Cary Howie and I recently posted excerpts from our interchanges about a special issue of postmedieval we're co-editing with the awkward, horrible, unpoetic, ghastly, barbaric and probably enduring title of New Critical Modes. The conversation we had and which I would like to continue today carries traces of these posts:
From John Mandeville to Roger Caillois, I've been blogging over the past year my work-in-progress on stone as a kind of liquid or organism or matter-energy or artist or communication device. These posts have been accessed many times, by lightly commented upon. Compare them to the recent posts on lucidity and jargon, with their vigorous comment threads. To join a conversation about what academic writing can and should sound like is easier, it seems to me, than to reply to an essay in which a stone speaks. The stakes for the former are also higher and more self evident than for the latter. Right?
So I can't help asking: is there something within such a misfit critical mode that locks readers out? Are such modes inhospitable to the kind of convivial and nomadic™ medieval studies In the Middle is supposed to cultivate? Are they unwelcoming, ungracious? Is there a chasm between content and form? (Blog posts are, after all, their own genre).
In his comments to "[Oceanic] Critical Modes" a gifted poet/artist/medievalist named Dan Remein wrote:
I'd like to see critical work appears in language that does not register as in a critical mode, a truly new mode, one we do not yet know how to read ... I want to ask not so much about 'poetic' diction, abstract formulations, the logophilia Jeffrey recently blogged about, but also about the _poetics_ of the work in terms of what effect the language of the writing is having on language--what is the language itself doing and how--who or what does it 'speak' and what discourses does it register in, circulate, repeat, cite, etc. I want to urge you to include some things that are really really new, that break radically with old forms, take up a place in the tradition of work that resists being easily incorporated into or 'redeemed' as recognizable critical prose--prose trying to _do_ something poetically other than communicate scholarly information, prose (or verse!) whose function, rather than to communicate, must be understood to function in terms of its phenomenological capacities (outside of the 'correspondence theory of of truth,' for a philosophical reference point) is say, to name, to call, to break, to push, to open, to crack, to feel, to beckon, to cruise, to turn on or off, to....Dan also connected some new critical modes to literary modernism -- an insight I'd endorse from personal experience. I realized long ago that a significant portion of the citational unconscious of my writing derives from Eliot, Stevens, Pound, H. D., and Stein -- along with some modernist-mediated Shakespeare and Glas-era Derrida (all of whom are intimately related, I think). Something about these artists' love of tradition in fragments, their ardor for the new, and their logophilia captured my own imagination long ago.
[illustration: rocky shore with invisible storm, Ogunquit, August 2009. By author]
But here is my hesitation. On the one hand, a part of me is drawn to Dan's injunction "not to change our 'methodologies' regarding 'scholarship' or the 'style' of our writing, but to build/construct our pieces of criticism from the perspective of what the language is capable of speaking/doing." Yes! is my first reaction. But another part of me wonders about (1) my actual ability to pull off such experimentation (Dan can accomplish such a task; I'd only be imitating bpNichol or Gertrude Stein, and not very well: so, the failure of my craft is what lurks here); and (2) the receptivity of any audience to such a mode.
Dan further argues that a new critical mode ought to "look different and not apologize for itself," ought to demand much of the reader without providing maps (introductions, conclusions, brackets that keep the experiment bounded and knowable). Again, a part of me is attracted to such vision of the art of medieval studies. But another voice inside me, concocted of ambivalence as I am, blocks me from my desired assent. This isn't the same voice that has prevented me from working with medieval mystics, or medieval labor rights activists -- the part of me that has ensured that the Middle Ages I write about is a weirdly and anachronistically secular one, a world largely without God or god-substitutes. But it is related, since I worry that such an art can seem the vatic guardian of a truth intentionally withheld.
Dan, of course, is urging nothing of the sort: hence his invocation of the "I" as multiple, his emphasis on collaborators. I believe he'd object that the kind of work he is envisioning shuts out only the lazy reader, the one who will not work alongside and through and into the text, the one who will not open to the encounter or collaboration. There are many readers of this sort.
So, what if such a new kind writing, such a new critical mode, existed -- but what if its ocean was so deep that its writer wholly lost sight of sand and shore, of readers and friends? Despite its joy in the new, modernism is underwritten, it seems to me, with despair. So what would happen if an oceanic mode were attempted (sea and stone became equally liquid), but only silence greeted the transubstantiation? Tidal indifference and a disappeared shore: who can write to that solitude?
Worse, what if a writer were to convince himself that he had journeyed deep into newly navigated waters, only to find the ocean that he thought surrounded him was never really all that deep?