Thursday, August 21, 2008

What Lies Before Us: Old English Studies, the Agon of Thought, and Our Moments of Unknowingness

Figure 1. Yes, this movie poster is placed here as a subliminal message for my post: you figure it out


I want to share with everyone here an Afterword I recently completed, "Strange Encounters: Andreas, Self-Eaters, and the Failed Historicity of Post-Coloniality," for a volume of mainly reprinted essays on the Old English Andreas [a long poem concerning the apocryphal story of St Andrew's rescue of St Matthew from the cannibals of Mermedonia, his torture at the hands of the Mermedonians, and his eventual conversion of the island's inhabitants] edited by Andrew Scheil for the new Richard Rawlinson Reprints Series [Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University]. The volume covers a range of reprinted essays, from 1972 to 2003, that address the poem's linguistic, stylistic, and formal features, its analogues in and relations with other Old English texts and medieval Christian doctrine, as well as typological readings [which has been the predominant mode in Andreas studies for the most part], and also includes a new essay by Andy Orchard on Andreas's relation to other Old English poems, and then my Afterword [if, hopefully, Andy likes it--he may not--in which case this will just be a weblog post!].

Before simply posting the actual Afterword, though, I wanted to also share what I suppose is an anecdote culled from when I was working on my dissertation (roundabout 2000), "Beowulf and the Floating Wreck of History," which dissertation was mainly a response, or what I was calling at the time, a supplement, to Allen Frantzen's Desire for Origins, a book that, at the time it was published, 1990, could be considered to have been like a bomb thrown into the quiet and stately rooms of Anglo-Saxon studies.

In 1990, I was an MFA student working on writing short stories about male strippers who drove Volvo sedans through the skies over Nevada and Marie Curie meeting Pablo Neruda in heaven and hobos living on abandoned boxcars during the end of the world who gave birth to fish [yeah, I know: huh?], and I didn't know medieval or Anglo-Saxon studies from schmedieval studies [so, unlike a certain Dan Remein, I was not sitting in poetry workshops and also taking seminars in medieval historiography! although I was lucky enough to take a course on Chaucer with Charlotte Morse which led me to eventually become something like a medievalist]. I was blissfully unaware of certain debates raging among Anglo-Saxonists over whether or not critical theory was relevant to Anglo-Saxon texts and history, and in which debates, some really brave yet only a few scholars, such as Frantzen, Gillian Overing, Clare Lees, Martin Irvine, Karma Lochrie, Sarah Higley, James Earl, John Tanke, Seth Lerer, and John Hermann [this list is not exhaustive, so forgive me on that] squared off against pretty much everyone else. Reading through some of these debates in 1999 and 2000--those that appeared in print, anyway, such as Frantzen's "Who Do These Anglo-Saxonists Think They Are, Anyway?" [AEstel 1 1993: 135-49]--was kind of thrilling for someone just entering the field [technically, I started my studies in 1993, but you might say I didn't really start paying attention to issues of methodology until the late 1990s, and I had also dropped out for almost four years to "get back to Nature," as it were]. One voice that really kept jumping out at me, in addition to Frantzen's [who, in a sense, was the most willing to shake up the edifices of the field in a kind of in-your-face way in his book Desire for Origins and his edited volume Speaking Two Languages, but who, at the same time, has never appeared, to me anyway, to be a scholar who has been as generous as he could be to his co-theorists struggling alongside him--conversely, I have always found the collaborative work of Overing and Lees both with each other and with other scholars such as Thelma Fenster and Britton Harwood, to be marvel of genuinely collective scholarship--but please understand that I also revere Frantzen's work and would have never been able to imagine a place for myself in Old English studies without the groundwork he laid for me and others], and now we're back to the "one voice that really kept jumping out at me, in addition to Frantzen's," which was that of Raymond Tripp, whose reviews of new work in the field were so mean-spirited and angry they practically would take your breath away. He classified Hermann's Allegories of War: Language and Violence in Old English Poetry and Overing's Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf as part of a "new wave of hateful books" as well as "cultural warfare disguised as scholarship." The criticism now seems, sadly, silly, and even hysterical [which is funny, since Tripp accused Overing of having an interest in Beowulf that bordered "on the genuinely hysterical"]. Nevertheless, with some hindsight, the early vituperative [and I would argue, in some cases, even inhuman and cruel] responses to the work of Frantzen, Overing and their supposed "ilk" [responses penned by Tripp, but also by Tom Shippey, Joyce Hill, Alexandra Hennessy Olsen, and J.R. Hall, who described Overing's scholarship as "fem-fog," among other critics] seem to be rooted in some real anxieties over what one supposedly can, or cannot do, with an Old English text or with an intellectual history of the discipline. There is more at stake, apparently, than just working with texts: scholarship as a practice of life, perhaps, or even as space that needs to be "kept safe" from intrusion and contamination of various sorts?

