Participatory Performance in Monastic Life

Performing (In)Attention: Ælfric, Ælfric Bata, and the Visitatio sepulchri

by Erica Weaver

The central regulatory document of the tenth-century English Benedictine Reform, Æthelwold of Winchester’s Regularis concordia, contains an important performance piece: the Visitatio sepulchri, which standard theater histories understand as an anomalous originary text that marks the reemergence of drama in the European Middle Ages. This article resituates it alongside the schoolroom colloquies of Æthelwold’s student Ælfric of Eynsham and his student and editor Ælfric Bata to argue that these texts together cultivated monastic self-possession by means of self-conscious performances of its absence. By staging (in)attention, they thereby modeled extended engagement in moments and spaces that could otherwise seem too quiet or empty to hold concentration for long, from the classroom to the sepulcher to the page, while also exposing the limits of “distraction” and “attention” as analytical terms.

The essay begins:

As a key component of the tenth-century correction movement that effectively created Benedictine monasticism, and in the process reshaped monastic life across Europe, Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester appointed a new kind of monastic figure for all of the familiae of England: that of the circa or roundsman, so called because the role required making rounds. First attested on the Continent in the eighth century and included in consuetudinaries (guides to the customs of particular monasteries) from across Francia and Lotharingia, the office had initially been conceived of as a means of policing sins of the tongue and ensuring silence, but it quickly became a deterrent to sexual misconduct and the temptations of sleep among other increasingly psychological threats to ascetic life. Æthelwold’s Regularis concordia (ca. 970), the central regulatory document that tailored the Rule of Saint Benedict for all English monks and nuns, sanctioned by King Edgar (r. 959–75) and ratified at the Synod of Winchester, dedicated one of its twelve chapters to the figure. Here, Æthelwold specifies that when the circa noticed aberrant behavior on his rounds, he silently swept by, but “in Chapter the next day” (in capitulo uenturi diei), he would publicly chastise wayward monks and nuns for their faults unless they immediately begged forgiveness “for some trifling offense” (pro leui qualibet culpa; 118.1381–82). The coercive surveillance was meant to feel absolute. As Ulrich of Zell (1029–93) enjoined a half-century after the office was introduced in England, “Let them patrol the whole monastery not just once but many times a day, so that there may be neither a place nor an hour in which any brother, if he should be up to anything, is able to be untroubled about being caught and shamed” (Totum claustrum non semel, sed multoties in die circumeant, ut nec locus sit nec hora in qua frater ullus securus esse possit, si tale quid commiserit, non deprehendi et non publicari).

Tenth-century reformers added a lantern to the circa’s arsenal, “so that in the night hours, when he ought to do so, he might position himself to look around” (qua nocturnis horis, quibus oportet hec agere, uidendo consideret; 119.1390–91). Thus equipped, the figure was meant to keep an especially close watch during matins, the long office occurring nightly between midnight and dawn, when he would patrol the ranks with his lantern in order to spotlight anyone who dozed instead of standing at attention. Æthelwold provides a vivid portrait:

And while the lections are being read at nocturns, during the third or fourth lection, just as it seems to be expedient, let him circulate through the choir; and, if he should discover a brother overwhelmed by sleep, he should place the lantern before him and go back [to his own spot]. That one, soon, with sleep shaken off, should beg pardon with bent knees and, with that same lantern snatched back up, let him circle around the choir himself; and if he should manage to find another compromised by the vice of sleep, he should do to him just as it was done to himself and go back to his own place. (119–20.1392–1401) 

As this passage beautifully epitomizes, the circa’s central function was thus to guard against lapses in self-possession. What at first seems like an effort to enforce attentive reading and prayer—by waking the monks sleeping through the lections—instead becomes an exercise in inculcating a broader kind of mental vigilance amid the early morning inducements of bodily lethargy. This explains why the disciplined monks are not watched for further signs of distraction as they continue to attend to the reading but are instead asked to take up the lantern themselves and patrol the choir. Discipline itself is at stake. And bodies in motion not only reanimate hands and knees, lips and eyes, but also rechoreograph the mental gymnastics of monks and nuns before their texts. Rather than regulating distraction and attention per se, or even cultivating the broader obedience Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe has deftly located at the heart of the correction movement, the circa fosters a related, yet distinct, kind of monastic custody (custodia), or unceasing communal and personal supervision meant to cultivate habituated self-possession and discretion, especially in scenes of reading, learning, and performing the liturgy.

