Stephanie Trigg

title.none: Strohm, Theory and the Premodern Text (Stephanie Trigg)

identifier.other: baj9928.0207.014 02.07.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Stephanie Trigg, University of Melbourne,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Strohm, Paul. Theory and the Premodern Text. Medieval Cultures, 26. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Pp. V, 269. 16.95. ISBN: 0-816-63775-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.07.14

Strohm, Paul. Theory and the Premodern Text. Medieval Cultures, 26. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Pp. V, 269. 16.95. ISBN: 0-816-63775-X.

Reviewed by:

Stephanie Trigg
University of Melbourne

Is "theory" still a monster to medievalists? An insuperable barrier threatening to come between us and our hard won empirical knowledge of the medieval past? This collection of essays from Paul Strohm seems to assume that a monolithic "Theory" might still haunt large numbers of readers. Perhaps he is right; that there are those who still need convincing that a heightened self-consciousness of what we do when we read medieval texts can enhance that reading experience; that methods of reading that post-date the premodern can be profitably brought to bear on those texts and their contexts of production and reception; or that literary and historical studies might enter into fruitful dialogue with each other.

Put that way, it sounds harmless enough, doesn't it? This is the disarmingly simple writing lesson Strohm offers, taking his readers step by step into his "practical" engagements with theory. Here is a typical example, concluding his essay "Prohibiting History: Capgrave and the Death of Richard II": "Somethinghappened to Richard in his captivity, and I would like to know as much about it as I can. I would, that is, rather be energized than paralyzed by what I lack. I join those who find a jouissance in theory, although I situate it not in theory itself, but in theory mobilized against what I do not know or understand." (111) Or, in the final essay, after leading us gently into a Freudian reading of Malory's "primal scene", in which Mellyagant discovers Guinevere's bed, stained with Lancelot's blood, Strohm asks, "Has looking at Guinevere's bloody bed through the lens of the primal scene done any harm so far?" (210)

It would be hard to object to the desire to know more about what happened to Richard, or to locate any real "harm" done to Malory's text in this reading. Of course, as Strohm concedes, "The reader who might think so has probably long since closed this book."

But in truth, the simplicity of this tone that seems to present such a careful and modest practical theory (with a gracious nod to I. A. Richards in the introduction), represents not so much a pro-theory stance as a post-theory stance. Strohm is interested less in theory for its own sake "uncorrected or unchastened by sustained contact with a particular text", and more in "theory with the text"; theory that "need not currently be in fashion, or even have originated in France". (xi) Liberated from the tyranny of the 1980s and 1990s when to practise "theory" seemed to involve declaring one's credentials and allegiances to one school or another, and when literary texts often receded into the background of our discussions, Strohm's approach is refreshingly opportunistic and pluralistic. He is, we may say, "over" theory, and thus able to make more direct, more practical, if selective use, of its insights.

At this point, I should declare myself as one who was long ago enlisted into the "theory" camp, and not really needing persuasion, or conversion; and I am sure I am not alone in now feeling a little post-theoretical myself. But if Strohm is haunted by anything, it is the spectre of David Aers's critique of the shameless eclectism he has stigmatised as "magpie theory": a little Bourdieu here; a little queer theory there, with little regard for political or intellectual coherence and positioning. Ironically, the best way to ward off this accusation is to try to spell out some of the "consistencies" Strohm looks for in the various systems or critical paradigms he invokes; that is, to get theoretical on us, in the end. But again, these foundational "consistencies" are framed in disarmingly, perhaps even disingenuously simple language: they include the "centrality" of the text, the "provisional neglect of 'the literary'" as a privileged textual category, "textual/extratextual dialogue", "the textual unconscious" and "shared meaning". (xv-xvi) Not all will agree that these positions represent desirable starting-points, but this strategy, of spelling out basic assumptions without excessive critical jargon, in "practical" terms, is used to good effect in this book, both here in the introduction and at later points in the collection, partly because Strohm has a genuine gift for explicating theoretical, abstract, or second-order positions. And yet, at the same time, Strohm re-installs a kind of textual magic, affirming the capacity of any text to exceed, or to resist its perfect exposition. "I am most attracted to those theories which allow the impossibility of the text's exhaustion, the mystery or inexpressibility of its most private center." (xv)

Even so, what I find most striking in this collection is not so much the beautiful and elegant articulation of productive relationships between theoretical and practical work--though I think Strohm's model is an inspiring one to follow--or even the specific instances where he pushes against a text's "most private center". It is, rather more prosaically, and practically, the enormous potential of the rich veins he taps into the writings of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England. These thirteen essays characteristically work from quite short or "marginal" texts, or extracts of texts, but instead of being set as little anecdotes on which huge theoretical edifices are built, in the essayistic mode associated with new historicism, these texts are shown to be complex, engaging and richly mysterious, often simply in their own right, or at least, in their immediate context.

