Suzanne Conklin Akbari

title.none: Campbell and Mills, Troubled Vision (Suzanne Conklin Akbari)

identifier.other: baj9928.0804.029 08.04.29

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Suzanne Conklin Akbari, University of Toronto,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Campbell, Emma and Robert Mills. Troubled Vision: Gender, Sexuality, and Sight in Medieval Text and Image. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Pp. ix, 243. $59.95 1-4039-6343-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.04.29

Campbell, Emma and Robert Mills. Troubled Vision: Gender, Sexuality, and Sight in Medieval Text and Image. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Pp. ix, 243. $59.95 1-4039-6343-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Suzanne Conklin Akbari
University of Toronto

Vision is a troubled metaphor for knowledge, used to represent full and perfect understanding (as in the Beatific Vision) yet plagued by the inevitable distortions introduced by individual perspective. The essays collected in Troubled Vision accordingly address the variable ways in which medieval works confront the act of seeing and its relationship to knowledge. A good deal of work in medieval studies concerning vision has centered on the intellectual history that lies behind the use of sight as a metaphor, beginning with Katherine Tachau's masterful Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham and including, more recently, Dallas Denery's Seeing and Being Seen and my own Seeing Through the Veil. Campbell and Mills's collection, by contrast, has more in common with Susannah Biernoff's Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages: both privilege modern epistemological theories centered on the act of sight above medieval theories of how vision mediates knowledge.

The papers collected represent a selection of revised contributions to a 2002 conference titled "Seeing Gender: Perspectives on Medieval Gender and Sexuality." That conference's preoccupation with questions of gender is consequently central to the volume, with the published papers focusing particularly on how vision--whether the physical act of seeing, or a textual evocation of that experience--participates in the construction of the categories that define gender identity. In their theoretical introduction, Campbell and Mills sketch out a model of "queer optics," in which the "failure of vision to articulate a clear division between subject and object" makes it possible to "unsettle (as well as confirm)" the "normative value" of both gender and sexuality (5). Campbell and Mills begin by drawing upon Judith Butler's influential Gender Trouble in order to develop their central concept of "troubled vision," turning to Carolyn Dinshaw's epistemology of the "queer touch" in order to articulate how vision enables a "mode of engagement with the pre-modern that is itself a coming together of bodies across time" (8). This theoretical model is somewhat shakily underpinned with a quotation from Roger Bacon's Opus Maius (by way of Biernoff) which, according to Campbell and Mills, illustrates "Bacon's notion of the fusion of subject and object within the visual encounter" (8). It is probably worth noting that Bacon held no such view: his intromission theory of vision places the power of sight in the seer rather than in the object seen, and focuses primarily on the role of the intervening medium (the visible species) in the act of sight (see Lindberg). To note this discrepancy, however, is not to detract from the useful theoretical framework provided by Campbell and Mills, which provides a stimulating and engaging way to consider how vision is deployed--whether as privileged mediator or as deceptive medium--in the construction (and deconstruction) of gender categories.

The first of the three parts of Troubled Vision, "Troubled Desires," centers on the categories used to conceive of desire in medieval culture. It begins with Diane Wolfthal's "Picturing Same-Sex Desire: The Falconer and the Lover in Images by Petrus Christus and the Housebook Master," a study of several Netherlandish images of homosexual desire. Unsurprisingly, some are unequivocal condemnations of sodomy; others, however, are shown to conform to pictorial conventions for depicting heterosexual unions, a trend that "leaves the door open for a positive interpretation of same-sex desire" (38). The following essay, by William Burgwinkle, turns from visual image to text in a provocative, stimulating consideration of "Visible and Invisible Bodies and Subjects in Peter Damian." Here, the Liber gomorrhianus of Peter Damian provides normative categories for the expression of both sexuality and gender, categories that are aggressively asserted by the voice of the interrogator who inhabits "the panoptical seat of vision" (49) within the Liber gomorrhianus. The section concludes with Francesca Nicholson's "Seeing Women Troubadours within the '-itz' and '-isms,'" an essay that provides a salutary corrective to the Women's Studies template that has too often been applied to the work of female writers of verse in Occitan. Nicholson rejects the sort of essentialist reading that "sets up expectations for a gendered poetic practice that aligns with the supposed biological identity of the author" (65), offering instead a Lacanian reading in which "no single identification is claimed, and none is rejected" (72).

Part two, "Troubled Looks," moves from a central preoccupation with the construction and articulation of desire to a focus on the gaze itself. In this section (and in the book as a whole), Simon Gaunt's extremely fine "The Look of Love: The Gender of the Gaze in Troubadour Lyric" stands out. Like Nicholson, Gaunt examines Occitan literature in connection with questions of vision and knowledge; he turns, however, to the complex question of how gender categories are affected when the gaze itself becomes the object of desire. Building upon his earlier work on Bernart de Ventadorn, Gaunt illustrates the ways in which desire operates not just in terms of the seer's gaze upon the object of sight (the lady), but in terms of the fantasy of reciprocal vision. This ocular fantasy at once yields both narcissistic pleasure and the horrifying discovery that "all he contemplates in his lady's eyes is an abyss," producing a manifestation of the gaze that "escapes and confounds gender" (91). Emma Campbell's "Sacrifical Spectacle and Interpassive Vision in the Anglo-Norman Life of Saint Faith" continues to explore this de-gendered configuration of the gaze, drawing upon not Lacan but Zizek in order to consider how the experience of visual witnessing in hagiographical accounts of martyrdom is constituted in terms of a hermeneutic "interpassive vision" (112) that evades the normative male gendering of the gaze. Devotional literature continues to be central to the third essay in this cluster, Robert Mills's "Seeing Face to Face: Troubled Looks in the Katherine Group." Drawing upon the work of film critic Joan Copjec, Mills argues that Middle English anchoritic writing posits an ecstatic visual encounter with the divine that is, necessarily, continually deferred. As in the volume's introduction, Mills is occasionally led astray by his reliance on Biernoff for details of medieval optical theory, causing him to note the specifically "Aristotelian insistence on the primacy of sight as a medium of knowledge (122; just try telling that to a Platonist!) and to describe intromission as a process in which "light" (rather than visible species) "radiates from...objects" (128).

The third section of the volume, "Troubled Representations," takes note of how "eroticism is particularly conducive to a troubling presentation of gender" (11). It is not entirely clear how the role of eroticism in this section is to be distinguished from that of "desire" in the essays of the first section; at any rate, the essays of this section often share common ground with those of the opening group. Space and perception of distance in medieval visionary literature is the focus of Cary Howie's "Vision Beyond Measure: The Threshold of Iacopone's Bedroom," a stimulating reading of the devotional poetry of Iacopone da Todi as a "critique avant or dans la lettre of Paul de Man's reading of symbol and allegory" (146). Iacopone's repeated use of metonymic language generates an "oscillation of paradoxes" that conveys the transcendent experience of the "masculine subject" as it approaches the divine (150-51). Figurative language in Italian literature is also central to Catherine M. Keen's "Sex and the Medieval City: Viewing the Body Politic from Exile in Early Italian Verse." Keen argues that the exile poems of Dante, Cino da Pistoia, Pietro dei Faitinelli, and Niccolo del Rosso share a common tactic of using "disturbing sexual imagery" (167) that both recalls and rejects lyric conventions depicting "the city as love object" (168) bathed in the adoring gaze of the lover.

In part four, "Troubled Reading," the collection takes on a sharper focus with essays that explore how the act of reading participates in a "textual gaze" (12) that is perpetually challenged by the disruptive nature of the text itself. In Anne Simon's "Reading Women Reading Women: Double-Mirroring the Dame in Der Ritter vom Turn," the normative female behavior as expressed in a medieval German translation of a French courtesy text turns out to be undermined--or at least challenged--by the accompanying woodcuts. Simon argues that this combination allows the work to be read polysemously, with a range of interpretive possibilities always lurking below the surface of the text. In "Visualizing the Feminine in the Roman de Perceforest: The Episode of the 'Conte de la Rose,'" Sylvia Huot provides a perceptive and nuanced reading of the Perceforest's presentation of the woman through the doubled images of the rose and the shield. These images, Huot argues, at first seem to reinforce "traditional misogynist views" (203) but ultimately provide "a more woman-centered perspective" (205), offering a reading of the romance that is at once normative and resistant. Miranda Griffin's "Too Many Women: Reading Freud, Derrida, and Lancelot" explores how "women function as blind spots" (207) in the Prose Lancelot, appearing as deceitful doubles of one another and actively practicing deception. That which is "unreadable" is "gendered feminine" (217) and produces both "obstacles to reading" and "the multiple possibilities of reading" (218).

It can have been no easy task to write a response essay to round out the heterogeneous range of essays included in Troubled Vision, but Sarah Salih's brief but brilliant closing does the trick. In "The Medieval Looks Back," Salih evokes the objectification of "the medieval" in modern political and popular culture and considers how the preceding essays present "a medieval that looks back at its observers" and is able to "disrupt our ways of seeing" (224). Drawing upon her own research on manuscripts of The Book of John Mandeville, Salih argues that the illustration program of London British Library MS Harley 3954 reveals a reading practice that "responds to Mandeville's concerns about gender" and reinforces his "reticence about sexuality" (229). Text and image work together to "trouble modernity, de-naturalizing our own terms" (230). In Troubled Vision (and particularly in part two, "Troubled Looks," which is in many ways the heart of the volume), Campbell and Mills have provided a stimulating range of approaches to the intersection of vision, gender, and desire in pre-modern culture.

Works Cited

Akbari, Suzanne Conklin. Seeing Through the Veil: Optical Theory and Medieval Allegory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

Biernoff, Suzannah. Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages. New York and Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Denery, Dallas G. Seeing and Being Seen in the Later Medieval World: Optics, Theology, and Religious Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Lindberg, David C. Roger Bacon's Philosophy of Nature: A Critical Edition, with English Translation, Introduction, and Notes, of "De multiplicatione specierum" and "De speculis comburentibus." Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Tachau, Katherine H. Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham: Optics, Epistemology, and the Foundations of Semantics, 1250-1345. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988.