Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dan Vitkus: Breakfast Seminar 12/4

We will be a little late sending out the email notice and request for RSVPs, but we'd like to offer you the paper by Dan Vitkus that will be discussed on Friday December 4 now. Here it is.

We meet from 9-11 in Rome Hall 771 (Academic Center, GWU, 801 22nd St NW). Look for an email from Lowell Duckert early next week.

Happy thanksgiving!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Claustrophilia VIII: Cary Howie

These words will not reproduce what I said in the long, narrow conference room at George Washington University last week, as friends and strangers and one stuffed elephant looked on. But take it—I tell myself, I tell you—as an occasion for putting some distance between authorial intention and the object, the text, so eloquently enchanted by others (beside and around me) in that space.  
I wrote Claustrophilia as an account of a specific set of medieval and modern tropes (within and around enclosed space) but also as an exercise in critical poetics. The book began as a dissertation, but it was never my intention to write a dissertation, at least not in the sense in which I hear—from colleagues, from students—the conventions of dissertation writing enumerated with astonishing certainty. I wanted—and if wanting is not at the heart of this book, then tell me what is—to evoke enclosure, not prove that I had read all of the secondary literature about it. I had nothing to prove.
What I could not know, much less prove, was that the book would end up being taken in hand by a remarkably charitable community of readers and thinkers and lovers, not least among them the folks who spoke, last Friday, before sunset, in that narrow room. I could not know that Patrick O’Malley would speak of the “alchemy of metonymy” by which books and persons become transformed. I could not know that Karl Steel would speak of the doubleness of locking: up and onto, confining and adhering. I could not know that Michael Snediker would observe—would affirm—that the literal “teems with figuration”; or that Eileen Joy would show how, in a short story of Calvino’s, “generosity engenders space”; or that Madhavi Menon would translate claustrophilia beautifully, and again metonymically, into a clusterfuck. I could not know that Jeffrey Masten would bring the materiality of connectedness—“but / and,” the hinge between opposition and its non-opposite, in terms of what he calls “the difficult erotics” of the book—suddenly to the surface. 
There was so much I could not know.  I had never even been to Washington.
Claustrophilia was always caught—like a zipper, like a fly—between the specificity of its central figure—enclosure—and the worlds onto which that figure opened. Tell a story about claustrophilia (admit that you once liked, or still like, hiding behind couches) and you’re bound to hear other stories (many of them, curiously, about elevators). You will be reminded, repeatedly, that an enclosed space can disclose a series of spaces; that limits and the limitless need not be thought in strict opposition. 
If this book has done and may be allowed to do anything, I hope that it makes room for something, for someone; that it shows how there is always more room than there might seem to be—for various forms and figures of speech, for various kinds and kindnesses of bodies—and how this abiding roominess may be enhanced precisely by paying attention to what might “seem to be”: our surfaces, our semblances, shot through with our depths. 
Elevators and closets are not the only enclosures. Nets are enclosures, too. Linda Gregg writes: “there are fish in the net, / lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.”1 This miracle—something we thought was empty is now suddenly full—does not announce itself grandly. “There are fish,” the poem says. It is ordinary; fish are ordinary. But it is also miraculous. There are fish, yes, and “lots of fish,” and lots of fish “this time,” this time which is not every time, although—why not?—it could be. Something closes; something catches. And suddenly—or slowly, since fishing is not necessarily fast—there are unexpected, ordinary, temporary things, things that bulge and ripple like a heart. The net closes abundantly. It makes room.

(1) Linda Gregg, “Fishing in the Keep of Silence,” All of It Singing (St. Paul: Graywolf, 2008), p. 111.

Claustrophilia VI: Madhavi Menon

      Staying true to the metonymic cast of our reading for this afternoon, and trying to come up with an organising principle that would echo the title of the book and describe what we are gathered here to do, I’ve arrived at the term “clusterfuck.” This term seems to translate claustrophilia, but there is no etymological link between cluster and claustro, philia and fuck, other than a homonymic one. Indeed, the relation between claustrophilia and cluster-fuck does not cohere other than associatively, and my interest today is in the desire opened up by, or rather enclosed in, the associative. The word “association” lends itself to the very mundane business of meetings and conferences: the Shakespeare Association of America, the Modern Languages Association. We inhabit an Academy that seems quite comfortable with the idea of association. But does that comfort extend also to the idea of the associative? Or does the associative, rather, induce a guilt that can only be contracted by association? Another way of articulating this concern is as follows: what does it mean to think and write associatively, and how does one get away with it? 
      The trope for associative writing, the trope on which Claustrophilia stakes its claim is metonymy. The book is “grounded in a poetics – [and] also an ontology – of metonymy” (2). Claustrophilia suggests that “(…enclosed love, embedded touch) is…both an object of study and a critical practice” (4). The readings in the text are resolutely metonymic, which means they are not resolute at all – associative metonymy undermines the essentialising rigour of ontology to give us a chain without finitude, desire without end. But what does it mean to write without generating an end? And is this tantamount to writing endlessly? Early on, the book asserts that “[t]o touch is to experience a limit and open a connection” (7). But does opening connections conduce to finishing an argument? Can one make an argument without putting an end to connectivity, and therefore to metonymy? Can one participate in the associativeness of a clusterfuck while in search of the singularity of monogamy? This question of associative desire extends to all manner of bodies, from the papers we expect our students to write, to the books that get published more easily than others. Can we stand to read and write metonymy, or rather, what does metonymy look like when written?
      Perhaps the best example of theoretical metonymic texts are those of Jacques Derrida, which are notoriously difficult to read, even more difficult to understand, and famously frustrating for students. Often the readings on Derrida mark the turning-point in a class – either the student will grant the text its brilliance and stay with you for the rest of the semester, or she will turn off, convinced of her own stupidity. Metonymy has a way of sneaking in the suspicion of stupidity in its wake, and in turn, generating a lot of aggression and policing. Texts should not be written in this manner because texts should not be allowed to make one feel stupid. But even more than the fear of stupidity, there is a sense of general discomfort with a metonymic text. It does not quite have an origin, it does not quite gesture towards a terminus, and it does not stay put in one place or time. This, of course, is a definition par excellence, of Claustrophilia. It is comparative in that it looks at literatures written in different languages. It is spatially expansive since it deals with different national traditions. It is temporally promiscuous because it goes “beyond the tenuous distinction between medieval and modern” (2) culture. And it is sexually licentious because it flirts with an eroticism that remains undefined, indeed that is erotic because undefinable. The cluster of these metonymies fucks with our sense of propriety on temporal, spatial, and sexual fronts. 
      Importantly, this impropriety registers in the mode of the book’s writing: should this text have been written so voluptuously, so very metonymically? Since metonymy is promiscuously excessive, it makes for a difficult read. It also appears more intimate than it “needs” to because it is in thrall to multiple investments in several bodies. If “metonymy intervene[s], across space and time, to show the excess of each appearance” (120), then this excessive appearance embarrasses us, and we turn away our gaze. But to turn away from metonymy, to look askance at it, is itself to be metonymic. To beg it for the safe word we know we will never get, is to enter into a sado-masochistic relationship with it. Metonymy can be dangerous, all-encompassing, and very sexy. Take, for instance, the last lines of this book, lines that, when I first read them, I wrote out in an email and sent to everyone I know: “To hold is, thus, not just to behold; it is to be held, even to be held in suspense. To say this otherwise: you can only enter me to the extent that I entrance you” (152). The sexiness of these lines depends, obviously, on the idea of holding, beholding, entering, and entrancing. It also derives from the pun on entrance and entrance that marks both a liminal space – a limit – and an opening into desire. This is a fabulous example of metonymic writing, the twists and turns of which language is capable, and the desire generated by the friction of those twists. 
      But it also has one jarring word that turns its back on metonymy and tries to escape the guilt of association. That word is “thus.” A far cry from the associative activities of clusterfucking, the “thus” tries to anchor the sentence, the book and its argument. Despite announcing early on that its matter will bear an “unprovable burden of proof” (12), the book ends by yoking itself to the realm of rationality. How is Claustrophilia’s “superficial hermeneutic” (9) served or subverted by “thus”? This is the “thus,” we remember, that we like seeing in student essays – the announcement of a thesis that will bring together the many threads of an argument; the “thus” that provides the blurb for the back of our books, noting its “difference” from the others in the field. What does this “thus” do to metonymy? Is Claustrophilia renewing its commitment to the associative even in the moment of turning away from it, or is the turning away irrevocable, the last word in the book? 
      We could go either way, I suppose, or rather, we could go both ways and still be no closer to the truth. The “thus” that anchors the penultimate sentence finds its exact parallel in the “otherwise” of the final sentence; the truth that gestures towards the end also swerves away from that end, turning towards the pun that dazzles, the word that refuses the strictures of the “thus.” Thus unfettered, the book ends, providing us with “a queer ontology” (7) that has veered dangerously close to a clear ontology. The Master of Metonymy is restored at the end to its proper place, which is nowhere, and to its proper time, which is out of joint. But the associativeness of metonymy – its fuck-it attitude – always has to take recourse to the form of meaning in order to appear at all. For an association to exist, it must be aboveboard. And thus, while people have plenty of associative desires at association meetings, they cannot act on them at a panel session – instead, they have to be squeezed in at some other point, in some other place, albeit inevitably in the same hotel. 
      This vexed interplay of desire and the law appears everywhere language does, but I want to end by looking at one particular instance of it from Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado about Nothing. The wedding plans in the play have been ruined by a pair of villains who thwart the seemingly relentless march of heterosexuality by putting two bodies in the place of two others. This associative villainy is apprehended by foolish policemen who do not “understand” the magnitude of the plot they have uncovered. And so, when Dogberry, the constable, is asked by Don Pedro, the prince: “Officers, what offence have these men done,” he responds:
Marry, sir, they have committed false report, moreover they have spoken untruths, secondarily they are slanders, sixth and lastly they have belied a lady, thirdly they have verified unjust things, and to conclude, they are lying knaves. (5.1.201-5)
Emerging from the mouth of a character who insists earlier in the play, on being “writ down an ass,” Dogberry underlines the fundamentally metonymic cast of associating with desire. In response to a question from the law about the law, Dogberry suggests it is only by stepping sideways that we can apprehend the plot, and this apprehension both arrests desire and reveals its trembling. Associations are both clear and queer. Indeed, even the most repressive systems of tenure can only produce as their reward the title of, and injunction to, associate.

