Sanctity and pornography in medieval culture: On the verge (Manchester Medieval Literature and Culture MUP)

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9780719080296: Sanctity and pornography in medieval culture: On the verge (Manchester Medieval Literature and Culture MUP)

Sanctity and pornography in medieval culture exposes the complexity of bodily exposure in medieval devotion and contemporary pornographic cultures. Through readings of texts and images, sacred and profane, from preimodern France and Italy as well as Anglo-American modernity, the book makes a case for paying closer attention to the surfaces of our bodies and the desires that those surfaces can articulate and arouse.

From the Old French life of Saint Alexis to the work of writer-filmmaker Miranda July, from Wakefield Poole to Pietro Aretino, these are texts and images that diminish the distance between premodern Europe and contemporary California, between the sacred and the profane, as they demonstrate how, in the end as in the beginning, the surface of things is never simple.

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About the Author:


Bill Burgwinkle is Reader in French and Occitan Literature at the University of Cambridge.

Cary Howie is Assistant Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University

Review:

Like fast food, pornography and hagiography can be predictable and therefore reassuring, boring, and marketable. You know what you get. Or do you? For Bill Burgwinkle and Cary Howie, boredom is a 'mode of asking' (p. 166) that has the potential for surprising illuminations. By juxtaposing hagiography alongside pornography, Burgwinkle and Howie have created a paratactic study that moves beyond mere examination of genre expectations and that reveals the shared history and language of the holy and the erotic. Not simply luminous surfaces, the saintly body and the pornographic body signify through a calculated exposure that nonetheless resists visibility and disclosure; the more the body is intensified in sex or torture, the more mysterious its allure to the viewer. And it is the ecstatic responses triggered in the audience that characterize the power of the staged body. In the midst of polyphonic interplays between hagiography and pornography, the suspension of time and space leads to transfigured if not transcendent revelations. What Howie and Burgwinkle offer are a critical poetics of sacred arousal and a phenomenology of attentiveness to images, bodies and the world. The body in hagiography and pornography, Burgwinkle and Howie argue is at once abject and transcendent. In its refusal to die a normal death, the sublime body of a saint or a porn star offers fantasies of omnipotence and immortality. The body in pain is indistinguishable from the body in pleasure; both offer 'the illusion of an infinite capacity for jouissance' (p.75). The levitating but violated body of St Doucelina (pp.148-51) thereby shares an uncanny kinship with the pornographic bodies in Wakefield Poole's film Boys in the Sand or in the fiction of R.J. March. In fact, one of modern pornography's roots lies in the changes in late medieval manuscript culture, which witnessed the rise of private devotion among the laity and the shift in artistic focus to violent martyrdom scenes in illuminations, such as those of Jean de Vignay's French translation of the Legenda aurea, which drew viewers closer to sacred images that were 'exploitative, innovative, and pornographic' (p. 102). In the presence of religious images, the viewer undertakes a simultaneously mystical and erotic journey from terror to ecstasy, from experiential punctum to spiritual compunctio cordis. Key to both pornography and hagiography is the practice of parataxis: group, series, sequence, repetition, citation, and the sense of being-togetherness. Parataxis is both production and reception; it exists not only in the recurring motifs and structural symmetries in a work (e.g. the Old French Life of St Alexis, pp. 60-7), but also in the act of reading or viewing. In the necessary second or third time of looking, recognition - or rather, arousal-takes place. This recognition, for Burgwinkle and Howie, is fundamentally an aesthetic apprehension that encounters the desired object in its repeated appearing. Parataxis is hence a practice of intensification) (p. 51), of being ravished. The gasping mouth of the body in pain or pleasure and the grasping hand of the viewer signal a recognition of and openness to the materiality of the world. The photography of Nan Goldin and of Pierre et Gilles, in which the naked male bodies evoke those in hagiographic texts and images, invites the viewer to gasp and grasp. Each visual and narrative allusion is a repletion that conjures up the past; hagiography and pornography are in essence fugal in structure. The complicit beholder, like the buried fist enfolded with a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph, joins a community of 'we' bound by a love for the holy and the erotic. Burgwinkle and Howies' volume is a study of what Mark Amsler identifies as affective literacy, a practice of reading in which one develops emotional and somatic relationships with texts. In parataxis, there are ultimately few if no differences between hagiographers and pornographers (e.g. Andy Warhol and Pietro Aretino, pp. 138-41, 168-81). More importantly, Howie and Burgwinkle suggest that critical enquiry itself is a pornographic and hagiographic act' here are particular scenes of affective attachment that form one critical verge of transcendence. -- Wan-Chuan Kao Medium Aevum 20120201

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