Friday, October 26, 2007

Upcoming Event: In the Footsteps of Marco Polo

Friday, November 2, 2007, 7:30 PM
In the Footsteps of Marco Polo
Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell
CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Ave. @ 34th St.), Room 4406.
Reception follows.

Over 700 years after Marco Polo set out on his travels, photographer Denis Belliveau and artist Francis O'Donnell became the first to retrace Polo's itinerary in its entirety by land and sea, traveling over 33, 000 miles in two years. In the Footsteps of Marco Polo, a film documenting their experiences, will be aired on PBS. This Friday, Belliveau and O'Donnell will present stories and images from their adventure -- one of the most daring and literal acts of textual interpretation!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Heterospecularity: Wanderings in the Mirror

Last weekend at the conference on "Medieval Bodies: Traversing Sex and Gender in the Middle Ages" organized by the Columbia University Medieval Guild, Karma Lochrie gave a keynote address entitled "When Heterosexuality Disappears: Queer Whereabouts in the Middle Ages." Lochrie presented her thesis that heteronormativity is not medieval and worked it out via a reading of Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, arguing that medieval concepts of sexuality are grounded instead in ideals and the "disordered affectivity" that renders them rarely realized. The weekend before last Eileen Joy wrote on the question of medieval heterosexuality over at In the Middle: "Art Reveals More of Life than Life Does: Heterosexuality, Erotohistoriography, and Our Perverse Desires for a Pleasurably Queer Medieval Studies." Joy's post responds to James A. Schultz's essay “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies” [The Journal of the History of Sexuality 15 (2006): 14-29], touches most helpfully on much recent work on the issue, and turns overall, via Anna Klosowska's Queer Love in the Middle Ages, towards the erotics of reading, our reading: "Literature provides access, finally, not only to 'official' cultures, but also to their queer obverse and 'unofficial' wishes, desires, & bodies, and even to that which, even today, still remains unthought, untouched, and therefore, unfelt."

So I followed the call of the question of medieval sexuality into the classroom this week, on the lookout for textual moments to play it out. Or, to allegorize my own experience (which seems a pretty handy definition of reading), I was, unlike-like Adam and Eve, bound to fall into the question when the opportunity presented itself, in the form of the following passages from Erec and Enide (cited from Kibler translation, Penguin edition):

"What should I say of her beauty? She was truly one who was made to be looked at, for one might gaze at her just as one gazes into a mirror . . . He could not gaze at her enough; the more he looked at her, the more she pleased him . . . But the damsel, for her part, looked at the knight no less than he looked at her . . . They would not have accepted a ransom to leave off looking at one another. They were very well and evenly matched in courtliness, in beauty, and in great nobility. They were so similar, of one character and of one essence, that no one wanting to speak truly could have chosen the better one or the more beautiful or the wiser. They were very equal in spirit and very well suited to one another . . . When they were left alone in the room, they paid homage to each member. The eyes, which channel love and send the message to the heart, renewed themselves with looking, for whatever they saw greatly pleased them. After the message from the eyes came the sweetness, worth far more, of the kisses that bring on love; they both sampled that sweetness and refreshed their hearts within, so that with great difficulty they drew apart. Kissing was their first game. The love between the two of them made the maiden more bold; she was not afraid of anything; she endured all, whatever the cost. Before she arose again, she had lost the name of maiden; in the morning she was a new lady" (42-63).

About which I will find something to say in a moment. But first, the reason Adam and Eve came to mind is that before rediscovering these specular, sexy passages, Lochrie and Joy had rendered inevitable (as reflection from a mirror) rereading the chapter in The City of God (14.26) in which Augustine imagines, and precisely cannot imagine, prelapsarian sex, from which the following lines (cited from Walsh translation, Fathers of the Church edition) stood out:

"Surely, every member of the body was equally submissive to the mind and, surely, a man and his wife could play their active and passive roles in the drama of conception without the lecherous promptings of lust, with perfect serenity of soul and with no sense of disintegration between body and soul . . . the seminal flow could have reached the womb with as little rupture of the hymen and by the same vaginal ducts as it at present the case, in reverse, with the menstrual flux. And just as the maturity of the fetus could have brought the child to birth without the moanings of the mother in pain, so could connection and conception have occurred by a mutually deliberate union unhurried by the hunger of lust. [The online CCEL edition preserves the Latin here and thus the putative purity -- totally against the text's meaning -- of untutored minds. The histrionic language ('roles,' 'drama'), pace the performativity of gender, Butler's "constituting the identity it is purported to be," is the translator's not Augustine's] . . . The trouble with the hypothesis of a passionless procreation controlled by will . . . is that it has never been verified in experience, not even in the experience of those who could have proved that it was possible. . . . Hence, today it is practically impossible even to discuss the hypothesis of voluntary control without the imagination being filled with the realities of rebellious lust" (406-7).

The moment combines in a deeply fascinating way two crucial Augustinian principles (or at least principles that many medievalists, though perhaps not so clearly as when Exegetics was still controversial, would recognize as Augustinian) that Lochrie and Joy, apparently without thinking them as such, respectively evoke: 1) that human sexual desire as experienced is fundamentally disordered, i.e. structured by a being that is "out of order" in the sense of having a fractured will and thus destined to habits, passions, and other self-modifications that divide persons against themselves; 2) that reading, interpretation, understanding are similarly fundamentally acts of desire and its imaginations, expressions of a will that, wandering in this regio dissimilitudinis, is trying to find its way back to its own wholeness in the only object, God, that can satisfy its infinite desire.