Claustrophilia V: Michael Snediker

“One could almost say,” Howie writes, “that allegory passes, through metonymy, into something like a new literalism” (93). This implied phenomenology of rhetoric—the extent to which rhetoric might experience itself as phenomenal— returns us to what Howie at outset calls a poetics of rimming (6), a passing in that is as much a passing out. In less capable, less candescent a queer theory, “a poetics of rimming” might come across as blithely provocative or sexy for its own sake. It is one of Claustrophilia’s virtues that it does justice to rimming, refusing too quick a distinction between rimming’s critical import and its playful sexiness. And unlike many academics inclined to denominate nearly anything a poetics of something or other, willy-nilly, Howie’s poetics of rimming really holds.

A poetics of rimming, rather than a poetics of penetration; or rather, a set of penetrations differently calibrated. A rhythm of intimacy that may or may not precede a poetics of fucking, however the latter may be imagined. To paraphrase Eve Sedgwick’s axioms, there is neither just one form of fucking, nor one form of rimming. To think of a phenomenology of rhetoric apropos either is to allow for a rhetorical spaciousness all the more sensitive to contingency and surprise. Rimming, furthermore, like many interpersonal adventures, feels different, is a different experience, depending on vantage. As allegory passes through metonymy, how does metonymy feel? And how does metonymy feel for allegory?

To think about rhetoric in terms of these erotic and affective resonances is to think about implication, etymologically speaking and otherwise.
Rimming is its own implication, a lingual twisting in. Coiling, recoiling, rhetoric moves into itself, as implication itself moves inward. I imply this, as a way of saying that I am extending nondemonstratively. I am extending coyly, flirtatiously, gently, nonbarbarously. I am offering that which I continue holding, pondering. I am implicating you lubriciously. In this sense, Howie’s “one could almost say” replicates the implicatory rimming of a rhetorical sex-act. “One could almost say,” to return to Sedgwick, is less performative than peri-performative, and less peri-performative than peri-peri-performative, standing twice removed from J.L Austin’s sense of speech act. It’s not that Cary Howie says this. And it’s not that one says this.

It’s that one could say this. Who could say such a thing? The speaker is and is not Cary, in part because the sentence hasn’t yet been said. It is a sentence on the verge of being said, levitating in the subjunctive, even as we have what isn’t said as writing. We have the footprint before the foot, and are asked to follow. Pass through this. And only then are we asked to apprize, or to imagine allegory’s own apprizing. One can imagine allegory’s new literalism like Oz waking into vividness. One can imagine allegory feeling, for the first time, its own surface, the delight of having a surface.

Implication, a folding inward, replicates the gestures of a claustrophile, such that speaking of implication in relation to claustrophilia may well verge on tautology, as rim flirts with rhyme, a rhetorical sylph of Leo Bersani’s homo-ness. The tautological, as homo-ness, becomes queerly, rhetorically interesting, as opposed to inutile, if we think of tautology as relation exceeding even most generous understandings of narcissism. Tautology needn’t only recapitulate singularity nor foreclose epistemological errancy. That tautology itself is a relation recalls Cary’s point, elsewhere made, that we are never entirely alone (123). A word doesn’t merely pass through itself; there may be nothing merely about it. We have been before, we know this and we do not. Claustrophilia proposes an epistemology of implication by which we inhabit space several ways at once. We are Iphigenia, in both Tauris and Aulis. We are Helen, in both Egypt and Troy. Or to follow one of Cary’s other sources, we are Iacopone, dwelling between the blades.

Another way of putting this is to realize that allegory’s passing through metonymy into a new literalism retroactively describes what already has happened. How, phenomenologically, can allegory pass through metonymy without some antecedent fantasy of the literalism that allows us to think of metonymy not only as devouring contiguity of terms, but as contiguous threshold, as rhetorical sphincter? Proleptically, we’ve moved in and out of the literal with an alacrity matched only by the inclination of literalism to sublimate into its own figurative dissolve.

Tautology has its pleasures; its iteration of iteration, like a poetics of poetics, potentially pendles like an erotic metronome, and likewises asks that we linger longer, traherently. Implication affords a different pleasure, if only because the implicit doesn’t define, it involves. Less that one thing is equivalent to another, than that one thing is deeply, to the point of distraction, involved in the rhythmic inhabiting of something else.

This rhythmic inhabiting depends on a temporality more complicated and contingent than duration, per se. A rhetoric of pulsation requires a certain psychical flexibility, borne out in Howie’s contribution to theories of interiority independent of Judith Butler’s melancholy or Nicholas Abraham’s crypt. Not all modes of the interior require necrophilia: this should be obvious, even as in sundry circles it is not. Claustrophilia’s reciprocal approach and withdrawal spins melancholy’s fictive inertia into dervish. After all, to be a claustrophile suggests not just a preference for the claustral, but a predilection to experience the claustral as a new thing, again and again, a seriality requiring expulsion and repulsion as much as the givenness of being inside. In this sense, claustrophilia’s rhythm recalls Roland Barthes’s account of cruising, in which each cruise is the very first one. Munificence of temporary amnesia nearly aware that it knows if not better than otherwise. Epistemology of implication—this is the way I nearly think about nearly thinking, as its own form of ethics and rigor; and as Cary cites Anne Carson, eros as intensifier of edges.

Alongside allegory’s passage into literalism, the literal teems with figuration. The perviousness of claustrophilia occasions this teem, because the surface is promiscuously perverse. And this perviness has implications, redundantly and otherwise, for both figurative and nonfigurative subjects. Although we might well, in the spirit of enclosure, think not only of subjectivity, but injectivity, an interpellative ontological ballet by which one’s ontological debutanting can’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t, be extricated from the world by which ontology— indubitable misnomer— is bound. By which injectivity is rimmed, rhymed, and otherwise recuperated against the threat of its being forsaken.

I like tight spaces. I like humidity, and molecules too close for comfort. I think of claustrophilia as an opening toward new ways of thinking not only of textuality, but of psychical vicissitude. We are necessarily near each other, rhetorically and otherwise. And Cary’s work makes luminous the necessity of not taking this propinquity for granted.

Claustrophilia IV: Jeffrey Masten

Is it inappropriate to say that Cary Howie is difficult to get into? That Claustrophilia is occasionally impenetrable? That it is, shall we say, sometimes a hard book to crack? I’ve been thinking about this issue as I read this book again this week. How does a book so self-conscious about its critical methods stage its own sometimes- impenetrability—putting, as it does, its discussion of “Modes of Entry” at its end?

