Figure 1. Potter's Field (New Orleans, 1907)
by EILEEN JOY
Realism . . . falls short of reality. It shrinks it, attenuates it, falsifies it; it does not take into account our basic truths and our fundamental obsessions: love, death, astonishment. It presents man in a reduced and estranged perspective. Truth is in our dreams, in the imagination.
Down here, the sun clings to the earth and there is no darkness. / Down here, the silence of the sea and the silence of the swamp seep into our muscles. // All night, Dolores labors between the sea grapes and the empty park. / Our town prostitute, she listens for a long time. Her listening makes her strong. // The teenage boy locks his door and combs the obscene magazine. / His callused left hand chops the gloss in waves. The silence of the naked ladies builds. // The Cape Sable seaside sparrows’ population dropped 25 percent. Females are silent. / Male calls are counted and multiplied by sixteen: this is how we track what cannot be seen. // Gay waiters examine their haircuts in the mirrors. / Perhaps tonight their pursuit of love will end in some permanence? // Juan escapes from our prison; he duct-tapes Playboy magazines to his rib cage. / With his glossy carapace, he vaults over the razor strips of the chainlink fence. // Egas Moniz wins the Nobel Prize in 1949 for pioneering lobotomies. / I am a pioneer of silence but the silencing of madness haunts me because it is unresolved.
—Spencer Reese, from “Florida Ghazals”
In medieval studies, many articles and books are about the so-called Middle Ages themselves. We might say that they attempt, as best as they can and with as much awareness as possible of the drawbacks and imperfections of any historical methodology and of history’s ineradicable fissures and silences, to draw pictures and tell stories about medieval persons, places, and events that are attentive to what Leopold von Ranke called “how it really was” [wie es eigentlich gewesen]—the only thing “needful” for history, as Ranke also claimed. Other studies are more concerned with historical methodology itself and with exploring how our various methodologies for “doing history” [whether in the form of analyses of literary and other texts, grave remains, architectural ruins, historical persons and events, mentalities, and so on] can never fully capture or fix in any one time what Dipesh Chakrabarty has called the “irreducible plurality in our experiences of historicity” [Provincializing Europe, p. 108], which is not to say that “how it really was” is not a concern of the authors of this second type of study. It is only that, for these scholars, “how it really was” is always a heterogeneous affair, and the main interest is often in tracing the limits of history’s intelligibility—the places at which, again following Chakrabarty, history “knots” up and is resistant to rationalist interpretation—as well as in showing all the ways in which, as Fernand Braudel would have said, history moves at different speeds. This is work that is also sometimes concerned with “working through” [in the psychoanalytic sense] and perhaps even in ameliorating and adjudicating the personal and more largely social traumas occasioned by history and by its resistance to the types of re-narrativization that would “make sense” of the past [we might call this the “redress” model].
And if we are at all concerned with what might be called living in a society without history [a frightening affair well outlined by Carolyn Dinshaw in her book Getting Medieval, especially pages 173-82, and also terrifyingly illustrated in Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men, and well, just consider the Bush Administration’s legal memorandums on torture or the hysterical moralizing that erupts every time a politician sleeps with a prostitute], I am also reminded of something Joseph Kugelmass wrote on his blog The Kugelmass Episodes in May 2007, that our best resistance to a “society without history” might be “aimed at protecting those processes of development and change that are slow enough to have a past; resistance derives its strength from the slow time of human life, including the continual grief of repressed cultural or personal identity, and the protracted agonies of living under oppression. Each step forward should be so fully comprehended, and massively parallel, that it endures. It is the only possible approach for [those of us who are] . . . devoted to literature. Works of art help change to ripen, measuring its costs carefully, and calling it by old names.” What other way would there be, without art (or without history practiced as a form of art—even, as an affective art, even as an affective life, in Dinshaw’s and others’ hands), to record how, as the poet Spencer Reese writes, “Philomela held her cut tongue in her hand like a ticket. Although her past was history, her silence strengthened her, gave her wings.” Or how else could Robert Gluck in his 1994 novel Margery Kempe, as Dinshaw illustrates for us so beautifully, push himself [and his fictional persona Bob] under the surface of Margery’s story, and thereby demonstrate how all of us—not just Robert/Bob, the lover L., Margery, Jesus, and even the scholar Dinshaw herself, but also ourselves/her readers—are always forming and building our selves through various “crossings” across lives, texts, and times that may or may not actually [literally, physically] meet except under the dis/organizing touch of the queer historian, and also the artist, and any of us who might be able to grasp the idea of an individual life as an asynchronous artwork of what Foucault called “not being oneself.”
And this brings me also to the matter of time. Partly thanks to current work in postcolonial studies and in critical temporality studies, current work in medieval queer studies and also in medieval postcolonial studies [and also, I think, in studies in medievalism], has become concerned with the idea, as expressed by Chakrabarty, that “humans from any other period and region . . . are always in some sense our contemporaries,” and thus “the writing of history must implicitly assume a plurality of times existing together, a disjuncture of the present with itself” [Provincializing Europe, p. 109]. In this scenario, historical scholarship might not be overly concerned with von Ranke’s “how it really was” or even with the gap of the “irreducible plurality in our own experiences of historicity,” but rather, in the words of Glenn Burger, it might seek to “practice a historicism that brings the past and the present, premodern and postmodern, alongside each other in a rich heterogeneity, that stresses a temporality and spatiality that is coincidental, affective, and performative rather than stabilizingly teleological, segmented, or hierarchized” [“The Place of the Present in the Middle Ages: A Scene of Possibility,” paper presented at International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 11 May 2008]. Or, following the thought of Elizabeth Grosz, in The Nick of Time, which Karma Lochrie cited at this past May’s Kalamazoo Congress, what history might give us now “is the possibility of being untimely, of placing ourselves outside the constraints, the limitations, and blinkers of the present. This is precisely what it means to write for a future that the present cannot recognize; to develop, to cultivate the untimely, the out-of-place and the out-of-step. This access to the out-of-step can come only from the past and a certain uncomfortableness, a dis-ease, in the present” [p. 117]. And this can’t but help remind me of a point that Jeffrey himself made in 2000 when he published The Postcolonial Middle Ages, where he stressed, in his introductory essay “Midcolonial,” that medieval studies “must stress not difference (the past as past) or sameness (the past as present) but temporal interlacement, the impossibility of choosing alterity or continuity (the past that opens up the present to possible futures)” [p. 5].
