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THE NAMELESS WILD ONE: The Ethics of Anonymous Subjectivity--Medieval and Modern

THE NAMELESS WILD ONE: The Ethics of Anonymous Subjectivity--Medieval and Modern Gregory B. Stone He said, “How can you not know who you are?” She said, “Because I am neither a little girl, nor a female, nor a man, nor a woman, nor a widow, nor a virgin, nor a lord, nor a servant, nor a lackey.”     ayings of Meister Eckhart —S . . . Tell me, what is your name? He said: I am called the Nameless Wild One.     enry Suso, Little Book of Truth —H “Antipolitics,” in the milieu associated with György Konrád, is a matter of turning away from official parties and state-sanctioned institutions    urning away  —t 1 The faith in antipolitics  from them, that is, in favor of unofficial “civil society.” was emancipatory in 1989, but seventeen years later the institutions of civil society can appear as limiting and, sometimes, as coercive as those of the state. We  may wonder if by now the time has come to turn away from even unofficial and  1.  See György Konrád, Antipolitics: An Essay, trans. Richard E. Allen (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,  1984); and, for context and interpretation, see Timothy  Garton Ash, The Uses of Adversity: Essays on the Fate of Central Europe (New York: Vintage, 1990). Common Knowledge 12:2 DOI 10.1215/0961754X-2005-004 © 2006 by Duke University Press antipolitical forms of solidarity. Of course, the first objection raised to withdrawal  from social solidarity is that only forms of self-absorption are left: individualism,  hedonism, solipsism, agoraphobia. But if antipolitics, as the slogan had it, was a  Third Way    either collectivist nor individualist    hen the more radical turn  —n —t from collectivism that I would like to discuss here is a Fourth Way and not an  echo of, or return to, any “way” that social science recognizes. The Fourth Way  is less readily defined, or even described, than the more famous three, and, to do  so, I will need to engage with medieval conceptions of anonymous subjectivity.  Especially instructive is Meister Eckhart’s conception of the subject as a “Nameless Wild One,” a “neither this nor that.” To expand on this conception and on  the ethics of anonymity related to it, I will also want to consider the anticommunitarian thinking of Alain Badiou and especially his recent work    ppreciative  —a though atheistic    n Saint Paul.2 —o COMMOn KnOwLEDgE The Anonymous Anonymity, in the modern West, is more often than not a negative marker. There  are exceptions: the “anonymous donor,” for instance, is thought to display a pure  magnanimity, since the gift given is not an act of self-display. The anonymity that  comes with retreat from celebrity is on occasion treated positively. But more frequently, anonymity is a synonym for failure: we speak of “nobodies,” those who  toil a lifetime yet fail to “make a name,” and of the nameless masses who “leave  no mark.” For us, anonymity means impotence. The nameless are those who are  most powerless to differ with, or from, others. As products of the authority of  others, lacking agency of their own, the anonymous remain in whatever situation,  by happenstance, they initially find themselves. In general, for us moderns, anonymity is a condition that we are driven to overcome. In some intellectual circles,  however, anonymity is understood as an attribute of power. Here I am thinking  of power in Foucault’s sense: anonymous, diffused, lacking definite location, we  can never identify it with this or that class, party, group, institution, state regime,  leader, or business interest. Power in this sense is everywhere and nowhere, without apparent aims or personality and hence virtually a nothing     nothing that  —a nonetheless manages to determine the fate of nearly everything else. The one  and only subject to which we are all subjected, power manages to be itself devoid  of subjectivity. I would like to propose that there are other ways to conceive of anonymity  than this pair of modern ones. It is probably accurate to say that, of the major  2.  Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: La fondation de l’universalisme  (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1997). For recent  comments in Common Knowledge on Badiou’s book, see the  contributions of Jeffrey M. Perl and Santiago Zabala to  the symposium “Talking Peace with Gods,” 11.1 (Winter  2005): 20    1, 33. –2 eras into which we have come to divide Western history, the medieval period is  the one we most immediately and intuitively associate with the anonymous. The  darkness of the Dark Ages is in part the obscurity of namelessness. First, there is  the paucity of the historical record: the innumerable literary texts, for instance,  of which the author’s identity is unknown. And even when an author is named,  the name may function for us simply as a label, as an aid to our categorizing  the text; or, appearing within the text, an author’s name may be no more than  one element in a network of meaning. (As Roger Dragonetti once suggested, the  name of the Old French writer Chrétien de Troyes may be a fabulous oxymoron:  “Christian from Troy,” the Trojan Christian.) Secondly, we have a sense that  the medieval social order rendered virtually everyone a “nobody”    e tend to  —w think of medieval selves, to the extent that we believe there were such things, as  nameless pawns of kings and bishops. We think of medieval anonymity, in other  words, as a failure, a defect, or, at best, an unfortunate accident of history, the  consequence of primitive technologies of preservation. But to imagine medieval  anonymity as a misfortune is to impose a modern perspective on an earlier dispensation of namelessness. In a variety of contexts, however, anonymity was in  medieval culture a status desired and pursued. For instance, there was a presumption in favor of anonymous authorship.  The anonymity of the writer was the default mode, the proper state of affairs;  the appearance of an author’s name was reckoned a defect. Even Dante nearly  always referred to himself in the third person. Typical is this passage in De Vulgari Eloquentia, where Dante indicates which of the three main poetic subject  matters (“prowess in arms, the flames of love, and the direction of the will”) have  been taken up by particular poets in his time: “I have found, if I can trust my  memory, that the illustrious men have written poetry in the vernacular on these  subjects alone: Bertran de Born, on arms; Arnaut Daniel, on love; Guirautz de  Borneilh, on rectitude; Cino di Pistoia, on love; his friend, on rectitude.”3 The  likely identity of Cino’s “friend,” scholars agree, is Dante himself. De Vulgari  Eloquentia promotes the fiction that its authorial voice, the “I” that speaks the  text, is someone other than Dante Alighieri. Here we observe an “I” reluctant to  disclose its identity, an “I” that will not name itself or will only ever name itself  as “I.” The subject in question willingly says “I am I” but resists saying “I am X,”  where X would signify, for example, a proper given name (“I am Dante”), a proper  family name (“I am an Alighieri”), a designation of ethnicity, religion, or gender  (“I am a Florentine,” “I am a Christian,” “I am a man”). Particularizing predicates  are resisted. Moreover, the medieval author very often represents him- or herself  as someone other than the author. Marie de France claims that her Lais are not  3.  De Vulgari Eloquentia 2.2.9, in Literary Criticism of Dante  Alighieri, trans. Robert S. Haller (Lincoln: University of  Nebraska Press, 1973), 35. St o n e • Unsocial Thought, Uncom mon Live s: Pa r t 1 original compositions but rather translations into French of tales that she has  http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Common Knowledge Duke University Press