The following passage, in which I want to insinuate my own reading, may help. Here is Howie, summarizing a reading of Iacopone’s poem describing his imprisonment, a reading, you’ll remember, in which Howie dilates upon Iacopone “licking [the ass of] the Roman court” (87). But I am going to insert myself, ourselves, into the passage, to think about this book, Claustrophilia, at this moment in our world:
Iacopone’s imprisonment [which is to say, Howie’s potential risk, as an assistant professor in today’s academy and tenure climate] is, of course, the result of explicitly refusing to lick the pope’s ass [which is to say, the disciplinary structures of the field in romance languages, or in literary studies more broadly], forsaking the worldly hole [writing the safe or safe-sex book, which might lick in more formally predictable ways the always-eager undersides of the authorities in the field] through which his peers have escaped. Yet by sending forth his text, inscribed with the declaration of enclosure [which may be to say, its potential resistance, as a text, to penetration], to the “cort’i Roma” [again, the field – call it the MLA] he insinuates his tongue, a wandering of words, in the ecclesial hole. The insinuation—which is not merely metaphorical flattery but a metonymically extensive penetration—is marked, by irony, also as a withdrawal, and thus able to participate, as polemic, in the dialectic of saying and unsaying that lies at the heart of mystical discourse [i.e., the peculiar discursive protocols of our field]. One could thus also say, inversely, that Iacopone [Howie] sends forth his asshole, the site of an offered withdrawal [the impenetrable text] and the sign of the theological absence in secular church politics [call this the resistance to the “queer” in a still heteronormative field], into the circle of papal speech [let’s call this your randomly selected French department, or a high-profile medieval- studies conference]. In either case, he inscribes a break in the discursive or physical body of the church [which is also to say, the ways we write and read, and train our graduate students to enter into such rituals]. (89)
Now I don’t mean to allegorize Howie in any intentional sense here, to say that he somehow intends his reading of Iacopone’s resistance and opening up, his ass- licking and offered aperture, as a version of his own book (though of course he may). But by putting them beside each other, myself inside/between, I do hope to ask some questions about the difficult erotics of Howie’s writing in relation to its readers, the way in which this book closes itself off from, which is also to say offers itself up for, scholarly penetration.

I’m not going to concentrate on the potential professional risks of that erotics, to which I’ve already alluded. Instead I want to think about the potentially productive relation this book opens with readers, as a “site of offered withdrawal,” as an insinuation (into readers in the field) that is an “extensive penetration.” And I say this as a reader who resists some of the book’s forms and formulations (we might return later, for example, to its relation to what it somewhat monolithically refers to as “historicism” [see, e.g., 12-14]).

But the book’s offering-up of itself, even in its occasional impenetrability (an offering-up that in a simpler style might be called its “flirtation with the reader”) is always-already an offered penetration that gets penetrated, even from the first sentence of this book: “Once inside a book, any book, it’s impossible to emerge from it absolutely intact, to be outside it in quite the same way” (1). This turns out to be a statement about St. Augustine, but (and) it is also about any book, this book, and, given the complexities of what “inside” comes to mean over the course of this text, the first sentence presents a reader, attempting to enter it, with a redoubled threat or come-on to his or her bodily integrity and discreteness. Penetrating this text, you will never get out, or (and) never get it out of you. The old questions—is the reader a top or a bottom? and the author? the text?—begin to fade away, and an old erotic/political economy of knowledge—in whose difficult-to-escape vocabularies I began and in which a text is understood to be penetrated, plumbed, the depths of its knowledge “enjoyed” (in the Renaissance sense of “fucked” but also “possessed”) and carried off to be used elsewhere—give way to different relations of reader and text.

That’s certainly a relation that Claustrophilia, following upon (reading beside, as Howie would say) Barthes’s Plaisir du texte and Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis, sees in relation to its own chosen materials. But it’s also implicitly the relation this book, as “any book,” constructs with its readers. The “boner test” Howie cites from a novel in which a woman measures the suitability of the men she dates—“’[d]oes he give you a boner?’” she asks (143)—has the function of justifying Howie’s eclectic choice of texts (“eclectic” within current disciplinary protocols). But his extension of the boner test (“Likewise, one can ask of a reader: what excites you hermeneutically, mnemonically, rhetorically? ...which texts produce that only partly willed moment of intensity...felt at once inside and at the surface of the body?”) is a come-on, a come-in, to a reader of this book, and potentially suggests to that reader a different dispensation, a different erotic-political relation of readers to their critical as well as “primary” texts (143). It seems important in this regard that the boner test is transgendered (and at least for some readers, queered)—a woman with a boner—though I also imagine that there will be women (and men) readers who will resist the idea that, yet yet-again, the model of reading is to be the strap-on of phallic response, though not penetrative pleasure and ownership as traditionally understood.
Is my imagined girl-boner for Claustrophilia’s impenetrabilities a desire for the book or for the author? Or to put this question more responsibly: is it for the text, or for the inscribed voice or style of the author? Usually, even as the model is heterosexual dating, Claustrophilia proposes this as a relation of reader to texts, not people (“which texts produce that only partly willed moment of intensity...?”). But there is at least one moment of authorial romanticism in the book that seems to frame the encounter with the author (here not necessarily eroticized, but not necessarily not, either) as the boner- producing thing itself. Howie describes his regret at “arriving [in San Francisco] too late for Bo Huston,” whose “beautiful” novels he admires, arriving after Huston’s death (120- 21).

After a reading of a moment in one of these novels, Howie writes:
When the author is dead, this is a small consolation, but it is all we have: a trace neither utterly removed from its putative source nor synecdochically making this source wholly present (as in the medieval cult of relics) but metonymically dragging someone, something, momentarily close. (121)
This is a very careful formulation, leaving open the possibility that Howie’s critical desire, and the desire of a critic, any critic, is for a “trace” dragging (through metonymy) something or (and) someone, close. Sometext, someauthor, are joined by a comma, not a conjunction. But Claustrophilia here imagines this only to be the case “when the author is dead.” In that case, Howie writes, lamenting what he calls “the limits of metonymy” (120), then this trace is all we have.
But it’s worth asking, here in a seminar where the writer seems very much alive and present to us, whether that is not all we ever have: a trace neither utterly removed from Cary Howie, its putative source (but of course itself suffused, shot through with traces similarly not utterly removed from all the putative sources he retraces) nor synechdochically making Cary Howie wholly present, but rather metonymically dragging something/Claustrophilia, someone/Cary Howie, momentarily close.    Howie’s rumination on this problem concludes with a reading of lines from Mark Doty: “You enter me and we are strangers / to ourselves but not / to each other” (121).

My girl-boner for this book is in part, I think, about that complex dragging metonymy, dragging momentarily close “someone, something,” separated by their thin comma. That “someone” may include myself, my writing self, since no doubt something of what excites me about this book is the recognition of something else’s, someone else’s, insistence on style in criticism—the book’s own evident excitement in the sheen of the sentence, the turn-on of the metonymic build-up of its layers of intricately woven and luxuriously lubricated surfaces, its delight in what I call in my own work (whatever that “own” means) a “queer philology” of words deconstructively etymologized, their unstable pasts pulled into the unstable present, repurposed, revalenced, for use later in the book. In other words: the book enters me and I am momentarily a stranger to myself but not to it.

Moving away from what might be apprehended as critical narcissicm (mine), but as the above formulation also begins to suggest, my girl-boner is also, I think, about the very metonymic linking of something-someone, an imagined, never fully present someone who can write this something (never fully present even while alive in this room), the way that this text (which, when I came to know it, I knew much better than I knew a briefly-met someone named Cary Howie) drags a seductive, withdrawing “I” along with it. What excites me, hermeneutically, rhetorically, is a text that writes, collates, summons, enters, as it does, while writing, dragging, such an “I,” such an enterable “I.”

