Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Ruins and the Past

by Mary Kate Hurley

When Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval first came out in 1999, I was still in high school – I wasn’t even sure I’d be a medievalist yet, though I think by my junior year I’d decided I wanted to be a professor. I’d never heard of queer theory, much less queer history. Moreover, I’d never seen Pulp Fiction. Granted, I still haven’t seen Pulp Fiction, but there’s only so much one can do in nine years. It took me nine years years to come to this text – though while I was reading it this past weekend, it felt familiar, and strangely so. I’d imagine that at least a part of this strange familiarity is because the work resonates with more recent work that I’m also familiar with (if hard-pressed to identify), but the greater part is probably because of a course I took with CD last year at NYU. The course was on "Time and Temporality" in medival literature – and so the ideas I take from Getting Medieval are largely concerned with time. How might we think through what this text means in 2008, and what does it mean to encounter a groundbreaking text later, though still not late, in its reception critically. Moreover, what questions does the text enable us to ask in 2008, nine years after its entrance into medieval studies? What does it do to our relationship to the past as an object of study, when it too now comes to us from a past?*

On the final page of the book, CD defines “getting medieval” as this: “using ideas of the past, creating relations with the past, touching in this way the past in our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future” (206). This conception seems to get us into the thick of a problem of temporality – how does the unidirectional “arrow of time” stop being so unidirectional upon closer inspection? How, to borrow from CD in her reflection on the book, “Got Medieval” (published in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, No. 10), do we identify and examine the “copresence of different chronologies to explore the power of multiple temporalities in a single moment?”

One of the things that most struck me about this book is that it inspired not a sense of argument in my response, but a more general sense of assent. If I’ve identified it correctly, I think a part of that reaction is bound up in the question of methodology – CD is outlining a methodology that uses texts, not using a methodology to uncover something about a specific text, as Dan Remein formulated so brilliantly in his comments to JJC’s post below. If I’m touched by this book, it’s not in terms of how I view a specific medieval text – Dinshaw outlines a theory of texts which resonates with my experience of them, but if the book is rewriting my sense of the past, it is doing so on a much more global level, like a techtonic plate shifting in the course of centuries, not a minute phenomenon that has quantifiable results.

Still, there is a moment in the text that I think materializes, or at least localizes, the idea that I find most intriguing. Quoting from Glück’s Margery Kempe, CD cites one of the moments in which Glück feels, most profoundly, the articulation of the self-as-performance in relation to Margery Kempe: “But the main interest of the novel lies in the melding of the narratives, characters and voices, most passages in Bob’s voice, one in Margery’s (Chapter 9), others in a hybrid of those two voices: ‘I’m Margery following a god through a rainy city. The rapture is mine, mine the attempt to talk herself into existence.’ (MK 13)” (167)

To talk herself into existence. Depending on how you take this phrase, meanings begin to crop up right and left – to talk so that she might exist, to talk herself into wanting to exist, etc. The question here – raised explicitly in the interview CD cites with Robert Glück—might be phrased thus: “That quandary over what experience means and how the authority, or whatever authenticates experience, runs back and forth between yourself and the world” (GM 170). As Dinshaw herself points out in the chapter, there is a kind of community-forming impulse that goes along with the text, one that is specifically related to the distension or extension in time performed by the text: “The work is thus an “open form,” opening the possibility of relations between characters and readers, not all of which are controlled by the writer” (171). CD goes on to cite Glück in another essay, “Fame,” and she asserts the following: “If ‘the fragment of language evokes the melancholy pleasure of a ruin,’…its ‘eternal’ and ‘shared’ qualities here are nonetheless limited at last.” (173)

I want to question that quotation for one moment. I wasn’t able to find the entire essay on short notice, but I did find the text cited elsewhere, and the lyric beauty which characterizes that first fragment continues through the line: “the relinquishing of meaning, the falling away and recontextualizing of human scale to include the non-human, the unshared, mysterious and unsharable…which is shared.” It seems to me (and I am hardly an expert) but a part of what is so touching, if you will, about a ruin, is that it insists on touching you, without letting you into the reality of its own existence**. Out of time, and therefore, out of place in a landscape that has already outlived the ruin’s first time, if you will, there is a certain untimely-ness about the ruin, the way it impinges on the present in a way that asserts not only that the past endures but that the past continues, and does so with or without the will of a (fictive) present. It suggests, perhaps, that time is a fabric, not an arrow, or a stream. Moreover, it’s a fabric that is remade as parts wear thin, with threads of a past so intertwined with our own that separating them out can unravel reality itself. Now, I’ve taken the metaphor a bit far, but what I think matters here is the gesture: I wonder if, having looked back to see the ways in which we can forge a relationship with the past, part of what we can start to see in 2008 as we re-encounter Getting Medieval –or in my case, are touched by it for the first time—is the way in which what survives from the past is like a ruin, the ways in which Medieval Studies itself might be a kind of ruin***. Untimely in a world that insists on the past AS past, the Middle Ages can profoundly trouble our sense of a the Modern – by asserting, with Bruno Latour, that we’ve never been modern in the first place. The question – perhaps without definitive answer, but still useful for all that – is what are we to do with the past? And what is the past to do with – or to – us?


* - Thanks to Jeffrey for helping me formulate this -- I'd be interested to hear how other readers felt concerning the book, because I had a very hard time finding a way to interface with it...
** - I thought this might particularly resonate with Karl's work on animals.
*** - I know I'm profoundly influenced by Eileen on the past-as-ruin, but can't come up with specific citations.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Wow, thank you so much for this MKH. I envy you the chance you had to come at the book fresh ... as you indicate, in 2008 there is something comfortable about GM, and I believe that has to do with the fact that so much of the work has been absorbed into the interpretive practices it both encouraged and enabled.

Sometimes the absorption has proceeded a little too silently, unfortunately. Both Eileen and I have shared our apprehension that CD's GM is not cited as often as it might be in recent queer work that happens to be deeply allied with its project (indeed, queer work that is hard to believe would exist so comfortably in the academy without GM).

The other side of this is to point our that GM is not always the most generous book in the world when it comes to citing other medievalist work. A scholar/queer theorist who never seems to get his due (not just in GM but more widely in medieval studies) is Glenn Burger. His essay "Kissing the Pardoner" was published in PMLA in 1992: queer theory, Chaucer, the Pardoner, performativity -- it's all here, and I want to emphasize that PMLA in 1992 was an almost impossible forum into which to place such work. And don't forget that Burger was blazing the deleuzian queer theory trail in 1997, in his Miller's Tale essay in Becoming Male in the Middle Ages.

Burger was obviously not alone. A queer community -- a pretty vibrant one in fact -- existed in 1999, and so even though GM is trailblazing, we shouldn't think of it as a project without traveling companions.

OK, the one other thing I wanted to to add is that Dinshaw did profoundly change how I interpret a text when it comes to Margery Kempe. I first heard what became her Kempe/Gluck chapter at the Cultural Frictions conference in 1995 (Mary Kate was in preschool, I think). Until that moment I had heard some feminist versions of Kempe -- but nothing that struck me (in my limited reading) as overly inventive. CD's reading of MK as queer opened doors for me, and the text has not been the same since.

MK, I like your idea of the temporally thick ruin (esp. resonates with Eileen's obsession with The University in Ruins; I'm kind of glad she's gone away so she won't swoop in and quote it again). And I think that you are exactly right to discern the future CD -- the temporal CD, if you will -- within the queer one.

Anonymous said...

I would have sent you an email but I didn't see one listed on the site, so I just thought I would post here.

I came across your site through Dr. Richard Nokes' Unlocked Wordhoard blog. I'm a subscriber to his blog (Dr. Nokes also regularly links to my site in his "Morning Medieval Miscellany" posts), as well as a subscriber to Carl Prydum's blog Got Medieval, among others. I’m just now trying to fill out my own blogroll — I’ve been slow to add other resource links to my website — and the category of “medieval resources” definitely needs some links added to it.

I notice we share several of the same Web site interests, and I was wondering if you would be interested in trading links: I'll add your site to my blogroll and vice versa. Let me know if you're interested.

Best wishes,


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Steven, your site looks interesting. We speak a lot about the intersection of the artistic and the scholarly, and I see that is very much what your own blog is about ... as is Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval, the book we've been discussing here.

Karl Steel said...

MKH, another excellent post, thanks, and thanks for more guidance on your thinking on ruins. I think I'm finally started to get it! And, yes, there is a nice intersection with my animal work, especially with what I'm reading right now: Donna Haraway's When Species Meet, which in part describes a non-appropriative way of becoming-with, working-with animals, of being touched by them, of recognizing them rather than just (as Derrida does with his cat) letting them be.

Incidentally, Haraway carries out so much of this analysis through her own experience with her own dogs. Given her own 'middle class' background (her father was a sportswiter, a wordsmith, and think simpatico with his daughter's profession), I begin to wonder about the relationship between class background and autobiographic-contoured criticism.....

Right! My longer comment just became a post in itself.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jeffrey