Michael Snediker (Queen's University, Ontario)

45th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2010

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: On The Question of Style

Style in Absentia

Figure 1. the young Michael Snediker (London, June 2010)

In his lyric persuasiveness over Hades and Persephone, Orpheus — Pindar’s “father of song” — might suggest an especially lovely instantiation of what Biddick invokes as “master signifier.” The story of Orpheus likewise describes the break of Lacanian ligature. As dyadic coupling, Orpheus and Eurydice are most heart-breaking not in their inseparability, but in that inseparability’s irrevocable turn (another form of Biddick’s “swerve”) to irreparable singleness, the fact of bereft linkage. And as though this pathos of singularity were not enough, the Maenads rip Orpheus to pieces.

My sense is that the Orphic head, bobbing down the Hebrus, was not smiling, though what if it were? In floating through Bracha Ettinger’s trans-temporal river, the smiling Orpheus would enact its own queer-optimistic gesture, its own invective against Lee Edelman’s wish for figuration at its least traherent. Less admonition or elegy, Orpheus read along and across such lines, suggests that figuration achieves its own particular exquisiteness in a mythology of fracture. Bereft linkage and its compensations, Emersonian and otherwise, arises as well in the love we hold for Allen’s “ghostly audience of absent authors.” This is fracture less as bereavement than the wish to soulder bereavement, to forge new repertoires of engagement along oujia board of stylist lines.

Aesthetic persons are not necessarily more whole than ideological subjects; rather, aesthetic persons can catechize us in the lessons of non-traumatic fracture. The smiling Orphic head hypothesizes fracture’s vicinity to trauma and grief as inevitable, only if frozen in that river which floods but doesn’t freeze. Lyric fracture marks the contingency of style (if we can reckon contingency and myth as compatible, which I think we can). Lyric fracture as style reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s metaphorical errancies, the way in which scrupulousness brought to extremity will loop into ostensible attention deficit disorder. One can’t follow Dickinsonian figures, per se. Certainly not in the goosestep manner of following orders.

I think of style’s relation to fracture largely on account of Biddick’s beautiful account of the lapidary Daniel, smiling from the tympanum of the Cathedral of St. James at Compostela. The “stony remainder” smiles, as though remainder were enough. The remainder, as having weathered and suffered, and which exceeds the neatness of division. The suffering of neatness, as its own innoculated style, that to which one might aspire or into which might feel coerced. Apropos the aspirational, we might think, following Biddick’s opening gambit on fashion, of Jil Sander or Narciso Rodriguez, for whom sartorial austerity reveals its own exorbitance of architecture, which is to say that style’s extravagance can arise where least expected. There’s nothing nibbish, following Allen, about Sander or Rodriguez. Likewise, Allen reminds us that austerity might count as its own speciality, above and beyond the vitiating misnomer of our “specialities,” which invariably conjures a dusty CV bolus rather than anything connotatively special, per se. Our speciality, in the latter sense, speaks less to our singularity than our declension into taxidermy. How can a word so full of possibility have migrated into its own melancholic wish to return to what truly we find special, which of course we ought. Alongside aspirational neatness, against figurative quarantine, we find a durability of style that speaks to the extremity of singularity wishing for ideal or gentle readers. A style, like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s brilliant theorization of kitsch, becomes beloved and admired in the phenomenon of sympatico.

A style risks dismissal if not disapprobation in being lonely, in its own weathering of itself. We return here to Allen’s understanding of a stylistic subjunctivity not only as mood, but as an inhabiting of possibility, not knowing (following Dickinson) where we might go. To think of style, then, is to think of persons, attached to the interpersonal no less than to the idiosyncratic. The personificatory and interpersonificatory resonances of style reverberate in Allen’s gestural account of words “arranged in certain ways,” as though words were asked, with or without cash bar cocktails, to learn, cozen, and flirt (successful or not) with each other. Content makes less anxiogenic these interactions. How’s the weather?, anent Allen: an especially non-stylish version of the Allen’s opening citation of Aritotle. Style entails words themselves on a limb, and more importantly, words learning. Or as importantly, acknowledging the ethics in not understanding each other let alone themselves.

