Monday, May 12, 2008

KZoo ’08, Remembering That Theory Saved My Life

Remember the part of this blog that was ostensibly medieval by way of concern? Witness its return.

The post concerns some things about Kalamazoo for immediate release in 2 parts: Part 1, Some Serious But Chaotic Comments; Part 2, Some Frivolous Seriousness (before I forget).

1.

My former instructor Hannah Johnson can give a hell of paper—her ideas concerning, and manner of thinking about, ethics and historiography, across times, is impressive, especially as she dares what I would risk calling both hopeful and an authenticity in her work. This is related to what Jeffrey Cohen underscored in a comment on a BABEL roundtable yesterday, that we have to do our work as if it matters—we should both imagine and want our work to have people to hear, respond—and, better: work—alongside our work.

Some new favorite people: Karl Steel, Dan Kline, Myra Seaman, Justin Brent, Dr. Virago, under the sign of Welcoming and Hospitable. Betsy McCormick, for thinking that I was actually Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog (http://houseoffame.blogspot.com/), and the bit about welcoming, too. I had, honestly, a pretty awful month preceding Kalamazoo, and meeting these people, along with Eileen Joy and Jeffrey Cohen, some of whom I had only known electronically, or even only by electronic rumor (or as an audience of their scholarship in books or at conferences), in this context, was really very refreshing and nice.




2.

An angel swims silently to a flat rock in the night, where seabirds are sleeping, senses them,/ and stops. Their recognizing her in the moonlight, without waking, is the physical sensation/ of your dream, when you wake. The birds’ dream represents an angel, and later it shelters the meaning,/ angel. Royal palms glisten, fronds reaching stars their shape imitates, to show feeling for stars./ The general is concrete, here, in the birds’ memories and extends to the instinctual limits of perception,/ but this hasn’t been recognized, yet.

--Mei Mei Berssenbrugge, “Daughter”

Berssenbrugge’s poems, like this one, charge the line with a task of generously exhausting her readers—pushing them into a game of remembering as one reels further and further towards the right margin like an automobile towards a concrete barrier, with bad brakes. They can be for this reason, very forgettable lines, in a strange and moving way—hard to call up and quote, but nonetheless leaving a reader with a residue of specific affects. They are the scene of a hermeneutic juxtaposition (borrowed from a paper by Betsy McCormick) of something like the auditory imagination of Eliot with Phenomenology and leftist aesthetics. Her ‘Collected’ is titled I Love Artists (!). These poems construct a scene of affects in which we can move ideas and our selves and allow what our meanings shelter, to touch.

There were a number of sessions I attended this year which involved individuals I have been getting to know by means of blogs and blog discussions for about a year now (especially those at ITM http://jjcohen.blogspot.com/). Among these, was a moving and wonderful performance by Nicola Masciandaro on Sorrow and “The Cloud of Unknowing,” at a session organized for the Medieval Club of New York (http://medievalclubofnewyork.blogspot.com/) The paper, near the end, takes this fantastic turn, which I would like to call pedagogical:



Sorrow is thus positioned as both the precondition and the fruit of interpretation. And while these two sorrows, the sorrow of having and the sorrow of not having the text’s meaning, are different, they are fundamentally related. For the latter is already on the way to the former in the same way that, to use the classic Zen figure for deixis, sorrowing that one does not see the moon but only the hand pointing to it is already seeing the moon, in some measure. This measure is the measure of apophasis, the space of continuity between unknowing and knowing, and it is across this space that sorrow in the Cloud operates as an interpretation of being which reveals by negation. So this paper (still unwritten) accepts the text’s invitation of “whoso felid never this sorow” to sorrow, not as a crude advertisement for perfect sorrow, much less an unfriendly extra-discursive gesture of contemplative elitism, but as an opening or giving of its essential meaning as the ongoing, gerundive process of seeking it, of having by not-having it.

I am reminded rather much of a Sedgwick essay, “Buddhism and Pedagogy,” in Touching Feeling, although Nicola’s distinctly phenomenological approach moves me a bit more. Something that was important to me about this moment and this paper, though, was the manner of a paper in the mode of a kind of Heideggerian commentary (ie. On Trakl, or Rilke), in which Nicola enters a circle, follows a path, returns, and, generously and patiently provokes/allows-to-be-called the session’s affects towards a future which is really a moment in the present of those at that session being together and needing to be able to ask why. That is, the practice of performing this paper allows a medieval text to do theoretical work in the present, to open our humannesses to the hope that something is coming now and we know not what it is—but all have a hunch that is has something to do with each other. The “Cloud” does not just have contemplative effects for one individual, but, when cared it is for, when one is marked by this text and allows herself to be pulled into it, across time, like a kind of temporal gravity (also called affect, or better, feelings), this movement can open individuals to the facticity of their being together.

