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


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.