A disorder of questions and ideas: What role can/do these principles play in the medievalist contribution to gender and sexuality studies? What are the possible and impossible alliances, covert or overt, between 'queer' and 'Augustinian'? Need to read: J. Joyce Schuld's Foucault and Augustine, Virginia Burrus on theology and eros, Amy Hollywood's Sensible Ecstacy, Catherine Conybeare's The Irrational Augustine, Rollan McCleary's A Special Illumination, Marcella Althaus-Reid's Indecent Theology. In Sexual Dissidence Jonathan Dollimore catalogs "the Augustinian echoes in several popular notions of sexual perversion in our time" (144). But might this genealogy not also have an intrinsic redemptive potential, for redemption of desire from codes, norms, ideologies that reduce persons unjustly, subjectively and objectively, philosophically and socially, to things they are not? One of heteronormativity's synonyms seems to be "healthy sexuality," the notion that there is a mode of sexuality, a "sex life" (simultaneously a life composed entirely of sex and sex wholly removed from life!) that is intrinsically good and worthwhile, a kind of mean to which all should keep and aspire. (This by the way suggests another angle on a problem which Steven Kruger raised at Karma Lochrie's lecture, about how to understand the coexistence and intersection of 'vertical' and 'horizontal' values, ideals vs. norms, across the medieval/modern divide, name, that the Aristotelian mean looks like a precursor and subtext for modernity's ethico-statistical averages). Insofar as Augustinian sexuality impossiblizes "healthy" sexuality and recognizes sex as always already a problem for self and society it offers at minimum a way to think around hetero/queer and other binaries through which sexual ideologies are thought and experienced. By contrast, medieval senses of the normal seem rather faithfully married to persepectives on worldliness or the civitas terrena, to a recognition of mass practice as fundamentally misguided, heedless, blind to the real nature of self and world. "Since the worldly, in their madness, never come to realize how the joy of eternal love penetrates the hearts of the elect, the mortal mind never ceases staggering along in the business of worldly affairs and in those sins which have proved fatal to others," opens Richard Rolle's Contra Amatores Mundi. How much are our "perverse desires for a pleasurably queer medieval studies" perverse desires for the normal, for the normalcy of the "queer," for the pleasurably queer as bourgeois? How much are they infinite desires, "perverse" in their insatiability, in their desire for the end and beginning of desire? How much are they desires for a both-and-neither space between these, for an enworlded-otherworldly queer grounded in the actuality of love?

"Seeing something simply in its being-thus -- irreparable, but not for that reason necessary; thus, but not for that reason contingent -- is love" (Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community 105). This needs reading into the Romance of the Rose.

I am not sure that the absent original procreative sexual act of Augustine's imagination is heterosexual. Nor am I sure that his imagination of it is. At minimum, this idealized heterosexuality is not, as heterosexuality is often construed and represented, a relationship of essentialized difference. Rather, each sexual person is portrayed as a harmony of body and soul, a harmony that is extended formally to a non-penetrative sex act. This is in keeping with Augustine's commitment to rational, spiritual equality of male and female natures and his location of difference and hierarchy in bodies (See Lloyd, "Augustine and Aquinas," Feminist Theology, ed. Loades, 90ff.) There is difference, but, where metaphysical order reigns, it is a maximally minimized difference. Except, of course, in the structure of the representation itself, which is conspicuously absorbed with the female organs to the elision of the male, an absent phallus present (like the unmoved mover?) as a kind of pure causality, present only in what it emits and its effect on the female. Shall we understand this as the product of an absolute masculinity, or more literally, as coded assertion that the male body as body is not fallen, a text that does not alter as the record of sexual origins is played backwards, which needs no emendation? Or shall we say, as the text more directly equips us and does not equip us to, that this is the expression of a fallen mind in a male body, a being struggling against yet bound within its own embodiment, a being founded on the "mistake" of being its body, of identification? What exactly would a conversation between Irigaray and Augustine look like?

My reading, perforce a desire for a certain kind of desire, is of Augustine's desire as a desire for a sexuality that is not heterosexual, for a sexuality that might be thought as heterosexuality's unfelt, its seized impossible, meaning something like a mutual structure or economy of desire to which both male and female are interreflecting witnesses, where there is, not infinitely regressing intersubjectivity, but an actual breakdown in duality. The dimension through which the text points to this, where it is negatively achieved, is the dimension of perversity, the way in which it can imagine our originary sexual encounter only in terms that transgress the reproductive heterosexual norm, the order of nature. The external ejaculation of Augustine's imagination, at once pure and polluted, defines the gratuitous, extra space of human sexuality, its desires for a sex that is both pure sex and not sex, and its externality, the being outside of what should be inside, signifies perfectly exile from Eden, the displaced state of the fallen self. Perversity, the queer, is a negative sign of transcendent essence and origin. Negative, but not in itself.

Cf. Agamben's "operations in which desire simultaneously denies and affirms its object, and thus succeeds in entering into relation with something that otherwise it would have been unable either to appropriate or enjoy" (Stanzas, xvii-xviii).

Plenty for now! Perhaps more later on the Erec et Enide passage.