Such a formulation, at least in relation to literary texts, as Howie acknowledges, has been around at least as long as Barthes’s Plaisir du texte, but I’ll put beside or inside it a formulation of Montaigne’s I keep re-turning to, keep dragging out for examination: Montaigne’s discussion (in John Florio’s early translation) of his friendship with Étienne de la Boétie, a placing near/in, a touching of bodies that seems to me to try to imagine, before its time, a non-hierarchized mutually penetrative intercourse:
[Friendship] is I wot not what kinde of quintessence of all this commixture, which having seized all my will, induced the same to plunge and loose it selfe in his, which likewise having seized all his will, brought it to loose and plunge it selfe in mine, with a mutuall greedinesse, and with a semblable concurrance.(1)
This is friendship, but as the essay makes clear in various ways, it is also reading, a relation of reader and text (Montaigne is editing la Boétie; Montaigne is ostensibly going to let la Boétie’s text enter here into his book). It’s perhaps worth noting as well that Montaigne’s author is dead (he writes of his relation to one not fully present), but he writes in part in the present tense: “friendship is.” Plunging the will in his plunging will, losing the self in an other self that it recognizes as the same-self (or “loosing” in Florio’s ambiguous and resonant early modern spelling); that’s what reading is for Montaigne, and, perhaps for Howie, or at least, I would argue, sticking to my relation to the text Claustrophilia, reading for this book. Or, in the words of this dragged “I,” in the book’s final line, a sentence which is, in its pun on entrance/entrance, about entering, beginning, desiring: “you can only enter me to the extent that I entrance you.” Entrance: not from the verb “enter,” though ultimately not unrelated to the transit of entering; but instead most directly, from en- plus trance, from (saith the OED) “OF. transe m. and f., passage, passage from life to death.”(2) In other words, a transgendered drag or dragging, a metonymy of apparently present and seemingly absent, a trace of the always-already dead author in the midst of the text at-hand. Leaving this text, I am dragged, passing, entered, entranced, entranced.

(1) Michel de Montaigne, “Of Friendship,” in The Essayes, trans. John Florio (London: Melch. Bradwood for Edward Blovnt, 1613), 93. For (slightly) more on this passage, see Masten, “Toward a Queer Address: The Taste of Letters and Early Modern Male Friendship,” GLQ 10.3 (2004): 377.
(2) entrance v., and trance n.1, Oxford English Dictionary online (underlining emphasis added).

Claustrophilia III: Eileen Joy

All At One Point

      In Italo Calvino’s short story, “All at One Point,” we have what might be, quite literally, the point of origin for claustrophilia. The story purports to tell of the time before the universe expanded, when all of matter was concentrated in a single point, and everyone and every thing, in the words of the narrator, “was packed in there like sardines.”1 But the narrator is also quick to point out that “packed like sardines” is just a literary image, and in reality, “Every point of each of us coincided with every point of each of the others in a single point, which was where we all were.”2 The narrator, once himself, like all of us, one of the many residents of this point (because this is a world in which everyone who exists now or who has ever existed was also at one time present, perhaps ‘pregnant’ is the better word, in this point)—this narrator is quick to point out that, contrary to what we might think, “it wasn’t the sort of situation that encourages sociability.”3 Indeed, because all of the material that will later serve to form the universe—astronomical, chemical, geological, etc.—is piled up with all of the human residents, a certain over-crowding occurs that leads to disputes, slanders and denigrations. Especially irritating, apparently, are the Z’zus family who, as the narrator tells us, “with the excuse that they were a large family, would begin to act as if they were the only ones in the world: they even wanted to hang lines across our point to dry their washing.”4 But there is one person, Mrs. Ph(i)Nko, who fills everyone with “a blissful, generous emotion.”5 For whatever reason, everyone in the present remembers her fondly and with great affection, and according to the narrator, her “great secret is that she never aroused any jealousy.”6 He continues:
    The fact that she went to bed with her friend, Mr. De XuaeauX, was well known. But in point, if there’s a bed, it takes up the whole point, so it isn’t a question of going to bed, but of being there, because anybody in the point is also in the bed. Consequently, it was inevitable that she should be in bed also with each of us. . . . the happiness I derived from her was the joy of being concealed, punctiform, in her, and of protecting her, punctiform, in me; it was at the same time vicious contemplation (thanks to the promiscuity of the punctiform convergence of all of us in her) and also chastity (given her punctiform impenetrability). In short: what more could I ask?7
      Calvino’s story describes the possible pleasure of finding oneself in the place where everyone is at one point, but especially with Mrs. Ph(i)Nko, because even in this cosmological origins story in which all of the matter of the universe is so infinitesimally compressed that it would be impossible to tell where one person or object begins and another ends, there has to be an attractor (call it a love object), something to which, instinctively, we want to draw near, even at the moment when everything in the universe could not be more near to, even within, each other, and yet somehow, there is still discrimination, singularity, attraction, and beside-ness. At the same time, and calling to mind Cary’s idea of the tertiary im-mediacy of reading, both enclosive and excessive in its between-ness, and where there is never just me and my book, but also a we, “separate from both, or all, of us, in which we participate, and to which, nonetheless, we are added anaphorically and not reduced,”8 in Calvino’s story, it is precisely the moment at which Mrs. Ph(i)Nko exclaims, “Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some noodles for you boys!” that the idea of expansion occurs. As the narrator explains:
    in that moment we all thought of the space that her round arms would occupy, moving backward and forward with the rolling pin over the dough . . . . we thought of the space that the flour would occupy, and the wheat for the flour, and the field to raise the wheat, and the mountains from which the water would flow to irrigate the fields, and the grazing lands for the herds of calves that would give their meat for the sauce; of the space it would take for the sun to arrive with its rays, to ripen the wheat . . . .9
Somewhat amazingly, it is the thought of space itself, inspired by Mrs. Ph(i)Nko’s “generous impulse”—what the narrator calls a “true outburst of general love”—that literally initiates “at the same moment the concept of space and, properly speaking, space itself, and time, and universal gravitation, and the gravitating universe, making possible billions and billions of suns, and of planets, and fields of wheat, and Mrs. Ph(i)Nko, scattered through the continents of the planets, kneading with floury, oil-shiny, generous arms.”10
      Here, Calvino’s story marks a moment of what Cary would call a “communal entrance”—I would call it a communal natality: the beginning of history and the gift of time as a radical spacing out initiated by a certain enclosed, hermeneutic heat and light. The time of the story is the present (our modernity, in fact), when Mrs. Ph(i)Nko is both everywhere and nowhere at once, and claustrophilia names the longing for her, to be enclosed with, within, and beside her once more, while also recognizing that she is also always lost, and this is why the story ends on a note of mourning her supposedly fugitive absence. And yet, at the same time, if not enclosed with everyone in miniature as she used to be at the dense origin of time, her former body, now infinitely expanded, literally forms all of the edges and Outside of this world such that the repeating, anaphoric contiguity of her, as well as her spontaneous gesture of a general affection, is the reason there is even a world at all. Her supernumerary Here-ness literally limns the world and makes it possible to sense and to see anything. Loving her, and also missing her, even when she is there, is love of the world and all of its teeming things in their thingness; this is also a type of joy that can be experienced when we realize, as Cary writes, that what we love “will not disappear when the door is opened, or when the body withdraws.”11
      I want to suggest that in his book, Cary offers us a provocative glimpse of literary criticism as something like the world-making that goes on in Calvino’s story, and by ‘world-making,’ I mean to denote various generous acts of natality, of making room for things to be, but also to be possible. This is, of course, a deeply erotic criticism; I would call it a re-productive criticism, one that considers the place of the affective body (human and non-human), and affective bodies enclosed together in re-productive acts of writing and reading, which bodies also embrace radical acts of anachronism as a way to slip out (even to pop out) from the “times” and places that might bind us too tightly. At the same time, as Cary himself articulates, if the act of interpretation, which is also a mediation (even, an im-mediation), is erotically participative, the space of being-between that is reproduced and intensified by a certain hermeneutic light (our lights, but also lights from elsewhere, from other persons and objects)—this space, this being-between, is “both constantly under revision, and irreducible to any given spatial situation.”12 In this sense, Cary’s erotic criticism does not necessarily grasp or overcome anything (it leaves to us and others our irreducible singularity, maybe even our secret-ness), but it does create “spatial modalities” that “establish a ‘here’ which is not ‘absolute space’ but contingent sharing”—an intensification, when we bump up against them together, of the edges of everything, which in Cary’s view, are always burning, always on fire.
      I want to conclude by asking us to tarry a bit longer, here and together, but also later, and elsewhere, over the continual evocations in Cary’s book of both the participative “Here” and the “we”—that fragile pronoun, as Cary calls it, that it may or may not be possible, in postmodernity, to speak of anymore, and yet this is one of the great gifts of Cary’s book, I really believe—that he insists on speaking it, over and over again, while also insisting that the social relation can never be finally figured, any more than the individual, or the space of interiority (human or non-human), can be traversed and mapped with any sense of finally “getting it.” For me, there is a professional question both lurking and at times explicitly raised throughout Cary’s book of what it means to imagine and bring into being a community of readers that is also a community of lovers. If we are hesitant to talk of love within our profession, both because it is theoretically suspect and historically bankrupt, we might ask instead how something like affinity—an attraction drawing us near to each other and to our objects of study—means we can never really be, as Cary argues, alone or isolated in our work, although much of our professional lives demands that we proceed as if we were somehow on or own, and in this sense, we have the burden and what Zygmunt Bauman has called the “fate” of being individuals, and we only ever succeed or fail on our own. The challenge of Cary’s book, I think, is in getting us to think more deeply about all of the ways in which the invocation of the “we” marks both a space of communal enclosure (of “drawing near” to each other and to things that we love in their non-transparent singularity and their endless plurality) as well as the site where we work collectively to make room and time for everything that, properly speaking, has not yet arrived, but which hovers, nevertheless, at the edges of our sight and touch. But how to work together at such a task? This is still an open question.

