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Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look

On the first page of The Right to Look, Nicholas Mirzoeff claims that “the right to look is the right to the real”– in other words, looking and being looked at in such a way that the autonomy of both parties is emphasized, and their existence is mutually acknowledged. In explicit dialogue with Frederic Jameson’s statement that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”, Mirzoeff is interested in how the right to look corresponds with the right (and ability) to be seen: for a struggle, person, or goal to be legitimized. An equal response can only happen when there is an exchange between people that is “mutual, each person inventing the other” (1).

The opposite of the right to look is visuality, which is a nineteenth century concept of the visualization of history. Visualization is used as an arm of power. It allows the association of power with authority to appear natural, and forecloses the ability to imagine other realities where power is communal or within the hands of someone else. Visuality has three key steps, which Mirzoeff returns to throughout the book: classifying, separating, and aestheticizing. It operates by categorizing individuals, removing their ability to identify with or cohere politically with each other, and then making this situation seem right or natural– “aesthetic”.

Categorization is key not only in dividing people from each other, but in deciding which categories are legitimate enough to be recognized in the first place. In his fifth chapter on imperial visuality, Mirzoeff notes that classifications of “civilized” and “primitive” originate at the same time as the new science of statistics, which allows for the conception of a normal (c.f. Davis). All subjects excluded from the normal entered the state of “imperial exception”, which legitimized extreme punishment of racialized and colonized subjects under the guise of “exceptional authority” (197).

He expands on visuality’s function as an extension of authority through examining the use of oversight in controlling enslaved people in Haiti/Saint Domingue. Oversight visualizes authority through the drawing of maps, as well as through more immediate forms of surveillance like watching over work processes. It also uses natural history to taxonomize people through racial categories and plants through the lens of “natural” vs “unnatural”, which was subverted by the widespread fear of poisoning among the overseers and plantation owners, whose own knowledge of the terrain and flora of Haiti was often lacking. The taxonomizing, observing, and enforcing of slavery used surveillance to sustain the plantation complex, and continues to shape the military-industrial complex in the modern day.

Aside from the parallels of his sections on imperialism with Davis’s observations about normalcy and disability, Mirzoeff’s work is also in dialogue with WJT Mitchell, whose argument that words and images are not distinct or separable he emphasizes. He mentions this in order to note imperialism’s interest in placing words above images, or making language the greatest mark of civilization and the determiner of civilized vs. primitive (15). His last chapter especially resonates with Shane Denson’s work on previsual reactions to new media technologies and “drone technologies” that exacerbate the separation between an operator’s actions and their results; Mirzoeff notes in his introduction that postmodern counterinsurgency “produces a visualized authority whose location not only cannot be determined from the visual technologies being used but may itself be invisible” (20). In both cases, this results in fragmentation and a continued justification for counterinsurgency. RGT’s emphasis on mutual staring fits in here, too, as they both reach the similar conclusion that for change to happen, there must be a mutually constituted and beneficial look that acknowledges both participants’ autonomy, whether it is a look or a stare. Finally, he mentions Barthes in his discussion of “realism”, which has two parallel definitions: the first, what is literally seen and reproduced via photography and other forms of technology (i.e. the realism of visuality), and the second (countervisuality) which reframes how reality should be understood. For Barthes, reality is an “effect”; for Mirzoeff, reality should be changed in order to delegitimize authority and use our efforts instead to further the survival of individuals and the planet.

Trigg and Prendergast, Affective Medievalism

Affective Medievalism is a kind of manifesto for medieval studies and medievalism studies. It begins with a paradox pointed out by Paul Strohm and others about medievalism: attempts to get at the “real” medieval will always fail. If this is true, and this book starts from the premise that it is, what is the point of studying the medieval period? More to the point, if the “medieval” is as much a construction as post-medieval interpretations of the medieval, then what is the difference between medievalism and medieval studies?

Trigg and Prendergast end not by arguing that there is not one, but rather that differences that do exist between the two fields are not enough to justify separating them from each other in the way they have been. They share what the authors call a discontent, sometimes with the present moment, and sometimes with the inability to “touch” (borrowing from Carolyn Dinshaw) another time completely. If medievalism is the former (broadly speaking) and medieval studies is the latter, both fields have more in common than they do differences.

