Home » Blog
Category Archives: Blog
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.
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.
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.
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’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 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.
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?
Cohen argues that medieval pain is an individual phenomenon but also something that’s communal and shared. People either accepted pain as a holy experience, deliberately sought out pain, or ran from pain. Medical discourses, meanwhile, saw pain as an unfortunate but unavoidable fact of life. Although there were attempts at eradicating pain, generally it was seen as a part of life, if not a desirable spiritual outcome. This is because of medieval society’s structuring around religious pain and in particular Christ’s passion, meaning that pain is not only not preventable, but prevention is not desired. The key distinction between the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries and the time after it is that pain had a positive significance and came to be desired; suffering was characterized broadly as a good thing. As an example of this point of view, she mentions William of Auvergne’s claim that pain is good because it is bad. Madness, on the other hand, is an indication of “bad pain”– suffering that will be overcome by an external force like a saint.
In her introduction, she states that “This book is not about pain in the middle ages, for pain itself cannot be known; it is about what people thought and did about pain” (3). However, each person who experienced pain recorded and transmitted it in particular ways, with particular meanings. Chapter 6 of this book deals with the ages of man, arguing that each has its own level and kind of pain that can be expected. This is where Cohen mentions William of Auvergne, and other contemporaneous ideas that sickness and pain could be positive. Illness in this view is both a punishment for sin and a (positive) distraction from worldly things, in much the same way as suffering. Just as the physician can cure the patient, only Christ can cure humanity. This association continues in her discussion of late medieval framing of Christ’s suffering as lifelong– his pain, although it was undertaken freely, was also continuous throughout his life. If experiencing pain is potentially a salvific, spiritual experience, then Christ is the ultimate model.
Cohen’s belief that pain is a shared social reality is in line with Barbara Rosenwein’s research on emotional communities and also Amy Hollywood’s thoughts on melancholy. Both also line up with Cohen’s pain scripts, how people in particular situations– women in childbirth, for example– learn to react to pain in particular ways depending on what kind of pain it is. Public manifestations of pain were discouraged, and medieval martyr narratives offered a script for bearing pain more reservedly. However, pain– whether epilepsy, visions, or headaches– was broadly seen as outside the sufferer’s control. If pain leads to madness, then both are experiences their sufferers can’t choose to have or avoid, but their manifestations must be controlled.
In Disability Aesthetics, Siebers defines aesthetics as what bodies feel in the presence of other bodies. Works of art that engage with bodies, especially in regard to modern art, are also engaging with disability. Not only is disability representation a factor in art, it has only grown stronger over time. While we tend to subscribe to an ethos of disinteredness when it comes to art, our response to disability is decidedly materialist (it seems less beautiful and more “real”). This provides pushback to the idea that making or appreciating art requires intelligence or taste, and therefore disability aesthetics not only imagines new forms of representation for disabled people but also asks how disability enriches our understanding of art. In his words, “disability operates both as a critical framework for questioning aesthetic presuppositions in the history of art and as a value in its own right important to future conceptions of what art is” (20).
The chapter that was most interesting to me is on vandalism. Siebers argues that vandalism modernizes art, making pieces that have to do with the body into pieces in dialogue with disability. While we are willing to accept art that depicts disability, we are reluctant to name art that has been destroyed or changed as art about disability. These images fail to represent what they represented before, recalling to my mind chronicity and ongoing illness that changes ones life or appearance. Since they were not “about” disability before, “Their content has nothing to do with disability. Rather, their shattered form evokes the idea of disability” (92). This is why vandalism can be described as art about disability. Vandalism returns attention to material aspects of art, making form supercede content. Vandalism also removes art from its association with genius or intelligence, meaning that vandalism’s status as art is always up for debate, but Siebers believes it can be art because it gives old art new meaning. The one critique I have of this argument is that it feels like it slots easily into the idea that disability is always associated with woundedness or brokenness, a theme this book returns to. If I were thinking about RGT, where would the opportunity for positive representation and mutual looking come here?
The last chapter on literature and images of disability is similar to WJT Mitchell’s stance on the distinction between images and words. Siebers is less interested in proving that this difference is fluid, and more interested in using disability aesthetics to reverse the primacy of words over images. He does this by examining examples in literature, most notably Ulysses’ scar, that are moments of detail which are visual in nature, even though they’re written down. He uses Barthes’ punctum to describe the emotional impact of these images. If difference is what pricks us, if the attention of the beholder requires difference, and if disability is difference, than both visual and narrative small differences like pockmarks or scars spur viewers to pay attention and push against sole representations of the healthy body (one not marked by difference).
Like Sontag, Siebers believes we are in an age of public images characterized by opticality, which reduces the importance of materiality and the body in visual perception. While Sontag believes the photograph is accelerating this change, Siebers thinks disability aesthetics in art, including photography, are helping to push back against it. “Disability aesthetics” as a term makes me feel that my investigation of melancholy atmospheres has legs. Siebers manages to argue that disability is a critical framework while not discounting its importance as a lived experience. Similarly, I want to keep melancholy as an extant experience close to me while also seeing where it is used to characterize or expand literary ideas.
Spoilers for Arrival (2016) and Thomas Hoccleve’s Series
I watched Arrival for the first time last night, after about 2 years of people telling me to watch it. It’s a film that is all about humans coming into contact with non-linear time, and how the negotiation of that time has to be mediated through particular human registers, namely emotional experiences. The lead linguist Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, who incidentally is the cool HEL prof that I want to be when I grow up, is tapped by the US military to translate messages from an alien pod that has landed in Montana. Eleven other pods have landed across the world, and all the countries they are in are working to translate their messages before something catastrophic happens.