THE NAMELESS WILD ONE: The Ethics of Anonymous Subjectivity--Medieval and Modern

Common Knowledge , Volume 12 (2) – Apr 1, 2006

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Publisher
Duke University Press
Copyright
Copyright 2006 by Duke University Press
ISSN
0961-754X
eISSN
1538-4578
DOI
10.1215/0961754X-2005-004
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Abstract

Gregory B. Stone He said, “How can you not know who you are?” She said, “Because I am neither a little girl, nor a female, nor a man, nor a woman, nor a widow, nor a virgin, nor a lord, nor a servant, nor a lackey.”     ayings of Meister Eckhart —S . . . Tell me, what is your name? He said: I am called the Nameless Wild One.     enry Suso, Little Book of Truth —H “Antipolitics,” in the milieu associated with György Konrád, is a matter of turning away from official parties and state-sanctioned institutions    urning away  —t 1 The faith in antipolitics  from them, that is, in favor of unofficial “civil society.” was emancipatory in 1989, but seventeen years later the institutions of civil society can appear as limiting and, sometimes, as coercive as those of the state. We  may wonder if by now the time has come to turn away from even unofficial and  1.  See György Konrád, Antipolitics: An Essay, trans. Richard E. Allen (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,  1984); and, for context and interpretation, see Timothy  Garton Ash, The Uses of Adversity: Essays on the Fate of Central Europe (New York: Vintage, 1990). Common Knowledge 12:2 DOI 10.1215/0961754X-2005-004 © 2006 by Duke University Press antipolitical forms of solidarity. Of course, the first objection raised to withdrawal  from social solidarity is that only forms of self-absorption are left: individualism,  hedonism, solipsism, agoraphobia. But if antipolitics, as the slogan had it, was a  Third Way    either collectivist nor individualist    hen the more radical turn  —n —t from collectivism that I would like to discuss here is a Fourth Way and not an  echo of, or return to, any “way” that social science recognizes. The Fourth Way  is less readily defined, or even described, than the more famous three, and, to do  so, I will need to engage with medieval conceptions of anonymous subjectivity.  Especially instructive is Meister Eckhart’s conception of the subject as a “Nameless Wild One,” a “neither this nor that.” To expand on this conception and on  the ethics of anonymity related to it, I will also want to consider the anticommunitarian thinking of Alain Badiou and especially his recent work    ppreciative  —a though atheistic    n Saint Paul.2 —o COMMOn KnOwLEDgE The Anonymous Anonymity, in the modern West, is more often than not a negative marker. There  are exceptions: the “anonymous donor,” for instance, is thought to display a pure  magnanimity, since the gift given is not an act of self-display. The anonymity that  comes with retreat from celebrity is on occasion treated positively. But more frequently, anonymity is a synonym for failure: we speak of “nobodies,” those who  toil a lifetime yet fail to “make a name,” and of the nameless masses who “leave  no mark.” For us, anonymity means impotence. The nameless are those who are  most powerless to differ with, or from, others. As products of the authority of  others, lacking agency of their own, the anonymous remain in whatever situation,  by happenstance, they initially find themselves. In general, for us moderns, anonymity is a condition that we are driven to overcome. In some intellectual circles,  however, anonymity is understood as an attribute of power. Here I am thinking  of power in Foucault’s sense: anonymous, diffused, lacking definite location, we  can never identify it with this or that class, party, group, institution, state regime,  leader, or business interest. Power in this sense is everywhere and nowhere, without apparent aims or personality and hence virtually a nothing     nothing that  —a nonetheless manages to determine the fate of nearly everything else. The one  and only subject to which we are all subjected, power manages to be itself devoid  of subjectivity. I would like to propose that there are other ways to conceive of anonymity  than this pair of modern ones. It is probably accurate to say that, of the major  2.  Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: La fondation de l’universalisme  (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1997). For recent  comments in Common Knowledge on Badiou’s book, see the  contributions of Jeffrey M. Perl and Santiago Zabala to  the symposium “Talking Peace with Gods,” 11.1 (Winter  2005): 20    1, 33. –2 eras into which we have come to divide Western history, the medieval period is  the one we most immediately and intuitively associate with the anonymous. The  darkness of the Dark Ages is in part the obscurity of namelessness. First, there is  the paucity of the historical record: the innumerable literary texts, for instance,  of which the author’s identity is unknown. And even when an author is named,  the name may function for us simply as a label, as an aid to our categorizing  the text; or, appearing within the text, an author’s name may be no more than  one element in a network of meaning. (As Roger Dragonetti once suggested, the  name of the Old French writer Chrétien de Troyes may be a fabulous oxymoron:  “Christian from Troy,” the Trojan Christian.) Secondly, we have a sense that  the medieval social order rendered virtually everyone a “nobody”    e tend to  —w think of medieval selves, to the extent that we believe there were such things, as  nameless pawns of kings and bishops. We think of medieval anonymity, in other  words, as a failure, a defect, or, at best, an unfortunate accident of history, the  consequence of primitive technologies of preservation. But to imagine medieval  anonymity as a misfortune is to impose a modern perspective on an earlier dispensation of namelessness. In a variety of contexts, however, anonymity was in  medieval culture a status desired and pursued. For instance, there was a presumption in favor of anonymous authorship.  The anonymity of the writer was the default mode, the proper state of affairs;  the appearance of an author’s name was reckoned a defect. Even Dante nearly  always referred to himself in the third person. Typical is this passage in De Vulgari Eloquentia, where Dante indicates which of the three main poetic subject  matters (“prowess in arms, the flames of love, and the direction of the will”) have  been taken up by particular poets in his time: “I have found, if I can trust my  memory, that the illustrious men have written poetry in the vernacular on these  subjects alone: Bertran de Born, on arms; Arnaut Daniel, on love; Guirautz de  Borneilh, on rectitude; Cino di Pistoia, on love; his friend, on rectitude.”3 The  likely identity of Cino’s “friend,” scholars agree, is Dante himself. De Vulgari  Eloquentia promotes the fiction that its authorial voice, the “I” that speaks the  text, is someone other than Dante Alighieri. Here we observe an “I” reluctant to  disclose its identity, an “I” that will not name itself or will only ever name itself  as “I.” The subject in question willingly says “I am I” but resists saying “I am X,”  where X would signify, for example, a proper given name (“I am Dante”), a proper  family name (“I am an Alighieri”), a designation of ethnicity, religion, or gender  (“I am a Florentine,” “I am a Christian,” “I am a man”). Particularizing predicates  are resisted. Moreover, the medieval author very often represents him- or herself  as someone other than the author. Marie de France claims that her Lais are not  3.  De Vulgari Eloquentia 2.2.9, in Literary Criticism of Dante  Alighieri, trans. Robert S. Haller (Lincoln: University of  Nebraska Press, 1973), 35. St o n e • Unsocial Thought, Uncom mon Live s: Pa r t 1 original compositions but rather translations into French of tales that she has 

Journal

Common KnowledgeDuke University Press

Published: Apr 1, 2006

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