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Monday, 11 November 2019

Trace, space, place: The materiality of identity in Merovingian Gaul

[This is the text of the paper I presented at this year's IMC, Leeds.  Thanks to Catherine-Rose Hailstone for organising, to Catherine-Rose and Edward James for their papers and to Simon Loseby for effortlessly stylish chairing.  It is an effort to counter claims about material agency, object biographies and so on, by reference to the Derridian concept of iterability and the ever-present possibility of misrecognition or miscommunication, which returns all the crucial aspects of agency to the human agent and to the issues of the so-called linguistic turn.  From there it looks at how costume was used in the citation of identity but subject to the same issues, and thus a crucial locus of social change.]

1. A First blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of the Material Turn

Figure 1
I’m not a fashionable historian – stylish maybe; never fashionable – so it will come as no surprise that I am a little skeptical of the new materialisms.  All of these of course have important things to offer but I wonder to what extent they are being employed critically. As approaches drawn upon in post-humanism I find them, potentially at least, politically problematic and I wonder whether they represent the radical way forward from the so-called linguistic turn (figure 1, left) that some claim.

In Kristina Sessa’s recent tour-de-force critique of environmental historical approaches to, and explanations for, late antique history, Sessa writes that new materialist approaches are a way beyond seeing everything in terms of social construction and rhetoric which she appears to equate with the linguistic turn.  We read about the agency of non-human actors – animals, objects, the environment. Sadly, ending a very fine composition on a little bit of a bum note, Sessa writes of the possibility of knowing ‘what the physical world actually looked like’, which sounds uncomfortably like a translation of ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’.

Figure 2
With some help from a learned colleague (figure 2, right), I have several questions to hang over the theme of this year’s congress, gradually rippling outwards in their implications.  The first is whether a critically-undigested Material Turn is simply a convenient ‘line of flight’ for historians unsettled by the epistemological challenges of the Linguistic Turn.  The second is whether the so-called Linguistic Turn ever really made itself felt in Late Antique/Early Medieval history beyond a few exemplary but isolated studies.  Rippling outwards again, if history is to remain a human science (in the sense of Wissenschaft) is it actually possible to go beyond the Linguistic Turn?

2. Derrida 101
Let’s go right back to basics, with apologies to those for whom this is elementary.  Here’s a passage from Simon Blackburn, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge (figure 3).
Figure 3
If there’s nothing outside the text, how can you be hit by a bus? Ho ho. If you’ve actually read Derrida you will know that he never actually said there was nothing outside the text and you’ll know that, by ‘text’, he meant much more than writing on a piece of paper, or similar surface; and ‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ doesn’t mean ‘there is nothing outside the text’ anyway!  And Blackburn and his ilk like to set themselves up as the policemen of analytical rigour… By ‘text’ Derrida meant something that went to the very bases of recognition and communication.

The keystone of Derridian philosophy is his notion of iterability.  Once something conveys information to something or someone else, that sign becomes capable of reproduction in infinite contexts, whether or not the original transmitter or receiver of the signified information are present.  This applies to any signifying unit (grapheme in Derrida’s term), in any sensory context: visual, aural, whatever. It applies whether the information conveyed is of the most general kind; whether it applies to categories or their members (figure 4); 
Figure 4

Figure 5
whether it applies to the seemingly unique (figure 5), or even names (figure 6). The signified, furthermore, is always defined and refined by the grapheme’s relationship to all the signifiers in the system, a system of spacing, physical and temporal. The network of interrelationships, similarity and difference, of spacing, Derrida called the trace. So, one can never get back to a self-present original – and meaning depends on an endless series of juxtapositions and contrasts.  This is différance.  Clear in written form, key characteristics of text are shared by all forms of communication.  If the bus in Blackburn’s facile discussion wasn’t textual – in Derrida’s sense – you wouldn’t know to get out of its way.
Figure 6

Figure 7
This blurs the distinction between the human and the animal, and even the natural, world, as Derrida’s late work emphasized.  The iterability always already present in a sign means that there can never really be an original context and that graphemes can be deployed in situations where their content is played with.  Things disguise themselves as or mimic other things on the basis of that very principle (figure 7, right).  There is always potential for slippage and miscommunication: deliberate or accidental.  The bus might bearing down upon you might only be a papier-maché model… (In the UK we are quite used to the concept of bus-related miscommunication: figure 8, below) 
Figure 8

The ever-present possibility of miscommunication (and of wager and irony that go with it) is central to my critique, and indeed to my conception of history.

