49th Annual Meeting of the Midwest Modern Language Association

8-11 November 2007

The Renaissance Cleveland Hotel

Cleveland, Ohio


Figure 1. St Guthlac being carried to hell by demons

BABEL Working Group/Journal of Narrative Theory panel:

Theorizing Real Subtexts: Downward Mobility and Revisions of the Past

This session addresses the new interest in representations of social mobility associated with modernity—particularly downward mobility--as a conditioning agent for a special type of social consciousness, “low subjectivity,” the sensibility of being “multiply displaced,” a form of cognitive dissonance linked to the unhoused condition of itinerant identity. As traced in Patricia Fumerton’s Unsettled, this form of identity is often read through a romantic lens that misrecognizes the experience of waywardness as a form of social freedom. This panel will focus on how this identity can be represented, and how we can theorize its “entry” into the symbolic as it is registered within different discursive or ideological contexts, and how later revisionist narratives of these contexts are colored by this modern idealization. Three historical periods—each offering a reading of canonical instances of Western conceptions of this mobility—will be analyzed: medieval, early modern, and modern.

Many of the more current “turns” to philosophy in the study of literature that rethink the aesthetic investments of literary texts tend to mobilize conceptual categories that take for granted the historical rooted-ness of their very terms. If post-Enlightenment theories of the social contract are founded upon an idealization of outcast identity (Rousseau’s noble savage, the bildungsroman’s hero, Turner’s Frontier, etc.), then a more attentive theoretical reading of the history and conditions of the representation of this identity may enable a more self-reflexive socio-political literary criticism.

Co-Organizers, Craig Dionne (Eastern Michigan University) and Eileen Joy (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville)

Moderator, Christine Neufeld (Eastern Michigan University)

In the Old English poem Beowulf, Grendel and his mother are said to "tread the exile-path." Grendel's and his mother's monstrosity depends, to a certain extent, on their status as those who live in outland territories and who cannot be caught, as it were, in the epistemological nets of those who seek to define what and who they are. Indeed, the descriptions of Grendel and his mother in the poem slide back and forth between the human and the inhuman and beyond, causing a certain category confusion that contruibutes to their ability to terrify. Similarly, Anglo-Saxon law codes were deeply concerned with the status of the alien person or feorran cumen ["foreigner," or man who comes from afar] who, if he would not attach [domicile] himself to a known household or signal his presence when traveling [by, say, the blowing of a horn] was made utlah ["outlaw"] and could be killed without warning, as if he were an animal. The itinerant in Anglo-Saxon culture was a figure to behold with fear and dread as something not quite human. But in the legends of the Anglo-Saxon St Guthlac, the very same qualities that make the itinerants of Old English poetry and law so terrifying are the very attributes of his saintliness: he lives alone in a cave in the wild fens of East Anglia, and his body, under assault by demons, is beautifully terrifying in its permeability and wild mobility through time and space. Following the work of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in Medieval Identity Machines, but also the work of Patricia Fumerton's Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England on "low subjectivity" and "unhoused" itinerant identity, this paper will explore the body of the Anglo-Saint saint as a Deleuzan-Guttarian desiring-machine that both absorbs the monstrous figure of the unhoused and "low" itinerant and then redeploys it, like a thousand tiny itinerants, across the landscape of an emerging English nation.

For generations of scholars, Geoffrey Chaucer has become, as John Dryden imagined him, “the father of English poetry.” But for the teenage audience members of Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale (2001), Geoffrey Chaucer is, most likely, an echo, and a faint one at that, resonating at the periphery of their cultural literacy. Chaucer has become “a name,” a ghost, an absent present haunting the historical inventory. Set in 1370, A Knight’s Tale resists the portrayal of Chaucer that brings scholars together to celebrate, and revere, his writings—Chaucer as the bookish, ineffectual, slightly pudgy, middle-aged poet represented in his own poetry and in various portraits, such as that included in the Ellesmere manuscript. Instead, actor Paul Bettany’s turn as a long and lean (and occasionally naked) Geoffrey Chaucer gives us the poet as a young man, raconteur, and jack-of-all-trades, scrambling literally to keep the clothes on his back: “Geoffrey Chaucer’s the name, writing’s the game.” In the film, Chaucer ultimately emerges as an itinerant manipulator of signs, a “textworker” capable of both identity theft and identity transformation who can, “for a penny . . . scribble you anything you want: summonses, decrees, edicts, warrants, patents of nobility; I’ve even been known to jot down a poem or two if the muse descends.” Helgeland’s film re-energizes Geoffrey Chaucer, imagining him not as some dusty, old, dead poet but rather as the driving force behind the ambitions of middle-class youth.

This paper looks at Shakespeare’s courtly rogue in the current context of sixteenth-century views of poverty and the ethics associated with vagabondage. Many current biographies and criticism have hinted at Shakespeare’s closeted identity with the “old faith.” In this paper I want to consider this latest trend in Shakespeare biographies (following Michael Wood, Stephen Greenblatt, Peter Ackroyd, and Jamie Shapiro) in the context of Shakespeare’s depiction of the “courtly rogue.” The Renaissance courtier’s wit and art of equivocation were often associated with the vagabond’s cant in the popular rogue pamphlets; in the popular cultural imaginary of the time, the courtly rogue was someone who played the game of stylized identity poorly, and hence a whipping boy of sorts for the age’s anxiety over upstart men and social climbers. How may Shakespeare be reflecting on his own position through the symbol of characters twisted by rhetorical accommodations to power? How does Shakespeare’s “closeted” counter (or post) reformation catholic identity get displaced to his representations of knee-crooking knaves? Focusing on All’s Well That Ends Well, this paper theorizes the cynical tonal shift in Shakespeare’s problem comedy in the context of his representations of characters who figure as parodies of rhetorical invention. I look at Parolles’s “fall” from the Court as a window into the problem of downward mobility in the sixteenth century generally and the complicated set of emotions associated with the misrecognition of itinerant labor with rogues.

This paper explores the ways in which Joann Loviglio's Finn, the recent fictional spin-off of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, attempts to reconfigure notions of class and race in both Twain's masterpiece and nineteenth-century middle class culture as it "reconstructs" the life of Huck's monstrous father, Pap Finn. This literary prequel promises to generate considerable scholarly conversation for the ways in which it undermines fundamental assumptions that have contributed to the critical status of one of American literary history's most central texts.