Glenn Burger, Department of English, University of Alberta, email: email@example.com
But how exactly might the gay male / queer / feminist medievalist go about this? In the title chapter of his recent book, Lee Edelman proposes a project of "homographesis" to critique the current cultural conceptualizations of gay identity. For Edelman the term homographesis maps simultaneous processes of oppression and resistance inherent in modern reading strategies. In the first instance, homographesis signifies the process by which dominant ideological strategies assign to gay bodies a visible "difference." Thus as Edelman describes it, "the construction of homosexuality as a subject of discourse, as a cultural category about which one can think or speak or write, coincides . . . with the process whereby the homosexual subject is represented as being, even more than inhabiting, a body that always demands to be read, a body on which his `sexuality' is always inscribed." (10). But Edelman also outlines another, resistant homographesis, a reading and writing practice that counters the labour of disciplinary inscription by resisting categorization, that is "intent on de-scribing the identities that [a conserva- tive social] order has so oppressively inscribed" (10).
Edelman's analysis thus helps me, as a product of that modern regime, variously constructed as homosexual/gay man/queer, to dis-identify and destabilize current oppressive modes of representation, to think otherwise my own place within the present. But if I want to adjust Edelman's discussion of difference to suit a late medieval context, I need both to substitute gender for sexuality categories--that is, "the feminine" for "the homosexual"--and to retheorize the relations between gender, sex, and sexuality. Thus: "the construction of the feminine as a sub- ject of medieval discourse, as a cultural category about which one can think or speak or write, coincides . . . with the process whereby the feminine/feminized subject is represented as being, even more than inhabiting, a body that always demands to be read, a body on which his/her gender/sexuality is always inscribed."
For there may be analogies between medieval sodomite and modern homosexual as subject categories negatively interpellated by dominant culture; it may even be possible to discern the occasional utopic resistance to such representations, anticipating modern "gay" liberation, as James Miller has recently argued for the newcomers who have no name for themselves in Dante's Purgatorio 26 (279). But in the end neither the homosexual nor his more optimistic gay younger brother will be found in medieval representational practices because they are produced along modern not pre-modern axes of difference. What this indicates is not that it's impossible or irrelevant to talk about sexuality (in the sense of an identity organized around a bodily reading of sex, gender, sexual practice difference), only that it shouldn't be the modern hetero/homo axis of sexuality we are presuming or seeking.
So too, with sex difference. The work of Laqueur, Cadden, and others is making us increasingly aware of the instabilities and slippages inherent in medieval somatic models of sexual difference. Whether a one-sex model that views the female body as an inferior male body turned in on itself or a humoral model organized around differences in vital heat, medieval views of biological sex and the difference they inscribe on the body seem far less stable and absolutist than the modern two-sex model, and less likely foundations for cultural meaning in the Middle Ages. Thus the process of identification that happens in modern dis- cursive regimes along parallel essentializing axes of sex (male/female), sexuality (homo/hetero), and race (white/black), in medieval practice might more likely take place along the axis of gender (masculine/feminine). Essentialized gender difference provides the stabilizing foundation by which medieval dominant culture regulates "the natural." In doing so, the suppressed/oppressed category of the feminine inscribes and identifies a greater variety of othered bodies--women's, heretics', Jews', Saracens', effeminates', sodomites'--than is the case in modern Western regimes of representation.
Moreover, I would argue that the connection made throughout the Middle Ages between an essentialist gender system and a coer- cive narrative frame provides one of the controlling fantasies by which medieval dominant culture constitutes and maintains its identity. Such a model of "the natural" presupposes for the male or female body, or by analogy the sexualized textual body, a structuring gendered frame that either authorizes its inherent truthfulness as "the natural" or condemns its lack as perversity. Just as an unstable sexual body needs to be framed by a hierarchized and essentialist account of gender difference, so too with the analogous sexualized textual body. Rather than text or author providing the foundational moment for cultural production, the instabilities occasioned by their dependence upon material, and thus ephemeral and contingent, media demand the stabilizing frame of a "higher" authority in order to make manifest an essen- tial truthfulness and "masculine" will. Virginity (and its lesser cousin, chaste procreation) delineate the true nature of the "masculine" will for the sexes; just as citation of authorities, allegorical explication, or sententious kernel of wisdom, do for the text. The frame of gender and narrative authority then becomes the controlling presence that warrants the body's con- tinued existence and usefulness as signifier.