There are certain debates that we need not to return to, for as Overing herself hopefully stated in 1993, "we are changed by this new work"--i.e., we are already profoundly altered in our orientation toward our scholarship in Old English studies by the more "new" critical methodologies, and in a sense, there is no going back, no slamming on of the brakes as regards new directions in the field. I would hold up Gillian Overing, however, as an exemplary model of how a scholar might be willing, nevertheless, to revisit themselves in the past and rethink everything all over again with even newer modes of thought, which, from the paper she delivered at the second international workshop of the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium in London this past May, apparently involves a new book project in which she is revisiting the question of gender in "Beowulf" with Deleuze and Guattari and Judith Butler's Giving an Account of Oneself in hand. And the Butler book, actually, could not be more apropos to the issue of revisiting oneself, since Butler's whole project in that book is aimed at getting us to see how we are never completely transparent to ourselves, nor is anyone else, and "A subject who can never fully give an account of itself may well be the result of being related at non-narratable levels of existence to others in ways that have a supervenient ethical significance" [p. 135]. Further, and more importantly, "we must recognize that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when what forms us diverges from what lies before us, when our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human" [p. 136].

This risk-taking and willingness to become "undone" that Overing exemplified, beautifully, both with respect to Beowulf the poem and to herself, was also on display in London in the collaborative presentation of Clare Lees and Diane Watt [a presentation I believe they also made, perhaps in slightly different forms, at the Leeds Congress and the meeting of the New Chaucer Society], "GenderQueer Collaboration," where Lees and Watt are pushing and challenging each other past the usual terms of their scholarship [which might be, or have been, a feminism without queer studies or a queer studies without feminism] in order to consider newer, transgendered spaces within which their scholarship can be co-practiced, while also continuously argued and debated and struggled over, but together, even when in opposition. To me, this is such an exemplary model of scholarship, of scholarship, even, as an ethical life-practice, in which the agon of thought is not abandoned but reformulated along lines that are mutually sustaining while also productive of the types of difference [of thought, of methodologies, etc] that are crucial to the progress of any discipline of knowledge. For while we will, of necessity, disagree with each other, we do not recognize enough the "with," the shared togetherness, of disagreement that holds us in abeyance with, and not against, each other. I wish we could see this better sometimes, as Lees and Watt obviously do.

Somewhat sadly, I'm not always really sure that we [in Old English studies] are really beyond the often acrimonious debates of the early 1990's, nor do I think the field as a whole has moved as far forward [theoretically] as one might have hoped while reading the early work of scholars like Overing, Lees, Frantzen, and the like, and when we pause to consider that it is almost twenty [!] years since the publication of Desire for Origins, let's just say: it's something to think about. But thanks to the work of the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium [run by Kathleen Davis, Stacy Klein, Hal Momma, and Patricia Dailey], the obvious commitment of scholars such as Overing and Lees [and others like them] to continue rethinking everything they think they know [while also always acknowledging our moments of collective unknowingness], and brilliant graduate students in Old English such as Mary Kate Hurley, Aaron Hostetter, Larry Swain, Joshua Davies, Carrie Ho, Karen Williams, Marcus Hensel, Vicki Blud, Matt Kohl, Laura Bailey [these are only those with whom I've most recently become acquainted], and the like, the future looks bright to me.