Claustrophilia II: Karl Steel

[x-posted from ITM]
Will Wonder Never Cease?
The events of the late fourteenth-century Middle English alliterative poem St. Erkenwald take place in seventh-century London during the rededication of England's pagan temples to Christianity. Deep in the greatest temple, which would become St. Paul's, workmen unearth a gothic tomb, carved with mysterious letters.1 Prying it open, they discover an immaculate body, royally dressed. The bewildered citizens summon their bishop, Erkenwald, who speaks to the corpse, which confesses itself an ancient pagan judge, buried as a king for his righteousness, but barred as a pagan from heaven. Erkenwald weeps, accidentally baptizing the corpse, which promptly rots while its spirit ascends to paradise. Then Erkenwald and the crowds parade through London, while the bells of the city ring out about them.

With few exceptions, criticism of Erkenwald splits into political-historical or doctrinal-historical explanations, which variously locate the poem within conflicts between the City of London and Richard II, or within debates about Pelagianism, Donatism, Wyclif, and so on.2 As necessary as such critical efforts are, they defer the 'decision' of reading onto the text and its historical situation. Such efforts preserve the critic as just an observer, watching the text do its work; they preserve the critic from responding to the poem. Let us have an irresponsible reading practice, in the sense of refusing to let the text and its history make our decisions for us, or, in a Derridean sense, let us have a responsible reading, in which we do not feel we've done our duty to the poem by situating it in this or that historical struggle.3 Our response should seek to preserve the wonder that drew us and still draws us to the poem; to be just, our response should not leave us untransformed; we should be thrown by what we read.

Claustrophilia is among my allies in the hope that, in reading Erkenwald, we might not unlock it but rather lock ourselves up with it, and to it, as hands or eyes lock together, fascinated and enraptured in their meeting. Howie decries the substitution of “epistemology for phenomenology,” and insists that we need not be constrained by what he calls “the cult of the evidentiary, which would separate 'imaginings' from 'reflections'” (15). Following Claustrophilia, let us intensify rather than explain,4 especially with Erkenwald, since there is perhaps no poem in Middle English that better offers itself to a Claustrophiliac reading.

Howie joins other thinkers who reconceive time as embedded instead of as a sequence in which the past is neatly and continuously swapped out for the present.5 For Howie, moments touch on one another and become moments through this touch; moments drag others behind them; they are in networks around each other in which no moment will ever quite be abandoned or ever simply be itself. In Erkenwald, we need not struggle to rethink time as topographical and interfolded—to recall Michel Serres—rather than geometrical.6 Its time is piled up, mixed, all moments touching:7 it takes place “noȝt fulle longe” [not very long] (1) after the crucifixion, yet somehow in the seventh century; the judge, asked when he had lived, answers enigmatically, interweaving dates,8 and the “New Werke” [New Work] (38) at St. Paul's took place in the thirteenth, not the seventh, century. The alliterative christening of London's temples preserves as much as it converts: although those of Jupiter and Juno become the churches of Jesus and James (22), the temples persist in or with the churches poetically, through the stressed J that sustains the past as a point of contact, as an echo.9 In their co-presence and non-assimilative contact with the London of Erkenwald's day, the temples recall Howie's “metonymic understanding of which contiguous terms come to participate, not just semantically but also in a sense ontologically, in one another without losing their distinctness” (15).

Nowhere is Erkenwald so available for Claustrophilia as in its architecture.10 First the people of London, and then Erkenwald, penetrate into the foundations of St. Paul's. They are enclosed within a space that receives them. In the depths of the temple, a tomb emerges into their midst, drawn up from the ground.11 Bordered with letters whose sense will never be deciphered, enclosing and giving up a judge whose name the poem never reveals, the tomb reserves the fullness of its own being to itself. It is paradigmatically a space that, to quote Howie, “resist[s] the gaze of its public even as it offers itself to this public” (13).12

Erkenwald arrives and locks himself away to pray “to kenne / Þe mysterie of þis meruaile þat men opon wondres” [to know the mystery of this marvel that men wonder upon] (124-25), and, his prayer granted, he leads a Spiritus Domini mass. His increasingly agitated questioning, however, suggests that Erkenwald has not in fact been granted knowledge; there is a miracle here, but it is not one of knowing. The miracle is like this one, from the Acts of the Apostles, “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them: And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak.” For the Spiritus Domini is a a Pentecost mass, or a Votive mass,13 associated with the visitation of the Holy Spirit, and the miraculous traversal of linguistic difference. “Þurghe sum lant goste lyfe” [through some lent ghost life] (192),14 the corpse can speak, and through the ghostly investment of Pentecost, Erkenwald can speak with the dead: speak with, become open to, know himself in the presence of, but only in the sense of knowing himself to have been “summoned...into a more concrete, ecstatic relation to what lies not just beyond but within these boundaries” (Howie 4). This is a figure for our responsible encounter with poetry, we might say, especially as Erkenwald, having intended to know all by absorbing more and more about the judge's life and history, is instead stricken with more intense wonder, and finally is brought to where he “hade no space to speke so spakly he ȝoskyd [had no space to speak so violently he sobbed]” (312).

As for the crowd, they have already joined with the tomb itself. When the judge begins speaking, “Þer sprange in þe pepulle / In al þis worlde no worde, ne wakenyd no noice / Bot al as stille as þe ston stoden and listonde / Wyt meche wonder forwrast, and wepid ful mony”15 [there sprang in the people in all this world no word, nor wakened no noise, but they stood as still as stone and listened, seized with much wonder, and very many of them wept] (217-20). D. Vance Smith remarks that “this apparently miraculous scene extends—and even displaces—the crypt outwards to the site of the living, who gaze back at the judge's corpse with a marmoreal quiescence. The work of metaphor transforms the living into memorial stone.” Yes, I say, to the crowd enclosing the tomb with their own bodies, yes, as well, to the tomb itself joining with the crowd, yes I say to what's implicit here, namely, that it is as if the crowd lends its speech and motion to the corpse, who in turn lends his immense stillness to them; but, pace Smith, this is not a metaphoric substitution. This is metonymy, as Howie writes, “contamination by contiguity” (19), “catching, in both senses: grasping even the most rigorously exposed unlikeness,” a stony and alien pagan tomb at the heart of frenetic Christian London and a speaking, singular, and honored corpse amid a motley assemblage of Londoners. To repeat, this is metonymy, “grasping even the most rigorously exposed unlikeness and making of it, of that momentary contact with it, a new creature: a monster or a miracle” (107). Not substitution, not assimilation, but transformative contact. The tomb has emerged into their midst, emerged, not unconcealed.16 From Howie again: “In order for other people and things to 'emerge' we must in a sense 'merge with them: not in an appropriative fashion, nor in the sense of a reductio ad unum” (33).17 As Howie urges, drawing on the language of Kaja Silverman, we must participate. The crowd has not only seen the tomb, marked its edges, wondered at its being while considering how it holds its mystery to itself. They are, in the heart of St. Paul's, within the tomb, stone themselves in the moment and space of this contact, where the tomb itself comes to speak and move; they are, I must emphasize, with-in the tomb, at once with it and in it, around it and a part of it, enclosing it and being enclosed by it.

