Look, Don’t Touch! — Karl Fumbles with Noli me tangere


Picture from the Met

At the end of my annus mirabilis, I published a response essay in Reading Skin in Medieval Literature and Culture (ed. Katie Walter), a new Palgrave anthology with pieces by Lara Farina, Bob Mills, Julie Orlemanski, Elizabeth Robertson, Susan Small, Isabel Davis, Katie Walter, and Virginia Langum. Happy to see so many friends of the blog in that list. Look to this anthology for work on Blemmyes, on Havelok, on werewolves, as skin and time, on the philosophy of medicine and probing,on the Testament of Cresseid.

And look for me doing work that I kept from this blog, and more’s the pity, because, as you’ll discover, I fumbled. How hard I fumbled is up to your judgment.

My piece develops (no surprise) a posthuman material thought about skin. I’m mostly proud of it. Some samples:

“Flesh thus may be thought of as unrealized skin, or as unseen skin touching other unseen skin, in a body at once organized as a binary of surface and depth and as a plethora of laminated layers of skin, in which each bodily stratum is simultaneously its own surface and the depth that another cannot reach.”

“If skin is a membrane, bidirectional plane of contact, or container, then we need not think of skin only in an organic sense or, for that matter, only as delineating the borders of a conscious subject. Skin rather should be understood as being everywhere things persist, meet, or are. Skin intervenes in any encounter. Skin establishes difference, an ‘interval.’ It mediates while confounding absolute immediacy” &c.

“To touch means to be touched in turn. To be at all is to experience one’s limits and to be available, to abut on others and to feel one’s shape by encountering resistance and by reaching back. As Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey put it, ‘”my body” does not “belong to me”: embodiment is what opens out the intimacy of myself with others,’ to which I would add that embodiment is also what prevents intimacy by enabling others to exist as others.”

Too much “academic mumblespeak” and other bad prose habits there (thus, at once, rather, to which I would add), but otherwise not so bad. No (major?) errors.

I wish I could say the same for all of it. Elizabeth Robertson surely deserved better than the response I gave. Robertson, as I write, “traces doctrinal efforts to resolve the apparent contradiction between Christ’s commanding Mary Magdalene not to touch him and his inviting Thomas to probe his wounded side.” She does great work with the noli me tangere scene, and I supplement her discussion of some artworks with one about a twelfth-century Leonese ivory plaque of the scene (see above). Though the plaque says Dominus Loquitur Marie, the Lord talks to Mary, it’s much more about touching than speaking. Christ’s hand rests on the shoulder of one of the travelers to Emmaus, and when Christ reaches out to ward off Mary, his outstretched fingers just barely penetrate her halo. “Even,” I say, “his attempt to avoid touch must be recognized as another moment of contact.”

from the left

Except that’s not what’s happening. Not exactly. I was at the Met yesterday to see James Nares’ extraordinary film “Street” (a must-see for all thinkers interested in scale and time), where I also saw this plaque among the objects Nares had selected “to provide different points of entry into aspects of his work.” The plaque’s about traveling, about visitation, about surprise, about touching and not touching, and about silence, since a plaque can only represent speech without actually giving it voice. It’s about how this film about just looking also must be a film about touching. We’re not simply conducting surveillance. The cries of delight when birds crossed the screen, when New Yorkers loved seeing, of all things, a pigeon (!), was proof enough of that.

from the right

But if you look at the plaque from the left, Christ isn’t actually touching Mary’s halo. His fingers stop just before it. Or they’re floating just above it. Foiled!

Or so I thought, until Alison rescued me by pointing out that Christ’s fingers do penetrate her halo, so long as we’re looking from the right.

We have a host of lessons here. I can give you two, and invite you to list more. The first: don’t write about a sculpture until you’ve actually seen it. I wrote my essay in Paris, not New York, and should have written about something, oh, at the Louvre or the Cluny. The second: don’t forget anamorphosis, particularly with sculpture, which are, if we work with them properly, moving images. This plaque invites us, requires us, to move around the scene, so we can realize that, depending on the lighting, depending on our stance, we’re going to see the touch Christ tried to prevent. And we’re going to miss that touch so long as we don’t let the sculpture move us around it.

And for more on such things, see Asa Mittman.

