Kathleen Biddick (Temple University)

45th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2010

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: On The Question of Style

Daniel's Smile

Figure 1. The smile of Daniel, Portico de Gloria, St. James Compostella (late 12th century)

When Eileen Joy (gadfly extraordinaire) invited me to join this panel, she encouraged me to get over my fear of style, first contracted during my anxious pubescent scrutiny of those thumbnail photographs of fashion “don’ts” featured in popular magazines of the early 1960s. My heart would sink when I discovered that some accessory of mine, beloved to me for its vibrant charm, was, in fact, deemed by the style-editors to be the latest sign of abjection. But, voila, after all these years, here I am today on a “style” panel still working through those fears.

What strikes me now as I look back on those early magazine days (as clichéd as they were), is the intimate vulnerability of style. I am wondering if my enduring sense of such vulnerability might have something to do with Michael Snediker’s optimistic investigation of the smile in his gorgeous reading of lyric poetry: Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions (Minnesota, 2009 ) — style as smile: a “mysterious, collective force as a serial trope” (p. 36)? More about this to follow.

What I would like to stake out roughly for our roundtable are some issues haunting the current debate in queer theory over the death drive and futurity. I want to ask what the so-called “master signifier” has to do with this debate. Can we imagine a beside and beyond itself of the master signifier and what would that mean and what might it have to do with style? By the master signifier, most Lacanians imagine an ontological concept that is supposed to decide meaning through foreclosure of the primary impressions of intrauterine experience, a matrix shared by all mammals. The master signifier can figure thinking, and at this Medieval Congress it is important to recall the lively medieval tradition that imagined figuration as a superseding theological temporality: Jews (they was then) figured Christians (they are now).[1] Or, the master signifier decides linguistically — “a refers to b.” Neither figural thinking nor linguistic theory is able to imagine a beside and beyond itself of the master signifier, a beside and beyond itself of the Phallus, since such a borderspace would disturb the incarnations of figurality or break the chain of signification the result of which would be psychosis (as Lacan obsessively warned). Are these then the only options of the master signifier: incarnation or psychosis?

In his undeniably brilliant and deeply controversial study, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004), Lee Edelman takes up the question of the master signifier and the death drive. Rather than deconstruct the incarnational impulse of figural thinking, Edelman defends against it in an act of hypostasis (to borrow a term from Snediker, p. 23). Like a medieval thinker, Edelman produces a superseding figural typology of sexuality: queer subjectivity incarnates a “this is now” that supersedes heternormativity as a “that was then” and in so doing he ends up smuggling in, I think, a version of the very messianic temporality which he set out to critique.

In his thoughtful response to Edelman (in his book Queer Optimism), Michael Snediker swerves away from a Lacanian politics of the signifier. He draws upon the work of the British psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott (“The Use of an Object and Relating Through Identifications”), in order to argue for the importance of the afterlife of the object — its survival of destruction by the subject: “The destructiveness that an object can withstand, for Winnicott, demonstrates not just the object’s own integrity (an integrity from which the subject might subsequently learn), but its own capacity for loving in spite of feeling damaged, or even repelled, by the subject” (Snediker, p. 10). Snediker’s swerve toward Winnicott enables us to think productively of queer optimism along non-futural lines. As he engages in this thought experiment, Snediker excavates what he calls “an aesthetic person” (Snediker, p, 127). An aesthetic person, he clarifies, is not a psychoanalytical, deconstructive, or queer theoretical entity. It is not a subject, subjectivity, nor ontology. I love this concept of the aesthetic person. Snediker, I think, is inviting us to broaden the concept of the Symbolic beyond the chain of discursive signification, beyond the master signifier.

I understand Snediker’s aesthetic person as a threshold vibrating with the matrixial borderspaces explored by the Lacanian psychoanalyst and painter, Bracha L. Ettinger. In her study, The Matrixial Borderspace (University of Minnesota, 2006), Ettinger has risked both the incarnational impulse of figural thinking (which always produces the phallus) and the threat of psychosis (the imagined punishment for breaking the taboo of phallic foreclosure) and she has lived to tell the tale as an aesthetic person (a kind of Euridyce who repeatedly appears and fades). Ettinger understands that one cannot really know what survival means and yet she lives on in “crazy hope” (Ettinger, p. 169).

Reading Ettinger is like diving into a coral reef and carefully observing the myriad creatures whose filtering of sustenance secretes the reef. Her text blossoms with what she calls “eroticized aerials” receiving and transmitting the incipiencies of a co-poesis. Habits of explication falter at such incipiencies; thus, in a few sentences I will try to gesture toward her project and then share with you a transubjective encounter of mine when I read Ettinger with Snediker. Ettinger imagines a psychoanalytical borderspace, a matrix, in which partial objects and partial subjects do not “come about as a result of separation from organs such as the mouth or anus (understood as regulated parts).” Prior to such cuts (the cut of the drive), she argues for dynamic partial linkages. Thresholds emerge and fade across vibrating, emergent fields. Transmissibility (relating without relations) is rhythmic (acoustic, sonorous, tactile). Ettinger cautions that the matrix is not the opposite of the Phallus, it does not destroy or replace the master signifier. Her project is to “retune” the Symbolic to deform its edges through a “supplementary co-shaping-not-quite-logic” (Ettinger, p. 6). The transubjectivity Ettinger proposes works like a tuning fork that vibrates with ravishment. For Ettinger, ravishment is a spreading of the effect across the entire severality, rather than an act performed by a subject on an object or its effect.

