Collecting Affect / Making Theory
My interest in this collaboration, and my more general curiosity in the practice of collecting fragments, is steeped in a desire to better understand — to theorize, perhaps — an affective approach to reading medieval literature. Motivated by the critique that an affective relationship to medieval textual objects is idiosyncratic and therefore not intellectually responsible, I aim here to think through a reading orientation that emerges from and goes back to affective, visceral encounters with texts. I am drawing primarily on the critiques (or, more generally, the cautions) I fielded from some advisors as I was writing my dissertation. These critiques take root in a perceived opposition between thought and feeling; see, for example, D. Vance Smith in “The Application of Thought to Medieval Studies: The Twenty-First Century” (2010).
In the description of my exhibit, I provide a brief narrative for the processes that went into making my collections, and what insight developed from those practices of collection. As I combed through the objects on our collective shore — the objects gathered by all the beachcombers — I noticed that certain objects demanded my attention in ways that others, at least initially, did not. Four particular items stood out to me. Sparkling on the seashore, they made me pause, and I desired to pull them out of the random collection because they pulled me; in a phrase, they made me feel more than the other objects did. “The lack of clear signals isn’t an attempt to vex you, rather an invitation to read either inquisitively or playfully and also at depth. Click on words that interest or invite you….There we meet minds,” Michael Joyce writes in “afternoon, a story” in Postmodern American Fiction, ed. Geyh, et al (1998), 577. I decided to explore my relationship to those objects. It seemed clear that what drew me to these objects was their affective power, but I was not sure if they came as a result of memories or if they preceded any conscious thought.
After choosing four objects that had a particularly strong affective pull for me, I searched the collection again with my objects in mind. One at a time, I considered each of my objects when I re-searched the shore. I tried to let the feeling I had when I encountered my chosen object lead me as I gathered new items to my primary object and curated my exhibit from this collection. My interest was in better understanding what initially drew me to the primary object, and to see if that initial attraction influenced how I thought of other objects, or if those other objects shifted (and perhaps enabled me to better articulate) my attachment to the primary object. Would my prioritized object necessarily structure the way I thought and felt about the other items in its proximity? Or was my attachment to my chosen object loose enough — was it confident enough, perhaps — to let my initial connection to it change, and to let myself collect differently around it? My purpose here was to see if this experiment in collecting could help determine the “worth” of an idiosyncratic approach. I almost wrote “intuitive” instead of “idiosyncratic,” a Freudian slip that lets gender in. Female intuition: idiosyncratic/intuitive responses dismissed on the basis of Woman’s gender/sex. But then: how does this critique of feelings shift and matter in the current political climate, where “alternative facts” answer to quantifiable evidence? (How) should I protect my feelings-based approach to objects now?
But even before I could pursue that experiment, a worry stopped me. Another hesitation, which registers now as a rethinking, a practice toward making knowledge. I feared that my deliberate collecting would domesticate this wild array of objects. I went from wanting to protect my treasured objects to wanting to protect the wildness of the primary archive. And it struck me as strange because, of course, the arbitrariness and inclusiveness of the first set (our collective shore) is an illusion. It’s a curated collection, too. Put together, no less, by people who study medieval and medieval-ish things. It’s a very special and specialized collection. And it made me think of Walter Benjamin’s famous meditation on unpacking his library. Taking out books from their boxes and sitting in front of them, Benjamin seems to enjoy thinking about the freedom of the books, their radical potential, before he ultimately must collect them again onto his shelves, where they will be “touched by the mild boredom of order” (1969, 59). As if those unshelved books weren’t already collected, through the mere fact of their being his own, personal archive.
I read in Benjamin’s “mild boredom of order” an imagining or wishing for his book-objects to be wild, to be kept alive and free. And it also seems right to say that the process of collecting his books back onto their shelves keeps alive the illusion that they were once limitless, and so could be again. (I, too, imagined the wildness of our initial collection only after I started fragmenting it and starting to form a new archive.)
