[This is the keynote paper I gave to the 12 or so people who had stayed to the end of the recent conference on 'Renegotiating Power' held at Christ Church University, Canterbury. Thanks to the organisers, especially Charlotte Liebelt, for the invitation, Leonie Hicks for chairing, and the audience for insteresting questions and discussion afterwards. Thanks also to Rob Heffron (Sheffield) for some helpful information about gendered space in Christian basilicas.
The argument looks first at the ways of ordering space via architectural cues, at the breakdown of the distinctive settlements of the social elite - villas - and of the basilica used as a secular political space and at the replacement of both to some extent by the hall. Then it examines the ways in which costume symbolised identity and in so doing was employed in creating political space - or the space of the political. Throughout, emphasis is placed upon the possibilities for miscommunication and thus renegotiation that inhere in all communication.]
This paper comes out of work I have been doing under the general heading of a project I started (ahem) nine years ago on The Transformations of the Year 600, which I am hoping that I might actually finish within the next couple of years. One of those areas concerns what became of public space in the sense of the spaces of the political. Another concerns why high-status sites are curiously absent in this period, or at least are, in the current state of our knowledge, not very archaeologically visible. That does beg a number of questions to which I will return. Finally, linking all of this, how political communities change in the period I am looking at, between c.560 and c.650. I will talk principally about Gaul/France but I will bring in some other areas of western Europe here and there. I am going to talk about the production of space, whether of politics or of the political (in the distinction made in French thought since the 1950s, between la politique (politics) and le politique (the political)).
The key starting point for my analysis is the sociological studies of Pierre Bourdieu and, in his early work, Anthony Giddens, which, though very different, come together around the idea that social structure is not some extrinsic set of laws that governs social behaviour but is perpetually constituted and reconstituted by social interaction itself. It is useful to think of it as a cumulative memory bank, an archive if you prefer, of those ways of interacting that people approve, and those of which they disapprove. Every social interchange between people of particular categories – gender, age, social rank, ethnicity, etc. – has, by adding to that archive, the capacity or potential to renegotiate the limits of the acceptable. In this perspective, change is inevitable; the chance of social structures continually and exactly reproducing themselves over time are pretty thin.
There are nonetheless strategies that attempt to put the brakes on the renegotiation of social identities, or to keep the interplay of social categories within particular limits. An important one is the use of space. Space sets the tone for the exchange. It sets up cues about how one deals with the particular people or classes of people that one might be expected to encounter. Most of us are familiar with the awkwardness involved in meeting someone in an unexpected location or setting. Location sets up a range of expectations, a script. It literally sets the scene. Obvious, though in many respects this is, it is actually fundamental to rethinking some points about the interplay of identities.
In the Roman world, different types of space were quite clearly delineated. To give a couple of political examples we could cite, first, the reception rooms of villas. The approaches to villas, as with later castles, were carefully devised to present a particular view of the house, passing along which, through gateways and into ornately-decorated reception rooms, set the tone, or the stage, for the encounter with the estate’s dominus. Whether the visitor was a guest of more or less equal or superior status to the villa-owner, or a tenant or client coming to pay rent or beg a favour, the expectations of behaviour were clearly set up, framed and limits set upon the range of acceptable outcomes.
Equally, the public spaces of the classical city functioned in similar ways, whether we are talking of the for a, the civil basilicas, the baths. Again, in many well-studied cities, urban planning made use of the possibilities of vistas and lines of approach. These are cues; they establish the expectations of how to speak and how to behave: of bodily posture. Bourdieu said that a component of the habitus was repeated, learned, bodily dispositions and uses of space. This seems quite a good illustration of the concept. What I want to add, though, and it is something to which I will return throughout this paper, is the possibility of slippage and miscommunication – the mis-cue – that inheres within visual cues precisely because they function ‘textually’ in the sense that I will outline later.
