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Like a Radio Left On / On the Outskirts of Identical Cities: Living (with) Fradenburg

Published onMar 08, 2020
Like a Radio Left On / On the Outskirts of Identical Cities: Living (with) Fradenburg

[Originally posted on May 5, 2012]

. . . obscure / forces are at work / like a radio left on / On the outskirts of / identical cities.

~Ben Lerner, “Doppler Elegies”

Like a radio left on, in the poet Ben Lerner’s parlance, on the outskirts of identical cities — and also, like the strains of a Lushlife Project downtempo “Budapest Eskimos” soundtrack emanating from a diamond mine — Aranye Fradenburg’s work has operated as a groovy and “obscure force” in medieval studies for the past 20 or so years, both as a powerful and palpably explicit influence upon work in Middle English literary [especially Chaucer] studies, especially those inflected by psychoanalytic and symptomatic and “discontinuist”/non-alteritist historicist approaches to the Middle Ages. Her work has also operated, I would argue, as a potent and insistent voice [not always fully registered or acknowledged as such in our field and beyond] on the “arts” of living, on eudaimonia [“flourishing”], on the importance of pleasure/enjoyment [in its lighter and darker valences], on sentience/sensation + the “feeling” arts, on techniques of living + care of the self, and most especially, on the “living on”-ness of the always-traveling and transitive and open-ended and transgressive and non-linear signifiers and processes of signification that enable [and sometimes disable] the inter-subjective formations between various actors, living and dead, “past” and “present,” that have been so crucial to our desires, to our sufferings [passions], to our ability to “affiliate” with and “relate” to others, and thus, to “living our [shared] lives,” for better and worse. It should be mentioned, too, that the “obscure force” that Lerner speaks of in his “Doppler Elegies” is love, a subject which has played no small role in Fradenburg’s intellectual, and I would also say, political-humanist concerns.

Fradenburg has also been a particular hero of mine for insisting, over and over again throughout her writings, that, in all times and places, we misunderstand ourselves, and therefore, unknowing — and the self-fictionalizations [some constructive, some destructive] predicated upon that unknowing — have to be taken into account, whether we are studying the past or just trying to understand ourselves and our own experiences. As she put it so eloquently in Sacrifice Your Love, with regard to medieval studies, we “cannot confine the work of knowing the Middle Ages to replicating, however hopelessly and/or heroically, medieval cultures’ self-understandings. We also should explore how medieval cultures, like all others, may have misunderstood themselves” [pp. 77-78]. And with regard to our own self-understandings, and in a way that is resonant with many of the discourses circulating in the university today under the aegis of object-oriented philosophies and various strains of post/humanist thought, Fradenburg wrote in the same book,

. . . the effect of subjectivity is produced by the interplay of insentience with sentience. . . . The telescopes that help us see the stars, the buildings that house the shelters that are our bodies, are insentient; and yet we extend sentience through them. But the more we make the machines and products that extend subjectivity into the world, the more insentience is part of us, or we are part of it. Forces are at work within us that do not “mean” anything; parts of ourselves cannot account for themselves. The work cannot account for itself, or disclose anything about itself, or even be questioned. [p. 13]

This excerpt is part of a much longer and very complex discussion having to do with the alienation produced by labor, modes of production [scholarly and artistic], aesthetics, courtly love, desire, libidinal economies, the Law, enjoyment, sacrifice/loss, political ethics, and community, and I can’t do justice to all of that here, and in any case, Fradenburg’s theoretical project in this book, especially with regard to, say, Chaucer studies and medieval chivalric literature and culture more broadly [in its broadest temporal dimensions, then to now], is well known and registered across so much scholarship that has been done since this book and under its influence. My own continual return(s) to the passages cited above have more to do with my own interest in and use of Fradenburg’s thinking, which, of unconscious necessity or intention, is highly idiosyncratic and personal. So, for me, these passages have long operated as watch-phrases for my own work, where I have striven to always keep in mind the unavoidable blind spots of everyone’s understanding of everything, including ourselves. Scholarship of medieval literature, or any literature, really, for me, becomes a valuable project of tracing productive errancies and sites of incoherence and crafting creative critical approaches that, in Eve Sedgwick’s memorable formulation, aim to be “additive and accretive,” desiring “to assemble and confer plenitude on an object [such as a text or textual object or author-object] that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self” [“Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, pp. 27-28]. This has something to do as well with what Bryan Reynolds has called a transversal poetics that defies “the authorities that reduce and contain meanings,” and that seeks to “understand and empower fugitive elements [in texts and other artifacts, and in particular spaces] insofar as doing so generates positive experiences” [“Transversal Poetics and Fugitive Explorations: Theaterspace, Paused Consciousness, Subjunctivity, and Macbeth,” in Transversal Enterprises in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries: Fugitive Explorations, pp. 1-26]. And this sort of work might be crucial for the future, if we agree with Frandeburg [and I do] that,