What is important about this, given the title of this post, is that this being-together is a theoretical practice. The encounter of the individual, in whom we both hope for and are terrified of: the possibility of an actual Other, the actual New, and the Actual Future or Event, is of course just as interpretive as that of a text. As such, I want to remember something my former instructor Paul Bové wrote in the early nineties (In The Wake of Theory), in a fierce attempt to resist a kind of ‘treaty’ along that seam we mistake as ‘pragmatism’ or ‘necessity,’ between the movements of ‘Theory’ and those that stood and stand (they may be different movements now) against it. Bové discusses, concerning Heidegger’s own reading of theory, or theoria, how we should understand what this term has concealed by idle talk, history, Plato (etc.). Rather than seeing theory as Sight, as a kind of third-term tool separating subject-object relations, as a kind of grasping for the object, we can understand it as Care. Care is an attending which brings near—but not a grasping. Such nearness is immeasurably far. More importantly, for Bové and for Heidegger, Care is a potential for, and condition of, DaSein’s Being in Time.

Such a ‘philosphic’ turn, I would hope, helps to suggest, more technically and theoretically (and it will become apparent in just a moment why I would want to do this), that Theory is not a tool. Learning is not by or for the individual. And learning, when allowed to arrive in the form how we might live in a community of scholars in which learning is not on the shoulders of individuals, but can be a communal event—a shared communistic labor, is a condition of life and a part of our affective relations with both the past and the present. Theory helps us wonder that something is happening and the we are all together.

Or (c’mon Dan, better, more concise), Theory is a condition of our lives, and theory moves, pulls, withdraws and pulls us with it, by means of the affective liens which arise between us and between our texts and the worlds and times they inhabit and abandon. Theory allows us to be together.

But, more than this, as Stacey Klein’s final response to the second BABEL panel reminds us, that we should expect even more from theory. That theory was supposed to connect us to everything. This reminds me of an friend’s recent comment to me concerning when Gender Trouble was said to have been waved at ACT UP events (he is older than me). This friend said me that theory saved his life. He has never fully explained what this means, but has hinted that it had to do with providing a certain hope and imperative for his work, beyond simple self-identifications and identity-politics shouting-matches. I can say, at moments, that ‘theory saved my life,’ for different reasons, and from a different historical moment. To lay bare just a little snippet of it, I enunciate this with reference to a moment in which the Evangelical movement in the US was digging deeply into the neurosis and psychological malaises of young people in this country, and threatening the very possibility of their Affective connection to this World.

So, I am thinking about ways that specifically Medievalists can do this. And, I am ready and willing to say why the medieval, though that will have to wait for another time.

As one who has done a lot of thinking and harping about Carolyn Dinshaw’s “touching” the past, and suggested a model of historiography which amounts, when reduced to slogan, to something like “queerly loving the past,” I am deeply concerned about the scenes we depend on for this sort of touching to extend beyond the bounds of one single historian or critic performing a touch for their own personal pleasure and that only. That is to say, who is touching what and who and why—and where and when (and will be thinking through this more all summer—ideas welcome!)? Sure, this is a lot of interrogatives. But sessions like the one organized by Nicola, with Eileen Joy, Karl Steel, and Anna Klowsowska, allow such scenes to arise, and give me hope that we are moving in the rather utopian direction of opening these theatres of affect towards radical but not naïve hope, and a more leftist sort of Care that attends to more radical Hospitality or more radical Open. The temporal/spacial site of touching the past, in such a moment, might consist of what allows a certain kind of phenomenological space-time to arise—much in the way that the temple, for Heidegger, or the work of art, Opens a World. These scenes allow us to feel the affective lines, crisscrossed and pulling like gravities that arise between each other and the past, part of the very world that we are part of (and this is why, for all the reasons is unnerves me, I love the last chapter of Bersani and Dutoit’s Forms of Being which forcefully does away with the boundary between world and individual—for whom we are phenomena of the world registering the world). And this is why I can say with Anna Klowsowska that “A queer reading is a deeply ethical approach to the text, in that it takes the text beyond itself in a necessary way. A personal pleasure in the text implies the reading is not less, but more ethically engaged” (Queer Love in the Middle Ages, NY: Palgrave, 2005, 6).

But that I have selected Heidegger here to anchor this contemplation (which is also a polemic about Theory, that it has never stopped being under attack and did not end its fight somewhere in the early 90’s (which is significant for someone who has said that he has nostalgia for a moment he cannot possibly be nostalgic for, and for which it is simply unwise in many ways to be nostalgic, that is, for something like ‘graduate school in the late 80’s.’ This is also to say that present IS always already unhinged and that a little fold of little soldiers lining up the fight the effects of Alan Bloom’s book are haunting us now even you among the readers of this blog)), that this post is about Heidegger and something that happened in a session on Medieval literature and history—this is significant. Heidegger, theory, and their histories, of course, find some of the hints they hinge most on, in the medieval. Heidegger would could not have thought Being without Duns Scotus. Heidegger could not have written narratives of thought, poems about linguistic and philosophical terms and unconcealments, or attempted to get beyond what he saw as the “Human” to something more Worldly and less Gnostic-religious, without the Creatures Dinshaw loves so much—mystics, (even, gasp) the ‘Church,’ and Aquinas. Derrida depends on the traditions of Medieval Jewish Commentary—and indeed takes his place among them.