From Villa to Hall
The fairly traditional classical forms of space had undergone or were undergoing profound change by the middle of the sixth century. By that time, the villa pattern across western Europe had disappeared or was in its final throes. Wherever one looks in the former western provinces, there is no new class of settlement that replaces the villa as a separate elite residence and focus for display and consumption – no class of settlement that creates social space and distance in the same way. Across western Europe, from the mid-sixth century onwards, the settlements we know about are much less clearly distinguished – whether hilltop sites in southern Gaul, Spain and Italy, the communal-looking remodelling of villa-sites in Spain, the villages of Italy, new settlements in Spain, or the rural settlements of northern Gaul and England. It may be that some more obviously elite settlements were coming into existence in Anglo-Saxon England around 600 but such sites are generally not archaeologically visible in Gaul until the middle of the seventh century.
One common feature of settlements is the hall. Clearly there are all sorts of spatial, hierarchical cues in the hall but they are of an importantly different variety from those of the villa and there is a key theme of commensality as the nexus of social interchange. This needs more work and I would be glad of any thoughts or recommendations but it seems to me that there are some very important differences, in terms of the experience of space, between Roman public assembly or reception spaces and the halls of the post-imperial period. One might start from the location of the entrances and the perception of spatial hierarchy as a subject entered the space. At least when used as a reception chamber, one entered the space from the opposite end of the building’s long axis from the seat of the dominus. One entered facing the lord and furthest from him (or her), behind an audience facing away from you. The experience of space was one of approaching as close to the focus at the front as one felt one was worthy. The main entrances of post-imperial halls, by contrast, were on the long sides of the building. It might be that some of these opened on to a corridor and that the main reception hall was thereafter entered, analogously to the basilica, opposite the lord’s seat at the far end of the room. Where this was not the case, though, one entered from the side, some way between the lord and those seated furthest from him, and one entered in the gaze of most of the people present. The decision of where one should or could sit, whether to move towards or away from the Lord’s seat, was thus made and enacted in front of an audience. This was all the more true, given how one imagines the benches were laid out, if one entered opposite the Lord, though the movement would concern how far towards him one moved. The arrangement of the tables means, however, that the lord’s seat was not the sole possible visual focus of the space. Another key shift, alluded to earlier in the references to benches and tables, is to the seating of the community. Other than in the senate, the Roman political community stood, with the exception of the dominus (whether Emperor or local lord) who remained seated. This is but one instance of the shifts in the political gaze that occurred between the disintegration of the western Roman Empire and the early seventh century. Add to this the different sensory and emotional architecture of basilica, on the one hand, and the hall, on the other, and I think one can gain an impression of a real shift in the experience of enclosed political space between the fifth and the seventh centuries.
How this shift might have come about is an intriguing problem and very difficult to answer. Most of the arguments usually proffered stumble on the same block. A move away from the old villa-focused uses of social space to the kind of hall just described has been variously ascribed to ‘Germanic’ influence, a rejection of Romanitas, or the militarization of society. All of these have something to be said for them, even the allusion to ‘Germanic’ influence – and I don’t often say that! – but they all run into trouble in dealing with the fact that the highest rank of the Roman population of early Merovingian northern Gaul were the ‘dining friends of the king’ (the Convivia Regis) whereas the Frankish equivalent were the members of the Trustis Regis – the Antrustiones – the senior members of the royal bodyguard. So, the group defined, in a sense, by its involvement in commensality is defined by its Romanness and in opposition to ‘Germanic’, barbarian, military identity. One could of course object that this was a different form of dining culture from that of the hall and the ‘mead-benches’ but it is difficult to see the continuation of the context for the old sort of Roman dining in the Gaul where that law was drafted.
