Groundlessness and Torture

227290620_344899bf8dHere I am again. In anticipation of Kzoo book shopping, I’ve carved out time in the last month to read through chunks of my library: can I justify getting more books this time if I haven’t yet read, say, last year’s Geoffrey of Auxerre Apocalypse Commentary? Unlikely, unless I seek justification somewhere else for buying books.

Most recently, I read Suger’s Deeds of Louis the Fat, picked up, according to my jacket flap note, in 2001, and otherwise untouched until last week. The Deeds aims to tether the Abbey of St. Denis to the French Crown: this is its religion (from “ligare,” to tie, fasten). Suger thus cheers on Louis’s suppression of “tyrants,” who, in this case, are the intransigent lords surrounding Paris, reluctant to cede to the King their right to independent violence. As might be expected, the Deeds is full of interesting tidbits: Parisian Jews–per the notes, like the Roman Jews–present the new Pope with a covered Torah scroll; Louis’s great enemy Hugh of Crécy escapes by disguising himself at times as a jongleur and at times as a prostitute; Suger hates the barbaric Germans and admires the Norman Kings of England; a demonic pig kills Louis’s son Philip (for more see here); and, delightfully, Suger blanches when the monks of St. Denis elect him Abbot without consulting Louis: throughout the Deeds, Suger assails the Holy Roman Emperor for insisting on the Imperial right to clerical investiture, but only here, with his own election, does Suger have to confront the full implications of his ideals.

The Deeds‘ most striking feature is its violence. The troops of a rebellious lord surrender to Louis, who has their right hands chopped off and makes them return “carrying their fists in their fists.” Louis ravages the sections of Normandy held by the Kings of England. He hangs the chief conspirator in the murder of Charles the Good with a dog, which gnaws off the conspirator’s face and covers him in its shit (any connection?). Here’s a typical moment in the Deeds:

Attacking them with swords, they piously slaughtered the impious, mutilated the limbs of some, disemboweled others with great pleasure, and piled even greater cruelty upon them, considering it too kind. No one should doubt that the hand of God sped so swift a revenge when both the living and dead were thrown through the windows. Bristling with countless arrows like hedgehogs, their bodies stopped short in the air, vibrating on the sharp points of lances as if the ground itself rejected them [for this, see first hit here]. The French hit upon the following unusual revenge for William’s unusual deed. When alive he had lacked a brain, and now that he was dead he lacked a heart, for they ripped it from his entrails and impaled it on a stake, swollen as it was with fraud and evil.

My question concerns our response. Our benighted colleagues might think this an example of a particularly medieval violence. We might think in terms of the sociology of missile weapons, or the history of juridical violence, or of the body, or of the heart as the organ of the self; observing that Suger tells us nothing of the pain William and his men suffer, we might preserve this passage as a witness in the history of pain. Proper scholarly responses are uncountable.

It strikes me, however, that good scholarly responses stifle what we ought to do with Suger’s love of Louis’s violence: we should condemn it; we should be appalled, outraged; we should look at St. Denis and want to destroy it, to erect in its place a statue of Louis and Suger, enmeshed in damp viscera, a statue, if such a thing were possible, that induced nausea in any patriot. We can of course turn this horror again, to wonder, in a scholarly, yet corporeal, manner at the differing disingenuities of a scholarship that denies affect versus a scholarship that revels, “authentically,” in affect, as if emotion were “truer” than scholarship, as if scholarship without emotional investment were possible. We can study the history that makes “scholarly, yet corporeal” a likely and meaningful opposition.

We can also turn to wondering what grounds we have for condemning Suger. He’s a prelate and monk. We would prefer that he be otherworldly rather than a statesman. We would prefer that he love his enemies, that he forgive them and attempt to lead them to a good life through his patience, that he martyr himself in cherishing the souls of others, that he reserve judgment to God. Preferring this, we could accuse Suger of being a bad Christian, a hypocritical lover of the world, of the state and its violence. Being good scholars and good postmodernists, we would have to know, however, that the accusation of hypocrisy relies upon belief in the impossible, namely, the existence, somewhere, of “authentic speech” and “authentic belief,” identical with the self. Being good postmodernists and good scholars, we also would have to know that Suger’s Christianity, in all its violence and dedication to the Crown and its methods, is as true a Christianity as any.

What grounds do we have left to condemn Suger? A postmodern cliché: the ground will always give way, regardless of our strategy. There are, I know, postmodern ethics. We have ethics founded on surprise and wonder; on subjects called into being as hostages to the other; on enclosing and cherishing and touching another; on the ‘minimal violence’ of strategic naming to protect another. We have models for actions, for, if you like, ethical events, but no grounds. This point, I know, is hoary by now; but I can’t leave it alone.

Because when (astonishingly) Shep Smith, a Fox News Talking Head, shouts “we are America! We do not fucking torture!, I applaud (and am, also, horrified that this even has to be said, has to keep being said), but, then, like a good postmodern, I remind myself, smirkingly, of the precritical metaphysical conceit of Smith’s distinction between what America has done and what America is. When one of the legal architects of torture is reported to have whinged about his memos being taken too far, I want to immolate him as a hypocrite while, again smirkingly, realizing that Bybee’s whinging is as sincere as speech can be. When the Christian Right approves and applauds torture, I want to compel them to live up to their own beliefs (e.g., here), before remembering that Ashcroft’s Christianity is as true as any other.

Responding like a scholar to Suger and Yoo alike, I wonder, as so many others have wondered, if my dedication to critique means, finally, that I cannot actually say anything.

(a useful resource) (image from here via a Creative Commons license)