Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Touching Carolyn Dinshaw

by J J Cohen

Karl's post foregrounded the haptic, and wondered about phenomenology. The excellent and wide-ranging discussion historicized tactility well, emphasizing its similarity to both sight and smell, a kind of medieval synesthetic array.

My way of entry into the discussion is to hesitate at the welcome mat. Quite literally.

I first met Carolyn Dinshaw when I was a graduate student. This was just when the Dark Ages were becoming Middle. Dinshaw had been invited to my university to lead a discussion of a precirculated paper at a medieval colloquium (a paper that would later be published as "A Kiss Is Just a Kiss: Heterosexuality and Its Consolations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"; it was my first real exposure to Judith Butler's work, and made a convert of me). Chaucer's Sexual Poetics was making its big splash. Liz Scala had commanded me to read that book now, so I did (Liz is always right when she commands you to do something) -- and I was blown away. Reviewers would not always be kind to the volume (one of Dinshaw's faculty hosts was preparing a not very favorable one for Speculum at the moment she was visiting, as I recall), but I loved it for its unabashed feminism, for its new readings of works that were beginning to feel familiar, for its panache.

As a prelude to her paper presentation, Dinshaw was invited to an informal lunch with faculty and graduate students. (These lunches, dubbed for obscure reasons the Chester A. Arthur Appreciation Society, were always held at a restaurant more beloved for its inexpensive wine than its good food.) Dinshaw sat directly across from me ... and I was seized with panic because I was just a graduate student, and what the hell could I say to Carolyn Dinshaw? I so love your work, it's the most exciting stuff out there, will you sign my copy of Chaucer's Sexual Poetics? My eyes were drawn to her book bag, which was actually a rubber welcome mat that had been folded in half and welded into a kind of brief case.

"I like your welcome mat," I stuttered. It is possible that we then went on to talk about Judith Butler. Or Bertilak. Or cheap wine. I don't really know, but I do remember this: she impressed me as someone with whom you could speak about all of these things, and in return she would gently suggest that you were wrong and maybe ought to rethink what you were assuming to be true. She would always do this with such interest and intensity that it didn't matter that the ground was being systematically removed from beneath your feet. This loss could be disconcerting, could be queer (in the sense of estrangement, productive disruption -- to steal some synonyms from Getting Medieval). You might feel the roiling effect of that which will "shake up the ground of traditional categories and actions" (157).

But something about that welcome mat bent round into traveler's case was reassuring. Even if the destination was not necessary known in advance, stepping through that door to the unknown (a door that seemed as much in the past as the future and present), giving up on pilgrimages to certain knowledge: these commitments have their rewards, their pleasures, their lingering touch.

As it turns out I was fortunate enough to hear much of Getting Medieval as conference presentations and big lectures before it was published. The book has always had a comfortable feel for me, like coming home -- probably because (as Karl noted in the comments to his own post) to read a book first encountered almost a decade ago is in many ways to meet a temporally disjunct version of oneself. For me, much of what was to come later in my career was catalyzed by my glimpse of a welcome mat at a table in a Cambridge restaurant c. 1991. Returning to Getting Medieval is like traveling back in time, and realizing how much of the past inheres.

So, here is my question for you, dear readers, as well as my welcome mat: did this book touch you in the past? what resonances did a rereading call forth? And -- if you are lucky enough to be giving the book a first read -- does anything I've written do anything besides make your mouth water for cheap wine, and your browser yearn to surf eBay for welcome mat briefcases?


Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you say about Dinshaw. She is a wonderful person and a wonderful scholar. Nonetheless, I had and still have a lot of problems with this book. I just can't understand why an otherwise fascinating and thought-provoking study of medieval sexualities and sexual communities is obscured by all that stuff about reader responses to Boswell's book, Pulp Fiction, Congressional hearings on the NEH, etc. Some of that latter stuff was interesting in its own right, but I failed to see that it illuminated the medieval material in any way; much of it felt like the kind of thing you'd expect in a late-night dinner party conversation; some of it just plain didn't interest me (such as Pulp Fiction, which I haven't seen, and from the descriptions of it, wouldn't want to see). A lot of it also seemed terribly culture-bound: if you weren't American, it wouldn't be very meaningful at all. In reading the book, I longed to clear all that away and make room for her to expand on the really interesting stuff about medieval literary texts, historical documents, etc., and maybe to see that placed in a larger and more interesting context, one that wasn't limited to America in the Reagan-Bush era and its immediate aftermath.

Now, that must mean that I have seriously missed the whole point of the book. And I'm willing to believe that it's my own failing. So I look forward to seeing other readers of this blog explain to me what it is that I'm missing.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Those questions have, of course, been endlessly ruminated upon since the book's publication. Why not check out the useful forum on Getting Medieval in the Journal of the History of Sexuality (10.2, 2001)? You'll find five essays that examine the book's project closely, and a detailed response by Dinshaw.

Here is an excerpt that I think all ITM readers will enjoy, given the current discussion:

In writing Getting Medieval I tried to discern and work with personal and intimate motives of doing queer history, the deep desires for history that many queers (including me) feel. Years ago I began to feel such a desire to be able to extend somehow into the past, and I witnessed such desire in others, as expressed in passionate readers' responses to that landmark of gay history, John Boswell's 1980 Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. That book was infused with and energized by a 1970s post-Stonewall enthusiasm that triumphantly uncovered same-sex sexuality (as it turned out, a very '70s-style gayness) throughout the ages; but the desires for history that I noted and continue to note are not necessarily dependent on belief in or assumptions about an "essential" homosexuality across time. In Getting Medieval I discussed Michel Foucault's profound appreciation of Boswell's book as he configured and reconfigured his social constructionist History of Sexuality project.

From a later generation, a resolutely queer student of mine ("queer" meaning here that he is uninterested in self-replication, wary of the politics of visibility, and fascinated by "an attachment to the hidden, unknown, and irretrievable" in history writing) recently claimed:
As is true for many queers, my own relationship to my queer sexuality was first articulated not through a relationship with another
body but rather through texts, specifically queer films and queer histories. I consumed such texts urgently.... I was looking for a way to be queer, for a way to fashion my own identity. Queer history is my queer past ...[D]oing queer history ... constitutes a way of being queer, indeed a way of surviving as queered. Queer history is my queer present.'

Developing queer history through the concept of affective connection - a touch across time - and through the intentional collapse of conventional historical time, I wanted in Getting Medieval to help queer studies respond to such desire. In fact, I intended to make affect central to the project of queer history writing; this would, I contended, further the aim (shared by me and other restive historians of sexuality) of transforming history writing altogether. It would queer historiography.

In Getting Medieval I presented affective history as an enabling concept with which readers could work in order to respond to their own situations-their places in space and time-and their needs and desires for a past.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

PS The quotation from the former student is attributed to Richard Kim, and I've reproduced a quote from pp. 202-3 of the essay.

Karl Steel said...

Great post Jeffrey. Nice work with the bag.

Our mysterious anon:

I actually loved the discussions of Boswell, of Kittredge (and the homophobic roots of Pardoner critique, of the Pardoner-and-Wilde 'touching' via Kittridge, which opens--contra Kittridge's own expressed desires--the Pardoner up to new readings), and the links between Pulp Fiction and the mid-90s NEA/NEH debates (although I was saddened to be reminded that Representative Shadegg, in the news recently for various reasons, has been stinking up Congress for so long).

We have, in both the PF analysis and NEA/NEH debates, two moments of the refusal to be touched by the past, of the refusal to have the self-satisfaction of one's control and understanding of one's own present moment to be contaminated by past times and what they might offer. Or what they might undo. Here's what Dinshaw wrote:

"I argue that motivating this list [in the NEA/NEH debates] is a thorough resistance to such ideas as those that Robert Gl├╝ck bases Margery Kempe on --resistance to the very concepts of engagement and relation across time as well as across other divides (of gender, sexuality, religion, race, class, nationality). Because the very basic idea that history lives, that even distant and relatively unexplored times and place are relevant to twentieth-century American lives, suggests sites of cultural relation that are unpredictable, uncontrollable....The ridicule is used to reinforce an American modernity whose history is short and already known, a modernity that just doesn't inquire" (177).

As so many people have said, the past cannot simply be past. There's an advantage in that, maybe: the past at least suggests that things have not ever been such. The mobility of the past promises--or, if you're a conservative (or simply someone who wants to hold out against the advances of transnational capitalism: search for Kugelmass here), it threatens--the mobility of the future. At the least it confounds the notion of forward progress and THAT particular self-satisfaction.

With this in mind, the debates in Congress in the mid-90s and the abjection of the medieval in Pulp Fiction are of a piece, both symptomatic of the refusal to be touched in the way Dinshaw wants us to be touched. This material is not simply about this mid-90s moment any more than the discussion of the medieval material is about, simply, London and East Anglia 1390s-1430s. The analysis of medieval and modern material should provide, at the least, structures for analysis of other, similar phenomena, whether it's the refusal of the complex past or the refusal of gender mobility (each of which, of course, Dinshaw links to the other).

dan remein said...

Jeffrey, Karl, Anon.:

Yes. I read this book as a grad student, round one, at Pitt, just a couple years ago. I had not heard of Dinshaw, and I was in a Queer Theory seminar that was mostly about film. I was writing about Julian of Norwich, and had read very little of anything up to that point that made me want to really stick with studying the Middle Ages as I've wound up doing. It was already a struggle making my work fit in with the class, not theoretically, but in simply in terms of subject matter—and while the instructor was amazingly supportive of the project, some of my classmates would take much more convincing that anyone in a Queer Theory Seminar might need the Middle Ages for anything.

I, too, was enthralled with the Boswell sections I had not read the Boswell at that point, and I was so fascinated by her fascination with the book's effect, with what happened in its wake, that I stopped reading Dinshaw, went out and found a copy of the Boswell in a local used bookstore, and read it before I read another page of _GM_.

With respect to the Boswell, both her interest in it as opening a certain kind of Kinship group, and its relation to a kind of overt politics of touching at the end of the book, point to an element I think central to _GM_ itself, which is a turn away from a kind of historigraphy which runs on the a mimetic economy of past represented by a historian. This turn I think is so, let's say, even scandalous, because it is not about knowledge, but about feeling, the feeling of wanting to be touched and the touching, and the being touched, all of which amount not to knowledge, but to events of queer kinship. It is not scandalous because it sets feeling in opposition to rigorous thinking. It is scandalous because while it wishes to Love the past, and be loved by the past, it almost suggests that the truth of the past doesn't even matter (which is why its so risky--its a desire for a justice for the dead which risks the very possibility of such justice, of memory), and in such a way that Feeling and Thinking are bound up in our relation to Time in such a way as has not been suggested overtly in (even by the Barthes Dinshaw relies on) our time.

The other thing about Dinshaw that struck me so quickly, was the way in which she identifies just how our intellection is only possible when it moves through affective channels. And this is why I think, again to Anon., that yes, sometimes her book does sound like very good dinner party talk. To which I would say, GOOD. There is something of fandom in what I do, in who i read, in what I love, with the Middle Ages, and with those that study it. For example, for all his Christian Orthodoxy with which I do not get along at all, for all of how it infected and limited the scope and reach of his actual literary histories, I have to admit that I have a thing for C.S. Lewis and _The Allegory..._, and would love to be touched queerly by a fragment of his stodgy-ness, and for that reading/reading-event to provoke other events of touching with the past.

In these ways _GM_ is very contingent on its moment and its placement in the United States. But, I love it for that. It risks a kind of transience that is simply elegant and I think needed. But it was for me a book when i first read it that I felt asking me to touch it, and to touch. Its queer fetishes bend time, in little shards, bringing my curve of reading-time so close to Margery that it provokes me to want to be touched by these pasts as well. Beyond this, it forced me to re-think phenomenological ways of thinking about time and reading--I've had to think of something like 'the time of the fetish-event' in response to the ways that the the past as a queer relic operates, and the time of that operation, the time of the pleasure of that operation and the ethics of that pleasure. Beyond this, I had to, for the first time, think affect rigorously, and really admit affect as the scene of my intellection--the only scene I think can allow our work to be needful to where we are in a World which, without History, will lose its Imagination (the one which, according to someone like Vico first invented the Human itself), will have at best thin and sparsely distributed love.

That is to say, that while I said the book risks an incredible contingency, it does so while sheltering certain statements and moves, the theoretical import of which are right up there with _de la Grammatologie_, to the effect of offering the hope that once again it should be the study of the middle ages from which some of our best and most loving theory comes, for all of literary and historiographical studies. In these way, _GM_ touched me and I felt asked to be touched by any number of scholars. It’s a book that I felt trying to make intellection love with the past and the world.

Anonymous said...

All your comments are just so interesting. I guess it comes down to personal style and preference. I was drawn to medieval studies as an undergrad because I wanted to study something as far away from myself as possible, and that was the best I could find at my university. The last thing I wanted was to find myself back there, or to feel seen or touched by what I was studying. I was politically activist and even took part in a student initiative urging the university to set up a Women's Studies program (as it was called back then), but while I totally thought those classes should be there for those who wanted them, I couldn't imagine taking one myself. It would be too close to home. The whole pleasure of intellectual and academic work, I thought, was escaping oneself and one's times. I want to stress that then and now, I have always respected those who feel otherwise and I have read plenty of feminist, queer, and postcolonial theory and criticism that I think is immensely wonderful; and I've also used it in my own work, though I still greatly value that feeling of separation between 'my work' and 'my self'.

Much more recently, at a fairly advanced stage of my career, I've begun more to investigate issues in my medievalist work that do resonate with issues in my personal life, and this is an interesting experience, but I still couldn't imagine writing about it as such. For one thing, it is too private to share with the world. For another, I can't see how it would enhance in any way the learning experience of someone who reads my work in the hopes of learning something about medieval culture. Why would they want to learn about ME or my own times, and how could this possibly contribute anything useful to their or my studies? And then too, how could I possibly be so arrogant as to think that my own experiences, and my perspectives on them, could really be analogous to people who lived so long ago, in such a different place? I know that ANY analysis or description of cultural artefacts is a form of imposition and appropriation, and it's important to be aware of one's biases, and all that... but I can't see that I would have the right to impose myself so blatantly, so explicitly--to make that the point of my writing.

Maybe you think this is just another form of self-deception or arrogance on my part. Maybe it is. Then again, maybe we all just have our own ways of engaging with the past and with the community of people who also engage with that past, and this is my way.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Jeffrey> I think a lot of what you've said here resonates with what I came up with in my post. In particular, I like the image of the traveling welcome mat -- the idea of making oneself at home in a place or time that isn't ever truly going to be home. It's kind of like recognizing that initial discomfort is a gateway.

It's also profoundly reassuring to hear you talk about having the "I'm only a grad student" panic at meeting an important scholar -- and to realize that that "welcome" extends to those in ones own time as well.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: How interesting—I gravitated toward the medieval for similar reasons, I think. I too was uninterested in studying any form of expressive culture that was “too close” to my own place in the world. Furthermore, I was also intensely interested in finding a past that seemed completely separate from anything leading up to my present. Studying the Middle Ages promised to give me distancing purchase on the past without contaminating me or embroiling me in its modes of violence or spectacles of abjection (I wasn’t so concerned about being excluded from its concomitant forms of ecstasy or scenes of fulfillment--go figure). For a long time, and in important ways I could not have done without, this ability to get distance on my past through the MA worked.

