Abstracts for MLA Session 164: Middle English Affects

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    Lisa H. Cooper

    If you will be at MLA, please do attend what promises to be a wonderful session on Middle English Affects (Session 164, Thursday, January 9, 7:00-8:15 pm in 617 WSSC). The titles and abstracts below give some idea of why you should come.

    Richard Newhauser, ASU-Tempe

    \”Affect, Enargeia, and Sensology\”

    Whether or not we begin with a differentiation between “emotion,” as the presentational expression of feelings, passions and sentiments, while “affect” describes a more corporeally oriented activity, conscious or unconscious, we can agree with Stephanie Trigg that affect has also been understood by its theorists to include “a collective or social feeling.” Up to now, however, affect theory has done too little to take into account sensology, that is, the study of the human senses in all their facets as cultural constructions and not factors limited to biology or psychology. By drawing on this growing discipline (which is a further development of the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty and some current trends in anthropology) and on concepts it has developed such as “sensory communities,” we can ground affect in both what Latour terms “the social” and a philosophy of experience. Using sensology to examine the feeling of intensely vivid pleasure that early rhetoricians termed enargeia provides a focal point that at once claims specificity in particular collective responses to aesthetic pleasure and also provides a channel from sensation to the perception of beauty that no longer privileges the visual. Such late medieval works as The Fyve Wyttes, Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomew the Englishman’s De proprietatibus rerum, Gower’s critique of the English clergy, and more, give evidence of Middle English engagement in Latinate discussions of enargeia. And they provide examples of social affects contextualized within the sensorium of groups of particular status in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England.

    Jo Nixon, University of Chicago

    \”Let Griselda Cry: \’Affect Aliens\’ and Middle English Texts\”

    From the dread of the Saluzzian subjects to the trembling bewilderment of Janicula, The Clerk’s Tale presents a case study for feeling’s embeddedness in class structures and gender hierarchies. While Griselda’s impassivity during Walter’s abusive trials is an oft-revisited problem in medieval criticism, scholars have overlooked her emotional labor at the moment she reunites with her children. My paper interprets this moment using Sara Ahmed’s (2010) work on happiness: Griselda is an “affect alien” whose sorrow “expose[s] the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy” (65). When Griselda weeps, “every wight hire joye and feeste maketh / Til she hath caught agayn hire contenaunce” (ll. 1109-10). Ahmed’s work demonstrates how a moment of presumed peacemaking is yet another instance of Griselda being forced to conform to prescribed emotional norms.  Affect theory’s language for understanding feeling through politics, I argue, helps articulate affective phenomena otherwise glossed over in Middle English literature. But the persistent critical confusion around Griselda’s emotions illustrates how medieval texts are themselves affect aliens, easily defamiliarizing existing affective structures by, for example, terming Griselda’s story a “myrie tale” (l. 9). The Clerk’s Tale, then, unearths new strategies for understanding the complex negotiations of feeling among characters in the tales, the Clerk and other pilgrims, and between Chaucer and his medieval and contemporary audiences.

    Glenn Burger, Queens College, CUNY

    \”\’You Make Me Feel Mighty Real\’: Affects, Embodied Cognition, and the English Fabliau \”

    Holly Crocker, University of South Carolina

    \”Affect and Intersectional Identity in Hoccleve’s Series\”

    This paper argues that affect is about more than feelings, impulses, or movements of the sensitive soul. Instead, it reads Hoccleve’s Series as a way of thinking through how different nodes of identity—in the speaker’s case, gender and vocation—become part of a larger moral psychology that affect tunes, regulates, and clarifies what we would think of as a person’s selfhood. While the friend is careful to instruct the speaker on ways to control, suppress, and channel affect (particularly any feelings that might signal madness), the allegorical elements of this poetic mini-anthology are designed to put right certain parts of the speaker’s masculinity as these relate to his writerly making. Feeling like a man, as I’ve argued elsewhere, requires a careful display of affect management; managing the excesses of writing, as Isabel Davis has argued, is central to constructing a convincing masculine persona. I put these arguments together in this paper, and suggest that affect management is key to managing writing in a specifically gendered context of late medieval clerical London. The “Tale of Jereslaus’s Wife,” similar to the “Tale of Jonathas and Felicula,” then, are not bewildering imports from the Gesta Romanarum. Instead, these tales provide a guide for navigating the pitfalls of writing by representing its matter as a woman whose outward surface, in a now-familiar typology, must be thoroughly defaced (notwithstanding whether she is faithful or deceptive). The tale thus uses affect to establish a stable relationship between the speaker’s gender and his writing, and by doing so, it shows how affect becomes a nexus where intersectional identities are managed, produced, and refined in late medieval England.

    Andrea Denny-Brown, University of California-Riverside

    \”Aureate Affects\”

    This paper will explore the affective impacts and effects of Middle English aureate verse, the “golden” poetic diction used by fifteenth-century poets such as John Lydgate, William Dunbar, and the anonymous author of the Flower and the Leaf. I will discuss the particular effects of several understudied aureate maneuvers associated with the Middle English gilded word, including verbal layering and shimmering, which attempt to create a new kind of visual luminosity through phonotextual play with sonority, aural vibrancy, and visual accumulation and reduplication. Aureate language generated both positive and negative affects throughout the history of its reception. Following David Matthews’ work on the ways that affective responses can reveal the extent to which medieval studies and medievalism are often affectively indistinguishable, I will discuss not only how medieval readers experienced aureate verse, but also how affective responses to “gilding” as a medieval and medievalizing aesthetic helped shape modern perceptions and critical practices with regard to Middle English poetry.



    This topic was also posted in: CLCS Medieval, LLC Middle English.
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