Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Holy Aporias, Batman!

In Eadmer's Life of St. Anselm--a 13th century text that illustrates a developing interest in and market for writings about a living saint--a fellow abbot describes to Anselm his difficulties with the child monks in his charge: "They are incorrigible ruffians. We never give over beating them day and night, and they only get worse and worse. " To this abbot's frustration, Anselm responds by indicating that it is not the methods but the educational philosophy that are at fault:
Are they not human? Are they not flesh and blood like you?....Consider this. You wish to form them in good habits by blows and chastisement alone. Have you ever seen a goldsmith form his leaves of gold and silver into a beautiful figure with blows alone? I think not....In order to mould this leaf into a suitable form he now presses it and strikes it gently with hist tool, and now ever more gently raises it with careful pressure and gives it shape. So if you want your boys to be adorned with good habits, you too, besides the pressure of blows, must apply the encouragement and help of fatherly sympathy and gentleness (Southern, pp. 37-38).
What the goldsmith does, in this telling, is to creat an impression, an image. Elsewhere, Eadmer tells us that Anselm "compared the time of youth to a piece of wax of the right consistency for the impress of a seal....If it preserves a mean between extremes...extremes of hardness and softness, when it is stamped with the seal [matrix], it will receive the image clear and whole" (Southern, p. 20).

There are certainly a range of possible issues on which to interpretatively seize: pedagogical practices (cf., Guibert of Nogent), the new genre of living saint hagiographies and its connections to the growing exegencies and codifying of a canonization process, or Anselm's sexual metaphorics crying out for comparative analysis with later writers (here I'm think especially and most obviouly of Alan of Lille). But what most interests me is precisely this metaphorics of impression-making and its hagiographical placement. It is a metaphorics on which later spiritual writers will capitalize (see, e.g., Igantius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises), and which nicely registers what I would call the "aporetics of sanctity."

When, in other words, does a model become a template? When does the initial force exerted to create the impression--and, in my Deleuzian-inspired thinking, nothing is possible without the exertion of force, which is a neither in itself a good or bad thing--become something imposed with constrictively carceral power? I recognize that "template" may also effect certain processes of change, since when one follows an eletronic document template one is still able to make alterations. Still, what seems important is how a template establishes the boundaries and constituent parts of a field. Whereas a model is something to be emulated, a template is something to be followed. Moreover, and here I'm thinking of a more commonly scientifistic usage, a model can be modeled. That is, "model" can function as both noun and verb. The practice of modeling seems to be a practice a fabulation.

The aporetics of sanctiy, then, is that zone of indistinction or indiscernability where a model offered for emulation morphs into a template imposed. It is such an aporetics, and the moments of both indiscernability and radical undecidability it opens, that determine the patternability and force of sanctity.

[All quotations from Eadmer's Life of St. Anselm are taken from R. W. Southern's 1962 translation]

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Rekindling Memories": On Martyrs

Well, readers, it's been more than a month since I last posted anything new on this blog! Chronic sickness along with several other important obligations and issues have kept me particularly busy the last little while. I hope to use the much-desired winter break to do more posting. For now, however, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to use Jeff Cohen's recent "Flash Review" post on Daniel Boyarin's Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (1999) as a chance to revisit Boyarin's excellent study. Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for a class on late ancient traditions of martydom and apocalypitc literature while I was attending Yale Divinity School. I cleaned it up only a smidge, since it was written back in the spring of 2003, and I now cringe when a reread it. In the below except, I explicate another work as well, The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era (1995) by Judith Perkins.

For anyone interested in the subject, I'd also recommend the following more recent titles:
Lastly, Boyarin takes up the theme of an alleged Jewish and Christian "parting of the ways" in a substantial way in his Boder Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (2006).

By the way, my title makes reference to Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History. Speaking of the martyrs’ fortitude, he writes: “Sometimes they were killed with the axe,…sometimes their legs were broken….Sometimes they were hung up by the feet head down over a slow fire…; sometimes noses, ears, and hands were severed.” But such fortitude was only part of the story for him and his fellow Christians—these heroic acts also had to be remembered. Eusebius skillfully wrote to “rekindle the memory of the martyrs" (trans., G. A. Williamson [1984], pp. 341-42).

+ + + + + + +
[NOTE: This version does not contain my copiously fetishized habit of footnoting. I have a pdf version featuring those notes. Can someone tell me how I can upload a pdf file?]

Here's the pdf version of the below text.

Creeds and confessions notwithstanding, Christian speech is dependent upon the recurrence of certain ideal figures, one of which is the “martyr,” who became for subsequent generations of Christians a script or topos, a pattern for generating new speech on a particular theme or given case. The martyr is indicative of the power of Christian rhetoric to create, develop, and impose moral identities, serving as one answer to the constant problem of self-definition. Martyrs, and their corresponding hagiographies, became especially important sources for Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries uneasy about the “drift into a respectable Christianity.” As Averil Cameron has shown, such Christians made creative use of history through the composition of vitae, a flexible genre that allowed greater opportunity for integrating public and private in new ways. “Through Lives, Christian writers could present an image not only of the perfect Christian life but also of the life in imitation of Christ, the life that becomes an icon….The Life itself becomes an image; Christian lives of the present are interpreted in terms of their relation to sacred lives of the past.” Thus, such vitae served ideological functions as literary exemplars—texts to be read more as “verbal portraits” than historical reconstructions.

What strikes me most forcibly in the study of the martyrs is the way in which martyrdom is constantly associated with the community life of Christians. The work of Peter Brown has shown how martyrs became potent “invisible companions” who served many of the same functions as powerful patrons of the ancient world; they were conduits of both social and spiritual power. Shrines dedicated to martyrs, for example, often acted as defensive works, walls, or towers. That martyrdom is connected to community life might seem apparent to some, but in the study of cultural assumptions it is just such obvious points that require attention: “People only become martyrs because others make them so.” Attending to such concerns, I submit, means a shift in our historical orientations away from “the world behind the text,” and towards reflection on how communities continually ascribe meaning to particular events, acts, texts, and practices. So, in contrast to much historical thinking, which is empirical or positivistic in nature and focuses attention on questions of genesis, I see historical study, like cultural analysis, not as “an experimental science in search of a law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”


There is a near consensus view among historians that traces the meaning of “martyr” to an early Greek term for “witness.” It then proceeds to connect this witnessing language with traditions of “noble death,” ultimately producing a picture of martyrdom that many today easily recognize. In common religious parlance, the term “martyr” is used to name one who undergoes hardships to the point of suffering—but not intending—death for one’s religious convictions, and this stands in contradistinction to a “confessor,” or one who is of equal religious resolve but is not subjected to death. One plausible explanation for this sharp distinction in meaning is that martus enters Latin literature as a Greek loan word. A loan word initiates a process of displacement whereby the borrowed word enters its new linguistic community as a technical term. Thus, the original Greek meaning of “witness” began to slip away until, by c.150 C.E., it came to imply the specific aforementioned meaning. In fact, no less a magisterial figure than the eighteenth-century Edward Gibbon paused to exclaim: “A martyr! How strangely that word has been distorted from its original sense of a common witness.”

