Saturday, May 16, 2009

how the new new middle ages will be a radiant modernism with a queer cowboy for its dean: kalamazoo 2009

"A city of light is built on a cliffside.
The edge of the abyss is too damp.
The first birth has no memory."

Tomaž Šalamun

Despite (although not, in order to spite) a recent conversation with Jeffrey Cohen in which he declared that the colon/long title is dead, that the slash is the new colon, etc., I have titled this post with such a long title and a colon as above. It is a long post, and its not telelogically driving up to one point or presi about the conference. But I am trying to cultivate an ethos or an anticipation in it for a rough beast I think I feel (or at least want to feel) slouching towards a future kalamazoo, and a future middle ages.

I have been meaning to post-kalamazoo blog since I returned, via car, from that 12 highway-hour pilgrimage; but alas, I was fated instead to endure a headcold that prevented me from thinking or writing anything so much as an email of a few lines until now. It is more than safe to say that I had a fantastic time, and that again I want to thank every one that is making medieval studies and the humanities in general a better place to be building, dwelling, and thinking. Folks involved in the BABEL swarm-singularity are all so beautiful I can barely even think of naming them all. But, new to Kalamazoo and comrade-in-scholarship at NYU Liza Blake pulled her share in making this year memorable, as did one Mo Pareles. One Julie O. (who has been making some waves in a conversation over at In the Middle) as well was a wonderful person to have met and to see happy to meet BABEL as well. As usual, the event and ensuing late-night frivoloty took its own toll on my wakefullness, which also delayed this post.

So much of the discussion over at In The Middle has focused on discussions surrounding pleasure and affect, stemming from a set of BABEL panels on pleasure and ethics in medieval scholarship, that I think I would like to try to give shelter to another set of movements that were going on during the conference as well. These movements were not really a separate discussion from that of pleasure and ethics, but I want to remember them as in some way as a distinct thread of thought. §

Radiance and Theory: A Phenomenology without Subject and Without Concept
Only God exists. Spirits are a phantom.
Blind shadows of machines concealing the Kiss.
My Death is my Death. It won't be shared
with the dull peace of others squashed beneath this sod.

Whoever kneels at my grave--take note--
the earth will shake. I'll root up the sweet juices from
your genitals and neck. Give me your mouth.
Take are that no thorns piece your

eardrums as your writhe, like a worm,
the living before the dead. Let this oxygen
bomb wash you gently. Explode you only

so far as your heart will support. Stand up
and remmeber. I love everyone who truly knows me.
Always. Get up now. You've pledged yourself and awakened.

Tomaž Šalamun, "epitatph"
These musings are trying to collect up a whole bundle of thoughts from talks given on various panels by Anna Klosowska, Eileen Joy, Nicola Masciandaro, Karl Steel, Mo Pareles, Eileen Joy, and Ethan Knapp. Really, what has perhaps prompted me the most is Ethan Knapp's assertion that theory is not dead, but that theory may not be or have ever been what we think it is. Namely, that 'Theory,' a la Derrida et. al., when it entered into the US academy in the 1960's, could only be admitted by making itself something that would fit into what was already going on. Thus, the Yale school allowed theory to be admitted into our departments, at the cost that it enter as being about--in the last analysis--language and only language. Really, the whole body of literature we might call the theoretical turn owed and owes an immense debt to phenomenology--a debt which had to be forgotten to gain admittance into american thought. So, in medieval studies, in continuing to do 'theoretical work' in this field, perhaps it is time to turn to theory as a turn to phenomenology as a way of thinking about conditions of possibility--which is to say a way of thinking about everything itself and not just to confine our thought to language. And, to do so is to admit into the project of medieval studies and literary criticism the capacity of doing philosophy itself--writing about the middle ages not just to produce some more knowledge about Chaucer or whoever, but as a whole alluring event, a philosophical event calling into the nearness the distances of the cosmos itself. Theory thus as events of life and not just events of language--as the path of language into the world and its events and appearances (and not as a way into the monad of consciousness a la Husserl--but into the split of that consciousness, always already at work as not in synch with itself, as Derrida discusses in his most early of books la Voix et le phénomène).

