I'm going to abdicate my announced role of "metacommentator" and I can't imagine it will be mourned. People gathered under the various rubrics and slogans that brought us here are collectively obliged not to be much impressed with the notion, or even the possibility, of meta-commentary. Among our handful of shared assumptions must surely be the impossiblity of a single, authoritative perspective or vantage from which disparate actions and activities can be reconciled or even understood. If not "metacommentary," I would nevertheless suppose "commentary," to be appropriate enough. One of the interests of postmodern theory is to reopen the spaces that premature and exclusionary stabilizations seek to close, and these spaces ARE the space of commentary, the place of Certeau's "wound" or "rift" in discourse, endlessly written about, endlessly commented upon.
The conference organizers have proposed multiple possibilities for our own academic identity-formation. The title "Cultural Frictions: Medieval Cultural Studies in a Postmodern Context" allows us to draw upon new historicism (via allusion to Stephen Greenblatt's "Fiction and Friction" essay), cultural studies, or postmodern theory. But, among these alternatives, the first seems to me one that we are trying to think our way past, at least as it has manifested itself in early modern studies. And the second seems to me one to which most of the papers in this conference have not laid full claim. My reasoning here is that cultural studies, at least when its origins in British cultural materialism are taken into account, cannot consistently be maintained as a practice separate from the larger range of poststructural theories without some reference to the materiality--and material consequences--of the text. To be sure, some papers have made occasional reference to matters of materiality. I am thinking, for example, of Robert Clark and Claire Sponsler's reference to the family workshop as an instantiation of the patriarchal economy. Or of Glenn Burger's citation of a textual inscription of materiality, in Harry Bailly's reassertion of the materia of Virginia's voided body in the Physician's Tale. Nonetheless, the papers of this conference have been overwhelmingly textual and linguistic in their emphasis, to an extent that persuades me that an interest in postmodernism and postmodern theory is their common ground.
Here, however, a possibility of contradiction arises. For the work of this conference is "historical" in its temporality, and postmodernism is commonly supposed (even by some of its practitioners) to be a- or anti-historical in its assumptions. What about postmodernism and the past?
To state an obvious, but frequently neglected, point: postmodernism is preoccupied with history, endlessly obsessed with history, and with the nature of the claims the past exerts upon us; it might almost be called a "way of thinking about history and representation, provoked and endlessly refreshed by its refusal to allow "final understanding." Postmodernism, as Diane Elam has remarked, far from uncaring about history, "is concerned with practically nothing but the problem of trying to think historically"--always with the understanding that this is an unending project, that "we can never fully come to terms with the past, we can never justly represent it."
If we as medievalists are to be spurred by idea of the postmodern, the necessary adjustment is precisely to stop considering it as "that which follows the modern," and ask what its characteristic "way of thinking" the past might be. Lyotard offers a valuable suggestion in his own rejection of the notion that the postmodern follows the modern, and his paradoxical insertion of the postmodern at the moment of modernism's founding: "A work can only become modern if it is FIRST postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant." Postmodernism thus becomes an endless rewriting of modernism, authorized by the fact that its visitation is really a revisitation, a rediscovery of its own presence in the founding moment of its supposed historical precedent and cause. The postmodern stance toward the modern is thus insistently to restate those complexities, the rejection of which was essential to modernism's founding as an integral and self-coherent period.
This is what I want to say about postmodernism and ALL historical periodicity. Its destabilizing relation to the modern is identical to its relation with on any and all periodizations or bogus stabilizations. A period's founding--and I am referring to its retrospective self-foundation, and to the retrospective gaze of scholarship upon it--a period's founding requires the simplification or outright jettisoning of multiplicities, alternative discourses, and all that resists binarization or monological narration. The attitude of the postmodern entails a return to "prenatal" complexity and a (necessarily incomplete) act of redress to what has been silent, jettisoned, or lost.
I want to locate one of the crucial operations of postmodernism as it confronts either present or past (*no difference) in Carolyn Dinshaw's aside on Margery Kempe: "when we call [her life] saintly imitatio, what do we leave out?" That is, when we categorize, when we call it "x," or when we set category "x" against category "y," what fringe of possibility, or what possibilities of intermediary diversity, do we exclude? The attempt to contain Margery Kempe's inherent excessiveness within the categories of the saint, the good woman of religion, the heteronormal--or any other--does intrinsic violence to the special properties of her existence, to the commotion and sheer trouble she constantly sets out to cause by cross-category confusion, as when this mother of ___ dons virginal white to exemplify the state of inner grace she has achieved. To recontain or recategorize her is, of course, to associate ourselves with those confessors, fellow travellers, and church officials who are attempting exactly the same thing. In this sense, Carolyn's "touch of the queer," with its revelation of disjunction within categories presented as inevitable and natural, contains its own "touch of the postmodern," its own return to multiplicity and irresolvable contradiction.
