Tuesday, October 7, 2008

SEMA, Redux

I thought I'd take a few minutes and offer a some musings about the recently passed SEMA conference. Generally speaking, and here I'm echoing comments already made on ITM (see here and here), I must say how grateful I am to Eileen Joy and all the local organizers and sponsors for putting together not only an intellectually stimulating but, most impressively, a truly convivial conference. Mille grazie!

I was unable to attend as many sessions as I had hoped -- not least because I was so beat with lack of sleep and flying in on Friday morning. I did hear Jeff Cohen's amazing plenary/meditation on rocks and Mandeville's "boundary denying ethnography." Regretablly, I missed the other plenary by Steve Kruger; I just needed some "me time" (mea culpa!). Also, due to travel plans, I completely missed the first of two BABEL sessions on "Eros and Phenomenology" -- sorry Eileen, Nicola, and others. Gratefully, however, Nicola has posted his paper as has Karl, whose paper appeared in a different session on "excrement/waste studies/fecopoetics" (which I also sadly missed!). Eileen has promised to do likewise (once she recovers).

I was involved in two sessions on Saturday, one where I presented and another where I chaired. After some rather annoying technical difficulties, the session I chaired went very well, with some amazingly interesting papers dealing with devotional literature and objects. Although all the papers were stimulating and very enjoyable, I particularly enjoyed Elina Gerstman's presentation.

My own paper was the first of four in a session devoted to Patience and Pearl; or, as I like to call it, "me and everyone else." Obviously, I mean that the other panelists were focused on Pearl, and their work gave me some very good insights into how I might connect my own arguments for a liturgical reading of Patience to certain similarly animating concerns of Pearl. Oddly enough, the panel outnumbered the audience (3 attendees; 4 panelists), but it was still a good session. My paper (see the abstract) was very much a work-in-progress, and, sadly, no one there seemed too interested in my project. That said, the best feedback I received was during a discussion with Karl Steel that Saturday evening. But I remain worried about one thing: he said it'd be great if I could make Patience an "interesting" text. Certainly, I much appreciate the support and encouragement. My worry, however, stems from the fact that this is a common judgment of the varied nature of my work on Gower, Chaucer, and others. In other words, I don't want to be--or at least just be--that guy who makes difficult or dejected texts "interesting." Anyway, as I continue to formulate a dissertation project, I'm becoming very inclined toward having Patience be a chapter. But more on that prospecting adventure later.

I was able to attend the second of the "Eros and Phenomenology" panels, which featured truly stunning papers by Lara Farina, Cary Howie, and Tony Hasler. I really enjoyed all of them, although the first two spoke most directly to my own research interests. Lara spoke about a "materialist history of reading" that would attend to the "intimate senses [of] touch, taste, smell." She further commented on how these issues are part and parcel of the "cultural management of eros in reading." But it was, above all, Cary's paper that made me shudder! I had neither heard Cary speak before, nor been much acquainted with his work other than being aware of his book Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure in Medieval Literature. No summary would do justice to his elegant, moving meditation on the "phenomenology of the body (in) waiting," about "redeem[ing] our appendages," about the impact and vitality of "undesirable proximities." Regrettably, I was unable to speak with him at the conference, but have since had a very generative email correspondence and very much look forward to meeting at Kalamazoo, if not before. His paper resonated with my own thinking about Patience, and my own ultimate desires to speak about that text's phenomenality. I find Cary's notion of a phenomenology of the "expectant body" alluring, and I think it connects nicely with my own leanings toward Jean-Louis Chretien's "phenomenology of call and response."

I'll end this post by recalling a comment that Eileen made to several of us at the pub that Saturday evening. She remarked about feeling as if "something has changed in medieval studies." Earlier (and often), Jeff Cohen had already noted that this was a conference during which one could (or retroactively would) identify a seismic shift in our field. Both Eileen and I drew on such stoney metaphors in our conversation about the "geological time" of academic work--a time that seems so utterly slow until it's so suddenly altered much as a slow but continuous river alters the rock formations and land masses through and near which it flows until it erupts through a long placed blockage to chart a new course. I think Eileen is correct: something has changed, is changing. Among other things, I find the ethically charged and phenomenologically enriched work of BABEL members to be but one of those vibrations that our disciplinary seismographs might register. We might recall that the temporality of a seismograph is always already "out of sync," for its predicative value is posited on its delayed ability to register past tectonic vibrations. However minescule or imperceptible the delay, the seismograph is never simultaneous or co-incident with that which it measures; its grammar is always that of the future anterior, the "will have been." The felt change and the hope of its continued rhizomatic movements subsists in that mutuable, fluvial interplay between (with bows to Lara) enveloping gestures of touch and/in/through pressure. If we are to continue our surface excitations, we ought to continually ask, with Cary, "What's at stake in our tact?"


Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Great post, Nic, and thanks for the kind words about the plenary.

Just linked to it from ITM. It was good to see you in Saint Louis.

inthemedievalmuddle said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nic D'Alessio said...

Dear Readers,

While I initially approved a post from blogger "InTheMedievalMuddle," I have chosen to remove it as quickly as I approved it. Obviously, I approved first and read second. In short, while I'm completely supportive of criticism and respectful disagreement, I refuse to parlay or partake in, or let this blog degenerate into, ad hominem.

So, to my anonymous commentator whose profile is unavailable, should you have something more constructive to say rather than attacking the efforts and good intentions of others, then I would be happy to post your remarks.

The Management

Nic D'Alessio said...

I have also now altered the settings for this blog to disallow anonymous posting, so that only registered bloggers may participate. That, of course, doesn't preclude my quasi-anonymous registered commentator, whose profile remains private.

Nicola Masciandaro said...


I like your seismic gloss of the event. Isn't it lovely to see scholarly gravitas move, shift, maybe even levitate for a few moments? As Boccaccio said, "affermo che io non son grave, anzi son io si lieve che io sto a galla nell'acqua" (Decameron, conclusion).

And here's something else to write in the margins, which rings especially with Dan Remein's answer a question posed to him at the Bodies in Between panel: "In the abyss of possibilities, proceeding, thrown always further, hastening toward a point where the possible is the impossible itself, ecstatic, breathless, *experience* thus opens a bit more every time the horizon of God (the wound); extends a bit more the limits of the heart, the limits of being; it destroys the depths of the heart, the depths of being, by unveiling them" (Georges Bataille).



Karl Steel said...

he said it'd be great if I could make Patience an "interesting" text. Certainly, I much appreciate the support and encouragement

Hmmm! I believe that that's what I said, so in recompense I'll offer a (somewhat) less exhausted approach. I was a great fan of 'uninteresting' texts back in the day (?!). My major orals field was 'Vernacular Theology and Guidance Literature, 1350-1450,' which meant I read Prick of Conscience, How the Good Wyf Taught Her Daughter, The Book of the Knight of Tour-Landry, the Cloud of Unknowing, things like that, which some people find interesting, but none so much as the medievals themselves. I wanted to try to understand how this work could have been so popular; certainly, there was some element of self-discipline in my choice (the medieval as the most disciplinary discipline, a point Fradenburg makes and I think Dinshaw too); but there was also this struggle to let myself be interested in the material, to turn a discipline into a pleasure, to expand--I suppose following Bataille (thanks my intellectual paisan!)--my range of pleasures.

So, with that preamble, and regardless of what I might have said last Sat., I do think Patience is interesting! I had a good time teaching it last Fall, in part because it made for nice neat little class. It fits so well into 85 minutes, unlike, say, any fitt of SGGK, which always feels rushed, no matter how slow one goes.

My good lecture notes for Patience are, I hope, on my office computer, so I have no idea what I said, except, perhaps, that I wondered at the incredulity about the whale in Patience and Jonah's martyr fantasies (here, our hero's fears energized by wondering, like Donald Kaufman, what his genre is). Now, your paper, as I understand it, sounds fascinating. I love the analog of the child beating its way around the borders of a town with Jonah's travels. It may be only (!) a liturgical connection, but the resonance of circumscription, from the depths of the ocean to the edges of the world to the edges of Ninevah, where Jonah is, for a time, in the outside, in the desert, outside the bounds of the city....well, it's all too much, and very interesting.

Nic D'Alessio said...

Thanks very much JJC, Nicola, and Karl for your comments and glossings!

To respond to Karl, I certainly hope I didn't imply anything negative by my referencing your comment about "making Patience interesting"; rather, I was just letting that comment be symptomatic of something I've continually heard applied to my work. I completely agree with everything you say about medieval didactic/guidance literature, and about turning discipline into pleasure. I also appreciate your kind comments on my very work-in-progress paper.

