A return to standpoint feminism, or thinking through a new method for feminist medieval literary studies…

emelye garden


As I said somewhere at the end of the summer, I’m currently on sabbatical (and then I have a reduced teaching load for the next year), so I’ve been reading and writing toward my new book project, Feminism Without Gender in Late Medieval Literature. In developing my arguments, I’ve also published a couple of articles in Exemplaria(https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10412573.2019.1581565) and The Chaucer Review(https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.5325/chaucerrev.54.3.0352.pdf?seq=1). There, and in my recent reading, I’ve been exploring and thinking about an older school of feminist theory and its potential for medieval literary studies. This strain of feminism is not the only sort I’m pursuing (other key insights derive from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theorizations of intersectionality and their development, Saba Mahmood’s reconsideration of piety and politics, and María Puig de la Bellacasa’s rethinking of care within a posthumanist ecological milieu—perhaps I’ll write more on these different frameworks in future posts). But I want to take a brief moment here to acknowledge this type of feminism and articulate my own interests in using it to analyze literary works that in themselves are definitely not feminist.

As its name indicates, this kind of feminism is rather basic: it is concerned with the standpoint from which inquiry begins. In general, it derives from the social sciences and hard sciences. Its first full expression can probably be marked as Dorothy E. Smith’s essay, “Women’s Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology” (1972). There Smith argues “the subjects of sociological sentences (if they have a subject) are male” (27), and makes the simple yet radical claim, “Women’s direct experience places her a step back where we can recognize the uneasiness that comes in sociology from its claim to be about the world we live in and its failure to account for or even describe its actual features as we find them in living them” (32). Other early articulations by Nancy C.M. Hartsock (1983) and Alison M. Jagger (1983) develop standpoint theory’s political and philosophical importance.[1] For me, at least, these preliminary arguments are exciting for their ability to show women’s alienation from key forms of cultural communication, and the potential to revise those areas of social understanding by thinking harder about the difference that women’s standpoint might make. These arguments also hit at one of my deepest-held intellectual affections: as Frederic Jameson explains, in an essay that works to uncover the Marxist foundations of standpoint feminism, “The presupposition is that, owing to its structural situation in the social order and to the specific forms of oppression and exploitation unique to that situation, each group lives the world in a phenomenologically specific way that allows it to see, or better still, that makes it unavoidable for that group to see and to know, features of the world that remain obscure, invisible, or merely occasional and secondary for other groups” (144).[2] Yet as other theorists including Patricia Hill Collins, Donna Haraway, bell hooks, and Sandra Harding make clear, standpoint feminism is not just another way of doing Marxist theory, and you can’t just substitute women for the industrial working class—or, rather, if you do, you spin Marxism into feminism, and not the reverse. For over two decades, theorists including Kathi Weeks, Chela Sandoval, and Uma Naryan debated how best, in the words of fellow standpoint theorist Kristen Intemann, “to challenge systems of oppression and improve the conditions and life prospects of marginalized groups” (279).[3]

To be sure, though, the theorist most responsible for developing and sustaining standpoint feminism is Sandra Harding. In her groundbreaking Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities (2008), she offers a definition that captures what all the fuss is about: “First and most obviously, these feminist accounts center women as agents, as subjects, of science and of history. They are interested in what the sciences do and could look like if one starts off thinking about them from women’s lives” (122). As she argues, a revised standing point can be transformative for knowledge making: “It possesses this organic character in the sense that when marginalized groups step on the stage of history, one of the things they tend to say is that ‘things look different if one starts off thinking about them from our lives’” (115). Perhaps it is just easier for me to see in the field of science studies that is the focus of Harding’s work, but she is the first theorist to really get me thinking about how the standpoint of science, objectivity, and rationality—because each is socially inflected—is masculinist in its structure and working. Now, I had of course heard lots about “the patriarchy,” but I had not thought much about how hallowed canons of knowledge are produced from an implicit standpoint—that of men. If we hide that standpoint, or fail to acknowledge it, it does not mean it does not exist, as Harding argues. For this reason, Harding claims, “projects to change gender relations must focus on changing men too, not just changing women” (111). And because genders are historically contingent because they are socially constructed, social structures have to be overhauled to change these naturalized, hierarchized relations between men and women.[4] Harding presents her argument in light of intersectional and postcolonial feminisms, and as a consequence, she does not argue for unity among women, or for conformity across women’s lives. Rather, in a practice that requires constant reassessment, she asks us to think through the difference it might make to start from the standpoint of women’s lives in all their particularity and variation.