Although his public proclamations and nightly rounds might seem to take this to an unnecessarily theatrical extreme, the Concordia and related schoolroom texts from Æthelwold’s circle—namely, the Colloquy by Æthelwold’s prolific student Ælfric, who is now responsible for roughly one-sixth of surviving Old English literature, and the Colloquies by Ælfric’s own student and editor, Ælfric Bata—can thus help us to recover some of the complexities obscured by “attention” and “distraction” as analytical terms with a growing hold on literary studies. Indeed, as Caleb Smith observes, “To call our work reading is to cast it as a discipline of attention”—a framing that, he argues, is particularly prevalent in postcritical methods, which are calibrated “not only against distraction but also, especially, against malign forms of hypervigilance like paranoia and suspicion.” “Passive” textual attention thus becomes an ethical goal, which frees the would-be critic from any charges of violence. But attention and related modalities are neither passive nor impersonal.

Moreover, although distraction and numbness are now too often and easily diagnosed as decidedly modern maladies—particularly as theorized by Walter Benjamin, Georg Simmel, Jonathan Crary, and Paul North—concerned tenth-century schoolmasters were well aware of the temptations of diversions and digressions both in the classroom and beyond it. (After all, digression was a fundamental feature of Old English poems like Beowulf, and monastic thinkers had long grappled with the dangers of distraction.) Somewhat paradoxically, however, even as they worked to develop pointed pedagogic strategies to counter these threats, their texts inculcated self-possession and related self-regulatory goals like continentia (self-restraint) by literally spotlighting its opposite—the dispersal or disintegration of the self—with an impressive flair for the dramatic possibilities of dozing monks and darkened choirs. Confronted with slackened self-regard as an incessant threat to devotional life, monastic writers thus reflected on the problem by composing sometimes-sensational scripts of distraction and mischief, which their students were then required to memorize and perform, much as Bata, Irina Dumitrescu has noted, strategically incorporates violence into his grammar lessons in order to cultivate proper behavior by contrast. They thereby strove to cultivate classroom and liturgical spaces in which students were “distracted from distraction by distraction,” or, at least, by means of scripted lapses in monastic custody, on the side of both the teachers and the students.

In short, the Colloquies and the Concordia together cultivated mental discipline by means of self-conscious performances of its absence. They thus developed a broader model of self-regulation, which sometimes falls between the axes of attention and distraction but is distinct from both. And in the process, they developed a culture of participatory performance, in which the apprehension of knowledge was dramatized and worked through collectively and in which a kind of community theater made legible cognitive activities and self-fashioning processes that are otherwise difficult to conceptualize. As a result, their schoolroom practices are intimately bound up with broader concerns about how to foster self-possession—or, with how to keep the mind and the body focused on things that elude them, whether in the form of a new and difficult language, an intractable text, or even of the disappearance of Christ at the heart of the Easter celebration and, by extension, monastic life.

It is thus no accident that Æthelwold’s Concordia also contains another vivid portrait of a performance at matins: the Visitatio sepulchri, or “Visit to the Tomb,” in which monks and nuns reenacted the scene of the “three Marys”—the Virgin Mary; Mary Magdalene; and Mary, the sister of Lazarus—coming to Christ’s tomb and being informed of his resurrection. Indeed, this scene would also have taken place as dawn was breaking, when the circa and others would busily scan the ranks for wandering minds, and it shares close affinities with pedagogical texts like Ælfric’s and Ælfric Bata’s. Continue reading …

ERICA WEAVER is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is currently working on a book about the role of distraction in the development of early medieval literature and literary theory, particularly during the tenth-century monastic “correction” movement traditionally known as the English Benedictine Reform. She is also co-editor, with A. Joseph McMullen, of The Legacy of Boethius in Medieval England: The Consolation and Its Afterlives (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018) and, with Daniel C. Remein, of Dating Beowulf: Studies in Intimacy (Manchester University Press, 2020).

