Monday, 27 April 2009

getting medieval

Okay, I just read Carolyn Dinshaw's excellent, excellent book on queer medieval history, Getting Medieval, and now I have to return it to the library because my enthusiastic recommendations to everyone I have talked to recently have resulted in a rain of requests for it. (That'll teach me to be intellectually generous.) But before I do, I just wanted to blog about it quickly.

Towards the end of the book, in a chapter called 'Margery Kempe Answers Back' (which also deals with The Book of Margery Kempe, an account of the life of a fourteenth-century female visionary from Norfolk in the UK, and with the recent novel Margery Kempe by Robert Gluck which reuses Margery's story to talk about queer male experience in the twentieth century), Dinshaw does some intelligent and really exciting close-readings of the ways in which American Republican politicians referred to mediaeval studies in order to discredit arts and humanities research, and ultimately to cut funding to the National Endowment for the Humanities, in political debates in the late 1990s. One of the projects which was repeatedly referred to as an example of the kind of self-evidently irrelevant research which wastes of public money was a conference on Sex and Gender in the Middle Ages - Dinshaw cites Representative Hostettler in the Senate, saying:

Mr Chairman, how, when faced with a $5 trillion national debt that continues to grow, can we continue to spend money on projects like these: Sex and gender in the middle ages, 1150-1450. This course received $135,000. Let me give a free lesson here and save the money - there were men - and there were women. The fact that we are here today lets us assume some of them had conjugal relations.

Dinshaw concludes her close reading of this and other moments in the debate by saying:

Motivating this list [of absurd or wasteful research projects] is a thorough resistance... to the very concept of engagement and relation across time as well as across other divides (of gender, sexuality, religion, race, class, nationality). Because the very basic idea that history lives, that even distant and relatively unexplored times and places are relevant to twentieth-century American lives, suggests sites of cultural relation that are unpredictable, uncontrollable. In the mention here of at least half these funded projects, the possibility that we can forge dynamic relations to the past, even the distant or unfamiliar past, even if at present we cannot know where such relations will lead, is closed off.

Which is some of the most cogent reasoning I've heard for taking Walter Benjamin very seriously when (as I posted about recently) he argues in the 'Theses on the Philosophy of History') that political resistance, revolutionary energy, come from engagement with the past in 'uncontrollable' ways, rather than fantasies about the future.

And isn't that quote from Hostettler revealing, too - that 'sex and gender' must refer only to men, women, and reproductive heterosex, and our relationship to the past must be framed solely in those terms, as biological inheritance via heterosex (this is what I call 'the order of generations', following Derrida in The Post Card, the ordering force of a reproductive, heterosexual understanding of time and history). And here it is in the House of Representatives, in a debate about government funding, as the explicit principle for allowing/denying funding, for legitimating academic enquiry!

It's nice to be reminded sometimes that what I do is important, that it's not just the contemporary and the 'now' that has urgency and political weight.


Katherine said...

Ha, I was just looking up medieval gay history online a minute ago! The Dinshaw book sounds excellent -- I'll look out for it. Does the Gluck novel sound interesting?

Ika said...

The Dinshaw book is indeed excellent - it's in the 'Q' series that Eve Sedgwick and Michael Moon edited. It's very much queer history rather than gay history, so it depends what kind of thing you're after, but actually having said that it also contains a really good account of the canonical 'gay medieval history' book and its production and reception, the political and intellectual and strategic uses of 'gay' as an identifying term, etc. So whatever you are after you will find it in Getting Medieval!

The Gluck novel sounds fascinating - possibly a bit problematic in the same ways as slash, the kinds of relationship it sets up between femaleness and m/m sexuality, but it sounds really bold and strange and interesting. Sort of Kathy Ackeresque with the use of big chunks of material from other sources, and no clear indication of where one text ends and another begins. Lovely. (I haven't read it yet, of course.)

Ika said...

Oh, I just thought, I should probably explain what I mean by 'queer history not gay history' - I mean, she's not looking for all the evidence of same-sex attraction or romantic relationships in a period or geographical area, she's doing close readings of a few texts and moments which seem to put pressure on normative mediaeval ways of understanding gender and sexuality. So, for example, she talks a lot about how accusations of 'sodomy' function in what are basically theological arguments, rather than how those accusations might map on to the real-life experience of sex and sexual attraction for people in the fourteenth century. (Though she's always sharply aware that there were people in the fourteenth century who did practice sodomy and/or experience same-sex attraction and/or who weren't gender-conforming, and that that matters.)

Katherine said...

Of course "queer" is an inherently (indeed, deliberately) slippery term, and "queer theory" is something I've always found difficult, and there are some works given the label of "queer studies" that I find either impossible to understand or impossible to like -- but Getting Medieval sounds great. I'll watch out for it!

(BTW I just found out that Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick died two weeks ago! I am sad now.)

nixwilliams said...

ooh, that sounds like a fab book. i should add it to my list of books to buy when i have time for more distractions!