Given that Harding’s aim is to formulate a different way to do science, you might rightly wonder what her argument has to offer a medievalist working on mostly male writers who represent women’s lives in poetic narratives. This is especially true since many other standpoint feminists work in the social sciences, and most if not all refer to women’s lives. By that, I mean women’s actual lives. Not the lives that some late 14thc. male poet invented for his own creative purposes (ahem, looking at you, father Chaucer, with your tidy release from raptus). But after reading Harding’s (and others’—including Haraway and Lorraine Daston) analyses of the standpoint that much science assumes, I am convinced that reorienting our assumptions about feminist literary inquiry can change how we think about many of these texts. This is because, as Judith M. Bennett has so cogently and persuasively demonstrated, a historicist focus on gender is insufficient for working on texts produced by male-dominated cultures (and I will definitely need to write more—a post I’m sure—on why gender is not enough and why Bennett is so right on this point for medieval literary studies).[5] Unless we acknowledge the masculinist social structure in which these works were produced, we will simply reinforce the hierarchies of gender that they assume.

We need a new standpoint, or so I’m contending. What happens, I began to ask in a series of papers, talks, and articles, if we start with women, and if we stay with women, in the texts we study? To begin my project, I began with super-hard cases: Piers Plowman and The Knight’s Tale. These are not feminist texts by almost any account. They are not concerned with women, and the women they feature are clearly literary creations designed to further each poem’s particular purpose.[6] Perfect, I thought. But why? Because what you see when you focus on women characters is that different issues emerge as important for literary analysis. Working on Emily (or Hippolyta) from Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale demonstrates how little say women have over war, because, domesticated as she is for a heroic romance, Emily affirms how little say women are allowed over war. And, as a number of earlier feminist arguments have pointed out, this is patently ridiculous: Amazons are treated as if they have no investment in men’s martial contests beyond being prizes for the male victors. As Theseus’s encounter with the Theban widows should demonstrate right off the bat, women are directly involved in the world-destroying violence that men’s martial contests produce. And as Hippolyta’s and Emily’s captive status should illustrate throughout the poem, women’s entailment in this world-destroying violence extends well after the immediate conflict concludes.

What I saw, and what I’ve argued, is that a new set of values emerges from focusing on representations of women, even those representations by men seeking to consolidate and/or gratify masculine power. Rather than focusing on power, and women’s exclusion, as generations of feminists have done, my project explores the vulnerability that emerges when we begin with and stick with women’s lives as they are rendered by literary narratives.[7] As such, my project does not treat vulnerability as something to be overcome (there is no triumphant subversion or deflationary containment here), nor does it track all the ways that vulnerability is pressed upon women by men (I super don’t care about men—authors included). Instead, I treat vulnerability as productive, and I seek to find out what happens if we treat vulnerability not as a denial or lack of power, but as a constitutive, shaping force in its own right. Now of course, canny readers will notice that my emphasis on vulnerability is a debt to the work of Judith Butler, Athena Athanasiou, and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. That’s right, and depending on how blogging goes, perhaps I’ll expand upon this debt.

Today, though, I want to stick with standpoint theory, because my interest in what it can do for feminist medieval literary studies extends an argument I made in my recent book, The Matter of Virtue: Women’s Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare(https://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/16018.html—email me for a flyer with a 20% discount). There I argued that poets from the late fourteenth through the early seventeenth century invented new forms of ethical action for their women characters: taking advantage of the powers, or vertues, that material bodies could exert during this period, writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare feature women whose endurance precipitates ethical transformation. Frequently such world-remaking arises from women’s suffering, but, and unlike earlier studies that focus on women’s dispossession or violation, I maintain that women’s material virtues, or the powers that arise from their precarious embodiment, create new forms of ethical life. So, in this book I focus on how women’s vulnerability might precipitate ethical reform in ways that our active/passive binaries of moral thought do not frequently accommodate. But there I also try my hardest to focus on the ethical difference that women characters make in these contexts—so even there I am practicing a kind of standpoint theory, even though not as forthrightly as I hope to do in my developing project. Writing my recent book is what led me to think about how standpoint theory might change how we do medieval literary feminism. As I came to understand, focusing on women’s lives changes how we might see ethical life, since women bring to the fore other kinds of moral concerns. And as I hope to make clear in Feminism Without Gender, a feminist account that centers the lives of women as they are represented in a host of Middle English texts promises to challenge the ways that we’ve traditionally thought about subjectivity and experience. More on that soon…

[1]See Sandra Harding, ed., The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual & Political Controversies(New York: Routledge, 2004), for all of these essays and more—page references are to this volume.

[2]Jameson traces feminist standpoint theory’s use of Georg Lukács’s “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” and “Class Consciousness.”

[3]Kristen Intemann, “Feminist Standpoint,” Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory, ed. Lisa Disch and Mary Hawkesworth. Oxford: OUP, 2016. 261-82.

[4]In this project, of course, the work of Angela Davis and Nancy Fraser is key.

[5]See her History Mattersright this very instant.

[6]Langland, I argue, questions what it means to be a woman.

[7]My project seeks to build on those arguments made by previous generations of feminist medievalist literary scholars. See my ChauR article for my discussion of those analyses and their influence on my understanding of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.

Hoccleve, Gender, and “Leaning In” to Critical Misgivings about “My Compleinte”

IMG_1304I hate Sheryl Sandberg’s liberal-feminist manifesto, which urges women just to “lean in” to dominant structures in order to advance in traditionally masculine spaces.[1]Even so, it seems that early critiques of Hoccleve feature a similar exhortation: if he would just try harder, he could succeed in a Lancastrian arena of patronage that rewarded strong, well-defined representations of individual, elite, mostly male power. F.J. Furnivall is hilariously frank about his disappointment with Hoccleve in terms that are also conspicuously gendered; for him, Hoccleve is “[a] weak, sensitive, look-on-the-worst side kind of man.”[2]Hoccleve does not feature crisply composed, properly delineated subjects, which, for Furnivall, leads to the conclusion, “we wish he’d been a better poet and a manlier fellow” (xxxviii). Now, while it is easy to dismiss these remarks as old-fashioned, as invested in a version of gendered subjectivity that gratifies the critic’s own ideals of masculinity and selfhood, I also want to suggest that this move is still very much a part of what we do in medieval literary studies. Because we’ve never made gender into a critical consideration in our analyses of subjectivity, it is frequently a blind spot in criticism that seeks to understand Hoccleve’s fraught relationship to power, selfhood, and writing.

Again, and as I suggested in my last post, the historicist treatment of gender as a social construction has left us with no way to make sense of the details of any selfhood that might cut against or depart from the conventional gender expectations of a given society. This goes for the best critics, even those who have a clearly elaborated notion of subjectivity and/or identity. Case in point: Lee Patterson, one of the best interpreters of late Middle English literature, amasses a stunning array of historical details to explore what he argues is a subjectivity that is riven, fragmented, and ever partial.[3]His analysis of Hoccleve remains one of the very best explorations of the Serieswithin this historicist frame, because he very convincingly shows how Hoccleve struggles to elaborate a coherent subjectivity, even for himself, within the swirling yet numbing networks of daily work and poetic patronage.[4]When Hoccleve discloses his bout with madness, and complains of the social isolation that follows in the wake of his extended illness, Patterson takes these representations, I think rightly, to be a larger meditation on selfhood, informed by Hoccleve’s (and then Patterson’s) guiding question, “What is me?” The struggle that “My Compleinte” represents, and on this point my analysis is directly influenced by Patterson, concerns the difficulties of constructing a legible subjectivity from the alienating scraps of a particularly situated life.

In “My Compleinte” Thomas speaks of his bout with mental illness, “But althouȝ the substaunce of my memorie / Wente to pleie as for a certain space” (1.50-51). He also very famously checks his face for sanity in the poem’s mirror scene:

And in my chaumbre at home whanne þat I was

Mysilfe alone I inþis wise wrouȝt.

