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15.10.45, Williams and Overbey, eds., Transparent Things

The Medieval Review

15.10.45, Williams and Overbey, eds., Transparent Things

The essays in this book, originally presented at the first biennial meeting of the BABEL Working Group, take as their departure a passage in Vladamir Nabokov's Transparent Things (1972). According to Nabokov, a viewer's very act of looking at an artifact leads to an "involuntarily sinking into the history of that object (ii)." In other words, an object's history--its owners, handlers and functions--become transparent. The notion of transparency, defined broadly here, prompted the authors of this volume to explore in new ways the medieval objects they study. More importantly, it forced them to reconsider their own relationships to these artifacts and to question the tenets of traditional art history, which has mostly aimed at contextualizing art (who, when, where and why) and erasing the art historian. The authors found themselves "challenging the tradition of a detached scholarly posture" and uncovering their "own subjectivity as writers, viewers, historians and human beings (iii)." The result is four thoughtful and engaging essays that nicely tie together around shared themes and push the boundaries of current art historical practice.

Karen Eileen Overbey, in a playfully written and thoughtful essay called "Reflections on the Surface, or, Notes for a Tantric Art History," explores the role of the art historian vis-à-vis medieval objects and takes as her primary example an early thirteenth-century True Cross reliquary, sometimes known as the "Ninian Reliquary", now in the British Museum. She uses Nabokov's passage and Abbot Suger's (c. 1081-1151) exposition of the spiritual experience of precious stones to aid her exploration. The first part of her essay is a detailed description of the object (its dome of rock crystal, its base of gold with a cross and pearls, and its band of gold with saints' names that connects the crystal and base). Overbey expands the usual description of an artifact to include an account of what it is like to see and handle the actual item. She found that the reliquary is not quite what she thought, nor what she had postulated in earlier art historical papers. She discovered that the rock crystal is not always transparent and when seen from certain angles is either impenetrable or reflective; one might see the cross below, a cloudy surface or, surprisingly, oneself. In her second section Overby muses on the reliquary's history and the various people, particularly art historians, curators and conservators, who have interacted with it, evident from the many dents and scratches. Interestingly Overbey does not mention the reliquary's possible medieval owners, nor the many people outside of the academy who might have come in contact with it. To do so, of course, would be to engage in conventional art history. In her final section, Overbey questions the predominant aim of art history, which she describes as motivated by the "desire to historicize, to pin our material to moments and locales" and" to make objects anchors and paperweights, to put under glass" (15). In its place she proposes the notion of a tantric art history, which calls for a movement away from conventional art history and the original owners of art to the histories of art objects and the experiences of the beholder throughout time. The author provides little guidance how this should happen and instead offers her own interactions with the reliquary as a starting point. The surface of her chosen object (transparent, opaque and reflective) is an apt metaphor for Oberbey's thoughts on the art history.

Jennifer Borland's "Encountering the Inauthentic" wrestles with an issue that has long plagued art history: grasping how viewers experience artifacts. To help her students understand how medieval viewers might have interacted with and understood the buildings and artifacts they encountered, Borland turns to the post-medieval in her teaching. She suggests that taking students to reconstructions of medieval buildings such as the Cloisters in New York, modern buildings designed in a medieval style (and possibly incorporating medieval elements) such as Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvannia, and contemporary artists' workshops can provide better insight into the medieval world than mere descriptions and photographs. Much of her essay is given to providing brief summaries of sites in the United States. In the second part of her paper Borland turns to the philosophical issues surrounding the use of so-called inauthentic objects to grasp the authentic. She suggests that art historians need to expand the limits of their domain from objects to the experience of them, for this is "worthy of interest" (32). Through direct experience with medieval media, such as by making parchment in a contemporary studio, and medieval or medieval-like objects, we can have authentic experiences, even of inauthentic object. In doing so, we, like those before us, create a piece's meaning. To help her formulate a theory of experience, Borland turns to ideas from anthropology, material culture studies and especially phenomenology. She does not, however, offer a clearly defined, adaptable model.

Angela R. Bennett Segler's essay "Touched for the Very First Time: Losing My Manuscript Virginity" explores the medieval manuscript from the experience of touch. This manner of investigation is little explored in scholarship, particularly by literary scholars who, like Segler, tend to look primarily at texts, usually in critical editions, and give little thought to their containers. For them, the codex is the thing that "disappears on contact" and "has no visibility in the physical interaction despite its material presence" (42). The first part of Segler's essay is a detailed account of her first (virginal) experiences with medieval manuscripts and in rare book libraries. She presents her account in an erotic, playful language that fits well with the task of voicing the experience of touch on skin. Faced with actual manuscripts Segler encountered a "multiplicity of bodies reaching out through the pages": the scribes, painters, and readers who, whether intentionally or not, left a trace in the book (43). Surprisingly, Segler came away with more questions than answers and learned that direct experience with actual books is extremely beneficial to scholarship, as well as pleasurable. To quantify her private experience, Segler turns to contemporary critical theory and in particular Roland Barthes' notions on the physical nature of reading put forth in The Pleasure of the Text. For Barthes, the presence of the human voice comes through the words on the page. Segler extends Barthes' idea to say that "the roughness of the hands, the dirt under the fingernails, the haze in the clouded and fatigued eyes, the creaks in the hunched backs 'speak' with timbre through touching the object itself" (54). Engaging with medieval manuscripts from the perspective of touch, Segler argues, can shift the focus away from monolithic readings of texts and open the way for hearing the "voices and bodies" of manuscripts and to challenge "the symbolic order's monopoly on literary meaning-making" (54).

Nancy M. Thompson in "Close Encounters with Luminous Objects: Reflections on Studying Stained Glass" ponders how intimate experience with medieval stained glass windows can influence teaching and scholarship. Examining these works at close range is rare, as they are almost always installed high up in churches and can only be seen clearly from scaffolding erected alongside them during cleaning and repair. Thompson has been fortunate on several occasions to have intimate contact with medieval and post-medieval stained glass. She calls these moments "art overwhelmtion" or "the phenomenon of being emotionally and spiritually transported by viewing a work of art" (66). With regards to teaching, Thompson uses the enthusiasm gained through close interaction (both seeing and touching) with stained glass to ignite student's passion for these objects and scholarly interest in them. Her experiences have been especially valuable for shaping her research. Viewing the windows up close reveals much about the processes for making them (for instance, one can see the little numbers used by the artists to assemble the pieces) and prompts Thompson to think more deeply about their makers and their practices. Close inspection also leads to reflection on the windows' continued presence in the world. This, in turn, pushes Thompson beyond the traditional art historical methodology of reconstructing an original artistic, political or religious context to a more fulsome exploration. In her words, "Close encounters with stained glass, then, allow me to be finely tuned to the intricacies of a work of art in the present, and make me a more sensitive interpreter of the object’s past" (67).

Several themes recur throughout this collection of essays. The role of the scholar in the research process dominates. All authors argue that by considering their personal experience with medieval objects, they not only comprehend them better but also are prompted to ask new questions about them and thus pursue fresh scholarly avenues on them. To back up their claims, they give very detailed examples. For instance, Nancy Thompson's close contact with medieval stained glass windows revealed the artists' numbering system for assembling the pieces and led her to consider more seriously the maker's place in production and reception. A related idea is the importance of acknowledging medieval artifacts as human-made physical, material (in terms of their media) and visual presences as opposed to texts that exist in time and space. The authors argue that, through their transparency, in Nabokov's sense, medieval objects link present-day viewers with medieval beholders and, in so doing, create the object's significance. Another link is the use of ideas from contemporary theory, especially anthropology and material culture studies, to explain the experience of interacting with material objects. No author, unfortunately, offers a comprehensive theory for analyzing and comprehending such interactions; the focus is on verbalizing experiences rather than quantifying them. Another thread is the presentation of useful ideas for teaching and, indeed, the value of this collection of essays might be in the authors' suggestions for student engagement. A last recurrence is the application of nonacademic modes of writing. Readers encounter an autobiographical, lively and even playful writing style in these pieces, which this reviewer found captivating and refreshing.

It is not surprising that these themes are the guiding principles of The Material Collective, (http://thematerialcollective) which was born out of this conference. The book is dedicated to The Material Collective and the final section gives a brief description of their mission. The latter, thus, serves as a sort of summary of the book.

A final word must be said about The Material Collective, the BABEL Working Group ( and Punctum Books ( The kind of new scholarship presented here, especially its focus on the researcher's subjectivity and experience (both taboo in mainstream art history) and use of unconventional (vernacular?) language, would not have been possible without these bodies fostering it and making it public through conferences, meetings, social media and publications. If scholarship and the academy are to change, and most of us believe they must to be relevant and vital in today's world, then we need individuals like the authors of this volume who are willing to "stick their necks out" and " get their asses kicked," to borrow their discursive style.