Monday, August 4, 2008

Baswell, NCS, & Eccentric Bodies

As promised in my previous post, I am sharing my notes and thoughts about Chris Baswell's passionate NCS plenary. Many will already be familiar with discussions about medieval disabilities. But if not, one should consult the excellent guest blogging of Greg Carrier and Alison Purnell on ITM, along with Greg's own lively blog and the recently established Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages. I'm planning an additional post about medieval disability studies and queer theory, but for now I present my summary of Baswell's talk from my trusty, compulsively annotated moleskin. I confess, however, that I was so moved by Baswell's passionate identification with his "med-crip images" that my notes are more rudimentary than usual. When stock is taken of "med-crip" theory's emergence as a critical modality, as Jeff Cohen has already predicated, Baswell's talk will surely take its place as a field-altering moment. It was nothing short of arresting.

Titled "Before the Pardoner, Before the Cook: Eccentric Body Cultures Prior to Chaucer," Baswell's talk came at the conclusion of the NCS plenary session on "Before Chaucer," which featured brief, often entertaining, presentations by Valerie Allen, Clare Lees, Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Baswell himself. A key terminological difference marking Baswell's work is signaled through his titular preference for "eccentric bodies" rather than using the term "disability," which only emerges into English language and culture in the 17th century. For Baswell, "odd bodies were all over the place in the Middle Ages." Such "eccentric bodies" were often also hypersexualized bodies. Baswell describes the effects of these and other abjecting rhetorics evocatively as "melting toward[s] non-being." He also made mention of how attention ought to be given to the wider "social care group" that surrounds and enables the med-crip, as illustrated above in the Luttrell Psalter, an image Baswell also used in his talk. Another area of attention that Baswell encouraged was a focus on what he termed the "trope of miracular cure." He concluded with an ethical summons: "To recover premodern eccentric bodies is to recover possibilities of identity."


Karl Steel said...

I like how 'eccentric' and 'odd' bodies can make our otherwise stolid thoughts move, BUT, having been infected with scholasticism, I wonder if we need additional categories: to wit, we need, I think, to distinguish between odd bodies that inspire wonder or horror (Dame Ragnall or Cynocephali, for example) and those that inspire pity (the blind and lame who people hagiography, who (are meant to?) inspire pity).

Nic D'Alessio said...

Thanks for the comment Karl. Of course, I don't want to speak for Baswell, but I think you're right about needing additional categories. I, too, was long ago infected by scholasticism, so I can sympathize. In Baswell's defense, though, he may very well have made gestures toward such categories that I have missed in my notes.

Still, I would want to be cautious about such additional categories, for these could themselves contribute to abjecting modes of thought in our own scholarly practices. Moreover, the categories themselves wouldn't seem to me ever to be absolute (nor do I think you're suggesting they would). Here I'm thinking of how certain odd bodies can inspire both wonder *and* pity (e.g., the blind).