But why designate as "postmodern" the attempt to restore complexity to our understanding of the past--an attempt in which any good medievalist would describe herself or himself as engaged? The answer lies in a particular form such efforts might assume. And here I am going to try to be very precise about a matter of terminology, and some related assumptions. A trait of the postmodern--Jameson calls it postmodernism's "supreme formal feature"--is its (seemingly ahistorical) erasure of depth in favor of surface, its refusal of temporal or hierachical subordinations. This refusal of the "depth" model issues in a refusal of "latent" meanings at all, a refusal to acquiesce in the notion that the non-normal is latent or repressed in the normal, the extra-categorial is latent or vestigial in the dominant category. (I had no sooner written this than I got my copy of Martin Irvine's presentation, in which he works effectively with a surface/repression model, in relation to Abelard's repression of his castration within his narrative of remasculinization. But I've pondered Martin's text, its discussion of "repressions and evasions," and I'm satisfied in my own mind that evasion, at least equally with repression, is a pertinent model here.)
The post-modern habit of mind rejects the claims of a repressed alternative (to be reclaimed through depth psychology) in favor of the claims of an excluded or jettisoned alternative, a broader printout of possiblities denied in a founding moment of representation. This is Kristeva's "exorbitant outside," ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the place of the jettisoned object: "What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite."
The post-modernist refusal of repression and depth in favor of exclusion is by no means intrinsically anti-historical. But it does imply a particular historiography with a particular goal: one in which muffled or swaddled possibilities are not just glimpsed during brief forays into the depths (as when Cousteau's put their lights on ellusive neon sea-creatures), but are, in effect, raised to the surface. They are enstated alongside the privileged categorizations to which they were originally sacrificed. The effect of postmodernist historiography is not, then, finally, to probe the (exotic) depths but to restore the variegation, the fully contradictory variety, of the historical surface. But how, according to the experience of the conference thus far, does such an activity play out?
Leslie Dunton-Downer considers incest as a figure for the same kind of distinction-making. The phobic fear of indentification/indistinction between terms, the separation of which is a founding gesture of culture. But she bids, ambitiously, to define culture not as that which is maintained by exclusion and difference, but what might happen in the mixed place of "category contamination." The horrible/desireable blending of categories (in this case, in Cligès, the events which lead the hero into a "dangerous, polluted world of indistinction enable a reconfiguring of Arthurian culture as a space of confusion "in which originals and imitations, points of view and objects being viewed, desiring subjects and their beloveds, one term and its 'opposite,' cannot be successfully opposed." The middle ages as object of scrutiny encourages us to think past optimistic liberal democratic generalizations about pluralism to "the dirty in-between spaces of our maps and grids of identities."
The reason Kathleen Biddick is interested in the Black Audio Collective and Derek Jarman's home movies is that they, too, function (more contemporaneously) to fill in the spaces hidden by the shade of the English "imperial oak." These venturesome artists cart away the English oak's dry timber "in order to make the space for different histories and articulations that do not work through the family as an essentialized "natural/national" entity."
These spaces outside or "in between" are Jeffrey Cohen's "abjected and repressed realms (the monstrous, the feminine), always in overlap, . . . banished through the extremes of a bifurcating and intolerant logic to the great beyond of the Unthinkable, the Incoherent, the Impure." Like Dinshaw and Cohen, Robert Clark and Claire Sponsler invoke Marjorie Garber's "category confusion" seeking to unsettle the two-gender system and other binaries by means of tracing representation's "residue." They find this residue in unfinished "shadow stories" (one is here reminded of Carolyn Dinshaw's recent Gawain essay in Diacritics).
The somewhat more traditional analytical point of all this might be Stephen Greenblatt's observation (in "Fiction and Friction") that "the place of the normal is constructed on the shifting sands of the aberrant." But I think I'm not wrong in detecting one final turn in these papers, in which the aberrant is not just "repressed content," but is treated as possible (but excluded) surface content, brought back into literal "play." Here I might return for a second to Cohen, whose masochistic contract is founded on renunciations, themselves productive of a disavowed surplus--and that this surplus is seen as the place of jouissance.
In Greenblatt's model, the normal is built up out of sexual confusion, friction, and transformation, which are then repressed and forgotten. In his model, the "aberrant" is like Filippo Argenti in Dante, who gets to have his say and then gets pushed back in the slime. But, in the present analyses, the aberrant is discovered on the surface, hidden where it always was, in plain sight, and then stays there--is, in fact, invited to climb into the boat. [Slide: the "stateroom" scene from Night at the Opera]
Postmodern theory has always needed us--that is, needed the past--in the sense that it has never not had designs upon us. As Robert Stein has shown, the middle ages is itself a meaning-making (and an interested meaning-making) construct. We encounter such meaning-making at the expense of our period's actual complexity in a variety of forms. One is expressed through simple convenience, as when early modernists and others bracket the middle ages so they won't have to early anything about it. A more complex maneuver is conducted (as Robert Clark and Clare Sponsler observe) in the interest of personal funk and flash, as when early modernists use the middle ages as a kind of flat ground or gray carpet "upon which to work their brilliant refigurings." But I want to explore a still more ambitious sense in which post-medievalists "leverage" their arguments (the term is Andrew Galloway's) at the expense of medieval complexity.
