Between What Is Ours and What Is Not Ours: Claustrophilia, Attachment, Anachronism, Friendship

Eileen A. Joy

**a paper presented at a Medieval Club of New York panel, "The Subjects of Friendship: Medieval and Medievalist," Graduate Center, City University of New York, 7 March 2008

Figure 1. still image from Alex Gibney's documentary Taxi to the Dark Side

What we are given is taken away,
but we manage to keep it secretly.
We lose everything, but make harvest
of the consequence it was to us.
—Jack Gilbert, from “Moreover”

Consider our place in modernity, or late or second modernity, if you will, or even postmodernity—it is a place in which, increasingly, the very notion of place, or placement, has come undone. In the words of Zygmunt Bauman in his book Liquid Modernity, “traveling light, rather than holding tightly to things . . . is now the asset of power,” and “social disintegration is as much a condition as it is the outcome of the new technique of power, using disengagement and the art of escape as its major tools” (pp. 13, 14; my emphasis). But these are strange times, too, and in some places, walls and fences and checkpoints and special “zones” are being erected and guarded with heavy weaponry, and in other places, in Bauman words, “[a]ny dense and tight network of social bonds, and particularly a territorially rooted tight network, is an obstacle to be cleared out of the way.” And while global powers “are bent on dismantling such networks for the sake of their continuous and growing fluidity, . . . it is the falling apart, the friability, the brittleness, the transience, the until-further-noticeness of human bonds and networks which allow these powers to do their job in the first place” (Liquid Modernity, p. 14). And in my opinion, if you want a perfect symbol for both the modernity still entrenched in the heavy structures and fortresses of territorial conquest and order-building and the modernity of escape, slippage, elision, and the disembodiment of everything, look no further than Guantanamo Bay. Is it even possible to talk about friendship now, under the lengthening shadows of such a place? Or, conversely, can critical theory, now, be about anything else? By which I mean, life-politics, or, in Judith Butler’s terms, the right to a “livable life.”

In his book, Theory and the Premodern Text, Paul Strohm argued that the “needed elaboration of the postmodern is to discover . . . some provisional standpoint, and some point of attachment, for critique” (p. 161; my emphasis). He further wrote that “postmodernism has been devastating in its critique of the authoritative observer, exposing feigned objectivity as a construction founded in privilege and supported by social authority. But its seeming obverse—complete disinvestment—is actually its twin, founded in a similar claim of disinterest and no less privileged (in this case, in its enjoyment of the privilege not to care).” Strohm associates “unpositionality with privilege because history (past and present) is full of people placed in circumstances that require care, full of people who can’t not care. Such historical actors can neither be everywhere nor be nowhere; they have no choice but to be somewhere.” And this is where Strohm suggests we place ourselves: “provisionally, precariously, temporarily, maybe sometimes bemusedly—but always somewhere. And wherever that somewhere is, that it be an invested place, a place that knows things are at stake” (p. 161).

Although it may not be exactly what Strohm was thinking when he wrote these words, it is in his gesture toward a place—a somewhere of a humanities scholarship invested in the idea that, where historical actors are concerned, something is always “at stake”—that I sense an opening for a consideration of friendship as a particular mode of an intellectual life committed to the care of ideas but also of the persons and texts (both in the past and present) that literally body forth these ideas. In the conclusion to his essay, “Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants,” that he contributed to Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, my friend Michael Moore wrote (and also lamented),

Can we still assert a[n] . . . ideal of community, based on friendship and binding solidarity among and between individuals? Friendship with oneself, viewed as part of the “fundamental constitution of humanity” might form the basis for a reawakening of the classical political demand for amity and justice. . . . The attempt to preserve a humane culture and to assert our rights or our love of the right, should not be left in the hands of a distant state, since these are qualities of the virtuous life. One should highlight the possibility of friendship and the connections between friendship, liberty, and joy. It is by no means easy to orient oneself during a period such as this one. (p. 131)

