Figure 1. Bruce Nauman, “Life Death Love Hate Pleasure Pain” (neon sculpture)
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
–Dylan Thomas, “In My Craft or Sullen Art”
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.
Over at the the medieval studies group weblog, In The Middle, for which I regularly write, there has been a vigorous discussion in recent days, both here in Jeffrey’s J. Cohen’s initial post and my own, on the matter of not only how we communicate our thought and scholarship (with some arguing for a certain “efficiency” of communication to audiences who may not share our specialized, and perhaps purposefuly and regretfully arch, languages), and also how we envision who it is, exactly, for whom we think we do this (scholarly) work and to what ends (this discussion was originally inspired by a post, “The Language that Locks Others Out,” at the medieval graduate student blog Vaulting and Vellum), I am recalled to the BABEL Working Group‘s panels at this past May’s International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which were devoted to the topics of both the enjoyment (and: pleasure) in scholarship as well as what we might think is the seriousness (read also: the political, or ethical, necessity) of what we do. More specifically, we described the pleasure panel (which featured papers by Cary Howie, Carolyn Dinshaw, Peggy McCracken, Nicola Masciandaro, and Anna Klosowska, with a response by Elizabeth Freeman) this way:
For several years now, there has been a growing body of work, both in medieval queer studies but also in queer studies more generally [in all fields] on the practice of historical scholarship as a form of affective “touching” and “cruising” of the past and on “addressing history in an idiom of pleasure” [e.g. the work of Carolyn Dinshaw and Elizabeth Freeman]; more currently, new work is emerging, by non-medievalists and medievalists alike, on the pleasures [but also the ethics] of affective forms of scholarship and also on new temporalities that are opened by queer historiographies and queer reading practices [i.e., work by medievalists such as Glenn Burger, Karma Lochrie, Cary Howie, Anna Klosowska, and again, Carolyn Dinshaw, and by non-medievalists such as Judith Halberstam, Elizabeth Freeman, Heather Love, Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant, Jose Esteban Munoz, Jonathan Goldberg, Carla Freccero, etc.]. It is our intention to use this panel to highlight the voices of the medievalists who have been thinking and writing about affective scholarship, and to also bring medieval queer studies into contact with those working in queer studies who are not medievalists.
I blogged on the pleasure panel (“Are We Enjoying Ourselves? The Place of Pleasure in Medieval Scholarship”) at In The Middle last May and somehow neglected to also post something on the seriousness panel (“Are We Serious Enough Yet? The Place of Ethics in Medieval Scholarship”), a panel which was partially a response to Michael Calabrese’s article “Performing the Prioress: Conscience and Responsibility in Studies of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale” (Texas Studies in Language and Literature 44 [Spring 2002]: 66-91), where he argues against what he calls a “politically driven medieval literary criticism” and advocates instead for a certain “Arnoldian disinterestedness,” unless we want our criticism to devolve into a type of presentist politics of recuperation (a presentist politics, moroever, that maybe the present does not need nor want and which leaves unexamined many other valuable aspects of the literature under consideration).
But the papers presented at our panel on seriousness, or ethical criticism (papers presented by Tom Prendergast and Stephanie Trigg, Hannah Johnson, Susan Morrison, Sol Neely, Carolyn Anderson, and Daniel Kline) went much further afield than just responding to Calabrese’s article and managed to cover, in broad and generous fashion, the ethics of anonymous review and the pleasures of an ethics founded in human waste (Morrison); the pleasures of collaboration-as-intimate-friendship, especially in relation to the question of the “we”–not only of the collaborators in question but more pointedly to what we all might mean when we invoke the phrase “we medievalists” (Prendergast and Trigg); the veritable minefield of thinking through historicist ethics in relation to volatile subject matter such as anti-Semitism and Christian and Jewish violence (Johnson); the difficulties attendant upon being a professor these days with more and more institutional burdens and less and less time to love what we do, or to ply our work with something like love and no hope, or even wish, for compensation (Kline); the stickiness of working in institutional and professional contexts that require we be both believers in Enlightenment dogma regarding the high value of education while we also stand on our guard against grand narratives and the idea that ethics and morality could even be defined, much less prescribed, in which case we might as well “be queer” and embrace both while also trying to “have some fun” (Anderson); and the idea, following Blanchot, that writing “as worklessness is the [. . .] indeterminancy that lies between reason and unreason,” and that what medieval texts (medieval writing) give to us are not the texts themselves but rather “the possibility of writing, which is the book’s future” (Neely).
Below I share the full texts of these [very short] papers with everyone. If you follow the link below, it will take you to full versions of all of the papers presented on BABEL’s “Are We Serious Enough Yet?” panel, as well as to full versions of some of the papers presented on the “Are We Enjoying Ourselves?” panel. I will also note that, if you follow the hyperlink and scroll down that you will also see a link to a paper that Dan Remein [PhD student at New York University] presented at Kalamazoo this past May, “Eddies of Time, Licks of Language: Wulf and Eadwacer and the Queer Time of Old English Philology,” which is very much related to the subjects and provocative questions raised by all of the panelists on both of BABEL’s panels relative to the intersections between the personal and the professional, the distant and the intimate, pleasure (enjoying one’s work) and suffering it (mastering one’s subject–i.e, desire versus rectitude), and the questions (many of them, in fact) regarding how it is we conceptualize the purposes (and non-purposes) of what we do, who we think we are doing this for, and why, or as Dan himself puts it to the philologists, whose company he keeps well, “Dear philologists, what do we love, and how do we love it?”
For those who might be interested, I will also provide a link here to the panel BABEL has organized, “Knowing and Unknowing Pleasures,” for the 35th annual meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association (15-17 October 2009 @ Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN), and which is meant to be an extension of various conversations sparked by the Kalamazoo panels: