Scott Pincikowski

title.none: Mills, Suspended Animation (Scott Pincikowski)

identifier.other: baj9928.0606.006 06.06.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Scott Pincikowski, Hood College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Mills, Robert. Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Medieval Culture. London: Reaktion Press (dist. University of Chiacgo Press), 2006. Pp. 248. ISBN: $29.95 1-86189-260-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.06.06

Mills, Robert. Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Medieval Culture. London: Reaktion Press (dist. University of Chiacgo Press), 2006. Pp. 248. ISBN: $29.95 1-86189-260-8.

Reviewed by:

Scott Pincikowski
Hood College

TMR 06.06.06 on 06.06.2006!

In this provocative book on the ambiguous line between pain and pleasure in late medieval texts and images, Robert Mills wishes to suspend time. Suspension refers to the author's subject and methodology. For throughout his book, Mills develops an "aesthetics of suspense" (18), analyzing the temporal and visual strategies that underline the processes of viewer identification--whether modern or medieval, gendered, hetero- or homosexual, racial, or class-related-- with the trauma of bodies in pain. He does so not to highlight the cultural and historical otherness of the Middle Ages; on the contrary, Mills calls perceived difference into question, attempting to find a fluid yet differentiated continuum between each era's understanding of pain. For Mills, this questioning means the suspension of traditional disciplinary analysis in favor of "antidisciplinarity" (22), the embrace of non-traditional topics like hanging, flaying, and sodomy through radical approaches that open up previously overlooked readings. In short, Mills wants to shake things up in medieval studies. He questions modernity's singular and historical view of a Middle Ages, the understanding of ourselves as superior as defined through our imaginations of a pain-filled Middle Ages, and the traditional interpretations of the medieval body in pain. This is a tall order and Mills is more successful at some endeavors than others. In fact, Mills's readings often leave the reader in awe of his theoretical acumen but sometimes pondering the value of the results. This is not to say that Mills's book is without merit. For his very attempts at new interpretations are what make this book a useful addition to scholars who study the cultural construct of pain.

Following an introduction that lays the groundwork for a reader/viewer response approach, Mills divides his book into two sections. Each section consists of three chapters that serve as test cases for implementing "alternative histories of response" (21) to bodies in suspended states between life and death or heaven and earth. The first section analyzes possible "reparative" and "subversive" (17) responses to depictions of hangings, secular justice paintings, and portrayals of the Last Judgment. The second reevaluates images of martyrdom and Christ's suffering through the more unorthodox critical lenses of pornography, masochism, and queer theory. The book concludes with a short afterward, twenty-nine pages of notes, a short bibliography and an index. The volume contains ninety black and white photographs and ten color photographs.

Chapter one analyzes hanging and is the strongest of Mills's study. Mills succeeds at showing how hanging in Francois Villon's Ballade des pendus , Italian defamatory portraits, and analogous German Schandbilder and Scheltbriefe , "letters of defamation", is laden with symbolism and ideology that extends well beyond medieval judicial reality. In deciphering "a common vocabulary of hanging" (52), Mills demonstrates how this vocabulary is multivalent, its function dependent upon the cultural and historical context. Whether as penitential warning in Villon or class-orientated, performative insult in Italian portraits and German images, Mills carefully uncovers an "art" of hanging" (52), one that was not meant simply to shock, but one that could potentially please aesthetically with humor or even beauty. Especially convincing is Mills's discussion of images of inverted hangings. He reveals how the symbolism of inversion in the Italian context depends upon play with viewer expectations of imagery found in the idealizing uomini famosi , "portraits of famous men", and in the German context upon anti-Semitic associations with historical Jewish executions.