I like this kind of phenomenology. As a way of getting back into the world. As a kind of event which forces a rupture in language so we can slip into a more pleasurable world. But I like this kind of phenomenology as well because I do not think it needs to be thought either with concepts or in terms of a subject whose presence and experience forms the sole site of arbitration for the happening of phenomenon. Phenomenology, rigorously understood, could be read as language about phenomenon--about what appears, or what happens. And, if Karl Steel's relentless and careful readings of animal's in the middle ages, especially as they are thought of at the moment of death and the moments of the apocalypse (at the very closing of cosmos itself!)--if this work teaches us anything, it certainly teaches us that all sorts of events have no need of a human subject in order to happen, or to matter. Last year, Karl gave a paper (if my memory serves me right) in which near the end he stated how he wanted to hold on to a particular moment of speculation, of hesitation, about the fate of animal bodies at the moment of the resurrection (what happens to ingested animals, etc.), as holding open the possibility of thinking the animal as animal, at its most animal, as animal first and last--and then lamenting that this medieval text quickly foreclosed this possibility. This year, Karl's work, I would say, held open that very possibility (thanks to Nicola Masciandaro for a good conversation that helped me piece this out), as pure poetry, and opening up the ringed space of the forgetting of the animal, while still keeping it ringed enough to be an open space, to hear the very language of the animal at its most animal, for the animal.

Anna Klosowska, in comments on a BABEL panel all about the place of pleasure in medieval studies (I will post my own preliminary remarks from this panel right after this post), called for scholarship without concepts, following Graham Harmon, and what she calls a post-abysmal way of thinking. This, and the babel of the animal the moment before its annihilation--these are the radiant events of a new phenomenology that will open out of contact with the middle ages. For Anna, we ended up--even before the pleasure panel, at the same panel as Karl's paper above--back at the moment of radiance in troubadour lyrics, with the figure of a lark weaving light--an intense radiance that seemed to me at once the poem as alluring jewel and the poem as luminous food, a feasting for the eyes and body in a burning heat. And this lead to a discussion later about burning up and purgatories. But this purgatory would not be purgative, would be the moment of ease. For, the figure of the poet or the intellectual as tortured genius has got to go--yes, it is still hanging around and it has got to go because we need to think the event of writing and the event of reading as these moments of radiance, or bearing witness to "the alchemical creation of the world." But how can we trust this radiance is not the shiny jewel of some demon ready to torment us back into being 19th century artists again?--more on this below.

Additionally, in the SSHMA panel on Queering the Anglo-Saxon studies , Eileen Joy recast the queer possibility of incest in talking about the lives of Guthlac in an inordinate love of what is at hand, of what is closest: for her, the sibling, the sister. Yet, in this love, are we seeking an alternative to the asceticism or the masochism that we call queer perhaps all-too-delightfully in the lives of saints, in Foucault's lives of infamous men, in Foucault's cura sui which he hoped would produce a kind of extra-discursive queer body? Or, do we find ourselves back in that bind: the queer self-abjecting; only in the self-denying, subject-destroying mode which is, my friends, the essence of the destructive practice of the religious (the re-bound, the re-read, the overdetermined, re-legio)? "Can someone help me take the religion out of my queer sex, but not take the queer sex out of religion, because that's the most interesting part--and here we are back where we started" [qtd. from memory, open to correction] Joy asked. Again, we are stuck in this bind of wanting the pleasure, the event of pleasure, a phenomenology built around pleasure. Why not insert here a phenomenology of pleasure and not of a consciousness? This is perhaps how Mo Pareles' paper on the same panel, thinking about the Legion story from Mark in the OE gospels, worked so well with Eileen's paper. Mo's paper looked into those flows and swarms and multiplicities of the man inhabited by the demon who is called legio because he is many, and the demon's migration with Christ's permission in the swine. She asked about the queer contagion, still around now, of the multiple and the demonic, being tracked now across our nation as a swine flu that demands the closing of flows and borders, demanding singularities and not swarms (to clarify, Mo was not asking for the closing of borders, etc....those who fall to the usual fear of the queer contagion). What is the moment of this passage, in its medieval OE manifestation, that touches on the modern and brings with it the allure that draws into its nearness the queer scholar? How do we understand this event as a literary and philosophical event?

What I want to offer then instead as the locus of the phenomenon of such a phenomenology is a kind of radiance, a kind of intensity. Not a replacement for the human subject in new clothes: I am not talking about you or me, not about conscious things. I am thinking about the happy coincidence of matter and matter in such an intense way that a kind of radiance happens, that a kind of gravitational allure occurs which then in turn just might allow a critical mass of consciousness to snag on it, to cooperate in a moment of bliss. If we are then going to talk about the responsibility or the ethics of this phenomenon, if we want to ask about whether the affects of the alluring are always good or always feel good, we need to ask why we want to ask about responsibility in the first place. Whose responsibility, and to what or to whom--to possibility?