As I continue to think about it, I'm more and more interested in these connections between"beating" and "bounding" or "being bounded." Here I think Beth Freeman's work on temporality and beating would be useful, but so too the work I originally referred to carried out by Cary Howie and J-L Chretien on the phenomenalities of an expectant/responsive body. Also, your remark about Jonah's lack of enclosure, about his being "outside the bounds of the city," resonates very much with what I've been calling a "dispossessive dynamic" in both the text and Rogationtide liturgy.

Specifically, in the latter case, the celebration begins/emerges from within a perceived feeling of the lack of Divine presence. As Sidonius retells it, Mamertus instituted the days (and Sidonius followed suite) as a responsive measure to a series of (quasi-)natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, fires, city destruction). The point, I think, is that this liturgical observance implores Divine protection precisely at a moment of dispossession: a moment when one finds oneself rejected by the very land on which one has lived an entire life and in whose bowls one's ancestors are buried. There's also something eerily prescient here, of course, as it might conjure recent memories of such horrific and calamitous events like 9/11 or Katrina. Here I think Chretien's elegant, moving essay on prayer and woundedness is an essential read.

There's always, it seems to me, an animating dynamic through which one's own dispossession is foisted onto de/abjected others, so as not only to place/shift/disavow blame or involvement in a catastrophe (and, of course, very often if not nearly always there is no blame to be assigned to one clear party, although this doesn't preclude a category of innocence from existing) but to reinscribe that period of catastrophic time into a causal narrative of means/ends.

Jonah is upset with God precisely for not keeping his promise to destroy the Ninevites, thereby making Jonah's prophecies into lies. Jonah desires temporal safety and sovereignty, but neither is possible or attainable. More than simply a trite piece of moralizing exempla, the God of Patience is a God affected by the world he has created. God himself is a radically dispossessed being. This is not necessarily to imply any process theological claim as to the radical contingency of God, that God and the world are not just interarticualted by radically interdependent entities such that one could not exist with the other. Rather, by claiming a certain dispossessive dynamic to animate both God and the created world, I mean only to suggest that Patience might beat a path around the classical metaphysical conundrum of divine impassibility (which I've always found unconvincing).

Eileen Joy said...

Nic--I am sitting in 33 wine bar in Saint Louis and reading Erin Manning's book "Politics of Touch" and I am thinking how thankful I am that you mentioned this book here on your blog not too long ago, and how appropriate it is in relation to thinking new communities in medieval studies. Nic--it cannot be stressed enough; thank you for the gift of your recommendation of this book.

Nic D'Alessio said...

Eileen, I'm glad you're enjoying Manning's book. It really is very compelling on many levels. Perhaps we might do a blog post on the book, once you've finished?

Eileen Joy said...

Are you kidding, Nic? I am already composing that post!

Nicola Masciandaro said...

In light of touch, I cannot withhold from citing, again, the Discourses, one of whose major themes is the unity of life:

"It is not by accident that people are divided into the rich and the poor, the pampered and the neglected, the rulers and the ruled, the leaders and the masses, the oppressors and the oppressed, the high and the low, the winners of laurels and the recipients of ignominy. These differences have been created and sustained by those who, through their spiritual ignorance, are attached to them and who are so much settled in perverse thinking and feeling that they are not even conscious of their perversity. They are accustomed to look upon life as divided into inviolable compartments, and they are unwilling to give up their separative attitude. When you launch upon your spiritual work you will be entering into a field of divisions to which people desperately cling, which they accentuate and which they strive to perpetuate consciously or unconsciously. Mere condemnation of these divisions will not enable you to destroy them. The divisions are being nourished by separative thinking and feeling, which can yield only to the TOUCH of love and understanding" (Meher Baba, Discourses, III.107-8).

Were it possible, would love to spend the rest of the evening writing about violence as a perverse form of touch. Trusting someone else prolly has, I'll be happy barely *touching* the topic.
Maybe Manning takes that on?

p.s Eileen, I love how you like to mention sometimes what, sometimes what-as-that, or as in this instance, simply that you are drinking in the midst of discourse!

Eileen Joy said...

Nicola: I am coming back late to this, as always, but you might be interested to know that Manning devotes an entire chapter in her book to violence and touch, "Erring Toward Experience: Violence and Touch" [chap. 3], the first sentence of which is,

"Might we conceive of touch as the original sin?"

I am now heading bacl to 33: same place; different night [and wish everyone were with me].