This view overlooks several important factors that, taken into consideration, may significantly enrich our understanding of how martyrial language was used by Christians—or that may at least complicate the picture. The most important of these factors has to do with the genetic fallacy of historical explanation, a form of which I have just illustrated. What this fails to take into account is how the language actually worked for the people who used it. To explain language, to analyze how metaphors function within a society or religious community, we must look to the wider context of that group. Some recent scholars are (re)writing martyrdom as historians become both more aware of their roles as “readers” of “texts” and appreciate how literary production makes culture. Scholars of late antiquity are currently carrying out the most critically informed historiography on the subject, and thus warrant serious attention.

“Late Ancient Studies” is a field of relatively recent invention, and is the direct result of significant changes in methods of analysis relating to the texts, characters, and life-world of ancient Christianity. These changes can be traced to the impact of “the cultural turn,” or that combination of approaches taken from cultural anthropology and literary theory. Dale Martin has recently detailed the impact of these changes: “When the ‘culture’ of the early church in its ‘cultural’ environment becomes the focus of attention, the object of study shifts to concentrate less on the intentions and conscious thinking of the ancient author. The goal of the historian becomes not the conscious or even unconscious intentions of the author, but the larger matrix of symbol systems provided by the author’s society from which he must have drawn whatever resources he used to ‘speak his mind.’” In what follows, I shall review two recent efforts that draw on and help contribute to this scholarly ferment.

The first account is the extremely provocative study by classicist Judith Perkins, The Suffering Self. Hers is a study concerned with representations qua representations. As Perkins recounts it, she came to the recognition that “what I had been accepting as simply realistic presentation in texts was, in fact, part of an extensive formulation in the culture of the second century that represented the human self as a body in pain, a sufferer.” To her eye, Christianity’s projecting of this particular portrait of the human self came into conflict with another, more prevailing and traditional Greco-Roman image of the self as a soul/mind in control of the body and its passions. Drawing on a wide range of ancient sources, both pagan and Christian, and informed by the theories of Foucault, Geertz, and others, Perkins aims to bring into cultural consciousness a discourse that Christianity so co-opted that it no longer appears strange to claim that the Christian is a suffering self. Her intention is “to try to locate the triumph of Christianity within the discursive struggle over these representations. It would be around one of these represented ‘subjects,’ the suffering self, that Christianity as a social and political unity would form and ultimately achieve its institutional power.” Further, the subjectivity that was under construction was not produced by Christianity alone, but also issued from other locations in late antiquity—e.g., medical treaties and the lives of holy people and philosophers. The social power of this ideological work can be seen in how the Christian community of late antiquity came to include, at least conceptually, the mute, poor, and paralytic. In short, these reordered beliefs about pain and death, “representing pain as empowering and death a victory, helped to construct a new understanding of human existence, a new ‘mental set’ toward the world that would have far-reaching consequences….To project a material body just like this material body is to suggest a social body just like this social body, only with a different hierarchy based on new rules of empowerment.” By placing on display the lacerated, torn, burnt cadaver of the martyr, early Christian communities enacted a powerful discourse of subversion, thus altering their abject status within the Roman hierarchy.

The Suffering Self quickly emerges as an important work for contemporary approaches to early Christian martyrdom. The important implication to draw is that early Christian self-representation as a community of sufferers did not so much describe “actual” situations as provide for the growth and construction of a new cultural subject, one that tended to subvert prevailing assumptions about selfhood and provided social capital for Christianity’s growth in power. “Narratives script reality for readers and Christian texts were inscribing one particular narrative pattern over and over for their readers and listeners. Christian narratives consistently offered a new literary happy ending for readers—death; in particular, the martyr’s death.” So, rather than marriage serving to give the sense of an ending, Christians denied this traditional social nexus and embraced a threatrics of death: “the martyrs were cultural performers acting out dramatically the community’s beliefs that to be a Christian was to suffer and die.” Central to Perkins’s way of thinking is an attention to representation as an ideological construct having historical effect: martyr texts help to socially construct early Christian memories and thought-worlds, thus also contributing to a politics of representation.

A second recent work on martyrdom comes from the pen of noted Talmudist Daniel Boyarin. Drawing on current models of identity formation, trends in cultural criticism, and with a focus on hybridity, Boyarin deconstructs the stable binaries of “Judaism” and “Christianity.” He argues that in this period there was no clear delineation between Jews and Christians as practitioners of separate religions; rather, this eventual “parting of the ways” was the product of the “long fourth century,” a project intimately associated with martyrdom. As he importantly observes:
Martyrdom, even more than tragedy, is Thanatoi en tōi phanarōi, “deaths that are seen,” murders in public spaces. Insofar as martyrdom is, then, by definition, a practice that takes place within the public and, therefore, shared space, martyria seem to be a particularly fertile site for the exploration of the permeability of the borders between so-called Judaism and so-called Christianity in late antiquity.
Boyarin has produced a fascinating study that challenges some of the basic assumptions within late ancient studies. For our purposes, it is his fourth chapter that is most important. Rather than restrict the meaning of martyrdom to genetic questions, Boyarin prefers another route:
I propose that we think of martyrdom as a ‘discourse,’ as a practice of dying for God and of talking about it, a discourse that changes and develops over time and undergoes particularly interesting transformations among rabbinic Jews and other Jews, including Christians, between the second and the fourth centuries. For the “Romans,” it didn’t matter much whether the lions were eating a robber or a bishop, and it probably didn’t make much of a difference to the lions, but the robber’s friends and the bishop’s friends told different stories about those leonine meals. It is in these stories that martyrdom, as opposed to execution or dinner, can be found, not in "what happened".
The appearance of “discourse” in this definition is crucial, and merits attention. Here “discourse” describes something greater than mere representation; discourse is never innocent, but connotes the rhetoricity of any attempt to convey (produce) truth about humans and their society. That is, discourse names that which in a society appears timeless, transparent, commonsensical. In short, its focus “is the organized and regulated, as well as the regulating and constituting, functions of language….its aim is to describe the surface linkages between power, knowledge, institutions, intellectuals, the control of populations, and the modern state at these intersect in the functions of systems of thought.” In this regard, discourse is closely allied with notions of practice and genealogy. Further, there is a material dimension to discourse, since “discourse” makes possible disciplines and institutions, which, in turn, sustain and distribute those discourses. Thus, the making of martyrdom is a result of its interpretation as martyrdom, which is a distinct process from simply recounting a narrative of casual relations. Acts of interpretation are intimately associated with the forging of identity, and this connection between social function and interpretation is termed discursive formation. Another way of arguing these points, contends Boyarin, is to spotlight the perfomative nature of these acts as well as the eroticism present in the texts. In fact, it was this very eroticizing element that Boyarin sees as so new, for both Jews and Christians, in late ancient martyrdom—namely, an ideology of death set as the necessary fulfillment of the love of God.