That is, this is a moment of radiance 'beyond good and evil' that I would be after. The moment here is beyond the movements that have been reading--since its inception with Rimbaud et. al.--of literary modernism as the final movement of pessimism. Rather, this intense moment of the phenomena as alluring radiance, as the threshold of life and ecstasy, is perhaps the importance of modernism. Modernism as a supreme radiance, or desire for radiance. Where my collaborator Anna Klosowska would see Heidegger as the epitome of the modern that needs to be gotten beyond as the abysmal, I might actually re-incribe as within this radiance: right at the hear of a modernity and a literary modernism--especially where it contacts the medieval (in Pound's first Canto, in Eliot's Quartets, in early Auden, in DADA etc.).

For example, let's take a epitomizing piece of high modernity, a ready-made (that most depraved elegance of dysfunctional and disruptive modernist art--for the true parts of modernism were not the shoring of fragments against one's own ruins, but the lichens and freezes leeching into the ruins themselves, cracking the remainders of the past to dust not to eliminate it, but so we could ingest it and truly live AS the past!--pace the poetry of Pound, HD, prose of Stein, the saison en enfer, etc. See Charles Bernstein, A Poetics, "Pounding Fascism" et. al.) that I discovered while I was washing with my dishes the other day, in the form of an upside-down ramekin which I later placed on a nice rug in my living room for the sake of a digital photo:

HIC PORCELAIN it says. HERE PORCELAIN I think immediately of Nicola Masciandaro's paper his year at Kalamazoo which amounted to a phenomenology of decapitation, and ended with the voice of st. Edmund's head in the story of St. Edmund, calling out here, here, here, so people can find it, cradled by a hungry wolf who guards the head from the other beasts. A moment of tenderness, of event-ness in the sheer impossibility of the king decapitated and talking, with the greedy wolf cradling the disjunction of its being cut-off and its open mouth gaping open the space-time of différance at the where its most poetic of voices is produced: HIC PORCELAIN. Here. This. Here, this modenity, here, this middle ages. Thus event happening as the poetry of a HERE whose (perhaps unintentonal?) latin calls into nearness the scholarly language of a middle ages as it meets up so contingently with the high modernist 'ready made' so-decreed by the whim of a tired scholar washing his dishes on a spring evening in 2009 in Brooklyn, NY.

The ramekin is a perfectly brightening and glowing event, beckoning waves of allure into its radiant gravitational reach. HERE, PORCELAIN. Autodeictic and autoindexical movement, the bottom of the ramekin, usually hidden, calls to no one and to everyone that turns it over to tell us what we already know and tell it to us with its stamped on text HIC PORCELAIN, a mix of Latin preposition and modern English noun, already a labeled museum piece for the anthropology of a future excavating our most serious of culinary endeavors (crème brûlée, for example, a stamped HIC hiding under the crisp caramelized top, the creamy middle, the ceramic under-layer--for a crème brûlée involves the ramekin as well!--and facing the normal force of the table which upholds it!). Remember what C.S. Lewis wrote in his Discarded Image, even if he is stilted in his historiography: "One gets the impression that medieval people, like Professor Tolkien's Hobbits, ejnoyed books which told them what they already knew" (200). This THIS, this HERE, this HIC PORCELAIN calls to no one, does not need us, but pulls us into its radiance as a visual event of the poem when washing dishes and suddenly things, objects, MATTER itself can call out to the living, invite us to live with it, and radiate with it, in the threshhold of matter and life. This is what a medieval medieval studies, a disruptively modernist medieval studies could do under the sway of a new phenomenology which would demand a NEW INDEXICALITY (see Derrida's chapters on the index in Husserl in la Voix et le phénomène)--poems for papers and films for bibliographies. Love-ins for the queer university which is not a place or an institution but a incestuously auto-indexical event that happens at any school [and this came up in the BABEL panel on Ethics, with thanks to Carolyn Anderson on making space for the queer reader in the classroom even in cowboy boot Wyoming,, and more tangentially with papers on the coercive possibilities of language in writing and teaching...].

Thus literary modernism as a moment of our relatively more recent past is perfect as it calls to us and to the medieval as well, as a moment we are still not getting despite its passing late last century--as a moment as infinitely distant and near to us at the same time as the medieval has always been--they shine brightly forth in that which just happens, HERE.

I know this is full of rambling. more systematic, or at very least more lucid thoughts to follow in the next few days and weeks on more specific thoughts on what this radiance is, where it happens, and where it pulls us into our medievale future.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

more while expecting kalamazoo...

Here is the paper, finally, from the Glossator conference in April at the CUNY graduate center. The final roundtable with Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, David Greetham, Jesús Velasco, and Avital Ronell, with introductory remarks and questions from Nicola Masciandaro, can be heard here.

