Wednesday, November 12, 2008

History Has Many Skins: Enduring Preoccupations


When we were having lunch at the Circle Bistro in D.C. this past week, just before the "Touching the Past" symposium at George Washington University, and in between some silly discussions having to do with the 1976 movie Logan's Run, valium, and turning into oranges [thanks Julian Yates!], the conversation turned to whether or not we believed that there are certain things [certain subjects, certain objects, certain frames of mind, landscapes, places, weather, etc.] that have always preoccupied each one of us and continue to do so, such that, even if we peer into our childhood, long before we were medievalists, or into our earlier non-medievalist careers [for Karl, his stint in a punk band, for Jeffrey, his flirtation with biology, for me, my life as a gardener and fiction writer and general ne'er-do-well hedonist--oh, and that applies to Karl, too, circa 1980s and, for me anyway, into the mid-1990s], we might notice, with a sudden surprise, that we were *always* thinking about history, or we were always obsessed with animals [Karl], or with time [all of us], or with injustice [me], or with bodies [Jeffrey], etc. It is my own firm belief [although Karl demurred a bit] that there really are certain dispositions and orientations [desires, leanings] and habits of mind that we possess very early on, and almost unawares, these dispositions and preoccupations creep into everything we do, they won't let go of us, but we don't always readily admit this [or maybe don't always see it]. Are we formed so early on in our orientations to the world that, as Sara Ahmed has argued in Queer Phenomenology, some things appear in view to us, while other things, although present, remain out of view to us?

For me, I can only say that, yes, I really think this is so. Unlike a lot of other people, I came to medieval studies very, very late, only finishing my Ph.D. just before I turned 40, and after quite a few stints as anything but a medievalist: bookkeeper, garden designer, fiction writer, travel accountant, filmmaker, business entrepreneur/capitalist whore, photographer's assistant, interior designer's assistant, payroll manager, secretary/receptionist, etc. But throughout all of this I was, for the most part, surrounded by artists [chiefly writers, painters, sculptors, filmmakers, musicians] and I was always, in one way or another, working on my own art [my fiction], and when I reflected on that at the Circle Bistro last Friday, it occurred to me, with something almost like a shock [because I had not really thought about it before], that pretty much all of my stories [and my one novella] are absolutely all about history [about the past and its hold on the present], and also about resurrections of the various dead [and isn't this why I also love the paintings of Stanley Spencer?], and of course, they are all, in some fashion, love stories--albeit, rather queer love stories, not meaning they are about same-sex relationships, but rather that they are about queer couplings of all sorts: between Pablo Neruda and Marie Curie, who I paired up in one story, "I Have Kept My Heart Yellow," between Emma Bovary and a baker of blackbird pies, in "A Sweet, Crunchy Tart," between Edmund from Lewis's Narnia and a dharmic colony of ants, in "About the Author," between Lot and his daughters, in "Lot's Wife," between a male stripper and a Volvo that could fly, in "Volvo in the Sky" [these are just my published stories]. But speaking of the more conventional denotation of "queer," at least in our current critical parlance, I was always turning certain historical figures into lesbians: Marie Curie, Emma Bovary, etc. This, embarrassingly, has to be admitted.

It seems to me that we have to have created what might be called a "petit"-body of work, not with any particular forethought, just following our creative whims, and then some time passes, and we look back on what always seemed pell mell, and a certain beautiful order emerges--something strange and yet so familiar because it was what we always wanted, or were trying to say, all along. We love certain things so much, have such affection and loyalty to them that, even when we don't notice their presence, they are always emerging within us and flowing into our work. We have dispositions, in other words, and we should embrace them, maybe even give them more room to really, as it were, ravish us. Because I would like to think that the things I love in this world could not only be taken, but could take me in return. And wouldn't this also be an/other way of thinking about history and about writing history? We could have histories of dispositions, habits, preoccupations, orientations, or we could write our own medieval devotional manuals.

And so I'm also wondering: what is your disposition? Can you look at the work you've done in medieval studies, for example [your theses and dissertations, your essays and articles and books, your courses, etc.] and then, while also considering your former selves, your child self, do you see that you have certain subjects and objects and landscapes that preoccupy you, concern you, obsess you, inhabit you? And what are they? I would love to know.

And although Jeffrey asked me to share here on ITM one of my short stories, I'm not sure I feel entirely comfortable with that [they can be found, in any case, here and there in various journals and books such as Black Warrior Review and The Sun and Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction], but I will share here just the beginning of one story, published in 1992, "A Sweet, Crunchy Tart," told from the point of the view of the blackbird pie maker who lives on the imaginary island of Merula, and which got me thinking about all of this to begin with [and I will admit here, as I did to Jeffrey, that the first lines of this story came to me one afternoon [in their entirety] in 1991, in the midst of a hellishly hot summer when I was living in Virginia in a house without air conditioning and I would spend almost every single day lying in one of those antique, claw-footed tubs, where it was cool, and staring out the window, and just waiting, I guess, for anything to happen]:
History has many skins, layer upon layer of fragile papyrus, a thick apocrypha of facts and fictions, strands of white hair, cups full of brown teeth and jewelry gone green with rust. If our skin becomes dust and dust persists through all of our calamities, then I'm as eternal as air, sitting on the prow of the ship that sails to Byzantium, a twinkle in my eye. My bones might rot on the hull of the earth, but I hope there is a part of me that will settle on the wing of a gull and I will survive, yes, I will survive in spite of everything. It is love, the star in my palm, that will get me through, shake me out of time, make me like the seed shaken out of the poppy, small and hard, tasteless, eternal.