There is a gorgeous generosity in Allen’s invoking of Heidegger’s understanding of lexical moodiness. Whether in the musical or psychical register of Orpheus, the moodiness of words wonderfully opens us to the possibility of style as its own phenomenological terrain, and vice versa. Living in style, some more enobling version of the glitzy accounts of life as Real Housewife of Whatever City. Insofar as narcissism enables its own interpersonality, some styles are happy to reflect on themselves. Others — or rather, even those narcissistic ones — hope, secretly and otherwise, for companionship. Style describes less Orphic eloquence than Orphic risk, the moment of a turning simultaneously away and toward, in relation to oneself and those whom one loves more than any other. And following Whitman, those by whom one might be loved without even knowing.

The do I dare? or double-dare of stylistic venture plangently surfaces in Klosowaska’s penultimate gesture toward Fourier’s nectarine. Nectarine, as queer love-child of nervousness and desirability: J.Alfred Prufrock’s dare I eat a peach, reconciled with a plum’s alluring plumminess. The result is both peachy and plummy all at once, as though Prufrock’s amorous floundering required its own supplement to understand its playful relation not to a plum, but to itself. A word finding a cognate in the divagations of its own vernacularization. Or more vernacularly, a word’s hesitant relation to what it nearly could become. We’ve returned, in nectarine as remainder, to a particularly sanguine supplementarity, the narcissism of a word’s self-enabling, its own foray into lexical fruitiness. T.S. Eliot’s poem extends a meditation on affect and its absence, the serious if not rigorous contemplation of what it would mean to feel. Prufrock is affectively compelling even in his vititating distance from his own affective possibilities. Which is to say that style in Eliot is in fact an historical method, a mode of supplemental auto-affection, compensation, and the sublimation of affective discomfiture into stylistic bravado. At the same time, one might say that style is affect: a text’s stylistic abdications as a fantasy affective abstaining, the degree to which critical affect’s vulnerability dovetails with that of critical style. Prufrock, as much as any lyric person, cozens the collapse of affect into ideas, the salubrious blur of queer acts and queer desires. Prufrock’s action is to desire. His ontologically saturated peach or not to peach renders the distance between the two as asymptote. Etymologically (which is to say, in a fashion, historically), the asymptotic speaks to a “not falling together;” whereas on the level of style, of affective turn, the asymptotic indeed falls together, like Orpheus and Eurydice, in the subtle tenterhooks of a pre-lapsarian. If style isn’t affect, it is asymptotic to affect, rendering all the salient either element’s relation to desire. Which is why we might disavow, flirt with, adore or abjure. As they said in elementary school, if he bullies you, he might likely be infatuated. The overprotesting of a “given critic” in relation to the “problematic” inimitability of another critic unsurprisingly opens the possibility, to paraphrase a different Shakespearian jewel, of too much protestation.

What do we critique, by what are we embarrassed, what do we love (sometimes or often) as guilty pleasure? We move, here, from Klosowska’s fruity meticulousness to Evans’s ebullient spinning of Lacan’s poubellication, the litter-ature of literature, which is to say, trashy reading. Trashiness, within such a genre, makes me first think of bodice rippers, avec Fabio (Lacan in a pirate shirt wouldn’t have the same effect), a Harlequin. I first hoarded Harlequins as a child from the laundry room of my grandparent’s apartment complex, the closest I could get to loins or manhood being the articulation of them. The trash of stylistic difficulty isn’t so different, if we think of the romance as contingent on its audience. I got something from those musty, curled paperbacks, I wouldn’t necessarily get now. But, on several registers, I once got it. And plenty of people continue getting. The erotics of stylistic impenatribility — versus the exorbitant euphemisms of Harlequin’s penatribilities — indeed suggest that textual interiority never completely can be separated from exteriority. Were I inclined toward further graphicism, I would more fully describe the happy frisson between the two. As it is, style is what lures one in and out at once. I have to admit, in this airport bar, that as I wrote the previous line, I conjured a high school jock’s gesture for both whacking off and doing, as they said, the deed. Style does the deed, and Evans, like Klosawska, makes luminous the false distinction beween doing the deed and gesturing it, all the more so, when the latter is an efflorescence of the former’s distillation, the former’s own Hawthornian version of ghostly auto-affection. Style is full of phantom limbs. Hawthorne spends a life assaying the threshold of the Actual and the Imaginary, and this, perhaps, is where style lies. In as many ways as you wish.