And I hope I will be forgiven this long-ish preamble to my thoughts on Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval, as I believe that one of the chief values of her book is in its wrestling with all of the aspects of the historical enterprise I have outlined above: with “how it really was” [which I would say, in Dinshaw’s work, and following her obvious obsession with Foucault’s essay “Life of Infamous Men,” is a concern with the tangible existence(s) of real, but also with fictionalized, historical persons who are capable, even though dead, of producing “vibrations” felt in the body of the scholar situated in the archive]; with the irreducible plurality in our experiences of historicity, or, as Dinshaw might put it, with the disaggregating and anarchic processes of history and of its “surfaces,” its textualities as much as its body-nesses and all the gaps of historical intelligibility in between; and finally, with the ways in which, in Grosz’s words, history “is not the recovery of the truth of bodies or lives in the past; it is the engendering of new kinds of bodies and new kinds of lives. History is in part an index of our present preoccupations, but perhaps more interesting, the past is as rich as our futures allow” [The Nick of Time, p. 255].
This is not to say that, in the final analysis, all of these concerns, evidenced in Dinshaw’s book, are ultimately reconcilable with each other [at times, they are not compatible at all], but that is the book’s greatest virtue in my mind: all the ways in which it foregrounds its own processes of reckoning the past and of making use of the past [processes that are not always companionable with each other, for the past may sometimes want something very different from the desires we detect in it, and how could we ever really know the difference? we can only proceed with ethical caution and care and at least some kind of desire, any desire and hope at all of bringing light, which is like Auden’s “affirming flame,” which is a form of love], for personal but also and more importantly, for more broadly communitarian liberatory ends. The book is also virtuous for its willingness to make what Joan Retallack has termed the “poethical wager”: an “urgent and aesthetically aware thought experiment” in which meaning arises from a “dicey collaboration” between the imagination and the intellect, and the “question of poethics” is ultimately “what we make of events as we use language in the present, how we continuously create an ethos of the way in which events are understood” [The Poethical Wager, p. 9]. Dinshaw’s work is history, or historiography, as poetics, in the sense that John Caputo describes [and thank you, Dan Remien, for first pointing me in the direction of this passage]:
A poetics gives voice to the properly symbolic discourse of the kingdom [for Caputo’s “kingdom,” substitute Dinshaw’s/Barthes’ “the real”], while a logic enunciates the literal discourse of the world. As a symbolic discourse, then, a poetics is a certain constellation of idioms, strategies, stories, arguments, tropes, paradigms, and metaphors—a style and a tone, as well as a grammar and a vocabulary, all of which, collectively, like a great army on the move, is aimed at gaining some ground and making a point. We might say that a poetics is a discourse with a heart, supplying the heart of the heartless world. Unlike logic, it is a discourse with pathos, with a passion and desire, with an imaginative sweep and flare, touched by a bit of madness, hence more of an a-logic or even patho-logic, one that is, however, not sick but healing . . . . [The Weakness of God, p. 104]This wager, this poethical scholarship, also means taking on, with some courage I imagine, what Retallack calls the “against-all-odds project of recomposing some small portion of the habitus” [p. 17]—and this is why it is not so difficult to see why some in our field were and continue to be discomfited by Dinshaw’s delving into the personal responses to John Boswell’s work on homosexuality in the Middle Ages or reading the “medieval” through a contemporary film like Pulp Fiction or confessing to the bodily feeling of mystical vibrations in the archive or analyzing Congressional debates over NEH funding or describing the delightfully irreligious fucking of Robert Gluck’s novel Margery Kempe, in much the same way many of us are discomfited by James Earl confessing his Freudian dreams in Thinking About Beowulf or by Jeffrey dwelling on the socio-cultural implications of Alfred’s hemorrhoids in Medieval Identity Machines or by Karma Lochrie writing on the Supreme Court case Lawrence vs. Texas in Heterosyncracies—all of these and numerous other examples point to a concerted effort, in whatever increments, to transform the habitus of our discipline and, as Steven Kruger and Glenn Burger have written [in their Introduction to Queering the Middle Ages], to “preposterously” rethink the Middle Ages and our relation to it. This work will always have its detractors, but perhaps these detractions would be far less if we considered that such work does not demand that we all stop doing old-fashioned historicist work and start doing something else, something more presentist or more preposterously theoretical or more temporally “whack,” but rather, in Dinshaw’s eloquent plea at the conclusion to Getting Medieval, that we begin to at least try to imagine a communitarian model for doing our work in which we work very hard not to essentialize: either history or ourselves or others whom we might claim are “too different, too queer” from ourselves [at the same time, I do not completely follow Dinshaw, who is also following Foucault and Bersani, among others, into the desire to imagine new histories in which everything is post-identitarian, disaggregated, and all surface—all bodies turned inside out: more on that in a separate post, with the caveat that Dinshaw herself questions Foucault’s valorization of bodily surfaces].
