SMITHS NERD

Analog Notes

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.

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The Past in the Past: Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval

In her post below, Mary Kate writes:

On the final page of the book, CD defines “getting medieval” as this: “using ideas of the past, creating relations with the past, touching in this way the past in our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future” (206). This conception seems to get us into the thick of a problem of temporality – how does the unidirectional “arrow of time” stop being so unidirectional upon closer inspection? How, to borrow from CD in her reflection on the book, “Got Medieval” (published in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, No. 10), do we identify and examine the “copresence of different chronologies to explore the power of multiple temporalities in a single moment?”

This leads me into my next, brief question. In GM, the medieval past touches the present in various ways. However, as much as CD corrects the homogeneous premodern of Bhabha, Baudrillard, and others, as much as she demands that the so-called modern allow itself to be or realize that it is touched by an abjected, mobile past, her own medieval strikes me as homogeneous as well to the extent that it is not itself touched by its present pasts.

CD writes well about the Lollard assault on the ‘crimen Sodomorum’ of institutional religion, on its wealth, on its alimentary excess. I don’t believe, of course, that CD presents this material as if it sprang ex nihilo (or ex Wycliffo); after all, she cites and uses Penn R Szittya’s important The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature. At the same time, I don’t think there’s enough mobilization in GM of one of the most peculiar aspects of medieval textuality, namely, its habitual, even constitutive reuse of centuries-old writings, and of the mnemotechnics in which production was always a rearrangement of pasts. Antifraternal critique reuses moral approaches from the twelfth-century Parisian critique of bad living clerics, which itself redeployed work by Gregory the Great; no doubt we could keep pushing this further back, or expanding the lines outward to form something more rhizomatic than genealogical. I also imagine–although I haven’t done the legwork–that Lollard ecclesiastical critique, especially its antimendicant critique, derives at least in part from the work of the Spiritual Franciscans, and thus we would have seen critiques internal to the Friars turned against the Friars as a whole, and from there, turned against the whole of the Church.

GM is already a big book, and it’s certainly a great book. It seems ungracious to complain that it should have been bigger, more capacious, that CD should have loosened the 40-year boundary she set for her medieval analysis. We would have needed another 100 pages. I should, then, present this not as a critique but as a call to be inspired by GM to keep on pushing. Readers of ITM know that this work is already being done, especially with JJC and MKH’s attention to the polychronicity of ruins and stones, of the distant past of ruins and the very distant, unfathomable past of fossils inhabiting and confounding various medieval presents, whether they’re 8th or 10th or 12th century. Although this question might remind us too much of the postmodern inability to break with the past, we might also wonder in whose voices the Lollards speak when they think themselves using their own voices?

Opening Up: On Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval

I’ve a longer post planned, but for now, I offer this, a key moment (for me) in Getting Medieval, one I marked with “a passage to be quoted again and again.”

The queer historian…is decidely not nostalgic for wholeness and unity; but s/he nonetheless desires an affective, even tactile relation to the past such as the relic provides. Queer relics–queer fetishes–do not stand for the whole, do not promise integrity of body; they defy the distinction between truth and falsehood, as do ordinary fetishes, but they offer the possibility of a relation to (not a mirroring or completing of) something or someone that was, or that was thought, or that was specifically prevented from being or even being thought. Wrenched out of its context of hypocrisy and stagnant, nostalgic longing for wholeness, the queer Pardoner’s preoccupation with the matter of past lives can reinforce the queer sense of the need for and prompt the creation not of the kinds of books that would please ‘historians,’ as Foucault sneered, but rather of another kind of ‘felaweshipe’ across time. (142)

I also offer a few (undeveloped) questions provoked by rereading Getting Medieval with two things in mind: the phenomenological turn in queer theory, and Valerie Allen’s On Farting.

