The Transcript of a Paper Delivered at:
the 47th International Congress of Medieval Studies
at Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Initially this paper was going to be a reading of Sir Bisclavret by Marie de France and Bisclarel. It is a text which emphatically groan: fuck readers. Those familiar with the text may remember how the Knight of the text when he is separated from his noble clothes becomes wolf. In this monstrosity impairs his ability to speak, which readers take as a chance to speak for him.
- First, when he is discovered by the King's hunting party, his strangeness confuses them, making them uncertain whether or not he should be killed, as they would do with any ordinary wold. Then a "wise-man" comes in announces that he has human intelligence.
- Next, after being kept in the company of the King as a pet, suddenly attacks the man who had since married the knight's wife, he is once again under threat of being killed. Once again the "wise-man" comes in an interprets that the wolf must have been wronged by the man.
- Subsequently, the wolf is read by the king and court to be the lost knight and seek out his clothing from his wife so that he might transform into a knight again.
- Finally, when the wolf is given back his clothes, he simply ignores them and the whole crowd stares on at him in bafflement. Then again, the "wise-man" returns to tell that the wolf will not transform before the watches and must be given a room of his own, behind closed doors, before he will express his transformation.
And yet readers continue to read the text and offer interpretations. We speak for the text, create a life for it, and give it a use. And yet, is this not a foreclosing of options or possible lives for the textual bodies? Could not we hear the invitation to "fuck off" and allow texts to exercise their own powers with us either as their object or else without us? When I sat down with my copy of Sir Bisclavret, I was overwhelmed by this irony. I just sat with the book and thought with it: fucking readers.
It is for this reason that I now turn the rest of this paper away from reading a text, but will attempt to listen to texts, as material bodies, for more ways in which they announce "fuck readers".
"This paper has a let’s eat grandma quality to it. Anyone that has either missed or misapplied a comma in stating those fatal words know how the command to consume our elders, or else not, can weigh on a situation: "Let's Eat, Grandma!" or "Let's Eat Grandma!"
In one respect, I mean to pause. Fuck (comma) readers. Fuck, but don't rape what you read! The difference comes in not refusing to objectify what we desire to fuck, but not to regard them only as objects. Books, like any textual body, receives agency via what Judith Butler calls “transautonomy.” This is the process, in a psychoanalytic frame work, by which we withhold knowing about an other in advance, do not try to consume it completely or else recognize that while an object, it may be a subject as well, full of its own mystery and inclinations. It affirms this is how any and all of us receive the suffrage of subjectivity from others in our community when, or if, they regard us as more than instruments or things for them to project their fantasies onto, and in a sense are given the power to surprise them.
As discrursively instricbed, culturally docile bodies, texts, like us, are produced as products of the systems of power that circulate around us, by which our identities are forms for us and we are told what we can be and do; including who is more a subject and who we can freely objectify sexually, exploit for lower pay to assist in teaching classes or in research, and yes, what texts we revere as having the power to move us and which we merely textual instruments. For these reasons, I say as one reader to other readers, fuck-off a bit more and let the texts breathe; respect their subjectivity and their ability to surprise you.
We hungrily consume them for sport and also for professional gain, but without the subjectivity, the autonomy, the agency to surprise us, we will only be making the tests serve our purposes without listening to what they have to say, or might I imagine consenting to it. Fuck, readers, I say with exasperation, explore and experiment with what you read but don’t rape your texts. But this is yet not the main way in which I mean what I say, for it presumes that readers are the subject I am speaking to but without the comma they are my object.
"Fucking with Readers"
We may make up reading them, like an estate goes that goes to portrait galleries, with all our tactics to tell why it is we look, what there is to see, how it was made, how it might be employed and so on. Yet this is response on their part. At the first, and again and again, there is looking. Readers stare at texts as aesthetic objects, drawn in by their thing power, their vibrancy, perhaps even their darkness. There is the fear and fascination of encountering an other when readers look upon texts as art. What is it and what might it mean or do to me? The answer of what it does to them is painted across all their essays, books, seminars, and also in all the half ideas and fancies that never worked out.
The answer is in that little extra something that can’t be articulated in their words, but is felt, experienced and active when they come to text as an adored art object. At these moments the reader is impotent and vulnerable. It is here that texts can fuck readers. It can shatter there expectations, take them in directions which they did not want to go but still may enjoy, or just make them sit back uncomfortably after having felt a text touch them somewhere.
"Fuck Off Readers"
We might say that in moving from speaking for texts, to having to deal with them speaking back, we are encountering an experience like a parent when they realize that their little child doesn’t need us to tell them to do things, or defend it, or even listen to us when we do tell it what to do. What if texts are often more like moody, shifty, queer teen-agers that we just stare at and wonder what the hell this thing is living in the same house as us. Just when you thought you knew them and got along, they turn back and say, simply, “fuck you.”
Rather than being objects, texts tell you, “no, I object.” They don’t need us or our plans, even after all we have done for them. Our books may not even want to be read. We assume that’s they would want because that’s how we see them. What about their possible career as a paper-weight? A dust-collector? Food for worms and, forbid we think it, fuel for fires? Our books get picked up at night and spend time with unsavory company doing things we may not like, having social lives, even sexual lives, fucking and possibly impregnating readers with things we don’t even want to think about. And the internet is yet another reason for the controlling parent to worry.
Texts are getting their lives more and more online now and things are opening up to them sooner and faster than we can keep track of. They start talking to us in weird lingo from the web and we don’t even understand them anymore. Like since when did Chaucer have a blog and start using middle English leet speak? Where are our precious little texts which we could put down in one place and know that they would sit silently as we cleaned the house?
Well, I am here to break it to you, those of you who don’t already know that your children, your objects, your texts have been doing things behind your back all along. Or to your front, commanding your attention, your time, and your careers like little adult slaves to the dominance of his royal highness the baby. We may even wonder if Oedipus is right, what if our texts really kill readers off, fuck readers, and consume readers. Even if we created them and they are like sweet children or grand children to us, they might still whisper when we are least expecting it: let’s eat grandma, and forget to include the comma.