It has to be admitted at the same time, however, that a “queer” history is what is being privileged in Dinshaw’s and others’ medieval scholarship [that of Glenn Burger, Michael Camille, Jeffrey Cohen, Lara Farina, Allen Frantzen, Cary Howie, Anna Klosowska, Steven Kruger, Karma Lochrie, Robert Mills, James Schultz, Diane Watt, and Lisa Weston, among others] which many will not want to embrace, while at the same time, I am more and more convinced that there cannot be any higher ethical scholarship than that which attends to what Dinshaw has described as a queer and anachronistic history:
[A] history that would reckon in the most expansive way possible with how people exist in time, with what it feels like to be a body in time, or in multiple times, or out of time, is a queer history—whatever else it might be. Historicism is queer when it grasps that temporality itself raises the question of embodiment and subjectivity. Michel de Certeau has written in The Mystic Fable that “time is . . . the question of the subject seized by his or her other, in a present that is the ongoing surprise of a birth and a death.” [“Temporalities,” in Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Middle English, ed. Paul Strohm, p. 109]The subject seized by his or her other, in a present that is the ongoing surprise of a birth and death. I can think of no better description of what has happened to Dinshaw herself through the craft of her scholarship, of its ongoing-ness as a practice and a mentality, and as a form of embodiment [even, dis-embodiment] in which she allows herself the risk of wanting to be surprised by the “intensities” of past bodies that are almost beyond bearing, or as Cary Howie has described her historical project, of wanting, “like the voice of the Lorenz Hart lyric, a nearness that is ‘nearer than the wind is to the willow’” [Claustrophilia, p. 112]. And this has some affinities, too, with Howie’s own project of an anachronistic reading practice in which “the metonymic, participative touch (or look, or reading) brings more fully into being the bodies, texts, and buildings it brushes against” [p. 7].
And here I want to linger on the phrase in the long quotation from Dinshaw’s essay “Temporalities” above, what it feels like to be a body, with a special emphasis on a body. For although Dinshaw concludes Getting Medieval with a plea for a kind of communitarian disaggregation—an embracing of the idea [or is it a fact?] that there is no such thing as a unified, essential self [and who would disagree? not me, no, not me], and that subjects are formed in the inbetween moments of restless and various crossings between alter persons, places, and times—at the same time, throughout her work, both in Getting Medieval and elsewhere, there is this corollary [and I believe, valuable] assertion of the importance of singular, embodied persons and of the significance, as the political theorist George Kateb has written in his book The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture, of the fact that those persons, in their minds and bodies, have “touched reality and become real,” and some understanding of their understanding of the world, as Kateb would argue, is “indispensable to the completeness of the world.” Dinshaw’s preoccupation with the vibrations and intensities of affect of past, singular persons [primarily embodied, now, in textual and artifactual “remains” as well as in contemporary narratives and artworks that take them up and also, in Robert Gluck’s formulation, “push under” them] is also connected, I believe [or maybe this is my own preoccupation? I confess it is, eternally], to Edith Wyschogrod’s notion that every artifact of the past is “a gift of the past to the presented affected with futurity” and which is “inscribed with the vouloir dire of a people that has been silenced, of the dead others” [An Ethics of Remembering, p.248]. I want to say, I want to say, I want to say . . . . And here I am also recalled to Jeffrey’s words in Medieval Identity Machines that
Time unfolds and enfolds within “individuations,” creating what Duns Scotus called “haeccities,” historical differentiations and particulars. Time therefore cannot be divorced from the material and social world, from particular significations and from particular bodies. [p. 9]I take it as a salient point regarding what I will risk [again] calling one of Dinshaw’s personal obsessions, that in her essay “Temporalities,” which only just appeared in 2007, she returns to a careful reading of Foucault’s essay, “The Life of Infamous Men” [which was supposed to serve as an Introduction to an anthology, never published, of “lettres de cachet and other documents consigning atheistic monks, obscure usurers, and other wretches to confinement”], which she also treats in Chapter 2 of Getting Medieval. As we know, Dinshaw is interested in this essay primarily for Foucault’s confession of his “physical reaction” as, immersed in the archive of these documents, he “experienced the terrifying, austere, lyrical beauty” of these documents, which was also “the sensory experience of being-made-an-outsider which these unfortunate men lived” [“Temporalities,” 112]. In Dinshaw’s view, such a moment in the archive “introduces a temporal multiplicity, an expanded now in which past touches present, making a ‘physical’ impression,” and “[i]n a genealogical framework that seeks to overcome the denial of the body in traditional historicism, we could attempt an analysis of the experience of such times” [“Temporalities,” p. 112]. Foucault in the archive with his heretics, Dinshaw in the library at Bryn Mawr with Hope Emily Allen--these are queer ghost stories that also call to mind Anna Klosowska's confession in her book Queer Love in the Middle Ages that throughout her work on the book "Roland Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text stayed near, like a fellow passenger on the train" [p. 145] as well as Howie's admonition in Claustrophilia that to "hold is . . . not just to behold; it is to be held, even to be held in suspense" [p. 152].
A personal “shock” for me as I was reading Dinshaw’s essay was an admission of Foucault’s [and also, by extension] of Dinshaw’s, that did not appear in Getting Medieval: that, in Foucault’s words, “the primary intensities which had motivated me . . . might not pass into the order of reason.” What, then, Dinshaw asks, “will allow us to analyze these feelings, these experiences?” [p. 112]. What, indeed? Dinshaw’s essay is partly maddening for the answers it does not provide to that question [I ultimately take away from Dinshaw’s current preoccupation with mysticism, Margery Kempe, the physical stirrings of a scholarly body open to its and others’ implicit inter-temporalities, and queer historicism that the answer lies in some form of mystico-poetic knowledge, as preposterous as that might sound, and to expect a neat answer, in any case, to how something that is decidedly not rational could be explained rationally is a whole other matter], but more important for me personally is Dinshaw’s admirable desire to formulate an historical practice that could help us “to expand our apprehension and experience of bodies in time—their pleasures, their agonies, their limits, their potentials” [“Temporalities,” p. 122]. As regards, especially, those bodies which are marked, historically, as “outside,” “queer,” “perverse,” “mad,” “abnormal” and the like [and this includes Margery Kempe as it does Chaucer’s Pardoner as it does Hope Emily Allen, Kempe’s first modern editor], I see in Dinshaw’s work what Dan Remein has recently termed a poetics of medieval historiography.