The first chapter takes issue with the way the medievalist is usually positioned as the expert on the medieval period, who can either “touch” the medieval or reimagine it. This positions the medieval period as a static and finite place which people can return to by interacting with physical objects and returning to the stable “place” of the medieval. As the authors argue, this ignores the ability of those in the medieval period to imagine their own futures or practice medievalism themselves. One example they use of this medieval capacity to imagine pasts is Sir Orfeo, specifically the sections in the poem about its Breton origins and the name of Traciens. This capacity, which they call “temporal switching”, testifies that medieval people were frequently engaged in new ways of imagining time that are flexible and overlapping. (This chapter also includes Derek Pearsall’s commentary that Sir Orfeo is not about Christian allegories, but that “the very topic of the poem is ‘unknowableness'” (40).)

The book concludes by returning to the question of why medievalists should study a period that is a facsimile of itself, a copy of a copy. Invoking Benjamin, they argue that neomedieval reproductions are just as worthy of study as the “original”, which is, in fact, an original copy. Our discontent with this insufficiency can be an opportunity for greater collaboration, and critiquing the field more effectively.

Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes

So long a nyght ne felte I nevere noon
As was that same, to my jugement.
Whoso that thoghty is, is wo begoon;
The thoghtful wight is vessel of torment;
Ther nis no greef to him equipollent.
He graveth deepest of seeknesses alle:
Ful wo is him that in swich thoght is falle. (ll.78-84)

The narrator of the Regiment of Princes is preoccupied with wealth; specifically, we learn, he is worried about growing old and being unable to earn his salary at the privy seal. While he’s worried about not being able to do that labor someday, the labor he is able to do now is an equal part of his misery. He directly compares writing to physical labor:

With plow can I nat medlen ne with harwe,
Ne woot nat what lond good is for what corn,
And for to lade a cart or fille a barwe,
To which I nevere usid was toforn;
My bak unbuxum hath swich thyng forsworn,
At instaunce of wrytynge, his werreyour,
That stowpynge hath him spilt with his labour.
“Many men, fadir, weenen that wrytynge
No travaille is; they holde it but a game;
Aart hath no fo but swich folk unkonnynge.
But whoso list desporte him in that same,
Let him continue and he shal fynde it grame;
It is wel gretter labour than it seemeth (ll.981-93).

He then goes on to outline the cost, and even the danger, of writing to someone who has done it for a long time:

“Wrytyng also dooth grete annoyes thre,
Of which ful fewe folkes taken heede
Sauf we ourself, and thise, lo, they be:
Stommak is oon, whom stowpynge out of dreede
Annoyeth sore; and to our bakkes neede
Moot it be grevous; and the thridde oure yen
Upon the whyte mochil sorwe dryen.
“What man that three and twenti yeer and more
In wrytynge hath continued, as have I,
I dar wel seyn, it smertith him ful sore
In every veyne and place of his body;
And yen moost it greeveth, treewely,
Of any craft that man can ymagyne.
Fadir, in feith, it spilt hath wel ny myne.” (ll.1016-29).

Hoccleve is making a case that writing is physical labor. This is not about craft, although he doesn’t distinguish between pleasurable writing and writing for the Privy Seal. Extended labor wrecks havoc on the body, particularly on, interestingly, the stomach. Writers have to be solitary, they can’t talk or sing, and they have as much pain as laborers do. In addition, they are not living a life of the mind (as an image of a melancholy writer in the Renaissance might suggest); they are copying things, writing notices and petitions for a living. The portrait here is of work as a source of dread, where it is both connected to the labor of the earth (a farmer tending his crops and hurting his back in the process) and disconnected from it.