In chapter two, Mills cogently tackles the topic of flaying. He uncovers possible layers of response to Gerard David's diptych, the Judgement of Cambyses (1498), with contrastive reference to the reception of this scene in the sixteenth century Dutch Martyrdom of St Bartholomew . Drawing upon his own reactions, Mills differentiates between the often visceral, modern response to the painting and the presumably detached medieval reaction to show that the two may be surprisingly similar. For if the medieval viewer was not, at a certain level, shocked or appalled, the image would have lost its didactic intention, the flayed skin functioning as a reminder of justice and as a corporeal warning against transgressing the body politic. In addition, Mills demonstrates that, if the painting is to reaffirm Bruges burgher identity, which is the traditional reading, the medieval viewer was not to identify empathetically or even sympathetically with the abject body in the painting. Instead, he was to align himself with the emotionless burgher spectators. At this moment, modern and medieval diverge in a nuanced manner, with the burghers in the painting averting their eyes out of "squeamishness" (80), not because of the severity of the punishment, but because emotional engagement would have lessened the civil and decorous manner they were supposed to possess. Intriguing to ponder is Mills's idea that this detached "burgerlik aesthetic" (79), while incorporating the viewer into the painting, could actually open up other, more emotional responses, as the act of incorporation itself halts time, suspending the historical gap between viewer and the depicted events. While this type of observation is untenable, Mills does, to his credit, strengthen his observations by showing how the body in pain continues to communicate, especially because the visual narrative to which the abject body contributes, leaves the viewer, like the body, in a threshold state. The tortured body, suspended between life and death, simultaneously draws in and diverts the viewer's gaze.

In chapter three, Mills discusses sodomy in late medieval Italy. He investigates a variety of wall paintings that suspend sodomites in positions of eternal suffering, including Buonamico Buffalmacco's Last Judgement , Coppo di Marcovaldo's version in the Baptistery in Florence, Taddeo di Bartolo's Hell , Giotto's fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, and Giovanni da Modena's fresco in the Bolognini Chapel in Bologna. Mills analyzes how sodomy impacted the medieval cultural consciousness, often with reference to literary sources or the legal position of sodomy in Italian society. Mills's methodology results in a clear evaluation of how the sodomy motif was used for social, political, and moral purposes. His approach is useful in two ways. First, Mills sheds light on the meaning of sodomy to medieval afterlife imagery that has been underemphasized by scholars because of its content. Second, his analysis lends new understanding to pre-modern sexual identification and identity formation. Mills reveals how the punishment of sodomy invoked in hell imagery is underscored by the principle of contrapasso , which paradoxically creates and destroys identity, reducing homosexuality to painful deviance in the name of "regulation, exclusion or eradication". (91) Moreover, he shows how medieval and modern understanding of sodomy are similar, each era misusing "sodomy discourse" to protect the "natural" order of the body politic. This otherwise sound chapter ends on a speculative note, contemplating whether images of sodomy could have been read against the didactic grain, with sodomy imagery possibly "fuelling the imaginations of medieval sodomites and queers". (105)

In chapter four, Mills aligns pornography and hagiography in his analysis of Master Francke's fifteenth century Martyrdom of St Barbara . At first, the reader is skeptical about the value of such an alignment because it risks collapsing cultural and historical difference. Fortunately, Mills eases this concern by not simply equating pornography and hagiography. Freeing his argument from anti- or pro-pornography stances, he judicially shows how sexually charged images use similar visual strategies and create multiple responses. In showing how modern and medieval viewing of and identifying with such images partially connect, Mills is able to reconfirm from a fresh perspective more traditional readings of Francke, emphasizing the empowering and redemptive nature of suffering to the female martyr and its position within Christian ideology. Particularly compelling is how Mills's approach provides further evidence for gendered readings of saints' lives that highlight the martyr's agency, specifically in the context of resisting rape. Less convincing, however, is the author's observations regarding the role of sadistic and queer fantasy in viewer identification with St Barbara . Can the interpreter assume sexualized responses to the victim's situation or excited identification with the tormentor? What value does this add to our understanding of Francke, especially if the strongest readings point to empowerment? These criticisms are minor. For although Mills is interested in erotic responses, his primary concern is not sexuality, but victimization. Indeed, Mills expands our understanding of medieval victimhood by showing that just as the martyred saint's position in the narrative can shift between victim and victor, the viewer's understanding of the tormentor can be more fluid as well. Mills suggests that medieval Othering contributes to the ideological message of St Barbara and similar narratives. He demonstrates how the tormentor can be reinterpreted as victim, a recognizable scapegoat, whether it be based upon class, religion, or race, and function as a discriminatory tool by which difference and the power of Christian belief are expressed.