Viator said...

My Dear Eileen et al,

Was it happy chance that brought me today to check up on the blog, or something else? I'll venture no guesses, but offer instead a "thank you" for the inspiration that I think you may have just given me.

After several hours of singularly unproductive pecking at my embryonic PhD application purpose statement, I sighed, took a Facebook break, then thought I'd head over to "In the Middle" to see what might be here to inspire me, or at least remind me of why I'm going to all this trouble in the first place.

I think perhaps you've done both with this post. I'll let you know.
Meantime, many thanks, and hows about making generous with the rest of your story?


Mary Kate Hurley said...

Eileen, your way of describing these preoccupations is both fascinating and immensely generative. Though at 26 the medieval world forms well over a quarter of what I know (I've been "intending to be" or "being" a medievalist for 7 years at this point -- since I was 19), there were other ideas of what I might have become, given the right timing or the right opportunities, had I taken roads that didn't lead me so inexorably toward the past. There was a time I thought I'd be a psychologist. A paleontologist. A writer of science fiction stories (if you count fanfiction as "real" writing, then I spent most of the my time from age 15-17 pursuing that dream through different avenues), or an animator who brought those stories to life on the screen. For awhile, I wanted to be an actress -- to let other times, places and persons speak through my mouth. And there was the brief (all too brief) flirtation with physics when I was 13 -- which I promptly abandoned when I realized that there was mathematics involved, rather than nice pretty stories about how the universe might or might not work.

And that, I think, is the connector across my work, my past and my future selves -- stories. I've been obsessed with them for as long as I can remember. If I look back to the first paper I ever wrote on Old English literature (written and researched over the course of an all too short spring break my sophomore year of college) was called The Power of the Spoken Word: Speech, Victory and Immortality in “The Battle of Maldon”. Tellingly, my epigraph in that paper is from Tolkien -- and it brings together issues of time, speech and story quite well:

‘They did not die!’ said Treebeard. ‘I never said died. We lost them, I said. We lost them and we cannot find them…I thought most folk knew that. There were songs about the hunt of the Ents for the Entwives sung among Elves and Men from Mirkwood to Gondor. They cannot be quite forgotten.’

I don't know how much of it has been intelligible to readers of my work (my profs, my colleagues, and of course my co-bloggers and fellow commenters) but those questions of time and memory and how the spoken (or written) word might produce its own kind of immortality -- or ultimately fail to do so, or does so incompletely, partially -- nearly every paper I've written in graduate school has something to do with voice and how different authors or characters speak or are silenced.

Karl Steel said...

MKH: I can see that connection of time, memory, and the like, and EJ, I can see yours in your material, but for me, what I can see? Nada.

although Karl demurred a bit
If I remember correctly, I demurred a lot (and make that punk bands, and--here I can give dates--roughly 91-99: I was basically just a big dork in the 80s): I argued that I was interested in animals now because that's my current project, and that I will be interested in foodways next (follow the stream, follow the stream: I feel more like a synchronized swimmer sometimes than a researcher). If I had to identify my 'disposition' as anything it'd be, I suppose, 'minimally oppositional' or 'suspicious': usefully, this can be applied to any number of things. After all, it's entirely easy to do animals, or foodways, or even flying volvos, in a pedestrian way.

However, I'm very much of the future anterior school: I will have been disposed in some certain way that will become apparent only if: a) I ever arrive at something (which might be, really, if I ever die, in which case I will not have arrived so much as I will have just stopped); b) we decide the end matters more than the rest of the stuff. Like so many others, I'm more interested in networks than I am in ends or origins; like so many others, I'm disinclined from teleologically (perhaps even disposed to be disinclined, if such a stance is possible), disinclined from considering myself to have a core disposition or a core anything, and disinclined to give past events retroactive significance (I played RPGs, but so did my brother: only one of us became a medievalist).

If I have to identify my approach to matters, it's not dispositional, but rather some combination of aleatory and deliberate.

That said, your story opening reminds me of a poem (gladly lost!) I wrote c. 1991 on a similar subject: in my case it wasn't dust, but rather soundwaves. Make of that what you will!

Anonymous said...

Okay, I swore I wouldn’t do this, even an hour ago: I hate to show up to y’all’s nice dinner party only to act like a jackass. But I can’t seem to help myself: I find this post deeply disturbing as it relates to the development of scholarly interests, projects, even identities. To suggest that we study certain things because of some dispositional affinity seems like post-hoc fantasy, first of all. I’m glad Karl emphasized the ways in which his experience runs counter to this expansive assertion. But this post also seems to suggest that there is, or might be, a “medievalist disposition,” a shared set of outlooks, interests, and (mainly) feelings, that draw certain people to certain fields. This claim gravely undervalues the analytic seriousness of what scholars do, particularly with respect to the long years of training they undertake to reach any level of expertise. In short, a field is not a clique—your post makes medieval studies sound woefully close to one. Now, I might simply interpret your enthusiasm as an eager appreciation of the collegiality you enjoy with your co-bloggers. That seems totally great, and completely admirable. What really has me going about this post, however, is the way in which it depends on affect, and only a certain type of affect, for its appeal. The exclusive emphasis on affirmation as a constitutive requirement for this community is as breathtaking as it is frightening. It might be refreshing to think about the ways in which affirmation has been neglected in professional community. So have a discussion *about* affect; that would be really illuminating. But to stage affirmation in a strangely exclusive way—we’ve all always liked the same things, after all—is to codify the kinds of preoccupations and obsessions it takes to work in the professional domain you describe. For a forum that extols openness, that seems like a pretty closed circuit to me.

