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