    • Twice, Dinshaw expresses (what looks to me like) impatience with Barthes’ phenomenological turn (see 40 and 51), yet I wonder how GM would have looked had Dinshaw attended more to the passivity phenomenology recognizes in touching. Touching brings together, sure, but it is also causes the toucher to be touched. Skin goes both ways, and even to speak of “both” is a limitation. We need a middle voice, a grammar neither active nor passive. Dinshaw of course speaks strongly of affect, but I also feel–at least for now–that speaking of “connection,” of “relationships,” by preserving the two (or more) separate things being brought into relation, occludes the great altering intimacy of being touched.
    • But we can get still closer. Dinshaw speaks of touching as a contrast to sight. Touching brings us into contact with someone or something, and, so long as it is a caress rather than a grasping, it has none of the pretensions to mastery that sight does. We are contaminated by touch (recall: contaminate from con + tangere), each one of us touched, the passive and the active mingled. I wonder, however, how an attention to smell–midway between sight and touch–a sensing at a distance, in which we are contacted by the thing sensed, a sense that seems particularly bodily because particularly animal, would have altered GM. Consider Valerie Allen:

      Like ears, nostrils never shut voluntarily. Permanently open for business, they are how we receive the world. Ears may be stopped for an indefinite period, but without inhalation, we die within minutes. The very act of drawing breath is one with smelling: ‘man only smells during inhalation….To perceive no smell without inhaling seems to be peculiar to man.’ For as long as we are alive, we sniff the world around us, including ourselves….Through every pore and orifice we wrap ourselves in smell, signing the air. As dogs well know, urine offers the most exact signature, shit and saliva close runners up. To smell the intestinal by-product of another brings one into extimate relation with them; more profound than psychoanalysis, it entails a knowledge of them more intimate than sight or hearing, more detached than touching or licking, a knowledge of the other where their very being participates in yours. (50-51)


Jeffrey, I like your multiple Dinshaw I’s, because it’s smart, and one more effort to remind us that thinkers do not stay static (there is no one Derrida, there is no one Dinshaw: think of the Dinshaw warning us in the GLQ Queer Temporalities that affective contact across time is not always liberating, that Marc Bloch spoke of Nazism as appealing to Germans who felt ‘out of time’), and also because it speaks to one of the posts I thought of writing. I had thought of writing on touching my own self across time in rereading this book. In part this was because of a phone number in the end papers of a friend who’s since died, and about whom I’ve thought little since. That reminder seemed all too appropriate to this book, especially the section on Barthes. In large part, however, I wanted to think through this encounter with myself because of my old, heavy annotations and what they did NOT say.

I had entered into this rereading with the memory of being violently impatient with theory “back then,” and expected to see the margins full of reactionary scorn. I have to say: I was a bit disappointed not to find evidence of the break I thought I had undergone between 2000 and now. Places where I was impatient–say, “fiction” as a verb (205), or the use of “imaginary” in the quote from Sharon Willis on 191–are still places where I am impatient. Otherwise, however, I seemed to have liked it without, apparently, getting it, being touched by it, however you want to think this, since I made so little use of it after the first reading. I’m glad I’ve come back, and I’m unsettled by the encounter with this strange, forgetful, disappointing, and surprisingly insightful reader whose body I still inhabit.

Anon: Thanks for bringing up questions of power, (implicitly) violence, and the capacity or possibility to get outside ourselves, our desires (strange to us though they may be), and our present moment. These are problems that have troubled me for some time. However, I do think there’s some way out. In part, I want to remember the concentration of other times in whatever object, whatever text, whatever writer we’re encountering. There’s more there than just our moment stretching out to it. There’s something there, say, a concentration of centuries, that in some sense reaches back to us. It’s not all in our mind. Similarly, I am trying to distinguish between grasping and the caress, where the caress at once lets the ‘touchee’ be and also cherishes it and also allows it to transform the toucher through the sympathy, the desire, of the caress. The (at least quasi) erotic element of that word is one I haven’t sufficiently thought through, though, but at least I can say that I don’t think of this touching as a mode of knowledge (which I think of as a kind of pretension to mastery) so much as a mode of being with (where supposed mastery allows itself to give way to what the being with does to each previously separate party). If that makes sense.

And, Marian and Holly, thank you SO MUCH for reminding me of the historicity of sensation. It’s an anachronism, and not a useful one, to speak of sight (simply) as mastery for this period. We must remember that what is being looked at is, in some way, looking back, impressing itself on us, reaching out to us.