To be able to anticipate, plan, project a future or into a future, we have to not know for sure, because we have to suspend judgment even while exercising it, knowing that we don’t know (everything). Ethics—and ultimately psychoanalysis—emerges from a willing of this suspension, a paradoxical knowing of non-knowing. [“(Dis)continuity: A History of Dreaming,” in The Post-Historical Middle Ages, ed. Elizabeth Scala and Sylvia Frederico, p. 96]

I must admit that I was drawn to write this post because, partly due to my own personal project to spend some time over the next few years re-visiting Foucault’s late writings on the “care of the self” and biopower [because of THISTHIS, and THIS], I have been returning [a lot] recently to Fradenburg’s 2002 book Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Historicism, Chaucer and I have been struck both by how apropos to “our moment” and compelling this book still is [10 years later, and gee, 10 years isn’t that long ago, anyway, but we have a tendency to “forget” stuff all of the time in our scholarship] and also by how Fradenburg’s entire oeuvre seems to continuously circle back [with important renovations of thought] to this earlier book’s project to draw attention to the important inter-relations between embodiment and signification, between pleasure and virtue, between subjectivity and Otherness, and between art and what she calls, in her essay “Living Chaucer,” the “living process” [p. 64; see below for full citation]. It feels timely to me, therefore, to spend some time now thinking about Fradenburg’s trajectory of thought over the past ten years or so, especially as it culminates, or expresses itself, in this essay.

I offer one cautionary note here, therefore, to say that I am not attempting in this blog post to offer a comprehensive account of Fradenburg’s whole body of work, nor to assess all of its merits [of which there are many] in relation to the larger field of medieval studies. As with other blog posts I have written in the past, here I merely celebrate the originality and importance of a scholar who has urged me [successfully] to think, and also to feel, differently — about my field [medieval studies], yes — but more importantly, about the world in which I live. Over the years, I have come to value and to gather close to me, with a certain ardor, the work of scholars who have helped me, not just to think, but to live more creatively [more on which, below], and in this sense, Fradenburg joins Sara Ahmed, Zygmunt Bauman, Jane Bennett, Leo Bersani, Kathleen Biddick, Judith Butler, John Caputo, Thomas Carlson, Iain Chambers, Jeffrey Cohen, Michel de Certeau, Deleuze and Guattari, Carolyn Dinshaw, Michel Foucault, James Earl, Cary Howie, Anna Klosowska, Jonathan Lear, Emmanuel Levinas, Michael Edward Moore, Martha Nussbaum, Bill Readings, Joan Retallack, Claude Romano, Eve Sedgwick, and Simone Weil as writers who always hover nearby in my study. This list is highly personal and idiosyncratic, of course. The work of some of the scholars in this list also stands out — for me, anyway — for their attention to and care for the role of the humanities, and of creative thought more generally, in relation to personal and social life, and thus has also been crucial to me and others in relation to the projects of the BABEL Working Group. Fradenburg, along with Bennett, Nussbaum, and Readings, is particularly noteworthy in this regard. When reading Fradenburg closely, no matter what the specific texts or subjects under close scrutiny [Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, the Knight’s TaleTroilus and Criseyde, whatever], what she seems to always be talking about is something she says more explicitly in her essay, “Group Time: Catastrophe, Survival, Periodicity” [in Time and the Literary, ed. Karen Newman, Jay Clayton, and Marianne Hirsch], that “enjoyment is the matrix of knowledge, and knowledge is not diminished thereby.” Further, “Interpretation and explanation are activities central to libidinal structuration and vice versa. . . . We thereby reclaim our technical work [the humanities] as the work of desire, and desire as that which makes the world” [p. 232]. 

Fradenburg has become one of our most important advocates for the importance of the “liberal arts” [and of literature/the fine arts/creativity/confabulation/play, especially] to personal and more broadly social “thriving” [this goes way beyond medieval studies, I might add, which is why I also think she should be read more broadly outside of our field] and thus, Fradenburg’s recent essay, “Living Chaucer,” published in Studies in the Age of Chaucer [and originally presented at the 17th Biennial Meeting of the New Chaucer Society in Siena, Italy in 2009], feels like both the consummate culmination of her career’s various theoretical trajectories thus far, while it also offers [within the context of her more recent forays into neuroscience and evolutionary biology] a striking and enlivening departure for a couple of reasons — first, because she moves closer than she has in previous work to embracing the value and necessity of “shared minds” [and thus, for all of its precariousness and dangers, somatic-affective community-assemblages], and second, because she also moves closer to admitting that literature/language is not ONLY a signalling system that only-always defers/devolves to other signalling systems [which are therefore in continual Derridean slippage that, perhaps, never admits of a Real, or is always pointing to the ways in which language can only ever be falling away from that Real — blah blah blah, I’m so tired of/bored by these theories of “lack”/non-coincidence between language and everything else], but may actually have the power to change history, and even more so, possesses a “presence” that is not negligible with regard to how we are affected by the past [or even to how we understand and negotiate our “selves” and our experiences in the present]. As Fradenburg herself puts it in “Living Chaucer,”

