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.