Thus far, we have had occasion to consider the work of both a classicist and a Talmudist in the hope of producing a way of thinking about martyrdom. A more thorough review, of course, would need to take into account studies of the body and gender as sites of discursive practice and power relations. But, passing over these issues and across several centuries, we shift our attention to another period of Christian history where martyrs figured prominently. From the 1520s onward, there is a stunning renaissance of Christian martyrdom across Western Europe, in which some five thousand men and women—Protestants, Anabaptists, and Catholics—were judicially tried and executed. Brad Gregory has persuasively argued that, though the occasions for martyrdom dwindled in the Middle Ages, the virtues it espoused did not disappear, but were sublimated into certain devotional practices. By the late medieval period, these appeared especially in the guises of the devotio moderna and the ars moriendi, as well as the continually evolving cult of the saints. Such affective devotions were also suffused with an awareness of Christ’s suffering and death. But Jody Enders has also shown how these impulses were not always directed toward pious ends, arguing that, if one reunites the histories of medieval stagecraft and of torture, one discovers their truly rhetorical function: “The medieval understanding of torture both enabled and encouraged the dramatic representation of violence as a means of coercing theater audiences into accepting the various ‘truths’ enacted didactically in mysteries, miracles, and even farces.” Taken together, these two traditions of late medieval piety and stagecraft had sensitized the populace (“spectators”) to certain types of behavior, thus enabling them to scrutinize the condemned. The eve of the sixteenth-century, then, was ripe for a rebirth of martyrdom.

Having sampled two recent efforts at understanding Christian martyrdom, how are we to proceed? Inspired by these proposals, and in keeping with my own methodological commitments, let me offer a working definition: martyrdom is a discursive act that creates a praxial space within which to envisage a particular subjectivity—the self as sufferer—and thus also to engage in a “politics of identity.” While not intending to neglect the gruesome and horrific nature of martyrdom, which was basically a public, humiliating, and cruel death, construing martyrdom in this manner allows for a particular reading of these historical texts that sheds light on otherwise neglected features. We can begin to see connections between Christian discourse and the forging of Christian identity. Martyr accounts are hardly transparent windows, but are framed, textured and tinted by their author’s desires: we cannot, then, rely on these writers for a detailed or “accurate” account of a Christian life under persecution. So, if one of the aims of historical study is to describe what people intend by what happens, then we can say that the discourses of martyrdom “do not just reflect, in some unproblematic way, reality and social institutions, but, rather, help to create and maintain them.” Through the ideal figure of the martyr and the public spectacle that the memory of such a torn and fragmented body conjured, Christians found particularly strong ways to perform their identity as a community of sufferers.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

In Memoriam: Derek Brewer (1923-2008)

One of the true revolutionaries in medieval studies, Derek Brewer, has died. Not only was he a scholar of impeccable credentials with an impressively long publication record, but his influence will continue to reverberate for many years to come through the founding of his academic publishing firm, now a part of Boydell and Brewer. A bibliography of his many writings is available in Toshiyuki Takamiya's contribution to Chaucer Traditions: Studies in Honour of Derek Brewer, Ruth Morse and Barry Windeatt, eds., (Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 263-68. With "affectionate tribute," the editors rightly speak of Prof. Brewer's "range and energy," so clearly evidenced in his many important essays, books, and editions of medieval texts. In a peroration to this "modern Chaucerian, most generous of teachers, and an unfailing friend," Morse and Windeatt write: "It is a rare modern scholar who has done so much for his subject, both through his own work and through what he has encouraged others to do" (ix). Requiescat in pace.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Friday Florilegium

Despite that it is now technically Saturday, I still wanted to post the following under my titular alliterative. Sitting outside a coffee shop near my apartment on a cool Austin night, I write within view--and smell--of a courtyard populated with early twenty-somethings enjoying their late night hookah. But more than flavored aromas waft toward me, as snipits of their conversations and the sounds of nearby cars drift into/onto my fields of perception.

There have been a number of very interesting and important discussions, comments, and announcements that have bloomed around the blogosphere this week.
  • a still budding conversation, first initiated by Karl Steel, about St. Erkenwald
  • Eileen Joy's meditation on the face, which has generated much commentary
  • Susan Morrison's paradigm-shi(f)ting work on/in "fecopoetics and waste studies" (see here for Susan's new Palgrave book). After a very gracious headnote by Eileen, Susan's SEMA paper follows.
  • Jeff Cohen's wonderful announcement that the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, in collaboration with Harvard University Press, will be publishing a brand new series modeled on the Loeb Classical Library and I Tatti Renaissance Library to feature medieval Latin, Byzantine, and Old English texts (with facing-page original texts and translations). The first ten volumes will debut in 2010. A truly wonderful addition to an already fragrant garden.
  • Over at Mended Things, Cary's brief but profund meditation on the redemptive capacities of travel and of how sharing a planride can equilize its heterogenous passengers in their vulnerablity, from the flatulent to the first-class.
  • Two intriguing new book announcements: the first, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?, which features a confrontation between sometime collaborators Slavoj Zizek and British theologian John Milbank; the second a title of more explicitly theological interest, Nate Kerr's History and Apocalypitc: The Politics of Christian Mission (see here and an excerpt here)
  • SUNY Buffalo's upcoming (10/31-11/1) Humanities Conference on the History of Madness
In other news, tomorrow/today, Saturday, October 25th, is the annual Head of the Colorado Regatta (a.k.a., "Pumpkinhead") sponsored by the Austin Rowing Club [ARC]. Regrettably, I won't be able to compete this year, since I've been so sick since returning from SEMA that I just haven't put enough water time in to warrant boating for a 5K. In fact, I haven't rowed at all since the end of September! Still, I'll be around the race volunteering and supporting my fellow rowers and past and present teammates at ARC and Texas Crew. Who knows, I might even be needed as a sub? I'll be prepared with my spandex in case.

I've also been much engaged in contemplating the possible trajectories my blog might begin exploring. Taking on board some well-regarded advice, I'm hoping to offer at least one substantial post a month (by 5th of every month). I will continually update/post information throughout the month, which will/might include CFPs, general announcements, florilegia, and other miscellaneous items. But my hope/desire is to produce at least one (if not more) postings/essays that go into more depth about a topic or issue related either to my current research or that has been much on my mind.