Affects and Their Gravities: Commentary as a Capacity of Care

1. Commentary and Secular Sense

Wai Chee Dimmock, ostensibly an Americanist, has argued for “literature as a democratic institution, vibrant and robust.”[i] Alternately, she finds literary culture a kind of slow moving “civil society”: “an unusually fine grained and lasting one, operating on a scale both too large and too small to be fully policed by the nation-state.”[ii] For Dimmock, the literary as such “is not an attribute resident in a text, but a relation, a form or entanglement, between a changing object and a changing recipient, between a tonal presence and the way it is differently heard over time.”[iii] Literature, “is thus an object with an unstable ontology, since a text can resonate only insofar as it is touched by the effects of its travels.”[iv] The literary is thus a relation.

We could, already, at a conference like this, apply certain epithets to this relation in a manner facile (yet perhaps needful)—understanding the literary as commentary, the act of translating which enables much of the movement of this society through deeper time as a kind of commentary. And we would in so doing deepen our understanding of commentary, of what we call the ‘literary.’ Yet, following this relation into moments of its manifestation will bring us to a strange territory: one that our classical notion of worldly civil society—one for and in this world—cannot, for all that, account for. Such a sense of the literary which, as relation we would call commentary, through deep time, would include strange phenomena. For instance, as Dimock enumerates, “Translation—the movement of a corpse by a vehicle driven by someone other than himself, and the movement of a text by a vehicle driven by something alien—unites the living and the dead in a gesture steeped in mortality and inverting it, carrying it on.”[v] Dimock is thus willing to admit that to acknowledge the sense which emerges from such a relation comes with a certain risk—as we knowledge that the literary as relation (between us, here, but also but also in meaningful relations with the dead) we must also acknowledge its filiations with the content and structure of religions and the religious.[vi] Just as Jean-Luc Nancy must acknowledge that politics (specifically the politics of democracy) in its history as the “renewed aporia of a religion of the polis” must go the way of fundamentalist theocracy or follow a radical “reinvention, perhaps, of what secularity means,” so too commentary (if we take it as a literary relation), like politics, must “assume a dimension it cannot integrate for all that, a dimension that overflows it, one concerning an ontology or an ethology of “being-with,” attached to absolute excedence [excédence absolue] of sense and passion for sense for which the word sacred was but the designation.”[vii] How might we gloss of this sense of being-with, trembling within what we call commentary?

Heidegger’s thinking on the structure of Mitda-sein (being-together) as a structure equiprimordial with Dasein stands out from his analysis of Care as a fundamental structure of Dasein in Part 1 of Sein und Zeit, to the point that Being-with or Being-together would be necessary for our being itself. I would offer this sense of Care which determines being-with as a gloss on a possible ground of an “ethology of ‘being-with’”:

Since being-in-the world is essentially care, being-together-with things at hand could be taken in our previous analyses as taking care of them, being with the Mitda-sein of others encountered within the world as concern. Being-together-with is taking care of things, because as a mode of being-in it is determined by its fundamental structure, care.[viii] (180)

To invoke this concept of Care is to assert that one’s being can only emerge as already oriented towards the Being-together of others that involves taking care of things. Being together thus involves a taking-care-of-things-together. It is this concept of Care, I would contend, which could provide access to the new kind of secularity that literature as civil society (as a way of Being-together) would need in its theoretical enunciation: a way of understanding how literary practices—specifically those of commentary—are caught up in the practices that simultaneously produce and consist of the sense of the mysterium being-together [the glosser participates in a society across time addressing herself to the text, the author, and previous glossers at the same time that she squeezes the sense out of a line of verse in bringing the stylus to the margin]. I would thus link commentary as Care to an ethos of Being-with while at same time reckoning with the resemblance of such a sense-producing structure to the production of sense proper to religions by locating its manifestation in the radically worldly and mundane practices of reading and writing (commentary).

According to Heidegger’s conceptualization, Care appears equiprioridally with Being itself, resulting in the practice of taking care of things as part of one’s reactionary and determined responses to the thrown-ness of finding oneself being-in the Mitdasein of others.[ix] Even so, this formulation of Care inextricably links Being-together to the possibility of the appearance of the mysterium of Being at all: “The being of Da-sein means being-ahead-of-onesself-already-in (the world) as being-together-with (innerworldly beings encountered). This being fills in the significance of the term care...”[x] Care is a fundamental structure, not the result of conscious or appropriative practice. But when commentary might be understood as a taking care of things (texts) together (together because glossers will inevitably add to and argue with each other across time and space while they fill up the margins of a given text) then the question could then be posed—as we are together at a conference on commentary: can concrete practices of taking-care-of-things-together contain the possibility of producing in reverse the kind of exceedence I would ascribe to Care? I would offer the remainder of this paper, a commentary on two short sections from a contemporary poem, to risk attempting what must amount to that impossible heresy.