Again, Robert Stein: "the contradictory coherence of the medieval . . . is what structures the narrative of modernity." And, I would add, post modernity too. For most postmodernist practitioners, whose theories promise a less encumbered, and hence more honest, approach to analysis, indulge a furtive and dishonest relation to the medieval past. This dishonesty resides in a residual attachment to ideas of medieval organicism which secretly nourishes the illicit relation between most postmodern culture analysis and the idea of the social "totality" or whole. The postmodern attack on the idea of the social whole has, of course, been unstinting. I might, for example, just mention Foucault, who, describing history in fully postmodernist terms as "dispersion," dismisses the idea of social totality with the comment that "To speak of the 'whole of society' is to transform our past into a dream."
But this dream dies hard, even among the advocates of the postmodern. The dishonesty of postmodernism is keep the dream alive, illicitly, by techniques of displacement and disavowal. The "displacement" in question is, of course, a displacement onto a dream-world where a self-coherent totality is--in contradistinction to every postmodernist tenet--supposed to exist and in fact to thrive.
Consider, in this regard, Baudrillard: "The counterfeit (and, simultaneously, fashion) is born with the Renaissance, with the destructuration of the feudal order by the bourgeois order and the emergence of overt competition at the level of signs of distinction. There is on fashion in a caste society, nor in a society based on rank, since assignation is absolute and there is no class mobility. Signs are protected by a prohibition which ensures their total clarity and confers an unequivocal status on each. . . . In feudal or archaic caste societies . . . signs are limited in number and their circulation is restricted. Each retains its full value as a prohibition, and each carries with it a reciprocal obligation between castes, clans or persons, so signs are not arbitrary."
Having been summoned (within a noplace construct called "the middle ages") and then dismissed, totality exists under a sign of negation, as a covert (and often unacknowledged) staging-ground for anti-totalizing readings. Because anti-totality, refusal to allow that "society" exists, cannot flourish without its shadow-opposite, the view that it "once did." At a purely procedural level, the postmodernist micro-historican needs an implied totality as the field of larger resonance within which symptomatic anecdotes assume full meaning. What, for instance, do we have but an implied totality, when arch-anecdotalist Stephen Greenblatt adduces his "network of culturally contingent figures"? (In the interest of completeness, I should add that I do something like this in my own work, with my reconstruction of "textual environments." This is likewise the kind of limited and culturally contingent totality that JoAnn Moran seeks to set up with her references to anti-sodomitical legislation and to practices of clerical chastity.)
But back to the general situation: totality is sent packing, but told to remain on call, with the middle ages as its forwarding address, in case anybody needs to get in touch. But can "the structured whole" survive only as a discarded or quietly abandoned idea, by negation, or as a kind of inferred existence, negated but still implied by the kinds of critical operations we perform?
Our obligation to the post-modernists (and, incidentally, to ourselves) is to give them their honesty back, by refusing to allow them to employ the middle ages as a kind of Jurassic Park where they stow an ideal of totality which they disavow for their own periods but still need, as an absent guarantor of the homologizing critical procedures they want to employ. We need to turn up the volume on what we have already begun to say: you've come back to this well often enough, you guys, and you can't get your water when the well has run dry. Our period, no less than yours or any other, is one of motile signs, "category confusions," representational swerves and slippages, partial and competing and always irreconcilable narrations.
So what, aside from rescuing our period from misunderstanding and ourselves from intellectual isolation, is the importance of this retort? Rather obviously, that it forces the hands of the early modernists and modernists, requiring a responsible description of the larger societal and cultural enclosure within which their particular or micro-analyses achieve their resonance. And it forces our own hands too.
Assuming that the problem of totality is general, rather than peculiar to any one period, and includes us rather than excepts us, we must confront a demand: Either specify a modified version of the social totality within which our analyses of cultural particulars may be presumed to resonate, or else say what we are putting in its place. To restate the issue: how is the investigation of a particular textual or eventual moment to become "thinkable in its specificity?" Totality provided the larger field of reverberation within which the specific become thinkable, and even associable with practice; without totality, what is the general import, and social demand, of the specific?