Manuscript image above: London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius A III: Æthelwold, Edgar, and Dunstan bound by text

Speaking of Law and Literature

Law and Literature: A Virtual Symposium

  

Join UC Berkeley’s English Department, School of Law, Center for the Study of Law and Society, Division of Arts and Humanities, Rhetoric Department, Jurisprudence Social Policy Program, and Townsend Center for the Humanities for a virtual symposium on the intersections between law and literature.

Register here to receive a personalized Zoom link to join the webinar.

Participants include Representations authors Marianne Constable and Julie Stone Peters and Representations editorial board member Samera Esmeir.

SCHEDULE:

9:30 – 11:00 am

Peter Goodrich (Yeshiva)
Bernadette Meyler (Stanford)
Julie Stone Peters (Columbia)
Marco Wan (Hong Kong)
Chair: Marianne Constable (UC Berkeley)

11:15 am – 12:45 pm

Elizabeth S. Anker (Cornell)
Poulomi Saha (UC Berkeley)
Jeanne-Marie Jackson (Johns Hopkins)
Mona Oraby (Amherst)
Chair: Leti Volpp (UC Berkeley)

1:45 pm – 3:15 pm

Susanna Blumenthal (Minnesota)
Bradin Cormack (Princeton)
Simon Stern (Toronto)
Rebecca Tushnet (Harvard)
Chair: Christopher Tomlins (UC Berkeley)

3:30 – 5:00 pm

Marlene Daut (Virginia)
Desmond Jagmohan (UC Berkeley)
Beth Piatote (UC Berkeley)
Eric Slauter (Chicago)
Chair: Samera Esmeir (UC Berkeley)

 

New Issue, Representations 152

NOW AVAILABLE

Representations 152, Fall 2020

 

Anthony Cascardi and Catherine Gallagher on the New Grand Narratives

Changing the Narrative: What Stories Can We Tell Now?

An online conversation sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the Humanities
Thursday, Oct 29, 2020 5:00 pm PDT

 

Every previous major disaster in human history, from the Black Plague to the Great Depression, has elicited a reimagination of the world, a reinvention of collective life through culture. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. The arts and humanities — two areas of inquiry that focus on value and meaning — provide crucial resources for reconceptualizing our lives together during, and after, our current crisis.

The series (Re)making Sense: The Humanities and Pandemic Culture examines the utility of the arts and humanities for helping us navigate the ethical challenges and practical reinventions that lie before us. Top scholars, writers, and artists at UC Berkeley discuss how their disciplines, and the skills and abilities fostered by their fields, can help in our efforts to reimagine and rebuild.

In the second event of this series, Anthony Cascardi and Catherine Gallagher discuss Changing the Narrative: What Stories Can We Tell Now? Two decades ago, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard announced that in the postmodern era, the “grand narratives” that had shaped culture and ideas — Marxism, positivism, psychoanalysis — were dead. His statement has proven true, both inside and outside the university. Philosophical systems, canons of knowledge, even essential ideas of national history seem to have eroded over the past several decades.

Anthony Cascardi is dean of arts and humanities and the Sidney and Margaret Ancker Distinguished Professor of comparative literature, rhetoric, and Spanish. His book Cervantes, Literature, and the Discourse of Politics won the Renaissance Society’s Gordan Prize for best book of the year in Renaissance studies.

Catherine Gallagher is professor emerita of English. Her 2018 book Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction examines narratives of events that never occurred — such as the South winning the Civil War, and JFK escaping assassination. The book won the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History from the American Philosophical Society. Gallagher is a founding member of the Representations editorial board.

Click here to watch the livestream.