So, for example, in the first essay, Strohm reads "three urban itineraries": Chaucer's stroll in Friday street as described in his testimony in the Scrope-Grosvenor case; Thomas Usk's meetings with John Northampton in John Willingham's tavern; and Hoccleve's walking down to the "brigge" or dock, and taking a boat downstream to his home. Strohm reads each of these texts for what they reveal about the way the individual subject moves around the city, conceived as a social space. Drawing on Bourdieu and de Certeau's reading of the postmodern urban walker, Strohm nevertheless draws out the contrasting way the medieval city more firmly regulates social divisions and hierarchies, and indeed, the use of urban space. He teases out three "compositional horizons" that help to form these texts and their "symbolizing activities": daily experience; the legal and moral discourses that frame these accounts; and the "literary" horizon in which all three of Chaucer, Usk and Hoccleve are implicated, even though these are all non-literary events. An important further dimension, though, is added by what Strohm calls the "compositional" space (or what might, in another decade, have been the "writerly" aspect of the text), in which these different levels and activities of symbolization take place and interpenetrate one another. Strohm struggles a little, here, over the question of whether these activities can usefully be distinguished, one from the other, but ultimately comes down on the side of a liberal "inclusive" model of interpretation that will refuse "to separate or hierarchize a single register--such as the literary" at the expense of others. And yet, it is sometimes impossible not to do so: Strohm himself writes of the "successful writer" who is able to draw "freely and diversely" upon these different expressive registers. In the end, some writers are simply more successful than others; some texts are simply more open to different kinds of interpretation than others, at different moments in our shared critical history.

That critical history is certainly more visible in the case of the canonical literary text, and its traditions are illuminatingly revealed in the essay which seems to me to sit at the heart of this collection, the discussion of "Chaucer's Troilus as Temporal Archive". A revised version of Strohm's inaugural lecture at Oxford, and situated at the mid- point of the collection, it distills a number of past and present concerns.

Strohm defines an archive as "an unstable amalgam of unexhausted past and unaccomplished future" (80) in the sense that it is a body of text still awaiting our critical attention. For Strohm, indeed, this is "writing's most solemn cultural assignment, to connect the past with the future". I'm not sure how much pressure this aphorism could withstand: it seems to place a very large burden on the social and aesthetic assignments writing must also fulfill. Leaving that aside, however, Strohm reads Troilus and Criseyde as a temporal archive; that is, as a text "divided between an unsuperseded past and an unachieved future". He diagnoses each of Troilus's, Pandarus's and Criseyde's sense or consciousness of time, to show how the text presents a series of contradictory ("asynchronous") representations of time and temporality. And at a different level, he cites the mild "scandal" of "Petrarch- in-Chaucer", in the form of Troilus's song, "If no love is", as "a kind of fold or wrinkle in time--or time at least as literary history normally portrays it". (85) Likening it to the inclusion of "postimpressionist Cezanne" in the first impressionist exhibition of 1874 (and the recent recreation of that exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington), Strohm argues that the apparent contradiction of renaissance Petrarch in medieval Chaucer is entirely of our own making. He goes further, too, to argue that Chaucer's consciousness of this "wrinkle" provides an exemplary lesson, "as an elegantly constituted temporal archive", about the inevitable resistance of most texts to a pure periodicity, and also about the "ceaseless slide of written work into what it was or will have been".

One of the most engaging aspects of this collection of essays, then, is Strohm's rich and generous sense of all the work that remains to be done, reading both familiar and unfamiliar texts and documents in terms we can selectively tease out for ourselves from the texts and from a range of contemporary theoretical and critical writings, rather than by smothering them in the heavy warp of a prescriptive or dogmatic theory. The anxious graduate student or academic should be consoled by this book, as it demonstrates a kind of work, a model of critical writing, that is far from exhausted or predetermined by the examples here. By way of contrast, compare Morton Bloomfield, writing twenty years ago in the heady discovery of theory and what it might do for (or to) Chaucer: "All of Chaucer awaits structural analysis," he wrote, in New Perspectives in Chaucer Criticism (ed. Donald Rose). Bloomfield conjured up a vision that was all too common then, of programmatic "readings" of canonical literary texts from different theoretical perspectives, readings whose conclusions could be anticipated almost before the work was begun. The end result of such a dynamic, of course, was to entrench such texts even more deeply in the hierarchy: the richest and best texts are those that repay countless re-readings according to different critical models.

Once more, by way of contrast to those characteristic moves of high theory, Paul Strohm is just as interested in the little texts as he is in Chaucer's works: the topics of these essays range from Lollard texts and coronation accounts to chronicles, saints' lives and crime records. But he also accomplishes what many medievalists have wanted to see for some time. That is, he actively, and critically engages with a range of theoretical paradigms, not just deploying "modern theory" over "medieval texts", but offering a series of meditations and theoretical challenges to the writings of Freud, de Certeau, Baudrillard and others. This is particularly evident in the essay, "Postmodernism and History". Strohm writes, "Our interest in postmodern theory is, if anything, exceeded by its interest in, or its need for, us" (157), or at least, the medieval, as the dominant site of a despised cultural totality. In the ensuing discussion, Strohm touches on one of the questions that is central to medievalism (an institutional discourse he barely mentions, however), and its diagnosis of the various cultural projections of modernity and postmodernity onto the Middle Ages "as a kind of Jurassic Park where they stow an ideal of totality that they disavow for their own periods but still need, as an absent guarantor of the homologizing critical procedures they want to employ. We have been treated like a conquered province, commandeered to farm out an otherwise discredited idea of totality, and to export as much of it to more theoretically developed fields as they think they need." (159)

Strohm's essay collection stands not only as eloquent testimony to the very diversity of the (late) medieval period and the points at which medieval texts resist such a notion of totality, but also to his own insistence that these differences within medieval history "can enlarge our own sense of ourselves as historical subjects, multiply our own receptivity to diverse alliance". It is no small aspect of his method (and, in the end, though it may not be apparent to him, I think the rest of us must acknowledge there is a Strohmian method), that he brings the names of Cezanne, Thatcher, Clinton and the Titanic into play with his passionate engagements with medieval texts. Individual scholars may disagree with some of Strohm's readings; and historians may be less impressed than literary scholars, since his readings are so deeply "textual". But none of us can afford not to read this book.