Sunday, February 22, 2009

Not Yet Living at the Same Time With the Others: Prendergast, Trigg, and Dinshaw on Medievalization and the Supernatural


Not all people exist in the same Now. They do so only externally, through the fact that they can be seen today. But they are thereby not yet living at the same time with the others.
—Ernst Bloch, Heritage of Our Times

And so I say to you yes you: / everyone’s a fugitive. Everyone.
—Spencer Reece, “Tonight”

Some might recall a post I wrote this past summer relative to the Leeds Medieval Congress in July, "I'm A Pleasure Seeker, Looking for the Real Thing: We're All Presentists Now," in which I discussed a paper presented by Stephanie Trigg [co-authored with Tom Prendergast], “When Is the Medieval? Medievalism as a Critique of Periodization”—in which paper Stephanie made the provocative statement that all medieval studies, on some level, are also a form of medievalism, or medievalization, and where she also drew attention to the problematic dichotomy we often want to draw between a certain kind of historicist medieval studies as “serious” and studies in medievalism as “not serious enough.” The newest volume of New Medieval Literatures [no. 9; 2007] was just published online this past October [excellent journal, I might add], and it includes a “symposium” based on a panel from the 2006 meeting of the New Chaucer Society, “What Is Happening to the Middle Ages?”, which includes two essays: Tom Prendergast and Stephanie Trigg, “What Is Happening to the Middle Ages?” and a response by Carolyn Dinshaw, “Are We Having Fun Yet?” Having just read these essays as part of my own desire recently to better acquaint myself with both the history of and the theoretical frameworks animating studies in medievalism [or, medievalism studies], I thought I would share summaries of these two articles here as well as some interesting questions they collectively raise for our consideration of what we believe the temporal boundaries of “medieval studies” to be.

In “What Is Happening to the Middle Ages?” Prendergast and Trigg return us to Umberto Eco’s famous distinction of “ten little middle ages” and his exhortation to us to spend some time determining which ‘middle ages” we are devoted to [with the understanding that our decision has political implications]. As compelling as some of Eco’s distinctions were, for Prendergast and Trigg, his list had a “stultifying effect on the study of the Middle Ages both because it has encouraged the field of medievalism to engage in a kind of criticism that is largely taxonomic and because it has perpetuated the split between understandings of medieval and medievalism,” and also because Eco “assumes that the Middle Ages themselves are stable, while different variable and partial elements of medieval culture are emphasized by different groups of game players, fiction writers, filmmakers, and so on.” Further, the medievalism of these groups is always subject to academic critique “on the grounds of historical accuracy” [p. 216]. What Prendergast and Trigg would like to do is focus less on how a particular representation of the Middle Ages does or does not match up with a so-called historical reality, and more on “the broader conceptualization of the medieval in its relation to any given present.” More pointedly, they ask,
How do we still recognize and produce the medieval? What are the discursive, institutional and political effects of these various acts of medievalization, whenever they take place and to whatever end, whether scholarly, imaginative, or strategic? [p. 216]
Whether something is described as “medieval” or is set “firmly in the past in a regressive or abject relationship to the past,” what ultimately happens is that the “medieval” [whatever that might mean] only really comes into relief “at the moment of its own supercession”—things only really “become medieval” when they are left behind [p. 219]. There is no middle ground, as it were, in this scenario between the supposedly real Middle Ages one can always go back to and discover in its historical authenticity and the more unreal Middle Ages that “returns” in the guise of the idealized romance [Arthur] or as “the abjected dark other” to modernity [think: the image of the gothic torture dungeon].

Prendergast and Trigg worry [and I would say, usefully so] about the easy acceptance [by some in our field] of the Middle Ages as a space of hard-edged alterity, for it is a short step from that stance to “dismiss the ‘medieval’ as the opposite of all that is useful to a modern university, a library, or a nation, on the simple grounds that the medieval has no place in modernity” and medieval studies thereby becomes an easy target as “the weakest link, the least modern, the least useful, the least relevant part of the humanities clamouring for government funding” [p. 218]. Nevertheless, to argue for the Middle Ages as some kind of “origin point” for modernity would be equally simplistic and short-sighted. I would note here that, while I agree with Tom and Stephanie on this point, I also believe in a kind of toolkit of the widest possible variety of guerilla tactics for convincing university administrators, grant institutions, and the like of the “relevance” of medieval studies; in other words, in the short term, we make whatever arguments are expedient in certain given contexts—if someone will be persuaded by the argument that the Middle Ages represents the “origin” of a certain kind of modern subjectivity or modern notion of legal “rights” or of certain literary modes, then I’ll make that argument if it gets me what I need in the short term [certain curricular changes, the establishment of a faculty line, funding for a research project, etc.]—and for the longer-term health of our field, we continue to work collaboratively and in vigorous fashion to delineate the more complicated inter-relationships between medieval, modern, and post-modern in such a fashion that, say, cultural studies becomes a discipline that cannot even imagine not having a “deep” historical component, and then, even more importantly, this more historically-minded cultural studies begins to form alliances with developing fields of inquiry in other disciplines, such as sociology or the cognitive sciences or new media studies. On this note, I would plug here a roundtable session scheduled for this coming July’s Medieval Congress at Leeds on “Complexity Science and the Humanities” which is described this way [and of course I’ll be in the audience with notebook in hand]:
Recent work on networks in theoretical physics has proved applicable in a number of different contexts including cultural dynamics and religion. Some of these findings provide intriguing insights for scholars concerned with population dynamics, the percolation of the spread of ideas, tipping points for altering the consensus of society and how individuals’ opinions and allegiances change over time. Medievalists have a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data on these subjects and are familiar with dealing with long-term change. This round-table discussion seeks both to explain some of these ideas in non-technical language and to bring together medievalists with economists and physicists for the discussion of possible collaboration in this fast-developing and well-funded area of research.
It occurs to me, too, that medieval studies would be well served to have a position similar to the one the biologist Richard Dawkins has occupied since 1995 at Oxford, the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science. I think a really progressive university should create a Chair of Public Understanding of Medieval Studies and then appoint someone to that Chair who would devote their career to the advocacy of the relevance of medieval studies to contemporary issues and problems—cultural, social, political, and otherwise. [Well, a girl can dream, can’t she?]

Prendergast and Trigg also worry about the ways in which medieval studies has, in a sense, policed its own temporal borders [never mind how university or grant administrators have cordoned off medieval studies from everything else], such that the term “medievalism” itself “separates and abjects the academic study of medievalism in order to retain the ‘purity’ of medieval studies” [p. 220]. Because so much labor has been invested in our field in order to transform what we perceive was once “uncriticial amateurism” into a “scientific profession,” such that we could be “legitimate” as a discipline, “popular recuperations of the medieval necessarily became misunderstandings—a kind of afterbirth which maintained only an attenuated relationship to the real work of medieval studies” [p. 221]. Ultimately, the “split between labour and pleasure is at the heart of the medieval/medievalism split” and contemporary medievalism is “tarred by the same brush that in conservative circles continues to dismiss cultural studies as mere chat about television, cinema, and the Internet” [p. 224]. By way of the “cases,” as it were, of the sometimes incredulous reception, in the Middle Ages itself, of saints’ relics and the legend of Arthur [as well as of his supposed relics, such as the Round Table at Winchester], Prendergast and Trigg show that, in all times and places, it is “difficult to unravel the connection of the medieval and the medievalistic,” and “even if the historical veracity of the thing being proved is accepted as true, the relics that point back to the veracious thing are themselves false—even if they were created as a kind of medievalistic simulacrum” [p. 228]. It will be important, then, in moving forward with our discipline, to “engage in a systematic investigation of the genealogy” of the categories of and divisions between past, present, and future “medievalisms,” and to “recollect along the way that the remains of the medieval always have a contemporary plot” [p. 229]. The “medieval,” in other words, can never really be separated from any particular “present” in which it is being invoked, appropriated, investigated, [supposedly objectively] described, refashioned, etc.

