Friday, April 27, 2012

The Sword in the Stone: In Defense of Instruments

"Anything can be a weapon, if you are holding it right"
Save Our City, Ludo

The Baby and the Bath Water

That quote reflects my feeling at times regarding many of the systems, technologies, and methodologies which we critique as scholars. This is not to say that I am not opposed to the mass manufacturing of guns, or any tool designed primarily for violent ends, but we often times pin ethical judgement and responsibility on the weapon instead of the wielder (or the wielding).  This may just as much be true of the instrumentality of people or the forces that run in, through, and around us that direct our actions, but choices (however contingent our powers are to make them) are nonetheless made.

I invoke this less to call judgement down upon persons, for lashing out against the broken thing that we call our bodies is perhaps yet another misused tool, but in frustration for how often we unleash our vengeance upon our non-human proxies? How many times have I seen otherwise innocuous objects banned from my school because someone used it towards destructive ends? How many times have I seen important projects fail because one of its proponents act out?

Objects, networks, bodies demand choices; or if you are uncomfortable with ethics, perhaps you could say they nonetheless make us responsible for more. Capitalism has made my going to the store to buy food have ramifications on workers in South America. The internet has made comments that I punch out from my cell-phone have impacts on readers in Russia.

And yes, there are better and worse networks and objects (like guns) whose effects are overwhelmingly hurtful. One of our decisions may be to beat our weapons into plows. We need to let go of some forms, some possibilities, in order to allow for others to take shape. But just like I can rarely get excited at the idea of an execution, I often feel repulsed when conversations turn to throwing the bathwater away with the baby. It may be that some of us still need to wash our hands clean or fill ourselves on the only available drink, however tainted it may be.


The Sword in the Stone

I have often been drawn to the image drawn from different Medieval texts, such as the sword in the stone or the instruments of war hanging as decorations on the wall, but also active today perhaps in the image of the locked weapon case. True, this might as well be the gallery commemorating or forecasting someone else's Hell. Personally, part of the draw for me is the sense of horror. I wonder what horror would make this the lesser.

Why would we ever need these instruments of death? Could the sword ever be drawn from the stone without signalling the beginning of a tyrant? Could the spears come down from the wall without meaning the genocide of the marginalized? Could a gun case remain closed until an actual intruder threatens to lives of our children and no other option is really available to us? Monarchies, war, and death are instruments which may open up many goods and lives.

Someone much wiser or else more foolish than I would likely be the one to unlock these instruments of our destruction, I hope. But just as I do chose to compromise, justify, or ignore the consequences of many of my choices (who I vote for, what products I buy, systems I perpetuate) I know there may be times in which I am given a reason, a weapon, and pointed in a direction to use tools in ways which I would otherwise criticize, even condemn.

In that case, perhaps foolishly, I would hope to remember mercy and hope for it when justice may rightly wish my own destruction. In the same way, I look upon the gun hanging on the wall at the opening of the play and wonder if by the end of the first act, there might be an unimaginable, but good reason for it to go off.

Until that reason presents itself, however, I hope the gun stays where it is hanging on the wall. May the sword remain in the stone until the good King comes; if ever.


"A few people laughed; A few people cried; Most people were silent"
Robert Oppenheimer on reactions after the Trinity nuclear test

Perhaps it is the Medievalist in me, or something else, but I often like old, seemingly broken, or discarded things. Getting old things fired up again to see how they work and may open up new opportunities or alternatives to the new factory standardized tools which proliferate around me is a real joy. Someone, at some point, got some good use out of this, or thought it might do some good, and maybe it can again (or for the very first time). Maybe it was waiting until now to find a purpose. (Of course this reduces objects to my instrumental use of them, but this post is about ethics of use, so I am going to be a bit human-centric for the moment.)

Most of what I work in now is discourses, ways of thinking, stories, and theories which by today's standards are ridiculous, unscientific, out-dated, even a little ugly. On first glance I actually get a lot of positive responses on being a medievalist from my friends and family. It is the second glance that can be the killer; when I tell them I am doing a paper on humoral theory or alchemy, etc. That's when they want to know why I'd spend time becoming an expert in something which is so pointless. Of course, this becomes great motivation to demonstrate (often time by mixing it with post-modern theories or technologies, and a little of my own innovation, or those of my colleagues) how useful these old discourses can be.

But, and now I turn to the title/quote of this section, what about discourses that people would rather not continue. Looking to Catholic writing for ideas after various events, such as the Inquisition or the Crusades, or looking to Nazi writing for ideas after WW2 (which has often been done in medicine, for instance) often shut down conversations. Some people laugh, some people cry, but a lot of people remain silent. Discourses have had horrible consequences, which often remain as active violence or open wounds today. As a result, we, in academics, for instance, often time do not want to utilize them. They are tainted. "They have caused to much suffering" as Deleuze and Guattari say of trees, in their rallying cry for the rhizome.

That is not to say that every discourse need continue or everyone need share in it. Sadly, and I may get flack for this, but everyone should probably not be a medievalist. Let the modernist be a modernist, so I can be more emphatically non-modern. May the scientist be a scientist and care less about philosophy or theory, so I can look over her shoulder and philosophize and theorize about what she is doing. It is however frustrating, and this comes with starting many different kinds of conversations, in and out of academics, in and out of medieval studies, when you want to talk to people about something, and there is a general shaking of the head and a quick change of topic. "That is so last year" or "Was that ever a good idea?" or "We aren't having that conversation now" or "Too soon, too soon."

Academics with their discourses, like many historians and their artifacts, are often left alone with their things, even among each other. Of course, that is part of the nature of the profession. If you keep on working on your weird, discarded projects, some day people may take interest or find a need for it, and then suddenly, you are the supplier or else the founder of discourse. Of course, if you are a medievalist, you may know that you are not necessarily the one who started it, you just held on to it, while everyone else threw theirs away and got the new model.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Queer Transience in Sir Orfeo

"The queers ability to move to, from and through...without succumbing to the inevitable and self-fulfilling narratives of desperation and violence that haunt the spatial peripheries" 

Karen Tongson


Proper Places

"I like airplanes. I like anywhere that isn't a proper place. I like in-betweens. " 
Neil Gaiman, Sandman, Brief Lives

Across his Sandman graphic novel series, Neil Gaiman depicts faeries bringing to close their direct interaction with the human world, setting the mass exodus at the rise of the Early Modern period. Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Nights Dream is presented as a payment to Dream, the protagonist of the series, in exchange for awakening his literary genius; which Dream in turn offers to the fae as a gift upon their flight from our world. The rational behind the self-exile is ambiguous and many-fold, but corresponds to the flight of England to cities. The populated rural spaces appear to have been foundational to an alliance between these peoples. The fairies seem unable to follow humans into the city.

And yet, in Neverwhere, an urban fairy population is exactly what is depicted. It is discovered and explored when a human "falls between the cracks" of normative society into an invisible fairy underworld which exists in alleyways, subways, and skyways. The the veiled but interpenetrating lands of the fair folk in the rural setting, these city-faeries live alongside humans in the city, like shadows. From the perspective of the newcomer, many of the magical others appear as super-naturally inflected homeless, insane, and transient persons. Thus, both the people and the place of the fae are evidently out of joint with normative space, time, and temperament; situated as in between and ever in motion. 

While these two portrayals of the fae in Gaiman's imagination may appear on the surface to be contradictory, rural versus urban, separate versus cohabitant, in both we see a population which is disturbed by the normifying structures of society and thus thrust into motion to salvage what they can from the loss. I ask, are not the transient fairies in these stories queer? Might queers be faeries in more than just metaphor? In addressing these questions, I look to Karen Tongson's Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginary to find in her description of a bastardizing, moving mix of migrant queers the presence of those she does not imagine in great detail: the disposed.


Toxic Habitats

I invoke the story of Sir Orfeo, to be a guide as we travel between city, land, and middle-scapes into the fairy underworld and back; paying special attention the queer environmental transformations and disturbances which keep disposed populations in perpetual movement.

Tongson invites us to imagine the toxicity of the city and how the normative practices there seep into the skin of the populations, making them chafe and ultimately expelling them from the urban community.  We see this active in Sir Orfeo, where his body, matriomonial body, and his body politic are infected with desires and discomfort that seperate them long enough for Orfeo's wife to be touched by one of the fae that come from outside the manor. Her dreams become haunted by disturbing images and for-castings, which bring her to the conclusion that she must leave the urban setting of the castle if she is going to survive un-maimed by the systems at work. From her perspective, she is put into flight. From her husbands, perspective, she is taken.

Orfeo then becomes infected by a severe grief over the untimely loss of his wife disturbs his mind so that he can no longer function in his role as lord of the manor. His dreams become plagued with visions, so that in his waking days he can longer focus on things and events as they happen. The present moves on, but he remains mentally torn between the past and the unknown otherworld which exists just outside the community center, where dangers and monsters live. At last he disrobes himself, appears in unseemly and unlordly clothes before his community members and announces that he can be one of them no longer. Mentally and bodily disturbed, he is compelled out of his home, onto the streets and then into the wilderness.


Queer Transience

Tongson goes on to invite us to imagine queer life as not bound by space or time, but as disturbed and disturbing bodies which perpetually travel through the world, erring as they go along. In Sir Orfeo, we find the story of Orpheus has been revised so as to trouble the definite divide between life and death, now and then, that is introduced in it. During his exile, Sir Orfeo travels the wilderness, the borderlands of his old home, and becomes a transient presence there. He spends his days composing music, an art which depends on the motion of bodies, fingers, strings, and air. His companions are animals which come, listen, and live with him for a time, but are not domesticated or naturalized as either companions nor extensions of him. Living on the medieval equivalent of the side-streets, years pass Orfeo by, who lives in a sort of indifference to it. His life is no longer ordered by Church holidays or by royal banquets, but by the fluctuating duration of his songs and the changes which incrementally alter his form to resemble the environment through which he travels.

One night, Orfeo is stirred again by the Fae. They pass by him in mass, with horses, dogs, horns, and men as if on a hunt. These place-less, home-less, bodies move by him, indifferent to him but affecting him greatly; because he sees his wife among them. She travels with the hunter, who never stop to actually seek game, but romp through the woods in a state of perpetual disturbance.  Orfeo's wife sees him too, but regards him as part of the landscape, and moves on without dwelling on his sighting. He follows her, again relocated by his contact with these queer folk, into the underworld. This otherworld is described by the narrator, as Orfeo travels through it, as a place where great beauty and horror's coexist simultaneously. Their place, if it is a place, is one of disorientation and joussiance. Orfeo arrives at their version of a castle as soon as they hunting party does, seeks an immediate audience with the lord who holds her, plays his song to persuade him to release her, and they are off together back to his own castle. While this constant movement appears interrupted by the sudden insistence of a restoration and urban teleological narrative, Orfeo insists on returning in his wilderness clothes in order to trick and disorient his followers. Although they come to recognize and reinstate their lord, their return is as a queerly infected disturbance to the body politic.


Passing Possibilities

Tongson further invites us to note and imagine the spontaneous avenues which open up possibilities for us, but which are not always followed or charted. These queer side-ways alley-ways and fair(y)ways are necessarily going to proliferate as we move and which not even our best efforts of normification and naturalization can fully map or order. Whenever we turn to see the shape in the peripheries, the shadow disappears. When we jump on the strange form rummaging in the buses, we land upon air. The fairy and the queer are always on the move, haunting and disturbing us with the taunt that whenever we chose a path, we surrender ever other; whenever we look somewhere to attend on it, we lose focus on the rest. This should not come as a despairing remark on the limit of our experience, but on the over-abundance of life and queer possibilities which perpetually shift around us. Our world will always exceed our powers to grasp it.

All throughout Sir Orfeo's relocating, we see glimmers of possibilities which are left unexplored and mysterious. In going to the woods, Orfeo loses sight and control over the courts. His new woodland neighbors creep in and out of view, so that he cannot even command them. Their lives remain mysteries to him, even as they live in proximity. Upon seeing one another during the hunt, the lovers pass by each other. We may wonder what would have happened if they had grasped each other just then, but may their acceptance of the different tracks they were on just then (one in motion in the hunt and the other standing amazed, like a tree in his forest) have been a tacit acknowledgment that even married persons remain mysteries and even unrecognizable to each other at times? If we might imagine the otherworld as death, or a transformed way of life, then could not this moment be a nod to the fact that we are all only temporary companions that at times must go on journeys which the other cannot? And all those transfigured, dismembered bodies in the fantastic buildings of the fairyworld, why only see a glimmer of them when our compulsion for awe and horror would ask us to stare? Is this not another acknowledgment that there is wonders and terrors, and transforming lives going on all around us which we can only ever see as we pass by on route to somewhere else? For most people, most of us will only ever be glimmers of possible persons, possible paths, and possible lives left unexplored.


Temporal Drag

Just as queers have long been regarded as those who have dwelt too long on a certain part of sexual, gendered, or other element of personal development, so too transients and fairies are ironically imagined as anachronistic hold-outs to the progress of humanity. Tongson invites us to think through Elizabeth Freeman's concept of Temporal Drag, in both the performative sense of enacting two times at once, but also the sense of being out-dated. In a modern, urban environment directed towards progress (generally conceived) things are perpetually transforming but imagined to do so on a very set path. There is only one road, or else all roads lead to Rome. Here too, queers, fairies, transients, and Sir Orfeo see to dance together in a temporal cluster fuck.

For those unfamiliar and for many of those who are, Sir Orfeo may sound like a strange half medievalization of the classic Greek story of Orpheus. We imagine Greek columns and togas even as we imagine castles and knights in armor. Visual depictions of Sir Orfeo often mix imagery from medieval and classic cultures. There is a temporal drag in effect throughout the story. Furthermore, the fairies too are consistently in Sir Orfeo and across much literature figured as anachronistic. Are they indigenous peoples, or new incomers? Are they coming or going? They look like us, but somehow older and wilder. They seem to live forever, and yet exude a tangible youth and freshness. When his Heurodice is contacted by the fae, she dwells upon dreams of the terrors of the future but also of an ancient people, all while still in the machine of the castle. When she is taken, Orfeo too is lost in dreams of the past and future, coming to disregard the present as worth his attention. In the woods, as he hears the hunt coming, the first sound he hears is a hawk, which draws him back to the time in which lived in the urban landscape of the caste; hawking is a courtly activity. So too describing the parade as a hunt is a return to castle language, even as the text admits they kill no animals. In the otherworld, we see a strange mix of present with past in the modern yet ancient architecture and the living yet dead bodies inside them. As noted, the couples return to the castle, is just another relocation, which haunts the end of the story with the disturbance of all that has happened and may occur there, as a result of contact from queer, transient, fairy bodies.