This poetics of medieval historiography has real affinity with the work of actual poets, such as Spencer Reese, who in his volume of poems The Clerk’s Tale is preoccupied with the lives of the queer “discounted” living on the fringes of West Palm Beach and elsewhere, as well as with those on the “outside” of history [both “real” and fictional]: Elizabeth Bishop’s “mad” mother incarcerated in Novia Scotia, an escapee from Florida’s death row who drowns in a swamp “thick with processed excrement,” Philomela, Holocaust survivors, AIDS patients, Tiresias, Christopher Isherwood, T.S. Eliot, an aging homosexual sitting alone on a park bench, Anne Frank, the 2,000 migrant workers drowned in the flood unleashed by the 1928 hurricane in South Florida, his young cousin who was beaten and then drowned in a river in St. Augustine: “I press on the keys of the typewriter,” Reese writes, “attempting to record all those lost and unmarked.” [And, yes, the nod to Chaucer is purposeful in the title poem that details the homely yet elegant labors and fraternal solitude of two gay clerks working in a Brooks Brothers in the Mall of America in Minnesota who “no longer have a need to express ourselves”].
In “Florida Ghazals,” Reese weaves together in seven sections of seven ghazals each the lives of Dolores, the town’s prostitute whose son died in Vietnam; his beaten and murdered cousin; Juan, the prison escapee; the nameless migrant workers drowned in the 1928 flood; Robert Fitzroy, the “father of weather forecasting,” who committed suicide by slitting his throat [“Is it brooding on the future that drives us mad? The silence of it?” Reese asks]; Egaz Moniz, inventor of lobotomies; Philomela with her cut tongue; Elizabeth Bishop; and himself, committed to a mental asylum, where, “Behind the dirty jalousie window slats, the AIDS patients play cards.” Practicing poetry as a form of historiography that is almost monastic in its fierce meditative attention to the thrumming silences and unresolved madnesses of the world [human and inhuman], Reese’s poems account, as Dinshaw might say, for the heterogeneities of fragmentary and contingent times and bodies, or as Reese himself writes, “Down here, the lonely claim my voice and make it strong.”
There is always the risk of melancholia, of course, which weighs heavily upon many of Reese’s lines [this is the “darkness” which he claims to have “emerged” from in the mental asylum in “Florida Ghazals”], and which also reminds me of Benjamin’s caution against the type of history that is
a process of empathy whose origin is the indolence of the heart, acedia, which despairs of grasping and holding the genuine historical image as it flares up briefly. Among medieval theologians it was regarded as the root cause of sadness. Flaubert, who was familiar with it, wrote: “Peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu être triste pour ressusciter Carthage.” [“Theses on the Philosophy of History”]This is a sadness that I believe also weighs upon some of Dinshaw’s writing on the lives of those, like Margery Kempe or Hope Emily Allen, who often struggled, with great anxiety, to be listened to and often felt isolated and abjected as a result. One could even say that their “life projects” had, at a certain point, to be aborted [or quite literally came to a standstill as in, as Dinshaw details, the point at which Jesus’s noli me tangere puts a kind of halt to Margery’s desire to have a bodily relationship with him], and the work of an affective scholarship such as Dinshaw’s labors mightily to reclaim these voices, bodies, and projects [or to at least register the palpable potentialities broken off “in the middle,” as it were, and maybe even to reactivate these potentialities in the present as what Benjamin would have called “chips of Messianic time”]. And through the process of writing itself, Dinshaw also attempts to “touch” these particles, let’s say, of human abjection across time—this is a deeply humanist project [if perhaps, at times, too appropriative—this risk is always present; think of Czeslaw Milosz’s lines in his poem “Child of Europe”: “He who invokes history is always secure. / The dead will not rise to witness against him. / You can accuse them of any deeds you like. / Their reply will always be silence”]. This project resonates also with the insight of Marguerite Yourçenar, observing and reflecting on the engravings of Piranesi, “let us consider for a moment, magnifying glass in hand, the miniscule humanity which gesticulates on the ruins or in the streets of Rome” [quoted in Michael Moore, “An Historian’s Notes for a Miloszan Humanism,” Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2].
Ultimately, any attempt at rendering these lives and thereby “joining” them, as Dinshaw herself has written, is fraught with the inevitability of belatedness, of always arriving, as it were, afterwards, or while traveling along a different, if related temporal plane, and to feel like an anachronism is to choose, I really believe, to inhabit a plane of temporality that is always, to some extent, constructed by ourselves prior to entering it [which might be another way of conceptualizing a life as an artwork which, nevertheless, possesses its own tangible reality], although granted, the physical body itself is already an archive of history. But can it be advanced, if even tentatively, that Dinshaw labors, as does Reece, at a sort of spiritual discipline? I am reminded, finally, when reading her work of these words from the poet George Mackay Brown [and thank you, Michael Moore, for introducing me to Brown]:
I have a deep-rooted belief that what has once existed can never die: not even the frailest things, spindrift or clover-scent or glitter of star on a wet stone. All is gathered into the web of creation, that is apparently established and yet perhaps only a dream in the eternal mind; and yet, too, we work at the making of it with every word and thought and action of our lives. [quoted in Maggie Fergusson, George Mackay Brown: The Life, p. 289]
But can it be advanced, if even tentatively, that Dinshaw labors, as does Reece, at a sort of spiritual discipline?
Certainly, as it always already is, whether thought as such or not.
