Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Intro Part 3: Lit Review and Overview

I'm very happy to say that I'm on schedule for my writing this summer: I've got a draft of this new Intro to the book finished just in time to leave town for my cousin Seth's wedding.  The last part of it, which I am posting here, is the review of the literature (edited down a bit for this forum) and thee overview of the book as a whole.  Let me know what you think.



Scholarship on motherhood in general has been shaped by a split between motherhood understood as an “experience” and as an “institution” since the publication of Adrienne Rich’s foundational work in 1976.  The experience that concerns Rich and those who have followed in her wake is that of the mother herself, as distinct from that of the child.  Indeed another set of terms for this distinction is between “maternal subjectivity” - that is, the mother considered as a thinking and feeling subject in her own right –and the “ideology of motherhood.” Institution and ideology alike refer to cultural myths and stereotypes of mothers and motherhood, and to the prescriptions and demands placed on women as mothers by society at large, and so to motherhood as both a culturally defined ideal and a socially constructed role.  By contrast, Rich’s maternal experience is primarily physical or bodily, although she and others argue against it being dismissed as mere biology.

This distinction has likewise shaped scholarship on medieval motherhood beginning with Clarissa Atkinson’s 1991 The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages.  Atkinson places emphasis on motherhood as institution or ideology, explaining that is she writing a history of ideas about motherhood as presented in various texts. And subsequent scholarship, in particular the essay collections Medieval Mothering and Maternal Measures: Figuring Caregiving in the Early Modern Period, has likewise focused on motherhood as a socially constructed role, in particular that of caregiver or nurturer, while downplaying motherhood as a bodily experience as biological and so a-historical.

By contrast, my interest is in motherhood as an experience as defined by Rich; as a bodily experience that is also a meaningful experience as it becomes part of a woman’s subjectivity.  Where previous scholars on medieval motherhood have frequently dismissed physical motherhood as natural and a-historical, I seek to historicize it by considering the meanings it held for women in the medieval past. Finally my work shows motherhood to have been a much more complex, contradictory and ambivalent, experience than can be summarized as a single term such as caregiving.

To attempt to capture the complexities of motherhood as an experience for medieval women, this book is structured as something of a narrative of that experience.  It is divided into two parts: the first (Chapters One and Two) focuses on the woman’s process of becoming a mother, on pregnancy and childbirth, and the second (Chapters Three and Four) focuses on relationships between mothers and their children during the first few years of a child’s life.  The two parts are joined by a focus on the tension between life and death, the potential death of the mother in bringing new life into the world (Chapter Two) and the potential death of that new life – the death of the child (Chapter Three). The organization of the book is thus not dictated by the dates of thee sculptures themselves, indeed the chapters move from the thirteenth century (the Reims sculptures in Chapter One), back to the twelfth century (the Moissac and Autun sculptures in Chapters Two and Three) with a gesture towards the sixteenth (the transi tomb off Jeanne de Bourgogne-Vendome in Chapter Two), and then forward again to the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries (the Virgin and Child sculptures in Chapter 4).  Likewise I am not attempting to use the chronology of the sculptures to track changes in motherhood as an experience over time: my evidence does not support doing so. I also cross over the boundary between the art-historical categories of Romanesque (the Moissac and Autun sculptures) and Gothic (the Reims sculptures, the transi, and the Virgin and Child sculptures), simply because those categories are not relevant to my work here.  