Description and the Modernist Novel

STRANGE LIKENESS:
DESCRIPTION AND THE MODERNIST NOVEL

a new study from Dora Zhang


The modern novel, so the story goes, thinks poorly of mere description—what Virginia Woolf called “that ugly, that clumsy, that incongruous tool.” As a result, critics have largely neglected description as a feature of novelistic innovation during the twentieth century. Dora Zhang argues that descriptive practices were in fact a crucial site of attention and experimentation for a number of early modernist writers, centrally Woolf, Henry James, and Marcel Proust.

Description is the novelistic technique charged with establishing a common world, but in the early twentieth century, there was little agreement about how a common world could be known and represented. Zhang argues that the protagonists in her study responded by shifting description away from visualizing objects to revealing relations—social, formal, and experiential—between disparate phenomena. In addition to shedding new light on some of the best-known works of modernism, Zhang opens up new ways of thinking about description more broadly. She moves us beyond the classic binary of narrate-or-describe and reinvigorates our thinking about the novel. Strange Likeness will enliven conversations around narrative theory, affect theory, philosophy and literature, and reading practices in the academy.

DORA ZHANG is Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley. Her essay “A Lens for an Eye: Proust and Photography” was published in Representations 118.

Transimperial Colloquium

Sat Oct 24, 2020, 1:00 PM – 3:00 PM Pacific Time

Online via  Zoom. Registration Required. All are welcome!
Contact John James johnjames@berkeley.edu for registration and Zoom information.

 

A roundtable of international scholars considers the work of Sukanya Banerjee on the occasion of her recent addition to the UC Berkeley English Department. Professor Banerjee’s 2018 Victorian Literature and Culture essay “Transimperial” will serve as the touchstone for a discussion ranging across the various topics and fields addressed in her recent work.

Pdf of “Transimperial” will be provided. Attendees are invited to submit questions beforehand or to use the Chat/Q&A function during the colloquium.

Moderator: John James (UC Berkeley)
Speakers: Alicia Mireles Christoff (Amherst College)
Ian Duncan (UC Berkeley)
Elaine Freedgood (New York University)
Isabel Hofmeyr (University of the Witwatersrand)
Ruth Livesey (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Elizabeth Carolyn Miller (UC Davis)
Nasser Mufti (University of Illinois, Chicago)
James Vernon (UC Berkeley)

Victoria Kahn Talks about The Trouble with Literature

The Trouble with Literature

Victoria Kahn
BERKELEY BOOK CHATS
 – 

Click here to watch the livestream.

In The Trouble with Literature (Oxford, 2020), Victoria Kahn (UC Berkeley Comparative Literature and English) argues that the literature of the English Reformation marks a turning point in Western thinking about literature and literariness. But instead of arguing that the Reformation fostered English literature, as scholars have often done, Kahn claims that literature helped undo the Reformation.

Tracing the roots of the modern understanding of literature as offering aesthetic, non-cognitive pleasure, Kahn probes the implications that such a notion has for our understanding of both poetry and belief. The book is based on the Clarendon Lectures in English Literature, which Kahn delivered at Oxford in 2017.

She is joined by Niklaus Largier (UCB German and Comparative Literature). After a brief discussion, they respond to questions from the audience.

Kahn’s most recent essay for Representations is  Art, Judaism, and the Critique of Fascism in the Work of Ernst Cassirer.

Largier is a long-time member of the Representations editorial board and is the co-editor of the journal’s upcoming special issue “Practices of Devotion” (coming in February).

Click here to watch the livestream.

Election Discussion: Race, Religion, and the Post Office

Race, Religion, and the Post Office in the November Election

Panel Discussion | October 15 | 5-6:30 p.m. PST |  Online

The UC Berkeley History Department presents a panel discussion with three UCB professors:

David Henkin is Professor of History at UC Berkeley and a member of the Representations editorial board. His essay “Hebdomadal FormDiaries, News, and the Shape of the Modern Week” was published in Representations 131.

 

 

Waldo E. Martin is Professor of History at UC Berkeley.