I find Prendergast’s and Trigg’s arguments especially useful for thinking about, not only the historicity of all the ways in which, in different times and places, we both remember and forget the past, but also how we might envision a more interventionist medieval studies—one that would take on contemporary appropriations of the medieval in the global social, political, legal, and other spheres, such as Bruce Holsinger has done in his chaplet book Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror, or as Steve Guthrie recently did in an article on the popular uses of the Middle Ages within the context of the war in Iraq [Medieval Perspectives, vol. 19], or as Kathleen Davis has done in her recent book Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time, where she writes in her Epilogue [apropos to Prendergast’s and Trigg’s essay]:
The political currency of feudalism and secularization returns us to the question “Where is the Now?” which, I have suggested, is the appropriate question to be asked about medieval/modern periodization. The assumption that “the Middle Ages” actually existed as a meaningful entity, and that it was “religious” and “feudal,” bulwarks the persistent determination to ignore the historicity of fundamental political categories. The problem with the “grand narrative” of the West is not simply one of linearity and the myth of “progress.” More crucially, it is a problem of the formation of concepts in conjunction with periodization, a process that retroactively reifies categories and erases their histories. If the future is to be open, rather than already determined, then periodization must come undone. [p. 134]
Davis’s book is especially significant in this interventionist vein, in my mind, because it joins with a growing body of work by scholars in other fields, such as Talal Asad, who are challenging, in important ways, the religious/secular, West/non-West, and modern/medieval binaries [see, for example, Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity].

In her response to Prendergast’s and Trigg’s essay, “Are We Having Fun Yet?”, Dinshaw considers the “temporal weirdness” of Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle,” which was originally published in Irving’s Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, the fictionalized compendium of a fictionalized antiquarian interested in medieval re-enactments, among other literary and historical matters. In Dinshaw’s mind, a close reading of Irving’s story can “animate” for us “the temporal principles informing Prendergast and Trigg’s article” [p. 233]. Rip is a perfect figure for consideration because, thanks to his twenty-year sleep, during which he continues to physically age, Rip is both in and out of his time: while his body registers the passage of time, he has no mental recollection of that passage nor does he even know that there was a Revolution, and it barely seems to matter [he can still sit at his favorite tavern and drink beer like the bachelor he used to wish he was], while at the same time, Rip does experience some confusion as to where and when, exactly, he is, partly because, to everyone else in the village, he is somehow out of place, a peculiar throwback to another era. In Dinshaw’s view,
In Rip’s befuddlement and panic we get a sense of how it feels to be medievalized: in this case it feels very, very wrong, eventually threatening Rip’s very being: ‘I’m not myself—I’m somebody else […] I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!’ But medievalization is just part of the story in this village: Rip himself feels continuity, not rupture, and his experiential continuities render the ‘historical ruptures’ of revolution and ‘modernity’ nugatory . . . . As every historian knows and as ‘Rip van Winkle’ works out in narrative, a revolution does not necessarily or evenly across a population produce a rupture in experience. Moreover, Prendergast and Trigg’s analysis opens up the intriguing prospect that something or someone being medievalized can resist or push back against that process of medievalization. [p. 235]
Very much in line with Dinshaw’s work elsewhere, she asks us to consider what Rip’s story tells us about time “as a lived phenomenon” and how a medieval studies attuned to this might “accommodate, indeed explore, the fact that chronology, the timeline of events, clock time, do not tell us everything—or in many cases, even very much—about lived experience.” In this scenario, time is not only “not a smooth stream, but it is also not the same for everyone” [p. 235]. And I would add here that, in some sense, each of us is out of step in some respect with time—we always have to be recalled to it and to our supposed place in “official” time, while at the same time, in order to discover what is meaningful and unique about our own existence and experience, we have to become fugitives from chrono-teleological time, or in another scenario, we are all always already fugitives in or out of time [hence my epigraph above from Spencer Reese’s poem “Tonight” which is addressed to a newly-born infant—I am thinking here also of the multiple semantic meanings of ‘fugitive,’ from lost/straying to fleeting/ephemeral to passing to elusive].

Medieval studies, Dinshaw argues, “must be capacious enough to encourage us to reckon thoroughly with such heterogeneities of temporal apprehension and the implications (historical, disciplinary) thereof—the felt experience of time, be it the time of medieval merchants, clerics, or labourers . . . or mystics, or scholars, or members of the Society for Creative Anachronism” [p. 236]. If Prendergast and Trigg worry about a certain range of cultural productions [that fall under the label of “popular medievalisms”] being ignored by medievalists who wish to maintain clean lines between their study of the past and the present, Dinshaw worries about another realm that causes medievalists discomfort: “the realm of the spiritual, of belief, of faith.” In Dinshaw’s view, temporal heterogeneity “is in fact a hallmark of Christianity . . . and a temporally expansive medieval studies needs to take faith, and more broadly the supernatural, to be taken seriously.” More pointedly, Dinshaw asserts, following James Simpson, that “faith of a kind” is “in fact the ground of all interpretation,” and interpretation “is like religion . . . in that it ‘demands’ an ‘exercise of faith’ in order to begin” [p. 236; see James Simpson, “Faith and Hermeneutics: Pragmatism versus Pragmatism,” JMEMS 33 (2003): 215-39]. Furthermore, the act of interpretation is always temporally asynchronous:
when I read Margery Kempe’s Book, I encounter her words in a hermeneutical Now in which medieval past meets twenty-first-century present. The peculiar temporality of interpretation—the time of hermeneutic contact—is out of linear time. In view of such inevitable hermeneutic conditions, medieval studies is not—as we must not pretend that it is—so entirely separate from the spiritual phenomena it discusses. [p. 236]
Dinshaw’s essay goes on to make several other important points, but I want to stop here with her provocative argument that interpretation is like a religion, and that medieval studies is not as objectively removed [as it often thinks it is] “from the spiritual phenomena it discusses.” Of course, we have to be careful and remind ourselves of how important it has been in recent years for our field to distance itself from the kind of allegorical criticism that merely recapitulated Christianized, hegemonic readings of medieval texts [all assumed to be Christian in one measure or another, as if that world-view so thoroughly dominated the mental airwaves of the Middle Ages that nothing else got through, and we could discern nothing else]. And having cleared that troubling admission out of the way, we can ask with Dinshaw, more searchingly, how interpretation is an act of faith, one dependent on the very heterogeneous and asynchronous temporalities that fuel, as it were, medieval Christian mentalities. And let's ask, too: faith in what, exactly?

Does anyone else see, as I do, the little bomb that Dinshaw has thrown into this conversation? So many considerations crowd my mind—first of all, poetics. For if interpretation is a “kind of faith,” it requires, not a rationalistic, fully objectified discourse [nor what Ricouer termed a “hermeneutics of suspicion” or what Eve Sedgwick, more recently, has described as “paranoid readings”], but rather, a poetics in the sense that John Caputo gives to that term: “an evocative discourse that articulates the event,” as opposed to a logic, which is “a normative discourse governing entities (real or possible), which can or do instantiate its propositions” [The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, p. 103]. Further [and here I am thinking specifically of Margery Kempe, as well as of Dinshaw writing on Kempe], a poetics “describes a desire beyond reason and beyond what is reasonably possible, a desire to know what we cannot know, or to love what we dare not love” [The Weakness of God, p. 104]. I am thinking here, too, of Joan Retallack’s poethical wager, in which a certain “poetics of desire . . . moves us toward a responsive and pleasurable connection to the world by means of informed sensualities of language” [The Poethical Wager, p. 5], and where we stake our faith on a certain meaningfulness [which doesn’t have to have anything to do with God or gods], despite all epistemological evidence to the contrary. But this will also mean acknowledging that, on some level, there has to be a there there—as Dinshaw puts it a little further on in her response to Prendergast and Trigg, the past always retains in some fashion its otherness and what we might “understand as the past’s own intransigence makes an ethical relation to it possible” [p. 240]. There is a certain palpable materiality to the past—no matter how silent or inaccessible or covered over with layers and layers of self- and appropriative representations—that begs some acknowledgment of obdurate difference and even of an alter will to have said what we would never say ourselves, or even want to hear. But in any case, we traffic in ghosts, which is to say: we believe in them. Or do we? What do we believe in, again? If interpretation is an act of faith, faith in what, or who? You tell me.


Karl Steel said...

Thanks for this. The Trigg/Prendergast sounds very useful.

For various personal reasons, at least, I'm opposed to "religion" as a model for apprehending what we do as critics--or, as the engaged with, if you like, as this confounds the simple self/other relation of critic/text. I'm opposed because 'religion,' at least for me, implies a structure, a church, an already given ritual system that shapes our beliefs, desires, families, societies, architecture, art, &c. A "faith" I might be able to budge on, but both faith and religion nonetheless suggest to me a faith in something divine, which is to say, a prime mover, something eternal outside of the muck of politics, force, and the 'always greater than one.'

Ultimately, I'm a dedicated secularist, which is to say, I don't believe in an ultimate. I could say that I'm a 'postdisenchated' (to borrow vocab. from Dinshaw) secularist in that I don't believe a paranoid and power-political reading can get us everything (for example, it can't account for what I felt earlier tonight reading Chaucer's MLT II.646-651, "Have ye nat sayn somtyme a pale face / Among a prees, of hym that hath be lad / Toward his deeth, where as hym gat no grace" etc.) But while I can see what I might get when I think about my engagement with this stanza in MLT as 'faith,' I think the last thing I want in this welter of wonder, mourning, admiration, and suspicion of my own reaction, is piety. Respect yes, piety no.

I don't doubt that you've done the Dinshaw justice, Eileen, but with all my resistance, I should have a look at it myself.

My second thought here is directed at one of your expertises: does all this attention to polychronicity work out the distinctions between various 'depths' of time? Given memory, consciousness is always necessarily polychronic, but I wonder about the theorization of the differences between engagement with different kinds of pasts. On the one hand, I think of one's own personal past, which can be individual, familial/genealogical, national, ethnic, religious, artistic (and of course all of these discrete categories can overlap and blend). On the other hand, I think of the encounter with the 'strange' past, which can be exemplified by the thoughts of students without a medievalist when they read Chaucer, or those of most filmgoers aged 45 and below when they see something 'old' (i.e., prior to 1965 or even 1985) outside of the delineated lines of 'the classics.' I haven't even mentioned 'deep' time here, where the only connection might be that the past happened to happen on this planet too.

My point here is to muddle the category of "the past": at the least, it strikes me as critically necessary to delineate the various ways this thing called "the past" can be, while all the while resisting any simplistic periodization between, say, personal, strange, and deep. The model here might be not one of strata [the usual] but rather might be better understood as one of effluvial plains....maybe?

dan remein said...
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dan remein said...


Excellent provocation. You know I am fond the term poetics, and am want to use it in relation to Dinshaw's work--especially in this very basic sense that feeling heterogeneous things, times, what have you simultaneously will not be produced by rational narrativized discourse in the classical senses of these terms. What consistently troubles me about where Dinshaw seems to take this, however, is the moment of 'faith' that is not sufficiently secularized, emptied (ecstatically or otherwise) for this to be something I would want to practice as scholar or public intellectual.

What you suggest then at the end of this post, visa Caputo et. al., is that the moment of interpretation as faith is ANTI-rational. This is exactly what I don't want to think in thinking the possibility of some kind of faith [the only one I might abide being one that is, in J-L Nancy's words "a faith that is nothing at all"--see his essay on Granel in _Disenclosure_] as caught up in, or provoking, the moment of interpretation. If there is an element of faith, it is only in the act of the interpretation--in its performance, doing it as if it matters (except there is no as if, there is not this self-reflection, there is only the doing, the event-of it). As such, as performance, we recognize that this does not fit into the matrix of western thought which, since Aristotle, is obsessed with putting things in their right place and then re-collecting them to those places. Such a hermeneutics, like all hermeneutics, which care for life (even in the ickiest of Diltheyish and Schleiermacherian moments, even in theologians like Bultman), disturbs 'rationality' but does not refute it--it disturbs it from the inside, it reveals that for all its rationality it includes something within itself that it cannot account for. Yet, what it cannot account for nonetheless is proper only to this world. Not to another world, or eternity, or god, or a meta-something. That is, that part of what happens that matters. The condition of the arrival of this is of course nothing less than suspending our demand for it.

What I am trying to harp about, is some really moving stuff I have been ingesting from Kierkegaard, of all theologian-poets, from 'Repetition.' This is a concept Caputo likes as well, and deals with (Radical Hermeneutics) and I think would do well to return to, because it still demands a certain rigor that I think he has abandoned in _Weakness..._.

Part of what I am trying to say is this: that history and historiography must include something within itself that a 'rationalist' discourse cannot account for. That is where ethics arrive, where we can feel the queer time-loop or eddy or what have you. To associate this with poetics is fine--poetics can do the work of philosophizing, of returning us to this world--all well and good (breaking the logos so we can fall back out of language into the cosmos). But to necessarily associate poetics with faith and position both these movements against reason seems to risk undoing the little good the so-called enlightenment of the west ever did. I am not saying that faith should be rational, in the way that contemporary evangelical apologetica works ("Evidence that Demands a Verdict," 'be prepared to give a reason for why you believe' etc.--the christian right is notorious for believing itself and its faith to be rational...). But I am saying that faith doesn't oppose itself to reason any more than a poetics whose aim would be to startle or stir a rational system from dead correspondence to ethical movement.

Liza Blake said...

This is all very interesting Eileen!

I wonder if there's a difference between studying something faithfully and studying faith: and I like to think that Dinshaw is getting at something closer to the second of the two. So, not that we need to admit "religion" as the new and more plausible set of lenses through which we view medieval texts, because that would be as problematic as viewing them only through our "secular" glasses. Not to interpret the religious secularly, or vice-versa, but to find a new approach that doesn't force us to make that choice.

I think it a matter of faith as an object of study, not as a critical practice. If I understand it right (based on the passage you quoted), a combination of something like Chakrabarty and Bruno Latour: if our glasses only allow us to analyze one thing (nature or society; the secular or the religious; faith or science), then it's time to find some new glasses.

Karl Steel said...

Dan: As such, as performance, we recognize that this does not fit into the matrix of western thought which, since Aristotle, is obsessed with putting things in their right place and then re-collecting them to those places

What about the mystical 'tradition'? Or, for that matter, the lyrical tradition, especially as it delights in paradox? I wouldn't exclude these from the category of "thought."

Part of what I am trying to say is this: that history and historiography must include something within itself that a 'rationalist' discourse cannot account for. That is where ethics arrive,
One possibility, but if we apprehend this excess as a symptom, then we don't necessarily think ethically: we can think psychoanalytically, or psychoanalytic-Marxist. I don't mean to refuse ethics, but I think it important to acknowledge the other possibilities.

dan remein said...