Karma said...

One of the only things that has kept me going in this near-trainwreck of my first year and a half in a PhD program is that I have, two or three times, glimpsed ways in which I think I can finally see so many of my old obsessions coming together in such a way as to make some sort of *sense.* I'm not sure what I mean by sense - I'm struggling with Crashaw and Teresa and masochism and enargeia right now, and I'm pretty sure I don't mean *sense* in any sort of linear, rhetorical, 'iconic sensibility' way. I'm pretty sure I mean sense is a way quite intimately entwined with affect and sensation, but something beyond just a recognition of an old sensation. Maybe i am just seeing a pattern and getting comfy enough with my own habits of mind and field of study to not try to reinvent the wheel every time I write. And I don't know where all of this is going to take me, but it's nice to have the space to put St. Teresa, D&G, and St. Ignatius in the same room together long enough to see what happens. It's a hell of a tea party. That I then get to turn the results of this tea party into a tool for reading Soul and Body (fingers crossed) is exciting. it may be a mode of thinking more akin to pushing a button on a blender than anything else, but it has NOT blown up in my face a few times over the past year and a half, and that is cool. My obsessions? Blood, marrow, saints, relics, resurrection, monsters, angels, devils, appetitive bodies that sprawl all over the hierarchy of creation and mess those neat little categories up -- What else could I be happy doing except medieval studies, since I don't actually have a Christian bone in my body? When I wrote poetry, my poems were about appetite. When I led a platoon, my life was about the regulation of appetite. When I managed a martial arts school and taught kickboxing to grandmothers and flying jump kicks to kindergarteners, my life was about the recognition and channeling of appetite, the conscious manipulation of the libidinal economy manipulated through what promised to be a different way of understanding the body/mind relationship - cultivating new 'habits of mind' as well as habits of body. I've become a reader and writer instead of a glutton, but it could have gone either way.

Thanks for this - I think the 'habits of mind' idea is going to help me think about my current Crashaw project.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Holly, I find your response quite generative -- and of course you're right, the idea that there's any medievalist disposition, based in anything at all, that's shared without question across the entire field would be a bit absurd. However: it's possible I was reading incorrectly, but I thought that what Eileen was getting at is that there might be something that is unique to each person that connects what they're interested in -- something that might be a simple as "well but that was my dissertation, and it makes sense to do X after that project" or that could be far more expansive. But it seems to me, at least, that those connections are as diverse as they are individual. And they're certainly not limited to medievalists.

And perhaps, as Karl notes, they are also teleological, and to borrow your phrase, Holly, post-hoc. Actually, Karl, you're offering a really important corrective when you say that Like so many others, I'm more interested in networks than I am in ends or origins; like so many others, I'm disinclined from teleologically (perhaps even disposed to be disinclined, if such a stance is possible), disinclined from considering myself to have a core disposition or a core anything, and disinclined to give past events retroactive significance. That teleological impulse -- that Sense of an Ending, to borrow a title phrase! -- is dangerous, because it can pigeonhole us in ways that aren't helpful at all. Yet the story-telling impulse, the impulse to narrate -- Pattern Recognition, to borrow another title -- is something I've never quite managed to escape. That's why descriptive accuracy (in our scholarship or our lives) isn't a bad thing: in fact, descriptive accuracy can be near impossible to achieve, because we end up so close to our objects of study. Or at least, some of us do. Or at least, I do. And I suspect there might be other who do so too.

But Holly, I'm curious what you mean by affirmation -- could you say a bit more? I think I understand what you mean about affect -- I would assume you're opposing it to something more analytical, something more rigorous. But again, I wasn't sure that Eileen was trying to impose a set of interests on all of us so much as attempting to identify a way in which we might recognize patterns in our own lives that lead us down the scholarly tracks we've taken. Which is, to be sure, a problematic assertion, because it's based in stories, and particularly the stories we tell ourselves and each other.

Eileen Joy said...

Holly: I think you may have misinterpreted my point just a little bit [I also think I'm partly responsible, looking back at what I have written here]. My initial interest in the initial conversation in real-time at the Bistro in DC was *never*: how is everyone a medievalist? Far, far, far, far, far, far from that, in fact. I was more interested in whether or not it might be true that there are certain subjects, objects, etc. that maybe keep popping up in our work, no matter what we're doing [medieval studies or something else entirely]. Karl, as he points out here, disagreed, at least for himself, but when I looked at my own life I noticed that there are certain subjects that, for one reason or another, keep coming back in one form or another [it could be oranges, or pigs, or planes]. That is not the same thing as saying, "all along I was a medievalist, but just didn't know it" [I have been a medievalist for a very short time and may quit to do something else in 5 years time; in fact, one of my strongest dispositions has been to never do anything for too long, hence my resume of job after job after job after job after job, many of which have nothing in common with each other except that I saw each one as an opportunity to flee, and I am a fleer, someone who excels at fleeing]--although I *can* see how maybe I implied that in my post, but that is not at all what I meant, or even mean now, so I'm actually thankful for an opportunity to clarify this point.