The chief conflict in this movie is between different methods of interpretation, most notably between the primacy of science and language. This is brought up in an early scene where Louise and Ian (hot dad physicist) are riding in a helicopter to the military base, and he quotes from her introduction about language being the foundation for society before telling her she’s wrong– science is. This conflict extends on a national scale, when the Chinese government interpret a phrase the aliens, which they name heptapods, repeat as “weapon”, while Louise believes it means “tool”. When Louise is given this tool about three-quarters of the way through the movie– or, more specifically, when she realizes she has it– she becomes unstuck in time and aware that she is experiencing it non-linearly, which allows her to see the future and intervene before other countries attack the aliens.
This non-linearity is accessible to Louise from the beginning of the movie through memories of her child, who dies after the central events of Arrival from a rare disease. Because of her possession of the alien weapon/tool, however, Louise experiences this future event as past, and her awareness of it affects other aspects of her life, most notably her relationship with Ian, which “begins” at the end of Arrival. We become aware of Louise’s non-linear experience of time at the same time she does, and we see clues in her “memories” that make it clear they’re events that haven’t happened yet– the heptapod her daughter makes out of clay, or the drawing of Louise and Ian next to the caged bird they take in when they converse with the aliens.
So not only is this movie staging a debate between science and language, it is also teaching us to understand a non-linear version of time, alongside Louise. I would say that this movie positions time as its own language, which not only affects spoken and written language but is itself a system that has to be decoded. The way that Louise does this, and the way the movie affectively pushes us to do it, is through emotion. The scrambled “memories” Louise has are centered around her daughter, maybe because they are the most emotional or strongest; we don’t know why. But her sorrow is the focal point of the movie, first as PTSD, then as anticipatory grief.
I have been thinking a lot this week about how sorrow reshapes time. Yesterday I also re-read Thomas Hoccleve’s Series, the first section of which, My Complaint, is about Hoccleve’s experience with madness and the grief and separation he feels after recovering, but still experiencing judgement from his peers and friends. He wants to demonstrate that his madness is gone, but he’s worried that it’s not– it could reoccur at any moment, sending his life back into disarray. Meanwhile, his disaffection is causing him to become depressed and isolated. Writing is his solution to both problems, but communicating his problems to other people, as well as dwelling on them himself, has the potential to backfire. He is forced to exist in two realities at once, one– his– where he is well again, and the other– everyone else’s– where he is chronically mad, and his balancing act between the two is wearing him down. His melancholy forces him to relive his past experiences, and he says everyone else does as well, although, as we learn later from his friend, everyone else seems to have forgotten about Hoccleve’s sickness altogether– it is just him who remains living in the past.
Mark Fisher’s hauntological melancholy is all about the recurrence of the past in the future, repetition with a slight difference. I would say that the viewer experiences Arrival as hauntological because *we* have to see Louise’s memories in a linear framework, even if it’s not *her* linearity. What I mean is we see the memory of the child playing with clay twice, but we only *know* that the heptapod is there the second time; the camera lingers on the bird in the cage longer in its second appearance, even though we’ve seen it before. For that reason I feel comfortable calling this a hauntological film, because we experience her “memories” as repetitions with a difference even if in a linear framework they have not happened yet and won’t repeat.
This brings me to the conclusion of the film, where Louise receives a vision from the aliens where General Chang gives her his private number and reveals the words she said to him that changed his mind about attacking the aliens. When she calls him in the present, she averts the attack and the world begins to work together, and once they stand down the heptapods leave.
I have been reading a lot about left melancholy, most recently Anne Cvetkovich’s work on depression and organizing, Depression: A Public Feeling. When imagining otherwise is not an option, despair (and for Cvetkovich, depression) is the result. Arrival is interesting because it seems to be buiding towards disaster, then has a mildly hopeful ending, then reasserts the tragedy of Louise’s foresight before ending on a note of hope– persisting in the face of sorrow, it seems to say, is not only possible, but right. I do think this movie is hopeful in the end, which is interesting given the overwhelming precedence of media where this kind of coming together doesn’t happen– and real life, where (this week, for example) vaccines are being hoarded by the US which is creating not only a public health disaster in India but is prolonging and worsening COVID for everyone. The kind of hope Arrival holds just isn’t happening, and I’m not sure how to relate to the movie’s ending because of that.
My main takeaway from seeing these two texts together, and I want to think more about them with each other, is that they both use different methods to express how emotions reshape one’s experience of time. Louise, with supernatural help, becomes unstuck and relives her future over and over. Hoccleve wants to break away from his madness but his sorrow, and the opinions of others, keep him there. The main salient experience here, though not the only one, is melancholy. Melancholy allows us to reimagine how time works and how we situate ourselves within it, for good or bad. In the case of Hoccleve especially, chronic melancholy is outside of normal time, and observers are unable to understand how it flows or whether/why it is over (or why it’s not). For Louise, what would normally be grief at the death of a child is stretched by non-linear time into something else, an anticipatory sorrow that is excessive and troubling to those around her, and that in turn is the main conduit for her to access non-linear time in the first place. Grief becomes melancholy when it is in the wrong time– too long, too excessive, out of order. Melancholy allows access to different modes of experience, but those experiences vary widely and are not always positive. Still, speaking of emotional power, in both cases melancholy allows us access to non-linear or non-normative versions of time, opening up experiences that center the non-human and help us as readers or viewers critically look at our own perspective.
“The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five