Yet how much depends, thrives upon, for good and bad, the maintenance and regulation of the *gap* that making this advancement would close! But there seems to be such clear desire in the air (cf. the place of the present panel) for what I called Sufistic Medieval Studies, for a *way* of closing the critical circle and practicing scholarship/discourse in a manner and of a kind that seeks to realize its end in its act, that knows itself as a discipline (and thus also joy) in this full sense. Cf. "every authentic poetic project is directed toward knowledge, just as every authentic act of philosophy is always directed toward joy" (Agamben, Stanzas). To which the only possible, real answer one can give is DO IT.
But maybe I can say what I do not want this desire and the advancing of it as such to be. I do not want it to be just another desire of desire, another gesture pretending to be an act, another 'call.' Nor do I want it to be a desire for a particular definable thing, so that anyone can say, yes, this is what we want, this is what we should do.
Two passages come to mind, sort of corollaries to each other, on the necessity for a and the nonexistence of the way.
"In contrast with the world of facts man builds out of his inspired imagination another world of ideals. Sometimes he imaginatively transports himself into the world of ideals; sometimes he reverts to his realistic world of facts; and occasionally he tries to bridge the gulf between them by actually and laboriously traversing the path with slow and bleeding steps. The temptation to seize the ideal imaginatively and pose as having realized it is so irresistible that there are very few who do not succumb to it" (Meher Baba, Beams, 50-1).
"By many a trail and manner I came to my truth; not on one ladder did I climb to my height, where my eye roams out into my distance. And I never liked asking the way -- that always offended my taste! I preferred to quesion and try the ways myself. All my coming and going was a trying and a questioning -- and truly, one must also *learn* to answer such questioning! That, however -- is my taste: -- not good, not bad, but *my* taste, of which I am no longer shameful nor secretive. 'This--it turns out--is *my* way--where is yours?' -- That is how I answered those who asked me 'the way.' *The* way after all -- it does not exist!" (Nietzsche, TSZ).
But maybe this doesn't speak directly enough to your post, which has most helpfully convinced me I need to really read GM before blabbing about the scholar's body. And I do feel a lot of continuity with what you'er saying and something I wrote for the Eros as Cosmic Sorrow Paper about Mysticism, Place, Chora, Body"
What a great post, Eileen.
I really like the idea of a 'poetics of historiography'.
I have not read Dinshaw - I have skimmed parts of it - and like the ways in which she embraces the complexities of History and historiography - plus she starts with quotes from Nietzsche and Bloch which take us well beyond Ranke...
So - a post like this makes me sorry not to be joining in the book club, but I am busy in other ways and going on holiday soon. I hope that I will return to read this (and perhaps GM) properly another day.
I think we need both kinds of history - history as process and poetry as well as history 'wie est gewesen war' - indeed I am not sure that I can see how you could have one without the other.
A substantial (I hope) comment later, but for the time being the post arrived as this CFP for Leeds 2009 did. We talk so much about texts here at ITM that it's good to be reminded that our colleagues in art history are thinking along intersecting lines:
Postcolonial theory and medieval art: heretical approaches to an orthodox discipline
Organizers: Eva Frojmovic and Catherine E. Karkov
One of the topics discussed at the 2008 IMC roundtable on postcolonial theory and medieval art was the continued dominance of orthodox constructions of disciplinarity, periodization and methodology in the study of medieval art. Medieval art, especially early medieval art, remains a passive other in terms of its chronological boundaries, its subject matter, and its continued reliance on iconographic and stylistic study. This session seeks papers that use postcolonial theory to intervene in our construction of the medieval past and our understanding of medieval images. We welcome papers that focus on particular case studies, as well as papers that interrogate aspects of the discipline.
Professor Catherine Karkov
School of Fine Art, Art History and Cultural Studies
Old Mining Building
University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT
It is difficult to do anything in the face of such a post other than to mouth assent. I've read and then reread it over the course of the day, hoping to find an entrance for conversation, but it has such a beautiful sense of boundedness, of completeness. It doesn't need me.
Thanks for foregrounding temporality and affect so well ... and for the sadness in CD that becomes so clear when Spencer Reese is placed next to or even touches her.
My question is oblique to your project, and 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.
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?
For comparison with Certeau on the mystic's time as question:
"Time is not the limitation of being but its relation to infinity. Death is not annihilation but the question that is necessary for this relationship with infinity, or time, to be produced” (Emmanual Levinas, God, Death, and Time, 19).
Nicola: I read your brief bit over at The Whim on "Mysticism, Place, Chora, Body" and I especially love the idea of the body as "the most intimate wrestling partner through which and with whom we struggle to get a grip on ourselves, cast off sleep, determine the truth about things, find where here is." I think this resonates quite a bit, actually, with some of Dinshaw's thinking in her book, especially as regards the idea of place--the place of the body, and especially in relation to the place of other bodies (and especially bodies in other times). Because I know you are interested in and have written before about chora [as has Michael O'Rourke, as has Dan Remein], you might want to check out Bracha Ettinger's "The Matrixial Borderspace," which in a sense *does* gender the chora [although she herself does not directly address Derrida's or anyone else's thinking on chora, but it's there, implicitly--you might say she rejects the chora in favor of where we really came from: women's bodies].
I also am really intrigued by your thinking about philosophy beginning in the erotic [the question, I take it, as you put it, of the body and its initial question, "where am I?"] and then leaving the erotic to the side, which mysticism then takes back up through its primary mode of feeling: passion. For a book chapter I recently finished revising on Levinas, I read for the first time Simon Critchley's "The Ethics of Deconstruction" [which parses out whether or not Derrida's thought can be ethical--according to Critchley the answer is: only if we read Derrida and Levinas together] where he takes up, also, this issue of how philosophy often does not take as one of its concerns the homely bodily, but then again, doesn't phenomenology? Critchley describes phenomenology as "the description of things themselves as they are concretely experienced by us: the way these glasses feel on my nose, the touch of this table top under my fingertips, what I see when I take a walk in the park . . . what it feels like to be bored, or anxious or to laugh out loud" [p. 283]. Although he admits that not many philosophers take up these more homely matters as a subject for their philosophizing [he claims, conversely, that Levinas does].