Chapter five explores the rich complexity of masochism in fifteenth- century French saints' plays and martyrdom paintings. As in the previous chapter, Mills does not fall into the trap of simply equating the modern and medieval understanding of embracing physical pain for pleasure, whether it be spiritual or sensual. By moving beyond pathological definitions and drawing upon more positive explanations of masochism developed by Gilles Deleuze, Anita Phillips and Theodor Reik, Mills is successful at showing how masochism is "frequently about affirming rather than denying selfhood". (149) Mills provides convincing evidence for identity formation and masochism in ritual, highlighting how flagellants drew upon pain for its mnemonic power in the imitation of Christ and how violence and memory painfully come together in a similar fashion in late medieval artwork and texts dealing with pedagogy. Moreover, Mills carefully locates masochistic elements in saints' plays and images of martyrs that blur the line between pain and pleasure. By discussing narrative and pictorial structures parallel to the masochistic experience, including elements like "dramatic suspense" (163), "exhibitionism" (164), "spectatorship" (166), and the viewer's "fanstasy" (169), Mills makes room for eroticism and carnal desire within mystical experience. He shows how the two experiences are not necessarily exclusive and may indeed contribute to one another. With such results, Mills is able to take on the "sexual politics of martyrdom representation" (171), using queer theory and the masochistic interpretive lens to suggest subversive readings of martyrdom imagery that point toward ambiguous gender and sexual identification by the viewer.

In the last chapter, Mills uses queer theory to enter the long standing debate over the role of sexuality in medieval devotional literature and passion images. Mills observations are in direct response to Caroline Walker Bynum, Michael Camille, Nancy Partner and Leo Steinberg. While acknowledging the importance of theology to the interpretation of such texts and images, Mills makes room for hetero- and homosexual identification in medieval devotion. In fact, Mills's queer analysis of the Song of Songs and its medieval exegesis reveals the close relationship between sexual and spiritual desire. More importantly, Mills's approach helps to explain moments of gender ambiguity and what at first glance appear to be disruptive and transgressive sexual identifications. Mills carefully grounds his explanations of "gender bending" (182) and "cross dressing" (185) in medieval rhetoric and psychology. Cautiously aware that not all devotional narratives can be read through a queer interpretive lens, Mills demonstrates how male identification with the Bride of Christ or the Virgin Mary, or female identification with the pain-filled body of Christ should not detract from the spiritual meaning attained through such identifications. Instead, modern interpreters should acknowledge these gender transformations as a genuinely human means by which the believer showed devotion. As he does in previous chapters, Mills closes the chapter by pushing the limits of his argument, suggesting the possibility of erotic and homoerotic responses to the Rotschild Canticles, and Ludwig Krug's (1520) and Maerten van Heemskerck's (1532) versions of the Man of Sorrows . In doing so, Mills is knowingly speculative, agitating beyond theology and disciplinary orthodoxy in the name of identifying potential human reactions to images brimming with sexual and gender ambiguity.

This book makes extraordinary use of a wide range of primary sources, while competently synthesizing an extensive number of theoretical approaches. The greatest strength of Mills's study, however, could very well be its greatest weakness. Sometimes the author's theoretical aptitude impedes the clarity of the rich insights his analytical skills are capable of coaxing out of thematically difficult images and texts. Moreover, Mills's emphasis upon viewer/reader response and identification sometimes runs the risk of yielding speculative or even relativistic results, something he openly admits throughout the book. However, because Mills makes informed and nuanced arguments, making the speculative more plausible, his study ultimately yields positive results. The book reads as cohesive whole, returning to and reevaluating the theme of temporal and visual suspense in an engaging manner that questions traditional assumptions about the medieval and modern understanding of pain. Indeed, it is Mills's very attempts at pushing the discursive limits of pain that makes this volume a valuable tool for medieval and modern literary critics, art historians, and historians alike.