Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Once More, But Maybe With Less Feeling: Can There Be a Joy That Doesn't Break the Subject?

Figure 1. Pega taking leave of Guthlac and Crowland [Harleian Guthlac Roll Y.6, British Library]


I thought I would share here with everyone the paper I presented at Kalamazoo on the session organized by Dan Remein for the Society for the Study of Homosexuality in the Middle Ages, "Sex, Theory, and Philology: Queering Anglo-Saxon Studies." This was a somewhat difficult paper to write and in many ways it represents the rambling blatherings of a person [me] who was still not sure yet exactly what she was trying to say, or do, or . . . whatever. But this paper does represent what might be called the very nascent beginning of a project that I have decided is really important to me: trying to find alternatives to ascesis and abjection as modes of queer being and queer self-development and queer sex-love. Keep in mind that this is only a kind of sputtering engine start, and not much else. Give me all and any help you can. And finally, as I conceptualized and wrote this paper as a performance [and foregrounding] of my sputtering, as well as a sort of private letter to someone, keep that in mind, too. Which is to say: you kind of had to be there, but now you're here. So thanks for that.

The Light of Her Face Was the Index of a Multiplicity of Guthlacs: Desire, Friendship, and Incest in the Lives of Saint Guthlac*

*as always, the title covers more than what actually went on in the paper [why are we so ambitious with our paper titles, hmmmm?]


Julie Orlemanski said...

Eileen, it was such a pleasure to return again to your beautiful, compelling paper. Two areas that it touches powerfully on and I would love to hear your further thoughts on:

1) I’m very interested in the face’s relation to the body and particularly how it acts a kind of phenomenal abstraction of the body. How different would it be if Guthlac had said, “I denied myself the light of her body” – once again, not necessarily implying genital sexuality, but nonetheless different from the face per se. Deleuze and Guattari in their remarks on “faciality” seem to me to be dealing with the ways in which the face can be thought as an abstract matrix placed over embodiment. Very different from how Levinas thinks the face, but perhaps a useful counterpoint…. (I’m always thinking, at the start, in a structuralist way – the face as opposed to what? [pleasure as opposed to what?] Voice on the one hand, body on the other -- ? The face, it seems, mediates between these two, and I’m sure, between many other ways of knowing another as well…)

2) Incest is a very provocative topic to think here, and obviously the incest prohibition has been a kind of skeleton key in structuralist anthropology (Levi-Strauss+) and its aftermath, in theorizing the universal bedrock of culture (flipside: incest as original queer sexual practice). I was wondering if you might think about the injunction to exogamy in relation to an injunction to transcendence…. I.e., I must choose and love and make my life with someone outside my family || I must choose and love and make my life with someone outside my world, who transcends this world, with God. In both cases, the sister is too close, too immanent…. How does the enforced loss of (desire for) what is immanent CREATE culture / religion or cultural / religious subjectivity? Of course, Guthlac’s willingness to lose his sister here, to do without the phenomenality of her face, the light of this sun reflected on her corruptible and mortal skin, is not a decision for queerness but rather one in conformity with the incest prohibition and the injunction to exogamy-transcendence…. But this incestuous desire that Guthlac has built his devotional subjectivity with/against has never left him, not even at the hour of his death…. I don’t know. But it’s an amazing moment that has haunted me ever since I heard you read the passage at Kalamazoo.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful paper.


"It is partly my aim here today to interpose another type of pleasure (and really, a queer love) that is often occluded, yet still vibrates, in certain queer “spiritual” texts (both medieval and modern): that which is neither within nor outside of us but somewhere in the middle spaces where these two realms unfold within and touch each other. Or to put this another way, there is no outside, nor is there ever only an inside, vis-à-vis the self and its pleasures, but this is not readily allowed."made me think of a theme I had begun some weeks ago, what I called Conjoined Semiosis. It was modeled on the sense that like Siamese Twins our bodies posses semiotic elements whose organization or effect cannot be read simply under a elementary inside/outside delination. Our internal semiotic events do not always direct us either to external causes, or to internal (in)coherence, but are rather experienced as semi-incoherent and disruptive because there are bodies that transpierce ours, overlapping them. Internal signifying events act act tidally, tuggingly, in such a way that they have the marks of coherence, but it is a coherence which is only understood with reference to a whole which is partly inside us, and partly outside us as well.

Your thoughts about the sister's face (and I recall Antigone here, who has many overlapping, incestuous boundary relations), speak of this Conjoined Semiosis. It is not that there is taboo here (though there is), but rather the quest for a time of purity is a request for a perspective where this overlapping, conjoined stature, our Siamese cross-weave can be seen clearly, redeemed.