I guess this is one question I have when reading this text: how closely are the labor of writing (in this case, I’ll say clerical writing) and nature connected? Like the Complaint, emotions and also just scenery are very present in the first few stanzas. Knapp speaks to this connection between nature and anxiety, noting that feeling is spatialized through the phrasing of nature, as when Hoccleve stomps through the wo of his heart above (see my post on Knapp for more details). Also, something interesting noted in the introduction is that Thomas’s potential work in the PS included reading and presumably copying petitions. In her work on madness in medieval France, Alexandra Pfau notes that late medieval remission letters (in France) included a not-insignificant number of petitions based around madness, whether asking to accept someone back into the community or dealing with a crime. It makes me curious about what the content of the petitions Thomas was dealing with was and whether he would have come across similar material.

I am mostly just interested in the deep misery around work and the future-orientedness of that misery that comes through in this poem (and to a lesser extent in the Complaint). The misery of the text, or at least the prologue, has a lot to do with connections between anxiety and nature/agronomy. As the narrator says of his anxiety, “Whil thow art soul [solitary], thoght his wastyng[decaying] seed/ Sowith in thee” (ll. 200-2). It’s also worth noting how much the physicality of labor is emphasized: it has ruined the speaker’s body, wheras in the Series it has the potential to ruin his mind. Finally, I am curious about the word “regiment”, and if it has any connections to regimen– specifically regimens of health, the highly specific manuals physicians gave to their patients.

Ethan Knapp, The Bureaucratic Muse

Knapp argues that bureaucratic identity and scribal labor in the fifteenth century contributed to the literature and overall vernacular landscape. He uses Thomas Hoccleve’s writing, particularly the Series and the Regiment of Princes, to make this argument. Hoccleve is not merely a “genetic” descendent of Chaucer, as he has been treated in the past, but a separate author working to investigate writing’s impact on the body and the relationship of bureaucracy to meaning. When he does revise Chaucer, Knapp argues, that revision is often aggressive– working to change or even subvert the original text.

I focused on Chapter 3, which is framed by Knapp’s contention in the first two chapters that “the contemporary financial anxieties in those offices were a shaping influence on his experiment in autobiography and, on the other hand, [the] growing laicization of clerkly bureaucrats led him into an interest in the more liminal definitions of gendered identity and an attempt to find a source of authority independent of masculine positions within the court and ecclesiastical structure” (77). Knapp is focusing on finding traces of the Privy Seal in the prologue to the Regiment of Princes, and thereby noticing Hoccleve making claims about how the body is impacted by the labor of writing. Referencing the work of John Carpenter, a clerk in London in 1419, Knapp notes “The emphasis here is, however, not on the power of any aesthetically charged virtue but rather on writing as a bureaucratic technology used to battle the passage of time and memory” (85). Writing is important because bureaucracy is important in order to preserve knowledge throughout time. The material substance on which and with which you write also determines how long the writing will last and what it will look like, tying materiality back into time (and in my mind, tying medieval writing practices into, for example, WJT Mitchell’s comments on image and text being indistinct).

Hoccleve’s writing similarly positions writing as a technical and not an aesthetic art, especially in the Regiment. His own writing in this poem and the Series is advised as a way to make up for his financial and mental difficulty, but it comes at a cost in both cases to his body and mind. Knapp here interestingly claims that Hoccleve’s description of wandering outside the city and wading in his own woe is an example of “the allegorical sense of the descriptions (always a sign in Hoccleve of the hyper-activity of thought)” (88). He is walking through space but also wading in his wo, physicalizing thought. I think Knapp’s main service for me in this section is to explicitly encourage looking not only at the very commonly quoted section where Hoccleve describes the pain of writing, but sections earlier in the poem, including his rising from bed and his description of the Privy Seal as the place he “dwells”.

That section on writing reminds me very much of the conclusions Conner draws in her analysis of On Husbondrie. Writing and earthly labor are connected, but not in terms of their service, aims, or aesthetics; instead, their process and end result of pain are what are connected. Knapp describes the disintegration of the narrator’s body here as “the anatomical fragmentation of the self”, which is foreshadowed by the old man’s frail body several hundred lines previous (91). Age and labor mean fragmentation. Writing itself also causes social fragmentation, as the writer is described as a communal “we” (“We stowpe and stare upon the sheepes skyn” (qtd. 92)) but can’t speak or sing while they write.