Clearly halls are important in the settlement architecture of Germania Magna. Architecturally it seems very likely, at least in some areas, that at least part of the influence came from there, but the simple ethnic ascription won’t suffice. The phenomenon is too ubiquitous and the origins of the Germani who eventually settled in the different parts of the former Empire too diverse. More to the point, the aisled hall had plenty of antecedents in the Roman world, from various forms of settlement. One was the typical ‘cross-hall’ of the principia found at the centre of every Roman fortress. Roman military buildings had, however, undergone considerable change in the later imperial period and are famously less well-known or understood, and more diverse, than their precursors. Halls are nevertheless known from forts – perhaps most famously in Britain from Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall.
The search for origins, though, probably misses the point. The type of social interaction for which the hall set the scene is probably itself symptomatic of the socio-economic changes that brought about the demise of the old villas. I would like to suggest that the kind of relationship between lord and follower implicit in the feasting hall is crucially different from that signified in the audience chamber or the basilica. The provision of food in the format of the shared meal is indicative of a very different form of reciprocity from that of the old aristocrat-client or landlord-tenant relationship. A clientship of sorts is produced of course but a closer, personal bond, in a smaller, more face-to-face arena. That shift in relationship between an aristocrat and a follower seems to me to be central to the demise of the old Roman country house and its hierarchical spaces.
The gradual disintegration of the Western Roman Empire undermined much of the local and regional security that kept local aristocrats in their position. This happened early and quickly in the north-west; the process was slower elsewhere. The top tiers of the Roman aristocracy lost access to lands overseas and the revenues from them and had to focus their efforts on a particular diocese: Gaul, Spain, Italy, Africa, or the East. Even within these regions political change, fragmentation and uncertainty probably led to the loss of outlying estates and a concentration upon lands in only one or two neighbouring civitates. The importance of the civitas as the centre of political identity and allegiance in Gregory of Tours’ Gaul is well-known.
As well as the reduction in wealth, however, the restriction of effectively-managed estates to much smaller geographical zones meant the reduction of the social distance between the upper and lower tiers of the aristocracy and a new, more evenly-matched competition for local and regional authority and status. In this context the need to acquire local support increased and it is not difficult to see the cost of doing so decreasing the amount of wealth available for the upkeep of villas of the old style. At the same time, however, the spaces delineated in that old architecture would become less useful in the creation and maintenance of local power. Previous explanations for the demise of the villa, including my own, have invoked too simple a cause-and-effect model, whether the cause be economic contraction, an abandonment of traditional Romanitas or the militarization of the provincial aristocracy. The argument I am proposing here envisages economic constraint, for the simple reason that I cannot see why the Roman country house would not have been maintained by the aristocracy had it the economic wherewithal to do so. It does not imply a necessary decrease in the productivity of the land; what is at stake here is the control of surplus, not the capacity to produce surplus in the first place. But the model I advance also accounts (or attempts to account) for the precise architectural or structural changes involved.
The end of the civic basilica as a political space
There might be a further reason for the changes away from traditional Roman reception areas. Now, as Derrida argued over 50 years ago, all communication works according to the same general principles as written text. In order to convey information, each sign – each grapheme in his term – must be capable of iterability: repetition in a context where one or both of the parties to the communication, transmitter or receiver, are not present. Once any sort of signifying grapheme is understood to convey a particular signified, then it is capable or reproduction outside its original context. Indeed, one of Derrida’s key points is that there can never really be an original context; the capacity for iterability that separates sign from context was always already present. This applies to everything, including buildings. A type of building, once recognised as such, acts as a sign, a combination of signified and signifier. This applies even to the ‘unique’. Once a structure is recognised as a particular building it acquires a meaning, a signified content, and that signifier can be employed outside its original context. Take the Eiffel Tower: a unique building but capable of endless repetition in new contexts, as in Las Vegas or on a key ring. Indeed, it occurs to me that many of the best-known buildings of Las Vegas stand as an architectural illustration of Derrida’s concept of iterability.
