Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fragments Shattered by History

So on Saturday, as I've mentioned here, I will be responding to this paper by Aaron Hostetter , a colleague of mine from Princeton. This will all take place as a part of the fourth annual ASSC Graduate Student Conference.

So here, for your Valentine's Day evening perusal, is my remark/question for our discussion. Any critiques or questions would be quite helpful -- this was the first time I've read Andreas. Though I find it quite fascinating, it's also insanely complex. One day that characteristic of Old English poetry will stop surprising me. With a little luck though, I'll never lose that complexity's delight.

So: Go read Aaron's paper, "A Tasty Turn of Phrase: Cannibal Poetics in Andreas". Then, refresh your memory of the story with any one of these posts on Heather Blurton's Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature from the ITMBC4DSoMA event this summer. I should note that in my haste I've not had the time to read through all of the entries, though I certainly hope to do so by Saturday's session. Then, return here to read my entry in this ongoing discussion of Anthropophagy. My bibliographical notes are not terribly precise, as I'm mostly going on what I've read from Aaron's paper: however, I'll have to add it in tomorrow morning, when I have time to figure out what I was drawing on! My title could also use a lift -- any ideas would be appreciated!

Fragments Shattered by History

Aaron argues that as a poem, the Andreas makes a comment on the relationship between the past and the present: most specifically, that fragments of a past identity inhabit the present construction of self – more importantly, they inhabit the text’s present construction of cultural identity. Using the poetic borrowings of Andreas, and making clear their poetic effect, the argument culminates in the assertion that, in the case of the “sad anthropophagites” of the Anglo-Saxon corpus:

the act of devoration leaves the eater with a raw sense of the self in time, of ones utter dependence on the presence of the past with which to construct a present, and a lingering sense of absolute difference from the apparent integrity of those pasts.

In some senses, his argument squares with the recent work on the poem done by Heather Blurton: in her dissertation, and its rendering in book form, Blurton argues that we might productively read the poem not merely for its conversion narrative, but for its “cannibal narrative” – a narrative that tells a story of invasion and conquest and the subsequent, postcolonial hybridity that results. Andreas, she argues, deliberately depicts the Mermedonians in ways which echo the descriptions of Anglo-Saxon warriors in other poems. Clearly, Blurton picks up on the same tendency which Aaron highlights: the citation of other Anglo-Saxon poems is used to an effect in Andreas, and to read the poem in any other light flattens a nuanced reading – performed by the poem – of those texts, and the culture which produced them.

As an opening provocation to discussion, I would like to reframe the question which Aaron is asking us to consider. In doing so, I want to engage with the idea of this solitary “self-in-time” – to ask, directly, the question of what the Mermedonians are doing in Anglo-Saxon England. If the self is related to the other in Andreas through a metaphoric act of consumption, devoration, or put in the slightly more post-colonial term favored by Blurton, incorporation – the question raised becomes more than simply one of “self” and “other” per se. The intermingling performed by the act of anthropophagy, and the intersection of the past and present that occurs in the building of cultural identity, suggests that the time of this “meal” is, to borrow a phrase, “out of joint.”

The question this raises about Andreas is the way in which the pasts upon which the present feasts are only apparently integral: the ways in which their narrative wholeness is shattered by the onset of a different kind of history. In Augustine’s conception of history, the human interpretation of history’s narrative is fundamentally altered by the intersection of the divine with the human: Christ’s advent necessarily rewrites the linear narrative of human history, and the truly integral events (his birth, death, resurrection and final judgment) shape the interpretation of any other narrative (though, and importantly, it doesn't annihilate the presence of all other narratives, which could be said to haunt it). My question then, is this: if we were to let the conversion narrative shape the cannibal narrative of the text, might we understand this story of sylfætan as an interpretation of the non-Christian digestion of history. Fundamentally incomplete, the past can only disappoint those who wish to use its narrative to shape the future from its fragments: those stories need interpretation, direction, a space to develop into that does not return to the same, human story. Rather, human history needs a divine supplement – otherwise, how could anyone seeking to feed on its remnants find adequate nourishment?

