative [in a positive way], and it can be everything in between. I think one way in which we can see this scenario working *through* itself in a real, juridically defined arena is in the so-called "truth and reconciliation" hearings that have occurred recently in South Africa and elsewhere.

As to what is always, as you say, "inexhaustible" in these encounters, I think this points to the excess that Mary Kate was getting at in her post and other comments related to the GM discussion, and this is something that we would have to allow ourselves to be surprised by, I think, over and over again, because it is in its very inexhaustibility and our *wonder*, moreover, at this heterogeneous inexhaustibility, that justice might finally reside [this is actually the argument I make in several of my recent publications--well, all of them, actually, on "Beowulf," "The Seven Sleepers," and "Wonders of the East"]. As to your further thoughts via Lawlor, Acampora, etc.: I must think further!

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why thinking of ITM as a "scholarship support group" is troublesome for you guys. I wouldn't have expected that, since you do support each other full-throatedly in your individual (professional) endeavors. And maybe I overstated the "professional" part--if I included conferences, symposia, and all those other things (??)--I certainly did. There are people who use blogs for professional gatekeeping--they take themselves very seriously as somehow responsible for certain values/ideas/standards in their given fields. ITM doesn't strike me as that kind of place--which simply means that it is a *different* kind of place--one where there are different protocols. That's totally fine, and totally expected. It is your blog, and you *do* get to create your own community here. Simply stating (and commending, I thought), the obvious.



Karl Steel said...

Holly, I'm running out the door in 3 minutes, so this will have to be brief: perhaps our resistance has to do with a resistance to what we (unjustly?) perceive as too sharp boundary drawing? Sometimes we're scholastic around these parts, but today isn't one of those days...

(Eileen, that Ahmed sounds perfect for my stuff on the limits of the sayable! Great!)

Anonymous said...

okay, I'll stop in just a minute (I have to read, and I have to have my daily swim): but how can a "scholarship support group" be boundary drawing--it is a group that *blends* friendship and scholarly endeavors, right? It is not hte scholarly end product, though it might enable it. So why is that troublesome?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Ha! We're all running somewhere, and that includes me, but before I swim and then write a book and then go for a bike ride, I will say: I will guess that if you had said, Holly, that ITM pushes at the boundary of professional space rather than "I think there’s a category distinction between blog work and professional work that might be worth maintaining" -- well, then, a hackle or two might not have risen. After all, there is no worse insult in our profession than to say that something or someone is not professional.

AND having stated that, I want to emphasize that I in no way took you to be insulting ITM as unprofessional. Rather, I know that you were putting the blog in a different class, not a negative space at all -- indeed, as you explain, quite a compliment. But for me the line between professional and not, blog and scholarship, etc. is pretty blurry, and that's probably because I'm on the inside, blogging away here.

Oh, and could I also point out that the disagreement you triggered -- even if a small tempest in a usually amicable and hug-brimming teacup -- has been quite productive, with its challenge to think about identity, community, possibility?

Anonymous said...

I want to keep that statement, simply because blogs seem like a luxury in a ever-progressively professionalized academy. If you have a space you can share with other like minds, keep it. There's *my* negativity about the profession...


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Got it ... and now I have a lot more clarity about what has been at stake at well. Thanks.

Karl Steel said...

Well, with lightning splitting the Brooklyn sky, I'm back home after realizing that the outdoor production of Shaw in Central Park just wasn't going to work. So I'll pop in here and just say: a fun conversation. Thanks all. I love getting medieval with y'all.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I wanted to just jump in here (late as usual -- I was observing from a distance yesterday, as I sifted through yet more materials in the Mandelbaum collection) to say that this is a lovely conversation indeed. Holly, your questions and the resulting thought process made me wonder about how I've been participating in the blog. And I think you're right: Having this community facilitates scholarship in a way that, say, Medieval Guild at Columbia might -- a place to go with drafts and questions and preliminary thoughts. A much needed space, to be sure.

And as for our tour with Dinshaw -- it's funny, you know. I'd never read the book before, and I found it a really engaging text with which to work. It's funny -- I'm not terribly familiar with queer theory, much less queer theory as used by medievalists. I'll always be more of a language-person than a theory person (not to say the two are mutually exclusive -- I just feel safer with Old English!). But what I found useful is that the posts helped me to think through a type of scholarship that I don't often get to -- putting me out of a comfort zone of sorts and into a place where I could try to grapple with ideas I find really compelling, but quite foreign. Always a helpful process. Thanks to all for being a part of it.

dtkline said...

On (for and with) ITM, BABEL, and this shaggy thing we're trying to do (and for which Jeffrey, Karl, Eileen, and Mary Kate are leading the way), from Daniel Day Williams' _The Spirit and the Forms of Love_ (1968)--one of the first sustained efforts at 'process theology': 'Love is to will the freedom of the other, and to remain open to the consequences of that willing.'

Love is never by itself, as we are never by ourselves, and as we love ourselves, each other, and our profession, we dance as well with grief.

But love also remains. That's something of what I felt at this year's extraordinary K'zoo, together, with all of you, and for which you have my thanks.