One thing I was very surprised Knapp doesn’t discuss in this section is emotion and melancholy. He briefly touches on Hoccleve’s anxiety over finances. To be fair, I’m not sure if I can categorize Hoccleve’s feeling at the beginning of this poem as melancholy, either. While it results in sleeplessness and a sense of malaise, it also has a clear reason. Nevertheless, I think that it is inextricable from the laboring and disintegrating self, and I’d like to draw connections between the disintegration of the body in this poem, and the disintegration of the mental self in the Series (which I would argue is happening here too). I would love to have a chapter on writing, labor and connections to earthiness/farming/writing materials, and I think this chapter (along with Sarah Kay and Conner’s work) will be central in forming that. Furthermore, is bureaucracy (what Knapp calls “bureaucratic culture”) an affect? Does it contain one or several (boredom, repetition, etc)?

I also read the final chapter of the book, which focuses on the Series. Knapp argues that “rather than chronicling the recovery of a personal voice, the Series depicts a paradoxical triumph in the dispersal of that voice into the textual world of the Privy Seal” (160). The Series is in parallel with the Regiment in that it treats writing as an affecting force, but writing here is not a solution; it’s a likely problem. Interestingly, he quotes JA Burrow on the Series as self-referential: “the reader must now understand the double nature of the book he is reading. It not only describes the making of a book,but also is that book.’’ (162). The Series is about the process of writing and it is the writing process at the same time.

Here, Knapp makes what I think is one of the most important points made about this poem: that “in this poem madness is never truly surmounted“; a claim which is tied to the secondary point that “the plangent isolation forming the backdrop for consolation in this text is moderated from beginning to end by a series of connections to the social world of the Privy Seal” (163). This is in stark contrast to the many commentaries on medieval sources that place melancholy within a teleological framework (curative time, c.f. Kafer) where it is either happening or it has been overcome. While Knapp is specifically talking about Hoccleve’s madness, the same argument can be made for his melancholy; it is not resolved by the end of the poem and it is not teleological. His arguments about his madness being past are the same as other people’s arguments about it being potentially recurring: it could come back at any moment. Since Hoccleve never refutes this point, Knapp asks, “If the true self is to be represented as that which proceeds andreturns, and both ‘‘memorie’’ and ‘‘seeknesse’’ obey this pattern, how is oneto know which self is in fact authentic?” (167).

I think this uncertainty of the nature of the true self and whether it can be obliterated by madness (or whether it even exists in the first place) is extremely helpful in examining medieval perspectives on chronic conditions, melancholy included. Chronicity is a central concern of this project and so both of these texts– the repetitive and painful/melancholy-inducing writing of the PS, and the potential recurrence of madness possibly caused by writing– are central as well. I also think there is something to the urban street/suburbs of both poems as sites of the public, and the physicalization of melancholy into a natural landscape, that can be useful to me.

The last thing I’d like to note here is Knapp’s insistence that not only is Hoccleve’s madness not teleological, his melancholy does not proceed from his madness. Rather, “These two infirmities should be distin-guished not as cause and effect but as two parallel sicknesses with divergentliterary genealogies and respectively different characteristics” (172). The thogtful maladie, which has characteristics of humoral theory and fin amor romance tropes, is an intrinsic part of Hoccleve that extends to his temperament. I am not sure to what extent I agree that melancholy is Hoccleve’s temperament stretched to an extreme and not a sickness extrinsic to his temperament– it is impossible to know which of these it would be from the text. I do, however, agree that his melancholy extends beyond the boundaries of his madness in a more complex way than cause and effect.

Lennard J. Davis, Enforcing Normalcy

Lennard J. Davis’s work has been formative for the corpus of disability studies. His concept of the norm was one of the first keywords I came across when I began learning about the field, and it is a concept I have spent some time writing against for the past few years. In Enforcing Normalcy, Davis argues that disability is not an individual problem but a social, cultural, and political category created by the concept of the norm, or as he puts it, “disability is not an object but a social process” (2). (In his examination of disability at the societal and not the individual level, he concurs with Kafer.) Disability tends to be left out of universalizing categories, the big three of which include race, class, and gender. Since disability is seen as an individual problem and not a political category (or a concern for what he calls the “temporarily able-bodied”), it is not included in wider categories of oppression. While he argues for its inclusion, he also argues that disability is constructed in part by the gaze of the non-disabled toward the disabled: it controls the disabled person and the abled response (revulsion, pity, etc.) becomes seen as the “normal” response to disability rather than a socially constructed phenomenon.