A more expansive narcissism

6901539342_ec7b80bb3f_zAbove is a picture of the oldest work in the Louvre, a 9000-year-old statue of a human, made from gypsum plaster smeared over a skeleton of cords and woven fibers, with pupils and eyelids of bitumen. It was most recently rediscovered in 1985 at Aïn Ghazal, restored at the Smithsonian from 1985-96, and is currently in Paris, on loan from from Jordan (for more commentary, see here).

My second thought on encountering it was: hello, Adam:

And I said unto the Cherubim, ‘My Lord, of what kind was this righteousness wherein Adam was arrayed, and which he received from His hand?’ And the Cherubim said unto me, ‘On the day wherein God created Adam, Adam was twelve cubits in height, and six cubits in width, and his neck was three cubits long. And he was like unto an alabaster stone wherein there is no blemish whatsoever.’

I’m quoting from the Coptic The Mysteries of Saint John the Apostle and Holy Virgin, an early twelfth-century celestial journey in which we find, let me stress, a wholly coincidental description of what might as well be the Aïn Ghazal statue.

Here’s my first thought:

[I] called a 9000-year-old object [the] oldest in Louvre. How very anthropocentric of me. We’re full of star dust.

I assume you know I’m referencing Lawrence M. Krauss:

The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust.

Possibly to its credit, the Louvre calls the Aïn Ghazal statue its oldest work, not its oldest “object” (possibly: I don’t perfectly remember what the placard said). Nonetheless, even “work” still presents human agency as the only agency that matters. Anyone reading this blog knows anything can “work.” Even exploding stars.

As for age, even if we bracket off stardust, the statue’s primary material itself still strikes me as almost impossibly old: gypsum has been here for perhaps 2.5 billion years. What can we do with such a big number, so much more vertiginous than the vague, transcendent non-number of the infinite (on this point, see The Ecological Thought 40: incidentally, can I declare a moratorium on “infinite”? In a universe that matters, nothing’s infinite).

And then there’s my delight in the statue. Like my delight in manuported pebbles, carried by humans or proto-humans millions of years ago, I delight in feeling myself sharing the touch that shaped this statue 9,000 years ago. Look at it! You can see where hands worked it. Can’t you imagine touching it too?

Yet isn’t this an anthropocentric delight? Especially with this statue, which, after all, looks back at me with a human face? Proper disanthropocentrists should take at least as much delight in the age of the gypsum, in the statue’s unseen armature, and in the stardust that we once were and will be again.

My call for an expanded delight isn’t a call to overcome narcissism. That’s too easy, and ultimately too humanist. I’m not advocating that we all abandon our training as humanists by learning to take delight in something other than the human or its products. I’m advocating something more complicated, directed against the loneliness of traditional humanism.

I’m advocating that we recognize ourselves not only in this statue’s face; that we cease to think of our singular humanity as the most interesting thing about us; that we develop, in short, a more expansive narcissism. (here’s what that might look like)

We are all stardust, in part (93%, in fact). We share something with gypsum, and with ancient woven cords; we’re perhaps future bitumen. At the least, we all exist, in some way. We all share this condition of being temporary configurations of matter. We can recognize ourselves in that existence. We can take an interest in the existence of others because of that self-recognition, and, through that narcissistic interest, feel our sense of self give way, or open up.

In sum, the statue’s elements, too, are places where we might encounter an ancient face looking back at at an “us” that finally knows itself not to be only human.

On the Staffordshire Hoard: A Rich Glowing Effect

3943716033_bf2576cc6c_bBriefly: By now we all know about the Staffordshire Hoard, and we’ve all, or nearly all, looked at the flickr set. We’ve all made our jokes (mine: “Incredible Lydgate hoard found: 50,000 lines of verse buried in Hoccleve manuscript! Lydgate scholars rejoice!”). I’m thrilled, and I can only imagine the excitement in the community of Anglo-Saxonists.

My interest here, though, isn’t in the hoard itself (insofar as we can ever think about the thing in itself) but rather in the initial stages of its twenty-first century reception. We have Leslie Webster saying:

My first reaction on seeing the scale and nature of the beast is very much as yours – this is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England in the seventh and early eighth century as radically, if not moreso, as the 1939 Sutton Hoo discoveries did; it will make historians and literary scholars review what their sources tell us, and archaeologists and art-historians rethink the chronology of metalwork and manuscripts; and it will make us all think again about rising (and failing) kingdoms and the expression of regional identities in this period, the complicated transition from paganism to Christianity, the conduct of battle and the nature of fine metalwork production – to name only a few of the many huge issues it raises. Absolutely the metalwork equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells.