Thanks for this. You're hitting on some of what I find most difficult to enunciate in this kind of discussion. Your point about lyric is certainly in some cases correct. Yet, certainly there is a mystic tradition obsessed with putting things in order, as a kind of thought: (scale of perfection, Thomas Merton's systematic purgatorial devotional practice, etc. I think though, there is a kind of language, a language of metaphysics, which dominates a good deal of thought and acts like there is some manager to which all things in the cosmos report, in order to stay in place. This ordering of things can help, can help us diagnose, but it can also hurt, or simply just be boring.

I agree that ethics is not the only discourse to insert here, or the only thing to do when faced with what seems to be a true aporia. My concern about reading these moments as a symptom is that is tends too much to fall into the category of a purely paranoid reading, and that if this is _all_ we do with such a moment or text, then, practically, regardless of the truth (do I even care about the truth at all? these are the moments I am least a historian and most a poet-politician, or a filmmaker) we just don't always get very far.

Ex: Freud sees a moment that threatens 'rational thought', the oceanic feeling, as a symptom of a repressed memory from the womb. This is important insofar as it brings us, in the history of secular thought, a way historically that thinkers were not under compulsion to turn experience into a belief in god. But, what if what is needed in a given moment, for a particular cause, for the possibility of an ethical relation with someone, is to simply not care if this is a symptom and go with it, because the system of thought that the symptom disrupts is tired out and rigid, and sometimes just plain mean?

As one whose thought is excited most by hermeneutics and poets, I am always wary of the 'explaining away' that certain kinds of 'scientific' (marxist, psychoanalytic) readings engage in when they uncover this sort of thing. If it is the case that such 'explaining' as a explaining away is simply more 'true,' then perhaps for me, its more about the mileage I will get out of the approach the the truth value of its results. I want to include this moment of excess and disruption of reason from the inside because I think its more ethical whether or not its true. And, I woudl personally get more ethical miliage out of it by wondering at it and provoking it instead of explaining.

This old world is a new world said...

Thanks, Eileen, for this characteristically thoughtful response to our essay. We are just starting to put together our third foray into this material (another should appear later this year), which we are going to try out in a seminar at UPenn in April, so this discussion is very helpful.

The weaker reading of Dinshaw and Simpson, of course, is to say that interpretation is only like a religion; only like having faith as a starting-point: faith that something, as opposed to nothing, could be understood by a text. In which case the same could be said of medievalist and modern, as well as medieval texts. How much of this debate is peculiar, or distinctive, to the reading of medieval literature?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I blogged that panel a little back in 2006. I had many a concern with the frequent invocation of "faith" at that conference: see the fourth paragraph of that post.

Faith is a tough word, maybe because it implies something exterior to which one gives assent and maybe because it seems to me so Christian). A secularist also, I prefer belief, or credo, because I can still lack conviction with those words when they are used tentatively enough.

But maybe I'm too hard on faith. Or too afraid of the punishing ways medievalists have used the term in the past.

I was thinking about this post tonight while reading Jonah Lehrer's book Proust Was a Neuroscience, where Lehrer writes about William James:
James realized that his mind was neither patient nor particularly exact. He loved questions more than answers, the uncertainty of faith more than the conviction of reason. He wanted to call the universe the pluriverse.

"The uncertainty of faith" and "the pluriverse": maybe that I could get behind.

Karl Steel said...

Dan, I feel as though I've encountered so many condemnations of Western hermeneutics, metaphysics, philosophy, etc., up to Nietzsche that I'm starting to develop a reaction. That reaction says that there simply wasn't institutional support for a wholesale dismantling of 'Western metaphysics' before the rise of a secular academy. Recognizing that politics, power, and funding shape what can be recognized as official thought, or the 'metaphysics of an era,' allows us to start hunting for thought elsewhere in eras usually thought to be devoid of any critique of 'Western metaphysics.' It's a reminder that the academy is not all there is, and that even in the academy, order occasionally breaks down. Certainly not all mysticism refuses ordering in a deliberate way, and certainly not all lyric poetry, but some does, and something could be recovered in that; and not only as readers appropriating something to our own present ends, and not only as part of the construction of an alternate 'marginalized tradition.'

I'm with you on the ethical reading, or the non-scientific, non-symptomatic reading. With the bit from MLT cited above, the Marxist or psychoanalytic or historicist (of whatever bent) reading simply can't account for all that I feel when I read it. I know that all that we do as literature people can't be confined to 'being true to our readings': but surely that's a part of it, and thus I should hold open in my readings some of the initial (and I hope ongoing) uncertainty of reading, as this uncertainty--at the least--allows what I read to 'just be,' refuses to appropriate everything of it in meaning, allows me to 'shelter' it rather than to 'assimilate' it. I think you'd agree that this is an 'ethical' response?

I couldn't call that a credo, nor could I call it faith, not even in a weak sense. It's a reminder, rather, that the textual object should always be allowed to be in its networks within a pluriverse, regardless of how much meaning we have it give to us.
I realize the time thing above in my first post perhaps wasn't all that clear: more simply, when I hear "the past" I want to reply "which one? how many? what kinds?" And I'm sure this has been thought a lot about already, here and elsewhere.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks everyone [Karl, Dan, Liza, Stephanie, Jeffrey] for such rich provocations for further thought. I have *much* to say in response but must beg off until the morning, but I would at least say, with Stephanie, that I took Dinshaw's argument to not be about interpretation *as* religious, but rather, *like* religion, to be predicated upon an act of faith, however we might define "faith," and I think we should define it/discuss it further here. More tomorrow, my friends.

Eileen Joy said...

I have read and re-read the comments here and they are so rich I don't think I will be able to address all of them, but I want to try--thanks to these comments and also to my reading this morning of the James Simpson article Dinshaw cites in her essay--to recapitulate my closing comments in the original post.

First, thanks to Stephanie's reminder, let's recall [again] that Disnhaw is not in any way saying that interpretation is a religious or even spiritual practice, but rather, and somewhat following Simpson's lead, she is saying that, *similar* to religion, the act of interpretation requires a *kind* of faith, or in Simpson's words, "faith of a kind," in order to begin. Also, Dinshaw does not oppose "faith" to "rationality," and indeed, now that I have read Simpson's article, I can see why more clearly [I have no idea, by the way, what Dinshaw thinks of Simpson's larger arguments in his article as she merely poaches a few brief bits from that article to make her own points in *her* essay about the temporal heterogeneities attendant upon the *felt* experience of time--time experienced by the medieval mystic as well as by the contemporary scholar coming into "contact," as it were, through writing about/on that mystic. But I feel that Simpson's larger arguments [about critical hermeneutics, as it were] *are* apropos to the comment thread here and also to Dinshaw's challenge [I think--I think it's a challenge] toward the end of her essay that "the past retains its otherness even though deep desire and labor enough have been expended in its present re-creation" and something about the past "always resists absorption," and therefore, with more pointed reference to Prendergast and Trigg's argument, some distinction between the "medieval" and the "medievalistic" will always obtain--although, what to do with that distinction . . . . ah, that is truly where our difficulties will set, but that might also be the precise spot that ethics begins, so . . . . .