Chapter One takes as its topic the Annunciation and Visitation scenes from thee west front of Reims cathedral.  I focus on the differences between their images of the Virgin Mary and argue for seeing these changes as the product of her impending motherhood – and so for seeing these sculptures as representing motherhood to the women of medieval Reims as a transformative experience.  Chapter Two focuses on a specific transformation wrought by motherhood, that of a living woman into a corpse.  The monstrous forms of both the Moissac femme aux serpents and the transi of Jeanne de Bourgogne-Vendome are understood to represent the dead mother who, in dying, gives birth to her own dissolution and decay.  Chapter Three continues to address issues of life and death, focusing on the life and death of the child.  The central sculpture for the chapter is the Eve from the church of St-Lazare at Autun, which is understood in combination with the shrine to St. Lazarus that stood inside of the church.  I imagine medieval women coming as pilgrims to this shrine on behalf of a sick, dying, or miraculously healed or even resurrected child, and argue that the emotionality of the Eve image would have provided a model for these women’s own emotions.  Chapter Four follows from the previous in focusing on the relationship between the mother and child as represented in multiple sculpted versions of the Virgin and Child.  The chapter’s primary focus is on the sculptures’ clothing, which structure the mother-child relationship differently in each sculpture.  I argue that these sculptures cumulatively created a discourse on the combination of merger and separation, love and hate, that characterizes parturition as an experience.  Finally the book’s Conclusion looks to representations of motherhood in contemporary (late twentieth and early twenty-first century) art made by women artists and looks for both continuities and changes in motherhood as an experience over time.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

On Scholarship and Self-Exposure

While my last post hasn't gotten comments on the blog itself, I've received several responses to it privately.  A common word in these responses is "brave:" I'm assuming this is in response to the final paragraph where I identify the abortion I had in graduate school as one motivation for my turn towards writing about motherhood in my scholarship. I've gone back and forth over whether or not to include that information in the book.  I've decided (for now at least) to do it.  And I want to talk here a little bit about why.

First and most broadly, I have long accepted the fact that there is always some connection between a person's scholarship and his or her life and experiences.  "Objective" or "disinterested" scholarship is a myth: why would someone spend years of their life working on something that s/he wasn't "interested" in for some reason?  That connection, that reason, may not be obvious or clear, even to the person him or herself, but it is there.  If it's not clear, then fine, leave it be.  But if it is clear, as it is to me in this case - years later and after considerable reflection - then why not acknowledge it?  After all, the point of writing is to communicate to other people and acknowledging your self-investment in the work should help that process of communication.

That is particularly true, I think, in this case.   Because I'm concerned that if I don't make my personal circumstances clear, readers will make some incorrect assumptions about me and so about the book: that they will assume that I am a mother myself and am bringing that experience to the writing of the book.  I'm concerned that that could even become a way of dismissing the book: something along the lines of, "well she obviously has kids and so is just projecting her own experience as a mother on to the sculptures instead of doing real scholarship."  Well, no and no.

Of course I could take care of that simply by saying that I don't have children.  I don't have to mention the abortion.  But then I would feel like I was lying or at least being disingenuous.  If I am going to discuss my own experiences in my scholarship, then I am going to be honest about them.

And finally, this is where the scholarly and the personal meet the political.  Women who have had abortions need to acknowledge that fact when the opportunity arises.  I understand not wanting to do so.   It is a controversial topic and so a difficult one to bring up; you can't be sure how other people are going to react.  The legal right to make the choice to terminate a pregnancy rests on the right to privacy, which then defines that choice as a very private matter; something "between a woman and her doctor" and so something not to be discussed outside of that closed context.  But to not talk about it also treats it as something that you are/ought to be ashamed of - as a dirty little secret.  And for women who have exercised their right to chose to not talk about it allows the people who would take away that right to define the terms on which the issue is discussed.  If women who have exercised this right are going to help ensure that other women have the same right to chose, then we need to talk about it.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The (Dreaded) Theory Section

The next part of the Introduction is the dreaded theory section.  Dreaded because it is absolutely crucial to everything that follows, because the concepts aren't easy to explain, because it contains some self-revelations, and because it is probably going to turn some people off to the book as a whole.  I've cut it down a bit for this forum and taken out the footnotes.  Let me know what you think.