Also see the words of Kevin Leahy, National Finds Adviser from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, who praises the quality of the objects (“The quantity of gold [is] amazing but, more importantly, the craftsmanship is consummate, this was the very best that the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers could do, and they were very good. Tiny garnets were cut to shape and set in a mass of cells to give a rich, glowing effect, it is stunning. Its origins are clearly the very highest-levels of Saxon aristocracy or royalty. It belonged to the elite”) and genders them: “There is absolutely nothing feminine. There are no dress fittings, brooches or pendants.” I expect the latter point will be worth some discussion here, as might the Hoard website’s choice for an illustrative Beowulf passage, which concludes: “they let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, gold under gravel, gone to earth, as useless to men now as it ever was.”

I’m more interested in the claims made for the hoard. I’m not an Anglo-Saxonist; I’m not an expert in decoration; I lack the knowledge even to know what expertises I should have to judge the hoard well; so I’m happy to be corrected, educated, even sneered at a a little, in your comments. But in what sense can this hoard, a jumble of booty, be thought to promise more knowledge (and indeed points of affective and imaginative contact) than the Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells or, especially, Sutton Hoo (and comparisons between this find and SHoo are understandably frequent, even at this early stage)?

The Sutton Hoo ship burial sites record specific cultural events. The range of objects and their arrangement speak of an intent valuing more than just the objects themselves, of an intent that valued the the objects semiotically and that arranged these signifying elements in particular object “phrases” to say something about both objects and the individual/community/culture being honored.

The Staffordshire find, on the other hand, is a jumble. If Sutton Hoo is a Henry James novel, Staffordshire is (very nearly) Tristan Tzara’s Hat. Certainly, the hoard has already started to give up some cultural meaning. Leahy observes:

This is not simply loot; swords were being singled out for special treatment. If it was just gold they were after we would have found the rich fittings from sword belts. Perhaps gold fittings were stripped from the swords to depersonalise them – to remove the identity of the previous owner. The blades then being remounted and reused.

We also have Biblical verses perhaps used as war talismans; and then there’s this comment, which wonders about the production sites of “glass millefiori rods.” Thus what follows is perhaps already said too late.

Speaking from deep in my well of ignorance, I feel as though much of the reactions have not been so particularly learned. Instead, what I’ve seen suggests that we and the ancients, at least for now, have much the same fascination with this jumble: it’s lovely; it’s golden; it’s quantitatively valuable (both in number of objects and in their material). See here for example:

Archaeologist Dr Kevin Leahy said none of the experts involved in the discovery had seen anything like it before.

He told a press conference at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery: “These are the best craftsmen the Anglo Saxons have got, working with the best materials, and producing incredible results.”….

Dr Bland confirmed that copper alloy, garnets and glass objects were discovered at the undisclosed site, but the “great majority” of the treasure was gold or silver.

Experts have so far established that there are at least 650 items of gold in the haul, weighing more than 5kg (11lb), and 530 silver objects totalling more than 1kg (2.2lb) in weight….

Mr Herbert, from Burntwood, Staffordshire, has described unearthing the haul as “more fun than winning the lottery”.

“My mates at the (metal detecting) club always say that if there is a gold coin in a field, I will be the one to find it. I dread to think what they’ll say when they hear about this,” he said.

For the Mercians as for us, the objects have been stripped from their particular cultural contexts and brought together into a new cultural context, that of the ‘hoard,’ in which objects attract us in their quantity and quality, not as nodes in cultural sign systems. We have already and will continue to reconstruct the cultural field of individual objects, and that’s to be praised, although I doubt we’re going to understand more culturally from this hoard then we did from Sutton Hoo (see: well of ignorance).

But we can perhaps learn something else precisely by virtue of the hoard objects’ cultural irrecoverability. I wonder what value we can get if we can also attempt to preserve our initial fascination with the hoard as a hoard, in this moment in which our desires and those of some eighth-century Mercian coincide? Can this shared desire, that emphasizes the gold, the weight, the worry about ‘mates’ finding out, say anything to us?

