Constance Brittain Bouchard

title.none: Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines (Constance Brittain Bouchard)

identifier.other: baj9928.0402.022 04.02.22

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Constance Brittain Bouchard, University of Akron,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Cohen, Jeffrey J. Medieval Identity Machines. Series: Medieval Cultures, vol. 35. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Pp. xxix, 336. ISBN: $23.00 0-8166-4003-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.02.22

Cohen, Jeffrey J. Medieval Identity Machines. Series: Medieval Cultures, vol. 35. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Pp. xxix, 336. ISBN: $23.00 0-8166-4003-3.

Reviewed by:

Constance Brittain Bouchard
University of Akron

The somewhat odd title of this book is the term the author has chosen to replace the more normal "body" as the locus of human identity. His central argument is that one's personhood transcends the limits set by one's skin and should also be seen as including the material objects with which one constantly works (as, for example, a wheelchair might be part of a disabled person's identity) and the social groups within which one functions. This rather unsurprising and entirely sensible suggestion is here tricked out with a great deal of theory. Thus, rather than just saying that medieval people need to be studied in the context of their material culture and social interactions, which of course they do, Jeffrey Cohen announces that he is the first to present a "post-human" Middle Ages (pp. xiii, 41), apparently a term chosen to parallel "post-colonialism."

Cohen's starting point is the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who, in conjunction with the psychologist Felix Guattari, expressed some thirty years ago the idea that identity is more than just the body and that the body itself is porous, susceptible to outside influences. These two are also responsible for the term "machines," which they used to describe their vision of humans whose identities included their surroundings. (Deleuze later discarded the word "machine" as too sterile, but Cohen keeps it, because the medieval machina was more a mechanism or assemblage than something made of steel and rivets.) What Deleuze and Guattari suggested for twentieth-century European culture, Cohen argues here for the Middle Ages. Because he seems to accept their ideas wholeheartedly, the novelty of his book is found merely in applying their philosophical and psychological theories to a different time period.

Cohen discusses the assemblage of objects and influences that created a medieval person's identity primarily through literature, including chivalric romances, a saint's life, and visionary accounts. It is not clear how or why he has chosen his examples, which range from the eighth century to the fifteenth, and from England to the Levant. Since they are not treated chronologically, the impression is of an almost random choice of topic. Curiously missing is any discussion of the family, which would have been the principal group shaping a medieval person's identity.

The book is less about the Middle Ages itself than it is about how post-modern theory could be applied to rather generically-understood medieval history. Rather than doing close readings of medieval texts, Cohen does a close reading of the recent theory-driven literature. Almost all of his endnotes are to contemporary authors, rather than to primary sources, and the latter do not even rate their own section in the bibliography. The book may be intended less for medievalists than for the modern theorist. The ideas, some of which are potentially very interesting, fly off in all directions, not even tied together in a Conclusion--instead the Postscript talks about the impact of 9/11 on the author's life.

The result is something that the author himself cheerfully calls "a rather strange book". (xxviii) Indeed, he seems to hope that his readers will "shocked" (x), rather than informed. An intention to shock is the only possible explanation for why Cohen announces that Asser's treatment of both hemorrhoids and the Vikings as afflictions for King Alfred means that the Vikings were "a pain in the ass" (xxi); or why he treats the close ties between a knight and his horse (a potentially good example of his "identity machines") as having a strong sexual component that he labels "queer". (38) (Curiously, he treats chivalry as an unproblematic code that remained unchanged from the twelfth century to the fourteenth.) He calls Chretien de Troyes' Lancelot a masochist (treating him as a real person rather than a literary creation), who can be analyzed with nineteenth-century psychoanalytic theory, even though he approvingly cites Caroline Bynum's argument that psychoanalyzing people of the past is a pointless, as well as deeply distorting, exercise. (246, n. 4) The celibacy of a saint in Anglo-Saxon England is reinterpreted as colonialism. Margery Kempe, the late medieval Christian visionary, is declared to possess an "identity machine" queered as Jewish. (185) The one chapter that is somewhat successful in showing what post-modern theory can offer medieval studies is the final one, on how the conceptualization of Saracens as a race of Others was accompanied by guilty-pleasure fantasies about them --and this chapter, which wanders from the eleventh century to the fourteenth, has the least to do of any with "identity machines."

Throughout, Cohen constantly returns to Bynum's dictum that medieval culture should be approached with a sense of "wonder," but he profoundly misunderstands her point: she argues that we should approach medieval texts without preconceived categories to interpret what we will find, not that we should dream up shocking new interpretations that the texts do not support. Indeed, his efforts to force the medieval people he discusses into the Procrustean bed of modern psychoanalysis is the antithesis of what Bynum advocates.

This book is actually rather fun, as Cohen plays with ideas, tossing them up in the air to see where they will fall. But it disappoints because the starting point, a discussion of identity that is not limited to the body, could have been the basis for an intriguing analysis of primary sources, rather than an excuse to play the dilettante with theory and psychoanalysis and to try to startle medievalists.