 

 

 

Ronit Stahl is Assistant Professor of History Department at UC Berkeley.

 

 

 history@berkeley.edu

 Maya Sisneros, history@berkeley.edu,  510-642-1092

Zoom link forthcoming, check back here.

Sensuous Knowledge

Marx, Silk Poems, and the Pretext of Qualities

by Kathryn Crim

Karl Marx’s comments on silk manufacture in “The Working Day” chapter of Capital, volume 1, demonstrate how “quality”—usually associated with “use value”—has been mobilized by capital to naturalize industrialized labor. Putting his insight into conversation with a recent multimedia poetic project, Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems (2016–17), Kathryn Crim examines the homology between, on the one hand, poetry’s avowed task of fitting form to content and, on the other, the ideology of labor that fits specific bodies to certain materials and tasks.

The essay begins:

In “The Working Day” chapter of Capital, volume 1, where the historical detail vigorously textures Karl Marx’s argument, our attention is gradually drawn to a presumptively natural fit between workers and materials. In response to Britain’s Factory Acts, he writes, silk manufacturers complained that, if forced to reduce the working day to less than ten hours, “it would be impossible for them to buy a sufficient number of children over 13.” The exposure of this “deliberate lie,” writes Marx, quoting from the Reports of the Inspectors of Factories (1844–46), does very little to stop the manufacturers

throughout the subsequent decade, from spinning silk for 10 hours a day out of the blood of little children who had to be put on stools to perform their work. The Act of 1844 certainly “robbed” the silk manufacturers of the “liberty” of employing children under 11 for longer than 6 ½ hours each day. But as against this, it secured them the privilege of working children between 11 and 13 for 10 hours a day, and annulling in their case the education which had been made compulsory for all other factory children. This time the pretext was “the delicate texture of the fabric in which they were employed, requiring a lightness of touch, only to be acquired by their early introduction to these factories.” (406)

In his characteristic way of reading for telling turns of phrase, Marx gives us the “voice of Capital,” complaining that its rights of liberty and property have been injured by the regulations. The real physical and intellectual injury done to children, then, is not so much ignored as readily explained by the pretext offered next. A “pretext” (Marx’s German der Vorwand suggests a pretense, excuse, or smokescreen) conceals one’s real purpose; but it can be distinguished from a lie in its power to maintain a literal truth. Here, an observation about similarity slips into an argument for compatibility: the fingers and fabric are fitted together to produce a natural fact about production, that the luxury cloth “requires” a lightness of touch. As readers of Capital have often pointed out, the progressive rationalization of large-scale industry not only repressed qualitative distinctions between different kinds of labor but also eliminated qualitative variations between workers, who were progressively forced to conform their bodies to the machines. Yet Marx’s comments on silk work demonstrate one crucial way in which “quality,” fragmented and abstracted from the body, is mobilized by capital to naturalize industrialized labor.

In line with a tendency to synonymize the alienation of labor and the abstraction of exchange value from use value—in which fungible quantity is substituted for singular quality—we often assign political and aesthetic value to the concrete detail, to those marks that bring the body and the phenomenological experience of work back into view from behind the “screen” of quantitative calculation. Indeed, this revelation and re-visioning of human processes of making would seem to be one of the critical functions of art and literature. From the eighteenth-century picturesque to twenty-first century materialist poetics, an aesthetic emphasis on texture, in particular, has foregrounded the human hand in and across materials. But placing such an emphasis does not in itself constitute a critical gesture. Just as scholars of the pastoral mode have argued that representations of the laboring poor risk naturalizing structural inequality, an aesthetics of material qualities risks cultivating a palliative attitude toward the real exploitation of workers. One of my central aims in this essay is to explore how “quality” can subtend capitalist logics and to show how this history offers a lens on the critical possibilities, and limitations, of aesthetic practice. In what follows, I put Marx’s references to silk and silkworms in volume 1 of Capital in conversation with the recent poetic project Silk Poems by American artist and writer Jen Bervin. Read alongside each other, Marx and Bervin illuminate the homology between, on the one hand, the ideology of labor that naturalizes the relationship between bodies and materials and, on the other, poetry’s avowed task of fitting form to content. While Silk Poems ultimately remains entangled in the pretext of qualities that capitalist production has itself deployed, the challenge the project poses to easy forms of lyric identification, as well as to the pace and situation of literary reading, offers a critical opportunity to pursue Marx’s insight into capital’s capacity to produce and exploit sensuous knowledge.