Here is some of my thoughts which your paper seems at least partially conjoined, if interested:



It seems to me that much of the ascesis project is creating/producing conjoined semiotic bodies that open out stretching against the subjective body, causing it to rupture/surrender (see Daniel Schreber's "nerve language" or Deleuze and Guattari's maschocist becoming-horse), using protocol to cross-hatch under invasive coherences, set to open out into on Grand Coherence. The poet does this as well with internal rhymes, and oblique coherences.

Eileen Joy said...

Julie and kvond: thank you for such kind and generous comments, to which I cannot do full justice here, but I am going to try. And I am also going to say that these are the sorts of such generously critical comments that I have printed them out and placed them with my papers for my Guthlac project, because they are going to help me immensely as I work further on this.

Julie: as to the face's relation to the body, although D&G's and Levinas's thinking on the face are, of course, almost radically opposed to each other [without literally being opposed, in the sense that D&G were not addressing Levinas nor vice versa, yet they obviously diverge in how they *locate* the face as well as in how they figure the face's function, whether in relation to the body or to ethics or to de-territorialization of such matters], at the same time, both D&G's and Levinas's thinking on faciality and the face are certainly helpful to my project here, especially when we consider that, strictly speaking, medieval Christians [and still, Christians today] believed in the resurrection of the body, while at the same time, the whole reason the saint can never wait to die [and literally burns in his heart for that death], is so that he can shed his body and become non-corporeally aerial, as it were. But at the "same same" time, Guthlac desires to "see" the "light" of his sister's face in heaven [indeed, has been waiting his entire life to see that again--it has to be *again*, right?], but with which corporeal or noncorporeal organs/faculties? And in this sense, I would say the face *is* the body, or is body [part of the whole body, as it were, yet also *the* body in the sense that it is the one part most identifiable to personhood/identity], and therefore, to desire the light of his sister's face is also to desire her body--chastely, as it were, but still.

How different it *would* have been, as you say, if Guthlac said he desired the light of his sister's body but in a way, I think he does say that [especially when we consider that, in the medieval Christian world-view, Guthlac and his sister will lose their bodies to access heaven, but then regain them, and to be in heaven with his sister under the gaze/view of God, is to be embodied with her in heaven, and even, I would argue, to be allowed to *enjoy* that body, that beautiful view, that light, which can only come from a body, which is also the soul, and that is why I included the Whitman quotation].

For D&G the face of the sister would be a kind of screen or blank space [punctuated with holes] that actually obscures the body/person and we have to be done with faces, right? The task would be to

"no longer look into the eyes but to swim through them, you close your own eyes and make your body a beam of light moving at ever-increasing speed? Of course, this requires all the resources of art, and art of the highest kind. It requires a whole line of writing, picturality, musicality . . . For it is through writing that you become imperceptible, it is through music that you become hard and memoryless, simultaneously animal and imperceptible: in love." ["A Thousand Plateaus," p. 208]

To dismantle the face, for D&G, is to get out of the black hole of subjectivity, whereas for Levinas, the face must almost be re-mantled, re-hung, re-imagined as that which was always prior to a body, any singular body, while at the same time, it *is* the physical dwelling of a being who is always particularly *somwhere* [in place and time].

Eileen Joy said...

Continuing from above:

But the faces that we can see, for Levinas, are mainly facades, in the proper, architectural sense of the term:

a face, then, is an “exteriority that is not reducible. . .to the interiority of memory,” an expression of being that “overflows images” and “breaks through the envelopings” and facades of material form, exceeds any possible preconceptions, and calls into question the subject’s “joyous possession of the world.” At the same time, because “the body does not happen as an accident to the soul,” the physical face is the important “mode in which a being, neither spatial nor foreign to geometrical or physical extension, exists separately.” It is the “somewhere of a dwelling” of a being—of its solitary and separated being-with-itself. [These comments are from an essay I recently published on Levinas’s ideas of hospitality and “Beowulf,” in a volume edited by Ann Astell and Justin Jackson, “Levinas and Medieval Literature: The ‘Difficult Reading’ of Texts, English and Rabbinic,” Duquesne UP, 2009.]

I think my favorite Levinasian description of the face-as-facade [which I drew upon in another essay I published that dealt with the face of a dead female Chechen suicide bomber] is this one--that it is a facade whose

“essence is indifference, cold splendor, and silence,” and in which “the thing which keeps its secret is exposed and enclosed in its monumental essence and in its myth, in which it gleams like a splendor but does not deliver itself.” [“Totality and Infinity,” Lingis translation, p. 193]

In this sense, Julie, the face does, indeed, in Levinas's scheme anyway, mediate between, could we say [?], being and body? It also encloses and signifies a mysterium that gleams before us but which will never readily deliver its "contents," as it were. Before such a face we must be willing to be amazed, astounded, struck with wonder [which is, properly speaking, the beginning of ethics]. But I would also ask you, Julie, as you are fond, as you yourself say, of structuralist modes of thought: can we get beyond this body/being opposition [so important in philosophy and some religions]? I would aim for a philosophy, or mode of thought, that would work hard to see how these two are the same thing.

Now what is compelling me, actually, is how I might somehow make an unholy conjuncture between D&G's imperative to dismantle the face and Levinas's face-as-facade in relation to Guthlac and his relation to his sister's face:what kind of a face is this, anyway [?], whether on earth or in heaven: this is a question I need to think about further.

Eileen Joy said...

And still continuing:

As to your comments, Julie, on incest, you are once again very intuitive regarding where I am heading because I would agree with you that, in some sense, incest represents the *first* queer sexual practice, and I would most definitely think the injunction to exogamy alongside the medieval Christian injunction [for saints, especially] to transcendence [to getting *outside* the world, as it were, getting outside the body, outside the kin-family, etc.], and this is something I want to fight against a little bit because, in truth, I have days where I sometimes think the ENTIRE Western philosophical tradition [as well as Christianity, which is certainly embedded in and plays a large role in this philosophical tradition: think Augustine, Aquinas, etc.] has been tilted at dis-embodiments and transcendences of various sorts [and this includes Plato as well as D&G, and it always makes me think of this wonderful line from Stephen Dunn's poem, "Something Like Happiness," which I don't have in front of me, but the line is something like, although the Zen masters teach us to reject appearances, "how much more difficult it is to accept them!"--for me, for now, this forms something of a credo in my current work]. And as you say, although Guthlac certainly *prohibits* himself from having the "light" of his sister close by to him, and therefore he follows all the proper injunctions, because he has been waiting all this time to see her again [why is it not *just* to see God? But no, it is to see *her* yet under the gaze of God--can we say, under the gaze of the Father who prohibits yet does not prohibit in this instance, but perhaps, acts as a chastening agent?], so, in a sense, Guthlac's whole training/asceticism has been tilted at seeing *her* again; therefore, she never really left him, nor he her. You may know already that the burial shroud has metaphoric and other resonances with the wedding dress/shroud, and it is significant, too, that Guthlac, when dying, instructs his servant/brother/friend Beccel to wrap his body in a special [beautiful] shroud that he has been saving for just this occasion and to take his body, so wrapped, to his sister, so that she can bury [and can we say, finally wed?] him. At the sight of her brother's body, in Felix's Latin version, she swoons and falls as if dead, which is a pretty stock gesture, not in hagiography, but in medieval romance, when one lover sees another dead. We can recall, too, as Stacy Klein reminded us during the session, that brother-sister "soul-mate" relationships are ubiquitous in the corpus of early hagiography, but what is, perhaps, strange, about the Anglo-Latin and Old English Guthlac narratives [the first about him in the corpus: he shows up again in some 12th- and 13th-century legendaries and illustrations] is that the sister is almost 100% invisible until Guthlac dies/is dying, and his mention of the injunction he imposed upon himself is not 100% typical of this genre.

kvond: your idea of conjoined semiosis just kind of blows my mind--it works really well with what I am trying to do [partly following Cary Howie's work in "Claustrophila: The Erotics of Enclosure"] with a middle space within which things/objects/bodies both retain a certain separateness yet also inter-penetrate and infect each other [and also overlap/unfold together within a sort of beside/between space]. I am actually getting ready to take off yet again in my car [for 2 more days; I have been on a kind of cross-country driving odyssey the past week], but I am going to read the posts you reference here and come back to this thread. [Antigone, btw, is one of my favorite characters in literature and she actually figures into this project!]

Anonymous said...

EJ: "Julie, on incest, you are once again very intuitive regarding where I am heading because I would agree with you that, in some sense, incest represents the *first* queer sexual practice...Antigone, btw, is one of my favorite characters in literature and she actually figures into this project!

Kvond: Last year I worked to finish my radical/experimental re-translation of the play (still a few hundred lines short). "she" is incredible in word and deed, something that poses a rift right down the seam of the Western Philosophical tradition. If all of western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato, it is also perhaps nothing but seamstress to the tear made by Antigone.

In your love for Antigone have you read Butler's short Antigone's Claim? And even better Stein's Antigones?