I streite vnto my mirrour and my glas,

To loke howe þat me of my chere þouȝt,

If any other were it than it ouȝt,

For fain wolde I, if it not had bene riȝt,

Amendid it to my kunnynge and myȝt. (1.155-61)

Yet, as much as this passage suggests a kinship with our own modernity, particularly with Jacques Lacan’s “mirror stage,” here Thomas does not confront the illusory fantasy of wholeness that characterizes post-structuralist models of selfhood.[5]He is working at control, perhaps, but, and more saliently, I think, the reason his scene of selfhood underwhelms, or fails to cohere, is notbecause he can never achieve a subjectivity that holds together (because the very foundations of such ideals of selfhood are contingent, illusory, and therefore elusive). He believes very firmly that he has a coherent selfhood, as he avers: “My wit and I haue bene of suche accord / As we were or the alteracioun” (1.59-60). His problem, as he explains, is that other people won’t see his subjectivity as coherent. He has a selfhood, according to Thomas, but it is one that won’t do. In voicing his frustrations, and in his attempts to be patient in the face of others’ misapprehensions and misunderstandings, Hoccleve articulates a theory of selfhood that is radically subject to others within a social domain. This model of subjectivity may seem familiar, because we all have dutifully internalized Louis Althusser’s thinking on interpellation, as well as ideology, in understanding our own expectations for selfhood.[6]We are all “hailed” as subjects, and in ways that are sometimes hardly recognizable to us, because they derive from sources—private and governmental–outside the self. Notwithstanding this commonality, I think Hoccleve’s subjectivity is quite different, and for reasons that are deeply, normatively, and historically, gendered.

Of course, Judith Butler referenced Althusser to set up her performative theory of gender in her still-groundbreaking Gender Trouble.[7]But, and in ways that she has emphasized more strongly since, gender remains “a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint.”[8] To perform a gender, (as I argued long ago with reference to the “Son of the Invisible Man” skit within the classic b-movie, Amazon Women on the Moon), an audience has to be willing to see a performance as successful for a gender to become socially functional.[9]But what happens if your performance of gender just won’t do? What happens if you are doing a gender that is just not done? Or what if you are doing a gender that is a bit undone? This break, between social expectation and individual performance, I think, is the source of madness and continued frustration that Thomas catalogues in “My Compleinte.” And while, once again, I think Isabel Davis is brilliant in her thinking about Hoccleve’s attempts to write himself into a clerical masculinity, even that performance, she concludes, is frustrating for Thomas (see, https://hollyacrocker.com/2019/10/22/hoccleve-the-series-and-sad-bastard-masculinity/). The reason, I think, becomes clearer in “A Dialoge,” particularly in light of Patterson’s historicist reading of a particular exchange within that poem.

In the second poem of the Series, the aptly-named “A Dialoge [with a Friend],” Thomas casts about for new writing material after his friend advises him not to publish “My Compleinte.” Now, I will have much more to say about why “My Compleinte” won’t do in the larger chapter I’m currently framing, but the course Thomas takes—his decision to write a long-promised book for Duke Humphrey (brother to King Henry V)—reveals why Thomas struggles to convince others that his selfhood is viable within the gendered social networks in which he finds himself. Duke Humphrey is referenced as the paragon of masculinity in theSeries, and, in a comical and/or pitiful affirmation of difference, Thomas very quickly agrees that he could not present the powerful Duke with a translation of Vegetius’s “art of chiualrie” (2.561), since “his knyghthode so encrece / þat nothing my labour sholde edifie” (2. 563-64). It just won’t do. The friend urges a different text, a translation of a narrative from the Gesta romanorum, “Jeraslaus’s Wife.” Again, I have much to say about this story on its own (and I’ve recently written about this narrative structure—the Empress of Rome story—as it relates to women’s ability to catalyze ethical change in my new book, The Matter of Virtue: Women’s Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare: https://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/16018.html(20% discount code: PP20), but the friend urges Thomas to take up this story for Duke Humphrey because “For his desport and mirthe, in honestee / With ladyes to haue daliance” (2.705-6). Chivalric masculinity’s dedication to feminine virtue is represented as absolute. Yet, in his characteristically dazzling historicist way, Patterson finds a rift between the ideal articulated here and the real-world politics that it might evoke:

“For at just this time Humphrey was involved in prenuptial negotiations with Jacqueline of Hainault, the mistreated wife of the duke of Brabant…there still remain awkward disjunctions between Hoccleve’s account of Humphrey as an elegant courtier devoted to the service of ladies, his concurrent actions as a hardheaded politician using marriage to advance his own and national interests, and the tale that Hoccleve now produces for Humphrey’s delectation—a story about how a woman is abused by men for both material and sexual purposes…As an offering to Duke Humphrey, who was at this very time functioning as custosor lieutenant of England while his brother the king pursued his French ambitions, and who was currently engaged in marriage negotiations, the Taleis thus a spectacularly tactless choice.”  (“’What is Me?’” 447-448).