If I could, I would freeze the poem here, stop reading, arrest its and my progress amid the crowd and the tomb; this would be a sacred without a telos, an apocalypse without an eschaton. But the poem moves on; the judge is baptized; and “sodenly his swete chere swyndid and faylide / And all the blee of his body wos blakke as þe moldes / as rotten as þe rottok þat rises in powdere” [and suddenly his sweet face wasted away and failed, and all the color of his body was black as grave-dirt, as rotten as decayed matter that rises in powder] (342-44). London, faced with a gap in the foundation of its civic consciousness, assimilates the threat; but the horror of the judge's transformation suggests that London, having satisfied its desire, has arrived inevitably at the nauseating Real. Is this what their desire wants? Perhaps, if it is a grasping desire, an explaining desire, driven by lack. But Howie gives us another model: “Between mine and not mine, what intervenes is close to mine, neither appropriable nor wholly other: within reach, without ever being fully grasped” (15). With this, we might ask what the crowd lost by gaining its desire's object, when it ceased to remain with it, where it might have let itself be and be had in its desire. With the judge gone, the crowd goes out, and “meche mournynge and myrthe was mellyd to-geder” [much mourning and mirth mingled together] (350): in closing, we might ask what they are mourning, when, happy to believe that they know what has happened, thinking that the past is finally shut up, they leave nothing behind in St. Paul's except an empty tomb.

Works Cited

Bugbee, John. 2008. Sight and Sound in St. Erkenwald: On Theodicy and the Senses. Medium Aevum 77, no. 2: 202-21.
Chaganti, Seeta. 2008. The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary: Enshrinement, Inscription, Performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Chism, Christine. 2002. Alliterative Revivals. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Derrida, Jacques. 1990. Force of Law: The 'Mystical Foundation of Authority'. Cardozo Law Review 11: 921-1045.
---------. 1995. 'Eating Well,' or The Calculation of the Subject. In Points: Interviews, 1974-1994, ed. Elisabeth Weber, trans. Peter Connor and Avital Ronell, 255-87. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Grady, Frank. 1992. Piers Plowman, St. Erkenwald, and the Rule of Exceptional Salvations. The Yearbook of Langland Studies 6, no. 1: 63-88.
---------. 2000. St. Erkenwald and the Merciless Parliament. Studies in the Age of Chaucer 22: 179-211.
Harris, Jonathan Gil. 2009. Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Howie, Cary. 2007. Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nissé, Ruth. 1998. ' A Coroun Ful Riche': The Rule of History in St. Erkenwald. ELH 65, no. 2: 277-295.
Otter, Monika. 1994. 'New Werke': St. Erkenwald, St. Albans, and The Medieval Sense of the Past. Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 24, no. 3: 387-414.
Scattergood, John. 2000. St. Erkenwald and the Custody of the Past. In The Lost Tradition: Essays on Middle English Alliterative Poetry, 179-99. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
Schwyzer, Philip. 2006. Exhumation and Ethnic Conflict: From St. Erkenwald to Spenser in Ireland. Representations 95, no. 1: 1-26.
Sisk, Jennifer. 2007. The Uneasy Orthodoxy of St. Erkenwald. ELH 74, no. 1: 89-115.
Smith, D. Vance. 2002. Crypt and Decryption: Erkenwald Terminable and Interminable'. New Medieval Literatures 5: 59-85.
Turville-Petre, Thorlac. 2005. St. Erkenwald and the Crafty Chronicles. In Studies in Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Texts in honour of John Scattergood: 'The Key of all Good Remembrance', ed. Anne D'Arcy and Alan J. Fletcher, 362-74. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
Whatley, Gordon. 1985. The Middle English St. Erkenwald and Its Liturgical Context. Mediaevalia 8: 277-306.
---------. 1986. Heathens and Saints: St. Erkenwald in Its Legendary Context. Speculum 61, no. 2: 330-363.

1MED s.v. “rūnish,” (a) “mysterious, strange.” Turville-Petre 2005 at 373 ingeniously suggests that the tomb might correspond either to the St Paul's Rune Stone, discovered in the 19th century, or some earlier find of the same sort (for image, see here); at 371, he also observes that the MED correctly suggests “that the meanings of renish and runish have here become confused, for in these quotations the sense is that derived from the common Middle English noun roun (from Old English run), which has a semantic range that includes 'voice, utterance, secret' as well as 'written character.”
2The better examples of such readings include Bugbee 2008; Chism 2002; Grady 1992; Grady 2000; Nissé 1998; Sisk 2007; and Whatley 1986. Otter 1994 and Smith 2002 are rare exceptions to “closed” readings of Erkenwald. For example, at 408, Otter writes that “The searching and digging, the guessing, deciphering, and questioning, begin to stand all by themselves, and even for themselves: the poem, itself part of the questioning and deciphering of the past, at one level mirrors itself.”
3Derrida 1995, 286, “responsibility is excessive or it is not a responsibility. A limited, measured, calculable, rationally distributed responsibility is already the becoming-right of morality; it is at times also, in the best hypothesis, the dream of every good conscience, in the worst hypothesis, of the petty or grand inquisitors”; also Derrida 1990, 252, “A decision that would not go through the test and ordeal of the undecidable would not be a free decision; it would only be the programmable application or the continuous unfolding of a calculable process. It might perhaps be legal; it would not be just.”
4“Intensify” and “intensification” appear frequently in Claustrophilia; for example, at 18, “This ethics of intensification has distinct ontological consequences: intervention within the compromised appearance of enclosed bodies and texts amounts to participating in these appearances’ being-apparent. Interpretation, or aesthetic reception, is thus not entirely discrete from aesthetic production: it reaches across the aporia between seer and seen, to make something more visible, contingently, approximately, and thereby also offers itself to sight. This movement also makes something more hidden, deepening the artwork’s depths even as it intensifies the surface. Claustrophilia thus, beyond readerly “response” and deconstructive supplementarity, makes singularity more apparent through participative intensification."
5Among others, see especially of Harris 2009, 2, which critiques the “national sovereignty model of temporality”, where “each moment [has] a determining authority reminiscent of a nation-state's: that is, firmly policed borders and a shaping constitution”; Harris writes against the notion of a moment “as a self-identical unit divided from other moments that come before and after it” (5) to disrupt the old binary of synchronic versus diachronic study (10).
6At 174, Harris 2009 quotes Michel Serres' Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (with Bruno Latour), “Classical time in related to geometry, having nothing to do with space, as Bergson pointed out all too briefly, but with metrics. On the contrary, take your inspiration from topology, and perhaps you will discover the rigidity of those proximities and distances you find arbitrary. And the simplicity, in the literal sense of the word pli: it's simply the difference between topology (the handkerchief is folded, crumpled, shredded) and geometry (the same fabric is ironed out flat).”
7This is not an uncommon observation about the poem: Schwyzer 2006, for example, writes "Wreaking havoc with the temporal equivalent of depth perception, the queasy fascination of the preserved body consists not only in making what is far away seem near, but also in robbing the near of its wonted security and familiarity. Thus, the Londoners in the poem experience not simply the simultaneous failure of living and historical memory but also a collapse of the distinction between these two modes of memory" (7).
8“Hit is to meche to any mon to make of a nombre. / After þat Brutus þis burgh had buggid on fyrste, Noȝt bot fife hundred ȝere þer aghtene wontyd / Before þat kynned ȝour Criste by Cristen acounte: / A þousand ȝere and þritty mo and 3 thren aght” (205-210). Scattergood 2000, 196, provides a model from 1269 shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster abbey, made by Peter of Rome, 'ANNO MILENO DOMINI CVM SEPTVAGENO ET BIS CENTENO CVM COMPLETO QVASI DENO HOC OPVS EST FACTUM QUOD PETRVS.”
9Other commentators have also noticed the effect of alliteration, but have read it as either an anxious inability to suppress the past or as metaphoric substitution. Chaganti 2008, 67, is a rare exception: “Particularly in this visual and material sense, alliteration reinforces a pattern of vestigiality: letters are repeated in pagan and Christian names, so that the past not only prefigures the present, but it also leaves behind pieces—letters, like statues and buildings—which are adapted in the present and incorporated into newly cleansed Christian structures and words. The poem uses the narrative capacities of material objects and the material capacities of letters and language to demonstrate the trope of vestigiality, the reliquiae, that which is left behind. The inscriptional aspect of alliteration thus provides a defining temporality for the poem; the recursive return to what has been left behind,” so suggesting “ceremonial temporality.”
10To a different end, Chaganti 2008, 69, also finds the poem interested in enclosure, “At the level of the poem's explicit narrative...exist many self-enfolding layers of enclosure, establishing the role of enshrinement in the text's imagery.”
11I echo Otter 1994, 410, where the tomb “unexpectedly surfaces—literally—and is simply there, a fait accompli, 'fourmit on a flore,' as the poem solidly puts it.”
12See also Chaganti 2008, 56, where the runes “both embellish and obscure the meaning of an enshrined object. And in this capacity, their illegibility symbolizes the mystified nature of the late-medieval shrine in English churches and cathedrals. The runes speak through their very impenetrability, their resistance to being read as language, about the nature of ceremonial encounters with shrines as decorated objects, a mystery at once challenging and suggestive.”
13Whatley 1985, especially 295 n10.
14Note that I follow the manuscript reading here rather than Peterson's tendentious emendation to “Þurghe sum Ghoste lant lyfe.” See Whatley 1982, 294 n9.
15Smith 2002, 66. Vance's reading is, in essence, an epistemological one, concerned with our inability to know, whereas mine concerned with our ability to be touched: in sum, the very fact of being moved by the tomb is itself a presence. Other critics have remarked on the stone image: Nissé 1998, 289, “In this way, the memory of the Trojan past is reinscribed in a collective historical consciousness: 'Bot al as stille as þe ston stoden and listonde'”; Chaganti 2008, 53, “The poem defines the judge not only as a bounded material object, but also as an occasion of performance and performative self-constitution. In the above simile, 'as stile as the ston,' the transfer of the stone's materiality from the judge's tomb (and static body) to the people looking at it makes them interactive participants in a scene of performance blending spectacle, ceremony, and architecture....the language of the poem renders indeterminate the boundary between the stone tomb and the astonished audience, so that both fill the positions of either a material thing or an occasion of spectacle.”
16Howie 2007, 33, which explains his preference for emergence over unconcealment: “I prefer the latter term inasmuch as it consolidates both moments better than 'unconcealment' can. To be sure, 'unconcealment' presents itself as the constitutive negation of the hidden, but 'emergence' speaks forth an even greater, and more spatial, paradox: literally e-mergere, emergence plunges, immerses, engulfs not into but out of: it is enclosure figured as disclosive opening, approximation as distance.”
17See also Sara Ahmed Queer Phenomenology, “What touches is touched, and yet 'the toucher' and 'the touched' do not ever reach each other; they do not merge to become one,” quoted in Harris 2009, 149.