I do believe in patterns--of thought, habit, disposition, orientations, affect--although, as you point out, those may be easier to discern, or just happen to magically appear, *after* you decide to look for them. I get that. To say that we have no dispositions, or no predispositions, whatsoever seems counterintuitive to common sense to me, though [and for the fiction writer in me, boring]: otherwise, can I even say I am gay? That I am attracted, generally, to women, more than to men? Because I am and that's a pretty big predisposition for me. I tell myself every day, a la Deleuze & Guattari and others, that I should "get out more" and open myself to every manner of sexuality, but then . . . women, well, I just can't help myself--haha]. Because that's all I was really trying to say, and partly because, having read Sara Ahmed's "Queer Phenomenology," I think it is true that, consciously or unconsciously, we travel along certain "lines" in our lives, in which some objects are more "sticky" for us than others, some things come into view, others do not come into view, etc. I'm personally just kind of fascinated at what people are *attracted* to, and I guess the word "attraction," maybe more than disposition, is what I might have meant [although, aren't the two related?]. But again: was I saying there is a predisposition to be a medievalist? Absolutely not. That would mean all medievalists are the same, and we already have enough medievalists who think there is only one kind of medieval studies and all of my own work is in opposition to that idea, so that just isn't an argument I would ever make. And if I did, mea culpa.

But this brings me to Karl's comments, too, about how he is more about networks than he is interested in ends or origins and there may be no vantage point from which to look back and say, "oh, I see now where I was always going," only the end that says: "you're dead, game over"--but even when we are about networks and relays and rhizomes and, maybe, "lines" of continual, shifting movements of de-territorialization, to say that we never act or move or think without *some* sort of disposition seems a little crazy: even a desire for networks over origins and ends is a predisposition of a sort. To be skeptical in general is a disposition, even an affect [and Karl does say he can see, maybe, in his work an approach that is part aleatory and partly deliberate, although I was also trying to get at raising the question of whether we do things in a certain way un-deliberately, meaning: without full consciousness of what we are doing yet always leaning toward certain attractors, and of course, in the end, I'm really just talking about me, aren't I?].

But I guess where I would stand by some of my original thoughts here would be in relation to this question of affinity, or affinities, even affirmative affinities [as in, I believe in them, but I certainly don't think everyone should]. Holly seems to think I was [and maybe I was, unwittingly] somehow "staging" a kind of scene of affirmation in an exclusive way? I hope not. I never invoked the statement of *WE* have *ALL* liked the *SAME* things, haven't we? I was trying to say, instead, I find that *I* keep returning to certain themes, question, ideas, subjects, objects, etc. in my work, no matter where I am, and I wonder if this happens to anyone else? For me, it might be the color blue, World War I, and French actresses, and for you, it might be pigs, plane trees, and salty marshes. But I can only ultimately speak for myself: I do have certain predispositions, some of them certainly have to do with thinking about the past and certain figures in the past, and I can see now looking again at my original post that it seems as if I'm drawing a kind of a line between that and my decision to "become" a medievalist. My decision to become a medievalist had actually nothing to do with, say, what I was writing in my fiction--it was almost accidental how it happened, actually [even cowardly, if you knew the whole story], but it is nevertheless interesting to me how a lot of what I was writing about in my fiction turns out to connect in certain ways with my preoccupations as a medievalist. But that's just me. But as to an "exclusive emphasis on affirmation," I'm a little lost: Holly, could you explain your objection there in a bit more detail, because I don't completely see that. Having just finished Heather Love's "Feeling Backward," partly on your recommendation of it, I would never ascribe to or promote unthinkingly the "exclusive" part of this. Am I for more affective community within our profession? Yes. Exclusively? Um, no. I'm not stupid, nor that insensitive.

Eileen Joy said...

The other thing I will say about my own scholarly preoccupations, which came up recently when someone asked me why I wrote about the things I did that seemed so disparate from each other [and Old English poem and a play by Kushner, for example], is that I simply like to make connections between disparate things because it *feels* good to do so, and also because, deep down, I think everything is ultimately connected, somehow, to everything else. A friend [who was partly joking] once told me that my belief that absolutely everything is connected was a good definition of schizophrenia--haha. It is also a good definition of Buddhism. Or physics.

Anonymous said...

First I have to apologise for skim reading this - and therefore maybe missing something in haste.

I think that you are inviting us to retell once again our story of our own 'origins' as medievalists. I could do that ... but it is the kind of History, of cultural darwinisim, or whig history, that I generally try to avoid. So while I'm in favour of affirmation, I think that I am with Karl in resisting the impulse to conform, and with Holly in wanting to be more assertively (if still affirmatively) enquiring about the educational process and experience.

Anonymous said...

Here's a quick response to the "exclusive affirmation" that you asked me to clarify--you staged a scene in your post, with everyone around a table (and yes, here I did think of Ahmed), in which every person had a similar experience. So, what might have been an individuated claim--"I've always been working on a certain set of questions"--gets moved around the circle (and here I thought of summer camp, then shuddered). That does not seem like Ahmed, Love, or anyone else who works on affect, unless we are talking about the ways in which affect is transmitted in group settings: I say I like something simply because it sorta fits my experience and it feels good to be included in the community under construction. That happens all the time, and it can be really nice. When it is not nice, I would counter, is when you tie such a process to professional community. If you ask everyone to have the same feelings about the scholarly process, even in a nice, friendly, scene of inclusion, you have codified the scholarly process.

