Medieval Materialism at the Zoo, Day 1: Bodies, Institutions, and Mediation

Day one of #medmaterialism was an exciting one, to say the least!

I’ve storified my tweets of the whole day here:

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To roundup all the panels I attended, only half of which were explicitly oriented toward materiality, here is a short list of where I went throughout the day:
  1. The BABEL Retrospective on 25 years of Carolyn Dnishaw’s Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics 
  2. Romance Materiality II: Romancing the Material
  3. Romance Materiality III: Materialize or Material Lies?
  4. Revisiting Remediation–with my paper!
What I found really interesting throughout the papers in each of the panels was their intense focus on both bodies–usually human–and signification throughout. For instance, in thinking about Melusine, Angela Florschuetz was emphasizing the way in which the material bodies of Melusine and her offspring were somehow not being taken as materially significant. They had serpent feet, lion claws coming out of their faces, misplaced teeth, third eyes, etc., and yet throughout the narrative there is no indication that these bodily deformities impeded their basic functioning in the world. Instead, these material realities were reduced to signs of the cursed “seed” from which the children came, a genealogy the family seemed unable to overcome.

Now, Florschuetz was certainly not reducing the material to just signs or symbols, but pointing to the way that materiality in literature can’t be taken as unproblematic “objects” or even “props” for narrative. Instead, it is layered with both textual significance as well as the significance that a materiality like that described would have had in a medieval context. What does a lion-claw-face do/mean in the Middle Ages?

Waugh’s paper on Sir Eglamore got at the same troubling significance of objects or things by reading things that feature in his text, primarily girdles. Jenn Bartlett also gets at this in her paper on the spices that are brought together in the textual table of the Thornton MS and its alliterative Morte D’Arthur. Bartlett, like Waugh, historicizes these materials pictured in the text, but she goes one step further and thinks about their spatiality in relation to the medieval table of Thornton himself, who would have had access to the various spices, meats and delicacies that traveled from all over the world. Bartlett’s paper in particular evoked the way in which the movement of real bodies and objects in the Middle Ages is necessary to understanding the medieval text. In this way, she’s very much in line with some traditional “Thing Theory” a la Bill Brown, as well as with Augustine’s theory of signification, in which signs always point to real things, which usually means material things.

Florschuetz’ paper and Timothy Stinson’s work on absent bodies, by inverting the relationship between the material thing and the sign trouble our simple order of signification. In Florschuetz, the sign that evokes a material body evokes a real thing–as far as I understand, the family about which this genealogical romance was written was a real, and by then defunct, medieval family–but a thing whose material reality was deeply problematic, both to medieval readers trying to make sense of the bodies of this family and to modern readers trying make sense of the medieval signs of their bodies. So, in Florschuetz’s paper, the bodies are impossible, and the way they came to be materially is part of what the romance is about.

In Stinson’s paper, on the other hand, the bodies are literally gone. After the expulsion of the Jews from England, Jewish bodies were not in England, though they seemed to continue to signify and even to figure prominently in certain kinds of texts and images. Adrienne Boyarin, for instance, has written extensively on them in Marian Miracles, and Steve Kruger on the “Spectral Jew,” which Stinson cites.

I was struck, though, that the way in which materiality mattered throughout all these papers was through bodies, which is not unproblematically synonymous with matter, things, or objects. Corporeality and materiality certainly share some stakes, and some physical characteristics, but corporeality is only one manifestation of materiality. It seems, however, that much interest in materiality is still mapped onto a “Bodies that Matter” framework.

Even in our papers on mediation, Peter and I were mostly paying attention to the way that signs are “materialized” in bodies. For Peter, he was interested in letters/characters, in particular Runes that appear in certain Anglo-Saxon contexts and which become impossible to re-mediate depending upon the time, culture, and medium. Here there is the lost symbol that cannot be supplanted by the new medium and the symbols it uses. My paper, too, though takes on materialized signs in codices, which I often refer to as “manuscript bodies,” and the corpus of the poem on which I work. The body, material and textual, that allows my “object” to exist, materially, in the world.

The question then becomes, does the material have to be bodily?

I think that the Dinshaw panel may actually help us to think about why it so often is, even if it need not necessarily be so. That, and a little stealing from Karl Steel.

In the Dinshaw panel, Carolyn aptly brought our focus back to our role in the production of knowledge in medieval studies, and in particular, the way that our bodies are at stake in this epistemological production. She noted in her response that her female, queer body was very nearly shut out of the institutional means by which she could signify–as a scholar, as a medievalist, etc. So was Mary Carruthers. And as we all know, that can’t have been, can’t be because their work wasn’t “good,” “rigorous,” or up to the regular academic snuff. We’ve got decades of evidence on their importance to the contrary.

Instead, it became about who was allowed to signify, that who determined by the body they lived in. So, in some sense, for us the materiality of signification is–or at least was–very much about bodies–ours.

Karl Steel would probably go one step further to point out that trans-temporal signification happens on a scale that is, well, bodily. Specifically, human bodily. Thinking about matter and materiality on any other scale is not only difficult, but may, according to Karl, actually be somehow insignificant–or unsignificant, or just outside what it is possible to signify altogether.

At the end of the day, then, I am left thinking about the relationship between bodies and materiality, and how might we be able to see/perceive/engage with one (matter) without the other (body)? Or perhaps, how can we simply trouble the reduction of matter to “bodies” when our own bodies are part of our apparatus?

Thoughts to continue thinking about on day 2!

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