To that end, I already have several posts planned out. An imminently forthcoming post will focus on marginalia, including its ontological and biopolitical dimensions. Also, in honor of the above mentioned "Pumpkinhead Regatta," I'm finally putting down (or, in this case, up) my thoughts about sport and athleticism. I intend this latter topic to be explored in a planned series of 2-3 posts. I'm also hoping, sooner rather than later, to offer a post on Erin Manning's brilliant Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty, which is a book I suggested to several BABELers and which has found its way into a few posts by Eileen Joy and Karl Steel.

Lastly tonight, I'm also mulling over the idea of a mini/quasi-blog conference on "the event," which I anticipate would feature guest bloggers that might post on the topic with reference to some of the major theorists of the event today: Deleuze, Derrida, Badiou, Zizek, Caputo. This has been especially on my mind, since next week I'll be heading to Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (think MLA for religion scholars). It's always an exciting and very pleasant experience for me, since I can reconnect with many friends and keep at least one body part firmly planted within the fields of religion scholarship (as if my work is ever not connected or explicitly about religious discourses/practices?). Sure to be a particularly rewarding session will be the one featuring both Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek as panelists/presenters, both of whom have been making increasingly interesting connections wtih theologians as part of the wider turn toward religion within contemporary critical theory. Zizek has spoken at AAR before (Derrida did, too), but this will be the first time Badiou has (and my first time hearing him). There's also a session devoted to Jean-Luc Nancy's recent work, Dis-Enclosure.

Look for this and more from AAR in the coming weeks and months!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

BABELers, Come to TEMA 2009

While it's a year away, I thought I'd let everyone know that next year UT Austin will host--for the first ever--the annual conference for TEMA. Planning is very much in the paleolithic stages, so I don't know anything about programing theme(s) or keynotes. Still, I think it would be great to organize a BABEL panel or two. The tentative (read: probable) dates for next year's conference are October 22-24, 2009. If any BABELers might be interested, feel free to let me know. Of course, as more information (e.g., a CFP) becomes available I'll post updates here and elsewhere (I'll send the CFP out to the BABEL list).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

On Blogging as Practicing with a Sharp Tool

Of late, there have been a few very interesting discussions about the very nature of blogging. Mary Kate Hurley discusses "Blogging as Practice."

I've also come across the following posts from a few years ago that I think speak to many of my own and others' concerns about the profitable aspects of research blogging. See here and here. See also the following:
Of course, while I believe one should take all possible care in both composing and publishing posts, one cannot always control what others think or do with that post. Blogs are, perhaps, the paradigmatic example of the "purloined letter."

While searching for the very meager listings of links above, I came upon a late 2007 post over at The Kugelmass Episodes, in which its author set out to discuss the "best and worst" of the academic blogosphere for 2007. Setting aside how I might feel or respond to any of the specifics in Kugelmass's blogging, I did/do find the following passage remarkably provocative and poignant, and so I close this entry with his words:
So, what’s ahead for 2008? I can’t predict trends, but I can say what I hope for, and that’s a renaissance of words in their essential loneliness. Intellectual blogging is a medium that thrives because it captures the quietude of those moments when we seal ourselves off from our surroundings in order to consider the printed words of another person. The tremulousness of the word, the expectation of an answer, the abjection and shamelessness of writing for self-publication: in order to be honest, a blogger has to be vulnerable, more so even than the author of a book. What she is writing apparently had to be blogged to be written at all. Given the voluntarism of the blogosphere, polish is merely comic; risk is the only thing worth admiring. The risk of saying too much, the risk of being unread, the risk of being misread — intellectual blogging must change from an indifferent exercise of dignified exposition into the willing practice of risk.

Announcing ... [drum roll, please]

The new blog presence for the newly established graduate student collective in medieval studies at the The University of Texas at Austin, Convivencia.

I volunteered to put a blog together for the group, but it's still very rudimentary. Per the group's desires, this will be a space primarily to disseminate information about upcoming gatherings and/or events, along with other more general announcements (e.g., CFPs, conferences, student awards, etc).

Matrices of Progress: An Auto/Report

Well, my previous post on SEMA seems to have generated some very nice commentary amid some controversy. I'm planning a few other posts for the coming days, including a recap of three visitors to UT-Austin last week, among other topics. I hope to be able, in addition to disseminating information, to make at least one substantial post a month. Things have been especially busy this fall, and I've been struggling since SEMA to get even minor tasks done amidst fighting a very nasty cold. One piece of good news is that this week my advisor and I established a dissertation project. So, I'm now officially writing a prospectus, and will sit for the my next series of exams (hopefully) in the late summer (or early fall). The goal is to be in candidacy by Fall 2009. Yippie!

I hope to post more about the prospectus process as I get more into the writing/researching, but I will say that the project aims to revisit the "book/body" relationship. So, more to come on that front. What most pleases me now, however, is having a clear sense of what I need to do and when. One unique facet of my department's graduate program (at least under the matrices of progress governing my degree advancement, since these matrices have now been changed for the incoming 2008-09 class) is that there is no clear, absolute "cut-off" date for coursework; rather, one can (and very frequnelty will see) students still taking courses up until the time they complete the PhD. Of course, I find that option immensely useful, but I can also see where it might cause some students to forget the forrest for the trees.

For now, readers might be interested in scanning the updated blog roll and links listing.

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?"

Thursday, October 2, 2008

SEMA Bound

The overnight bag is nearly packed, and final touches are being put on my paper. My flight to St. Louis leaves Austin at 6am, so I should touch down (after a brief stop in DFW) around 9:30, at which point I'm making my way directly to the St. Louis University campus' Busch Student Center. I'm sad to have had to miss the first day of the conference, but I'm excited to get there tomorrow and connect with so many interesting folks! I'm particularly excited for the panels on "Eros and Phenomenology," that also feature a response by Amy Hollywood. I'm the first paper in my Saturday panel, which is also the only paper on Patience while the other three are on Pearl. Below is the abstract for paper. The argument remains the same, but I'm also taking this opportunity to try out a few theoretical ideas about the phenomenologies of urban flesh and prayer. See ya'll at SEMA in St. Louis!

Abstract: "Beating the Bounds": Reading Patience Liturgically
This paper builds on and extends the recent efforts of Bruce Holsinger and Katherine Zieman to examine, in Holsinger’s words, the “dynamic and dynamically changing” affiliations between liturgical cultures and vernacular writing by suggesting an alternative scenography for reading the Middle English Patience. Whereas much existing scholarship contexualizes the poem’s didacticism as sermonic exempla, this paper resituates the poem within the liturgical context of Rogationtide.