The concept is equally well-illustrated by the basilica. At some point in classical antiquity a particular form of building was understood as meaning an assembly hall. Within its semantic range was the audience chamber, in which the emperor, his representative, his statue, occupied the focal point within the apse at the far end of the central nave. When Christianity, permitted to build its own structures and now the favoured, then official, eventually exclusive religion of the Empire, built churches it did so, as is well known, on the basilical plan. The ‘sign’ of the basilica was essentially repeated in a different context. If you like, the semantic range of the sign widened further. Could a stranger tell which was a civil basilica and which a church? Location would be a clue: Christian basilicas tended generally to be located on the edges of towns; the civil ones in the old municipal centre. I am not suggesting that late antique westerners habitually bumbled in and out basilical structures at random, taking a wild guess at whether it was a church or an audience chamber. Nonetheless it is interesting to think how the iteration of the basilical form might have created a space in which power and identity were renegotiated.
Basilicas had always had a range of functions; what interests me is the wholesale reproduction of the hierarchical spatial organisation of the civic basilica. The space occupied by the emperor, his image or his representative becomes occupied by the altar and the officiating priest. This means quite a reshuffling of the usual hierarchical arrangements. In the palace/audience chamber the emperor or secular leader occupies the key space and nearness to or distance from him – or occasionally her – was determined by secular worldly status. Those at the front would be the highest-ranking and clergy would be expected to respect that hierarchy. If one moved next door to the cathedral the bishop would occupy the centre of the space and secular officials, even emperors and kings, would take their place relative to that. From one building to another, who was or was not permitted entry was dependent upon different people, and different considerations. It is very likely that there were significant readjustments in the gendering of space between the civic and religious basilicas. Women were allowed into churches but how many women rubbed shoulders with the men in the main aisles of civic basilicas? Doubtless there were innumerable local variations, not least dependent upon architecture, such as the presence or absence of galleries.
This must, given the similarities in spatial layout, have given rise to myriad interactions and renegotiations, infractions and reactions. You can get a sense of some of these from sermons of Caesarius of Arles. Caesarius berates his flock for conducting business in church and general chatter, quite apart from trying to leave the building before he could give his sermon! Caesarius says a lot about posture and comportment. Don’t lie down as though you’re in bed, he says; sitting is fine if you are old or infirm. Stand or prostrate yourself to pray; bow your head or genuflect to the Host. Matters went beyond that though. One of Caesarius’ repeated themes was self-control and concentration. Keep your mind on God and on prayer; don’t be distracted by other thoughts. Idle speech and impure thought offered a way in for the demonic.
How do these ideas and instructions contrast with the usual bodily dispositions? What were the restrictions on talk and posture in the civil basilica? Could you lie down at the back if you were tired? As mentioned, though, a dominus, local or imperial, sat when he granted an audience, and his petitioners, counsellors and the rest stood. In church all stood or bowed, regardless of worldly status. What did it cost a lord to bend the knee or prostrate himself with everyone else and was it a price freely granted? At the highest levels, perhaps not. There are some pretty fraught confrontations in churches between bishops and emperors, empresses and kings. One of the more interesting is that between bishop Nicetius of Trier and King Theudebert I of the Austrasian Franks, related by Gregory of Tours in his Life of the Fathers. This showdown concerns Theudebert’s entrance into church with a number of his senior aristocrats or leudes, whom Nicetius had excommunicated. Nicetius declared that he would not continue mass until these men had left his cathedral; the king refused to send them away. Who was in charge in this space? In other cases the palace is the location for the confrontation, as in the Life of Saint Martin, where Emperor Maximus is compelled to stand to receive the holy man, or in Gregory’s account, again in the Life of the Fathers, where King Chilperic of the Burgundians feels his throne tremble as if there was an earthquake when the fearsome abbot Lupicinus enters the palace. Whether this forced him to stand up is not specified but it seems reasonable. One interesting point about that story, though, is that Chilperic is described as being seated at table with his courtiers.