Hoccleve goes wrong here, according to Patterson, because he fails to read the details of Duke Humphrey’s marriage negotiations as he decides to translate a story about a faithful woman wronged by a king’s vicious brother.

And yet, as interesting as these details seem, they reinforce a gender binary that aligns masculinity with empowerment, and, by so doing, they institute more than analyze the alienation that frustrates Hoccleve in the Series. What remains intact in Patterson’s analysis, despite his critical disinterest in gender, is the alignment of subjectivity with elite masculine power. What Hoccleve struggles to do, on account of his poetic interest in gender, is to center a model of subjectivity that exists despite, or maybe because of, its separation from conventional sources of men’s power. As I will go on to suggest—a bit in future posts, but more in the book itself—Hoccleve uses intimacy, vulnerability, and affect to elaborate and endorse a model of subjectivity that has little to do with traditional associations of masculinity and empowerment.

Elsewhere in my developing book project, I demonstrate this model’s alignment with experiences more commonly associated with women in late medieval society. I am thinking harder about Hoccleve’s artistic investment in women’s experiences, especially given the anti-feminism that has been attributed to his work (in the Seriesitself by the friend, and by powerful arguments by feminist scholars whose work I deeply respect). For now, this post has gotten long, and I have more reading and thinking to do! I welcome your comments and suggestions, and next week I’ll say more about my own conviction, implicit here, that gender remains important, but only if it is guided by a transparent, interventionist, feminist standpoint.

**Thanks to Robyn Malo, who has listened to my yap about Hoccleve, and who has def improved my thinking and writing in this post!!



[1]I mean, if Katie Couric can ask Sheryl Sandberg the tough questions, such questions are pretty available: https://jezebel.com/katie-couric-leans-into-sheryl-sandberg-1839292648?utm_medium=socialflow&utm_campaign=socialflow_jezebel_facebook&utm_source=jezebel_facebook&fbclid=IwAR3Ob6MwWbRgCyDerNAwNglZUTJDyh4KRRcFJ5cRiBpURtrzgHFVsqUgH-k.

[2]F.J. Furnivall, ed., Hoccleve’s Works: The Minor Poems in the Phillips MS. 8151, the Durham MS. III.9, and Ashburnham MS. Additional 133. EETS, ES 61 (London: Oxford University Press, 1892. Rev. A.I. Doyle and J. Mitchell, 1970), xxxviii.

[3]Everything EXCEPT“Chaucer’s Pardoner on the Couch: Psyche and Clio in Medieval Literary Studies,” Speculum 76 (2001): 638-80, which sets up a gendered binary between historicism and psychoanalysis, and which relies on a bad reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein to do so. For analysis of this problematic binary across the field, see Liz Scala, “The Gender of Historicism,”The Post-Historical Middle Ages(New York: Palgrave, 2009), 191-214; and Sylvia Federico, “Chaucer and the Masculinity of Historicism,” Medieval Feminist Forum43 (2007): 72-76.

[4]Lee Patterson, “’What is me?’: Self and Society in the Poetry of Thomas Hoccleve,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 23 (2001): 437-70.

[5]Oh sorry, not doing full citations for classic theory texts—this one is in Écrits, though, if you are looking to go retro.

[6]These concepts appear in the essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” which is widely anthologized—including in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.

[7]I will cite Butler, though, because I have it memorized. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1989).

[8]Judith Butler, Undoing Gender(New York: Routledge, 2004), 1.

[9]Holly A. Crocker, Chaucer’s Visions of Manhood(New York, Palgrave, 2007), 1-2. See John Landis, Joe Dante, dirs. Amazon Women on the Moon (Universal Studios, 1987). As I noted (p. 156, n. 11), “this skit is a spoof of Claude Raines’s performance in James Whale’s The Invisible Man (Universal Studios, 1933), itself a filmic representation of H. G. Wells’s book.” If you haven’t seen this skit, click this right here right now, because pretty much everything I think about gender, performativity, and our reliance upon community is right here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2D-T6O7myQ.