undead life seems more apt a description of the signifier’s mode of existence (as Derrida himself thought) than does simple absence or nonexistence. I wrote in Sacrifice Your Love about this form of ‘‘being-as-signifier’’: given how susceptible we are to the signifier’s designs, there is more connectedness than we think between living subjects and dead letters. Nature’s signifiers vary in their realizations, but something, a shape, insists. [p. 44]

There is some resonance here with what Anna Klosowska writes in Queer Love in the Middle Ages, that,

all fiction corresponds to an absolute reality—not of existence, but of desire that calls fiction into being, performed by the authors and manuscript makers; and continuing desire for it performed by the readers, a desire that sustains the book’s material presence across the centuries. That desire is incorporated in an existence. It is the backbone of an identity. It is an essential part of the bundle of motives that lie behind all that the body does. A part essential because it is retrievable, but also because it is privileged: art reveals more of life than life does. [p. 7]

I am reminded of when I was at University College Dublin in June of 2009 for a 3-day seminar devoted to the work of Leo Bersani, and on the first day, when we were revisiting the span of his career’s writings prior to Intimacies [reading Bersani “retrospectively”], at one point, I got extremely excited during the discussion of Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’s essay on Terence Malik’s film The Thin Red Line [in their co-authored book Forms of Being], an essay I absolutely love and have made use of in my own scholarship [see HERE], and one of the seminar’s participants said something to me that, in my memory of it, went something like this, “But, Eileen, why are you getting so excited about this? After all, we’re talking about a text, and what we do is talk about texts, and this is not about life. You’re acting like we’re supposed to read Bersani for life.” And I was like: um, we’re NOT supposed to read Bersani — and let’s face it, theory more generally — for LIFE? Fuck: how come no one TOLD me that? It was a funny moment [and one that, serendipitously, led to a marvelous friendship-bonding moment with Michael Snediker, who was also there], but also one that convinced me more than ever: um, yeah, theory is for life: DUH! We read theory — whether Derrida, Foucault, Bersani, Jane Bennett, Graham Harman, Roland Barthes, Fradenburg, and I could go on — for life: for LIFE, bitches! So I relate this anecdote to also say: Fradenburg’s scholarship isn’t just about Chaucer or medieval literature or even psychoanalytic approaches to literature more broadly; it’s about life, it’s about how we, in her own words,

need knowledge of how to do things every day in every way in our real environments; and we are not yet very close to eliminating the contingency and changefulness of living.  When it comes to talking, listening, courting, negotiating, playing basketball, playing the violin, making peace, leading an organization, the humanities teaches us how to live successfully—how to adapt to, and (re-)create, our circumstances, by seeing more keenly, hearing more polyphonically, interpreting more humbly, richly and carefully, speaking to each other more persuasively, and much, much more. [“The Liberal Arts of Psychoanalysis,” The Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry 39.4 (2011): 589-609]

Relationality, intersubjectivity, aliveness, resilience, care of the [confabulated] self and also of others, playfulness, healing, and thriving seem, increasingly, to be the key watchwords and concerns of Fradenburg’s work, and at the same time, the so-called “literary” mode is still central to these concerns, such that,

Interpretation and relationality depend on one another because all relationships are unending processes of interpretation and expression, listening and signifying.  In turn, sentience assists relationality: we can’t thrive and probably can’t survive without minds open to possibility, capable of sensing and interpreting the tiniest shifts in, e.g., pitch and tone. [“The Liberal Arts of Psychoanalysis”]

Although it may seem, that in some of her recent writings, Fradenburg has been turning more toward psychoanalysis + cognitive studies and away from a concentrated focus on medieval literature, per se, her essay “Living Chaucer” tells a different story about a long and warm relationship with Chaucer in which the “literary friendship” Fradenburg feels for Chaucer “is an attachment his work actively solicits, to a degree and in ways unique to his corpus but consistent both with premodern and contemporary understandings of the signifier and its role in intersubjective, hence also political and social, process” [“Living Chaucer,” p. 41]. Therefore, Chaucer’s poetry is central to Fradenburg’s thinking on something she has written eloquently about before in numerous pieces, and expressed in her recent essay “(Dis)Continuity: A History of Dreaming,” where she writes that, “we all live in many different times; different times live on in us and our practices” [p. 88], and therefore, with regard to literature [Chaucer’s poetry, for example] and its role in personal and social mental life, we might say, following Fradenburg, that it enables a “shared attention,” which is a form of sociality productive of progressive change in history. Literature is also, by its very nature, playful, and thus crucial, as Fradenburg writes, to the sorts of becomings that enable important psychic transformations:

Play values experimentation. When we play, we are more open to the new, from within and without. We become ‘‘neophiles’’ and innovators, making active use of our imaginations. Playing and pretending are crucial to the becomings of living creatures, to adaptation and behavioral flexibility; . . . Play teaches ‘‘vital skills’’; it is transformative and transforming. We can neither thrive nor survive without it. And it is highly contagious, a powerful medium of affect transmission. [“Living Chaucer,” p. 57]

This resonates with Joan Retallack’s argument — with which I am in hearty agreement — that, “To become adult in our culture (which for most of us means to become compliantly productive) is . . . to be increasingly disabled for the kinds of humorous and dire, purposeful play that creates geometries of attention revelatory of silences in the terrifying tenses that elude official grammars” [The Poethical Wager, p. 62].

Perhaps the most important aspect of Fradenburg’s “Living Chaucer” essay is its emphasis on the idea that authors, texts [and the textual objects enclosed and projected therein], and readers forms somatic-affective [and thus, inter-subjective] assemblages and signifying networks over time, and what this means is,

Chaucer’s words ‘‘live on’’ because the patterns they create really do change our minds and bodies. I believe this viewpoint to be a helpful alternative to our perennial question about whether we are representing the past rightly. Whatever representations of the English past we fashion, they are all in part the result of changes wrought in us, consciously and nonconsciously, by living with Chaucer. The signifiers of the past are in us, whether we understand them ‘‘rightly’’ or not; we will never be certain what they mean, but we will certainly have been possessed by them. And our possession by (and of ) past signifiers further transforms their range of meanings. [p. 45]

Further, “symbols enable living process. Or, to put it another way, living is an art” [p. 45], and literature forms one very important component of what might be called shared sentience [something I argue for myself in work on reading vis-a-vis various object-oriented philosophies], one that would be [and this is the more implicit thrust of the essay, I believe] woefully impoverished and less able to transform itself in positive, open-ended ways, without poetry, without literature and other fine arts. Those of us who work in the humanities, it seems to me [and urged by Fradenburg’s and others’ thought], must never stop laboring and fighting to stress this point, which might also be put like this: Living is an art; the arts are crucial for living. Our scholarly work, also — and this cannot be stressed enough — is also an art, if we could just better grasp and practice this fact. We do not just study and write about the literary arts, but rather, extend and reinvent them in “our own words” [at least, I want to believe this and have written more about this HEREHERE, and HERE].

“Living Chaucer” is extraordinary for the way in which it brings together neuroscience [with its concepts of neuroplasticity and mirror neurons], evolutionary/behavioral biology, studies of animal communication, psychoanalysis [Freud on mourning and melancholia, Winnicott on play], and medieval philosophy, among other subjects, to ultimately argue for literature, and Chaucer’s poetry especially, as a form of [therapeutic] care [and counter-melancholic “working through”] enabled through a shared attention that is always about the process more so than the end, or “finish,” of anything. Chaucer himself, through his poetry, is a kind of “premodern psychologist” whose continual suspension of so-called “final” meanings creates what might be called a “friendly” liminal clearing in which so-called “self-knowledge” can really only be accessed communally, or in the company of good listener-conversationalists with a predisposition to welcome the Other [like Chaucer and his narrators!]. Through Chaucer’s art, we undo our isolation and move closer to the sort of “fellowship” so crucial for living, and for thriving [together]. As Fradenburg herself puts it, in what for me is the most moving line of the essay, and worth bracketing here,

What enables us to risk change is the feeling that we are understood and (therefore) accompanied. [p. 60]

In the final analysis, as Fradenburg herself avers, play and shared attention are so important to so many species, including humans, that they may even be an end in themselves. We might also call this learning, or the university: the endless [playful, but also at times, sorrowful] processes we must commit ourselves to, with their open-ended [Chaucerian] mutliplicity of perspectives, and their cultivation of the [non-utilitarian] arts of life which may have more to do with personal and social well-being than we have previously imagined. For this, and many other reasons, Fradenburg’s work hails us to this inter-temporal pedagogical-artistic project, and asks us, not just to innovate our scholarship accordingly, but to reclaim the humanities itself as the site of care and healing, and thus, of love itself, especially when we understand love [as I do], in Lauren Berlant’s terms, as a form of “emotional time,” where “it is possible to value floundering around with others whose attention-paying to what’s happening is generous and makes liveness possible as a good, not a threat” [Lauren Berlant, “Starved,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106.3 (2007): 440]. Fradenburg’s work is itself that sort of generous attention-paying, by which we are enriched, and yes, enlivened.

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