Beyond Theory: From Body to Text?

This is the text of a paper I gave to a roundtable at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds in 2008, sponsored by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship.

When I first saw the call for participants for this roundtable, I thought of books I’d looked at recently – Life After Theory and simply After Theory – and articles in newspapers and magazines questioning whether feminism was relevant to today’s young women (including an article in Marie Claire which asked three ad agencies to rebrand feminism).  There was also an article in the THES in January on ‘Last women standing’ on the decline and disappearance of women’s studies courses.  I thought of presenting a short paper on ‘Death of Theory: Death of the Body?’ questioning whether there is (still) a place in current literary study and criticism for feminist theory.  It seems feminism is still an issue . . . while I was preparing this, I read the email from Nicole Sidhu to the Med Fem list serv complaining of the continuing difficulty of getting feminist work published – but do we need to rethink the role feminism plays in academic studies when universities are themselves now seen as commercial providers of services to students who evaluate courses in terms of post-degree employability and income generation.

But I realised that I needed to answer a personal question: how far, if at all, did feminist theory (still) inform my own research and writing.  The personal may no longer be political, or vice-versa, but I felt that, to address the question, I needed to trace the narrative of the personal journey that has brought me (an Essex housewife!) here, to a roundtable on a ‘feminist poetic’ at an international conference on medieval studies.  The terms framing the theme of this roundtable – poetics, aesthetics, feminist theory, medieval studies – are terms which themselves mark stages on that journey.

To take the term poetics:  looking at the catalogue for the library at my local University (Essex) I came up with a wide variety of titles in which poetics figured, from the poetics of crime to the poetics of bouquets, from the poetics of memory to the poetics of cinema; there were comparative poetics and disjunctive poetics, poetics of modernity and of postmodernism, sexual poetics and the poetics of gender.  Poetics of Gender was a collection of essays from a 1984 colloquium at Columbia and has a Foreword by Carolyn Heilbrun, speaking of triumph and transformation since her graduate days.  But none of the essays seemed relevant to my present work on an early thirteenth-century Latin text of pastoral care written by a male cleric for male religious (except possibly in the emphasis on reading – which I will come back to).  This collection of essays was still new when I started an MA on ‘Women Writing’, which concerned itself as much with feminist theory as with writing by women.

I had been interested in literary theory since my under-graduate days, but that was at a traditional university, and although my first year tutor was a Marxist, poetics still meant the Poetics of Aristotle: a treatise on the art of poetry that was not afraid of terms such as ‘better’ and ‘superior’; Aristotle was describing poetry but also defining what it should be.  He compares epic with tragedy and concludes that, given his definition of what poetry should be, tragedy fulfills these artistic ends better, it must be considered the superior form [Aristotle 75].

I read Virginia Woolf and wrote a master’s dissertation at an American university on the poetry of Marianne Moore (the same university at which  Christina Hoff Summers, author of Who Stole Feminism? was a professor of philosophy)  but I didn’t fully question accepted ideas of the canon and judgment values based on an unstated, patriarchial hegemony.  I might have considered myself as a feminist in so far as, as the daughter and granddaughter of professional women, it never occurred to me that my gender should make a difference to my life style or career options, but it was only when I started a second masters degree – the M.A. provocatively called ‘Women Writing’ – while also looking after a young child that I took feminism seriously as literary theory and as a practical issue in my day to day life.

At the time, that M.A. at Essex University was one of the few – maybe the only one – in the country that was a feminist course in literature, rather than in history, sociology or politics.  It no longer exists.  It seems that few postgraduate courses on feminist theory are now available; the University of Bradford, one of the first British universities to offer a one-year taught master’s degree and research supervision in Women’s Studies, has now re-formulated the degree as the MA in Gender and Women’s Studies (GAWS).  While one of the few places you can study for an MA in women’s writing is Edge Hill – taught by Mari Hughes-Edwards, herself a medievalist though there it is only post-1500 literature that is studied.  [please note: I haven’t checked any change in the availability of courses on feminist studies since I wrote this in 2008]  Interestingly, the course I studied was Women (not women’s) Writing since the emphasis was on the process and theory of writing.