The relationship between the beholder and the work of art has been a major topic of interest in art history as a discipline over approximately the past 40 years. Nevertheless, I find that the most useful conceptual tools for understanding this relationship come from the work of literary theorists writing about the relationship between the reader and the text; specifically Hans Robert Jauss’s work on reception in combination with Wolfgang Iser’s on response.  
Jauss focuses on the reader or beholder’s share in this relationship, introducing the term “horizon of expectations” to refer to the store of experiences, ideas, and concerns that readers bring to texts or beholders to works of art.  According to Jauss, this "horizon" forms the background to the text or artwork as foreground, the question to which the work is an answer - or to which it is made to answer as it is virtually re-made in the minds of its readers/beholders in order to fit within their horizons, match their backgrounds, or respond to their concerns. This horizon is variable and multi-layered.  It changes over time as later readers/beholders bring different sets of experiences and interests to surviving texts and artworks, so that the work of the historian of literature or art is in part the reconstruction of past horizons.   It begins with the reader/beholders’ prior experiences and expectations about texts or works of art themselves and from this innermost horizon extends a much broader one formed from the reader/beholder’s life experiences.  This broader horizon stretches in different directions for different readers and beholders, responding to the differences in their social roles and experiences.
Thus medieval men and women, members of the clergy and lay people, would have had differing horizons for the sculptures that are the focus of the book and so would have remade them through reception in different ways.  A central premise for this book is that motherhood would have formed an important part of medieval lay women’s horizons for these sculptures; that motherhood would have formed a background of experiences against which these women would have understood the works of art, and that the meanings of their maternal experiences would have been a question that they looked to the sculptures to answer.  
While Jauss’s work explicates the reader/beholder’s contribution to the making of meaning, Iser’s focuses instead on the role of the text or, by extension, the work of art. His interest is how the form of the text or artwork shapes the reader or beholder’s experience of it.   Both perspectives are of equal importance.  For as much as the beholder comes to the work of art with specific experiences and interests, so the work of art presents her with specific forms and figures to consider in the light of those experiences and interests.  Thus neither the beholder nor the work of art is a blank slate for the other’s inscription of meaning.   Instead both are active agents in the process of meaning-making and its outcome is a creative synthesis of their contributions.  However, the two perspectives differ as they enter into historical work.  Jauss’s work on reception stakes out of historical difference and distance as the horizon of expectations shifts over time, whereas Iser’s work on response emphasizes instead the possibility of continuity and contact over time.  According to Iser, the historian-as-reader or beholder’s response will be scripted by the text or work of art itself in much the same way as the historical reader/beholder's was and that will allow the later reader/beholder to experience a previous historical situation – at least to some degree.
Iser’s work thus encourages me to take my own responses to medieval artworks seriously as avenues towards historical understanding.  This book is shaped by my responses to medieval sculptures in two ways.  First, I chose the specific sculptures to be considered here based on my responses to them: these were works of art that stood out to me as being potentially productive to consider in relationship to medieval women’s experiences of motherhood.  And so I can speculate, at least, that they would have likewise appealed to the lay women who were among their original beholders as potentially productive sites for thinking about their own maternal experiences.
Even as I trust my own responses to the sculptures, however, I also need to acknowledge my own horizon of expectations, the experiences and interests that I bring to these works of art and so to this book as my act of meaning-making.   I began writing about motherhood as a context for understanding images of female bodies in medieval art in my doctoral dissertation and this book is a continuation of that work.  In turning to motherhood, I was looking for a way of writing about these artworks that was not shaped by the medieval church’s highly misogynistic teachings about sexuality and sin.   In the light of Howard Bloch’s work on medieval misogyny as a discourse of citation and repetition, I was concerned that continuing to write about this discourse, even in a critical light, only served to perpetuate it.
My horizon for this project, furthermore, is personal as well as scholarly.  I am not a mother and so motherhood is not an experience that I bring to these sculptures, nor to this book.  However, during work on my dissertation, I was briefly pregnant and I chose to terminate that pregnancy.  As that happened at approximately the same time as my turn to motherhood in my writing, it is clear to me that there is a relationship between the two.  While I do not regret the choice that I made, it seems clear that my turn to writing about motherhood in my scholarship is also my effort to understand this experience that I chose not to have in my own life.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Introduction: The First Three Paragraphs - Revised! And now it's four.

The first thing I am doing in my work on the book this summer is writing a new introduction.  My thought is that doing this will help me to frame the book clearly, first of all for myself I continue working on it, and then for its eventual readers.

