I want to revisit this question that I asked earlier when we first started considering those accounts of medieval embryology, gynaecology, obstetrics, and pediatrics:
Basically, the female body seems to have a capacity for extraordinary intercourse with the outside world, rendering woman at once identifiable (this is her inferior character) and estranging (as if possessed by some animal power). She lacks a kind of self-possession that is man’s prerogative, on this analysis. She is not her own self. As Caleigh and Alyssa indicate, this is akin to some recent political theory [i.e., where the human is seen as belonging and becoming in concert with others]. The mother has the hallmarks of what we are learning to call vibrant materialism. But then we end up with a strange congruence, don’t we: ancient and medieval antifeminism begins to look somewhat like contemporary avant-gard political theory! What are we to do?
On reflection I’m thinking we don’t. Do much of anything, I mean. The medieval evidence already produces everything required, making connections, assembling, environing, entangling the subject. If we follow the links, local tensions, relay points, and so on — simply describing what is the matter — do we not have all we need? The connections are infinite and contradictory, and will lead this way and that (towards antifeminism here, towards pro-feminist possibilities there). Systems of whatever centric kind (anthropocentric or androcentric) are not constituted only by a centre. They are distributed, diffused, deployed at various sites. So however male-centered the old accounts of embryology or cosmology are, they go to other places. And we can follow along with a kind of “just description,” to borrow a phrase I think someone else uses [edit: the phrase is my invention after all, subliminally inspired by Sharon Marcus' "just reading"].
The thought is motivated by what Latour says about how to reassemble the social: “we have to try to keep the social domain completely flat. It’s really a question of cartography” (Reassembling the Social, p. 171). See in particular what he says about understanding the social in terms of panoramas instead of pyramidal structures, flattening the social world — as though on a Mercator Project Map — the better to be able to see how sites are connected. For even stable hierarchies depend on lateral connections, and powerful individuals or classes need to distribute their powers elsewhere!
Returning to the male-authored accounts of the mother (Isidore’s materia) and the various examples we considered of the mixed-up female body, there are many affiliations between things to trace, describing how — to use Manuel De Landa’s terminology in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History – hierarchies are constituted by meshworks and vice versa. In physical terms, medieval embryology tells us how men are produced in the first place!
For related developments in literary criticism — a.k.a. the “descriptive turn” — see:
- Best and Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108.1 (2009), pp. 1-21.
- H. Love, “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” NLH 41 (2010), pp. 371-91.