In this model the feminine can signify only as a ventriloquized voice and a dummy's body, everything which the masculine is not. As such, the feminine must be fantasized as Other in order to be absolutely transformed into speaking pictures of the truly masculine: as with female saints like St. Cecilia, or Saracen and Jewish converts, who all surmount their natural bodily weakness by manifesting a higher, "masculine" will. Or the feminine must be absolutely expunged (as with heretics and disobedient Jews or the effeminate Appius in the Physician's tale), or exiled beyond the margins (as in Saracen kingdoms of the East), or hermetically sealed (as in the Jewish ghettos of European Christendom).
However, if this essentializing connection between gender and narrative frame constitutes the coercive fantasmatic ideal of medieval dominant culture, the performativity inherent in its actual cultural instantiation guarantees that both masculine will and narrative authority remain far more anxious and unstable sites of meaning than their "nature" would appear to allow. In the remainder of this paper I want to focus on one such moment in the performativity of medieval gender difference: Fragment VI of the Canterbury Tales (in particular on the Physician's tale, but with brief reference to the Pardoner and his tale).
Thus, when the perverse gaze of Appius threatens to sully first the body of purity (Virginia) and then its essence (Virginius' reputation), the "natural" order must be inscribed on the physical and social body in ever more extreme ways. Because the distinction Virginius/Virginia should signal only accidental, not essential, difference, when Appius desires Virginia's female body rather than her signification as emblem of Virginius' power, he sexualizes and feminizes both Virginia's and Virginius' body, disrupting the normal homosocial exchanges within proper mas- culinity. Appius thereby feminizes his own signifying power as a proper man, foreclosing on his own agency as his actions objec- tify and bring into view his own excessive materiality. Moreover, such gender slippage threatens the hierarchized binaries of accident/essence, lying/truth, perverse/natural, that gender essentialism maintains, and exposes as proximate a feminizing, cupidinous perversity proper masculinity insists must always be outside itself.
To deny such perversity, it seems, the tale must excise the accidental altogether--whether in cutting off Virginia's head, in hanging Appius, or in denying its own embodied state as fable-- all in order to maintain the active subject position defined as proper masculinity. In particular, the tale asserts its status as authoritative text by emphasizing the absence of narrative play: "this is no fable, . . . The sentence of it sooth is, out of doute." (VI.155-7). At every level materiality is rendered unproblemmatic by a series of metaphoric substitutions that occlude the various sexual/textual bodies encountered in the tale. In this world, it would seem, there is no time to "complain," no allowance for individual desire, for accidents of time and place. The truth will out no matter what. The textual body, like Virginia's, is a dispensable and unproblematic vehicle; what's crucial for this foundational myth of purity is the con- tinued vitality of an essential masculine presence.
But there remains a residue of the personal and rhetorical, even in such a simplifying, pared down account. And in that sense the "body" of the Physician inheres in his tale, and in doing so, exposes a "me" (objectifiable and appropriable) to view. Only by extreme, coercive activity on the part of Vir- ginius, the Physician, and the other successful men who follow their example in framing and controlling what the tale means, can the individual and the ideological be aligned as one and the same activity. For the supposedly "natural" boundaries separating Virginius from Appius, masculine from feminine, essential truth from perverting falsity, are themselves constructions requiring the continuing "work" that (1) Virginius does to maintain intact what Virginia means, notably by cutting off her head; that (2) the Physician does to the materia of his text, by attempting to excise its materiality as fable; and that (3) the tale's audience (Host and gentils) do, by announcing their "proper" reception of the tale in their rejection of the Pardoner.
The Host's subsequent efforts to appropriate the Physician's "sothe" more actively and renumeratively for his own ends in the present Canterbury "game" foregrounds this residue of the personal even more explicitly. For what the Host so clearly admires is not simply how the Physician as tale-teller was subsumed within a "higher" masculinity and will--as the tale would demand--but rather how, in doing so, the Physician also expressed his own agency and power in shaping and regulating feminine lack and perversity. The Host responds as one man to another, acknowledging the presence of the Physician as body in his tale constructing a "nature" that demands constant vigilant surveillance of that body in order to avert perversity and loss of con- trol. The Host's comments thus recognize and seek to reproduce the homosocial "packaging" of identity taking place in the Physician's tale, providing an insightful account of how the Physician secures agency as a true man within the masculinist economy of language and power outlined by his tale.
