This chapter pays tribute to David Lawton, a pioneer and leading scholar in the field of voice studies in Middle English. Over the course of the past 40 years David Lawton has produced scholarship of continued relevance. From his earliest work on alliterative poetry to his recent edition of Chaucer, he has pioneered editorial innovations. At the same time, his work on narratology has both deployed and questioned the structuralist turn. His attention to otherness and empire engaged the postcolonial condition before it had a name. His work on theology and religious history prefigured a critical religious studies.
The racialisation of voice precedes the invention of race in the fifteenth century. Its most salient form within late medieval, Christian Europe is the comparison of the voices of non-Christian peoples to those of nonhuman animals, and the characterisation of their voices as inarticulata (unintelligible), drawing on the influential, fourfold categorisation of vox (voice) made by the late antique grammarians Donatus and Priscian. The hierarchical sorting of voices into the human and the bestial, the human and the barbaric, the intelligible and the unintelligible still shapes the way that we hear a supposed ‘essence’ of race in voices today. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale, Canacee’s ability to understand birdsong connects the human and the nonhuman by figuring a nonhuman voice as vox articulata (articulate, intelligible). Giorgio Agamben names this point of conjunction and separation between the human and the animal a ‘caesura’, and urges that we must seek to understand the historical construction of the conflict between the animality and the humanity of man in order to address the violent political and social consequences of that separation. Poetry’s origins in in-spiration , breath, invites us to put race and poetics together at a moment in US and global history when Black people are struggling to breathe.
Concentrating on v.1479–80, the point at which the knight Arveragus ‘brast anon to wepe’, this chapter offers a reading of The Franklin’s Tale that foregrounds the disruptive presence in that tale of the body as a conduit for truths about the self that challenge those that can be consciously tolerated and intelligibly uttered. When we weep, the body is speaking. Here, as it forces a sudden disruption and decline in Arveragus’s speech register and ethical focus, the voice of the body erupts in such a way as to crystallise one of the tale’s most urgent concerns with what might really constitute truth, unravelling what has gone before, putting the reader’s experience on a different footing and forcing a reappraisal of the characters’ self-concepts. And this, in turn, raises questions about the relationship between, on the one hand, the rhetoric and ideals explicitly at work within the world of the tale and, on the other, the felt presence not only of its teller, the Franklin, but also of its author, Chaucer.
Returning to Lee Krasner’s battle with Prophecy and its masculinist ghosts – Picasso, Pollock, de Kooning – as well as to the Irigarayan metaphor of dancing space, Pollock discovers jouissance both in Krasner’s working through of the challenge and in terms of a freedom made possible by the emergence of a dancing space in her gestural abstraction, a rhythm in the gestures, a different kind of evocation of and being with a clearly feminine corporeality. The battle between Killing (as creativity, Bataille) and Dying (as psychic condition occasioned by real loss and mourning) is displaced by a third theoretical engagement with the contrasting theorizations of sexual difference by Julia Kristeva and Bracha L. Ettinger. Reviewing the trajectory of Lee Krasner’s painting practice in both personal and historical terms, Pollock considers her struggle with the knowledge of the racialized genocide of the Jewish communities of Europe explored by Robert Hobbs as her ‘crisis of witnessing’. She reviews Krasner’s long creative practice according to Bataille’s thesis on hybridity and decomposition in modernism. Through several psychoanalytical theories of the subject and the discourse of sexual difference in popular culture, Pollock moves from ‘Marilyn’ to ‘Jackson’ and back, opening up a space in which to read the paintings of ‘Lee’ as ‘female creation’ (Kristeva) that was ecstatic, funny, intellectually intense, artistically acute and creatively violent at times, thus revealing the semiotic possibilities and historical conditions of a relation between creativity and femininity that did not involve massacre but continual openness to radical aesthetic exploration.
The voice of ‘Sir John Mandeville’, author and protagonist of Mandeville’s Travels, is an illusory textual effect: Mandeville, as we all know, was not Mandeville, and probably did not travel. Mandeville’s first-person experiences are plagiarised from those of genuine travellers; yet the text forges a distinctive voice that unites its disparate sources and the positions, in Michel de Certeau’s terms, of ‘voyeur’ and ‘walker’. This voice constitutes what David Lawton names ‘a public interiority’: generations of Mandeville’s readers occupied his position. Hence, for someone who did not exist, Mandeville generated significant material traces, including two grave sites, at Liège and St Albans. Mandeville’s English readers added additional biography to flesh out the character, emphasising, variously, his Englishness, his knightliness and his scholarship. Two manuscripts of the Travels visualise him both as author and as traveller: in BL, MS Harley 3954, he is a humble guide and pilgrim; and in the luxurious BL, MS Additional 24189, he is an elegant aristocrat.
Starting with wordplay on the terms of the title, killing, dying and dy(e)ing, invoking violence as a force in both creativity and psychic life leads into a discussion of the thesis proposed by the French Surrealist writer Georges Bataille that renovation in art was grounded in the deadly energy of destruction. This is compared to Clement Greenberg’s equally eliminationist thesis that in modern art each art form hunts its identity back through its medium. Both raise questions of the Oedipal competition with the Father and the drama of loss of the Mother. Pollock discusses feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s creative reclamation, for feminism, of the myth of Pandora’s box as a thesis on feminist curiosity and desire to knowledge. She notes the conjunction of Monroe’s annus mirabilis in Hollywood cinema, in 1953, the year of Kinsey’s report on female sexual behaviour and the first issue of Playboy with Monroe on the cover, and she follows Monroe to Korea, where she sang for the GIs as they guarded the peace after the Cold War stand-off at the end of the Korean War. The author juxtaposes Monroe’s celebrity to that of Jackson Pollock. Between these two incommensurate icons of the 1950s, structural binaries were reified: high art and popular culture, painting and cinema, art and commodity, authenticity and artifice, masculinity and femininity. Within this opposition, which was also a structural complementarity, painting – as opposed to dy(e)ing – women were caught in dilemmas and riddles posed by the gender polarities of that culture, which were inevitably the very form of these divisions.