What does any of this long-as-crap preamble have to do with my Afterword on Andreas? Well, I've always been really intrigued by certain processes of "forgetting" [unconscious and more conscious] that occur with relation to work in our field [one of the aims of my dissertation was to excavate such processes of forgetting--on display even in Frantzen's Desire for Origins--with respect to figures such as John Mitchell Kemble, the first English editor of Beowulf], and one book that I think not only received way too much hostility when it was published [1989] but which has also somehow been studiously neglected in terms of its incorporation into the scholarly "now" of Old English studies, has been John Hermann's Allegories of War. A curious silence seems to surround it in the scholarly record [with a few exceptions, notable among them Andrew Scheil's The Footsteps of Israel: Understanding Jews in Anglo-Saxon England]. One reason for this might be Hermann's own willingness to "tell it [too much] like it is [or appears to be]," we might say, for in his book, he did not just offer readings of Old English poems like Andreas and Elene that reversed the traditional typological readings of those poems in order to un-allegorize, as it were, their spiritual and more materially physical forms of violence [thereby recuperating the sociopolitical and psycho-dynamics of this poetry], but he also called other scholars to task for being complicit in this poetry's violence which their typological readings have supposedly "ignored or sublated," and therefore, in a sense, he also accused other critics [such as Thomas Hill and James Earl] of being "partisans" in their typological readings and thereby, also, being anti-Semites, or more broadly, racist. Ouch.

In any case, for many many years now, I have always wondered how it is that Hermann was somehow always relegated to the deep background of Old English studies when his 1989 book can be argued to be one of the very first full-length studies that engages in the kind of criticism that Frantzen calls for in his book, Desire for Origins, published after Hermann's? In a sense, Frantzen got the glamor spotlight [even with all of the criticism leveled against him, and granted, he's incredibly prolific], which he continues to hold, and Hermann just faded away [for the most part] in the critical memory. Even if you have published only one monograph, if it is as important as Hermann's, I don't believe it should be allowed to simply disappear over the horizons of a disciplinary history that has real need, I believe, of working a bit more strenuously to take account of its own moments of unknowingness. And I was brought to reflect on all of this when, while working on my Afterword for Andrew Scheil's volume of essays on Andreas [and in which volume he has included Hermann's chapter on Andreas from his 1989 book--a significant and admirable recuperative move on Scheil's part, in my mind], I was re-reading Heather Blurton's chapter in her book Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature, "Self-Eaters: The Cannibal Narrative of Andreas," in which she offers, like Hermann, a unique [i.e., not widely present in the critical literature] socio-political reading of the poem, but in which reading Hermann is nowhere present as her important scholarly predecessor, and also in which, the anti-Semitism Hermann was at such pains to delineate in his work on the poem is nowhere visible either. I do not fault Blurton for these omissions as: 1) Hermann is dis-remembered enough in the critical literature on Andreas that she may truly have been unaware of his book chapter, and 2) the sociopolitics of the anti-Semitism of the poem is not her concern; rather, the cultural politics of the Viking invasions into England from the eighth century forward and how cultural anxieties over issues of conquest, incorporation, and assimilation occasioned by those invasions may have been expressed in the poem is her primary concern. How, I wondered, could we revisit Hermann's and Blurton's cultural analyses together [and even place them alongside each other in productive critical tension], thereby recuperating what I think was one of Hermann's most important questions in his book chapter [regarding the ways in which certain readings of the poem might reopen the "historicity of the poem's rhetoric of the foreign"], while also revisiting Blurton's important attention to the poem's negotiation of the relationship and ambiguities between self and other? I've taken a stab at it, perhaps not very well, and I share that with you just below. Keep in mind that this is an Afterword, and not a full-blown analysis of Andreas; it is, rather, a rumination on how Andreas might serve as an ideal text to explore certain questions raised by Hermann and Blurton together, and also in relation to the psychoanalytic and aesthetic thought of Leo Bersani and the work on embodied others in post-coloniality by Sara Ahmed. Any and all comments are welcome!