But still, no doubt, something grows through that ordering. As each of us fragmented the collection, we enabled new connections. I was still, for example, interested in my privileged objects when I looked at the exhibits other people curated. I looked for my objects in their new contexts; they served as fragmentary points of recognition. I looked to them as a way to better understand my attachment to the object in the first place, and also to form a new relationship with someone I didn’t know. As medievalists, we know better than most how both connection and knowledge form through the fragmentary. Not only because the extent material we have with which to form our understandings are either literal fragments or merely the partial remains of a forever faraway past, but because we rely on even smaller parts of those fragments (partial details) to form patterns and anomalies and points of similarity and difference. We cling to those fragments because they are all we have.
Prior to making my exhibit, when I was working out my methodology for my dissertation, a faculty member told me that my approach to medieval literary texts was too idiosyncratic, my gravitation to certain textual fragments too personal, to justify reading my chapters. When my shame died down a little bit, I thought about my experiences teaching medieval literature. I thought about how my students need to find (more than anything else) a personal and deeply idiosyncratic relationship to medieval texts in order to enjoy them, and so in order to read them. Because they are so individual, the content of my students’ relationships to medieval texts varies, but structurally, they are often analogical and associative — their readings often begin something like, this reminds me of that. And these associations are often based on a feeling that they identify in a text. Reading Lolita and Catcher in the Rye alongside the Physician’s Tale enabled the ambivalence that Chaucer traces in his tale to become alive and relevant to my students. A few even came up to me after class and wanted recommendations for further Canterbury Tales to read (which is, surprisingly, not a common occurrence)! My students’ relationship to medieval texts inspired my particular approach in curating my collections in this project.
Medieval literary texts have provided for me blinks of recognition and familiarity — I recognize a structure or feeling being described in them — but then, as blinks tend to make happen, those structures or feelings move; the text seems to retreat or shift as I open my eyes and look again, as I work to describe both the familiar feeling and the structure that made it so. In “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” Audre Lorde writes that, “As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas” (Sister Outsider, New York: Random House, Inc., 1984), 37. Lorde privileges our feelings and the honest exploration of them in the making of new ideas. In doing so, she provides a way of answering not only a critique of an intuitive/idiosyncratic approach, but also a political climate that offers “alternative facts” against evidence: feelings, yes, and then the playful and rigorous examination of them in making knowledge. Medieval texts are important to me for their specific and idiosyncratic way of manifesting at once similarity and difference. Medieval literature teaches me to take seriously a feeling that I have while reading, and not to stop there, but to work to understand what in the text made that feeling arise. It teaches me that my feeling is an indication of something, but that the sources of that feeling might be different from what I initially imagined them to be.
I take the point of my skeptical professor to be that research needs to happen too (that I need to do my homework, and not only explore the feelings animated by — or represented through — textual fragments). Still, because my gravitation to particular textual details happens so naturally, it is hard to imagine another approach to the text as other than forced, or at least secondary. And so it makes me wonder: do we have to mask the necessarily idiosyncratic approach that any of us takes to our objects of study, to our collections? It strikes me that dismissing a reading as idiosyncratic protects us from having to acknowledge that other and nominally more authoritative ways of reading are also subjective.
Department of English
University of Texas, Austin
Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida . Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.
Bechdel, Alison. 2007. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. New York: Mariner Books.
Benjamin, Walter. 1969. Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting. In Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 59-68.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. Getting Medieval. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hayward, Eva. 2008. More Lessons from a Starfish: Prefixial Flesh and Transspeciated Selves. WSQ 36.3: 64-85.
Joyce, Michael. 1998. “afternoon, a story.” In Postmodern American Fiction, ed. Paula Geyh, et al., New York: W.W. Norton.
Kennedy. 1973. translation of “Les chevalier qui fist les cons parler.” Anglo-Norman Poems about Love, Women and Sex. New York: Columbia University PhD Dissertation.
Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider. New York: Random House.
Mitchell, Allyson. 2009. Ladies Sasquatch. Hamilton: McMaster Museum of Art.
Smith, D. Vance. 2010. The Application of Thought to Medieval Studies: The Twenty-First Century. Exemplaria 22.1 (2010): 85-94.