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13.10.14, Joy, et al., eds., Speculative Medievalisms

13.10.14, Joy, et al., eds., Speculative Medievalisms

"Medievalism" has become an increasingly fashionable object of study lately, as demonstrated by the number of conference panels, articles, monographs, and journals now devoted to examining manifestations of the medieval outside of the Middle Ages. At its best, "medievalist" scholarship traces the evolution of ideas about the Middle Ages and invites us to consider how our own cultural heritage shapes how we think about the past. More often, it manifests itself as a subgenre of cultural studies directed at medieval-themed ephemera (movies, television shows, video games, etc.)--a subject not without interest, but one that tells us nothing about the Middle Ages itself. The volume under consideration (referred to as a "discography" by the editors) contains the proceedings of two conferences --one held at King's College London on January 14, 2011 and the other at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York on September 16, 2011-- dedicated to examining the medieval through the lens of "speculative realism" or "object-oriented ontology." Speculative realism is a recent strain of continental philosophy developed by Quentin Meillassoux, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Ray Brassier (among others) that opposes "correlationism" (roughly speaking, the Kantian and post-Kantian paradigm that the world is understood only through the medium of human consciousness) and posits the existence of a reality outside of human experience. [1] The editors of this volume define speculative realism as "less a school of thought than a confluence of diverse intellectual investments in the scientific capacity of philosophical discourse to know and describe subject- independent realities and in the necessity of speculation as the means of such knowledge" (vii-viii). We are further informed that "speculative realist philosophers seek, from diverse topical trajectories, to restore and enliven the epistemic potentiality and empirical poiesis of thinking" (vii-viii). If this language seems worryingly vague to the reader, then her fears are well-founded; the precise nature of "speculative medievalism" is never truly defined in this volume, but rather instantiated (at least in theory) in the individual essays.

Speculative Medievalisms is billed as "a collaborative and interdisciplinary research project focusing on the theorization and practical development of the speculative dimensions of medieval studies" (ii). The philosophical underpinnings of the collaboration are set forth in the introductory essay, "Speculative Medievalisms: A Précis." Rather than clearly articulating the principles and methodology of speculative medievalism, however, the Introduction proceeds mostly by stringing together quotations from other authors, quotations that in themselves are often not very illuminating. We learn, for example, that speculatio must be joyful and open- ended, "both with regard to the nature of its object and with regard to its real, enworlded end, its ultimate for-itself" (v-vi). More troubling is the assertion that "speculation...must be distinguished from practical guesswork or conjecture, and even more strongly from the kind of discourse that stays within the supposedly transparent definability of terms and facts." Defined in this way, "speculative medievalism" becomes an invitation to abandon a 2,500 year-old tradition of rationalist scholarly enquiry in favor of a methodology unencumbered by apparently outmoded ideas like definitions and facts.

The incoherence of the philosophical assumptions at the heart of this work actually works in favor of the volume as a whole, however, since the individual contributors are not bound to a restrictive theoretical framework and are thus free to practice speculatio in any way that they see fit. Most of the contributions to this collection consist not so much of sustained arguments of the sort that one would find in a book chapter or scholarly article, as loose, and occasionally disjointed, meditations on a general theme. In quality, they run the gamut from the thought-provoking and informative to the jargon-laden and frequently incomprehensible. Because most of the essays in this volume resist easy summarization, it is impossible to provide a capsule review of each that would in any way do justice to the arguments of their authors. Instead, I have chosen to focus on a few individual essays, which are representative of the methods and aims of the collection as a whole.

Kathleen Biddick's, "Toy Stories: Vita Nuda Then and Now," a "morse-code version" of a longer chapter in a forthcoming book ("The Biopower of Medievalisms: Toward a Biohistory of the Flesh," in Biddick, Entangled Sovereignty: Studies in Premodern Political Theology) examines one manifestation of what the author refers to as the "medievalisms of biopolitics." Biddick defines her larger project as "[seeking] to think the 'unhistorical' twining of flesh and sovereign across the normalized divides of medieval and modern in an effort to reconceive biopolitics of the flesh as a traumatic scene that expands and sediments as it maintains a deadly kernel, a medieval suture of liturgical flesh to law" (3). Here she examines Lanfranc's conflict with Berengar of Tours over the Eucharist, and his judgment of William of Saint-Calais, the rebel bishop of Durham, in 1088. The central problem of Biddick's approach is that the metaphor of "suturing" flesh onto law that informs her interpretation of both of these events is inadequately explained on the one hand, and aggressively read into her sources, rather than extracted from them, on the other. Her statement that "in the gap between the visible and the invisible, which Berengar had meditated pro-provocatively [sic] on the unhistorical nature of Christ's flesh, Lanfranc instead sutured sovereign law to that flesh and in so doing paradoxically immunized the universal flesh of Christ as a body politic" (4) stands in need of further elucidation if it is to be comprehensible. William of Saint-Calais's request to plead his case dressed in his episcopal garments, and Lanfranc's denial of that request, is seen as enacting "a deeply conflicting epistemology of the flesh," since William insisted on the identity of his episcopal and baronial "flesh," whereas Lanfranc judged them divisble. A skeptical reader might argue that these disputes are not grounded in biopolitics, but in theological orthodoxy on the one hand and ecclesiastical politics on the other. In the second part of essay, Biddick examines (briefly--this is another distillation of material treated at greater length in a book chapter) how Ernst Kantorowicz's forced resignation from the University of Frankfurt in 1933 parallels the trial of Thomas Becket in 1164 in that both instantiate the metaphor of "suturing."

In "Cryptomnesia," Eileen A. Joy and Anna Klosowska examine Biddick's arguments in the broader context of the theories of biopolitics advanced by Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben. Or rather, they respond to the arguments presented in the unpublished book chapter from which her summary was drawn, a procedure unhelpful to the reader to whom this chapter is unavailable. This reviewer not infrequently had difficulty making sense of the authors' statements, e.g.: "rather, for Biddick, any accounting of biohistory today, and by extension, biopolitics, will have to shuck linear temporalities in favor of tracing the topographies (which may be more trans-affectively spatial than temporal) of what the psychoanalyst and theorist Bracha Ettinger calls "transcryptums": or sites where past, forgotten traumas are both archives/crypts and also transitive, traveling into the future along the desert trade routes of "transsubjective borderspaces." I have no doubt that Joy and Klosowska have something useful to say here, but this passage reads like a parody of incomprehensible postmodern academic jargon. At the same time, the essay contains a useful summary of theological debates surrounding transubstantiation, which shows that when Joy and Klosowska stick to traditional narrative, they are quite instructive. Less convincing is the attempt to map the nominalist/realist debate over universals to the advent of speculative realism and "new material culture." This is symptomatic of the volume as a whole; the movement back and forth between medieval and modern often feels forced and is rarely convincing. I left this essay and its responses unconvinced that "biopolitics" is a useful lens through which to view the Middle Ages.

In "Divine Darkness", one of the more compelling essays of the collection, Eugene Thacker examines mystical conceptions of darkness in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, and Georges Bataille, concluding that there are three "basic modes of darkness" in the mystical tradition: dialectical darkness, which is constructed around the dualism of light and dark, superlative darkness, which exists beyond the boundary of human knowledge and experience, but simultaneously "contains a philosophical commitment to superlative transcendence" (35), and divine darkness, which exists at the limit of what cannot be known, the limit of the limit, as it were. To put it in Rumsfeldian terms (my formulation, not Thacker's), superlative darkness is the known unknown, divine darkness is the unknown unknown.

In "The speculative Angel," Anthony Paul Smith meditates on the revolutionary potential of the figure of the angel in Guy Lardreau and Christian Jambet's L'Ange: Pour une cynégétique du semblant, which is billed as an "utterly fascinating fusion of Lacan, Mao, and political theology" (45), and attempts to link this Maoist political tract from the 1970's to medieval angelology (specifically, Aquinas) with little success. Rather than examining any putative historical influences, Smith "treats the questions of angelology and political theology as ahistorical or transhistorical" (50). The natural result is that the medieval takes a back seat to the modern, as demonstrated, for example, in the following snippet: "Aquinas' remarks on the angels in the Summa can be taken as a shift from the cultural to ideological angel, from the Rebel in its purity to the Accountant that characterizes the shift from the 60s and 70s culture of rebellion to the 80s and 90s culture of conformism" (57).

Nick Srnicek's "Abstraction and Value: The Medieval Origins of Financial Quantification" is one of the better written essays in the collection, though it is hampered by a lack of examples and an excessive reliance on a small number of sources (all of them in English). Srnicek (not a medievalist, but a PhD candidate in International Relations) argues that the origins of financial quantification lie in the Late Middle Ages, specifically the fourteenth century, when for the first time finance and quantification "start to resonate together and develop along a parallel path" (74). The preconditions for this quantitative revolution were economic growth, monetization, and expanded trade networks, which provoked a need for mathematical treatises and textbooks that concretized the kinds of abstractions that merchants had always carried out subconsciously. In other words, it was economics (specifically, the need to calculate and solve the problems of commercial trading) that spurred the revolution in quantification. After considering the interrelationship between commerce and quantification in the Middle Ages, Srnicek goes on to consider the relationship between quantification and finance in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and closes by asking if there is a metaphysical limit to finance. This is an ambitious paper that demands a knowledge of finance, economics, history of mathematics, and history of mentalities. Srnicek is stronger in some of these areas than in others.

The thesis of Scott Wilson's "Neroplatonism" is that "it is the heteronomy of form itself that produces the 'unease' through which we do not know the heterogeneity of objects and the worlds they inhabit" (106). The title refers not to the philosophical inclinations of the notorious Roman emperor, but to Petrarch's meditations on the beautiful black (bel nero) eyes of Laura. Wilson takes this as a starting point to argue that "Petrarchan Neoplatonism shows that love is not just a form of madness or folly...not just an affliction caused by an eternal nonhuman force...but that it is a neurological (or perhaps better, a 'nerological') condition that allows us to explore the heteronomy between form and perception" (108). The argument is not entirely convincing. Wilson's attempt to link the condition of prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces, to the poetry of courtly love, for example, is strained. Although poets like Petrarch might well describe the features of their beloved in terms of "discrete physical attributes...which never come together as a portrait" (109-110), this hardly implies an inability to recognize faces. In a coda to the paper entitled "The Number of the Beast," Wilson considers Quentin Meillassoux's numerical decoding of Mallarmé's poem "Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard" in Le Nombre et la sirène as a prelude to a meditation on numerology in Petrarch and the book of Revelation (referred to, strangely, as the Book of Revelations). As with so much of this volume, what we find here is not so much argument as a kind of "ludic" speculation, allowing Wilson to pivot from Meillassoux's analysis of the importance of the number seven in Mallarmé, to the Number of the Beast in Revelation, to Petrarch's apparent investment of meaning in the number six and its multiples, to the grandiose suggestion that "we can no doubt take the number 666 as another sign--not of contingency, but of that base matter that inhabits the horror of its Idea" (120).

Anna Klosowska's "Transmission by Sponge: Aristotle's Poetics" examines the transmission of Aristotle's Poetics against the background of the transmission and dissemination of other Aristotelian texts. The first part of the essay discusses the transmission of Aristotle in the Medieval West, with lengthy references to Borges's "Averroes' Search" and Ernst Renan's 1882 Sorbonne lecture "What is a Nation?" The most interesting part of the paper is Klosowska's summary of the work of Karla Mallette on the cultural influence of the Arabic world on Western Europe in the Middle Ages. J. Allan Mitchell's "Cosmic Eggs, or Events Before Anything" examines the interrelationship between classical and medieval embryology and cosmogony and Quentin Meillassoux's discussion of hyper-Chaos. Mitchell's stimulating and informative survey of passages about the generation of the universe is intended "to paint a total picture of the universe as something of an unfinished totality, composed of fluctuating intensities and heterogeneous extensities that end up leaving a legacy of cosmic disequilibrum" (151). Kellie Robertson's "Abusing Aristotle" examines the reception of Aristotle from the thirteenth to the twenty-first century, focusing primarily on two recent revivals of Aristotelian thought: Alasdair MacIntyre's neo- Aristotelian ethics and Graham Harman's "weird Aristotelianism." This is a fine essay, clearly written and engaging, which, more than any other contribution in this volume, helps to elucidate at least one aspect of neorealist philosophy. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's "Sublunary" considers the beings that populate sublunary space in medieval writing. Most important among them is Merlin, who was born, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, of a human mother and a demonic father, and who "embodies the strange prospects offered by that space…between the earth's banal givenness and the moon's unreachable allure" (211). Cohen is an engaging guide to the fantastic creatures of medieval literature, but the connections he draws between Geoffrey of Monmouth and the object-oriented ontology of Graham Harman feel strained, to say the least.

In the end, although each one of the essays in this collection has something to teach the reader, the volume as a whole fails as an intellectual enterprise for a number of reasons. First and most important is the editors' failure to define the parameters of "speculative medievalism" in such a way as to provide a useful template for others seeking to incorporate this practice into their own scholarship. The concept of speculatio at the heart of the volume, moreover, is so vague as to be all but useless. There are other problems: opaque and occasionally rebarbative prose, offputting postmodern coinages ("enworlded," "postdisenchanted," etc.) and a focus on big ideas at the expense of minor details, with the unfortunate result that the credibility of authors is sometimes undermined. One essay, for example, contains a reference to the common ownership of wives and children in Plato's Republic "as a foundation of strong democracy" (122), when no one acquainted with the text could be under any allusion that the society it depicts is democratic. Elsewhere referrens is cited as the nominative present participle of refero, and Tolstoy's famous statement that "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" is altered, alarmingly, to "every family is unhappy in its own way" (161). Bold pronouncements are often advanced, but only occasionally argued for. We read in one place that "like Narcissus, who at the fount falls in love with himself as another, modern Western culture gazes at the Middle Ages as a self-image that impossibly blurs the distinction between identity and alterity" (iii). Elsewhere we are told that "when we look into a mirror or speculate, we are non-violently beheaded" (39), and that "the mystic is a being who weaponizes the correlation, who becomes correlation-as-weapon" (44).

Ultimately, there is a "preaching to the choir" quality to much of this volume. Those already convinced of the value of speculative medievalism will presumably come away satisfied. Those, like this reviewer, curious as to what this novel approach might have to offer, will likely conclude that speculative medievalism is simply an invitation to theoretical inquiry uncontrolled by any need to justify arguments or root them in medieval sources. Despite the stimulating quality of several of the essays, and whatever the merits of speculative realism as a philosophical mode of enquiry, this volume fails to demonstrate either that "speculative medievalism" is a coherent methodology or that it can tell us anything useful about the Middle Ages.



1. See, for example, Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, eds., The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (, 2011).