Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Zombie Middle Ages

In my last (first) post, I did not fully introduce myself. I’m a medievalist with a PhD in English, and my specific focus is the later Middle Ages (lots of Chaucer, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Piers Plowman for me).  Like many of us, I have diverse interests but the issue that I keep returning to is the untimely.  Since my first graduate paper on Chaucer, I’ve been rather obsessed with questions of time and temporality, and with the implications of how the untimely is registered in medieval literature.

As I’ve been researching over the last few months, I’ve encountered some work that has helped me to interrogate some assumptions I’ve been making, or at the least to consider them more carefully.  The first was Michelle Warren’s excellent talk “Ar-ar-ar-chive” at the Exemplaria symposium at UT Austin (click the link for a Live-Stream of the event/talk).  In her talk, Warren considers some of the metaphors we use to describe the subjects of our work, in her case, the archive.  One such metaphor/concept that she discusses is that of the “zombie category,” especially as Nicholas Birns uses it in his Theory after Theory.  “Zombie categories” are categories unmoored from their original meanings, but yet still have some productive use.  This positive sense of the “zombie category” is itself in contrast to its own original use, which viewed such categories as limiting and as a hindrance. In addition to questions concerning the classical notion of “archive” and its value, she also wonders about the value of the zombie metaphor itself.

Her talk raised a lot of questions for me, particularly about the metaphors we use to describe relationships between past and present.  Maybe it’s because I’ve taught several iterations of a course on monsters (the latest being a Freshman Writing course on the Monstrous Imagination), but I’ve often been drawn to metaphors that invoke the dead and the undead: ghostly, revenant, spectral, phantom, zombie, and so on.  In my dissertation, I examined some fourteenth-century texts through the lens of the psychoanalysts Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok (Derrida was often in dialogue with Abraham) and their notion of the crypt, which in their revision of Freud was a manifestation of a type of melancholic burial of a lost object or trauma. There’s a whole blog post to be written on Abraham’s influence on Derrida, and the influence of medieval Christian exegetical practice on Abraham, but for now, I just wanted to bring up the theoretical orientation of my dissertation (which is starting to feel ossified and a ruin in its own right) in order to highlight my fondness for these death-bound metaphors. Reading my dissertation, you might at times think I was working on horror movies, and not, say, Chaucer or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The purpose of this post is not to criticize or abandon such a vocabulary—I still find “haunt” to be an excellent verb that describes the effects of the past on the present. The undead is a powerful metaphor for the past.  For one thing, it is difficult to think of the past without thinking of it as some sort of remembrance of the dead. And as the metaphor would suggest, sometimes the past ambles surprisingly (and even threateningly) into our modern field of vision. But, at the same time, I did not always think through the ways that this vocabulary reinforced certain approaches to the past, ones that conceive of the past as something radically other, and disjuncted from the present.  The past as undead seems necessarily to invoke a sort of antagonism. This antagonism is at times necessary and productive, but in much of my work, I think that I’ve seen antagonism or the uncanny as the only possible relationship between past and present. 

Recently, though, Jonathan Gil Harris’s Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare has helped me to reorient how I think of the relationship between past and present.  He raises the following question:

“But a theory of untimely matter that seeks to understand how the past persists in and works through present objects might wish to resist Derrida’s persistent characterization of the untimely as a ghostly revenant.  Latour’s toolbox, Serres’s automobile, and Shapin’s keyboard are hardly ‘haunted’ by the specters of the past.  Rather, the past works actively in and through them.  How, one might then ask, is the past alive in the matter of the present—and in a way that doesn’t assume its life to be merely spectral?” (Harris 12).

How can we think of the past being alive in the present and not think of it as the undead, or as a ruin, or some shadow of the present?

Sometimes, of course, the text we’re analyzing invokes the spectral and ghostly revenant whether we want to do so or not (and don't get me wrong, I do want to).  A text I return to repeatedly is St. Erkenwald.  No doubt many of you are familiar with it, but a quick refresher: In Anglo-Saxon England, the citizens of London are renovating a pagan temple, which soon becomes St. Paul’s cathedral.  Under orders from Bishop Augustine and Pope Gregory, the recently-converted-to-Christianity Londoners scrub, raze, and turn the temple into a church.  In the foundation of the building, however, the workers make a puzzling archaeological discovery:

Hit was a throghe of thykke ston thryuandly hewen,
Wyt gargeles garynysht aboute alle of gray marbre,
            The sperle of þe spelunke þat sparde hit o-lofte
            Was metely made of îe marbre and menskefully planede,
            And þe bordure enbelicit wyt bryȝt golde lettres,
            Bot roynyshe were þe resones þat þer on row stoden.  (47-52)
(Its four sides were of stone very skillfully carved.
In the gray marble, gargoyles grimaced and crouched.
The lid, which was locked with a long, bolted spar,
Was masterfully made out of marble of gray,
With a border embellished with bright, golden words,
Which were runelike, unreadable, rare, and obscure.)*

In turning the temple into a church, the Londoners were making a statement about how they view their immediate past: get rid of it.  Make a radical break from the pagan.  This discovered tomb, however, is beautiful, provocative, and solidly of the past.  Its ancient mystique unsettles the anxious conversion narrative of the poem, which tries to describe an ascent into a Christian modernity. Despite the apparent ill-worth of the pagan past, this tomb (which hails from an even further back pagan past) is elaborately inscribed with an unknown language (ancient British? Greek? Hebrew?).  I simply cannot think of a better image for the inaccessibility of the past.

Even more puzzling to the Londoners, they find inside the tomb a surprisingly well-preserved corpse, outfitted like a King.  Long story short, Bishop (and future Saint) Erkenwald gets the corpse to talk, tell his story, and the Bishop’s tears appear to baptize the nameless pagan.  The body disintegrates, ascending to heaven, but the illegible tomb remains. 

This post is getting overlong, so let me try to draw together some threads that interest me, and raise some questions (most likely without providing answers just yet).  In this text about a miraculously revived corpse, it’s easy to use the language of the undead to describe it—ghostly, haunt, revenant, spectral.  I’ve even described the pagan judge of the text as a zombie (yes, I know this is not strictly accurate). To use Harris’s language, the text often seems to represent a temporality of explosion, as the past irrupts into and against the present.  The conversion work of the Londoners is undone by this tomb that stubbornly makes its presence felt.  But in addition to the temporality of explosion, Harris describes two other types of temporality: 1.) that of supersession, where agency resides in the present to appropriate and even erase the past (St. Erkenwald also at times seems to be a supercessionary narrative, where the Londoners replace pagan names and spaces with Christian ones) and 2.) that of conjunction, where agency is more evenly distributed between past and present in a rhizomatic network. In the temporality of conjunction, past and present are still heterogeneous, but this alterity is embraced, not dissolved as often happens with the other two. With conjunction, heterogeneity does not need to create antagonism or friction.

I don’t want to simplify my own thinking on the subject (though I fear I am oversimplifying Harris), but I think I’ve often seen the relationship between past and present as only a site of conflict, explosive or supersessionary.  Either the present subordinates the past or the past undoes the present.  What I’d like to think more about, though, is what Kathleen Biddick calls “unhistorical temporalities” in The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History.  Such temporalities are "ones not about divisions between then and now, but about passages, thresholds, gaps, intervals, inbetweenness.  These unhistorical temporalities that do not use time as a utilitarian resource to ground identity are temporalities that can never be one.” (Biddick 2)

I don’t have the time just yet to unfold a reading of the unhistorical temporalities of St. Erkenwald (for one, I’m still working it out).  My main point, though, isn’t what that sort of reading might look like, but whether the vocabulary and methodologies I’ve been using make it difficult to read conjunctive temporalities.  In fact, looking back through my dissertation, it seems like disconnect and disjunction were some of my favorite words.  Even the term “medieval” itself gets us into trouble.  Since so many have looked at the problem of periodization and its discontents, I won’t add to it here, but I will say that as medievalists, we’re always faced with a sense of “divisions between then and now”, whereas we might want to think more about “passages, thresholds, gaps, intervals, inbetweenness.”

My current article I’m revising on St. Erkenwald still makes use of the languages of mourning, melancholia, the spectral, and so on, and I have no remorse about that. Like I said above, I’m not forswearing certain methodologies or even certain ways of viewing the past.  Conjunction is just one sort of temporality Harris describes, and not necessarily superior to explosion or supersession. Going forward, though, I think there is real importance in thinking about unhistorical temporalities in the way that Biddick describes. In many ways, I’m already fairly late to this conversation.  Biddick, Harris, Carolyn Dinshaw, and several others have been doing excellent work redrawing how we understand the untimely.  But thinking further about conjunction between past and present, as opposed to antagonism or division, however, still seems crucially important.  As a medievalist, I’ll be called on to speak to the value of the past, and to show my students how the past can still talk to them.  Pushing against hard boundaries between past and present is, I think, essential for making a case for the medieval in the modern University.