Below are the first three paragraphs of the new Intro and so the projected first three paragraphs for the book as a whole.  My goals here are to get someone interested in actually reading the thing and then to lay out some big ideas for the book as a whole - the theoretical perspective plus some sense of the argument.  Let me know what you think.

7/1: I did a bit more fiddling with this - added a sentence and moved some things around. I've highlighted the new sentence.




She stands with her weight shifted slightly to her left and with that hip pressed outward and upward, in a version of the classical contrapossto pose.  She puts that pose to a different end, however, propping a baby up on her hip and securing him against her body with a strong grasping hand.   He reaches out with one hand to grasp her veil and pull it over her chest – and with that gesture he calls attention to the play of fabric folds that the contrapossto pose creates over her lower body.    On her right, a series of curves at varying depths arc across her body from her extended hand to where the child’s body presses against hers. The topmost of these folds flips the garment inside out, revealing its white inner surface and so rhyming with her white veil above.  On her left, by contrast, the fabric gathers into tight folds along vertical lines that extend down from the pleats in the lower portion of the child’s garment.  And the very end of her veil gathers into similarly tight folds as it dangles from his hand.   The placement on this flare of folds against her chest calls attention to her breasts, which are further emphasized by curving lines that extend upwards to them as drapery folds created by the tight cinch of her belt below.
This book asks what this sculpture – an early fourteenth-century French Virgin and Child – along with a host of other medieval sculptural representations of female bodies – including the Annunciation and Visitation pairs from Reims cathedral, the femme aux serpents from the church of Saint-Pierre at Moissac, the transi of Jeanne de Bourbon-Vendome, the Eve from the church of Saint-Lazare at Autun, and a number of other Virgin and Childs – have to say about motherhood in the Middle Ages.   The most obvious answer to that question is little or nothing.  The work of anonymous but presumably male sculptors, often working for clerical and so celibate male patrons, there is little to no chance that these artworks speak of motherhood on the level of their makers’ self-expressions.  Likewise, these sculptures were not made for women as their primary beholders and so were not made to speak directly to women about their social roles as mothers. 
However, the sculptures were produced as public art for the exterior walls and interior spaces of church buildings where they had a wide range of beholders – including lay women who were mothers and potential mothers.  The difference between the producers of these sculptors and women as mothers as one group of their beholders opens a gap between their intended meanings and the other meanings liable to be produced by women coming to these artworks with their own interests, ideas, and concerns.   Thus to understand these sculptures in relationship to medieval women as mothers, we must first recognize that the interaction between a work of art and its beholders is a meaning-making activity - a theoretical perspective that is developed in this Introduction.   Approached from this perspective, the sculptures become sites where medieval women could consider their own experiences as mothers and the meanings those experiences held for them.  Indeed, the reason this book focuses on sculpture as a medium is the opportunity that this gap between producers and beholders, intended and potential meanings, creates to consider medieval women as active makers of the meanings of their own lives.  
As they continue to exist today, furthermore, these sculptures create opportunities to reconstruct at least some of these women’s maternal experiences and some of the meanings they made from those experiences.  This work of reconstruction shows motherhood to have been a complex experience for medieval women, one riven by tensions and oppositions, between life and death, empowerment and subordination, merger and separation, joy and sorrow, even love and hate.   To return to the Virgin and Child introduced above as an example, the visual forms of this sculpture suggest the tension between merger and separation that marks the process of parturition, which is explored in detail through an examination of multiple such sculptures within the context of the medieval cult of the Virgin in Chapter Four.   The mother and child are pressed together here within the vertical format of the work of art, but they are also distinguished by the two different types of drapery folds; her horizontal curves in contrast to his vertical pleats.  As those curving folds accumulate on her lower abdomen they suggest her former pregnancy in contrast to the child she now holds in her arms.  And as these same folds lead across her body to that child, they suggest his movement out of her body, a suggestion that is reinforced by the inside-out twisting of the topmost fold.  And yet as her veil resembles that fold, so his reach for it becomes a reach back into her interior.  And as the veil transforms from a curve into a tight flare of folds, it indicates his hold over her in his continuing need for her, as his need for nourishment from her body.    They are thus both joined and separated, split apart and tied together.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Returning

I'm returning to the image that I used in my first post in this blog in order to mark a return to the blog itself.   I've not written anything here for a good long while now and am very aware of that.  I've been wondering whether I want to continue to writing here or not and why.  Thinking about where I am now compared to where I was when I started this and about what I might want this platform to do for me now.