An intriguing reverse example can be found in Book VII of Gregory’s Histories. Gregory tells us that in 585 in Paris – he does not say where but probably one of the Cathedral basilicas on the Ile de la Cité – the deacon asked the congregation to be quiet to that the mass could take place. Apart from providing a glimpse into the realities of a Merovingian church, this is actually a part of the Gallican liturgy. It precedes the address by the bishop. Yet it was not Bishop Ragnemod who spoke next but King Guntramn of Burgundy. Guntramn essentially made a plea for loyalty to the Parisians, at this point effectively under siege by an Austrasia army. This was not the only time that Guntramn played the part of a bishop in Gregory’s Histories and in the Edict that he issued in conjunction with the Council of Mâcon that same year he espouses, a decade or so before Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, the idea that kingship is a ministry.
So, in a church the bishop takes the space usually occupied by the king but, in a church, sometimes a king might speak in the place of the bishop. Below that level there were countless other shifts in disposition and in the relative positioning of people of differing status and gender. The verses composed by Venantius Fortunatus for the basilica of Saint Martin in Tours are designed to impose upon the visitor the sense that one ought to approach no nearer the front than one was worthy but, on the other hand, the surviving wall mosaics at the back of the nave at Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna suggest that the decorations in the secular and religious buildings might not always have been very different. In buildings that were organised, in terms of spatial hierarchy, pretty much identically, where were the semiotic cues? Who was in charge of this space, ultimately? Who controlled the terms of the discourse?
There are yet more points to add into this mix. One is that, as has become increasingly clear to me over the past decade or so, the fifth century was really characterised by the Christianisation of political discourse. One of the many ways in which this is shown is in the building of churches. This continued into the sixth century, when in some parts of southern Europe especially churches were built on villa sites. One of the upshots of this was surely that secular rulers and leaders legitimised their position through public appearance and devotion in church; that this in turn became a new means of demonstrating leadership in the community, in a sort of spiritual commensality. I suspect nonetheless that this might have been a further factor that made the traditional secular basilica, as an architectural form, a contested space, an arena for the renegotiation of power.
Furthermore, the authority that a secular lord positioned in front of the apse at the end of a basilica was, as mentioned earlier, largely sanctioned and bolstered, symbolically, by the fact that he occupied the place of the emperor, as his agent or representative. After the western wars of Justinian (533-65) this symbolic support was cut away. Justinian based his wars of reconquest upon the idea that the western Empire had been conquered by barbarians and thus was no longer a part of the Roman Empire. This was news to the occupants of the western provinces who, while clearly aware that the pars occidentalis currently had no emperor, certainly did not feel that the Empire itself had come to an end. Most of the rulers of those regions thought that they held an official title as an imperial official, legitimising their rule over Roman citizens. Indeed, even their title of king was essentially one adopted to facilitate relationships with the Emperor and to legitimise power in his eyes. The imperial declaration that the western provinces were not part of the Empire cut the traditional ways in which power was legitimised from underneath western rulers and, in turn, their officials and commanders. It is possible that this sort of cultural shift played a part in the end of the villas
I would like to argue that if one put all of these factors together one might be able to see why the basilical form drops out of the repertoire of secular political spaces, even though it is clear that at least some aristocrats continued to have the wherewithal to build them. In the eighth century, the Carolingians seem to have brought them back, but that would be a different story.
Making space. The Materiality of identity
Public space had become quite different by 600 AD. The clearly demarcated political arenas had atrophied. Aristocrats and others, men and women, were more likely to rub shoulders in a far less structured fashion in all kinds of spaces, whether settlements, churches, religious processions. How could one attempt to restrict the free renegotiation of status and power in this setting, without the old architectural or spatial cues? I want to discuss some ways in which identity was materialised and, in so doing, produced a particular space, or distance; created a spatial structure for social interaction.