I’d be curious to hear from others on this subject.  (I haven’t done justice to Harris or Biddick here, so I hope the post is intelligible.)  How do you see the value of unhistorical temporalities and the untimely? Are there vocabularies or methodologies that you use that might be outliving their usefulness? Is there anything you'd consider a zombie category? While I’m interested in metaphors about past and present, I’m curious too about other subjects and field, such as Warren raises for the archive (though that, of course, touches on my concerns too).

In future posts I hope to investigate the untimely and the unhistorical further. And I'm sure there will be more zombies.

* Clifford Peterson, ed., Saint Erkenwald (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1977). Further citations will be by line number.  Translation from The Complete Works of the Pearl-Poet: Translated with an Introduction by Casey Finch.  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).


Simon Thomson said...

The pagan past / Christian present is even more intense in some Anglo Saxon texts, such as Exodus and Beowulf, where the texts seem to be working from definite theses about how to unite the past and present. In Beowulf, this is often by making the present a ghost in the past (as it were). So, as an easy example, Hrothgar speaks with a broadly Christian voice. In Exodus, two pasts are conflated for the purposes of the present: the Hebrews are repeatedly characterised as sea-travellers / sailors – and the poem ends as soon as they’ve crossed the Red Sea. This seems to be an attempt to conflate them with the (pagan) voyaging ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons and perhaps to conflate pre-Christian pagan practices with ante-Christian Jewish practices, so that the pagan ancestors can be embraced in the group to be redeemed during the Harrowing of Hell (an incredibly popular theme in the period’s poetry). This seems to spring from the same well as Gregory’s instruction to Augustine (as recorded in Bede) to convert sites of pagan worship to Christian uses. Not (as in your reading of Erkenwald) to obliterate the past, but to occupy it; to rewrite it.

So I think much of my thinking about the ‘zombie past’ or hauntings of history are a little more like the ghosts in the film The Others: it turns out that the present are the zombies, unable to live in their own time without appropriating the past; dissatisfied with a past that doesn’t reflect the present’s view of itself. (I’d like to play with that metaphor a bit more to get something stranger and stronger!) A similar line of thought leads me to musing on our own present’s occupation of the medieval past to create something un-modern: to seek disjunction rather than continuity for reasons that I don’t fully grasp but which I suspect are to do with a British need for feeling independent and powerful post-War, so making ‘proper’ history and ‘civilised stuff’ start more or less from the Tudors and the commencement of a British Empire and CofE. So the Medieval becomes a particular kind of zombie – a Bogeyman whose weird, backward, torturing presence demonstrates the good-ness of the Modern. (That’s all written at random, not to be taken seriously as a thesis!)

Rick Godden said...

Simon, thanks for the comment. In my longer reading of Erkenwald, I try to chart the ways that the poem engages the past--in some ways it tries to obliterate, but in others there is a real sense of rewriting, hinging (for me) on the renaming of temples.

The medieval is definitely the favorite bogeyman of modernity, English and perhaps American too. Interesting connection to The Others. I like the idea of the present being the zombies. We're ultimately always out of joint, disconnected from our present moment.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

This is a great project, Rick. There are two things it makes me think about. (1) How "zombie" is maybe not the best word tod escribe what Michelle and Birns were trying to get at; "undead" might be better, the paradoxical negative of an ultimate negative, not alive but not dead. Zombie also for me resounds with its African/Haitian origin, but I know that is lost for many auditors. (2) The failure of communication in the language, but not in the materiality. The stone (given a lengthy description) conveys, transports, and preserves even as the words do not -- it's a figure I have been calling a lithic communication device, or geographesis. But what is interesting here is that the body and its clothing also speak beyond language.

I've been trying to wrap my mind around this scene for my book and may figure it out some day ... I really like what you are doing!!

Rick Godden said...

Jeffrey, excellent points. I particularly like how you describe "the undead" as "the paradoxical negative of an ultimate negative." Reminds me of "inhuman" as opposed to "non-human." The reflections in this blog post are mostly about that collection of essays on temporality I want to put together, charting how we can move beyond the typological and even perhaps the spectral. Now, to get my Erkenwald essay out the door!

I'd love to see how you're working on that scene when you have something.