As a friend once said when he was asked why he didn't like a certain department (which was known to be friendly and inclusive): "when I showed up to the party, I was told to take off my shoes, and to *relax*. I don't think the imperative works any better in a friendly situation than it does in an unfriendly one..." Setting the conditions for inclusion as a particular shared experience is an instance of exclusive affirmation, in my view.

That was quick, and I have to run...

Eileen Joy said...

Holly: thanks for explaining that further, which makes perfect sense to me. I had a department chair once who always wanted to start meetings by, yes, telling everyone to relax, and then reciting a Rumi poem. It drove me absolutely insane. Once, when I was going through a particularly rough time--personally and professionally--I had to meet with this same chair, who was concerned about me, and in light of all my troubles, she said, "maybe the universe is sending you a message." Again, I wanted to kill her, and then maybe myself. So I'm completely with you on this, and I guess I would just beg forgiveness for *appearing* to be setting up some kind of round-table at which everyone would be "included" because their story matched mine. I was actually looking more for the individual, again, *attractors*, that maybe some people might see cropping up in their work. I think of the work of Caroline Walker Bynum, for example, who has written many books on different topics, but who herself would readily admit that she keeps coming back, in some way, to the same topic: bodies, transformations, death. And so, counter even Sarah here, I was *not* looking for medievalist "origin" stories; I was looking for, do you have certain particular predilections stories, if that makes any sense.

medievalkarl said...

Great conversation.

I think it is true that, consciously or unconsciously, we travel along certain "lines" in our lives, in which some objects are more "sticky" for us than others, some things come into view, others do not come into view, etc. I'm personally just kind of fascinated at what people are *attracted* to, and I guess the word "attraction," maybe more than disposition, is what I might have meant

Okay, I get this. I don't want to claim to be floating outside all desire. Since I'm talking networks, I should be talking attractions, which certainly are best understood as operating in networks, BUT, right, with certain stickinesses (which is a word I prefer to orientation: the metaphor of 'being stuck' (and of drag) strikes me as much more productive than the metaphor of travel and direction implicit in 'orientation').

So, yes, there's professional training, and rigor, and being able to do my work without having to hug people alla time, BUT there's still something else there. We can be positive and call this something else 'certain attractions' (think Latin, tracto, tractare: drag/discuss), or we can be sinister and Zizekian and call it 'the something in me more than myself.' Whatever it is, it's there, and bears thinking upon, even if only to allow us to ironize our own work-selves, or to engage more effectively in an aesthetics of the self, or even allowing us, gag, to traverse our own fantasy.

What 'my own' attraction is, however, I don't know [with 'my own' in quotes because I'm not sure how much of this would be mine, if we understand this as self-generated, private, or belonging to some secret place in the self, a suum suorum, I guess]. I know I just hear in this Donald Kaufman's "My genre's thriller, what's yours?" but there must be a way to think these things through without getting treacly, "authentic" (gag), or clubby....

Anonymous said...

I want to make one more clarification, spurred by two of your comments, then I promise I’ll stop:

MKH, you said: " But Holly, I'm curious what you mean by affirmation -- could you say a bit more? I think I understand what you mean about affect -- I would assume you're opposing it to something more analytical, something more rigorous."

And Eileen, you said: "Am I for more affective community within our profession? Yes. Exclusively? Um, no. I'm not stupid, nor that insensitive."

You both seem to think that affect is only positive, only personal, only present(ist). It is not, and that’s what I mean when I say that maybe we should have a discussion about affect. There are multiple affects, that do multiple things—they have histories, and they have consequences. Affect can be an extremely rigorous, immensely analytic, way to talk about certain forms of representation, or the ways in which certain images, ideas, etc., move audiences. To take a medieval example, Aquinas famously divides the affects into 6 opposing pairs, which he also sets in an ordering scheme: love/hate, desire/aversion, hope/despair, fear/confidence—anger (all alone, fascinatingly, because it can be taken up for different causes, in different ways)—and joy/sadness. The ways in which he thinks about dimensions of feeling is far more robust than many contemporary accounts, and the ways in which he tries to schematize the affects demonstrates the explosive potential of affect in medieval culture, at the very least.

When I talk about affect, then, I am not simply talking about how I feel—in fact, this loose assumption is what most troubles me about bringing affect into the profession as a principal mode of community building. Our community is already affective—it works by fear, loathing, joy, and affirmation. If you say you want a *more* affective community, you will have to be ready to accept the negative that accompanies the positive. If nothing else, my cranky response to your post demonstrates that...

I realize I’ve taken the discussion off the topic of the original post, and that the concerns I raise here are not yours, Eileen. I believe medievalists can contribute a great deal to thinking about the possibilities of affect for interpretative practtice, however, so I’m rather touchy about our wholesale acceptance of contemporary accounts of affect (even accounts I admire).

Karl Steel said...

Holly, thanks for that comment. I'm reminded of something I said to Eileen last Friday night: "I think love is an ethically empty concept," so, as much as a poststructuralist (or psychoanalytic) cliché as it is (let alone a cliché in soul music), I'd want to smudge that line Aquinas draws between love and hate by drawing them both into the category of "desire." And we have some VERY fine tools available to us for analyzing desire that might be ported to analyzing affect, whether in a historical or personal sense (or in the ways the two touch each other).

Anonymous said...