this brings me to Simpson's essay, "Faith and Hermeneutics: Pragmatism versus Pragmatism" [JMEMS 33.2: 215-39], which, now having read this, would I be correct in assuming it must have raised some hackles? It's a virtuosic performance of an almost mathematical logic that seeks to demonstrate [and pretty much *does* demonstrate] how all acts of interpretation/exegesis/reading are, in one form or another, either charmed or vicious circles. And once we realize that this is the state of affairs we are up against, we have to recognize that all hermeneutics [whether the exegesis of an Augustine or the deconstruction of a Paul de Man] are, in weaker and stronger [more violent] varieties, acts of aggression that suppress the alterity of their subjects, and if we're going to have faith in anything, it ought to be in the existence of that alterity which we should work to approach [interpret] from a position, not of theory, but of hypo- or under-theory [what is left hanging is what this "realm" of hypo- or under-theory might look like in practice although I can only imagine Simpson's own scholarship exemplifies it somewhat--I have to confess that this article is the only thing I have read by Simpson. Allow me to cite here what I think are the most relevant passages from Simpson's essay to our own discussion here:

*****beginning of excerpts from Simpson's essay*****

Talk of opaque grounds of meaning in biblical hermeneutics designedly points to metaphysics. When we consider the grander hermeneutic movements more familiar to our own practice (even those that disavow metaphysics), we can see that each of these, too, has its own metaphysical ground of meaning. To arrive at this ground completes a satisfactory intellectual act, since, as the ground of meaning, it disallows further investigation. Each tradition posits a ground of meaning as an act of faith, and then goes about interpreting the text as an epiphenomenon of that ground of meaning. The surface features of the text are symptoms of the ground, evidence to be "seen through." For Hegel, the ground was the World Spirit working through History; for Marxists, it was the Class Struggle; for neo-Kantians like Croce and the New Critics, the ground was Art; for Foucauldians it was Power; for Freudians the Unconscious; and for Deconstruction it's Textuality. Each of these movements produces its own allegorizing, since for each the text "says one thing but means another." The surface level of the text should, according to each of these positions, be "seen through" to a deeper, latent ground below it. Each position performs a hermeneutic equation according to the formula "x seems to be about y, but in reality it's about z." [p. 219]

If the reasoning upon which we base interpretation is circular, such reasoning is at some level a matter of faith. Words simply cannot serve as the guarantor for their meanings. We assume, as an act of faith, certain things about writers and about communicative exchange when we interpret. These assumptions are nonlinguistic. They can instead be fairly described as ethical assumptions, since they concern matters of communicative cooperation . . . . The only way we can break into an interpretative circle is ultimately by a leap of ethical faith: rationally perceived probabilities may take us very close to meaning, but we can only generate meaning by making a leap into the strictly unknowable.
Faith is most obviously and unashamedly operative in explicitly theological traditions. It is also operative in psychoanalytic traditions: if all attempts to resist a psychoanalytic interpretation are themselves interpreted as resistances to the psychoanalytic truth, then no persuasive counterinterpretation can be imagined. Denying the possibility of a counterinterpretation implies a very powerful exercise of faith. We might respond by describing psychoanalysis as a kind of theology, but it will be obvious that I think the distance between theological thinking and all other hermeneutic traditions is much shorter than is normally thought: all interpretation, that is, demands faith of a kind in the matter of understanding. The difference between one tradition and another does not lie in the absence or presence of faith; it lies rather in where we choose to locate our faith. "Truth," its etymology of troth might remind us, is inseparable from ethical commitments.
Hermeneutics, as is commonly agreed, derives etymologically from Hermes, the messenger of the gods. While hermeneutics will always be central to revealed religions in particular, my argument here is that all interpretation demands, like religion, the exercise of faith. This faith is religious in the probable etymological sense of religion ("binding," from religare). It is not at all, however, necessarily religious in the formal sense. [pp. 228-29]

. . . . the essential difference between one interpretative tradition and another is not the presence or absence of faith; it is instead the entity or entities in which a tradition reposes its faith. One tradition cannot claim superiority over another by virtue of its indisputable certainties or lack of reliance on circular reasoning. Interpretation does not provide indisputable certainty, and it necessarily uses circular reasoning. So interpretative practice is a matter of choice: choose the source (or sources) of your faith/s, and your texts will offer up meanings accordingly.
So fundamentally, no, faith does not make a difference to what we do. What does make a difference is the entity in which faith is reposed. The history of legal interpretation offers many sobering examples of interpretative violence that issued in physical violence (the persecution of "witches" by trial in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is an apt example). History also offers many spectacular examples of enduring interpretative aggression (e.g., typological allegory). The language of interpretation is itself heavily influenced by the language of the law (e.g., critic . . . "a judge"; author; sentence, in the medieval sense of sententia; witness; evidence; thesis; hypothesis). Such language, however, both as a description of normative and improper hermeneutic practice, often evokes the way in which a corrupt law tortures or abuses the defendant ("interrogating" the text; "twisting" the evidence).
When it comes to consider how one might make choices about the sources of one's faith, it may be worth bearing in mind this violence, and to note that the greater the level of faith required, the more likely the level of violence. Certainly within the realm of interpretation itself, those traditions that demand very high levels of faith produce the interpretations that, in retrospect, look the most invasive and appropriative. Such traditions (e.g., typological allegory) are the ones in which all interpretations end up at the same answer; to arrive at that level of identity necessarily requires a very aggressive stripping away of the literal sense to perceive the distant ground that produces it. 44 In retrospect, these are the interrogational practices that tend to strike an author dead by conducting a "great reckoning in a little room."
The sobering history of interpretation provokes me to beware of hermeneutic aggression that suppresses the alterity of its subjects. I choose to adopt a more friendly hermeneutics, based on faith in persons as ethical agents. Certainly history cannot be recounted without recourse to personification of the systems that determine and are determined by purposive human action. Those systems cannot, however, tell the whole story. Once we do tell the whole story from the perspective of those forces, we tend to exercise an invasive hermeneutics of suspicion. A more friendly hermeneutics, based on faith in persons as ethical agents, does not do away with suspicion (we often suspect persons). It does, however, produce interpretations that respect the alterity of its subjects, and it does produce interpretations that are contestable. It also relocates textual and cultural interpretation from the realm of theory to that of hypo-, or under-theory. [pp. 235-36]

*****end of excerpts from Simpson's essay*****

I'm interested, especially, in this comment thread about Karl's wanting to distance himself from ethics [while at the same time he is not refusing ethics but is asking: what *else* is there, vis-a-vis my relation to a text?] while he also wants to mark out some plot of ground for affective wonder [in the reading of a text]. I myself am not so sure wonder isn't always already ethical [because it depends, as Dan R. has pointed out elsewhere, on a certain ontological passivity of the subject with regard to the external world--which, okay, is not really external; that's an illusion--which passivity I would argue is *weakly* ethical; at a minimum, it requires a willingness to open oneself without knowing in advance what is incoming: which might be beautiful or horrifying, pleasing/soothing or harmful/violent]. As for the idea of multiple pasts and of the multiple ways in which we access these pasts [and their polychronicities], I think that is partly the point Dinshaw was making in her essay: that time is simply not felt/experienced in the same way by persons living side by side with each other, and likewise, following Karl's comments, the *felt* experience of what is *past* [history] likely also differs from person to person, even if they live alongside each other in, for lack of a better phrase, "the same time." And so, one direction for our work now, as suggested by Dinshaw, but also by Prendergast and Trigg, might be to investigate more rigorously these different, *lived* senses of heterogeneous, asynchronous time [Dinshaw] as well as the different experienced senses of "the medieval" in any given "present" [Prendergast and Trigg].

