Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Vagrant Subjects

Figure 1. Victims of Hurricane Katrina


The subject lies at the intersection with external, relational forces. It is about assemblages. Encountering them is almost a matter for geography, because it is a question of orientations, points of entry and exit, a constant unfolding. . . . The sensibility to and availability for changes or transformation are directly proportional to the subject's ability to sustain the shifts without cracking.
—Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics

The new issue [no. 7] of Early Modern Culture: An Electronic Seminar is out, edited by Linda Woodbridge and Craig Dionne, and the theme is "Vagrant Subjects." You might recall that Jeffrey plugged this online journal once before, for Issue no. 6, devoted to "Timely Meditations," which featured a really interesting essay by Linda Charnes on wormholes and micro-periods from the future, and to which Jeffrey's colleague Jonathan Gil Harris contributed a response. Ever since Jeffrey initially told us about this journal I have been really enamored of it, especially for the way each issue incorporates multiple responses to the main essays and even responses to the responses and sometimes responses to the responses to the responses [hence, I believe, the moniker of "seminar" for the journal]! God knows, this must be time-consuming for all involved but what a great benefit for the rest of us, since the scholarly voices in each issue are always in productive flux and tension with each other and no critical issue is ever really "closed" or "settled" as a result--provocative questions are raised and re-raised in such a manner that invites further ruminations [and one would imagine, another set of essays somewhere else in time and place, and then another set, and so on and so forth]. it contributes, moreover, to an the "explcitly collaborative praxis," one that is never finished, that Jeffrey talks about here.

Craig Dionne, as some may recall, is the editor, with Steve Mentz, of Rogues and Early Modern English Culture [Michigan, 2004] and is also the Editor of the Journal of Narrative Theory, which devoted a special issue to BABEL's humanisms project. Craig is also a contributor to BABEL's new volume of essays [in progress], Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism. On a more personal level, ever since I met Craig [through Marty Shichtman] a few years ago at the annual meeting of the Midwest Conference on British Studies [at Notre Dame], he has become a great friend and an important interlocutor for me, and he has profoundly influenced my thinking on a number of subjects. It was because of his suggestion about a year ago to read Patricia Fumerton's Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England, that I became interested in exploring whether or not not it might be possible to theorize certain structures of vagrancy, itinerant mobility, unsettled aesthetics, and "low" subjectivity in certain Old English texts, such as Guthlac A and B [go here for some of my initial musings on that].

The new issue of Early Modern Culture: An Electronic Seminar centers on the subjects of vagrancy, low subjectivity, and unsettled aesthetics in the early modern period and actually begins with an essay by Patricia Fumerton, "Mocking Aristocratic Place: The Perspective of the Streets," but not before Linda Woodbridge poses these provocative questions in her Introduction to the issue,
This issue of Early Modern Culture treats a constellation of themes -- poverty, vagrancy, mobility, idleness, work, crime, rogue literature, class disparities. I'll close with a question: is it a good idea to treat this spectrum of topics alongside each other, all as aspects of the topic "vagrant subjects"? All of us who have worked in this area have done this, yes; but is it a good idea? My recurrent fear is that in doing so do we buy into a Renaissance mind set that couldn't hear about poverty without thinking about vagrancy, roguery, crime -- as if they were a seamless whole. I thought about this recently when invited to contribute several pieces to an encyclopedia, and was asked which of them should be cross-referenced to the others. What would it say, I wondered, if one cross-referenced "poverty" to "vagrancy," "rogue pamphlets," "thievery," "beggary," or "the Elizabethan underworld"? As Sandra Logan subtly argues with regard to degrading punishments and the degraded living conditions of the poor, such confluences of category can influence our thinking subliminally. Ultimately I cannot think it was not a good idea to find occasion to bring together four such stimulating essays; but the issue merits thought. Let us work hard at this.
For those interested in exploring the connections between poverty, working conditions, mobility, and aesthetics [both high and low] in any period, I recommend this issue highly.


Karma said...

Thanks for this - I didn't know about this journal, and I'll have to check it out.

These are great questions for me on a more personal note, too - I grew up on, and then moved back to, the Gulf Coast, an hour from New Orleans, and living in a long-term 'disaster zone' really does change your thinking about how issues of poverty, transience, and even lifestyle choices intersect (I have friends that stayed in N.O. because they had no cars, friends that had trouble finishing their theses at Tulane and ended up with Cornell library cards, friends making "outsider art" out of hurricane debris and selling it on ebay, and friends that moved back because they are musicians who couldn't envision living and playing anywhere else, for instance). I was back over the summer and there are still people living in tents under the highway overpass -- some of them people who used to drive their kids to soccer games in minivans, some of them who traded one patch of grass for another.

I went to a conference a few years ago on Tim O'Brien, and a presenter there was talking about how she used _The Things They Carried_ in her writing classes, to get students thinking and writing about objects, signification, memory, temporary communities and communities that "seem" more permanent, what sorts of things you would have to carry on your back to make a living if you had to flee Katrina, or a Stephen King plague scenario. She said that issues of class kept coming up in these discussions, issues that were hard for her students to find the vocabulary to even articulate. I look forward to reading this journal with some of these questions in mind.

Eileen Joy said...

Karma: thanks for such rich comments for reflection here. In relation to these, I would urge you [and everyone, really] to read George Packer's recent essay in The New Yorker, "The Ponzi State: Florida's Foreclosure Disaster" [9 & 16 Feb. 2009 issue]. I felt, while reading this essay, that it was about some place that couldn't possibly be the United States, or that it was even a kind of post-apocalyptic fiction [reminded me of Walker Percy's "Love in the Ruins," actually]. It's eerie and frightening and reminds me how close so many of us are to complete abject poverty/homelessness because of the recession, debt crisis, and housing crises [emphasis on the plural].

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It's funny, when I think of vagrancy the first thing that comes to mind for me is kingship (remember those itinerant Mercian courts? Elizabeth's making the rounds as a giant mobile household that could impoverish those aristocrats with whom she stayed?) and travelers (Mandeville, or Walter Ralegh). This new issue of EMC looks great.

Karl Steel said...

First thing that comes to mind for me, well, first TWO things, are the 14th-c. English postplague anti-vagrant elements in the Statutes of Laborers (see the first part of Barry Dobson's 1381 Documents Collection). SECOND thing is the friars imagined as great buzzing hordes, an disordered order of excess filling all available space (see the opening to Wife of Bath's Tale and probably something in the TEAM anthology by Dean, Six Ecclesiastical Satires, probably Jack Upland, and also see, I imagine, Penn Szittya's great book on anti-fraternal tradition from Wm. of St. Amour on).

Karl Steel said...

not not it might be possible to theorize certain structures of vagrancy, itinerant mobility, unsettled aesthetics, and "low" subjectivity in certain Old English texts, such as Guthlac A and B

For more on vagrant subjects, I highly recommend the portrait of Davus from Matthew of Vendôme's 12th-century rhetorical treatise, The Art of the Versemaker.

Davus (pp 33 ff) is a "scurilous outcast...the world's refuse." And it just gets better. Hideous, gluttonous, cowardly, a sodomite, he's a perfect storm for inciting heterosexual panic.