I've not been writing here, first, because I've been doing other things.  Primarily service work, chairing a couple of committees and so getting my department and college ready for a major curriculum change that will be going into effect in the Fall.  Looking back at my first post here, I wrote about not wanting to get dragged into service and hoping to use writing in this forum as a way of resisting that.  That didn't work out, obviously, but I've also changed my attitude towards service somewhat - seeing it not as a time-sink but instead as a training ground for a potential move into administration.   

Any further moves in that direction, however, will have to wait as I will be on sabbatical this coming year and have a lot of writing to get done during the year.  But the context of my writing has also changed since I started this.  Then, I was immediately post-tenure and wondering how I was going to continue to be productive as a scholar without the pressure that I had lived under for so long - to finish the PhD, to get a tenure-track job, and then to earn tenure.  I was also feeling the release of that pressure in the new possibility of writing new and different kinds of things, things that wouldn't have "counted" in my tenure process, this blog among them.  However, over the past few years my university has instituted a new workload policy that put the pressure back on and take that freedom away.  Now post-tenure we have to continue to produce specific types of things at a specific pace (basically 2 journal articles in 3 years or a book in 5) or else our teaching loads will be increased.   The administration likes to talk about this new policy as a way of opening different avenues for faculty in their careers, allowing people to "chose" to focus on teaching for example, but the way it has been implemented instead treats increased the increased teaching load as a punishment for unproductive or unsuccessful scholars.  It is under this cloud that I will be writing over the next year.  The work I produced in the run-up to tenure has kept me safe from teaching increases so far, but now I need to get new work out.  And needing to get the work out is making it hard for me to do the work, making me anxious about the work that I am doing even as I am doing it.  

Unfortunately, furthermore, the major project that I want and now need to be working on is a book that I've been working on, off and on, for years and that I have always been very anxious about.  Partly because of the content - theoretical, feminist, not at all a straightforward piece of traditional scholarship.  And partly because, well, its a book and I've never written a book before and don't really know how.After an initial consultation with a potential publisher it's clear to me that a major issue with the book so far is that the only reader it has had so far is, well, me.  And it needs to start making sense to other people if its going to be published.  So my thought is to use this forum to facilitate that over the next year so.  I'm going to be doing a version of  "writing in public," using the blog as a place to post bits and pieces of the book as I write them, looking for comments and suggestions.  I hope it works.  That's really up to you all.


Monday, September 9, 2013

Touching Ivory

I've been thinking about ivories for a while now.  Then, a few days ago, I got to touch some.

To explain more: I've been working on an article on ivory Virgin and Child statuettes for several years now.  Originally, it was an outgrowth of the work on Virgin and Child imagery that I was doing for the book that I've also been working on for a long time now (about 10 years).  I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of Virgin and Child statues that I was encountering in museums and so I decided I would limit my work for the book on larger-scale stone and wood versions and then use some of the same contextual and theoretical framework for a separate article on ivories (for some of that thinking see this previous post).  But I quickly realized that I would also have to take into account in the difference in material and all of the differences that go with it - in size and scale, in ownership and viewership.

I started to read up on ivory and got more and more interested in the material itself and so the article began to change from one about Virgin and Childs that just happened to be made ivory, to one about ivory objects that just happened to represent the Virgin and Child.  The thing that really interested me about ivory as a material was its diversity of uses: on the one hand, for religious images/objects like these statuettes, but on the other, for functional things - boxes and mirrors, the handles of knives and fans, and little things like game pieces, dice, and buttons.  I started to wonder about how this other use for the same material might have informed medieval people's experiences of the statuettes.  And what struck me about these other things is that they are all hand-held things and so would have brought ivory into the hand, making it a material to be experienced through touch.