Strange Encounters: Andreas, Self-Eaters, and the Failed Historicity of Post-Coloniality


Eileen Joy said...

And now let me comment on my own post [haha]. All kidding aside, there is something I left out of my post which I would like to add here:

Anyone who thinks that a discipline of knowledge [whether Old English studies or anything else] survives and thrives primarily because of the codification and rigid maintenance of certain types of content and methodological protocols, sadly does not see that it is those few often isolated [and even lonely] figures who are willing to give birth to what Foucault called "monstrous thought" who actually move a discipline forward and keep it "alive." Those who would police the boundaries of "what is allowed to be thought" in Old English or medieval studies more broadly do not always seem to have a full enough grasp on the "origins" of the discipline, which were often situated on the very *outside* of institutions of higher learning and other bureaucratic, rule-governed structures, and regardless of Frantzen's arguments in "Desire for Origins" that much of our discipline is undergirded by certain nationalist and racialist ideologies--in some times and places, it most certainly is so--there are many many aspects of our discipline that were formed and guided by certain iconoclastic figures, such as a Frederick Furnivall [founder of the Early English Text Society] and James A.H. Murray [pivotal figure in the instantiation and production of the Oxford English Dictionary] who were complete outcasts and pariahs in relation to places like Oxford and Cambridge. Yes, Murray worked at Oxford, but if you know the whole story, well, let's just say that when he first moved to Oxford to work on the dictionary, he was told he would have no access to the common rooms or libraries and he had to work in a tin shed sunk down several feet in his back garden so as to not obstruct the view of the Oxford don who lived next door. Which is to say: even a philologist can be a renegade at a certain point in time. Even the idea of the value of reading Chaucer or Shakespeare can be viewed as heretical in a specific time and place, and yet we keep forgetting this history.

Eileen Joy said...

I left Irina Dumitrescu off my list of brilliant grad. student in Old English studies whom I have recently encountered. My apologies. And there are many more I haven't yet met. I know that, too.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Wow, what a time investment reading through that ... but what a payoff as well. I enjoyed both the preamble and the essay.

I have Andrew Scheil's book on my shelf and will be reading it soon -- it is inexcusable that I have not gone through it yet, considering how much Andrew's topic is near to my own research interests. So, maybe he answers this question, but one thing I was left with is: why anti-Semitism as the descriptive word for the Christian prejudice against Jews evidenced in Andreas? I ask that because so much scholarly energy has gone into anti-Judaism versus anti-Semitism etc -- with "Semitic" being rejected by many as a 19th C racialist leftover not appropriate to the Middle Ages. Actually, what I'm asking is: how transhistorical is you project? I suspect the answer is VERY, since you are returning to a critic who apparently fell into disfavor after he pointed out an uncritical acceptance of anti-Jewish rhetoric/feeling/structure among contemporary OE scholars that would unite them to their medieval text.

That in turn sounds rather like Kathleen Biddick's move in much of her work. The strong reaction against some of her criticism demonstrates well what happens when you suggest that scholarly hands might be dirty -- might even have inherited some blood upon them.

OK, off to my all day Chairs' Retreat.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: a clarification--Hermann was not reticent about invoking the term anti-Semitic in relation to certain medieval texts and the Middle Ages itself, but Andy Scheil is at pains in his book to elucidate the anti-Judaism versus anti-Semitism debates and he himself is, for the most part, in the anti-Judaic camp. Here is part of one of my reviews of the book [for "The Year's Work in Old English Studies 2004"]:

[beginning of review excerpt]

Scheil notes that, in Anglo-Saxon England, “a land without Jewish communities, ‘following in the footsteps of Israel’ encompasses a variety of Christian apprehensions of Judaism, ranging from vehement denunciation and rejection to subtle embrace.” For the purposes of his study, the terms “Jews” and “Judaism” thus stand in for “a nexus of rhetorical effects, a variety of representational strategies built into the very structure of medieval Christianity” (3). In this sense, Scheil’s book makes an excellent companion to Elaine Pagels’ The Origin of Satan (New York, 1995), where Pagels argues that, throughout the centuries, “countless Christians listening to the gospels absorbed . . . the association between the forces of evil and Jesus’ Jewish enemies,” while at the same time, Jesus and his followers likely saw their movement “as a conflict within one ‘house’ . . . the house of Israel” (xx, 34). For Scheil, even as rhetorical “strategy,” the figure of the Jew in Anglo-Saxon England was a complex and not a stable one:

"Jews were a meditative vehicle for exegesis; an exemplum of the direction of God’s shaping hand throughout history; a record of the divine patterns of the historical imagination; a subject for epic and elegy; an outlet for anger and rage; a dark, fearful image of the body; a useful political tool—all in all, a variform way of fashioning a Christian populus in England and continually redefining its nature. In Anglo-Saxon England, Jews and Judaism signify not image, but process; not a stable concept, but a complex negotiation." (3)

Scheil’s book is ethically important, for the dark, anti-Judaic energies first worked out in words and symbols have a way of ultimately inflicting themselves upon real, human bodies, although, somewhat amazingly, Scheil also sets the improbable task for himself (and us) to “search out, touch, and apprehend the humanity” revealed in the “often painful words from pre-Conquest England” (5). Because there are so few studies of medieval attitudes toward Jews in pre-Conquest England, Scheil’s book, as he himself puts it, “outlines an important ‘pre-history’ and context to later persecutions in England,” but he also argues that his book “moves beyond a summa of anti-Judaic discourse to a more nuanced understanding of the role Jews and Judaism play in the construction of social identity and the shaping of the literary imagination in Anglo-Saxon England” (9).

. . . .

Part Three of Scheil's book, “Jews, Fury, and the Body,” examines the connections between the motifs of Jew, madness, flesh, and hunger, primarily in the Blickling codex and Vercelli manuscript, and also poses the question of how the concentration of negative textual energies on Jewish bodies in these texts also served as an exploration of the boundaries of the human. In these manuscripts, the figures of Jewish bodies represented “an opportunity to express traditional ethnocentric anger,” while also serving “as a repository of cultural anxiety over the body.” Moreover, the “virulent expressions of antisemitism in the later Middle Ages can be seen as the manifestation of the fragmentary tendencies, the hermeneutic in potentia, represented by the Jews of Vercelli and Blickling” (203).

[end of review excerpt]

Everyone should read Andrew's book, of course; it very deservedly won both the Biennial Best Book Award of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists and then also the Medieval Academy's John Nicholas Brown Prize. It is beautifully--I would even go so far as to say stunningly beautifully--written, and the last chapter alone is worth the price of admission: you will never guess in a million years where he goes there. It's amazing; it is also a *humane* book, and you have to read it to see what I mean by that.

As to my own essays and its "transhistoricism"--definitely what I was aiming for, at least on the psycho-aesthetic level [and with Bersani's help]. And it is also transhistorical in wanting to recuperate Hermann a bit, for sure [his harsh criticism of other critics aside, which may not have been entirely fair, while on one hand, thoe criticisms were, in a sense, *true, and it does bother me quite a bit when critics completely overlook really disturbing, let's say, "hate" elements in a text and then claim that wasn't their primary focus--I would be lying if I didn't admit that bothers me a bit in Blurton's handling of "Andreas"]. But my essay is mainly transhistorical, too, in wanting to try to trace out [or, since this is only an Afterword, in asking that someone *else* consider tracing out] the ways in which the individual and governmental psyche are related in the aesthetic realm, in ways with, I really believe, powerful implications for coming to understand the historical development of this entity we call the *self* [or, subjectivity].

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It sounds like Scheil's book has much in common then with Anthony Bale's, a work that likewise emphasizes the mutability of representations of Jews in an England without them in residence. For Bale there is also a positive -- ie. it isn't just about anti-Judaism. The Jew can be a powerful narrative device for critiquing Christian orthodoxy.

OK, Andrew's book is at the top of my list. It was such a pleasure to be on that K'zoo panel with him -- I hadn't seen him since I first delivered "Monster Culture (7 Theses)" at a SUNY Binghamton CEMERS conference in 1992!