It was while studying for that MA that I first encountered the literature that was to become so important to me:  writing by – and for – medieval women.  It was because of that interest that (eventually!) I wrote my Ph.D. thesis and subsequent book on the early thirteenth-century guide for anchoresses [female recluses]  Ancrene Wisse.  Although my study of feminist theory informed my awareness of the construction of the specifically feminine spirituality of the text, as well as of the women themselves within the text, and although I discussed the female religious movement, bridal mysticism and other issues of interest to feminist scholarship, I was not directly engaged in feminist theory.  Indeed, I wrote that

While religious women may be constructed in gendered ways and through gendered imagery, the texts written for them were not inescapably confined by that gendered imagery. [Gunn, p. 9]

I was aware that I was writing on a text that, although initially written for women, was adaptable, and was adapted for a variety of audiences that included male religious.

I am now working on the Speculum Religiosorum of Edmund of Abingdon:  a text written by a male cleric, (a member of the hierarchy to the extent of being Archbishop of Canterbury) for male religious.  What role can my feminism play here, apart from maybe pointing out the absence of women?  But there is a space, a chink in this male armour:  the Speculum was translated into Anglo-Norman and then translated back into Latin in a form known as the Speculum Ecclesie.  There are also later Middle English versions, the Mirror of Holy Church.   Some of these versions were addressed specifically to women, or known to have been read by women.  By accepting these non-authorial variations, not as sub-standard or non-normative copies, but manifestations of a dynamic, developing work, I could challenge the authority of the [male] author and open up the text in ways which, by championing the marginal (tho’ I am aware of the masculine overtones of some of terms I am using: armour and championing!), are arguably feminist.

Terry Eagleton, in his book After Theory, links theory (as an abstract exercise) with cultural studies and points out that:

Culturalism is of course right that a natural event like death can be signified in a myriad cultural styles.  But we die anyway. [pp. 162-3]

He criticises the recent trend of theory as being too far removed from bodily matters, and therefore amoral:  ‘The creature who emerges from postmodern thought is centreless, hedonistic, self-inventing, ceaselessly adaptive.  He thus fares splendidly in the disco or supermarket, though not quite so well in the school, courtroom or chapel.  … If all that is solid must be dissolved into air, there can be no exceptions made for human beings.’ [After Theory, p. 190 – and yes, this ‘creature’ is he]

Eagleton makes a plea for a return to morality, which he sees as rooted in biological, bodily reality:  ‘Moral thought puts the body back into our discourse’ [After Theory, p. 155].  And he insists that ‘Feminism has … become the very model of morality’ [p. 13] by giving a voice to the marginalised.  (Tho’ he also warns against a perverse form of elitism in always preferring the marginal and denigrating the normative:  ‘It is a mistake, however, to believe that norms are always restrictive.  [… It is normative in our kind of society that people do not throw themselves with a hoarse cry on total stangers and amputate their legs.  It is conventional that child murderers are punished, that working men and women may withdraw their labour, and that ambulances speeding to a traffic accident should not be impeded just for the hell of it.  Anyone who feels oppressed by all this must be seriously oversensitive.]  Only an intellectual who has overdosed on abstraction could be dim enough to imagine that whatever bends a norm is politically radical’ [p. 15])  Eagleton also claims that feminism is a ‘paradigm’ of morality; for it ‘insists in its own way on the interwovenness of the moral and political, power and the personal’ [p. 144].

The feminine resists the removal of the body from culture, from the text; female spirituality is often grounded in the physical and maternal.  But is recognition of the feminine (the maternal, the bodily) also necessarily feminist; or even the only feminist critical strategy?  And anyway how could I put the female body back into the text of a male-authored work?  What other critical strategiest could I, as a dormant feminist, employ?  Through reading D. C. Greetham’s Theories of the Text, I realised my problem could be resolved by turning it on its head.  Greetham persuasively argues that the theory is always already there in any critical or editorial practice [p. 12].  What I needed was not to try to relate my research to an abstract theory, but rather a new awareness of the theoretical principles that were already present in my practice, informing my thinking, research and writing about medieval texts.

Greetham refers to Eagleton’s earlier book, Literary Theory: An Introduction:

I [i.e. Greetham] share Terry Eagleton’s view that such attempts to place oneself on ground outside theory usually conceal an inability to perceive the theoretical postulates on which the attack is mounted.  [Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people’s theories and an oblivion to one’s own’ (Literary, viii), Eagleton notes, and this formulation of the grounds of opposition accords with his later statementat that ‘[i]deology, like halitosis, is … what the other person has’ (Ideology, 2).]  [Greetham, p. 8]

Eagleton may appear to be rejecting such views in After Theory, but in fact what he is doing is rejecting what I think of as the tyrrany of theory.  I have often been suspicious of such tyranny:  theory cast adrift on an open sea in a small boat will inevitably turn to cannibalism.