Figure 9
In Lacanian philosophy the order of the Real is that which eludes signification – inclusion in his orders of the Symbolic and Imaginary: it’s the unassimilated material. This includes the pre-symbolised and (I would add) mis-symbolised.  Yet we can only understand the inevitably traumatic - if not fatal - encounter with the Real retrospectively – teleologically – by its incorporation/reincorporation into the orders of language.  To illustrate this, no one encounters the Real as often, or as traumatically, as Wile E. Coyote (figure 9, right).  But the joke – even if you don’t find Loony Toons very funny – depends entirely upon textual signification and irony.

3. Actors, agents and actants
So, to return to the material world (by which I mean principally the insentient, or the artifact), can an object have agency?  Can it occupy a subject position?  Can it recognise itself? Most importantly, can an object misrecognise itself? – that question, it seems to me, remains valid even in the age of AI.  It’s difficult to respond to those questions in the positive, so it helps to think instead of Latour’s notion of the actant: the element of the network that acts upon a human actor or agent.  Again, I am skeptical and the notion of miscommunication and misrecognition is the key.

If you throw a ball at a wall and the ball bounces back unexpectedly and hits you in the face can you say the wall acted upon you? Perhaps. Has the cliff face acted upon Dr Coyote? Do material objects prompt human action? Did the bowl allegedly from the sack of Rome really exert a political force on the Goths who objected to its being handed over to the Franks?  Does an object’s biography add to its estimation in the eyes of people, like, perhaps, the great silver bowl made by Chilperic I?  Did the treasure being sent by Fredegund to Spain with Rigunth really provoke anxiety on the part of ‘the Franks?  Did the finger bone of Saint Sergius really excite Mummolus and the pretender Gundovald to have an undignified scrap with a Syrian merchant on the floor of his house?  Did climatic change and plague produce human responses in the later sixth century?  Bracketing for now whether or not one would agree in the last case, you can, with Latour, answer all of those questions in the positive, and that is important. 

However, a crucial modification is necessary. Every instance relies upon recognition. Although the cliff face clearly acts upon Wile, it possesses no agency. The only agent is Wile E Coyote, who misread it as a tunnel. Does it matter whether the Visigothic bowl really had been captured at the Sack of Rome? Does the reality of an object’s biography have any bearing? Was the bit of bone in a house in Bordeaux really the finger bone of the martyr Sergius? Was it even human? That didn’t matter; Mummolus and Gundovald thought it was.  What matters is nothing intrinsic to the object itself, but to its perception.  When the leudes of the Rhineland Franks betrayed their king for Clovis they did so for an enormous treasure of gold coins.  But those coins turned out to be bronze.  The perception of the value of Fredegund’s treasure mattered; who knows whether it was more - or less - valuable than the Franks thought, or whether it had, as Fredegund claimed, really come entirely from her own revenues?  If one accepts that various later sixth-century beliefs and behaviours were responses to climatic and environmental events, was the climate or environment the agent?  Or was it people’s misreading of those events as the sign of the End of the World?

There is no guarantee against misrecognition; that possibility inheres in – is the guarantor of – all communication; all noesis.  A human subject experiences – intends – an object not simply in its material givenness, but textually: as that subject reads or misreads that givenness. 

4. The Materialisation of Identity in 6th-Century Gaul 
Now comes the twist. The philosophy I have been discussing – the sort of thing widely believed to be central to the Linguistic Turn – is in fact, materialist.  That’s another reason why, in crucial regards, the so-called Material Turn can’t be set up in opposition to, or as an advance on, the Linguistic Turn.
The materialization of identity can be explored on the basis of the points I have made so far.  Identity is one of those words that is ubiquitous in early medieval studies, in the titles of books, chapters, articles, papers and conferences.  Yet I know of almost nothing serious written about identity as a concept.

Identities are categories: means of organising the world. As such, they are constructed as signs, or groups of signs, and function in the Imaginary as well as Symbolic registers. That is, the signified is the ideal member of the category (young woman, male elder, monk, king etc.), created by social and ritual mores, etc. Identities are constituted in citation and in performativity.

Identity is itself a motion towards an ideal. That 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? What do I think they want me to be?  