In 2010, Bervin visited the Tufts University Biomedical Engineering Department, where she met with researchers developing a biosensor made of reverse-engineered liquified silk that, once implanted in the body, can help track “medically interesting molecules” such as hemoglobin or tumor markers. It was the potential to turn the sensor into a surface for writing that intrigued Bervin. “Due to its optical nature,” she explains, “[the silk film] can be read as a projection with fiber optic light. . . . I thought, if it is possible to write in that context—inside the body, on silk, at that scale, I wanted to think further about what else might be inscribed there.” This thinking set off a six-year long international collaborative study that took Bervin to “more than thirty international textile archives, medical libraries, nanotechnology and biomedical labs, and sericulture sites in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.” Following this intercontinental journey, Bervin wrote a poem in the voice of a silkworm that draws on the worm’s five-thousand-year history of interacting with human culture, from ancient China to the Tufts Silklab. Back at Tufts, Bervin worked with David Kaplan and Fiorenzo Omenetto, along with Bradley Napier, to fabricate the poem on a silk film: The scientists “used a mask to etch the poem in gold spatter on a wafer and poured liquid silk over it. When the silk dried, the letters were suspended in the film” (173). Each line was limited to the six letters of the gene sequence, too small to be read without the help of the microscope. The pattern of the poem on the film, meanwhile, mimics the path of a silk thread made by the worm producing its cocoon. First exhibited in 2016, the Silk Poems project consists in three parts that extend poetic practice beyond the linguistic realm: the nano-imprinted poem in gold spatter on the silk film, a ten-minute video by Charlotte Lagarde documenting the research journey, and a small book, available to general audiences, published by Nightboat Books. The silk film (under a microscope) and the video were featured in Mass MoCA’s 2017 group exhibition Explode Every Day and have since been on display elsewhere in the United States and Hong Kong, along with further iterations of the project including, most recently, an artist book entitled 7S, or Seven Silks. These multiple multimedia editions testify to the open-endedness of Bervin’s initial premise: to conceive of a poem that traces and reiterates the material manifestations of silk itself. Continue reading …

KATHRYN CRIM is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at University of California, Berkeley. She is completing a dissertation entitled Fit and Counterfeit: The Emergence of a Documentary Aesthetic. 

In the Matter of Nat Turner

In 1831 Virginia, Nat Turner led a slave rebellion that killed fifty-five whites; after more than two months in hiding, he was captured, convicted, and executed. The figure of Turner had an immediate and broad impact on the American South, and his rebellion remains one of the most momentous episodes in American history.

Working against the historical caricature of Turner as befuddled mystic and self-styled Baptist preacher, Christopher Tomlins (UCB Professor of Law) probes the haunting persona of this legendary American slave rebel — exploring Turner’s self-discovery, the dawning of his Christian faith, and the impossible task given to him by God. Tomlins also undertakes a critical examination of William Styron’s 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, which restored Turner to the American consciousness in the era of civil rights, black power, and urban riots.

Christopher Tomlins is the author of many books and articles on legal history. His primary affiliation at Berkeley Law is to the Jurisprudence and Social Policy (PhD) program, in which he teaches courses on legal history and, in particular, the history and law of slavery.

Tomlins is joined by Bryan Wagner (UCB Associate Professor of English). Wagner is the author of “Disarmed and Dangerous: The Strange Career of Bras-Coupéé” (Representations 92) and other works on on African American expression in the context of slavery and its aftermath, legal history, and vernacular culture.

After a brief discussion, they respond to questions from the audience.

Register online here.