To state the issue yet differently again: can we accept the view of social experience as what Vance Smith and Michael Uebel call "a dynamic, heterogeneous constellation," with all the chaotic irregularities that constellations are now understood to contain, without ceding our right to an ethical self-positioning in relation to particular developments within this varied and centrifugal field. The art of this self-positioning would be freely to concede, even to insist upon, society's inability to constitute itself, but to commit to certain "nodal points which partially fix meaning" (Laclau and Mouffe, p. 113). Such nodal points must be unembarrassed by, must in fact announce, the partial character of the fixedness they provide.
My starting point would be Foucault's constant concern with "the hazardous play of dominations," his proposal that our studies include the multiple forms of subjugation. Much of the work of this conference has involved the "violence of representation," according to which drastic binaries institute and enforce a mixed pattern of domination/subordination (along lines of race, class, gender, geography, differential resources). Although the subjects and objects of domination shift constantly within this pattern, it is not a pattern toward which we must adopt an attitude of boredom or serenity or indifference.
Here I return to Carolyn Dinshaw's conception of multiple identifications. Let me undertake to say what I think she does not mean, and means. In the Freudian system, identification is a process constitutive of the human subject, and may proceed along lines either regressive or affirmatively enriching. Among regressive identifications, I would situate those described by Foucault, in his description of the pompous, overbearing, and artificially overstabilized identities which "monumental history" would impose upon us, a process only to be opposed, he argues, with parody, with exposure (as masquerade), with hard work of "unrealization." To these overbearing sponsored identifications, I would oppose constitutive, self-chosen ones. Carolyn Dinshaw observes that Foucault himself broaches an idea of self-chosen identifications, in his "Lives in Documents." And she imagines such identifications as occurring (in Eve Sedgwick's formulation) across genders and sexualities, and also (in her own) across time, and across other barriers of race, class, nationality.
Always latent in the idea of identification is, of course, the danger of "appropriative" identification, one which imposes one's own desire on another, which demands that the other address or testify for causes or concerns beyond its ken or control. This is the dubious practice of "reversed ventriloquism" identified by Benedict Anderson, in his discussion of Michelet's discovery that "the silence of the dead [need be] no obstacle to the exhumation of their deepest desires." In opposition to self-interested identifications, or those which return to the other only to consolidate "the same," Carolyn Dinshaw insists upon identifications as "crossings" as encounters with identities radically separate from our own, considered in terms favorable to an enlargement, rather than restatement, of what we have sought there.
Liberatory identification cannot alleviate the predicaments of past historical actors, but can enlarge our own sense of ourselves as historical subjects, multiply our own receptivity to diverse alliance. The politics of medieval situations are our politics too, in the sense that--as we all know well--our view of the past and past actors is not only conditioned by, but conditions, the present. The postmodern preference for a crowded and tumultuous past, allowed its full scope and most affirmative energies, extends the horizon of present possibilities.
(1) Can cultural studies as an exclusively textual practice--without, that is, some reference to the materiality of the text or material consequences--maintain its separation from the larger array of poststructural theories?
(2) What conceptual gains and losses ensue from the postmodern emphasis on surface over depth, exclusion/abjection over repression?
(3) Without a concept of totality (that is, of "society" or the "social whole"), what is the analytical status of the specificities which are so often the object of cultural and postmodern studies? What social "demand" can a specific item or event pose, when separated from the social whole?
(4) Can extra-temporal identifications resist illicit appropriation? Does Carolyn Dinshaw's suggestion that identifications might represent "crossings"--rather than rediscovery of the same--resolve this dilemma?
2. Romancing the Postmodern (Routledge, 1992), p. 15.
3. The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis, 1984), p. 79.
4. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke, 1991), p. 9.
5. Powers of Horror (Columbia, 1982), p. 4.
6. Foucault, "Revolutionary Action: 'Until Now,'" Actuel, no, 14, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (Cornell, 1977), p. 233.
7. Symbolic Exchange and Death (Sage, 1993), p. 50.
8. I am reminded here of Fredric Jameson's critique of the Michaels-Knapp anti-theory manifesto, the ambiguity of which "lay in the possibility of reading it as a . . . return to a pre-theoretical procedure; whereas it also, in the practice of New Historicism, proves to open up a whole post-theoretical set of operations that retain the discursive conquest of a range of heterogeneous materials while quietly abandoning the theoretical component [e.g., of underlying structure] that once justified the enlargement" (Postmodernism, p. 188).
9. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Verso, 1985), p. 3.
10. "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History," in Language, Counter- Memory, Practice, p. 148.
11. Steven Justice, "Inquisition, Speech, and Writing: A Case
from Late-Medieval Norwich," Representations 48 (1994), 26-27.
12. "Nietzsche, etc.," pp. 160-161.
13. Imagined Communities (Verso, 1991), p. 198.
12. "Nietzsche, etc.," pp. 160-161.
13. Imagined Communities (Verso, 1991), p. 198.
13. Imagined Communities (Verso, 1991), p. 198.