Claustrophilia I: Patrick O'Malley

Claustrophilia in the Vampire Crypt 

Toward the end of Claustrophilia, Cary Howie reflects that “before Chrétien de Troyes and Dennis Cooper were temporarily adjacent—though not continuous—authors for me, they were first books touching each other in space on my shelves” (150).  I love this image, suggesting as it does a contingency, fluidity, and transience of the archive, shuffling itself within the bathhouses and backrooms of our bookshelves.  What trysts and transformations occur as we organize our books alphabetically, or by size, or dustjacket color, or by the fleeting desires of our own perverse whims?  [I love it for the hint of erotic dissonance that is also abruptly clarifying: What, as their bodies touched or pounded, would Chrétien think of Cooper’s sexual brutalities—or Cooper think of Chrétien’s?]  And I love it for its insistence—as is true throughout this book—on the necessity of metonymy, through which, Howie points out, “enclosure is saved from impenetrability” (69), not—and crucially not—against metaphor but always proximate to it as well, “the metonymy that always inheres within the metaphorical” (142).  My investment in metonymy is perhaps self-serving: it is the alchemy of metonymy that allows me entrance—in all of Howie’s senses—to this panel and this room, I who am not continuous with the specific concerns and rhetorics—and archives—of medieval studies or, for that matter, early modernism but hopefully, and magically, temporarily adjacent to them.
      So what of my own bookshelves?  On them, Claustrophilia nestles between Gail Turley Houston’s From Dickens to Dracula and William Hughes’s Beyond Dracula.  This is true.  And these are good books; they’ve helped me out many times before and I expect that they will again.  But touching them, drawing them around itself, catching them, Howie’s book causes me to pause and notice how eager those titles are to be always somewhere else, jetting from Dickens to Dracula and then, arriving there, beyond Dracula.  Why the hurry?  What do we lose if we always think of books, even rhetorically, as springboards to the next idea and not as spaces in which we can sink, dream, desire, embrace?  So, pausing in the liminal space of metonymy, what is between Houston and Hughes?  What do they enclose?  Well, it’s Howie, of course—and Claustrophilia.  But it’s also Dracula, a book which, if I can admit it, I love.  And so, today I want to think with you, beside you, adjacent to you about Dracula and something of how Howie’s book has returned me to that novel and transformed it, opening passages—textual and architectural—in it to me and in me to it in new ways.

      Dracula is, of course, a novel haunted by enclosures: the rooms and winding passages and wings of the castle where Jonathan Harker is, in all senses, held; the vampire coffins nestled in the earth of houses and basements and chapels around Transylvania and London; Lucy’s veins in which the blood of four men promiscuously mingles; her claustral casket enclosed in lead and enclosed again within a locked family vault and enclosed again within the walls of the cemetery [adjacent to Hampstead Heath, a cemetery which Stoker calls Kingstead but which is clearly analogous to the wonderfully named Highgate]; the asylum; the coach; the boat’s hull; the conference room; the grave.  [By the end of the novel, Mina’s mind itself becomes a space into which both Dracula and Van Helsing can penetrate, meeting and marking each move and counter-move.]  Texts as well are enclosed and encloistered: the papers of the dead sealed and secreted; Jonathan’s harrowing diary of his imprisonment imprisoned again through its binding with string and prematurely sealed with the encircling avatar of narrative closure, the wedding ring.   For all of the pleasures of enclosure and disclosure that Claustrophilia disinters and which Stoker’s novel embraces, I would be tempted to entitle this talk “Dracula’s Crypt”—if only that weren’t already the title of Joseph Valente’s provocative deconstructive study of Stoker and Irishness.  But—again—whereas Valente largely uses the pun as a springboard from the image of Dracula’s tomb to a virtuostic decoding of Stoker’s semiotics of the politics of national purity, Howie’s book insists that we go at this from the other end as well: that language can be our key not out of the crypt but into it, where we might find not purity but danger.

      Indeed, as Howie notes, “metaphor, as proper comparison, always occludes catachresis, or improper comparison, and simultaneously establishes the catechretic utterance as its contaminant/supplement. […] Metonymy, however, exposes the contiguous second term with which it exists in a relation of mediating participation” (81-82).  This is, of course, a manifesto for Howie’s own project, arising as it does from the alchemical admixture of medieval studies and post-post-modernism.  “Just as fear and desire touch at the point of their shared affective intensity,” writes Howie, “so too are the Middle Ages and modernity brought close, and made discursively to touch, within an enclosing poetics of metonymy” (15).  For me, the thickest of intensities of fear and desire arise precisely between medievalism and modernity, in the Victorian age and in Dracula.  Indeed, contemporary reviews of the novel noted precisely—and criticized—the contamination of its modernity with medievalism, of its medievalism with modernity.  “Mr. Stoker has shown considerable ability in the use that he has made of all the available traditions of vampirology,” sniffed the Spectator, “but we think his story would have been all the more effective if he had chosen an earlier period.  The up-to-dateness of the book – the phonograph diaries, typewriters, and so on – hardly fits in with the mediæval methods which ultimately secure the victory for Count Dracula’s foes.”  What the Spectator is observing is precisely a contamination of metonyms, the tropes for modernity itself (the phonographs and Kodak cameras and typewriters and railway timetables) jostling with those for medievalism (the crucifixes and consecrated hosts, the garlic, the wild ash, and the rose), all contained, enclosed, embraced, in the space of this deliciously anachronistic book.  