Hoccleve, the Series, and Sad-Bastard Masculinity

This past spring I published an article on Hoccleve and affect in an essay collection, Medieval Affect, Feeling, and Emotion, which I co-edited with Glenn Burger (https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/medieval-affect-feeling-and-emotion/B5457472E6BF5647D4C32D7717C2D392). I did much of the research and writing for the essay about four or five years ago—academic editing and publishing are slow, no joke. So, as I’m revving up for a new book project, Feminism Without Gender in Late Medieval Literature, I’m working with that article, and I’m reviewing much of the criticism I read and catching up on work that has recently appeared.

Why return to Hoccleve for a book that will be about feminist subjectivity in late Middle English Literature? Two reasons: gender and affect, the first of which I will say a little bit about today. Hoccleve’s poetry (and I’ve been rereading all of it) holds interest for scholars because it marks the emergence of a new form of writing, and a new form of subjectivity: with his autobiographical intensity, Hoccleve expresses the challenges of living in a world that is urban, contingent, and organized by patronage. He’s a bureaucrat, a clerk, and a nobody. And yet he airs wrenching, sometimes awkward reflections on what it feels like to be in his position. Hoccleve frequently overshares, and he often expresses the emotional difficulties of being overlooked and underappreciated in his modernity. In an argument that I continue to learn from, Isabel Davis traces the connection between labor and masculinity in the Series, focusing on how Hoccleve’s clerical identity inflects his attitudes toward writing as well as women.[1]Equally groundbreaking, Ethan Knapp argues that Hoccleve’s selfhood emerges from his bureaucratic position in early fifteenth-century London, and, most important for me at least, he traces the vulnerability of Hoccleve’s subjectivity as it emerges from the poet’s daily work at the Privy Seal.[2]As crucial and lasting as these arguments are—and I hope to build upon their enduring insights—both also show very clearly what I’ll be arguing is the poverty of gender, at least as we’ve come to use that category in historicist practice. Taken together, Davis and Knapp affirm that Hoccleve’s subject position as a man in his society amounts to (because it emerges from) the social particularities of his daily labors.

Hoccleve’s daily labors produce what I can only call a “sad bastard masculinity.” Even those scholars who focus on recovering Hoccleve as a poet—most helpfully David Lawton and Bobby Meyer-Lee—end up showing that Hoccleve takes on modesty (or “dullness,” in Lawton’s invaluable characterization) as a topos, and that his status as a beggar (in Meyer-Lee’s helpful analysis) is deployed in a move to gain patronage within the very unstable power-networks organizing Lancastrian England.[3]Once again, and as I hope to show in my book, I am deeply indebted to these arguments for their willingness to take Hoccleve’s lack of power seriously as a creative engine in its own right. Nevertheless, because these arguments explain the constitutive force of Hoccleve’s lack of power within a historicist framework that privileges power and its agents, it is hard to see Hoccleve’s identity as poet (or a man) as anything but a notable failure. I think Sarah Tolmie is right when she complains that Hoccleve “has become a prisoner of context,” though again, her commitment to tracing Hoccleve’s poetic identity through the lens of his specific historical situation does not yield anything close to the subjectivity that Hoccleve manages to construct on his own.[4]In rereading Hoccleve for the past couple of months, I am struck by how un-dull Hoccleve is. He combines genres, he breaks frames, and, most of all, he talks about topics that are simply off-limits for most prince pleasers of his day.

To be sure, scholars have traced Hoccleve’s literary debts to Boethian stoicism, to penitential literatures, to representations of mental illness, and to specific authors (Isidore of Seville and Henry Suso).[5]What emerges from most if not all of these analyses, for me, is how inapposite most of these models are if we think of them in terms of influence. Hoccleve knew his sources, I’m convinced, but I’m also increasingly of the mind that he tweaks these sources to create a new poetic subjectivity, one that supersedes the model of gendered selfhood that he’s been assigned. Rather than the sad-bastard masculinity that historicist analysis yields, Hoccleve’s representation of himself as vulnerable, as powerless in a world of the powerful, is a reorganization of selfhood that produces a different model of poetic identity. I will have more to say about this reorganization and this identity in coming days, but in closing I want to suggest that it is our reliance on gender as an underlying social construct—as, in Joan W. Scott’s influential articulation, “[a category that] does not have the analytic power to address (and change) existing historical paradigms” (1057)—that causes readings that lock Hoccleve into a static subjectivity, even among non-gender critics.[6]If gender is just another way of describing social conditions, then we are left with no way of analyzing how different people, much less different poets, use the specificity of their daily labors to create something unexpected. More soon on the something unexpected in Hoccleve’s Series





[1]Isabel Davis, Writing Masculinity in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[2]Ethan Knapp, The Bureaucratic Muse: Thomas Hoccleve and the Literature of Late Medieval England. College Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2001.

