Friday, August 1, 2008

Swansea Recap

While there have already been a number of posts elsewhere on the recent gathering of the New Chaucer Society in Swansea, Wales (see, e.g., here, here, and here over at the medieval group blog ITM, along with several on the Humanities Researcher), I wanted to add my own reflections before too much time elapsed. I came to NCS immediately after the major Gower conference in London -- even traveling with a buss load of Gowerians from London to Swansea! The Gower conference itself was an amazing success thanks to the extraordinary work of Bob Yeager, John Hines, and Bev Stewart. Bob mentioned to me that a volume will be produced from this conference, which I think will be an important contribution to Gower scholarship. I gave papers at both the NCS and Gower conferences, and will comment on those experiences and their content later. Now onto Chaucer.

This was my first NCS, and I enjoyed it very much. I was able to meet a number of very interesting people, many of whom attended the earlier Gower conference, so that it felt like I was vacationing with a large group of great friends. I generally felt that the atmosphere was convivial, but can understand how some might feel that there was posturing going on, although anytime you bring academics together in such an intimate setting I think such posturing is inevitable. I also feel, along with Jeff Cohen, that many of the papers seemed not very (or at all!) rehearsed. This certainly added to much frustration. Other major conferences I attend supply printed or online abstracts that make it more helpful in determining whether a paper is worth attending or not, since titles are so amorphous and often altered.

Since I'm a compulsive note-taker, I had my trusty moleskin with me. What follows are summaries, based on my notes, along with my some interjected commentary. Much attention has already been given by bloggers to the amazing papers by Carolyn Dinshaw and Chris Baswell. I will deal with Baswell in a separate post, but I do want to say something briefly about Dinshaw's paper and her session as a whole.

Carolyn Dinshaw's "The Lay of the Land: Queer Love in A Canterbury Tale," used the 1944 Powell and Presburger film referenced in her title to consider the questions: "What's so strange about a man who loves his land? What makes this so traditional of affections queer?" With characteristic elegance, she attended to the manifold ways in which the "down-hearted antiquarian" Culpepper is a "queer conservative coopted for nationalist" by unpacking the relations between person, place, and perversion. The film's operative companionability, as described by Dinshaw, was one of an "interdependence of the human social world and the natural world," where such "nature [was] animated by the touch of the human." This haptic quality is also a bounded temporality, since the "land as touched by humans" is also "what remains from that earlier touch into the future." To this end, the "mutual love of place isn't individual but social," and from this Dinshaw teases out how the materiality of place is an affectional, even erotic, preference. The title character, Culpepper, wants to bring men to love of land, and he does this through extremely misogynistic acts of nocturnal discipline. Here, to me, the "ugly disenchantment of war" seems to coalesce with the maniacal energies of a queer national imagining. Still, with her most seemingly of innocent opening questions, Dinshaw asked us to think deeply about the possibilities of "queer love of place," even and perhaps especially when such love finds itself in the negative grip of nationalist longings. But Dinshaw also demonstrated how what she termed this "most traditional of affections," the relation between person and place, resists and even repels absorption into any liberatory scheme. Despite his seemingly conservative desires, Culpepper's love of and kinship with place so exceeds and transgresses the properly objectal relations of place and person. So, Dinshaw helps us, once again, to see the operative perversity within the ostensibly normal. There can thus be something enabling about contemplating the disruptive perversions of local desires for place.

The last day of the conference featured an interesting panel on "Gender vs. Sexuality." I offer below some thoughts, comments, and summaries of some of the work its panelists presented.

Bob Mills, "Back to the Future, or Temporal Drag"
  • "What's queerest about the category of sodomy is its tendency to overlap with other categories" (e.g., religion, nature)
  • "What does it mean to feel the backward tug of certain critical terms?" In asking this, Mills pointed us toward Beth Freeman's work on the potential productivity of the temporal tug backward.
  • In an aside, Mills noted how medievalists have much to contribute to the history and theory of transgender.
  • Reminded us anew that sexual modes of dislocation are not isomorphic with sexual activity; that it's "not just a field of love objects but an intersectional field of bodies, objects, and spaces/times."
Catherine Sanok, "Temporal Virgins"
  • Invoking Butler's work, Sanok asked us to consider anew rather than assuming whether gender is an effect of sexuality in the Middle Ages. In Sanok's reading, the medieval is a crucial period during which gender becomes an effect of sexuality. The suggestion here, as I understand it, is to consider gender as detached from sexuality.
Glenn Burger, "Becoming Undone"
  • Burger pointed how "thinking in terms of oppression and resistance has lead to the recovery of marginal voices but [that] it also obscures what might be asked of this evidence."
  • So, rather than operate according to the "binaristic logic of the 'versus'" Burger suggests "turning to a logic of the 'beside'" (as this is articulated in Sedgwick's Touching Feeling).
  • Much of Burger's talk was taken up with his current project on the "good wife" within the theater of marriage. In his analysis, the "good wife" and the "good man" are co-articulated regimenting principles; that the wife's body is an extension of the husband's such that there is a transgendered dynamic inscribed within the gendered logics of male-female desire; that masculine authority is always articulated in conjunction with femininity; that we see the "good husband" within wider discourses.
  • Her concluded by invoking Butler's recent work on being "undone" as a way of rethinking/remaking the human.
Diane Watt and Clare Lees, "Queer Talking: Sex, Gender, and Collaboration"
  • This co-delivered paper seemed principally focused on what's at stake in collaborating on projects about gender and/or sexuality where what is critical is the creation of "place where disagreements can be productive rather than threatening." These presenters wanted to resist that assumption that "underlying the act of collaboration [is] an imperative to concur."
  • Lees pointed how how Old English studies is slow in discussing the affectivity of/in religious texts
  • Asked us to consider not only where but whose are the Middle Ages.

There's so much more than can be noted, but I will leave that for other posts. What strikes me most about these papers, as I look over my moleskin notes, is how much they coalesce around thematics of affect and time. More to come on this....

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