Hey Eileen—

Thanks for the book-preview: I like Ahmed’s work very much, and I’ll certainliy read her next book when it comes out. What I would like to push for, still, is more thinking about affect outside the now. I like the fact that H. Love uses Dinshaw for her thinking (I don’t think I recommended that book, btw, but I like it pretty well, and think Love’s projects are immensely important), but I’d like it better if she thought about Dinshaw’s chapter on Margery Kempe for the kinds of radical contacts MK achieves (rather than just those that Dinshaw makes possible through her touch across time). In other words, she’s more interested in Dinshaw as a *theorist* of queer history than Dinshaw as a *medievalist* theorist of queer history. I’m do not believe “medievalist” is at all incidental to D’s thinking, and for that reason, I’d like modernist scholars to really confront those affects of the medieval past that might continue to touch us. Okay, so I think maybe I’m simply crazy on this point. No one's going to do that, right? And then today, in conversation with one of my dazzling colleagues, he gives me a book on melancholia that references Langland, and medieval worries about acedia, in the 2nd footnote!! I’m not just pleased that medieval sources are getting acknowledgment; instead, what I think this study gets bang-off is the fact that medieval thinking about notions such as sadness (and its relation to sloth, in this instance) have something substantive to contribute to our ways of thinking about these questions, problems, issues. So, to disagree with Karl just a little bit, it is not that we might import some of our ways of thinking about desire to our investigations of medieval affects—with his aporetic treatment of irascible and concupiscent affects—Aquinas (to stick with the thinker I began with) has got a pretty nuanced way of thinking about the sensitive aspects of the soul. Taking a serious look at his thinking might challenge the way we think about desire (by making us think more expansively and precisely about affects). And he’s just one medieval thinker who devotes energy to thinking through affect….

So Eileen, I guess I would ask you how your readings in medieval literature might complicate, enhance, or challenge the ideas from Ahmed that you so nicely presented as important to your academic interests?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I am coming to the conversation late, but want to thank Eileen for sharing our table talk. I'll respond to her post as I would to any conversation that unfolds over a good meal with good company: allowing for enough whimsy to spice the seriousness.

Here are the lines that resonates for me:

and we look back on what always seemed pell mell, and a certain beautiful order emerges--something strange and yet so familiar because it was what we always wanted, or were trying to say, all along. We love certain things so much, have such affection and loyalty to them that, even when we don't notice their presence, they are always emerging within us and flowing into our work. We have dispositions, in other words, and we should embrace them, maybe even give them more room to really, as it were, ravish us.

Substitute "recurrences" for "dispositions" and I am with you -- meaning that, dispositions seems so much about originary and inherent causes, while recurrences allows for what Karl sought (the "retroactivity of historical causation" as the the theorists call it -- the fact that these alignments into temporal chains proceed backwards, from the present into past. Not that the present wholly makes the past, and not that the past has set the unflagging course that culminates in the present, but that causality is bifold: past and present meet, align, and later might align in related but also different ways). A certain beautiful order emerges . At least for a while.

I've recently been returning to some of the reading I'd done in Bruno Latour five or six years ago, and really like the vocabulary of networks, systems, and alliances he develops around temporality and causality. For Latour "time" is always "the last thing added to the equation," meaning that we grant it an explanatory force it doesn't necessarily possess. Time itself can't cause anything. Strong or weak alliances between past and present, however, can materialize continuities across time in enduring ways. Among those alliances that we might make are those with our anterior selves: the child with biology-directed passions, the sourpuss grad student that I often describe myself as having been, the disaffected punk, the MFA student who dreams of Volvos that can fly. A certain beautiful order emerges ... or might emerge. But there will always remain the paths not traversed, the possibilities neglected, the potential for discontinuity and rupture ... and I think that was what Karl wanted to stress. And there are also the ways in which we might be stuck, quite horribly, to a traumatized self, to a past that offers madness or rage rather than the a reservoir of creative affirmation.

Thanks for giving so much to think about.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Some day I will post without typos. Not today.

"rather than the a reservoir of creative affirmation" = "rather than a reservoir of creative affirmation."

Eileen Joy said...

First, Ben: in all this hubbub, I did not thank you for the initial comment. Do let us know how that Ph.D. application purpose statement goes! I will decline to share the rest of my story, I'm afraid, as it is juvenalia of the worst sort--yes, it was published [twice, actually, first in a now-defunct NYC journal "Short Fiction By Women" and then reprinted in a Prentice-Hall anthology "Worlds in Our Words: Contemporary American Women Writers"], but I cringe to re-read it and find that I want to rewrite practically every single line. I have more recent stories I'm less embarrassed by and may share one of those here one day.

Holly asked how my "readings in medieval literature might complicate, enhance, or challenge the ideas from Ahmed" that are so important to my academic interests," and I think this is an excellent question. Sometimes, when I am doing this reading in contemporary cultural theory and other studies, I'm not even thinking of the Middle Ages or medieval texts--I am, rather, thinking of how this might help me in certain political professional matters, having to do with BABEL, professional affects, community building, how to think sexuality *now* and opposed to *then*, etc. But at the same time, much of my scholarship [already published] and also in progress *does* have a lot to do with working to show how certain medieval texts [almost always poetic ones, some hagiography, which I consider a kind of fictional narrative literature] *challenge* contemporary modes of thought, either about the Middle Ages themselves or about the present. So, for my Beowulf/Levinas/terrorism/hospitality project [now published in two places], I started with Levinas's thinking on hospitality and the ethical relation to the Other, along with Derrida's *question* as to whether Levinas's thinking could ever found a law or a state, and then posed *to* that thinking the "case" Grendel in "Beowulf" and also the modern suicide terrorist. What I discover in this posing is a somewhat hopeless state of affairs--as regards the relations between violence and sovereignty, force and the law--yet nevertheless, it may be that the work of art holds open a space for a certain state of ethical wonder that might make justice possible. My book project begins with contemporary work in historiography [mainly on the Holocaust] on traumatic memory and history and art, and poses to debates within those studies, again, "Beowulf," in order to show the ways in which this Old English poem is involved in some of the same historiographical impasses, and again, how art holds open a unique space for the endless negotiations of all the ways in which history and memory never agree.