Ettinger thus swerves from Winnicott’s theory of the survival of the object after aggression. Her sense of timing is different, it is trans-serial, emerging and fading partial effects. Subjectivity is never whole but distributed as transubjective affects. Ettinger’s serial paintings of Euridyce explore such trans-seriality, especially in terms of what she calls the trans-traumatic. In her words: “The matrixial borderlinks allow the articulation of a meaningful space between living and non-living, which has nothing to do with the notion of the abject and with the binary opposition between life and death” (Ettinger, p. 180).

Because her writing works like a tympanum stretched across matrixial border spaces and thus defies easy explication, by way of conclusion, I would like to engage in a transubjective thought experiment. I am sending a smile from a transmedieval borderspace to Michael Snediker as an act of queer love for his wonderful book. Recall Snediker’s reflection on the smile of Hart Crane as a “mysterious, collective force as a serial trope” (p. 36). The smile may be found on the beautiful face of the Old Testament prophet Daniel (see figure 1 above) carved in the Portico de Gloria of the Cathedral of St. James at Compostela. The Master Mateo sculpted this portico sometime between 1173-1188 C.E. Paul Binksi, a medieval art historian, counts this smile as the earliest in what would become a poetics of the Gothic smile.[2] Within a century, Northern European cathedrals would be filled with choirs of smiling angel-musicians.

Daniel, as you see, is young and beardless. He bears his scroll of prophecy inscribed with the words (Ecce Enim Deus Quem Colimus) spoken by his optimistic friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, on their way to death in the fiery furnace. They tell King Nebuchadnezzar: “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace and he will deliver us out of thine hand” (Daniel 4: 17). We know from the Book of Daniel that the prophet was a smiler. Words for the smile (usually constructed as “let your face shine on the other’) are rare in the Hebrew Bible. According to the Book of Daniel, the prophet smiled twice at King Cyrus (Daniel 14:6, 14:18) as he advised him about the bottomline of his idol, Bal. Jewish exegesis (and Jerome, d. 420 C.E., knew these Jewish sources when he wrote his influential Commentary on Daniel) assumed that Daniel and his three friends were castrated when the chief eunuch of Nebuchadnezzar selected them to be taken captive back to Babylon after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And according to the Book of Daniel: “God had brought Daniel into the favor and tender love with the prince of the eunuchs” (Daniel 1:9). By the tenth century, Byzantine theologians used the shining example of Daniel and his friends to argue in favor of eunuchs as members of the upper clergy and court.[3]

Daniel’s smile opens us to an investigation of pain with what Snediker calls a “solicitous openness to scrutiny” (Snediker, p. 89). Jewish and early Christian exegetes had wondered how Daniel had gotten separated from his friends on the way to the fiery furnace (they reunited after the young men miraculously survived their ordeal with the aid of an angel). Some thought it was because he was a eunuch, but other exegetes argued that the three boys were eunuchs, too. By the time the medieval sculptor carved his face, Daniel had become more radically cut from his Hebrew friends. He had been claimed by medieval Christians as a major prophet of Christ’s coming and his mouth liturgical drama, contemporary to the Compostela portal, placed words of juridical condemnation of Jews (he calls them felons). Take for example, his recitation in the mid-twelfth century Play of Adam: “To you, O Jews, I deliver my sermon, You who are excessively wicked toward God. When the greatest of all the saints appears … . Then your anointing will cease”(Bevington, 117). The Play of Adam breaks off abruptly as Nebuchadnezzer condemns the young men (now Christians) to the fiery furnace, a stage prop in the nave of the church, or perhaps on the portico (all the better for the stone Daniel to have to watch again). But the transtraumatic links of Daniel’s smile transmit even more widely in another contemporaneous encounter. In 1171, when the Count of Blois condemned 32 members of the Jewish community to burn for an alleged ritual murder accusation, those condemned Jews (male and female) imagined themselves in the fiery furnace and sang in the fire (just as had the three boys in the fiery furnace in the story of Daniel). The rabbis who, in liturgical hymns, lamented the deaths of their neighbors, declared their deaths to be miraculous. Their bodies did not burn even though their life force had been incinerated (a “divine electrocution” as Susan Einbinder has called it).[4]

Thus the links between exegesis, sculpture, performance, juridical execution, and liturgical lamentation distribute themselves along the matrixial space of Daniel’s smile. I like to think that it is something about the “tender love” of Daniel’s young days in the palace of the chief eunuch that somehow persisted as a transtraumatic encounter in the stony remainder of the Portico de Gloria at Compostello.


1. See Biddick, The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

2. Paul Binksi, “The Angel Choir at Lincoln and the Poetics of the Gothic Smile,” Art History 20 (1997): 350-74.

3. Kathryn. M. Ringrose, “Reconfiguring the Prophet Daniel: Gender, Sanctity, and Castration in Byzantium,” in Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages, ed. Sharon Farmer, Carol Braun Pasternak (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp. 73-106.

4. Susan L. Einbinder, Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 55.