Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Identities and Impurities

[illustration: Winter Shack with Child, photo by author]
by J J Cohen

The close of December is a difficult time of year for anyone whose identity is pure. The holiday that looms tomorrow is too secular; is being warred against; is too Christian; is too commercial; carries with it too much paganism; distracts from Easter; doesn't matter; matters too much; carries a weight it does not merit; should be replaced by the ten days of Newton; and so on.

I was going to compose a long post about hybridity versus purified identities, modern and medieval, Christian and Jewish. Some notes (or at least some URLs) towards that post are collected here. I thought I had the duration of The Care Bears Movie to get those words assembled, but a series of phone calls involving an unexpected saving of a stranger's life and the complications of a surgery have conspired to leave me with about three minutes before those polychromatic ursines save the day. Then I've obligated myself to construct a house out of frosting, graham crackers, and leftover Halloween candy.

So I'll say this. Over the past year I have been engaged in two simultaneous reading projects, some small fruits of which have appeared on this blog: surveying new work in the history of Jewish-Christian identities (e.g. Boyarin, Yuval, Elukin, Horowitz), and researching contemporary [youth] reinventions of Jewishness via media old (Heeb, Nextbook) and new (Jewschool, Jewdas, Jewcy and the like). The two projects have much in common, though I'm not certain that the scholars from group one would agree that they have fellow travelers in group two. Both movements redefine what Jewish identity means in the past or the present (and in Boyarin's case, both at once, especially in Border Lines. If Gloria Anzaldua read Talmud and patristics, she'd have composed Border Lines). Both groups have seen strong public reactions against what they propose: Boyarin condemned as anti-Jewish, Yuval having been informed it would have been better had he never published his research, contemporary movements feeling a backlash as in this article from n+1 or the predictable identitarian comments to this story. Two common emphases within this criticism are (1) the border line must be drawn somewhere in order to provide coherent identity, so why not draw the line where it has always been drawn? (2) those who refuse the inherited identity paradigm are actually rejecting the hard work that it takes to merit such an identity.

Neither of these seem to me particularly cogent critiques: if the identity border is arbitrary, then why retain the same-old same-old after all? This same-old same-old is typically NOT the timeless and unchanging identity it has passed itself off as being. A longer historical view provides effective counter arguments to both. And what could be more labor intensive than forging an identity out of inherited and new pieces? Nothing facile about that process...

You'll hear more about this history of hybridity and mutability in the future (though in a way you've heard quite a bit about it from me already, here and here). For the time being, though, I simply offer this thought, appropriate to the ending of the year and the completion of another twelve months of this blog.

The medievalist identity advocated at ITM, often implicitly, always with passion, is an impure one: practicing a contingent rather than a known-in-advance Medieval Studies, touching present and past, embracing the creative potential of both. We've never argued that codicology or paleography or philology or any other -gy ought to be denefestrated from the House of Medieval, but we do want to keep our doors open wide enough to welcome whatever rough beast, Tiny Shriner, Muslim punk, mestizo, or monster slinks our way. We want -- I want -- not so much to change the field, but to acknowledge that medieval studies has already been deeply and enduringly transmuted. If it ever had a stable and well bounded identity, that went out the window some time in the 1980s, when feminism changed its rules, made it a space more welcoming to strangers. Maybe the welcome arrived even before that, when atheist Marxists were grumbling against allegory-mad Robertsonians (or maybe that was just one doctrine replacing another; it is hard for me to tell). I've suspected that sometimes in my own work I've imported new shibboleths, turns of phrase and schools of theory implicitly necessary to belong to the reconfigured field: if you can't say extimité you can't drink mead in this hall, buddy. On this blog and in my work, I've now attempted to submerge the theory somewhat rather than cite it as frequently as I did in some of my earlier publications. I have worked towards a more congenial prose style, one that invites rather than simply sorts its readers, one that develops that lingua franca et jocundissima that I mentioned in my Kzoo paper.

This blog is an ongoing part of that project, and I thank you for being among its community this year. Whether you are in the midst of celebrating Hanukkah, or hanging your stocking for Christmas, or festivating at the solstice, or doing the Saturnalia or holding a Molochmas or even if you are just enjoying the trickling away of the last month of 2008, Wæshail.