To do this I want to think about the ways in which the subject is presented/presents itself. By way of a metaphor, it might be worth considering someone coming into one of the halls I discussed earlier, coming in, like Bede’s sparrow, from the dark into the warmth and glow of the fire. In one of his early works, Time and the Other, Emmanuel Levinas first introduced his concept of the ‘il y a’, the ‘there is’: the notion that there is always something and someone ‘out there’; the ineffable sense of shared existence. Levinas uses the metaphor of sleeplessness, lying awake in the dark, sensing that other shapeless existence, but sitting alone in a fire-lit hall, looking at the door, might provisionally serve almost as well. Levinas discusses the sense of solitude, of being ultimately alone in your own being, but within that shared existence. The moment of presentation, for which Levinas used the term hypostasis – let us envisage it as the moment where someone steps into the light from the darkness outside, before which we only sensed their presence – is the instance where that solitude is made material. It is a moment at the extremes where a being touches being in general. At that moment though, that solitude becomes dispersed into various categories which are shared with others, identities. One might want to think this phenomenon with Jean-Luc Nancy’s discussion of community. He describes what he calls, using his own neologism, as comparution, translated by the equally neologistic ‘compearance’, a shared appearance with others, appearance together. This is a simultaneous appearance and withdrawal in Nancy’s view: the appearance of someone or some category/identity that is familiar, simultaneous with a withdrawal: the interiority, the secret thoughts of the subject. In Nancy’s thought, it is a hesitation on this moment that keeps community, in his terms, ‘unworked’, ‘désoeuvrée’.
If we, like Nancy, pause at this moment, how is the subject to be comprehended in social interaction? How is the subject identified ascribed an identity, categorised? How does the subject present itself to its audience, to those in whose gaze it finds itself, to those amongst whom it finds itself thrown? As noted, we are thinking of a moment and a circumstance where spatial cues are of no help. This is where the archaeology of earlier Merovingian Gaul is of interest. By the end of the first quarter of the sixth century, across Gaul north of the river Loire, whole communities had adopted the custom of burying its dead with grave-goods. Increasingly, the study of these goods and other aspects of the burial ritual has shown – in Gaul and its northern neighbouring regions – the correlation between particular types of grave-goods and the age and gender of the deceased. One of the great unknowables, of course, is the degree of correlation between the association of particular classes of people with types of costume and artefacts in death, and the relationships between such objects and costumes and those particular categories of people in life. In the Merovingian context at least, there is sufficient evidence to support the hypothesis that funerary costume at least bore a reasonable relationship to formal dress. Indeed, one might go further and suggest that the very degree to which Merovingian people lived their lives in the gaze of the community suggests that even ‘everyday’ costume may have born some sort of relationship to the formal and stylised construction of social categories in death. If one ran the risk of meeting people in fairly random or unstructured settings then one needed some other way of keeping interactions within an acceptable set of parameters.
If we are thinking about the renegotiation of power, we need to think more deeply about what identity is, what we mean by it, how it functions in social interaction. Identity is a word that is ubiquitous in medieval studies – in paper-, book-, article-, chapter- and conference-titles – but there is hardly any serious theorisation of what identity is at all, even in the area of ethnicity. Generally, what is discussed under the heading is the issue of groups, identifiers and labels, or it acts as some sort of vague ontological place-holder.