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 mean.  These might, of course, not coincide.  The performative citation of identity is always, to some extent, a risk, a wager.  That’s one of the most important things I want to stress.

Those ideals are always themselves changing in the course of social practice. They can never be entirely recreated so it’s critically mistaken to talk of the maintenance of an identity by a group, whether the bearers 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.

How does one convey a subject position?  Another thing that interests me about the sixth century is the break-down, redefinition and relocation of the architectural delineations of space which acted as a brake on the social change inherent in social interaction. (I have discussed this elsewhere.) In the absence of those classical spatial delineations, the cues about identity and appropriate behavior were given through a relatively greater investment in costume. 

Merovingian cemetery-analysis has repeatedly shown that costume, was capable of transmitting quite detailed information about the social categories to which the deceased belonged. Sufficient evidence supports the hypothesis that funerary costume at least bore a reasonable relationship to formal dress.  One might 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 borne some sort of relationship to the formal and stylised construction of social categories in death.

Clearly, the elements of costume – broadly defined – transmit information textually, individually and in combination.  A trace, in Derrida’s term, governs the spacing and interrelationship on which their signification depends. Elements of costume can also be disassembled and reassembled, providing new contexts.  I’m not suggesting that any of this is unusual or specific to sixth-century Gaul, but I do think it had a particular valence in earlier Merovingian social formation. 

Figure 10
Identity’s materialisation isn’t simply about its signification via objects.  Merovingian people were – like Clovis – well aware that you could disguise one object as another to produce a desired effect, via alloys, by silvering or gilding bronze, or even in objects like Balthild’s chemise (figure 10, right).  It is also about the very fact that performative or citational identity is itself the materialisation of identity.  And it is about the material effects that that had.

Figure 11
Merovingian law, which penalises the touching of women’s bodies, shows some of the ways in which costume created social space.  These parts of the body are generally those highlighted by Merovingian jewellery (figure 11, left). The system of wergilds also set out levels of legal protection for particular categories: women of child-bearing age; young boys; Franks; royal officers, and so on.  All these seem to have been visible in costume. 

Costume could work reciprocally with specific occasions to furnish a script for the bodily comportment expected.

If, with Giddens and Bourdieu, you see social structure constraining but simultaneously constituted by practice, a constantly rewritten archive of the right (and wrong) means of relating to people of particular social categories, then there is another aspect of the materialization of identity that can be mentioned.

The perceived objects making up costume, transmitting information, are in effect the repositories of those archives.

As we’ve seen, iteration implies the ever-present chance of misunderstanding or miscommunication.  This is a key support of Butler’s work on performative gender and drag.  An example close to Butler’s might be found in the Poitevin who appears in Gregory of Tours’ account of the tribunal that ended the Nuns’ Revolt.  In Gregory’s report, this was a man who dressed as a woman, he said, because he was ‘incapable of manly work’.  This is a difficult text from which to read that person’s identity.  The difficulty is only magnified by another iteration of feminine costume.  Several late antique texts notionally about paganism condemn the practice of dressing up as an old woman on the Kalends of January.  This alone gives us a range of different possible ways of reading feminine costume: different signifieds.

My final point concerns how one might escape situations where a miscue, misfire or miscommunication had occurred.  Even if elaborate costumes or layers of social skin aim to convey one identity, they can be peeled back to reveal others.  Laying aside the weaponry that conveyed Frankishness or an age-grade, for instance, could strip that persona back to a shared general masculine identity; buckling such items back on could remake distance. The multiplicity of identities assembled in the subject makes this possible. 

5. Conclusion

I have had several aims in this paper. I have at one level wanted to suggest that costume, by communicating textually key information about identity, creates both social space but a sense of one’s place within it and that this mattered in particular in a sixth-century Gallic context.  I have tried to suggest that it functioned as the archive for social knowledge and thus imply that it was crucially implicated in processes of change.  I have attempted to stress the fluidity of such communication, of the extent of uncertainty and wager involved, not least because of the constitutive possibility of miscommunication, and how reference to the same battery of material signifiers could provide lines of flight from such situations.  More than that though I have wanted to argue that you can have material effects without a concept of the agency of objects and, above all, that seeing a supposed material turn as an opposition to, or an advance on a hermeneutics based upon the concept of textual or linguistic communication is crucially mistaken.