(One never knows how to ask "Have you read?" questions)

I believe there is a point where Butler raises a question begun by Steiner, What if Freud took Antigone as the Ur-myth of Psychoanalysis, instead of Oedipus? No one seems to have answered this question, but it does have something quite germane to do with "starting in the middle".

She is the Ur-incest figure.

Anonymous said...

p.s. I look foward to your thoughts on Conjoined Semiosis. Most certainly.

Anonymous said...

EJ: "as always, the title covers more than what actually went on in the paper [why are we so ambitious with our paper titles, hmmmm?]"

Kvond: Perhaps it is something like, "Columbus's ambition was to sail the Atlantic so to reach the India". He indeed sailed the Atlantic, and he indeed reached a kind of, if not better-than, India.

If he had merely reached India he would have accomplished so much less, and if he REALLY sailed the Atlantic (entirely) he would have accomplished nothing, getting nowhere.

Anonymous said...

EJ: "Now what is compelling me, actually, is how I might somehow make an unholy conjuncture between D&G's imperative to dismantle the face and Levinas's face-as-facade in relation to Guthlac and his relation to his sister's face:what kind of a face is this, anyway [?], whether on earth or in heaven: this is a question I need to think about further."

Kvond: Perhaps it is de Cusa who strikes the right note here, as he struggles between the perception that the Icon is looking Right At Him in his particularity, but nonetheless, infinitely. Holding both the mediating facade of infinite cold of the essence, but also the deconstructed, ever-increasing speed of pictoriality. I always am fascinated with this passage:

In this [icon's] painted face I see an image of Infinity. For the gaze is not confined to an object or a place, and so it is infinite. For it is turned as much toward one beholder of the face as toward another. And although in itself the gaze of this face is infinite, nevertheless it seems to be limited by any given onlooker. For it looks so fixedly upon whoever looks unto it that it seems to look only upon him and not upon anything else...

...Your icon’s gaze seems to be changed and that Your countenance seems to be changed because I am changed, You seem to me as if You were a shadow which follows the changing of the one who is walking. But because I am a living shadow and You are the Truth, I judge from the changing of the shadow that the Truth is changed. Therefore, O my God, You are shadow in such way that You are Truth; You are the image of me and of each one in such way that You are Exemplar.

(“The Vision of God”, chapter 15)

Eileen Joy said...

kvond: summer possesses its own time and I cannot seem to keep up with anything, but wanted you to know nevertheless how much your comments have been coming back to me in various ways and I *did* [last week, in fact] revisit your weblog [frames / sing] and especially the post on conjoined semiosis/conjoined Siamese twins. And yes, I know the Butler book on Antigone, of course, but I did *not* know about Steiner's book and I have since ordered it, as any recommendation you make is like gold to me.

I like your idea, especially, of the cross-tongued, and also the idea that the horizon of something [even, a person] is defined/delineated to a certain extent by the coherence of its differences. Whereas a theorist such as Leo Bersani would have us get past the idea of difference in order to grasp that we are all "the same" and thereby merge into a sort of "allness" which might be our most human "ripeness," I want to hang on to the notion/idea of difference, and of singularity, as something that might, for lack of a better way of putting it at present, save us from "ourselves" [whatever that might mean].

This bit of yours, especially, I have put on a postcard:

"The question is one of report and horizon. The differences which make up a boundary are themselves already differences among other external differences, which make up other boundaries. It is the tugging from within towards events which seem external which often signals this trans-Subjectivity condition being simulated. It is not just that any person (or thing) possesses sub-elements within it that cannot be forced into line, that won’t restrict themselves to the overarching coherence, as if in some primordial anarchy of parts, a multitude ever in surpass of its expression. More, it is that “parts” are already parts of something else, not in hierachial layers, from simple to complex wherein the complex just has to master and dominate the simple, but that the simple (the simple difference that makes a difference) is conjoined to other complexities which do not reflect the cognitive horizon of inside and outside itself. And it is only by being able to read these conjoined semoitic relations (which are so plenary and largely invisible as not to be read in great detail in advance), that a body can make sense of itself."

Words to live by, and thank you so much for them.

Anonymous said...

EJ: Thanks so much for the kind thoughts. They do go a long way. I'm very happy that you have found the Stiener book. It is a gem for those who love both Antigone and History. It unfolds the play in such unexpected ways, and the research and summation is beautiful to behold (I especially enjoy the parts on Holderlin's Antigone, which as far as I can tell is the only substantive treatment of it commonly available in English; but perhaps I am wrong and others can direct me).