So, how are you celebrating? And if you feel like answering a much harder question, for what [medievalist] identity do you yearn?


Karl Steel said...

At the moment, I'm celebrating by eating handfuls of peanuts, writing a blog comment, looking wistfully at the New Jersey snow, occasionally going upstairs to torment my inlaws by singing the Chipmunks' Xmas Song, listening to Messiah on the ipod, and NOT, at this very moment, grading the MA Student Prospectuses I received on Monday. 15 to go.

Great post Jeffrey; and sounds like a harrowing day. I suppose all days are harrowing for someone, somewhere, and lots of people, but here's your chance. Again.

In terms of medievalist identity, I know this is cheating, but I want an identity that's responsive to the event of the encounter. This means that my work is methodologically haphazard. Historical positivists, students of the local, exegetical critics, Marxists, &c &c all have their balliwick, but me? I just want to through to collect stuff; and I want to come at things from every angle. I besiege the human from all sides. It's sharply on my mind, given that I've been grading students down for weak methodologies, but my sense is that maybe I could do with a spot of identity, just to firm things up from place to place?

Eileen Joy said...

I won't answer the question about what/which medievalist identity do I yearn for--I think I've probably spilled enough digital ink on that question, here and elsewhere, to last a lifetime [haha], but I think the question is beautifully related to where you begin this post--hybridity versus so-called "pure" identities, and the tension [and fears and anxieties] that inhere between these *claimed* identities [especially when they are placed--perhaps falsely?--in opposition to each other]. I think that the bottom line is that identity [and community] is always mixed and heterogeneous, but it is practically useful [and occasionally consoling] to act *as if*, in particular situations, you are one thing or another one thing, although deep down, we all know we are never just one thing versus another. But would it be practically useful to be overly mindful each minute of our hybridity, or is it something we just don't even notice while also being vigilant about not lapsing into single-identity politics, sociality, etc.? Then again, aren't single-identity politics still necessary in certain places [but, perhaps, should always be temporary]?

I had a huge huge fight with my sister about this in early November when I was in DC for GWU's "Touching the Past" symposium. I was at her house for dinner, with her partner and children, and also my parents, and the discussion, just on the heels of Obama's election, naturally turned [for my family, anyway] to the success of Proposition 8 in California. It was considered a no-brainer that in my family of diehard liberal Democrats, and with both my sister and I being gay, that we would all sit around the table and decry the results of this referendum, but I shocked everyone by saying that it was the wrong issue to get so worked up about, because I believe we have larger civil/legal rights issues we need to attend to that would extend beyond the couple, conventionally defined, whether a gay or straight couple, and that if we pour all of our political and activist energies into advancing the cause for gay marriage, it's just too narrowly defined and so many other, more pressing social issues get completely neglected by "us" as "not our direct concern" [i.e., the legal status and working/living conditions of migrant workers]. Of course, it's necessary as a *reaction* too, isn't it [?], defined in a single/supposedly "pure" identity kind of way. Because, when a large portion of the electorate works overtime to redefine the law such that your rights *as a gay person* are trampled upon, you have to fight back, and in a single-minded way [well, I didn't, but I can be a real libertine/apathetic "citizen" sometimes]. But it leaves aside the critical question of all the so-called couple and/or family arrangements that continue to remain unprotected and legally unarticulated [like the two bachelor cousins who live together, or the older and younger sister with children, or the middle-aged daughter and elderly father, etc.]. We say there are no such things as "single" or "pure" identities, but so much of the political and also economic world revolves around them anyway--think of all of the statistical analyses that are undertaken every single day just so a corporation can target their best demographics, always defined within conventional, single-identity parameters.

But to return to the dinner at my sister's house, it got kind of ugly and everyone was looking at me as if I were crazy if I did not understand how Prop. 8 was, like, *the* issue to end all issues, and the thing is, it *is* an issue for me, but *not* defined as the "gay marriage" issue--more like the "who gets to live together in whatever self-chosen arrangement and 'bind' it as a legal institution/family with the benediction of the state/nation, thus receiving the attendant benefits and rights?" issue. And I think those who call themselves "gay" or better yet, "queer," should turn their attention toward a more capaciously drawn civil rights agenda that would be inclusive of more living arrangement protections and rights for more persons, regardless of sexual orientation. This would be to say that something like sexual orientation, defined in "singular" ways [by some--well, seriously, by a lot of people], would be an important lever/gathering site for an activism that would ultimately work to erase or supersede its own foundations.