I must say, however, that the way I approach the Middle Ages is completely related to my past, and I think it always has been in one important respect. Because of my history, I have always resisted any attempt to treat the past as a monolith that might be uncovered in order to reveal a “true” identity. I had many of these moments mobilized against me while I was coming up: I was told again and again (often in personalized, historicized terms) who I “really” was, particularly in terms the histories that might inform my affective affiliations. If I truly understood my past, a predicted set of affective relations could emerge in good consequentialist order. I rejected this imposition of personal history by retreating to the Middle Ages—and for a long time I was very skeptical of any mixing of personal and historical materials.

It was not really until I read GM (along with some other feminist, queer, and postcolonialist work) that I really confronted how much of myself I had been suppressing in order to maintain the fantasy that I could get distance on the past—my past, or any past. I wouldn’t deny that what you’ve done hasn’t been successful—indeed, I think that there is a way to keep oneself separate from the matter one studies (without necessarily falling prey to self-deception or arrogance). After I read GM, however, I didn’t want to keep myself apart anymore, simply because it required incessant work to cultivate and maintain that distance. More crucially, I realized that reflecting on my past helped me clarify the things I most cared about in studying the MA—in particular, the ways in which gender categories are devised and deployed to create or maintain other categorical distinctions. I would therefore say that Dinshaw’s discussions bear little relation to “dinner party talk,” unless, that is, you attend much more intense dinner parties than I do (completely possible). Yet, as Jeffrey rightly notes, Dinshaw is able to present what in another scholar’s hands might seem like immensely polarizing, threatening matters in completely open, accessible ways. It seems that those discussions of the NEH, etc., show very strongly that the past—including the medieval past—affects our varied relations to the present. As a consequence, hers is a book that many non-medievalists cite, I think because it opens up a way to do queer history for scholars of many affiliations.

I’ll stop now; clearly I’m a fan…

meli said...

I first read (a section of) GM as an MA student in 2003. It was required reading, but we weren't actually led to read very much new or cutting edge criticism, and it freaked me out. I thought she was just trying to show off. I hadn't seen Pulp Fiction at that point either, and didn't see myself as someone who'd want to...

I read it again about a year and a half ago, and liked it a lot. I could see what she was trying to do and thought it was amazing. It's really helped me in aspects of my phd thesis where modern Australian writers are definitely trying to 'touch' the past, sometimes in a queer way.

Oh, and I've seen Pulp Fiction since, too. I loved it.

ps. I found your comment interesting anon. I'm always interested in the ways the personal and the professional fit together, especially regarding such personal and eclectic things as the topics we choose to study. I think other people would be interested in your personal relationship to your topic as well, and it wouldn't be arrogance to assume this. It also wouldn't be useless - how things fit together, how they connect, is one of the most fascinating things about life. I guess I've always been more interested in stories than facts.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Holly and Meli, I am not sure that there is anything more to say to your contributions than "thank you." They are eloquent, and heartfelt, and I am grateful that they were shared.

Well, maybe one minor footnote, since Holly brought up the convergence of so many schools of criticism and what this convergence enables vis a vis the interpreter's place: I've been increasingly interested in ficto-criticism, which Jenna Mead has (in a review I've cited here) defined as "a genre that inserts autobiographical self-realization into theoretically-conscious critical scholarship" -- such as Alice Kaplan's French Lessons, Stephen Muecke's No Road (bitumen all the way) [Muecke has a great line at the beginning where he asks "What language can I use to carry this story?"), and David Wallace's Premodern Places.

Dinshaw does not write in this mode: you'd be hard pressed to extract much of her biography from GM. The book possesses moments of identity-speaking (I've quoted them already in this discussion) but not much beyond general assertions about her sexuality and academic position. Her later work, however -- like "Pale Faces," and her recent essay on temporalities -- is much closer to ficto-criticism, at least as practiced by (say) David Wallace. [sidenote: I used to think of these two scholars as being worlds apart, but have come to realize how much unites them in their critical practice: they write and think in deep sympathy with each other].