2. Commentary on two lines from “Daughter” by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge[xi]

from part one, “Dream”:

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 meaning

of your dream, when you awake. The birds’ dream represents an angel, and later it shelters the meaning,


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. They can be for this reason, very forgettable lines—hard to call up and quote, but nonetheless leaving a reader with a residue of specific affects. These lines open a scene in which a swimming angel can sense.

The birds, sleeping, recognize the angel, and this recognition forms something of a ‘phenomenological correlative,’ to recognize in this line something akin to Eliot’s objective correlative even if it will open onto these secular literary aesthetics. The dream of the birds, within the dream of the poem (so-named by the section heading “dream”) does the work of a language, representing an angel, sheltering the meaning angel, and unfolding, even as an ethereal dream within the fiction of a poetic dream, a ‘physical sensation of meaning,’ except that unlike Eliot’s figure, here the sense is not conveyed with reliance on an image.[xii] Instead, the poem-commentary insists, sense is literarily and physically sheltered by the sound of the poem pronounced, and sheltered by a dream—as if the dream, as a wish or a desire, were also a physical phenomon in the world of the dream within the dream, pulling the angel towards itself, a gravity of affect pulling in and giving shelter to the meaning, even in an echo of itself after the dream is over.

The very first line physically works to shelter this sense, dissipating the s-sounds throughout the line, so that the angel’s approach, silently swims, is, physically, intimate with the very word ‘sense’ when the line is audibly pronounced. The physical feeling of the s anticipates sense before its arrival, but also helps to shelter it in the memory of the reader or listener as sound physically ties the end of a long line to its beginning, helping one to remember the sense of the long line. This “physical sensation of meaning’ consists in a recognition without waking—a dreaming within a dream which recognizes what is outside of the dream, but, impossibly, without breaching the boundary of the dream—giving the shelter of the dream over to itself on the condition that it shelter more than just dream (ie. meaning), even as what it contains (the meaning Angel) is within the ‘dream’ of the poem, but outside the dream of the birds inside the poem. §

from part 2 “Commentary”:

The dream represents a meaning to me. Then it’s a structure that shelters the meaning.

My emotion can represent an evaluation or contain one, of interaction between an etheral object

and an organism. The angels bows down.

The commentary opens itself by saying what the dream is doing. It does this in the form of lineated verse—verse of a long line, almost resembling prose, yet failing to reach all the way to the right margin despite coming quite close. The commentary establishes a temporal order for what the dream does (we must hold in reserve the question of which dream?): first, it represents. then, it is (a structure that shelters the meaning). Either the form of the two sentences of this first line is not parallel, or the being of the dream is considered its activity by the end of the first line. The dream thus has its being in sheltering. The difference between representation and being is quite significant. The dream is a structure that shelters the meaning. Now, what sort of structure is it?

Dimmock reminds us, as she explains her privileging of the audible over the visual in her theory of the literary relation, that “Literary study makes a large provision for the unvisualizable,”[xiii] and I might offer this moment as such a instance of that provision. What kind of structure shelters a meaning? If the meaning has moved into the very operations of ontology, it is a meaning whose being is in its very relation, in its unfolding as unveiling. The shelter of such a delicate creature would then surely be strange. Yet even though I would desire philosophical rigor for this paper in the last instance, I am really dealing with poësis, a poësis which is prior to any philosophy—so we will dare to name what is strange. To do so we must venture out of our text briefly because it is only later in the poem where we read that what is contained in the dream, the scene of the dream (rocks, angel, birds, etc.) is “like a stage set” (Part 2, 2nd complete stanza).[xiv] A stage, as the marking off of a limit which is nonetheless an opening—an enclosure whose function it is to open for the audience, an open circle—a structure which functions to allow an event to occur from inside which overfills it and brings the audience into relation with it as the event of a theater, a figure (pace Nancy on Gérard Granel) operating in the mode, of “the simultaneity of the open and the ringed...the simultaneity of the void and the divided out”[xv]

