Holly Crocker (hcrocker@gwm.sc.edu)

University of South Carolina-Columbia

Southeastern Medieval Association, September 2005

BABEL Panel: Medieval Humanisms/Modern Humanisms

Unthinking Historicist Fidelities

[scattered thoughts]

I have a few scattered thoughts that I’d like to pursue. Broadly, I’d like to think about the ways in which gender, and masculinity in particular, literally situates notions of the human.

In an effort to unthink historicist fidelities, which frankly investigations of gender do even if they don’t acknowledge it, I’d like to suggest that gender is more about places than times. Gender is a structure of difference, and as such, it immediately illuminates what Jeffrey Cohen calls the “temporal interlacement” of the Middle Ages: the “the impossibility of choosing alterity or continuity” as a critical model for contemporary scholars. And, considering the post-historicist interest in medieval studies in “place” (a la David Wallace's Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn), it seems that we should put more thought into the human as its own “topographical mode,” if you will. One of the ways of mapping the human, I maintain, is gender. But it is not just that gender is a way of drawing lines that demarcate what counts as (in)human in a binarized polarity--it is, but that’s not soooooo interesting. Rather, if we think of gender as a mode of “placement,” I would like also to pursue the ways that its processes of alignment naturalize certain of its divisions. In other words, I’d like to suggest that the elision of “masculine” and “human” is a way, first, to exile all that which is not readable as masculine from the ambit of the human.

We might think that this most radically or simply excludes women, but I’m not so sure. As Barbara Newman suggests in her work on the early Christian tradition, vir was more elastic designation of characteristics that women could also assume. In a more contemporary frame, Judith Halberstam’s focus on what she calls “female masculinity” potentially empties out “masculinity” as a term that attaches to sexed bodies. Taken together, both potentially rewrite masculinity as “agency.”

If so, I would suggest that this association offers promise even as it causes problems. Its promise resides in what I would take to be the enduring appeal of humanism(s), writ large: the suggestion that subjectivity entails agency and thus confers autonomy. If this is available to women and men, we might say, then it offers the possibility of an expansive notion of the human, especially in terms of rights. But there seems to me an equal problem with masculinity’s presumption of a visible neutrality that simply passes as the “human.”

Equating humanity with agency through its parity with masculinity makes masculinity a transcendent mode of being (rather than an historically situated mode of becoming). This assumption of temporal transcendence means, that masculinity is “displaced” in a privileged fashion--this becomes particularly problematic when its neutrality is used as a point of contrast with other nodes of identity, such as race, sexuality, or rank. In other words, by claiming for itself a “timeless” visible neutrality, masculinity may be deployed at any historical juncture to erect/maintain visible difference (and this picks up Homi Bhabha’s characterizations of masculinity as having a “visible invisibility”).

And it is here, finally, that my musings on the problematic yet promising equivalence of masculinity and humanity might touch those of other panelists, particularly modernists. I would like to close my ramble by thinking about the neutrality of masculinity even in our own discourse (and okay, I’ve been reading student papers this week and am struck once again by how old-fashioned my students are willing to be in promoting the cause of aesthetic purity!). Since gender-neutrality in our language has been largely devalued (or made tediously unhip) by its designation as a product of “political correctness,” I’d like to think about what it means when we say that “he” can stand for all humankind. This pronominal elasticity is interesting, because on the one hand it offers the possibility that those most visibly excluded from its construction (women) may actively claim a place under its banner. But it also suggests that those who might be assumed to be part of its designation (even as a banner) might be erased by its seeming expansiveness.

Ralph Ellison’s groundbreaking treatment of cultural erasure in his Invisible Man, for example, indicates the ways in which certain men are made visibly invisible for the benefit of others. His protagonist’s furor stems partly from the fact that his visibility as a (hu)man is manipulated to promote and to protect the neutral privilege that supposedly resides in whiteness. In other words, his blackness, its invisibility, is written to make the privileges of whiteness legible, albeit in a way that eludes “placement” in a legible topography. As Robert Bernasconi argues, the privileged group constructs categories of visible difference (including invisibility, which Ellison shows can be brutally visible) to assert their own mobility and thus to maintain their own dominance.

At the end of the day, then, I’d like to suggest that contemporary interest in “place”--which often defies temporalities--needs to be thought of as an active category of difference that can have troubling consequences over time. Placing the human, particularly through constructions of gender difference, allows us to think about the structures that we continue to respect as visibly neutral (or outside time). These can be quite tangible (and here I’m thinking about texts and their material constructions), but they can also be quite abstract. The ways in which the tangible and abstract of what we count as “human” bleed into one another, then, and calls upon us to review the ways in which categories that we’ve often thought outside the domain of place--race, class, gender, sexuality, religion--are in many ways the place-holders for a “human” identity that stands apart from all of these, except in privileged, rarefied, and fantasized ways (and here I want to bring in Bruno Latour’s exhortation that we recognize the “fact” as a gathering--like a place, or a storehouse, to bring in Mary Carruthers or Vance Smith--over which we exercise creative control through time).