Monday, September 10, 2012


Troubadour casket from Vannes, in Brittany
We have an "S" (for speaking) requirement where I teach, and long ago I decided to make "Love and War in Medieval Art and Literature" an "S" class.  I've never had the courage to call the class what it really is, "Desire and Subjectivity in Medieval and Literature," mostly because "Love and War" work better in advertising the course, and then I don't have the resist the temptation of adding "and Lacan" to the title.  It's really only this year that I feel that I am truly embracing the "S" aspect of the course, beyond the usual discussion of the class and a final project.  This year, thanks to the low-tech tech of PhotoBooth, I can ask students to record themselves reciting 20-30 lines of medieval poetry in translation.  Four or five students sign up for the same day, are sworn to not discuss their recitations with each other, record their recitations, and then we play them all in class at the star of the next session.  The first two to go were passages from the Conquest of Orange and were fantastic: one student struck a tone of incredible urgency and time felt compressed and we felt like helpless bystanders to doom; the other played with accents and poses and highlighted the different speakers, giving it a slower cadence and making us laugh at Guillaume's plight in the tower with Orable.  All this is inspired by Evelyn Birge Vitz's performance project at NYU, which offers single interpretations of scenes of medieval literatures in all languages (and hours of fascination).  It results in students very directly understanding that recitation is interpretation, it sets up the stage really nicely for a discussion of discourse, and it lets those texts breathe.  Some students have filmed themselves, others images that resonate with the text, and one (for Guillaume IX's poem about nothing) had a piece of crumpled up paper with scribbles on it as its star.  I ought to see if I can post some of these up here, get students' permission. 

One starts to wonder about scripted language, unscripted thought.  I went to a screening of My So-Called Enemy tonight - it's a documentary by Lisa Gossels that traces the lives of 6 Israelis and Palestinians (2 Jewish, 2 Muslim, 2 Christian) who are in a group of 22 young women and spend 10 days together at a peace camp in (of all places) New Jersey.  The point of the camp is not to agree, but to hear each other out.  As my colleague said, "There's no Kum-ba-yah, here."  It's raw and intense and the friendships fight for air amidst family and media.  And of course here, it's the editing that makes the piece make sense.  It's the editing that gives it its narrative arc, its interpretation. I had never thought of editing as a recitation until I heard Lisa recite a quote from one of the young women in the film verbatim.  It's then that I realized that Lisa had the entire film memorizes: every exchange, more than made it into the film, every line.  Documentaries, it turns out, are a kind of recitation then.

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