The claim of the second line opens the possibility of a vacillation between representating and sheltering, or, containing, but with respect to an emotion. This similarity to the relations of the first line suggests the possibility that the dream is, or at least can operate in the manner of, an emotion—the history of dream as wish-fulfillment underscores this possibility—the dream as desire. The desire is not in itself an evaluation, but can contain one. This is the relation between a being (an organism) and an ethereal object (the literary). A desire then operates here as the stage of, or the scene of, the intellection. The affective lien between a being and the literary shelters the sense of that relation. The poet-exegete identifies a shelter within the text and cares for it—even while taking shelter in it among the other readers that will encounter this shelter. Her and our commentary Cares for this shelter, expanding it without compromising its uniqueness—making it available to a community on the condition of maintaining its singular texture. This Care is not the Anxious care of the religious for the sacred word worth more than the World [Heidegger’s Care too suffers under Angst], not the gnostic privileging of Word over World which the literary as a civil relation, a conference on commentary, or any civil gathering around any text constantly risks practicing. As sheltering, commentary could operate as a practice of giving the world back to itself in its very worldiness.

For the shelter to undergo the circumspection of commentary and yet continue to function as a shelter of meaning it must somehow be able to be given back itself and its sheltering. This sheltering and what it draws towards itself (in terms of the sense of the poem) as well as the preservation of this sheltering (which any commentary on it would require) thus provokes a relation that is the very meaning of Heidegger’s Care: “the possibility of a concern which does not so much leap in for the other as leap ahead of him, not in order to take “care” away from him, but to first to give it back to him as such.”[xvi] This poem’s own gloss on itself, if it is to care for itself, cannot simply open up this shelter and grasp at or gaze on the meaning that the shelter shelters, but must leap ahead of the poem’s own appearance so that it give back to the poem the event of its sheltering. The poet-exegete moves and thinks and is-with all of these events in the dream which operates as a stage that opens for the performance of the poem—a shelter which, once given it back to itself so that meaning be immanent in its sheltering, exerts such a gravity so as to make our sheltering of the poem’s sheltering possible, and in turn our gloss, our meaningful being-with.

At the end of our text, the Angel bows down. The Angel seems to have escaped from the dream and into the commentary. The angel tends to the sheltering, bows in the commentary to the sanctuary of sense that, being literary, can only be (in the first instance) felt or heard. Again, the dream first sheltered the meaning, “angel,” a thing that outside of it, bows down, as part of its commentary. The poem, at least the part of it which consists of the dream, is not unless the angel is, and is in such a way that it tends to the poem’s sheltering of sense as part of the commentary to the dream. The Angel is not only the dramatization, but also the literal event of the poem’s leaping ahead of both the sheltering and the meaning sheltered even within the topology and vocabulary of the poem itself so it can infinitely give itself back to itself. This angel is then not a religious worshipper, not bowing out of penitence or unworthiness, but in following and attending to, indeed leaping ahead of and sheltering, the affective gravity of the Being-with of the poem as commentary in which it has its being. Something of this being-with escapes itself while still remaining worldly and finite—escapes the finite figure of the dream which nonetheless somehow shelters the infinite sense that resounds in the impossible space and movement of the Angel between the inside and the outside of the dream.[xvii]

The success of the poem’s commentary on its own dream/desire depends on the preservation of this finite structure which shelters sense exceedent enough for an Angel from within the dream to bow to it. This is a capacity of the literary Dimock describes as the ability for tiny details of a text to shelter global relations through deep time: “These two—finite parameters and infinite unfolding—go hand in hand. The latter is embedded in the former, coiled in the former [I might say, sheltered by]...Scalar opposites here generate a dialectic that makes the global an effect of the grainy.”[xviii] This careful and circumspect bringing out of almost infinite sense out of finite figures might be seen as a concept of commentary itself as the ‘spice’ or “savor of the significance of the text” (as Nicola Masciandaro would say).[xix] But it need not be glossed as a religious exegesis of transcendent sense. Rather, I would gloss this relation of Care as the very relation of commentary, infinitely leaping ahead of the shelter so as to give the shelter back to itself in its sheltering (here, in the mise en abîme of the exe-poësis which, despite what it is, escapes itself to bring us in turn, outside of the poem, into the same relation, pulling us together into the shelter of its auto-commentary): a capacity for which, while remaining secular, a secular structure cannot keep account; a tending to the sense which, given back to itself, exceeds itself—the relation to the infinite that we are first drawn to by a finite dream, or even a desire for the finite entity of a poem bursting out from exegesis.