This is where history comes in, too, because we hit a kind of snag [or is it a paradox?] with single-identity communities: history provides the illusion [tradition] that these groups are somehow bounded in particular ways that can never be un-bound [or the group would lose its way, cease to exist properly, etc.], and those of us who believe in hybridity and middle spaces and inter-betweenities will say that one of the chief projects of modernity is un-telling these histories--excavating the lies of purity in order to show the mixology of everything--and leaving them behind so that we can reinvent ourselves with fewer constraints and also avoid harming those deemed as too different from "us" [whoever "we" think we are at any given moment], BUT [and here's the snag], with no sense whatsoever of the possession and/or inhabitation of a single identity [of, even, of multiple single identities--see Amartya Sen on this point, and I agree with him, that we all possess multiple identitarian orientations which we "activate" in different settings], whether as queer, female, Jewish, young, old, Arab, etc., we have no "place," let's say, from which to sally forth to hybridity--does not hybridity imply a mixture of *parts* and would not these parts, in some fashion, be the breakaway bits, as it were, of so-called "single" identities? Sure, there is no such thing as a single identity [no arguments from me on this], and maybe the best version of mental health would be one where a person would not even have to reflect on her constituent "parts" of identity because they would be so "disappeared" underneath a kind of pure movement in the world--but this is the utopian/Deleuzan view.

Anonymous said...

How am I celebrating? I did no work today - I shopped, cleaned, went to doctor, talked to family, and prepared the beef, vegetables and cake for tomorrow. Now I am waiting for the return of my various S/Os (who are all out visiting their friends and relations) and wondering whether we will be celebrating at midnight (perhaps a reminder to me to put something fizzy in the fridge?). I am watching bad TV (Gavin and Stacy - never watched that before) and had rather forgotten I was a Medievalist.

And Eileen - you really should know better by now than to say 'history is ......' anything.

Have fun - enjoy the cartoons and the singing penguins - they won't be the same in ten years' time.

PS I also seem to have forgotten my password!

Sarah xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Erynn said...

Identity and impurity is actually something I struggle with a lot. It's not just because I'm one of those typically USian mutts bred from a thousand strands of European blood; my spiritual identity is one of hybridity as well and I face off constantly with people who insist of some false never-was "purity" of a Celtic (Irish, Scots, whatever) Paganism.

Given the fact that none of the people arguing for this fictional purity live in Ireland or Scotland, and that none of us speak Gaelic of any variety fluently, it seems disingenuous to me to claim "purity" of tradition. Given the permeable boundaries of culture (a North African ape skull found at Emain Macha, anyone?), I don't believe there ever was a cultural purity of the sort they're claiming. They deride and mock people who are interested in Romano-Celtic material yet embrace traditions that are both Norse and Celtic in origin, as though one is somehow more "acceptable" than the other when both are the result of cultural mixing, trade, and invasions. Gods forbid someone should be interested in Hindu poetics as well as Irish filidecht. One expects the Spanish Inquisition, Soft Cushions, Comfy Chairs and all.

The work being done here and by others who are interested in hybridities is essential to a greater understanding of how cultures blend and grow. Accepting that hybridity is a natural process that happens any time cultures meet and interact is one intellectual buffer against racism, and a pretty good one at that. It's my hope that this attitude can make its way into Celtic studies. It's certainly a ripe field for this approach. When it comes to practicing a "Celtic" Paganism in North America, we must, perforce, accept some hybridization simply because of where we live and how we are forced to approach living in a place where the myths are foreign to the land. This is compounded by the fact that all of said myths were recorded by Christians at different times and in different places, deliberately altered or even invented to suit a Gaelic Christianity.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Well, I don't know that I am celebrating anything. And this year, I feel a bit as if I've lost my identity. Maybe I'll find it again.

but my ID word is pergenti, which sounds rather medieval :-)

i said...

