Thursday, November 12, 2009

What’s new to say about the margins?

Ever since Michele Camille, “hybridity”, “transformation” and cultural theorizing of the “margins” have enjoyed a hude interest in theorizing. Today I received a copy of the 2008 publication “Queering the non/human”, containing a breath of refreshing essays on “queerness” and its figurings in the non/human. Eyebrow-raising conversations between theorists include a section on luminous green bunnies (yes, genetically tampered bunnies with luminous genes from glowing jellyfish grafted into their DNA) hosted by JJ Cohen. Another essay reconsiders the apocalyptic/resistive/policing triadic formulation of Lee Edelman’s “No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive” as a new voice to join in the fray of theorists (including Leo Bersani) who priase Edelman’s work against others such as Judith Butler (who reads “No Future” as a war-like manifesto) and Tim Dean (who sees it as a Fascistic pile of pseudo-religious piddle). An equally thoughtful essay on “queering” sexual deviants and representations of Christ in the later middle ages rehearses the argument that images and allegorical/metaphorical modes of representation sought to represent concepts which were unrepresentable by a leap of hybridizing imagination. “Queerness” in all its confounding modes charge these hybridized sodomites – the referent was undisclosable (that is, “interior”), hence the grotesque was only but a mild form or visualization which metonymically stands in for that terrible unspeakable – the Real void of meaninglessness which, if uncovered, threatens institutions of normativity as much as it “queers” the queer.

But perhaps one should come back to the question: what about the “real” animals? This argument takes on especial significance towards the end of the 13th Century between what we could roughly distinguish between “nominalism” and “realism”, with particular emphasis on modes of signifying and modes of knowing-through-signification. In short, the problematic status of signification as “mediation” became a locus for impassioned theological and philosophical meditation. For most theorists of the animal in the middle ages, it is generally agreed that “real” animals were generally screens with which to project the anxieties of man’s introjected “inner-beast”. Cloaked with the guilt of the corporeality of man, his animal instincts and (Freudian/Kleinian/Lacanian) drives, the animal as projective surface stood as the ultimate ineffable (indecipherable) Other upon which the “human” could be retrospectively defined. For Joyce Salisbury in “The Beast Within”, the 12th Century saw man’s increasing knowledge of his interior proximity to animal, and the diminishing distance between the passive and active (Thomistic) intellect. Cognitive theories of perception from Alberto Magnus to St Thomas Aquinas and beyond gave further prominence to the role of the senses in cognitive knowledge about the phenomenal world, and hence a primary gateway for knowledge of the suprasensible world, including abstracted intellectual categories.

In a joint essay by Umberto Eco et al. in “Medieval Semiotics”, Eco traces the shifting status of human/animal vox in the linguistic classificatory schemes of thinkers in the later middle ages. From Aristotle’s initial assertion that vox was the production of an ensouled thing, classifying the vox became a grid upon which to track the changing status of man’s relationship with animals, although paradoxically through human-made nets/grids such as articulation or writability. Interestingly, the 14th Century philosopher Oxfordian/Parisian philosopher Roger Bacon chose to group certain divisions of human vox under the same classificatory umbrella as animal vox. Precisely what kind of “vox” fell under this category? For Bacon, these were the vox of madmen and babbling lovers who were incapable of reasoned enunciation. This is important in two ways – the vox, a privileged site of human-discursive dominance thus became a blurred site of exchange between the boundaries of the animal and the human, indicating the capacity for humans to “fall” from theological humanistic grace into the level of animal. Retroactively, this leads to the possibility of the “reading” the [human] voice as a potential site of confusion, perhaps even occasioning the need for policing, censorship and control through disseminated networks of power. Secondly, this forces us to rethink the ethical cultral-social context in which fin’ amours operates: if the privileges space of love could also be a space of transgression into animality, then perhaps the operation of fin’ amours, too, demands subtlety in interpretation and re-reading, possessing its own hierarchy of power-distinctions that seperated “good” lovers from “bad” ones.

What we are staring at in this projected surface of the beast is, I argue, the “void” of the Real which threatens to inflict a wound upon the superstructures of ideology, the very space of the internal death-drive which colours the interiority of man caught in the Symbolic. To confront the void would literally be to occupy the position of the beast, to willingly reduce oneself to a Agambian position of “bare life” in opposition to Symbolic “homo sacer”, structured around the meaningless void of the Real to protect one’s traumatic encounter with it. As Lee Edelman suggests, such occupation is an ethical position. Correspondingly, I find myself comporting towards Judith Peraino’s own conceptualization of “queer listening” as an ethic. But there are problems – how does one “listen queerly”? To do so would be to revel in the sinuous intertwining of the motetus and triplum voices of the late medieval chanson de nonne, to anarchically resist the hegemony of Logos by currying in the sensuous internal void of the signifier emptied of function, to fashion new codes of retrospective listening (hearing) which casts a dark shadow over the absurdity of our preoccupation with normative hermeneutical paradigms, indeed exposing these paradims as (contra Bent) themselves perversely “invalid”.

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