Celebrated immediately before and leading into Ascension Thursday, Rogationtide consisted of three days of pageantry and penitence amidst Easter joy and springtime harvest. Drawing on original archival research, this paper links Patience and Rogationtide in two ways. First, both poem and ritual share a body politics: just as Patience’s Jonah travels around the biblical world to escape his prophetic calling only to reveal the all-embracing reach of divine power, so too the participants of Rogationtide circumambulate their cities in processions to mark out, like dogs, their territory for divine favor and protection. In both cases, the body is more than its limbs and organs, registering its permeability by way of technology, social structures, and ritual prostheses. Here, prophet, people, and place flow into each other. Second, there is a structural correlation at the level of poetics between Rogationtide and Patience. Not only does the prophet Jonah figure prominently in each, but just as the poem retells and elaborates its biblical source, so too does Rogationtide’s longest and most ornate processional chant, Timor et tremor, trope Jonah’s story.

Reading Patience within the scenography of Rogationtide reveals a multidirectional pedagogical discourse between vernacular and liturgical cultures.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Conference: Political Emotions

Well, this morning I found in my inbox an announcement for an intriguing conference on "Political Emotions: A New Agendas Conference" being held at UT-Austin this weekend. The keynote is Lauren Berlant, and features some major queer thinkers, including Gayatri Gopinath and Heather Love. I knew something like this was in the works, but wish it was later! Sadly, I'll have to miss it to attend another fantastic conference, SEMA.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reviewing Marilynn Desmond in 995 words

Well, it's been entirely too long since I posted or commented on anything. Been utterly swamped with finishing projects, TAing an ethics course for the philosophy department, and preparing for SEMA (more to come on that front).

Still, one of the "minor" (not really) projects that I finished up was my review of Marilynn Desmond's Ovid's Art and the Wife of Bath: The Ethics of Erotic Violence (Cornell, 2006). Some may remember a special session on the book at last year's Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo. My review will appear in the "Books in Brief" section of a forthcoming issue (I think the next one) of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. It was a real delight and incredibly insightful to work with the book review editor, Beth Freeman. I'm posting the review below, although it's possible that changes might still (need to) be made. Generally, I thought the book was really great, but I did have some theoretical concerns/questions. In fact, at the Kalamazoo BABEL party I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Marilynn about the book, and she was incredibly gracious toward me. That was certainly a delight!

On the Receiving End
Nunzio N. D'Alessio

Ovid’s Art and the Wife of Bath: The Ethics of Erotic Violence
Marilynn Desmond
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.
xiii + 206 pp.

After California’s Supreme Court extended marriage rights to same-sex couples regardless of state residency, The Advocate declared open season on the “Great Marriage Rush.” Featuring white-gowned and black-tuxedoed couples and the Golden Gate Bridge, the cover conjoined a homonormative rights agenda with a pioneer rhetoric of individual freedom and hard-won riches.{1} Advocating a pause before this juridical embrace, some theorists argue for a disarticulation of marriage practices from kinship structures.{2} But another potential lengthening of this respite emerges from scholarship on premodern literature, which continues complicating our easily drawn assumptions about past and present marriage politics.{3} Offering such breathing space, Marilynn Desmond’s Ovid’s Art and the Wife of Bath examines Ovid’s medieval reception in Heloise, the Roman de la Rose, Chaucer, and Christine de Pizan.

Desmond’s carefully executed readings of visual and written texts highlight intimate connections between violence and erotic desires. An opening chapter surveys the “mounted Aristotle,” a specular tradition depicting the philosopher ridden like a horse by a woman in a trope of erotic humiliation, which foregrounds anxieties about female erotic agency. Her especially rewarding second chapter reads in Ovid’s Ars amatoria a structural and mimetic correspondence with Roman scripts of imperialism and coloniality. This prepares readers for how an ironically framed imperial work became in its medieval appropriations an ethically authoritative treatise. Desmond accounts for this interpretive rupture by emphasizing how institutional apparatuses condition both what and how a text is pedagogically appropriated. For example, when treating epistolary activities, Desmond demonstrates, through appeals to the medieval handbook tradition of letter writing, how the genre rhetorically “fixed the status of the sender in relation to the addressee and thereby encoded and enacted social hierarchy,” which leads to her provocative claim that “epistolary structure replicates the structure of desire” (55-56). Equally noteworthy are comments on how illustrations and Latin commentary in manuscript page design can give any text authoritative framing. Operative in these structures is a mechanics of absorption that brought texts of disparate value systems into the medieval classroom to teach Latin within a utilitarian axiology: poetry teaches ethics because it speaks of proper desire and comportment.

Much merits comment in Desmond’s study. Both the archival survey of medieval French translations of the Ars amatoria and the excellent treatment of Christine’s source-relations prove essential. Parsing Chaucer’s reliance on the “mounted Aristotle” for his Wife of Bath’s cultural legibility, Desmond also examines how Chaucer uses first-person confessional structures to establish the Wife’s authority. A fuller appreciation of Chaucerian discursiveness emerges from Desmond’s genealogical tracing of the Wife through the Roman de la Rose: precisely when the Wife seems “most personal or authentic” she is “most constructed” (125). Throughout, Desmond enacts a disciplinary capaciousness alongside a remarkable facility with a temporally diverse set of multilingual texts. (Such comparativist strengths could have been better displayed with a comprehensive bibliography.)

Some readings will rub specialists the wrong way. But more pressing is the disjuncture between theoretical languages and very exciting textual work. Desmond rhetorically frames her study with S/M’s potential to disrupt heteropatriarchy by staging “problem[s] of ethical negotiation” (2-3). Left undeveloped is her intriguing description of much S/M writing “read[ing] like a rhetorical manual” (4). Still, it seems that S/M appears only long enough to conjure its opposite in domestic violence; wife-beating, not the desexualizing intensities of S/M, is key for her argument.

This binary between consensual and nonconsensual erotic violence breaks down at critical moments. Consider Heloise, who, because of a hegemonically carceral religious life and a clerically administered education, appears incapable of resistance. In Desmond’s hands, Heloise’s religiously imbricated life seems irredeemably oppressive; here spousal abuse becomes a Christianly permissible act.{4} But Christine de Pizan resists more effectively because cultural shifts in gender relations, Parisian bureaucratic culture, and autodidactism make possible “a less institutional and more idiosyncratic appreciation” of the Ovidian material (155). The contrast is even sharper, when Desmond declares Heloise little more than a “submissive lover” but Christine a forthrightly assertive subject (164). This not only posits religion and secularity as discrete and intrinsically agonistic spheres, it also places the locus of resistance on an externally sovereign subject. Desmond, unable to locate in Heloise’s submissiveness any tangibly resistant act, makes eroticism isomorphic with violence. A more productive reading would indicate the radical instability subtending erotic hierarchies. That structure can imply stricture need not mean the loss or irrevocable diminishment of agency, only that these are agency’s framing conditions.