My earliest discussions of this topic (1995/1997) were based around the contingent, active interplay of different identities and the stressing of links and barriers in social relations or encounters between different people. Much of this model was sociological in its inspiration and formulation and was concerned with how people achieve aims vis-à-vis other people. It was concerned with power and principally a theory of status, value, worth and social roles. The model worked according to the idea that identity was a stable entity that could be communicated more or less unproblematically. It implied that identities were not only things that you had but also things that you were in a straightforward way. It envisaged a sort of free choice in the deployment of identity. You picked an identity and invoked the power that went with to achieve your aims. This now seems hopelessly naïve
However, all identities are categories: means of organising the world. As such, they are constructed as signs or groups of signs. Even where they are based upon differences that are, or might be, naturally-occurring or visible regardless (hair-, skin- or eye-colour for example; differences in genitalia; physiological stages of ageing), the choice to use them as categories, their precise definition, the way in which they are employed and therefore the ways in which the people of the categories so created experience their lives, depend upon their position in a contingent system of signs. As such they function textually (in the Derridean sense), within chains of presence and absence, similarity and difference. Because no concept can be understood separately from those signifying chains, or comprehended apart from its relationship with other signs, there is always something of the ‘different’ within the ‘same’ and that is very important to remember. To be Derridian about it, the first time anyone said ‘I am a Goth’ to someone else (and was understood), the term ‘Goth’ already had an iterable place in a signifying chain. Logically, if not temporally, the identity must be prior to its instantiation. It already related to an ideal, which was never coextensive with that which instantiated it, and to its constitutive outside (all the things which, ideally, it was not).
Identities function in the imaginary as well as the symbolic registers. That is to say that there remained (as with all signifiers) a notion of the ideal member of the category. Normally that was structured by some of the aspects which helped define the category (social and ritual mores, etc.) to create concepts of the ideal member of a sub-group within it (young woman, male elder, monk, king etc.). This has important implications. Social identities are constituted in citation and in performance. Even more crucially, identity is itself a motion towards an ideal. The ideal can never be attained, because it never had a pure, originary existence. It’s a motion of desire: what do I want to be, but also, crucially, what do they want me to be? As Lacan famously said, a fool who thinks he is a king is no crazier than a king who thinks he’s a king. (He might better have said that a fool who thinks he is a president is no crazier than a president who thinks he’s a president.) In any interaction there are at least two sets of signifieds in play: both parties’ ideals of what their status and identity and that of the other person means. These might, of course, not coincide. The performative citation of an identity is always, to some extent, a risk, a wager. That is one of the most important things I want to stress.
Those ideals, moreover, are always themselves changing in the course of social practice. They can never be entirely recreated. It is thus critically mistaken to talk of the maintenance of a Gothic or Frankish identity by a particular group, whether the guardians of the Traditionskern or an equally mythical group of Gothic Königsfreie; no such thing had ever existed that was capable of maintenance in the first place. It was always already in a state of renegotiation and reinvention.
I must underline the textual and discursive elements that are central to identity, and the inescapable fluidity that that implies. I also want to link identity to speech, subject and authority. To deploy, perform or cite an identity is to give an account of yourself – to borrow a phrase from a recent book by Judith Butler – but it’s also, as I said, a wager on recognition: of the identity-ideal, the signifier, and of the right to speak/act from that subject-position. It is in the element of risk or wager that I differ from Butler. That links identity to subject-position, and indeed to subjectification. One of the most important ways in which an identity or subject position was made manifest in late antiquity was through costume, broadly defined (including the artefacts carried with it, buckled on to belts and so on). It conveyed information about the person sporting it, and the social category to which they belonged. The repeated patterns of association within the sixth-century Merovingian cemetery record suggests that costume was capable of transmitting fairly precise information, about adolescent boys, young women, old men and so on. As such it provided cues as to how one might expect such a person to behave, how one might judge their speech, how one would be expected to behave towards them. This provided the cues that could create social space or distance.
We can read some of this from Merovingian written sources such as the laws, which penalise touching of women’s bodies. These parts of the body are generally those highlighted by Merovingian jewellery. The laws’ system of wergilds also set out various levels of legal protection or esteem for particular people: women of child-bearing age; young boys; Franks; royal officers, and so on: all categories that seem to have been visible from the costume of the person in question.
As we have seen, to be capable of communicating any sort of information, any concept must be capable of iteration, that is able to refer not simply and exclusively to that specific instance but to others too. This implies the ever-present chance of misunderstanding or miscommunication in the interplay of identities. This is a key support of Judith Butler’s work on, for example, performative gender identity and drag. We can see iterability illustrated with the figure of Zercon the Moor, the “jester” at Attila’s court whose “act”, so to speak, involved dressing up (or being dressed up) as a warrior. Because Zercon was a dwarf, the Huns, for once living up to their stereotype, found this incongruity hugely entertaining.