Scabbard Boss Image credit:

Murderous Hobbits

Iranian voter green fingersFrom Salon via, I’m embarrassed to say, Gawker, I learn that Iranian State TV will be broadcasting the whole of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to give people a good excuse to stay in and to let the authorities move on. The authorities may have their politics, but the people may just have their lives, their day-to-day business.

Will it work? Our anonymous witness writes:

Gandalf the Gray returns to the Fellowship as Gandalf the White. He casts a blinding white light, and his face is hidden behind a halo. “Imam zaman e?!” someone in the room asks. Is it the Mahdi, the last imam and, according to Shia Islam, the savior of mankind?Who picked this film? I start to suspect that there is a subversive soul manning the controls at Seda va Sima, AKA the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. It is way too easy to play with the film, to draw comparisons to what is happening in real life. There are the overt Mousavi themes: the unwanted quest and the risking of life in pursuit of an unanticipated destiny.

Then there is the sly nod to Ahmadinejad. Iranian films are dubbed (forget the wretched dubbing into English in the U.S.; in Iran dubbing is a craft) and there are plenty of references to “kootoole,” little person, the Farsi word used in the movie for hobbit and dwarf. “Kootoole,” of course, was, is, the term used in many of the chants out on the street against President Ahmadinejad. He is the “little person.” (“And whose side are you on?” Pippin asks the ancient, forest-dwelling giant named Treebeard. Those watching might think the answer is Mousavi, since Treebeard is decked out in green.)….

Gandalf’s white steed strides into the frame. It is instantly transformed by local viewers into Rostam’s mythical horse, Rakhsh. Rostam, the great dragon-slaying champion of Ferdowsi’s poetic epic “Shahnameh,” which recounts the whole history of Iran.

In this case, Ahmadinejad and his allies seem to be of the “fear no art” school, expecting that art will purge emotions, clear the head, and ennervate and exhaust the protest movement. But art, being in excess of what is strictly needed, being a thing of wants, and hence desires, never stays put. It travels, and causes us to travel from the commonplace, giving us new ideals while also calling our attention to the gap between our individuals lives and these ideals. And then it calls upon us to repair this gap, to remake this world to match the dreams art brings us. This is the revolutionary potential of self-aestheticization.

In A Whistling Woman, the fourth book of A. S. Byatt’s Frederica quartet, student protesters singing Ent songs burn books and shatter museum cases, aiming to destroy the holistic pretensions of new university while promoting their own hippie, neomedieval, esoteric brand of universalism.

Who knows what worlds the Ent Songs of Tehran might bring? From here (although in Twitter I’m in Tehran), I can only wish them the best, although, like our anonymous correspondent, I can end only by wondering about the role of the ‘little people’ in this new epic. Let it be rewritten, since how can we make sense of a Lord of the Rings in which the kootoole shoot and beat all who refuse to recognize them as the heroic centerpiece of the story?

A leftover here:

I’ve been reading Zizek’s Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, which inspired my line about the “gap between our individuals lives and these ideals.” In the course of calling for “the rise of universality out of the particular lifeworld” (152), Zizek also writes this, against vulgar historicist readings of art:

Historicist commonplaces [ed: what I call “context”] can blur out contact with art. In order properly to grasp Parsifal, one needs to abstract from such historical trivia, decontextualize the work, tear it out of the context in which it was originally embedded. There is more truth in Parsifal’s formal structure, which allows for different historical contextualizations, than its original context. (153)


Chaucerian Chromophobia? Beige Hengwrts and Bawdy Ellesmeres

Screenshot-Hengwrt Chaucer Digital Facsimile - Mozilla FirefoxI thank Michael Moon’s “Do You Smoke? Or, Is There Life? After Sex?” in After Sex? On Writing since Queer Theory (SAQ Summer 2007) for its reference to David Batchelor’s Chromophobia, a work that argues that:

The love of bright hues is an affliction as well as an alleged moral failing that has been routinely ascribed throughout the modern period to “orientals,” sensuous women, children, and “primitives” of “all stripes”…(Moon, 540)

I haven’t (yet?) read Chromophobia, but I like what I know about it (e.g., his observations on the privilege of drawing over coloring in), and in my gleanings from here and there, I’ve been happy to turn up gemlike prejudices from our foundational thinkers. Aristotle called color a “pharmakon” (31), Isaiah 1:18 aligns color with sin and whiteness with purity, and Goethe observed

that savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colours; that animals are excited to rage by certain colours; that people of refinement avoid vivid colours in their dress and the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them altogether from their presence (qtd 112).

