Wednesday, August 13, 2008

[Noli] me tangere

by J J Cohen

In the comments to this post by Eileen I wrote:
My question ... has to do with community and the noli me tangere of Jesus, the words that leave Margery reeling. The most puzzling moment of GM is for me just after the Kempe chapter has taken its long political swerve, into the controversy over government funding of the NEA. CD writes:

And in defense of our united (but not necessarily unified) interests as queers, as medievalists, as proponents of queer scholarship, as humanities researchers, as advocates of higher education, and as supporters of academic freedom, we say to those who would eliminate us: Don't touch me. (GM 182)

Even after all this time that last imperative startles me, because I must admit that I have always expected something rather different to follow the eloquent injunction other than a boundary drawing differentiation (the entire book has been an argument against boundaries). Why this limit, why the noli me tangere? Why not something like You have already been touched?

Eileen responded:
I was startled, too, but I partly took that as a form of the "answering back" that Dinshaw was illustrating in Margery Kempe's life and also as a kind of political threat to the powers-that-be in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere regarding queer/human rights. Of course, it's paradoxical to much of what Dinshaw is advocating for in the book regarding affective touch as an historical method, and brings back the question of how touch can be too forceful, too appropriative, and violent. But we might also say that we can, and must have both: that we need to argue for and practice a form of life that is affective and in which touch can have moral and ethical agency, while at the same time realizing that there will always be those who will touch violently and who need to be answered "back," whose force might have to met with, at the very least, forceful talk.
Mary Kate added:
Maybe a moment like that, which effectively forces her to halt her "life project" is also a moment where scholarship might help illuminate something that remains from that life project, in the form of the text: A kind of desire in excess of that which is allowed, or allowable -- an excess registered, perhaps, in tears (Jeffrey, do you have something on this from MIM? I don't have it in NC). But moreover, that excess which makes these figures -- these bodies -- exceptional, in a very literal sense. I'm always reminded of another mystic when reading Margery -- Hadewijch of Brabant, whose visions are of Minne, and fulfillment therein. At one point in her visions she explains how she is better than the saints, precisely because her desire can be excessive, can exceed what God wants her to desire. She can want Him more than He wants her to. A Saint, by definition, would desire only as much as God wanted. Maybe a part of this kind of history is also to reclaim these desires -- maybe ultimately wanting more from history than scholarship can give, but opening to being touched by what can still be perceived, and perhaps, partially, remembered. Maybe to letting that excess spill out over centuries -- talking a self into existence.
I want to return to this moment of not touching because it still seems to me anomalous to CD's project, and especially to Margery Kempe's. While it is true that Kempe answers back, she does not typically reply with a Don't touch me. There are obvious, clear cut cases when she must draw an inviolable boundary, of course, as in the face of potential rape. As CD points out so well, a fear of impending sexual violation is constant throughout Kempe's book, and with good reason.

Yet an answering back that takes the form of Don't touch me has an inbuilt limit: the point at which discourse fails and force is deployed, despite any refusal of this force's right to be marshaled, despite firm assertions of noli me tangere. I've argued in Medieval Identity Machines (in a chapter called 'The Becoming-Liquid of Margery Kempe") that in situations where speech has become perilous Kempe relies on the haptic power of pure sound, nonlinguistic utterances that have a visceral effect on her auditors, including herself. She forms alliances with the tears, storms, thunder and music that are the soundtrack of her work. Her tears are infectious, touching those who hear them -- even her scribe: "Also, whil the forseyd creatur was ocupiid abowte the writing of this tretys, sche had many holy teerys and wepyngs ... and also he that was hir writer cowed not sumtyme kepyn himself fro wepyng." Here is how I put it in MIMs:
This contagion "involving terms that are entirely heterogeneous" [Deleuze and Guattari] -- this unnatural participation through which tears seep from Kempe's history to her body to her narrative to her scribe to her book, catching up pages and words and sounds and bodies in its unsettling flow -- also instantiates an affective model for receiving (rather than simply reading) the text. Even if Kempe's tears and cries sometimes failed to precipitate community and understanding during her life, her book will serve not as the recorder but the promulgator of her wepyng, the catalyst for intersubjective assemblages which will implant her affect anew and trigger "unheard-of becomings."
I'm quoting this because I want to emphasize that Don't touch me was not the strategy Kempe used most often, nor most effectively: she touched, affectively, with nonlinguistic sound when necessary, emptying herself into vast spaces like echoing cathedrals and implanting in the bodies of her auditors a vibration that often turned out to be sympathetic. When she answers back, it tends to be through a very material tactility, rather than via the forbidding of touch.

Nor is Don't touch me necessarily our own best strategy as humanists for ensuring that our labors are valued and funded. As the chair of an English Department for two years and newly the director of a medieval and early modern studies institute, I have found myself constantly arguing -- mainly with scientists -- for both these things, recognition of value tied to tangible support. My university is smitten with policy, with globalism, with politics. It also has a strange and enduring love affair with the natural sciences, disciplines we are structurally ill equipped to support. How do you secure funding for a project on narratives of wounded black veterans of America's early wars, for example, when so many resources are being assigned to an (imaginary) science center that started out costing $100 million and now could easily be twice that? When your university has a debt load equal to its endowment, how do you ask for the $120,000 it takes to get a medieval/early modern institute up and running for three years? You do it by touching your would-be detractors, by ensuring that what you do is recognized as already in them, often much to their surprise. When our Dean of Special Projects, a biologist not well disposed to interdisciplinary humanities work [everyone should remain in their category, English professors shouldn't be philosophers, that sort of thing] was meeting with me about funding some disabilities studies related projects, I started off by asking him about his own training, his own passions for art -- and so we had a conversation about the Arthur Quiller-Couch poem "The Twa Corbies" and the representational work of animals in narrative. The key was to find the familiar, and use that to carry him along to a place where he didn't expect to be, a place that had it not initially touched something in him would have been too far away to step -- the place where humanities scholars can speak about animals, or about disability and its queer relation to sexuality, and not have a biologist reject them out of hand. I used similar means with our chief research officer, a man who had never funded a project that was not foreign policy or microscope oriented -- a man, that is, who thought that research was something social and natural scientists did, and that involved equipment and interviews rather than symposia where conversations unfolded. He's the one who finally wrote the check that created GW MEMSI. Likewise, it was selling the allure of the archives -- old books have such cultural cachet, even among those who prefer particle accelerators over Michael Chabon -- that we were able to fund for five years an undergraduate research seminar at the Folger. This seminar has produced works like a brilliant undergraduate thesis entitled "The Whorish, the Objectified, and The Transgendered: Spenser’s Female Others and The Drive of Jouissance."

Persistence -- continued touching -- reminding one's auditors that they have already been touched, perhaps long in the past, perhaps by the past itself: these seem to me far more effective than Touch me not. Why else would Margery Kempe almost die of grief when Jesus pronounced those words?

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