This brings us back to the concept of the norm. Davis argues that normalcy creates the “problem” of the disabled person; without the norm, disability is not conceived of as a problem in the same way. The concept of disability as a social factor and the concept of the normal emerge around the same time, in the 1800s. This emergence is contemporaneous with the field of statistics, which Davis points out has its roots in eugenics. The word normal, Davis argues, is emblematic of and allows a shift from idealizing particular bodies in an aesthetic sense, to actively wanting to (or being pushed to) become them.

Premodern societies, coming before the invention of the word normal, instead have the “ideal”, which categorizes the divine, and “grotesque”, which is for the earthly and human. By definition, humans cannot reach the ideal; when society transitions to the norm, there is immense pressure to reach the “average” and exceed it. The ability to maximize the human body, sometimes through eugenics, is pushed by “ranked order” approaches into a normalizing force that pushes disability out of the space of the average at best, and works to eradicate it at worst. This reminds me of Alison Kafer’s concept of curative time– a form of futurism that cannot imagine happy disabled futures. The crux of this part of Davis’s argument, and my main issue with it, is that since disability as a social construct is brought into being by the normal and statistics, there can be no social idea of disability in the premodern period, or even before the nineteenth century.

I had the privilege of reviewing Elizabeth Bearden’s book Monstrous Kinds: Body, Space and Narrative in Renaissance Representations of Disability. In that book, she pushes back against the norm’s relationship to early modern and medieval bodies: namely, the idea that just because the word “norm” did not exist, that there was no norming influence at play. If it’s not clear, I agree with Bearden. The absence of statistics and the word “normal” doesn’t negate the fact that influences like the law, religious discourse, and even popular opinion distinguish between natural or healthy bodies and unnatural or unhealthy ones. It’s true that it was sometimes seen as impossible for humans to be unnatural, because humans are part of nature by default; I would argue however that stories of monstrous births and other early explanations for disability do cast the disabled person as outside humanity and/or nature. In either case, it is clear that although the normal is a useful category for defining the emergence of eugenics and its normalizing drive with respect to disability, it is less useful for dividing up the existence of disability in the early modern period and before.

Claire Trenery, Madness, Medicine and Miracle in 12th Century England

Claire Trenery positions this work as an answer to overly reductive dialogues about medieval madness. She is interested in 12th century miracle stories about individuals being cured of their madness, of which she focuses on the most physical, outwardly expressed versions (insania and amens). She explores how madness was diagnosed in the 12th century and what causes it was thought to have, and focuses on miracle stories because detailed case studies of individual saints’ cults and records allow for a less across-the-board view of medieval madness being caused primarily by sin. While her work is focused mostly on demonic possession as a cause of madness, she does allow for other viewpoints within medical writing as to its cause.

Trenery explores five case studies, one of which is the treatment of the mad who were brought to the tomb of William of Norwich. Thomas of Monmouth’s record of this in his Life and Miracles, she argues, is both based on intention, social custom, and the relational definition of the term “violence”. One interesting nuance she addresses in this section is the distinction between being considered mad and being labeled as “acting” mad. The distinction is whether or not the action is proportionate to the feeling. For example, a mother who had lost her child and “gone mad” would in fact be sane, but responding to a traumatic emotional event. This is interesting in light of my and others’ observations about melancholy, which (when it is in response to something) comes into being primarily as an inappropriate reaction or an outsized emotional investment.

In her last chapter, Trenery uses the vita of Hugh of Lincoln to argue that there was a shift in thirteenth century texts about saints toward using medicalized language to refer to madness and magical healings. This corresponds with the creation of many translations of medical texts, and it makes sense that saints’ lives would parallel the process undergone in other kinds of texts at the time. When situated with other terms, it’s clear that madness is both an umbrella term and a specific condition distinct from e.g. epilepsy. While the medical angle on madness appears more in the thirteenth century, its spiritual resonance is equally present.