But you also concentrate on the erotic, which is not necessarily always sexual, and *could* also be those things Critchley describes above--the bodily feel of things in the world as we experience them--although I think the erotic might more properly be the term we use for a particular orientation toward the world, a feeling within us that Freud defined as the libido, a life-force, or even a love-force, and as to whether or not philosophy ever takes this up as a primary concern--which is also to say, does it take up passion and passionate embodied feeling as a primary concern--we might say that some of the very first philosophy did--hence, Plato's "Symposium" [and think, also, later, of something like Castiglione's "Il Cortegiano"], but since then, love/passion *has* fallen out of favor in philosophy [or, post-Enlightenment, anyway, it could not be a concern and moved over into psychology and sociology, maybe even anthropology]. That is why, and I know I've mentioned this before, I think you would love the book "The Erotic Phenomenon" by Jean-Luc Marion [which Michael O'Rourke recommended to me a while back], the whole of which is concerned with what you seem to be concerned with in much of your own work and thought: being and nonbeing, the erotic, and love. Here is a passage from the first chapter:
"Between knowing and not knowing, no one hesitates to prefer knowing. But why? After all, the conquest of knowledge--or more modestly, of a body of knowledge--requires attention, labor, and time, to the point that one would often like, voluptuously, to do without it. But in fact, we do not do without it. . . . A first response suggests that we desire to know for the simple pleasure of knowing--perhaps the most exciting, the most durable, and the purest of the pleasures that it is possible for us to experience in this life. To the point that one could see in it the only possible natural beatitude, the rival of the other, unconditioned. But how do we fail to see that, in this case, we do not desire simply to in order to know, but in order to experience the pleasure of knowing--we know in order to enjoy knowledge, in order to enjoy the act of knowing, and thus, finally, to enjoy ourselves through the process of knowing. . . . Desire itself, more essential than the desire to know, springs forth--desire, which, even in knowledge, only desires self-enjoyment." [p. 11]
As regards space/place/location, Marion writes [and this, I think, is apropos to Dinshaw's touching across time, which is an erotic touch--not sexual necessarily, but passionate and animated by the life/love force]:
"The erotic . . . renders destitute the homogeneity of space. According to the natural attitude (and thus, here, metaphysics) space is defined as the order of compossibles, of all the beings that can exist together and at the same time, without rendering each other mutually impossible. Whence its homogeneity, which is noted through the first property of beings in space: they can--by right, if not always in fact (but the problem is only that of the power of technological means)--move about, pass from one place to another, and exchange their positions. Every *here* can become an *over there*, and every *over there* can once again become a *here*. Spatial beings are thus characterized by the paradoxical property of not holding to any proper place, or of not having an fixed home. One constantly replacing the other, they ceaselessly circulate within an indifferent space." [p. 29--I would argue with Marion's idea of "an indifferent space" but let's leave that for a moment]
The erotic renders this conventional or metaphysical view of space "destitute" because although I may change my geographical location and even the social and technological networks within which I "move" [if I have the power to do so], the question, "am I loved?" or "does anyone love me?" [questions which Marion concedes are, at bottom, vain, yet necessary, more necessary than thinking, per se--Marion's philosophy replaces the cogitant with the lover], space becomes heterogeneous:
"all the *over theres* can no longer be exchanged for so many *heres*; a place becomes for me unsubstitutable for the first time, fixed and natural, if you like--not the *here* wherein, like a subsistent being in the world, I find myself, and which does not cease to be displaced, but the precise *over there* stuck in me, where I receive the elsewhere, that is to say, the *over there* from whence I receive finding myself riveted into myself, the elsewhere itself. Thus I do not live where I am, *here*, but rather there whence there comes over me the elsewhere that alone concerns me, and without which nothing, of the beings of the world, would concern me." [pp. 31-32]
Marion refers to this as an erotic *reduction* of space, actually, although I think we could conceptualize it, through a body [as Dinshaw describes] that is open to temporal multiplicities, as also an expansion of space which, nevertheless, by virtue of the singular object ultimately fastened upon [Margery Kempe, for example] is still reductive.
While I understand that some will find some of these passages from Marion a bit baffling [and they are taken out of the context of a much longer work], I am just struck immediately by how Marion's idea of finding oneself, *here*, riveted in oneself, through the erotic reduction, by the elsewhere [which is the hope, or the somewhere, of being loved] has such resonances with Dinshaw's queer historicism. Or so I think this morning, after only one cup of coffee.
Nicola: it's so weird that you brought in Levinas again as I was composing that other comment and was also saying to myself, "and now I will return to this thread with Levinas's TIME AND THE OTHER." Because I think a lot of what Dinshaw is doing in "Getting Medieval," whether she says she is doing it or not, is really undergirded by certain phenomenological insights, especially those formulated by Levinas who, like Dinshaw, is an ethicist at bottom, top, first, last, and everything in between ["ethics as first philosophy," as Levinas said]. "Time and the Other" [which could almost be a sub-title for Dinshaw's book] is my favorite book of Levinas's, although I realize that: 1) it is not really a book but a collection of early lectures delivered at the College Philosophique in Paris in 1946-47, and 2) all of its ideas [which Levinas himself described as "prepatory" to later work] are reworked in the later magnum opuses "Totality and Infinity" and "Otherwise than Being." Nevertheless, the opening lines of the first lecture, in particular strikes me from these early lectures in relation to Dinshaw's work:
"The aim of these lectures is to show that time is not the achievement of an isolated and lone subject, but that it is the very relationship of the subject to the Other. This thesis is in no way sociological. It is not a matter of saying how time is chopped up and parceled out thanks to the notions we derive from society, how society allows us to make a representation of time. It is not a matter of our idea of time but time itself. To uphold this thesis it will be necessary, on the one hand, to deepen the notion of solitude and, on the other, to consider the opportunities that time offers to solitude."
Sarah: I utlimately agree with you that the practice of history as "how it really was" and as process are so interrelated with each other that I don't think we could locate one book that isn't always doing both. One of my favorite books, actually, that foregrounds and even privileges what might be called "documentary" history while also foregrounding a new way of thinking about "doing history" [and is also "micro-history"], is Certeau's "The Possession at Loudon." And my favorite line is, "History is never sure."
Jeffrey: as to your being startled by Dinshaw's concluding line to chapter 3, addressed to those who "would eliminate us [queers]":
"don't touch me,"
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. Does that make sense?
Wonderful. I think you are a sprite running ahead of me pointing out the wonders of the world and I've barely enough time to keep up! Will have to refresh myself with Marion on eros, which I've only barely touched and whom I'm also reading on unknowing for the Aesop paper.
Two thoughts. First, about solitude and time re: the Levinas passage, this makes me think of the *planetary* structure of time, of temporality as planetary solitude, or better, lonesomeness, the lonesomess of being in orbit around one's other and therefore of course wholly bound to/with it in the most intimate, gravitational way, bound, as we feel to be bound *by* time, in a motion that 'precedes' all other motions, so that time is something like the motion of motion, the same way Aristotle says thought is the thought of thought. Second, about CD and phenomenology, I am reminded of when I asked her, two Kalamazoos ago, whether she capitalized "n/Now" in her paper, and it turned out she did, but was not exactly sure why. I think this emblematizes a crux in the relation between literary/historical reading and philosophy and the place of phenomenology in that relation. Literary interpretation, producing textual meanings, is like phenomenology in the sense that both are places where we get to have, live in an/the enchanted cosmos without having to worry much about claims as to the precise nature of that enchantment, where we can remain in the passion of un/non-knowing (Augustine, Derrida, Caputo), in non-secrecy and the joy of actuality, of being with each other as real human beings, Kierkegaard's poor existing individuals. This is where we have Now without eternity, apophasis without God, etc., which is wonderful, playful, honest, creative, necessary and certainly of value. But I say go a step further, in the direction in which I wrote about "the facticity or actuality or that which is so wonderful/terrifying/beautiful that it might as well be called (and may very well be) God," which is a step past where the literary interpreter is supposed to speak from, literary meaning being conventionally and institutionally understood, in a kind of reverse cartesianism, to be some hallucinatory, floating phenomenon above the stable ground of historicity in the English sense (with due qualifications for agency of ideas, ideology, bla bla), the world of facts "we" inhabit, that makes "we" make sense. CD's Now breaks from this dualism of meaning and fact in the direction of phenomenology and existential philosophy. Cool. But I also remember wanting more from her capitalization and thinking that not having an answer for why one would capitalize it is weak and potentially cowardly. If this Now really is all that it is cracked up to be then I want to jump into it as a portal to a new and unforseeble dimension, not just stand nearby and point to it as something interesting, not stay inside and talk about how it is raining but go get wet, not appropriate mystical time (Certeau) for the sake of criticism but live in the time where criticism, discourse, conversation is (already) mysticism, which as I understand it is nothing religious or faith-based but simply living in the most-actual dream that unbearable happiness, love, and the answer to everything, everything your heart desires, is totally available, right in front of our faces. So, poetic, poethical scholarship, wager, yes, and the more we risk the better for there is nothing to lose.
Great post, Eileen, and really interesting comments to continue the conversation. Fascinating.
In his comment, Jeffrey brings up the noli me tangere - both in Margery and in the end of that chapter on her. I was wondering about that scene, Margery's pain at it, and other ways of thinking through that moment.
I think you're hitting something in where you say
One could even say that their “life projects” had, at a certain point, to be aborted [or quite literally came to a standstill as in, as Dinshaw details, the point at which Jesus’s noli me tangere puts a kind of halt to Margery’s desire to have a bodily relationship with him], and the work of an affective scholarship such as Dinshaw’s labors mightily to reclaim these voices, bodies, and projects [or to at least register the palpable potentialities broken off “in the middle,” as it were, and maybe even to reactivate these potentialities in the present as what Benjamin would have called “chips of Messianic time”]. And through the process of writing itself, Dinshaw also attempts to “touch” these particles, let’s say, of human abjection across time—this is a deeply humanist project
I'd add to that and say that 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.
Nicola: sometime I think--this guy is crazy! But in a good way. Seriously. You call *me* a sprite? You're the sprite, dude. All kidding aside, and even though I wonder about *how* we could practice this more *practically*, I liked very much how you concluded your last comment:
"If this Now [Dinshaw's Now, as well as, I take it, her expansive inter-temporalities] really is all that it is cracked up to be then I want to jump into it as a portal to a new and unforseeble dimension, not just stand nearby and point to it as something interesting, not stay inside and talk about how it is raining but go get wet, not appropriate mystical time (Certeau) for the sake of criticism but live in the time where criticism, discourse, conversation is (already) mysticism, which as I understand it is nothing religious or faith-based but simply living in the most-actual dream that unbearable happiness, love, and the answer to everything, everything your heart desires, is totally available, right in front of our faces. So, poetic, poethical scholarship, wager, yes, and the more we risk the better for there is nothing to lose."
You hit at something important here regarding criticism and praxis [and by praxis I don't mean to reinscribe criticism *as* praxis or praxis *as* criticism--which is the typical copout, which even I myself am prone to]; but the more difficult question might be: how do we do it? How do we move through that portal? How do we start doing our work differently *enough* that the lines between criticism, conversation, maybe "party," affinity/amity, pleasure/delight, due diligence, ethical care, seriousness, experimentation, artistry, etc. really converge and produce a new space, not just for work, but for living? It would be worth trying, in any case.
