by KARL STEEL
Last night, NYU held a celebratory roundtable for Carolyn Dinshaw’s latest book, How Soon is Now: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time, with José Esteban Muñoz, Carla Freccero, Moe Angelos, and Emanuela Bianchi.
Though I haven’t yet read the book, I was there, as much as I could be, making faces in the front row. Here follows a very brief and very incomplete (but I hope not partial) report, because I don’t want to get anyone wrong, and then a response by me, inspired by the event. I mean “inspired by” not in the pneumatic or “heav’nly Muse” senses but rather in the shoddy, filmic sense of “inspired by true events”: whatever I’m saying later Dinshaw helped inspire, but when I inevitably diverge from what she’s doing, blame my habit of going off script.
Muñoz riffed on another Smiths song, “Stretch Out and Wait,” which, assuming you know the lyrics, works perfectly (“let your puny body lie down”, “let your juvenile impulses sway,” “god how sex implores you to let yourself lose yourself” etc.), not least of all in its imagining of an expansive, lingering present; he then played with the amateur’s refusal to separate work and leisure, and how amateurs “do it for love.” Freccero spoke about the amateurs at the heart of Renaissance writing: Rabelais, Petrarch, Montaigne, Marguerite de Navarre, et alia, each devoted to some endeavor that had nothing to do with his or her own responsibilities. She reminded us of the temporal peculiarity of Petrarch living and dying before Margery Kempe, and then played with a conceptual disjunction between Chapters 3 and 4 in HSiN (whose operations are more delicate than I was able to get down properly in my notes) before building a response to Traub that emphasizes the continuing value of deconstruction and psychoanalysis for not forgetting the real, “what hurts,” what remains in “a temporality reignited in each mortal encounter in time” (the last bit may or may not be an exact quote. I’m no stenographer). Then followed an interlude, with Angelos and Dinshaw alternating in a reading from HSiN, the former beautifully voicing material from the letters of Hope Emily Allen and the later reading her own scholarly narrative surround: in the Q&A, Angelos explained that she aims to “bring life to [the words], but not [to] bring them back to life” so that they are “alive and dying at the same moment.” Bianchi dealt with less attractive senses of not fitting in with the present, primarily Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics X and Metaphysics on contemplation and its unmoving non-time, “supremely rational and supremely patriarchal,” to which she contrasted “aleatory or interruptive time,” a not-at-all-incorporeal “embodied receptivity.” Finally Dinshaw‘s response: she teased Muñoz a bit about his claim that her book didn’t deal with “true amateurs” (which suggests Muñoz knows who and where they are), and, in response to Freccero‘s suggestion that Renaissance scholars think of themselves as amateurs in relation to medievalists, Dinshaw proposed that we likewise consider ourselves amateurs in relation to classical scholars (we do!); with Bianchi‘s observations about the apparently normative gender relations of, say, Renaissance Faires, Dinshaw emphasized how amateurs often rank and disparage each other, and how, for example, English colonial administrators in India used their amateur enthusiasm for medieval England to reimagine India as still medieval.
There’s more! I know I haven’t been fair. I’m happy to be corrected or tweaked or supplemented in comments.
The q&a bogged down for a while in the distinction between professionals and amateurs, with Dinshaw, if I remember correctly (and I probably don’t), emphasizing that she’s describing differing modes of engagement rather than, say, job titles.
I suggested that the category “nerd” might help bridge these concepts.
Like professionals, nerds want to get it right, but unlike professionals, they aestheticize their knowledge. What they know takes them. They like what they like too much, and what they like they wish they’d be asked about, even if they worry that they’ll let themselves go once they get started. I remember buying the Correale and Hamel Sources and Analogues at NCS 2010 (here they are in my carry-on bag) and pressing each tome to my face and, frankly, writhing a bit with joy. I remember this because I remember being seen by Dinshaw (who smiled, and who, I hope, doesn’t remember this too) and me thinking “god I am such a nerd.” I want “nerd” rather than “geek” because geeks have been normalized far more than nerds. That’s my hunch, anyway. Nerdery, then, is a bit queer, a bit off, a bit unpleasant, and also, of course, unfortunately agonistic. It works well, then, to describe the overripeness of passionate attachment to what we do for love, where love, remember, is always a bit awry or repulsive (a point I get best from Dominic Pettman’s Human Error).
Now my own Smiths nerdery. On a bus in Tacoma in 1986 my friends were teasing me about my inapt taste in music. It wasn’t good, not at all, I can see that now (Thompson Twins, Howard Jones, Depeche Mode, Human League), but more importantly, it wasn’t theirs. Then something white and plastic hit the ground between my feet, interrupting the argument. It was a Smiths tape, maybe The Queen is Dead, hurled from my ego-ideal, a new wave girl up front who waved when I traced the trajectory back to her. I put the tape in and listened, rapt, until my stop, when I handed it back with thanks. Soon I knew that Keats and Yeats didn’t rhyme (and who they were at all), soon I had the lyrics to, yes, “Stretch Out and Wait” written on my pants (“Amid concrete and clay / And general decay / Nature must still find a way”), soon I filled time with “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” (my favorite), and soon I learned not only “Unloveable” on the guitar (obligatory) but also “Oscillate Wildly” on the piano (TOTAL NERD). How soon!
My family thought every Smiths song sounded the same. They had a point. “How Soon is Now” is an outlier, a song about a club meant for clubs, but everything else might be thought of, collectively, as one long riff by Marr, one long wail by Morrissey, sonically and lyrically never leaving a present that would stretch out so long as the Smiths and I remained sadly together.
edit and update: Rick Godden at Modern Medieval provides a wonderful, more detailed post, from, get this, someone who has already read the book. Great stuff. Go and read.