I am also interested in Dan R.'s thinking here on the non-rational as something that disturbs rationality and rational discourses [chiefly Western philosophical discourses, which includes critical hermeneutics, of course] from *within*--this, too, is a kind of alterity that, following Simpson's logic, we might not want to suppress and that is also historical. I kind of wish I had not invoked Caputo in my initial post because, like Dan R., I agree that Caputo has gone off a bit of a deep end in his book "The Weakness of God," and let's face it: Caputo is a serious believer in what he calls the kingdom of God [not in any conventional sense, to be sure, but similar to Levinas, the existence of God is not up for grabs, only the location/time is]. But in any case, no, Dan, I would not necessarily say [after reading your remarks here] that faith and poetics form some sort of co-operative dyad that is opposed to rationality [but let's not forget, either, how much of Western philosophy has relied on metaphysics], although I would still insist [and sure, Joan Retallack's poethics hugely influences my thinking here] that we need to spend more time developing and practicing new languages/vocabularies/styles of discourse that would aid us in at least moving closer to what Simpson would insist is the "realness" behind the alterity that always obtains within the objects of our study [texts, for example] or to what you describe as the non-rational that is *within* the rational, which helps me to formulate one possible response to Simpson's conclusion which might go something like, "but shouldn't we also reflect on how the supposed real, historical persons in whom we should have faith as agents always existing in some fashion both inside and outside the text, and whose opacity we should keep in mind, are/were also opaque to themselves?" And this recalls me, too, to Butler's "Giving An Account of Oneself," where she writes,

"A subject who can never full give an account of itself may well be a result of being related at non-narratable levels of existence to others in ways that have a supervenient ethical significance. If the 'I' cannot effectively be disjoined from the impress of social life, then ethics will surely not only presuppose rhetoric (and the analysis of the mode of address) but social critique as well." [p. 135]

Finally, I would just also say here--prompted by comments from Liza, Jeffrey, and Dan R.--that if faith, for Simpson, has something to do with real persons situated somewhere in the past as historical, ethical agents, what about faith in persons & projects in the present alongside us and that are not so distant from [or even fully opaque] to us? I mean, if I think of my work solely in relation to, let's say, the *justice* I need to do to the past, and to past persons [which "justice" can be weakly figured as a kind of treading lightly on their "remains" in my interpretive practices, doing the last violence possible], then I'm mainly hanging out in graveyards talking with the dead. Yes, like Simpson, I want to *respect* the alterity of the dead in my work with medieval texts, but I'm doing this work in the present and although I've often typified my work as writing letters to the dead, I'm really writing them to you. So, how shall we typify/describe *that* ethical relation, and what do we need to have faith in? On that note, I would direct you as well to Stephanie Trigg's latest post on "humanities researcher"--"What It Feels Like For a Girl."

Eileen Joy said...

One codicil to my comments above--although I thought, as I stated, that Simpson's essay was a virtuosic performance of a certain kind of logic, it also gives one of the feeling of being in a very small room with hardly any air to breathe and no windows. It's a very *punishing* essay, in a sense, that takes everyone and everything to task for certain bad-faith interpretive practices and then offers only one way out. But . . . I don't know. I would love to hear others' opinions of the article. Also, didn't James Simpson and Jill Mann have some sort of debate at the NCS meeting in Swansea this past July? Was that in any way relevant to this discussion [I can't recall]?

Anonymous said...

Dear all,
I'm in a world of busy this week, but I'll just quickly say: yes, Simpson's other work is relevant to this article, and to this discussion. His book *Burning to Read* is about the fundamentalism that goes along with certain hermeneutic faiths--he is particularly unsympathetic to the fundmentalism of early modern reformers (Luther, Tyndale, et al), and at least in my view, hyper-charitable to More. But the book's skepticism about the affective affiliation required for inclusion in many textual communities is very relevant to this discussion (particularly since it bases its analysis on historical, material renderings of affect).

cheers, h

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for your comment, Holly--I spent some time this afternoon looking at "Burning to Read" on Google Books and it looks really interesting. I can see that, for Simpson, this matter of interpretative communities is a deeply ethical [and ethically pressing] subject because, in some cases, certain interpretations, when collectively backed by certain powerful groups, literally kill.

dan remein said...

Eileen et. al. I need to read the bomb just dropped more carefully before I could say anything about it. Maybe later tonight--this is one of the most important discussions we can have I think.


I think you and I are actually kinda on the same page here. Certainly I find much within the 'tradition'does provokes this sort of disruption prior to 'modernity' and i can understand your 'reaction' which i sometimes have myself when there are no other medievalists in the room. Among medievalists, my tendency seems to be to push high modernism (literary, largely anglo-amerc. but also rimbaud et. al.) as a kind of realization of the failure of 'modernity' and to find (again) disruption within it. It is rather the highly early modern in which I find a certain return or explaining away--montaigne for instance does not seem so into "wonder" as Derrida, or Chrétien.

I have a nice quote from Charles Bernstein's _A Poetics_ on the modernists that we still don't 'get' if I can find it (later this evening) such as G. Stein, WCW, the futurists etc. Or, alternately on how the diagnostic criticism (I am thinking of Freud, but also of Adorno-Hork., of F. Jameson, of Foucault) of which we're talking exposes the gaps into which we _can_ intervene, or shove a wrench into (to be french feminist about it...).

I guess actually what I am saying is that on the one hand, secular academy was worse for disruption than anything ever before, systematizing even (eventually) poetry into the kind of degree that I have, but at the same time was the best thing: a shelter in which disruption can arise, and specifically disruption that is (we can hope) secular and even secularizing.

But maybe reading this makes you think we are actually further apart or something--what do you think?

Karl Steel said...

But maybe reading this makes you think we are actually further apart or something--what do you think?
I think I'm totally with you here, especially on that nicely done penultimate graph.

*bomb* indeed! And thx Holly! Checked out Simpson's book on Reading around 5pm and just read the first 67 pages and am loving the prose style. I wish I could write like that.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone--

I'm supposed to be doing 6 other things right now (although I'm really just watching the speech), but if you get interested in the Simpson (either the *Burning to Read or his *Reform and Cultural Revolution*), you should also read Tom Betteridge's "Mid-Tudor Culture" article, which appeared in JMEMS in 2005. If Simpson reaches across the med/em divide from the medieval side, Betteridge reaches back from the em side. Taken together, they offer a fascinating glimpse into a period that galvanized visibility and affect to cnosolidate exclusive reading communities (while doing some *crazy* things with/to the MA).

Karl, my favorite passage in Simpson's book opens his acknowledgements: "I love writing books. Whether my readers love reading them is altogether another matter..."

cheers, h

dan remein said...


Something to keep in mind re: faith and hermeneutics and 'fundamentalism' are two other developments of the 19th/20th centuries: historicism and science, which are both descriptive, and in a roundabout way, not historical. To say what I mean I need to recount a certain history of Christian theology--forgive me.

That is, in the world of explicitly christian faith/theology of believers (of a kind more ardent than Caputo, to be sure), there were these 'liberalism' and 'neo-orthodox' movements in Germany in response to the work of the earliest historical textual criticism on the TNK and Christian NT as well as simply historical investigation which challenged certain narratives about divine inspiration of scripture [hang on here, I know we are medievalists, but this genealogy is relevant]--and our Thomas Jefferson is actually a strange part of this with this gospels stripped of miracles, a kind of 'Jesus Seminar'5-gospels avant la lettre. Schleirmacher/Dilthey, who insist that hermeneutics is historical in ways that lead up to Heidegger, mean that interpretation is situated, that it is for now, and this in Heidegger becomes on some level, the actual production of history. Hence, it is historical not because it 'reports' truth about the past, but because it not only speaks to, but emerges as/in the present.

Out of these strands, in the world of theology, comes Bultman, who invokes Heidegger even as he's siding with the 'theological declaration of the barmen' (which will also be joined by much more 'fundamentalist' theologians Barthes and the most radical of radical Bonhoeffer). In his _Jesus Christ and Mythology_ for ex. he says that the Word is historical in that it conceals or shelters a message that is historical, one whose meaning we can see in terms of its relation to a present when we de-mythologize it, a structure he notes is taken from MH's unconcealment of what tradition and idle talk has covered up. The gospel is true, is all true, and historically--but in no way as a report of history (its mythological contents are obvious as such not 'true' as reportage) but historical in the ontological sense of producing or containing history in a more robust way. This is not so no to a medievalist with allegory on her or his mind, of course, and it shows something Eileen is pointing to above, or concerned about: that interp. is an allegory that wrenched the text away from itself/its time and violently appropriates it to our own.

Now, I think the text may already do this on its own, and so us doing it may not be such a bad or violent thing--but that's for another day.

What is important about Bultman's intellectual position and ancestry is that his hermeneutics are absolutely faith-based and show how easily Heidegger's own are easily adapted to the service of particularly Christian-protestant theology. But this faith would be an abomination to the american fundamentalism of its time: the one that is founding at the same time as hitler is invading eastern europe, the kinds of evangelical groups that make appearances in such a big way on campuses across america today--the one that in the 1950's with Billy Graham and through Regan into now has re-invented itself not in the image of WB Brian and hide-out-on-the-hill but rather after people like Shaeffer and the l'abri community or the authors of apologetic books like 'evidence that demands a verdict' or 'the case for christ', as a faith that is totally Rational and in fact backed by 'true' science. They want to understand 'historical' as something that can testified to truly. Without that, there is not belief in an actual historical Jesus dying and being resurrected. Their sense of what history and historical are are structurally/theoretically closer to that of the present-day jesus seminar JJ Crossan et. al. notion of proving what its most likely that we can know Jesus said or didn't say [famously voting among a group of scholars on every saying of jesus the synoptics with colored marbles]. In terms of what they have faith or believe can be known/interpreted about the past, they are much closer to the text-crit. scientists of history and philology of the 19th century--they just refuse those findings and rationalize all day around them. What became known as the specifically Hermeneutic tradition then opposes itself to this kind of science, perhaps moving closer to being a practice of faith, but not one of the fundamentalist variety because it is so situated. Through Gadamer, Derrida, et. al., this tradition is rejecting an entire notion of what is historical for something more eminent and less positivist.

I guess part of the upshot of this is to be careful about opposing faith-hermeneutics-fundamentalism to something like science and rationalism. In this respect, the Simpson point indicts hermeneutics perhaps with a certain vile or unethical presentism. But would it still offer a more (pace Eileen) receptive approach to reading, with its circles and lostness etc, its admittance that it is _for now_ while certain kinds of science can only work if they think they operate in a less situated way?

dan remein said...

Karl: the Charles Berstein I promised:

What interests me is a poetry and a poetics that do not edit out so much as edit in: that include multiple conflicting perspectives and types of languages and styles in the same poetic work or, as here, in the same collection of essays. A poetry--a poetic--that expresses states of the art as it moved beyond the 20th century, beyond the modern and the postmodern

Which is not to say, exactly--moving beyond the distinction between prose and poem. Though if there's a temptation to read the long essay-in-verse [a chapter of the book called "the Artifice of Absorption"], which follows these opening notes, as prose, I hope there will be an equally strong temptation to read the succeeding prose as if it were poetry.

Poetry can, even if it often doesn't, throw a wedge into this engineered process of social drealization: find a middle ground of care in particulars, in the truth of details and teir constellations--provide a site for the construction of social and imaginative facts and configurations... (3)

...the bracketing of the "transcendental signified" or the "death of God" does not entail a meaningless world-for these are realities of a modernist dialectical materialism as much as of a negative post-modernism. That is, once the hollow legitimacy of capital and kings has been exposed, the truths of the human world can being to be made. (96)

from A Poetics, Cambridge Mass: Harvard UP, 1992.

dan remein said...

correction: WJ Bryan not WB Brian for William Jennings Bryan

Eileen Joy said...

Dan: thanks for your further comments here, and especially for raising the question of whether or not, with Simpson's [or anyone's] help, we can now begin to sketch out some kind of interpretive practice that admits "faith of a kind," is not anti-rational, and which could [hopefully] take into account ethical relation to both what is lost and what is present alongside us. Reading your comments, I was suddenly recalled to how how Edward Said lays out an intepretative practice, in "The World, the Text, and the Critic," that I've always admired and really believe negotiates the past and present *demands* upon interpretation [and it also seems conducive to Simpson's concern for the alterity of the real, human persons who produce texts to begin with]:

". . . critics are not merely the alchemical translators of texts into circumstantial reality or worldliness; for they too are subject to and producers of circumstances, which are felt regardless of whatever objectivity the critic's methods possess. The point is that texts have a way of existing that even in their most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society--in short, they are in the world, and hence worldly."


". . . worldliness, circumstantiality, the text's status as an event having sensuous particularity as well as historical contingency, are considered as being incorporated in the text, an infrangible part of its capacity for conveying and producing meaning. This means the text has a specific situation, placing restraints upon the interpreter and his interpretation not because the situation is hidden within the text as a mystery, but rather because the situation exists at the same level of surface particularity as the textual object itself. . . . Such texts can thereafter be construed as having need at most of complementary, as opposed to supplementary, readings."

Most important, in my mind [vis-a-vis my ongoing concern with the present and what we think we are doing in this present, albeit as interpreters of the past], is Said's argument that the work of criticism and interpretation is not belated or secondary with regard to the text under consideration:

". . . rather than being defined by the silent past, commanded by it to speak in the present, criticism, no less than any text, is the present in the course of its articulation, its struggles for definition."

The question still remains hanging in this discussion, though: when we interpret, what do we have faith in, again, more exactly? And is the question, as Stephanie fruitfully asks, more acute for the medievalist than it is for the modernist, and why or why not? This is a question that I think Dinshaw is partly attending to when she asks us to consider that medieval studies might not be as objectively removed [as it thinks it is] from the spiritual phenomena which it often addresses [such as mysticism]. But for me, it also has to do with that very tired and cliched [yet always pressing] question: why does the past matter, anyway? Do I tend to the texts of the past in the same way I might light candles for the dead in a church [is this work of mine, in other words, some sort of curatorship of sacred memory, which can't help but be inextricably bound up, somehow, with the mainly religious idea that humanity/living things are sacred and should never be forgotten]? Or, do I tend to the texts of the past with the idea that my present isn't fully understandable without some account of what supposedly came *before* [in which case I'm putting "faith of a kind" in the idea of origins, which is also faith in human history as having some sort of predictive power]? And so on and so forth: we've sketched out all of these so-called "reasons* for studying the past before, and since they're all so freaking easy to debunk, for me the question I'm left with, again, is: now that I see where faith has often been *misplaced* as regards the study of the past, while at the same time I can see very clearly how the misuses and mis-readings of the past can lead to very real, very material forms of destruction and abuses of real persons, whole cultures, etc., how do I position myself with regard to what it is, more precisely, I have *faith* in, more specifically, when I am writing about a medieval text? If I may be allowed a perhaps embarrassing frank admission: while I do not believe in God, or gods, or ghosts, or an afterlife, or any world but this one, and although I believe that the dead are really dead [and could still bury each other all day long and never be done with it, as Heather Love has written], I *do* believe in the affective tending of the ephemeral traces of everything that once was as a kind of hedge against my own [and everyone else's] impending oblivion. I believe this tending is best employed by a set of creative faculties that wish no harm, possess ontological passivity toward all Others, are inherently and continually self-ironizing, and can see in a grain of sand infinite pluriverses [to cadge from Jeffrey cadging from Lehrer citing William James]. It doesn't bother me that I know this is only a hedge that flies in the face of reality, by which I mean the non-meaning and eventual end of everything human; for me, it's simply a matter of building a more capacious and maybe a more noisy and crowded Now, one that takes in the past as it takes in everything and anyone else that also might fit there, and which, for the time being, distracts me from myself.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

OK, here is my ill-formed question, offered mainly because I knew this conversation would move quickly to ethics, and I knew that thereby it would leave me behind. I am still stuck in my inability to wrap my mind around what people mean when they use the word ethics. It gets even worse when ethics and affect hold close company.