Another concern is how Desmond uses heterosexuality. While sometimes highlighting its performativity, Desmond nonetheless uses heterosexuality interchangeably with heteroerotic and heterophallic, which conflates sexuality and gender within a hetero/homo frame. Conceptual dependency on such a capaciously normalizing category essentializes a discursive effect. By laminating heterosexuality onto a premodern past, as James Schultz argues, scholars allow it to “escape history” and assume a “cosmic and inevitable” status, thereby contributing to both the term’s colonization of the past and its consolidation in the present.{5} If Desmond relentlessly trains our eyes on discomforting scenes of erotic violence to demonstrate both their invitation to “ethical reading” and the presence and power of “textual violence in the disciplinary acts of interpretation,” then conceptual reliance on heterosexuality does its own discursive damage by foreclosing the sexual field within hetero/homo or conjugal frames (9).

But such criticisms cannot devalue what is an otherwise excellent and thrilling treatment of Ovid and his medieval appropriators. Argumentatively compelling and accessibly written, the book is also handsomely produced, with 37 illustrations. Specialists will benefit much from Desmond’s strengths in dealing with manuscripts and premodern rhetorical and pedagogical traditions. But queer readers might take away from Desmond a disquieting problematization of marriage: If the West remains heir to an “Ovidian libidinal economy” whereby the institutionalization of marriage not only “structures eros” but also “elicits and regulates violence” (64, 29; 116), then it seems all the more vital to not rush toward but interrogate whether these bonds are irrevocably pathological. Perhaps, then, the medieval never feels more modern than when asking, “Who’s on top?”

Nunzio N. D’Alessio is Ph.D. student in English at The University of Texas, Austin.

{1} To view the cover image, see: (accessed 16 September 2008). The California Supreme Court’s 4-3 decision, which overturned the state’s existing ban on gay marriages, was handed down on May 15, 2008 and took effect on June 16, 2008.
{2} See, e.g., Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004). I remain particularly indebted to Butler’s theory of agency, as recast here, for several of my below critical formulations.
{3} Emma Lipton, Affections of the Mind: The Politics of Sacramental Marriage in Late Medieval English Literature (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) and Frances E. Dolan, Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). Both Lipton and Dolan situate their work with respect to contemporary marriage debates.
{4} That Christianity’s relation to erotic domination between spouses is a more ambiguous phenomenon can be glimpsed in the writings of John Chyrsostom, whose often noxious treatment of women still disallows domestic violence—a condemnation far stronger than his contemporary Augustine. See Joy A. Schroeder, “John Chrysostom’s Critique of Spousal Violence,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 12.4 (2004): 413-42.
{5} James A. Schultz, “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1 (2006): 14-29 at 20. Briefly, Schultz taxonomizes heterosexuality in three ways: as naming discrete sexual relations between men and women, claiming an orientation or identity, and describing a regulatory institutionalization. This tripartite taxonomy causes damage, argues Schultz, through correspondingly reductive analyses that make heterosexuality isomorphic with reproduction, psychosexual integrity, and marriage. The article also appears as chapter four in Schultz’s Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). Schultz is certainly not alone in questioning the signifying capacity of heterosexuality, on which see Graham N. Drake, “Queer Medieval: Uncovering the Past,” GLQ 14.4 (2008): 639-58.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Future to Defend?

Over at ITM the past few days, there's been a really generative and stimulating discussion on "defending" medieval studies. The conversation was prompted by JJC's posting of a missive he received soliciting some advice. What was intended to be and initially prompted more pragmatically focused discussions quickly became a more wide-ranging conversation not just about the institutional prospects of medieval studies but about the very morphology of a futural frame. This was itself prompted by JJC's own rearticulation of the missive's concerns in the form of "the existential question: why must we be?"

I made a few contributions to the conversation, in which I tried to discuss how academic norms not only govern and normalize but also delimit the field of intelligible action/knowledge/pleasure and the viable ways of living such delimited fields enable and sustain. My suggestion was for a strategic engagement with such norms. Readers familiar with Judith Butler's work will quickly recognize its formative impact on my thinking in this area, especially as she's raised such concerns in Undoing Gender. I especially recommend reading Eileen's two amazing comments/posts. But here are just a few tasty morsels of that conversation:

JJC's institutionally tested wisdom:
  • "Medievalism is a medievalist's friend."
  • "[M]ake the argument [to administrators] in language they know, touching upon topics they already recognize as worthy, so that you can bring them to a place at which they would not have anticipated arriving in advance."
  • "In order to get projects funded -- in fact sometimes just to keep a position or project alive -- you have to speak with a certainty about the future that you don't actually possess."
Eileen's joyful prospectus on curriculuar/institutional arrivants:
  • "compile a kind of narrative bibliography of the increasingly important role that medieval studies is playing in important contemporary fields such as queer studies, postcolonial studies, and Continental philosophy, as well as in the *historical* development of critical and cultural theory more broadly."
  • We "(1) work strenuously to delineate all the connections as well as fissures and cracks that inhere in various representation-event matrices....(2) explore the slower and semi-still currents of deep historical time that inhere in present cultural formations....(3) enter into active collaboration with scholars working in more contemporary fields of cultural studies and cultural theory."
  • "By continuing to hang on to periodization as the number one way we define our curricula as well as our job hires, we will always run the risk of what I would call the law of diminishing returns as well as planned obsolescence."
  • "we have to think of ways to both protect that kind of work [what I would call the right to the freedom of intellectual inquiry and historical research] while also better integrating it into new curricular models that don't simply re-inscribe little specialist ghettos"
  • "Any form of autonomy, held on to too tightly and defended from a too narrow trench, ultimately makes its future viability more vulnerable. Knowledge for its own sake will always be an important mantra and even an end in itself that should be vigorously defended, but when funding is the bottom-line issue, better integration of individual knowledge fields into a heteronomous university is the key. There should also be room within traditionally-structured colleges and universities for experimental/temporary "centers" or "Institutes" that would not solidify into permanent units and whose contours would always be shifting in different directions."
  • "Nobody ever actually gets to any one subject or idea "first"... and sometimes two or more scholars are having the same thought simultaneously in different places and with no knowledge of each other's existence, and theory, in my mind, really develops asynchronously, rhizomatically, etc., and sometimes I wish we had more scholarship that tried, as strenuously as possible, to take account of this [a more full genealogy or archaeology of ideas and forms of idea]....No one ever thought of anything "first." Ever. So it's not question of acknowledging who got anywhere "first," so much as it is a question of better efforts on our part to be paying attention to what practitioners are doing on work that we can say we always have "in common," regardless of period."
  • "I can only think the medieval backwards, as it were, through contemporary moments. I like to make connections, but I never claim they are illuminating as regards a "whole" history or even a continuous one. My method has always been asynchronous and anti-teleological and I mainly do it because it's pleasurable...."
Karl's rhizomes of academic desiring:
  • attend to the significant and continually important role of the medieval within/for current cultural formations and artifacts
  • How our "work and professional interest is always already caught up in desiring networks....[and that] we ourselves are cross-disciplinary. In that sense, the disciplines could be thought to inhibit the real conditions of our existence, our becoming."
  • on the limiting nature of a "hunt for origins": "any notion of 'first' is at its heart teleological."
  • "[I]t's much better to think of multiple expressions of this thing we call the 'responsible subject' rather than any simple binary of before and after interiority. The 'modern subject' is not a culmination, but a different manifestation of a set of concerns and interests that might be entirely new, but perhaps which manifested themselves differently at different times, places, and professions in the MA. I think we need a non-teleological history--even a history of a single moment in all its discursive and temporal heterogeneity--of the boundaries of the self."
Mary Kate on how life in the university is predicated on forms of belonging, of being-together.

