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.