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Regimes of the Visual in Premodern England - Chaucer

Regimes of the Visual in Premodern England - Chaucer

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Copyright © 1997 by
New Literary History 
, The University of Virginia. All rightsreserved.
 New Literary History
28.2 (1997) 261-289Access provided by Virtual University of Pakistan
Regimes of the Visual in Premodern England:Gaze, Body, and Chaucer's
Clerk's Tale 
Clerk's Tale
tells a story of visual investigation. Before his decision to marryGriselda, Walter, we hear, has often "sette his ye" on her--though not, the narrator carefullynotes, with "wantoun lookyng" but in "sad wyse." 
 Later, after listening to Griselda'sresponse to his ominous warning that the people are uneasy about their son's peasantblood, he averts his gaze in wonder, a gesture that evokes, proleptically, his visual scrutinyof her during the speech he has just heard: no doubt he has been studying her face for anysigns of weakness. The looks Walter fixes on Griselda, acts of a private and studiedinvestigation, are also mimicked throughout the text by the public, whose interrogative gazefollows her about, even to the threshold of her house as Walter enters with his marriageproposal. Indeed, Walter's private gaze seems to collude with a collective will to turnGriselda into a public spectacle, an intersection of wills and lines of sight that is mostforcibly represented in the public acts of dressing and undressing her. After describing inquite detailed spatial terms how Walter goes out the door of Janicula's house, with Griseldabehind him, to present her to the crowd--"this is my wyf . . . that stondeth heere"--thenarrator goes on to say that Walter orders his women to undress her "right theere," as if theundressing and redressing (sic) of Griselda occurs in full view of a public gaze. And thispublic doesn't leave off with its first assessment, but continues to look and judge; accounts,both oblique and direct, of a collective gaze on Griselda occur with a marked structuralsymmetry in the final position of three successive stanzas: she is, the public thinks,"another creature" than Janicula's daughter; she is so virtuous and worthy that everyoneloves her who looks at her (413); she is so famous her fame spreads so widely that peoplecome from afar "upon hire to biholde" (420).The centering of Griselda as public spectacle, and as the focal point of multiple levels of collective and private scrutiny, evokes, of course, the paradigm that has been so frequentlyinvoked and described in cultural theory of the last two decades--namely, the paradigm or trope of a masculine gaze on a woman's body. 
  A highly gendered construction of 
[EndPage 261]
visuality has been an important concern of texts that themselves have beenfoundational to postmodernism, cultural theory, and especially feminism: Freud's theories of castration and of the Oedipus complex; or Foucault's models of the visual disciplines of thepatriarchal state. Both of these paradigms rely, albeit in different terms, on gendered visualmetaphor, the gaze as male, to describe the recapitulative, appetitive construction of maleidentity and patriarchal hegemony: power relations in the modern state and in the modernmale psyche are played out in a visual drama of desire and fear, authority enacted visuallythrough mastery of the complex nexus of terrors that women represent. 
Individual and collective male gazes on Griselda would seem to exemplify this model withprecision. Centering an interrogative private look and a public gaze, Griselda's body is botha place of resistance and a
 pièce de resistance
, "translated" materially through clothing andfiguratively through visual assessment. As psychoanalytic studies of the
Clerk's Tale
havepointed out, the text seems to replay an oedipal narrative of gender formation, one in withOtherness is invested in or inflicted on a feminine/maternal/sexual body. 
 Walter'sinvestigative quest attempts to vitiate the double jeopardy she poses as both primary objectof his first love and as sign of his always imperiled masculinity. Arguing that the taledramatizes parallels between religious, political, and marital forms of tyranny, PatriciaCramer claims that power relations at all levels of this tale replay a psychoanalyticnarrative; Walter and Griselda are an "'ideal' [prototypical?] Oedipal couple whosesadomasochistic rituals of dominance and submission enact gender roles prescribed bypatriarchal social structures which Freud recognized and propagated through his Oedipalmodels for mental health" (491). The familiar model that this argument invokes is resolutelybinarist and heterosexist, defining Walter and Griselda through conventional tropes of gender: action and passivity, will and submission, exile and immanence, spirit and matter.Yet the very familiarity of the oedipal paradigm should strike a cautionary note, I think. For cultural schema, taking on material weight with the names they assume, not only expose or describe actions and allow us to identify them--much as the growing recognition anddefinitions of familial "abuse" or violence quite literally prompt the recognition of its practice--but also preclude alternative perceptions of the same scene. This process of exclusionoccurs in part through the reifications of language, through the ways that naming plucks the"real" from the imaginary in a process of linguistic foreclosure that, like the trick of our eyeson a kaleidoscope, allows the unnamed and the unmarked to merge undifferentiated intothe background. 
 The phrase "male gaze" has assumed much of its cultural freight throughfilm theory, which has created a schema out of the gendered gaze through
[End Page 262]
 intricately argued claims that Hollywood cinema has been organized along the sight-lines of a male spectator, and that cinema visually plays to male fantasies of desire and terror. AsLaura Mulvey argues in her oft-cited essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,"Hollywood films portray "a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent tothe presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing ontheir voyeuristic phantasy" (VP 25). This audience, itself gendered as male through itsmetonymic emplacement as camera lens, gazing only as the camera gazes, acts out amale psychoanalytic fantasmatic. Building a recapitulative aesthetic on a story of castration,Mulvey argues, mainstream Hollywood cinema of the twentieth century controls and usesthe female body as a sign for pleasure through a skillful manipulation of visual distance.Feminist film theory has been increasingly critiqued (and self-critiqued), however, for itsarticulation of a universalizing gaze and universalizing Woman as subject of representation