Holly Croker's timely remarks on the problematic tendency to "conflate period, time, and field," and how difficult but necessary is the challenge to think outside narratives of linear progression.
  • "it seems to me worthwhile to think about the differences between temporality, periodization, and professional field. Maybe we can abandon linear temporality, but study periodization as an interpretive practice (with a history, no doubt). Then we can ask better questions about the professional politics that might result from such practices."
  • "When does overlooking someone else’s work cease to be oversight and take on the political power of exclusion from a professional field?....But when is that practice something that we medievalists need to redress (because we are being erased from the larger discourse), and when is it simply a byproduct of different scholars asking the same questions in different fields? Can we be okay with other scholars working on parallel questions without explicit acknowledgement? To be alongside one another, do we need recognition, in sum? If so, how do we ask for such recognition without getting tangled up within a dialectic of mastery?"
And the conversation continues there ...

Sunday, August 31, 2008

On Categories

Sorry to have been away and not posting, but Ive been a bit preoccupied trying to finish a few writing obligations and prepare for the new term. More on all that later -- including my promised post on Dinshaw/Manning. For now, however, I would like to solicit opinions on the following outline.

I noted in an earlier post that I'm composing the 5000-word entry on "queer studies" for the forthcoming Handbook of Trends in Medieval Studies (ed., Albrecht Classen). Be aware that my aim is to present something like a history or summary of scholarship on the topic, and not to discuss in detail and particular texts. That said, it does seem to me that much of the literary (and historical?) scholarship emerges around key textual artifacts: e.g., Chaucer, Roman de la Rose, Libro de Beun Amor, the Latin writings of Peter Damian and Alain de Lille. The texts, then, might be described as nodal points for the field's discursive energies. In fact, one way I've been thinking about a queer[ing] Middle Ages is as itself an aleatory point. There is something beautifully and thrillingly rhizomatic about queer medieval studies, something that reminds why I so love being a medievalist. Or, as Ive sometimes been "accused" of being, a theorist who uses the medieval as an archive -- an accusation in whose wake I would happily self-narrate. Still, this something is an aleatoriness that is irreducible to interdisciplinarity, and I'm coming to think more about the materialities of such academic undertakings. Perhaps a vitalist medievalism?

Anyway, back to my topic at hand. I do have a bibliography that I'll post soon. While I've been doing much research, reading, and summarizing -- and accepting the fact there is a necessary violence that must be done to the topic for this type of project -- I'm still trying to be as thorough (but not exhaustive) as possible. This means that I'm attempting to cover a range of sub-disciplines in medieval studies, since the intended audience of the project isn't just scholars of literature nor only English speakers.

So, I've been laboring over how to best organize the information in way that both makes sense and is helpful. Being pragmatic and economical are, of course, forefront in my mind. I'd would welcome any feedback and questions on or about the outline. I'm especially interested in knowing if anyone thinks I've missed anything glaringly obvious, and/or if anything in my section on "emerging issues" [anybody got a better subtitle?] seems not to belong. Note that some of these latter issues I've culled not only from what medievalists are writing about now but also from where certain trends in queer studies more generally are headed. In some ways, I suppose I'm availing myself of the performative rhetoric that such a section enables: my analysis of such emergent scholarly trajectories is as predicative as it is summarative.

Entry Outline

Overview [very brief]
• What this entry aims to do and its sections
• Introduce concept of sodomy

• Boswell Thesis [project of CSTH and its reception and continued importance]
• Queer/ing [Foucault, queer theory] -- need a better subtitle

• Whirling overview of selected scholarship for England [including Anglo-Saxon studies], France, Italy, Iberia [including Arabic/Islamic issues], Germany. The section is more heavily focused on the vernaculars, but will include certain important Latin writings (e.g., Peter Damian, Alain de Lille).

• Nonconformities [discursive overlappings of heretics, Jews, Saracens w/ sodomites]
• Visual and Aural Cultures [scholarship from art and music]
• Law, Pedagogy, Medicine [yeah, sort of a catchall, I know]
• Godly Eros [religious desires/erotics] -- better title?

Between Women
• Historiographic issues in the study of female same-sex eroticism [I think this is important enough to deserve a separate treatment]

Emergent Issues
• Hetero/sexualities
• Temporality
• Eccentric Bodies & the Otherwise Gendered [disabilities, eunuchs, trans]
• Senses [esp., aural and olfactory erotics; fecopoetics/"waste studies"]
• Animals
• Being Alone [singleness, anti-sociality, solitude]

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Meine Freunde.

As the world stands in awe at the swimming phenomenon that is Michael Phelps (with whom I share a hometown!), I also wanted to draw everyone's attention to another important fight. While this one doesn't have the same glory or even gold medals, it's certainly an important one for medievalists. Below is the text of a forwarded email I have received:
The University of Heidelberg plans to close down the Medieval Latin Department. There are not many departments of this kind left in Germany --it would be wonderful if you could sign a petition against closing down the Medieval Latin Department where e.g. Walter Berschin taught very successfully for many, many years! It is always very helpful when scholars from abroad sign the petition, too.
You may link to the petition here. It had previously been hosted on the Department's website until the University Chancellor forbade it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Manning & the Politics of Touch: Aleatory Reading, Picky Reading

