Anna Klosowska (Miami University of Ohio)

45th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2010

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: On The Question of Style

Is Style a Historical Method?

Figure 1. the young Roland Barthes

Medieval studies are not the only discipline to seasonally reiterate the distinction between forging truth in virile debate[1] versus being seduced by style[2]. It is Spring, and the image of besotted Philosophy seduced by vain blandishments, muzzled and ridden like Aristotle, is again trotted out with the sordid intention of policing value. By “reiterate,” I mean any personal, network, subfield, and disciplinary sorting practices that, in a cynical moment, can be reduced to a form of policing. For instance, in history, this contest can translate into differentiation between processing archival materials versus original narratives based on already edited sources. In queer studies, history of ideas versus history of affect, or documenting same-sex acts versus hypothesizing same-sex desires. Such distinctions are as absurd as they are persistent, and there is a dispositional and structural reason for that, as I hope to demonstrate. But first, I want to point out their intrinsic weakness. To take the last example, acts versus desires: in strictly historical terms, same-sex acts and desires are not discrete, but rather belong on a continuum. Sticking to acts doesn’t make same-sex any more historically factual than talking about desires, because sex, unlike real estate, is not traceable in acts -- in either sense of the word: no one proposes, in the felicitous formulation of my colleague Erik Rose, to measure the amount of genital friction or the decibel level of the cries of passion. No one, that is, except the Marquis de Sade, that accountant of the ass, le comptable du cul.

As Roland Barthes has shown, there is a striking structural similarity to the way Sade and Saint Ignatius of Loyola organize the field of vice to produce, for the one, a wide-ranging algorithm of perversion, and for the other, a manual of spiritual exercises. In both the algorithm and the manual, memory lapses and errors of execution provide a built-in openness to the system. Both Sade and Loyola worry about having forgotten something, and in Loyola’s case, that worry produces a penitential perpetuum mobile. The more conscientious the exercitant the more reliably s/he produces errors that are the condition of infinitely extended reparation. Similarly, the third figure of Barthes’s comparison, Charles Fourier focuses his intensification of pleasures on the “third element,” the in-between, the extra, the starter, “passage, mixture, transition, neuter, triviality ['neglected by scholars'], ambiguity” (Sade Fourier Loyala, 110), “it’s the kind of lubricant that the combinatory mechanism needs so it doesn’t squeak. . . . Neuters . . . cushion transitions” (SFL, 113). That “leftover” category includes the third sex, the consistency that is neither liquid nor solid, the nectarine (plum-and-peach), “compote” or “Twilight” (SFL, 119), and so forth.

Fourier bases his “radical epicurism” (eudémonisme radical) on the assumption that the problem of happiness is not that people want too much, but too little. The solution is to multiply, not suppress, desires.[3] Fourier, the “industrialist of attraction,” imagined philanthropic communities large enough that each individual’s desire would be fulfilled by his companien or homologue’s equally strong hunger to fulfill it -- melon eaters and melon growers, and so forth; where taxes would be paid “as urgently as a mother hastening to fulfill the foul but disarming needs of her newborn” (Fourier, qtd. in SFL, 87). Barthes observes that Fourier is exactly complementary to Marx, a bit like Rancière is exactly complementary to Lacan: “Marxism and Fourierism are like two nets with mismatched mesh size. . . Fourier lets through all the science, which Marx catches and develops; from a political point of view. . . Fourier is completely off: unrealistic and immoral. But at the other end, the other mesh lets through pleasure, which Fourier collects. Desire and Need play catch” (SFL, 91). Desire and need are not complementary; rather, “they are supplementary, each one is the excess (le trop) of the other. The excess: what does not get through” (SFL, 91).

From “excess elements” Fourier assembles a category that collects everything impossible to categorize, and he ascribes to it the generative ability. Like the zero in mathematical notation, the neuter brings numbers to their next decimal level. The superfluous element ensures the flow of transactions. Just as with error in Sade and Loyola, the error (a concrete category mistake) makes the Fourier machine go. Barthes observes: “it is a purely qualitative, structural notion” (SFL, 112), fulfilling the transfer function as opposed to the signifying function, as if an equivalent of mitochondria in the cell, or the philosopher’s stone. One way that Barthes describes the effect of this economy is by the image of the corner of the tablecloth: if you pull the corner, everything on the table falls: “the first operation of the creator of a language [logothète] is to bite into the tablecloth/la nappe [the surface], to be able, then, to pull it (remove it)” (SFL, 99). Of course, echoing Nicola Masciandaro’s interests, we must add spice to the list of Fourierist incarnations of the third element; like the nervous system is body and mind, fragrance is material and immaterial. Fourier’s parents were cloth and fragrance vendors: “commerce, despised, and fragrance/aromate, adored as a ‘subtle matter’/corps subtil (SFL, 189). And, as Barthes points out, “Fourier lived off leftovers”; ruined [by a ship that sunk off the coast of Livorno, like in Shakespeare] . . . he lived off his cousins and friends (SFL, 190):

It is precisely these rules of the game (these formal distributive passions) that the society refuses: they produce (and it’s the very sign of their excellence) “the figures that are accused of corruption and that are named libertines, debauched, etc.”: as in Sade, it’s the syntax, only the syntax, that produces the highest degree of immorality (SFL, 105).

A medievalist has different pleasures on her mind, and a different sort of need to exhaust her subject animates her, as she writes her book. But she too lives off others. Barthes says: “In Nature, things repeat, but that repetition is never abstract: there is no ‘etc.’ Man, however, is always trapped in the same movement: figuration, repetition, abstraction, gregarity, disgust, rejection” (Ouevres Complete, 3:406, in a text on the painter Saul Steinberg, quoting Paul Valéry: “Nature knows no etc.”). I think the question of style, as it applies to medievalism, is precisely the overcoming of that dichotomy between Nature and Man: a third element. And when the critique proceeds through the denunciation of the inimitability of someone’s style,[4] as if it was the third sex, ungenerative, queer, sterile, sodomitic, lesbian, etc., the critic unconsciously puts his finger on exactly what style is; but that critic is mistaken about the style’s generative powers.[5] In fact, style, neither fact nor theory but facilitating the transition between the two, is Fourier’s nectarine, the generative principle itself.


1. “Contesting and oppositional discourses” unyielding to “manufacture of urgency and relevance” (see D. Vance Smith, "The Application of Thought to Medieval Studies: The Twenty-First Century," Exemplaria 22.1 (Spring 2010): 85 [85-94]).

2. . . . and its progeny, “the creeping anti-intellectualism” (Smith, "The Application of Thought," 85).

3. “ . . . use of the marvelous without reason or of the reason without marvelous” simplism “made Newton miss the discovery of the system of nature and Bonaparte, the conquest of the world” and “Le simplism (or totalitarianism, or monologism) would be, today, a censoring of Need or of Desire: to that would respond in Harmonia (in Utopia?) the conjugated science of one with the other” (SFL, 106). Harmonia is Fourier’s world.

4. Speaking of the work of Carolyn Dinshaw: “The irony of her work is that a scrupulous adherence to its mode would make it inimitable, because incommensurability is precisely the point of identification” (Smith, "The Application of Thought," 86).

5. The fact that style is object of this critique is another touchstone of its functioning as the system’s generative element: it is the “vice of the civilized genius” for society to refuse the generative principle (SFL, 105-6).