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More Commentary on Getting Medieval

Monday, April 15, 2019 - 10:00

If I’d paid attention to the contents of this article before scheduling it, I might have saved it to cover after reading the book it’s commenting on: Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. And I’ve compounded the problem by scheduling it next to an item by Dinshaw, again talking about Getting Medieval. Given that this article is Hollywood’s personal reaction to reading Dinshaw, it’s going to be of somewhat less relevance and usefulness than covering Dinshaw’s book itself. (Which I really need to do.) This is a byproduct of my habit of pulling a group of miscellaneous articles to cover and not wanting to set them aside for a more logical time. My habit of pre-scheduling publications before reading them in detail is also how I've ended up scheduling an article for a couple weeks from now that's written in French. I can manage academic French--just barely--when it's on a topic I'm familiar with. But I've kept pushing that one farther and farther back in the queue and now it's butting up against the end of the Journal of the History of Sexuality group. Ah well, I do these things to myself.

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Hollywood, Amy. 2001. “The Normal, the Queer, and the Middle Ages” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:2 pp.173-179

[This is from the same group of papers commenting on Dinshaw's Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern as entry #242 by Dinshaw herself.]

Hollywood expresses an appreciation for how Dinshaw articulates a queer desire “for partial, affective connection, for community, for even a touch across time” and how that shapes how queer historians approach their topic. [This is a theme that is certainly aligned with the purpose of the Project.]

Dinshaw argues for a middle ground between searching for a complete identification with the past and treating history as unalterably “other” (citing as epitomes of these positions, John Boswell and Michel Foucault).

Instead, Hollywood is attracted by Dinshaw’s argument for an incomplete but fulfilling identification with aspects of the past, centering around the concept of queerness--which she then goes on to interrogate as a slippery and problematic concept itself. What she settles on is an acceptance of historic “queerness” as a defiance of the norm and the normative, rather than a clearly definable set of identities or sexualities.

From this, she reviews the history of how statistical norms have been applied to sociology, starting from the 19th century. Does human variety represent a failure to achieve an ideal of perfection? Or does every aspect of humanity exist within a distribution around a statistical norm? And how do we read that norm? Descriptively or prescriptively? This 19th century idea of a behavioral “norm” as the reference for correct behavior contrasts with earlier appeals to “nature” as the guide for acceptable behavior.

The disruptive figure of Margery Kempe is examined with regard to the category “queer”. She’s something of a darling of the queer studies field, but despite some passing allusions to “luring wives away” (more overtly to join her religious movement) there is little of sexual transgression in her life except in the way she rejects and challenges normative heterosexuality. Is that enough to place her in the category of “queer”?

As I say, a very brief article that mostly ruminates on Hollywood’s reactions to the book without adding significant new material. But it does remind me to move Dinshaw up in the queue.

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