I now have that feeling that I contract from some of my favorites works, suspicion coalesced into a master thesis. Call it paranoid desublimation. With Batchelor lodged in my brain, I compare the dangerous passion of the Big Orange Splot to the rational, calm, beige futurity of Swedish design (see the interiors in Scenes from a Marriage, or, if you’re an Ikeatiste, just look around).

I also consider the preference for the Hengwrt manuscript over the Ellesmere. At this point, and perhaps at all future points, I’ve only a hunch, a hunch, moreover, that’s not been validated by sprints through (only) three articles (the Linne Mooney Adam Pinkhurst piece in the Jan 2007 Speculum, Michael C. Seymour’s “Hypothesis, Hyperbole, and the Hengwrt Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales,” English Studies 68 (1987): 214-19, and Ralph Hanna’s “The Hengwrt Manuscript and the Canon of the Canterbury Tales), a hunch that has been validated, if we can call it that, only by a highly suspicious reading of Peter G. Beidler’s characterization of the differences between Hengwrt and Ellesmere (“…the Hengwrt manuscript, the oldest and most authentic” vs. “the lovely Ellesmere manuscript” (29)), by the predilection for the adjective “lavish” when describing Ellesmere, and by ill-remembered, misconstrued, or invented conversations and gestures from conferences, seminars, and, probably, clambakes.

Nevertheless: is it possible that the preference for Hengwrt over Ellesmere, even when expressed with hierophantic jargon of the codicologist, is fundamentally a preference for cool reason over vivid pleasures, pure judgment of the Aesopian body of one manuscript over the all too obvious lavish enticements of another? Are leading questions a valid substitute for research into critical discourse? By all means, no, but if I can’t offer my suspicions on a blog, how can I get them out of my head?

Thanks for the image, from here.


Jeffrey, thanks for the Fradenburg: I’m glad you had that thought at hand, and I’m glad to see that she wrote that (given that at times I think her such a psychoanalytic critic that I would expect her always to turn suspiciously on her pleasure). I remembered that I had quoted some relevant stuff here from my own work (from the written portion of my comprehensive exam!) (also see the conversation about creative writing here): so, right, I wrote:

“If we read Sir Gawain and ignore the Prick of Conscience except, perhaps, as it helps illuminate our favorite poems, we are not scholars: we are dilettantes. It is up to you to find ways to make these texts interesting, but you won’t succeed in this by attending to startling rhymes, unusual vocabulary, or any of these other purely aesthetic criteria. And if you were looking for these things in these texts, I doubt you would be successful. You may think I am arguing that scholarship requires you to suffer, but I would say that if you are bored by these works, the fault is probably yours because you don’t yet know how to read them. Scholarship—-and this is an ethical imperative—-requires that you try to apprehend cultures on their own particular historically, culturally, and materially specific terms and that as you read, as you think, you bring your own assumptions and categories under examination continuously.”

I think what saves the c. 2002 me here is the turn back to pleasure, how–if I can gloss my own work–I try to link ethics and pleasure, that in trying to recover why these terribly long, terribly alien works–the Cursor Mundi, Prick of Conscience, the Secretum Secretorum, the Wycliffite Bible(s)–should have been so popular, we might recognize ourselves as having arrived at a goal when we begin to enjoy them, when we affectively, unconsciously, account for their popularity. When we might feel the pleasure–sublimated or not–that drove so many hundreds of households to want their own Prick of Conscience.

Which is to say: it’s usual to discover the pleasure in sacrifice, but, less suspiciously, I wouldn’t doubt if Blake (and thanks Stephanie for the reminder) somehow liked chucking the Canon Yeoman’s tale.

[and, BTW, am I the only one who’s heard the story of Manly and Rickert as a story of sublimated, frustrated, peculiar pleasure, sex turned (in)to the war effort and scholarship, uncannily moving on despite death?] –

Found another one, also in the Beidler WoB edition: “Many scholars now see even the lovely Ellesmere manuscript, copied by the Hengwrt scribe and arranged by a highly intelligent editor, as a distraction rather than an aid in understanding Chaucer” (91).

I just need about 20-30 more of these, and Chaucer Review here I come! –
See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2008/02/chaucerian-chromophobia-beige-hengwrts.html#sthash.I5iw3JJK.dpuf