Ficto-criticism has deep roots in feminism and seems to have made its biggest splashes in Australia and Canada, but there does seem to be a burgeoning interest in it in the US.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

One further thought to add to what I wrote earlier: this change in writing mode and style (since for me it is both) has been catalyzed in part by being very fortunate in the number of invitations I've had to present my work.

Being forced to think about how to communicate with an audience who sits right in front of you and whose interest (or loss thereof) is immediately evident has encouraged me to adopt a prose style that is, shall we say, more generous than my writing style has sometimes been in the past -- honestly, a prose style that is closer to my pedagogical style. [Actually, it's the same with writing for this blog: when you know your audience can always just click through to another destination if you trigger ennui, then you feel some pressure to compose in a mode that is substantial and emotionally/intellectually engaging. It doesn't always work, of course, but it is a productive kind of pressure).

So, I'm more aware than I had been of the performative aspect of scholarship ... and that awareness connects to one of the great attractions of reading and rereading GM. Since I remember so much of that book from its orally delivered versions, and since I can't really separate the words on the page from CD's performance of them, GM has always seemed to me a good road map of how to engage and challenge without excluding.

OK, it's all about the touch again.

At the moment I'm working on a piece on Mandeville, a piece that will be a plenary lecture at an upcoming conference. What's fun about its composition is that, because it is a talk first and a published piece only afterwards, I get to foreground its (potential) artfulness in a way that I probably wouldn't otherwise. The same thing happened with the "Weight of the Past" project: because it was commissioned as a major talk, I worked much harder at its aesthetic (and affective) intensity than I otherwise likely would have, and learned quite a bit about GM in the process.

Anonymous said...

Great posts, ITM folks!

On CD and touch, ya'll might want to check out Heather Love's riff on both in _Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer History_. She does a lovely reading (ha,ha) of the motif of "touching" in queer history and what might be troubling about it, particularly its phenomenological dimensions. Her main point, if I remember correctly, is that touch, as Karl pointed out, is both deictic and transitive at the same time. The problem is that, as a motif for queer history, it sidesteps the question of how the archive "touched" queers of the past. That is, touch allows us to focus more on the intransitive, or more reflexive, nature of touch while ignoring the more transitive, and violent, implications of the sensory motif, particularly in our scholarship. She has a lovely meditation on the anecdote about Foucault in the archive, recognizing that his project is only possible because these subjects who he feels affinity towards were gripped, indeed seized, by state power in the past. If violence most likely structured queer archive, Love's analysis asks whether it would have been better if there were no archive, and thus no queer history, through which moderns could "touch" queers of the past. For me, Love's work resonates deeply with Kathleen Biddick's new work on medieval archives and politics.

Anonymous said...

Very compelling thread here!

Would it be too unfashionable to say that when I first read GM I was actually most impressed by CD's close reading skills? I'm thinking specifically about CD's analysis of Rykener's Guildhall interrogation alongside Chaucerian works and her interest in "the meeting of texts" literary and non-literary - but I'm sure other readers could come up with alternate examples. I still find GM so challenging theoretically and conceptually - esp. re: the contingent, provisional status of community formation across time - but I remember my first reaction to GM, as an undergraduate, was something more basic. I admired how GM made texts touch (not only across time, but also within their "own" time).

Eileen Joy said...

Dan: just a quick comment to say that, as regards the intellection of affective channels, or thinking the affective more rigorously *as* intellection, this *is* work that has been done, for a while now, in neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and in psychiatry & psychology. A good primer on the subject is "Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Another good book to look at would be Mark Johnson's "The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding" and "The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason." And finally, and most important, check out anything by Antonio Damasio, especially his most recent book "Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain."