Medieval Materialisms at the Zoo-Day 2: Transgressions

If there’s one way in which I would characterize Friday’s materialism sessions, I’d say they were “transgressive,” in that each panel sought to overturn or undermine, or just plain do away with the boundaries between disciplines, between objects, and between epistemologies.

The day’s sessions were:

  1. Quantum Medievalisms by postmedieval, organized by yours truly
  2. Transgressive Materialities by the Material Collective, organized by Heather Coffey and Holly Silvers
  3. Material Iberia II: Shaping Bodies in Literature and Art across the Abrahamic Traditions by the Association for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies, organized by Jessica Boon

Each of these sessions was sooo good that they could be summarized in a full blog post. See the storified tweets from them here:

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What I want to highlight here, though, is not just a summary of what happened in the sessions, but the ways in which the sessions’ thinkers were getting at their “objects.”

Quantum Medievalisms  is a panel put together to ignite a conversation around the work of Karen Barad, the quantum imaginary of modern physics, and the ways in which we relate to the past. Though we were missing Karl Steel, I made sure to address the question that seems to be at stake in Karl’s engagement with Barad and quantum physics as a way of doing either materialist or medievalist work. In Santa Barbara, at the Biennial BABEL conference, Karl conceded that, while quantum physics is physics–that is, it’s not that classical mechanics works on one scale and quantum on another, but that quantum physics is the most accurate description we have of the mechanical workings of the universe–it is operative, or bears a significant difference from classical mechanics, on such a small scale that perhaps that scale is incommensurate with that of literary study. Karl is here (er…well was there, except wasn’t there, per se) to beg the question that probably many will ask: is this mash-up actually possible? does it allow us to think something that we couldn’t otherwise think about medieval literature, or our relationship to it, that we otherwise could not think?

I don’t know what Karl’s answer to that question would be at present, but the remainder of the panel was built to attempt to use Barad’s concepts, and sometimes just those concepts from quantum mechanics itself, to think through what is at stake in various modes of medieval literary study. Tara Mendola and James Ensley, for instance, took up the two sides of the epistemological debate at the core of taking measurements in quantum physics. Ensley uses Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the idea that an experiment can only measure either the position or momentum of a given particle with inverse precision. That is, the more you know about a particle’s position, the less you can know about its momentum, and vice versa. Ensley uses this analogy to talk about Piers Plowman manuscripts (whaddaya know, a topic near and dear to my heart), arguing that we can either know about the specificities of a single manuscript or about the whole corpus, but never both at once. (Amen!)

Ensley compares the knowing of Piers in manuscript form to the knowing of an electron’s position outside an atom. In one model, we have this image of a single electron orbiting the nucleus of an atom, and it all seems pretty manageable.  But then, when we get a little more information, or we zoom out, or we simply replace a more “classical” model with a more accurate quantum model, we end up with electron “clouds” or orbital shapes that show the potential places in which an electron for an atom can be at a given moment. Perhaps knowing Piers at this more accurate, but more zoomed out scale produces a cloud as well? (I have no issue with this!)

At the core of Ensley’s interpretation, however, is the fundamental assumption in Heisenberg’s interpretation as well (and one that I think works pretty well for Piers in particular): the idea that both measurable quantities (position and momentum for Heisenberg, unique MS and whole corpus for Ensley) exist and that they are intrinsic to the object being observed. Perhaps this works for Piers manuscripts in a way that it doesn’t for particles.

Mendola’s paper is the one that brings up the Copenhagen interpretation, the one for which Bohr is primarily known, and which is a prominent feature in Barad’s onto-epistemology. What Barad points out via Bohr is that the object itself has no intrinsic qualities prior to their measurement. Which is definitely not how Heisenberg’s interpretation works. For Heisenberg, the failure to know both things at once is a failure of measurement, a failure of epistemology, if you will. For Bohr, on the other hand, the failure to know both at once is actually a feature of quantum ontology–that is that the particle itself does not have any definite qualities until they are measured. This is at the core of Barad’s agential realism, in which matter is articulated into legible bits, not definite objects, by a series of agential cuts.

In Barad’s well known articulation: relata do not precede relations.

Rather, both are brought into existence through the process of being articulated to one another. In quantum physics, the apparatus for measuring “the momentum of a particle” brings “the momentum of a particle” into being. Without the apparatus, this articulation is impossible. It is also impossible to get any other articulation out of this apparatus.

Mendola uses an Old French fabliau, “La Vieille Truande” (truande is a fabulously dirty word in Old French, btw), to entangle the “feminist” temporalities at work in both the un-know-able body of the truande in the fabliau and in the work of literary composition and interpretation itself. As Mendola puts it, a literal falsehood in the fable may well be an allegorical truth, and the “measurement” of either is all dependent upon the apparatus one uses to look at it, in much the same way that the status of the truande‘s body (mother or lover) is only legible through a series of shifting frameworks. Mendola links this literary–literal and allegorical–making and knowing (facto-epistemology?) to the truande‘s own making of a garment–an object that, like a literary object, is “made of other tired, worn-out, re-used objects.”

Roman’s paper, conveniently situated in between these two, takes up literary making as a type of “measurement,” in a Baradian sense. That is, Roman argues that Bede’s exegesis is a form of “measurement” that “collapses the divine wave function.”

Exegesis is a quantum practice; what I would suggest is that exegesis collapses the divine wave function.

Roman takes up an example of Bede’s use of wood in particular to do a diffractive exegesis of many Biblical texts. In particular, Roman argues that Bede rewrites time, not in relation to a linear flow or some kind of inexorable history, but as an “inertial frame” in which to measure divinity and our relationship to it (“inertial frame” is from Einstein’s theory of special relativity; I have used it to recap what I understand of Roman’s argument, but it may not be quite what he meant, as it is not his vocabulary). More precisely, Roman argues that matter itself is the platform through which Bede argues we can experience time, at least an “exegetical” time that brings sacred past and a reader’s present into contact through matter.

Boyar’s paper follows up on Roman’s and similarly shows that perhaps we are quantum already, or perhaps the medieval is already quantum, through her comparison of medieval mnemotechnique and quantum memory. Boyar’s paper points out, however, that memory–quantum or medieval–is also about knowing, and that the frameworks through which we know–or remember–are dependent upon the architectures available to us. Though she didn’t use Barad, it does bring us back to Barad’s onto-epistemology–or that mash-up of knowing and being that are inseparable from one another.

We ended our panel with Karma Lochrie’s unobservable paper on “Quantum Queerness.” It’s unobservable because both times she was set to give it she didn’t, one of those being this time. Instead she says, “I’ve got my paper here, and you would all love it” (and you would have–she was generous enough to share it with me afterwards), “but I want to talk about something that is at stake in this work and that seems linked to what was going on in the “Future of Feminisms” panel yesterday (by Exemplaria). In summary, Lochrie was somewhat disturbed by the lack of any clear sense that there is a future for feminist medieval studies, or a particular project for it, after the other panel. She linked this to another problem that has long been at issue in feminist materialisms, which is namely the erasure of “feminism” from materialist studies. Lochrie is certainly not the first to be troubled by the way in which “New” Materialisms are building on a foundation that has been built by feminist and queer materialisms, without acknowledging that any such work has been done–by feminists, queer scholars, and more generally, by women.

For Lochrie, it is essential that we not only link the materialist work enabled by Barad and others to the feminist foundations on which it was built, but also that this materialism can be seen as the work of/for a feminist future.

In a similar fashion, I was reminded of the fact that “materialist” studies are not new in other fields as well–the Material Collectivefor instance, is a group of largely Art Historians who are also interested in materiality, but who are careful to point out that there’s nothing new about that in Art History more broadly.

Their panel, on Material Transgressions, was a smashing success, and a reminder that materials have always mattered to some medievalists.

I could rave about this panel forever, so I’ll do my best to stick to highlights that draw us back to other conversations going on throughout the day. On this panel, Amy Gillette, Beate Fricke, and Genevra Kornbluth gave us papers on objects, and specifically on objects that are somehow transgressive. Gillette discussed the angelic orchestra on Magdalene banners, and the way in which they stand in for something that cannot otherwise be signified–sweetness and joy in heaven–even though their literal signs (angels playing instruments) would probably lead to cacophony.


