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.

Woofing and Weeping with Animals in Ava’s Das Jüngste Gericht

2466112830_8f6510d3e1_bWhen in medieval intellectual befunkitude, I try to open myself to the unknown in the hopes that I’ll be surprised. German works might be the best for this, since, if you’re anything like me, you know more about Latin than you do French literatures, and more about French than you do Italian or Spanish literatures: but you know next to nothing about anything else. German, in translation or not (and it’s very much in translation for me!), tends to be a backwater unless we’re tracking Eric, Percival, Tristan, and other favorite romance heroes. Too bad! I can highly recommend Duke Ernst, Ortnit, Wolfdietrich, the Munich Oswald, and, now, perhaps less enthusiastically, the sacred histories of Ava.

Translator James A. Rushing, jr. identifies Ava as both the first named woman writer of the vernacular in the Western Middle Ages (as she probably died 1127, she predates Marie de France by several decades) and the first writer of German epic. Ava’s history of the life of John the Baptist and Jesus for the most part closely follows the pericopes of Christmas and Easter. Because so much is so familiar, my reading slid along while waiting to be snagged by 12th-century hazards. This made for a quick but not particularly interesting read.

A sampling of snags: when the three wise men (bearing “gold from Arabia”) remove their armor before honoring Christ; when Mary comports herself like an anchoress by sitting alone in her room praying for the salvation of the world; when the apostles worship Christ and Mary after Christ’s resurrection; when Ava characterizes Jesus’s triumph as a victory over “one who had robbed him of his land”; when we get a glimpse of the investiture controversy, as Jesus, we hear, “never used his divine origin to evade human law” (see also the sustained attention to the powers with which Christ invested Peter and to the socially disruptive force of excommunications, which, immediately prior to the appearance of Antichrist, drive all “the good to flee to caves in the forest”); when we encounter the Hell Mouth, which is, here, perhaps also a Purgatorial mouth (as those who enter it can be freed via confession and repentance), and also very much the mouth of a “helle hunde” (is the species of the mouth of hell elsewhere so specifically identified?); when–presumably à la mode–French appears (“chastellen” (“Life” 56.9); cf. “burge” (“Judgment” 12.3): I wish Rushing had marked the distinction in such places, as my (wholly uninformed!) sense is that the vocab of the translation is much smaller than the original); when the pileus cornutus (e.g., here) crowds the illustrations (even Joseph wears one), which leads me to wonder when this appeared East of the Rhine; and, above all, the astonishing moment of affective piety, of writing and desiring across time, when Ava laments being unable to enter her own history:

Alas, Joseph the good,
there you lifted my Lord down from the cross.
Had I lived then,
I would have clung fast to you,
at the glorious funeral
of my very dear Lord. (“Life,” 157.1-6)

I’m inclined to wonder whether Ava is a pseudonym. With Anne Middleton’s reading of Langland’s autobiography in mind (“Acts of Vagrancy: The C Version ‘Autobiography’ and the Statute of 1388″), I wonder if Ava has, through her (claimed?) name, inserted herself into salvation history by taking on something like the Marian name that reversed Eve (“Ave,” hail, revises Eve in an exegetical commonplace). The autobiographical ending claims “This book was written / by the mother of two children,” one of whom is dead and the other alive, “toil[ing] in earthly woes,” and calls upon the reader to wish mercy on the soul of the dead son, and grace for the other and “the mother, who is Ava.” It’d probably be too cute by half to call the dead son Abel and the live one Cain, as this whole paragraph is probably too cute. So let it be stricken.

I can, however, defend my interest in Ava’s version of the 15 Signs of the Last Judgment (for more on this tradition, see W. W. Heist, The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday (Michigan State College P, 1952, which is making its interlibrary way to me as of now):

On the fourth day,
then the lamentation arises,
then the fish and all the monsters of the sea
rise up from the abyss.
They fight above the sea
making a loud noise.
Then things do not go very well
for those that have fins and fish bones.On the fifth day,
then comes a greater lamentation.
Then all the fowl
that ever flew under heaven
rise up in the fields,
be they tame or wild.
They woof and weep (I presume this word, “weinent,” is the same Ava uses for Peter’s weeping at his betrayal of Christ, “do ilt er weinende danne gan” (then he hurried away, crying))
with great screaming.
They bite and scratch,
they strike one another.
The day goes very badly
for those that have wings and talons….

On the twelfth day
the beasts of the field help us lament.
When the animals go out of the forest
against the beasts of the field,
full loudly they roar
as they clash together
with loud cries,
just before the Judgment.

I hope you find Ava’s concern for animals, and her presumption of animals’ concern for us–and perhaps for their own coming destruction–as astonishing as I do. I think I’ve just found my Kzoo 2009 paper. Without too much effort, I can sense of number of practical approaches to putting this concern in motion:

  • a ‘becoming-human’ of the world, and ‘becoming-world’ of the human, in a rereading of the ‘affective fallacy’ as the world all feeling together;
  • feeling with and for animals, and vice versa, as a discovery of friendship at the ultimate point of vulnerability (here I think of various ethics of the flesh based in phenomenology and on Derrida’s proposed ethics of a ‘not being able’);
  • mourning that which should be unmournable, i.e., animal lives (and one thinks here of the applications of Butler’s-as-yet-unread-for-me Precarious Life

Tentative title for an as-yet inchoate abstract: “Woofing and Weeping: Feeling with Animals in the Last Days.” Any suggestions for an approach to this material will be very much appreciated! I’ve already looked around the house for other versions: the Golden Legend, which practially begins with the 15 signs, gives animals no love, while the 15 signs make no appearance at all in the Last Judgments of the N-Town, Chester, or York plays, nor, so far as I can (quickly) determine, Piers Plowman and perhaps not in McGinn’s Visions of the End anthology, whose index fails me only on this one point. Cheap CUNY gives me no access to the PL, so I can’t see pseudo-Bede’s 15 signs in Vol. 94. Searches of Middle English sacred history–Cursor Mundi and Prick of Conscience–are upon me.

You who are still here, what can you give me?

[picture from flickr user locket479, here, through Creative Commons]


Well, first, I hope that what’s happening here is NOT unusual, as just one instance in this tradition seems too thin to hang a reading on. I was pretty disappointed by the absence of animals from the Golden Legend, and I’m hoping that other versions of the 15 Signs (and there are probably tens if not hundreds of versions, either as independent texts or as sections of others) tend towards an acknowledgment of animals.

But what markers in the language here indicate Ava’s sympathy with/pathos over this state of affairs?

I’d say it’s (simply) the acknowledgment of animals. It’s something akin to casualty counts for the Iraq war that include only “Coalition” casualties and leave however many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis unlisted (if I can get away with this example here). Given the profoundly anthropocentric character of sacred history–since however much God or Creation matters, God and Creation matter only insofar as they serve humankind–any acknowledgment of other lives is always in excess of what is required. Animal life should not rate; after all, they have no share in the afterlife, there’s no friendship possible with them (at least in medieval moral philosophy/ethics that I know, although whether this is operable in the 1120s here, I don’t know), &c. I think here of Heidegger’s conviction that animals, in their total captivation in their world and thus their total inability to relate to the future, can only “perish,” that they cannot die.

Yet we have several stanzas concerned solely with disruptions to animal life. We can conceive of these stages of the 15 signs as a systematic undoing of creation (hence the fish first, then fowl, then beasts of the field), and hence as moving in a trajectory towards the human. Nevertheless, Ava–and I hope not only Ava–marks the suffering of animals as a particular suffering in creation. It’s not simply that the mountains are falling, the seas turning to blood, freshwater is turning bitter, and all the other business from John’s Apocalypse; nor do we see how humans respond to these days when things go so badly for fish, and so forth.

Instead, Ava acknowledges, in excess of what is strictly necessary for her project–IN a project that nowhere else pays much attention to animals–the lives and deaths and passions of animals. And she acknowledges the relations of animals WITH each other.

This acknowledgment does not redeem animals, but I’d say that the fact that animals CANNOT be redeemed increases the interest. We might say that we see zoē–mere life–and “animal sacer” given what they should lack: a voice, a sadness, rage, a death that matters, even at the very moment when their deaths matter least of all (since they’re not being sacrificed anymore to human appetite or instrumentality). And we might say that this is not “given” but is rather revealed. At the very moment humans pass into redemption, at the very moment when their lives are marked for eternity as the only lives that ‘really matter,’ we see the catastrophe of human indifference to animal life. Sacrificed life speaks and reveals itself as what it was all along, AS life, but only at the moment of its destruction.