[3]David Lawton, “Dullness and the Fifteenth Century,” ELH 54 (1987): 761-99; Robert Meyer-Lee, Poets and Power from Chaucer to Wyatt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[4]Sarah Tolmie, “The Professional: Thomas Hoccleve,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer29 (2007): 341-73.

[5]This is a long catalogue. I will do right by these scholars by and by.

[6]Joan W. Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” The American

Historical Review91 (1986): 1053–1075.


So I Knew

When I started this blog back in 2018, it was because I’d become disgusted with Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed the extensive compromise of user data. I left Fb for a month, thinking I’d use this space to write about issues I found compelling as I withdrew from social media. But after a month, when I cross-posted a blog post on Fb, I was hooked again. As much as it might provoke glib dismissal, I deeply enjoy the platform: I really like keeping up with far-flung friends, as well as colleagues’ work. And I’m really there for the kiddo pics (furred, feathered, finned–you name it). And yet. With the recent revelations of Fb’s cozy relationships with Republican operatives (including my Senator, the noxious Lindsey Graham), as well as their refusal to take down political advertising containing false claims, I’m leaving once again. This time I’m leaving in a different fashion, in an experiment in rehabituation. For the next while, I’m going to blog about things I’m working on in a rather casual fashion (with an occasional long post x-posted on Arcade). I will cross-post on Fb and twitter, but I’m going to try to stay off social media for the most part (not looking to learn another platform). In one sense, I’m going to be the most annoying social media user ever: the person who posts stuff but who pays little to no attention to the posts of others. Apologies in advance for the selfishness, but also know that this is me struggling to break free from a platform that uses my affection for you all for profit–to amass wealth and power for itself, but also to benefit political entities and activities that are reprehensible to me. For the next few days you’ll see me posting about my developing book project, Feminism Without Gender in Late Medieval Literature, and my current reading and thinking about Thomas Hoccleve’s The Seriesas this fifteenth-century multi-genre compilation might serve as a test case for my emerging claims. I’m on sabbatical, and my thoughts are very free-wheeling at present. As a consequence, these will not be fully-formed arguments, and I welcome input and discussion about the direction I’m taking this work. If this bugs the crap out of you, mute me, unfriend me, or do what you have to do.giphy-2

I’m out

So, here I am. We all knew, and have known almost from the beginning, that Facebook runs on a business model designed to peddle the personal data of users to those who are willing to pay. I was an avid user of Fb, so I always counted myself as complicit in the system that was surveilling me. That said, the fact that third-party apps accessed users’ data without permission, and then transferred that data to political consultants who worked for clients seeking to sway elections in Britain and the U.S., is totally unacceptable. When the conservative Financial Times asks, “Should not everyone who cares about civil society simply quit Facebook?” my answer is “yes.”

My departure is not part of the quit-lit genre that allows me to tell you how awesome my life is post-Fb. I miss my friends on that network, and I’ll be sorry not to keep up with the folks I’d re/contacted through that social media platform. Even so, Fb’s reaction to this crisis has been wholly inadequate, and I’m not willing to participate in its present structure. At the end of the day, it is not that complicated: I’m out.

In leaving, though, I’m trying to make something new, something I’ve been meaning to make for quite some time. This site is part of an intellectual and creative pursuit: it will be experimental, provisional, and hopefully stimulating. I welcome engagement, but I also want to acknowledge that this site is exploratory, and I will never claim to have all the answers to the questions I raise.

Some of those questions will be difficult, awkward, and just plain “wrong.” I plan to tackle issues of racism, regionalism, feminism, and class-bias in academia. All of this I hope to do while thinking through many of the literary texts I research, teach, and love. Let’s see how it goes…