 and for its assimilation of differences to a white, middle-class, heterosexual Hollywoodscreen. 
 For instance, in her essay "Tracking the Vampire" Sue-Ellen Case argues thatpsychoanalytic paradigms for the gaze as formulated in film theory, through a theoreticalmisprison, essentially imprison the texts they examine in a heterosexist representation that,she claims, belies the homoerotic desires that circulate within them. As she says, "thehegemonic spread of the psychoanalytic does not allow for an imaginary of the queer." 
 The hegemonic spread of the psychoanalytic may also foreclose an imaginary of historicaldifference, and especially of differences in the psychic and intersubjective life of persons inpremodern Europe. 
 Indeed, few recent studies of spectatorship, either those that describethe gaze as a gesture and psychoanalytic marker of subjectivity or those that haveexplained visuality as a sociocultural index of regimes of economic and political power,have drawn on documents that antedate the Renaissance, and especially the eighteenthcentury. 
 The paradigm of the "male gaze," that is, emerges from a selected history thathas given us brilliant accounts of the ways in which visuality in the West from the eighteenththrough the twentieth centuries intersects with psychic, cultural, and political structures, butthat has scotomized the Middle Ages, unable or unwilling to address the medieval origins of later structures of visuality. Much of the attention to structures of visuality in the modernWest derives, of course, from the very emphasis on visual experience and knowledge inmodern cultural and intellectual life. Martin Jay, in his essay "Scopic Regimes of 
Modernity," explains that he has chosen to situate his study in the "modern" era becausemodernity can be defined through its privileging of the visual. 
 The privileging of 
[EndPage 263]
the visual in Cartesian perspectivalism, Jay suggests, was itself reflex to a"regime" or regimen of differentiation, in which techniques for representing space, andspecifically for representing space according to laws of natural perspective, came toprivilege a disembodied and exteriorized--and masculine--look: "The moment of eroticprojection in vision--what St. Augustine had anxiously condemned as 'ocular desire' waslost as the bodies of the painter and viewer were forgotten in the name of an allegedlydisincarnated, absolute eye. Although such a gaze could, of course, still fall on objects of desire . . . it did so largely in the service of a reifying male look that turned its targets intostone. The marmoreal nude drained of its capacity to arouse desire was at least tendentiallythe outcome of this development" (8).Martin Jay's very choice to study the "scopic regimes of modernity," resting as it does onthe premise that "modernity" can be defined in part through a splitting of subject fromobject, masculine gaze from feminine matter, offers a compelling invitation to step further back in the past to question whether the organization of vision in premodern Europe mightbe different from what we take as axiomatically "true" or even essential to structures of atranshistorical gender: an appropriative and aggressive "male gaze" projected from achangeless, always recognizable body of a "man," most often onto a female body.Following that lead and taking a look at structures of gendered representation that havebeen underexamined in the "new art history" and in sociopsychoanalytic studies of thevisual, 
 how may we speak of the "scopic regime" of this medieval past? The questions Iwish to raise in this article concern bodies that arouse "ocular desire," medieval and evenChaucerian bodies that precede Jay's marmoreal nude, drained vampiritically of her blood.In framing Griselda through a layering of private and public looks, does Chaucer in fact playout male fantasy enacted around a fetishized female body--or does this reading give us aback-formation, a reading of Chaucer through
desire, through a "scopic regime of modernity"?In this article I argue that medieval representational schema for framing the human body aspublic spectacle or object of a public gaze unsettle post-Cartesian formulations that readthe "meaning" of the female body through an inscription by male consciousness and vision.Late medieval accounts of the "focalized" female body, the feminine erotic form as it isseen, watched, and desired by a viewer in a narrative, are deeply nuanced, I will suggest,by anxieties about bodily images and by contemporary schema for representing the body inthe visual arts: the textual body, however overdetermined by the rhetorical tradition, is alsoa cultural body, regulated and exposed by lines of sight that are tightly bound to schema for representing the painted or the plastic body in
[End Page 264]
contemporary manuscriptillumination, panel painting, or statuary. The article will then return to Chaucer's
Clerk's Tale
 to explore some implications of late medieval visuality for Chaucer's construction of lines of sight and especially for his figuration of the dynamic between male gaze and a female bodyin this tale.
The Gaze on Jesus Crucified
In medieval representation, the body at the center, the spectacular body, is not, of course,female at all. This is not to say that the female body is absent from medievalrepresentation--although the particular eroticized form of the female "nude," it has beenclaimed, was unrepresented or unrepresentable between the classical era and the Italianrenaissance, 
 effaced in the medieval rejection of the body as a subject of representationthat, as Michael Camille has said, "is one of the most crucial transformations in the historyof Western art." 
 Yet the body favored for display, consistently shown as naked andundressed, sagging with material weight of muscle and bone, and also the body thatconsistently focuses a collective gaze through its display before a crowd, is the body of Christ. In her aptly-titled recent study, Sarah Beckwith points to just this formation as a
, where Christ's body focuses a "complex symbolics of identification and role-playing" and serves as an "arena" for the negotiation of social identities. 
 The importanceof Christ's body as a spectacle to a wide public, male and female, clerical and lay, has been

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