But if theory is always already present, underpinning practice (as the matrix, indeed, present if not necessarily overtly so) what theoretical position will be revealed by an examination of my practice, and will such a revelation strengthen my work and understanding?  One can make obvious points:  that, as power was a masculine attribute, so this impacted on the personal; the perfect life was presented in gendered terms, which could be examined [cf. Barbara Newman’s work on gender and spiritual formation, e.g. ‘Flaws in the Golden Bowl’].  But we are in danger here of ‘so what’ statements.  The Middle Ages was a misogynist age:  so what?  Edmund was no more misogynist than any other writer of his period.  To point out the absence of women in his writing is the matter of moments, it is not of any real moment.

One of the longest – and final – chapters in Greetham’s book on Theories of the Text is on ‘Gender in the Text’; Greetham goes beyond  the ovarian theory of feminist editing advocated by some (that is, women editing texts by women in order to further a ‘gynocritical agenda’ [e.g. p. 437]) but invokes the language of Irigaray to analyse how French feminist theory could inform editorial practice.  He refers to an earlier essay in which he:

ignored the ‘demographics’ of editing (getting female editors for female texts) in favour of speculation on methodology, by suggesting that ‘one such manifestation might be the inversion (or subversion) of the authority of the “central”, intentionalist text of the textual page by the incursion of the “rejected authority” of textual variants, perhaps sporadically or even globally, in a dissipation of the traditional hierarchical structure of the eclectic edition’ (‘Manifestaion’, 79). [Greetham, 434]

Surely my own questioning of the dominance of authorial authority, my openness to multiple readings and the mouvance of the text was, broadly speaking, feminist?  I read as a woman because that is what I am – I acknowledge my difference – but it is not all that I am.  I am a scholar (an independent scholar!) and a medievalist.  For an example of an editorial practice that embraced ‘recent developments in textual theory’[AW I, xlvi] in favour of a more dynamic approach to the text, I turned to an edition of a medieval work written for women edited by the woman who, more than any other, has influenced my approach to medieval studies – Bella Millett’s edition of Ancrene Wisse.  While acknowledging the importance of authorial intention, Millett challenges the binary opposition between author and scribe which can become ‘a Manichean dualism’ [AW I, xlvii] with the original text as authentic (and so good) and the changes brought about through textual transmission as degenerate (and so evil).  Millett questions the very concept of ‘scribal error’, pointing out the presence of conscious as well as casual variation in the text: ‘The evidence … suggests  … a qualitative distinction between authorial and non-authorial alterations cannot always be taken for granted’ [AW I, liii & lv].  One reason for textual change may well be awareness of a particular readership – and the gender of that readership.  Millett concludes the description and argument for her editorial approach by claiming:

It does not use [the methods of stemmatic editing and “deep editing”] to reconstruct a text representing ‘ a single authorial intention’, whether first or final; and although it attempts, wherever possible, to distinguish between the contribution of the original author and that of his successors to the textual tradition of Ancrene Wisse, it does not treat the former as the only significant part of its textual history.  Traditionally, the aim of textual criticism has been to establish the direction of textual change in order to reverse it.  In a ‘dynamic’ textual tradition however, textual change can be regenerative as well as degenerative, and repairing the collateral damage caused by the process of change is only part of the editor’s task. [AW I, lxi]

Applying this theory to my own approach to the Speculum Religiosorum, I can argue that what matters is to show that this work is not restricted to that masculine reading but weight can also be given to the text that was produced in the reading by women, [to replace the hegemony of intention with the variability of interpretation] to examine how the Speculum Religiosorum gives rise to the Sermon a Dames Religioses and to consider how the text was read and used, not just how it was written.  Such an approach embraces variability and cooperation rather than authority and determination; textual change is evolution and even regeneration, not degeneration.  This sounds like a feminist agenda to me:  feminism, based as it is on a challenge to patriarchal prescriptions, can provide a  useful tool for interrogating the assumption of authorial priority – authorial authority (always, it seems inscribed with masculinity) and if there is a specifically female body present it is the reader of the text – present as a physical presence reading a physical object, that is a particular manuscript which is also a particular manifestation of the [male-authored, female-read] work.

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