By “a period such as this one,” Michael means the era of the Bush presidency—and more pointedly, its abuses of the due process of law and use of torture in its war on terrorism—but he also means, I believe, the period in which the life and culture of the university itself has become, in the words of Cary Howie, “the place of the agon of reducible and competitive texts and bodies and disciplines” (Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure, p. 144). Michael’s tentative answer to his own troubling question is that, “[i]n periods of disturbance and change, personal constancy and discussions with like-minded friends become more important. If we can remain true to our friends, then ‘new paths will appear, enabling us to practice spirituality’” (p. 131). For myself, I find that I am always returning to Bill Readings idea in The University in Ruins that, perhaps, the real work of the post/historical university might be to serve as “one site among others where the question of being-together is raised, raised with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question for the past three centuries or so” (p. 20).

It is in raising the image of “being-together” as a question (which is necessary if one wants to guard against all the ways in which, historically, the presumption of community or a shared humanity has led straight to cruelty, oppression, and the inhuman), where I think Readings opens a path toward the thought of amity or friendship, in the sense Nietzsche gave to the term in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as a “continuation of love in which (the) possessive craving of two people for each other gives way to a new desire and lust for . . . a shared higher thirst for an ideal above them.” This would also be the friendship of Thomas Aquinas in which the “love of friendship” [amor amicitiae] produces a kind of “mutual indwelling” [mutua inhaesio], which nevertheless does not necessarily imply shared thoughts or even shared wills, only a shared desire or hope that a certain kind of loving cooperation increases the chances of obtaining something that could be called good, and even of being loved in return (Summa Theologica). But I would also add, as a kind of caution to these two descriptions of friendship, Maurice Blanchot’s idea that friendship is “not a gift, or a promise; it is not generic generosity. Rather this incommensurable relation of one to the other is the outside drawing near in its separateness and inaccessibility” (The Writing of Disaster, p. 50).

And I suppose that I am hoping, here and now, as one avenue toward “raising” the “question of being-together” (and of thinking through how we can draw more near to each other in our shining separateness and mystery), for a practice of friendship as a radical politics that would disturb the usual ways of doing things in here—within the university, but especially the humanities—and that would emplace within the ruined structures of this site multiple heterotopias in which, following Foucault, the “fragments of a large number of possible orders (would) glitter separately . . . without law or geometry” (The Order of Things, p. xvii).  And after reading Cary Howie’s brilliant, and in Karl Steel’s estimation, heartbreaking book, Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure, my heart runs over and I am emboldened to ask: how might the chief work of the post/historical university, and especially of an anachronistic premodern studies, be the cultivation of a more humane culture through an erotic (or, more libidinal) practice of “close” and “enclosed” reading—of texts, but by extension, of everyone enclosed within those texts, including ourselves? This would be a practice of scholarship that would desire what Howie describes as “a communal entrance” where “corporately and corporeally we make room for time, and where time, simultaneously, is given us in and as space, in and as ‘the middle’ of any age,” and no “labor of contextualization or so-called historicism could ever fill it up” (p. 151).

In his book, Howie provides “extended readings” of the queer erotics of the enclosure or the “inside”—of the work of art, the hermitage, the anchorage, the monastery, the mystical cell, the marital prison, the lover’s bed, the book, the gay lyric, the Zurich bathroom, the lover’s body, the church wall, the vestibule, the kiss—in English, French, and Italian writers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but also in contemporary letters and art. And he offers, by way of these readings, both a history of the love of enclosure (claustrophilia) as well as the critical practice of “embedded touch” (p. 4), which has some affinities with Elizabeth Freeman’s “erotohistoriography” and with what Carolyn Dinshaw has recently termed a “post/disenchanted temporal perspective.”[1] Howie’s book is a powerful demonstration that enclosures are never static and that, in Howie’s words, to “be inside (a chapter, a house, or a chapterhouse) is not to be sealed off: it is to be summoned, paradoxically, into a more, concrete, ecstatic relation to not just what lies beyond but within these boundaries” (p. 4). Ultimately, the enclosure, a space in which things and bodies are always proximate, is also the site of expansion where the metonymies—“of tongue and page, body and bed—stretch the space in which vice and virtue come together in a common, if differently shared, moment of arrival” (p. 6). For me, personally, the greatest importance of Howie’s book is in its vision (and enactment) of a type of scholarship that, in his words,

