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  • “So That We May Speak of Them”: Enjoying the Middle Ages
  • Louise Fradenburg (bio)

This essay explores the significance of enjoyment to medieval studies, and to some of the discontents of contemporary literary and cultural studies more generally. 1 What, to begin with, is the nature of the signifying field in which medievalist historiography, as a mode of sublimation, takes place? I use the term “sublimation” to refer to the problem addressed by Freud of how the creation of art and other forms of cultural “achievement” may be understood in relation to desire. 2 The movie Babe will help us to an initial sketch of what is at stake in the relation of the signifier to desire and memory.

Babe is, first of all, a film with a recognizably medievalist agenda. It celebrates love between master and servant (these days, animals have to stand in for the peasants), and rural life as the scene in which such love might be rediscovered. It expresses distaste for technology, focused especially on communications in the form of a Fax machine, but also recuperates the Fax, as well as discipline, training, technique. These figures recall the master tropes of anti-utilitarian medievalism in the nineteenth century. 3 So does the film’s insistent association of meaningless speech with commercialism and disbelief in the remarkable, and its association of meaningful speech with Babe’s taciturn but loving farmer—a man behind the times who nonetheless is able to succeed because he recognizes the distinctive gifts of his animals, even when they want to do the work of the “other” (even, that is, when the pig Babe wants to do the work of a sheep dog). 4

An envious feline “thief of enjoyment” at one point explains to Babe that cats, because they are beautiful, need not be useful, and therefore are not eaten. 5 Pigs, on the other hand, are destined to be food, and this was the fate of Babe’s family. This information has a severely depressive effect on Babe’s desire to work as a sheep dog for his farmer, and to compete on his farmer’s behalf in the upcoming sheep-dog trials. There follows a scene in which Babe has to be convinced that his farmer loves him, that his relation to this other is not merely instrumental. Babe is not persuaded by food. Babe is persuaded that he is loved by the other only when the other produces art for him, that is, sings and dances for [End Page 205] him. There is elaborated in the shockingly jubilant scene that follows the whole array of meanings Lacan brings out through his notions of the mirror stage and of the construction of the subject and her desire through her assumption of the signifier: Babe is lured into life, love, and work through a wild morning song, a song of promise that allows Babe, as it were, to refind the lost oikos in his master. 6

Babe suggests that sublimation does not redirect to the arts a drive that originates elsewhere, but rather arises in relation to the same designs on jouissance that structure subjectivity itself—the captivating images of the imaginary, or the protean divertissements of signifying chains. Sublimation arises through the same processes that construct the subject’s desire of, for, and through the other, in short, through the subject’s sociality. There is never a time when we are not artificed by arts, never a time when desire is fully separable from the desire to entertain, that is, to engage the desire of, and to work on behalf of, the other and/or the Other. To rephrase Derrida, the subject is a patron from the beginning—and a maker and product of artifice and artifacts saturated with enjoyment through the economies of infant survival, economies which must always overshoot their mark. 7 And Babe moreover suggests how closely artifactuality is connected with justice, in the form of the distribution of goods—functions, powers, wealth. Fortunately medievalists on the whole do not need to be told that sublimation is intricately related to production, in part because of medievalism’s history of attentiveness to the problem of alienation of labor...

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pp. 205-230
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