To write about that experience with any authority, I wanted to touch some ivory myself.  And so I asked the curator at the CMA if he had any ivories he could let me touch: the subject matter didn't matter, neither did the date, nor the condition.  He came up with several things in their education collection, two Virgin and Childs from the 17-18thC and one very damaged 14th C folding tabernacle, and I spent an hour or so touching them.

The first interesting thing to me about the experience was my reluctance to actually touch them, even though that was what I was there to do.  My first automatic response was to clasp my hands behind my back and lean in to look.  How different from the response of someone, a medieval person, for whom ivory was an everyday material, the stuff of buttons and boxes, and so one meant to be held.

Then, the curatorial assistant who was with me encouraged me to pick one up and experience what strikes her about ivories every time she handles them: their weight.  They are surprisingly heavy for their size.  I struggled a bit to lift the largest object they had brought out for me and even the small fragments from the tabernacle had a recognizable heft.  The larger Virgin and Child statuettes cannot have been lifted, held, or moved very often.  And even the smaller statuettes and functional objects would have had substance and presence in the hand as the were lifted, held, and used.  The weight would let you know the ivory object was there.

After lifting them, I spent some time running my (gloved) fingers over them and was struck by the different textures the material is capable of conveying.  It can be polished smooth.  Or it can be cut into deep depressions in irregular patterns.  Or into tight groups of parallel grooves at varying depths.  The last was probably the most interesting of textures, to me at least.  I went back and forth between wanting to move my fingers along the grooves, to almost pet the piece, and wanting to move across them, to feel their resistance to my touch.  And finally I wanted to discover the difference between the carved texture and any naturally occurring texture and so I sought out some veins.  You can feel them, they aren't just color changes, but they feel very different from the carving, much finer and much sharper.

When I was done touching, I went out into the galleries to visit the statuette above - my favorite at the CMA - and to use my experience of touching the other ivories to imagine the experience of handling this one.  First, picking it up: it is rather small, only a few inches high, but would pack quite a bit of weight into that small size, calling your attention to its presence in your hand.  It has all of the different textures: the deep openings between the Virgin's legs, the grooves on her chest, the smoother surface on the faces, but then the veining on the Virgin's face in particular.  The veining has an interesting relationship to the other textures: disrupting the smooth skin on her face, then running with the grooves on her chest, and finally countering the lines that make up the deep folds between her legs and running back into their depths.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Gothic Ivory Virgins: A Poem

Note: I've been writing poetry over this past few months by cutting-and-pasting (literally with scissors and tape) words and phrases from scholarly art-historical texts.  I've posted examples on some other blogs: Fumblr and the Material Collective group blog.  Here I turn that activity onto one of my own texts, a recently rejected article on ivory Virgin and Child statuettes, to both rescue something from this rejection and advance my thinking on this project by coming at it in a different way.


Embellishing Ivories

Allow us to imagine:
some ivory buttons,
an ivory comb
several ivory and silver boxes.
And a set of metal chains -
set into a gold flower on the Virgin's chest.
Gilt in her hair, red on the inside of her veil,
a green belt with gilt embellishments.
Supplemented by precious stones,
emeralds as well as an emerald,
and thirty-two pearls (one missing).

Allow to us image,
against the background of the scarcity
that just appears from behind her,
in anticipation of his death,
with unnamed images,
with its accompanying angels,
solitary figures joined by a string.
Just a casual accumulation of goods
reaches out and breaks the boundary
to perform miracles for others.

The object's miraculous potential
rests on its silver chair
and emphasizes its preciousness:
one with a jewel in its chest and the other with a silver crown.
Garments moving over her body.
Gazes directed outwards.
Boxes, buttons, combs, fans, game pieces, handles, and mirrors:
St. Christopher kept in a box.
Highly embellished objects with no embellishments.
No documents for its prior existence
preserved her hand from decay.