Now, this reading–and thanks for your question, EJ, as Kzoo 2009 is coming together RAPIDLY–will work much better if/when I can GET MORE STUFF. Again, I’m hanging a LOT of reading on something very small unless I can discover that Ava is not alone in this.


Then there’s Ava’s imagining the animals helping us lament (and I can’t even GUESS at the German here: “so hilfet uns daz vihe chlagen”: I presume hilfet = help and chlagen = lament). Lord knows what’s happening there! – See more at:

Sovereignty and Salvation in the Vernacular, 1050-1150, James A. Schultz

3537067The various uses of GEWALT, which stands out because of Derrida’s commentary on Benjamin’s “Zur Kritik der Gewalt.” Most notably, it appears in the earliest version of Das Ezzoleid, where God creates man according to his own image “so that he might hold power” (“taz er gewalt habete”) and then there’s a reference to human eternal life. Given my arguments elsewhere about the relations between violence and human uniqueness, Ezzo’s order here stands out (it’s not duplicated, by the way, in the latter Ezzoleid (where the gewalt is God’s, not man’s).

The peculiar microcosm in Ezzoleid II, where human hair made from grass, sweat from dew, blood vessels from roots, blood from sea, mind from clouds, eyes from sun, flesh from clay, bones from rock, which reminds me of the Norse creation of the world from the corpse of Ymir (see the hilarious discussion here, which calls for equal attention to Norse Creation Science in the classroom: key quote, “For those of you not familiar with this venerable theory of creation, it states that the world as we see it is made up of the fragments of the dead giant Ymir–his blood forms the oceans, his shattered bones the mountains and rocks, his skullcap the sky above, and levitating fragments of his brain tissue form the clouds.”: the connection is, I think, pretty obvious, although I imagine it’s already been covered in the German scholarship, which is, sadly, unreadable by me).

Christ teaching “worten mit werchen,” which corresponds to the “verbo et docere” (by word and deed) that I thought was typical of 12th-century Christianity; here it’s about 50 years earlier, which means I should check Bynum’s book….if I were interested.

The very military Christ throughout all poems in this book. Thus Christ is called a Herzog, a military leader. Or, in Das Annoleid, “through baptism we become Christ’s vassals / We must love our lord,” which sounds less like Christianity than a guide on proper secular behavior for nobles. And, although the Annoleid opens by decrying the love of secular narratives (in fact, another witness says Bishop Anno–a fighting bishop who, when exiled from Cologne, won it back by conquest, killing hundreds–loved hearing tales about Attila), it devotes several loving stanzas to battle.

The peculiar microcosm, apparently from Eriugena, in which humans are “count[ed] as part of the third world,” since they are made of body and spirit.

The rewriting of the end of the Roman Republic to give Germanic tribes the key role: without the Saxons, Bavarians, Swabians, and Thuringians, Caesar would never have won the battle of Pharsalus. The observation that since Bavarians come from Armenia, it’s certain that somewhere in India, a people still speak German. The association between Saxons, treachery, and secret knives, which I recall from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.

Semiramis’s construction of Babylon by repurposing old tiles, originally made by giants for the tower of Babel.

Alexander the Great’s fear at his glimpse of mermen (“half visc half man”) while rolling about on the ocean floor in a glass ball.

Anno’s vision of heaven, which I’ve never seen anthologized with such visions.

The Anno-cursing knight Arnold, whose left eye “ran out of his face like water” and whose “right eye squired out of him / far away like a shot.”

The account of Caesar’s census in Die Kaiserchronik, which is instituted to return people to their own lords: “one day, so the book tells us, / he ordered more than 30,000 / foreigners, men and women, / to be slain.”

Das Lob Salomens, which tells of the construction of the temple and Sheba’s visit. Salomon, having captured a dragon, is taught by it how to construct the temple without iron: find and kill an animal in Lebanon whose veins can cut stone