Over at the always interesting Larval Subjects [LS], there was a post that articulated precisely my own reading habits:
One should never read a single book at a time. In the act of reading multiple texts, aleatory encounters between texts are produced like sparks arcing across two separated wires. There is no method here. Where and when such a spark will leap is not subject to calculation or prediction. Rather, such sparks are purely a product of chance. And, of course, it is necessary to add the caveat that it is impossible to read a single book at a time. As Freud famously observed in his allegory of the Roman city, and Bergson in his cone of memory, the past co-exists with the present, such that any act of reading is necessarily saturated with all the previous texts one has encountered. Yet even here the points at which texts touch one another, the point at which virtual texts and actual text touch in singularities, is entirely aleatory and without calculation. It is always an event. Perhaps there must be an Idea, Problem, or Multiplicity at work– in Deleuze’s sense of the word: a problematic field –that presides over the genesis of such relations. The principles of auto-synthesis are murky.
Although I've read parts of Dinshaw's Getting Medieval for years now, I had surprisingly not read the entire text from cover to cover, which I finally did a little more than a week ago. After finishing Dinshaw, I found myself compelled to pull Erin Manning's recent book, Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty (University of Minnesota, 2007), off my "to read" shelf. Alongside Manning, I am also reading a number of works in medieval queer studies/theory, writings on temporality, and Seth Lerer's A Portable History of English, among other things. What LS calls the "aleatory sparks" that occur when reading multiple books simultaneously, the way different texts "touch in [their] singularities," seems particularly arresting in relation to Dinshaw. Despite the 'murkiness' of the "principles of auto-synthesis," I will attempt in my next post to read Dinshaw alongside and across Manning; to allow these two texts of very different historical moments to reach-toward one another. What makes such an experimental reading so suggestive is not only the obviously shared concern of both authors with a metaphorics of "touch" but also the ways in which Manning uses certain theorists (esp., Deleuze, Derrida, and Nancy) to complicate precisely what such a sensing body does. There are moments when I read Dinshaw's text where, despite my own profound affection for her project--I find Dinshaw utterly arresting in both her prose and her theoretico-political imaginings--I am left feeling empty. Something seems absent from the text, a something that I think Manning begins to help us reach-toward. My next post will formulate these ideas.

But first, I want to be a slightly picky reader. There is, to my theologically trained former self, an error at n13, p. 167. The text as printed reads:
"The Word: (o logoß). Logoß is from legw, an old word in Homer to lay by, to collect, to put words side by side, to speak, to express an opinion. Logoß is common for reason as well as speech. Heraclitus used it for the principle that controls the universe (Oxford English Dictionary)."
The note itself is glossing a discussion of the opening verse of the prologue from John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The error itself is typographical. Before commenting further, let me say that I find Manning's text to be theoretically astute, and so I offer the following correction in a spirit of charity.

Firstly, the phrase "o logoß" fails to take account of what in Greek are called "breathing marks." These, like accents (which Greek also has), affect pronunciation. In the Greek text, they appear as inverted commas standing either over the minuscules (lower case letters) or next to the uncials (upper case letters) at the beginning of a word. The letters requiring such a mark are: a, e, i, o, u, w, r. These marks are of two types: smooth and rough. Technically, the smooth mark has no real affect on the pronunciation, while the rough signals a required "h" sound at the beginning of the word. This may sound trivial, but there are certain words in Greek that are spelled identically and are only differentiated by a smooth or rough breathing mark. That scenario isn't present in Manning's text; rather, one of the most elementary words in Greek is the definite article "the" which is transliterated as "ho" and not "o."

Secondly, the typography of both the nominal and verbal forms of logos are incoherent. The sigma ( an "s") that ends the nominal form isn't the German letter "ß"; rather, in Greek there are two minuscules for sigma, employed depending on where in the word the letter falls. The most common form is "σ," and occurs in all letter positions except if the sigma concludes the word, at which point the alternative form, "ς," is used. Similarly, in the verbal form the final letter is written "w," when in transliteration it should appear as a long "o," since it is in Greek an omega (ω) and not an omicron (ο). [Note that the Greek alphabet differentiates between long and short vowels for certain letters.] As it stands, typography for the verbal form appears to be some kind of hybrid, neither really a transcription nor a transliteration.

Ok, I know, maybe this is TOO picky. I apologize if this comes off as unwarranted nagging. Thoughts? Am I just being, well, a you know what? .... I will confess that my Greek is fairly rusty, but that I was still able to notice these errors even on a first glance.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Reading Abbreviations

So in the course of following various links, I came across something that all us medieval geeks should appreciate: Karl Maurer, a classicist at the University of Dallas, has assembled a list of the most common abbreviations used in the apparatus of a critical edition. I'd also recommend reading Eric Knibbs, "How to Use Modern Critical Editions of Medieval Latin Texts," History Compass 5, no. 5 (2007): 1521-49.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Briefly Noted

Just a few quick announcements

CFPs -- as we all continue to prepare abstracts to meet the deadlines for Kalamazoo and Leeds next year, here a few other conferences that have come to my attention.
  • Locating Gender, the theme for the annual conference sponsored by King's Collge, London; 9-10 January 2009 (CFP due 1 September 2008).
  • Deleuze2008, a conference marking the 40th anniversary of Deleuze's Difference & Repetition; 7-8 November 2008 in Stavanger, Norway (CFP due 12 September 2008).
  • Glossing Is a Glorious Thing, sponsored by The Graduate Center, CUNY; 9-10 April 2009 (CFP due 1 October 2008).
Also, a new and exciting venture from the cutting-edge folks at GW, the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, or MEMSI

And lest I forget, a new collection of essays, edited by Jeff Cohen, is now available for purchase: Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages: Archipelago, Island, England. You can read the introduction here.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Summer Days, Drifting Away...

Since concluding my recent UK trip, I now have three major projects that require my attention.
  • The entry on "Queer Medieval Studies" for the forthcoming Handbook of Trends in Medieval Studies, edited by Albrect Classen and being published by Walter de Gruyer. (due end of August)
  • Editing my review of Marilynn Desmond's new book, forthcoming in GLQ (due September 15 or before; I'm editing based on Beth Freeman's very helpful comments)
  • Reviewing Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England for Sixteenth Century Studies (past due ... mea culpa!)
The queer studies entry is my first priority, and much of this will be bibliographical assembly. I anticipate sharing that bibliography on this blog next week (hopefully), and seeking suggestions for under-represented areas. The entry is suppose to discuss/cover multiple disciplines in medieval studies, and not only English literature. I feel confident about my coverage in several areas (e.g., Middle English, romance languages, Latin literatures, musicology, history), but certainly welcome any and all suggestions! I've already been aided by Michael Johnson, of UT-Austin's French & Italian Department and a BABEL member, and am expecting an email from Bob Mills of King's College, London, on art history resources other than some of the more obvious items (e.g., Michael Camille's work).

I'm also planning posts on (the) queering (of) medieval disability studies, responses to a few articles I've recently been working through, and a detailed post related to the retrospective discussion of Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval happening over at ITM.

... Oh those summer days!

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."

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....