Moreover, the Host's stress on the Physician's potent "tools of the trade," his emphasis on his own potency by denying a proper "tool" to the Pardoner, and even his more general allu- sions to the medical benefits of recreative play (including storytelling), underscore the material bodies so perfunctorily "killed off" in the Physician's tale. The "sentence" of the Physician's tale would have us focus on Virginia's inner beauty and nobility, that is, on that "original" nobility in her father, and ultimately, in God. The Host's assessment that "too dear she bought beauty" and "her beauty was her death" stresses a material, gendered body; the feminine supplement of the tale-- story as story; fable's affect rather than effect. And the Host concludes: "This is a pitous tale for to heere/ But nathelees, passe over; is no fors" (VI.302-3), even though the Physician has been absolutely explicit that his "historial thing" is "fors" and cannot be passed over. But in bringing the materia excised by the Physician's tale back into play in this way, the Host comes dangerously close to destabilizing the Physician's absolutist account of the natural on which dominant culture relies for its hegemonic power.
And these gaps in the seamless garment of masculinity which the Host's appriation of the Physician's tale make visible are precisely what the Pardoner draws attention to at the opening of his tale:
First I pronounce whennes that I come, And thanne my bulles shewe I, alle and some. Our lige lordes seel on my patente That shewe I first, my body to warente. (VI.335-38)That is, the Pardoner too begins with the assumption that the sign of an originary authority (here papal) will naturally subsume any potentially perverse materiality by overwriting its mas- culine will on that body. The Physician's tale proclaimed itself as a "historial thing" that would necessarily impose its unifying will on all who listened to it; body would "naturally" give way to "sentence.". Yet ironically, it is just this absolutist claim, to produce the same effect no matter what context, that makes the tale such a useful commodity for the Physician and Host, that allows them to use the story of Virginia to gain agency within the existing configurations of ideology. And an awkwardly similar absolutism and commodification of desire characterizes the commerce between the Pardoner and his "lewed" audience. Isn't it just such a "perverse dynamic" that the Par- doner underscores with his reminder that he uses Latin merely to "saffron" his preaching and stir lewed folk to devotion?
In this way the Pardoner makes explicit what the Physician and Host dare not acknowledge: the activity of the objectifying desire of his audience being written on him and the body of his text even as he stands in for "the father" and existing ideological configurations. Whereas the Physician purported to tell one "true" storial thing that repeats the originary name over and over without alteration, even at the risk of killing off the body itself; the Pardoner regularly tells a hundred or more "false japes" in his preaching, chooses "olde stories" not because they will transmit an anterior, primal will, but because they're what his audience wants to hear. And he does the same thing now by situating the exemplary tale demanded by his current audience within a dizzying series of frames that emphasize duplication and dissemination without a controlling, originary subject, the copy- ing of copies, rather than "masculine" procreative reproduction. Thus when we reach the Pardoner's tale "proper" the kinds of foundational binaries emphasized in the Physician's tale have collapsed. Is it "false jape" or some honest thing, made up or historial, ephemeral or essential, the Pardoner's or our own? The Pardoner's excessive reproduction of the constructions of masculinity and "the natural" taking place within medieval identity politics thus "spoils identity" to the extent that it de-scribes the identities that a conservative social order has so oppressively in-scribed via gender difference.
If the question of "How we work upon the world and constitute it as a social entity" emerges as a crucial one in this Fragment, equally pressing by the end of the Pardoner's tale is our recog- nition of the socially constructed "bodies that matter" that enable this representational "work" to take place, and that are themselves always already subjects and objects of desire. The Pardoner's queer re-presentation of the feminine, to adapt Sedgwick, "far from being capable of being detached from the originary scene of shame, cleaves to that scene as a near- inexhaustible source of transformational energy." As such it constitutes that queer performativity Butler has described as:
this relation of being implicated in that which one opposes, this turning of power against itself to produce alternative modalities of power, to establish a kind of political contestation that is not a "pure" opposition, a "transcendance" of contemporary relations of power, but a difficult labor of forging a future from resources inevitably impure. (241)Thus, rather than marking a hermeneutical dead-end of feminine non-identity which can only write true identity as someone else's and elsewhere, the Pardoner's troubling body--ceaselessly per- forming gender and sexuality but never getting it "right"-- provides an important way back into the perversities of a medieval politics of representation that the Physician's tale of Virginia and its fictional frame both enact and attempt to disguise.