Beate Fricke then blew all of our minds with a paper about the power of BEZOARS, no your Harry-Potter-lovin eyes do not deceive you. Aside from the massive Rowling nerd freakout that ensued (and did it ever), Fricke’s paper pointed to the ways in which materialities operated, both in the “making” and using of the stones, and then in the keeping, decorating, and elevating of those objects.

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The panel finished with Genevra Kornbluth discussing a bone-box for bones, or a bone-box made of bone. Well, and that’s the point, a reliquary (box for bones) that is made of bone. And lead.

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Kornbluth’s discussion of the elements of this rather dressed down reliquary (she compares it to a similarly sized one with a great deal more decoration and precious material), leads us to her main point:

Materials always mean something–even if they’re lead (or bone).

So, twice in this day we are reminded both that matter matters, and that this emphasis on materiality is not necessarily new. Instead, the ability to “read” matter is one built on the backs of disciplinary and feminist work to excavate both materiality and specific materials themselves.

Which brings us to the Material Iberia session, which made use of both of these veins by returning at multiple points to Caroline Walker Bynum’s Christian Materiality to make sense of its matters. In particular, each of the Material Iberians discussed the ways in which matter–in the form of bodies, relics, and devotional object–was at stake in our understanding of the Space of Medieval Spain (Bower), the sacramental power of the Santo Christo, arealistic shrine object (Moore, see below), the body of Esther as an anchor for faith communities (Cairns), and the transmission of knowledge in Isnad (Spragins).

Santo Christo at Cathedral of Ourense The skin of the figure is made of parchment, the hair is actual human hair, and the cross is made of wood.
Santo Christo at Cathedral of Ourense
The realism of the figure is achieved through very specific material substitutions. This is not mere mimesis,  but a metonymic material substitution: the skin of the figure is made of parchment (animal skin), the hair is actual human hair, and the cross is made of wood.

Emily Francomano’s response to the Material Iberia sessions situates these panels in what she (and many others, including Alaimo and Hekman in their Material Feminisms volume) call the “material turn.” Alaimo and Hekman defend the logic of the material turn as one that recuperates an embodied and corporeal existence that is somewhat (or entirely) erased by post-structuralism’s linguistic turn in the late twentieth century. Indeed, Mendola, earlier in the day, pointed out that post-structuralism itself is a product of meaning-making apparatuses that is only thinkable in a post-quantum world, but, I suggested, it’s taken us until now for the materiality of that meaning-making to be as thinkable.

Francomano elaborated in her response that even that which we imagined–in a very Cartesian way, I might add–to be disembodied (narrative, poetics, signification) is in fact, always material. And it is both the theories of the material turn and the medieval epistemologies that remind us of this.

So, at the end of the day, we are reminded that neither material nor the ways in which we want to engage it are specifically new. Matter has always been significant, even in the Middle Ages, as Bynum points out; the way in which matter signifies to us postmedievals, however, might best be understood through our own material–even scientific or quantum–frameworks, paradigms built on the work of decades of feminist scholarship (including that of Bynum herself).

What may in fact be new about this material turn, however, is exactly what Francomano and the Material Collective highlight: the ability to use matter and materiality to reach across disciplines and do scholarship on a “new object,” not just actual objects, but the interplay between material and textual registers of signification that are both medieval and (post)modern.

As the Material Collective’s Manifesto says:

we are all committed to prioritizing the materiality of things, the relationships between those things and the human beings who experience them, and the intimacy of past and present moments in time.

Their mission is to allow

excellent scholarship [to] grow out of collaboration, experimentation, and play, and…to create spaces where scholars from many different backgrounds, both traditional and non-traditional, can come together for mutual enrichment.

I think that these panels point to the fact that it is this radical juxtaposition of things traditionally separated–art/matter, text/object, literary studies/(art) history, medieval/contemporary–that the “material turn” allows us to bring into contact in a type of radical, even queer, co-eval collaboration.


Please do collaborate!

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