cross posted at ITM


Saturday, February 09, 2008

Quote of the Day, or, Friday Night Gets Theoretical

The Spring Semester of 2008 is officially in full swing here in New York, and nothing says "It has begun" as clearly as the opening events of the The Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium. My week's end brought a trip to Rutgers University for a fascinating lecture and extremely helpful manuscript workshop by Andy Orchard of the University of Toronto -- however, as with all events with the ASSC, the "official" event formed only a part of the scholarly experience while there.
I met and spoke with Mark Amodio (Vassar) -- the great scholar of oral formulaic theory (the theory which accounts for and studies the markers of oral composition in Old English) -- for the first time. A conversation with Richard Abels (a historian from the US Naval Academy, currently at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton) helped me to formulate more coherently the reason Beowulf belongs in my dissertation -- without having to deal too deeply with that pesky "when was it written" question. And yet another blogging connection was made when I made the acquaintance of Rachel K, a commenter on ITM.

The community of Anglo-Saxonists around NYC and New Jersey has been very fruitful for me as a graduate student -- and not always in the ways I've imagined. The opportunity to really speak in depth with other scholars in my field, who've done studies of the same works I'm hoping to write about -- and to feel as though I was actually participating constructively in those conversations -- proves to me part of what I think is most useful about being an active participant in something like the ASSC. I wonder if part of "professionalization" (that long, unwieldy, and frightening term!) is precisely that -- helping students learn to become scholars in a community of other scholars, less than simply attending conferences and writing articles...

And of course, the train ride home this afternoon offered ample time for reading, and that's the inspiration for this "quote of the day" post. However, before I give the blog post over to Bruno Latour, I would like to say a word about an event coming up soon: the fourth annual ASSC grad conference, taking place this Saturday, February 16th, at Yale University! Of course, there's an element of pride involved -- this is my fourth year participating in the conference, and my first year functioning as a respondent. My interlocutor? Princeton University Grad Student Aaron Hostetter, whose blog on Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry is providing a really interesting look at a scholar who's currently grappling with the Andreas. I'll be responding to Aaron's paper, "A Tasty Turn of Phrase: Cannibal Poetics in Andreas". (Paging Dr. Steel! Paging Dr. Steel!) We're hoping to get the conversation going a bit early (and to open it out to a wider audience) -- I will almost certainly post some of my thoughts and notes here before I try them out at the conference. Something tells me Heather Blurton's book (of which we have spoken often) will be very, very important.

As a side note: I was assigned to the paper rather than choosing it, and though I'm thrilled to get to be a part of this conversation, I've never actually read the Andreas. Clearly that will be changing soon. Also: I realized yesterday evening that, when I agreed to be a respondent for the event, I was in essence agreeing to read in front of not one but two very eminent Anglo-Saxonists, a paper I will have had one week to write. On a poem I will have known for about a week. Fools rush in...

So, finally, on to the quote of the Friday Evening: From Bruno Latour (who will be speaking at Columbia in about two weeks!), Pandora's Hope (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999), p. 96-97. Latour is speaking about the relationships between humans, language, and "the world" -- the relationship, in essence, between discourse and "things in themselves". I thought this passage was particularly resonant for me, what with the theme of translation and connection that runs throughout. Appropriately, I find it quite hopeful...

What seemed shocking at first in this new paradigm was that it did not rely on the myth of a heroic break away from society, convention, and discourse, a mythical break that would let the solitary scientist discover the world as it is. To be sure, we no longer portray scientists as those who abandon the realm of signs, politics, passions and feelings in order to discover the world of cold ad inhuman things in themselves, "out there." But that does not mean we portray them as talking to humans only, because those they address in their research are not exactly humans but strange hybrids with long tails, trails, tentacles, filaments tying words to things which are, so to speak, behind them, accessible only through highly indirect and immensely complex mediations of different series of instruments. The truth of what scientists say no longer comes from their breaking away from society, convention, mediations, connections, but from the safety provided by the circulating references that cascade thought a great number of transformations and translations, modifying and constraining the speech acts of many humans over which no one has nay durable control. Instead of abandoning the base world of rhetoric, argumentation, calculation--much like the religious hermits of the past--scientists began to speak in truth because they plunge even more deeply into the secular world of words, signs, passions, materials, and mediations, and extend themselves even further in the intimate connections with the nonhumans they have learned to bring to bear on their discussions.

cross posted to


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

I'm only doing this -- linking to my Technorati Profile"> because Technorati told me to. Yup, gullible.