As for Conjoined Semiosis, it is meaningful to have had a thoughtful mind read through the idea and find it of such value. It is the only thing that I can think of that breaks out of the General/Particular (to use the recent Delanda reduction), yet retain the power of coherence and body identify, as a mode of analysis. I have often thought about the nature of the tidal pulls that we feel as persons, things that seem to be happening inside of us, but also outside of us, and how these are not simply (or only) reducible to breakdown of the "self" barrier, resolved into an immersion into a necessarily larger and encompassing whole. Really, there must also be partial body interprenetrations, in fact language composes some of these, that regularly and interpopulatedly, tug across our edges.

(Sorry, your positive response got me thinking upon it again, and I was ruminating.)

Just the same. Best wishes to you and your summer/time.

Eileen Joy said...

kvond: I like very much your idea of the tidal pulls that we feel as persons, and also all those edges that are overlapping, interpenetrating, etc. Because we can say there are edges, we can retain some vestige of the idea of singular bodies/embodied territories [whether human, ant, or cloud!], but we can also say that these bodies are never really territories wholly unto themselves--everything is en-worlded in a sense, although we sometimes fight hard to deny this. But I resist, nevertheless, the idea of a "merge" [even, in Bersanian terms, a homo-merge] so utterly capable of dissolving all the edges that "singular" [for lack of a better term] bodies cease to exist--even, more selfishly, cease to be singular bodies which can love in their singularity. The trick, against Freud and his ilk [Klein, Lacan, etc.], would be to somehow hang on to singularity, along with embracing your conjoined semiosis and cross-tongued-ness, while also being able to forgo projection and incorporation. Difficult.

Anonymous said...

I'm unsure about the concept of the "singular" as it has some kind of rhetorical flavor of the "singularity" and some mathematical residue. A body, an affective source and closure simply is not a "point"...it is a "pool" (if we had to contrast. It is a horizon-bound recursion of effects/affects which radiate out some imporant feature/s in the world for a perceiving other. At least that is how I think about it. Wave's lapping upon a rock's edge, makes of the rock/edge a body for us.

I too though resist the great dissolve, but see the report and substance of bodies ever made concrete and real through our specific connectivity to them. The hard-earned lines of bridged connect.

Here is a short film I made of Spinoza's affects of love and sadness (using an Spinoza Opera) that might aesthetically communicate what I mean about Wholeness and Body:


I suppose for this reason I resist the term "singular" and prefer body, because singular does not invite images of circuitry, nor that of Time, two fundamental aspects of "feeling" and perception.

Eileen Joy said...

kvond: enjoyed the video, especially Spinoza's idea that love is a type of joy with a belief in an external cause. I don't know if I agree with his definition of sadness, though, not at all, actually, because the underlying idea seems to be that we become more aware of our frailties, imperfections, incompletenesses, whathaveyou, that our sadness increases. I like to think that as we become more aware of these things we can then also let go of the idea of human perfection and thereby find, not sadness, but joy. Sadness, I think, has many causes of course [why else would Barthes write, "who will write the history of tears?], but I think one of the chief causes is when we perceive that the world does not answer to our desires, which perhaps we thought were "reasonable." We must never stop desiring [and here I disagree with Leo Bersani, who writes, "Sociability is a form of relationality uncontaminated by desire"-as if to say, desire gets in the way of a truly pan-sociability; further, following Freud, it often leads to various forms of destructiveness], but we must stop expecting anything in particular.

As to singularity, I will hang on to this idea--not because I disagree with anything you say here, because I don't, and I like very much your notion of bodies as pools, and not as "points" that could be closed in any way--but because I want to be able to articulate some notion of body/consciousness/identity that retains an inviolate uniqueness that, in the case of human and other rights, for instance, can be protected.

Anonymous said...

EJ: "I like to think that as we become more aware of these things we can then also let go of the idea of human perfection and thereby find, not sadness, but joy."

Kvond: One never knows how deeply an objection goes. But I would want to point out that Spinoza's view of Sadness is the "experience" one feels less powerful, less active. It is not a reflective state, a judgment one makes of one's condition, but really an involuntary sense that one has lost something (which very often is linked to the blaming of this state upon some external thing). For Spinoza is not human perfection, but simply the increase in perfecdtion, an increase in the capactity to act in the world. This would involve the embrace of all our weaknesses, not as weakness per se, but rather as passivities, reactions, fears.

Sorry for the Spinoza rundown, if you already understand and reject this. But I was unsure if you were responding only to the definitions in the film clip or much more. And it is best to be clear.

As to points and singularity, I'm all for your retention of terms that are central to your conception. I would only say that a full defense of human rights (and the rights of the non-human) achievable within a "bodies as pools" approach as well.

Thanks for all your thoughts.