A Response to David Aers
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 11 (1994)
David Aers’ paper cogently reminds us that the devotional is political: “. . . it cannot be emphasized too strongly that issues of hermeneutics, devotion and the imposition of disciplinary power were inextricably bound together in late medieval Christianity.” This disciplinary power, he also admonishes us, intertwines itself with the production and consumption of abjection.
Can medievalists disentangle writing a history of abjection from contemporary contests over abjection? Anxieties expressed in medieval studies and current political debate suggest not. Over the 1980s, medievalists have asked themselves not only if their discipline is abject, or if they are abject for being medievalists, but they have also asked who and what is abject in the medieval period. The return of the abject Body of Christ to medieval studies, indeed, to this conference, emblematizes this intense concern with the construction of the abject then and now. Medievalists asked these questions in the very moment that the religious right strengthened its cultural agenda in the United States, a move which foregrounded its complicity with the politics of abjection. In concerned response, critical theorists have called for for “a specific reworking of abjection into political agency.” To rest content with simply demonizing the religious-right, as is often the case, both avoids the devotional as political and tacitly agrees to the ongoing production of abjection rather than its reworking in public culture today.
I am interested in asking of Aers’ paper how the study of abjection enables and disables the production of abjection in medieval studies. My comments seek to trouble his interpretation of the Lollard project. I question if their reconfiguration of the abject body of Christ might not work as a reverse discourse of its day. In her discussions of abjection, Judith Butler has defined reverse discourse as one which, in its defiance, reinstalls the version it seeks to overcome. If medievalists embrace Lollardy too eagerly as the sign of active resistance to the control of the medieval church over the consumption of abjection, do we too then fall into a reverse discourse?