provides a way to talk about textual proximity, and the extent to which historical moments, genres, and bodies are always dragged from their contingent others while simultaneously giving themselves to be similarly dragged. This traherence . . . never quite gets free of what it ostensibly emerges from, and furnishes the basis for a reading practice that would resist the slavish devotion to the controlled, discrete bloodlines of those patrilinear critical and literary histories that continue to haunt contemporary reading practices.

The implications of this are as follows. To touch is to experience a limit and open a connection. Whether this touch is figured visually, hermeneutically, or sexually, it traces the outline of a community of embodied lovers expropriatively given over to bodies, texts, and buildings sensibly intensified by this gift. Neither a mere idealization of aesthetic attention nor a diminishment of eros to interpretation, the metonymic, participative touch (or look, or reading) brings more fully into being the bodies, texts, and buildings it brushes against. The risk of violence remains—when does it ever go away?—but it is important to stress that, if touch is in some way entry, it is thus only inasmuch as appropriation has been thoroughly relinquished. Such an entry, such a touch, requires an ecstatic reorientation of the most basic (and finally damaging) ontological presuppositions: that this body has fundamentally nothing to do with mine; that this body cannot be touched; that this body is impenetrable or forever lost. (pp. 6-7)

This is scholarship, not just as a type of study or even a practice of reading, but as a way of life, even an ethics, a form of love, or affective solidarity, in joy but also in suffering.

This brings me to one aspect of Howie’s book that I most want to highlight and celebrate, especially in relation to friendship: its chief mode of address is the tu and nous: you, and we, us. Again and again, when providing illustrations for his thinking or for how he is reading his beloved texts, medieval and more modern, Howie addresses me (but also the writers whose words he is analyzing) directly, as those situated inside with him, as lovers, or is it as co-conspirators in desire and in touch within the enclosure of his book which touches so many other books, and by extension, so many other bodies? Howie highlights this affective gesture on his very first page, where he writes that he will be making “a series of gestures that attempt to show just how far inside, just how spatially and textually delimited, we inevitably are,” and where he argues that “there is, finally, no such thing as solitary confinement. The question of being inside and the question of how it is possible to speak this fragile pronoun, ‘we,’ across temporal, spatial, and ontological difference, never cease to overlap and literally to inform one another” (p. 1). Although Howie informs his reader what he will be doing, it did not really settle inside of me except through repetition. Page after page, Howie would break what might be called the regular mode of seemingly disinterested critique, and address me/us directly: “I hide from you; you seek me out”; “this is the pulse, the throb, the engendering spasm of a bed that beats. Not just my bed, but ours”; “to say I am enclosed in your mouth and I am enclosed in your hand is to inscribe a difference at the heart of you”; “We kiss, and between us someone else intervenes; in truth, a whole series of others, but also the very phenomenon of otherness, and the horizon against which we they all take shape. Difference, created and uncreated, writes itself where we touch”; “being inside you is always simultaneously being beside you, irreducibly”; “Claustrophilia takes place . . . in and between us, as the erotics of our being together in space, which is to say, the erotics of our being together at all.”