Giambattista Vico’s etymology of lex (for law) famously explains the term as referring initially to a gathering of acorns, then as a gathering of vegetables or crops, and finally “a collection of citizens, or the public parliament” from which gathering of lex or law gives way again to the gathering of letters into the legere of reading.[xx] This etymology, no matter how inventive, importantly roots reading in a practice emerging from a civil way of being-together. Literature operates as a lex alternative to the compulsory civil gathering of nations—but as a relation, one which gathers not only letters—where the civil gathering, rather than making the literary possible, is made possible and in fact manifested imminently in the literary. Commentary tends to this gathering-relation as being-together—across time and in a secular space, in the absence of the scribe and/or the receiver—, promotes it in reverse of the Heideggerian schema with which I began this essay, gathers beings into a secular order arising co-extensively with its sense in the shelter of commentary. Commentary tends to an alternative lex, not only alternate to the nation-state Dimock wisely wants out of, but also in its capacity to include sense in that order of being-together. Commentary: a secular practice of being-together, which can assume a dimension of sense.

[i] Wai Chee Dimock, “A Theory of Resonance,” PMLA (March 1999):1060.

[ii] Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: America Literature Across Deep Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 8.

[iii] Dimock, “Theory of Resonance,” 1064.

[iv] ibid., 1061.

[v] Dimock, Through Other Continents, 16.

[vi] ibid. Dimock refers to World religions as “well established phenomenon, one of the most durable and extensive on earth,” 23.

[vii] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Opening,” in Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. Bettina Bergo et. al. (NY: Fordham University Press, 2008), 3.

[viii] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 180.

[ix] Cf. Heidegger, Being and Time, §38 “Falling Prey and Thrownness,” §26 “The Mitda-sein of the Others and Everyday Being-with,” and §27 “Everyday Being One’s Self and the They,” on authentic Being and the everyday “leveling” of being or falling of discourse into idle talk, into which “Da-sein is disperesed in the they and must first find itself” (p.121), those passages part of those themes of Heidegger so misread by Sartre.

[x] Heidegger, Being and Time, 179-180.

[xi] Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, “Daughter,” in I Love Artists: New and Selected Poems (Berkley: University of California Press, 2006), 77-79.

[xii] Cf. F.O. Mathiessen, “The ‘Objective Correlative,” and “The Auditory Imagination,” in The Achievement of T.S. Eliot: An essay on the Nature of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).

[xiii] Dimock, “A Theory of Resonance,” 1066.

[xiv] Berssenbrugge, “Daughter,” p. 78 Part 2, 2nd complete stanza.

[xv] See Jean-Luc Nancy, “A Faith That Is Nothing At All,” in Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, 73.

[xvi] Heidegger, Being and Time, 115.

[xvii] In one of the later Harry Potter novels (and I will remain vague here for those who have ‘spoiler’ concerns), Prof. Dumbledore says to Harry, who is concerned about the status of their current conversation within the poles of dream and reality, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and XXXXXX (New York: Scholastic, 2007).

[xviii] Dimock, Through Other Continents, 77.

[xix] Nicola Masciandaro, “Becoming Spice: Commentary as Geophilosophy,” given at CUNY Graduate Center, Glossing is Glorious: The Past, Present, and Future of Commentary, April 9, 2009.

[xx] Giambatissta Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1968), Book 1, LXV, p. 240.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

excerpting from the corpse...

An excerpt from the middle-end of a seminar paper called "Knowledge, Sense, and Security: A Treatise with Reference to Walter Benjamin and Julian of Norwich," for a now-complete course called 'Security Issues":


For, the vision is of the head of a dying or dead Christ, an image not alien to Benjamin’s Trauerspiel book. The passage is so astonishing that I will quote it here at length:

And in alle that time that he shewd this that I have now saide in gostley sight [of the Virgin], I saw the bodley sight lasting of the plenteous bleding of the hede [of Christ]. The gret droppes of blode felle downe under the garlonde like pelottes, seming as it has comen oute of the veines. And in the coming oute they were browne rede, for the blode was full thicke. And in the spreding abrode they were bright rede. And whan it came at the browes, ther they vanished. And notwithstonding the bleding continued tille many thinges were sensed and understonded, nevertheles the fairhede and the livelyhede continued in the same bewty and livelines.

