07 February 2009

Reaching up to Touch the Floor

The title of this post is a reference to Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers. In it, he tells an allegorical story about a land in which the people could not touch the floor without great difficulty. It was difficult because the accepted approach to touching the floor was to reach upwards as high as you might; so pervasive was the reach-up ideology, that the only time people could be taught to touch the floor was indirectly--by tying their shoes "without sitting down and shaking [their] hands around at the same time" (13).

So, yeah. That's sort of how I feel at this point, like I've been going about this thing the wrong way. I've tightened up to the point that it's difficult for me to think creatively about my proposal. I've no trouble thinking critically; thanks to a lot of great support from my friends, I think I have a good idea of the areas that were problematic (and on some of these, there was new and different widespread concensus!). What I'm having trouble with is remedying the problem areas. I know what's wrong, but I'm so overwhelmed by the project and its argument that I can't hold any 2 portions of it in my head for more than a few seconds...and forget trying to re-examine the relationship between 2 or more portions of the proposal. That is far beyond the scope of someone who just today forgot one of the key primary sources for this research project (remembered Harpin but forgot Chretien when talking to Eric Lutrell today). So I'm going to work only on this paragraph tonight--and probably for just a few minutes. I imagine a lot of it is about to go by the wayside...

This widespread consensus, however, has made for an awkward moment in monster theory. Such agreement has left many unsure as to how we should proceed, and some have focused their attentions on other projects. Indeed, conversations with fellow members of the BABEL Working Group such as Cohen, Eileen Joy, and Karl Steel have shown that while monsters are still a source of discussion, scholarly interest in them is beginning to wane in favor of attendant issues (hybridity, sexuality, medieval concepts of the human, etc.). As many who were once heavily involved in monster theory have foreseen, academic agreement quickly becomes academic stagnation. Thus, what was once the study of characters who could petrify with fear is itself in danger of sinking into the swamp and becoming petrified by consensus.
Well, even I have to admit that this paragraph is pretty bad. Let's see what I can do here.

Academic consensus is a rare bird, and one of the reasons for this is the stagnation that often follows in its wake. Broad-scale agreement kills discussion and ceases movement: we relinquish our places at the vanguard where we advanced new and risky ideas to bivouac in familiar territory where we produce prescriptive statements. Our sense of inquiry leaves us.

One might argue that the momentum of monster theory has begun to wain, our forward progress has slowed. Perhaps each scholar associated with monster theory has begun to keep one eye open for more attractive, vibrant areas of inquiry. Perhaps when there is nothing left to argue, there is nothing left to say. Perhaps--though we be blind men touching different parts of the proverbial elephant--we have decided that is it, indeed, an elephant. We are far from done, for we have not even begun to understand how the elephant works. We may agree on the definition and even function of monsters in medieval texts, but that is just the "what"; we have only begun to ask the "how" and the "why" of that function.
I started fading there at the end. But it provokes lots of questions in my head: How do monsters function as boundary figures? Is it by dint of their physical description/appearance? Their actions? Their rupture of "normal" narrative events? Their troubling and overshadowing of other, more formal aspects of the works that contain them? Their peculiar cultural markers (such as cannibalism, silence/gibberish, clothing)?

Do these aspects themselves reinforce the boundary via fear? If so, how is fear employed? Is it fear of the monster and of the Other (psychoanalytic) or fear of ending up like the monster who always suffers the same fate in what amounts to a morality tale (structuralist)? Is it fear of what is necessarily on the other side of that boundary? Is what is on the other side of the monster what is actually deeply-seated in all of us (Lacanian extimacy)?

I think the waters are sufficiently muddied...but I'm no closer to a cogent prospectus. Great.


Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

The problem here is that of cart before horse: you are asking yourself to articulate an argument that can in fact emerge with nuance only from the kind of close engagement with texts that the writing of the thesis will require. So do your best and MOVE ON, because the prospectus looks forward to a thing that never comes into existence anyway (at least not in its anticipated form).

Be general about your theory, and be specific about why you have chosen each text ... and what more can you really do?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

By the way, those are GREAT questions you pose at the end. Each text will likely answer them differently -- and perhaps you are driving yourself crazy by attempting to arrive at a unified or singular answer in advance.

prehensel said...

I know, I know. I haven't yet given up on the Unified Theory!
I think it's why I like James Paxson's ideas in Poetics of Personification so much: in the second chapter, he works so hard to create this elaborate taxonomy with a place for everything and everything in its place--so hard, in fact, that I began to wonder if maybe there weren't two James Paxsons. And then he casually kicks the foundation out from under it all. He admits that the categories don't/won't remain discrete in praxis and then shows that they're not discrete even in the purely theoretical realm.

I like that because those are the two competing drives that I feel as a medievalist. There's the Tolkien side that wants to explain it all with an exquisite theory, and then there's the Derridean side that delights in asking the questions that make it all fall down. Tearing it all down is sort of the point of my diss., but I get sidetracked inside the project of making it all fit and forget that I never thought it could all fit.

This project was only a small part of the Orals exam--just supposed to be a prospectus for the equivalent of a 20-minute conference-type paper. But when it was rejected...then I lost confidence and started to feel like they wanted me to tell them what I was going to learn before I learned it. But your advice seems dead-on: I may be trying to explain too much up front, trying to write the paper before I write it. And doing that probably makes everything even harder to understand.

I hate that small writing is so much harder that big writing...

Karma said...

Revision is, for me, worse than a root canal, mowing the lawn, and having stomach bug all in the same day (those are three things I really really hate); I don't envy you this stage of the work. But I'm excited to see what comes of it all the same. Good luck!