Just now I am working my way through Heather Love's Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (thank you Mike Smith for putting that on my to-do list for this afternoon). She argues strenuously against the affirmative turn in queer theory, and wants to linger over negative affect (as her title suggests). She also asks if perhaps psychic and social life are "simply too different to be usefully articulated together" -- an extraordinary question.

Love cites Lauren Berlant's essay "The Subject of True Feeling":

"What does it mean for the struggle to shape collective life when a politics of true feeling organizes analysis, discussion, fantasy, and power? When feeling, the most subjective thing, the thing that makes persons public and marks their location, takes the temperature of power; mediates personhood, experience, and history; takes over the space of ethics and truth?"

That second question is the one that gets to me, especially because so much of the discussion here has yielded provocative glimpses of (true) feeling -- in gravestones washing by, in the admission of vulnerability when someone discusses your work, in the multiple assertions that though we have six or a million other things we are doing at the moment, we are still compelled to add more to this dilating conversation.

Feeling-affect-ethics-temporality. How do these align?

Karl Steel said...

Dilating indeed: [here's a brief parens on Simpson's Burning to Read. I'm 105 pages in, and while I'm finding much of it exhilarating and all too familiar (a favorite verse in my fundy childhood church? "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God"), I'm ALSO astonished NOT to see any reference to Pelagianism, neo-Pelagianism, or the relevant medieval academic debates over Will and Reason described in, say, the second chapter of John Bower's The Crisis of Will in Piers Plowman; for that matter, in the readings of philological debates on the question of penance versus repentance, I want some kind of reference to medieval exegetical traditions, perhaps on this very verse: without the medieval background, the debates seem sui generis, and, so far as I know, they weren't; finally--and I guess I really should just save all this up for my Goodreads review--the discussion of Josiah could have been made even more useful had Simpson observed that the struggles described are, so far as I know, actually within "Judaism" between the centralizing Temple Cult and the dispersed Shrine Cultists, rather than--as it's portrayed in Scripture--between Hebrews and purportedly "foreign" deities.]

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: it's 70 degree and gloriously sunny in Saint Louis, and I therefore declare your question unfair [haha]! I mean, it would take like ten books to answer it adequately, but I would just say I share some of your frustration with the question of ethics which is why I partly evacuated it for myself by owning up [I thought] to the fact that I do what I do *for myself* and not really for the so-called dead Others [who, in a sense, I appropriate for my own ends, which ends are partly selfish and based on my own needs to create meaning where I suspect none exists, anyway--again: scholarship-as-art-as-life]. I am nevertheless often bothered by the idea that, at the same time, I should have some way to articulate what I think my ethical relation to the past, and past persons and times, should be, but I keep running into dead ends: maybe the dead don't really need my help as much as I think they do--after all, they're dead and we're all just making this up as we go along [and here I find Simpson useful for reminding us to at least proceed with "friendly" versus more aggressive hermeneutics--but couldn't we also spend all day asking what Simpson really means by "friendly" (?)--I mean, it's a strange term to invoke, just there at the end of his essay].

And doesn't Heather Love, for all her protestations about the affirmative, affective turn in queer studies [and queer politics, even more pointedly], still argue for an affective scholarship--albeit one that pays better attention to negative affects, such as melancholy and resentment and failed love? And isn't her project ethical, or perhaps I should say political, in that it insists on taking stock of what has been "left behind" by a certain progressivist-liberal queer political agenda [that seeks normalization and cultural mainstreaming] and refuses to leave what is behind *behind*? Love herself claims to not want to allow certain queer "dead" to be written off, neglected, abandoned, forgotten--in this sense, on some level, her scholarship *is* a form of memorialization as well as an insistence that the past ethically *pulls* and *drags* upon the present. As to her statement [it was in the Intro. wasn't it?] that psychic and social life are perhaps "simply too different to be articulated together"--when I first read that last November I practically fell off the couch: how on earth could we ever really articulate or even *feel* either of these things apart from each other? I just don't see it at all, partly because I don't believe anything is separate from anything else: *everything* is connected. Everything.

Ethical philosophy has preoccupied much of my reading and thinking and writing over the past few years and I will not pretend that, in some of my publications, I did not think I was not working out some kind of *ethical* way of, if not of understanding the past, then at least, of *beholding* it. I most certainly *was* trying. I'm still trying to work this out. At the same time, aren't there just so many factors that figure into everything we work on, some of them deeply unconscious? I would turn the question back to you, Jeffrey, and ask how ethics did or did not motivate the work that went into your Speculum article "The Flow of Blood in Norwich" versus how it may or may not at all influence your current projects on deep time, nonhuman art, lithic history, and the like. I spent close to 5 years on my article on "Beowulf" and suicide terrorism, and while I may have felt throughout that work that I was trying to articulate an ethical argument about the relation between violence and sovereignty, and between the past and present in relation to violence and alterity, in the end, I think I was just trying to work out my own personal relationship to the photograph of a dead Chechen women who was a suicide bomber, which I ran across on the Internet one day, and could never get out of my mind. I also reflect on the many things I've done with my scholarship because of what was expected of me--what I thought others would want to hear me say/argue [i.e. sometimes we work within normative critical paradigms in order to be accepted/published, although I hope to god I've left that behind].

Eileen Joy said...

One brief addendum to my last set of comments in response to Jeffrey's question about what we mean when we say "ethics":

for me, at a minimum, it just means thinking about our relations and obligations to others, living and dead, human and nonhuman.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for that very thoughtful response to a demanding, huge, impossible question.

As to how ethics entered into my scholarship, as with the William of Norwich project: all I can aver is that if it did so, it entered the same way belief did: accidentally, in the company of others.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

for me, at a minimum, it just means thinking about our relations and obligations to others, living and dead, human and nonhuman.

That formulation very much appeals to me, Eileen ... especially the provisional "for me," but also the capaciousness (and non-injunctive mode) of what follows.

I realized tonight, on a neighborhood walk during which my daughter insisted she could control our dog, while our dog was in fact walking Katherine -- I realized on that walk (with its joy and its leash and its sky smeared orange) that when I asked

Feeling-affect-ethics-temporality. How do these align?

well I realized that I was asking this impossible question of myself, knowing that I want some pithy answer, and knowing that such an answer is likely never going to arrive. Or if it does, it likely won't satisfy me for long.

Eileen Joy said...

And thank you, Jeffrey, for reminding me that it is really in asking certain questions--more so than any final answers we could possibly provide--that I really locate the raison d'etre of meaningful work, work that, hopefully, I can do with others who never really want anything to be settled "once and for all." Perhaps that is what is ethical, in a sense: working together to keep everything open as a question, and also asking each other, what does it mean to be together in these labors? That would work for me and I hope never to arrive at a conclusion.

dtkline said...

Oh, man. I'm a couple days late but this is very interesting stuff. I've just been fiddling with Eco's decalogue myself lately and your post, Eileen, has put me back to thinking. And the comments are a stimulating as ever. My 'now' seems a little behind the curve as of late (I almost wrote 'latte') but a hybrid temporality seems necessary, though not necessarily comfortable, these days.