Eileen, I'm going to cherish "inter-betweenities" and "mixology" for a while.

Your comment reminds me of the last time I was in the Bay Area. I had Mexican food in Vallejo with a group of people, among whom was a scholar who was a devout Christian. We somehow came to discussing gay marriage -- I think a friend and I had spent some time at the SF city hall arguing with the protesters against it and cheering on the newly married couples -- and this woman told me that her belief is that homosexuality is wrong. What she said next though caught my attention: she argued that, we, as a society, need to expand the definition of the family, so that, say, two sisters living together can share health care benefits, or two close friends can have rights of visitation in case of illness.

You've put it all so much better here than I can recall that day five years ago, but your comments also reminded me of the complexity of her position. She held beliefs I absolutely do not, but combined them with what was, to me, a surprising generosity.

Eileen Joy said...

Sarah: a belated "touche" to your comment that I should know better than to begin any sentence with "history is . . . ." [haha].

Karl: I love your idea of a medievalist identity that would be responsive to "the event of the encounter" and also, then, methodologically "haphazard," although, by saying you also love to "beseige the human from all sides," you also let slip that you have, as it were, an enduring [for some time in the past and now] preoccupation, right? I'm fascinated by how we could be open to the event of the encounter [as a structuring principle for our objects and methods of study at any given moment] while also maybe not being fully aware of how certain desires/interests are pointing us in certain directions and not in others--could there ever be a 360 degree angle vision of everything, and is could our gaze ever really be 100% haphazard? I've been thinking a lot lately, though, of how beneficial it would be to try to practice this haphazard gaze more often, to follow stray paths with no thought of what I'm supposed to be looking for. I think of your work, too, and want to ask: has it not been an enduring desire of yours to, in a sense, dismantle/deconstruct the human and doesn't this possibly mean you look for what will aid you in this project? And then, likewise, don't I look for things that maybe help me to pick up certain shards of the human and see if I can refound the category [psychic, social, political, philosophical, etc.] of the human as something still retaining *some* ethical value? Nevertheless, I do think we should embrace more the unexpected encounter--with pretty much anything at all--as a lever for our scholarly work. That's why I like odd conjunctions between past and present texts, objects, etc. I like cross-temporal "mash-ups"--mainly just to see if there really is, on some level, a connection between everything that was, is, and could be, and also because, deep down, I really believe that only art can save us--not what was/is, but what we can create anew, over and over again. Otherwise, as Nicholas Howe once wrote, we are like magpies collecting shiny objects from the past, or we are like technocrats trying to predict a future we can never live in. So, in that sense, I guess I'm for a medievalist orientation that is also about the Now, and multiple Nows [to also include Benjamin's notion of the "jetzeit" and of the "shock" of the past in the Now], and what can happen/occur in them.

Irina: what I worry about with single-identity politics [whether gay marriage activism or fundamentalist Christian "family values" activism] is that they are often powerfully effective in getting people to show up and focus a hell of a lot of energy on a "single" issue through various rhetorics that really dumb everything down to simplistic points/issues/slogans, thereby leaving no energy left over for tackling more complex social injustice problems. How is it, for instance, that we can have massive rallies and Facebook initiatives, etc. over gay marriage [pro and con], and not even one rally that makes the news that proclaims: no more torture? Sometimes I think Americans are so self-absorbed and narcissistic that the only issues that can really work us into a lather have to either pertain to our wallets or our personal, domestic spaces [and beyond that, our own deaths].

Eileen Joy said...

And perhaps I should have mentioned as well, as regards what works Americans into a political lather: anything connected to our deeply rooted xenophobia and also to our Puritan discomforts with sexuality.

Anonymous said...

The preface to the (fragmentary) 13th century Hebrew rendition of "King Arthur" seems directed at issues related to hybridity, though in a profoundly personal way. The tone of the anonymous translator's Hebrew is agonizing and, every time I reread it, I find myself in the middle of "that situation", and am as moved/disturbed by his "explanations" as the first time I read them.

For 2009, I hope to insinuate myself into the identity of the Gawain/Pearl poet. The goal is not revelation, but incandescence.

Thank you ITM for another outstanding year!