My main takeaway from this book is that the mad were largely defined by “inappropriate” responses that require a knowledge of typical social order to “diagnose”. Mad people were restrained both literally and socially, and (because they could not give consent) were often estranged from social gatherings. Their actions disrupted the social fabric almost by definition: if screaming in church is inappropriate, while screaming at the loss of a loved one is fine, madness is situational and the approval of violence against people exhibiting signs of madness is also situational. This contributes to my thoughts about how madness fits into the social body, and how it tends to be just as much a social as a medical phenomenon.

Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip

In her book Feminist, Queer, Crip, Alison Kafer looks to develop a way of talking about disability that recognizes its status as a political identity, and that also imagines a future for disabled people. Attitudes towards disability link the present with the future: “one’s assumptions about the experience of disability create one’s conception of a better future” (2). Rhetoric about disabled peoples’ reproductive rights, intellectual ability, and quality of life shape not only current quality of life but (through eugenics that get classed as necessary interventions for the “health” of society) the possible existence of disabled people in the future. Therefore, Kafer argues, conversations about disabled people are and should be treated as political. When disability is seen as a non-political category, its value in the future is obscured, and it becomes impossible to imagine disability futurity. When disability is political, this imagination can happen.

As a follow-up to this sentiment, she offers a hybrid political/relational model of disability that moves disability away from being an individual problem that can be accessed by, for example, wearing a blindfold for an hour to simulate blindness, and towards a framework in which the “problem” of disability is in inaccessible buildings and other collective, societal systems. In contrast to the medical model, which she calls the individual model, the political/relational model treats disablement as something that occurs because of ideological systems that disenfranchise disabled people, not individual needs or choices. (She distinguishes this from the social model, the distinction between impairment and disability of which she doesn’t find useful, because both rely on social understandings– what we see as being an impairment changes based on our context. This point reminds me of Rosenwein and Orlemanski– the shifting collective agreement of what a disability/emotion “is” and whether it exists, and the basis of an “average” figure onto which medical discourse is based, but who doesn’t actually exist.)

This book sees Kafer use the phrase “crip time”, which in a similar way to nonheteronormative time exists outside of usual modes of experiencing time. She situates her project in imagining the obscured future of disability as similar to the struggle of queer activists to examine compulsory heterosexuality and imagine otherwise. In contrast to curative time, which is interested in when people will get better or when disability will end, crip time both offers flexibility and imagines a world where “wanting” disability to be eradicated is not a foregone conclusion. Currently, there is “no future for crips”; crip time exists to create this future. Importantly, she both uses Lee Edelman’s concept of reproductive futurity and diverts from it: since Edelman’s critique is about a symbolic Child who is white and able-bodied, divesting from futurity does not look the same for everyone, and certain kinds of futurity, Kafer argues, can exist without becoming normative. “The task then is not so much to refuse futurity as to imagine disability and disabled futures otherwise” (34). She asks directly (37) what it would look like to have a temporality of depression or anxiety, or PTSD: what reactions now might push you into the past or future?

In the latter part of the book, Kafer extends her explanation of crip time to narratives about utopia. Utopian visions tend to be powerfully normalizing: through prostheses, technology, and cultural changes, utopias strive to eradicate disability or even destroy disabled people. She wants to theorize another kind of future that is inclusive of disabled people without subjecting them to normalization. Her solution to this is to make alliances across queer theory, environmentalism, and the reproductive movement, among others, in order to “find disability everywhere” and begin to make a more accessible future.

I’m glad that I am reading Kafer right now because I’ve had some ideas this week about how my own project is related to non-normative time. (See my post on Arrival for more.) I think crip time is useful for thinking through my ideas about how melancholy functions in medieval romance, in a way that has not usually been examined. When something stretches on ad infinitum, without a definite end, how do texts respond to it– and what assumptions do we as analysts of the texts make about the nature of melancholy as one-way, curable, or inherently undesirable?

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