      Indeed, Howie’s analysis of metonymy has given me a way to think about a scene in Dracula that has always troubled, fascinated, caught me, a scene describing a mirror and what can and cannot be seen in it.  No, not the scene in a bedchamber of the castle when Harker, the surface of his body penetrated with the drawing of the first blood of the novel, realizes that the vampire does not appear in his shaving mirror, although an analysis of the contagions of metonymy could help there as well.  There is another mirror in the novel, and that is the mirror that Lucy holds up to herself as she—weirdly—attempts to interpret her own face. Writing to Mina, she describes Dr. Seward: “He has a curious habit of looking one straight in the face, as if trying to read one’s thoughts.  He tries this on very much with me, but I flatter myself he has got a tough nut to crack.  I know that from my glass.  Do you ever try to read your own face?  I do, and I can tell you it is not a bad study, and gives you more trouble than you can well fancy if you have never tried it” (63).  It is an odd and telling moment: Lucy looks at herself—no, not herself, but her image, a representation of the surface of her visage—in a mirror and attempts to penetrate that surface, to crack that nut, to enter into the core of her own subjectivity.  And yet, we imagine, how is it possible to have to read in the glass the interiority of own’s own mind?  We know, or think that we know, what is going on behind the veil of her features: she’s thinking, of course, about trying to interpret what she’s thinking.  How hard could that be?  What sort of nut is that the meat of which is identical with its shell, the mystery of which is already solved—and dissolved—at the moment of its proposal?  Perhaps that is precisely the point: the image of Lucy’s face has no interiority—it exists only on the surface of the glass, only as metonymy.  To crack this nut, this mirror, would be not to display the subjectivity inside but to render impossible the image itself.  And yet, her reading of it imbues it with the fantasy of depth, metonymy contaminated with metaphor, the shell of the nut hiding the meat within if only we could crack it.  And yet—and this is where Howie’s book sparks like revelation—are these really so different?  The mirror—metonym though it may be— does enclose, embrace, enfold, just as the nut does.  After all, it frames Lucy’s face and is enframed as well within the text of Lucy’s letter, within the covers of Stoker’s book.  “Metonymy,” Howie points out, “stages neither the emergence of an originary heterogeneity nor the extension of an ironic yet originary interiority.  In fact, it resists the very opposition of interior to exterior, hetero- to homo-, before to after” (120).  Lucy’s mirror is Dracula’s crypt, the space in which enclosedness brings surface and interiority together, and it thus prefigures the paradoxically enclosing yet penetrating mouth of the vampire. 

      Which is why—to shift abruptly to an adjacent text, produced by a proximate writer, [sharing with Stoker not only the sea-enfolded isle of Ireland but also, within it, Dublin, insistently inside the Pale]—Sheridan LeFanu reworks and transfigures St. Paul’s words for the title of his great collection of ghost stories: In a Glass Darkly.  To see something, as the King James Version of Paul’s letter describes, “through” a glass is to imagine the glass as pure instrument, revealing or veiling the truth which is always outside, away, beyond.  To figure revelation as occurring in the glass is to bring metaphor and metonymy together, to enter into the claustral space of reflection itself and thus of both sight and understanding. 

      In this collection of stories, in “Carmilla,” a vampire tale that Stoker had read, the vampiric Carmilla approaches Laura, the narrator of the story: “Shy and strange was the look with which she quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled.  Her soft cheek was glowing against mine.  ‘Darling, darling,’ she murmured, ‘I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so’” (273-73).  Elsewhere I’ve observed the weirdness of this formulation: “One would expect that Carmilla would say ‘I would die for you, I love you so,’ yet she tauntingly predicts the inverse.  Likewise, even a reader who knows that Carmilla is draining Laura’s blood would expect the teasing hint of her vampirism to take the form ‘You live in me,’ that is, ‘your blood continues to flow in my veins and thus transmutes your life into my eternal life.’  But Carmilla claims the opposite.  […  T]he creepiness of both formulations lies in the fact that they resist stable interpretation precisely insofar as language colludes in the destruction of the barrier between ‘I’ and ‘you,’ a destruction that is formulated with the semiotics of intense desire” (140).  But now, both vampirism and Claustrophilia having gotten in my blood [—a phrase that brings together, as does LeFanu, as does Stoker, as does Howie, disease and desire—] I notice the insistence of the bodies’ own enclosures here: Carmilla hiding her face in Laura’s hair, her hand “pressed in” Laura’s own, entering the spaces of Laura’s body as though in reflection of her own penetration of Laura’s veins and her hypnotic fascination of Laura’s desires.  And so I have a new way of restating the wonder and weirdness of this passage: “you can only enter me to the extent that I entrance you.”

Works Cited
    Howie, Cary.  Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure in Medieval Literature.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.  Print.
    LeFanu, J. T. Sheridan.  In a Glass Darkly.  Ed. Robert Tracy.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.  Print.
    O’Malley, Patrick.  Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.  Print.
    “Review of Dracula.”  Spectator 79 (July 31, 1897): 150-15.   Rpt. in The Critical Response to Bram Stoker.  Ed. Carol Senf.  Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993.  60-61.  Print.
    Stoker, Bram.  Dracula.  Ed. Maurice Hindle. Revised ed. London: Penguin, 2003.  Print.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Catching Claustrophilia: Lowell Duckert

A mode of entry. To prepare for my upcoming panel at the SAA in 2010, “Shakespeare and Renaissance Posthumanism,” I’ve been skimming – if possible – Michel Serres. In Genesis (1982) he writes:

We are fascinated by the unit; only a unit seems rational to us. We scorn the senses, because their information reaches us in bursts. We scorn the groupings of the world…and we scorn those of our bodies. For us they seem to enjoy a bit of the status of Being only when they are subsumed beneath a unity. Disaggregation and aggregation, as such, and without contradiction…are repugnant to us…We want a principle, a system, an integration, and we want elements, atoms, numbers. We want them, and we make them. A single God, and identifiable individuals. (2)

Is this a moment of claustrophilia? A desire for it? If we take Serres’s “scorn” for senses, groupings, and bodies seriously -- no. Like Cary Howie’s opposition to oppositions, Serres’s methodological quandary about Being is a significant one: how do we work within a system and inhabit its conceptual units while observing units’ disunity, contradictions, even arbitrariness? For Serres, he introduces the parasitic “noise” always in the third position – a unidirectional chain that moves from one parasite to the next – that creates a sort of nonfunctional functioning, a nonrelation relation (albeit a productive one).

Maybe the question isn’t whether or not we can pin down the theoretical intersections of Howie and Serres – the latter typically thought of, coincidentally, as “hard to get a hold of.” For me, the touch – the enclosure – of the two texts best exemplifies claustrophilia itself. Howie’s book shows a radical reorientation of “bursting” senses, multiplicities of touching, a topographical enfolding process that breaks both out and in (not simply unidirectional), and even that mysterious third space in and between us. And Howie’s book does transmit something, even if not parasitic in Serres’s sense; as Howie states at the beginning of the introduction: “Claustrophilia (the love of enclosure, enclosed love, embedded touch) is therefore both an object of study and a critical practice that, like it or not, is catching” (4).

I want to linger here on the “catching” of claustrophilia. Claustrophilia is “catching” in that it catches bodies, texts, spaces, temporalities. At the same time, it is an act of “catching,” something we seek and (be)hold. To put it in Howie’s more beautiful phrasing as he closes (but never closes) the book: “To hold is, thus, not just to behold; it is to be held, even to be held in suspense” (152). So how does one “get caught up” in claustrophilia?

If you were fortunate enough to attend the MEMSI Claustrophilia seminar on Friday you not only learned but witnessed what Howie calls “participative intensification…the strange community in which beings become visible through and close to each other, without ever being reducible to a flat, self-same Being” (5). Friday’s panelists and spirited question-and-answer period challenged us to think about the critical practice of claustrophilia. How do we write and perform metonymy? How are we simultaneously discrete and indiscrete units? How do we productively touch one another and observe the ever-fragile “we?”

Enclosure is never perfect and self-contained. Our outstanding panelists all described what they found “catching” and what catches them. Their papers will be posted soon. For now, here is what caught me, and, thus, the panelists:

Patrick O’Malley: books as spaces, Dracula, the mirror as crypt, revelation in the glass
Karl Steel: for things to emerge we must merge with them, networks, the tomb speaks and moves, mourning
Michael Snediker: poetics of rimming, experience the claustro- as a new thing again and again, injectivity
Eileen Joy: our pregnant point (natality), not absolute space but contingent sharing, community of readers also a community of lovers
Madhavi Menon: clusterfuck, desire opened by and enclosed within the associative, the erotics of non-understanding, stepping sideways
Jeffrey Masten: staging impenetrability, textual and stylistic desire, “my girl boner,” the never full present someone

In my own sort of open-ended closure I want to close with my favorite section of Howie’s book that expresses the tenuousness of (dis)unity, of holding and beholding:

Claustrophilia…names the love that lights up a body, building, or book from within, acknowledging what is discrete and irreconcilable in the beloved as the effect of one’s own appropriative, organizing gaze. Relinquishing that desire for appropriation, ones sees each former object in light of another, and thus beyond the logic of objectification. (151-2)

“Beyond the logic of objectification.” What Serres might call the quasi-object, Howie describes as the light from within and in light of, the shared enlightenment in and between subject and object, discrete and indiscrete unit. We need to catch and be caught up in this light – within us, between us, and we need to share it. Like being enclosed in Rome 771 on a Friday afternoon. Like Blogging the Middle Ages and other technological forms of enclosure.

Perhaps the best example is to read the papers once they’re available online. See what catches you. And how you can catch others.

Thank you to the panelists, participants, and organizers who made this event a success.