Why another take on Abstract Expressionism? Witnessing renewed interest in, exhibitions of and publications on abstract painting, and especially Lee Krasner, in New York in the 1950s, this book addresses painting and sexual difference, knowingly threading theory into reading artworks, explaining two major modernist theories of creativity through violence: symbolic killing. The introduction situates three events that formed Pollock as an art historian, explores the condition of art history now, and explains the necessity for feminist critique. This book asks how do we imagine and image difference in abstract painting? Pollock makes the case for feminist seeing and thinking to reassert the richness of art’s histories and to counter bland banality, hero-worship and speculative marketization of celebrity based on price tags. She poses questions of sexual difference through a range of philosophical and psychoanalytical models, challenging the current antipathy to sexual difference theory in the face of obligatory engagement with queer gender theory and the focus on intersectionality, race critique and diversity: both recognized as critical but not exclusive. Class issues, complex forms of ethnic and migratory diversity and the continuing significance of formations of subjectivity in relation to desire, phantasy and embodiment are being sidelined before we have adequately engaged or exhausted their political and theoretical potential for transformation. This book is also, therefore, an attempt to show why thinking about sexual difference does not reaffirm heterocracy and is not indifferent to diversity, while also being critical to understanding what happens in the acts of creation in art forms distilled into being acts, gestures by bodies not seeking to represent but to discover forms in which subjectivity-in-the-world-and-in-a-differentiated-body might tip into visibility or legibility.
The introduction stages the concept of ‘voice’ as a narrative, literary and conceptual topos that is then elaborated across the volume. It considers the fraught nature of voice as an embodied yet fleeting phenomenon that leaves only traces of its existence as a memory, a textual remnant or as a transient sensation of aerial vibrations. Tracing the development of the theoretical debate of voice and what it might constitute from antiquity to modern critical theories, it seeks to showcase its multiplicity, its evasiveness and its potentiality, both as a narrative tool and as a mode of understanding medieval approaches to and perceptions of literature, vocality and aurality. It expands across classical theories on voice, narratology, feminist criticism and interdisciplinary studies on auditory perceptions. Ultimately, it presents the multiple meanings of voice – i.e. the notion of the authorial voice, the implicit or intended aurality of the text and vox as authority or moral imperative, but also, in a Bakhtinian sense, the multiplicity of narrative voices within a text and the aural soundscapes provided by absent, imaginary and actual voices.
This chapter explores further structural/semiotic/psychoanalytical readings of abstract painting and the inherent instability of psychic gender it enacts though a discussion of hysteria that opens the subject to oscillating identification – ‘Am I a man? Am I a woman?’ – as well as the anxiety of non-being: ‘Am I dead or living?’ When creating, does the masculine artist, structurally, psychically, hysterically identify with the Mother as both the Ur-figure of creator, or battle with the Mother as the Other from which he, as a masculinized subject, has been severed by the Oedipally decreed abjection of the maternal body and by the resulting Oedipal formation of his masculine subjectivity through identification and rivalry with the Father? If making art by men is theorized as hysterical, this destabilizes gender ideologies that heroize artist-men. The maternal remains a ghost in the artwork, momentarily taking centre stage in the history of art c. 1950 when the expanse of canvas awaiting the gesturing mark of the artist confronted artists, both men and women, as the maternal other. Painting became a dynamic contest between marking as self-realizing and surface as otherness, as maternal parent, as ‘world without me’. This stages a psycho-aesthetic drama of the subject, the ordeal of sexual difference for the masculine as well as the feminine artist-subject, who too must deal with the maternal, as both creator-m/Other (Ettinger’s matrixial supplement) and the Oedipal Mother in a different configuration of identification and escape. Artist-women’s engagement in gestural abstraction enabled them to participate aesthetically and formally in the drama of emerging subjectivity and of fluid, hysterical sexual difference with differentiated psychic investments in the feminine-maternal m/Other/Mother in variably sexual and psycho-corporeally differentiated relation to the maternal and hence to their own sexuated singularity ‘in, of and from the feminine’.
This chapter follows Hilary Robinson’s reading of the philosopher of sexual difference Luce Irigaray’s exploration of ‘Gesture in Psychoanalysis’. Questioning the gender neutrality of Freud’s interpretation of his grandson playing and repeating a gesture when his mother was absent – and his naming the throwing and recovering of a toy the fort–da game – Irigaray suggests three sites of sexual difference in the negotiation of the maternal absence through a girl’s play. Pollock then analyses gesture in photographs of Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler. Their painting methods stripped the act of painting back to the actions of the artist’s body, her/his medium and the canvas as a space/arena, inviting further psychoanalytically inflected theories about unconscious and phantasmatic negotiations of maternal otherness and maternal absence. Exploring this with Bracha L. Ettinger’s thesis of ‘the matrixial gaze’ and metramorphosis, questions emerge when we cease to think of subjectivity only in terms of Oedipal oppositions, masculine and feminine, and embrace the inherent unfixity of psychological formations through both the non-Oedipal matrixial encounter and the Oedipal process of identification.