As regards my current readings and thinking on "affect," that is a more recent consideration for me, and I am currently working on the Old English and Anglo-Latin and Middle English Guthlac narratives to see if I can work out some notions I have about affective, libidinal reading practices [this is more connected to Cary's work, and to Deleuze and Guattari's ideas of de-territorialization than it would be to Ahmed's thought, which I think relates more to what I consider my political professionalizing work], but also to see if I can trace in certain medieval texts certain structures of the "ethical violence" that Adorno writes about in his "Problems of Moral Philosophy." And I also just finished an article on "The Seven Sleepers" ["The Seven Sleepers, Eros, and the Unincorporable Infinite of the Human Person"] that attempts to locate certain "structures of feeling" and affect [tears, touching, fear/"unheartening," affection] not thought to exist [or to be allowed] in Old English hagiography. I can see, looking now at the "thesis" portion of the article that it also touches upon some of what we have been talking about here:

"Although the ultimate theme of 'The Seven Sleepers' can be located in its medieval Christian doctrine—the bodily resurrection is real, and therefore it is in the afterworld where one finally, really 'lives,' with shining body and soul together—I would like to argue that, in the Old English version's emphasis on the highly individualized emotional affect of its characters and even of its human world (in this case, the city of Ephesus), the legend also touches upon the development of a certain thick subjectivity through eros, without which no interest or investment in the world is possible for individuals. By eros, I wish to make clear that I am not referring to sexual love, so much as I am referring to what Freud termed the libido, or 'love force.' In 'Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,' Freud wrote, 'The nucleus of what we mean by love naturally consists . . . in sexual love with sexual union as its aim. But we do not separate from this—what in any case has a share in the name of "love"—on the one hand, self-love, and on the other, love for parents and children, friendship and love for humanity in general, and also devotion to concrete objects and to abstract ideas.' The Old English 'Seven Sleepers' represents a unique concern and regard for the interior life (which includes spirituality), and for the world that provides for the expression of that interior life. . . . The Old English legend can be viewed as a kind of creative attempt on the part of the anonymous author to individualize, through an atypical exploration of the psychic interior, a sacred history that locates itself, not in the tombs of those whom Peter Brown has called 'the very special dead for whom mourning was unthinkable,' nor in an abstract world of disembodiments, but in the living and very human world of embodied subjects. As a result, the Old English legend also grapples with, and even tries to answer, in my view, a certain problem of memory’s relation to history—in this case, of how to render an account of a sacred history that does not lapse into an undifferentiated narrative structure in which all saints lives are, in the end, essentially the same, but instead retains a material and heterogeneous particularity that affirms the sanctity of the unique human soul, or person, who passes through the vector of a particular historical moment and is both changed by, and changes, that moment."

One of the cool things about "The Seven Sleepers" is that it is a "passio" [a passion, or martyr story] in which the martyrs are never tortured or killed and spend most of their time weeping over the possible impending loss of their lives, which they shouldn't mourn at all [following AElfric], but rather joyfully embrace [i.e., their own deaths]. They literally *run away* from the emperor who wants to execute them and have a kind of secret fellowship in a cave, crying and eating together, until god puts them into a deep 300 plus years sleep [basically, it's a twist on the rip van winkle story]. Here again, I'm interested in the ways in which this legend poses a point of resistance to hagiography's ethical violence [there are great scenes of torture, of other Christians, in this story as well, torture that "un-hearts" the citizens of Ephesus]. Whew.

So, there's all that, but again, since your question was more pointed with regard to Ahmed, I think there, and also in some of my other critical readings, especially in queer theory, I'm more often plying that for ways in which to develop my mission and aims for BABEL, if that makes sense.

Eileen Joy said...

APOLOGIES TO EVERYONE: I have deleted a previous comment because I included two citations from a book draft by Ahmed that has not yet been published, and basically, that was egregiously WRONG of me. I can be a complete idiot sometimes, seriously. SO, I'm reposting my earlier comment, without the Ahmed quotes, and now it is out of sequence, and oh hell, and oh well!

Holly, first, thank for these challenging interlocutions. I worry a lot [more than some people might think] about everyone just agreeing with me. I want to be challenged. I want to be told, no, that's not it, exactly, you haven't thought about this, what about this, etc.? That's why, during our exchange toward the end of the Dinshaw book re-appraisal, I went out and got Heather Love's book, because you mentioned it [but now I can't recall if it was *there* you mentioned it, or as part of another exchange when I might have been lamenting the fact that queer theorists in later areas don't always give credit to Dinshaw's groundwork, and you said, well Love does but she's also doing something really different, too, so of course, I went and got the book]. And of course, it's appropriate, too, to talk about Love's work in "Feeling Backward," in relation to Ahmed's recent project [not yet published], "On Being Directed: Happiness, Promises, Deviations," because both call attention to what you are calling attention to here:

a) that happiness and/or the "affirmative turn" can be coercive, historically insensitive, and oppressive, and

b) "affect" means the whole range of affect, including emotions such as sadness, anger, resentment, self-loathing, etc.