The plentoushede is like to the droppes of water that falle of the evesing of an house after a grete shower of raine, that falle so thicke that no man may nomber them with no bodely wit. And for the roundhede, they were like to the scale of hering, in the spreding of the forhede. Thes thre thinges came to my minde in the time: pelletes, for the roundhede in the coming oute of the blode; the scale of a herring, for the roundhede in the spreding; the droppes of the evesing of a house, for the plentoushede unnumberable. This shewing was quick and lively, hidous and dredful, and swete and lovely.[1]

The head is continually bleeding, as if an infinite source of sensual sorrow and dying/decay, but with the constant and incessant mechanisms of life still at work. This is the combination of bleeding (as an operation of a body that is dying by bleeding out or by having been tortured with the ‘crown of thorns’ but also as the operation of a healthy living body when cut or even, in medieval medicine, bled for medicinal reasons) with the assertion that what is shown to bleed is, while hidous also lovely and in fact, with a certain “fairhede and livelyhede” in “the same bewty and livelines.” Thus the head itself and its gloss give way to a lively and bustling production clarification of colors and their location in the image which in turn gives way to a description of movements and shapes by means of strange similes—some very oddly specific (the herring) and others quite vague. That the vision in this image is only of the head is even more astonishing, as if presenting another impossibility in the Head of Christ severed (even if only for the sake of or in the representation of the vision) from the body: the decapitated God. The vision actually could have potentially contained within it the same problem Benjamin sees facing the writers of the Trauerspiel, that of a world where certain religious mechanisms remain, but the sense has been evacuated. That this could have been a problem for medieval writers, in advance of the Protestant removal of religious sense from profane life, is perhaps an emendation to be made to Benjamin’s historiography. What is important is that this play of representations, the simultaneity of death constantly refreshing itself in the vanishing blood within the mechanisms of life and dying (bleeding) becomes the absolute source for the productions of sense in Julian’s poetics, gives way to a whole flurry of similes concerning the sensual qualities of the dying Christ-head which are then re-iterated in terms of both the fact of their occurrence as simile and their sensual relation to things of this world. Julian, structurally, thus understands in advance what Benjamin claims for the poetics of the Trauerspiel:

And if it is in death that the spirit becomes free, in the manner of spirits, it is not until then that the body too comes properly into its own. For this much is self-evident: the allegorization of the physis can only be carried through in all its vigour in respect of the corpse...Seen from the point of view of death, the product of the corpse is life. It is not only in the loss of limbs, not only in the changes of the aging body, but in all the processes of elimination and purification that everything corpse-like falls away from the body piece by piece. It is no accident that precisely nails and hair, which are cut away as dead matter from the living body, continue to grow on the corpse. There is in the physis, in the memory itself, a memento mori; the obsession of the men of the middle ages and the baroque with death would be quite unthinkable if it were only a question of reflection about the end of their lives.[2]

Benjmain even cites Lohensteins’s work “celebrating ‘the passion of Christ in alternate Latin and German poems, arranges like the limbs of the human body.’”[3] What is important to notice about this is the view of the corpse from the point of view of death, but for the sake of life, and the production of writing (be it critical or literary) and its sense in relation not just to the sensuality of the body, but to the figure of the body at its most secure and insecure—the dead body (sure it is dead, yet being dead, entirely vulnerable). Christ’s head, without his body, provides a most compelling example of this phenomenon, still sensing, seemingly forever producing sense extending out from the profane things of Julian’s own world. And the relation of Julian’s writing to the impossible (decapitated for the sake of the vision) head of Christ is one of sense-production, bound up in the manifestation of this kind of sureness not related to the sureness of gnostic knowledge for salvation from this world.

Julian pulls off an extraordinary trick in the order of sense available to her late-medieval female position, fully embodying this very logic of the corpse not only in her writing, but in an effort which effectively returned sense to the order of this world for her. The certainty that her writing manifests is written already in, on, and around, the sensations of Julian’s own late-medieval female body, and specifically her own death experienced as her life as an anchoress. That is, we speak not only of writing and sense related to the figure of a corpse, but also the writing of Julian’s own corpse. That becoming an Anchoress meant undergoing a ritual of last rights and enclosure into the anchorhold (as a tomb) as a gesture of being dead to the world is a commonplace of scholarship on late medieval piety.[4] Underscored by Julian’s own near-death experience which accompanies her vision, we cannot but wonder to what extent this ritual actually freed Julian to determine the course of her writing—to what extent being dead-in-life exempted her experience of this world from the compulsion to produce knowledge for the sake of salvation in the other world of resurrection. She writes that we are to be seker (against the dominant usage of the term as knowledge/safety-from-damnation) not to produce security but by taking the security of sense in writing for granted and thus paradoxically writing from the security of the corpse. By becoming dead, and becoming a corpse—by asserting the security of her body as dead—she locates the security of her writing’s ability to relate to the order of sense in this world. Julian locates the security of sense in this world in the writing of the corpse.

[1] ibid., 7:9-24. To clarify: the passage is explaining that Julian saw the bleeding head also, during the entire time that she experienced her ghostly vision of the Virgin.

[2] Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 217-218.

[3] ibid., 218.

[4] See Christopher Cannon, “Enclosure,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 109-113.