An example a little closer to Butler’s might be found in the Poitevin who appears in Gregory of Tours’ account of the tribunal that ended the Nuns’ Revolt at Poitiers. In Gregory’s description, this was a man who in Gregory’s report of the exchange dressed as a woman because he was ‘were incapable of manly work’. This is a complex text to read in terms of that person’s identity, and how the semiotics of their practice worked is difficult to disentangle. This difficulty is only magnified by another iteration of feminine costume. Several late antique texts notionally about pagan behaviour refer to and condemn the practice of dressing up as an old woman on the Kalends of January (a harsh law, as I have always thought, if you actually were an old woman… Iterability again). This alone gives us a range of different possible ways of reading feminine costume: different signifieds. There is always, thanks to iterability, the potential for slippage from one to another; of miscommunication. This is the space of deconstruction: in our terms, a space of constant renegotiation: the remaking of the bases of power.
The relationship of costume to person is worth more consideration as it will lead us further into thinking about the practice of negotiation. You might have noticed that I have avoided the term individual in my paper. I have done so for many reasons but not the least of these is that the subject is the meeting place of a number of categories or identifications: gender, age, family, ethnicity, religion, and so on: an assemblage if you prefer. In that sense the category expressed in costume rarely conveys more than one or two, considered to be the most important at a particular moment.
At this point it is important to think about the social body. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen importantly talked about how the construction of identity blurred the edge of the human body: hybridised it with the objects – and animals – that conveyed the image of the identified category. This was part of Cohen’s ongoing post-humanist project and a very important contribution. I want to push back a very little against this, however, partly because I find quite problematic some of the political implications of post-humanism and related approaches that stress the agency of objects, and partly because I don’t find the reading entirely satisfactory.
To be brief, I want to uncouple the elements of desire and queering, in Cohen’s account, which I find more interesting, from the probably lesser element of the hybridisation and blurring of the body. I am not sure that costume and the accessories intrinsic to the signification, embodiment and the very inhabitation of an identity really do blur the boundaries of the body in the way envisaged. Leaving aside the slippages of communication that have been my theme and which, I think are inherent in Cohen’s examples, I would rather read the assemblage from the outside in, as layers of social skin. Does one really ever get beyond layers of social skin, back to an entirely pre-social human body? Again, in my view, there is an absent centre.
The final point that this too brief consideration leads me to is how one could get out of the situations where a miscue, misfire or miscommunication had occurred. One way out here can be thought in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of lines of flight. (I can’t as yet claim to have read that much of or be very well versed in DeleuzoGuattarian thought.) Social actors, as I have said, can be seen as assemblages. Even if elaborate costumes or layers of social skin aim to convey one identity, thought to be most important, those layers can still be peeled back to reveal others. Laying aside the weaponry that might have conveyed Frankishness or a particular age-grade, could strip that persona back to a layer of general masculinity, for instance, that expressed a shared identity; buckling on such items could remake distance. The sheer multiplicity of identities that converge in the social actor make this sort of thing possible. The other ‘line of flight’ is humour, which plays on the very possibilities for miscommunication that inhere in interaction.
In the early Merovingian world, the space of the political was up for grabs. Old architectural cues broke down, were renegotiated; new, different ones were tried. A greater relative investment in costume, the social skin, was one response to this. Wherever we look, we can see, in my reading, the interaction of decentred subjects, fraught with potential miscues, miscommunications, and scrambles to remake or reconfigure social space: social structure was a chaotic, constantly reordered, teleologically re-read archive of precedent. ‘Negotiating power’ is thus, in a way, a tautology. Power does not, and cannot, exist other than in its constant negotiation.