The life of the scholar often feels like a solitary confinement, and there is much to lament about the ways we do things in the academy—the way we hire, the way we tenure and promote, the way we review scholarship for publication, the way we convene symposia and conferences, the way we award grants, the competitive nature of all of it in general, and even the indifference we have toward those who are not proximate enough to us, or so we think. And I always try to recall in these situations the lines of Pablo Neruda, “I don’t know who you are. I love you. I don’t give away thorns, and I don’t sell them” (One Hundred Love Sonnets, p. 165). How is it, after forty or so years of the most radical blasting open of modes of thought and scholarly practice, that the institution of the humanities—by which I mean, its managerial structures—could still be so mired in nineteenth-century (and earlier) notions of privilege, patronage, prestige, orthodoxy and discipline, anonymous authority, straitjacketed hierarchy, and condescending censure? There can be no real fraternity, no friendship, in such an atmosphere, although here and there, like small points of light, cells of friends will gather and leave their traces in the epigraphs and acknowledgement pages of books and in the notes of articles. But that is a different sort of friendship than the sort I want to advocate for here, one that could only be accomplished in our collective embrace of what Howie calls a “queer ontology”: “Think what it means to reach out, in the dark, toward something or someone you cannot see”—this would be a “an erotic participation” through which we would become “not identical but singularly shared and mutually, messily incompleted,” and it would be “committed to the intensification of (our) materialities in their very mystery and withdrawal, these multiple and proliferating enclosed spaces upon which we inevitably, extensively touch” (pp. 7-8).

To put it another way that touches directly on the subject of our studies—the so-called Middle Ages—and again in Howie’s words, “if the past is, it is only insofar as it is enclosed by the present, and only insofar as this enclosure appears” [p. 14]. In order to illustrate his point, Howie elaborates upon a scene in Sebastian Lifshitz's film Presque rien, or Come Undone in the English title, where “two lovers whose history is told out of sequence walk through the ruins of a medieval castle in Brittany”:

For Matthieu, the castle at Ranrouet, built over several centuries, is a ‘summary of military architecture’; for Cedric, ‘it’s just some rocks.’ Cedric leans in to kiss Matthieu, who resists, clutching his history book. A nice, more or less homogeneous historicist synthesis here rubs up against the barest material contiguity. Cedric, unsurprisingly, comes a lot closer than Matthieu to a sort of being singular plural of the architectural object, and not just because he sees it, singular, as stones, plural. While Matthieu wants to appropriate Ranrouet as a content of organized historical knowledge, Cedric wants to make it the space in which a kiss opens up, in which bodies touch. (p. 151)

Practices of anachronistic reading are necessary, finally, because, in Howie’s terms, they speak directly to “the spaciousness within objects, and within times, that only becomes sensible when we see them as at once singular and plural, discrete and imbricated somehow in one another; and finally, when we submit ourselves to their frames by seeking to undo them, and still more crucially, by seeking ourselves, singularly in common, again and again, to come undone” (p. 151). Paraphrasing Howie, between what is ours and what is not ours, what intervenes is close to ours, and to us. And we, thereby, are close to each other. If we could somehow see this better, friendship would be possible between us, and by that friendship, or mutual indwelling, or affective regard, we could light up from within the dark enclosures of the university so thoroughly, they would “space out,” radically, in infinite directions.

But I have concerns, and oh, my friends, I have anxieties. And it goes back to placement, and to places and to prisons in which, contra Howie, there is such a thing as solitary confinement, and in that confinement, bodies and minds, utterly destroyed and bereft, are departing from us and there may be no way, in the words of the poet Jack Gilbert, to “make harvest of the consequence it was to us.” We are left then, here in the university, as Readings wrote, “with an obligation to explore our obligations without believing that we will come to the end of them,” and the “social bond is thus a name for the incalculable attention that the heteronomous instance of the Other (the fact of others) demands” (p. 190). But I would also conclude here by asking us to consider the uses of enchantment, friendship, and joy (and maybe even Howie’s traherence) as means toward a radical politics of hope, and I leave you with these lines from Gilbert’s poem, “A Brief for the Defense,” which resonate with the between-ness in Howie’s thought:

The poor women at the fountain
are laughing together between the suffering
they have known and the awfulness of their future,
smiling and laughing, while someone
in the village is very sick.
. . . .
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight.

Figure 2. Dormitory beds in police orphanage, 1920s (Redhill, England)

1. See Elizabeth Freeman, “Time Binds, or, Erotohistoriography,” Social Text 23.3-4 (2005): 57-68 and “Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” GLQ 13.2-3 (2006): 177-95.