How do we do it?
Eileen, thanks for asking, first of all because the never-ending beginning of the answer is to keep asking, functionally and abstractly (the way one asks of a map not just where is x? but how do I get there from here?) this question, as part and parcel of living, say, philosophically or in wonder, living within the labor of asking-answering, with and on all levels of one's being What Am I Doing Here?, each word of which echoes with millenia of discourse and pondering of impossibles. Putting aside the large sack of the obvious and necessary caveats and qualfications--that there is not *an* answer, but as many answers as askers; that it is a hopeless question, which wants more than answering it can provide; that for many people it is a useless and unnecessary question, one that many can 'do perfectly well' without (and that is fine)--I will try to say something helpful.
This passage from _Fear and Trembling_ comes to mind:
"How does the single individual reassure himself that he is legitimate? It is a simple matter to level all existence to the idea of the state or the idea of society. If this is done, it is also simple to mediate, for one never comes to the paradox that the single individual as the single individual is higher than the universal, something I can also express symbolically in a statement by Pythagoras to the effect that the odd number is more perfect that the even number. If occasionally there is any response at all these days with regard to the paradox, it is likely to be: One judges by the result. . . . When in our age we hear these words: It will be judged by the result--then we know at once with whom we have the honor of speaking. Those who talk in this way are a numerous type whom I shall designate under the common name of assistant professors. With security in life, they live in their thoughts: they have a permanent position and a secure future in a well-organized state. They have hundreds, yes, even thousands of years between them and the earthquakes of existence; they are no afraid that such things can be repeated for then what would the police and the newspapers say? Their life task is to judge the great men, judge them according to the result. Such behavior towards greatness betrays a strange mixture of arrogance and wretchedness--arrogance because they feel called to pass judgment, wretchedness because they feel that their lives are in no way allied with the lives of the great. Anyone with even a smattering erectioris ingenii [of nobility of nature] never becomes an utterly cold and clammy worm, and when he approaches greatness, he is never devoid of the thought that since the creation of the world it has been customary for the result to come last and that if one is truly going to learn something from greatness one must be particularly aware of the beginning. [Here the opening and early scene of David Lynch's Dune echoes in the background] If the one who is to act wants to judge himself by the result, he will never begin. Although the result may give joy to the entire world, it cannot help the hero, for he would not know the result until the whole thing was over, and he would not become a hero by that but by making a beginning" (Hong trans., p. 62-3).
So, one does it by *beginning*. Cf. Arendt on action and natality, which is another way of understanding authentic action (as opposed to mere behaviour) as action within the *full situation* of life, of one's and the other's life, the action of mortals, the action of persons for whom life itself is something at stake, not just a set of stable, predictable (consumerist) practices, not just a state in either sense. But this is too abstract. What I want to do (and see intellectuals, humanists, medievalists, whatever do more of and more creatively) is try to take seriously, understand, tinker with, and invent their own practices as poetry in the old sense, as making, production, art. Cf Gumbrecht's call for production of presence. This means being a go-between, an amis, for poetry and philosophy, so they can get back in bed together and make beautiful babies, not just bastard 'experimental' babies, though those are cute too, and this means killing criticism, or gently laying its already dead body to rest, since
"Criticism is born at the moment when the scission [between poetry and philosophy] reaches its extreme point. It is situated where, in Western culture, the world comes unglued from itself; and it points, on the near or far side of that separation, toward a unitary status for the utterance. From the outside, this situation of criticism can be expressed in the formula according to which *it neither represents nor knows, but knows the representation*" (Agamben, Stanzas, my emph)
Which is very abstract, so I don't really have an answer, or don't yet know how to say the answer I have.
Nicola: my only real response to your last comment here would likely be to repeat much of what you said in different words, so I won't. You've pretty much captured something that matters a great deal to me, which has to do with recognizing, as you put it, the hopelessness of the question yet nevertheless beginning to act *as if* there were one [but without worrying how that will be judged]. I hope I got that right--in precise, as it were. Thanks to your suggestion to the read the book, I myself have become enamored of Gumbrecht's book "Production of Presence" [I also recommended it to Dinshaw because I think it provides some really constructive modes of thought for answering the questions she raises and leaves hanging in the air a bit in her essay "Temporalities," and I don't think we should forger either how influential Gumbrecht's thought has been on Cary Howie's and vice versa], and I am especially drawn to thinking more about the ways in which Gumbrecht asks us to cultivate new modes of what I would call en-worldment, and this project [Gumbrecht's] has real affinities with the political theorist Jane Bennett's in her book "The Enchantment of Modern Life," all of which bears upon your thinking here [I think] about us [I take it, as scholars] taking more seriously our work as the "making" of presence(s). There has to be room to experiment, of course. We have to think about access, too, of course: *who* can do this and in what circumstances? After so many conversations with my friend Michael Moore, who is also a medievalist, over the issue of personal freedom and also amity [two subjects that Michael seems to labor over most assiduously, with me as the voice always asking, "what's so special and privileged about personal freedom, personal freedom to do what, personal freedom for who at who's expense, etc."? which is partly the result of the profound influence on me at one point in my life of having read Simone Weil's "Draft of a Statement of Human Obligations"--i.e., obligations versus "rights"], I *do* find myself coming around to the value and importance of personal freedom [how significant it is for each individual, how conducive to happiness, etc.] but from the route of wanting to labor to create spaces within which the greatest amount of freedom can be garnered for the greatest number of persons/entities--this project has something to do with what Ivan Illich called maximizing the personal energies under personal control. Any scholarly *experiment* that would tilt at this would be worthwhile in my mind.
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