Elizabeth Freeman (University of California, Davis)
44th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2009
Western Michigan University
BABEL Panel: Are We Enjoying Ourselves? The Place of Pleasure in Medieval Scholarship
RESPONSE: Affecting Scholarship
I come to you as a complete lightweight, as a 19th and 20th c. Americanist who went through both undergraduate and graduate school in the era of no distribution requirements and do-it-yourself comprehensive reading lists, and thus as lightly read in Medieval literature as it is possible to be and still hold the Ph.D. But interestingly enough, all of the papers you have heard here suggest ways of revaluing that lightweight status as a mode of inquiry. Nicola Masciandaro’s piece does so directly, reminding us that if scholarly gravitas has traditionally promised us enlightenment, the attainment of that goal is itself a kind of levitas, an ecstatic movement toward otherness that our undergraduates sometimes call “mind-blowing.” I am not positive, I must admit, that I concur as much as Masciandaro seems to with Meher Babha’s somewhat sex-phobic description of lust versus love. Babha pairs lust with self-centered appropriativeness and thus dependence, and love with multicentered expansiveness and thus fulfillment. But does lust really hold us down, hold us back? For it is, as Anna Klosowska reminds us, desire, not lust, that orbits around the “pessimistic gravitational field” (her words) of lack. While the potentiality of lust as already a form of love excites me, I’m more interested the potentiality of love (and even of scholarly interest) to expand the body’s boundaries in the way lust already does. It is lust that, I would say, that has engendered the most complicated and interesting “care regimes in pursuit of pleasure,” which is why Foucault’s case studies for the latter come from male-on-male sexual cultures past and present. My own example would the intricate and intimate choreographies of something like fisting, an act which requires the lightest of movements, the most concentrated attention to physical and emotional responses, the capacity to read epidermal and muscular topographies as if they were Braille, the ability to simultaneously cause and soothe wounds. I suspect that for aficionados, fisting does indeed perform the kind of “emotional ablution” Klosowska calls for, the ritual catharsis that enables, as Masciandaro puts it, a lighter relation to others. It also performs the kind of waiting that Cary Howie described to me in the notes he sent me about the relationship between waiting and praise in Psalm 42, where the soul “pants” for a God whose greatness lies precisely in the way he makes our anticipation physical, a matter of sinews, bones, and tears. The great song “1926” by the post-punk Boston band “V,” by the way, riffs on that line about the soul panting after god in a way that illuminates the relay between bodily need and religious understanding: “Your God hates me/he can’t feel my flesh/he leaves me panting like a dog at the edge of your bed.” Or in other words, if there is no touch of tongue and bone, as Peggy McCracken puts it, there can be no communion with the all-knowing, perhaps even no knowing.
Oh dear, why go to queer sex now? Aren’t you being a queer sex literalist, reducing that “fundamental feeling that is hard to define,” as Klosowska puts it, to the responses of certain nerve endings? But then again, the pleasures of the text attach to those of the body, and indeed have at times been thought to fundamentally transform the body. Carolyn Dinshaw, for instance, gives us the delightfully queer amateur, whose passion for historical detail is both sign and product of his arrested sexual development and gender-non-normativity, who pontificates to the air and trots around in his bathrobe, and whose abject status uncomfortably recalls us to our own dorky enthusiasm. Interestingly enough, that figure of the Medievalist as always already queer goes back at least to the Enlightenment, where as the eighteenth centuryist Mike Goode has argued in a forthcoming book, properly sentimental masculinity emerged through stigmatizing the antiquarian, whose excessive attention to books and dead people was coded as necrophilia, sterility, and homoeroticism. If the Greeks saw the love of beautiful boy-bodies as a relay to ultimate truths, Enlightenment and later Victorian intellectuals ran the equation the other way: improperly obsessive and enthusiastic scholarship was thought to undermine the manly constitution.
OK, then: as scholars we are, and perhaps particularly as Medievalists you are, as Sean Penn put it at the academy awards, “homo-lovin’ sons ‘o’guns.” Peggy McCracken hits the nail on the head, actually. She speaks of pleasure as a “dwelling outside of concepts,” which for me, is what queer living and queer inquiry both risk. In other words: we might link queer politics’ insistence that the taxonomies of identity trap us as much as they free us, with the queer commitment to the very pleasures that disturb these taxonomies. The late Eve Sedgwick (so hard to say that!) once reminded us that this is the place of the anus: its pleasures are genital, in a way, but not hetero or homo, and do not generate or found any particular identity. As a mode of inquiry -- let’s go ahead and call it anal, as in anal-compulsive rather than anal-ytic -- this dwelling outside of concepts can invite a good deal of scorn from within and without the academy. In literary criticism and cultural studies, at least, we all know that our ticket to fame and fortune is, in fact, whatever portable concept we can name and elaborate (think of “queer performativity,” “difference,” or “cultural logic”). In terms of national recognition, which is the coin of the realm in the cash-poor Humanities, concepts are our equivalent to the patents that bring grant dollars and industry partnerships to the science wing of the University. Lushly detailed readings simply won’t do anymore. For instance, playing to an audience beyond the academy, Mark Taylor’s recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times sneers at a graduate student in his own department who is writing a dissertation on, yes, the citational practices of “medieval theologian Duns Scotus.” Nothing like Medievalist scholarship serves as handily to figure both unhealthily queer attachments and atheoretical pedantry. And yet, as Deleuze and Guattari remind us, following Scotus himself, “Even concepts are haecceities, events,” which is to say, even when we dwell inside of concepts we are in the realm of irreducible particularity, which is, let me hazard, the realm of pleasure itself.