I attempted to produce the above list not to write an apologetics for ‘why the medieval.’ I am not trying to respond to Nancy Partner’s paper at the first BABEL session yesterday, which suggested that when we inject queer theory or revolutionary politics into work on the Middle Ages, that we necessarily have to work harder to prove that this makes sense, because for her, queer theory and the middle ages don’t seem to ‘go together’ in and obvious way. That, as I said, is for another time. And besides, people like Derrida and Heidegger, theory itself, is exactly what asks more rigorously why we should or could put any two things together. Radically historicizing even our own moment, recent developments in neuro-science and perception sciences, not to mention the Pre-Socratics (my goodness! Parmenides, Democritus, the Pluralists!), call into question the possibility that ANYTHING necessarily follows anything else (ok, so I couldn’t resist responding at least a little bit). But, above, I am trying to highlight that we can think about and identify how specific theoretical, critical, and historiographic approaches might sew themselves into our writings, performances (here, commentary and phenomenology), and inter-locutions at conferences about medieval material. How might allow these Scenes of Heterotopian (and I need to say) Queer Affect to arise, to allow this connection to everything including each other—inviting whatever will then arrive, even if it is the Sorrow Nicola speaks of?

Berssenbrugge’s poem is in three parts. The first part I quoted from is titled “1 (THE DREAM),” and is followed by “2 (COMMENTARY),” a setup which seems appropriate for a post dealing with Nicola’s commentary-like paper (section three is numbered only, no parenthetical title). I’d like to open the ending of this post, I suppose, with the opening of the commentary on the dream:

The dream represents a meaning to me. Then, it’s a structure that shelters the meaning./ Emotion can represent evaluation or contain one, of interaction between an ethereal object/ and an organism. The angel bows down.

And the last lines of section 3:

What I thought I could lose of a person and what I thought I had lie next to each other,/ repeating, so the time in which you know her is a foliage during time and folds over on itself,/ hill filling with dogwood, tree of sky turning rose. A rose angel with the physical sensation/ of the meaning of your dream, holding a lamp, the waterfall behind her of some contemporary/ material like cellophane, achieves a cohesive tension exactly beside the contemporary.

9 comments:

Karl Steel said...

Huzzah! I remember the cheer Eileen gave after my paper; well, I'm reviving the cheer and throwing it, like a blanket, over you, too. What a wonderful post.

Eileen Joy said...

Hear hear to everything Karl says, and then some. A fuller reply to such beautifully phrased and provocative thoughts will be forthcoming.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Beautiful Dan. I just posted something that will have at least for the time being to serve as a reply. Very glad you are coming to NY! Cheers,

Nicola

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Well done and beautiful, Dan. I'll ruminate on this for a while.

I know I had trouble being serious in your presence, but seriously: it was such a pleasure to spend some time with you, and to be able to attach such thoughts to a specific body.

dan remein said...

Karl--huzaz yourself! What a great compliment--I'll take it!.

Nicola--you didn't put up a bad post yourself, anyone reading these comments you should go read it, like now.

Jeffrey--thanks. I will read your inability to be serious as a negative expression of a seriousness, or something. Still, if I ever find out the identity of a secret Cambodian ancestor, you will be the first to know about it.

dan remein said...

and ps, eileen, how will you ever have the time to reply, what with all the kissing going on over at ITM !

Eileen Joy said...

You can't go on kissing forever, Dan; sometimes you have to stop all that kissing and sit down to write. You are such an inspiration. I believe in the future because of students like you.

mseaman said...

Reading this tonight was like experiencing Nicola's talk, and that whole fantastic session, all over again--with the added bonus of benefitting from your beautifully perceptive commentary on his commentary simultaneously. Thanks so much for sharing it.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I'm late to the banquet here, after a particularly difficult week or so...but this is a beautiful post which makes me think that there's a definite space where wanting more from theory might be possible -- I'm so grateful to hear someone like Stacy saying that, and hearing you take up her thoughts and lobby brilliantly for that possibility, and for the possibility that just when we think (or, more appropriately, just when we think others may think -- those who criticize theory for a lack of mandate, a lack of political commitment) that "theory" is slowly losing momentum and focus, we can finally see what it mean all along: not that we can't do anything, but that we must take care -- with the past, with each other -- because no position is beyond question.

huzzah indeed.