I am not really only a presentist when it comes to affect--indeed, in the book I am trying to complete, I am working on the representation of *traumatic* historical memory in art [war, genocide, slavery] and of the ways in which art serves as a kind of unique space within which this trauma is not ameliorated or adjudicated or "settled," but rather, remains open, unsettling, distressing, always unfolding temporally [yet also productive of historical understanding in ways a conventional scholarly "history" never could be]. I spend a lot of time in my scholarship with unhappy affects, believe me.

On the other hand, when you say I want a more affective scholarly community and that I'm mainly emphasizing the positive, I think you're right [and I won't ever apologize about that, as I've worked too hard on it], but to say that I don't understand the negative that might rush in with the positive, I understand that all too well and I will take that into consideration however I can [while at the same time I outright reject many of the harsh gatekeeping methods employed to tell us what work is "proper" and what work is "improper"--I am for a free-for-all as regards what the subjects and objects of our work might be, and when I'm trying to build community it's mainly to create safe zones for freedom of expression, NOT to get everyone to agree with each other--my god, if Karl and I ever agreed on anything I would almost die and I need him need him need him to *not* agree with me].

Part of what I loved hearing, from Ahmed herself, about her new project was her argument that we need to be more mindful of the killjoy in any community or group, the person who refuses to be appeased [the unhappy queer, the angry black woman, the pissed off crip, etc.] or to be "happy"--they always remind the group that whatever the "work" at hand is, it can never really be finished. But the role of the killjoy is not to put a brake on everything, so to speak, such that the more optimistic hopes for communal work would just be discarded wholesale; rather, the killjoy points to the limits of any group formation and shows how, the moment a group thinks it can be "happy" with itself, it shouldn't be, because then there would be no progress. There can never be one solution for everyone, but for the cause of good political work [for queers, for women, whathaveyou], there still has to be a notion, I really believe, of some kind of happiness, but redefined outside of where it has been conventionally defined within the Western philosophical tradition [in relation to the good life, societal expectations, as a thing which "arrives" when you're waiting for it in the right way] and maybe recapitulated as a kind of continual horizon over which everything is expected and that expectation is never thought to be exhausted by the things that *do* arrive. Happiness then, as the keeping open of possibility--anything could happen, we're waiting for *anything*.

But obviously, the negative affects have to be taken into full account [Ahmed's new book, as she describes it, is mainly an "archive of unhappy affects"]; otherwise, our accounts of happiness are impoverished and come at too great a price of inattention to the fact that what others want might not be what I want.

For myself, then, thank you Holly for your crankiness. Sincerely: thank you. And because of *your* honesty, I have to be honest too and accept some of your criticism as true about me: I do very much practice a kind of affirmative affective mode in my work, and in my writing here at ITM, then I practice a more, let's say [in the best sense of the term], a negative, Hegelian-style *critique*. But again, you have to take my published scholarship into account as well, I hope: its subjects are mainly very dark ones and you will not see me there saying, "hey, let's just love and embrace everyone/thing!" And yet, I am very much a Bersani-an, I guess [in the mode of his and Dutoit's "Forms of Being"], in that I really believe in the cultivation of sites within which a wider purchase on certain states of wonder, radical love & affection, and libidinal attachment could be developed [as part of an ethical project to, say, lengthen or enlarge certain states of suspension with regard to the objects and persons of the world that might then lead to *less* not *more* critical judgment]. I'm a little bit like the lead character in Mike Leigh's new movie "Happy Go Lucky," with whom, interestingly enough, Ahmed concludes her book. I am so happy most of the time, I have often wondered if I should see a therapist about it and they would likely conclude I suffer from some kind of happiness mania or displaced religious feelings [!]. But in any case, along with dead seriousness, I would say we have to have some sort of room for happiness, but not the sort of "heavy" happiness Ahmed describes in her current project; rather, the kind of happiness that can be silly, precarious, and which leaves everything open as a possibility.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for rearticulating the dynamics of this forum—I sometimes forget the deliberate balance you maintain between work and whimsy.


Thanks for sharing the description of your book project. It sounds quite compelling, and I’ll look forward to reading it. I wasn’t really asking you about Ahmed—my question could have related to any writer, really. What I was asking you is how you think about affect—if you don’t in your critical work, that seems fair enough. You’ve clearly got a lot of other very intricate and interesting stuff cooking. But, to return to my first post, if you seek to use affect for community building, I think you should probably be more mindful about its critical potential. Your original Ahmed post is a prime example of the clubbish, cliquish form of affective (albeit affirmative)—scholarly?? whimsical??--conversation about which I was originally complaining. I’m very glad you see the problem with that post, though I also want to emphasize how strongly I believe that such a mis-take derives from the exclusively affirmative scholarly atmosphere that you are cultivating, here and (I guess) elsewhere.

And finally: Jeffrey’s post demonstrates very nicely the ways in which affirmation can have a normativizing effect—“play nice, everybody.” I get that. And I should say, moreover, that I think your blog community is really nice, so I don’t want to disturb its affirmative ethos too much. My main *plea*, then, is that you stop using affect in heedless ways. If you don’t want to be serious about affect as a critical concept, fine. Others do.

Sorry for all the guys enjoy your table talk.